Page last updated at 23:40 GMT, Tuesday, 30 June 2009 00:40 UK

US treads careful path on Honduras

By Kim Ghattas
BBC News, Washington

US President Barack Obama and Honduran President Manuel Zelaya
Mr Obama has condemned his Honduran counterpart's removal

US President Barack Obama has called the removal of Honduran president Manuel Zelaya on Sunday a "coup".

The ousted leader has been meeting US officials in Washington.

But the US State Department has not recalled its ambassador from Tegucigalpa and it is still reviewing whether to cut off aid to Honduras.

So while Washington's reaction has been strong and swift, when it comes to statements, its actions have so far been measured.

This is a signal that Washington is not keen to use its clout to help Mr Zelaya return to power, shying away from any action that could be seen as interventionism in a region where the US has a long, complex history.

The reaction is also in line with the promise President Obama made to Latin America at the Organization of American States summit in April, not to dictate US policy on the continent anymore but to be an equal partner.

Political shift

But the careful approach also underscores how awkward it can be for a US president to follow through on his declared desire to "stand on the side of democracy, sovereignty and self-determination" when the overthrown leader is someone with whom Washington has recently had cool relations.

The region has made enormous progress over the last 20 years in establishing democratic traditions... We don't want to go back to a dark past
Barack Obama

"Whatever political disagreements you might have, there are democratic norms that have to and should be followed," White House spokesperson Robert Gibbs said.

Honduras is a strong US ally and gets a considerable amount of development and military aid. The US is also Honduras's biggest trading partner.

But Mr Zelaya, who came to power in 2006 as a centre-right leader, turned into a supporter of Venezuela's Hugo Chavez halfway through his term.

He then joined the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas, a leftist alliance led by Venezuela.

Mr Chavez has long been Washington's bete noire, even though relations have thawed somewhat since Mr Obama came to office.

Mr Zelaya's recent attempts to amend the constitution are reminiscent of those Mr Chavez and other populist presidents have taken to extend their time in office.

His call for a referendum to determine whether there was popular support to rewrite the constitution put him at odds with his country's Congress, military and Supreme Court.

It is probably not a path that Washington wanted to see Honduras take, but the military removal of Mr Zelaya was an even worse direction for the country in the eyes of the US administration.

"On the one instance, we're talking about conducting a survey, a non-binding survey; in the other instance, we're talking about the forcible removal of a president from a country," said a state department official on Sunday, speaking on conditions of anonymity.

US involvement

Echoing the condemnation by Latin American leaders, President Obama also said that "it would be a terrible precedent if we start moving backwards into the era in which we are seeing military coups as a means of political transition rather than democratic elections".

"The region has made enormous progress over the last 20 years in establishing democratic traditions in Central America and Latin America. We don't want to go back to a dark past," he added.

And while Washington has - oddly - found itself on the same side as Mr Chavez in condemning the removal of Mr Zelaya and calling for his return to power, it has also had to reject allegations by Mr Chavez that it had a hand in the coup.

General Romeo Vasquez, Honduras' top military chief, who led the coup, is one of the hundreds of Honduran officers who have received military training from the US.

He was sacked by Mr Zelaya for refusing to carry out the referendum.

On Tuesday White House spokesperson Robert Gibbs said that the US had spoken out on the Honduran situation to put to rest "any rumours that we were in any way involved in this".

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton indicated that Washington was perhaps hoping that the situation could still be resolved, which explains why the US is still only reviewing its financial assistance to Honduras and has not cut off aid just yet.

She said the US was "withholding any formal legal determination" of the incident as a coup, which would trigger an end to US aid.

"Much of our assistance is conditioned on the integrity of the democratic system.

"But if we were able to get to a status quo that returned to the rule of law and constitutional order within a relatively short period of time, I think that would be a good outcome," she said on Monday.

It is still unclear whether that outcome will be possible.

Mr Zelaya has garnered impressive international support, including a unanimous condemnation of the coup at the UN, but Honduras's new leaders, while isolated, have vowed to arrest Mr Zelaya if he tries to return.

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