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The plot thickens in Honduras

The plot thickens in Honduras

When Honduras’s minister of communications, Enrique Reina, learned that his president had been ousted in a coup, he immediately tried to get to the state television station to send the people a message. He never made it — but he did make it to the United States, where I spoke to him tonight, and where he has just been nominated to be ambassador of Honduras here in Washington. His predecessor’s visa was revoked by the State Department today, due to his having supported the coup.

It’s the latest intrigue in a story that is becoming increasingly complicated and increasingly dangerous — both for Honduras and for the region. Reina expressed concern that tensions were rising back at home. His family, for example is still there. And being members of the old government, their water and electricity has been cut. The press has been silenced and a curfew has been imposed. The de facto government is digging its heels in, refusing to allow ousted President Manuel Zelaya back into the country.

Both sides are escalating the situation. Zelaya is parked on the border between Honduras and Nicaragua, rallying support. He’s not ready to cross back into the country, Reina said, because he is trying first to contact supporters. For now, Reina says that Zelaya is waiting for his family to join him in Nicaragua. It’s a détente that has everyone wondering how long the tense calm can really last. And both sides seem way too nonchalant about what might happen if things turn sour.

From Reina’s public comments tonight, where he spoke at a gathering of more than a dozen ambassadors, and a handful more diplomats, scholars, and journalists, it looks like both sides are prepared to stand firm for now. Reina said the de facto regime was trying to pull any cards they could, for example portraying themselves as opponents of some of the leftist governments in Latin America that have been met with U.S. opposition in recent years (read: Hugo Chávez, first and foremost). It’s a "Cold War" type of conspiracy theory, he said. "We might expect that this military regime, in their despair, and as a product of their lack of international recognition, might try to link President Zelaya to al Qaeda or other terrorist groups, just to justify their actions."

So who might be able to break the deadlock? Many attending tonight’s gathering seemed to think the answer is simple: the United States — and Congress in particular. There, the debate seems to be split between those who condemned the coup and those who worry that Zelaya’s government had taken a dangerous turn to the left — warranting the military’s actions. Both sides of the Honduran political system are working hard to win that debate: the de facto government through three Washington lobby groups, for example, and Zelaya through meetings with Reps. Barbara Lee and Eliot Engel and Senator Richard Lugar. Zelaya wants targeted sanctions, threats to remove or reduce U.S. aid to the country, and diplomatic intervention: "We thank and forsee more sanctions, like the ones taken by the World Bank, the IMF, the EU and MERCOSUR, the United States," Reina said in his remarks.

It has the makings of a political mess. But let’s not forget the stakes: Honduras is a country of people — people whose lives will be lived under one of several governments, all of which are likely to be dysfunctional in providing services until the business of who’s in charge gets sorted. And that’s assuming that tensions that are rising on ground fall before they rise much further.