Honduras isolated over coup, protests turn violent

Honduras came under pressure on Monday to reinstate ousted President Manuel Zelaya as many Latin American leaders agreed to withdraw envoys, Washington called his overthrow illegal and street protests turned violent.

Police in the Honduran capital fired tear gas at stone-throwing supporters of Zelaya, a leftist who was toppled in an army coup on Sunday and flown to exile in Costa Rica while a caretaker president was sworn in.

About 1 500 protesters, some of them masked and carrying sticks, taunted solders and burned tyres just outside the gates of the presidential palace in a face-off with security forces.

Zelaya was ousted over his push to extend presidential terms in Central America’s biggest political crisis since the United States invasion of Panama in 1989. Honduras had been stable since the end of military rule in the early 1980s.

Congress named Roberto Micheletti, a conservative-leaning veteran of Zelaya’s Liberal Party as interim president.

Honduras is a major coffee producer, expected to export about 3,22-million 60kg bags in the 2008/09 season, but there were no immediate signs that output or exports were affected as ports and roads remained open.

Left-wing Latin American presidents led by Venezuela’s President Hugo Chávez said at a meeting in Managua, capital of neighbouring Nicaragua, that they would withdraw their ambassadors from Honduras in protest at the coup.

Mexican President Felipe Calderon followed suit, as did leaders from Central America, also meeting in Managua, according to a diplomatic source. The Central American leaders also announced a two-day halt in trade.

Chávez said he would stop sales of cheap oil to Honduras, an impoverished coffee, textiles and banana exporter of seven million people, which joined his Alba trade bloc of allies last year under Zelaya.

Micheletti slips past protest
Visibly bolstered by the sea of support for him, Zelaya said he would travel to Honduras on Thursday with Organisation of American States (OAS) chief Jose Miguel Insulza.

“I am going to Tegucigalpa on Thursday.
The president elected by the people is coming,” Zelaya said. He said he had accepted an offer by Insulza to accompany him, but gave no details of how he expected to pull the trip off.

Zelaya is due to address the United Nations General Assembly in New York on Tuesday and travel to Washington on Wednesday.

Micheletti, who set himself up in the presidential palace despite the protests raging outside, told Reuters most Hondurans supported the coup, which had saved the country from swinging to a radical Chávez-style socialism.

“President Zelaya was moving the country toward ‘Chavismo’, he was following this model which is not accepted by Hondurans,” he said in an interview, using a Spanish term for the style of socialism championed by Chávez.

“Honduras is more of a democracy today than it was three days ago,” Micheletti told a Reuters team that had to weave through protesters, pass a military checkpoint and enter the building through a back door to interview him.

The crisis fanned old tensions between poorer Hondurans and the conservative wealthy class that ran much of Central America, after independence from Spain in the 19th century.

As street protests sparked off in Tegucigalpa on Sunday, Micheletti imposed overnight curfews for Sunday and Monday.

On Monday, security forces threw tear gas canisters from a helicopter on pro-Zelaya protesters, some of whom smashed restaurant windows, including those of US-owned fast food franchises. About two dozens protesters were arrested and the Red Cross said about 30 were hospitalised with injuries.

“The police surrounded us. They fired gas and they started hitting everyone,” said demonstrator Joel Flores (19), who was red-eyed and said a police officer beat him on the back with a baton. A soldier retreated to a restaurant where diners gave him water as he bandaged a leg wounded by a rock.

In Washington, President Barack Obama said it would be a “terrible precedent” to move back to an era of military coups, and said the ouster was “not legal”. The coup has presented Obama with a test as he seeks to mend his country’s battered image in Latin America.

“We are very clear about the fact that President Zelaya is the democratically elected president, Obama said, adding that Washington would work with the OAS and other international bodies to seek a peaceful solution.

Split with ruling elite
Zelaya (56) is a former logger and rancher who was close to Honduras’ ruling elite on taking power in 2006 but then threw his lot in with Chávez’s regional bloc and steered the country leftward.

His alliance with the Venezuelan leader, and his efforts to hold a public vote on changing the Constitution to let presidents seek re-election beyond a single four-year term, upset the army and the rich.

His ouster was Central America’s first successful army coup since its Cold War era of dictatorships and war. Condemning it put Washington in the same camp as leftist Latin American leaders who are often at ideological loggerheads with it.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said the US viewed Zelaya’s ouster as a coup but was not legally declaring this for now. Such a formal step would require Washington to cut off most aid to Tegucigalpa.

A senior US official speaking anonymously said that by holding off on a legal determination on a coup, Washington was trying to make space for a negotiated settlement.

Polls showed public support for Zelaya in Honduras has dropped to about 30% in recent months. The protest over his ouster was small but determined.

“We are going to be here until President Zelaya returns. Micheletti is the president of the rich and powerful who own this country,” a 22-year-old electrician, who gave his name as Kevin, said outside the presidential palace.

Immediate disruption to the coffee industry was unlikely as the Honduran harvest is drawing to a close with only a few hundred thousand bags left to export.

Honduras was a US ally in the 1980s when Washington helped Central American governments fight Marxist rebels and the US still keeps about 600 troops at a Honduran base used for humanitarian and disaster relief operations.—Reuters

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