TEGUCIGALPA, Honduras — The head of Congress was sworn in as president of Honduras on Sunday, while ousted democratically elected leader Manuel Zelaya _ clad in an undershirt _ declared from Costa Rica that his expulsion was the product of an illegal coup by power-hungry elitists.
Zelaya was spirited out of the presidential palace at 5 a.m. Sunday by the military, which flew him in his pajamas to Costa Rica. It was the first coup in Central America since military officials forced President Jorge Serrano of Guatemala to step down in 1993 after he tried to dissolve Congress and suspend the constitution.
Zelaya, a leftist ally of Venezuela's Hugo Chavez, found himself increasingly isolated over a non-binding referendum that was to take place Sunday.
The attorney general and the Supreme Court declared the poll illegal, because it asked voters whether they wanted a constituent assembly to modify the constitution to allow the president to seek reelection. The constitution prohibits changes to some of its clauses, including those that deal with reelection.
Even the president's own party was against the referendum.
Zelaya had vowed to continue the plebiscite, so the military took action to stop what was widely considered a power-grab.
"They are going to the extent of killing a president for taking a public opinion poll which is not binding, doesn't represent any law, is not a referendum and isn't anything?" Zelaya said in a news conference in Costa Rica. "This is arbitrary and monstrous. Is it illegal for you to ask me a question and for me to answer it?"
Zelaya told Venezuelan TV network Telesur that he woke up to the sound of gunfire and the shouts of his security guards, who fought off troops for at least 20 minutes. He said he hid behind an air conditioner to avoid getting shot.
Authorities here cut off electricity and telephones in the capital, in an apparent attempt to maintain order as hundreds of the president's supporters took to the streets outside the presidential palace to demand Zelaya's return.
"We want the president we chose, not the one they imposed," said Jose Hernandez, who brought his wife and pre-school daughter to protest on the street as tires burned and men strutted the streets carrying heavy chains and metal bars.
The secretary of Congress read a resignation letter allegedly sent by Zelaya, which the former president called "totally false."
"What I am deducing now is that this is not just a military coup, but a political conspiracy," Zelaya told CNN in Spanish.
A power vacuum lasted several hours until the head of the legislature, Roberto Micheletti, was sworn in as interim president by the Congress, as the constitution requires. Micheletti, a member of Zelaya's party, denied that a coup had taken place.
"We have had a presidential succession," Micheletti said at an evening press conference shortly after taking office and naming members of his cabinet. "There is a new president in this country."
He instituted a 48-hour _ 9 p.m. to 6 a.m. _ curfew and promised that presidential elections would take place as planned in November.
"We are going to abide by the law," he said. "We will not stay in power one minute longer than the constitution allows for this presidential succession."
Latin American leaders denounced the ouster as illegal and called for Zelaya's return.
President Barack Obama said he was "deeply concerned'' and U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Zelaya's forced exile should be condemned.
"I call on all political and social actors in Honduras to respect democratic norms, the rule of law and the tenets of the Inter-American Democratic Charter," Obama's statement read, referring to the charter of the Organization of American States.
OAS Secretary General Jose Miguel Insulza issued a statement Sunday calling "on the Honduran people, the nations in the Americas and the international community to join forces against this grave disturbance of the democratic process."
Chavez said his military would be on alert, and would take action if any harm came to Venezuela's ambassador or embassy.
“That military junta would be entering a de facto state of war," Reuters news agency quoted Chavez as saying. "We would have to act militarily ... I have put the armed forces of Venezuela on alert."
The Cuban press reported in Havana that Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodríguez said Cuban Ambassador Juan Carlos Hernandez was held briefly in Tegucigalpa after he and other foreign diplomats tried unsuccessfully to prevent soldiers from taking away Honduran Foreign Minister Patricia Rodas.
"Venezuela does not recognize any president other than the President of Honduras, Manuel Zelaya," Chavez said.
Chavez said his ambassador was beaten and left at the side of a road.
"If you ask me, this was a kidnapping: they took the president out of his bed," said protester Alex Flores, who joined the Association of Taxi Drivers in the street as tires and piles of garbage burned. "We are going to be here blocking off all these streets until they bring him back."
Robles is a staff writer for The Miami Herald.
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