MANAGUA, Nicaragua – Deposed Honduran President Manuel “Mel” Zelaya this weekend plans to attempt a risky and controversial return to his native country, where he hopes to reassume the presidency after being ousted by a military coup on June 28.
Despite being warned an arrest warrant awaits him in Honduras, Zelaya’s claim to legitimacy has been emboldened by widespread international support, including resolutions from the United Nations and the Organization of American States (OAS), which gave the de facto government 72 hours to cede power. The ultimatum, which could result in expulsion of Honduras from the OAS in the event Zelaya is not reinstated, expires July 4.
Other Latin American countries belonging to the Central American Integration System (SICA) and the leftist Bolivarian Alliance for the Americas (ALBA) have announced their own political and economic sanctions against what they call the “usurper” government led by Roberto Micheletti, who this week was named interim president by Honduras’ Congress.
Micheletti said he will occupy the president’s seat to protect Honduras’ constitutional democracy until the scheduled general elections are held in November.
The ALBA countries, however, refuse to recognize the government of Micheletti and said they won’t recognize the results of the upcoming elections either, unless Zelaya is returned to office beforehand.
“Latin America and the Caribbean are injured, and we won’t be satisfied until President Manuel Zelaya is – sooner rather than later – again in his country exercising (the office) that the people gave him with their vote,” said Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega.
Five ALBA countries – Cuba, Bolivia, Ecuador, Nicaragua and Venezuela – withdrew their ambassadors to Honduras this week and announced an end to political and economic relations until their comrade is reinstated. Brazil and several Europeancountries followed suit.
Venezuela suspended all oil aid to Honduras and the Central American countries bordering Honduras announced a temporary land-trade embargo. Honduras’ access to financing from the Central American Integration Bank was cut off and the World Bank announced it has “paused”its lending to the impoverished nation. The EU, meanwhile, has supended talks on the forthcoming association agreement with Central America.
Despite the international pressure, Micheletti’s de facto administration is digging in its heels and insisting it is the legitimate government of Honduras. Micheletti argues that Zelaya’s removal from office was a proper court-ordered response to Zelaya’s illegal efforts to seek constitutional reforms for the purpose of reelection – an allegation Zelaya denies and says is a lie used to “justify” the coup.
Micheletti says the new “government” of Honduras considers Zelaya a fugitive from justice and insists his ouster was a legitimate transition of power.
Zelaya’s ouster, however, had all the trappings of a coup. After he was dragged from his bedroom at gunpoint by masked soldiers and whisked unceremoniously out of the country, the military rolled tanks noisily into the streets and took over the airport and government buildings. A curfew was imposed, government officials were jailed, disappeared or exiled, power was shutoff to much of the city, phone lines were jammed and the media was censured.
Government leaders and rights groups from across the globe condemned the action as a frightening throwback to the dark days of Latin American military dictatorships and coups.
People caught unknowingly in the middle of the turmoil described an unsettling scene.
“Military planes were flying low overthe city and someone up there close to God turned off the electricity, the cell phones and the Internet,” said Isabel MacDonald, executive director of Costa Rica’s Center for Peace, who was in the Honduran capital of Tegucigalpa to serve as an observer for Zelaya’s scheduled June 28 consultation, which never happened. “I was with some Chilean observers and they said this is exactly what happened in Chile” during the 1973 coup against socialist ex-President Salvador Allende.
How It Began
Zelaya was elected president of Honduras on the ticket of the right-of-center Liberal Party, but has steadily shifted left during the first three years of his presidency, scheduled to end in 2010. Zelaya eventually fell into lockstep with Venezuela’s socialist President Hugo Chávez and signed his country up for ALBA in August 2008.
Under the banner of “citizen participation” – a common ALBA battle cry – Zelaya began a push for constitutional reforms that he says would have empowered voters.
Similar reformist agendas already have been implemented in Bolivia, Ecuador and Venezuela, while the Sandinista government of Nicaragua is trying to drum up support for its own constitutional congress.
Yet, in Honduras, which some analysts consider the most traditional of the Central American countries, Zelaya found stiff resistance to his efforts.
To test the political waters, Zelaya proposed a non-binding popular consultation to ask Hondurans if they would be willing to include a ballot measure proposition on the possibility of constitutional reforms in the November general elections. The measure was opposed by other branches of government, business leaders and the Catholic Church, and the Supreme Court eventually ruled it was illegal.
According to Article 239 of the Honduran Constitution, not only is presidential reelection illegal, but so too is any attempt to reform the law for the purpose of reelection. Despite the high court’s ruling, Zelaya – who says his intention never was to be reelected, rather it was to leave behind reforms that would empower Honduras – pushed forward with his plans to hold the vote.
But when Zelaya ordered the military to give logistical support to his initiative by distributing the ballots to polling stations throughout the country, Honduras’ top general, Romeo Vásquez, refused the order based on the Supreme Court ruling. The president subsequently fired his top general for disobeying the commander-in-chief, prompting the Minister of Defense and other military brass to resign in solidarity.
Zelaya then sent his own loyalists to retrieve the ballots – sent from Venezuela – from the Air Force base and distribute them for Sunday’s vote. But the consultation never happened.
Instead, Zelaya was rousted from his bed on June 28 at 5:30 a.m. by some 200 masked Honduran soldiers who whisked him out of the country in his presidential airplane and left him in Costa Rica’s JuanSantamariaInternationalAirport, still wearing his pajamas.
Hours later, in a mid-morning press conference alongside Costa Rican President Oscar Arias, Zelaya, still appearing slightly dazed, told the press that he had been “kidnapped” but was still the president f Honduras. That night he traveled to Managua to meet with other ALBA leaders, who were willing to give their ousted comrade full and “unconditional support” (see separate story, NT, page N1).
While Micheletti and company have started to rally support on the streets of Tegucigalpa for his self-proclaimed government, the great concert of nations – including the U.S. government, the European Union and all of Latin America – have spoken out against the coup.
“The use of force to overthrow a democratically elected government and force the president to leave the country is absolutely inexcusable. Mexico and the governments of the Grupo de Río condemn (the coup) without abiguity,” said Mexican President Felipe Calderón, speaking in Managua on behalf of the Latin American group of nations he represents as president pro tempore.
How Is It Going to End?
While the international debate continues over what happened in Honduras and why, the next question is: how is it going to end? Zelaya says he is going to try to make a return to Honduras this weekend, possibility with an international delegation including OAS Secretary General José Miguel Insulza and perhaps several other presidents.
The conditions for Zelaya’s return, however, appear hostile at best. Officials for Micheletti’s de facto government told CNN en Español that if Zelaya returns, he will be arrested, even if in the company of other presidents.
Zelaya, however, says he is prepared for what’s to come.
“I am spiritually prepared for anything,” Zelaya told The Nica Times this week in Managua. “I am a man of dialogue; I think anything can be fixed with dialogue. I don’t practice violence.”
Venezuela’s Chávez, however, already is beating the war drums.
On June 30, before departing Nicaragua to return to Venezuela, he told the press that the situation could get ugly in Honduras if the military is brazen enough to assault Zelaya’s delegation. In that case, Chávez warned, we won’t remain with our arms crossed.
“There is a red line and, if it is crossed, there is no return,” Chávez said. “If there is aggression against the (Zelaya) delegation, it would open another door that I don’t want to talk about.”
Chávez said he would like to accompany Zelaya upon his scheduled return to Tegucigalpa, but I shouldn’t because they say I am responsible for everything.
The Venezuelan leader said if he were to accompany Zelaya, it could provoke a violent response, which he wants to avoid. Plus, he said, “There could be sharpshooters that take advantage of the moment to kill me.”
Though Chávez, who speaks for ALBA, preemptively blamed the Honduran de facto government for being “responsible for what could happen,” he admitted that the future is uncertain.
“No one knows how this is going to end,” he said.
TT staff writer Chrissie Long contributed to this report.