TEGUCIGALPA, Honduras (AP) — U.S. officials who voiced strong opposition to Honduras' coup last June now say the ousted president took an "erratic and imprudent course of action" in the months leading up to his overthrow.

The comments from U.S. Ambassador Hugo Llorens mark the first time U.S. officials have so directly criticized former President Manuel Zelaya for his pre-coup actions.

Llorens told about 300 community leaders at a Thursday meeting of the Honduran Cities Association that the November election of President Porfirio Lobo was a crucial step toward putting this poor Central American country back on track.

"We understood very well that former President Zelaya pursued an erratic and imprudent course of action in the management of the country, and the growing opposition to his polarizing style," Llorens said.

"At the same time, my government was firm in our belief that the constitutional rupture was a setback for democracy in Honduras, and in no way justifiable," Llorens added.

That was why Washington refused to recognize the interim government, he said. "For us, it was not about defending a person — a person with whom we even had differences — but rather about defending a principle."

Zelaya was flown out of Honduras at gunpoint June 28 in a coup that was sparked by his effort to hold a referendum on changing the constitution. Critics said he sought changes that would allow him run for a second term, a charge Zelaya denies. The Supreme Court ruled the referendum was illegal.

Zelaya sneaked back into Honduras after his expulsion, holing up in the Brazilian Embassy while negotiators tried without success to resolve his position before Lobo's victory in a presidential election that had been scheduled before the coup.

"Zelaya's actions after the coup in attempting to return to the country have been described privately by many U.S. and foreign officials as erratic and unpredictable, but this is the first time I had heard openly a description by a U.S. official of his pre-coup behavior as erratic," said Jennifer McCoy, who directs the Carter Center Americas Program in Atlanta, Georgia.

"There is a fine line between describing the roles of the individuals involved in contributing to the development of a crisis, and blaming the victim of an illegal act for provoking that act. The latter is dangerous and should be avoided, no matter how much one dislikes the victim or his behavior," McCoy said.

Llorens reiterated the U.S. government's view that the coup was illegal and that it set back democracy in Honduras, but he stressed that Zelaya exacerbated the situation.

Honduran law professor and writer Juan Ramon Martinez said Llorens' statements were "reckless because he is a career diplomat." But Martinez said the positions expressed by the ambassador are common in Honduras.

"The democratic system of Honduras, instead of being weakened by the overthrow of Zelaya, were indeed consolidated," he said.

Gustavo Flores-Macias at Cornell University's Polson Institute for Global Development said, "Ambassador Lloren's comments, although perhaps not very diplomatic, do not represent a departure from positions the United States adopted throughout the crisis."

During his speech, Llorens said the U.S. took a principled position in opposition to the coup, halting financial aid to Honduras, avoiding official recognition of de facto president Roberto Micheletti, and suspending U.S. visas for some of Micheletti's staffers and allies.

American University professor Adrienne Pine, an expert on Honduras-U.S. relations, took issue with Llorens' assessment. She said both opposing Zelaya's overthrow and criticizing his actions is anything but principled.

"Their gall is really quite astounding," she said. "If Llorens is chastising Zelaya for trying to return to the post that he was violently and illegally ousted from, then Llorens is basically saying to the entire Honduran nation that it does not deserve democracy."

About 65 countries cut off diplomatic ties with Honduras after the coup, but 55 of those countries — including the U.S. — have resumed relations with Lobo's administration.


Associated Press writer Freddy Cuevas reported this story in Tegucigalpa and Martha Mendoza from Mexico City.