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Otto Reich

Then-Assistant Secretary of State for the Western Hemisphere Otto Reich talks to the press in La Paz, Bolivia, in October of 2002. (Photo by Gonzalo Espinoza/AFP/Getty Images)

The Honduran Connection

The U.S. right, including Bush appointee Otto Reich, mobilizes to support the putsch.

BY Bill Weinberg

Throughout the hemisphere, the political right is assembling a barrage of legalistic sophistries in defense of the Honduran coup.

No nation has recognized the regime that took power in Honduras June 28, when the military summarily deported President Manuel Zelaya to Costa Rica in his pajamas. Nonetheless, the political right in both the United States and Honduras is trying to build political support for the coup regime.

Zelaya’s opponents, who argue that the coup was not a coup, cite Article 239 of the Honduran Constitution, which states that any president who proposes an amendment to allow re-election “shall cease forthwith” in his duties.

Missing from this explanation is acknowledgment that the constitution was crafted by a military-dominated state in 1982, and that this measure was aimed at keeping elected leaders subordinate to the generals.

Zelaya was removed on the day his non-binding popular referendum on whether to open a constitutional convention was to be voted on. He had pledged to go ahead with the vote despite a Supreme Court ruling barring it.

Hours after his removal, the National Congress read a forged “resignation letter” from Zelaya. It then passed a resolution giving legal imprimatur to the removal and making Roberto Micheletti, head of the congress, president.

Actually, it was impossible for Zelaya to extend his term through a constitutional reform, given that the binding vote establishing a constitutional convention (following the referendum scheduled for June 28 to establish a popular mandate) was to take place in November, simultaneous with the presidential election.

At best, Zelaya would be able to run again in four years. In his calls for a constitutional convention, he had emphasized the need to strengthen the labor code and to ensure public control of the telecom and power industries – not to abolish term limits.

Coup in the works

In May, the Honduran Committee for the Defense of Human Rights (CODEH) filed a case in the Honduran courts alleging that a military coup was in the works and calling on judicial authorities to intervene. They didn’t.

Then, just days before the coup, the Supreme Court received an accusation against Zelaya —apparently by one Robert Carmona-Borjas of the D.C.-based Arcadia Foundation. The judiciary rushed the case through the legal process, and Zelaya wasn’t given an opportunity to respond to the charges. Regardless of whatever constitutional violations Zelaya may have committed, the military abrogated the democratic process entirely by having the president deported.

Enter Otto Reich?

One of the grassroots groups mobilizing for Zelaya’s return, the Honduran Black Fraternal Organization (OFRANEH), issued a statement on July 3 asserting the “undeniable involvement” of former U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Otto Reich in the coup d’etat. Similar claims were made at the emergency session of the Organization of American States (OAS) in Washington, D.C., where Venezuelan representative Roy Chaderton said:

We have information that worries us. This is a person who has been important in the diplomacy of the U.S. who has reconnected with old colleagues and encouraged the coup: Otto Reich, ex-sub-secretary of state under Bush. We know him as an interventionist…

Chaderton also cited Reich’s purported involvement in the attempted coup d’etat against Venezuela’s President Hugo Chávez in April 2002.

In 2001, President Bush used a recess appointment to make Reich, a far-right Cuban exile, assistant secretary of state for the Western Hemisphere, bypassing strong Congressional opposition. In 1987, Congress had investigated Reich for illegal activities in support of Nicaragua’s right-wing Contra guerrillas.

In April 2002, the New York Times reported that on the morning the Venezuelan putsch went into action, Reich spoke by telephone with Pedro Carmona, the conservative businessman who would be installed as de facto president for the two days before the coup collapsed. The account claimed Reich coached Carmona on how to handle the coup, urging him not to dissolve the National Assembly. (Carmona did anyway, which is credited as a key factor in the coup’s failure.)

In January 2003, the White House quietly moved Reich over to the presidential staff as special envoy to Latin America rather than face Congressional opposition to his re-appointment as assistant secretary of state. He resigned in 2004 and returned to private life, later working as a foreign policy advisor to presidential candidate John McCain.

In its July 3 statement, OFRANEH charged that Reich was working with the Arcadia Foundation to destabilize Zelaya, though it offered only circumstantial evidence to back up its assertion. The Arcadia Foundation website identifies the nonprofit as an anti-corruption watchdog that promotes “good governance and democratic institutions.” Reich’s name does not appear on the website.

However, one of the two names on the site’s “Founders” page is Robert Carmona-Borjas, who is identified as “a Venezuelan lawyer and an expert in military affairs, national security, corruption and governance.” It notes that he fled Venezuela and sought political asylum in the United States following the 2002 coup attempt: “In Venezuela, concerned with the issues of governability, the defense of human rights, democracy and the fight against corruption, he became an activist, disregarding the risks that such a stance implied.”

On April 27, 2002, the Mexican daily La Jornada reported that Carmona-Borjas had drafted “anti-constitutional” decrees for the coup regime. And this June, Honduran newspapers noted that Carmona-Borjas had brought legal charges against Zelaya and other members of his administration for defying a court ruling that barred preparations for the constitutional referendum that was scheduled for the day Zelaya would be ousted. A YouTube video dated July 3 shows footage from Honduras’ Channel 8 TV of Carmona-Borjas being extolled to enthusiastic applause from the stage at an anti-Zelaya rally in Tegucigalpa’s Plaza la Democracia.

Reich’s name popped up in the media in relation to Honduras earlier this year, when he accused the Zelaya administration of corruption after the Latin Node digital telephone company (since acquired by eLandia) was fined $2 million by U.S. authorities for allegedly bribing officials in Honduras and Yemen.

“President Zelaya has allowed or encouraged this kind of practices [sic] and we will see that he is also behind this,” Reich told the Miami Herald in April. He said he was prepared to make a sworn statement on the affair before Honduran law enforcement–but said he would not travel to Honduras to do so, because his personal security would be at risk there.

And in a September 2008 interview with the Honduran daily El Heraldo, Reich warned of Tegucigalpa’s growing closeness with Venezuela, remarking cryptically, “If President Zelaya wants to be an ally of our enemies, let him think about what might be the consequences of his actions and words.”

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Bill Weinberg is editor of the online World War 4 Report and author of Homage to Chiapas: The New Indigenous Struggles in Mexico (Verso, 2000). He is working on a book on indigenous movements in the Andes.

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