Secretary of State Hillary Clinton moved to terminate aid to Honduras today in response to a June 28 coup that deposed its elected President Jose Manuel Zelaya. The U.S. also decided to revoke visas for officials in the de facto government and supporters of Zelaya's overthrow.
"Today's, you know, action sends a clear message to the de facto regime that the status quo is unacceptable and that their strategy, to try to run out the clock on President Zelaya's term of office, you know, is unacceptable. And the time has come for all the parties to sign the San Jose accords," State Department spokesman PJ Crowley told reporters.
The U.S. is cutting off $30 million in aid to Honduras, one of the poorest countries in the western hemisphere. Those funds had already been frozen earlier this summer, now they can be reprogrammed for other uses. Some aid, like HIV/AIDS treatment continues.
Crowley said it will only restart aid once there is a "return to democratic, constitutional governance in Honduras."
The move comes as Secretary Clinton met today with Zelaya for one hour in Washington to explain the action, and urge him to take steps towards reconciling the impasse in negotiations with the de facto government.
Clinton declined to declare Zelaya's ouster a "military coup," a determination that would trigger an automatic cutoff in aid under U.S. law. In effect, not doing so retains the ability to restart aid within the State Department as opposed to receiving approval from Congress. Clinton's legal advisor had recommended last week that the coup be branded a "military coup."
In the statement today the State Department referenced the military's role in the coup, but counted it as one of several players. On June 28, Zelaya, still wearing his pajamas, was expelled from the country by the military but power was quickly transitioned to a civilian government.
The United States delayed the decision to cut off aid to Honduras for months in hopes diplomatic efforts led by Costa Rican President Oscar Arias would resolve the situation, but though a settlement has been proposed, it has not been agreed to. Known as the San Jose Accords, it would allow for Zelaya's return to power until scheduled elections in November, but not allow him to run for office. Zelaya had been trying to modify the country's constitution to remove term limits to allow him to run for re-election.
The United States revoked visas for some Honduran officials earlier this summer, but today expanded that step. Last week the U.S. embassy in Honduras halted issuing visas, an effort to tighten the screws on the de facto government.
National elections are currently scheduled to take place Nov. 29, but on Wednesday Zelaya said that the international community would not recognize the newly elected president, and that he was assured that the Organization of American States wouldn't either.
Nor would the United States.
In a statement today, the State Department said: "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. We strongly urge all parties to the San Jose talks to move expeditiously to agreement."
"That election must be undertaken in a free, fair and transparent manner. It must also be free of taint and open to all Hondurans to exercise their democratic franchise," the State Department statement added.
Zelaya said Wednesday the coup d'état took place to oust him in preparation for "electoral fraud."
"I think [the United States] cannot put its prestige on the line and submit to a small group of people that are pro-coup and do not accept the opinion of the international community," Zelaya said Wednesday at a talk he gave at The George Washington University about democracy in Honduras.
"This is a first snatching of democracy during the Obama administration," he said.
Zelaya, who only had five months left of his term when he was ousted, said he would return to Honduras before his term ended in December – in one way or another.
In an interview with the Washington Post, Zelaya said that "When diplomatic action runs out, when the United States indicates it can't do any more, I am not going to simply sit around with my arms crossed."
He said he would look for "fighting strategies" and "seek actions on my return that kick the coup plotters out of power."
The Organization of American States suspended Honduras' membership, and the United Nations General Assembly unanimously condemned the coup. In the U.S., President Barack Obama denounced the coup and canceled $16.5 million in military aid to Honduras.
But despite international pressure and threats that Honduran elections will not be recognized by the international community including regional neighbors like Mexico, the interim government in Honduras has fastly held together.
"The degree of resistance of the de facto government has I think taken everyone by surprise -- their stubbornness," said McClintock, director of George Washington University's Latin American and Hemispheric Studies Program.
"The sanctions could backfire. We have to be careful about not being so across the board, and that we try to pass measures that hurt the de facto government," she said.
McClintock said that some of those measures like visa suspensions were articulated already by U.S. officials, but enforcement so far has been "sporadic."
"There's still US soldiers in Honduras. I think it's important to really stand very firm on the military aid and the withdrawal of U.S. military involvement with the Honduran military forces," she said.
"It's important to send signals to the Honduran military that it's not business as usual." Washington has had a difficult time choosing between a leftist Latin American leader who tried to pass a referendum that his opponents say could have lead to abolishing term limits, and a military ouster of a democratically elected President.
U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla., ranking Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, commented on the decision to pull aid from Honduras, "The U.S. approach to friends and foes is completely backwards. While appeasing the enemies of freedom worldwide, we punish those in Honduras struggling to preserve the rule of law, fundamental liberties, and democratic values."
Zelaya insisted that the real cause for the June coup was a power struggle by six of the most powerful families in Honduras, who he says control the economy and the national Congress. That is why, Zelaya said, the former President of the Congress is now the President of the Republic.
"He [Roberto Micheletti] named himself President," he said.
Zelaya underscored his concern that a former death squad leader, known as just Billy Joya, being named a security advisor, and listed grave reports of human rights abuses such as rape, violence leading to death, arbitrary arrests, and closures of independent media, echoing reports of human rights groups.
According to Zalaya, there are 1,500 political detainees now in Honduras, and a presidential candidate for the November elections is in the hospital with his arms broken.
Acting Honduran President Roberto Micheletti admitted that it was a mistake forcing President Manuel Zelaya to leave the country -- instead of just putting him in jail.
"There was an error by a certain sector," Micheletti told Bloomberg. "It wasn't correct. We have to punish whoever allowed that to happen. The rest was framed within what the constitution requires."