After two months, the State Department is poised to formally declare what was obvious to most of the world: on June 28, Honduras experienced a military coup.
State Department staff have recommended to Secretary of State Clinton that the ouster of Honduran President Zelaya be formally declared a "military coup," which could cut off as much as $150 million in U.S. funding, Reuters reports.
The semi-official story has been that State Department lawyers were studying the events in Honduras to see if they met the "technical definition" of a "military coup." But all along the State Department made clear that it was purposely delaying its formal determination to give "diplomacy" -- the talks in Costa Rica between representatives of President Zelaya and representatives of the coup regime -- a chance to work.
It was never explained why making this determination -- which, under U.S. law, requires a cutoff of aid to the coup government -- would have interfered with "diplomacy." On the contrary: it was immediately obvious that the obstacle to a negotiated solution was the intransigence of the coup regime, which refused to accept a compromise proposal that would allow President Zelaya to return. So, as many Latin American governments argued -- including the Costa Rican government -- if the U.S. wanted a negotiated solution, it needed to ramp up pressure on the coup regime.
But the State Department is now, at last, conceding that its previous efforts were insufficient. Better late than never -- much better.
No doubt Republicans in Congress who have supported the coup regime in Honduras will now complain loudly when Secretary Clinton makes her formal determination -- assuming that she follows the recommendation of her staff.
In anticipation of right-wing Republican complaints, it is important to note two key facts.
First, in making this determination, the State Department is simply following the law. The Foreign Assistance Act requires a cutoff of U.S. aid "to the government of any country whose duly elected head of government is deposed by military coup or decree." That's what happened on June 28 -- about that central fact there has been no serious dispute. Even the top legal advisor of the Honduran military conceded that the Honduran military broke Honduran law when it removed President Zelaya from office -- and from Honduras.
Second, in making this determination -- and cutting off aid -- the State Department is simply following past practice. As the Center for Economic and Policy Research documented in a recent report, when there were coups in Mauritania and Madagascar, Millennium Challenge Corporation money was cut off within days.
So complain away, right-wing coup-lovers. If we want Latin America to take seriously the claim of a new U.S. approach to Latin America in the Obama administration -- or maintain a credible commitment to the rule of law in the region -- this is the minimum.