Let’s be honest about Hillary Clinton and the Honduran military coup.
Honduras is a great example of how the American Empire operates, through constant geopolitical manipulations, so often hidden from public view. It also shows how neoliberalism and neoconservatism are so closely linked, despite the outward ideological differences.
Hillary Clinton’s role as Secretary of State demonstrates all of this. The dire situation of Honduras today makes clear her political vision for the world and makes clear whose interests she serves.
In Honduras, corporatism means a military coup that puts business interests into power. In the US, corporatism means supporting military coups and other methods that put business interests in power, and it means corrupt big money politics at home in support of a military-industrial complex and prison-industrial complex, not to mention a growing police-and-intelligence state.
This can’t all be blamed on Hillary Clinton. She is just one of many, but she is a particularly egregious example. Few corporatists in the US have more wealth, power, and influence than someone like her.
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This has been going in the USA’s back yard since Honduras was declared the first “banana Republic” in 1904 with the U.S. sending in troops several times between 1903 and 1925. It is the poorest country in Central America and the gap between rich and poor has consistently risen except for a time in the 50’s when workers were allowed to unionize. In 1963 a democratically elected President was overthrown in a military coup, 10 years after a similar CIA-backed coup deposed the freely elected President in Guatemala. Ronald Reagan upped the ante by supporting the CIA’s work with the Contras fighting the Russian-supported Sandinista regime in Nicaragua. Next door violent wars raged in El Salvador and Guatemala and thousands would flee the violence north to Mexico, USA and Canada. That trend has only gotten worse with the failed War on Drugs and the potential failure of the narco-state that Mexico has become. Thousands of Central American women and children flooded the US border, only to have many of them deported back to the narco-gang violence that is terrorizing this country which is now one of the most violent in the world. Secretary Clinton said it was important to send a message.”
Because of this history, he explained, when a coup occurs, “alarm bells ring across the political spectrum in Latin America.”
This makes the 2009 coup in Honduras and the response of then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and the U.S. State Department all the more startling. Secretary Clinton’s reaction to the coup was initially ambiguous and evolved to support the replacement government much more rapidly than the United States has done in other foreign states. Her motivations appear to have been numerous, but many are troubling. In particular, her attention to business interests in a matter of state should be concerning. When seeking stability in Honduras, Clinton appears to have valued military and corporate interests above Honduran democratic integrity.
“I’ve been pretty much appalled by US policy with respect to Honduras,” Lawrence Wilkerson, the former deputy to Secretary of State Colin Powell, told me when I brought OTI’s Honduras program to his attention in an interview last year. “If I could sum it up for what it’s been for so many years, that’s protecting all the criminals in power, basically for US commercial interests.”
From: Ambassador Hugo Llorens, U.S. Embassy, Tegucigalpa, Honduras, 24 July 2009.
To: Secretary of State, White House, and National Security Council.
“SUBJECT: TFHO1: OPEN AND SHUT: THE CASE OF THE HONDURAN COUP”
This lengthy message from the Ambassador closed:
“The actions of June 28 can only be considered a coup d’etat by the legislative branch, with the support of the judicial branch and the military, against the executive branch. It bears mentioning that, whereas the resolution adopted June 28 refers only to Zelaya, its effect was to remove the entire executive branch. Both of these actions clearly exceeded Congress’s authority. … No matter what the merits of the case against Zelaya, his forced removal by the military was clearly illegal, and [puppett-leader Roberto] Micheletti’s ascendance as ‘interim president’ was totally illegitimate.”
On August 7, fifteen House Democrats, led by Rep. Raúl Grijalva, sent a letter to the Administration which began, “As you know, on June 28th, 2009 a military coup took place in Honduras,” and said: “The State Department should fully acknowledge that a military coup has taken place and follow through with the total suspension of non-humanitarian aid, as required by law.”
Despite being a wealthy logger and rancher from the centrist Liberal Party, Zelaya had moved his government to the left during his four years in office. During his tenure, he raised the minimum wage and provided free school lunches, milk for young children, pensions for the elderly, and additional scholarships for students. He built new schools, subsidized public transportation, and even distributed energy-saving light bulbs.
None of these were particularly radical moves, but it was nevertheless disturbing to the country’s wealthy economic and military elites. More frightening was that Zelaya had sought to organize an assembly to replace the 1982 constitution written during the waning days of the U.S.-backed military dictator Policarpo Paz Garcia. A non-binding referendum on whether such a constitutional assembly should take place was scheduled the day of the coup, but was cancelled when the military seized power and named Congressional Speaker Roberto Micheletti as president.
Calling for such a referendum is perfectly legal under Article 5 of the 2006 Honduran Civil Participation Act, which allows public functionaries to perform such non-binding public consultations regarding policy measures. Despite claims by the rightist junta and its supporters, Zelaya was not trying to extend his term. That question wasn’t even on the ballot. The Constitutional Assembly would not have likely completed its work before his term had expired anyway.
The leader of the coup, Honduran General Romeo Vásquez Velásquez, was a graduate of the notorious School of the Americas, a U.S. Army training program nicknamed “School of Assassins” for the sizable number of graduates who have engaged in coups, as well as the torture and murder of political opponents. The training of coup plotters at the program, since renamed the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation, isn’t a bygone feature of the Cold War: General Luis Javier Prince Suazo, who played an important role in the coup as head of the Honduran Air Force, graduated as recently as 1996.
“Hillary Clinton had a very central role in the coup against Zelaya,” said Pine in a January 12th interview, “from orchestrating the negotiations which insured that the coup government was recognized as a legitimate bargaining partner, to assuring that military aid would continue to be sent to Honduras, by designating the coup as a regular coup and not a military coup. Which is a fictitious distinction that she created.” Pine was in the country before the coup and after.
“One of Clinton’s closest colleagues and a former campaign director, her friend from law school, Lanny Davis,” said Pine, “was directly representing the parties that had financed the coup, CEAL, which is an economic business group in Honduras. Davis was representing them here in Washington, and had her ear at all times. And she was parroting exactly the same propaganda that he was talking about, that he was promoting all over Washington. Hillary Clinton indeed takes credit for preventing Manuel Zelaya from returning to Honduras, as if that were a positive thing, in her book Hard Choices. So I don’t think there is really any ambiguity about her role in that coup.”
One email exchange discovered in the recently released batch of State Department communications reveals that Clinton personally signed off on continuing the flow of US funds to the putsch regime in Honduras in the fall of 2009 — even as the White House was telling the world that such aid had been suspended.
Another email exchange involving Clinton shows that she turned to a lobbyist employed by Honduran business interests suspected of orchestrating the coup to get access to the Roberto Micheletti, the “de facto” president of the putsch regime. Micheletti assumed power after the democratically elected president of Honduras, Manuel Zelaya, was removed from office at gunpoint on June 28, 2009.
The lobbyist Clinton favored in her dealings with Micheletti was Lanny Davis — a long-time friend whom she had met while at Yale Law School and a former White House Counsel to Bill Clinton [as well as a consummate shill for the Clinton agenda].
Davis also is a lawyer and lobbyist and in the latter capacity was retained in July 2009 by the Business Council of Latin America (CEAL) to hawk for the Honduran coup regime, including Micheletti’s illegal administration.
The Hillary Clinton emails released last week include some telling exchanges about the June 2009 military coup that toppled democratically elected Honduran president Manuel Zelaya, a leftist who was seen as a threat by the Honduran establishment and U.S. business interests.
At a time when the State Department strategized over how best to keep Zelaya out of power while not explicitly endorsing the coup, Clinton suggested using longtime Clinton confidant Lanny Davis as a back-channel to Roberto Micheletti, the interim president installed after the coup.
During that period, Davis was working as a consultant to a group of Honduran businessmen who had supported the coup.
In an email chain discussing a meeting between Davis and State Department officials, Clinton asked, “Can he help me talk w Micheletti?”
Davis rose to prominence as an adviser to the Clintons during the Monica Lewinsky scandal, and has since served as a high-powered “crisis communications” adviser to a variety of people and organizations facing negative attention in the media, from scandal-plagued for-profit college companies to African dictators. His client list has elicited frequent accusations of hypocrisy.
Davis was not the only foreign agent with access to Clinton. As The Guardian and Politico have reported, other emails point to lobbyists with direct access to Clinton’s personal email.
Pine, who has worked for many years in Honduras, told Dennis Bernstein of KPFA radio in 2014 that the military forces that carried out the coup were trained at the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (formerly called the U.S. Army School of the Americas) in Fort Benning, Ga. Although the coup was supported by the United States, it was opposed by the United Nations and the Organization of American States (OAS). The U.N. and the OAS labeled President Manuel Zelaya’s ouster a military coup.
“Hillary Clinton was probably the most important actor in supporting the coup [against the democratically elected Zelaya] in Honduras,” Pine noted. It took the United States two months to even admit that Honduras had suffered a coup, and it never did admit it was a military coup. That is, most likely, because the Foreign Assistance Act prohibits the U.S. from aiding a country “whose duly elected head of government is deposed by military coup or decree.”
Although the U.S. government eventually cut nonhumanitarian aid to Honduras, the State Department under Clinton took pains to clarify that this was not an admission that a military coup had occurred.
The question of Zelaya was anything but moot. Latin American leaders, the United Nations General Assembly and other international bodies vehemently demanded his immediate return to office. Clinton’s defiant and anti-democratic stance spurred a downward slide in U.S. relations with several Latin American countries, which has continued. It eroded the warm welcome and benefit of the doubt that even the leftist governments in region offered to the newly installed Obama administration a few months earlier.
Clinton’s false testimony is even more revealing. She reports that Zelaya was arrested amid “fears that he was preparing to circumvent the constitution and extend his term in office.” This is simply not true. As Clinton must know, when Zelaya was kidnapped by the military and flown out of the country in his pajamas on June 28, 2009, he was trying to put a consultative, nonbinding poll on the ballot to ask voters whether they wanted to have a real referendum on reforming the constitution during the scheduled election in November. It is important to note that Zelaya was not eligible to run in that election. Even if he had gotten everything he wanted, it was impossible for Zelaya to extend his term in office. But this did not stop the extreme right in Honduras and the United States from using false charges of tampering with the constitution to justify the coup.
In addition to her bold confession and Clinton’s embrace of the far-right narrative in the Honduran episode, the Latin America chapter is considerably to the right of even her own record on the region as secretary of state. This appears to be a political calculation. There is little risk of losing votes for admitting her role in making most of the hemisphere’s governments disgusted with the United States. On the other side of the equation, there are influential interest groups and significant campaign money to be raised from the right-wing Latin American lobby, including Floridian Cuban-Americans and their political fundraisers.
But this wasn’t merely a situation in which a change in leadership appeared unlawful because the president was whisked away in his pajamas. Governments all over the world regarded what unfolded as an illegal act, and they demanded Zelaya be returned to power. Although Clinton’s State Department took a different tack, President Barack Obama initially declared, “We believe that the coup was not legal and that President Zelaya remains the president of Honduras, the democratically elected president there.”
Nearly one month after the military removed Zelaya from power, on July 24, Ambassador Llorens wrote in a U.S. State Embassy cable, “The Embassy perspective is that there is no doubt that the military, Supreme Court, and National Congress conspired on June 28 in what constituted an illegal and unconstitutional coup against the Executive Branch, while accepting that there may be a prima facie case that Zelaya may have committed illegalities and may have even violated the constitution.”
The U.S. embassy in Honduras rejected all of the coup defenders’ rationalizations for a “patently illegal act” and outlined the following: “the military had no authority to remove Zelaya from the country”; “Congress has no constitutional authority to remove a Honduran president”; “Congress and the judiciary removed Zelaya on the basis of a hasty, ad-hoc, extralegal, secret, 48-hour process”; and “Zelaya’s arrest and forced removal from the country violated multiple constitutional guarantees, including the prohibition on expatriation, presumption of innocence and right to due process.”
How can anyone claiming to have sound judgment read such a clear-cut assessment and still assert there was a “strong argument” the constitution and rule of law was followed in Honduras?
DANA FRANK: Well, I just want to say this is like breathtaking that she’d say these things. I think we’re all kind of reeling that she would both defend the coup and defend her own role in supporting its stabilization in the aftermath. I mean, first of all, the fact that she says that they did it legally, that the Honduras judiciary and Congress did this legally, is like, oh, my god, just mind-boggling. The fact that she then is going to say that it was not an unconstitutional coup is incredible, when she actually had a cable, that we have in the WikiLeaks, in which U.S. Ambassador to Honduras Hugo Llorens says it was very clearly an illegal and unconstitutional coup. So she knows this from day one. She even admits in her own statement that it was the Honduran military, that she says, well, this was the only thing that was wrong there, that it was the military that took Zelaya out of the country, as opposed to somehow that it was an illegal thing we did—that the Honduran government did, deposing a president.
AMY GOODMAN: I want to turn to that WikiLeaks cable on Honduras. The U.S. Embassy in Tegucigalpa, the capital of Honduras, sent a cable to Washington on July 24, 2009, less than a month after the coup. The subject line was “Open and Shut: The Case of the Honduran Coup.” The cable asserted, quote, “there is no doubt” that the events of June 28, 2009, “constituted an illegal and unconstitutional coup,” unquote. The Embassy listed arguments by supporters of the coup to claim its legality, and dismissed each of them, saying, quote, “none … has any substantive validity under the Honduran constitution.” The Embassy went on to say the Honduran military had no legal authority to remove President Zelaya from office or from Honduras. The Embassy also characterized the Honduran military’s actions as an “abduction” and kidnapping that was unconstitutional. Again, this was the U.S. Embassy memo that was sent from Honduras to Washington. Professor Frank?
DANA FRANK: Well, I want to make sure that the listeners understand how chilling it is that the leading presidential—a leading presidential candidate in the United States would say this was not a coup. The second thing is that she’s baldly lying when she says we never called it a coup; we didn’t, because that would mean we have to suspend the aid. Well, first of all, they repeatedly called it a coup. We can see State Department statements for months calling it a coup and confirming, yes, we call it a coup. What she refused to do was to use the phrase “military coup.” So, she split hairs, because Section 7008 of the State and Foreign Operations Appropriations Act for that year very clearly says that if it’s a coup significantly involving the military, the U.S. has to immediately suspend all aid. So she—they decided to have this interpretation that it was a coup, but not a military coup. So, she, Hillary Clinton—and Obama, for that matter, I want to make clear—in violation of U.S. law, that very clearly said if there’s a coup, they have to cut the military aid and that—all other aid to the country, she violated the law, decided, well, it wasn’t a military coup, when of course it was. It was the military that put him on the plane, which she says in her statement.
AMY GOODMAN: I mean, the memo is very clear.
DANA FRANK: Well, the Hugo Llorens cable is very clear. But look, even what she said on Saturday, she says, well, the military put him on the plane; that was the only problem here. She’s admitting it was a military-led coup and that so, therefore, she’s in violation of the law—so is Obama—by not immediately suspending the aid. And here she’s saying, “Well, we never called it a coup.” I mean, hello, we have so many public statements in which the State Department called it a coup.
In the 5 a.m. darkness of June 28, 2009, more than two hundred armed, masked soldiers stormed the house of Honduran president Manuel Zelaya. Within minutes Zelaya, still in his pajamas, was thrown into a van and taken to a military base used by the U.S., where he was flown out of the country.
It was a military coup, said the UN General Assembly and the Organization of American States (OAS). The entire EU recalled its countries’ ambassadors, as did Latin American nations. The United States did not, making it virtually the only nation of note to maintain diplomatic relations with the coup government. Though the White House and the Clinton State Department denounced only the second such coup in the Western Hemisphere since the Cold War, Washington hedged in a way that other governments did not. It began to feel like lip service being paid, not real concern.
Washington was dragging its feet, but even within the Obama administration a distinction was seen very early seen between the White House and Secretary Clinton’s State Department. Obama called Zelaya’s removal an illegal “coup” the next day, while Secretary Clinton’s response was described as “holding off on formally branding it a coup.” President Obama carefully avoided calling it a military coup, despite that being the international consensus, because the “military” modifier would have abruptly suspended US military aid to Honduras, an integral site for the US Southern Command, but Obama called for the reinstatementof the elected president of Honduras removed from his country by the military.
Clinton was far more circumspect, suspiciously so. In an evasive press corps appearance, Secretary Clinton responded with tortured answers on the situation in Honduras and said that State was “withholding any formal legal determination.” She did offer that the situation had “evolved into a coup,” as if an elected president removed in his pajamas at gunpoint and exiled to another country was not the subject of a coup at the moment armed soldiers enter his home.
It’s hard to see those early evasions by Clinton, though, as a Benghazi-like confusion in the fog of the moment. Nearly a month later, Secretary Clinton would call President Zelaya’s defiance of the coup government and return to Honduras “reckless” and damaging to “the broader effort to restore democratic and constitutional order in the Honduras crisis.” Thanks to Wikileaks, we now know from a cable from the Honduran embassy sent just the day prior how certain the State Department was that Zelaya’s removal was a cut-and-dried military coup: “The Embassy perspective is that there is no doubt that the military, Supreme Court and National Congress conspired on June 28 in what constituted an illegal and unconstitutional coup against the Executive Branch,” wrote Ambassador Hugo Llorens, reporting from on the ground in Tegucigalpa.
In the months after the coup, violence and impunity proliferated. The State Department’s own human rights report from the year after the coup cited the following:
“Unlawful killings by police and government agents, which the government took some steps to prosecute; arbitrary and summary killings committed by vigilantes and former members of the security forces; harsh prison conditions; violence against detainees; corruption and impunity within the security forces; lengthy pretrial detention and failure to provide due process of law; politicization, corruption, and institutional weakness of the judiciary; corruption in the legislative and executive branches; government restrictions on the recognition of some civil society groups; violence and discrimination against women; child prostitution and abuse; trafficking in persons; discrimination against indigenous communities; violence and discrimination against persons based on sexual orientation; ineffective enforcement of labor laws; and child labor.”
Jesse Freeston, a Canadian documentary filmmaker and reporter, told ThinkProgress what he witnessed on the ground in Honduras in the months following the coup. “What I saw was a huge cross-section of Honduran society, the indigenous community, the black community, farmers, the LGBT community, all in the streets protesting every day. And I saw daily teargassing of those protests,” he said. “There were also what appeared to be targeted assassinations.”
Following the coup, Honduras became the homicide capital of the world and led the globe in murders of environmental activists. The International Trade Union Confederation also documented nearly 60 murders of agricultural workers, and Reporters Without Borders has counted more than two dozen journalists killed since the coup, and noted that almost all of these murders have gone unpunished. “Journalists working for opposition or community media are the targets of frequent physical violence or death threats,” they added.
Freeston, who has worked for Al Jazeera and the BBC and has made two documentaries about Honduras, says the harm caused by the coup continues to this day. “A word that people use in the streets of Honduras is golpismo, which translates roughly to coup-ism,” he said. “Basically it means that the coup is not just something that happened on June 28th, 2009. It’s a long project, and it’s a way of thinking, that the ends justify the means. It’s the government saying, ‘We can do whatever we want to get what we want.’”
Freeston cited, as an example, the Honduran government ousting the majority of its Supreme Court in 2012, removing only the justices who voted against allowing corporations to set up autonomous “charter cities.”
Clinton also claimed in this week’s interview that she avoided designating Zelaya’s ouster a coup because doing so would have cut off humanitarian aid to struggling Hondurans.
“Our assessment was, we will just make the situation worse by punishing the Honduran people if we declare a coup and we immediately have to stop all aid for the people,” she said.
Yet foreign policy and foreign aid experts, including Mark Weisbrot with the Center for Economic Policy Research, told ThinkProgress, “That’s just not true.”
“There is an exception for humanitarian aid,” he explained. “Look at the recent coups d’etat in Mauritania and Madagascar, where the U.S. cut off the Millennium Challenge aid but not humanitarian aid.”