Brazil’s risky role in Honduras crisis

BRASILIA (Reuters) – Brazil may not have invited  ousted Honduran president Manuel Zelaya to take refuge in its  embassy there, but opening its door to him is a high-risk bet  that could harm its regional leadership ambitions.

President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva’s decision to grant  Zelaya refuge at short notice at its embassy in Tegucigalpa has  thrust Brazil to the centre of the crisis, giving it a chance  to take a high-profile role in efforts to end the stand-off.

The risk, though, is that Brazil gets drawn into a messy  power dispute in the Central American nation that is far  outside its South American sphere of influence.

A deal between Zelaya and the interim governmnent that  deposed him seems distant after months of fruitless  negotiations and violence appears to be rising. One person has  died in a clash between police and Zelaya supporters.

“The government had time to evaluate the situation and it  took a huge gamble,” said Rubens Barbosa, Brazil’s former  ambassador to Washington. “We bought into a fight that isn’t  ours and now the risk is getting caught in the cross-fire —  it’s a hot potato,” said Barbosa.

There are no indications that Brazil helped Zelaya to  return to Honduras on Monday three months after he was toppled  in a coup. Most analysts agree it would be self-defeating for  Brazil, which had been a distant supporter of Zelaya, to wade  into a deadlocked international crisis.

Lula used the platform of the UN General Assembly in New  York on Wednesday to call for Zelaya to be reinstated  “immediately,” a day after Brazil requested an urgent meeting  of the Security Council on the Honduran crisis.

Brazil may have sensed an opportunity to take the lead in a  crisis in which the United States has been seen by many  governments in the region as not having taken a tough enough stance to reverse the coup.

“When they let Zelaya in, they were thinking this is our  chance to step forward, to make Brazil a regional peacemaker,”  said Riordan Roett, director of the Latin America program at  Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in  Washington.

That bet could pay off, if renewed international attention  broke the stalemate, said Roett.

chances slim

“If they get elections off the ground with both Zelaya and  (Roberto) Micheletti stepping back, Brazil could come out of  this looking good,” Roett added, referring to the de facto  Honduran leader.

Brazil has for years sought to become a diplomatic  heavyweight in Latin America and has long campaigned for a  permanent seat on the UN Security Council. But it has little  influence in Central America and may not have the clout needed  to revive a negotiated settlement.

“The United States, Mexico, even Cuba have more influence  in Honduras than we do,” said Marcos Azambuja, vice-president  of the Rio de Janeiro-based foreign policy think tank Cebri.

“If a Nobel prize winner like Arias couldn’t advance talks,  our possibilities to act are very modest,” he added, referring  to the failed mediation by Costa Rican president Oscar Arias.

Zelaya appears determined to return to the presidency and  Brazil risks getting drawn into a domestic power dispute.

“Zelaya is holding a (campaign) rally in the Brazilian  Embassy,” said Brazilian opposition senator Heraclito Fortes,  referring to the frequent radio and television interviews  Zelaya has been giving from within the embassy.

Cebri’s Azambuja agreed, saying: “We are hostage to  Zelaya’s electoral ambitions.” Wary of potential unrest, Lula has urged Zelaya not to  provoke the de facto Honduran government and to discourage  violence by his supporters. Micheletti has said he had no  intention of confronting Brazil or entering its embassy.

Still, the prospect of a drawn-out standoff and daily TV  images of a beleaguered embassy don’t bode well for a political  victory by Brazil.

“This will likely drag on and could become violent. It’s  hard to see a win situation,” said Barbosa.

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