Facing what is perhaps the greatest challenge to regional stability since the end of the Central American wars more than a decade ago, the presidents of this tiny yet tumultuous isthmus are scheduled to meet in Managua Monday afternoon to round the wagons in defense of Honduras's recently ousted and beleaguered President Manuel "Mel" Zelaya.
Mr. Zelaya, accused of breaking Honduran law to seek reelection after his presidential term ends in 2010, was deposed from office Sunday morning in a court-ordered military coup. The mustachioed and self-styled "cowboy president" said he was rousted from his bed around 5:30 a.m. by some 200 masked Honduran soldiers who whisked him out of the country in his presidential airplane and dumped him unceremoniously in Costa Rica's international airport, still wearing his pajamas.
In a midmorning press conference Sunday alongside Costa Rican President Oscar Arias, a slightly disheveled-looking Zelaya told the press that he had been "kidnapped" but is still the president of Honduras. Back in Tegucigalpa, meanwhile, the Honduran Congress yesterday afternoon appointed legislative president Roberto Micheletti as interim president until new elections are held in November.
For most of Sunday, the power, phone lines, and international cable TV were cut or blocked throughout Honduras, keeping the majority of citizens in the dark, while tanks and armed soldiers took to the streets of the capital city. Honduras's outspoken foreign minister, Patricia Rhodes, and several dozen other government officials were taken captive. The ambassadors of leftist allied countries Nicaragua, Cuba, and Venezuela claim to have been detained and beaten by Honduran troops before being released on Sunday.
When congressionally appointed President Micheletti finally went on television later in the afternoon, he boldly announced that Zelaya's ouster represents the will of "80 to 90 percent" of the Honduran population and hailed the military for its actions.
Latin leftists hold 'emergency meeting'
In response to the coup in Honduras, the presidents of the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas (ALBA), a leftist bloc headed by Venezuela, held an "emergency meeting" in Managua Sunday night shortly after 10 p.m. to offer "unconditional support" for their beleaguered comrade. Zelaya arrived in Managua from Costa Rica shortly before the emergency meeting, looking freshly put-together in a white guayabera dress shirt and with his hair neatly in place. He was met at the airport by allies Hugo Chávez of Venezuela, Daniel Ortega of Nicaragua and Ecuador's Rafael Correa, who hugged Zelaya and slapped his back chummily.
"We have to get Zelaya's cowboy hat back; it's still intact!" Mr. Chávez bellowed. "Tomorrow we will rescue his hat!"
Calls for Zelaya's return to power
The presidents of ALBA demanded that Zelaya be returned to power immediately and without condition – a call echoed by other governments across the world, including the United States. Mr. Correa called for the punishment of those behind the coup.
Latin American representatives to the Organization of American States (OAS), which held an emergency meeting in Washington yesterday to discuss the situation in Honduras, also denounced the coup, calling it a "20- to 50-year setback" in the region's democratic advances.
"We thought that Central American democracies had been consolidated enough to avoid this from happening again," said Costa Rican President Oscar Arias.
Who's the least democratic?
Yet others say it's Zelaya who's guilty of turning back democratic progress. According to Article 239 of the Honduran Constitution, not only is presidential reelection illegal, so, too, is any attempt to reform the law for the purpose of reelection.
Zelaya, however, argues that popular consultation should never be illegal in a democracy. So, he proposed a nationwide, nonbinding poll June 28 to ask the Honduran voters if they would be willing to support a ballot proposition on constitutional reform in the November general elections. Among the proposed changes would be an extension of presidential term limits that would allow Zelaya to run for reelection. Most state institutions argued – and the Supreme Court ruled – that his initiative was illegal.
Interim leader warns against outside interference
Micheletti said the coup was needed "to defend respect for the law and the principles of democracy" and threatened to jail Zelaya and put him on trial if he returned. Micheletti also shot back at Chávez, saying "nobody, not [President Obama] and much less Hugo Chávez, has any right to threaten this country."
Earlier, Mr. Obama said in a statement he was "deeply concerned" about the events, and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said Zelaya's arrest should be condemned.
"I call on all political and social actors in Honduras to respect democratic norms, the rule of law, and the tenets of the Inter-American Democratic Charter," Obama's statement read.
Military refused to help Zelaya set up illegal vote
When Zelaya ordered the military to give logistical support to his popular consultation by distributing the ballots to polling stations across the country, Honduras's top general, Romeo Vásquez, refused the order and was subsequently fired for disobeying the commander in chief. The minister of Defense and other military brass resigned in solidarity.
Zelaya pushed forward on his plan anyway, prompting Sunday's coup.
Now the question is, who's responsible for Honduras's meltdown?
"There is plenty of blame to go round in Honduras," says Kevin Casas, Latin American expert for the Washington-based Brookings Institution think tank. "While there is no doubt that President Zelaya bears the largest share of responsibility for the crisis, he still is the legitimate president of Honduras."
Mr. Casas added, "What we are witnessing in Honduras is the return of the sad role of the military as the ultimate referee of the political conflicts between the civilian leadership. This is a huge step back in the democratic consolidation in the region."
Not everyone agrees.
Is this coup different?
"In the past, the militaries ousted democratically elected governments and tore up the constitution to remain in power forever. But now it was the president who was tearing up the constitution and the military that stepped in to protect it and install a new civilian-elected government," says Nicaraguan opposition lawmaker Francisco Aguirre, head of the legislature's Foreign Affairs Commission. "That's a big difference."
Twenty-four hours into the coup, most questions about the future of Honduras and greater regional stability have yet to be answered.
Some analysts think a reinstitution of Zelaya could embolden ALBA, while others think his forced ouster could strengthen the leftist allegiance by providing it with an excuse to accelerate what critics say is an authoritarian agenda in the region.