José Miguel Insulza, secretary general of the Organization of American States (OAS), gave a grim assessment July 2 of diplomatic efforts to restore the ousted president of Honduras, warning that it would be “very hard” to head off a more severe break with the nation and that he is prepared to call for sanctions. At a news conference in Panama, the ousted Manuel Zelaya insisted that he remains the legitimate president of Honduras, and called on his supporters to keep up their protests. “We may not have the institutions, but the street is ours,” he said. “That’s the people’s place.” He added that a “dictatorship has been established” in Honduras.
In Honduras, de facto President Roberto Micheletti remained intransigent. In a veiled reference to Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez, he said of Zelaya: “He cannot come back legally as the president of this country—unless a president of a Latin American country puts him there forcibly by arms.”
“We are open to dialogue,” Micheletti told a group of foreign journalists—but added in the next breath that the courts would insist on Zelaya’s arrest if he returned. Zelaya had initially vowed to go back to Honduras on July 2, but agreed to postpone his return at least 72 hours after the OAS set a deadline for his reinstatement.
Protests continue; media restrictions in place
More protests were reported in Honduras July 2 in spite of the state of emergency, with pro- and anti-Zelaya demonstrators clashing in Tegucigalpa. Local journalists attempting to cover the street clashes claimed harassment. The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists, citing the army’s brief detention of seven international journalists this week, called on the authorities to allow all media “to report freely and without fear of reprisal.”
At a press conference, Micheletti said media restrictions were put in place to maintain public order because some organizations were urging Zelaya’s backers “to go and do what they did, breaking windows, hitting people, assaulting.” But Esdras Amado López, the owner of Channel 36 TV, called the government hypocritical: “This is against the Constitution that the new government says it is protecting. I have a license. I have a right to inform the people. This is an unconstitutional order.”
In defense of the state of emergency that remains in place, Micheletti said, “It’s for the tranquility of the country.”
US stance still equivocal
The Obama administration has strongly opposed Zelaya’s removal, and the ousted president’s wife and son are now taking refuge at the US ambassador’s residence in Tegucigalpa. But the US, which provides millions of dollars in aid to Honduras annually, is the only country in the hemisphere that has not withdrawn its ambassador from Honduras.
The US is also isolated in its refusal to officially designate Zelaya’s removal as a “coup.” The following exchange with State Department spokesman Ian Kelly took place in a in July 1 press briefing in Washington:
Reporter: Ian, any move to withdraw the U.S. ambassador?
Kelly: I’m not aware of any move to withdraw the U.S. ambassador right now.
Reporter: And is the United States still saying that the ousted president should return in two and a half, three days, whatever it is?
Kelly: We subscribe to the statement that was issued last night at the General Assembly of the OAS, that we believe that the democratically elected president should be restored to power.
Reporter: Why isn’t the ambassador being withdrawn, the U.S. ambassador?
Kelly: I just – like I say, I don’t have any information for you on that.
The US military contingent in Honduras has limited its contact with the Honduran armed forces as Washington evaluates the situation, the Pentagon announced July 2. Roughly 600 US forces are stationed at Honduras’ Soto Cano Air Base, 50 miles northwest of Tegucigalpa. “Our activities have largely been postponed with the Honduran military forces while our government has a chance to evaluate the situation and determine the way ahead,” Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman told reporters.
But he added that US forces in Joint Task Force Bravo will continue “sustainment activities” such as flight operations from Soto Cano in support of the hospital ship USNS Comfort, now operating in Nicaraguan waters. (NYT, NYT, PBS NewsHour, July 2; US State Department Daily Press Briefing, American Forces Press Service, July 1)
US senator defends coup
South Carolina Sen. Jim DeMint defended the ouster of Zelaya, saying the rule of law is working in Honduras. The conservative Republican called Zelaya “a Chávez-style dictator” who had flouted the authority of the Honduran Congress and Supreme Court. He said President Obama’s call to reinstate Zelaya is “a slap in the face to the people of the Honduras.” (AP, July 2)
“Not a coup”
Col. Herberth Bayardo Inestroza Membreño, the chief lawyer for the Honduran armed forces, insisted to the New York Times July 1 that Zelaya’s removal was not a coup. “A coup is a political move,” he told reporter Marc Lacey in Tegucigalpa. “It requires the armed forces to assume power over the country, which didn’t happen, and it has to break the rule of law, which didn’t happen either.”
Describing the mechanics of Zelaya’s removal from the country June 28, Inestroza said: “It was a clean operation. It was a fast operation. It was over in minutes, and there were no injuries, no deaths. We said, ‘Sir, we have a judicial order to detain you.’ We did it with respect.”
This contrasts vividly with Zelaya’s account before the UN General Assembly Jun 30, where he described soldiers shooting the hinges off the door of his bedroom and then bursting into the room. He related: “And with rifles and bayonets pointing at my head and chest, they told me, ‘Drop that cell phone or we will shoot, this is a military order! Drop that cell phone, drop it or we will shoot you!” Zelaya said the soldiers took him, still in his night clothes, to the airport, bundled him onto a plane and “dumped” him on the tarmac in San José, Costa Rica.
Zelaya told reporters July 1 that whatever missteps he might have made did not justify his ouster by military intervention. “If I do something illegal, take me to court and give me the right to a defense,” he said. “But do not use the army to kidnap the president and carry him violently out of the country.” (NYT, July 2; ATC, June 30)
See our last post on the resistance in Honduras.