The Known Unknowns in Honduras

Leaked cables reveal U.S. government knowledge of disastrous military coup.

Jeremy Kryt January 14, 2011

Supporters of deposed Honduran President Manuel Zelaya and members of the National Front of Popular Resistence (FNRP) shout slogans during a demonstration commemorating the first anniversary of the coup d'etat, on June 28, 2010, in Tegucigalpa. (Photo by: ORLANDO SIERRA/AFP/Getty Images)

When is a coup not a coup? Tak­en alto­geth­er, the secret diplo­mat­ic cables released by Wik­iLeaks have exposed mul­ti­ple instances of decep­tion by the U.S. State Depart­ment, in rela­tion to for­eign dig­ni­taries, friend­ly nations and even U.N. Rep­re­sen­ta­tives. But recent­ly leaked cables sent from the U.S. Embassy in Tegu­ci­gal­pa, the Hon­duran cap­i­tal, offer evi­dence that the State Depart­ment was, in at least one instance, also mis­lead­ing the Amer­i­can people.

Rights groups report that abuses have intensified under coup supporter President Porifiro Lobo, but the State Department has asked Congress to send $68 million to his regime.

In June 2009, Manuel Zelaya, the demo­c­ra­t­i­cal­ly-elect­ed pres­i­dent of Hon­duras, was oust­ed from pow­er by a coali­tion of mil­i­tary lead­ers and far-right polit­i­cal elites, plung­ing the coun­try into an eco­nom­ic and human rights night­mare from which it has yet to emerge. A month after the putsch, after weeks of rig­or­ous inves­ti­ga­tion, U.S. Ambas­sador to Hon­duras Hugo Llorens cabled the State Depart­ment to say that, based on his research, the coup had been ille­gal” and uncon­sti­tu­tion­al.” The cable con­clud­ed by call­ing the putsch a throw­back to the way Hon­duran pres­i­dents were removed in the past: a bogus res­ig­na­tion let­ter and a one-way tick­et to a neigh­bor­ing coun­try.” Hon­duran sol­diers had kid­napped Zelaya in his paja­mas and a total­ly ille­git­i­mate” pup­pet gov­ern­ment was installed. 

This in turn led to mass protests across the coun­try, fol­lowed by harsh crack­downs under mar­tial law. Accord­ing to human rights groups, scores of peace­ful demon­stra­tors, union lead­ers, jour­nal­ists and teach­ers have been slain by gov­ern­ment forces since the coup, and hun­dreds of oth­ers have been beat­en and detained when police and sol­diers attacked peace­ful march­es and demon­stra­tions. (Ten jour­nal­ists were mur­dered in 2010, mak­ing it the most dan­ger­ous coun­try in the world for mem­bers of the press on a per capi­ta basis.)

But the State Depart­ment chose not to tell the Amer­i­can peo­ple about atroc­i­ties. Instead the coup was por­trayed as a murky legal sit­u­a­tion and the Oba­ma admin­is­tra­tion made lit­tle men­tion of the civ­il rights vio­la­tions. Most impor­tant of all, say crit­ics, the State Depart­ment nev­er des­ig­nat­ed the takeover a mil­i­tary coup,” which under U.S. law would have neces­si­tat­ed the ces­sa­tion of all aid programs.

Because Hon­duras has been his­tor­i­cal­ly depen­dent on U.S. aid, Mark Weis­brot, co-direc­tor of the Wash­ing­ton, D.C.-based Cen­ter for Eco­nom­ic Pol­i­cy Research (CEPR), says the Oba­ma admin­is­tra­tion could have put a lot of pres­sure on that [ille­gal] gov­ern­ment to reverse the coup if they’d want­ed to. But they made it clear they didn’t want to do that.”

The sit­u­a­tion in Hon­duras has become so dire that in Octo­ber 2010, 30 mem­bers of U.S. Con­gress wrote to Sec­re­tary of State Hillary Clin­ton, ask­ing her to sus­pend fur­ther aid until the country’s dis­re­gard for human rights and cul­ture of impuni­ty” has been dealt with. The State Depart­ment, which declined to be inter­viewed for this arti­cle, has yet to issue a response.

A ruth­less game of chess’

Despite Llorens’ report and the post-coup government’s ter­ri­ble human rights’ record, the Unit­ed States sup­port­ed high­ly con­tro­ver­sial elec­tions held in Novem­ber 2009, even though mil­lions of Hon­durans boy­cotted the vote due to con­cerns about cor­rup­tion, sus­pen­sion of inde­pen­dent media and the mil­i­ta­rized atmos­phere sur­round­ing polls. 

Although inter­na­tion­al rights groups report that abus­es have actu­al­ly inten­si­fied since coup sup­port­er Pres­i­dent Pori­firo Lobo took office one year ago, the State Depart­ment has asked Con­gress to send $68 mil­lion in tax­pay­er funds to his régime this fis­cal year. 

Accord­ing to CEPR’s Weis­brot, the State Department’s eth­i­cal­ly dubi­ous tac­tics have con­crete polit­i­cal and eco­nom­ic objec­tives. It’s a big, ruth­less game of chess, and the pawns are very impor­tant to these peo­ple,” says Weis­brot, who calls the coup against Zelaya a crime of oppor­tu­ni­ty” by the State Depart­ment, which he says is seek­ing to main­tain mil­i­tary and eco­nom­ic con­trol over the region. Hon­duras, says Weis­brot, is home to the U.S. military’s largest over­seas base in the hemi­sphere and an impor­tant trad­ing part­ner for the Unit­ed States.

On the day he was kid­napped, Zelaya had planned to hold a pop­u­lar ref­er­en­dum on re-writ­ing the Hon­duran Con­sti­tu­tion. While the coup-plot­ters them­selves have accused Zelaya of want­i­ng to change the nation’s char­ter to extend his own term in office, most ana­lysts believe this was just an excuse by the rul­ing oli­garchy to cur­tail much-need­ed social and demo­c­ra­t­ic reforms.

Weis­brot believes the Unit­ed States feared that a new con­sti­tu­tion might out­law for­eign mil­i­tary bases on Hon­duran soil. They would’ve got­ten rid of Zelaya for that alone,” Weis­brot says.

Pro­fes­sor Dana Frank, who teach­es Cen­tral Amer­i­can his­to­ry at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Cal­i­for­nia San­ta Cruz, agrees about the State Department’s secret agen­da, but she believes eco­nom­ic fac­tors were just as influ­en­tial in its deci­sion to back the coup.

It’s about eco­nom­ic pow­er,” says Frank, who spoke to In These Times from the Aguan region of Hon­duras, where she was inves­ti­gat­ing recent attacks by the Hon­duran mil­i­tary and pri­vate secu­ri­ty con­trac­tors against unarmed, land­less peas­ants. It’s about extract­ing wealth. It’s about sup­port­ing U.S.-based transna­tion­al cor­po­ra­tions, ram­ming trade agree­ments down the throats of Latin Amer­i­can coun­tries. It’s about exploit­ing work­ers through­out the hemisphere.”

A tac­ti­cal error and a failed state’

Hon­duras has become a failed state,” says Bertha Oli­va, direc­tor of the Com­mit­tee for the Fam­i­lies of Dis­ap­peared Hon­durans (COFADEH). Oli­va, who recent­ly received the Netherland’s pres­ti­gious Tulip Prize for her human rights work, claims the U.S. State Depart­ment enabled” the coup by delib­er­ate­ly ignor­ing the warn­ing sent by Ambas­sador Llorens. The State Department’s deci­sion, says Oli­va, has led direct­ly to the human rights crisis.

The [Wik­ileaks] cables demon­strate what we already knew – that the U.S. only serves the transna­tion­al com­pa­nies and … the Hon­duran oli­garchy,” says Oli­va, who found­ed COFADEH after her own hus­band was dis­ap­peared by a death squad in the 1980s.

But Gil­da Batista, a coor­di­na­tor for the self-declared non­vi­o­lent Nation­al Front of the Pop­u­lar Resis­tance (FNRP), tells In These Times that both the coup-plot­ters and the State Depart­ment erred in believ­ing that Zelaya’s removal would squash the public’s hunger for freedom. 

I think they expect­ed that Hon­durans would get tired of denounc­ing [the coup], or the break­ing of the rule of law, and that [pro-democ­ra­cy] ral­lies would last fif­teen days,” says Batista, whose FNRP has gath­ered more than 1.3 mil­lion peti­tions demand­ing a demo­c­ra­t­i­cal­ly cho­sen assem­bly to rewrite the country’s con­sti­tu­tion. (On Decem­ber 31, Zelaya vowed to return to Hon­duras in 2011 from the Domini­can Repub­lic, where he has lived since Jan­u­ary 2010.)

Weis­brot also says the Oba­ma admin­is­tra­tion made a tac­ti­cal error in Hon­duras. They deeply alien­at­ed Brazil, Argenti­na and [oth­er coun­tries] in South Amer­i­ca. These gov­ern­ments – I talk to them all – they were very angry and dis­ap­point­ed. They thought Oba­ma was going to be different.”

More cables to come?

Although the Llorens cable is the most reveal­ing Wik­ileaks doc­u­ment relat­ed to Hon­duras released thus far, it’s not the only one. Anoth­er cable sent before the coup dis­par­ages Zelaya, say­ing he is not a friend” to U.S. inter­ests. Oth­ers from sev­er­al months after Zelaya’s evic­tion describe Con­gress­man Dana Rohrabacher’s (R‑Calif.) trip to Hon­duras to pledge his sup­port for the post-coup gov­ern­ment and score a lucra­tive pri­vate deal with local busi­ness­men at the same time. Despite these rev­e­la­tions, Weis­brot believes there might be more to the sto­ry of the U.S. government’s involve­ment in the Hon­duran coup.

I’m wait­ing for the cable that tells us what [the State Depart­ment] was talk­ing about with the mil­i­tary right before the coup,” says Weis­brot, who points out that most Hon­duran mil­i­tary offi­cers were trained in the Unit­ed States. 

The Oba­ma admin­is­tra­tion has pub­licly acknowl­edged that they were talk­ing to the Hon­duran mil­i­tary right up to the [day] of the coup,” he says. I’d like to know what they were saying.”

Jere­my Kryt is a Chica­go-based journalist.
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