TEGUCIGALPA – Former president Manuel Zelaya returned home Saturday, as tens of thousands of Hondurans turned out to welcome him back nearly two years after he was removed from power at gunpoint in a coup.
Zelaya, wearing his trademark cowboy hat, landed in Tegucigalpa with his wife and aides aboard a Venezuelan passenger plane on a flight from Managua, where he spent the night.
In an interview broadcast from Managua by Telesur television network, Zelaya hailed his return from exile as “the result of an effort of all the countries of Latin America.”
“Today we begin the true reconciliation in Honduras,” Zelaya’s wife Xiomara Castro said, adding that they were committed “to continue the struggle to transform” the country.
The end of the former cattle rancher’s 16-month exile was part of a deal brokered by several Latin American governments that will end Honduras diplomatic isolation and give the government of President Porfirio Lobo access to foreign investment and aid.
Thousands of supporters from around the country cheered when Zelaya’s plane landed. An even larger crowd packed a city plaza where the 58-year-old ex-leader will hold a rally.
Several people fainted in the heat waiting for Zelaya, who was several hours behind schedule.
Event organizer Rafael Alegria said they were expecting a million people at the rally, though local authorities did not give a crowd estimate.
The ousted former president is returning to lead the National Popular Resistance Front (FNRP), a movement formed after the June 2009 coup to challenge a two party system that has dominated Honduran politics since the early 20th century.
Zelaya’s return will allow Honduras to rejoin the Organization of American States (OAS) and gain access to international aid, vital in a country where 70 percent of a population of nearly eight million live on four dollars or less a day.
The deal included a promise that all legal action against Zelaya would be dropped.
The ex-president arrived in the Nicaraguan capital on Friday from the Dominican Republic, where he had spent most of his time in exile.