(CNSNews.com) – Honduras’ political crisis took a turn for the worse Sunday when the first loss of life was reported – the death of at least one supporter of the ousted president whose bid to return home was foiled one week after he was removed from power and deported.
The plane carrying Manuel Zelaya circled the airport at Tegucigalpa on Sunday but was refused permission to land on a runway where military vehicles and troops had been deployed.
Thousands of his supporters demonstrated nearby, and in clashes with troops at least one person was reported to have been shot dead.
Earlier, the country’s top Catholic leader, Cardinal Oscar Rodriguez – once seen as a strong contender for the papacy – urged Zelaya not to return, noting in a televised appeal that, to date, the crisis had not cost any Honduran life, but that an attempted return could lead to a “bloodbath.”
Unable to land, Zelaya’s aircraft was diverted to neighboring Nicaragua, and the toppled president told Venezuelan television network Telesur from the plane that the responsibility to act would fall on other countries, “particularly the United States.”
Zelaya’s appeal to the U.S. came despite his alliance with a cabal of leftist leaders headed by Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, Washington’s most vocal critic in the region.
Commenting on Zelaya’s unsuccessful attempt to return home, Chavez told Telesur by phone that the Honduran “military junta” was supported by the “yankee empire.” The violence that occurred at the airport, he said, could not be blamed on Zelaya as Rodriquez was suggesting, but on the military high command and the Honduran “bourgeoisie.”
The Obama administration has thrown its weight behind demands by the Organization of American States (OAS) for the Central American nation’s interim government to restore Zelaya.
The OAS on Saturday suspended Honduras after the authorities rejected the demand.
In doing so, the organization placed Honduras in the same category as Cuba, suspended in 1962 after Fidel Castro’s communist forces seized power. Just last month, Zelaya hosted an OAS meeting where Havana’s allies, led by Chavez and Nicaragua’s Daniel Ortega, achieved the lifting of the 47-year-old resolution that expelled Cuba.
Chavez has threatened to send armed forces to restore his ally to power, but has yet to take any further steps in that direction. Honduras’ interim president Roberto Micheletti alleged during a televised news conference Sunday that Nicaraguan troops were moving towards their common border; Nicaragua denied the claim.
Constitutional succession or coup?
Honduras’ legislature and judiciary have defended Zelaya’s removal from power, accusing him of violating the constitution by trying to hold a vote on extending presidential term limits, in defiance of the Supreme Court.
“We are the authentic representatives of the people,” Micheletti insisted at the weekend.
Micheletti, formerly the National Assembly speaker, was installed caretaker president by lawmakers shortly after troops acting on orders of the high court removed him from his home and flew him to Costa Rica last Sunday.
Micheletti’s position placed him next in line for the post, and he described the move – which is meant to last until elections are held, as previously scheduled, in November – as a “constitutional succession.”
Many others, including Washington, are calling it a “coup,” although unlike many of the takeovers that have plagued Latin America over the past century, the army after removing Zelaya was quick to recognize the interim president sworn in by lawmakers.
Argentina, Bolivia, Chile, Brazil, Uruguay, Peru, Paraguay, Venezuela, Guatemala, Panama, Honduras, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Grenada, Suriname, Dominican Republic, Cuba and Haiti all weathered coups during the 20th century, with the military either leading, or playing an indirect role in, post-coup regimes.
One coup attempt that failed was led by Chavez – then a military officer – in 1992, six years before he was elected president of Venezuela.
In 2002, Chavez was himself the target of a short-lived and abortive coup, and subsequently alleged that the U.S. had prior knowledge of the plot. A later Office of the Inspector General report found that U.S. officials had acted properly throughout.
Chavez’ critics, meanwhile, argue that despite being an elected leader, his conduct in recent years, including his treatment of the opposition, media organizations and key sectors of the economy, has been far from democratic, yet drawing modest attention from the OAS.
The OAS, similarly, had little to say about Zelaya’s controversial actions in the run-up to his ousting last Sunday.
Zelaya, a member of a wealthy timber and ranching family, narrowly won election in late 2005, obtaining some 69,000 votes more than his center-right opponent in a poll in which fewer than two million people voted.
A liberal, Zelaya soon moved leftward, aligning himself with Chavez, Ortega, Castro and Bolivian President Evo Morales.
In December 2007 he took Honduras into the PetroCaribe energy alliance, whose 20 or so members, mostly in the Caribbean, buy Venezuelan oil at preferential rates.
Last August, Zelaya joined the Chavez-led Bolivarian Alliance for the Americas (ALBA), saying at the time – in a dig at the U.S. – that he had not asked permission to join the leftist bloc from any “imperialist” power.
Chavez adopted Honduras as a project, offering financial aid, writing off debt, supplying four million energy-saving light bulbs and promising that Hondurans would enjoy a reliable energy supply “for at least 100 years.” (Chavez last Thursday said oil shipments to Honduras were suspended, and predicted the move would drive up gas prices.)
In 2007, Chavez tried to change the Venezuelan constitution to end presidential term limits, a move that would allow him to run for election again in 2012. A referendum on the proposed changes failed that December, but in a second attempt last February he was successful.
Chavez’ ally in Bolivia, Morales, earlier this year also succeeded in a referendum on changing his country’s constitution, among other things allowing Bolivian presidents to stand for re-election, previously disallowed.
The Honduran constitution also limits presidential tenure to one four-year term. Zelaya decided to challenge that, although he insisted that he would not himself benefit, or stand again, should the change be made.
Earlier this year he announced plans to hold a non-binding referendum on the issue. The Supreme Court and legislature declared the plan illegal, but the president pressed ahead, and last month ordered the military to help him to carry out the ballot planned for June 28.
Military chief Gen. Romeo Vasquez refused, citing the Supreme Court ruling, and Zelaya fired him. The court then ordered Zelaya to reinstate Vasquez, but he refused.
It is unclear what role, if any, Chavez had in encouraging Zelaya to pursue his plan, although Venezuela did provide the ballot papers and boxes that were to have been used in the voting exercise.
Hours before polls were due to open on June 28, the military removed and deported Zelaya, saying it was acting on the orders of the Supreme Court.
Zelaya’s maneuvering lost him support within his own Liberal Party. (Micheletti is a member of the same party; the Liberal Web site, currently “under construction,” now bears Micheletti’s name on the president’s page, as well as that of Elvin Santos, the party’s presidential nominee in the elections scheduled for November.)
Venezuela’s El Universal newspaper quoted Micheletti as saying that Chavez was responsible for the crisis in Honduras, accusing him of “clear and definite” involvement in the problems the country had been facing.
“There is little doubt that President Zelaya was emboldened to challenge the institutions of Honduras by the support of Hugo Chavez and other ALBA members,” Heritage Foundation senior policy analyst Ray Walser wrote shortly after he was deposed.
Walser noted that ALBA members, in a statement shortly before the planned referendum, had voiced support for the move “despite lack of institutional support. In short, they endorsed Zelaya’s defiant and reckless strategy.”