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Honduras had a new kind of coup

The upheaval epitomizes a new kind of Latin American struggle, in which elected leftist leaders defy the status quo and test the limits of democracy.

July 12, 2009|Tracy Wilkinson

TEGUCIGALPA, HONDURAS — On Saturday, June 27, the order came down: Arrest the president.

That night, Honduran military officers stopped taking calls from U.S. officials.

At sunrise Sunday, army commanders firing warning shots into the air marched through the back door of the president's home, rousted him from bed and took him away, still in his pajamas.

It was over in 15 minutes. But the coup that toppled President Manuel Zelaya was a slow boil, over many months, of an increasingly arbitrary and provocative leader, the often-exaggerated fears of a hidebound elite and a military with divided loyalties.

That simmering crisis exploded into one of the most serious challenges facing Latin America in a decade. In some ways, it was a throwback to the old Latin America, when coups and men in uniform more often than not decided who ruled. But it was also emblematic of a struggle underway today on the continent, where a crop of leftist leaders with authoritarian tendencies have risen to power through elections, defied the status quo and tested the bounds of democracy.

The following account is based on interviews with numerous Hondurans and foreigners involved in the coup or the events that led to it. Some details are still in dispute.

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When he won the presidential election in 2005 by a narrow margin, Zelaya was something of an outsider -- gruff, not fully part of the elite that had always governed. Even Hondurans who admire him, however, say he became enamored of the power he thought he had.

His ticket, he soon decided, was to align himself with the emerging bloc in the region headed by Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, an erratic, charismatic populist who evokes passionate extremes of admiration and hatred. Zelaya adopted Chavez's socialist rhetoric, his bluster, even the gimmicky dress. (He started wearing a white cowboy hat as his symbol.)

Zelaya managed to push through legislation that helped the poor and ruffled the elite, including a huge raise in the minimum wage, in a country where 40% of the population lives on less than a dollar a day. But power was more important to him than solid ideology.

"For him, it was all about becoming a big figure," said Juan Ramon Martinez, a historian and political analyst who had many dealings with Zelaya. "If he had to dance the cha-cha-cha, he'd do it. If he had to spout Marxist rhetoric, he'd do it."

Ideology might not have been important to Zelaya, but it was to his inner circle, whose members traced their roots to Honduras' small radical left that emerged in the 1970s. They had gone to university together, fought against the brutal military dictatorships of the day, suffered persecution. Eventually they went into human rights or became lawyers, but didn't abandon their goals.

They helped coax Zelaya to the left, and last year he stepped firmly into the Chavez camp by joining a group of Latin America's leftist presidents formed five years ago by the Venezuelan leader and Cuba's Fidel Castro.

With the old left gaining power, the old right leapt into action, with businessmen and the news media at their service, hitting back at Zelaya relentlessly.

Then came an old trauma. Zelaya began speaking of changing the constitution, and his enemies decided he was making a move to end term limits and so he could stay in office -- much as Chavez had done in Venezuela.

The Honduran Constitution bars presidential reelection, a provision born of a history replete with rulers who overstayed their welcome. Most famously, Tiburcio Carias, a military man with close ties to the foreign-owned fruit companies that made Honduras the original banana republic, rewrote the constitution to stay in office from 1933 to 1949.

In March, Zelaya called for a vote June 28 to weigh support for changing the constitution. Initially, the wording of the convocation was innocuous enough, and momentum built behind the "consulta popular," as it was being called. It had a lot of support among a disaffected majority for whom Honduras' 27-year experiment in democracy had failed to improve daily life.

On May 12, the attorney general's office ruled against holding the vote. Zelaya ignored the order and pressed ahead with his campaign.

Congress, led by Roberto Micheletti, a transportation magnate from Zelaya's Liberal Party, also opposed the vote. Honduras' tiny rich class is notoriously loath to share its wealth, and members saw Zelaya's move to tinker with the constitution as the last straw. They organized street protests and a media blitz against the referendum.

"Never had a ruler so frightened the instruments of political and economic power," historian Martinez said.

Pressure mounts

In mid-June, events started to veer precipitously toward disaster.

On June 12, the military high command met secretly, pointedly leaving Zelaya out of the loop. Coup rumors that had ricocheted around the capital for weeks grew stronger. Five days later, Zelaya's defense minister quit, though this development would not be revealed for a week.

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