SAN JOSE, Costa Rica – Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez denounced a U.S.-backed effort to ease Honduras' coup crisis on Friday even as mediators tried — so far unsuccessfully — to find a compromise by rival contenders for the presidency.
Chavez objected to the very idea of giving those who ousted President Manuel Zelaya the same treatment as the leader himself.
"How horrible to see a legitimate president receiving a usurper and giving him the same treatment," Chavez said, referring to Arias' Thursday night meeting with Roberto Micheletti, the Honduran congressional leader who was sworn in as president when the military threw Zelaya out of the country on June 28.
Chavez said Micheletti should have been arrested in Costa Rica.
U.S. officials have promoted the talks in Costa Rica's capital, hoping to ease Zelaya back into the presidency without violence while resolving the concerns of Honduras' Supreme Court, Congress and military, which say they legally removed the president for violating the constitution by maneuvering to extend his time in power.
State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said Friday the pace of negotiations will be set by Arias but that U.S. officials would continue consultations and would work "within the OAS in the coming days to see if we can't help President Arias create momentum that leads to a peaceful resolution of this."
U.S. mediation at least briefly overshadowed Chavez's more belligerent crusade to have his ally Zelaya returned to power.
The United Nations and Organization of American States — including the Obama administration — have demanded that Zelaya be returned to power so he can serve out a term that end in January. No foreign government has recognized Micheletti.
Arias met both Honduran leaders on Thursday, but failed to convince them to talk together. Each continues to insist that the other give up claims to lead the country.
"We have no illusions. This may take longer than we imagined," said Arias, who won the 1987 Nobel Peace Prize for helping resolve Central America's civil wars.
While the two leaders left, delegates continued meetings with Arias' team on Friday, but OAS Secretary-General Jose Miguel Insulza said "there is lack of willingness to discuss things."
A new CID-Gallup poll indicated that Hondurans were split on the coup, with a slight majority appearing to oppose it.
Forty-six percent said they disagreed with Zelaya's ouster and 41 percent said they approved of it, according to the face-to-face survey of 1,204 Hondurans in the days following the ouster. Another 13 percent declined to answer.
They were about evenly divided on Zelaya himself, with 31 percent saying they had a positive image of him and 32 percent negative. That was close to findings of a similar poll four months ago in which positive views outpaced negative by 4 percentage points.
The pollsters said the survey, conducted in 16 of Honduras' 18 provinces from June 30 to July 4, had a margin of error of 2.8 percentage points.
Both Zelaya and Micheletti left Costa Rica after their meetings with Arias.
Back in Honduras, Micheletti said he was ready to see Zelaya come back — "but to be sent directly to the courts," referring to criminal charges including treason and usurping public functions.
Zelaya, meanwhile, flew to the Dominican Republic, where President Leonel Fernandez received him with full military honors and promised to speak for Zelaya at the upcoming summit of the Nonaligned Movement in Egypt.
Thousands of Zelaya blocked a road and burned tires in the Honduran capital of Tegucigalpa on Friday, but there were no reported clashes with troops or police.
One of the protesters, union member Jose Luis Vaquedano, 55, dismissed the talks in Costa Rica as "a delaying tactic by the U.S. government meant to give the coup leaders time to consolidate power."