SAN JOSE — Costa Rican President Oscar Arias said in the coming days he will announce a date to resume talks to bring an end to the standoff between two men fighting for the soul of Honduras.
The chosen mediator, Arias spoke to an ample crowd of reporters Friday with a voice that has grown hoarse — though not short of his usual poetics — after two days of intense negotiations that failed to reach a hoped-for resolution.
“Yesterday (Thursday) I told you this would take time, but I will insist until the point of exhaustion that in the epic journey of humanity, the decisive step is always the first one. Our Honduran brethren here in Costa Rica have taken that step,” Arias said.
Costa Rica this week entered the eye of the political storm that has engulfed its fellow Central American nation of Honduras. Whereas on June 28, a pajama-clad, freshly ousted President Manuel Zelaya arrived unexpectedly at Costa Rica’s doorstep, this past Tuesday Arias offered an invitation to both Zelaya and his replacement, de facto President Roberto Micheletti — this time to squelch their fight through a mediation process in his living room.
But Zelaya and Micheletti arrived agreeing only on one point: Their demands are not open to negotiation. And the former friends refused to sit tête-à-tête in the same room.
Zelaya has called Micheletti a criminal "golpista" (coup leader) and, with widespread international backing, demands to be reinstated as Honduras’ elected president. Micheletti, meanwhile, has vowed to arrest Zelaya if he sets foot in Honduras, claiming the president was legally ousted for seeking to reform the constitution in a Hugo Chavez-influenced plot to extend presidential term limits. Zelaya had sought to hold a poll to ask the Honduran people whether they'd be willing to vote on allowing constitutional reform. The poll was slated for June 28, the day of his ouster.
This Thursday each man met Arias separately, spoke briefly to the press, and then left the country the same day, their positions seeming as entrenched as ever. Most reckoned the mediation to be done for. However, in their place, the rival leaders each left a four-person team to hammer out an agreement.
Meanwhile, outside the lavish Arias manor, hundreds of pro-Zelaya protesters rallied on Thursday, some holding signs calling Micheletti a “gorilla” — the kind of name-calling that has also been voiced by Chavez, an ally of Zelaya. (The leftist Venezuelan leader has now added nuance to the mockery, calling Micheletti a “gorilla in a tie.”)
Following that protest, on Friday a dozen Honduran expats showed up to voice their support for Micheletti. “The Honduran people living in Honduras and abroad are concerned about the world's opinion of the facts,” said Alicia Pinos, who relocated to San Jose three years ago from her hometown, Tegucigalpa, the Honduran capital. “I think there’s been a lot of confusion, there's been misinformation and overly hasty condemnation of Honduras … without hearing both sides of the story.”
Despite their differences, supporters of both camps expressed the desire to see a quick end to the talks, realizing Honduras’ future hangs in the balance.
But the dialogue wrapped up Friday without a resolution. Although not etched in stone, it was hoped Friday would be the deadline. Even Arias said it was not impossible to reach a breakthrough in two days, touting his experience as a negotiator. Indeed, Arias’ much-lauded role in helping to bridge nations after Central America’s 1980s military strife — which won him the 1987 Nobel Peace Prize — is today what led Micheletti, Zelaya and U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to tap him as chief mediator.
“Whether they reach a resolution in two days is irrelevant,” said Fabian Volio, a prominent San Jose lawyer who served as Costa Rica’s justice minister in 1997-98. “For me what’s important is the leaders came and designated two teams to get Honduras out of this crisis. Those teams should carry it onto the next phase,” he said.
Volio said Thursday-Friday should be regarded as an initial stage, in which “Arias was taking inventory of the issues.”
Rodrigo Carreras, a career Costa Rican diplomat, welcomed Arias’ role as mediator. He noted that the coup occurred a day before Arias took over the rotating presidency of the Central American Integration System (SICA), which set the stage for a dramatic return of Costa Rica’s Nobel laureate to the negotiation table.
Carreras said, “I just hope to God he makes them an offer they can’t refuse.”
Read more on the Honduras coup:
In Honduras, a media crackdown
Blood in Tegucigalpa
A coup without friends