July 1, 2009 / 1:06 AM / 10 years ago

Ousted Honduran leader unites world, divides country

(For full coverage of Honduras, click [nN28343997])

* Some polls show Zelaya popularity at 30 percent

* Move to left alarmed business elites

* Supporters praise his raising minimum wage

By Mica Rosenberg and Enrique Andres Pretel

TEGUCIGALPA, June 30 (Reuters) - Ousted Honduran President Manuel Zelaya has united much of the world behind him since he was toppled by his army, but the cowboy hat-wearing timber magnate remains a divisive figure for his own people.

Since Sunday’s dawn coup, Zelaya has given rousing speeches in Managua and New York and garnered broad international support from everyone from the White House and United Nations to European governments and leftist allies in Latin America.

Outside, the call is unanimously for Zelaya to be reinstated. But inside his tiny coffee-producing nation, people are split, with recent polls showing his popularity as low as 30 percent.

On the street, some praise Zelaya as a leader who fought for the poor against powerful wealthy elites, but others berate him as a populist allied with Venezuela’s firebrand left-wing government.

A timber magnate formerly backed by the most conservative wing of his party that has now helped to overthrow him, Zelaya often dismissed opponents who worried he would tilt the country toward the radical left.

But over his term in office he alarmed the country’s business elite as he grew closer to Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, a fierce U.S. foe, and began to mimic some of his rhetoric.

In the months and weeks leading to the coup, polls showed many Hondurans had grown wary of his dealings with Chavez, a former soldier who has used his oil wealth to spread his message of socialist revolution around the region.

"We all think he should be put in prison," said hotel worker Adela Guevara at an anti-Zelaya protest in the capital Tegucigalpa. "Outside, everyone has heard his side of the story, but they have not listened to the rest of the people."

Several blocks away, laborer Sergio Zuato joined Zelaya’s supporters outside the presidential palace demanding his return.

"We want a socialist government, a government for the poor, one that listens to us, we don’t want anything to do with those thieves in the Congress," he said.

Zelaya raised the minimum wage, handed out cash to single mothers and seeds and fertilizers to small farmers, but critics say he failed to enact systemic changes to lift Honduras from its ranking as one of the poorest countries in Latin America.

DIVIDED ON THE STREETS

Thousands of supporters and opponents of the toppled leader rallied near the presidential palace on Tuesday in a clear illustration of how divided the Central American country remains over Zelaya.

Waving national flags and signs thanking the armed forces for ousting him, opponents of Zelaya packed into the central square to hear interim president Roberto Micheletti, the former head of Congress and a member of Zelaya’s Liberal Party, rally them behind his caretaker government.

Placards depicted cartoons of Chavez, or criticized the leftist projects of the Venezuelan leader and his allies Bolivian President Evo Morales and Nicaragua’s Daniel Ortega.

"We are defending democracy, the constitution. Zelaya violated the constitution," said Jose Manzanares, an engineer. "We don’t want him here, or his friends, Chavez and Ortega."

But nearby at a pro-Zelaya rally, protesters praised him for standing up for the working classes, giving them a decent minimum wage and challenging powerful elites who they blamed for abandoning the poor.

"He is the only president of Honduras," said Almadea Olantes, a teacher. "They are the powerful groups, the rich of Honduras, the spoiled brats."

Tegucigalpa, nestled in low-lying hills, was calmer on Tuesday despite the rival protests. Taxis and cars clogged the streets in the city center and many shops, restaurants and bars reopened.

Zelaya vowed to return to Honduras on Thursday flanked by foreign leaders. But Micheletti’s new government warned he will be immediately arrested. Micheletti says he will hand over the presidential sash after elections in November.

"We can’t have two presidents like we have now," said Luis Hernandez, on the street. "Everyone is just waiting to see what will happen." (Writing by Patrick Markey in Tegucigalpa, editing by Jackie Frank)




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