TEGUCIGALPA, Honduras — Protests against the military coup in this sweltering Central American republic mushroomed over the weekend as the de facto government snubbed international demands to reinstate ousted President Manuel Zelaya.
Amid defiant chants, thousands of Zelaya supporters massed in the capital Saturday and marched to surround the international airport.
The protesters said they would return Sunday to greet the elected president, who promised in a recorded message that he would fly back to his homeland.
“I am prepared to make any effort, any sacrifice to obtain the freedom that our country needs,” Zelaya said in the statement that was played on loudspeakers to cheering crowds. “Either we are free or, if we lack the bravery to defend ourselves, we will be permanent slaves.”
The airport was guarded by thick lines of riot police with tear gas guns, in front of rows of soldiers clutching automatic rifles.
Protest leaders held masked supporters back from confronting the troops. “Do not provoke the soldiers and police. We have no guns or bullet-proof vests. This is a pacifist movement,” shouted Luis Sosa, a leader in the teacher’s trade union as some protesters pushed against the police lines.
Fearing violence, Roman Catholic Cardinal Oscar Rodriguez read out a message on Honduran television urging Zelaya to stay away. “We think that a return to the country at the moment could provoke a bloodbath,” he said.
In Washington, the Organization of American States voted to suspend Honduras, which had ignored a 72-hour deadline to reinstate Zelaya.
Honduras became only the second nation to be suspended from the OAS in the organization's history. In 1962, Cuba was suspended after then-President Fidel Castro refused to hold democratic elections.
However, before the OAS made its latest ruling, Honduras de facto President Roberto Micheletti announced the republic was leaving the group of nations of its own accord. “The OAS is a political organization, not a court, and it can't judge us,” he said in a televised address to the nation.
Micheletti, a 55-year-old career politician, took office hours after Zelaya had been flown out of the nation at gunpoint.
The de facto president promises that his predecessor will be arrested if he dares set foot on Honduran soil, and says Zelaya faces criminal charges, including treason.
The coup occured on June 28 in response to the leftist Zelaya's attempt to push through a non-binding referendum on whether to allow presidents to serve second terms in office.
The Supreme Court ruled the vote illegal and adversaries accused the president of trying to defy the constitution in order to stay in power.
The defiant Zelaya said he would go ahead with the vote anyway, but was whisked out the country before he could.
On Friday, OAS Secretary General Jose Miguel Insulza made a whirlwind tour of this small country of banana plantations and sweatshops to meet Supreme Court judges and others.
Late that night, he said he was unconvinced by their arguments and classified the power change as “a military coup, pure and simple.”
"In no country in the world is it legal for soldiers to take a president out of his house and fly him out the country," he said in a tense press conference. "It is a military coup in a region where we thought there would be no more coups. It is a big step backwards."
Insulza said suspension from the organization will automatically lead to cutting various loans and aid from member countries.
Such sanctions could punish the poor nation, which relies on remittances from workers in the United States for more than 20 percent of its income. Honduras has already been hammered by the global economic crisis, and has been suffering from a wave of violent crime.
In the aftermath of the coup, large demonstrations in favor of the new regime have been held daily across the country.
But none have come close in scale to the weekend rallies to restore the ousted president.
Truck driver Cesar Fonseca, who marched in favor of Zelaya, said that he feared bloodshed over the crisis, but argued that he could not do nothing.
“We cannot just let our democracy be taken away from us,” Fonseca said, as he plodded on under the scorching midday sun. “It doesn’t matter if you like or hate Zelaya. He is our elected leader and he has to return to power.”
More GlobalPost dispatches on the coup: