Obama hails return of Honduras to democratic fold

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama hailed President Porfirio Lobo of Honduras for his “strong commitment to democracy” on Wednesday, sealing the Central American nation’s rehabilitation after a coup in 2009.

The meeting at the White House was billed as a discussion of economic and security issues and a chance for Obama to cite Lobo’s leadership and Honduras’ return to the Organization of American States (OAS) this year.

“What we’ve been seeing is a restoration of democratic practices and a commitment to reconciliation that gives us great hope,” Obama told reporters as Lobo sat beside him in the Oval Office. “Of course much work remains to be done.”

Obama said they would discuss how Washington can help to ensure human rights are observed in Honduras, spur development in the region and cooperation “in preventing the countries of Central America from being corrupted and overrun by the transnational drug trade.”

Honduras, a traditional U.S. ally, has become a violent entrepot for cartels trafficking cocaine and other drugs from South America to North America, making stability and security top priorities for the Lobo and Obama administrations.

Lobo, a conservative, took office as president of the impoverished country last year after elections held in the wake of a coup that ousted his leftist rival Manuel Zelaya in 2009.

Lobo thanked Obama for U.S. support now and during the crisis and said he had a “warm visit” on Tuesday to the Washington-based OAS.

“We have reaffirmed the road to democracy that we are on,” Lobo said. “We will be opening even more spaces for our people to be able to express themselves.”

Washington and other governments initially condemned the coup and the OAS -- which groups Latin American democratic nations, Canada and the United States -- expelled Honduras. It was readmitted in June and next holds elections in 2013.

Drug and street gangs have made Honduras one of the most violent countries in the world as a crackdown on narcotics cartels in Mexico pushes some of their operations south, overwhelming the region’s governments and security forces.

Editing by Todd Eastham