A Deal Must Be Reached in Honduras

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The negotiations in Honduras may have reached a stalemate, but beyond the diplomatic conference rooms, there is an emerging public consensus about how to resolve the crisis sparked by a coup that ousted President Manuel "Mel" Zelaya. A recent national survey suggests the basis of a settlement that would meet with the approval of most Hondurans and allow the country back into the good graces of the international community.

Although Honduras is often portrayed as severely divided and torn between Zelaya and his opponents, there is in fact agreement on some vital points, according to the survey conducted this month by Greenberg Quinlan Rosner:

* Most Hondurans disapprove of the forcible removal of Zelaya from office. Though wary of the president's attempt to hold a Constitutional referendum in defiance of a Supreme Court ruling, the vast majority of Hondurans believe the dispute should have been resolved via legal channels within the country, not by sending Zelaya into exile.

* Hondurans oppose Roberto Micheletti, the former head of Congress who assumed the presidency following Zelaya's ouster. Only about one-quarter think Micheletti should remain in office and finish Zelaya's term, which ends in January.

* A majority of the Honduran public supports holding a convention to reform the Constitution. The great irony of the current crisis is that it was spawned by Zelaya's effort to hold such a convention. His means may have been controversial, but his goal is one shared by most Hondurans.

* Hondurans overwhelmingly want the elections scheduled for next month to take place as scheduled. The problem is that a considerable share (42 percent) would deem them illegitimate if held under the Micheletti government.

These results suggest the potential for an agreement that would satisfy various constituencies. The following elements could form the heart of a widely accepted settlement.

First, Micheletti should step down as president. There is no viable resolution that involves the unpopular de facto president staying in office.

Second, both sides should agree to hold a Constitutional Convention. Zelaya's goal of reforming the Constitution would be vindicated; and Micheletti could proclaim the issue was not the convention itself, but the way in which Zelaya tried to achieve one. A bipartisan agreement, consistent with Honduran law, would allow everyone to save face.

Third, next month's elections should be held as scheduled. Honduras needs a legitimately elected leader - either Elvin Santos, Zelaya's former vice president, or opposition leader Porfirio "Pepe" Lobo - to take office in January. With Micheletti out of office, the many Zelaya supporters who currently say they will not vote will be encouraged to participate, boosting the credibility of the result.

The final piece of the agreement is of course the most difficult - who serves as president until the new president takes office. Zelaya insists the presidency is rightfully his and that he should be restored to office to complete the final three months of his term. Zelaya's opponents believe that once he leaves the embassy of Brazil, where he has been holed up since a daring, surreptitious return to Honduras last month, he should be tried for his alleged misdeeds.

On these questions, Hondurans are in fact divided. There is no consensus on who should become president following Micheletti's resignation or whether Zelaya should be tried in court. A compromise, however, could give both sides what they want. Zelaya could be restored as president and the legal process against him allowed to proceed.

Zelaya, as well as those involved in the coup, could also be granted amnesty, but this would probably best be done after the legal processes have run their course in order to satisfy those who want to assign formal culpability for the crisis. Alternatively, a truth commission could be created to establish an independent, historical record of the events of the past few months.

To be sure, it will be difficult for Zelaya, Micheletti and other prominent Hondurans involved in the negotiations to put aside their personal and political objectives and reach necessary compromises. But average Hondurans have as much at stake as anyone in the outcome. With Honduras isolated from much of the rest of the world, vital foreign aid suspended, and the political class consumed with the immediate political crisis, the needs of the people in one of the hemisphere's poorest countries are not being met. Honduran citizens may not have a voice at the negotiating table, but their voices should be heeded. The contours of an agreement are at hand.

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