Page last updated at 11:27 GMT, Thursday, 2 July 2009 12:27 UK

An old-fashioned coup in Honduras?

In the Honduran capital, Tegucigalpa, Stephen Gibbs finds out what people think of last weekend's coup, which exiled President Manuel Zelaya.

File photo of Nicaraguan Sandinista rebels in 1979
A series of coups took place in Central America during the 1970s and 1980s

Fashions from the 1970s are much in evidence in Central America.

Go into any shopping mall from San Salvador to Panama City and you will see tie-dye T-shirts and flower-print trousers, even sunglasses of the type last seen on Jackie Onassis.

And this week, it seemed another vogue from that decade, the military coup, was back.

Journalists who were working in those heady years and have not succumbed to alcoholism or corporate cutbacks, can still bore colleagues with tales of long-forgotten takeovers in one or other of the seven Central American states.

So it did feel like a bit of a throwback as I approached the border between El Salvador and Honduras the day President Manuel Zelaya had been woken at dawn by soldiers and told he was out of a job.

Relaxed atmosphere

I had decided to travel with the correspondent from the New York Times by car.

Border crossing between Honduras and El Salvador
Despite the coup, the atmosphere at the Honduran border seemed normal

In the hours following the coup, the airport in the capital Tegucigalpa had been closed. It was a few minutes before nine in the evening when we arrived at the frontier.

I was not convinced that we would be able to cross.

We had heard that a curfew would soon be imposed across the whole country. And El Salvador had just weeks ago elected a left-wing government.

I suspected that relations with the soldiers who had just thrown out Honduras's leftist leader would be tense. How wrong I was.

Two affable men from El Salvador's immigration, and their female Honduran counterpart, came out of their apparently shared office, all smiles, to check our passports.

"You might be better not driving at night," said the Honduran. "Apparently there is a curfew".

The "apparently" struck me as odd. I thought the whole point of military rule was that everyone knew the rules.

Lack of information

We crossed the border and looked for somewhere to stay.

MANUEL ZELAYA
Manuel Zelaya
Won the Honduran presidential election for the Liberal Party in November 2005, beating the ruling National Party's candidate
Has moved Honduras away from its traditional ally the US
Enjoys the support of Venezuela's leftist President, Hugo Chavez
Businessman and rancher

There was only one option: The Mandarin Hotel, an unpretentious truckers' hostel with nylon sheets and cold beer.

"There's been no information at all," said the owner of the hostel, as he looked at the television above us. "They've put on children's cartoons instead of the news".

"But I think the president's gone," he murmured.

He looked at the floor. He had nothing more to say.

Presumably he, like millions of other Hondurans, had been told four years ago how important their vote was, how whoever won that presidential election would change their lives. And now there had been a change of government and all he was offered was Tom and Jerry.

The curfew was lifted at six the next morning and we headed for the capital.

"It will take around two hours," our good-humoured taxi driver said.

I assumed that was optimistic and that we would come across several military checkpoints. President Zelaya - who had been flown in his pyjamas to Costa Rica - had already hinted that he would return.

We saw no checkpoints, and not a single soldier. By eight in the morning we were joining the morning rush hour into Tegucigalpa.

Extraordinary events

At the hotel reception there, I was offered a view of either the capital's largest shopping mall, or the presidential palace. Both gave something away about what had happened the night before.

Security forces have been guarding the presidential palace

It was business as usual at the mall, as many Hondurans continued to shop - appearing untroubled - even unaware of their change of government.

But outside the forbidding grey-stoned presidential palace, there was proof of the extraordinary events that were taking place.

Perhaps 1,000 soldiers, looking like Roman legionnaires behind their rows of riot shields, were stationed in front of the building.

The road that runs alongside the palace had been occupied by masked protesters. They had been there all night, and were now jeering at the soldiers.

As I walked towards the building, a man - his face obscured by a mask - with a metal bar in his hand, approached me.

"Are you an American?" he shouted. It sounded like a threat.

I wondered whether telling him I was British would make matters better or worse.

"I am not American," I replied. He waved me on.

And there in front of me was the palace.

No more blind eyes

Looking at it made me think that some things really have not changed since the heyday of Latin American coups in the 1970s and 1980s.

You really can take over a country by seizing control of a few key buildings. If the soldiers are on your side, or if you are the army, it is relatively easy.

But something has changed, which is going to make the ousting of President Zelaya difficult to sustain.

A global consensus has been reached, that military coups of any form are unacceptable.

Forty years ago, plenty of blind eyes would be turned in the White House, when the telex arrived announcing that another Central American leader had been forced from power. Those days it seems, are over.

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SEE ALSO
Honduras country profile
20 Aug 12 |  Country profiles

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