TEGUCIGALPA, Honduras – Diplomatic efforts to restore Manuel Zelaya to Honduras' presidency shifted back to Washington on Tuesday, as supporters of the ousted leader threatened to escalate protests and disrupt business across the poor Central American nation.
A day after failing to land in Honduras to confront the interim government that ousted him in a coup, Zelaya boarded a plane bound for Washington, where U.S. officials said he would meet with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
Zelaya told a news conference Monday night that he hopes to ensure U.S. support for diplomatic efforts to see him restored to power.
"Tomorrow we hope to get support for these pronouncements," Zelaya said before heading to the airport in Managua.
The talks come as the Obama administration weighs how to respond to the military coup that sent Zelaya into exile June 28. The U.S. government is looking for a peaceful resolution, and senior officials said Washington tried to dissuade Zelaya from Sunday's attempt to fly into the Tegucigalpa airport, which led to clashes between the army and his supporters.
President Barack Obama reiterated his support for efforts to restore Zelaya to Honduras' presidency — even as he pointed out that Zelaya has strongly opposed American policies.
In a speech to Moscow graduates on Tuesday, the president said that's evidence that the U.S. does not dictate another country's leaders.
"We respect the universal principle that people should choose their own leaders, whether they are leaders we agree with or not," Obama said.
As Zelaya left nearby Nicaragua on Monday, 2,000 of his supporters rallied peacefully near the presidential palace in the Honduran capital. But anger was high over the death of a teenager shot by soldiers Sunday as a crowd tried to break through the airport's perimeter fence, before Zelaya's plane gave up on trying to land because army vehicles blocked the runway.
"We're going to change strategies," protest organizer Rafael Alegria, 57, said Monday. "We cannot live under the current state."
He said Zelaya's supporters would take their fight nationwide by blocking major highways and border crossings in an effort to impede trucks delivering fuel and merchandise.
The interim government — named by Congress to replace Zelaya's administration after a fight over his effort to stage a constitutional referendum that the Supreme Court ruled illegal — remained steadfast in saying he would not be allowed to return. It formally closed the airport Monday, and military vehicles and an old plane blocked the runways.
Zelaya is opposed by all branches of the Honduran government as well as the military. He even alienated leaders of his own party, which supported a congressional vote to install congressional leader Roberto Micheletti as interim president.
"Micheletti won't be in government for very long — only the time needed to improve things in Honduras," said Jorge Illescas, who directs the ruling Liberal Party that both Zelaya and Micheletti represent. "He will leave next January," Illescas added, when the next president takes power following November's election.
Zelaya, a wealthy rancher who moved to the left and allied himself with Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez during his presidency, was ousted hours before the referendum was to start. His opponents feared the vote would enable him to push for constitutional changes to remain in office and move the country toward socialism.
The Organization of American States, which is based in Washington, spent last week trying vainly to pressure the new government into letting Zelaya resume his post.
Diplomats with the United Nations, the OAS, the United States and European countries worked behind the scenes Monday trying to find some common ground with Micheletti, who has vowed not to negotiate until "things return to normal."
OAS Secretary-General Jose Miguel Insulza said he was "open to continuing all appropriate diplomatic overtures to obtain our objective."
In Washington, a senior U.S. official said one option under consideration was trying to forge a compromise between Zelaya, Micheletti and the Honduran military under which the ousted president would be allowed to serve out his remaining six months in office with limited and clearly defined powers.
Zelaya, in return, would pledge to drop his aspirations for a constitutional change that would allow him to run for another term, said the official, who agreed to discuss the situation only if not quoted by name because of the sensitive nature of the diplomatic exchanges.
So far, the White House has called Zelaya's ouster "not legal," but it has not taken any steps to punish Honduras. More than $100 million in U.S. aid would be lost if the State Department officially classifies Zelaya's ouster a "coup," which would trigger an automatic suspension.
The OAS suspended Honduras from membership over the weekend, and the country now faces trade sanctions and the loss of hundreds of millions of dollars in subsidized oil, aid and loans.
Another senior U.S. administration official expressed frustration with Zelaya, saying the ousted Honduran leader rejected advice from the United States and others not to press for the constitutional change and also not to try to return to Honduras on Sunday while the situation remained volatile.
Zelaya told reporters Monday in the Nicaraguan capital that he would try again to return — but next time he won't say when. "My mistake was to let them know I was returning," he said.
If he returns, Zelaya faces arrest for 18 alleged criminal acts including treason and failing to implement more than 80 laws approved by Congress since he took office in 2006.