In a bold move, the democratically elected president of Honduras Manuel Zelaya—ousted in a military coup in June—has returned to Tegucigalpa, entering the country in secret, traveling overland with a small group of advisers. He is currently in the Brazilian embassy, and crowds of supporters are gathering around the building to demand the restoration of Honduran democracy. That Zelaya traveled at night, crossing "rivers and mountains," as he put it, all the while managing to evade Honduran intelligence—largely funded, trained, and provisioned by the US military—is quite a feat, and also a hint that Zelaya still commands the loyalty of some sectors of the military and police.
It's unclear what will happen next. Roberto Micheletti, the president installed by the coup, has imposed a 15-hour curfew—which will undoubtedly be extended—reminding reporters that there is a standing order for Zelaya's arrest. Yet Zelaya's return is sure to galvanize those opposed to the coup, whose protests over the last three months have prevented Micheletti from consolidating power.
It has become increasingly clear that Micheletti's strategy of trying to hold out until scheduled presidential elections in late November was not working, with a movement within Honduras for a boycott of the vote gaining steam and most Latin American nations saying they would not recognize its results. Since the prospect of holding elections with Zelaya in prison—or perhaps still rallying supporters from his Brazilian refuge—would only underscore the illegitimacy of the coup government, it seems that it will have no choice but to negotiate directly with Zelaya his return to power.
That Zelaya chose the Brazilian embassy as where to make his stand—undoubtedly with the approval of the Brazilian president, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva despite denials, is also a strategic masterstroke, for it shifts the away from Venezuela and Hugo Chávez—as the Honduran plotters have tried to frame the crisis—and toward Lula, everyone’s favorite democratic leftist. Brazil's Foreign Minister, Celso Amorim, responded to the coup government’s demand that Brazil turn Zelaya over by saying that any threat to the legitimate president or the embassy would be a grave breach of international law.
Those backing the coup perhaps sense that their game is up; a communiqué issued by the National Front Against the Coup reports that some businessmen and military leaders who supported Zelaya's overthrow are leaving the country. Meanwhile, back in the United States, The Washington Post has decided to actually forgo reporting on the story, instead allowing Michelletti space on its op-ed page—in a piece probably written by one of the coup's U.S. flaks, like Otto Reich or Lanny Davis—to make one last pitch for the November election, which he promises will be a "constitutional expression of self-determination and a demonstration of national sovereignty." Reich or Davis—er, I mean Micheletti—forgot to mention that the coup government, in effort to ensure high turnout, has threatened to jail anyone who doesn't vote in that election and has revoked the citizenship of the environmentalist Catholic priest José Andrés Tamayo, born in El Salvador but living in Honduras since 1983, for calling for a boycott of those elections.
If this is a moment of truth for Honduras, it is also one for Washington. Since his ouster, Washington has sent mixed messages, refusing to condemn the coup with the same force as the Organization of American States and the European Union, and refusing to apply as much pressure as it could—freezing the foreign bank accounts, for instance, of those behind the overthrow—that could force the restoration of democracy.
But Zelaya's dramatic return takes place on the eve of this Wednesday's meeting of the United Nations General Assembly, where he had been scheduled to speak as Honduras' legitimate leader. That the UN will probably issue a statement demanding his restoration on the eve of U.S. president Barack Obama's inaugural address to that body will place pressure on the United States to take a clear stand.
Zelaya's return, says Mark Weisbrot of the Center for Economic and Policy Research, "will finally force the US to choose sides." With the OAS convening an emergency meeting in which it will undoubtedly voice strong support for Zelaya, it is, as Weisbrot notes, "pretty clear that the rest of the world will stand with Zelaya, for his return to the presidency, and for the restoration of democracy in Honduras."
And sure enough, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, acknowledging that Zelaya's gambit has indeed changed the terms of the debate, issued a statement saying that the time was "opportune" to restore Zelaya to the presidency. Better late than never.
Greg Grandin teaches history at New York University and is a member of the NACLA Editorial Committee.