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U.S. recognizes Honduras vote with caveats

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The United States on Monday recognized the results of a controversial election in Honduras but said the vote was only a partial step toward restoring democracy after a June coup that ousted the elected president.

The State Department recognized Porfirio Lobo’s victory in Sunday’s election but said the Honduran Congress still needed to vote on the restoration of deposed President Manuel Zelaya and form a government of national unity.

“While the election is a significant step in Honduras’ return to the democratic and constitutional order ... it’s only a step and it’s not the last step,” said Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Arturo Valenzuela.

Before the election, the United States tried and failed to have Zelaya reinstated. Its support of the election upset many Latin American nations, including powerful Brazil, which called Sunday’s vote invalid.

Elected five months after a coup forced Zelaya into exile on June 28, Lobo is urging Latin American governments to recognize him as president-elect in order to help pull the country out of a deep political crisis.

Opposition leader Lobo won some 55 percent of the vote, easily defeating ruling party candidate Elvin Santos. A boycott by supporters of Zelaya was ineffective and electoral officials say the turnout was above 60 percent.

Human rights groups say crackdowns on pro-Zelaya media and marches during the campaign put the validity of the vote in doubt.

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Lobo, 61, urged leftist governments in the region to recognize the vote, which was scheduled before the coup.

“We ask them ... to see that they are punishing the people who went to vote, do so every four years and have nothing to do with what happened on June 28,” he told journalists.

“I am happy looking toward the future. You keep asking, ‘And Zelaya?’ Zelaya is history, he is part of the past,” Lobo told foreign reporters, although the conditions mentioned by the United States include a vote on Zelaya and presumably his participation in a unity government.

“For us, the most important international relationship we have is obviously with the United States,” Lobo said.

Brazil, which is increasingly flexing its muscles as its economy becomes more powerful, has dug its heels in on Honduras and refuses to acknowledge Lobo’s win.

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“Brazil will maintain its position because it’s not possible to accept a coup,” President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva said on Sunday.

Zelaya, who slipped back into Honduras in September, has taken refuge in the Brazilian Embassy in the Honduran capital. That put Brazil at the heart of a crisis in a region where the United States has long been dominant.

Washington supported coups and right-wing governments fighting civil wars against Soviet-backed leftist guerrillas in Central America during the Cold War.

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Today, millions of Central American immigrants to the United States send home money vital to the economies of countries like Honduras and El Salvador.

The coup against Zelaya sparked Central America’s biggest political crisis since the end of the Cold War.

Neither Zelaya nor his archrival, Roberto Micheletti, who was installed as interim president by Congress after the coup, took part in the presidential election.

The dispute threatens U.S. President Barack Obama’s attempts to turn a new page with Latin America, where leftist governments are in the majority.

“This is a very, very poor start in terms of U.S.-Latin American relations,” said Larry Birns, director of the Council on Hemispheric Affairs.

“What was needed here was that the United States had to embrace a principle that was very important to Latin America after the experience it had throughout the late 1970s and ‘80s -- that the military cannot interfere with civilian government.”

Argentina and Venezuela also oppose the Honduran election, but Panama, Peru and Costa Rica have said they back the vote.

Lobo has also called on the international community to resume aid that was blocked in retaliation for the coup.

Due to take office in January, he must now decide what to do with Zelaya. He could try to negotiate a form of political amnesty for the deposed leader and the main players in the coup in a bid to unite the deeply divided nation.

Additional reporting by Mica Rosenberg, Gustavo Palencia in Tegucigalpa, and Alistair Bell in Mexico; Editing by Peter Cooney