Honduras: right-wing propaganda machine in pro-coup offensive

An Oct. 7 New York Times story, “Leader Ousted, Honduras Hires U.S. Lobbyists,” notes that “several former high-ranking officials who were responsible for setting United States policy in Central America in the 1980s and ’90s” are re-emerging to mobilize support for the de facto regime of Roberto Micheletti in Honduras. Three named are Otto Reich, Roger Noriega and Daniel W. Fisk. Reich is quoted saying in recent Congressional testimony: “The current battle for political control of Honduras is not only about that small nation. What happens in Honduras may one day be seen as either the high-water mark of Hugo Chávez’s attempt to undermine democracy in this hemisphere or as a green light to the spread of Chavista authoritarianism.”

Noriega, named by the Times as “a co-author of the Helms-Burton Act, which tightened the United States embargo against Cuba, and who has recently served as a lobbyist for a Honduran business group,” declined to comment for the article. Fisk, “whose political career has included stints on the National Security Council and as a deputy assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs under Mr. Bush, had been promoting the Micheletti government’s case until two weeks ago as an aide to retired Senator Mel Martinez of Florida.”

The de facto regime also has the support of a determined group of Republican legislators, led by Sen. Jim DeMint of South Carolina who are holding up two State Department appointments as a way of pressing the Obama administration to lift sanctions against the country. “We have made a wrong call here,” Mr. DeMint said in an interview with Fox News after returning from a trip to Honduras last week. “This is probably our best friend in the hemisphere, the most pro-American country, but we are trying to strangle them.” The Times outlines how this pro-coup coalition emerged. Links/emphasis added:

Congressional aides said that less than 10 days after Mr. Zelaya was ousted, Mr. Noriega organized a meeting for supporters of the de facto government with members of the Senate.

Mr. Fisk, who attended the meeting, said he was stunned by the turnout. “I had never seen eight senators in one room to talk about Latin America in my entire career,” he said.

As President Obama imposed increasingly tougher sanctions on Honduras, the lobbying intensified. The Cormac Group, run by a former aide to Senator McCain, John Timmons, signed on, records show, as did Chlopak, Leonard, Schechter & Associates, a public relations firm.

For his part, Mr. Reich sent his thoughts to members of Congress by e-mail. “We should rejoice,” he wrote to one member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, “that one of the self-proclaimed 21st Century socialist allies of Chávez has been legally deposed by his own countrymen.”

As is often the nature of lobbying, some messages have been sent without any names attached. Floating around Senate offices in the last few weeks, for example, was a list of talking points aimed at undermining the nomination of Assistant Secretary of State Thomas A. Shannon as ambassador to Brazil. Two Congressional aides, who requested anonymity to speak candidly about matters related to the coup, said that Mr. Fisk wrote the talking points.

Mr. Fisk denied having done so. He also dismissed the notion that he was operating from an old playbook. “Someone else may be fighting over the ’80s,” he said. “I’m not.”

New Republic joins propaganda offensive
The pro-coup propaganda network got a big wet kiss from the New Republic Oct. 3, entitled “Ousting Zelaya: Is Obama on the wrong side of the Honduran constitutional crisis?” by James Kirchick, who boasts that

…according to a recently released and widely overlooked report drafted by the Library of Congress, the actions the Honduran government took in removing Zelaya were consistent with that country’s constitutional procedures. Although the constitution does not contain specific information as to how a president can be impeached, the report did find that the Honduran Congress “used several other constitutional powers to remove President Zelaya from office.” Furthermore, the report also found that the country’s “Supreme Court, based on its constitutional powers, heard the case against Zelaya and applied the appropriate procedure mandated by the Code of Criminal Procedure.” In conclusion, the report, which was prepared by the Congressional Research Service’s Senior Foreign Law Specialist, determines “that the judicial and legislative branches applied constitutional and statutory law in the case against President Zelaya in a manner that was judged by the Honduran authorities from both branches of the government to be in accordance with the Honduran legal system.”

In other words, far from fitting the administration’s description as a “coup d’état,” the report paints Zelaya’s removal as remarkably orderly and legalistic, especially in a region where the rule of law is so tenuous. The Obama administration’s position, predicated on its hasty conclusion that Zelaya’s removal was illegal, now appears squarely contradicted by the only known official analysis of the constitutional issues involved.

Oh? Funny then that the Honduran military itself has admitted that Zelaya’s ouster was “illegal.” Micheletti himself has admitted that Zelaya’s deportation was an “error” that violated the Honduran Constitution. Zelaya was never allowed to see or respond to the charges that were brought against him before the Supreme Court in the immediate prelude of the coup.

Furthermore, the sole justification for the coup—Zelaya’s supposed design to have presidential term limits removed and set himself up for re-election—doesn’t check out. As we have noted, given that the binding vote establishing the constitutional convention (following the non-binding one scheduled for June 28, to establish a popular mandate for the referendum) was to take place in November, simultaneous with the presidential election, it was impossible for Zelaya to extend his term through the constitutional reform—at best, to be able to run again in four years. And the issues Zelaya touted concerned beefing up the labor code and re-nationalizing the telecom system and power plants—not abolishing term limits. Finally, the Honduran constitution was crafted by a military-dominated state in 1982, and the measures prohibiting changes that would lift term limits were aimed at keeping elected civilian leaders subordinate to the generals. Any constitution that includes eternal prohibitions against constitutional amendments is one that ought to be amended!

Kirchick does concede that

Zelaya’s rights may have been violated in his deportation; according to the Honduran constitution, “[n]o Honduran may be expatriated nor handed over to the authorities of a foreign State.” But the government’s expulsion of Zelaya (a hasty move undertaken to prevent internal disorder, which, in light of the chaos Zelaya is currently orchestrating out of the Brazilian embassy—where he has camped out since sneaking back into the country last week—wasn’t unfounded) does not negate the validity of the original order that led to his arrest and removal from office. From his headquarters in the embassy, Zelaya has called upon his supporters to riot against the government…

The illegal nature of Zelaya’s deportation may not “negate the validity of the original order that led to his arrest,” but international legal norms certainly do! Sitting executives who violate the law are traditionally impeached and then allowed to face their accusers in a court of law. Instead, the Honduran high court signed off on Zelaya’s summary removal—and has since issued no ruling against what the military itself has admitted was an illegal deportation! And Kirchick accuses Zelaya of “sneaking”! (Also note that Kirchick does not put the word “riot” in quotes—because Zelaya assuredly never used it. The accurate wording would be “called upon his supporters to protest…”)

To return to Kirchick’s sinister text:

The Obama administration has yet to even address the Library of Congress report. And Republican Senator Jim DeMint is claiming that Democrats’ decision this week to block his planned Congressional delegation to Honduras is part of their “bullying tactics to hide truth.” (A spokesman for Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry, who made the decision, said that it was in retaliation for DeMint holding up ambassadorial nominations.)

Maybe the authors of the Library of Congress report would care to address the findings of the American Society of International Law (ASIL). In a report entitled “Honduras: Coup d’état in Constitutional Clothing?” ASIL determines “there was no legal basis for this coup d’état,” which if allowed to stand “will become a menacing precedent for democracy, not only in Honduras, but throughout the hemisphere.” More from Kirchick:

What explains the administration’s continued intransigence? A clue can perhaps be found in President Obama’s initial response to the news that Zelaya had been deposed. The day after Zelaya was put on a plane to Costa Rica, Obama condemned the move as illegal, saying that “it would be a terrible precedent if we start moving backwards into the era in which we are seeing military coups as a means of political transition rather than democratic elections. We don’t want to go back to a dark past.” His invocation of U.S. support for armed opposition movements fighting communist insurgencies in Latin America during the Cold War is one of numerous apologies for past American actions that he has offered since taking office, a tactic which seems to be a core tenet of his diplomatic strategy.

Poor Kirchick can’t even take the time to think through what he means. This is admittedly nitpicking, but “armed opposition movements” do not fight “insurgencies,” they are insurgencies. Where the US backed “armed opposition movements” in the ’80s (Nicaragua), the “communists” (sic) had achieved power. Where the US fought “communist insurgencies” (El Salvador), it did so by supporting repressive state forces. The more important point, however, is Kirchick’s assumption that Obama’s policy is based on guilty hand-wringing over past wrongs—rather than upholding democratic principles. More:

The events of the past several months reveal a lack of consistency in Obama’s approach to various foreign conflicts. How does this administration justify its recognition of results of elections in Pakistan, Iraq, and other countries mired in constitutional disputes, but now refuse to recognize an election in Honduras, even if it is conducted in a free and fair manner? And why give greater diplomatic dignity to the representatives of Iran—who have no legitimacy whatsoever—and not those of democratic Honduras? Even after blatantly stealing the presidential election, the White House referred to Ahmadinejad as the “the elected leader” of Iran (which White House spokesman Robert Gibbs later had to retract).

Micheletti certainly has no more “legitimacy” than Ahmadinejad. But, again, more to the point: The US has not given Iran’s election a clean bill of health. Washington is challenging Tehran over its nuclear program and bellicosity. The US has had broad economic sanctions in place against Iran for decades—and still none against Honduras (only an aid cut-off, which is apparently full of loopholes). We wish the Obama administration were as tough on Micheletti as Ahmadinejad!

In the immediate wake of Honduras’s constitutional crisis, it was understandable that the administration, caught by surprise, might jump the gun in its denunciation of the military action as a “coup.” Now, three months later and with legal repudiation from within its own government, U.S. policy has become a mistake in search of a rationale.

It is pretty terrifying that the once-liberal New Republic is serving as a vehicle for the Honduran coup regime’s propaganda offensive. Do not be fooled. A coup by any other name is still a coup.

See our last post on Honduras.

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