WASHINGTON — After failing to stave off a military coup in Honduras, the Obama administration moved gingerly Monday to try to undo it, leaving key levers of U.S. influence untouched as it urged Hondurans and other countries in the region to seek a settlement.
The administration's approach appeared designed to avoid damaging Washington's ties either to U.S.-allied backers of the coup that forcibly removed President Manuel Zelaya or the regional powers that have universally condemned it.
President Obama expressed "great concerns" about the strife, and U.S. officials planned on attending a session of the Organization of American States in Washington today to address the situation.
"We believe that the coup was not legal and that President Zelaya remains the president of Honduras, the democratically elected president there," Obama said after a meeting with Colombian President Alvaro Uribe. "In that we have joined all the countries in the region, including Colombia, and the Organization of American States."
But while condemning the overthrow, U.S. officials did not demand the reinstatement of Zelaya. The administration left its ambassador to Honduras in place, while several governments in the region recalled theirs.
And despite control over millions of dollars in aid and massive economic clout, the administration did not threaten sanctions or penalties against Honduras for the formation of a new government the day after Zelaya was dragged from his bed and removed from the country Sunday.
Before Sunday, Obama administration officials were aware of the deepening crisis and said they spoke to Honduran officials in the hope of resolving the dispute and averting a forced transfer of power.
However, senior administration officials said the Honduran military ended those discussions Sunday and refused to take further calls.
Now, as U.S. officials assessed the fallout from the first military overthrow in Central America in 16 years, they made it clear Monday that they were looking for a compromise that could restore democracy without risking further upheaval or destroying Honduras' fragile economy.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said the political crisis "has evolved into a coup." But U.S. officials had not made a legal determination that the action actually constituted a coup, a finding that would trigger cutoffs of U.S. aid.
Clinton said the United States joined regional powers in condemning the move, and was working with other Latin American countries to find a way to restore "full democratic and constitutional order in the country."
U.S. officials are "considering the implications" of the takeover.
"This has been a fast-moving set of circumstances over the last several days," Clinton said. "If we were able to get 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."
Zelaya has tried to nudge his country leftward in recent years, forging closer ties with such stridently anti-U.S. regional leaders as Venezuela's Hugo Chavez and Cuba's Castro brothers. When Zelaya in recent weeks began to push to amend the constitution to end term limits, angering his country's military and political establishment, U.S. officials expressed worry.
Successive U.S. administrations have had close political, military and economic ties to Honduras. In the 1980s, Honduran officials aided U.S. efforts against the leftist government of Nicaragua and insurgents in El Salvador.
Remittances from Honduran immigrants to the U.S. account for about one-quarter of the country's gross domestic product, and 70% of Honduras' exports go to the U.S.
U.S. officials have strong ties to the political and business elites who have opposed Zelaya's conduct, including his push to lift constitutional limits on his presidential term.
And the U.S. military has strong ties to the Honduran military, which sent troops to Iraq in a sign of support for the U.S. effort there. About 600 U.S. military personnel are stationed at the Soto Cano Air Base, about 60 miles northwest of the capital city, Tegucigalpa.
But administration officials did not explain why talks to avert the coup broke down, and Venezuela's Chavez led Washington's critics in charging that the U.S. had a hand in the overthrow, an allegation the administration dismissed.
Nonetheless, Obama offered a frank appraisal of U.S. history in the region, referring to Washington's involvement in many of the region's coups over the last century.
"The United States has not always stood as it should with some of these fledgling democracies," he said at the White House.
"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."