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New Honduran leader banks on U.S. support

Tue., Dec. 1, 2009

Many countries don’t accept vote

TEGUCIGALPA, Honduras – 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. “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 poor country that sends most of its exports to the United States and relies heavily on money sent 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 accepted 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 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.

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.

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 has said he will not return even if Congress votes him back in.


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