WASHINGTON — The Organization of American States voted late Saturday to suspend Honduras from the group over the military ouster of President Manuel Zelaya, who minutes later vowed to return to his country Sunday despite warnings it would be too dangerous.
The group voted 33 to 0 just before midnight to bar Honduras immediately, saying the ouster of Zelaya had created an "unconstitutional alteration of the democratic order.''
Earlier, the group's secretary general, Jose Miguel Insulza, reported that he'd failed to broker a deal for Zelaya's return during a one-day visit to Honduras.
"The positions have hardened,'' Insulza said, telling his fellow OAS members that he sees in the post-coup government no "intent to change course'' despite talks and a week of worldwide condemnation for Zelaya's military-led removal.
The OAS suspension is likely to prevent Honduras — one of the poorest countries in the hemisphere — from securing important loans, as well as complicate its relationships with other countries. But it seemed unlikely to persuade the current government, led by Roberto Machetti, the former president of Congress, to compromise. Earlier in the day, Machetti's government had said it was quitting the organization.
Zelaya, whose ouster came after he pledged to go ahead with a referendum that the country's Supreme Court had ruled unconstitutional, defended his actions after the OAS vote. He said the proposed referendum was simply a one-issue question to be submitted to the electorate.
"I'm simply fighting to restore democracy to my country, not just for myself," he said. "I'm fighting for all of us."
Zelaya's vow to return seemed likely to widen the crisis. Argentine President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, who attended Saturday's OAS session, has said she would accompany him. The Machetti current government has promised to arrest Zelaya if he tries to enter the country.
A Canadian diplomat said that the time was "not ripe" for Zelaya's return.
"It's far from clear that current conditions could guarantee his safety upon return,'' Peter Kent, Canada's Minister of State for Foreign Affairs for the Americas, said.
In Tegucigalpa, the new government dismissed Insulza's efforts, saying it wasn't a sincere effort at negotiation. At a press conference, deputy foreign minister Martha Lorena de Casco insisted that as a political organization, the OAS does not have the legal standing to ignore Honduras' resignation.
"We saw that our good faith was taken advantage of and we were not listened to,'' she said. "Sadly, Honduras has been viewed as a small, poor country. It's sad and unfortunate, but the freedom of Honduras is not for sale.''
She showed reporters a letter signed by 40 Nicaraguan congress members showing support for the newly installed government in Tegucigalpa and said Honduras has been in talks with Israel and Panama.
"The fact that Honduras withdrew from the OAS doesn't mean we are getting rid of bilateral relations with other countries,'' she said. The Associated Press reported that Israel has denied that it recognizes the new Honduran government.
Nicaragua's representative to the OAS called a "patent lie'' claims by the post-coup Honduran government that Nicaragua, Venezuela and Cuba were plotting to invade Honduras.
The OAS vote to suspend Honduras was be a rare step by the organization to isolate one of itts members.
Cuba was ousted in 1962 after Fidel Castro rose to power, but the OAS voted last month to lift the suspension and let Cuba back in. The government in Havana has said it has no interest in doing so.
In 1991, the OAS called on member states to suspend commercial ties with Haiti and bar financial aid except humanitarian assistance. The sanctions were lifted in 1994.
Zelaya was ousted in a predawn raid at his home last Sunday after he vowed to defy a court order and hold a nonbinding referendum that day on whether an assembly should be called to rewrite the constition. He was bundled aboard a plane and flown to Costa Rica. The Supreme Court and Honduras' Congress later endorsed the military's move, though it skirted other steps that could have been taken to remove Zelaya from office.
President Barack Obama has urged for Zelaya's return, but Obama has not met with Zelaya, although the Honduran has been in Washngton for several days. The U.S. military late last week froze ties with the Central American nation's armed forces and the State Department has suspended some aid programs as it conducts a more formal review. It has not recalled the U.S. ambassador.
In the Honduran capital, Tegucigalpa, opinion was split over the new government's decision to quit the OAS.
Zelaya supporter Roger Ledezma, 30, was one of several thousands who marched from the presidential palace to the airport to call for Zelaya's return. Ledezma said the new government had no right to make any decisions, let alone withdrawing from the OAS.
"Who are they to make that decision for our country?'' Ledezma shouted over the chants of the riled up crowd. "Did they consult the people before making that decision? No! Even before they kidnapped our president they have been making decisions about our country behind closed doors.''
Supporters of the newly declared presdient Roberto Micheletti were of a different mind.
"The other countries think they can bully us," said Maraa Eugenia Torres, 37. "I'm proud that our government is standing up for itself. Who wants to be part of an organization that encourages communism anyway? They just allowed Cuba back in.'' (Clark reported from Washington; Figueroa from Tegucigalpa.)