The coup in the impoverished country, which was prompted by a dispute over Zelaya’s push to extend presidential terms, is the first coup to rattle Central America in some 16 years and poses a test for President Barack Obama as he tries to mend Washington’s image in the region.
Speaking to reporters at the White House Monday afternoon, President Obama said the ouster of Zelaya was a “not legal” coup and that he remains the country’s president.
“It would be a terrible precedent if we start moving backwards into the era in which we are seeing military coups as a means of political transition rather than democratic elections,” President Obama said in the Oval Office after meeting with Colombian President Alviro Uribe. “The region has made enormous progress over the last 20 years in establishing democratic traditions in Central America and Latin America. We don’t want to go back to a dark past.”
Zelaya was arrested by the Honduran military late Sunday and flown to Costa Rica hours before a referendum he had called in defiance of Honduras’ courts and Congress. His opponents claimed the vote was an attempt to remain in power after his term ends Jan. 27.
Polls for the vote were due to open early Sunday, but instead troops stormed the presidential palace at dawn, and arrested Zelaya, according to the BBC.
The Honduran Congress then voted Zelaya out of office and replaced him with Roberto Micheletti, the speaker of Congress who is next in line for the presidency. Micheletti insisted that Zelaya was legally removed by the courts and Congress for violating Honduras’ constitution and vowed to resist pressure from other nations to reinstate Zelaya, according to news agencies.
The Honduran constitution limits presidents to a single four-year term. Zelaya’s opponents feared the referendum was part of an attempt to try to run again, just as other Latin American leaders have removed constitutional clauses designed to prevent them from extending their rule.
After his arrest and transfer to Costa Rica, Zelaya insisted, “I am the president of Honduras,” the New York Times reported.
Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez, a champion of Latin American socialism who survived an attempted army coup in 2002, was among those who called to restore Zelaya to the presidency — and is also among those leaders who have modified constitutional provisions to allow for longer terms. Chavez, who is attending a meeting of Latin nations in Nicaragua, vowed to “overthrow” Micheletti.
For his part, Micheletti brushed off the threat, telling HRN radio: “Nobody scares us.”
Micheletti said he was sure that “80 to 90 percent of the Honduran population is happy with what happened,” according to the Associated Press.
Zelaya, 56, initially drew alliances with Honduras’ ruling elite but, over time, moved closer in step with Chavez’s regional bloc and steered the country leftward. His ties to the controversial Venezuelan leader, and his efforts to lift presidential term limits, rankled the army and the conservative elite.
Pro-Zelaya protesters appeared to rally in part against the conservative wealthy class that has traditionally run Honduras, and much of Central America, after independence from Spain in the 19th century, according to Reuters.
Soldiers and police in riot gear lined up on the grounds of the presidential palace in the capital, Tegucigalpa.
“We want our elected and democratic president, not this other one that the world doesn’t recognize,” said Marco Gallo, a 50-year-old retired teacher, according to news agencies.
Brazil’s President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva said his government would not recognize a Honduran government not run by Zelaya, the Washington Post reported. “We in Latin America can no longer accept someone trying to resolve his problem through the means of a coup,” said Silva, an influential leader in the region.
In Washington, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said the U.S. was working for “full restoration of democratic order in Honduras.”
The Organization of American States called for Zelaya’s return and summoned a meeting of foreign ministers on Tuesday that could make Honduras the first nation suspended from the organization under a 2001 charter banning “the unconstitutional interruption of democratic order.”