Monday, June 29, 2009

Military Coup in Honduras

Protesters Confront Soldiers After Coup in Honduras

Published: June 29, 2009
TEGUCIGALPA, Honduras — One day after the country’s president, Manuel Zelaya, was abruptly awakened, ousted and deported by the army here, hundreds of protesters massed at the presidential offices in an increasingly tense face-off with hundreds of camouflage-clad soldiers carrying riot shields and automatic weapons.

Oswaldo Rivas/Reuters
Soldiers guard the presidential house in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, Monday.
Honduran President Is Ousted in Coup (June 29, 2009)

The protesters, many wearing masks and carrying wooden or metal sticks, yelled taunts at the soldiers across the fences ringing the compound and braced for the army to try to dispel them. “We’re defending our president,” said one protester, Umberto Guebara, who appeared to be in his 30s. “I’m not afraid. I’d give my life for my country.”

Leaders across the hemisphere joined in condemning the coup, the first in Central America since the end of the cold war. Mr. Zelaya, who touched down Sunday in Costa Rica, still in his pajamas, insisted, “I am the president of Honduras.”

The Honduran Congress late Sunday officially voted Mr. Zelaya out of office, replacing him with the president of Congress, Roberto Micheletti. As of Monday morning, however, Mr. Micheletti had not yet addressed the public

Though political tensions had been building within the government for weeks, the final move to oust the president came unexpectedly, and confusion reigned among many Hondurans about what exactly had happened overnight. People crowded around newspaper stands and spoke among themselves about whether the power shift was temporary, what it meant and how the underlying conflict would be resolved.

“I’m not sure who our president is anymore,” said an elderly man in the border town of El Amatillo.

Mr. Zelaya, 56, a rancher who often appears in cowboy boots and a western hat, has the support of labor unions and the poor. But he is a leftist aligned with President Hugo Chávez of Venezuela, and the middle class and the wealthy business community fear he wants to introduce Mr. Chávez’s brand of socialist populism into the country, one of Latin America’s poorest. His term was to end in January.

The Honduran military offered no public explanation for its actions, but the country’s Supreme Court issued a statement saying that the military had acted to defend the law against “those who had publicly spoken out and acted against the Constitution’s provisions.”

Mr. Zelaya ’s ouster capped a showdown with other branches of government over his efforts to lift presidential term limits in a referendum that was to have taken place Sunday. Critics said the vote was part of an illegal attempt by Mr. Zelaya to defy the Constitution’s limit of a single four-year term for the president.

Early this month, the Supreme Court declared the referendum unconstitutional, and Congress followed suit last week. In the last few weeks, supporters and opponents of the president have held competing demonstrations. The prosecutor’s office and the electoral tribunal issued orders for the referendum ballots to be confiscated, but on Thursday, Mr. Zelaya led a group of protesters to an air force base and seized the ballots.

When the army refused to help organize the vote, he fired the armed forces commander, Gen. Romeo Vásquez. The Supreme Court ruled the firing illegal and reinstated General Vásquez.

As the crisis escalated, American officials began in the last few days to talk with Honduran government and military officials in an effort to head off a possible coup. A senior administration official, who briefed reporters on the condition of anonymity, said the military broke off those discussions on Sunday.

The two nations have long had a close military relationship, with an American military task force stationed at a Honduran air base about 50 miles northwest of Tegucigalpa. The unit focuses on training Honduran military forces, counternarcotics operations, search and rescue, and disaster relief missions throughout Central America.

In Costa Rica, Mr. Zelaya told the Venezuelan channel Telesur that he had been awoken by gunshots. Masked soldiers took his cellphone, shoved him into a van and took him to an air force base, where he was put on a plane. He said he did not know that he was being taken to Costa Rica until he landed at the airport in San José.

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