Mr. Zelaya speaking Tuesday at the United Nations General Assembly, where he found support.
July 1, 2009
After Losing Honduras, Ousted Leader Wins International Support
By MARC LACEY
TEGUCIGALPA, Honduras — Manuel Zelaya was close to slipping into Honduran history books as a former president with ideas as large as his signature Stetson hat, but nowhere near enough political consensus to remake his troubled country.
Then came his forced removal from office Sunday, which has catapulted the lame duck leader to a level of international prominence he almost certainly would not have achieved otherwise and turned him into a symbol — an undeserved one, his many critics insist — of a president whose democratic mandate was denied him.
On Tuesday, Mr. Zelaya’s newfound relevance took him to one of the world’s biggest stages, at the lectern of the United Nations General Assembly, where he portrayed himself as the victim of a vicious, power-hungry elite that refused to share power with his country’s many poor.
“A crime has been committed, a crime against humanity, a crime which we all reject,” he said. “Whenever brute force prevails over reason, humankind returns to its primeval state, to the era of the garrote, where everything is reduced to force.”
A one-page resolution — sponsored by countries often at loggerheads, including the United States and Venezuela — passed by acclamation after sustained applause in the 192-member body. It condemned Mr. Zelaya’s removal as a coup and demanded his “immediate and unconditional restoration” as president.
Next, Mr. Zelaya was on to the Organization of American States in Washington and a meeting at the State Department with an assistant secretary of state.
Back home, though, the country is sharply divided over his removal — and his record. Thousands of his opponents turned out on Tuesday to denounce him as a dictator who had been illegally scheming to subvert the Constitution by ending the one-term limit for presidents.
The day before, Mr. Zelaya’s backers praised him as a president for the working class, intending to increase their wages as well as their political power. He had spoken of building a new Honduras, with crime and corruption in check and a better standard of living for the masses, though his administration fell well short of delivering that.
The bitter standoff over Mr. Zelaya is expected to reach a head Thursday, when he has vowed to return to Honduras to retake the presidency that was stripped from him after soldiers raided his home before dawn Sunday and shuttled him on the presidential plane to Costa Rica.
A meeting of the Organization of American States continued into Wednesday morning as officials worked on a resolution to conduct a diplomatic effort to restore Mr. Zelaya to office. On the sidelines hopes were voiced that he would delay his return to allow time for such an initiative.
During a news conference at the United Nations, Mr. Zelaya said that a number of other leaders had offered to escort him home, including Miguel d’Escoto Brockmann, a Nicaraguan who is the president of the General Assembly; President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner of Argentina; President Rafael Correa of Ecuador; and José Miguel Insulza, the secretary general of the Organization of American States.
The interim president named by the Honduran Congress, Roberto Micheletti, has threatened Mr. Zelaya with arrest if he returns, saying he had illegally defied the Supreme Court in pushing for a referendum on changing the Constitution. Alberto Rubí, the attorney general, said Tuesday that the charges included treason and abuse of authority.
The newly installed foreign minister, Enrique Ortez, went further in a television interview, accusing Mr. Zelaya of permitting drug traffickers to use Honduras as a base to smuggle cocaine from South America to the United States, an accusation that aides to Mr. Zelaya called a tall tale intended to smear him.
Dismissing the notion that Mr. Zelaya’s removal was a coup, Mr. Micheletti appeared before Tuesday’s rally to say that elections would go ahead in November and that a new president would take office in January, when Mr. Zelaya would have been forced to step down. “We will hand over the presidential sash to whomever the people choose,” he said.
A top Zelaya aide, Enrique Flores Lanza, said Mr. Zelaya’s return would put the army on the spot, forcing soldiers either to allow the man recognized by the world’s governments as the rightful president of Honduras to return or to arrest him.
Whatever they decide, Mr. Flores said, there will be huge crowds at the airport to welcome Mr. Zelaya. Mr. Flores spoke from an abandoned house in the Honduran capital, where he agreed to meet after a series of clandestine phone calls, steps he said were necessary because he was on the run to avoid arrest.
Another minister in Mr. Zelaya’s government was similarly in hiding, although he said Mr. Micheletti himself had called him on his cellphone to say nobody was pursuing him. Until he received that in writing, the minister said, he will lie low.
Much remains in dispute in Honduras. Mr. Zelaya, who took office in 2006, has moved steadily to the left during his presidency, railing increasingly against the country’s elite, who he says have opposed his politics of inclusion.
Critics accuse Mr. Zelaya, who comes from a well-off family of landowners, of blatant populism and of doling out cash to try to solidify a shaky political base.
“I’m O.K. with increasing the minimum wage, but he did it by more than 50 percent from one day to the next, and businesses have had to cut the payroll because of that sudden jump,” said Fernando Castillo, a real estate developer who attended the anti-Zelaya protest on Tuesday. “He ended up hurting the poor.”
Mr. Zelaya has spent much of his presidency holding the sort of rural chat sessions with constituents that President Hugo Chávez has made popular in Venezuela. It is Mr. Zelaya’s close relationship with Mr. Chávez that has caused alarm among wealthy and middle-class Hondurans.
“He mutated,” said Juan Ferrera, who served in a previous government with Mr. Zelaya. “He became someone else.”
Mr. Zelaya’s public support was sagging, and there was debate over whether he would have won his planned referendum, even if Congress and the courts had allowed it. But his opponents chose to act first, a decision some experts saw as a miscalculation.
“Had they let it play out, it would have been easy to stop him,” said John Carey, a specialist on Latin American politics at Dartmouth University. “He seems to have triggered the only thing that could have saved him.”
Neil MacFarquhar, Helene Cooper and Ginger Thompson contributed reporting.