The State Department signaled Thursday the Obama administration is ready to take tougher action against the defacto leadership in Honduras because of the political impasse over President Manuel Zelaya's ouster in June. An Organization of American States diplomatic mission to Tegucigalpa this week returned empty-handed.
Officials here say Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is expected to make a formal determination as early as Friday that the ouster of Mr. Zelaya was an extra-legal coup, action that would set in motion deep cuts in U.S. aid, and other steps against the interim government.
Obama administration officials have been saying since the democratically-elected Mr. Zelaya was arrested by the Honduran military and deported to Costa Rica on June 28 that the action amounted to a coup, despite the fact that officials of the successor administration maintain they acted within the law.
But the State Department withheld a formal determination of a coup, which carries with it harsh aid penalties mandated by Congress, in hope that diplomatic efforts led by the OAS could restore Mr. Zelaya to power.
Costa Rican President Oscar Arias, tasked by the OAS to mediate, has offered a proposal under which interim Honduran President Robert Micheletti would step down and allow Mr. Zelaya to return and serve out his term which ends in January.
But at a news briefing, Assistant Secretary of State for Public Affairs P.J. Crowley said Mr. Micheletti and his supporters categorically rejected the plan when a team of OAS foreign ministers visited Tegucigalpa this week, prompting the United States to consider further sanctions.
"The OAS delegation that went there this week made what we thought was a very direct offer and entreaty to Honduras, to the defacto regime, that they should sign on to the San Jose accords. They have made it categorical that they have, as far as their position today, is that they have no plan to do that. And we are now evaluating based on what we've heard since the delegation has come back to the OAS, and were consulting with the OAS. We're taking stock of that and we'll make some decisions here very soon," he said.
The Obama administration has already suspended several non-humanitarian aid programs for Honduras that it would have been required to halt, if a formal coup determination had been made.
If Secretary Clinton as expected, goes ahead and signs off on such a finding, the aid cuts, worth more than $18 million, would become permanent and other assistance would be affected including a multi-year $215 million U.S. Millennium Challenge Corporation program to boost the Honduran farm economy and roads system.
Earlier this week, the State Department said it was suspending non-emergency visa service for Hondurans seeking to visit the United States in another move aimed at pressing the interim government to accept the Arias plan.
Interim President Micheletti has said he does not fear sanctions and that Honduras can get by without international aid. Mr. Micheletti and supporters say Mr. Zelaya, a political ally of leftist Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, was ousted because he was trying to illegally change the country's constitution to extend his term in office.
Mr. Micheletti, who has the vocal support of some U.S. Congressional conservatives, says Honduras will hold elections in November even if other countries do not recognize the result.
A senior State Department official who spoke to reporters said a coup finding by Secretary Clinton would give U.S. sanctions more bite and importantly, foreclose a resumption of aid without an acceptable resolution of the Honduran political impasse.