SAN JOSE, Costa Rica (Reuters) - Costa Rica’s president held mediation talks on Thursday with the rivals for power in Honduras as international pressure grew for the return of ousted President Manuel Zelaya after last month’s coup.
President Oscar Arias held separate meetings at his residence first with Zelaya, and then with Roberto Micheletti, the interim president installed by Honduras’ Congress after the June 28 coup.
Costa Rican officials said Arias hoped to bring the two together later for their first face-to-face meeting since Zelaya’s overthrow, which stoked tensions in Central America and posed a diplomatic test for U.S. President Barack Obama.
Arias won the 1987 Nobel Peace Prize for helping to solve Cold War conflicts 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 the Costa Rican capital San Jose.
“The stumbling block is that the de facto government accept the return of the constitutional government,” Insulza told reporters in Washington. “Everything else is negotiable.”
But it remained to be seen whether Micheletti, the former head of Honduras’ Congress picked by the assembly to replace Zelaya, would be willing to accept him back as president.
In the run up to the talks, Micheletti had insisted Zelaya’s removal was lawful because he violated the constitution by seeking to lift presidential term limits. Micheletti said on Thursday he was ready to work for a solution “within the framework of the constitution.”
After meeting separately with Arias, Zelaya stressed that both the OAS and the United Nations General Assembly had called for his reinstatement. On Wednesday, Zelaya called Micheletti a “criminal” and said he was guilty of treason.
Insulza said that provided Zelaya’s restoration was accepted, other options, like bringing forward scheduled November presidential elections, forming a national unity government, or agreeing on an amnesty, were all open to negotiation.
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, who was elected in 2005 and was due to leave office in 2010, wants those who toppled him to give up power in 24 hours to allow his reinstatement as president of the coffee and textile exporting country, one of the poorest in the Americas
Zelaya, a logging magnate who was elected as a moderate, had angered his country’s ruling elite and military by increasingly allying himself with Venezuela’s firebrand leftist President Hugo Chavez, a fierce critic of U.S. policies.
Honduran media on Thursday published a poll showing that 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.
U.S. President Barack Obama, apparently looking to wipe clean Washington’s past 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.
Micheletti’s administration called the U.S. move “counterproductive.”
The U.S. Embassy said a further $180 million in U.S. aid for Honduras could also be at risk, but said humanitarian assistance to the Honduran people such as food aid, AIDS prevention and help for children, would continue.
Observers worry that failure to strike a 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.
Analysts saw the Obama administration’s quick condemnation of the coup as forestalling any possibility that leftist critics of Washington like Chavez could allege U.S. involvement or tacit support for the Honduran interim government.
“I think that the fact the White House very rapidly condemned the coup and said that Zelaya should be put back in office, that sort of pulled the rug out from Chavez,” said Julia Sweig, director for Latin America Studies at the U.S.-based Council on Foreign Relations.
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 Frances Kerry