Honduras coup: Dress rehearsal for imperial coups across Latin America
By Felipe Stuart Cournoyer
August 8, 2009 -- The people of Honduras have now suffered more than 40 days of military rule. The generals’ June 28 coup, crudely re-packaged in constitutional guise, ousted the country’s elected government and unleashed severe, targeted and relentless repression.
Grassroots protests have matched the regime in endurance and outmatched it in political support within the country and internationally. Its scope and duration is unprecedented in Honduran history. Popular resistance is the main factor affecting the international forces attempting to shape the outcome of the crisis. It weighs heavily on the minds of the coup’s authors and their international backers.
As Eva Golinger has convincingly documented, the United States took part in conceiving, planning and staging the coup (see www.chavezcode.com). US ambassador in Tegucigalpa Hugo Llorens coordinates a team of high-ranking US and Honduran military officials, and creatures from the old Bush administration, using the Soto Cano (Palmerola) US airforce base.
But when the army assaulted President Zelaya’s house, machine guns blazing, kidnapped him and dumped him – still in pajamas – in Costa Rica, this forged unprecedented unity in Latin America and the Caribbean against the coup regime and enraged hundreds of thousands within the country.
Latin American unity
In the first days after the coup, it appeared that the whole world was coming out against the Honduran generals and their civilian front men. ALBA – the nine-nation Bolivarian alliance initiated by Venezuela and Cuba – took the initiative in uniting Latin American governments around a common stand. Nicaragua’s capital, Managua, became the temporary capital of ``Our America’’. Many Latin American presidents knew only too well that they could also suffer Zelaya’s fate.
Argentina’s Cristina Fermandez devoted her entire speech to this theme at the Organization of American States (OAS) general assembly, which took a unanimous stand against the golpistas (coup makers). That was followed quickly by a UN General Assembly meeting, convened by its president Father Miguel d’Escoto (a veteran Nicaraguan Sandinista leader), which also passed a unanimous resolution repudiating the coup and recognising Zelaya as the legitimate president of Honduras.
Faced with this reality, the US government hastened to portray itself as a key opponent of the military takeover and a supporter of Zelaya’s return. It was politically urgent for US President Barack Obama’s regime, not only in Latin America but domestically, to disclaim involvement in the coup.
There has been much speculation that Obama may disagree with his government’s duplicitous policy on the coup. That can of course not be excluded. But what counts for the people of Honduras and their supporters is not Obama’s possible private opinions but his government’s actions. Its walk betrayed its pronouncements.
The US has not acted to cut the legs out from under the coup regime. It could topple the coup with a five-minute phone call that includes a few bottom-line dollar figures. Its words, as time has shown, were mainly those of deceit and the manipulation of different forces acting on the Honduran crisis.
Main aims of the coup
Washington staged the coup to promote a number of closely interacting aims:
- To strike a blow at the ALBA alliance, by taking out its assumed “weakest link” – Honduras and its government headed by Zelaya.
- To prepare for an assault on revolutionary Venezuela, prefaced through the announcement of new US military bases that will convert Colombia into a gigantic aircraft carrier and platform for staging hostile operations against ALBA countries, with Ecuador and Bolivia also high on the list.
- To “take back” Honduras and again use it as a platform to strike against leftwing presidencies and mass movements in Guatemala, El Salvador and Nicaragua, and to demoralise and discourage the grassroots’ support for disobedient or defiant regimes.
- To test Latin America’s turbulent waters for a revival of coup making in Latin America and the Caribbean. This involves attempting to re-inspire and regroup rightwing supporters in both political and military spheres across the hemisphere. It also took a measure of where the powerful Catholic Church would fall. A free Bible if you guess right.
- To probe South America’s “soft underbelly” – mainly Brazil and Chile – to see if they were amenable to a deal, or at least if their silence could be purchased. This involves an effort to drive a wedge between the ALBA alliance and so-called centre-left regimes (Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay, Uruguay and Chile).
Since then, a lot of water has gone down the Rio Coco (between Honduras and Nicaragua).
The coup regime threatened to become a millstone around Washington’s neck and hinder its renewed drive to find leverage and points of support, especially in South America. Hence Washington’s efforts for plausible denial with no qualms about letting the golpistas hang out to dry if necessary.
Events over the past months have shown some success for Washington, but mainly on the international level. Latin American unity, for example, is now being sorely tested by the provocative decision to place US military air and naval bases in Colombia. While both Brazil and Chile have reluctantly bowed down before the argument that the issue is a "sovereign" decision for Colombia, others including Bolivia, Nicaragua, Ecuador, Uruguay, Venezuela and Cuba have denounced the measure.
An effective resistance
Meanwhile, the Honduran resistance has had immense impact on the population, the regime, the national and regional economy and international opinion. This outcome is horrifying to the local ruling class and to Washington.
The Honduran economy is in tatters. Estimates indicate that import-export activity is down by 60 per cent. Zelaya reported in a press conference in Mexico City that more than 200 road barricades had been erected, most of them heavily repressed by the army in an attempt to keep produce moving. Public schools have not functioned since the coup because of teachers’ strikes and student boycotts. Health workers have maintained a long strike and many other work centres have been hit by shorter strikes and slowdowns.
The de facto government has been unable to meet payrolls and profits of the ten ruling families are starting to dry up. Adidas, Nike and GAP – flagships of the maquila [sweatshop] sector – have urged the US government to accelerate Zelaya’s return because its products are not being exported. They are suffering losses in the millions of dollars. The crisis is also hitting Nicaraguan and El Salvadoran import-export enterprises that depend on the northern Honduran port of Cortés for commerce with the eastern and southern US and with Europe.
Yet despite stiff resistance and surprises on the international front, de facto President Roberto Micheletti’s “government” has not collapsed. Its main weapon, aside from Catholic Church sermons and a virtual monopoly control over media, has been targeted killings and arrests of unarmed protesters, who take nothing into their actions but conviction, courage and picket signs. Disappearances and torture are selectively carried out, the right to free movement permanently violated, curfews often lengthened.
The regime has now moved to close down Globo Radio, the only station that has dared to oppose the coup and support Zelaya as the country’s legitimate president, and give the resistance a voice. It was still on air as of August 6. Hundreds of supporters have surrounded it with defence guards. If the regime hangs on, it will likely also close down TV Cholusat Sur (Channel 36/34), which works hand-in-glove with Globo.
The Arias Plan
The plan of Costa Rica’s President Oscar Arias for surmounting the coup and restoring “stability” to Honduras is misnamed. It should be called the “Obama-Clinton-Lula Plan”. Santiago O'Donnell, regular journalist for Argentine Pagina 12, wrote on July 26 that the Arias Plan was traced out in a Moscow meeting between Brazil’s President Luiz Inacio Da Silva (“Lula”) and Obama. "Lula wanted Zelaya to return but Obama didn't want him to stay on, so they agreed in Moscow that Zelaya should return but remain" [without any real power] -- see ``Made in Washington’’. The plan's unstated intent was to marginalise Zelaya from any real power and block any possible return to office in the future. And, above all, to debilitate the mass resistance movement. The two presidents met again at the G-8 summit in Italy.
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton chose Arias, whose skills in serving imperialism won him a Nobel Peace prize, to host talks between the Zelaya government (-in-exile) and the coup leaders. He "mediated" in San José between representatives of "both sides". With the OAS pushed out of the picture, the talks moved away from the demand for the immediate and unconditional return of Zelaya, to a framework of conditional and delayed return (and ipso facto, the conditioned and delayed retirement of the de facto regime!).
The talks began as a means to delay Zelaya’s return and to buy time for the coup regime, in the hope it could stabilise its rule within the country. Zelaya accepted the plan as a basis for discussion. But talks soon collapsed, because the coup regime categorically rejected Zelaya’s return as president. A second attempt by Arias failed for the same reason.
Zelaya then turned away from the Arias exercise and again focused on building the resistance and on diplomatic outreach. His government in exile operates mainly on the Honduran-Nicaraguan border (Ocotal) and at the Honduran embassy in Managua.
Impact of resistance
Mass opposition has surged, inspired by Zelaya’s attempts to return via the Nicaraguan border and by the effective work done by Xiamara Castro de Zelaya, his wife, within the country. This had its effect. Obama came out with another more pointed reiteration of the US stand that the coup regime had to accept Zelaya’s return through the San José-Arias path. Brazil and Mexico backed this stance, as did OAS general secretary Jose Miguel Insulza.
The coup regime has continued to defy this course. On the heels of Obama's statement, Insulza, Arias and Spain’s vice-president Maria Teresa Fernandez de la Vega proposed sending an OAS ministerial-level delegation to Honduras to try to convince the military regime to accept Zelaya's return and perhaps try to extract more teeth from Zelaya. Coup leader Micheletti says he would accept such a delegation only if no ministers from ALBA countries are included. The mission will arrive on August 11. It is made up of the foreign ministers of Argentina, Mexico, Canada, Costa Rica, Jamaica and the Dominican Republic, accompanied by José Miguel Insulza of the OAS.
Meanwhile, Zelaya has agreed to major concessions. He has accepted the principle of a national unity government, whose main task would be to stabilise the country, get the economy moving again, restore services such as education and health and organise the November national elections.
In essence, Zelaya’s team feels it has no choice but to accept returning as a hand-tied regime with major figures involved in the coup. The authors of the Arias Plan hope this will leave the ruling class and the army with significant leverage to politically defeat the mass movement and the Zelaya current in the coming elections. That is not certain.
At a press conference in Mexico during a state visit, Zelaya sent a message to Washington and other hemispheric governments – either golpismo (coup making) by the extreme right will be contained or Latin America’s left-wing guerrillas will be reborn. He again asserted the people’s right to and the possibility of insurrection under conditions of military dictatorship.
To the grassroots
Anyone who leaves the mass movement out of their calculations may come up short. The resistance movement has emerged as a new force, much more sophisticated and powerful than before June 28. Greater unity between mestizo, Indigenous and Afro-Honduran peoples augurs well. Their international ties are more varied and stronger. Activists have been through a great school of class struggle of the most acute nature and brutal form.
The Zelaya current itself is not the same as it was before the coup. There is every possibility that the interim period, with or without Zelaya’s return, can be used to mature and consolidate this movement and to build its capacity to take on the ruling class in the electoral process and the ongoing battle of for the hearts and minds of the great majority of the nation.
The next day of action is August 11, when feeder marches from all over Honduras will converge on the industrial centre San Pedro Sula and the capital Tegucigalpa. Hondura's National Resistance Front Against the Coup d'Etat has appealed for simultaneous solidarity protests around the world on that day.
The outcome depends, above all, on the capacities of the grassroots to remain on guard and active in the political struggle. Their activity will likely unfold under the twin banners of an election campaign and building support for convoking a constituent assembly.
Anti-imperialist fighters will do well to keep their focus on defending the mass movement and its leaders in Honduras and the goal of continental unity against imperial domination.
The Honduran coup of June 28 was an imperial dress rehearsal for the coup instigators across Latin America. The coup is also school for the Hondura’s grassroots movement. Hondurans, no matter the short-term twists and turns among contending forces, will never be the same.
[Felipe Stuart Cournoyer is a Canadian-born Nicaraguan citizen who divides his time between the two countries. He is a member of the FSLN and a contributing editor to Socialist Voice, published in Canada. He wishes to acknowledge sources that inform this article, including Radio Globo (Honduras), Radio La Primerisima (Nicaragua), El19, Pagina 12 (Buenos Aires), La Jornada (Mexico), Rebelion, Latin-American-Australian journalist Fred Fuentes (Green Left Weekly), Tortilla con Sal (Nicaragua), Via Campesina, Honduran Resists and Rights Action.]
Conn Hallinan | August 6, 2009
Editor: Jen Doak
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 coup.
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 narco-traffickers.
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 privatization."
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 leaders.
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 undertaking.
"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, and murder.
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 June takeover.
Conn Hallinan is a columnist for Foreign Policy In Focus.
Published by Foreign Policy In Focus (FPIF), a project of the Institute for Policy Studies (IPS, online at www.ips-dc.org). Copyright © 2009, Institute for Policy Studies.
Conn Hallinan, "Honduran Coup: The U.S. Connection," (Washington, DC: Foreign Policy In Focus, August 6, 2009).
Author(s): Conn Hallinan
Editor(s): Jen Doak
Production: Jen Doak