Honduras Coup: With Zelaya Ousted, Both Sides Protest

Honduras Coup: With Zelaya Ousted, Both Sides Protest

Two plazas. Two demonstrations. One street apart. At the first demonstration, an angry crowd pushes against the soldiers who surround Congress’s headquarters in the Honduran capital. The protesters with sun-scorched faces and hardened hands cry out about the misery of the Honduran poor. And they chant the name of the one man they say has helped them: President Manuel Zelaya, whom they fondly call “Mel.” One hundred yards away, marchers in neat white T shirts and designer sunglasses calmly sing the country’s national anthem. They accuse Zelaya of being a polarizing class warrior. And they applaud the troops who stormed his house the morning of June 28 and flew him out of the country in his pajamas.

Such scenes of divided crowds protesting in a tropical republic may seem like a time warp to the war-ridden ’80s. Indeed, as Honduras struggles with the first Central American coup in almost two decades, it
hasn’t moved on much since the bad old days of the Cold War. Pumped-up soldiers stand on every corner, backed by humvees and low-flying helicopters. In the heat of the afternoon, groups of young men gather on street corners burning tires and smashing windows before troops hit back with baton charges and tear gas. Then as darkness descends, everyone rushes to their homes to beat curfews that last through the night.

The mustachioed, sombrero-wearing Zelaya makes for an unlikely leftist hero. A 56-year-old former rancher and timber merchant, he took office in 2006 after campaigning on a centrist platform. But once in power, he drew close to Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez and quickly copied his formula for popularity: giving handouts to the poor and blaming all the country’s problems on the rich. Amid rising crime and a spluttering economy, the establishment turned on Zelaya. The flashpoint came in June, when he
called for a nonbinding referendum on changing the constitution to allow
Presidents to stand for a second term. The Supreme Court ruled the vote illegal and soldiers whisked Zelaya away before it could take place, leaving Congressman Roberto Micheletti to be sworn in as the new President.

In another flashback to ’80s politics, supporters of the ouster have denounced Zelaya as a communist who planned to turn the nation of sweatshops and banana plantations into a Soviet-style fortress. One of his worst crimes, allege the self-proclaimed patriots, was raising the minimum wage to $290 a month. “With this action, he declared war on business,” says entrepreneur Jesus Sabat, 23, as he waves the nation’s blue-and-white flag during the demonstration.

On the other end of the street, the poor complain that their lot hasn’t improved in the past two decades. “You can work all your life, but you can never make it in this country. I want people to have opportunities here like they do in the United States,” says waiter Antonio Bustamente, 50. “The problem is the rich,” says Maya Martinez, pushing through the crowd to make her voice heard. “We have a few wealthy families who own everything and don’t even pay taxes. They attacked Zelaya because he stood up to them.”

But if Honduras is stuck in the past, much of the rest of the world seems to have moved on. In contrast to the U.S.’s record of having backed right-wing coups throughout the Cold War, U.S. President Barack Obama, along with the rest of the international community, was quick to condemn this latest Central American upheaval. His position has prompted a telling change of attitudes on the streets of Tegucigalpa. The
leftist protesters are praising the U.S., which they normally would
consider an evil empire, and urging it to help them restore Zelaya. Meanwhile, those in the halls of power grumble that the world is treating them unfairly. “Foreign governments misunderstand our situation,” Congressman Juan Orlando tells TIME. “Once they learn that this was really a legal change of power, they will change their position.” Yet it could be tough to persuade the international community of the legality of exiling a President at the barrel of a gun.

The attitude shift in Honduras is accompanied by a rise of leftists across South America. Chávez has jumped at the chance to bash the coup and promised to back Zelaya in his fight back to power. On July 1, the Organization of American States gave Honduras 72 hours to reinstate Zelaya or face suspension of its membership, and Zelaya has said he plans to return to Tegucigalpa anyway if his foes don’t comply. In response, Micheletti has sworn that he will arrest Zelaya if he sets foot in the country and that he is ready for anything Venezuela — or anyone else — can throw at him. With neither side showing signs of compromise, the risk of a violent clash rises — a prospect that worries many in Tegucigalpa. “All this mess could make the economic problems even worse,” says shop owner Daniel Joya, 42. “If things fall apart, I will have to leave this country.”

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