In a throwback to Latin America’s unstable past, the Honduran army ousted President Manuel Zelaya on Sunday, sending the leftist leader into exile as a hastily convened Congress replaced him with its speaker, one of Zelaya’s fiercest enemies.
The coup was a brazen blow to the region’s seemingly solid move to democratic rule, the first such military action in Central America in 16 years. It followed weeks of confrontation between Zelaya and conservative forces in Honduras that came to a head over possible changes to the constitution. Zelaya was seized from his home, still in his pajamas, hours ahead of a nonbinding vote on the reforms, including one that could allow presidential reelection in Honduras.
“This has been a brutal kidnapping,” Zelaya said later Sunday in a news conference at the airport in San Jose, the Costa Rican capital.
He described how masked soldiers burst into his home before dawn, firing warning shots, shouting and pointing a gun at his chest. He was hauled away to a Honduran air force jet, he said, and flown to Costa Rica.
Zelaya declared that he remained the president of Honduras and vowed to finish out the last six months of his term.
“They have betrayed our country,” Zelaya said of the coup plotters. “They have betrayed democracy.”
The military action came hours ahead of a referendum in which Zelaya was hoping to gauge public opinion on proposed changes to the constitution, including one that would end presidential term limits.
Army leaders, as well as the Congress, the Supreme Court and election officials had opposed the national vote, calling it illegal. In response, Zelaya fired the nation’s top military commander and ignored a Supreme Court order to reinstate him.
Zelaya’s foes suspected he was seeking to amend the constitution to stay in power, as other Latin American leaders have done. But Zelaya, prone to fiery rhetoric, has said he is not interested in reelection.
Condemnation of the coup from world leaders -- including President Obama and Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez -- was swift.
Obama said he was “deeply concerned” by the developments and called on “all political and social actors in Honduras to respect democratic norms [and] the rule of law.”
“Any existing tensions and disputes must be resolved peacefully through dialogue free from any outside interference,” he said.
Chavez, a close Zelaya ally, said the coup was “a troglodyte act of the 19th century.”
The coup left Honduras, one of the region’s poorest countries, awash in tense intrigue. As Zelaya was in Costa Rica lashing out at his foes, an official at the Honduran Congress read out a purported resignation letter from the president. Asked about it in Costa Rica, Zelaya said it was “completely false” and evidence of a “broader conspiracy.”
Then the Congress voted to replace Zelaya for actions that it said had “polarized” the nation. The vote was unanimous, but it was unclear how many legislators were in attendance. Some waved copies of the constitution and chanted “Long live Honduras!”
The Congress swore in as new president Roberto Micheletti, who was the head of the law-making body and a bitter foe of Zelaya.
As news of the coup spread, angry Zelaya supporters took to the streets of the capital, Tegucigalpa. “Mel! Mel! Don’t go!” they shouted, using the president’s nickname. But large protests did not materialize. Troops moved through the city and surrounded the presidential palace and other government buildings. Some radio and television stations were knocked off the air and electricity was cut in some areas.
Honduras’ new rulers imposed an overnight curfew late Sunday, forcing citizens to stay indoors after dark. One leftist legislator reportedly was killed as troops tried to arrest him.
Foreign Minister Patricia Rodas, speaking to a television network, called on the public to “fight in the streets for the president to return to Honduras.” She said, “We will resist until he returns.”
Later, Venezuela claimed that Rodas, along with its ambassador and those of Cuba and Nicaragua, was briefly detained by Honduran troops. The report could not be independently verified.
U.S. officials had been bracing for upheaval in Honduras. On Friday, the State Department expressed concern over “the breakdown in the political dialogue among Honduran politicians” over the vote on constitutional reform.
But within Honduran institutions, there was support for Zelaya’s removal. Sunday evening, after being sworn in, Micheletti gave a speech in which he said his rise to power was “completely legal.” Zelaya’s removal will allow divisive wounds to heal, he said. The army was following orders from the Supreme Court, he added, to cheers from his supporters.
The events Sunday seemed to have come out of a past many thought long dead. Latin America suffered army takeovers for decades, into the ‘60s and ‘70s, but had since moved into an increasingly stable period of civilian democratic rule. In Honduras, the army overthrew elected presidents in 1963 and 1972 and held on to power until 1981.
“This coup is regrettable, not just for Honduran democracy but for Central America and the entire hemisphere,” said Costa Rican President Oscar Arias, who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for efforts to end conflict in the region. He spoke alongside Zelaya in a show of support.
“We thought Central American democracy had consolidated sufficiently to avoid this,” Arias said. “It is sad to see some civilians applaud a coup just because they disagree with policies. This has shown us that democratic institutions in Central America are still fragile . . . vulnerable.”
The previous military coups often had U.S. backing or blessing. Perhaps recalling that history, Zelaya on Sunday speculated that the U.S. might have had a hand in his ouster. “If the United States is not behind this coup, then the plotters won’t last 48 hours in power,” he said.
U.S. officials denied involvement.
Honduras was for years a faithful ally to the United States. In the 1980s, Honduras lent its territory to U.S. and U.S.-backed forces fighting to overthrow the Sandinista government in neighboring Nicaragua. But as U.S. interest in the region waned after the Cold War and crises elsewhere demanded attention, Honduras joined many other Latin American countries that moved further to the left and away from Washington’s sphere of influence.
Zelaya is one of a new crop of leftist presidents, such as Chavez and Ecuador’s Rafael Correa. Zelaya led efforts to get the Organization of American States to lift restrictions on Cuba during the group’s summit in Honduras last month.
The coup was the first in Central America since the Guatemalan army in 1993 forced President Jorge Serrano to resign after he dissolved Congress and attempted to suspend the constitution.
Renderos is a special correspondent.
Times staff writers Paul Richter and Peter Nicholas in Washington contributed to this report.