WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Honduran military's ouster of President Manuel Zelaya on Sunday could be an early test for U.S. President Barack Obama as he tries to mend the United States' battered image in Latin America, a regional expert said.
"This is a golden opportunity to make a clear break with the past and show that he is unequivocally siding with democracy, even if they (Washington) don't necessarily like the guy," former Costa Rican Vice President Kevin Casas-Zamora told Reuters in Washington.
Shortly after news of the coup broke, Obama issued a statement expressing his "deep concern" at Honduran troops arresting Zelaya at his residence and exiling him to Costa Rica. The leftist president had angered the army, Congress and the courts by pushing for constitutional changes to allow presidential re-election.
Casas-Zamora said he had heard reports that the U.S. State Department had got wind of plans for a coup and had tried to prevent it, but this could not be independently confirmed.
Obama's statement urged Hondurans to resolve the dispute peacefully but did not explicitly call for Zelaya's reinstatement as president. A senior administration official said later, however, that the United States recognized only Zelaya's government as legitimate.
"He is still the legitimate president. Obama should demand that he be reinstated. That is very important. Given the political history of Latin America, the commitment of the United States to democracy has been questionable," said Casas-Zamora, now a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution think tank in Washington.
U.S. DENIES INVOLVEMENT
Obama won praise from Latin American leaders after promising at a Summit of the Americas in April to improve ties and break from past U.S. policies in the region.
Washington supported a number of coups and military governments in Central America and South America during the Cold War as it sought to curb the spread of Communism.
In the post-Cold War era, relations between leftist Latin America governments and the United States took a dive under former President George W. Bush, who was in office from 2001 until he was succeeded by Obama in January.
Venezuela's Hugo Chavez accused Washington of backing a coup against him in 2002 and last year followed Bolivia's lead by expelling the U.S. ambassador to Caracas. The United States responded by expelling Venezuela's envoy, but under Obama, Venezuela and the United States moved last week to reinstate their ambassadors.
In 2002, the Bush administration initially welcomed Chavez's brief ouster but denied taking part.
With that history in mind, Zelaya called on the United States in a television interview to clarify what role it had played in his ouster. Chavez also said there should be an investigation to see if Washington had a hand in the coup.
The White House denied any U.S. involvement in the action.
The United States has about 550-600 troops stationed at Soto Cano Air Base in Honduras who conduct counter narcotics, humanitarian assistance and disaster relief operations.
While former President Bill Clinton dispatched troops to Haiti after a military junta installed itself in a coup there in 1994, Casas-Zamora said he doubted Obama was considering intervening militarily in Honduras.
"They are going to take the matter to the OAS (Organization of American States). They are going to put a lot of pressure on them (the military) to reinstate the president," he said.