Honduras: What’s Behind the Coup?

            Which do you prefer, the official version of U.S. foreign policy in Latin America or the more hidden story?  If you were reading the New York Times then you probably got the impression that the military coup which just took place in the small Central American nation of Honduras had everything to do with President Manuel Zelaya’s bid to extend presidential term limits.  In a superficial explanation of events, correspondent Elisabeth Malkin wrote “The military offered no public explanation for its actions, but the Supreme Court issued a statement saying that the military had acted to defend the law” against Zelaya who had spoken out against the constitution. 

           In Honduras, presidents are limited to a single four year term but Zelaya had called for a constitutional referendum which, he hoped, would change the law so he could stand for reelection.  The move however inflamed critics who claimed that the President had no right to try to change the law.  When the military refused to help organize the vote, Zelaya fired a top military commander.  Things escalated from there and on Sunday the military removed Zelaya from power.  Thus goes the official Times version, which gives the impression that the political conflict in Honduras boils down to a simple disagreement about the limits of presidential power. 

           When reading the Times and its coup coverage in Latin America, a healthy degree of skepticism is in order.  Let’s not forget the case of the 2002 coup in Venezuela which briefly removed President Hugo Chávez from power.  At the time, the Times shamelessly parroted the official White House version of events, writing “Venezuelan democracy is no longer threatened by a would-be dictator…[because] the military intervened and handed power to a respected business leader [Pedro Carmona, the “dictator for a day”].”  A scant two days later following popular protests, Chávez was back in power and the Times was forced to apologize.  “Forcibly unseating a democratically elected leader, no matter how bad he may be, is never something to cheer,” the Times wrote begrudgingly. 

           Perhaps not wanting to be caught flat footed again, the Times proceeded a bit more cautiously this time round in its coup coverage.  In a second article published today, the paper provides a bit more context to the Honduran story, remarking that the U.S. has had longstanding military ties to the Honduran military.  The piece however gives the Obama administration the benefit of the doubt, repeating a high up administration’s claim that the White House was not involved in the coup and was genuinely surprised when the military moved to depose the President. 

           Perhaps Obama is telling the truth and the U.S. wasn’t involved.  Or perhaps not — Chávez has claimed that the hand of U.S. imperialism was at work in Honduras.  I don’t endorse either version of events at this point but I do believe the Times has overlooked vital facts which could shed light on the recent political turbulence. 

           In a long piece which I published yesterday about the coup I went over some of this important history, pointing out for example that Zelaya was a withering critic of official U.S. drug policy, opened up diplomatic channels to the island nation of Cuba, pursued a tight diplomatic alliance with Hugo Chávez of Venezuela and even sent an audacious, strongly worded personal letter to Obama in December of last year in which the Honduran accused the U.S. of pursuing interventionist policies in Latin America and needlessly punishing Cuba through its longstanding economic embargo.  Needless to say, the Times chose to gloss over much of these facts.  Moreover the paper of record has failed to fully examine the role of Roberto Micheletti, Honduras’ new president. 


Who is Roberto Micheletti?

           A former Congressman, Micheletti is a long time fixture on the domestic political scene.  A member of Zelaya’s own Liberal Party, he studied business administration in the United States and worked as the CEO of Honduras’ own state telecommunications company.  Up until two days ago Micheletti was the President of Honduras’ National Congress.  All these details aside, what’s most important to know is that Micheletti has been a long time foe of Zelaya’s diplomatic alliance with leftist Hugo Chávez. 

           At first, it looked like Micheletti would get along fine with Zelaya, a politician who promoted free trade with the United States.  But as the so-called “Pink Tide” of left regimes came to power in South and Central America, Zelaya became increasingly more politically independent.  What really set the two on a political collision course however was Zelaya’s move to bring Honduras into the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas (known by its Spanish acronym ALBA), an alliance of leftist Latin American and Caribbean nations headed by Chávez.  The regional trade group including Venezuela, Cuba, Nicaragua, Bolivia and Dominica seeks to counteract corporately-friendly U.S-backed free trade schemes.  Since its founding in 2004, ALBA countries have promoted joint factories and banks, an emergency food fund, and exchanges of cheap Venezuelan oil for food, housing, and educational investment.

           Traditionally, Honduras has been known for its right wing politics and its close ties to the U.S.  The third poorest country in the hemisphere, Honduras has long been home to powerful U.S. fruit companies.  The military has looked out for business interests, liquidating any challenge to the social order by the likes of organized labor for example.  Given the pervasive conservatism of Honduran politics, it’s no surprise that when Zelaya moved to cultivate an alliance with Chávez the maneuver outraged the Honduran business sector and galvanized the media against the president.   

The Ford Imbroglio

           It wasn’t long before diplomatic relations with the U.S. started to fall to pieces.  In the middle of July, 2008 Zelaya went to Managua and met with Chávez to celebrate the 29th anniversary of the fall of Nicaragua’s Somoza dictatorship.  Shortly afterwards, Chávez confirmed that Honduras would join in the ALBA scheme.  In a sharp retort to the insolent Zelaya, outgoing U.S. Ambassador to Honduras Charles Ford said that a large portion of remittances sent by U.S.-based Hondurans back to their home country were the product of illicit drug trafficking.  Ford added that he frequently felt intimidated during his three year stint serving in Honduras.

           Incensed, Zelaya charged that the U.S. was the “chief cause” of drug smuggling in Latin America and the Caribbean.  Ford was being “belligerent,” Zelaya affirmed, simply because Honduras had pursued diplomatic relations with Caracas, Havana and Managua.  Just because Honduras received U.S. aid, Zelaya said, did not mean that his country was a “vassal” of its northern benefactor.  Moving on from his feudal rhetoric, Zelaya accused the U.S. of promoting coup d’etats, invasions and uprisings across Central America.  He added that Ford had suggested that Honduras provide political asylum for the anti-Castro terrorist Luis Posasa Carriles, an offer which Zelaya flatly rejected.           

           Defending his new found friend Chávez against the Honduran right, Zelaya said he shared the Venezuelan’s antipathy towards superpowers which sought to impose their will on other countries “like when Ambassador Charles Ford asked me through the State Department to give a visa to Luis Posada Carriles.” The Honduran Foreign Minister said that his country had sent a formal letter of protest to the U.S. government, adding that Ford’s remarks were unacceptable. 

           Needless to say, it wasn’t long before Micheletti joined others in criticizing Zelaya’s moves to join ALBA.  The President of the Honduran Congress also called on Zelaya to show more respect towards Ambassador Ford.  “I believe we have the obligation to be close with the country to our north because he is our friend and will continue to be so,” Micheletti said.  The politician also sought to delay Zelaya’s moves to have Honduras join Chávez’s Petrocaribe program which would provide Venezuelan oil to the Central American nation at subsidized prices, and he also vowed to hold up passage of ALBA in Congress.  ALBA, Micheletti declared, would not pass Congress and would wind up as a “dead letter.” 

The ALBA Debate

           Facing political opposition, Zelaya indignantly declared that he did not legally need to consult Congress to pass the ALBA accord with Chávez.  That in turn set up a confrontation with Congress and one legislator even remarked that he was thinking about introducing a motion which would declare Zelaya a usurper and mentally unfit to serve as president.  By this point the Honduran private sector was going into hysterics with one powerful association charging that ALBA would constitute “a political and military alliance which would ideologically conspire against free trade, the exercise of individual liberty and societal free choice.”

            Insinuating himself further into contentious local politics, Chávez went to Tegucigalpa where he spoke before a crowd of 50,000 unionists, women’s groups, farmers and indigenous peoples.  Venezuela, Chávez said, would guarantee cheap oil to Honduras for “at least 100 years.”  Infuriating the local elite, Chávez declared that Hondurans who opposed ALBA were “sellouts.”  Hardly content to stop there, Chávez lambasted the Honduran press which he labeled pitiyanquis (little Yanqui imitators) and “abject hand-lickers of the Yanquis.”  The outburst led Micheletti and members of Congress to denounce Chávez for being “disrespectful” and “vulgar.”  

            With Honduran society becoming increasingly polarized over Chávez and ALBA, Zelaya moved to mollify his political enemy in Congress.  In October, the President of Congress agreed to sign the ALBA agreement and in exchange Zelaya offered his political support to Micheletti who was intent on running for president in 2009.  In exchange for joining ALBA, Venezuela offered to buy Honduran bonds worth $100 million with proceeds spent on housing for the poor. Chávez also offered a $30 million credit line for farming, 100 tractors, and 4 million low-energy light bulbs.  Cuba would send technicians to help install them, in addition to more doctors and literacy teachers.  Relations continued to deteriorate with the U.S. and in December, 2008 Zelaya sent a strongly worded letter to Obama criticizing the conduct of U.S. ambassadors, amongst other issues [see my last article for a fuller discussion of the note].

Micheletti’s Towering Ambition

           Ultimately Micheletti came up short in his bid to get his party’s nomination, losing out to ex-Vice President Elvin Ernesto Santos.  When Zelaya declared his intention to proceed with the constitutional referendum which would allow him to stand for reelection, Santos opposed the move as illegal.  Micheletti however won out in the ensuing power struggle: following Sunday’s coup d’etat Congress declared the veteran politician Honduras’ next President.  

           In a press conference after being sworn in, Micheletti said that if Zelaya “returns without the support of [the Venezuelan president] Mr. Hugo Chávez, then we will receive him warmly.”  Asked whether Honduras would continue to participate in ALBA, Micheletti remarked, “I believe that first we are going to revise what ALBA has produced for Hondurans.”

           As a political figure Micheletti is very reminiscent of another coup plotter, Pedro Carmona.  In April, 2002 this politically well connected businessman briefly became Venezuela’s “dictator for a day.”  With the support of Washington and the New York Times, Carmona held on until Chávez was reinstated with the help of the military and angry protesters in the streets of Caracas.  Could history be repeating itself now in Central America?  Today, the New York Times presents Washington’s point of view concerning events on the ground in Honduras without delving too deeply into the political context or Micheletti’s possible motivations.


Nikolas Kozloff is the author of Hugo Chávez: Oil, Politics and the Challenge to the U.S. (Palgrave, 2006) and Revolution! South America and the Rise of the New Left (Palgrave, 2008).  Check out his Web site at http://senorchichero.blogspot.com