- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 27, 2009

TEGUCIGALPA, Honduras | Honduras’ leftist president hurled insults Friday at congressional leaders who are considering whether to oust him from power in a standoff over his push to revamp the constitution.

President Manuel Zelaya is promoting a Sunday referendum on constitutional changes that has plunged the country into crisis by setting the president at odds with the military, the courts and the legislature, which have branded the vote illegal.

Many shops and gasoline stations were closed Friday in the capital, Tegucigalpa, after the city’s leading business organization advised its members to stay shut for fear of disturbances. Some schools closed, and supermarkets were filled with panic buyers.

The president led thousands of supporters to the country’s main airport, where they seized referendum ballots to keep them from being destroyed at court order.

Then he returned to the presidential palace and lashed out at Congress early Friday for plans to investigate his mental stability and possibly declare him unfit to govern. Lawmakers also are investigating whether Mr. Zelaya undermined the rule of law by refusing to abide by a Supreme Court order reinstating the military chief he fired.

He referred to congressional President Roberto Micheletti - a member of his own Liberal Party - as “a pathetic, second-class congressman who got that job because of me, because I gave you space within my political current.”

Mr. Zelaya, who counts Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and Cuba’s Castro brothers as friends, says the current constitution favors the elite in a country where 70 percent of the population is poor. His backers warn an attempted coup is under way.

Opponents say Mr. Zelaya wants to rewrite the charter to allow re-election so he can stay in power. He is currently barred from seeking re-election when his four-year term ends in January.

The showdown over Sunday’s referendum has all but overshadowed the campaign for the Nov. 29 presidential election, which pits Porfirio Lobo of the opposition National Party against Liberal Party candidate Elvin Santos, who resigned as vice president last year, complaining that Mr. Zelaya had been trying to sideline him in the government.

Honduras’ top court, Congress and the attorney general have all said the referendum he is sponsoring is illegal because the constitution says some of its clauses cannot be changed.

Mr. Zelaya told thousands of supporters outside the presidential offices Thursday that he would stand by his decision to oust Gen. Romeo Vasquez as head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The general had refused to support the referendum, arguing he could not aid a process the courts said was illegal.

The defense minister and the chiefs of the army, navy and air force have all resigned in protest over the referendum, and the Supreme Court ordered Mr. Zelaya to reinstate Gen. Vasquez.

“Congress cannot investigate me, much less remove me or stage a technical coup against me because I am honest, I’m a free president and nobody scares me,” Mr. Zelaya said in his two-hour speech Friday, at one point bursting - Chavez-like - into song.

The Organization of American States called an emergency meeting Friday to discuss the crisis, and the U.S. Embassy warned American citizens in Honduras of potential protests and violence.

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