Monday, June 29, 2009

MIAMI | The Honduran military on Sunday ousted leftist President Manuel Zelaya and exiled him to Costa Rica - an action rejected by much of the world, including the United States and its sometimes foe, Venezuela.

The apparent catalyst for the coup came last week when Mr. Zelaya decided to go ahead with a nationwide referendum on whether he could purse a second term in office. Honduran electoral law limits leaders to one four-year term.

Though the referendum vote was neither sanctioned by Honduran congressional leaders nor deemed legal by the country’s Supreme Court, Mr. Zelaya scheduled the vote for Sunday. He further antagonized the country’s elite by trying to fire the head of the Honduran military, which promptly retaliated against him.

In an unusual concurrence of views, the Obama administration and Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez said they still recognized Mr. Zelaya as Honduras’ president. The State Department called the events an “attempted coup” and urged Mr. Zelaya’s “return and restoration of democratic order.”

U.S. officials said they were engaged in multinational efforts to resolve the crisis, through the Organization of American States and European allies. At the same time, Washington wants a resolution “free from external influence and interference,” a senior official told reporters during a conference call organized by the State Department.

The official, who spoke on the condition that he not be named, said the U.S. Embassy in Honduras was “consistently and almost constantly engaged in the last several weeks working with partners” and that U.S. officials were “in contact with all Honduran institutions, including the military.” However, the military stopped taking the embassy’s calls since the coup attempt, the official said.

Mr. Chavez, a close ally of Mr. Zelaya and a survivor of a failed 2002 coup attempt himself, warned that if the Venezuelan ambassador to Honduras was harmed or killed during the military uprising, Venezuela “would have to act militarily” and that he had already “put the Venezuelan armed forces on alert.”

Hundreds of Zelaya supporters gathered outside the presidential palace and demanded that the president be reinstated, Reuters news agency reported.

Mr. Zelaya, who took office in 2006 and was due to leave office next year, planned to fly to Nicaragua on Monday to meet Mr. Chavez and other leftist leaders, a Zelaya spokesman told Reuters.

Mr. Zelaya, 56, told the Venezuela-based Telesur television station that he was “kidnapped” by soldiers and barely given time to change out of his pajamas, the news agency added.

Honduras, a poor nation of 7 million that exports coffee, textiles and bananas, had been relatively stable for two decades.

However, confidence among some Hondurans in Mr. Zelaya had been on the wane in recent years because of his ties with Mr. Chavez and support for the Venezuelan leader’s alternative, regional free-trade agreement, know by its Spanish acronym, ALBA.

Heather Berkman, a Latin America analyst for the Eurasia Group consulting firm, said Mr. Zelaya had alienated fellow members of his ruling Liberal Party by aligning himself with populists such as Mr. Chavez and increasing the minimum wage by 300 percent, straining the Honduran economy.

“I suspect that he wasn’t a very competent president trying to bring about a political change that didn’t garner that much support,” said Peter Hakim, president of the Inter-American Dialogue, a think tank in Washington. Mr. Zelaya was not “seen as consistent or strong,” Mr. Hakim said.

Honduras is a member of the Central America Free Trade Agreement with the United States. Mr. Zelaya’s support for the Chavez-led ALBA agreement, which excludes the United States, raised eyebrows at home and in Washington.

Nevertheless, other regional leaders voiced support for him Sunday and said they considered him to still be the rightful leader of Honduras.

“This is something very somber and disquieting,” said Argentine President Cristina Kirchner, whose country suffered under a seven-year military junta ending in 1983 that is thought to be responsible for the deaths of at least 30,000 people.

Sunday’s coup, she said, “looks like a return to barbarism in our hemisphere.”

&#8226 Nicholas Kralev reported from Washington.

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