TEGUCIGALPA, Honduras -- The Obama administration has backed away from its call to restore ousted Honduran President Manuel Zelaya to power and instead put the onus on him for taking "provocative actions" that polarized his country and led to his overthrow on June 28.
The new position was contained in a letter this week to Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind., that also rejected calls by some of Zelaya's backers to impose harsh economic sanctions against Honduras.
While condemning the coup, the letter pointedly failed to call for Zelaya's return. "Our policy and strategy for engagement is not based on supporting any particular politician or individual," said the letter to Lugar, the ranking Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
The new U.S. position is likely to undercut diplomatic efforts to bring about Zelaya's return, analysts said.
It may in time help the administration win confirmation for three top State Department officials President Barack Obama has appointed to deal with the region. Senate Republicans have put their nominations on hold to protest U.S. policy in Honduras.
Some 1,000 pro-Zelaya demonstrators protested outside the U.S. Embassy in the capital, Tegucigalpa, Thursday after the State Department letter was made public in the Honduran media.
While condemning the overthrow of Zelaya and his pre-dawn expulsion, the Aug. 4 letter said that Zelaya, who's allied with Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez, was largely to blame for his plight.
"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," said the letter, signed by Assistant Secretary of State for Legislative Affairs Richard Verma.
"I think this could open the door for an alternative option as president," said Jorge Yllesca, a political consultant based in Honduras, meaning that interim President Roberto Micheletti might try to end the political crisis by stepping aside, not for Zelaya but for the president of the Congress or the chief justice of the Supreme Court.
The crisis began when Zelaya insisted on staging a referendum June 28 that, opponents believed, would support a constitutional convention leading to a constitutional change that would allow him to seek re-election. Zelaya had only six more months in office before a non-Chavez ally was likely to take over as Honduras' next president.
Chavez and two of his South American allies, Bolivian President Evo Morales and Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa, have won public approval for new constitutions that are allowing them to extend their terms in office.
The Honduran Congress, the attorney general's office and the state prosecutor all advised Zelaya that Honduras' constitution didn't permit the referendum.
He went ahead anyway and was ousted.
Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a conservative Republican congresswoman from Miami, applauded the State Department letter.
"It seems that the U.S. is stepping a bit away from its unabashed support for Zelaya," Ros-Lehtinen said in a telephone interview.
She'd prefer that the Obama administration break ranks with the rest of Latin America and Europe and drop its support for Zelaya.
"To reinstate Zelaya to power would be the wrong message to send," Ros-Lehtinen said. "It would say you can violate the law, go against the Congress and get away with it, and the U.S. will stand with you."
Republican senators angered by the administration's Honduras policy put a hold on Obama's nomination of Arturo Valenzuela to be assistant secretary of State for Western Hemisphere affairs, along with two key ambassadorial nominees.
Lugar, in a July 30 letter to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, said he hoped that her explanation could "improve the prospects" of confirming Valenzuela this week.
Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., said Wednesday that he was "glad to see the State Department is finally beginning to walk back its support for Manuel Zelaya," but an aide said that DeMint hadn't lifted his hold on Valenzuela's nomination because despite the policy shift, Obama still supports Zelaya's return to power.
The Obama administration has taken a series of low-level steps to show its dissatisfaction with the Micheletti government.
The U.S. has revoked diplomatic visas for five Hondurans associated with the Micheletti government. It's suspended anti-drug operations from the U.S. military base in Honduras, withheld $16 million in defense aid and warned that it might not disburse the final 10 percent of money for Honduras under a $250 million aid program.
The U.S. also has strongly supported the mediation efforts of Costa Rican President Oscar Arias, who's proposed a compromise plan to reinstate Zelaya with limited powers. Micheletti has rejected the plan, while Zelaya has accepted it.
The letter to Lugar said that U.S. officials wouldn't go much further.
"We have rejected calls for crippling economic sanctions," it said.
The letter comes at a time when Zelaya is expressing his unhappiness with the Obama administration.
"The United States only needs to tighten its fist, and the coup will last five seconds," Zelaya said Tuesday in Mexico, adding that 70 percent of Honduras' economy depends on trade and remittances from the United States.
Mark Weisbrot, the co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington, said the Obama administration could seize the U.S. bank accounts of Hondurans associated with the coup and withdraw their tourist and diplomatic visas to the U.S.
"These are steps that are very easy to take and would have an impact," Weisbrodt said.
Dennis Jett, a former U.S. ambassador who now teaches at Pennsylvania State University, said the Obama administration has followed a middle course because it has competing goals.
"On one hand, our interests are saved if this guy is not in power or allowed to violated the constitution and perpetuate himself in power," Jett said. "But we do have the obligation to be supportive of democracy."
(James Rosen in Washington contributed to this article.)
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