Tue, Jul 07, 2009 - Page 9 News List

Swift coup in Honduras was months in the making

The day before his ouster, Zelaya talked of a ‘process of change ... peaceful, humane transition.’ Hours later he was awakened by gunfire


Soldiers ringed Honduran president Manuel Zelaya’s modest home, spilled into the cul-de-sac and swarmed the neighborhood, blocking what little traffic there was in a posh corner of the Honduran capital so early on a Sunday morning.

Zelaya had been roused from bed by a shootout between a presidential security detail and his own armed forces, ordered to drop his mobile phone or be shot dead, bundled onto a military truck in his pajamas and whisked by plane into forced exile in Costa Rica.

About 60 soldiers still patrolled the Tres Caminos district of southwestern Tegucigalpa around his house, all with rifles aimed, when journalists arrived less than an hour later.

“Nothing’s happening here,” screamed one soldier, who looked barely 16.

“Don’t come any closer,” another bellowed, causing dogs in nearby yards to bark wildly.

The Honduran coup on June 28 was swift and bloodless, but the tension that culminated in Zelaya’s overthrow had been building for months as his politics and rhetoric moved left, and he aligned himself closer to Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.

The military acted under orders from the Supreme Court and with the support of Congress, which is controlled by Zelaya’s Liberal Party — though nearly all members had turned against him.

Lawmakers unanimously installed congressional leader Roberto Micheletti, who failed to get his party’s presidential nomination last fall, as the new head of state the same day.

Honduras rebuffed the Organization of American States’ demands to reinstate Zelaya and pulled out of the group before member states held an emergency meeting on Saturday to suspend its membership. Even as the poor Central American country slid toward political chaos and international isolation, Micheletti’s interim government blamed Chavez for stoking the crisis.

“Little by little, we will regain the confidence of other nations, because we are a valiant people who have said ‘enough’ to Chavez,” said Micheletti’s assistant foreign minister, Martha Lorena Alvarado.

At issue was a referendum Zelaya had been planning to hold on the day of the coup, asking voters if they would support a subsequent vote to modify the Constitution. Critics feared he would use it to do away with term limits and run again — something Chavez and other Latin American leftist leaders have succeeded in doing. Supporters of Colombian President Alvaro Uribe, a conservative US ally, have also proposed extending term limits to allow him to run again.

Meanwhile, Chavez and his allies have taken to ruling by plebiscite, or referendum, sidestepping congress and the courts that are designed to check executive powers and taking issues directly to voters. After Chavez lost one referendum to eliminate term limits, he held a second one little more than a year later and won. The Venezuelan Congress and courts are filled with Chavez’s supporters.

Zelaya denied that he was following that model, but he modified the ballot language at the last minute from a vote on whether to hold a separate referendum on revamping the Constitution to one asking if the public wanted to convoke “a national constitutional assembly.”

The Honduran Constitution has no provision for an assembly like the one suggested in the final version of Zelaya’s referendum question. Congress can modify nearly all the Honduran Constitution, but certain clauses — including those limiting presidents to one, four-year term — cannot be changed.

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