October 30, 2009 / 7:48 PM / 10 years ago

US wins praise and some questions for Honduras role

(For full coverage of Honduras crisis, click on [nHONDURAS])

* U.S. trouble-shooters help win a deal

* Agreement needs support of Honduran lawmakers

* Some feel Obama, Clinton could have moved earlier

By Deborah Charles

WASHINGTON, Oct 30 (Reuters) - The United States has won praise for resolving a post-coup crisis in Honduras that caused regional turmoil, but some experts question why the Obama administration took so long to act in its own backyard.

After months of failed negotiations, Honduras’ de facto government late on Thursday agreed to a U.S.-driven deal that opens the door for the return to power of President Manuel Zelaya, who was toppled in a military coup in June.

The deal, which still needs the backing of Honduras’ Congress, came after top U.S. officials went to Honduras this week in a successful last-ditch effort to end a crisis that has given President Barack Obama another foreign policy headache.

The involvement of Assistant Secretary of State Tom Shannon, his deputy Craig Kelly and senior White House official Dan Restrepo was praised by U.S. and Latin American groups for delivering the needed push for an end to the crisis.

"For as often as we’ve been criticized for our activities in Latin America, this shows that we remain the indispensable nation," said Eric Farnsworth of the Council of the Americas, although he warned there were still questions over whether the deal will hold and whether all parties will follow through with plans to hold a fair presidential election next month.

"You can bet there are people around the hemisphere, particularly in Caracas, who are not going to be delighted by this because it’s in their interest to keep things stirred up," he said. "My prediction would be there will be people who will keep trying to complicate the election on Nov. 29."

Zelaya, whose term ends in January, had angered many in Honduras by becoming an ally of socialist Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. Zelaya was toppled and sent into exile on June 28 but then snuck back into Honduras last month.

Repeated rounds of negotiations collapsed amid disagreement over whether Zelaya would return to power.

Shannon said Zelaya and the de facto government of Roberto Micheletti finally realized they needed to end their standoff to get international recognition of the upcoming elections.

The coffee-producing Central American country has been diplomatically isolated since Zelaya’s ouster. Obama cut some aid to Honduras after the coup, although he was criticized by some nations for not doing more.

At home, Obama was facing opposition from Republicans who accused him of doing too much for the leftist president. As a protest, they held up confirmation of Shannon as ambassador to Brazil and of his replacement at the State Department.

SOFTLY, SOFTLY

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called the agreement in Honduras a "big step forward for the inter-American system and its commitment to democracy."

But it was the U.S. desire to fit into the inter-American system that caused such a long delay in resolving the crisis.

"Why didnt they go down there four months ago?," asked Julia Sweig, Latin American director for the Council on Foreign Relations. "I have no idea why we didnt just do this to begin with, other than the fact that we wanted to give others a chance.

Analysts said the United States held back from being more aggressive despite repeated requests for more involvement by Washington because it wanted a multilateral effort to work.

"Honduras became an opportunity to say ‘we didn’t support the coup, we’re different now and we’re going to take a step back and watch individuals in the region try to put the country back together again,’" said Sweig.

Peter Hakim, president of the Inter-American Dialogue, said the Obama administration "made the mistake that multilateralism doesn’t mean letting others do the work." Instead, he said it needed "intense U.S. engagement." (Editing by Kieran Murray)




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