Background Briefing on the Organization of American States Decision on Honduras

Special Briefing
Senior Administration Officials
Background Briefing via teleconference
Washington, DC
July 5, 2009

MR. KELLY: So let’s start. Thank you all for joining us today in this conference call. We have three Senior Administration Officials with us on the line to discuss recent develops in Honduras and at the Organization of American States. We’ll start with brief remarks from Senior Administration Official Number One, and then go to your questions. So, Senior Administration Official Number One.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: Great. Again, thank you all very much. And sorry that this is taking place on a Sunday, but appreciate your interest.

As you know, last night, the OAS General Assembly voted 33 to 0 to suspend Honduras from the Organization of American States following a week of very intense diplomatic activity in an effort to restore constitutional and democratic order following the coup in Honduras against President Mel Zelaya. In the aftermath of that decision, President Zelaya indicated a desire to return to Honduras. He has departed Dulles Airport en route to Honduras in a separate aircraft. He is being accompanied by the presidents of Argentina, Ecuador, and Paraguay and, we believe, the Secretary General of the Organization of American States.

The Honduran airport authorities and de facto regime have indicated that they will not allow the aircraft to land in Honduras. If that continues to be the case, the aircraft will divert to a neighboring country, we believe El Salvador. Currently, President Zelaya is scheduled to return to Washington to continue consultations in the event that he’s unable to enter Honduras.

Let me stop there.

MR. KELLY: Okay. We’ll, go to questions. Jim, do you want to moderate?

OPERATOR Certainly. And to ask your question, all you have to do is press *1 on your touchtone phone. You’ll be announced prior to your question. *1 for questions, please.

First, we have Ginger Thompson, your line is open.

QUESTION: Hi, you all, and thanks again for doing the call. I’m wondering if it’s still true that the United States has not spoken to or had any contact with members of the de facto government and how you intend to sort of broker a diplomatic end to this crisis if the OAS has prohibited itself from having contact with the people that you want to surrender power.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: The OAS and the Secretary General still have authorization to conduct diplomatic initiatives under Article 20 and 21 to seek a peaceful negotiated solution to the current crisis in Honduras. The OAS continues to do so through a variety of levels and is engaging with a variety of actors inside of Honduras. We, along with other members of the Organization of American States, support that effort and are coordinating our own contact and outreach in that regard.

QUESTION: So you are – you have begun your own contacts? The United States has begun its own reaching out?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: At this point, we cannot comment on the nature of our diplomatic activity. We’re in a very fluid and challenging situation. But our purpose and goal is to support the OAS, to support the member-states of the OAS, and to ensure that our actions are coordinated and fully understood by our partners.

QUESTION: Thank you.

OPERATOR: Next we have Mary Beth Sheridan.

QUESTION: Hi. Thanks very much for taking the call. I have two questions. As far as U.S. economic aid, is there any update? Last we heard the other day was that there were – you know, that was still not affected. And the second question is: Has Secretary Clinton, you know, made calls to any of the U.S. allies or to any of the actors, the Honduran actors, in this whole crisis?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: The Secretary has been very active during this period of time consulting with a variety of her counterparts during both OAS General Assembly sessions. She has not been in touch with anyone from the de facto regime.

QUESTION: And what about Zelaya? Has she talked to him?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: We have maintained a very close communication with Zelaya, and we have high-level consultations that will begin in Washington should Zelaya return.

QUESTION: Okay. But she has not talked to him, right?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: Well, not recently. I mean, not for the past day or two, no.

QUESTION: Right. Okay. And I’m sorry, on the economic aid?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: All of our assistance to Honduras has been put on pause in the immediate aftermath of the coup attempt. And we obviously have decisions in front of us relating to statutory requirements that we’ll be making forthwith.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL TWO: And to add on the first part, Mary Beth, given the presence of foreign ministers from throughout the hemisphere, including some of our closest partners during the course of the GA, the two GAs this week, we’ve had an opportunity for senior Administration officials both from the State Department and the White House to consult very closely with those leaders on this issue. And obviously, we’ve the opportunity to have direct contact with President Zelaya on the margins of both of the General Assembly meetings this week.

QUESTION: Okay. So in addition to Secretary Clinton, when you say senior White House officials, does that mean General Jones?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL TWO: The senior Administration officials who work in the White House.

QUESTION: And – I mean, can you not name them?


QUESTION: Oh, okay. Got it. So Secretary Clinton has been, though, in touch with some of these foreign ministers during the week?


QUESTION: Okay, thanks.

OPERATOR: Once again, to ask your question, press *1 on your touchtone phone. If your question has been answered, to remove yourself from the queue, it is *2. Next we have Bob Willis. Your line is open.

QUESTION: Yeah, good afternoon. One question, there’s been some speculation that the flight that President Zelaya is on, if it’s not allowed to land in Tegucigalpa, that it might be diverted to a U.S. airfield. Can you comment on that, and what airfield would it be? I think there’s one at La Ceiba, if I’m not mistaken.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL TWO: No. Right now, our understanding is that if the aircraft cannot land in Tegucigalpa, it will continue to San Salvador and land at Comalapa Airport.


OPERATOR: Next, we have Kim Dozier. Your line is open.

QUESTION: Hello, there. So I missed the very first minute or so. An urgent was crossing saying that the caretaker government has signaled to the OAS that it is ready to negotiate. Did this high-stakes gamble, this flight in that direction, trigger this, do you think? Where do you think this negotiation might go?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: Well, I think the desire to negotiate is the product of the timely and, I think, effective action taken by the OAS in condemning the coup. And last night’s suspension that has a considerable cost for Honduras, not only in regards to its relationship with the OAS but its relationship with other inter-American components such as the Inter-American Development Bank, and a desire to rectify a situation that has become increasingly difficult to maintain.

QUESTION: Sir, just a follow-up. Can you confirm that the caretaker government has reached out to the OAS and asked to open new negotiations? Does this mean that they’re going to consider letting President Zelaya finish out his term? And what of the reports that Venezuelan troops are moving towards Honduras?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: I have seen no reports indicating that Venezuelan troops are moving towards Honduras. In regard to the second, we understand that the caretaker government has – I wouldn’t call it a caretaker government, I would refer to it as the de facto regime –


SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: -- or authorities – has indicated to the OAS that it would like to begin a process of dialogue. We’ll have to see what that process consists of.


OPERATOR: Next we have Reuben Barrea.

QUESTION: Yes, two questions. One, just a kind of technical question, just to be more precise. Did you say that President Zelaya departed today from Dulles, accompanied with President Kirchner, Lugo and Correa? But as far as we understand, President Zelaya said that it will be two commissions, one with him and Minister D’Escoto from Nicaragua, and another by Presidents Kirchner, Lugo, and Correa and General Secretary Insulza. So which one is correct?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: Well, if you listened, what I said is they departed on separate aircrafts. In other words, Zelaya departed on one airplane, and the other presidents departed on other aircraft.

QUESTION: Okay. And the other thing is, as far as you know, does President Zelaya take a private plane? Who facilitated that plane?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: I’m afraid you’re going to have to ask the Hondurans who facilitated the aircraft.

QUESTION: And finally, I mean, does the United States in any moment have considered the possibility to open Soto Cano in order to facilitate the return of President Zelaya to Honduras?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: Soto Cano is a Honduran air base. It is under the control of Honduran authorities, and those authorities have made it very clear that they are not going to allow an aircraft with the president to land in Honduras.

QUESTION: But you don’t have any control on that base? I mean, to decide –


QUESTION: -- who is allowed into that base?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: No. No, it’s a Honduran air base under Honduran command.

QUESTION: Thank you.

OPERATOR: Next, we have Charlie Keyes.

MODEATOR: Thanks, everybody. Charlie Keyes, from CNN. I was just wondering what you could tell us about United States discussions with President Zelaya just in recent hours. And whether he defied United States’ advice (inaudible).

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: I’m sorry; I missed the last part of the question.


QUESTION: What you could tell us about your conversations with President Zelaya in recent hours, and whether he defied United States decision not to go now in (inaudible).

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: I’ll leave the more precise answer to the officials who spoke with President Zelaya last night, but it’s important to understand that in assessing events on the ground, a variety of countries spoke out in quite forceful fashion last night about the wisdom of President Zelaya’s effort to return to Honduras, including all of the countries of the Caribbean, Canada, and Costa Rica. And a variety of other countries spoke privately with the president and urged him to act in a way that facilitated peaceful dialogue and did not spark confrontation or conflict.

So in that regard, the United States was in a position to associate itself with a broad number of countries who were worried about the current situation in Honduras and intent on fashioning an engagement process that was going to ensure a peaceful resolution of this situation.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL THREE: I think to fill that out, that was the – what Senior Administration Official One just laid out was the message that was delivered privately by the United States officials who met last night with President Zelaya.

And to underscore, it was the message that was delivered both privately and quite publicly at the General Assembly last night by a wide range of countries from throughout the hemisphere who were concerned that precipitous action at this time under these conditions would lead to the hardening of positions and potentially to violence, which was something that the organization has been very clear that it is its goal, a goal that we share, is the safe return of President Zelaya to carry out the balance of his term and his constitutional duties. And it was – there were a lot of member-states last night that made it very clear that they did not think the current circumstances were auspicious to doing that.

OPERATOR: Next, we have Juan Lopez. (Inaudible.) Next, we have Doug Palmer.

QUESTION: Hi. This is Doug Palmer with Reuters. When the United States talks about decisions that it faces on aid to Honduras, I just wondered if you could be a little more specific in terms of how much aid the U.S. currently supplies to Honduras. And then also, if President Zelaya is not eventually put back into office, could that affect Honduras’s standing under CAFTA, for example? I mean, could they lose their participation in that trade agreement?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: In regard to the total amount of assistance to Honduras, it’s divided into development assistance, Foreign Military Financing assistance, International Military Education Training assistance, and then also the – some humanitarian assistance, and then the Millennium Challenge Compact with Honduras. I’m afraid I do not have in front of me a global figure for that assistance, but as an example, the Millennium Challenge Compact assistance runs $215 million in total.

But typically under U.S. statutes, humanitarian assistance is not cut off when statutory triggers are reached regarding military coups against democracies. The other assistance, however, can be suspended or ended depending on decisions taken by the Secretary of State. As noted, this assistance has been paused since Sunday as we make the decisions that lie in front of us and which we’ll be making very shortly.

In regard to CAFTA, I do not know the exact answer to that and we’ll have to consult with USTR.

QUESTION: Thank you.

OPERATOR: Next we have Ione Molinares.

QUESTION: Hi. This is Ione from CNN in Espanol. If President Zelaya cannot make it to Honduras and – do you have any idea when he will return to the U.S.? And once he returns, what are the diplomatic options and what will be the U.S. role in this new conversation with President Zelaya, since basically, he didn’t hear a lot of countries last night, as you said, on not going to the country at this time?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: Well, our understanding is that President Zelaya, should he be unable to enter Honduras, will be back in Washington by tomorrow to continue consultations. And in regard to what comes next, the indications that we are receiving and that the OAS has received from the de facto authority that it is interested in beginning some kind of negotiation or dialogue process we take to be positive, and we think that this could create the basis for continuing movement by the OAS on the diplomatic initiatives. And that will be our immediate focus, and I think that of our partners in the OAS.

QUESTION: And if I can follow-up on that, if – apparently, right now there’s a conference going on with the government in Honduras. If the delegation will come, do you have any idea when they will come? There is some talk that they might be basically coming to Washington tomorrow, and they had already notified the Organization of American States.


SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL TWO: Yeah, that would be news to us.

QUESTION: Yeah, and – how, again – this is one more extra question. How can – how long can this situation can stay with a president recognized by the international community and another government running Honduras? How long can you think this could stay like that with two presidents at the same time?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: Our own experience is that this is very hard to maintain for long periods of time, especially when a country like Honduras finds itself suspended from organizations that are important to it. And we believe that this is one of the reasons why the de facto authority has decided to reach out to the OAS.

QUESTION: Okay. Thank you very much.

OPERATOR: Next we have Jane Aaron.

QUESTION: Hi. This is Jane Aaron of the Chicago Jewish News. What are the implications of the overall situation in regards to a response from Hugo Chavez? What do you anticipate his response to be? What are the concerns? And what response, if any, is the United States prepared to take in regard to his response? Thank you.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: Well, up to this point, Venezuela has been working within the OAS, along with all the other members of the OAS, to find a way to resolve this problem. President Chavez has been quite outspoken in his defense of President Zelaya. But so have all the other leaders of the hemisphere. And at this point, we have not seen any Venezuelan action that has been inconsistent with the larger effort by the OAS to restore democratic and constitutional order to Honduras.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL TWO: And it has been – just to add, it’s been clear throughout this process that among the basic principles of the inter-American system that countries have been rallying to defend, the United States included, is that of nonintervention, and that there is no percentage in getting to the peaceful negotiated solution or peaceful – the restoration of the democratic order in Honduras that the Organization of American States and all the member-states are on the record defending and supporting over the course of the past week too – there’s no percentage in incitement or interference in the internal affairs of Honduras at this stage.

So I think it’s very clear where the organization has been. You saw it last night at the General Assembly meeting where the call for calm and the call for a peaceful resolution to this was, by far, the majority position of the member-states of the organization.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL THREE: Yeah, this is Speaker Three, I just want to echo that. Last night, it was extraordinary the degree of unanimity practically in the room in terms of the peaceful resolution and major steps to get to a democratic and constitutional resolution of this without precipitous action. It was extraordinary the number of countries that spoke out in that regard.

OPERATOR: Once again, to ask your question, press *1 on your touchtone phone. If your question has been answered and you’re in queue, you can remove yourself with *2. Next, we have Nicholas Kralev.

QUESTION: Yes, hi. On the offer to negotiate with the OAS on behalf of the – on the part of the de facto government, I wonder, beyond the return of President Zelaya, what is there to negotiate? I mean, is the potential period in which he would stay in office if he were to return and possibly his behavior as the reinstalled president up for negotiation with the OAS?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: Well, we can’t address what else a de facto government might want to talk about since we’ve only received indications that they’re prepared to begin a process. So we’re going to have to wait and see what it is they want to talk about. But we and all the other members of the OAS have made clear that we’re looking for full restoration of democratic and constitutional order. And that would mean allowing President Zelaya to fulfill his mandate, which ends in January of 2010.

QUESTION: Thank you.

OPERATOR: Next, we have Jay Solomon.

QUESTION: Hi. Thanks for doing this. Just a clarification: You were saying you didn’t see any sort of movement by the Venezuelans. But the Hondurans now are saying the Nicaraguans are apparently making some troop movements. Is this something that you’re seeing or something that you’re concerned about?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: I’m not aware of Nicaraguan troop movements. I mean, at this point, this is not something we’re concerned about. I mean, again, the focus within the OAS has been on creating an environment in which Honduras and Hondurans are able to solve this problem, and that this effort at a solution has to conform to the OAS’s time-honored commitment to nonintervention and self-determination. So from our point of view, the OAS continues along this line.

OPERATOR: Next, we have Frances Robles.

QUESTION: Hi, how are you? Thanks so much. I have a question. I’m sorry if – I’m coming in late and this was covered already. But it’s unclear to me – where is Zelaya now? There was one of those cadena nacionales earlier that said the plane was diverted to El Salvador. Has that already happened?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: It has not. He’s in the air right now.

QUESTION: Do you know about where he is?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: He left about an hour and a half ago.

QUESTION: From Washington?


QUESTION: Okay. Do you know what their plans are if they are diverted to El Salvador? Would they go ahead and go to El Salvador, or are they going to try to land anyway?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: Well, my understanding is that if he’s not permitted to land in Tegucigalpa, his aircraft will divert to San Salvador.

QUESTION: Okay, okay. Thank you.

OPERATOR: Next we have Juan Lopez.

QUESTION: Yes. First, does the U.S. consider this flight convenient to this whole process? How do you feel about these two airplanes leaving and the fact that they’ve been told they won’t be allowed in the country? And the other part of the question is: Is Zelaya’s restitution the only way to solve this crisis? Now you have the de facto regime talking about negotiations. Would the U.S. be open to a possibility of Zelaya stepping down and elections being moved up (inaudible), or does Washington want to see Zelaya back in power and finishing his term in January?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: I mean, in regard to the second part of the question, we, as an OAS member – as the other OAS member-states, are committed to a restoration of democratic and constitutional order. And as I noted, that means that Zelaya should be allowed to fulfill his legal and constitutional mandate. And again, since we only now are at a moment in which the de facto government or authority is indicating a willingness to reach out to the OAS and begin some kind of dialogue process, we don’t know what it is they’re going to want to talk about. But I think the OAS has been pretty clear and OAS member-states have been pretty clear about what our expectations are in regard to restoration of democratic and constitutional order.

QUESTION: But you don’t rule out any different scenarios from Zelaya returning to power until January?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: Well, I mean, I think that what we’ve said is pretty clear. And again, we don’t want to be drawn into negotiations before negotiations have even started. That would be a big mistake. So, I mean, I would stick to what I said earlier, which is that full restoration of democratic and constitutional order means allowing President Zelaya to return to Honduras and fulfill his mandate as the legal and constitutional president of Honduras.

QUESTION: And what do you – how do you feel about these flights going and all this hoopla around him?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: I’m sorry, what was the question?

QUESTION: Well, I mean, these two flights – one going to Honduras, the other to El Salvador – and the whole following of this plane and whether it will be allowed or not, is that conducive? Does it help?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: Well, I mean, we, along with a variety of other countries last night, made clear that we did not think this was wise, that given the situation in Honduras, we did not see how this was going to assist in helping create a political space for dialogue. But at the same time, we respect the right of President Zelaya as a Honduran citizen and as the legal and constitutional leader of Honduras to make his own decisions in this regard. And so we’re watching with interest, and depending on what happens, we could very well have President Zelaya back in D.C. tomorrow and he will continue his consultations.

MR. KELLY: Jim, I think we have time for one more question.

OPERATOR: Next we have Doug Palmer.

QUESTION: My question has already been answered.


OPERATOR: Currently, no questions in queue.

MR. KELLY: Okay. Well, listen, thanks very much to our speakers and thank you all for joining us. Just a reminder: Attribution for this discussion is Senior Administration Officials. Thank you.

OPERATOR: That concludes today’s conference. You may disconnect at this time.

PRN: 2009/687