MEXICO CITY – Soldiers stormed the presidential palace in the Honduran capital of Tegucigalpa at dawn Sunday and forced President Manuel Zelaya into exile in Costa Rica – a military-led ouster that thrusts the impoverished banana-growing country onto the international stage and revives painful memories of coup-fueled turmoil in Latin America.
The coup was condemned throughout the Americas. President Barack Obama joined other regional leaders in calling for a peaceful return of Zelaya to office.
But the Honduran National Congress defiantly announced that Zelaya was out, and its members named congressional leader Roberto Micheletti the new president on Sunday afternoon.
The Honduran Supreme Court also supported the removal of Zelaya, saying that the military was acting in defense of democracy.
Zelaya, a leftist ally of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, told reporters that he was woken by shouts and gunshots early Sunday. While still in his pajamas, the Honduran president said, soldiers took him to a waiting air force plane that flew him to Costa Rica. The coup was mostly peaceful, though tanks and soldiers occupied streets in Tegucigalpa.
Senior administration officials in Washington said Sunday that U.S. diplomats had been negotiating behind the scenes to stop the coup.
“We have worked hard to avoid this,” a senior administration official said in a background briefing with reporters. “This has been brewing a long time.”
U.S. officials said the Honduran military, which has traditionally maintained close ties with the United States, had broken off contact with U.S. diplomats after the coup. Obama is due to meet Alvaro Uribe, president of regional power Colombia, at the White House today, and Honduras is now likely to be high on the agenda.
Military coups in Latin America have become rare, but Argentine President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner said Sunday’s events in Honduras reminded her of “the worst years in Latin America’s history,” when they were common and often led to cycles of violence. The coup draws the Obama administration into its first real diplomatic test in the hemisphere, in a country where people have complex feelings toward the United States. The Reagan administration’s contra war against the Sandinista revolution in Nicaragua was fought from Honduras, one of the poorest countries in Latin America, whose fragile economy is supported by remittances from Hondurans living in the United States.
Zelaya was removed from office as Hondurans prepared to vote Sunday in a nonbinding referendum asking them if they would support a constituent assembly to rewrite the constitution. Zelaya’s critics said he wanted to use the referendum to open the door to re-election after his term ends in January 2010, an assertion that Zelaya denied.
The referendum – which U.S. officials described as more of a “survey” than a true vote – was condemned by broad swaths of Honduran society as an obvious power grab. The Honduran Supreme Court called the referendum unconstitutional, and leaders of Zelaya’s own party denounced the measure.
The scene in Tegucigalpa on Sunday was confused, and it was unclear what would happen next. As Zelaya condemned his forced ouster at a news conference in Costa Rica, the Honduran Congress voted to accept what it claimed was Zelaya’s resignation letter.
Zelaya denied that he had signed such a letter. A senior U.S. official said that “it is hard to take that letter seriously given how President Zelaya was removed from office.”
Zelaya insisted he was still the legal leader. He said he would attend a meeting of regional leaders today in Nicaragua to seek a return to office. But in taking the oath of office as president, Micheletti characterized Zelaya’s removal as a patriotic, democratic measure designed to restore democracy.
“I did not get here through the ignominy of a coup d’etat,” Micheletti told lawmakers after taking the oath of office. “I give thanks to God for this beautiful opportunity.”
In Venezuela, Chavez, speaking on national television, called the overthrow the work of “the bourgeoisie and the extreme right.” He said Venezuela would “guarantee” that its close ally Zelaya would be returned to power.
“This is a coup against all of us,” Chavez said. “We have to do everything to stop it.”
Late Sunday, Chavez put his troops on alert and said he would respond militarily if his envoy to Honduras was harmed. Chavez said Honduran soldiers took away the Cuban ambassador and left the Venezuelan ambassador on the side of a road after beating him during the army’s coup. A senior U.S. official sought to play down the potential for military action by outsiders, saying “We don’t believe Venezuela is planning on sending any troops.”
The United States maintains troops at the Soto Cano Air Base in Honduras to assist the Honduran military and police with anti-drug interdiction and other missions.
“This gives Chavez the high moral ground to go on with his narrative about right-wing oligarchs who don’t tolerate leftist governments,” said Michael Shifter, an analyst at the Inter-American Dialogue in Washington. “There’s nobody better at seizing these moments than Chavez.”
In Washington, Obama said he was “deeply concerned by reports coming out of Honduras regarding the detention and expulsion of President Mel Zelaya.”
A senior administration official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said the United States would work alongside the Organization of American States to restore Zelaya, and the official predicted that the organizers of the coup would find themselves isolated and facing stiff pressure to allow Zelaya’s return.
But a senior Honduran official, also speaking on the condition of anonymity, said he didn’t see the new government backing down. He said the country’s Congress had appointed a commission Thursday evening to investigate whether the president’s referendum was in line with the Honduran constitution. The commission reported back Sunday afternoon that the president had violated the constitution, and the Congress voted to remove him. That procedure is “within the constitution,” said the senior official – although the coup that occurred hours earlier was not, he acknowledged.
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