Hondurans debate ex-leader’s future

Lawmakers discuss whether to allow Zelaya’s return

By Alexandra Olson
Associated Press / December 3, 2009

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TEGUCIGALPA, Honduras - Honduras’s Congress overwhelmingly voted yesterday against reinstating President Manuel Zelaya, shrugging off international pressure four months after a coup that has isolated one of the poorest countries in the Americas.

After a 10-hour debate, lawmakers voted 111 to 14 to not return the leftist leader to power for the remainder of his term, which ends Jan. 27, as Washington and many Latin-American governments had urged. The vote was part of a US-brokered deal to end the crisis. It left restoring Zelaya up to Congress.

Zelaya, who listened to the proceedings from his refuge in the Brazilian Embassy, said before the vote that he would not return for a token two months if asked. He said he should have been reinstated before Sunday’s presidential election and urged governments not to restore ties with the incoming administration of Porfirio Lobo.

“Today, the lawmakers at the service of the dominant classes ratified the coup d’etat in Honduras,’’ Zelaya said in a statement released shortly after the vote. “They have condemned Honduras to exist outside the rule of law.’’

Honduras’s interim leaders have proven remarkably resistant to diplomatic arm-twisting since the June 28 coup, rejecting near universal demands that Zelaya be restored to his office before the previously scheduled election. Now lawmakers have snubbed international demands that he be allowed to serve the final two months of his presidency.

Lawmaker after lawmaker insisted yesterday that they were right the first time when they voted to oust Zelaya for ignoring a Supreme Court order to cancel a referendum on changing the constitution. That vote happened hours after soldiers stormed into Zelaya’s residence and flew him into exile in his pajamas.

Zelaya opponents accuse him of trying to hang on to power by lifting a ban on presidential reelection, as his leftist ally Hugo Chávez has done in Venezuela. Zelaya denies such intentions.

“My vote is [a lesson] for anyone who pretends to perpetuate himself in power. My vote is so that my son can look at me and say ‘Dad you defended democracy,’ ’’ said Antonio Rivera of Lobo’s conservative National Party.

Lawmakers loyal to Zelaya expressed dismay.

“How can we call this a constitutional succession when the president’s residence was shot at and he was taken from his home in pajamas?’’ said Cesar Ham, a lawmaker from a small leftist party that supports Zelaya. “This is embarrassing. He was assaulted, kidnapped, and ousted by force of arms from the presidency.’’

While legislators debated, 300 Zelaya supporters protested behind police lines outside Congress. Zelaya had won over many poor Hondurans with his initiative to rewrite the constitution, promising he would shake up a political system dominated by two traditional parties with little ideological differences and influenced by a few wealthy families.

Congress is dominated by Zelaya’s Liberal Party, which largely turned against him in the constitution dispute. Many Liberals voted against him yesterday.

The Supreme Court and three other institutions submitted opinions to Congress all recommending that Zelaya not be reinstated because he faces charges of abusing power and other infractions.

Honduras’s interim leaders insist the victory by Lobo in the regularly scheduled presidential election shows their country’s democracy is intact.

However, many Latin American countries, especially those led by left-leaning governments, said recognizing the election would amount to legitimizing Central America’s first coup in 20 years.

“A new form of coup d’etat has emerged,’’ Chávez said during a televised speech yesterday..

That stance was not unanimous in the region, though.

President Obama’s administration urged Zelaya’s reinstatement but it stopped short of making that a condition for recognizing Lobo’s government. Costa Rica, Peru, Panama, and Colombia backed the US view.

Zelaya, who has been holed up at the Brazilian Embassy since he sneaked back into Honduras on Sept. 21, has not said what his next steps would be, although he insisted he had no plans to seek asylum abroad.