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U.S. increases pressure on Honduras' de facto leaders

In a 'very tough call,' Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton warns Roberto Micheletti against letting post-coup talks falter after a stalemate over the weekend.

July 21, 2009|Paul Richter and Tracy Wilkinson

WASHINGTON AND TEGUCIGALPA, HONDURAS — The Obama administration has sharply increased pressure on the de facto government running Honduras after last month's military coup, hoping to break a stalemate in negotiations with ousted President Manuel Zelaya.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton telephoned Roberto Micheletti, named president of the country after the June 28 coup, to warn him against letting the talks falter, said Clinton's chief spokesman, P.J. Crowley.

Clinton, calling while on an official trip to India, outlined "the potential consequences of a failure," Crowley said, in a reference to potential cuts in U.S. aid and heightened pressure from Washington. Crowley described Clinton's overture as a "very tough call."

The warning came as U.S. officials in Honduras have met with business and political leaders to threaten consequences for refusing to back Zelaya's return. But Micheletti, speaking to supporters Monday, vowed that the government would resist pressure and "hold out until the last moment."

Negotiations being mediated by Costa Rican President Oscar Arias collapsed Sunday over Micheletti's insistence that Zelaya would not be allowed to return to office, even with limited powers.

Crowley suggested that the talks still hold hope and that Micheletti's government may be willing to back off that condition. He said negotiations "might have produced more progress than is at first evident."

Clinton's call represented her first contact with Micheletti and signaled a deepening American involvement in the crisis. In the first days after June 28, when Zelaya was toppled and expelled from the country, the Obama administration urged other Latin American officials to take the lead on the issue. Later, it backed mediation involving Arias.

But the administration increasingly has found itself in the middle of the drama, and is staking its prestige on its ability to restore peace.

U.S. officials, including Thomas Shannon, the chief U.S. diplomat for Latin America, and Hugo Llorens, the U.S. ambassador to Honduras, spent the weekend in conversations with Arias, representatives of the two sides and other regional leaders, Crowley said.

He said that Clinton made it clear that the United States was ready to use its enormous leverage over Honduras if Micheletti's government does not comply.

The administration has so far withheld $18.5 million in aid to Honduras, but it could also stop an additional $180 million in development aid. The United States also has huge leverage through trade because 70% of Honduras' exports go to the United States.

In another sign of the growing international pressure on the interim government, the European Union announced it was cutting off $90 million in aid. The move is another warning of international isolation for the Micheletti government, which has not been recognized by any other nation.

Zelaya has threatened to return to his country, with or without a political agreement. The talks are currently suspended for three days to give Arias time to work on a new proposal.

Zelaya had been pursuing a nonbinding referendum to amend the constitution. The referendum had been ruled illegal. He was ousted by a Honduran elite concerned that he was trying to change the constitution to allow for his reelection. Honduran presidents are limited to a single term.

Llorens, who has been working behind the scenes to restore Zelaya to power, met Thursday with business leaders, most of whom supported the coup. Llorens warned that the Micheletti government would never be recognized and that Honduras risks further sanctions if a solution is not found, a participant said.

"He urged us not to block an agreement," said one entrepreneur who attended the meeting and agreed to discuss it on condition that his name not be used. "His tone was very firm."

But the businessmen responded that Zelaya cannot be trusted. Possible sanctions could include canceling visas for Hondurans, which would be harsh punishment for wealthy Hondurans who prize their ability to travel to the U.S.

Far from seeking compromise, however, Honduras' de facto rulers were digging in their heels Monday. Enrique Ortez, who served briefly as the new government's foreign minister, said Llorens could be declared persona non grata.

Micheletti spoke Monday at a gathering in the presidential palace of about 150 people representing business and community groups. Adolfo Facuse, one of Honduras' wealthiest businessmen, pledged to help pay the government's bills if Honduras loses money because of sanctions.

Micheletti confirmed he had spoken to Clinton and said he told her to send a trusted envoy to Honduras to get a "real" picture of what is happening.

"We've tried to explain what went on here before June 28," he said, "and everyone just wants to hear what happened on June 28."

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paul.richter@latimes.com

wilkinson@latimes.com

Special correspondent Charles McDermid in Bangkok, Thailand, contributed to this report.

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