United States to restore aid to Honduras in step toward normalized ties

In Guatemala Friday, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton moved to restore aid to Honduras six months after it was cut in response to the country's refusal to reinstate ousted former president Manuel Zelaya.

Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton stands with other Latin American leaders at a meeting in Guatemala City Friday. She announced that the United States will restore aid to Honduras. From left the leaders are: Dominican Republic President Leonel Fernandez, Honduran President Porfirio Lobo Sosa, Costa Rica's President Oscar Arias, Secretary Clinton, Guatemala's President Alvaro Colom, Belize's Prime Minister Dean Oliver Barrow, El Salvador's President Carlos Mauricio Funes, and Alberto Vallarino Minister of Economy and Finance of Panama.

Six months after the US cut aid to Honduras following its refusal to reinstate ousted leader Manuel Zelaya, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made a first step toward normalizing relations with Honduras this week when she announced the United States would be restoring $37 million in aid.

“We think it’s time to move forward and ensure that such disruptions of democracy do not and cannot happen in the future,” Secretary Clinton said at a meeting of foreign ministers in Costa Rica on Thursday. “Honduras has taken important and necessary steps and they deserve the recognition and normalization of relations.”

The announcement comes at a time when most of Latin America continues to reject the legitimacy of the current government. Honduras was not invited to a recent gathering of heads of state at the Rio summit in Mexico and its membership in the Organization of American States (OAS) has yet to be restored.

“The decision made by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is something very positive,” says Jaime Daremblum, a Latin American expert at the Washington-based Hudson Institute. “It’s the first step in something that is long overdue.

The US had cut off a portion of economic assistance to the interim Honduras government in September and threatened to slash more if there wasn’t a return to democratic, constitutional governance. It also limited visas for Honduran citizens.

The biggest loser in the Honduras crisis? The economy.

When the US and a handful of other international organizations first announced the aid suspensions as a way to pressure Honduras into a peace accord, they came under heavy criticism and were accused of injuring a population that was already among the poorest in the hemisphere.

“This is a country that has paid a big price,” says Michael Shifter, a political analyst at the Inter-American Dialogue, a center for policy analysis in Washington. “One shouldn’t underestimate the cost of diplomatic isolation. This was a blow, not only financially, but also psychologically.”

“The country has been set back and now they’ll have to play catch-up,” he adds.

New leader's election catalyst for restoring aid

The election of wealthy landowner and seasoned politician Porfirio Lobo served as a catalyst for the restoration of aid. In February, the World Bank announced it would restore a $270 million loan and add $120 million in additional funds, following Lobo’s inauguration.

“The election was … found to be free, fair, and legitimate,” Clinton said during a press conference at the Hotel Intercontinental in San José. “We believe that President Lobo and his administration have taken the steps necessary to restore democracy.”

Clinton chose a unique location to make the announcement, as Costa Rica was where former president Manuel Zelaya landed when he was marched out of his home at gunpoint in June. It’s also where he returned for the mediation talks, conducted by Nobel Peace Prize recipient and Costa Rican President Oscar Arias. And the nation’s capital – San José – provided the name for the peace agreement that regional leaders hoped would bring a restoration of constitutional order to Honduras.

Since Lobo’s election in November, Mr. Arias has been an outspoken supporter of reintegration of Honduras – a somewhat lone voice among his Latin American comrades.

“The Honduran people have been punished enough,” he said. “They can’t be punished more … I think the logical thing to do is to turn the page and analyze the possibilities of diplomatically recognizing a new government.”

Others likely to follow US lead

Arias expressed confidence during a meeting with Mr. Lobo in December that it would only be a matter of time before his colleagues in the region would accept Lobo’s legitimacy.

That confidence was echoed by Shifter. “There is a growing interest in trying to get this issue settled," he said in a recent telephone interview. "I think other countries are going to gradually get on board. They don’t want to continue to isolate and punish Honduras.”

Shifter, who expects Honduras will be invited back into the OAS before the general assembly in June, anticipates the only resistance to full acceptance into the international community will come from Venezuela and other ALBA nations, who were ardent supporters of ousted president Zelaya."

The US, which has vacillated between over-involvement and absenteeism in the Honduras crisis, made the right move by being one of the first in the region to work toward reintegrating the small Central American country, Shifter says.

“During the Honduran crisis, the United States could have been more involved and thus avoided some of the fallout,” he says. “But what the US is doing now makes sense. This is the job of diplomacy.”

As to the delay in Latin America’s recognition of the new Honduran government, Clinton said, “Other countries in the region say they want to wait a while [to normalize relations]. I don’t know what they are waiting for, but that is their right to wait.”

[Editor's note: The original version of the summary for this story misstated the country in which Secretary Clinton made her announcement Friday.]

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