US Finally Cuts Aid to Honduras

Daniel Luban

HAVANA TIMES, Sept. 3 (IPS)  – Frustrated by the continued intransigence of the Honduran regime that ousted President Manuel Zelaya, the U.S. State Department followed through Wednesday on threats to cut off aid to Honduras.

“Restoration of the terminated assistance will be predicated upon a return to democratic, constitutional governance in Honduras,” the State Department said in a statement.

Calling Zelaya’s removal a “coup d’etat”, the U.S. also stated that it would not recognize the results of the scheduled November presidential elections in Honduras under the current circumstances.

The State Department did not elaborate on the aid cutoff, and there were conflicting reports as to exactly how much aid was being terminated.

A U.S. official told Reuters that the total cuts were over 30 million dollars, while the New York Times put the total at around 22 million dollars. The board of the Millennium Challenge Fund, which currently provides about 135 million dollars to Honduras, will discuss whether to cut off its aid next week, the Times reported.

After weeks of hesitation, the State Department made the decision to cut aid after the de facto government rejected the San Jose Accord, an agreement moderated by Costa Rican President Oscar Arias that would return Zelaya to power until the November elections.

“The Secretary of State has made the decision, consistent with U.S. legislation, recognizing the need for strong measures in light of the continued resistance to the adoption of the San Jose Accord by the de facto regime and continuing failure to restore democratic, constitutional rule to Honduras,” the State Department said.

Also on Wednesday, Zelaya met with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in Washington.  A day earlier, he called on U.S. President Barack Obama to take a harder line on the de facto government of Honduras, which is currently led by interim President Roberto Micheletti.

The State Department called the removal of Zelaya a “coup d’etat”, which would appear to compel the withholding of Millennium Challenge funds.

The U.S. also noted that is in the process of revoking the visas of individual members and supporters of the de facto regime.

The decision to get tougher with the de facto government drew praise from many Latin American analysts.

“It’s critically important that the U.S. government has stated that they won’t recognize the November elections,” said Vicki Gass of the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA). “But I think it would’ve been stronger if they had declared the coup illegal, demonstrating to the de facto regime that they’re serious about a return to constitutional order.”

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But right-wingers politicians and commentators in the U.S. who have supported Zelaya’s removal were quick to denounce the decision.

“I believe this decision will significantly undermine U.S. national security interests and foreign policy priorities in Honduras and the region as a whole,” said U.S. Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a Florida Republican.

Ros-Lehtinen accused the Obama administration of “punishing those in Honduras struggling to preserve the rule of law, fundamental liberties, and democratic values”.

On Jun. 28, the military seized Zelaya at his home and forced him onto a plane to Costa Rica.

The de facto government and its supporters in the U.S. argue that Zelaya’s removal was legal and a defense of democracy in Honduras.

They point to Zelaya’s attempts to conduct a referendum to determine whether there was support to modify the constitution and end presidential term limits.

Zelaya’s opponents argue that this amounted to an illegal power grab, and highlight his friendship with left-wing Latin American leaders such as Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.

Zelaya dismisses these accusations, saying that the “poll was non-binding, and it was a democratic exercise,” and that his opponents are “seeking to legalize the coup.”

The State Department said Wednesday that it “recognizes the complicated nature” of the events leading to Zelaya’s removal, but nonetheless maintains that it constituted a coup.

In the weeks following Zelaya’s removal, the de facto government took steps to quiet international criticism by agreeing to take part in negotiations mediated by Arias.

In July, Robert Micheletti, the interim president under the de facto government, took to the pages of the Wall Street Journal to argue that “the way forward is to work” with Arias.

But after it became clear that Arias would insist on Zelaya’s return to power, Micheletti and his government refused to abide by the results of the San Jose Accord.

By holding out until the schedule Nov. 29 elections, the de facto government hoped to make Zelaya’s return a moot point.

In response, the OAS  along with a number of Latin American governments – refused to recognize the results of the November elections, and on Wednesday the U.S. joined them.

The elections “must be undertaken in a free, fair and transparent manner… must also be free of taint and open to all Hondurans to exercise their democratic franchise,” the State Department said.

While stating that it could currently recognize the election results, the U.S. noted that “a positive conclusion of the Arias process would provide a sound basis for legitimate elections to proceed”.

Many human rights observers have become increasingly critical of the actions taken by the government to quiet dissent within Honduras.

Several human rights groups, including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, have reported violence against demonstrators opposed to the coup as well as intimidation of the media. Zelaya himself claims that since June, 1,500 people have been detained for political reasons, and that his supporters have been beaten, raped, and murdered.

Analysts hope that a resolution of the crisis that began Jun. 28 can allow Honduras to deal with deeper-seated problems.

“People want a return to constitutional order, but they also want issues of poverty, impunity, inequality and corruption to be addressed,” WOLA’s Gass told IPS. “They don’t feel the current system does this, and there are larger long-term issues that need to be addressed.”