TEGUCIGALPA, Honduras (AP) — Hondurans enjoyed their first night of unfettered freedom in two weeks after the interim government lifted a curfew imposed following the ouster of President Manuel Zelaya.
While diplomatic efforts to resolve the political crisis marked time, the interim government announced Sunday that people no longer had to stay home at night as it sought to restore some normality in a country deeply divided over the coup.
Daily demonstrations for and against the forcibly exiled leader disrupted transit and prompted many businesses to stay closed.
Guillermo Quintanilla, a taxi driver, cheered the end of the curfew. “Thank God. A lot of people who work at night have not been able to,” he said.
More cars could be seen on the streets in the early hours Monday as people visited bars, while vendors and street musicians returned to work in the downtown area.
“During all these days we had problems because we did not work. Our family depends on this work. This is our life,” said Fredy Rivera, a member of the group “Mariachi the Alcones”.
The raising of the curfew won no praise from about 300 Zelaya supporters who peacefully demonstrated in a park in Tegucigalpa on Sunday.
“Mr. Micheletti lifted the curfew, but be careful because we are living in a tense climate and without true democracy,” said one protester, Esly Lizardo, 65.
Juan Barahona, a leader of Zelaya supporters, said the interim government had been pressured by bars and other businesses hurt by the curfew.
“This is to give the world the impression that there is an environment of freedom in the country,” Barahona said.
The acting administration led by Robert Micheletti said the nighttime curfew was no longer needed because it had met its goal of restoring calm and curbing crime.
After the left-leaning Zelaya was escorted out of the country by armed soldiers June 28, the new government ordered Hondurans to stay inside from 11 p.m. to 4:30 a.m. — a restriction that was briefly expanded to sunset to sunrise when Zelaya tried to return and the military kept his plane from landing by blocking the runway at the capital’s airport a week ago.
The coup has drawn international condemnation, including from the United Nations, the Organization of American States and the U.S. government, which have urged that Zelaya be restored to his post as the democratically elected president.
Costa Rican President Oscar Arias, who won the 1987 Nobel Peace Prize for his role in helping end Central America’s civil wars, is mediating between the two sides, but no talks were scheduled for Monday.
President Barack Obama’s administration hopes Arias can find a way to ease Zelaya back into the presidency while addressing the worries of Honduras’ Supreme Court, Congress and military, which say they legally removed Zelaya for violating the constitution. They accuse him of trying to extend his time in office, but Zelaya denies that.
Both Zelaya and Micheletti, the congressional president who was appointed by lawmakers to serve out the final six months of Zelaya’s presidential term, met separately with Arias last week but they refused to talk face to face. Their representatives also met with Arias and agreed to hold further talks, but no date has been set.
Zelaya’s supporters fear the interim government will drag out the negotiations so it can remain in power through November’s presidential election.
But former Honduran Foreign Minister Carlos Lopez, a Micheletti representative at the talks, said his side had not ruled out the possibility of early elections.
Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, a Zelaya ally who has been the most vociferous critic of his ouster, urged Obama to withdraw U.S. troops from an air base in Honduras to protest the new government.
Chavez accused Obama of “wiggling” around the political crisis and warned that if the U.S. leader did not take action, “he will end up worse than Bush,” a reference to former President George W. Bush, who was a frequent target of Chavez’s criticism.
The United States has maintained the Enrique Soto Cano air base in Honduras for 23 years. The base houses about 350 U.S. soldiers.
Bolivian President Evo Morales, an ally of both Chavez and Zelaya, contended Sunday that the coup was a warning from the United States to stop the growth of governments opposed to U.S. “imperialism.”
“This threat doesn’t scare us; on the contrary, with more force, we will be stronger,” he said.