Mr. Zelaya was attempting Sunday to push ahead with a controversial referendum on whether to extend presidential term limits as other leftist leaders in the region have done in recent years, despite the fact that his country's Supreme Court ruled such a vote illegal. But hours before polls were to open he was seized by the Honduran military and exiled to Costa Rica.
The Honduran Congress later voted to remove Zelaya for "putting in present danger the state of law" and appointed congressional President Roberto Micheletti as the new chief executive, as is mandated by the Constitution.
Although Zelaya is a strong ally of Venezuela's leftist President Hugo Chávez, who said Venezuela is now "at battle" and put his armed forces on alert, criticism seemed to fall outside ideological lines. President Obama, the European Union, and Mr. Chávez joined together in a chorus of criticism. Leaders from across Central America will meet in Nicaragua tomorrow in an emergency meeting.
Speaking from Costa Rica, where he was sent Sunday after soldiers entered the presidential residence and put the leader in military custody, Zelaya said: "There is no way to justify an interruption of democracy, a coup d etat," he said. "This kidnapping is an extortion of the Honduran democratic system."
Regional leftist leaders sound off
Leftist leaders across the region spoke out in defense of Zelaya.
"We will demand that the OAS [Organization of American States] fully comply with the democratic charter that requires unconditional respect for democracy and, above all, the restoration of the Honduran president," said Argentinean President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner. "I do not hesitate to call this a return to barbarity."
Bolivia President Evo Morales condemned the military action. "To allow people to participate and decide the future of their country through their vote, it is not possible that some groups ignore this, including the military," President Morales said.
Chávez threatens forceful reaction
Chávez, on state television, said that if troops entered the Venezuelan Embassy, "that military junta would be entering a defacto state of war. We would have to act militarily...."
"We will bring them down, we will bring them down, I tell you," he said, while hundreds of red-shirted Chávez supporters gathered outside Venezuela's presidential palace.
Coup criticized from all corners
But criticism has not been limited to leftist allies in the region, and regional bodies will likely come to his side. "Zelaya may have been less than a fully attractive figure," says Larry Birns, the director of the Council on Hemispheric Affairs in Washington. But "it will be very difficult for the OAS to reward what is essentially a political coup against Zelaya."
Zelaya told the Venezuelan TV station, Telesur, that gun shots awoke him today, as soldiers confronted his guards, and he was eventually escorted to the airport and sent to Costa Rica.
Tensions had increased in Honduras in recent days, after Zelaya pushed for the referendum. His insistence to move forward was ultimately his downfall. "He spoke as a revolutionary when he was acting like a caudillo," says Mr. Birns. "Because he did not have required threshold of support, his government was doomed to fail."
But it remains to be seen how democracy will be restored in Honduras. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, urged strong condemnation. "The action taken against Honduran President Manuel Zelaya violates the precepts of the Inter-American Democratic Charter and thus should be condemned by all."