Obama Declares Honduras Coup ‘Not Legal’ Amid Uncertainty

Capping a day of mixed signals, U.S. President Barack Obama said late Monday that he considered Sunday’s ouster and exile of Honduran President Manuel Zelaya to be "not legal" and that Washington still considered him the legitimate president of the Central American country.

Speaking at a very brief press appearance with Colombian President Alvaro Uribe, Obama referred to Sunday’s events as a "coup" and warned that, if permitted to stand, it would constitute a "terrible precedent" for the region.

"President Zelaya was democratically elected, he had not yet completed his term," he said. "We believe that the coup was not legal and that President Zelaya remains the president of Honduras, the democratically elected president there."

Obama spokes several hours after Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had explicitly declined to label Sunday’s developments a "coup" or demand that Zelaya be reported to his position as president. She stressed that State Department lawyers were still reviewing the situation to determine whether Zelaya’s ouster constituted the kind of action that would require a suspension of U.S. assistance.

Under U.S. law, no aid can be disbursed to any country "whose elected head of government has been deposed by military coup or decree."

"We are withholding any formal legal determination," Clinton told a press briefing.

Asked whether Washington is demanding Zelaya’s restoration, Clinton said: "We haven’t laid out any demands that we’re insisting on, because we’re working with others on behalf of our ultimate objectives."

Her remarks marked a striking contrast to those of the secretary-general of the Organization of American States (OAS), Jose Miguel Insulza, who, at a press conference at OAS headquarters with Salvadorean President Mauricio Funes, declared that Zelaya’s reinstatement as president was a precondition for any successful resolution of the two-day-old crisis.

The OAS, he said, will only be open to dialogue "if it contemplates the return of President Zelaya to his legitimate position."

Insulza, who will chair a special emergency meeting of OAS foreign ministers on the situation Tuesday, also invoked Article 19 of the Inter-American Democratic Charter, which effectively suspends any member country from taking part in official OAS business if there is an unconstitutional interruption of its democratic order.

He said the situation required that the de facto authorities in Tegucigalpa suffer "international isolation" until the legitimate government is restored.

The contrast between Clinton’s remarks and those of Insulza’s suggested for the first time that at least a temporary gap has opened between the United States and most, if not all, of Latin America as to how they should react to the crisis in Honduras, whose Congress Sunday elected Roberto Micheletti as the new president after the military detained and expelled Zelaya to Costa Rica.

But Obama’s remarks late in the afternoon – particularly those about Zelaya’s official status – appear to have closed that gap.

"I think it would be a terrible precedent if we start moving backwards into the era in which we are seeing military coups as a means of political transition, rather than democratic elections," Obama said.

"The region has made enormous progress over the past 20 years in establishing democratic traditions in Central America and Latin America. We don’t want to go back to a dark past. We always want to stand with democracy," he said.

Obama’s remarks very much echoed Insulza’s statement earlier in the day. Noting the OAS Permanent Assembly’s condemnation of the moves against Zelaya late Sunday, the former Chilean former minister said the Council had "distance[d] the organization from dark periods in the history of our continent."

At the United Nations in New York City, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon also issued a statement condemning Sunday’s events and calling for "the reinstatement of the democratically elected representatives of the country," while the UN General Assembly, which is chaired by Nicaragua’s permanent representative Miguel d’Escoto Brockman, held a formal debate on Zelaya’s ouster.

For now, most attention will be focused on Tuesday’s extraordinary meeting of the OAS General Assembly, which Clinton is expected to attend. Despite the doubts raised by her remarks to the press, the secretary of state made clear that it will rely above all on multilateral efforts to resolve the crisis peacefully.

Nonetheless, her statement set off a small firestorm among human rights and democracy activists Monday who were concerned that they signaled a willingness to accept a solution that fell short of Zelaya’s reinstatement and a retreat from public statements made by the U.S. ambassador in Tegucigalpa, Hugo Lawrence, who had publicly insisted until now that Washington would not recognize anyone as president except Zelaya.

"The political message [Clinton’s remarks] are sending is risky," said Vicki Gass, a Central America analyst at the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA). "If the U.S. doesn’t stand strong on this, it will set back its attempts to restore its image in the region."

"Moreover," she said, "with all of [President Alvaro] Colom’s problems at the moment, Guatemala is already perilously close to a coup itself," she added.

Some analysts speculated that Clinton’s remarks may have been designed in part to gain some leverage over Zelaya who is seen by right-wing critics as aligning Honduras behind Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and other left-wing populists, including Bolivian President Evo Morales, Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega, and Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa Delgado.

Washington, which has conducted military training, supply, and surveillance activities from Honduran air bases for the past 30 years, last year lost access to a key air base in Ecuador as a result of a campaign promise by Correa.

In addition, Washington may want to condition its backing for Zelaya’s reinstatement on his pledge to drop efforts to reform the constitution in a way that that would permit him to serve a second term as president, retired ambassador John Negroponte, who was the Reagan administration’s envoy to Tegucigalpa during the early years of the "contra war" against the Sandinista government in Nicaragua, told the Washington Post Monday.

Zelaya’s attempt to hold a non-binding national referendum on the question clearly galvanized his foes in the other major branches of government, including the armed forces and the Supreme Court.

Indeed, the far-right Americas columnist for the Wall Street Journal, Mary Anastasia O’Grady, celebrated Zelaya’s ouster in an op-ed entitled "Honduras Defends Its Democracy."

"Hugo Chavez’s coalition-building efforts suffered a setback yesterday when the Honduran military sent its president packing for abusing the nation’s constitution," O’Grady wrote.

She called on "Honduran patriots" to "hold their ground" against international pressure by "Fidel Castro, Daniel Ortega, Hillary Clinton, and, of course, Hugo [Chavez] himself" to return Zelaya to office.

(Inter Press Service)

Author: Jim Lobe

Jim Lobe writes for Inter Press Service.