TEGUCIGALPA, Honduras — They can't both be right. Ousted Honduran President Manuel Zelaya says a deal that could have returned him to power is defunct. Roberto Micheletti, who took power after a coup, says the same deal has been successfully accomplished.
The Obama Administration, caught in the middle of a power struggle in this tiny Central American nation, was urgently pressing Friday for the survival of an accord it hailed as "a historic victory for democracy."
"No, it's not dead, but maybe sleeping for the time being," said State Department press spokesman Fred Lash.
A senior State Department official said the stakes are high and time is short.
"If the parties let this fall apart you're going to see problems with international recognition of the elections," the official said, insisting on speaking anonymously due to the sensitive nature of the discussions.
Micheletti's backers hope a clean vote for a new president will force the world to accept that politics has returned to normal in Honduras. Zelaya's backers accuse the coup-installed officials of trying to delay his return to power – at least until the election.
Honduras, one of the poorest nations in the hemisphere, plunged into political crisis four months ago when Zelaya was forced out of bed in his pajamas and flown to Costa Rica. He sneaked back into his country on September 21, and has been holed up in the Brazilian Embassy ever since under threat of arrest.
With a presidential election just three weeks away, the U.S. and the rest of the international community – which cut off most foreign aid and diplomatic ties after the coup – are urgently seeking a resolution.
But the key players seemed less inclined to find common ground.
"The negotiations have come to an end," Zelaya, who huddled with supporters, told The Associated Press. "We have declared that there is no possibility of recognizing that accord."
Last week's accord called for a national unity government with backers of both sides to oversee elections. Congress would decide whether to reinstate Zelaya – and the ousted leader had assumed that would happen.
Micheletti negotiator Vilma Morales said the interim government does not consider the accord broken and plans to continue implementing it.
"Each of the negotiators signed each one of the points that were agreed and it is our responsibility to fulfill what was agreed," Morales said. "We have to continue complying with it."
Meanwhile, Hondurans went back to work as normal and streets were busy with shoppers and traffic, but many were uneasy about what might come next after Friday's setback on the accord.
Maria del Carmen Altamirano, a 60-year-old housewife, said she is afraid the country might spiral into violence.
"I can't sleep, thinking that there is a war coming, that we'll have a civil war," Altamirano said. "Neither one of them wants to give in. They are both arrogant and are not thinking about the people's suffering because all they care about is power and money. What I want is to leave this country, but I'm too poor and don't have the money."
Javier Padilla, a 52-year-old insurance salesman, said he doesn't support Zelaya but believes his return would bring peace back to the Central American country.
"The best way to end this problem is for Zelaya to return," Padilla said.
Jacinto Martinez, a construction worker, said the crisis is draining.
"I am tired of so many things happening in Honduras and I just want things to go back to the way they were," he said. "People want a quick solution to this problem."
But there has been nothing quick in Honduras since Zelaya was kicked out in June. The military ousted Zelaya after the Supreme Court ruled his attempts to amend the Honduran constitution were illegal. Opponents claimed Zelaya was trying extend his time in office by lifting the ban on presidential re-election. Zelaya denied that was his goal.
Just a week after the U.S. was enjoying wide praise for brokering the difficult agreement, the State Department was fighting to prevent a potentially embarrassing failure.
But with both sides continuing to demand fundamentally different resolutions, concerns are now shifting toward what might happen at the end of the month, when voters go to the polls.
"The choices are not palatable here for the U.S, but they need to find a way to be able to legitimize the elections," said Eric Farnsworth, vice president of the Council of the Americas.
"Then Honduras degenerates into perpetual political crisis, and that's the last thing Honduras needs," said Farnsworth.
Ray Walser, an analyst for The Heritage Foundation, a conservative Washington-based think tank, said the international community should focus on what is best for the Honduran people.
"Later this month Hondurans are going through with elections and they're going to choose a new leader," said Walser, a retired Latin America foreign service officer. "The question is, are we going to punish the Honduran people for what Mr. Micheletti and Mr. Zelaya are doing?"
Associated Press writers Martha Mendoza reported this story from Mexico City and Olga R. Rodriguez from Tegucigalpa.