U.S. appears to soften support for Honduras's Zelaya

WASHINGTON Wed Aug 5, 2009 2:52pm EDT

1 of 2. Honduras's ousted President Manuel Zelaya (C) walks out with Mexico City's Mayor Marcelo Ebrard (R) after a visit at the mayor's office in Mexico City August 5, 2009. Zelaya is on a two-day official visit in Mexico.

Credit: Reuters/Eliana Aponte

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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. policy on Honduras' political crisis is not aimed at supporting any particular individual, the State Department said in a new letter that implied softening support for ousted President Manuel Zelaya.

The letter to Republican Senator Richard Lugar contained criticism of Zelaya, saying the left-leaning former leader had taken "provocative" actions ahead of his removal by the Honduran military on June 28.

The State Department also indicated severe U.S. economic sanctions were not being considered against the de facto government of Roberto Micheletti, which took over in Honduras after Zelaya removed from office.

"Our policy and strategy for engagement is not based on supporting any particular politician or individual. Rather, it is based on finding a resolution that best serves the Honduran people and their democratic aspirations," Richard Verma, the assistant secretary for legislative affairs, said in the letter.

"We have rejected calls for crippling economic sanctions and made clear that all states should seek to facilitate a solution without calls for violence and with respect for the principle of nonintervention," he said. The letter was dated Tuesday and obtained by Reuters on Wednesday.

President Barack Obama has condemned Zelaya's ouster, refused to recognize Micheletti, cut $16.5 million in military aid to Honduras and thrown his support behind the mediation efforts of Costa Rican President Oscar Arias, whose proposals include Zelaya's reinstatement.

Last week the U.S. government announced it was revoking diplomatic visas for several members of Micheletti's administration.

REPUBLICAN THREAT

But the State Department letter, while "energetically" condemning Zelaya's ouster on June 28, noted that the coup had been preceded by a political conflict between Zelaya and other institutions inside Honduras.

"We also recognize that President Zelaya's insistence on undertaking provocative actions contributed to the polarization of Honduran society and led to a confrontation that unleashed the events that led to his removal," it said.

Zelaya was pushing for constitutional reforms that included changing term limits for presidents. His opponents accused him of trying to seek re-election, but he denies the allegation.

The Supreme Court ordered his arrest and the Honduran Congress later approved his ouster.

In the letter to Lugar, the State Department also indicated the Obama administration has still not made a definite decision as to whether Zelaya's ouster constituted a coup.

"We have suspended certain assistance as a policy matter pending an ongoing determination under U.S. law about the applicability of the provisions requiring termination of assistance in the event of a military coup."

Lugar, the ranking Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, had asked the government to explain its policy on the Honduran political crisis, warning that Senate confirmation may be delayed for a diplomatic nominee for Latin America without it.

The letter appeared to be a response to this request.

Because of U.S. support for Zelaya, conservative Republican Senator Jim DeMint has threatened to delay a Senate vote on the nomination of Arturo Valenzuela to be assistant secretary of state for western hemisphere affairs.

DeMint welcomed the State Department letter but said the Obama administration had not gone far enough.

"I'm glad to see the State Department is finally beginning to walk back its support for Manuel Zelaya and admit that his 'provocative' actions were responsible for his removal," he said through a spokesman.

"These admissions are helpful, but what is necessary is for President Obama to end his support for Zelaya who broke the law and sought to become a Chavez-style dictator," DeMint said, referring to Venezuela's socialist president Hugo Chavez, an ally of Zelaya.

(Editing by Kieran Murray and Paul Simao)

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