Honduras Targets Protesters With Emergency Decree

Media in Country Also Feel Pressure
By William Booth and Mary Beth Sheridan, Washington Post, July 2, 2009

TEGUCIGALPA, Honduras, July 1 -- The new Honduran government clamped down on street protests and news organizations Wednesday as lawmakers passed an emergency decree that limits public gatherings following the military-led coup that removed President Manuel Zelaya from office.

The decree also allows for suspects to be detained for 24 hours and continues a nighttime curfew. Media outlets complained that the government was ordering them not to report any news or opinion that could "incite" the public.

A dozen former ministers from the Zelaya government remain in hiding, some hunkered down in foreign embassies, fearing arrest. News organizations here remain polarized. Journalists working for small independent media -- or for those loyal to Zelaya -- have reported being harassed by officials.

Before emergency measures were tightened, thousands of protesters rallied Wednesday to urge Zelaya's return. They were answered by counterdemonstrations in support of the new government. Local radio reported that several bombs were found but safely defused.

Zelaya vowed that he would come back to Honduras over the weekend, while the newly appointed interim president, Roberto Micheletti, repeated in a news conference Wednesday "that when he comes into the country, he will be arrested."

Asked whether Honduras could withstand international isolation and risk losing the foreign aid that keeps the impoverished nation running, Micheletti said, "You know that the Europeans are not going to cut the aid to our country, nor will the Americans."

But on Wednesday, the Inter-American Development Bank did suspend aid, after a similar move by the World Bank. As the impasse continued in Honduras, diplomats at the Organization of American States struggled to organize a mission that would restore Zelaya to power and avoid a clash between him and the military that ousted him.

After nearly 12 hours of debate, the OAS approved a resolution shortly before dawn Wednesday that called on its secretary general, José Miguel Insulza, to undertake every effort to reinstate Zelaya. If Insulza did not succeed within 72 hours, Honduras would be suspended from the OAS, the main forum for political cooperation in the hemisphere.

The passage of the resolution prompted Zelaya to postpone a trip home he had scheduled for Thursday, which diplomats had feared could sharply escalate tensions in the Central American country.

"I am going to return to Honduras. I am the president," Zelaya told reporters Wednesday. But he added that he did not want to complicate the diplomatic efforts of the OAS over the next few days.

Insulza faces an unusually complex task in trying to reverse the coup. Normally, he would negotiate with the de facto government for the return of the deposed president. But OAS members, furious about the military ouster, do not want him to talk to Micheletti, for fear that would legitimize the new regime.

Even hard-core coup backers here say they were surprised how quickly and forcefully the Latin American countries condemned their actions.

"This coup is a mess," said the outgoing Italian ambassador, Giuseppe Magno. "Mistakes have been made on all sides, and the only solution is for a compromise. We hear that different parties are talking among themselves. That is good. The solution has to come from the Hondurans themselves. It cannot be imposed on them."

Honduras is finding itself increasingly isolated. France, Spain, Italy, Chile and Colombia began recalling their ambassadors Wednesday. The Pentagon suspended joint military operations with Honduras.

"What provoked an enormous indignation among Latin Americans, above all, was the military coup," said one diplomat involved in the planning at the OAS, referring to the way soldiers seized Zelaya at dawn and bundled him onto a plane bound for Costa Rica.

Insulza, of the OAS, is trying to establish contact with people who are not closely allied with either Zelaya or Micheletti to build a compromise, the diplomat said. It was not clear when he would fly to Honduras.

The coup is the first big test for the Obama administration's policy of seeking a more diplomatic and collegial role in a region traditionally dominated by the United States. The military action has been roundly condemned internationally, including by President Obama. But U.S. diplomats have sought to prevent a response that is so tough it leads to bloodshed.

U.S. officials said Wednesday that they would hold off formally designating the Honduran military action a "coup" until Insulza reports back to the OAS on Monday. Such a move is significant, because it would lead to the cutoff of millions of dollars in military and development aid.

However, the Pentagon said Wednesday that it had decided to reduce military contact with the Honduran armed forces. "We're still reviewing and making decisions" about what cooperation would be affected, said a spokesman for U.S. Southern Command, José Ruiz.

The U.S. military also has cut off contact since Sunday with those who orchestrated the coup, officials said. The United States has a contingent of about 700 military personnel at Soto Cano Air Base in Honduras, focused on disaster relief, humanitarian assistance, peacekeeping and counternarcotics activities in Honduras and the region.

Honduras also is facing a freeze on petroleum exports from Venezuela and a halt in trade from other Central American countries.

"In the 21st century, these kinds of coups don't last long. It is very hard for a country like Honduras to maintain this kind of position in the face of overwhelming rejection by the world, and especially the region and its major trading partners," a senior U.S. official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of diplomatic sensitivities.

Zelaya is a close ally of Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, who led a bloc of leftist governments in pressing the OAS to suspend Honduras immediately and support Zelaya's quick return to the country -- even at the risk of his being arrested. The governments believe that unless there is a tough response to the coup, their own leftist governments could be threatened, diplomats said.

Venezuela's ambassador to the OAS, Roy Chaderton, described the approach as "diplomatic asphyxiation." The Venezuelan government provided a plane for Zelaya's trips Tuesday to the United Nations and the OAS.

Sheridan reported from Washington.

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