September 23, 2009 / 5:46 PM / 10 years ago

Brazil's risky role in Honduras crisis may backfire

BRASILIA (Reuters) - Brazil may not have invited ousted Honduran president Manuel Zelaya to take refuge in its embassy there, but opening its door to him is a high-risk bet that could harm its regional leadership ambitions.

President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva’s decision to grant Zelaya refuge at short notice at its embassy in Tegucigalpa has thrust Brazil to the center of the crisis, giving it a chance to take a high-profile role in efforts to end the stand-off.

The risk, though, is that Brazil gets drawn into a messy power dispute in the Central American nation that is far outside its South American sphere of influence.

A deal between Zelaya and the interim governmnent that deposed him seems distant after months of fruitless negotiations and the risks of violence is real. The embassy has already become the scene of a standoff between Zelaya’s supporters and security forces.

“The government had time to evaluate the situation and it took a huge gamble,” said Rubens Barbosa, Brazil’s former ambassador to Washington. “We bought into a fight that isn’t ours and now the risk is getting caught in the cross-fire — it’s a hot potato,” said Barbosa.

There are no indications that Brazil helped Zelaya to return to Honduras on Monday three months after he was toppled in a coup. Most analysts agree it would be self-defeating for Brazil, which had been a distant supporter of Zelaya, to wade into a deadlocked international crisis.

Lula used the platform of the U.N. General Assembly in New York on Wednesday to call for Zelaya to be reinstated “immediately,” a day after Brazil requested an urgent meeting of the Security Council on the Honduran crisis.

Brazil may have sensed an opportunity to take the lead in a crisis in which the United States has been seen by many governments in the region as not having taken a tough enough stance to reverse the coup.

“When they let Zelaya in, they were thinking this is our chance to step forward, to make Brazil a regional peacemaker,” said Riordan Roett, director of the Latin America program at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in Washington.

That bet could pay off, if renewed international attention broke the stalemate, said Roett.

SETTLEMENT CHANCES SLIM

“If they get elections off the ground with both Zelaya and (Roberto) Micheletti stepping back, Brazil could come out of this looking good,” Roett added, referring to the de facto Honduran leader.

Brazil has for years sought to become a diplomatic heavyweight in Latin America and has long campaigned for a permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council. But it has little influence in Central America and may not have the clout needed to revive a negotiated settlement.

“The United States, Mexico, even Cuba have more influence in Honduras than we do,” said Marcos Azambuja, vice-president of the Rio de Janeiro-based foreign policy think tank Cebri.

“If a Nobel prize winner like Arias couldn’t advance talks, our possibilities to act are very modest,” he added, referring to the failed mediation by former Costa Rican president Oscar Arias.

Zelaya appears determined to return to the presidency and Brazil risks getting drawn into a domestic power dispute.

“Zelaya is holding a (campaign) rally in the Brazilian Embassy,” said Brazilian opposition senator Heraclito Fortes, referring to the frequent radio and television interviews Zelaya has been giving from within the embassy.

Cebri’s Azambuja agreed, saying: “We are hostage to Zelaya’s electoral ambitions.”

Wary of potential unrest, Lula has urged Zelaya not to provoke the de facto Honduran government and to discourage violence by his supporters. Micheletti has said he had no intention of confronting Brazil or entering its embassy.

Still, the prospect of a drawn-out standoff and daily TV images of a beleaguered embassy don’t bode well for a political victory by Brazil.

“This will likely drag on and could become violent. It’s hard to see a win situation,” said Barbosa.

Additional reporting by Ana Paula Paiva and Natuza Nery in Brasilia and Stuart Grudgings in Rio de Janeiro; Editing by Stuart Grudgings and Todd Eastham

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