The progressive former president of Honduras had just been removed from office and his country. The deed was barely weeks old when the Hondurans who led the coup came to Washington to lobby for help – in cleaning up the image of those who had led the coup.
In 2009, Manuel Zelaya, the then current president of Honduras, was involved in leading several radical reforms. One of the bigger ones involved a much overdue attempt to raise the minimum wage for the poor. A second one, much more profound in nature, was his attempt to get the country’s populace to vote on converting Honduras into far more of a democracy than ever before. Both moves were in direct opposition to the previously empowered Honduran military, who represented the moneyed Honduran oligarchs and supported many of the causes championed by then U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
Zelaya had also begun aligning his country with other more progressive Latin American countries, including Venezuela, with its leader Hugo Chávez, who had been much vilified by the United States, mostly because Chávez had run operations that countered what American forces had done in the same country. Zelaya also formed strong bonds with Ecuador, Nicaragua, Cuba and Bolivia. He even arranged to have Honduras become a part of the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America (ALBA).
The country’s legislators were getting ready to vote Zelaya out of office on June 25, 2009, even though that was not within their constitutional authority.
That move was temporarily derailed by Hugo Llorens, the American ambassador to Honduras, who objected to the unconstitutional attempt to change out the government. That move was short-lived, because other means were already well in place to get Zelaya out before he could do any further damage to those the old ways of power had supported.
On June 28, 2009, Zelaya was taken from his quarters at gunpoint by Honduran special forces with their heads covered in hoods. He eventually ended up in Costa Rica, exiled from his home country. On the way there, his captors made an interesting air refueling stop at the Palmerola Military Air Base, then controlled by the U.S. military.
Based on all that had been revealed at the time, it did look like the U.S. government had knowledge of the coup before it happened, though much of that was based on hearsay rather than solid proof. There was also the matter of the military coup leaders making that stop at a U.S. airfield and the curious indifference to the coup on the part of the American government at the time. As Hillary Clinton noted in an earlier autobiography, the focus of the United States at the time was to “[strategize] a plan to restore order in Honduras and ensure that free and fair elections could be held quickly and legitimately, which would render the question of Zelaya moot.”
What was “the question of Zelaya” that was going to be rendered moot? Part of it was that, starting with Zelaya himself and then quickly followed by the Organization of American States (OAS), the Mercosur trade bloc and the 23-nation Rio Group, a sizeable number of individuals and organizations came out quickly to decry Zelaya’s removal from office as an illegal coup. They demanded the removal of the coup leaders now in charge in Honduras, followed by Zelaya’s immediate reinstatement. They all likened this to the way countries flipped leadership back in the 1970s, both by bloodless as well as bloody overthrows.
A second part of it, which is only now coming to light, is that while U.S. ambassador Llorens appears to have been acting in good faith to find a way to block the upcoming coup, others within the American government were already working hand in glove with those planning the overthrow. Rather than explaining that the United States and the Honduran military had worked together on the coup, it appears that what the U.S. State Department was scrambling to do was embrace the confusion of the moment and get the military coup solidified and supported as the new government of record.
Although the coup was successful, and the military group was now in charge, in the weeks immediately following Zelaya’s overthrow, there was a lot of noise being raised by those other countries who said the coup must be undone. It is here that the attempt to keep U.S. involvement in the coup a secret began unraveling.
The United States, ever wanting to appear the moral authority when matters such as democracy and coups come up – even when the truth was often quite different – took Llorens’ position as the one for the public to see. The U.S. government did not take a strong stand against the coup itself but was careful to avoid saying it was supporting the coup. It even revoked the visas of senior Honduran civilian and military officials as a means of appearing to take the side that the former regime might have been favored as a matter of public policy.
Knowing the truth of the matter and needing help, two Honduran colonels were sent to the United States in the early days after the coup. They were sent there to help convince U.S. officials that the coup was fully constitutional and deserved the public backing of the United States.
While they were there, those colonels met with several U.S. officials and, via their own existing contacts and because of the difference between American public versus private policy on this matter, their presence began to break open information about what had really been going on all along.
They apparently received backing of some sort from the Center for Hemispheric Defense Studies (CHDS), a Washington, D.C., area school where many hundreds of Hondurans had taken courses. It then leaked that, according to sources, General John Thompson, the academic dean, had provided “behind-the-scenes assistance in Washington, D.C., to Honduran coup plotters.”
As the attempt to get more support from Washington continued further, public statements soon began to come out of Washington that former reform government leader Zelaya should instead be considered as aligned with Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez – as a way of tarnishing his reputation.
The catch in all this was that by getting these sorts of backing from within the American government and its “alter ego” institutions like the CHDS, a trap of sorts had been laid. The reason is because all those meetings suddenly became far easier to root out – all the way to their sources. In the United States, some details that were discussed earlier in this article came from Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests for information. In Honduras, there were leaks after systematic and risky information digging by foreign and domestic journalists.
Even as this article was begin written, further information about the truth of the Honduran coup was coming out. The American hypocrisy in this matter is also becoming very visible, with a public side that falls very short of complaining about the coup as unlawful and a private side that shows that the U.S. political machine is more efficient than ever in supporting the regime with the most to offer the United States.