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.
Clinton told reporters that the situation in Honduras had "evolved into a coup" but that the United States was "withholding any formal legal determination" characterizing it that way.
"We're assessing what the final outcome of these actions will be," she said. "Much of our assistance is conditioned on the integrity of the democratic system. But if we were able to get to a status quo that returned to the rule of law and constitutional order within a relatively short period of time, I think that would be a good outcome."
The Obama administration has pledged to work more closely with Latin America and not dictate policy in its traditional back yard. But the United States has several points of leverage: It is Honduras's biggest trading partner, and President Obama has requested $68 million in development and military aid for 2010. Portions of that aid, which are provided directly to the government, would be cut off in the event of a coup. Congressional officials said last night they were not sure exactly how much that amounted to. Honduras also is a recipient of a five-year, $215 million Millennium Challenge grant that is conditioned on the country remaining a democracy.
The United States also has a close military relationship with Honduras. Hundreds of Honduran officers participate in U.S. military training programs each year, more than most other Western Hemisphere countries.
Among those who have attended such training is the senior military officer of Honduras, Gen. Romeo Vasquez, who was dismissed by Zelaya prior to the coup. After that dismissal, other senior Honduran military leaders resigned, including the Air Force commander, Gen. Luis Javier Prince Suazo.
Vasquez attended the Pentagon-run School of the Americas in 1976 and 1984, and Suazo attended in 1996, according to Army records of graduates obtained by a watchdog group. A spokesman for the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation, which replaced the School of the Americas in 2001, said the records of graduates obtained by the group, School of Americas Watch, are accurate.
"We have a strong military relationship with them and in . . . military exchange training that takes place, we emphasize civilian control of the military" as well as human rights and the rule of law, Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman said.
A contingent of about 600 U.S. military personnel is based at Soto Cano Air Base in Honduras as part of Joint Task Force Bravo, which mainly supports disaster relief, humanitarian assistance, peacekeeping and counternarcotics activities in Honduras and the region.
The Organization of American States has summoned the hemisphere's foreign ministers to Washington to discuss the crisis. Clinton said the United States is pushing for a delegation to be sent to Honduras after the session.
The United States has been a strong backer of the Inter-American Democratic Charter, a document signed by OAS members in 2001 that commits them to observe the "right to democracy." Violators can be suspended from the organization.
OAS members issued a statement calling for "the immediate, safe and unconditional return" of Zelaya to the presidency.
Staff writer Ann Scott Tyson contributed to this report.