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22/07/2009 | Nicaragua - As crisis unfolds, all eyes on Honduran-Nicaraguan border

Jim Wyss

During the 1980s, the woods surrounding this lonely border crossing were the scene of ambushes and firefights, as Nicaraguan Sandinistas and Honduran-based contras waged a bloody civil war.


Now, as ousted Honduran leader Manuel ``Mel'' Zelaya vows to lead a caravan across the frontier to reclaim the presidency he lost June 28, some fear this thin ribbon of asphalt that links the two nations could once again be the scene of a clash.

As hopes for a negotiated solution to Honduras' 3-week-old political crisis fade, Zelaya has said he will lead a mass march into his country later this week.

His rival and Honduras' interim president, Roberto Micheletti, has ordered the army to arrest him on sight. Few believe that the encounter will take place without bloodshed, as passions for both men run high.

``If Mel were to show up I would let him sleep in my bed and give him something to eat,'' said Isaías Rodríguez, a taxi driver who shuttles tourists from the desolate border region to the town of Dalí, Honduras, about 19 miles away. ``If he comes in and they arrest him, there will be bullets.''

Las Manos is one of three official border crossings between the two nations and provides the most direct route to the Honduran capital of Tegucigalpa, making it a logical point of entry. However, Zelaya's aides on Tuesday said he had not ruled out entering the country from El Salvador or Guatemala.

``We are looking at several different scenarios and strategies,'' said protest organizer Samuel Zelaya, no relation to Mel Zelaya. ``We need to be able to change routes quickly.''

The ousted leader will need all the secrecy and support he can muster if he goes through with the scheme. Aides said Zelaya hopes to cross the border surrounded by thousands of his followers. That will entail busing in people along narrow, mountainous roads that would be easy for police to block. If the government is worried about Zelaya's plan, it's not showing it.

Despite rumors that the frontier is militarized and fortified, there were only a handful of Honduran soldiers present. Indeed, the most aggressive guardians of the dirt stretch between the two nations were a pair of geese chasing travelers' pant-legs.

The Honduran military has been commended for restraint during the crisis, but it has not shied away from force either. The last time Zelaya attempted to return, on July 5, the army blocked the runway and kept his plane from landing. As angry protesters rushed the fence around the tarmac, shots were fired and one teen died.

Ramón Vasquez, 60, has sold T-shirts and socks along the border for six years and says little has changed since the crisis began. Reading from a pro-Micheletti newspaper, Vasquez said he didn't understand why the world wasn't rallying around Honduras' new leader.

``The U.S. should be thanking us for throwing Chávez out of the country,'' he said, referring to Zelaya's ally and Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez. ``All we have been asking for is to be allowed to follow the constitution of our country.''

Both Micheletti and Zelaya belong to the Liberal party, but rifts emerged as Zelaya's populist leanings drew him close to Venezuela.

In 2008 Honduras joined the ALBA trade block, which is headed by Venezuela, and includes Nicaragua, Cuba and Bolivia.

Chávez has been one of Zelaya's most vocal backers during the crisis and on Tuesday the Micheletti government gave Venezuelan diplomats 72 hours to leave the country.

But the trigger for Zelaya's ouster was his stubborn and, some argue, illegal pursuit of a national referendum that might have allowed him to redraft the constitution. With just six months left in his term, his foes -- including the supreme court, congress and the attorney general -- feared he was bent on staying in power and ordered his arrest.

On June 28 the army swooped into his home and put him on a plane to Costa Rica, still in his pajamas.

Since his ouster, Zelaya has traveled the hemisphere drumming up support for his cause. The United Nations, the Organization of American States and the European Union have called for his immediate return. The U.S. State Department has also warned that there could be serious consequences if Zelaya is not reinstated.

In a defiant speech Monday, Micheletti said the only person whom he will hand over power to is the winner of the Nov. 29 elections. ``We want to tell the whole world that we might not have money, we might not have petroleum and we might not have dollars, but we have an enormous will to get through this situation,'' he said.

Talks aimed at breaking the stalemate ended in deadlock over the weekend. While the chief mediator, Costa Rican President Oscar Arias, has asked both sides to wait until Wednesday to declare mediation dead, few see much room for hope.

In Tegucigalpa on Tuesday a few hundred of Zelaya's faithful marched through a working-class neighborhood, spray painting walls and recruiting supporters for a national strike Thursday. Meanwhile, pro-Micheletti newspapers and TV stations called on the population to stage a mass rally Wednesday against ``foreign pressure and intervention.''

María Luisa Sevilla, 69, said she didn't understand how people could afford to keep protesting 24 days into the crisis.

``Those people should be at work, not blocking traffic,'' she said, as she knitted a bag in her doorway and watched the crowds walk by. ``There are so many people who don't have jobs and these people aren't at the jobs they have.''

Juan Barahona, the national coordinator of the Popular Bloc, which organizes pro-Zelaya marches, admitted that, after three weeks, some protesters may be losing hope.

``We need the president back in the country because that will strengthen the resistance,'' he said. ``But we need him to be careful, too. He cannot get caught.''

Miami Herald (Estados Unidos)


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