Honduran Coup: The U.S. Connection
Foreign Policy In Focus
August 6, 2009
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
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-
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
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
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
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
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.