The first day after the coup in Honduras included riot police turning hoses on protestors and angry denunciations from the President of the United States, in a break from past tradition when Presidents offered tacit support to Latin American coups (or overt support, as in the Bushies' reaction to the attempted coup of Hugo Chavez in 2002). Questions still dogged the White House, however.
The United States has a history of backing rival political factions and instigating coups in the region, and administration officials have found themselves on the defensive in recent days, dismissing repeated allegations by President Hugo Chávez of Venezuela that the C.I.A. may have had a hand in the president’s removal.
Obama administration officials said that they were surprised by the coup on Sunday. But they also said that they had been working for several weeks to try to head off a political crisis in Honduras as the confrontation between Mr. Zelaya and the military over his efforts to lift presidential term limits escalated.
The United States has long had strong ties to the Honduras military and helps train Honduran military forces. Those close ties have put the Obama administration in a difficult position, opening it up to accusations that it may have turned a blind eye to the pending coup. Administration officials strongly deny the charges, and Mr. Obama’s quick response to the Honduran president’s removal has differed sharply from the actions of the Bush administration, which in 2002 offered a rapid, tacit endorsement of a short-lived coup against Mr. Chávez.
As if to rebut the past support for military overthrows in the region, Obama began with a sharp statement and built on it at a press avail with Colombia's Alvaro Uribe:
All of us have great concerns about what's taken place there. President Zelaya was democratically elected. He had not yet completed his term. We believe that the coup was not legal and that President Zelaya remains the President of Honduras, the democratically elected President there. In that we have joined all the countries in the region, including Colombia and the Organization of American States.
I think it's -- 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. The United States has not always stood as it should with some of these fledgling democracies, but over the last several years, I think both Republicans and Democrats in the United States have recognized that we always want to stand with democracy, even if the results don't always mean that the leaders of those countries are favorable towards the United States. And that is a tradition that we want to continue.
So we are very clear about the fact that President Zelaya is the democratically elected President, and we will work with the regional organizations like OAS and with other international institutions to see if we can resolve this in a peaceful way.
Zelaya, according to his critics, was attempting to rewrite the constitution to run for re-election (Honduras has a seemingly constricting one-term Presidential limit), but he actually
was attempting to put a nonbinding resolution on the ballot about convening a constitutional assembly, something so tyrannical and anti-democratic that it could be DEFEATED AT THE BALLOT BOX. As an unnamed official said in the Times story, “On the one instance, we’re talking about conducting a survey, a nonbinding survey; in the other instance, we’re talking about the forcible removal of a president from a country.”
Significantly, Hillary Clinton refused to call the action a coup, "which would trigger a cutoff of millions of dollars in aid to the impoverished Central American country." Obama certainly called it a coup in his remarks, so I don't see the distinction. But that signals a preparation to live with this consequence while offering stern rebukes. Zelaya plans to return home on Thursday, and who knows what that will spark. Quite the mess.