By Mary Beth Sheridan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 29, 2009 5:15 PM
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said today the U.S. government is refraining from formally declaring the ouster of Honduras's president a "coup," which would trigger a cutoff of millions of dollars in aid to the Central American country.
Her statement appeared to reflect the U.S. government's caution amid fast-moving events in Honduras, where President Manuel "Mel" Zelaya was detained and expelled by the military yesterday. But the move could put Washington at odds with the rest of the hemisphere, which has roundly condemned the Honduran military's actions.
"We are withholding any formal legal determination," Clinton told reporters at a State Department briefing. She acknowledged, however, that it certainly looked like a coup when soldiers snatched a pajama-clad Zelaya and whisked him off to Costa Rica.
Later in the day, President Obama said the U.S. government believed the takeover was "not legal" and that Zelaya remained the country's leader.
White House officials made it clear they would like to see Zelaya restored as president of the country, but left vague any specific efforts the country's diplomats are making toward that goal.
"We're seeking to restore that democratic norm in Honduras, and haven't changed the recognition of who we believe is the president of that country," press secretary Robert Gibbs told reporters this afternoon.
Gibbs called the military coup a "severe disruption in any sort of democratic norm" and said U.S. policy is aimed at returning to that norm.
"Our goal now is on restoring democratic order in Honduras, again, working with partners at the OAS and in the international community," Gibbs said. But he added, "I don't want to get ahead of the 'what if' as we're focused on the -- restoring that democratic order."
Asked earlier in the day whether that included returning Zelaya to the presidency, Clinton said: "We haven't laid out any demands that we're insisting on, because we're working with others on behalf of our ultimate objectives."
Clinton's remarks reflected the complex situation in Honduras, where the congress overwhelmingly voted to depose Zelaya after he had been forcibly removed. The congress then named a new president, Roberto Micheletti, from the same party.
Zelaya, a close ally of Venezuela's anti-American President Hugo Chavez, had clashed with congress, the Supreme Court and the military in recent weeks, particularly over a referendum that might have permitted him to run for another four-year term.
The Honduran congress and Supreme Court said the referendum was illegal.
The Obama administration has devoted considerable attention to improving relations with Latin America, promising to work more closely with the hemisphere and not dictate policy in a region where it traditionally has had enormous influence.
John Negroponte, a former senior State Department official and ambassador to Honduras, said Clinton's remarks appeared to reflect U.S. reluctance to see Zelaya returned unconditionally to power.
"I think she wants to preserve some leverage to try and get Zelaya to back down from his insistence on a referendum," he said.
U.S. foreign aid to Honduras totaled $43 million in 2009, according to budget documents the administration submitted to Congress. Under the Foreign Assistance Act, no U.S. aid can be given to countries whose elected heads of government are removed by military coups.
In addition, Honduras was awarded a five-year, $215 Millennium Challenge grant from the Bush administration in 2005 to improve its roads and agriculture. That program also requires countries to be democratic.
U.S. officials said they were working to solve the Honduran crisis with other members of the Organization of American States (OAS), the main forum for political cooperation in the hemisphere.
The secretary-general of the OAS, Jose Miguel Insulza, said that the organization "will not accept a return to the past in the continent" and will not make any concessions to the new president named by the Honduran congress.
The OAS will be open to dialogue only, he said, "if it contemplates the return of President Zelaya to his legitimate position."
Staff writer Michael D. Shear contributed to this report.