Leftist leaders rally around Honduran president

Reuters

Posted at Jun 30 2009 01:49 AM | Updated as of Jun 30 2009 09:49 AM

TEGUCIGALPA - Leftist Latin American leaders rallied around ousted Honduran President Manuel Zelaya on Monday to thrash out a response to an army coup that sparked protests in the impoverished nation and drew worldwide condemnation.

Some 200 pro-Zelaya demonstrators defied a night curfew and held an all-night vigil by the presidential palace in the capital, Tegucigalpa, while Venezuela's firebrand President Hugo Chavez led talks with Zelaya and other allies in neighboring Nicaragua.

The coup -- triggered by a dispute over Zelaya's push to extend presidential terms -- is the biggest political crisis to hit Central America in years and will test U.S. President Barack Obama as he tries to mend Washington's battered image in Latin America.

Honduras is a major coffee producer -- and is expected to export some 3.22 million 60-kg bags in the 2008-2009 harvest season -- but there were no immediate signs that output or exports were affected as ports and roads remained open.

The Obama administration called Zelaya the only legitimate president of Honduras, placing itself in the same camp as a group of leftist Latin American governments that are at ideological loggerheads with the United States.

The Organization of American States demanded Zelaya's immediate return, saying no other government would be recognized.

The coup followed a week of tension when Zelaya, a Chavez ally who took office in 2006, angered the Honduran Congress, Supreme Court and army by pushing for a public vote to gauge support for changing the constitution to let presidents seek re-election beyond a single four-year term.

Before he could hold the poll on Sunday, the Honduran military seized Zelaya and flew him to Costa Rica in Central America's first successful army coup since the Cold War era of dictatorships and war in the region. The Supreme Court, which last week overruled Zelaya's attempt to fire the armed forces chief, said it had told the army to remove the president.

"We cannot allow a return to the past. We will not permit it," said Chavez, a champion of Latin American socialism who survived an attempted army coup in 2002 and who has put his troops on alert in case Honduras moves against his embassy.

Protesters defy curfew

Roberto Micheletti, named by Congress within hours of the coup as interim president until elections due in November, imposed a curfew for Sunday and Monday night. Micheletti said no foreign leader had the right to threaten Honduras.

Hundreds of pro-Zelaya protesters defied the curfew, and railed against the conservative wealthy class that traditionally ran Honduras, and much of Central America, after independence from Spain in the 19th century.

"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 only as Kevin, said at a protest outside the presidential palace.

Troops in full fatigues with automatic weapons lined the inside of the fenced-off palace.

Zelaya met Chavez, Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa and Nicaragua's Daniel Ortega in the Nicaraguan capital, Managua.

Bolivia's Evo Morales and OAS Secretary General Jose Miguel Insulza were due to join the group for talks later on Monday and Washington said it was following the crisis closely.

Honduras was a U.S. ally in the 1980s when Washington helped Central American governments fight Marxist rebels and the United States still keeps some 600 troops at a Honduran base used for humanitarian and disaster relief operations.

Antagonized ruling elite

Zelaya, 56, is a logger and rancher who was originally close to Honduras' ruling elite but then threw his lot in with Chavez's regional bloc and has steered the country leftward. His close alliance with the Venezuelan leader, and his efforts to lift presidential term limits, upset the army and the conservative elite.

The ousted president said democracy was at stake.

"Are we going to go back to the military being outside of the control of the civil state? If force is going to be used to impose governments then democracy as a system of government is going to disappear. Everything that is supposed to be an achievement of the 21st century is at risk in Honduras," he said.

Honduras, an impoverished coffee, textile and banana exporter with a population of 7 million, had been politically stable since the end of military rule in the early 1980s. Following the coup, there was panic-buying in stores and many people drew out cash or closed businesses.

Disruption to the coffee industry is less likely because the current harvest season is drawing to a close and Honduras only has a few hundred thousand bags left to export.

Hondurans are divided over the crisis. Recent polls show overall support for Zelaya has dropped to around 30 percent in recent months.