In a meeting with the NY Daily News editorial board April 9, Hillary Clinton insisted that the 2009 overthrow of Honduran President Manuel Zelaya in 2009 was not an illegal coup. In an exchange later broadcast on Democracy Now, journalist Juan González cited evidence from released e-mails that then-Secretary of State Clinton was being urged by her top aids to declare Zelaya’s removal a military coup—to no avail. Clinton responded:
The legislature, the national legislature in Honduras and the national judiciary actually followed the law in removing President Zelaya. Now I didn’t like the way it looked or the way they did it but they had a very strong argument that they had followed the constitution and the legal precedence. And as you know, they really undercut their argument by spiriting him out of the country in his pajamas, where they sent the military to take him out of his bed and get him out of the country. So this began as a very mixed and difficult situation.
This actually goes well beyond the official State Department position at the time, and has elicited much outraged response. Common Dreams recalls that President 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.” About a month after the coup, on July 24, US ambassador Hugo Llorens in Tegucigalpa wrote in a 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.”
Whatever illegalities Zelaya may have committed, they were dwarfed by that of the military in rousting him from bed at gunpoint and putting him on a plane out the country, even if the conservative-dominated legislature and judiciary approved this action after the fact. Perhaps it has not occurred to Clinton that the formality of impeachment proceedings might have been appropriate. In 2011, the Honduras Truth Commission, appointed as a condition of regional talks to de-escalate the crisis, also found it was a coup. Military officers even admitted they acted illegally (in the interests of saving the nation, obviously).
Honduras scholar Dana Frank later appeared on Dermocracy Now, where she accused Clinton of “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 US has to immediately suspend all aid.”
Washington’s supposed isolation of the de facto regime was in fact full of loopholes—precisely because of this “hair-splitting” about whether it was a “coup” rather than a “military coup.” While most military cooperation was officially suspended, Honduran officers continued to be trained at the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (WHINSEC), the former School of the Americas at Fort Benning. After initially voicing support for Zelaya, Obama quickly began equivocating. The White House eventually adopted a policy of “neutrality” on whether he should return to power, and supported new elections when most Latin American governments were demanding reinstatement of Zelaya. The US was accused of seeking a “happy end” at the cost of democracy, or even acquiescing in the coup. Zelaya himself suggested the CIA and Pentagon were acting indpendently of the Obama White House in seeking the “destabilization of our peoples.”
As early as June 2010, Washington was urging the OAS to re-admit Honduras. By then, a new president had taken power—but his election was rejected as illegitimate by the Honduran opposition and by most Latin governments. Clinton put special pressure on regional governments to recognize the new president—to little avail. Honduras did not return to the Organization of American States until May 2011, when a deal was worked out that allowed Zelaya to return to the country and participate in the political process. Inconveniently, the new president that Obama and Clinton plugged as restoring legitmiate government to Honduras, Pepe Lobo, himself admitted that Zelaya’s ouster had been a coup!
But amid all the retrospectivity about her position on Honduras, what has gone largely overlooked in Clinton’s answer to González is her alarming call for a massive new military aid program for Central America—explicitly invoking the model of Plan Colombia:
I think we need to do more of a Colombian plan for Central America, because remember what was going on in Colombia when first my husband and then followed by President Bush had Plan Colombia to try to use our leverage to rein in the government in its actions against the FARC and the guerillas, but also to help the government stop the advance of the FARC and the guerillas. And now we’re in the middle of peace talks. It didn’t happen over-night , it took a number of years But I want to see a much more comprehensive approach toward Central America—because it’s not just Honduras, the highest murder rate is in El Salvador, and we’ve got Guatemala with all the problems you know so well. So I think in retrospect, we managed a very difficult situation without bloodshed, without a civil war, and it led to a new elections. And I think that was better for the country.
This is of course more revisionism. The notion that there was “no bloodshed” in Honduras is dizzyingly absurd. The post-coup period has seen peasant massacres, labor rights violations, assassinations of journalists and of community leaders—most recently Berta Cáceres. Human Rights group Global Witness counts at least 109 land and environmental defenders killed in Honduras since 2010—calling it the world’s most dangerous country for ecologists. An explosion of narco-violence has sent waves of child refugees fleeing for the US border. And all of this amid deepening poverty.
Of course in Colombia, the cost was inestimably higher, with massive war crimes carried out. And the imperative of Plan Colombia was counterinsurgency—not “reining in” the government! The human rights stipulations on the aid package were merely the cost of getting it passed, and were largely ignored.
Clinton made such calls for a Central American “Plan Colombia” before. And in fact, such a program exists in the $1.6 billion Merida Initiative—derisively known as “Plan Mexico,” covering both Mexico and the Central American nations. Clinton has now apparently broached a new such program, just for the Central American isthmus. Given that Plan Colombia itself was modelled on the Reagan-era militarization of Central America (with Honduras the Pentagon staging area and El Salvador the counterinsurgency theater), there’s a certain sense of historical irony here.