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Another Baby Step on Honduras

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After Secretary of State Clinton met yesterday with deposed Honduran President Manuel Zelaya, the State Department announced "the termination of a broad range of assistance to the government of Honduras as a result of the coup d'etat that took place on June 28." State will also be revoking the U.S. visas of more key coup supporters.

For legalistic reasons, State continued to fall short of calling the coup a "military" coup. This means that some anti-poverty aid is being maintained, soldiers whose training was already paid for won't be sent back to Honduras, and State can flexibly restore aid once democracy returns. Unfortunately, this move only affects about $30 million of more than $200 million in the aid pipeline for Honduras.

This was the right step to take, but it should have been firmer, affecting more aid, especially under the "Millennium Challenge" account (which could be cut next week). This step should have been taken a few weeks earlier, once the de facto government's unwillingness to negotiate seriously had become evident.

Still, even this will be enough to inspire another outcry from the right wing in Washington. Expect more attempts to portray the June 28 coup - in which troops forced Zelaya out of the country at gunpoint in his pajamas - as "execut[ing] a Supreme Court arrest warrant," as ultraconservative Wall Street Journal columnist Mary O'Grady remarkably put it Monday. Expect Sen. Jim DeMint (R-South Carolina) to continue his six-week "hold" preventing Senate votes to confirm key Obama administration officials with Latin America responsibilities. The hold continues to hobble the administration's Latin America policy severely, at a very critical time.

The precedent is the point

In fact, to argue about whether this was a coup, whether Manuel Zelaya is a capable leader, or whether this is about Hugo Chávez's influence, misses the point entirely. The point - and the reason State needs to go farther - is the precedent that Honduras represents for all of Latin America and the Caribbean.

On June 28, a small but powerful sector employed the military to depose a legitimate government, with no institutional procedure for his removal and no due process for the President. In the intervening weeks, the human rights situation has deteriorated and Hondurans' access to information has been curtailed.

The idea of events like June 28 becoming normal again terrifies Latin Americans.

This hemisphere has been on a long journey during the past 30 years. In the late 1970s, the armed forces ruled directly in 13 countries, among them Honduras. By 1990, the military had formally given way to elected leaders nearly everywhere.

But it has taken much longer to get the powerful generals out of key government posts, out of defense ministers' offices, out of policing, and out of domestic intelligence. It has been a struggle to make the armed forces accountable to justice for human rights abuse and corruption. It has taken time to reduce military investments in everything from cement companies to soccer teams.

It has taken many years to develop a democratic culture in which nobody views the armed forces as a potential referee or final arbiter of political disputes. But that culture was solidifying; by the late 2000s it was rare to hear concerns about military coups in Latin America. Until June 28.

The region's long effort to get the military out of politics suffered its biggest setback in years in Honduras. If it fails here, it could fail elsewhere. The importance of holding the line in Honduras, making clear that the United States is on the side of institutional democracy, is why the State Department made a good, if not forceful enough, decision yesterday.

Elections are not a clean slate

But what if this doesn't work? The de facto regime in Honduras clearly plans to stay in command through elections scheduled for November 29, after which they hope one of their own will emerge victorious and "legitimate."

With supporters of the deposed government facing repression and access to information tightly controlled, these elections will not be free and fair. Yet other governments, especially Washington, will be tempted to recognize their result as offering a "clean slate" upon which to re-establish normal relations with Honduras and put this ugliness behind them.

The OAS has already made clear that it will not recognize the result of any voting that occurs under the coup regime. "At this moment," reads yesterday's State Department release, "we would not be able to support the outcome of the scheduled elections."

That is the correct position. Let us hope that if the worst-case scenario is fulfilled and Honduras goes through an illegitimate election, it remains the Obama administration's position six months from now.

The importance of the Honduran precedent demands greater firmness and less ambiguity than we saw yesterday.

Adam Isacson runs the Latin America Security Program at the Center for International Policy, where he hosts the blog "Plan Colombia and Beyond."