TEGUCIGALPA – Honduras’ interim government battled on Tuesday against a tide of international support for ousted President Manuel Zelaya who vowed to return home after troops toppled and exiled him in a coup.
Honduras faces growing pressure to reinstate Zelaya, an ally of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, who was forced out on Sunday and spirited away by the army to Costa Rica in the first military putsch in Central America since the Cold War.
The Honduran capital Tegucigalpa was mostly quiet by Monday night after hundreds of Zelaya supporters clashed during the day with riot police and troops to demand his return to power in one of the world’s major coffee producers.
There were no immediate signs coffee output or exports — expected to total 3.22 million 60-kg bags in the 2008-2009 harvest — had been affected as ports and roads remained open.
In a signal of the international support behind him, Zelaya planned to speak at the United Nations on Tuesday and said he would travel back to Honduras on Thursday with Organisation of American States (OAS) chief Jose Miguel Insulza.
“I am going to Tegucigalpa on Thursday. The president elected by the people is coming,” Zelaya said at a meeting of leftist Latin American leaders in Nicaragua. He said he had accepted an offer by Insulza to accompany him but gave no details of how he expected to carry out his return.
Zelaya, a cowboy hat-wearing logging magnate, upset conservative elites with his growing alliance with Chavez, a fierce U.S. adversary. He riled the armed forces, courts and Congress with his quest to change the constitution to let presidents seek re-election beyond a single four-year term.
Congress named Roberto Micheletti, a conservative-leaning veteran of Zelaya’s Liberal Party as interim president. His officials said they would oppose any attempt by Zelaya to return home as president.
Micheletti, who set himself up in the presidential palace despite the protests outside, told Reuters most Hondurans supported the coup, which he said had saved the country from swinging to a radical Chavez-style socialism.
“He is going to have to ask for permission,” new foreign minister Enrique Ortez said about Zelaya’s promise to return. “That depends whether it is legal or illegal. It could be legal if he doesn’t think of himself as president.”
Left-wing Latin American presidents led by Venezuela’s Chavez said in Managua, capital of neighbouring Nicaragua, that they would withdraw their ambassadors from Honduras in protest at the coup. Central American nations plan to do the same and announced a two-day halt in trade.
U.S. President Barack Obama called the ouster illegal. But the coup is a test for the White House in a region where Chavez and his allies have forged an anti-U.S. alliance, especially during the administration of former President George W. Bush.
Tegucigalpa spent its second night under curfew on Monday. Earlier, dozens were injured in clashes between police and stone-tossing Zelaya supporters outside the gates of the presidential palace. But most of the city was calm.
“The only way out of this is calling elections now,” said Geovanni Santamaria, 25, owner of an Internet cafe.
The U.S. State Department on Monday recommended U.S. citizens avoid travel to Honduras until further notice, because of the “unstable political and security situation”.
The coup has become the biggest political crisis in Central America since the U.S. invasion of Panama in 1989. Honduras had been stable since the end of military rule in the early 1980s.
Honduras was a U.S. ally in the 1980s when Washington helped Central American governments fight Marxist rebels and the United States still keeps some 600 troops at a Honduran base used for humanitarian and disaster relief operations.