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On June 28, after months of tension over Honduran President Manuel Zelaya’s plan to lift presidential term limits, armed soldiers hauled him in his pajamas out of his home and put him on a plane to Costa Rica. Looks like a coup to me. Later that day the Honduran Congress voted to remove Zelaya and swear in Roberto Micheletti, head of the Congress, as the new civilian president. Even so, it still sounds like a coup to me. So, all the news stories call it a coup. President Obama called it a coup. The OAS called it a coup in their official statement suspending Honduras’ membership from the regional organization. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said the situation has “evolved into a coup.”

And yet eight days later, even after a stand-off at the international airport in Tegucigalpa that prevented Zelaya’s return to his country, the State Department is still exploring whether to legally brand it a coup. Legal in the sense of whether it is “enough of a coup” to invoke a Congressional mandate in the U.S. Foreign Assistance Act which would cut off non-humanitarian foreign aid:

Sec. 7008: None of the funds appropriated or otherwise made available pursuant to titles III through VI of this Act shall be obligated or expended to finance directly any assistance to the government of any country whose duly elected head of government is deposed by military coup or decree.

According to the State Department, some $40 million in U.S. foreign assistance is on the line, from drug-trafficking funds under the Merida Initiative to economic assistance funds to be disbursed in the final year of a five-year $215 million compact with the Millennium Challenge Corporation. Although the State Department has not been specific about how much of that assistance will be deemed non-humanitarian, it looks to me like the vast majority of it would fall into that category and hence would be cut should the mandate be invoked. In the meantime, I suspect that State Department spokesman Ian Kelly’s reference to “taking some actions to hit the pause button” mean that USAID and MCC are holding any disbursements until a legal determination is made.

This is the second time the Obama Administration is faced with a “coup call.” In the case of Madagascar just this past March, the decision was swift and clear. All non-humanitarian assistance was suspended three days after the coup. Rumor has it that a determination will be called today in the case of Honduras. At this point, what could have been a “diplomatic coup”-- helping to restore Zelaya to power with his agreement to step down at the end of his term -- appears unlikely. We’ll keep you posted.

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CGD blog posts reflect the views of the authors drawing on prior research and experience in their areas of expertise. CGD does not take institutional positions.