President Barack Obama on Monday declared that the United States still considers Manuel Zelaya to be the president of Honduras and assailed the coup that forced him into exile as "not legal," widening the chasm between the Central American nation and much of the rest of the world.
"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," Obama said in the Oval Office after meeting with Colombian President Alviro Uribe. "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."
Leaders from across the Western Hemisphere and beyond called for return to power of Zelaya, who was arrested Sunday morning by soldiers who stormed his residence and forced him into exile. The country now has another president appointed by its Congress, Roberto Micheletti, who insisted that Zelaya was removed legally by the courts and Congress for violating Honduras' constitution and attempting to extend his own rule.
As the military takeover roiled a region that Obama just visited in April, he sought a political balance of showing firmness without boxing himself in.
Obama said the U.S. must always "stand with democracy" even if doesn't like the results of elections.
But he was careful to cast the crisis as not one that the United States must solve alone, and he did not explicitly demand that Zelaya be returned to power. Rather, he said the U.S. would work with international partners on the less-defined goal of trying to "resolve this in a peaceful way."
The president also was careful when asked about the underlying conflict in Honduras — the referendum Zelaya had called in defiance of Honduras' courts and Congress. Zelaya's opponents saw it as a way for him to ultimately stay in power beyond his one-term limit. The vote never took place.
Obama said such matters are up to each country to decide, stirring up echoes of his comments on Iran, whose electoral crisis has grabbed world attention.
"What's ultimately most important is that the people feel a sense of legitimacy and ownership, and that this is not something imposed on them from the top, that it does not involve manipulations of the electorate or, you know, rigging of the electoral process or repression of opposition voices," Obama said Monday.
As Obama talked about the voices of the people being heard, thousands of people protested in the Honduran capital city of Tegucigalpa outside the presidential palace. Police and soldiers are used tear gas to scatter them.
Obama's message — "We believe that the coup was not legal and that President Zelaya remains the president of Honduras" — seemed more blunt than that of his secretary of state, Hillary Rodham Clinton, earlier in the day. But they both emphasized the broader point of returning constitutional order.
When Clinton was asked directly if the U.S. was insisting on Zelaya's return to power, she said: "We haven't laid out any demands that we're insisting on because we're working with others on behalf of our ultimate objectives, which are shared broadly."
Zelaya, forced to go to Costa Rica, planned to address the U.N. General Assembly on Tuesday. The Organization of American States called an emergency meeting of foreign ministers for Tuesday as well.
And leaders wondered nervously about the broader implications of a hostile takeover that officials from the U.S. and other countries could not prevent.
"As we move forward, all parties have a responsibility to address the underlying problems that led to yesterday's events," Clinton said.
Coups were common in Central America for four decades reaching back to the 1950s, but Sunday's ouster was the first military power grab in Latin America since a brief, failed 2002 coup against Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. It was the first in Central America since military officials forced President Jorge Serrano of Guatemala to step down in 1993 after he tried to dissolve Congress and suspend the constitution.
White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said Obama has not spoken with Zelaya since the Honduran leader was forced into exile. Gibbs said it was premature to talk about whether the U.S. would withdraw its ambassador or seek to cut off aid from Honduras.
Chavez, a leftist ally of Zelaya, vowed to "overthrow" Micheletti; the appointed national president shot back: "Nobody scares us."
Zelaya's term ends on Jan. 27, with elections scheduled for November.
Obama's comments were the second in two days. While Clinton said on the day of the takeover that the action against Zelaya should be "condemned by all," the president himself called on all "political and social actors in Honduras to respect democratic norms."