Honduras Heads Toward Crisis Over Referendum

TEGUCIGALPA, Honduras (AP) - A standoff between Honduras'
president and its military, Congress and courts over a referendum
on constitutional change escalated, with the leftist leader
rejecting the Supreme Court's decision to reinstate a military
chief he had fired.

Zelaya told about 2,000 supporters outside the presidential
offices that he would stand by his decision to oust Gen. Romeo
Vasquez as head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff after the military
refused to provide support for a non-binding referendum Sunday
designed to gauge popular backing for retooling the constitution.

"The court, which only imparts justice for the powerful, the
rich and the bankers, only causes problems for democracy," he said
following Thursday's Supreme Court ruling.

Zelaya, who counts Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and Cuba's
Castro brothers as friends, says the current constitution favors
the elite in a country where 70 percent of the population is poor.
His backers warn an attempted coup d'etat is under way.

But opponents say he wants to rewrite the charter to allow
re-election so he can seek to stay in power. And Honduras' top
court, Congress and the attorney general have all said his plans
are illegal since they would violate constitutional clauses barring
some changes.

Late Thursday, lawmakers voted to open an investigation to
determine whether Zelaya's refusal to obey the Supreme Court's
order damaged the rule of law in the country, said lawmaker Ramon
Velasquez, of the opposition Christian Democratic party.

Once the investigation by five lawmakers is concluded, "maybe
we will take more drastic measures but they will be to save the
republic," said Velasquez. Honduran Attorney General Luis Alberto
Rubi has urged Congress to oust Zelaya.

After his speech Thursday, Zelaya and his supporters took
referendum ballots and other materials from a military base in
trucks and headed to an undisclosed location. The Supreme Court had
ordered the electoral material removed and stored at an air force
base.

"I'm taking the people on a mission to guarantee the democracy
and rule of law," said Zelaya. "Nobody is going to take away my
legal authority because the people, who are the voice of God, are
with me."

Zelaya has galvanized the support of labor leaders, farmers and
civic organizations who hope constitutional reforms will give them
a greater voice - as well as Latin America's leftist leaders.

"There is a coup d'etat under way and it must be stopped,"
Chavez said during his television and radio program "Alo,
Presidente!" Venezuela's socialist president offered Zelaya his
full support.

Former Cuban President Fidel Castro published an essay late
Thursday backing Zelaya.

"It was impressive to see (Zelaya) ... lecturing the Honduran
people. He forcefully denounced the crude, reactionary attempt to
block an important popular referendum. That is the 'democracy' that
imperialism defends," Castro wrote in one of his periodic
"Reflections" carried in state media.

Zelaya's dismissal of Vasquez prompted the chiefs of the army,
navy and air force to resign. The president himself announced
Wednesday night that Defense Minister Edmundo Orellana had
resigned.

Vasquez said he could not support a referendum that the courts
had declared illegal, but he ruled out the possibility of a coup.

"We are prudent and we accept the decision of the president,
whom we respect and who has the right to dismiss whom he wants,"
Vasquez said.

The Organization of American States called an emergency meeting
Friday to discuss the Honduras crisis.

The president's nonbinding referendum asks voters if they want a
further, formal election on whether to call an assembly to write a
new constitution.

Zelaya has argued that Honduras' social problems are rooted in
the 27-year-old constitution.

Zelaya, a wealthy landowner grappling with rising food prices
and a sharp spike in drug violence, is currently barred from
seeking re-election when his four-year term ends in January.

U.N. General Assembly President Miguel D'Escoto Brockmann, a
leftist Nicaraguan priest and former foreign minister, "clearly
and strongly condemns the attempted coup d'etat that is currently
unfolding against the democratically elected government of
President Manuel Zelaya of Honduras," his spokesman said.

Attorney General Luis Alberto Rubi, who was appointed by
Congress, is urging the legislators to remove Zelaya from office.
It is unclear if there is support in Congress for Zelaya's ouster,
but the legislature clearly opposes the referendum.

On Wednesday, the 128-seat unicameral chamber voted unanimously
to ask a group of international election observers to leave,
arguing their presence legitimized an illegal vote.


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