How to Hide a Coup: The US Role in the 2009 Honduran Coup

 /  May 30, 2016, 9:25 p.m.


If you’re unfamiliar with the history of US policy in Latin America, it can be summed up in a few sentences, although they will fail to capture the extent to which the United States has misbehaved. Latin America is often called the “United States’ backyard,” but it is one that the United States has continually abused. There are twenty sovereign states in Latin America. In the post-World War II era alone, the United States has violated the sovereignty of all but five of them and has replaced democratically elected governments with military dictatorships more friendly to US interests. Declassified documents show the extent of US involvement in some countries. For others, one can only infer from public statements and policy whether the United States played a role in a regime change. The 2009 coup in Honduras falls into the latter category.

In the months before he was ousted from power, the president of Honduras, Manuel Zelaya, was pushing for a non-binding referendum to gauge interest in reforming the constitution to allow for presidents to run for re-election. He was essentially going to conduct a poll. However, under the constitution of Honduras “only the Supreme Electoral Tribunal and Honduran Congress can propose changes to the constitution.” Although the referendum itself was not unconstitutional, Zelaya’s enemies cast it as such in order to justify his removal from power. On June 28, 2009, the Honduran military removed Zelaya from power. Zelaya was arrested and exiled to Costa Rica, resulting in condemnations from the United Nations and the Organization of American States.

Although major international organizations and every other country in the Western Hemisphere recognized the incident as a coup, the United States did not. In fact, while the rest of the world was calling for Zelaya to be returned to power, the United States was actively trying to maintain the coup government instead.

Despite the United States’ long history as an instigator of coups in Latin America, there is no conclusive evidence that it instigated this one. What the evidence does show is that once the coup occurred, the United States did its best to avoid the restoration of the democratically elected president. The first piece of evidence was the United States’s refusal to cancel foreign aid. Typically, the United States cuts off aid to a country immediately after a coup, as it did with Mauritania in August of 2008 and Madagascar in March of 2009. In a study published in August of 2009, the Center for Economic and Policy Research found that the Honduran coup was the only instance in the past year in which aid had not been cut off. The study concluded that the United States’ response to the coup in Honduras was much weaker than its response to coups in other countries. This was not an accident. It was America’s choice.

The statements and leaked emails of then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton further indicate that the United States wanted to maintain the coup government instead of restoring the democratically elected leader. In her 2014 book Hard Choices, Clinton describes the “hard choice” she made to prevent President Zelaya from returning to power, “We strategized on 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.” Clinton reveals US policy at the time was not based on a strict adherence to democracy, but as she said at the time of the coup, the goal was “working with others on behalf of our ultimate objectives,” whatever those “ultimate objectives” might be. In this case, those objectives involved preventing Zelaya from returning to power, “rendering him moot,” even though that meant supporting a government that had seized power. To keep Zelaya out of power, the United States neglected to call for the immediate and unconditional return of the democratically elected president, refused to call it a coup in order to maintain aid to Honduras, brokered a deal that did not return Zelaya to power, and stood alone in recognizing the undemocratic elections following the coup.

Likely to be the Democratic nominee for president, Hillary Clinton still defends her role in supporting the coup. In an interview with Juan Gonzalez of the New York Daily News, Clinton claimed that the situation in Honduras was unclear and to call it a coup would have only made the situation worse because the US would have had to cut off humanitarian aid. However, experts at the Center for Economic and Policy Research have found that exceptions are typically made for humanitarian aid after a coup, so Clinton’s justification simply does not apply.

Professor Dana Frank of the University of California, Santa Cruz, an expert on US policy in Honduras, details some of the other problems with Clinton’s statement in an interview with Democracy Now. She points out that Clinton’s statement implies that she and Obama were “in violation of [the] US law, that very clearly said if there’s a coup, they have to cut the military aid.” The Secretary of State does not actually have the option to choose whether or not to cut off aid in the case of a coup, nevertheless Clinton chose to maintain that as justification for her support. As for Clinton’s claim that it was murky whether or not what happened in Honduras was a coup, leaked emails show that Clinton’s own staff concluded as much. On July 24, 2009, Hugo Llorens, then the US ambassador to Honduras, wrote an email to Clinton’s aides in the State Department with the subject line “Open and shut: The case of the Honduran Coup,” which could not be more clear that what happened in Honduras was a coup. Clinton’s claim that the situation in Honduras was “murky” is further disproved by the unanimous voices of the international community. To deny the coup in Honduras is a poor attempt to revise history.

Revising history seems to be the main goal of the United States when it comes to Honduras. As Professor Frank explained, the United States “wanted to bury the democratically elected president’s existence and act like the coup didn’t happen.” To this end, the United States pushed for new elections while the coup government remained in power and immediately recognized those elections as legitimate. As Frank put it, the policy was: “Let’s just have any election and call this over and call that election—call that election legitimate.” As with the backing of the coup government, the United States was alone in recognizing the elections. All international observers boycotted the election, pointing to the failure to restore the democratically elected president to power and the interim government’s repressive tactics. Despite acting on its own, the United States has basically been successful: Honduras was readmitted to the Organization of American States in 2011, and the present government is now considered legitimate, despite its origins.

The motivating factors for the United States aren’t clear cut, but one likely explanation for US actions is the lobbying of business interests that were displeased with the economic reforms Zelaya had pushed through, including a 60% increase in the minimum wage and subsidies to small farmers. Shortly after the coup, the Honduran chapter of the Business Council of Latin America hired Lanny Davis, former special counsel to Bill Clinton, to lobby on their behalf in Washington. The Association of Honduras Manufacturers, another business group, also hired lobbyists following the coup. Both of these business groups held views that aligned with how US policy played out in Honduras. They thought that while the details of Zelaya’s removal were unfortunate, he should not be returned to power because his economic reforms were cutting into their profits. This was essentially the position the US took up.

The support for the coup might also be explained by US military interests. Soto Cano Air Base, the only US Air Force base in Latin America, is located in Honduras, and in 2008 President Zelaya proposed repurposing it for commercial air cargo. The current strategic importance of the air base to the United States military is unclear, although it had an infamous role in supporting the Contra rebels in Nicaragua during the 1980s. Its status as the one of the only US air bases in Latin America made it unlikely that the US would part with it easily as Zelaya wanted.

The Honduran military, which was responsible for the coup, is also closely tied to the United States, with hundreds of officers participating in US-run military training on a yearly basis. General Romeo Vasquez, who attended the US Army’s School of the Americas in 1976 and 1984, was dismissed by Zelaya immediately prior to the coup, resulting in the resignation of many other senior officers. Vasquez ended up doing quite well, as he was made head of a state-owned telecom company by President Porfibio Lobo Sosa following the dubious 2010 elections. Although there isn’t a smoking gun, it wouldn’t be hard to imagine the United States encouraging Honduran military leaders who they had a relationship with to remove Zelaya from power.

The United States is once again involved in the violation of the sovereignty of another nation in Latin America for completely selfish reasons. Despite democracy being a cornerstone of the American national identity and a point of pride in our politicians’ speeches, the United States has successfully undermined democracies throughout its history and continues to do so today. Anne-Marie Slaughter, then Policy-Planning Director at the State Department, made this point in an email she wrote to then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, saying: “even our friends are beginning to think we are not really committed to the norm of constitutional democracy.” Frankly, they shouldn’t.

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Samuel Leiter