Ousted President Manuel Zelaya was set to return to Honduras yesterday, a week after the army threw him out, amid fears of clashes after coup leaders threatened to arrest him on his return.
The Organization of American States (OAS) suspended the Central American country late on Saturday — in the first such move since the exclusion of Cuba in 1962 — for failing to reinstate Zelaya.
Members of the pan-American body slammed the leaders of the coup, which saw the army remove Zelaya in his pajamas at the peak of a dispute with the courts, politicians and the army over his plans to change the Constitution.
After a week of mostly peaceful protests by Zelaya’s supporters and detractors, thousands of Zelaya backers — many from labor unions and Aboriginal groups — gathered in the capital in order to meet him at the airport.
In a climate of suspicion and anger, many said they were prepared for violence.
“I imagine there’ll be blood and I’m ready for it. We’re not afraid,” said Marisol Velasquez, who said she was roughed up by soldiers at roadblocks on her three-day journey to reach the capital.
Meanwhile in Washington, 33 out of 34 members of the OAS voted in favor of suspending Honduras in an extraordinary late-night session.
Their resolution was recommended by OAS Secretary-General Jose Miguel Insulza, who lamented increasing polarization and tension in Honduras on a brief visit there on Friday.
“The de facto authorities in Tegucigalpa are not disposed to restore Zelaya,” Insulza said.
Zelaya, meanwhile, confirmed at the meeting that he would return to Honduras.
“I am very optimistic because everyone has repudiated and rejected these acts,” Zelaya said earlier, insisting his country lived “under a regime of terror.”
Thousands have demonstrated daily since the president was bundled away to Costa Rica on June 28 and brief clashes have broken out between the army and protesters.
It was unclear how many people had been injured and detained, amid growing indignation from international rights groups.
The emergency OAS meeting was also attended by Argentine President Cristina Kirchner and Paraguayan President Fernando Lugo, who were expected to accompany Zelaya to Honduras.
Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa, who was also expected to join them, has said he was prepared for violence in Honduras.
Catholic leaders in Honduras warned on Saturday of a potential bloodbath.
“We think that a return to the country at the moment could provoke a bloodbath,” Cardinal Oscar Rodriguez — the capital’s archbishop — said on national radio and TV. “To this day, no Honduran has died. Please think, because afterwards it will be too late.”
The OAS secretary-general agreed that Zelaya’s planned return to Honduras was dangerous.
“I think there are risks, of course,” Insulza told reporters. “If you ask if it is a safe return, of course not.”
Interim President Roberto Micheletti’s supporters say the army was justified in ousting Zelaya — on orders of Congress and the Supreme Court — because he had called a referendum to change the Constitution that they claim he planned to use to extend his rule.
The interim government has said it may consider holding early elections to end the political impasse, but now looks set to try to hunker down until scheduled elections in November.
A freezing of millions of dollars of international aid, regional trade blockades and recalls of foreign ambassadors have already hit the country in the past week.