Washington ups the pressure on Honduras by cutting aid

The US won't call the military ouster of the country's president a "coup." But it says elections scheduled for November would be illegitimate.

Larry Downing / Reuters
Ousted Honduran President Manuel Zelaya talks at the US State Department after a meeting with Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton in Washington on Thursday.

The United States toughened its stance towards the de facto government in Honduras Thursday, cutting millions of dollars in aid and declaring that it would consider presidential elections scheduled for November illegitimate under current circumstances.

But the US stopped short of officially declaring as a "coup" the military action in the Honduran capital of Tegucigalpa on June 28 that resulted in the forced exile of President Manuel Zelaya.

The US finding that the circumstances leading to Zelaya's ouster were too "complicated" to allow for legally declaring the action a coup leaves the US at odds with Latin America at a time when President Obama had pledged to bring the region closer together.

The complicated aid cut announced Thursday – which could amount to $30 million – may send a strong message to the poor country largely reliant on US assistance. But some Latin America analysts say the warning on the upcoming elections could ultimately have greater impact in pressuring the interim government in Tegucigalpa to resolve the country's two-month-old crisis.

"The interim government has been acting like the upcoming elections are their escape route for getting out of their predicament without compromising" on a return of President Zelaya, says Daniel Erickson, a US policy expert at the Inter-American Dialogue in Washington. "But this statement draws an important line in the sand, because it's saying that a failure to resolve the crisis soon will have a negative impact on Honduras for years to come."

The State Department announced the new measures after Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton met Thursday with Mr. Zelaya, who was removed from the presidential palace in a pre-dawn raid by the Honduran Army and sent into exile.

The measures signal Washington's growing impatience with the interim government and its refusal to accept a compromise brokered by Costa Rican President Oscar Arias that called for Zelaya to return and finish out his term.

But critics of the US position say the failure to clearly declare the events of June 28 a coup plays into the interim government's hands.

"The US is playing for time, but all this is doing is isolating it from the rest of Latin America, and for what? For a bunch of coup plotters," says Miguel Tinker-Salas, an expert in Latin American affairs at Pomona College in Claremont, Calif.

Mr. Erickson says the failure to declare a "coup" reflects a desire to preserve some room for maneuver. "If you declare it a coup, what's left for ratcheting up pressure?" he says. "This is an attempt to preserve a range of action."

At the same time, says Erickson, the State Department's willingness to use the word "coup" in statements, and now the cloud placed over the upcoming elections, puts Washington more in line with the rest of Latin America.

But others dismiss the "maneuverability" argument.

"While the delay in making the determination [of a coup] may have been to use this as leverage during negotiations with the de facto regime, the fact is that two months have passed and the coup government continues to refuse all diplomatic options to restore constitutional order," says Vicki Gass, senior associate for rights and development at the Washington Office on Latin America.

Mr. Tinker-Salas says there is "no way" the de facto government could survive if Washington were to declare a coup and proceed to the full cut-off of relations that such a designation would entail.

"Obama is betraying his own commitment to a new beginning for Washington in the region," he says. "He's standing with one side in this, but it's not with the rest of Latin America."


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