TEGUCIGALPA, Honduras – Honduras’ newly appointed leader vowed Monday to resist pressure from across the Americas to reinstate the president ousted in a military coup, as protesters burned tires outside the occupied presidential palace.
Leaders from Hugo Chavez to Barack Obama called for the reinstatement of Manuel Zelaya, who was arrested in his pyjamas Sunday morning by soldiers who stormed his residence and flew him into exile. Eight leftist countries pulled their ambassadors from Honduras.
Roberto Micheletti, appointed president by Congress, insisted that Zelaya was legally removed by the courts and Congress for violating Honduras’ constitution – allegedly to extend his rule.
Zelaya’s ouster was Central America’s first coup in at least 16 years, a blow from the barracks that reminded many of the military dictatorships the region has tried to bury in its past.
Zelaya attended a meeting in Nicaragua of a bloc of nine nations, which agreed to remove their ambassadors from Honduras until Zelaya is restored and to reject diplomats from the replacement government.
Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, one of the leaders in Nicaragua, vowed earlier to “overthrow” Micheletti, who shrugged aside the threat, telling HRN radio on Monday: “Nobody scares us.”
Micheletti said he was sure that “80 to 90 per cent of the Honduran population is happy with what happened.”
True or false, the rest of the world certainly was not, and the president of the U.N. General Assembly invited Zelaya to address the world gathering.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said the U.S. was working for “full restoration of democratic order in Honduras.”
U.S. diplomats said they are trying to ensure Zelaya’s safety and get him restored as president. Clinton signalled, however, the U.S. wasn’t siding fully with Zelaya, who had rejected several Supreme Court decisions before being overthrown.
“There are certain concerns about orders by independent judicial officials that should be followed,” Clinton said. “But the extraordinary step taken of arresting and expelling the president is our first and foremost concern right now.”
She indicated the State Department has not formally declared Zelaya’s ouster to be a coup because U.S. laws would then require cutting aid to the impoverished country.
“We’re considering the implications of it,” she said.
The Organization of American States called for Zelaya’s return and summoned a meeting of foreign ministers on Tuesday that could make Honduras the first nation suspended from the organization under a 2001 charter banning “the unconstitutional interruption of democratic order.”
Chavez cast the dispute as an attempt by a wealthy elite to suppress the poor.
“If the oligarchies break the rules of the game as they have done, the people have the right to resistance and combat, and we are with them,” Chavez said.
Conservative Latin American governments also denounced the takeover. Mexico announced it was giving diplomatic protection to Zelaya’s foreign minister, Patricia Rodas, who fled to Mexico City.
Zelaya was arrested and flown to Costa Rica hours before a rogue referendum he had called in defiance of Honduras’ courts and Congress. His opponents claimed the vote was an attempt to remain in power after his term ends Jan. 27.
Micheletti said he would serve only until the end of Zelaya’s term.
“We respect everybody and we ask only that they respect us and leave us in peace because the country is headed toward free and transparent general elections in November,” Micheletti said.
His designated foreign minister, Enrique Ortez Colindres, told HRN that no coup had occurred. Ortez said the military had merely upheld the constitution “that the earlier government wanted to reform without any basis and in an illegal way.”
Troops with riot shields surrounded the presidential palace and armoured military vehicles were parked in front, but soldiers made no attempt to clear away about 200 pro-Zelaya protesters who were burning tires and other debris, as well as blocking streets with downed trees and billboards.
“We want our elected and democratic president, not this other one that the world doesn’t recognize,” said Marco Gallo, a 50-year-old retired teacher.
Most people in the capital went about business as normal. Nearly all businesses were open and traffic flowed normally aside from a small part of downtown Tegucigalpa.
The Honduran constitution limits presidents to a single four-year term and forbids any modification of that limit. Zelaya’s opponents feared the referendum was part of an attempt to try to run again, just as other Latin American leaders have removed constitutional clauses designed to prevent strongmen from extending their rule.
The president of Latin America’s largest nation, Brazil’s Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, said on his weekly radio program that his country will not recognize any Honduran government that doesn’t have Zelaya as president “because he was directly elected by the vote, complying with the rules of democracy.”
He also said Honduras risks isolation from the rest of the hemisphere.
“We in Latin America can no longer accept someone trying to resolve his problem through the means of a coup,” Silva said.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and the Rio Group, which comprises 23 nations from the hemisphere, also condemned the coup and called for Zelaya’s return.
Zelaya said soldiers seized him in his pyjamas at gunpoint in what he called a “kidnapping.”
“I want to return to my country. I am president of Honduras,” he said in Costa Rica before travelling to Managua on one of Chavez’s planes for regional meetings of Central American leaders and Chavez’s leftist alliance of nations, known as ALBA.
Coups were common in Central America until the 1980s, but Sunday’s ouster was the first military power grab in Latin America since a brief, failed 2002 coup against Chavez.
It was the first military ouster of a Central American president since 1993, when Guatemalan military officials refused to accept President Jorge Serrano’s attempt to seize absolute power and removed him.