U.S. Condemns Coup in Honduras but Makes No Firm Demands

After meeting with Colombian President Álvaro Uribe, President Obama decried the "terrible precedent" being set by the coup in Honduras.
After meeting with Colombian President Álvaro Uribe, President Obama decried the "terrible precedent" being set by the coup in Honduras. (By Marvin Joseph -- The Washington Post)
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By Mary Beth Sheridan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 30, 2009

President Obama said yesterday that the military ouster of Honduran President Manuel Zelaya was illegal and could set a "terrible precedent," but Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said the United States government was holding off on formally branding it a coup, which would trigger a cutoff of millions of dollars in aid to the impoverished Central American country.

Clinton's statement appeared to reflect the U.S. government's caution amid fast-moving events in Honduras, where Zelaya was detained and expelled by the military on Sunday. The United States has joined other countries throughout the hemisphere in condemning the coup. But leaders face a difficult task in trying to restore Zelaya to office in a nation where the National Congress, military and Supreme Court have accused him of attempting a power grab through a special referendum.

Peter Hakim, president of the Inter-American Dialogue in Washington, said the situation presented a dilemma for the United States and other countries. Zelaya is "fighting with all the institutions in the country," Hakim said. "He's in no condition really to govern. At the same time, to stand by and allow him to be pushed out by the military reverses a course of 20 years."

U.S. officials had tried ahead of time to avert the coup, warning the Honduran military and politicians against suspending democratic order. The U.S. ambassador to Honduras, Hugo Llorens, sheltered one of Zelaya's children to prevent him from being harmed, according to Carlos Sosa, Honduras's ambassador to the Organization of American States.

But the Obama administration has had cool relations with Zelaya, a close ally of Venezuela's anti-American president, Hugo Chávez. While U.S. officials say they continue to recognize Zelaya as president, they have not indicated they are willing to use the enormous U.S. clout in the country to force his return.

Asked whether it was a U.S. priority to see Zelaya reinstalled, 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."

John D. 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.

Zelaya clashed with the Honduran Congress, Supreme Court and military in recent weeks, particularly over his promotion of a referendum that might have permitted him to run for another four-year term. The Congress and Supreme Court said the referendum was illegal.

The Congress overwhelmingly voted to depose Zelaya after he had been forcibly removed. Lawmakers then named a new president, Roberto Micheletti, from the same party.

Obama repeated yesterday that the United States viewed Zelaya as Honduras's president and that "the coup was not legal."

"It would be a terrible precedent if we start moving backwards into the era in which we are seeing military coups as a means of political transition, rather than democratic elections," he told reporters after a meeting with Colombian President Álvaro Uribe.

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