TEGUCIGALPA (Reuters) - Honduras is on the verge of ending a four-month political crisis after rival camps cut a deal that could return ousted President Manuel Zelaya to power and earn international support for a November 29 election.
Buckling under pressure from U.S. diplomats, negotiators for Zelaya, toppled in a June 28 coup, and the de facto leader Roberto Micheletti who replaced him, agreed to put an end to Central America’s worst political turmoil in two decades.
The deal, a diplomatic victory for U.S. President Barack Obama, leaves it up to the Honduran Congress to decide whether Zelaya can be restored to serve the last few months of his term — the question that caused earlier talks to stumble.
A Congress vote is expected in the next few days, after the Supreme Court gives a non-binding opinion on the matter.
“We’ve taken a first step,” Zelaya said on Friday as negotiators put final signatures to the agreement, which will end months of isolation for the poor coffee-producing nation.
Zelaya supporters celebrated and even some opponents said they preferred to see him restored than carry on with a crisis that disrupted everyday life. “I hope Mel comes back because everything was peaceful and better before,” said ice cream vendor Ramon Sanchez, 41, using the leftist’s nickname.
The breakthrough late on Thursday came after a high-level U.S. delegation flew to Tegucigalpa for a last-ditch effort to end a crisis that created a foreign policy headache for Obama as he seeks better relations with the region.
“Both sides in regard to the issue of restitution, have committed this decision to Congress,” U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Tom Shannon said.
“Both have indicated that they will abide by it, and I believe them,” he told reporters. “This is a political issue that’s going to be resolved politically.”
Lawmakers from the ruling and opposition parties said they would not take a stance on returning Zelaya until the Supreme Court has given its opinion on the legality of such a move. “For us to take a decision we need the legal opinion of the country,” said Dario Munguia of the opposition National Party.
Zelaya, a leftist logging magnate, was rousted at dawn by soldiers and flown to exile on a Supreme Court order, after he irked many in Honduras by cozying up to socialist Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and allegedly seeking support to allow presidential re-election, something he denies.
Zelaya called the accord a “triumph” for democracy and said he did not expect any new setbacks. “My reinstatement is imminent, I’m optimistic,” he told Reuters late on Thursday.
In Islamabad, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who sent the U.S. delegation this week, praised the deal, calling it “a big step forward” for democracy in the Americas.
“Diplomatically, the U.S. came out as the biggest winner of the agreement,” noted Eurasia analyst Heather Berkman.
Governments around the world had insisted Zelaya be allowed to finish his term and threatened not to recognize the November 29 presidential election unless democracy was first restored.
As well as opening the door for Zelaya’s return, the deal requires both sides to recognize the election result and transfers control of the army to the top electoral court.
Tensions flared when Zelaya snuck back into Honduras under cover last month and took refuge in the Brazilian embassy. The de facto leadership surrounded the building with troops, saying Zelaya would be arrested if he stepped outside, and used bully tactics like blaring music at the embassy overnight.
Shannon praised the two camps for softening their positions and said he hoped Zelaya would soon be allowed to move about freely. “I would like to highlight that these decisions weren’t easy for either one of them to make,” he said.
Brazil also said it hoped the agreement meant the situation at the embassy would now return to normal.
The deal would create a national unity government, a committee to verify that elections are fair and transparent and a truth commission to investigate the events of recent months.
It asks foreign governments to reverse punitive measures like the suspension of aid and travel visas.
Additional reporting by Gustavo Palencia and Javier Lopez in Tegucigalpa, Anthony Boadle and Deborah Charles in Washington; Writing by Catherine Bremer; Editing by Kieran Murray