Honduras: Chronicle of a planned coup

On June 28, the capitalist and U.S. imperialist-backed Honduran military embarked on a new chapter in the long line of military coups in Latin America. In response to news of the coup, President Obama issued the following statement:

Honduran mass protest
Supporters of President Manuel Zelaya amass in
front of the entrance to the international airport,
after the OAS suspended Honduras
Photo: Eduardo Verdugo/AP

“I am deeply concerned by reports coming out of Honduras regarding the detention and expulsion of President Mel Zelaya. As the Organization of American States did on Friday, I call on all political and social actors in Honduras to respect democratic norms, the rule of law and the tenets of the Inter-American Democratic Charter. Any existing tensions and disputes must be resolved peacefully through dialogue free from any outside interference.” (White House Press Office, June 28)

In his first words, Obama had already recognized the “social actors,” and had suggested that there should be “dialogue.” His statement was not off the cuff; rather it was meticulously calculated, written with great anticipation and reflection.

The statement echoed throughout the world as an apparent political shift away from President Bush’s Latin America stance. What seemed like a simple statement can now be evaluated with an overall analysis of the actions taken since, and those taken by the U.S. State Department and the U.S. embassy in Honduras in the days leading up to the coup d’etat.

Manuel Zelaya was elected president of Honduras in November 2005. Initially, he worked on moderate reforms such as fighting against corruption and bringing about small–scale land reform for the country’s poor. Subsequently, Zelaya pushed his social justice agenda forward—incorporating Honduras into Petro-Caribe, an organization sponsored by Venezuela to provide Central America with subsidized oil, and ALBA, the Bolivarian Alternative of the Americas. He doubled the minimum wage, called for the closing of the American military base of Soto Cano, also known as Palmerola, and proposed changing the military-written 1980 constitution to reflect the widening demand for social change of Honduras’s poor and working class. Each one of these actions brought the president closer to a confrontation with U.S. imperialism.

Moves against imperialist interests

The incorporation of Honduras into Petro Caribe in January 2007 was the first strike against U.S. imperialist interests. The then-U.S. ambassador to Honduras, Charles Ford, stated, “It’s quite a serious action which we have to look at from the point of view of the investment climate and the rules of the game.” At that time, U.S. companies Exxon and Chevron as well as Royal Dutch Shell were the exclusive distributors of oil in Honduras, all at inflated market prices. Petro-Caribe has saved the Honduran government tens of millions of dollars yearly in petrol imports. (Reuters, Jan. 15, 2007)

On August 26, 2008, Zelaya announced that Honduras would be joining ALBA to help the country overcome the decades of underdevelopment and poverty created by the neo-liberal policies of his predecessors. From the outset, ALBA members Bolivia, Nicaragua, Dominica, Venezuela and Cuba worked with Zelaya’s government to install Cuban health care workers, Venezuelan petroleum technicians, Bolivian and Cuban literacy campaigns, as well as to work on land reforms to increase agricultural production and exports. ALBA’s anti-imperialist policies and support for economic sovereignty once again struck a nerve with U.S. interests in Honduras.

In 2008, Zelaya proposed turning the old U.S military base at Soto Cano into an international airport. The idea was nothing new; Zelaya had discussed such a transition with the Bush administration for years. At this time, it was agreed that a new military base would be provided for the United States but under stricter terms.

The negotiations with the Bush administration never flourished, and Zelaya moved quickly to find another source of financing for the airport. On May 31, 2008, ALBA informed Zelaya’s government that it would support and finance the project. But Washington could not accept the removal of over 600 U.S. military personal and 18 combat planes.

The military base at Soto Cano

The base today operates as a counter-narcotics airfield but also houses the Honduran Aviation Academy. That means the pilots who were part of the abduction and forced exile of Zelaya on June 28 were trained there. In addition, the plane used is now known to have landed at Soto Cano before flying on to Costa Rica, further demonstrating the involvement of the U.S. military in the operation. (Associated Press, Aug 16)

The base’s history includes being the launching pad for the 1954 CIA-organized coup d’etat against democratically elected Jacobo Arbenz in Guatemala. During the 1980s, the base was used as the training center for the paramilitary death squads known as the contras, as well as a launching pad for the CIA-coordinated attacks on the Sandinista government of Nicaragua and the social movements in Guatemala, where the contras murdered over 100,000 people.

The base was also used for torture operations. During those years, Ambassador John Negroponte ran the U.S. State Department operations in Honduras. Since then, he has held various government positions, primarily during the Bush years, including being appointed U.S. ambassador to Iraq.

Negroponte now works for McLarty Associates, one of the most influential consulting firms in Washington, D.C. He is vice president of the firm and now a top foreign policy adviser to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. The initial 2008 Zelaya announcement that envisioned eliminating the U.S. military base without replacement was a political strike against all the counterrevolutionary activity Negroponte and U.S. governments had executed from that base for the past 50 years.

U.S. role exposed

The day after the coup, the Obama administration announced that “the Honduran military surprised it with Sunday’s coup and that the United States as late as Saturday told the military not to go forward with it.” The statement further exposed the administration’s participation in and knowledge of the planned coup.

That the U.S. government had advance knowledge is also indicated by the answer of State Department spokesperson Philip J. Crowley gave to a reporter’s question at an Aug. 17 press briefing: “I think that to the extent that we were concerned about the emerging crisis in Honduras, I think at the ambassadorial level we expressed our concerns to Honduran authorities prior to the coup.” (America.gov, Aug. 17)

The military connections do not end with the U.S. involvement at Soto Cano. This military coup once again brings the School of the Americas (now renamed Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation) into the light. The top two generals of the Honduran military, Luis Javier Prince Suazo (Honduran military head of the Soto Cano base) and now-infamous military general Romeo Vásquez, were both graduates. (Telesur, July 13)

Zelaya fired General Vásquez on June 24, 2009, a few days before the coup. (Venezuelanalysis, June 29) The oligarchy-dominated Supreme Court then reinstated him explaining the move as a defense of Honduran democracy. Days later this claim would be completely countered by the military tanks commanded by Vásquez that surrounded the capital and imposed martial law. (Guardian, June 29)

In April 9, Ambassador Ford and long-time right-wing strategist Otto Reich embarked on a media campaign linking Zelaya to an alleged theft of $100 million dollars from state-owned Honductel (Honduras’s telephone company). A formal suit was “brought by Venezuelan lawyer Roberto Carmona-Borjas claiming that Zelaya was part of a bribery scheme.” (Telesur July 13)

Roberto Carmona was the same lawyer who in 2002 drafted the “Carmona decrees” under which the Venezuelan constitution was suspended giving power to the coup d’etat government. After the failed coup in Venezuela, Carmona worked at George Washington University and later offered his services to Otto Reich’s defamation campaign aimed at discrediting Zelaya nationally and internationally.

The media slander covered a range of topics from connecting Zelaya to drug trafficking to the stealing of millions from Hondutel. Hondutel has a direct connection to now dictator Roberto Michelleti, who was CEO of the company during the 1990s and had tried with the help of Otto Reich to transfer ownership of the company to the private telecom giants AT&T, MCI and Qualcomm. Since the onset of his presidency, Zelaya’s refusal to transfer the state company into private hands once again stepped on the interests of U.S. imperialism and the Honduran oligarchy.

U.S business connections do not end with the oil and telecom giants. Zelaya’s push for a higher minimum wage also struck a nerve against other multinationals. The minimum wage hike was a direct challenge to the apparel companies Adidas, Nike and Gap, which operate dozens of factories in Honduras. In Honduras, these companies form a larger front called Worldwide Responsible Apparel Production, an organization aimed at derailing the anti-sweatshop movement while maintaining anti-union factories throughout the world. The industry front was created in June 2000, and since then Otto Reich has been its vice president.

Phony ‘democratic’ front set up

Beyond the economic and military involvement in Honduras, the U.S. government through United States Agency for International Development and the National Endowment of Democracypumped over $50 million U.S. tax dollars into their operations in Honduras last year. (Global Research, July 15) This year, the NED provided International Republican Institute (headed by board chairman John McCain) $1.2 million for work with “democratic” forces in Honduras. (Telesur, July 13)

A month before the military coup, these three agencies engaged the Honduran oligarchy in establishing a front called the Democratic Civil Union of Honduras. This organization is composed of the National Anticorruption Council, the Archbishop of Tegucigalpa, Honduran Council of Private Enterprise, Council of University Deans, Workers’ Federation of Honduras, National Convergence Forum, National Federation of Commerce and Industry of Honduras, Association of Communication Media, the Group Peace and Democracy and the student group Generation for Change.

A week before the coup, the new “civil union” stated to the national press that they trusted “the armed forces will comply with their responsibility to defend the Constitution, the Law, peace and democracy.” In the days after the coup, the organization sponsored several rallies in support of the military coup and their new leader, Roberto Micheletti. The right-wing rallies were the only thing broadcast in Honduras during the coup, trying to show the national and international community that there had been a public outcry of support for the “new government.” (Global Research, July 15)

The creation of the Democratic “Civil” Union of Honduras was a conscious effort at fanning the flames of a military coup. The role of the organization the days and weeks after the coup show that there was nothing “spontaneous” about the right-wing mobilizations, and that rather they had been orchestrated with the financial, technical and political support of the U.S. government.

Bipartisan diplomatic offensive and public relations blitz

The role of the U.S. government did not end in creating destabilizing units in Honduras. Days after the military coup, the Honduran oligarchy with the help of the International Republican Institute hired renowned Washington lobbyist and lawyer Lanny Davis. Davis made his mark during the Clinton administration as the president’s legal counsel from 1996 to 1998 during the Lewinsky scandal. He is now an adviser of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

Davis organized a diplomatic offensive and public relations blitz in support of the coup regime, including advertisements in important U.S. media that sought to legitimize the coup government. He has also been organizing meetings and hearings with members of Congress, the State Department and the White House.

The main objective of the meetings was to work on a congressional resolution aimed at legitimizing the new regime in Honduras. In addition, Senator John McCain and the Cormac Group, a key lobbying firm in Washington, D.C., arranged the visits of a delegation from the new Honduran regime at the National Press Club in Washington. Furthermore, he helped arrange meetings between the delegation and Connie Mack, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Mel Martínez, all traditional enemies of the Latin American left.

Overnight, other key Republican leaders announced their support for the delegation and the coup in Honduras. In a July 2 statement, Senator Jim DeMint (R-S.C.), member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and chairman of the Senate Steering Committee, stated, “The Honduran Congress, the Honduran Supreme Court, and the Honduran military have acted in accordance to the Honduran constitution and the rule of law.” His statement was right on cue, and in retrospect was the piece omitted from Obama’s initial statement. (U.S. Senate Statement, July 2)

True motives come to light

The true motives of the Obama administration came into perspective with the proposal of a negotiation mediated by President Oscar Arias of Costa Rica. Arias, yet another player of the Reagan cold war era, was a chief negotiator in the Guatemalan peace treaty that ended the violence in the country and restored the Guatemalan oligarchy to power in the 1980s. Arias’ proposal for Honduras includes the return of Zelaya to office, the creation of a national reconciliation government, amnesty for all political and military crimes, and Zelaya’s agreement to stop any further attempts to change the constitution.

The goal of the negotiation was in reality to legitimize a new oligarchy-dominated government, stop the change of the constitution to benefit the masses of poor and working-class people, regain the political acceptance of Honduras in the region and restore trade relations.

The Obama administration immediately expressed full support for Arias’ proposed political solution. The coup government rejected the first proposal, forcing a new proposal, only to reject that one and leave the negotiation table. They returned a few days later to “negotiate again.” In the weeks since, the coup government has only used the negotiations to further entrench themselves in power, buying time to kill and arrest hundreds of left-wing activists, propagate their propaganda through the halls of the U.S Congress, attempt to defuse the struggles of the Honduran masses, and seek support among the few right-wing governments in Latin America.

During this time, the Obama administration has moved further and further away from Obama’s initial misleading statement. Since the coup, not one U.S. plane has left Honduras, the base at Soto Cano is still fully operational, and delegations from the dictatorship are happily going around Washington, D.C., looking for support.

Since the coup, Zelaya has continually called out the contradictions of U.S. statements and actions: “If President Barack Obama really wants to turn back this coup, these coup leaders will last all of five minutes because the economy of Honduras, all our military, commercial and migration activities, depend on the United States.” In the end, Zelaya’s statement summarizes the supporting cast of the coup—Wall Street, the Pentagon and the Obama State Department.

Social movements continue the struggle

Since the first day of the military coup, the social movements in Honduras—the labor unions, the peasant unions, the students and the indigenous and Afro-Honduran unions—have not stopped their resistance to the dictatorship. During the past 45 days, the organizations have engaged in a wide range of social protest, including hundreds of road blocks throughout the county, labor strikes that have paralyzed the country, and militant demonstrations in all the major cities and towns.

The demonstrations have kept going despite the violent backlash of the state and the military, which have shot and killed several protesters, have incarcerated hundreds including mothers and their children and have forcefully disappeared and tortured several activists. Military force has been used to abduct foreign diplomats from Venezuela, Cuba and Nicaragua, as well foreign press correspondents.

The courage and resilience of the Honduran people can be seen on a nightly basis. On Aug. 12, thousands of Hondurans marched from every corner of the country, all heading to the capital city of Tegucigalpa. Once there, they rallied in front of the congress, where the military used live ammunition and tear gas to disperse the peaceful demonstration.

Throughout the night, dozens of disturbances occurred in the city, including the forceful entry at several universities in Tegucigalpa by the military, and the arrest of hundreds of demonstrators. The next day, the same thousands of patriotic and anti-imperialist masses once again rallied throughout the capital demonstrating that they would not be silenced by a dictator, an entrenched oligarchy, a murderous military and their masters in Washington, D.C.

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