By Nathan Gill and Jose Orozco
June 28 (Bloomberg) — Honduran President Manuel Zelaya was ousted by the military today after his opponents accused him of ignoring court rulings and seeking to change the constitution through a referendum to hold onto power.
Zelaya, an ally of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, was seized by soldiers at his house and forced to board a plane for Costa Rica. The military acted after the Central American nation’s Supreme Court overturned the president’s decision to fire the commander of the armed forces.
“The only reason that I wasn’t assassinated was that the soldiers are from the people,” Zelaya, 56, said in a televised interview from San Jose, the Costa Rican capital. He said he was awakened by shouts outside his house as his guards battled for 20 minutes with the military.
Electricity and telephone services in the country were cut, and government supporters took to the streets of Tegucigalpa, the capital. Leaders from around the world condemned the coup, and regional counterparts will hold an emergency summit in Managua, Nicaragua, tomorrow to discuss plans to help return Zelaya to power.
The Organization of American States condemned the coup and demanded the immediate and unconditional return to power of Zelaya, according to an e-mailed statement. The OAS General Assembly will meet in a special session on June 30.
The United Nations General Assembly announced an emergency meeting for tomorrow to discuss the political situation in Honduras, Agence France-Presse reported, citing a spokesman.
The Honduran Congress named Roberto Micheletti, the head of the legislative body, as the nation’s new president. Congress said in a statement that Zelaya was removed from office for “repeated violations of the constitution and the law and disregard of orders,” AFP reported. Micheletti ordered a 48-hour curfew and said his appointment was lawful, according to the report.
“What we have done here is an act of democracy, because our army has complied with the order of the court, prosecutors and judges,” Micheletti said at a news conference, AFP reported.
Honduras’s Foreign Minister Patricia Rodas was also seized by the military, Venezuelan Ambassador Armando Laguna said in comments broadcast on the Telesur regional network.
Chavez placed his country’s military on alert and said Micheletti would be overthrown if he took power. “This is a supreme test for us,” Chavez said.
Honduras, a country of 7.8 million people, is “completely paralyzed,” Zelaya said from Costa Rica, still wearing the night-shirt in which he was seized.
Honduran government television channels went off the air this morning, Jaime Vargas, the Honduran representative for the International Foundation for Electoral Systems, said in a phone interview from Tegucigalpa. Vargas, who advises the government on elections, said soldiers were present throughout the capital and businesses and shops were closed.
Zelaya said he tried to hide under the roof, behind an air conditioner. He was eventually found and whisked away on the presidential plane.
“The elite in the armed forces have betrayed me,” Zelaya said. “They have invaded my house in the morning with shots, they pushed me with bayonets.”
Zelaya said the attempted coup will fail if opposed by the U.S. and called for peaceful resistance against the military.
“If the U.S. is not behind this coup, the coup-mongers won’t be able to stay in power even 48 hours,” Zelaya said.
President Barack Obama said he was “deeply concerned” by the reports and called on “all political and social actors in Honduras to respect democratic norms,” according to a statement from the White House.
White House spokesman Tommy Vietor said: “There was no U.S. involvement in this action against President Zelaya.”
Zelaya this week tried to fire the head of the armed forces, General Romeo Vasquez. The general on June 26 said he would remain at his post after the Supreme Court overturned the president’s decision. The Honduran Supreme Court ordered the removal of Zelaya, AFP said, citing unidentified officials.
Marcia Villeda, vice president of the Congress, told CNN a letter of resignation was received from Zelaya and was being processed. Villeda said there has been no coup and today’s events “could be called a transition of power.”
Zelaya tried to oust Vasquez for refusing to back a plan to hold a referendum to change the constitution.
The president had planned to use results this weekend from a poll, which is being managed by the president’s supporters and the National Statistics Institute, to press for a national referendum in November on whether to change the constitution. That vote was to be held in tandem with national elections, a process the Supreme Court has already ruled illegal.
The president’s critics say his proposal for a constitutional overhaul was designed to allow him to stay in office after his term ends, according to Heather Berkman, a political risk analyst at the Eurasia Group in New York.
Over the past year, Zelaya has alienated Honduras’s political and business elite by aligning with the Chavez-led group of socialist Latin American leaders, Berkman said. Opposition presidential candidate Porfirio Lobo, who lost the 2005 race, said in a statement on the National Party Web site last month that Zelaya’s aim is to scrap the country’s one-term limit so he can run again.
Venezuela’s Chavez said he’ll do everything he can to “crush” the “coup” in Honduras. “We will do everything within our reach to restore the government,” Chavez said in comments broadcast by Telesur.
Latin America hasn’t had a military coup since Venezuela’s Chavez was briefly ousted in 2002. In 2000, Ecuador’s former President Jamil Mahuad was replaced by his vice president Gustavo Noboa after the country’s military forced him to step down following protests over his handling of the economy.