REUTERS - Politically isolated Honduras braced on Saturday
for months of austerity under the weight of economic sanctions
imposed after a June coup and ousted President Manuel Zelaya
vowed actions to support his reinstatement.
With the textiles and coffee exporting economy seen
contracting this year amid a global economic crisis, the
interim government that replaced Zelaya estimates it already
has been denied about $200 million in suspended credits.
The United States has cut $16.5 million in military
assistance and warned a further $180 million in other aid is at
risk; and any repeat of a brief boycott by neighboring trade
partners would choke one of Latin America's poorest countries.
"We have to think in terms of austerity and we want to ask
the people to do the same," interim president Roberto
Micheletti said on Friday. He had asked his finance minister to
find ways to cut state spending to ride out the coming months.
The interim government, installed by Congress after widely
unpopular Zelaya was booted out of the country in his pajamas
last month by soldiers, has resisted international pressure and
says Zelaya's reinstatement is not negotiable.
It accuses Zelaya, who ran afoul of his political base and
ruling elites in the conservative country by allying himself
with Venezuela's firebrand leftist President Hugo Chavez, of
contravening the constitution and seeking to illegally extend
Little clear progress
That has left little wriggle room for talks brokered by
Costa Rica aimed at defusing one of the worst crises in Central
America since the Cold War. The talks have resulted in little
apparent progress, aside from an agreement to keep talking.
"Here we are, with irreconcilable positions, but I believe
that these positions will ease as we advance in the dialogue,"
Costa Rican President Oscar Arias, who is acting as mediator in
the Honduras crisis talks, told CNN Espanol in an interview.
Arias, who won the 1987 Nobel Peace Prize for his work in
ending Central American conflicts, said talks held so far
between the rival delegations had been frank but respectful.
Zelaya's term was due to end in January and local
commentators suspect the interim government is seeking to buy
time to make his reinstatement obsolete.
The United States, facing a major test of President Barack
Obama's promise of a fresh start in relations with Latin
America, has joined many regional governments in strongly
condemning Zelaya's ouster but has urged him against trying to
return unilaterally to avoid stoking tensions and violence.
At least one pro-Zelaya protester was killed in clashes at
Tegucigalpa's airport last Sunday when Honduran troops blocked
an attempt by Zelaya to return in a plane provided by Chavez.
Around 1,000 protesters marched to the airport on Saturday
for a ceremony to remember the clashes and victims, complete
with music and theater and attended by Zelaya's wife, Xiomara.
Zelaya flew from the Dominican Republic to Washington on
Saturday, where he met senior State Department officials who a
White House official said reaffirmed U.S. support for restoring
democratic order in Honduras and for Arias' mediation efforts.
Before flying out, Zelaya said the talks in Costa Rica had
opened a "window" for a deal, and vowed unspecified actions to
back his case for restoration both at home in Honduras and in
the international arena.
Insurrection 'a right'
"The United States cannot live with a de facto,
unconstitutional, coup regime in the Americas," Zelaya told CNN
Espanol in Santo Domingo before boarding for Washington.
"The people have the right to insurrection. It's a
constitutional right," he added, saying Honduras' constitution
stipulated that no citizen had to obey a "usurper regime."
Former Cuban President Fidel Castro, whose country backs
Zelaya, wrote in a column late on Friday he feared a wave of
copy-cat coups in Latin America unless Zelaya is reinstated.
Vowing not to back down, interim President Roberto
Micheletti is expecting a tough five or six months.
So are ordinary Hondurans.
Boiling corn over a wood fire to make tortillas to sell in
her poor neighborhood of Santa Cecilia in the gang-plagued
hills on the outskirts of Tegucigalpa, 52-year-old Fidelina
Zepeda says her costs have risen 30 percent since the ouster.
"Everything's all messed up", said Zepeda, who makes just
80 lempiras ($4) a day selling the pancakes and lives with her
extended family of 9 adults and five children in a modest brick
and tin sheet dwelling. "There's a lot of fear."
"The men go out to steal and the women stay at home waiting
for their husbands to come back," she added. Her
daughter-in-law, Claudia Sanchez, said work has become scarce
since Zelaya raised the minimum wage, angering businesses.
Business leaders who back the interim government have
agreed to freeze prices of basic goods to help stem inflation,
which exceeded 11 percent last year.
Interim Finance Minister Gabriela Nunez said this week she
expects the economy to shrink by up to 2 percent this year
after growing by 4 percent in 2008 -- a far cry from forecasts
for 2 percent to 3 percent growth predicted earlier this year.
"We have to guarantee food security given this critical
situation but if there are job losses and investment projects
are stalled (due to cuts in multilateral aid), that would be
really serious," Nunez said.
Economic sanctions would hammer a land where 70 percent of
the more than 7 million population is poor.
Central American governments imposed a 48-hour commercial
blockade shortly after the coup which cost the region some $61
million in trade, according to Honduras' business council.
However, any repeat of such a move could equally hit
countries which imposed the sanction, council officials said.