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Honduras a tough case for veteran peacemaker Arias

SAN JOSE, Costa Rica (Reuters) - Veteran peace negotiator Oscar Arias has his work cut out trying to mediate the political crisis in Honduras but the Costa Rican president is not giving up hope of a deal.

Twenty-two years after winning the Nobel Peace Prize, Arias has so far failed to persuade Honduras’ de facto rulers to allow the return of President Manuel Zelaya and reverse a June 28 coup.

Costa Rica’s most famous son, the 68-year-old Arias has overseen two rounds of talks between Zelaya’s government and the de facto rulers, but there have been no breakthroughs.

“I’ve made a balanced, moderate proposal which can bring the sides together. If there is willingness, there will be a successful negotiation,” he said in an interview with Spain’s El Pais newspaper at the weekend.

Arias won the Nobel prize for a peace plan to end Central American civil wars and guerrilla conflicts in the mid-1980s and has a reputation for self confidence that critics say can come across as arrogance.

He returned to the Costa Rica presidency for the second time in 2006, complaining the country’s leaders had fallen into corruption and incompetence.

Showing customary single-mindedness, he brought the country into a regional trade deal with the United States despite strong opposition at home and cut diplomatic ties with Taiwan in favor of rival Beijing.

He told both sides in the Honduran talks that a proposal he made last week for the return of Zelaya and early elections would be his last, putting pressure on the rival groups.

“Don’t count Arias out,” said Richard Feinberg, professor of political economy at the University of California, San Diego. “I do predict an agreement, despite the polarization in Honduras .”

Zelaya has said the Arias plan is dead because Honduran authorities that support the coup like Congress and Supreme Court do not want him back as president.

The Honduran Congress was to meet on Monday to debate the Arias proposal, possibly voting on it by Tuesday, offering a slim chance of an agreement.

“We have to choose between reconciliation and confrontation.” Arias said.

Zelaya, a leftist who upset Honduras’ ruling elite by allying himself with Venezuela’s socialist President Hugo Chavez, was toppled on orders of the Supreme Court because of fears he was going to extend the presidential limit.

The United States on Monday backed Arias’ mediation, despite a lack of progress.

“We think President Arias has presented a good plan, it’s a good way forward that we think can lead to a peaceful resolution to the conflict and restoration of the democratic order, and we’re content to let that process play out, we’re not going to put any artificial deadline on that,” said State Department spokesman Ian Kelly.

Editing by Alistair Bell and Kieran Murray