Honduras: Obama Administration Restating Its Position?

 (IPS) – A letter sent last week by the U.S. State Department has caused many to question the Obama Administration position on reinstating ousted Honduras President Manuel Zelaya.

In an Aug. 4 letter to Senator Richard Lugar – the ranking Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee – signed by Assistant Secretary of State for Legislative Affairs Richard Verma, the U.S. condemned the coup, though said Zelaya was to blame for his ousting and did not call for his return.

"Our policy and strategy for engagement is not based on supporting any particular politician or individual," said the letter. "We also recognise that President Zelaya’s insistence on undertaking provocative actions contributed to the polarisation of Honduran society and led to a confrontation that unleashed the events that led to his removal."

Vicki Gass, a Honduras specialist at the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), said the letter highlighted U.S. support for a democratic government and the rule of law in Honduras, not necessarily support of Zelaya.

"The U.S. hasn’t supported Zelaya," she told IPS. "They support democratic order, which means his return, but that doesn’t mean they like him."

Frederick Jones, a spokesman for Foreign Relations Committee chairman, Senator John Kerry, said Friday that the senator was worried the letter "risks sending a confusing signal" about U.S. commitment to restoring Zelaya to power.

Some speculate the letter was a response to a Jul. 30 letter from Lugar to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, asking her to explain U.S. policy in Honduras.

"I request that the Department provide interested Members a detailed clarification of the steps that it has taken, and intends to take, in response to the events that transpired in the run-up to and period after the forced removal of President Manuel Zelaya from Honduras," Lugar wrote to Clinton.

Critical of the U.S.’ lack of decisive action about Honduras, Republican senators have put a hold on the confirmations of two Obama nominees to key diplomatic posts – Arturo Valenzuela, for Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs, and Thomas Shannon, for Ambassador to Brazil.

Gass said lack of leadership posed by the empty positions was being felt in the State Department, and the letter may have been a move to please Republicans and get the nominees confirmed.

There is a split in Congress over how the Honduran situation should be resolved. Democrats support Zelaya’s return to the presidency, though with limited powers, while Republicans disagree. They have argued that Zelaya’s removal saved democracy from a populist dictatorship in the mode of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez – a Zelaya ally.

The U.S. has revoked diplomatic visas for five Hondurans associated with the defacto government of Roberto Micheletti. It suspended anti-drug operations from the U.S. military base in Honduras, withheld 16 million dollars in defence aid and warned that it might not disburse the final 10 percent of funds due to Honduras under a 250 million dollar aid program there.

The U.S. also has strongly supported the mediation efforts of Costa Rican President Oscar Arias, who has proposed a compromise plan to reinstate Zelaya with limited powers – the San Jose Accord.

The U.S. has rejected calls for economic sanctions, the letter said.

Gass said the U.S. response has been inconsistent.

"[The U.S.] needs to be more forceful in condemning the coup and more consistent within the state department," said Gass.

She said the U.S. needs to "send a stronger message to the coup government," by initially cancelling their and their families’ visas and freezing their bank accounts.

The State Department letter angered Latin American leaders, who have also been critical of the U.S.’s lack of action in Honduras. There have been protests outside of the U.S. embassy in Honduras.

Last Friday Obama told reporters that he continued to support the return of Zelaya, but that he could not do so single-handedly. "I ca not press a button and suddenly reinstate Mr. Zelaya."

At the North American Leaders Summit Monday, Obama slammed critics who said the U.S. had not done enough to bring back Zelaya.

"The same critics who say that the United States has not intervened enough in Honduras are the same people who say that we’re always intervening, and the Yankees need to get out of Latin America. You can’t have it both ways."

"If these critics think that it’s appropriate for us to suddenly act in ways that in every other context they consider inappropriate, then I think what that indicates is that maybe there’s some hypocrisy involved in their approach to U.S.-Latin American relations that that certainly is not going to guide my Administration’s policies," Obama said.

Though the White House has made no comments about the letter, Robert Wood, White House spokesman, defended U.S. efforts in Honduras and reiterated that the U.S. stood behind Zelaya, at a press briefing Monday.

"We’ve made very clear what our position is," he told reporters. "We are a strong supporter of President Zelaya. We want to see him returned. We’ve made that very clear. There should be no doubt about that."

A delegation of foreign ministers, led by Secretary General José Miguel Insulza, from the Organisation of American States (OAS) – which does not support the coup government and suspended Honduras from the organisation – announced plans to visit Honduras in the next few days to convince Micheletti to accept the San Jose Accord. The Accord calls for Zelaya to serve out his term, which ends in January 2010, and for political amnesty for the coup plotters and de-facto regime.