August 5, 2009 / 9:31 PM / 10 years ago

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

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.

A car burns in front of university students protesting in support of ousted President Manuel Zelaya at the National University in Tegucigalpa, August 5, 2009. REUTERS/Edgard Garrido

The letter to Republican Senator Richard Lugar contained criticism of Zelaya, saying the left-leaning former leader had taken provocative actions before his removal by the army.

It also indicated severe U.S. economic sanctions were not being considered against the de facto government of Roberto Micheletti, installed after the June 28 military coup.

Zelaya’s ouster has led foreign governments and multinational lenders to freeze some aid programs to the impoverished country and spurred protests at home. Demonstrations turned violent again on Wednesday.

“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, 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.

One of Zelaya’s main backers in Latin America, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, also appeared to pull back from pushing for his ally’s return to power.

“The most important thing for Zelaya, as he has told me himself, is not that he returns. The most important thing is that he stays on a path toward what the people want, which is political and social change in Honduras,” Chavez told reporters in Caracas.

President Barack Obama has condemned the coup, refused to recognize Micheletti, cut $16.5 million in military aid and thrown his support behind the mediation efforts of Costa Rican President Oscar Arias, whose proposals include Zelaya’s reinstatement. Washington is also revoking diplomatic visas for several members of Micheletti’s administration.

Zelaya has been asking the United States — Honduras’ No. 1 trading partner and longtime ally — to ramp up pressure on the de facto government. “The United States is the one that really has the power to impose measures that go beyond diplomacy,” Zelaya told Mexico’s Senate on Wednesday.

“I recognize the firmness of President Obama and Secretary (of State Hillary) Clinton, but (the United States) has acted lukewarmly,” Zelaya said on an official visit to Mexico.

The Organization of American States, which suspended Tegucigalpa last month over the coup, said it would send a group of foreign ministers to Honduras in coming days to try to pressure Micheletti into accepting Arias’ proposals.

VIOLENCE IN TEGUCIGALPA

In the Honduran capital, Tegucigalpa, dozens of stone-throwing students supporting Zelaya clashed on Wednesday with police who shot teargas and water cannons to disperse them after they blocked roads around a university.

Police knocked down the university rector when she tried to calm the violence between the students and security forces.

The State Department letter condemned Zelaya’s ouster but noted it was preceded by a political conflict between Zelaya and other Honduran institutions.

“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 letting presidents seek re-election. His opponents accused him of trying to stay in power, but he denies the allegation.

Slideshow (9 Images)

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

In the letter to Lugar, the State Department said Washington had still not made a decision as to whether Zelaya’s ouster constituted a coup.

Lugar, the top Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, had asked the government to explain its policy on the Honduran crisis.

Additional reporting by Miguel Angel Gutierrez and Mica Rosenberg in Mexico City, Fabian Cambero in Tegucigalpa and Ana Isabel Martinez in Caracas; Editing by Peter Cooney

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