By Nathan Gill and Eric Sabo
June 29 (Bloomberg) -- Honduran President Manuel Zelaya, ousted by the military, meets with Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and regional leaders today in a show of support designed to restore him as head of the Central American country.
Zelaya said soldiers surrounded his house and forced him at gunpoint to board a plane for Costa Rica yesterday. His opponents accused him of seeking to change the constitution through a referendum in an attempt to hold onto power.
Honduran lawmakers named Roberto Micheletti, the head of Congress, as president and accused Zelaya of “repeated violations of the constitution.”
The coup was condemned by the U.S., European Union and Organization of American States, which said they won’t recognize any new government. Regional leaders called an emergency summit today in Nicaragua’s capital, Managua.
“It appeared that the darkness of Latin American dictatorships had ended, but now that’s not the case,” Costa Rican President Oscar Arias said at a news conference with Zelaya. “Democracy in Central America and Latin America continues to be fragile and vulnerable.”
The military coup may threaten the country’s economy and put at risk a free trade agreement with the U.S., Honduras’s biggest trade and investment partner, Alfredo Coutino, director for Latin America at Moody’s Economy.com in West Chester, Pennsylvania, said in an interview.
Micheletti denied there had been a coup d’etat, saying Honduras is a “civil state” that isn’t being run by the military. A curfew is in force until 6 a.m. tomorrow local time, he said in an interview with CNN en Espanol. Airports and borders were also closed.
Over the past year, Zelaya alienated Honduras’s political and business elite by aligning with the Chavez-led group of socialist Latin American leaders, said Heather Berkman, a political risk analyst at the Eurasia Group in New York.
“Zelaya took a substantial turn from traditional Honduran politics by moving dramatically to the left,” Berkman said in a telephone interview.
Zelaya was seeking backing for a referendum later this year on whether to create a constitutional assembly to rewrite the charter, such as Bolivia, Ecuador and other countries in the region have done. He advanced his plans even after they were ruled unconstitutional by courts and over objections by members of the opposition and some in his own party.
Micheletti said he would step down after a new president is elected in November. “The transition was absolutely legal,” Micheletti said in a speech to Honduras lawmakers, who voted in favor of replacing Zelaya.
Return to Power
The OAS, a 34-nation organization of Western Hemisphere countries, demanded the immediate and unconditional return to power of Zelaya. The United Nations General Assembly will hold an emergency meeting today to discuss events in Honduras.
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon in a statement yesterday called for Zelaya’s reinstatement.
President Barack Obama said he was “deeply concerned” and called on “all political and social actors in Honduras to respect democratic norms,” according to a statement from the White House.
The U.S. may impose trade sanctions and replace imported Honduran textile and agricultural products with those made by its neighbors such as Costa Rica, El Salvador or Nicaragua, if Zelaya isn’t reinstated, Coutino said. Honduras is the second-largest coffee producer after Guatemala in Central America.
“This is going to be a negative mark for Honduras,” Coutino added. “The U.S. will put pressure for the restoration of democracy. If that doesn’t happen, we will see major economic consequences.”
Electricity has been cut and the country of 7.8 million people is “completely paralyzed,” Zelaya said yesterday.
Honduran government television channels went off the air, said Jaime Vargas, the Honduran representative for the International Foundation for Electoral Systems, in a phone interview from Tegucigalpa. Vargas, who advises the government on elections, said that soldiers were present throughout the capital and businesses and shops were closed.
Zelaya last week tried to fire the head of the armed forces, General Romeo Vasquez, for refusing to back the plan to hold a referendum on changing the constitution. The general on June 26 said he would remain at his post after the Supreme Court overturned the president’s decision to fire him. The Honduran Supreme Court ordered the removal of Zelaya, Agence France-Presse said, citing unnamed officials at the court.
Marcia Villeda, vice president of the Congress, told CNN a letter of resignation was received from Zelaya. Villeda said there has been no coup and the events in Honduras “could be called a transition of power.”
The president wanted to use results from a poll planned this weekend to press for a national referendum in November on whether to change the constitution. The poll, a process the Supreme Court already ruled illegal, was canceled after Zelaya was forced to flee the country.
Honduras Foreign Minister Patricia Rodas was also seized by the military, Venezuelan Ambassador Armando Laguna said in comments broadcast on Telesur. Laguna said he and the ambassadors of Nicaragua and Cuba were beaten and briefly detained after trying to defend Rodas against masked soldiers.
Chavez placed Venezuela’s military on alert and said Micheletti will be overthrown if he takes power. The Venezuelan president, who founded the nine-member Alba trade group as an alternative to the U.S.-backed Free Trade Area of the Americas, said he’ll do everything he can to “crush” the coup in Honduras.
“The people will have their right of resistance and combat,” Chavez said when he arrived in Managua late yesterday.Latin America hasn’t had a military coup since Chavez was briefly ousted in 2002. In 2000, Ecuador’s former President Jamil Mahuad was replaced by his vice president Gustavo Noboa after the country’s military forced him to step down following protests over his handling of the economy.