Honduras and Washington: Semantics and Contradictions

On Tuesday, July 28 the United States government announced that it had revoked the visas of four leading members of the Honduran coup. More than a month after the Honduran military awoke President Manuel Zelaya at gunpoint and sent him packing to Costa Rica, it appears that Washington is finally beginning to put its foot down- a little. But the U.S. still has a way to go, and so does Honduras.


Photo from Flickr by YamilGonzales

On Tuesday, July 28 the United States government announced that it had revoked the visas of four leading members of the Honduran coup. More than a month after the Honduran military awoke President Manuel Zelaya at gunpoint and sent him packing to Costa Rica, it appears that Washington is finally beginning to put its foot down- a little. But the U.S. still has a way to go, and so does Honduras.

The U.S. State Department had responded quickly with harsh statements against the June 28 Honduran coup, but over most of the last month, the U.S. government carried out few active measures to pressure the coup plotters to step down. US-backed negotiations were criticized for helping to legitimize the coup d’etat. U.S. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton had appeared to condemn President Zelaya more than the de facto Roberto Micheletti regime.

Last week Clinton called Zelaya’s decision to attempt to return to his country from the Nicaraguan-Honduran border, “reckless”. "We have consistently urged all parties to avoid any provocative action that could lead to violence," she said. A group of organizations and academics focusing on Latin America quickly responded.

“Given that neither Clinton nor President Obama, nor any U.S. official, has even once criticized the Honduran dictatorship for the violence and political repression of the last four weeks, Clinton’s pointing the finger at Zelaya is especially threatening to the human rights of Hondurans,” they said in a press release.

The group pointed to the “shootings, beatings, arrests and detentions of journalists, closing of radio and TV stations, and other repression” which has been documented by a half-dozen international human rights organizations including Human Rights Watch and Reporters Without Borders. In mid July, the Committee of Family Members of Detained and Disappeared in Honduras (COFADEH) published a report detailing over a thousand human rights abuses committed by the coup regime.

According to NYU Latin American historian, Greg Grandin—who was in Honduras last week—the assassination death toll is at least up to nine. While thousands of Hondurans remain in the streets in support of Zelaya, hundreds have been detained. Among them are members of the National Front Against the Coup (Frente Nacional Contra el Golpe), including Berta Caceres and Salvador Zuniga (leaders of COPINH – Counsel of Indigenous and Popular Organizations), and the indigenous-garifuna leader Miriam Miranda, who is also a member of OFRANEH (Fraternal Organization of Black and Garifuna Peoples).

On July 23rd, an international commission of human rights organizations concluded that "grave and systematic violations of human rights" had taken place in Honduras since the military coup. The preliminary commission report also documented “systemic and generalized political persecution” against unionists, peasant, activists, and students.

But Washington had been silent.

Not one country in the world—including the United States—has recognized the de facto Honduran government of Roberto Micheletti that swore itself in the same day it threw Zelaya out of the country last month. But the United States has dragged its feet behind Latin America and Europe and refused to pull its ambassador and cut off all aid to Honduras.

The U.S. also has yet to officially classify the Honduran coup as a “coup d’etat” which, by U.S. law, would forbid any U.S. aid to the de facto government. $16.5 million in aid for military assistance programs has already been suspended, but $180 million dollars in U.S. aid is still flowing- although the State department says it is under evaluation.

The LA Times and solidarity activists had asked the U.S. government to cut the visas and freeze the bank accounts of those involved in the coup. But for weeks the request had fallen on deaf ears. Zelaya told reporters over last weekend that he believed Secretary of State Clinton was “not acting firmly against the repression that Honduras is suffering.”

Representatives from the Micheletti government had been free to visit the United States and General Romeo Vasquez Velasquez—head of the Honduran Armed Forces—had planned to speak in Miami last weekend. Clinton spoke briefly with Micheletti over the phone last week and communication has been open between the Micheletti government and the U.S. embassy in Honduras.

The White House says these conversations have been aimed at pressuring the Micheletti government to negotiate. According to a July 21 L.A. Times article, the U.S. has been putting the pressure on. Clinton said that she was “tough” in her call to Micheletti and U.S. personnel in Honduras have been threatening consequences if Zelaya is not returned to power.

Finally, on Tuesday, July 28, the United States announced that it had cut the visas of four Hondurans working with the Micheletti regime, and that others are being evaluated. But the visa cuts were Washington’s only concrete active measures against the de facto government since it cut off the $16.5 million in military aid on Wednesday, July 8th.

Perhaps understandably. The coup plotters have some powerful friends in Washington. According to the New York Times from Sunday, July 12, “Mr. Micheletti has embarked on a public relations offensive, with his supporters hiring high-profile lawyers with strong Washington connections” to lobby against sanctions. Among them is Clinton-adviser, Bennett Ratcliff, and Lanny J. Davis, who was a personal lawyer for President Clinton and who campaigned for Hilary Clinton. On Friday, July 10, Davis testified on Capitol Hill in support of the Micheletti de facto government.

While the perpetrators of the biggest threat to regional democracy in years were allowed to keep their US visas, bank accounts and even lobby on behalf of a former Clinton lawyer in Washington, the democratically elected leader of Honduras was warned that he should be patient, and that his actions could lead to violence.

Why such leniency towards the de facto coup plotters? Would the Taliban be allowed to hire a Clinton Lobbyist? Would Guantanamo detainees be permitted to lobby in Washington? Would suspected terrorists be allowed the freedom that Washington had allotted Micheletti and his cohorts?

Of course Davis is not paid directly by the Micheletti government. He’s working for the Honduran chapter of the Latin American Chamber of Commerce (CEAL).

“My main contacts are Camilo Atala and Jorge Canahuati. I’m proud to represent businessmen who are committed to the rule of law," Davis told Roberto Lovato of the American Prospect a week ago. Both Atala and Canahuati represent vested business interests in Honduras.

Atala is CEO of Banco Ficohsa, “the third-largest bank in terms of loan portfolio and deposits” in Honduras. Canahuati is the majority owner of two of Honduras’ largest newspapers, La Prensa and El Heraldo, both of which have supported the coup. He also happens to be on the Executive Committee of the Inter-American Press Association (IAPA), and head of the IAPA’s International Affairs Committee. The IAPA is an organization of newspaper tycoons, owners, publishers and editors, who among other things immediately recognized both the 2002 Venezuelan coup and the Honduran coup.

On April 12, 2002—the day after the assassination of twenty innocent Venezuelans, which precipitated Chavez’s brief removal from office—the IAPA sent out a press release stating the following:

"Inter American Press Association President Robert J. Cox said today that political developments in Venezuela demonstrate to nations throughout the world that there can be no true democracy without free speech and press freedom… “This is a classic example for the new government headed by Pedro Carmona, which hopefully will turn things around, respect freedom of the press and encourage the independence of the judiciary, and thus, ensure restoration of true democracy,” Cox added."

As these words were being released to the press, community media in Venezuela was being sacked, the state-owned Venezolana de Televisión was occupied, and the private media (Venevision, Globovision, Telemundo, & RCTV) which had led the coup, were complacently refusing to report the news on the ground.

The IAPA’s response was only slightly better in the days following the Honduran coup. The organization criticized the censorship and loss of press freedoms, and cited “complaints from news media and journalists that they are still restricted, intimidated and attacked while they attempt to report.” The organization did not, however, blame the de facto Micheletti government for perpetrating these acts, and when it did point the finger, it was at a "mob” and a “People’s Commando.”

Despite their discourse in the name of “free press”, members of the organization have a long history of supporting Latin American dictatorships and U.S. interventions.

Interestingly on the IAPA staff is also IAPA secretary Elizabeth Ballantine, who has been director of the McClatchy Company since March 1998. McClatchy is the third-largest newspaper company in the United States, owning 30 papers in 29 markets, including the Miami Herald and El Nuevo Herald in Florida. The Washington Post is also represented. Diana Daniels was Vice President of the Washington Post Company from 1988-2006, during which time she also served a few years as IAPA President. Deputy Managing Editor of the paper, Milton Coleman, is currently serving as IAPA Treasurer.

Along with many U.S. papers, The Washington Post has painted Zelaya as a Hugo Chavez-backed caudillo, attempting to overtake the powers of the Honduran government. The Post quickly echoed the talking points of the coup plotters that Zelaya was ripped from office because he was attempting an unconstitutional referendum to extend his term in office. The reality could not be further from the truth, as the Honduran President was actually planning a non-binding referendum to ask the Honduran people if “during the general elections of November 2009 there should be a fourth ballot to decide whether to hold a Constituent National Assembly that will approve a new political constitution?"

The excuse for Zelaya’s removal is a matter of semantics that is rooted in presumptions.

In a Wall Street Journal op-ed on Monday, Micheletti stated, “The Supreme Court, by a 15-0 vote, found that Mr. Zelaya had acted illegally by proceeding with an unconstitutional “referendum,” and it ordered the Armed Forces to arrest him.”

According to a legal memorandum prepared by Micheletti supporters on June 29th and available on the website of the conservative Virginia-based think tank, Americans for Limited Government, the Supreme Court had found the referendum “illegal”, because article 374 of the Honduran Constitution explicitly states that certain Constitutional articles cannot be reformed; such as those that “refer to the type of government, the national territory, the presidential term and the prohibition of serving again as President of the Republic.” The Supreme Court thus inferred that since a Constituent Assembly may attempt to reform these articles, then it was unconstitutional. Therefore, they said, a referendum on the possibility of holding a Constituent Assembly was also unconstitutional.

This, of course, did not have to be the case. A reform of the Constitution could have taken place without affecting those articles. The United States knows it. According to an AP report on Tuesday, one of the four diplomatic visas revoked this week belonged to the “Supreme Court magistrate who ordered the arrest of ousted President Manuel Zelaya and the president of Honduras’ Congress.”

It is also important to remember that while the United States has had its Constitution for more than two centuries, most Latin American countries are used to rewriting theirs often. Venezuela, for instance, has had more than two-dozen Constitutions since its independence from Spain in 1811. The 1982 Honduran Constitution was the Central American country’s 14th such founding document. I am no constitutional lawyer, but it seems clear that while any “reform” to the 1982 Honduran Constitution would have to abide by such articles, a new Constitution—drafted by a Constituent Assembly and voted on by the majority of the Honduran people—would not. There are no articles in the 1982 Honduran Constitution that refer to proposed Constituent Assemblies and what they can or cannot do.

The position of de facto Micheletti regime is even more ironic when we remember the fact that in October 1985, Micheletti himself had been one of a dozen Honduran Congressional Representatives to back a piece of legislation calling for a Constituent Assembly in order to extend the term of then-Honduran President, Roberto Suazo Córdoba. According to a July 9th article in the Salvadoran El Faro, the representatives were looking to suspend certain articles of the Honduran Constitution. “The same [articles] that now serve the Honduran authorities to justify Zelaya’s dismissal.”

In short, the ousting of Zelaya was based on contradictions and semantics; loopholes and inferences. And until now, this is largely how Washington has also responded. The U.S. government says it doesn’t recognize the de facto regime, and that the coup “should be condemned by all”, but it won’t officially recognize it as a “coup d’etat”.

Ten years ago, President Bill Clinton would only meet informally for 15 minutes with the recently-elected Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, but Secretary of State Hilary Clinton officially met with representatives of the Micheletti government, and afterwards, on July 7, the coup leaders were allowed to hold a press conference at the Washington Press Club.

The Florida Republican Congressman Connie Mack—who met with representatives of the Micheletti government in Honduras over the weekend—said Honduras is “the epicenter for the struggle for freedom and democracy in Latin America.” He then criticized the revoking of diplomatic visas and demanded the de facto Micheletti government be recognized.

Negotiations have helped to legitimize the Micheletti regime, while Zelaya is blamed for the violence.

Meanwhile, the de facto Micheletti government has continued its PR drive for recognition. Members of the de facto government met with Colombian officials. Colombian president, Alvaro Uribe has nodded in support of Micheletti, although, like the United States, hasn’t officially recognized.

On the bright side, Nike, Adidas, Gap and Knights Apparel, who all manufacture clothes in Honduran factories, wrote to Clinton to call for the "restoration of democracy in Honduras." The Honduran military has now thrown its support behind a possible negotiated solution in which Zelaya would return, albeit with limited powers. Bloomberg reported on Wednesday evening that Micheletti may also be willing to back the San Jose accords, which would allow for Zelaya’s return.

These pronouncements could help to speed along a timely settlement. But the roots beneath the problem remain to be resolved. As COFADEH director, Bertha Oliva, told a delegation of U.S. activists to Honduras the week after the coup, "This is a coup not only to Honduras, but to all of Latin America." It was a coup against Latin America’s leftward shift; against the possibility of a Constituent Assembly that might redistribute the scant resources in this tiny country of eight million people, where more than half the population is under the poverty line.

As Zelaya patiently holds out on the Nicaraguan-Honduran border, the Honduran and international media try to toss the blame on Hugo Chavez. Honduran business elites quickly scapegoat the crisis on Venezuelan meddling.

To further diffuse attention, enter Colombia, stage-right. Last week, Colombia confirmed reports that it had agreed to house five new U.S. military bases; a hard hit to Venezuela, who is under increasing threats of state secession and paramilitary infiltration. To top it off this Monday with perhaps another smokescreen, the Colombian government accused Venezuela of selling arms to the guerrilla Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). Chavez quickly refuted the claims, called Colombia’s leaders "irresponsible," and then pulled Venezuela’s ambassador.

Regional tensions could quickly escalate, which is perhaps exactly what Washington has on the agenda. After all, more often than not the excuse is a matter of semantics, accusations and presumptions- regardless of the facts or the contradictions.

Michael Fox is a South America-based freelance journalist, radio reporter and documentary filmmaker. He is co-director of the recently released documentary, Beyond Elections: Redefining Democracy in the Americas.