Yes, it was a coup

John Perry · WikiLeaks and Honduras

One of the more interesting cables to have been wikileaked so far is the United States’ official assessment of the overthrow of the president of Honduras on 28 June 2009, and whether or not it was a coup. On 25 August State Department officials were still pondering the question. The significance of their decision was that, if Zelaya’s ousting was officially recognised as a ‘coup’, the US government would have had to pull the plug on all aid going to the de facto regime in Tegucigalpa. Hillary Clinton and the rest of the US government very much wanted to avoid having to do that, so they wavered until it no longer mattered.

If they had wanted a timely and thorough assessment of the legitimacy or otherwise of Zelaya’s expulsion from office, all they needed to do was to refer to a cable sent by their ambassador. Hugo Llorens sent a cable to the White House and to senior State Department officials (including Clinton) on 24 July, less than a month after the event. Under the heading ‘Open and Shut: the Case of the Honduran Coup’ the 2700 word appraisal of the legitimacy of what happened takes apart the arguments of the coup’s protagonists, who claimed to be defending the constitution.

In our view, none of the... arguments has any substantive validity under the Honduran constitution. Some are outright false.

In the ambassador’s judgment, neither the military nor congress (who had acted jointly to expel Zelaya) had the authority to remove a president. The cable concludes:

No matter what the merits of the case against Zelaya, his forced removal by the military was clearly illegal, and Micheletti's ascendance as ‘interim president’ was totally illegitimate.

The assessment couldn’t be clearer, but it wasn’t what the State Department wanted to hear. Not long after assuming office, Barack Obama promised that the United States would be turning over a new leaf in its relations with Latin America. The ambassador in Honduras got the message, but it seems the State Department did not. They allowed the interim regime to run questionable elections at the end of last year, and support President Lobo despite continuing evidence of the regime’s human rights abuses.


  • 3 December 2010 at 2:00am
    pinhut says:
    Reading through the history of US involvement in the region over the last 100 years reveals the same approach, that the number #1 aim is to never have a popular government in power. Unpopular rule necessitates tight control of the population (which secures private property and creates a good business environment), dependence on US aid and military sales and a need to remain in Washington's good graces to continue in power (along with being easy to sweep away when need be).

  • 3 December 2010 at 11:10pm
    OnGuard says:
    In a report requested by the U.S. Congress, it was determined that the Honduran National Congress had the constitutional right to remove President Zelaya. This was affirmed at the time by the Honduran Supreme Court. Evidently, what it could not do, but did, was to kick Zelaya out of the country.

    This is detailed in "Report for Congress" by the Law Library of Congress (U.S. Congress), LL File No. 2009-002965 by the Directorate of Legal Reserach.

    Ambassador Llorens has pushed the line that suits Hugo Chavez of Venezuela and other leftists like Daniel Ortega of Nicaragua, which are doing to their country what they tried to have Zelaya do in Honduras - subvert democratic institutions from. Llorens continues to be a thorn in the side of Honduras democracy.

    Unfortunately, this report is often overlooked because it does not allow the interpretation to fall into the neat category of "coup". Llorens reminds me of the U.S. left during the 1970-80s who attempted through Congress and other institutions to maintain the Sandinistas in dictatorial power in Nicaragua after the overthrow of the Somoza regime. They failed due to tremendous opposition within Nicaragua and U.S. support under Ronald Reagan.

    • 4 December 2010 at 12:38am
      John Perry says: @ OnGuard
      OnGuard makes a correct reference to the Library of Congress report, but it was heavily discredited at the time as being a very partial view of the constitutional position, which deliberately focused on aspects of the constitution that favoured the case of the coup plotters. As the Llorens assessment makes clear, even if there was a constitutional case against Presient Zelaya, it was a judicial matter, not something that could be dealt with (according to the constitution) by the military.

      Apart from that, the idea that a US ambassador 'pushes a line' that favours Hugo Chavez is laughable. And as for the Sandinistas and their 'dictatorship' in the 1980s, and the actions of Ronald Reagan - an adequate response is well beyond the boundaries of this blog!

    • 4 December 2010 at 1:21am
      pinhut says: @ John Perry
      Oh yes, Mr Reagan and his good works for the people of Latin America.

    • 4 December 2010 at 4:29am
      OnGuard says: @ John Perry
      The military escorted Zelaya out of the country, which as I noted, was not allowed by the Honduran Constitution.

      However, the Honduran Supreme Court ruled that the actions of the National Congress were constitutonal in trying and removing Zelaya from office, so Llorens essentially would overrule the Honduran Supreme Court on Honduran constitutional issues. That the Library of Congress report would look at what the Honduran Constitution says, and analyze the actions of the National Congress and Supreme court within that constitutional context, is logical. To say that the report has been criticized is also to say that the critics essentially want to read things into the Honduran Constitution that are not there, or simply want to disregard it entirely.

      Should impeachment procedures be part of the Honduran Constitution? Sure, but they are not. Should presidents be able to gain re-election in Honduras? Let Hondurans decide, but through their established channels, not through ballots flown in by a guy (Chavez) who has shown no compunction to overturn or cheat in his own elections as Chavez (and Ortega currently) has done.

      Secondly, don't forget that under the Honduran Constitution, a president cannot be re-elected; and to avoid problems of "continuismo" (as Chavez and Ortega are attempting), even the "referendum" Zelaya was pushing was illegal.

      Why no outrage against Venezuelan interference in Honduran affairs? Why no outcry from Llorens about ballots flown in from a foreign country? Why is Llorens continually trying to bully Hondurans into doing his bidding, i.e., roll over and follow Llorens' policies of appeasement to foreign interventionists?

      As for Reagan, re pinhut's comment, I can only say that when the Sandinistas were forced into democratics elections in 1990, they lost 3 consecutive presidential elections, and the 4th was won by Ortega with only about 35% of the vote. He is now trying to undermine the democratic process starting with municipal elections to keep himself and the Sandinistas in power. Reagan saw through that, fortunately; whether Obama does, remains to be seen.

    • 4 December 2010 at 5:56am
      pinhut says: @ OnGuard
      I know what you are.

    • 4 December 2010 at 1:11pm
      John Perry says: @ pinhut
      The Law Library of Congress report was published in a rather unusual way, through the website of a Republican Congressman who favoured the coup. There are numerous detailed criticisms of the weaknesses of this report, which had so many contradictions it can hardly be described as a piece of serious legal analysis. There is a summary of the story at Suffice to say that the chairmen of the House and Senate Foreign Relations Committees asked the Library of Congress to withdraw the report because of its factual errors.

      OnGuard repeats the myth that Zelaya was seeking re-election through the ballot that was aborted by the coup. He was not. The ballot was simply to be a referendum on whether there should BE a formal ballot to decide if a reveiw of the Honduran constitution should take place. People could have voted 'no' - and indeed they may well have done so.

      The interference by Chavez in Honduras is a criticism that has been repeated so often that its proponents have elevated it to the point of being such an extreme threat to Honduras's constitutional integrity that it justifies measures which have driven a coach and horses through that integrity. Meanwhile, the hundred years' history of US interference is conveniently ignored. If one ambassador, Llorens, is brave enough to make a small, private stand in favour of Honduras's integrity and constitutionality, he is branded as a traitor. OnGuard merely demonstrates how polarised and blind to reason the upper reaches of Honduran society have become. The results, in terms of human rights abuses by the Micheletti and now Lobo regimes, were briefly chronicled in my post of 27 July 2010 and have since got worse.

    • 4 December 2010 at 2:42pm
      OnGuard says: @ pinhut

  • 4 December 2010 at 3:02pm
    OnGuard says:
    That a congressman would post a report on his website is not unusual. The summary you referenced noted that the request for a study was made to the Congressional Research Group which referred it to the Law Library of Congress. Having an individual congressman post a report that was widely distributed is not unusual, and certainly not sinister. A congressman who didn't support the findings wouldn't post it; someone who did, would. That doesn't mean it was not easily accessible by all.

    Why you would simply dismiss Chavez' involvement in flying in ballots to be used in a referendum is beyond me, as the integrity of his own elections is very, very suspect.

    Also, you gloss over the fact that Zelaya's own party was solidly against him on the referendum and did not back him.

    The Honduran Supreme Court ruled that even having a referendum on re-election was unconstitutional, so it is not a "myth" as you say, it was at the center of the entire issue. Maybe you want the Honduran Constitution to be interpreted differently or altered, but that is not for us, as non-Hondurans, to determine.

    I am not going to justify any human or civil rights abuses under Micheletti or Lobo, but that is straying from the issue we are discussing, isn't it?

    As for John Kerry, referenced in the summary you noted, during the 1980s he was among Democrats in the U.S. Congress who would have permitted, and supported, a dictatorship to be established in Nicaragua against the will of the large majority of Nicaraguans (as seen by repeated failures of Sandinistas in free elections to gain even 40% of the vote). Kerry remains, as head of the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee, stuck in that mode. As for Herbert Koh, he is known for being very far left and out of even the liberal mainstream of legal thought in the U.S. Maybe that is why the Obama administration hasn't released his report.

    My reply "Really?" was meant for pinhut's comment "I know who you are."

    • 5 December 2010 at 5:45am
      pinhut says: @ OnGuard
      Me: "I know what you are."

      OnGuard: "Pinhut's comment 'I know who you are.'"

      Somebody can't read, and it's not Pinhut.

  • 4 December 2010 at 6:16pm
    John Perry says:
    Onguard, for the record:
    - in 1979 the Sandinistas overthrew a dictatorship in Nicaragua which was so bad it was disowned at the time even by the US government
    - it won an election with 66% of the vote in 1984, in which several parties were on the ballot, including the Conservatives; most international observers (except the Reagan government which had taken over in the US) accepted the elections as fair, including (in Britain’s case) a Conservative MP
    - it lost the election in 1990 and handed over power
    - it fought and lost two subsequent elections, one of which was widely regarded as rigged and led to the administration of President Aleman, who subsequently went high in the world rankings of corrupt politicians
    - it won the election in 2006 with less than a majority of the vote, because the opposition was divided.
    Which bit of this political history earns the Sandinistas the soubriquet of being dictators? If you tell me that the Sandinistas have been heavily criticised for the conduct of the municipal elections in 2008, I would agree, but these were not presidential elections. Recent public opinion polls have consistently shown the Sandinistas to be the current favourites to win the next general election, in 2011.

  • 5 December 2010 at 3:42am
    OnGuard says:
    Just caught up with your post.

    First, I would like to comment that several times you have referenced US intervention/interference in Latin America. That is why it is so ironic that you based your whole "Yes, it is a coup" simply on the statement of US Ambassador Llorens while denigrating the established Honduran institutions.

    Regarding the Sandinistas:
    1) It is a myth that Somoza was overthrown by the Sandinistas, if as often is the case, the broad-based uprising in Nicaragua is ignored. Without the urban middle class and others joining the effort to overthrow Somoza, the Sandinistas had proven unable to do so on their own.

    Two events, I think acted as catalysts: the corrupt and brazen (even by Somoza standards) handling of international aid and other resources following the earthquake that devastated Managua in 1972. The second, in 1978, was the assasination of the courageous publisher and editor of La Prensa, Pedro Joaquin Chamorro, who used his newspaper to battle the Somoza dynasty and was jailed, harassed and eventually killed for his efforts. His wife Violeta, took over the newspaper and formed part of the coalition that overthrew Somoza in 1979 and later formed a governing coalition with the Sandinistas. She left the coalition and used her newspaper to attack Sandinistas because of their increasingly dictatorial way, their Marxist rhetoric and their attacks against any opposition, including democratic critics.

    The elections of 1990, which the Sandistas grudgingly agreed to, were I believe the first to be monitored by the UN. While pre-vote polls showed an overwhelming Sandinista victory, Violeta Chamorro got 55% of the vote, while Sandinistas received 41%. In a fit of pique, the last thing done by the Sandinistas, who lost control of the National Assembly also, was to by law award themselves palatial homes expropriated from Somoza and supporters rather than leave them for the people of Nicaragua. Given how they handled power in the 1980s, and how they are handling things now, Reagan was correct in not accepting election results in 1986.

    Among the legacies of Sandinista rule, was rampant inflation (up to 35,000% at one point) and a devastated economy (Chavez seems to want to surpass the Sandinistas on economic devastation). In 2006, when Ortega, after 3 defeats finally one against a divided conservative movement, he did not even receive 40% of the vote and barely met the threshold to avoid a runoff (given that the two conservative candidates received more than 60% of the vote, meant another Sandinista defeat in a runoff). Ortega now is manipulating municipal elections in an effort to undermine democracy in the mode of Chavez. That the Sandinistas relinquished power in 1990 was because they had no other choice.

    As for public opinion polls, maybe the Sandinistas can pull it off in 2011; but it will be interesting to see if they are open to true international election oversight to assure everyone of the legitimacy of the elections. Given that past history, that is an open question. Whether the international community, OAS, the UN or any other body will be diligently watching the process is another open question.

    This will be my last post on this topic, but I enjoyed the exchange.

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