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Background Briefing on the Situation in Honduras


Teleconference Background Briefing by Two Senior Department Officials
Washington, DC
July 1, 2009


MR. KELLY: So let’s start. Thank you for joining us for this conference call. We have two Senior Administration Officials with us today to discuss the current situation in Honduras and our bilateral and multilateral efforts in that situation. And I think we’re going to start off with some opening remarks.

So, go ahead, Mr. Senior Administration Official.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: Great. Thank you very much, and it’s a pleasure to be on with you all. I look forward to your questions.

Very briefly, as you know, last night, the OAS General Assembly, the special session of the General Assembly, met at OAS headquarters and approved a consensus resolution which tracked largely with previous resolutions in the Permanent Council of the OAS and also the UN General Assembly, but significantly also invoked the Inter-American Democratic Charter, in particular two articles of the charter – Article 20 and Article 21 – both of which refer to the interruption of constitutional and democratic order.

Article 20, in the event of an interruption of democratic and constitutional order, authorizes the Secretary General of the OAS to use his good offices to begin diplomatic initiatives to try to address the underlying causes of the interruption of democratic order and try to restore that order. And Article 21, in the event that such diplomatic initiatives fail, authorizes the General Assembly to suspend the member-state for an ongoing interruption of democratic and constitutional order.

This is the first time these two articles of the Inter-American Democratic Charter have been invoked since it was approved in Lima, Peru on September 11th, 2001. This is a dramatic move by the OAS. It underscores its commitment to democracy, the importance of the Inter-American Democratic Charter as a tool to understand democracy in the region, but especially to respond to challenges that countries face, and in a worst-case scenario, threatens suspension. It’s important to underscore that this resolution was a consensus resolution. All 34 countries supported it, including the government, the legal and constitutional government of Honduras led by President Zelaya and his foreign minister.

Currently, President Zelaya is in Panama at the inauguration of the new Panamanian president, and the Secretary General is in the process of fashioning his diplomatic initiatives which will involve outreach to those in Panama who undertook this coup.

Let me stop there and --

QUESTION: In Honduras?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: Yes, in Honduras.

MR. KELLY: Okay. We’re ready for your questions. Josh, you want to lead it off?

OPERATOR: Thank you. At this time, we are ready to take questions. If you would like to ask a question, please press *1. You will be announced prior to asking your question and will be prompted to record your name. Once in queue, you may withdraw a request by pressing *2.

Once again, at this time, to ask a question, please press *1, take yourself off of mute, and record your first and last name. One moment, please, for the first question.

Our first question is from Arshad Mohammed. You may ask your question.

QUESTION: Thanks very much for doing the call. Two things: One, can you give us a – earlier this week, Secretary Clinton gave us to understand that you were holding off on a determination on whether it was indeed a military coup. And there was the inference that this was to open up diplomatic space to reach a negotiated outcome. Is that still your stance, even though I know that you are – that the Legal Adviser’s Office has begun the process of determining whether it was a military coup and, therefore, whether the aid cutoff is triggered?

And secondly, beyond calling for the restoration of – you know, beyond calling for the restoration of President Zelaya, do you believe that any political solution that may be achieved must also address the misgivings of those Hondurans about the referendum that he had planned to hold on the possibility of allowing Honduran presidents to serve more than one four-year term?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: In regard to the first question, both the President and the Secretary have described events in Honduras as a coup, which they certainly were once the current claimant to the presidency swore – was sworn in before the congress after the forcible removal of the legal and constitutional president, Mel Zelaya.

In regard to assistance, obviously, we’re evaluating the impact of these actions on our assistance programs. The focus of our assistance programs is the well-being of the Honduran people. That remains our focus as we conduct this evaluation. But it’s important to note at this moment that we are working with our partners in the OAS, through the Inter-American Democratic Charter, to try to fashion a resolution of this interruption of democratic and constitutional order. And therefore, we have determined that we will wait until the Secretary General has finished his diplomatic initiatives and reports back to the General Assembly on July 6th before we take any further action in relationship to assistance.

What was your second question again?

QUESTION: The second question was whether you thought that – I mean, the Administration, I think, has been fairly clear in calling for the restoration of President Zelaya, and please correct me if I’ve misinterpreted that. And the question is: Do you think a political solution needs to also address the concerns about – the concerns in many parts of the political elite about the referendum he planned to hold?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: Yeah, there are two different things here. In regard to the illegal detention and expulsion of President Zelaya, this was an act which was unconstitutional and illegal and cannot be tolerated. And in the resolutions that we have associated ourselves with, or co-sponsored in the UN, we have called for the unconditional return of President Zelaya. In other words, concerns or doubts about the wisdom of his actions relating to his proposed non-binding referendum have – are independent of the unconstitutional act taken against him.

In that regard, obviously, as the Secretary General attempts to fashion diplomatic initiatives and outreach to those people who undertook the coup, there will be political discussions in which, obviously, the concerns that led them to take action against the president will be raised. And it would be reasonable to assume that the continuing viability of democratic government in Honduras would have to take those into account in some fashion.

MS. RESIDE: Next question?

OPERATOR: James Rosen, you may ask your question.

QUESTION: Hi, gentlemen. Thank you again for doing the call. I want to cover two areas: first are some of the actual events of the coup itself; and then the prospects for a favorable outcome.

First, with regard to the events of the coup itself, there were reports of gunplay involved. Do you know if there were any casualties or injuries, if anybody actually was shot? And also, the military flight that took President Zelaya to Costa Rica strikes me as intriguing, because I wonder if such a flight could have possibly been arranged without the complicity of the Costa Ricans. So first, just on those questions related to the coup.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: In regards to casualties, I’m not aware of any casualties during the detention and the expulsion of President Zelaya. There were reports of gunshots around the presidential residence, but we don’t have a clear understanding of everything that took place in that residence.

In regard to the flight itself, obviously, for a flight to leave Honduras and enter Costa Rican air space it would need over-flight authorization from the Costa Ricans. So, I mean, you’d have to speak to the Costa Ricans to get the facts on this case, but we would assume that the Hondurans asked for such authorization and received it.

QUESTION: And so this is properly classified as a military coup?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: Well, I mean, it’s a golpe de estado. The military moved against the president; they removed him from his home and they expelled him from a country, so the military participated in a coup. However, the transfer of leadership was not a military action. The transfer of leadership was done by the Honduran congress, and therefore the coup, while it had a military component, it has a larger – it is a larger event.

QUESTION: And then where the prospects for a favorable outcome are concerned, you talked about how the Secretary General is fashioning diplomatic overtures. Give us a sense, if you would, what those might include. Everything we’re hearing out of Tegucigalpa right now from the interim administration is very hard-line; talk of arrests, talk of foreign invasion would be the only way he could come back. And obviously, there’s going to need to be, if this is resolved the way you’d like to see it, some face-saving way out for the members of that administration. So how do you see these overtures providing that?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: Well, this is obviously a very delicate moment, and we don’t want to anticipate what the Secretary General will be attempting to do. But as you note, this is a highly charged environment right now on both sides and therefore requires caution and wisdom from both sides moving forward.

But we would note that in the 21st century, these kinds of coups don’t last long. It is very hard for a country like Honduras to maintain this kind of position in the face of overwhelming rejection by the world, and especially by the region and its major trading partners.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL TWO: Sorry, and I’d also add it’s clear that the international consensus here, to which we form a part, is to find a peaceful resolution to this situation. And obviously, the kind of – no responsible party is talking about military intervention. I think that is a reflection of the level of tension, as Senior Administration Official One was referring to. But it is clear that the consensus position here, and what the President of the United States has called for, what the Secretary of State has called for, what leaders throughout the hemisphere have called for, is that this, through a peaceful diplomatic dialogue in accordance with the Inter-American Democratic Charter is the path to reestablishing democratic and constitutional order in Honduras.

QUESTION: Thank you.

OPERATOR: Ginger Thompson, you may ask your question.

QUESTION: Hi, guys, and thanks again for taking the call. I’m wondering if I could press a little more on the military aspect of what happened in Honduras. I’m still not sure I’m completely clear on whether you think the military played the leading role. I mean, they certainly committed the action in which he was arrested and removed from the country, but does that suggest to you all that they are the lead actors in this and that the civilian forces played sort of a supporting role? Have you all been able to kind of really figure out the powers behind this coup?

And then also, I understand that the military, the Pentagon, has suspended joint operations. Can you tell me a little bit more about what that means?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: In regard to the coup itself, I think it would just – it would be best to say that this was a coordinated effort between the military and some civilian political actors. Obviously, the military was the entity that conducted the forcible removal of the president and has acted as the securer of public order during this process. But for the coup to become more than an insurrection or a rebellion, you have to have an effort to transfer power. And in that regard, the congress – the congress’s decision to swear in its president, Micheletti, as the president of Honduras indicates that the congress and key members of that congress played an important role in this coup.

In regard to the military, since the swearing-in of the claimant to the presidency, the United States has cut off contact with those who have conducted the coup, and we have reduced, to the extent possible, all other contact. On the military side, we still maintain contact necessary for operational and safety issues and humanitarian affairs, but otherwise we’re standing down on our different cooperation programs.

QUESTION: Thank you.

OPERATOR: Mary Beth Sheridan, you may ask your question.

QUESTION: Thank you. If I could just clarify a little bit more on that latter question on the military aid. You mentioned since the coup, the U.S. has reduced, to the extent possible, all contact with those that conducted the coup and reduced the other contacts. So the announcement today, does that reflect something that happened sort of from Sunday, or is this a new, you know, different type of, you know, level of, you know, stopping certain activities or something?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: Which announcement?

QUESTION: The Pentagon said today that they had ceased cooperation with the Honduran military. So I’m just a little bit confused because you said, you know, as – when the coup – since the swearing-in, rather –

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: Yes.

QUESTION: -- the U.S. cut off contact with the coup guys --

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: Right.

QUESTION: -- and, you know, reduced other contacts. So is the announcement today just acknowledging something that happened a few days ago, or is this – you know, is this something further affecting, you know, I guess we assume joint, you know, sort of anti-drug type activities, or regional, I guess, anti-drug activities, right, at Soto Cano and that kind of thing?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: Yeah, I mean, this was – the announcement was a formalization --

QUESTION: I see.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL TWO: Right.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: -- of a decision that had already been made.

QUESTION: I see.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: But I would really direct you to U.S. Southern Command –

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL TWO: Right.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: -- and DOD for a kind of more precise definition or response to the question.

QUESTION: Okay. And could you just describe a little bit more – the other day in the conference call, you mentioned that there were calls made in the days preceding the coup. How much did you perceive a coup was, in fact, brewing? I mean, the former – or the – President Zelaya has talked about how the U.S., he thought anyway, had stopped a coup. I mean, did you have a sense that a coup was in the air?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: Well, let me put it this way. This was a very difficult and tense several weeks in which the lack of trust between political actors and the growing political confrontation and conflict had created a tinder box inside of Honduras that was extremely dangerous. Our purpose and the purpose of the partners we were working with was to try to reduce those tensions, try to facilitate communication, and try to ensure that Honduran institutions found a peaceful, constitutional way to address the underlying problems that had brought Honduras to this level of confrontation.

We were obviously concerned about extra-constitutional actions, and because of that we were very clear in our communication with all political actors that the United States would not support any kind of extra-constitutional action. But in regards to whether or not we had precise knowledge about military actions, the answer is no.

QUESTION: Thank you.

OPERATOR: Santiago Tevada, you may ask your question.

QUESTION: Yes, I’d like to know if you have finished the formal review to declare officially the expulsion of President Zelaya as a coup d’état. And also, are you planning to withdraw the U.S. ambassador in Tegucigalpa?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: We are not planning on withdrawing the U.S. ambassador in Tegucigalpa. We believe that it’s important at this point in time to maintain a presence in Honduras at the ambassadorial level, to engage with Honduran civil society, and to be a symbol of our commitment to Honduran democracy and constitutionality.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL TWO: And on the first question, as I believe it was answered earlier, the review is ongoing.

QUESTION: Thank you.

OPERATOR: Maria Pena, you may ask your question.

QUESTION: Hi. Yes. It’s kind of rephrasing a question that was posed earlier. When you said that you were trying to avert this crisis, there’s a – you know, I’ve been talking to a lot of analysts this morning, and their sense is that perhaps the U.S. did not – or underestimated that this was brewing and that this was going to happen. So does that concern you that even though you kept these contacts up until the coup, that the U.S. may be losing influence because the coup did, in fact, happen?

And also, you know, what if – you’re saying that you think the Honduran Government is going to not be able to resist this for too long because it’s an overwhelming political international pressure, but what if they do resist? I mean, are you basically looking at a problem with an expiration date – you know, six months? What is the next step should the Secretary General
come back empty-handed?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: Well, if the Secretary General comes back empty-handed, I think it’s pretty clear that the member-states of the OAS will suspend Honduras as a member, which is a significant move, because that would begin a cascade of events in which Honduras would find itself out of many of the different components of the inter-American system, components that are important to Honduras across the – all of its activities, whether it be security, political, economic, cultural or social.

So, I mean, one of the important things to remember here is just how interconnected our region is, and especially how interconnected Central America is. And when a country attempts to or takes an action that isolates itself, it really can hurt itself in a pretty dramatic way.

And again, in terms of how we attempted to address this issue, at the end of the day, this is a Honduran issue and a Honduran problem. And we and the OAS and other partners can work to try to create a context in which solutions are found, but we can’t compose those solutions. And this wasn’t a question of the United States having influence or not having influence. It is an issue of Hondurans making the wrong decision, of Hondurans allowing their fear and their concern to overwhelm their ability to see clearly what they need to do in order to preserve democratic and constitutional order in their own country.

And it was our effort to make it clear to Hondurans that there was a peaceful, democratic, constitutional pathway to resolve their political problems. But the individuals and institutions that undertook the coup decided not to take that pathway.

QUESTION: But, you know, even though you insist on not making it a bilateral issue, I mean, the U.S. is a huge component, is a huge part of the equation. I mean, here we are, Honduran Government is – the Honduran Government is risking losing at least $600 million in all kinds of aid and assistance. And so therefore, you know, I guess what a lot of people are asking now is how – what will the U.S. do to exert more influence so that there’s a peaceful resolution to this?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: Well, we’re working with the OAS. We have a presence on the ground. We have a capability of assisting and enhancing what the OAS is attempting to do. And I think what we have over the next several days, until the Secretary General reports back to the OAS General Assembly, is an opportunity to see what we and our partners can accomplish.

QUESTION: Thank you.

OPERATOR: Paul Richter, you may ask your question.

QUESTION: Hello. Can you hear me?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: Yes.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL TWO: Yes.

QUESTION: There’s been discussion about Zelaya returning but with limited powers. And I wonder if the U.S. would support that kind of solution since it would seem to be a breach of democratic process.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: By breach of democratic process, what do you mean?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL TWO: Yeah, what do you mean? Yeah.

QUESTION: In other words – in other words, Zelaya was elected, was duly elected, and given certain powers. If he goes back without those powers as a figurehead, wouldn’t that be a breach of process?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: Well, again, we and all the countries of the region have called for an unconditional return – in other words, a return of President Zelaya and a restoration of the democratic and constitutional order, which means that President Zelaya is president of Honduras with all the powers and privileges that adhere to the presidency. However, in the course of fashioning this restoration, the OAS is also going to have to address the broader issue of governability within a system that has been badly damaged. And that’s obviously going to require negotiation among the different political actors.

I don’t think that that negotiation would affect the fundamental powers or authorities of the presidency of Honduras. But obviously, for this to be successful there has to be some kind of accord or agreement among the different players.

QUESTION: Can you elaborate any further on that? I mean, in what kind of change in the previous status quo might that entail?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: Well, unfortunately, I can’t elaborate on it right now because this will be shaped in the course of negotiations if they’re successful. If they’re not successful, then the question’s moot.

QUESTION: Thank you.

MR. KELLY: Josh, I think we have time for one more question.

OPERATOR: Our last question will be from Sergio Gomez.

QUESTION: Yes, hi. What – President Zelaya is still considering the possibility of a trip to Honduras on Saturday or Sunday if the attempts of a solution by Insulza fail. Do you think that a trip at this moment of President Zelaya backed by other leaders would be helpful for a peaceful resolution of this crisis?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: We think that President Zelaya’s decision to postpone his earlier decision to return to Honduras on Thursday was a wise one. It’s important that the OAS be given an opportunity to engage in its diplomatic initiative to try to create a space so that President Zelaya’s return brings with it a peaceful restoration of democratic and constitutional order.

QUESTION: Excuse me. Are you there yet?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: Yes.

QUESTION: Yeah. Just to follow up, there is talk about taking this – the issue to the UN Security Council if the Insulza actions fail. Are you considering this at this moment?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: I’m not aware of that at this moment. However, our focus right now is on the Secretary General and his initiatives.

QUESTION: Okay.

MR. KELLY: Okay. Well, Josh, I think that concludes it. I want to just remind everybody this was on background. Attribution: Senior Administration Officials.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL TWO: Thank you, Josh.

OPERATOR: Thank you. And thank you for your participation today. All lines will be disconnected at this time.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL TWO: Thank you very much for your help.

OPERATOR: You’re welcome. Have a great day.

MR. KELLY: Thanks.

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PRN: 2009/676