Conscious of its historical dominance in Latin America – including a track record of supporting brutal right-wing dictatorships – the United States quickly sought a place on the sidelines after military leaders ousted Honduras's leftist President Manuel Zelaya on June 28.
The US denounced the ouster, joined the Organization of American States (OAS) in its condemnation, and put all its weight behind Costa Rican President Oscar Arias as the lead negotiator in Central America's worst political conflict since the US invasion of Panama in 1989.
Now, with frustration growing on both sides as a resolution seems farther out of reach, that backseat role is being increasingly questioned.
The US position aligns with that of nations around the world, and many say the Obama administration is doing well by not appearing to be a bully as it supports regional mediation efforts to reinstate Mr. Zelaya as president.
But suddenly, regional leftist leaders such as Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, who initially found themselves on the same side as the US, are blaming Washington for not taking a harder stance against the Honduran leaders, while those favoring the interim government in Honduras say that US passivity is for its own political gain.
"The State Department does not want to fight with anyone in the region, especially not Chávez, and especially not for a country as small as Honduras," says Juan Ramon Martinez, a political analyst in Honduras. "That is why there is no resolution in Costa Rica. Because Arias is just reiterating the US stance."
Talks with Mr. Arias broke down Sunday over a key stipulation: that Zelaya be returned to power until his term ends in January.
The seven-point proposal, presented to both sides over the weekend, would have formed a national unity government including representatives from all political parties. Elections, scheduled for November, would have been moved up by a month. Zelaya would also have to affirm his intentions not to alter the Constitution – the trigger of his ouster, after the nation's institutions and many others believed he was trying to scrap term limits for presidents.
But Honduras's interim government, led by Roberto Micheletti, called the plan "unacceptable."
"It was not possible to reach a satisfactory agreement. The Zelaya delegation fully accepted my proposal, but not that of Don Roberto Micheletti," Arias said on Sunday.
Zelaya says he'll return
Zelaya had vowed to return home – perhaps before the end of the week – but said Sunday that he will first give dialogue a chance.
The US has suspended all military aid to Honduras. But Zelaya has urged the US to do more, including withdrawing its ambassador, as many other nations have. Chávez, who has dismissed the negotiation process in Costa Rica, even accused the US of involvement in the military ouster.
"The Honduran Army wouldn't have gone forward without the approval of the State Department. I don't think they told Obama, but there's an empire behind Obama," Chávez said during a visit last week to Bolivia. Others leftist leaders in the region have also accused the US of having a hand in Zelaya's ouster.
US tries for a light touch
Robert Pastor, a Latin America expert at American University in Washington, says the US is steering the proper course. "I think the Obama administration is right in not fighting or supporting Chávez but rather trying to sidestep that to support a mediation," he says. "I think it's certainly ironic that those who have accused the US of being heavy-handed are now accusing it of not being heavy-handed enough."
He says he does not believe the US will face more blame if a resolution is not found.
But Arias faces enormous pressure to seek compromise, especially as the prospect for violence grows as both sides harden their positions. Arias, who has overseen four days of negotiations, said he needs three more. "What is the alternative to dialogue?" he said. "There could be a civil war and bloodshed that the Honduran people don't deserve."
Yet as long as he and the international community insist that Zelaya return to head Honduras, hopes are not high that a solution is on the horizon. "There has been nothing new proposed," says Mr. Martinez, who says he welcomes a third party – neither Mr. Micheletti nor Zelaya – to take over the presidency. "They are just repeating the same stance without listening to Honduras or its people."
• Material from the wires was used in this report.