TEGUCIGALPA (Reuters) - Roberto Micheletti, the headstrong veteran politician who took power in Honduras when President Manuel Zelaya was toppled, is defying international pressure to reinstate his old friend and end media curbs.
Despite repeated warnings from the United States, the European Union and Latin American governments, Micheletti appears to believe they will all buckle in the end and drop demands that Zelaya, who was ousted in a June 28 army coup, be returned to power.
He is betting that the world’s attitude toward his de facto government will change as Honduras holds a presidential election on November 29 and the new leader takes office in January.
Neither Micheletti or Zelaya can run in the election, but Micheletti, 61, insists he will stay in power until the new president takes over.
“We are not afraid of the United States, or the State Department, or Brazil, or Mexico, but we are scared of Zelaya,” the gruff white-haired ruler told visiting foreign ministers and the top U.S. diplomat for Latin America last week.
The coup has triggered Central America’s worst crisis in years and created a foreign policy headache for U.S. President Barack Obama who has promised better relations with Latin America.
Obama cut off some aid to Honduras after the coup but has been criticized by some Latin American leaders for not doing more to pressure Micheletti.
At home, however, some U.S. Republicans criticize Obama for sticking by Zelaya at all. They say the ouster was legal and stemmed the growing influence of Zelaya’s close ally, Venezuela’s socialist President Hugo Chavez.
Some Hondurans share that view, saying Zelaya helped the poor but got too close to Chavez. They support right wing ex-soldier Micheletti now for standing up to foreign meddling.
“These are Honduras’ internal problems — the United States is sanctioning us, when what Micheletti does is a benefit for the people,” said football coach Marvin Enriquez.
Criticized by Amnesty International for severe rights abuses, Micheletti’s government has not yet fulfilled a pledge made a week ago to lift controls on protests. It apparently does not plan to allow two broadcasters loyal to Zelaya to reopen.
“The measures we took ... put everything back to normal and the population is calmer,” Micheletti said.
He went even further on Friday, publishing a new law that allows the government to close broadcasters deemed to encourage “anarchy”.
He accuses pro-Zelaya radio station Globo and TV’s Canal 36 of inciting vandalism and violence.
Police and soldiers frequently break up small demonstrations with tear gas and rubber bullets, and rights groups say several people have been killed at protests.
Trapped by soldiers in the Brazilian embassy in Tegucigalpa, wealthy rancher Zelaya is still recognized abroad as the Honduran president. They demand he be reinstated to finish his term in order to make the November elections legal.
Negotiators will resume talks on Tuesday aimed at resolving the standoff, although Micheletti angrily rejects the pressure from foreign governments, including the United States, Honduras’ main trading partner.
The Organization of American States says it will not recognize the November election without Zelaya’s reinstatement and the lifting of media and protest restrictions.
But there are some signs of cracks in the consensus demands for Zelaya’s return and disagreement in Washington on how best to handle the crisis.
Micheletti seems to be gambling the OAS will finally resign itself to accepting the legitimacy of the president elect.
One of nine children of an immigrant from northern Italy, Micheletti first joined Honduras’ Congress almost 30 years ago.
He studied in the United States in the 1970s before founding a bus company in the trading city of El Progreso.
Micheletti and Zelaya come from the same conservative wing of the Liberal Party, and stayed close even as the president veered to the left after taking office in 2007.
Micheletti had presidential ambitions, and as the leader of Congress helped pass Zelaya’s bills to bring Honduras into a leftist alliance on Chavez. In return, Zelaya supported him in the Liberal Party primaries last year.
Only after he lost the nomination did the gloves come off.
Zelaya was toppled after he made a series of rash moves, notably sacking the military chief of staff during an attempt to change presidential term limits in the constitution.
Zelaya’s critics say he wanted to illegally extend his four year term in office, although Zelaya insists he just planned to consult the population on reform after he left office and that he had no intention of extending his rule.
Obama’s quick condemnation of the coup marked a break from past U.S. policies of supporting the overthrow of leftist leaders in Latin America.
Additional reporting by Gustavo Palencia; Editing by Kieran Murray