U.S. Right Mobilizes to Support Putsch

by Bill Weinberg, World War 4 Report

It’s a sign of hope that no nation on earth has yet recognized the de facto regime that took power in Honduras June 28, when the military summarily deported President Manuel Zelaya to Costa Rica in his pajamas. Protests demanding Zelaya’s return continue in the Central American nation. The struggle has already cost lives. When the army blocked Zelaya’s plane at the airport in Tegucigalpa July 5, security forces opened fire on his supporters who had gathered there. Popular leaders have been arrested or forced into hiding, and some have been killed.

One of the grassroots groups mobilizing for Zelaya’s return is the Honduran Black Fraternal Organization (OFRANEH), which issued a statement July 3 asserting the “undeniable involvement” of former US under-secretary of state Otto Reich in the coup d’etat.

Similar claims were made at the emergency session of the Organization of American States (OAS) in Washington DC as the coup went into action. Venezuelan representative Roy Chaderton said: “We have information that worries us. These is a person who has been important in the diplomacy of the US who has reconnected with old colleagues and encouraged the coup: Otto Reich, ex sub-secretary of State under Bush. We know him as an interventionist person…” He cited Reich’s purported involvement in the attempted coup d’etat against Venezuela’s President Hugo Chávez in April 2002.

Recalling Reich’s involvement in the Nicaragua destabilization campaign in the 1980s and (apparently) the Venezuelan coup attempt, he quipped, “We suffered the First Reich, the Second Reich, and now we are suffering the Third Reich.”

In 2001, President Bush used a recess appointment to make Reich assistant secretary of state for the Western Hemisphere, bypassing strong Congressional opposition. In 1987, Reich had been investigated by Congress for illegal activities in support on Nicaragua’s right-wing Contra guerillas.

In April 2002, the New York Times confirmed that on the morning the Venezuelan putsch went into action, Reich spoke by telephone with Pedro Carmona, the conservative businessman who would be installed as de facto president for the two days before the coup collapsed. The account claimed Reich coached Carmona on how to handle the coup, urging him not to dissolve the National Assembly. (Carmona did, cited as a key factor in the coup’s failure.)

In January 2003 the White House quietly moved Reich over to the presidential staff as special envoy to Latin America rather than face Congressional opposition to his re-appointment as assistant secretary of state. He resigned in 2004 and returned to (ostensibly) private life. Lats year, he served as a foreign policy advisor to presidential candidate John McCain.

Whither the Arcadia Foundation?
OFRANEH’s statement also asserts that Reich was working with the DC-based Arcadia Foundation to destabilize Zelaya. The Arcadia Foundation website identifies the non-profit as an anti-corruption watchdog that also promotes “good governance and democratic institutions.” Reich’s name does not appear in any obvious place on the website. However, one of the two names on the site’s “Founders” page is Robert Carmona-Borjas, identified as “a Venezuelan lawyer and an expert in military affairs, national security, corruption and governance.” It notes in genteel terms that he fled Venezuela after the coup attempt: “In Venezuela, concerned with the issue of governability, the defense of human rights, democracy and the fight against corruption, he became an activist, disregarding the risks that such a stance implied. Following the events of April 2002, he was forced to abandon his country and seek political asylum in the United States of America.”

The Mexican daily La Jornada reported April 27, 2002 (just after the Venezuelan coup collapsed) that Carmona-Borjas had drafted “anti-constitutional” decrees for the coup regime. He was immediately granted asylum in the US.

This June, Honduran newspapers noted that Carmona-Borjas had brought legal charges against Zelaya and other figures in his administration for defying a court ruling that barred preparations for the constitutional referendum scheduled for the day Zelaya would be ousted. A YouTube video dated July 3 shows footage from Honduras’ Channel 8 TV of Carmona-Borjas being extolled from the stage at an anti-Zelaya rally in Tegucigalpa’s Plaza la Democracia to enthusiastic applause. In the same speech, the speaker accuses Zelaya of collaboration with narco-traffickers.

Reich’s name popped up in the media in relation to Honduras earlier this year, when he publicly accused the Zelaya administration of corruption after the Latin Node digital telephone company (since acquired by eLandia) was fined $2 million by US authorities for allegedly bribing officials in Honduras and Yemen. “President Zelaya has allowed or encouraged this kind of practices [sic] and we will see that he is also behind this,” Reich was quoted by the Miami Herald in April. After an outcry in Honduras, Reich said he was prepared to make a sworn statement on the affair before Honduran law enforcement—but said he would not travel to Honduras to do so, because his personal security would be at risk there.

And in a September 2008 interview with the Honduran daily El Heraldo, Reich warned of Tegucigalpa’s growing closeness with Venezuela, remarking cryptically that “if President Zelaya wants to be an ally of our enemies, let him think about what might be the consequences of his actions and words.”

The Hondutel Scandal
Interestingly, the obscure Latin Node scandal may touch on one of the key issues behind the coup. Despite the media focus on Zelaya’s supposed agenda to get term limits overturned, one of the real issues in his proposed constitutional reform was to mandate national control over Honduras’ telecom system. The officials who were supposedly bribed were with the national company Hondutel.

In an April 7 piece he wrote for Miami’s Spanish-language Nuevo Herald, Reich reminded readers that Zelaya’s nephew, Marcelo Chimirri, was a high official at Hondutel and had been accused of various illicit practices. The outraged Zelaya went on national radio and TV to announce that he would sue Reich for defamation: “We will proceed with legal action for calumny against this man, Otto Reich, who has been waging a two year campaign against Honduras.”

In January, the US Embassy in Tegucigalpa denied Chimirri an entry visa into the United States, citing “serious cases of corruption.” This wasn’t Chimirri’s first attempt to get a visa. Zelaya had complained to Washington a month earlier about the visa issue, urging US officials to “revise the procedure by which visas are cancelled or denied…as a means of pressure against…people who hold different beliefs or ideologies which pose no threat to the US.”

Bush-appointed US Ambassador Charles Ford also weighed in, telling the Honduran newspaper La Tribuna that the US government was investigating North American telecom carriers for allegedly paying bribes to Honduran officials to engage in so-called “gray traffic” or illicit bypassing of legal telecommunications channels. He recommended greater competition as a means to combat this supposed abuse.

The Honduran business elite has long sought to privatize Hondutel. In the late 1990s, none other than Roberto Micheletti—the current coup-installed president—was Hondutel’s CEO. Writes Latin America expert Nikolas Kozloff author of Revolution!: South America and the Rise of the New Left, in a July commentary onthe affair: “At the time, Micheletti favored privatizing the firm. Micheletti later went on to become president of Honduras’ National Congress. In that capacity, he was at odds with the Zelaya regime that opposed so-called ‘telecom reform’ that could open the door to outright privatization.”

Chimirri was arrested by the new regime on July 2, 2009. The Arcadia Foundation did not respond to repeated requests for a statement. In a July 9 Miami Herald op-ed titled, “I Did Not Orchestrate Coup in Honduras,” Reich denies being the “architect” of the coup—which he also denies was a coup, and defends as “legal and constitutional.” The website of Reich’s consulting firm, Otto Reich Associates, lists among its former clients AT&T and Bell Atlantic (now Verizon)—both of which would be possible purchasers of a privatized Hondutel.

US right squawks: “not a coup”
In defiance of world opinion, the US right is scrambling to build political support for the coup regime. The New York Times comments from a House Western Hemisphere Subcommittee hearing in Washington July 10, where several members of Congress criticized the OAS for suspending Honduras mere weeks after it lifted the suspension of Cuba. Rep. Connie Mack (R-FL) urged the US to cut its support for the OAS, which gets 60% of its financing from Washington. He said its response to the Honduras crisis proves it is a “dangerous organization,” siding with Hugo Chávez in undermining democracy in the region. “What has happened in Honduras was not a military coup,” Mack said. “If anyone is guilty here it is Mr. Zelaya himself for having turned his back on his people and his own Constitution.”

Sen. Jim DeMint (R-SC) has also made several comments in support of the coup, calling Zelaya “a Chávez-style dictator” who had flouted the authority of the Honduran congress and Supreme Court. He said President Obama’s call to reinstate Zelaya is “a slap in the face to the people of the Honduras.” On another occasion, he asked rhetorically: “On what basis does the [Obama] administration demand Zelaya’s reinstatement? His removal from office was no more a coup than was Gerald Ford’s ascendance to the Oval Office or our newest colleague Al Franken’s election to the Senate.”

Reich was also among those who testified on July 10, a transcript of Senate Foreign Affairs Committee hearings that same day reveals. “What happens in Honduras may one day be seen as either the high-water mark of Hugo Chavez’s attempt to undermine democracy in this hemisphere or as a green light to the continued spread of Chavista authoritarianism under the guise of democracy,” he said, adding that Zelaya’s removal constituted “legal and defensible measures” by the Honduran judicial and legislative branches against the executive.

Hans Bader of the Competitive Enterprise Institute told Voice of America that the Honduran Supreme Court and Congress believed Zelaya had put the country in peril. “I don’t think they needed to wait until he actually made himself into a dictator,” he said. “I think they were entitled to take action against a budding dictator. But even if they weren’t, it seems to me that it is not so clear that he is in the right that the United States should be meddling in Honduras’ affairs.”

Meanwhile, as every other country in the hemisphere (as well the European Union) have recalled their ambassadors from Honduras, the US has maintained diplomatic ties—while suspending aid projects, and encouraging a Costa Rica-brokered dialogue which has thus far failed top bear fruit. While most military cooperation has been officially suspended, Honduran officers are apparently still being trained at the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (WHINSEC), the former School of the Americas at Fort Benning.

Honduran military admits: We broke the law
In a turnaround, the Honduran army’s top lawyer in an interview with the Miami Herald July 3 admitted that the military broke the law by removing Zelaya—while insisting the move was necessary. Col. Herberth Bayardo Inestroza said: “We know there was a crime there. In the moment that we took him out of the country, in the way that he was taken out, there is a crime. Because of the circumstances of the moment this crime occurred, there is going to be a justification and cause for acquittal that will protect us.”

Bayardo proudly invoked the military repression that gripped Honduras in the 1980s: “We fought the subversive movements here and we were the only country that did not have a fratricidal war like the others. It would be difficult for us, with our training, to have a relationship with a leftist government. That’s impossible. I personally would have retired, because my thinking, my principles, would not have allowed me to participate in that.”

The Shadow of the 3-16 Battalion
The methods Bayardo nostalgically recalls were called horrific human rights abuses by international jurists. The Inter-American Court of Human Rights in 1988 ruled the Honduran government responsible for the “disappearance” of four individuals (two Hondurans and two Costa Ricans). The ruling found that the Honduran state “conducted or tolerated the systematic practice of disappearance” in the 1980s, naming a clandestine military death squad, the 3-16 Battalion.

From 1980-1982, when the repression was at its worst, the Honduran military was headed by Gen. Policarpo Paz GarcĂ­a, a graduate of the US Army’s School of the Americas. There was a massive US military presence in Honduras at this time, and the US ambassador was John Negroponte—later George W. Bush’s UN ambassador, Iraq envoy and first Director of National Intelligence. At the time, US State Department reports, prepared under Negroponte’s supervision, found that “there are no political prisoners in Honduras.” In 1994, after a public reckoning with the abuses of the previous decade, the Honduran Human Rights Commission charged Negroponte personally with complicity in several human rights violations.

One hopes the methods of the 1980s will not be revived if the coup regime in Honduras persists. Gen. Romeo Vasquez, the head of the armed forces who led the coup, was also trained at the SOA at least twice—in 1976 and 1984. Billy Joya, a self-confessed veteran of the 3-16 Battalion (although a denier of its human rights abuses) has been appointed an advisor to Micheletti.

“Kafka in Honduras”
Those who argue that the coup was not a coup invariably cite Article 239 of the Honduran constitution, which states that any president who even proposes a constitutional amendment to allow re-election “shall cease forthwith” in his duties. They do not mention that this constitution was crafted by a military-dominated state in 1982, and this measure was aimed precisely at keeping elected civilian leaders subordinate to the generals.

Zelaya was removed on the very day his non-binding referendum on whether to open a constitutional convention was to take place. He had pledged to go ahead with the vote despite a Supreme Court ruling barring it. Hours after his removal, the National Congress read an obviously forged “resignation letter” from Zelaya, then passed a resolution giving legal imprimatur to the removal and making congress leader Micheletti president. The move has been portrayed as necessary to prevent Zelaya from setting himself up as president-for-life.

Actually, 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 enshrining public control of the telecom system and power plants—not abolishing term limits.

Grahame Russell of the solidarity organization Rights Action, responding to claims that the ouster of Zelaya was legal, calls it “Kafka in Honduras.” He notes a case filed in the Honduran courts earlier this year by the Honduran Committee for the Defense of Human Rights (CODEH), charging that a military coup was in the works and calling on judicial authorities to intervene. Other such cases were also filed in the months leading up to Zelaya’s removal—but were all apparently allowed to languish.

Then, in the days before the coup, the Supreme Court received the accusation against President Zelaya. This was evidently rushed through the legal process—without Zelaya ever being able to see or respond to the charges. Writes Russell: “The Honduran Armed Forces (HAF) have no authority whatsoever—none, ever—to carry out detention orders of the Supreme Court. If there were a valid detention order (there was not), it would be the police forces that would have to be authorized by the court to carry it out. Having said that, no detention order was even presented when the HAF broke violently into the President’s residence…”

Whatever constitutional violations Zelaya may have committed, the military circumvented the legal process by having the president summarily deported. Given this admission by the military itself, why should any subsequent acts by the Honduran state be considered legitimate? If Zelaya had been arrested (and this also would have been of dubious legality), he would have had a chance to face his accusers in court, and put his case before the Honduran people. The congressional vote removing him would have had at least arguable validity. As it is, the democratic process has been abrogated entirely.

The political right throughout the hemisphere is assembling a barrage of legalistic sophistries in defense of the Honduran coup. If they prevail and the coup is allowed to become a fait accompli, it will be a grave step backwards for democracy in the Americas and worldwide—and all the more insidious because this time around (in contrast to the Cold War coups d’etat) it is being done under a veneer, however transparent, of propriety.


A shorter version of this article ran July 29 in In These Times.


Arcadia Foundation

Rights Action

Nikolas Kozloff’s Señor Chichero blog

From our Daily Report:

Honduras: generals plead case on TV; deadly repression grows
World War 4 Report, Aug. 8, 2009

Honduras: Micheletti appoints death squad veteran
World War 4 Report, July 24, 2009

Honduras: talks break down again; Otto Reich denies involvement
World War 4 Report, July 23, 2009

See also:

by David L. Wilson, MRZine
World War 4 Report, July 2009


Special to World War 4 Report, August 1, 2009
Reprinting permissible with attribution