TEGUCIGALPA, Honduras – Former Honduran President Manuel Zelaya, who was deposed from office during the last seven months of his term, left Honduras on Wednesday after 129 days holed up in the Brazilian Embassy here, and Porfirio Lobo was inaugurated as the country’s new president while vowing to help the country reconcile divisions cut open by last June’s coup.
Lobo named opposition leaders to his cabinet and asked countries that don’t recognize his government to restore ties. Though Lobo has the backing of the United States, most Latin countries, including Brazil and Argentina, have said they don’t recognize Lobo because he was elected in a vote conducted by the coup-installed government of former de facto President Roberto Micheletti.
Nineteen countries sent diplomatic representatives to the inauguration ceremony, although the only heads of state to attend were Presidents Ricardo Martinelli of Panama and Leonel Fernández of the Dominican Republic, according to Lobo spokesman Bladimir Bacca.
In his first act as president, Lobo – a cattle rancher, former lawmaker and member of the conservative National Party – signed a decree granting amnesty from prosecution to persons involved in the coup for political or related crimes.
Lobo and Dominican President Fernández then escorted Zelaya in a heavily protected motorcade to the airport, where he boarded a private flight to Santo Domingo, in the Dominican Republic.
As he boarded the plane, Zelaya laconically told Radio Globo, “We’ll be back.”
On their march to the airport to bid farewell to their deposed leader, thousands of Zelaya supporters waved flags featuring the ousted president, wearing his signature Stetson hat, and wielded signs stating their refusal to recognize Lobo’s government.
Hundreds of soldiers surrounded them. “We’ll just wait for him to return,” said Belinda Orellana, a Zelaya supporter who wore a T-shirt featuring the mustachioed exile.
Soldiers roused Zelaya at gunpoint last June and sent him to Costa Rica on an airplane in his pajamas. He sneaked back from exile in September and holed up in the Brazilian Embassy in the capital city, which he used as a base to pressure for his return.
Supreme Court President Jorge Rivera found the country’s six top military commanders not guilty of abuse of authority for sending Zelaya into exile, court spokesman Danilo Izaguirre said on Tuesday. The ruling held there was no malice involved in the ouster, which the generals ordered to avoid the possibility of violent protests if the president were jailed.
“We completed a mission to try to protect the Honduran people at all times. Only God knows what was in our hearts,” Gen. Romeo Vásquez, head of the country’s armed forces, told Radio America after the ruling.
The amnesty, approved by the Honduran Congress, protects Zelaya from charges including treason and abuse of authority for having tried to change the 1982 constitution before his ouster, legislator Marvin Ponce said. However, the amnesty does not clear Zelaya of pending fraud charges.
“We just came out of the worst political crisis in the history of our democracy, and we’ve been able to avoid all the major threats to our nation,” Lobo, 62, said during his inaugural address.
The top U.S. diplomat to Latin America, Arturo Valenzuela, said Lobo has moved toward implementing a United States-brokered-accord aimed at ending the country’s crisis by appointing opposition members to his cabinet. As the final requisite for completion of the accord, Lobo should form a truth commission to investigate the coup before U.S. aid can be restored and relations normalized, Valenzuela said from the U.S. Embassy here. Zelaya refused to submit nominations for Lobo’s reconciliation cabinet.
According to a Jan. 20 report by human rights investigators of the Organization of American States, the former Micheletti government and the Supreme Court have denied human rights abuses after the coup, which, the report claimed, included deaths, mass arrests of protesters and cruel treatment of detainees.