WASHINGTON – Both sides in Honduras' leadership crisis signaled apparent willingness Tuesday to forge a diplomatic solution to the deadlock over the fate of deposed President Manuel Zelaya, who was overthrown last month in a coup.
Zelaya and interim Honduran leader Roberto Micheletti agreed to accept Costa Rican President Oscar Arias, a Nobel Peace laureate, as an international mediator. Arias' appointment also was backed by the United States and was announced by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton after she met privately with Zelaya at the State Department.
Arias will conduct the mediation in Costa Rica, where Zelaya intends to travel from Washington, and Clinton said she expected the process to begin soon.
"It is our hope that through this dialogue mechanism overseen by President Arias that there can be a restoration of democratic, constitutional order, a peaceful resolution of this matter that will enable the Honduran people to see the restoration of democracy and a more peaceful future going forward," Clinton said.
Zelaya said he was pleased with Arias' appointment. "I have accepted Dr. Arias' mediation," he told reporters after seeing Clinton. He added that the step showed "the international community is still supporting democracy in Honduras."
Meanwhile, in Honduras, Micheletti, who had vowed not to negotiate until "things return to normal," appeared to open some space for a settlement to the crisis that began on June 28 when Zelaya was detained by the military and forced into exile.
Arias "is a man with a lot of credibility in the world," Micheletti told HRN radio. "We are open to dialogue. We want to be heard."
While Micheletti said he would send a delegation soon to Costa Rica — a reversal from past days, when he said he would not negotiate until "things are normal" — he also said the meeting "doesn't mean that Zelaya will be allowed to return." He later told a news conference that the dialogue with Arias should "start from the understanding that Zelaya's return is not open to negotiation."
Still, Micheletti's tone was less belligerent than in recent days, when officials threatened to arrest Zelaya for 18 alleged criminal acts, including treason and failing to implement more than 80 laws approved by Honduran lawmakers since he took office in 2006.
In another hint of possiblet compromise, a Honduran Supreme Court official said Tuesday that political amnesty for Zelaya is possible.
Clinton noted that Arias was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1987 for helping broker an end to Central America's civil wars.
"He is the natural person to assume this role," she told reporters, adding that while the Obama administration continues to support efforts by the Organization of American States to resolve the crisis, she felt it was necessary also to name a specific mediator.
Clinton also urged all parties to refrain from further violence in an effort to resolve the political crisis and said she was "heartened" that Zelaya had agreed to Arias' mediation and would not again try to force his way back to Honduras as he did during the weekend.
"I believe it is a better route for him to follow at this time than to attempt to return in the face of the implacable opposition of the de facto regime," she said.
Zelaya, a wealthy rancher who moved to the left after his election and allied himself with Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, made an unsuccessful attempt to return home on Sunday in a move that sparked clashes between his supporters and security forces at the Tegucigalpa airport and left at least one person dead
Clinton would not discuss specifics of the mediation process, which she said would begin soon, but a senior U.S. official said one option being considered would be to forge a compromise under which Zelaya would be allowed to return and serve out his remaining six months in office with limited powers.
Zelaya, in return, would pledge to drop his aspirations for a constitutional change that might allow him to run for another term, according to the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the diplomatic exchanges.
The Obama administration had offered only lukewarm support for Zelaya, aimed more at bolstering his legal status as Honduras' duly elected president than supporting him personally.
Earlier Tuesday in Moscow, President Obama said the United States was supporting the left-leaning politician who often criticized Washington on principle.
"America cannot and should not seek to impose any system of government on any other country, nor would we presume to choose which party or individual should run a country," Obama said. "Even as we meet here today, America supports now the restoration of the democratically elected president of Honduras, even though he has strongly opposed American policies."
"We do so not because we agree with him," Obama said of Zelaya. "We do so because we respect the universal principle that people should choose their own leaders, whether they are leaders we agree with or not."
In Washington, the State Department said the U.S. has suspended military assistance programs estimated at $16.5 million and a few development assistance programs estimated at $1.9 million, all aimed at the Honduran government. At the same time, officials said all assistance for the people of Honduras — food aid, disease prevention, child survival aid, disaster assistance and elections assistance — is still being provided.