SAN JOSE, Costa Rica (Reuters) - The two rivals for power in Honduras started a dialogue through a mediator on Thursday, but there was no face-to-face meeting or breakthrough to solve the political crisis sparked by last month’s coup.
Ousted Honduran President Manuel Zelaya, and the man who replaced him after the June 28 coup, Roberto Micheletti, left behind teams in Costa Rica’s capital San Jose, holding talks under the mediation of Costa Rican President Oscar Arias.
Zelaya maintained his demand, which he said was widely backed by the international community, to be reinstated as head of state of Honduras, a small coffee and textile exporting nation which is among the poorest in the Americas.
But Micheletti, who argues Zelaya was lawfully ousted last month because he violated Honduras’ constitution by trying to lift presidential term limits, ruled this out.
“The topic not for discussion is the return of ex-President Zelaya, unless he hands himself over to justice,” Micheletti, who was appointed by Honduras’ Congress after the coup, said after returning to his country from Costa Rica.
Arias, a Nobel Peace Prize winner, said in San Jose he was pleased a dialogue had started, but he stressed the key issue of debate and contention was Zelaya’s restoration.
“Dialogue can produce miracles but not immediate ones and this could possibly take much longer than one might imagine,” he said. Arias won the 1987 Nobel Peace Prize for helping to solve conflicts in Central America.
Both Zelaya and Micheletti met separately with Arias in the Costa Rican capital, but they did not sit down for direct discussions. “There was no face-to-face meeting,” said Costa Rican presidential spokesman Pablo Gueren.
The absence of a direct meeting or any public sign of reconciliation suggested Arias faced a tough task in trying to bring together the entrenched positions held by the rivals over the coup, which has stirred up tensions in Central America.
The United States and the Organization of American States are pressing for Zelaya’s peaceful reinstatement, which OAS chief Jose Miguel Insulza said was the key for a successful outcome to the talks in San Jose.
U.S. President Barack Obama, apparently looking to wipe clean Washington’s record of supporting often bloody military coups and regimes in Latin America when it suited U.S. interests, has made clear he considers the coup was wrong.
On the eve of Thursday’s talks, the U.S. Embassy in Tegucigalpa said Washington had suspended $16.5 million in military assistance programs to Honduras, and added an additional $180 million in U.S. aid could also be at risk.
Micheletti said Honduras would go ahead with previously scheduled elections in November, but he showed no sign of being ready to give back power to Zelaya. He said he could return to Costa Rica for talks with Arias if this was “opportune.”
Costa Rican Communications Minister Mayi Antillon said the two delegations in the dialogue would try to move toward an agreement “and hopefully ... the presidents will come back”.
“There are respectful talks around a table,” she added.
Micheletti said any solution must respect Honduras’ constitution, which he says justified Zelaya’s removal.
Zelaya stressed that both the OAS and the United Nations General Assembly backed his reinstatement. He has called Micheletti a “criminal” and said he was guilty of treason.
“The stumbling block is that the de facto government accept the return of the constitutional government,” OAS chief Insulza said in Washington. He said that, provided Zelaya’s restoration was accepted, all other options, like bringing forward the elections, or a national unity government or an amnesty, were open to negotiation.
But for the OAS, which suspended Honduras on Saturday, early elections would be acceptable only if held after Zelaya is restored and not under Micheletti, Insulza said.
Zelaya, a logging magnate who was elected in 2005 and was due to leave office in 2010, angered his country’s ruling elite and military by increasingly allying himself with Venezuela’s leftist President Hugo Chavez, a fierce critic of Washington.
Failure to strike a definitive deal in Honduras could prompt Zelaya to renew attempts to return to his country to try to win back power with the help of his supporters and left-wing allies like Venezuela, Cuba and Nicaragua.
Venezuela’s Chavez, who lent Zelaya a plane in which he made an abortive bid to return home on Sunday, has vowed to do everything possible to obtain his reinstatement.
In an opinion piece in The Washington Post, Arias called the Honduran coup a “wake-up call for the hemisphere” and blamed it on “reckless military spending” in the region.
Honduran media on Thursday published a poll showing 41 percent of Hondurans thought that Zelaya’s ouster was justified. The CID-Gallup poll carried out between June 30 and July 4 found 28 percent of those interviewed opposed the coup.
Additional reporting by John McPhaul in San Jose, Gustavo Palencia, Enrique Andres Pretel and Daniel Trotta in Tegucigalpa, Anthony Boadle in Washington; writing by Pascal Fletcher; editing by Doina Chiacu