US Tightens Screws on Honduras

by , July 29, 2009

The administration of U.S. President Barack Obama has revoked the visas of four senior officials of the de facto government in Honduras, the State Department announced Tuesday, in what was seen as the first of a series of new steps Washington is considering to force acceptance of a plan that would return President Manuel Zelaya to power.

The action, which was reportedly directed in part against top officials who played a direct role in the arrest and exile of Zelaya exactly one month ago, was immediately praised by groups who have pressed the administration to take stronger action against the regime headed by Roberto Micheletti.

"This is an incredibly important step," said Vicki Gass, a Honduras specialist at the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA). "It reminds the de facto government that the coup d’etat remains unacceptable, that they will have to restore Zelaya to power as part of a broader negotiated solution."

"While this may not be enough in itself, I think it’s likely to shake things up in Honduras where there are clear indications of tensions within the regime already," she said.

One key indication of tension surfaced over the weekend when the Honduran Armed Forces Web site featured a communiqué indicating the military’s support for the so-called San Jose Accord, an agreement put together by Costa Rican President Oscar Arias after negotiations between delegations representing both Zelaya and the Micheletti regime that calls for Zelaya’s immediate reinstatement in return for restrictions on his power for the remainder of his constitutional term, which ends in January.

But Zelaya’s return – the first point in the San Jose Accord – was explicitly rejected Monday by the armed forces chief, Gen. Romeo Vasquez Velasquez, in an interview with BBC. The communiqué was drafted by two colonels sent to assure U.S. officials that the military had been unfairly blamed for carrying out orders from civilian institutions, including the Supreme Court and the National Congress, according to knowledgeable sources.

"We consider the communiqué a good move forward, as a sign that the military supports the constitution," said one State Department official who spoke on the condition that he not be identified.

The visa revocations announced Tuesday were the first concrete sanction imposed by the administration on the de facto regime since the week after the June 28 coup, when it suspended some $20 million in bilateral military and economic aid that flows directly to the government. U.S. law requires a cutoff in bilateral aid to foreign governments "whose elected head of government has been deposed by military coup or decree."

The revocations came as four major apparel brands with operations in Honduras – the Germany-based Adidas and the U.S.-based Nike, Gap, and Knights Apparel – delivered a letter to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton calling "for the restoration of democracy in Honduras" and deploring the "restrictions on civil liberties" under the de facto government’s July 1 Emergency Decree that followed the coup.

"While we do not and will not support or endorse the position of any party in this internal dispute, we feel it is necessary in this case to join with the president of the United States, the governments of countries throughout the Americas, the Organization of American States, the UN General Assembly, and the European Union in calling for the restoration of democracy in Honduras," the four companies said.

Washington also supported suspending the disbursement of loans and grants to Honduras by major international financial institutions, including the World Bank and the Inter-American Development (IDB), no doubt in hopes that such moves would be sufficient to persuade sectors of the business elite, which was seen as a major backer of the coup, to agree to a solution.

If anything, however, Micheletti appeared to dig in his heels, even after Zelaya agreed to the terms proposed by Arias, whose mediation efforts have been backed by the Organization of American States (OAS) and the United Nations. As a result, calls by other OAS member states, by pro-democracy groups, and by Zelaya himself have grown steadily over the past two weeks for the administration to take additional measures.

"The Department of State is currently reviewing the diplomatic visas or A visas of individuals who are members of the de facto regime in Honduras, as well as the derivative visas for family members of these individuals," said State Department spokesman Ian Kelly Tuesday. "We have … revoked diplomatic visas issued to four such individuals. These individuals received their diplomatic visas in connection with positions held prior to June 28 under the Zelaya administration, but who now serve the de facto regime."

"We’re trying to do everything that we can to support this process that was begun by Costa Rican President Arias and their negotiation efforts," he explained further, adding, "These actions … are consistent with our policy of the non-recognition of the de facto regime of Roberto Micheletti."

While the State Department declined to identify by name the four individuals who have been targeted so far, knowledgeable sources informed IPS they included Tomas Arita, the chief justice of the Supreme Court, who reportedly signed the order for Zelaya’s arrest, and Jose Alfredo Saavedra, the president of the National Congress, which elected Micheletti as interim president.

"This is a fairly big step for us," said the State Department official, who stressed that Washington considers the San Jose Accord – which also provides for the creation of a government of national unity under Zelaya and to bring forward presidential elections from November to October – "an equitable compromise" that both sides "need to take seriously."

"These are very targeted measures designed to send a strong message that we have to get this thing settled," said Michael Shifter, vice president of the Inter-American Dialogue (IAD), an influential Washington-based think-tank. "They obviously didn’t anticipate having to deal with Honduras as a major test of U.S.-Latin American relations, and they don’t want to let this drag on. So now they’re putting the pressure on."

Like Gass, however, Shifter expressed some skepticism that it, in itself, the latest measures would be sufficient to persuade Micheletti and his backers to accept the San Jose Accord. "The U.S., the OAS, and the international community have underestimated the depth of bitterness that exists toward Zelaya on the part of the de facto government, and Zelaya himself hasn’t helped himself by his antics, which, if anything, have made the government dig in."

Shifter was referring to Zelaya’s early attempt to return to Tegucigalpa aboard a Venezuelan jets that was aborted when the military barricaded the runways at the capital’s airport and his brief foray onto Honduran territory from Nicaragua last weekend, which Secretary of State Hillary Clinton denounced as "reckless."

That behavior has made the administration uneasy about fully embracing Zelaya at this point, even as they ratchet up the pressure for his reinstatement. Indeed, the State Department reportedly denied his request to meet with Clinton Tuesday, although officials said he was welcome to meet other senior officials whenever he chose to come.

"The problem is that Obama has been getting a lot of heat from Republicans on this, and the don’t want to have to pay a political price for his behavior once he returns," said Shifter. "They want this resolved, yes, but they don’t want to be so identified with forcing Zelaya’s return, because they don’t know exactly how it will play out."

Indeed, Republicans on Capitol Hill and other right-wing commentators, including top Latin America aides under former president George W. Bush, have made the Honduran crisis made something of a cause célèbre, arguing consistently that Zelaya’s removal saved democracy from a populist dictatorship in the mode of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, if not the Castro brothers in Cuba.

(Inter Press Service)

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