The Obama administration on Thursday cut off all aid to the Honduran government over the ouster of President Manuel Zelaya, making permanent a temporary suspension of U.S. assistance put in place after he was deposed in June.
The State Department made the announcement as Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton was meeting with Zelaya. The action cuts more than $31 million in non-humanitarian assistance, including $11 million remaining in a more than a $200 million five-year assistance program run by the Millennium Challenge Corporation.
"The secretary of state has made the decision, consistent with U.S. legislation, recognizing the need for strong measures in light of the continued resistance to the adoption of the San Jose Accord by the de facto regime and continuing failure to restore democratic, constitutional rule to Honduras," State Department spokesman Ian Kelly said.
After meeting with Clinton, Zelaya welcomed the move.
"It is gratifying that the United States has taken a strong position against the coup," he told The Associated Press in a brief interview. Zelaya said more pressure may be necessary.
Honduras' interim government sent a letter to Clinton vowing it would withstand any price to defend democracy in the Central American country.
"Whether you wish us well or not, we will pay any price, we will bear any burden, we will take on any difficulty, we will support any friend and oppose any enemy to ensure the survival and the success of liberty and democracy in our country," interim Interior Minister Oscar Raul Matute said in the letter, echoing President John F. Kennedy's 1961 inaugural address.
The San Jose accord, brokered by Costa Rican President Oscar Arias, aims to return Zelaya to power with limited authority until elections now set for November. But Zelaya's replacement, Roberto Micheletti, has refused to accept it, prompting Clinton's decision to cut aid.
Clinton made the decision even though she did not determine that Zelaya's ouster met the U.S. legal definition of a military coup d'etat. Such a finding would have forced the administration to cut off assistance and had been urged by some leading lawmakers, including Rep. Howard Berman, D-Calif., chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
"This one looks, walks and quacks like a duck," Berman wrote in Thursday's editions of the Los Angeles Times. "It's time to stop hedging and call this bird what it is. And if, for whatever reason, the State Department lawyers do not conclude that this was a coup, Congress should examine other ways by which it can directly affect the flow of aid."
Clinton did not make that finding because Zelaya's ouster involved "the participation of both the legislative and judicial branches of government as well as the military," Kelly said.
Zelaya was deposed and exiled on June 28 amid suspicions among his opponents that he wanted to overturn a constitutional provision limiting Honduran presidents to a single term. He has denied that was his goal.
In Honduras, representatives of the interim Honduran government said the decision won't return Zelaya to power. But his supporters said the move was an important step to apply more pressure on Micheletti's government.
Gabriela Nunez, Micheletti's finance minister, said withholding funds is a mistake and that U.S. should respect the dignity of the Honduran people. "America must understand that what happened in Honduras was not a coup, but a presidential succession," she said.
Juan Barahona, who has been leading protests in Honduras against the coup, said he hopes the suspension of U.S. aid can make a difference. He said Micheletti's government "cannot hold on to power without outside income," but that he feared the interim leader will simply "sacrifice the aspirations of our people."
Kelly said that while stopping short of the coup determination, Clinton's decision "recognizes the complicated nature of the actions" that led to Zelaya's ouster. He said those "involve complex factual and legal questions and the participation of both the legislative and judicial branches of government as well as the military."
Kelly said "restoration of the terminated assistance will be predicated upon a return to democratic, constitutional governance in Honduras." He added that the United States would not recognize the results of the election under current conditions and stressed it was imperative that the vote meet international standards.
"That election must be undertaken in a free, fair and transparent manner," he said. "It must also be free of taint and open to all Hondurans to exercise their democratic franchise. At this moment, we would not be able to support the outcome of the scheduled elections."
"A positive conclusion of the Arias process would provide a sound basis for legitimate elections to proceed," Kelly said. "We strongly urge all parties to the San Jose talks to move expeditiously to agreement."
In addition to the aid cut, he said the State Department would revoke the U.S. visas of an unspecified number of Honduran officials who are backing Micheletti. The department had previously revoked the visas of four Honduran officials allied with Micheletti.
It has also stopped issuing most visas at the U.S. embassy in Honduras.
Associated Press writers Hope Yen in Washington, Freddy Cuevas in Honduras and Martha Mendoza in Mexico City contributed to this report.