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U.S. to Resume Aid to Honduras

March 5 -- Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, on her first trip to Central America since last June’s coup in Honduras, announced the U.S. is restoring aid to the country and urged its neighbors to normalize ties following the election of a new president.

“Honduras has taken important and necessary steps that deserve the recognition and the normalization of relations,” Clinton said yesterday in Costa Rica, citing moves by President Porfirio Lobo to form a unity government and establish a truth commission to investigate abuses after President Manuel Zelaya was ousted and sent into exile by Honduras’s military.

While the Obama administration joined Latin American states in strongly opposing the coup last year, the U.S. disappointed many in the region by recognizing the election of Lobo, a conservative National Party candidate, without insisting that Zelaya be restored to power first.

Part of Clinton’s mission during a six-nation regional tour, which culminates today in a planned meeting in Guatemala with Lobo and four other Central American and Caribbean presidents, is to mend fences with nations that criticized the U.S. for capitulating to politicians who backed the removal of Zelaya, an ally of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.

Soldiers rousted Zelaya at gunpoint and put him on a plane to Costa Rica in his pajamas after the Supreme Court issued an arrest warrant for him. Opponents alleged he was trying to rewrite the constitution to stay in power.

OAS Suspension

Honduras was suspended from the Organization of American States, and excluded from a new 32-nation regional group that met recently in Mexico.

“Other countries in the region say they want to wait a while” to recognize the new government, Clinton told reporters. “I don’t know what they’re waiting for,” she said, adding that “President Lobo and his administration have taken the steps necessary to restore democracy.”

Since Lobo took office, Honduras has restored diplomatic ties with 29 countries that broke relations following the coup, Lobo’s spokesman Bladimir Bacca said today in a telephone interview. Ten countries, including major economies Brazil, Venezuela and Argentina, insist the election of Lobo is illegitimate because voting was overseen by a government installed by the coup leaders.

‘Restoring Aid’

Clinton sent a letter on March 3 to Congress “notifying them that we will be restoring aid to Honduras,” she said at a meeting of foreign and trade ministers in San Jose, Costa Rica. Clinton spoke at a meeting of Pathways to Prosperity in the Americas, a gathering of 17 Western Hemisphere nations dedicated to increasing economic opportunities.

Honduras, the second-poorest country in Central America after Nicaragua, was hobbled by as much as $200 million in lost investment since Zelaya was overthrown, according to Jesus Canahuati, vice president of the Business Council of Latin America in Honduras. The country also lost more than $200 million in frozen international aid and loans.

Following Zelaya’s ouster, the U.S. administration suspended more than $30 million in funding for military assistance, as well as development projects through the U.S. Agency for International Development and the Millennium Challenge Corporation.

Meanwhile, several U.S.-based human rights groups and nine members of Congress urged Clinton yesterday to demand a thorough investigation of what they asserted were ongoing human rights abuses under the Lobo government.

‘Human Rights Situation’

The Congressional letter, signed by John Conyers, a Michigan Democrat who chairs the House Judiciary committee, among others, urged Clinton to send “a strong unambiguous message that the human rights situation in Honduras will be a critical component of upcoming decisions regarding the further normalization of relations, as well as the resumption of financial assistance.”

Human Rights Watch said abuses against coup opponents continued after Lobo’s January swearing-in. Honduran authorities should investigate murders and attacks in the past month which may be “politically motivated,” the New York-based group said in a March 3 letter to Honduran attorney general Luis Alberto Rubi.

Clinton’s visit to Guatemala will be a chance for Lobo to seek support for his country’s return to the OAS, Bacca said.

Push for Recognition

The Lobo government is also pushing for international lenders, including the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and Inter-American Development Bank, to recognize the new government, William Chong, the country’s new finance minister, told Radio America.

Presidents Alvaro Colom of Guatemala, Mauricio Funes of El Salvador, Oscar Arias of Costa Rica and Leonel Fernandez of the Dominican Republic will join Lobo and Clinton today in Guatemala City, Guatemalan foreign ministry spokeswoman Andrea Furlan said. Furlan said Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega did not respond to an invitation.