The Honduran Connection
The U.S. right, including Bush appointee Otto Reich, mobilizes to support the putsch.
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.”
The Hondutel Scandal
The Latin Node scandal may touch on one of the key issues behind the coup. Despite the media focus on Zelaya’s supposed agenda to get term limits overturned, one of the real goals of his proposed constitutional reform was to re-extend national control over Honduras’ telecom system. The officials who Latin Node allegedly bribed were executives of the national company Hondutel, who apparently took kickbacks to allow Latin Node to provide digital telephone service in Honduras.
In an April 7 article that he wrote for Miami’s Spanish-language Nuevo Herald, Reich reminded readers that Zelaya’s nephew, Marcelo Chimirri, was a high official at Hondutel and had been accused of various illicit practices. An outraged Zelaya went on national radio and TV to announce that he would sue Reich for defamation: “We will proceed with legal action for calumny against this man, Otto Reich, who has been waging a two-year campaign against Honduras.”
In January, the U.S. Embassy in Tegucigalpa denied Chimirri an entry visa into the United States, citing “serious cases of corruption.” This wasn’t Chimirri’s first attempt to get a visa. Zelaya had complained to Washington a month earlier about the visa issue, urging U.S. officials to “revise the procedure by which visas are cancelled or denied … as a means of [applying] pressure against … people who hold different beliefs or ideologies which pose no threat to the U.S.”
Bush-appointee Ambassador to Honduras Charles Ford also weighed in, telling the Honduran newspaper La Tribuna that the U.S. government was investigating North American telecom carriers for allegedly paying bribes to Honduran officials to engage in so-called “gray traffic” — the illicit bypassing of legal telecommunications channels. He recommended greater competition as a means to combat this supposed abuse.
The Honduran business elite has long sought to privatize Hondutel. In the late 1990s, none other than Roberto Micheletti — the current coup-installed president — was Hondutel’s CEO. Nikolas Kozloff, author of Revolution!: South America and the Rise of the New Left, wrote in a commentary at BuzzFlash.com:
At the time, Micheletti favored privatizing the firm. Micheletti later went on to become president of Honduras’ National Congress. In that capacity, he was at odds with Zelaya, who opposed the so-called ‘telecom reform’ that could open the door to outright privatization.
Chimirri was arrested by the new regime on July 2, 2009. The Arcadia Foundation did not respond to repeated requests for a statement. In a July 9 Miami Herald op-ed titled, “I Did Not Orchestrate Coup in Honduras,” Reich denies being the “architect” of the coup – which he also denies was a coup, and defends as “legal and constitutional.”
The website of Reich’s consulting firm, Otto Reich Associates, lists among its former clients AT&T and Bell Atlantic (now Verizon) – both of which would be possible purchasers of a privatized Hondutel.
Congressional coup backers
The New York Times reported comments from a House Western Hemisphere Subcommittee hearing in Washington on July 10, where several members of Congress criticized the Organization of American States (OAS) for suspending Honduras less than a month after it lifted the suspension of Cuba.
Rep. Connie Mack (R-Fla.) urged the United States to cut its support for the OAS, which gets 60 percent of its financing from Washington. He said the OAS response to the Honduras crisis proves that it is a “dangerous organization” that sides with Hugo Chávez in undermining democracy in the region.
“What has happened in Honduras was not a military coup,” Mack said. “If anyone is guilty here it is Mr. Zelaya himself for having turned his back on his people and his own Constitution.” Elsewhere, Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) called Zelaya “a Chávez-style dictator” and described President Barack Obama’s call to reinstate Zelaya as “a slap in the face to the people of the Honduras.”
Reich was also among those who testified on July 10, as a transcript of Senate Foreign Affairs Committee hearings held that day reveals. “What happens in Honduras may one day be seen as either the high-water mark of Hugo Chavez’s attempt to undermine democracy in this hemisphere or as a green light to the continued spread of Chavista authoritarianism under the guise of democracy,” he said, adding that Zelaya’s removal constituted “legal and defensible measures” by the Honduran judicial and legislative branches against the executive.
Hans Bader, counsel at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, a pro-corporate, right-wing think tank, told Voice of America on July 3 that the Honduran Supreme Court and Congress believe Zelaya had put the country in peril. “I don’t think they needed to wait until he actually made himself into a dictator,” he said. “I think they were entitled to take action against a budding dictator.”
Throughout the hemisphere, the political right is assembling a barrage of legalistic sophistries in defense of the Honduran coup. If they prevail and the coup is allowed to become a fait accompli, it will be a grave step backward for democracy in the Americas and worldwide – made all the more insidious because, this time around, in contrast to the Cold War coups d’etat, it is being done under a veneer (however transparent) of propriety.