Honduran president-elect banking on US support

AP News
Posted: Nov 30, 2009 5:46 PM

Honduras' president-elect is not worried that many countries do not recognize his election. Washington supports Porfirio Lobo, and that's what matters most to this Central American nation.

Lobo, 61, lit up in public appearances Monday with his trademark toothy grin as he assured Hondurans that the crisis over the June 28 coup that overthrew leftist-allied President Manuel Zelaya would soon be history.

"It's difficult not to recognize an electoral process in a democratic country," Lobo said at a news conference with foreign reporters. "This is how the crisis ends."

That is what coup supporters have hoped all along, and why they resisted reinstating Zelaya before Sunday's vote despite intense international pressure.

Leaders in many Latin American countries, particularly those on the left, are standing firm in refusing to recognize the election, saying it sets a dangerous precedent for a region that has been vulnerable to coups.

But those nations are unlikely to influence Honduras, a very poor country that sends the bulk of its exports to the United States and relies heavily on money sent home from the 1 million Hondurans who live in the U.S.

Washington's position also is likely to influence other countries, and some have already followed its lead in accepting the vote, including Colombia, Panama, Guatemala, Costa Rica and Peru.

Brazil, the most influential country to reject the election, is Latin America's largest economy but it has minimal trade relations with Honduras.

Venezuela's leftist president, Hugo Chavez, tried to increase his influence in Honduras under Zelaya, sending oil exports in exchange for long-term payment at a very low interest rate. But Honduras still got most of its oil from the U.S. and other countries, so it made little difference when Chavez stopped fuel shipments to protest the coup.

Politically, however, Lobo could suffer. Brazil and Venezuela have enough clout to keep the Organization of American States from reinstating Honduras, which could bar the Lobo government from diplomatic summits _ a sanction that communist Cuba faced for five decades.

Heather Berkman, a Honduran expert with the New York-based Eurasia group, predicts most countries will re-establish ties and multilateral groups are likely to follow.

"There's a new president, from peaceful elections that were largely seen as legitimate and transparent," she said. "It's going to be hard, I think, for countries to ignore another country in the region for the next five years."

Many Hondurans just want to be rid of crippling isolation, including the suspension of U.S. development aid and anti-narcotics cooperation in a country suffering from staggering drug gang violence.

Washington also wants Lobo to patch up the political conflict that resulted from Zelaya's ouster over his attempt to hold a referendum on changing the constitution after the Supreme Court ruled the effort illegal.

"We recognize those results, and we commend Mr. Lobo for having won these elections," Arturo Valenzuela, the U.S. assistant secretary of state for the Western Hemisphere, said in Washington.

But the United States has stopped short of promising to restore aid and military ties with its old ally, saying negotiations must continue on forming a unity government to run Honduras until Lobo takes office when Zelaya's term expires Jan. 27.

"While the election is a necessary step, it is not a sufficient one," Valenzuela said.

Under a U.S.-brokered pact, Honduran lawmakers are to vote Wednesday on whether Zelaya should be restored as president to head the unity government. However, that is unlikely.

Zelaya, who remains holed up at the Brazilian Embassy, has said he will not return to the presidency even if Congress votes him back in, saying the window for reversing the coup has closed.

Zelaya says Washington turned its back on him.

"I'm totally shocked at how this election has been inflated to turn into a lie for Hondurans," Zelaya told Radio Globo on Monday. "This process is full of vices. It has no legitimacy and it should be annulled."

Lobo, a cheerful man who prefers casual dress of jeans and checkered shirts, has promised to talk with Zelaya. But he was dismissive Monday about what might happen to the ousted leader.

"Zelaya is already history," said Lobo, who belongs to the opposition National Party and lost to Zelaya in the 2005 presidential election. "He is already part of the past."


Associated Press writers Juan Carlos LLorca and Freddy Cuevas in Tegucigalpa and Julie Watson in Mexico City contributed to this report.