U.S. Ups Ante, Cancels Visas of 4 Honduran Officials

Supporters of ousted president Manuel Zelaya rally in Tegucigalpa, Honduras. The U.S. administration has stepped up pressure on the de facto government.
Supporters of ousted president Manuel Zelaya rally in Tegucigalpa, Honduras. The U.S. administration has stepped up pressure on the de facto government. (By Arnulfo Franco -- Associated Press)
By Mary Beth Sheridan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 29, 2009

The U.S. government revoked the visas of four members of Honduras's de facto government Tuesday, escalating the pressure on officials there to reinstate the president, who was kicked out of the country a month ago.

State Department spokesman Ian Kelly did not identify the Hondurans whose visas were yanked, but he indicated that other officials also could have their visas revoked. He said U.S. authorities were reviewing the visas of all members of the current government and their dependents.

The move came two weeks after the start of negotiations aimed at defusing the crisis and helping ousted president Manuel Zelaya return. Costa Rican President Oscar Arias, who is leading the negotiations, has presented a plan that would allow Zelaya back into office, with curtailed powers, until his term expires in January. The proposal was initially rejected by officials in the de facto government, but they have shown signs in recent days that they are softening their position, Honduran and U.S. officials said.

"We're trying to do everything that we can to support this -- this process that was begun by Costa Rican President Arias and the negotiation efforts," Kelly told reporters. "These actions that we're taking are consistent with our policy of the non-recognition" of the de facto government.

The Honduran military detained Zelaya on June 28 and flew him out of the country. Zelaya is an ally of Venezuela's leftist president, Hugo Chávez, and many Latin Americans see the Honduran's ouster as a test of the Obama administration's commitment to democracy in the region.

Officials of the current Honduran government say the arrest was legal, noting that Zelaya had defied the Supreme Court in calling a referendum that could have led to overturning the constitution's ban on a second presidential term. But his ouster has been roundly condemned internationally as a coup.

The Honduran imbroglio has spilled over into U.S. politics, with some Republicans charging that the Obama administration is being too soft on Zelaya. On Tuesday, in a sign of protest, four Republicans on the 19-member Senate Foreign Relations Committee voted against the confirmations of two Obama nominees -- Arturo Valenzuela as assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs and Thomas A. Shannon Jr. as ambassador to Brazil. Both were still approved.

Zelaya has lashed out at the U.S. government in recent days, saying it is not doing enough to help him. But on Tuesday, he praised the State Department announcement.

"This is a coup that has been dead from the start, so they will have to abandon their position of intransigence in the coming hours," he told reporters in the Nicaraguan town of Ocotal near the Honduran border, where he has camped out in recent days with hundreds of supporters.

The interim president, Roberto Micheletti, played down the importance of the U.S. announcement. He said that although he hadn't been targeted, "it wouldn't bother me if the ambassador revoked my visa. He has no justification for doing it," according to the Associated Press.

Although U.S. officials did not identify those whose visas were revoked, Honduran media said they included the new president of the National Congress and the judge who signed the order for Zelaya's arrest.

The U.S. government earlier froze millions of dollars in military and economic aid to Honduras. But cancellation of a U.S. visa carries a particular sting for many prominent Latin Americans.

"To those far away, it might seem very symbolic, with little importance. But to the Honduran oligarchy, the focal point of their pilgrimage throughout the world is Miami," said Carlos Sosa, Honduras's ambassador to the Organization of American States.

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