By Mary Beth Sheridan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 4, 2009
The U.S. government on Thursday toughened its stance against Honduras's coup leaders and supporters, threatening to put them "in a box" by not recognizing the winner of a presidential election set for November.
The de facto government had hoped that the election would provide an end to the crisis that has gripped the Central American country since the ouster of President Manuel Zelaya on June 28. The balloting had been scheduled well before Zelaya was detained and whisked out of the country by the military.
But U.S. officials said for the first time that they would continue to shun the country unless Honduran leaders went back to a negotiated plan that would allow the return of Zelaya with limited powers until the expiration of his term in December.
"Based on conditions as they currently exist, we cannot recognize the results of this election. So for the de facto regime, they're now in a box," said State Department spokesman Philip J. Crowley. "And they will have to sign on to the San Jose accords to get out of the box." He was referring to the plan for Zelaya's return, which was negotiated in the Costa Rican capital.
The announcement amounted to a gamble that the threat would finally force the de facto government to back down. So far, that government, led by longtime congressman Roberto Micheletti, has resisted intense international pressure, both economic and political. Its members argue that Zelaya's removal was legal because he had violated the constitution by organizing a referendum that could have allowed him to evade the one-term limit for the presidency.
But the reasons for the coup supporters' vehemence go deeper: They fear that the leftist Zelaya would have introduced the socialist-style agenda promoted by Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, a Zelaya ally and leader of an anti-American bloc in the hemisphere.
"This is a tough call, because I think there are no white hats in this story," said Ted Piccone, a specialist in U.S.-Latin American relations at the Brookings Institution. "But there is a clear bright line around the militarily forced exile of a democratically elected president, and so that has to be addressed."
However, he and other analysts said, if the interim government does not change its stance, the decision not to recognize the election could only deepen the crisis.
The State Department's action "limits our options, a violation of the first law of diplomacy, by taking off the table the one means by which the crisis could naturally be resolved," said Eric Farnsworth, a Latin America expert at the Council of the Americas, a U.S.-based business group.
The announcement came as the State Department also formally terminated about $30 million in aid to the Honduran government that had been suspended. Authorities also said they were examining revoking more visas of Hondurans who participated in, or supported, the coup.
The announcement triggered new opposition from Republicans in Congress who have denounced the Obama administration's policy on Honduras and held up some diplomatic appointments in protest.
"The U.S. approach to friends and foes is completely backwards. While appeasing the enemies of freedom worldwide, we punish those in Honduras struggling to preserve the rule of law, fundamental liberties, and democratic values," Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (Fla.) said in a statement.
The U.S. moves were applauded by Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.), chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, who has encouraged a negotiated settlement. "The coup regime has engaged in undemocratic practices that cast a dark shadow over elections scheduled for November. Those elections will lack legitimacy unless the regime embraces and faithfully implements the San Jose Accord," he said in a statement.
Major Latin American countries have said they would not recognize the results of the November election unless the coup is reversed.