TEGUCIGALPA, Honduras – Police and soldiers clashed with thousands of protesters outside Honduras’ national palace Monday, leaving at least 15 people injured, as world leaders from Barack Obama to Hugo Chavez demanded the return of a president ousted in a military coup.
Leftist leaders pulled their ambassadors from Honduras and Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega said El Salvador, Nicaragua and Guatemala would cut trade with neighbouring Honduras for at least 48 hours. Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez called for Hondurans to rise up against those who toppled his ally, Manuel Zelaya.
“We’re ready to support the rebellion of the Honduran people,” Chavez said, though he did not say what kind of support he was offering.
Protests outside the presidential palace grew from hundreds to thousands, and soldiers and police advanced behind riot shields, using tear gas to scatter the protesters. The demonstrators, many of them choking on the gas, hurled rocks and bottles as they retreated. At least 38 protesters were detained, according to human rights prosecutor Sandra Ponce.
Red Cross paramedic Cristian Vallejo said he had transported 10 protesters to hospitals, most of them with injuries from rubber bullets. An Associated Press photographer in another area saw protesters carrying away another five injured people. It was not clear how they were hurt.
In Washington, Obama said the United States will “stand on the side of democracy” and work with other nations and international groups to resolve the matter peacefully.
“We believe that the coup was not legal and that President Zelaya remains the democratically elected president there,” Obama said.
“It would be a terrible precedent if we start moving backwards into the era in which we are seeing military coups as a means of political transition rather than democratic elections,” he added. “The region has made enormous progress over the last 20 years in establishing democratic traditions. … We don’t want to go back to a dark past.”
The Organization of American States called an emergency meeting for Tuesday to consider suspending Honduras under an agreement meant to prevent the sort of coups that for generations made Latin America a tragic spawning ground of military dictatorships.
The new government, however, was defiant. Roberto Micheletti, named by Congress to serve out the final seven months of Zelaya’s term, vowed to ignore foreign pressure.
“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 told HRN radio.
He insisted Zelaya’s ouster was legal and accused the former president himself of violating the constitution by sponsoring a referendum that was outlawed by the Supreme Court. Many saw the foiled vote as a step toward eliminating barriers to his re-election, as other Latin American leaders have done in recent years.
Despite the protests at the palace, daily life appeared normal in most of the capital, with nearly all businesses open. Some expressed relief at the departure of Zelaya, who alienated the courts, Congress, the military and even his own party in his tumultuous three years in power.
“A coup d’etat is undemocratic and you never want to support it, but in the case of this guy and his government, maybe so,” said Roberto Cruz, a 61-year-old metalworker.
But Zelaya retains the loyalty of many of Honduras’ poor, for having raised the minimum wage and blaming the country’s problems on the rich – despite the considerable wealth he enjoys as a successful rancher.
Farmworker Jesus Almendares, 30, said he was skipping work to protest the coup.
“It’s a tremendous shame, yet another proof that the armed forces control the country – they and the businessmen,” he said.
Zelaya was arrested in his pyjamas Sunday morning by soldiers who stormed his residence and flew him into exile. A day later, back in suit and tie, he sat beside Chavez and other allies at a Nicaragua meeting of the nine-nation ALBA alliance, which agreed to pull its ambassadors from Honduras and reject the replacement government’s envoys.
While Obama said Zelaya is still president, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton hedged on that point at an earlier news conference, suggesting that both the ousted president and his foes should make compromises.
Asked if the administration would insist that Zelaya be restored to power, she said: “We haven’t laid out any demands that we’re insisting on, because we’re working with others on behalf of our ultimate objectives.”
Mexico’s government, one of the most conservative in Latin America, joined leftists in denouncing the coup and offered protection to Zelaya’s exiled foreign minister.
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.”
“We in Latin America can no longer accept someone trying to resolve his problem through the means of a coup,” Silva said.
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.
Honduras had not seen a coup since 1978, when one military government overthrew another.
Contributing to this report were Associated Press writers Marcos Aleman in Tegucigalpa, Ian James in Caracas, Venezuela, and Ben Feller in Washington.