Anatomy of a coup: Honduran's ouster months in the making

TEGUCIGALPA, Honduras — Deposed Honduran president Manuel Zelaya says all he wanted was to conduct a public opinion poll — even though the supreme court had ruled it illegal, the attorney general threatened to arrest him, and he faced mutiny in the armed forces.

Zelaya's defiant insistence on asking voters whether they were interested in amending the country's constitution ended at dawn Sunday, when hooded soldiers roused the president out of bed, pointed rifles at his chest and flew him to Costa Rica.

The brazen overthrow of the leftist firebrand capped a political crisis that experts say began months ago and heated up every day last week amid a flurry of court orders, dismissals, resignations and protests. Experts say the breakdown in the rule of law here underscores Honduras' weak hold on democratic institutions and highlights a deep political divide that has only worsened.

''I feel bad about what happened,'' said Gen. Romeo Vásquez, the head of the armed forces who was fired by Zelaya and reinstated by the court the next day, told The Miami Herald in an exclusive interview. "I tried very hard to counsel the president to find a legal way out of this. There was no way. Nobody is above the law.''

Zelaya, a wealthy farmer known for his cowboy hats and thick mustache, took office four years ago just as more and more leftists started winning Latin American presidencies at the ballot box.

In 2008, he started getting closer to Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, by joining both the organization of countries that get Venezuelan oil at deep discounts and the ALBA group of mostly leftist allies.

In February this year, Venezuelan voters lifted the ban on term limits. Experts say that's when Zelaya -- whose term ends in seven months -- started thinking about staying on longer. But Honduras' strict 1982 constitution, which was written as the nation emerged from military rule, prohibits changes to several of its articles, including the ban on reelection.

A month after Chávez's victory, Zelaya announced plans to conduct a referendum asking voters whether they supported adding a fourth ballot to the November presidential election that would approve a constituent assembly to change the constitution. That referendum was not binding and made no mention of term limits, but the country's political leaders were suspicious.

''There was a lot of opposition to this, so the political forces of the nation started coming up with legal measures saying this was illegal,'' said Eduardo Enrique Reina, Zelaya's minister of communications who is now in hiding. "So we tried doing it through another mechanism.''

The attorney general ruled that the elections council could not legally conduct the poll, so Zelaya said the National Statistics office would do it instead. He came up with a plan for the military to distribute the ballots at stores and public places, but the court disagreed with that, too.

At issue was that the question would lead to changes to parts of the constitution, which are not supposed to be modified.

''He decided to continue with the poll,'' said Zelaya supporter Carlos Sosa, Honduras' ambassador to the Organization of American States. "He considered that the court had no jurisdiction in this matter, no more than if the president wanted to ask people if they liked one flavor of toothpaste over another.''

The armed forces chief consulted military lawyers, the bar association, the Supreme Court and political leaders for legal opinions, Vásquez said.

''There was a clamor from the ranks,'' Vásquez said. "They did not want to do something illegal.''

On Wednesday, Vásquez, the defense minister and the heads of the army, navy and air force met with the president.

"I did not tell him, 'I refuse to do this,' '' Vásquez said. "The commanders and I went to him telling him that we were ready to comply, but that we had a problem in that it was illegal. We asked him if he had a lawyer with a different interpretation.

"He relieved me of duty.''

The defense minister quit, and so did the generals.

The president published a decree in the official gazette announcing plans to continue with the referendum. The legislature voted that day to ban any referendum within 180 days of a presidential election.

That night, the president held a press conference, announcing Vásquez's ouster.

''No one is going to stop Sunday's referendum,'' Zelaya told a cheering crowd. "If an army rebels against a president . . . then we are back to the era of the cave men, back to the darkest chapters in Honduran history.''

On Thursday, the Supreme Court reinstated Vásquez while Congress announced an investigative commission against the president. The attorney general seized the ballot materials, which were being held at an air force hangar.

But Zelaya was steadfast.

''Congress cannot investigate me, much less remove me or stage a technical coup against me because I am honest, I'm a free president and nobody scares me,'' he said.

On Friday, Zelaya called thousands of supporters to come with him to the air force base where the ballots were still being held, although they had officially been declared property of the attorney general's office.

The president took the ballots to the presidential palace, Zelaya said, for safe keeping. National Human Rights Commissioner Ramón Custodio López said U.S. Ambassador Hugo Llorens tried to mediate, to no avail.

Meanwhile in Washington, D.C., the OAS held an emergency meeting and made plans for Secretary General José Miguel Insulza to visit Honduras the following Monday.

''You have the Supreme Court interfering in the president's right to hire and fire his military chief,'' said Sosa, the OAS ambassador. "This is where we begin to see the democratic institutions were at risk.''

Zelaya started distributing the ballots nationwide on Saturday.

''There were cars, buses and planes getting those ballots all over the country,'' said Custodio. "I don't know where he got the cash to do all that.''

At 9 that night, Vásquez said he was called to another meeting with the members of the Supreme Court and the attorney general, where he was shown a court order to arrest Zelaya.

Vásquez said the president had published another decree, showing he planned to take the nonbinding referendum a step further by ordering the constitutional reform to begin right away.

That, Vásquez said, is considered an "act of treason.''

Acting on the court order, Vásquez said he supervised an 18-point mission to seize the ballots around the nation -- and capture the president. Zelaya was spirited out of his bedroom and sent in his pajamas to Costa Rica in a quest to avoid violence, Vásquez said.

''He is an excellent boss. He is a good person. I tried to have a friendship with him, but the friendship ends with duty,'' Vásquez said. ``We had to get him out of the area to avoid worse things. We felt that if he stayed here, worse things were going to happen and there would be bloodshed.

"He had already been acting above the law.''

Power was turned off in much of the capital and TV channels went blank.

By that afternoon, the president of congress -- Zelaya's nemesis Roberto Micheletti -- was sworn in as president.