TEGUCIGALPA, Honduras, June 26 (UPI) -- Honduran President Manuel Zelaya's efforts to force a referendum on constitutional changes to give him a shot at re-election have won support from unions and farmers but pitted him against the courts and military and civilian powers, sparking a crisis in one of Latin America's poorest countries.
Zelaya on Friday refused to comply with a Supreme Court ruling to reinstate the country's armed forces chief, Gen. Romeo Vasquez, after firing him for refusing to comply with the president's plans.
Speaking to some 2,000 cheering supporters in the Honduran capital, Tegucigalpa, the populist president said the court was an instrument of the rich and powerful, its decision amounted to a coup and that he stood by his decision to fire the head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
"We will not obey the Supreme Court," the president told them. "The court, which only imparts justice for the powerful, the rich and the bankers, only causes problems for democracy," Zelaya said.
"No one is going to stop Sunday's referendum," he told the cheering crowd. "If an army rebels against a president," he added, "then we are back to the era of the cavemen, back to the darkest chapters in Honduran history."
Zelaya was elected in 2006 and is limited by the constitution to a single four-year term.
In an effort to run in the next presidential election in November, the president scheduled an unofficial vote for Sunday to measure public support for lifting term limits.
But Congress considered the planned referendum unlawful and on Tuesday passed a law to block his plans.
Tension heightened the following day when the armed forces chief said the military would not deliver ballot boxes for the vote -- a role the army carries out -- because of the court's ruling.
Zelaya responded by immediately sacking the armed forces chief. Within hours Defense Minister Edmundo Orellana resigned along with the heads of the air force and navy.
On Thursday the Supreme Court stepped in to the growing crisis by ordering the president to reinstate Vasquez.
Zelaya refused, saying the ruling was "an embarrassment for Hondurans."
Zelaya then led his supporters to an army base and seized ballot boxes and other electoral material.
Meanwhile hundreds of troops deployed in the capital city around the presidential palace, airport and Congress to prevent disturbances by supporters of the president.
Attorney General Luis Alberto Rubi has asked Congress to oust Zelaya.
The president enjoys popular support among the poor, including from labor leaders and farmers, greatly due to his heavy spending on social needs.
But he has little support from Honduran politicians. Even Zelaya's own Liberal Party has told him to stand aside as it already has nominated a presidential candidate for November.
However, Zelaya's attempts to stay in power have gained him the support of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and Cuba's former leader Fidel Castro.
"There is a coup d'etat under way and it must be stopped," Chavez said, before offering his full support.
Castro said Zelaya showed impressive leadership by forcefully denouncing a crude, reactionary attempt to block an important popular referendum.