TEGUCIGALPA, Honduras - The Obama administration has backed away
from its call to restore ousted Honduran President Manuel Zelaya to
power and instead put the onus on him for taking "provocative actions"
that polarized his country and led to his overthrow on June 28.
The new position was contained in a letter this week to Sen. Richard
Lugar, R-Ind., that also rejected calls by some of Zelaya's backers to
impose harsh economic sanctions against Honduras.
condemning the coup, the letter pointedly failed to call for Zelaya's
return. "Our policy and strategy for engagement is not based on
supporting any particular politician or individual," said the letter to
Lugar, the ranking Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations
The new U.S. position is likely to undercut diplomatic efforts to bring about Zelaya's return, analysts said.
may in time help the administration win confirmation for three top
State Department officials President Barack Obama has appointed to deal
with the region. Senate Republicans have put their nominations on hold
to protest U.S. policy in Honduras.
Some 1,000 pro-Zelaya
demonstrators protested outside the U.S. Embassy in the capital,
Tegucigalpa, Thursday after the State Department letter was made public
in the Honduran media.
While condemning the overthrow of Zelaya
and his pre-dawn expulsion, the Aug. 4 letter said that Zelaya, who's
allied with Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez, was largely to blame for his
"We also recognize that President Zelaya's insistence on
undertaking provocative actions contributed to the polarization of
Honduran society and led to a confrontation that unleashed the events
that led to his removal," said the letter, signed by Assistant
Secretary of State for Legislative Affairs Richard Verma.
think this could open the door for an alternative option as president,"
said Jorge Yllesca, a political consultant based in Honduras, meaning
that interim President Roberto Micheletti might try to end the
political crisis by stepping aside, not for Zelaya but for the
president of the Congress or the chief justice of the Supreme Court.
crisis began when Zelaya insisted on staging a June 28 referendum on a
constitutional change to allow him to seek re-election. Zelaya had only
six more months in office before a non-Chavez ally was likely to take
over as Honduras' next president.
Chavez and two of his South
American allies, Bolivian President Evo Morales and Ecuadorean
President Rafael Correa, have won public approval for new constitutions
that are allowing them to extend their terms in office.
Honduran Congress, the attorney general's office and the state
prosecutor all advised Zelaya that Honduras' constitution didn't permit
He went ahead anyway and was ousted.
Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a conservative Republican congresswoman from Miami, applauded the State Department letter.
seems that the U.S. is stepping a bit away from its unabashed support
for Zelaya," Ros-Lehtinen said in a telephone interview.
prefer that the Obama administration break ranks with the rest of Latin
America and Europe and drop its support for Zelaya.
Zelaya to power would be the wrong message to send," Ros-Lehtinen said.
"It would say you can violate the law, go against the Congress and get
away with it, and the U.S. will stand with you."
senators angered by the administration's Honduras policy put a hold on
Obama's nomination of Arturo Valenzuela to be assistant secretary of
State for Western Hemisphere affairs, along with two key ambassadorial
Lugar, in a July 30 letter to Secretary of State
Hillary Clinton, said he hoped that her explanation could "improve the
prospects" of confirming Valenzuela this week.
Sen. Jim DeMint,
R-S.C., said Wednesday that he was "glad to see the State Department is
finally beginning to walk back its support for Manuel Zelaya," but an
aide said that DeMint hadn't lifted his hold on Valenzuela's nomination
because despite the policy shift, Obama still supports Zelaya's return
The Obama administration has taken a series of low-level steps to show its dissatisfaction with the Micheletti government.
U.S. has revoked diplomatic visas for five Hondurans associated with
the Micheletti government. It's suspended anti-drug operations from the
U.S. military base in Honduras, withheld $16 million in defense aid and
warned that it might not disburse the final 10 percent of money for
Honduras under a $250 million aid program.
The U.S. also has
strongly supported the mediation efforts of Costa Rican President Oscar
Arias, who's proposed a compromise plan to reinstate Zelaya with
limited powers. Micheletti has rejected the plan, while Zelaya has
The letter to Lugar said that U.S. officials wouldn't go much further.
"We have rejected calls for crippling economic sanctions," it said.
The letter comes at a time when Zelaya is expressing his unhappiness with the Obama administration.
United States only needs to tighten its fist, and the coup will last
five seconds," Zelaya said Tuesday in Mexico, adding that 70 percent of
Honduras' economy depends on trade and remittances from the United
Mark Weisbrot, the co-director of the Center for
Economic and Policy Research in Washington, said the Obama
administration could seize the U.S. bank accounts of Hondurans
associated with the coup and withdraw their tourist and diplomatic
visas to the U.S.
"These are steps that are very easy to take and would have an impact," Weisbrodt said.
Jett, a former U.S. ambassador who now teaches at Pennsylvania State
University, said the Obama administration has followed a middle course
because it has competing goals.
"On one hand, our interests are
saved if this guy is not in power or allowed to violated the
constitution and perpetuate himself in power," Jett said. "But we do
have the obligation to be supportive of democracy."
(James Rosen in Washington contributed to this article.)
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