CARACAS, Venezuela — The Obama administration Thursday ratcheted up the pressure on Honduras' coup-installed government to step down by cutting all non-humanitarian aid to the poor Central American country.
The U.S. announcement means a cut-off of some $32 million in aid planned for Honduras. It was accompanied by a decision to revoke visas for senior officials involved with the June 28 coup that hustled President Manuel Zelaya out of the country in his pajamas.
The administration stopped short, however, of tougher measures that would force de facto President Roberto Micheletti to step aside and allow the reinstatement of Zelaya for the final 140 days of his term.
The decision was announced as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton met Zelaya in Washington. Clinton had previously criticized Zelaya for making a showy attempt to cross into Honduras, and she asked both sides to negotiate an agreement and refrain from provocative statements or acts that might hinder a negotiated settlement, a spokesman said.
The State Department said Clinton chose not to label the ouster of Zelaya as a "military" coup, a legal determination that would've triggered sharper U.S. sanctions against Honduras.
"They are taking a cautious, pragmatic, middle of the road approach," said Orlando Perez, a Central Michigan University professor who closely follows Honduras.
The tightening of the screw against the Micheletti government is likely to displease some liberals, who want harsher measures, and was criticized by some conservatives, who say that Zelaya had usurped power and deserved to be ousted.
"They are bullying one of the world's poorest nations and a longtime ally of the U.S." said Sen. Jim DeMint. In a protest against administration policy, the South Carolina Republican in July placed a hold on two crucial nominations for Latin America policy: Arturo Valenzuela, to be the State Department's top diplomat for Latin America and Thomas Shannon, to be ambassador to Brazil. A DeMint spokesman said the holds remain.
The Honduras crisis has presented a conundrum to the Obama administration.
It wants the world to know that the U.S. won't support a government taking power via a coup. It also acknowledged, however, that Honduras' Supreme Court had called for Zelaya's removal, saying that he'd violated the constitution, and that Zelaya had engaged in what U.S. officials have called "provocative" actions since then.
"Restoration of the terminated assistance will be predicated upon a return to democratic, constitutional governance in Honduras," said State Department spokesman Ian Kelly.
The measures announced Thursday come on top of steps taken during the past six weeks to freeze $16.5 million in military aid and to stop issuing visas for Hondurans to visit the U.S.
Besides the aid cut-off Thursday, the State Department also announced that it wouldn't recognize the results of the Nov. 29 presidential and congressional elections unless Zelaya returns. "At this moment, we would not be able to support the outcome of the scheduled elections. A positive conclusion of the Arias process would provide a sound basis for legitimate elections to proceed," the department said in a statement, referring to negotiations led by Costa Rican leader Oscar Arias.
The Micheletti government has been hoping it could ride out the current storm, oversee the scheduled elections and turn over power to the new president as scheduled on Jan. 27.
The U.S. decision appeared to be an attempt to pressure the two major candidates, conservative Porfirio Lobo of the National Party and Elvin Santos of the Liberal Party to convince Micheletti to agree to the international agreement, known as the San Jose Accord.
The decision "will only hurt the Honduran people, whose hospitals, schools, highways and infrastructure depend on part to the generous help of the United States, for which all Hondurans are immensely grateful," Micheletti said during a radio interview Thursday. "We reiterate that we are a nation with dignity, we are a sovereign country and as a result no other country can intervene in our internal affairs."
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