Honduran Coup: The U.S. Connection
by Conn Hallinan, Foreign Policy
While the Obama administration was careful
to distance itself from the recent coup in Honduras - condemning
the expulsion of President Manuel Zelaya to Costa Rica, revoking
Honduran officials' visas, and shutting off aid - that doesn't
mean influential Americans aren't involved, and that both sides
of the aisle don't have some explaining to do.
The story most U.S. readers are getting
about the coup is that Zelaya - an ally of Venezuelan President
Hugo Chavez - was deposed because he tried to change the constitution
to keep himself in power.
That story is a massive distortion of
the facts. All Zelaya was trying to do is to put a non-binding
referendum on the ballot calling for a constitutional convention,
a move that trade unions, indigenous groups, and social activist
organizations had long been lobbying for. The current constitution
was written by the Honduran military in 1982, and the one-term
limit allows the brass-hats to dominate the politics of the country.
Since the convention would have been held in November, the same
month as the upcoming presidential elections, there was no way
Zelaya could have remained in office in any case. The most he
could have done was to run four years from now.
And while Zelaya is indeed friendly with
Chavez, he is at best a liberal reformer whose major accomplishment
was raising the minimum wage. "What Zelaya has done has been
little reforms," Rafael Alegria, a leader of Via Campesina,
told the Mexican daily La Jornada. "He isn't a socialist
or a revolutionary, but these reforms, which didn't harm the oligarchy
at all, have been enough for them to attack him furiously."
One of those "little reforms"
was aimed at ensuring public control of the Honduran telecommunications
industry, which may well have been the trip-wire that triggered
The first hint that something was afoot
was a suit brought by Venezuelan lawyer Robert Carmona-Borjas
claiming that Zelaya was part of a bribery scheme involving the
state-run telecommunication company Hondutel.
Carmona-Borjas has a rap-sheet that dates
back to the April 2002 coup against Chavez. He drew up the notorious
"Carmona decrees," a series of draconian laws aimed
at suspending the Venezuelan constitution and suppressing any
resistance to the coup. As Chavez supporters poured into the streets
and the plot unraveled, Carmona-Borjas fled to Washington, DC.
He took a post at George Washington University and brought Iran-Contra
plotters Otto Reich and Elliott Abrams to teach his class on "Political
Management in Latin America." He also became vice-president
of the right-wing Arcadia Foundation, which lobbies for free-market
policies. Weeks before the June 28 Honduran coup, Carmona-Borjas
barnstormed the country accusing Zelaya of collaborating with
Carmona-Borjas' colleague, Reich, a Cuban
American with ties to right-wing factions all over Latin America
and former assistant secretary of State for hemispheric affairs
under George W. Bush, has been accused by the Honduran Black Fraternal
Organization of "undeniable involvement" in the coup.
This is hardly surprising. Reich was nailed
by a 1987 congressional investigation for using public funds to
engage in propaganda during the Reagan administration's war on
Nicaragua. He is also a fierce advocate for Orlando Bosch and
Luis Posada Carriles, both implicated in the bombing of a Cuban
airliner in 1973 that killed all 73 on board.
Reich is also a ferocious critic of Zelaya.
In a recent piece in the Weekly Standard, he urged the Obama administration
not to support "strongman" Zelaya because it "would
put the United States clearly in the same camp as Cuba's Castro
brothers, Venezuela's Chavez, and other regional delinquents."
One of the charges that Reich levels at
Zelaya is that the Honduran president is supposedly involved with
bribes paid out by the state-run telecommunications company Hondutel.
Zelaya is threatening to file a defamation suit over the accusation.
Reich's charges against Hondutel are hardly
happenstance, as he is a former AT&T lobbyist and served as
Senator John McCain's (R-AZ) Latin American advisor during the
senator's 2008 presidential campaign. McCain has deep ties with
telecom giants AT&T, MCI, and Qualcomm and, according to Nikolas
Kozloff, author of Hugo Chavez: Oil, Politics and the Challenge
of the United States, "has acted to protect and look out
for the political interests of the telecoms on Capitol Hill."
AT&T, McCain's second largest donor,
also generously funds the International Republican Institute (IRI),
which has warred with Latin American regimes that have resisted
telecommunications privatization. According to Kozloff, "President
Zelaya was a known to be a fierce critic of telecommunications
When Venezuelan coup leaders went to Washington
a month before their failed effort to oust Chavez, IRI footed
the bill. Reich, as then Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's
special envoy to the Western Hemisphere, met with some of those
Republicans in Congress have accused the
Obama administration of being "soft" on Zelaya. Sen.
Jim DeMint (SC) protested the White House's support of the Honduran
president holding up votes for administration nominees for the
ambassador to Brazil and an assistant secretary of state. Meanwhile,
Zelaya's return was unanimously supported by the UN General Assembly,
the European Union, and the Organization of American States.
But meddling in Honduras is a bipartisan
"If you want to understand who is
the real power behind the [Honduran] coup, you need to find out
who is paying Lanny Davis," says Robert White, former U.S.
ambassador to El Salvador and current president of the Center
for International Policy. Davis, best known as the lawyer who
represented Bill Clinton during his impeachment trial, has been
lobbying members of Congress and testifying before the House Foreign
Affairs Committee in support of the coup.
According to Roberto Lovato, an associate
editor at New American Media, Davis represents the Honduran chapter
of CEAL, the Business Council of Latin America, which strongly
backed the coup. Davis told Lovato, "I'm proud to represent
businessmen who are committed to the rule of law."
But White says the coup had more to do
with profits than law. "Coups happen because very wealthy
people want them and help to make them happen, people who are
used to seeing the country as a money machine and suddenly see
social legislation on behalf of the poor as a threat to their
interests," says White. "The average wage of a worker
in free trade zones is 77 cents per hour." According to the
World Bank, 59% of Hondurans live below the poverty line.
The United States is also involved in
the coup through a network of agencies that funnel money and training
to anti-government groups. The National Endowment for Democracy
(NED) and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID)
contribute to right-wing organizations that supported the coup,
including the Peace and Democracy Movement and the Civil Democratic
Union. Many of the officers that bundled Zelaya off to San Jose
were trained at the Western Hemispheric Institute for Security
Cooperation, the former "School for the Americas" that
has seen torturers and coup leaders from all over Latin America
pass through its doors.
The Obama administration condemned the
coup, but when Zelaya journeyed to the Honduran-Nicaragua border,
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton denounced him for being
"provocative." It was a strange statement, since the
State Department said nothing about a report by the Committee
of Disappeared Detainees in Honduras charging 1,100 human rights
violations by the coup regime, including detentions, assaults,
Human rights violations by the coup government
have been condemned by the Inter-American Commission for Human
Rights, the International Observer Mission, Human Rights Watch,
Amnesty International, the Committee to Protest Journalists, and
Reporters Without Borders.
Davis claims that the coup was a "legal"
maneuver to preserve democracy. But that's a hard argument to
make, given some of its architects. One is Fernando Joya, a former
member of Battalion 316, a paramilitary death squad. Joya fled
the country after being charged with kidnapping and torturing
several students in the 1980s, but he has now resurfaced as a
"special security advisor" to the coup makers. He recently
gave a TV interview that favorably compared the 1973 Chilean coup
to the June 28 Honduran coup.
According to Greg Grandin, a history professor
at New York University, the coup makers also included the extremely
right-wing Catholic organization, Opus Dei, whose roots go back
to the fascist regime of Spanish caudillo Francisco Franco.
In the old days, when the United States
routinely overthrew governments that displeased it, the Marines
would have gone in, as they did in Guatemala and Nicaragua, or
the CIA would have engineered a coup by the local elites. No one
has accused U.S. intelligence of being involved in the Honduran
coup, and American troops in the country are keeping a low profile.
But the fingerprints of U.S. institutions like the NED, USAID,
and School for the Americas - plus bipartisan lobbyists, powerful
corporations, and dedicated Cold War warriors - are all over the
Conn Hallinan is a columnist for Foreign
Policy In Focus.