Honduran Military Sends President Into Exile; Supportive Congress Names Successor

SOURCES:State Dept., CIA | GRAPHIC: The Washington Post, June 29, 2009
By William Booth and Juan Forero
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, June 29, 2009

MEXICO CITY, June 28 -- Soldiers stormed the presidential palace in the Honduran capital of Tegucigalpa at dawn Sunday and forced President Manuel Zelaya into exile in Costa Rica. The military-led ouster sparked a regional crisis that thrusts the impoverished banana-growing country onto the international stage and revives painful memories of coup-fueled turmoil in Latin America.

The coup was condemned throughout the Americas. President Obama joined other regional leaders in calling for a peaceful return of Zelaya to office.

But the Honduran National Congress defiantly announced that Zelaya was out, and its members named congressional leader Roberto Micheletti the new president on Sunday afternoon.

The Honduran Supreme Court also supported the removal of Zelaya, saying that the military was acting in defense of democracy.

Zelaya, a leftist ally of Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, told reporters that he was woken by shouts and gunshots early Sunday. While still in his pajamas, the Honduran president said, soldiers took him to a waiting air force plane that flew him to Costa Rica. The coup was mostly peaceful, though tanks and soldiers occupied streets in Tegucigalpa.

Senior administration officials in Washington said Sunday that U.S. diplomats had been negotiating behind the scenes to stop the coup. "We have worked hard to avoid this," a senior Obama official said in a background briefing with reporters. "This has been brewing a long time."

U.S. officials said the Honduran military, which has traditionally maintained close ties with the United States, had broken off contact with U.S. diplomats after the coup. Obama is due to meet Álvaro Uribe, president of regional power Colombia, at the White House on Monday, and Honduras is now likely to be high on the agenda.

Military coups in Latin America have become rare, but Argentine President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner said Sunday's events in Honduras reminded her of "the worst years in Latin America's history," when coups were common and often led to cycles of violence. The coup draws the Obama administration into its first real diplomatic test in the hemisphere, in a country where people have complex feelings toward the United States. The Reagan administration's contra war against the Sandinista revolution in Nicaragua was fought from Honduras, one of the poorest countries in Latin America, whose fragile economy is supported by remittances from Hondurans living in the United States.

Zelaya was removed from office as Hondurans prepared to vote Sunday in a nonbinding referendum asking them whether they would support a constituent assembly to rewrite the constitution. Zelaya's critics said he wanted to use the referendum to open the door to reelection after his term ends in January 2010, an assertion that he denied.

The referendum -- which U.S. officials described as more of a "survey" than a true vote -- was condemned by broad swaths of Honduran society as an obvious power grab. The Honduran Supreme Court called the referendum unconstitutional, and leaders of Zelaya's own party denounced the measure.

The scene in Tegucigalpa on Sunday was chaotic, and it was unclear what would happen next. As Zelaya condemned his forced ouster at a news conference in Costa Rica, the Honduran Congress voted to accept what it claimed was Zelaya's resignation letter.

Zelaya denied that he had signed such a letter. A senior U.S. official said, "It is hard to take that letter seriously given how President Zelaya was removed from office."

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