Honduran Lawmakers Debate Zelaya's Future

Honduran lawmakers begin debating ousted President Manuel Zelaya's future Wednesday under pressure from much of the region to reinstate him or face more isolation despite a presidential election they hoped would end the crisis.

It's not clear the pressure will be enough. The interim administration has already resisted months of diplomatic arm-twisting, and has long predicted Sunday's election would weaken demands for Zelaya's return.

Still, many Latin American governments warn they will not restore ties with the incoming administration of Porfirio Lobo unless Zelaya is allowed to finish his own term, which ends Jan. 27.

Congressional President Jose Alfredo Saavedra insisted he felt no pressure from abroad, saying he had met with diplomats of many countries and none had suggested he vote one way the other.

"Congress has not been the object of pressure of any nature," Saavedra told Channel 5 Wednesday before the debate began. "Nobody, absolutely nobody, has dared to insinuate what the route should be."

Lobo, a wealthy rancher from the conservative National Party, won the regularly scheduled presidential vote that Honduras' interim leaders insist shows their country's democracy is intact even if Zelaya was ousted June 28 in a dispute over changing the constitution.

Many Latin American countries, especially left-led governments, say recognizing the election would amount to legitimizing Central America's first coup in 20 years.

"We can't pretend nothing happened," Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva said Tuesday before leaving a summit in Portugal of leaders from Latin America, Spain and Portugal. "If this state of affairs is allowed to remain, democracy will be at serious risk in Latin and Central America."

The Western Hemisphere, however, is divided over the issue.

President Barack Obama's administration is urging Zelaya's reinstatement but has stopped short of making it a condition for recognizing Lobo's government. Several Latin American nations — Costa Rica, Peru, Panama and Colombia — share the U.S. stance.

Zelaya's reinstatement is not required by a U.S.-brokered pact designed to end the political impasse, which was signed by both the deposed leader and interim President Roberto Micheletti.

The pact requires only that a unity government be created for the remainder of Zelaya's term, while the decision on restoring Zelaya to office was left to Congress. Zelaya signed the deal after congressional leaders indicated they were open to voting him back into power, but chances for that look increasingly slim.

In an additional twist, Zelaya now says he will not resume the presidency even if Congress votes him back in, saying the U.S.-pact failed when lawmakers delayed the vote until after the presidential election, ensuring he would have less than two months remaining in office.

Congress could delay its decision even longer. Saavedra said that lawmakers must consider extensive opinions submitted by the Supreme Court and other institutions and the discussion could last until at least Friday. He would not be pinned down on when Congress might vote.

The Supreme Court's opinion recommended that Zelaya not be reinstated because he faces charges of abusing power and other infractions.

"These opinions are not binding but they are like the yellow traffic light that tells us: 'Be very careful with what you are going to do,"' Rodolfo Arias, the congressional leader of the National Party, told Channel 5.

Congress is made up of the same lawmakers who largely voted June 28 to oust Zelaya and replace him with Micheletti, who was then the congressional president. That vote took place hours after soldiers stormed into Zelaya's residence and flew him into exile in his pajamas.

Zelaya was deposed for ignoring a Supreme Court order to cancel a referendum that would have asked Hondurans if they wanted an assembly to rewrite the constitution.

His supporters say the initiative was meant to shake up a political system dominated by two parties with little ideological difference and controlled by a few wealthy families. Zelaya's opponents say his real goal was to lift the constitutional ban on presidential re-election, as his leftist ally Hugo Chavez has done in Venezuela.

Heather Berkman, a Honduras expert with New York-based Eurasia Group, expressed skepticism that Congress would reinstate Zelaya.

She predicted Lobo will instead negotiate a deal lifting the threat of arrest and allowing allow Zelaya to leave the Brazilian Embassy, where has taken sanctuary since sneaking back into the country two months ago.

"What Lobo will likely do is extend a hand to him, and let him come out of this with some dignity intact," Berkman said.