A U.S.-backed mediation effort to solve the Honduran political crisis appeared to have broken down Wednesday night after a delegation representing ousted President Manuel Zelaya angrily walked out of talks in Costa Rica.
Almost a month after Zelaya was thrown out of the country, Honduras' de facto government continues to defy mounting international pressure to restore constitutional order, including threats from the Obama administration and a cutoff of aid by the European Union.
Since Zelaya was detained by soldiers June 28 in his pajamas, the acting government has not been recognized by a single country. Prior to the latest round of mediation talks hosted by Costa Rican President Óscar Arias, acting Honduran Foreign Minister Carlos López Contreras reiterated the government's firm opposition to Zelaya's return, no matter the cost to the impoverished Central America nation of 7.5 million. Zelaya's critics accuse him of illegally trying to seek re-election while pushing the country down a socialist path, in the mold of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton called de facto President Roberto Micheletti on Sunday, warning him Honduras faced the loss of $180 million in U.S. economic aid if Zelaya is not allowed to return. The United States, which has already suspended more than $16.5 million in military assistance, is also said to be considering canceling the visas of some key Honduran officials and wealthy private sector supporters, some of whom have relatives and homes in South Florida.
The European Union froze $92 million in aid Monday after the de facto government rejected a plan for Zelaya's return.
The United States is Honduras' biggest trade partner with $9 billion in bilateral trade, half of which is with Florida. "Washington has the capability of doing things that are devastating for Honduras," said Michael Shifter, a Washington-based expert with the Inter-American Dialogue. "But I don't think the U.S. wants its fingerprints on this as a 'Made in the U.S.A.' deal."
Instead, the United States is counting on broad international pressure to force the de facto government to make concessions. U.S. officials are working closely with a group of friendly nations, including Mexico, Colombia and Brazil, to persuade Micheletti to back down, mainly by offering reassurances of international supervision to keep Zelaya in check should he be allowed back.
The United States backed the Costa Rican mediation effort led by Arias, a Nobel Peace Prize winner in 1987. Over the weekend Arias unveiled a proposal to let Zelaya serve out the final six months of his term at the head of a broad coalition government, in return for dropping his illegal effort to seek re-election. Zelaya accepted the proposal, but it met resistance from the de facto government.
Arias presented a revised plan Wednesday that still required the return of Zelaya but with more controls. It was immediately shot down by the Zelaya delegation.
Where the crisis is headed now remains unclear. Zelaya has threatened to organize "insurrection" inside Honduras if he is not allowed back. "It is impossible to maintain a regime with bayonets. The world will not allow it, starting with the United States," he said in a radio interview.
Arias appealed Wednesday to both sides for concessions. "There's not much more to discuss," he said.