TEGUCIGALPA, Honduras – Ousted former Honduran President Manuel Zelaya returned from exile on Saturday to a boisterous welcome from his supporters, ending a nearly two-year political crisis that started when the country's military deposed him in an internationally condemned coup.
The Venezuelan-owned plane carrying the 59-year-old ex-president took off from neighboring Nicaragua and landed in the afternoon at Tegucigalpa's international airport, where thousands of his supporters had set up a tent camp nearby, dancing and singing to celebrate his arrival.
Zelaya's comeback in an internationally brokered agreement paves the way for Honduras to re-enter the world community, which near-unanimously rejected the June 2009 coup that saw him whisked out of the country at gunpoint in his pajamas. The Organization of American States is scheduled to consider Honduras' full reintegration into the hemispheric body on Wednesday.
Wearing his trademark white, wide-brimmed hat, Zelaya called for an end to coups in the impoverished Central American country and urged his cheering supporters to carry out only "peaceful resistance."
"The problem of poverty, of corruption, of the great challenges of Latin American societies won't be resolved through violence, but through more democracy," Zelaya told supporters after a motorcade took him from the airport to a nearby plaza.
The ex-president also supported the idea of a constituent assembly to reform the constitution, an idea that led to his original ouster.
"I've come to look for an exit from our problems. We should look for an exit between the bad people who want to stay in the crisis and the good people who want to leave it," he said. "The constituent assembly is a democratic exit that we have."
Zelaya was accompanied on the flight by his wife, two of his daughters, several former officials in his government, ex-Panamanian President Martin Torrijos and the foreign ministers of Venezuela and Bolivia, countries with leftist governments that have backed Zelaya.
Zelaya thanked supporters such as Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos and Argentine President Cristina Fernandez, who backed him while in exile. Colombia and Venezuela helped negotiate Zelaya's return.
Chavez lauded that return in a Twitter message: "Mel Zelaya returned to his Honduran fatherland! It's a great victory for the Honduran people! Down with dictatorships! Long live Popular Power! Long live Real Democracy."
Honduras' deposed former leader on Friday traveled from the Dominican Republic, where he lived more than a year in exile, to Nicaragua in preparation for his return.
"Honduras is in party mode," said Zelaya supporter Ronnie Huete, of Radio Globo. Thousands of people greeted Zelaya at the airport, many wearing the red and black colors of the Zelaya-allied National Popular Resistance Front, which formed after the coup. One sign in the crowd read: "700 days from the coup, here no one is surrendering."
Not everyone, however, felt like celebrating Zelaya's return.
Zelaya is "repudiated by the majority of Hondurans," a group calling itself the Patriotic Committee for the Defense of the Constitution said in a message broadcast by radio station HRN.
Irma Acosta, a former congresswoman from the governing National Party, said that Zelaya "should focus on singing and playing his guitar, which he does well ... and forget about politics, because his time has passed."
After the afternoon rally, Zelaya met with current Honduran President Porfirio Lobo, OAS chief Jose Miguel Insulza and the foreign ministers of Venezuela, Bolivia and Colombia.
In a statement, Insulza praised Lobo "for bringing about the restoration of democracy in his country, after the break suffered with the destitution of the ex-president."
Agrarian Reform Minister Cesar Ham told reporters that the meeting of Lobo and Zelaya was "warm and emotional."
"What a lot of people don't undertand is that they are friends. They studied in the same school, knew each other from childhood and their families have had a good relationship for 50 years," said Ham, who was present at the meeting. Zelaya and Lobo are both wealthy landowners from Olancho province.
The OAS, Colombia and Venezuela supervised his safe return, 23 months after he was removed by the military for ignoring a Supreme Court order to cancel a referendum asking Hondurans if they favored changing the constitution.
His detractors claimed he wanted to hijack the democratic process to enable his re-election, which is prohibited by the constitution. Zelaya has denied that was his intention.
His supporters say he was ousted because of his plans to reform Honduras' political and economic structure and his increasingly close relationship with Chavez.
After he was deposed, everyone from the U.S. to the OAS tried to broker Zelaya's return to finish out his term. He holed up in the Brazilian Embassy in the capital, Tegucigalpa, for three months until after Lobo won the regularly scheduled presidential election and took office in January 2010. Lobo allowed Zelaya safe passage out of the country to the Dominican Republic.
Many Latin American countries refused to recognize Lobo's democratically elected government until the Zelaya issue was resolved.
The deal to bring Zelaya back to Honduras — called the Cartagena accord because it was unveiled in the Colombian city — didn't call for an immediate return to power
"The Cartagena agreement has only one message: no more coup d'etats in Honduras and in Latin America," Zelaya said.
During his speech, Zelaya repeated accusations that the United States supported the interim government of Roberto Micheletti, which replaced Zelaya after his ouster. President Barack Obama and other U.S. officials publicly criticized the coup days afterward.
"I complained to the United States," Zelaya said, "because it was unjust to divide Latin America and support the dictatorship against the dignity of the Honduran people."
Zelaya returns to a country that has since enacted many of the changes he advocated.
His idea of holding a referendum to amend the constitution — the final straw that led to the coup — is now a law.
An agreement signed last week that makes way for Zelaya's safe return will also allow him to form his own political party and potentially end Honduras' long-standing and rigid two-party system.
A court dismissed arrest warrants for Zelaya, who faced charges of fraud and falsifying documents, and then dropped the charges.
Analysts said that Honduras' leaders apparently felt they had to make concessions to end the country's isolation, and one of those concessions was allowing Zelaya to return without being prosecuted.
Lobo said he doesn't see a contradiction in enacting what the coup sought to avoid.
"That's life," he said recently at the close of a business forum. "One does not govern for today. One governs so that tomorrow they can say how well you did."
The OAS is expected to discuss Honduras in Washington in the coming days and at the organization's general assembly in El Salvador June 5-7.