The newly appointed president of Honduras, Roberto Micheletti, is warning that if ousted president Manuel Zelaya attempts to return here, he will be immediately arrested and sent to prison.
“If he comes back to our country, he would have to face our tribunals and our trials and our laws,” Micheletti said in an interview with The Washington Post late Monday night at his residence in the hills overlooking the capital. “He would be sent to jail. For sure, he would go to prison.”
Micheletti was named the new president of Honduras by the National Congress on Sunday, hours after soldiers burst into the presidential palace, detained Zelaya while he was still in his pajamas and then put him on a plane to Costa Rica.
The new Honduran president said he did not see any way to negotiate with the Obama administration and international diplomats seeking a return of Zelaya to power because Micheletti insisted that Zelaya was guilty of crimes against the country.
“No, no compromise, because if he tries to come back or anyone tries to bring him back, he will be arrested,” Micheletti said.
The streets of Tegucigalpa were empty Monday night because of a curfew, but the city is awash in rumors that Venezuela is marshaling its forces for a possible invasion. Micheletti was meeting with Honduran congressional leaders and others at his house, as soldiers stood guard outside.
Micheletti cautioned the world that his army was on alert and prepared to defend the country against any invasion.
“Our army also consists of 7.5 million people prepared to defend freedom and liberty,” said Micheletti, who stressed that Hondurans were a peaceful people.
Media outlets friendly to Zelaya have been shut down, and some reporters are hiding — as are members of Zelaya’s former cabinet. Most Hondurans must rely on state media or on newspapers and television stations that support the coup. Cable news outlets such as CNN en Español have been blacked out, but it is still possible to get outside news via satellite.
Although the United States condemned the coup, the most vocal statements of opposition — along with threats of military intervention — have come from Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, who led a summit of leftist allies in Nicaragua on Monday that demanded Zelaya’s reinstatement.
“We are saying to the coup organizers, we are ready to support a rebellion of the people of Honduras,” Chávez said. “This coup will be defeated.”
Micheletti said, “We have fears because of Mr. Chávez. We don’t know what to expect of him.”
Micheletti and others in his new government say that Zelaya was acting as a strongman who was surrounding himself with leftist allies of Chavez, including the Castro brothers in Cuba and President Daniel Ortega of Nicaragua.
Leaders around the hemisphere, including President Obama, quickly condemned the removal of Zelaya and called it a coup. But Honduran leaders insist that the world does not understand what happened here. They say that Zelaya was found guilty by a Supreme Court tribunal, that his arrest by the military was legal and that Zelaya was attempting to circumvent the Congress and the courts by staging a referendum vote on Sunday. The referendum, they say, could have led to a change in the constitution that would have allowed Zelaya to run for the top office again after his term ended in January 2010.
Micheletti said he was sending a delegation Tuesday to the United States to make the case against Zelaya and for the new government.
The new president said he thought his country could hold out long enough for world opinion to turn its way. Venezuela has already said it would suspend oil shipments, and Honduras’s neighbors — El Salvador, Guatemala and Nicaragua — announced that they would stop overland trade.
“That is why I want to make a call to our allies in the United States, that they should stick with us at this very important moment in the life of the country,” Micheletti said. “The economy of our country is completely destroyed — because of the acts of the former government. If aid [from the United States and Europe] keeps coming, we will show that every little penny that we borrowed will be spent for the people of this country.”
Micheletti promised that Honduras would hold presidential elections in November and that a new president would take office in January 2010. Micheletti, a leader of the Liberal Party, which is also the party of Zelaya, vowed that he would not run for president.
After Zelaya was hustled out of the country to exile in Costa Rica, the leaders of his ouster produced a letter of resignation purportedly signed by Zelaya. It conceded that he had triggered a national crisis by his actions, that his political base had eroded, that he faced insurmountable health problems and that with his irrevocable resignation he hoped to help heal the wounds of the nation.
Zelaya called the letter a fabrication.
Micheletti said he signed it.
Micheletti also said that Zelaya, who had been his political ally for years in the Liberal Party, was a master at bending world opinion his way. Another source in the government here said that Zelaya actually was wearing a crisply ironed dress shirt when he was sent into exile in Costa Rica, but that he changed to a white T-shirt to show how he was hustled out of his official residence at dawn while still in his pajamas.
Senior Obama officials said an overthrow of the Zelaya government had been brewing for days — and they worked behind the scenes to stop the military and its conservative, wealthy backers from pushing Zelaya out. The U.S. failure to stop the coup gave antagonists such as Chávez room to use events in Honduras to push his own vision for the region.
The coup appears to have been well organized. Sunday morning, as Zelaya was being ousted, local television and radio stations went off the air. Cellphone and land-line communications were jammed, and many numbers offered nothing more than a busy signal.
Zelaya, speaking to reporters in Managua, demanded that he be restored to power but said that violence was not an option.
He also said that many Hondurans had no idea about the worldwide condemnation of the coup because private television stations in his country blacked out coverage, playing cartoons and soap operas.
By early Monday night, another meeting of Latin American nations had begun in Managua, with such participants as Mexico and the secretary general of the Organization of American States, José Miguel Insulza, criticizing Zelaya’s opponents.
Across the Americas and Europe, leaders called for Zelaya’s reinstatement. Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, president of Brazil, said his government would not recognize a Honduran administration not headed by Zelaya.
“We in Latin America can no longer accept someone trying to resolve his problem through the means of a coup,” Lula said.
The United Nations also condemned the coup and said Micheletti should make way for Zelaya’s return. Zelaya was invited to address the U.N. General Assembly on Tuesday.
The ouster in the poor, agricultural country of 7 million people revived memories of coup-driven turmoil in Latin America. Zelaya, who has spoken frequently with reporters, has been quick to mention the political chaos that military overthrows have traditionally caused.
“Are we going to go back to the military being outside of the control of the civil state?” Zelaya asked. “Everything that is supposed to be an achievement of the 21st century is at risk in Honduras.”