Eight years ago this morning, Honduran soldiers stormed the Palacio José Cecilio del Valle, the presidential home in Tegucigalpa named for Central America’s enlightened founder. They found Mel Zelaya, the president of Honduras, still in his pajamas. In a matter of minutes they and their captive were refueling at Palmerola, an air base 60 miles northwest of the capital city, and headquarters for the U.S. Southern Command’s lead forward joint task force on the isthmus. From there they flew the deposed president to Costa Rica. The whole thing, from start to finish, took less than a couple of hours, and all of it — the arrest of President Zelaya by Honduran soldiers, the 500-odd U.S. troops stationed at Palmerola who did nothing, the removal of Zelaya not only from the presidency but from the country — was in defiance of the Honduran constitution.
Though my mom was born and spent the first several years of existence in Honduras, I didn’t know much about my maternal homeland at the time of the golpe. Admittedly, shamefully, I only knew two things about Honduras: where it is on a map, and that it’s the quintessential banana republic, steered by the U.S. government and its corporate interests.
Till then my studies and writing had focused on the Middle East and other mainstream concerns. It was the coup, in fact, that turned my attention to Central America. I’d spend the next eight years educating myself on Honduras, Central America, and U.S. relations with both. The first of two pilgrimages would come in June 2011, only days after the exiled ex-president was allowed to return. (The other was just last year.) I’ve read countless histories, reports, articles and essays, watched as many video clips, interviews and documentaries, and spoken with scores of people, including intellectuals (shoutout to Professor Dana Frank at the University of California, Santa Cruz) as well as people on the street. After all of my searching for an answer as to why the coup took place, and how it could happen, I now feel confident I know the reason: Honduras is the quintessential banana republic, controlled by the U.S. government and its corporate interests.
Hondurans like my own grandmother will readily tell you that the coup was justified because Zelaya was trying to “pull a Chávez” by engineering a constitutional convention that could’ve eliminated presidential term limits and allowed Zelaya to run for reelection that year, among other things — such as land redistribution, labor rights, social welfare programs, and other Chávez-like reforms. But isn’t why Zelaya was putsch-ed out.
As he stated beforehand, the referendum Zelaya proposed for late June 2009 would’ve been non-binding, only asking if the upcoming presidential ballot in November should include a fourth box asking voters if a constitutional convention should be convened. In short, it was a non-binding referendum on the desire for a future referendum; nothing more. Had June’s non-binding referendum resulted in a win for “Sí,” it still wouldn’t have guaranteed the addition of the fourth box in November. And even if the November ballot included the fourth box asking for a constitutional convention, and even if “Sí” won again, the November ballot would’ve simultaneously elected President Zelaya’s successor, since the constitution limited presidents to one term, making Zelaya ineligible for reelection.
(Once the golpistas took power, they removed disloyal judges from the Supreme Court, which then voided presidential term limits. Under Honduras’s system of government, the National Congress is charged with appointing judges to the high court. The Congress which replaced the judges was at the time controlled by Juan Orlando Hernández, the current president of the [banana] republic. In March of this year, JOH, as he’s known, won the National Party’s presidential primary, ensuring his name on the ballot in November. As in the election four years ago, his main opponent is Xiomara Castro de Zelaya, the former first lady, running as the candidate for LIBRE, a party founded by the main leftist movement opposing the coup regime.)
What President Zelaya wanted for Honduras isn’t what had him removed from office; it’s what the golpistas wanted for Honduras. Many of them belonged to the country’s right-wing business elite, men like Miguel Facussé Barjum, the late palm-oil magnate identified in leaked U.S. Embassy cables as “one of the nation’s wealthiest individuals” as well as one of Central America’s major narcotraffickers. Facussé and his co-conspirators were also members of the Honduran chapter of the Business Council of Latin America (CEAL, in Spanish), a group which retained as its legal counsel an especially shady lawyer named Lanny Davis. Salon‘s Matthew Pulver describes Davis as the “Clinton family legal pitbull,” having defended former President Clinton during his impeachment trial. Davis would go on to represent such equally ignoble clients as Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasog, the Equatoguinean dictator in power since he seized power from his uncle in August 1979.
A debate still roils as to whether Hillary Clinton, the U.S. secretary of state at the time of the coup, knew of the plot beforehand, or even helped design it and carry it out. All that’s known for sure is that rather than reaching out to the deposed president, Clinton instead chose to reach out to Lanny Davis, a family friend and legal adviser who was then advising the golpistas themselves. “If you want to understand who the real power behind the coup is, you need to find out who’s paying Lanny Davis,” said Robert White, the late former U.S. ambassador to Paraguay and El Salvador, in an interview given in the weeks following the coup.
In August 2009, Davis appeared in a debate on Democracy Now!, defending the coup. His opponent was Greg Grandin, a professor of history at New York University and one of the foremost historians of Latin America in the United States. During a heated exchange, Grandin neatly outlined the illegitimacy of Zelaya’s removal:
Let’s just state … right out front that Zelaya was overthrown because the business community didn’t like that he increased the minimum wage. We’re talking about an elite that treats Honduras as if it was its own private plantation. There’s an excellent AP report published yesterday that says exactly this.
… All of the legal reasoning and the loaded words about mobs and overrunning that Lanny Davis is using, is all done retroactively in order to justify a military intervention into civilian politics. Even if it is all true, and it’s a big ‘if,’ considering that Otto Reich-linked organizations were running a major disinformation campaign in Honduras for over a year, Zelaya is entitled to due process.
Can Davis say where in the Honduran Constitution presidents accused of wrongdoing — not convicted, just accused — can be forced out of bed in pajamas and sent into exile? After all, come on, Bill Clinton was impeached. Members of his own party voted for that impeachment, but he was allowed due process.
Zelaya was never presented with an arrest warrant, nor did the military ever mention acting in response to a warrant. All of that was done retroactively in order to justify the military intervention. And in any case, the military is not a law enforcement agency. They certainly aren’t allowed to kidnap citizens and fly them out of the country.
That the country’s business elite wanted Zelaya out of office is insinuated not only by his raising the minimum wage by 60 percent, or offering free education to all children (including free lunch to the poorest of them), but also by his agreeing to review the land claims made by poor campesinos in the Aguán Valley — a region largely controlled by the late Facussé, the palm-oil company he ran, and the private security force (trained by the U.S. military, funded by the U.S. government) he hired to wage war against the dispossessed campesinos.
Most people still refuse to believe any of this. They find it hard to believe, mentally and emotionally. They don’t see the strings, or they don’t want to. But for someone like me, who knows a few things about the history of Latin America, it’s far too easy to believe that a president promising social and economic reforms would be removed in a golpe de estado orchestrated and funded by the U.S. government — or at least with its tacit approval — and carried out by a local cabal of business elites, military officers and government leaders. Similar things have happened before, of course — not only in other countries, but even in Honduras — and for similar reasons. Need I remind anyone of what happened to Árbenz in 1954, to Allende in 1973, and to Chávez (for two days) as recently as April 2002?
In his address before the U.S. Congress in 1917 asking for a declaration of war against Germany, President Woodrow Wilson insisted the world “be made safe for democracy.” Wilson was merely paying the perfunctory lip service to democracy, as the United States has rarely, if ever, worked toward its stated foreign-policy goal in earnest. Instead, the U.S. government has since appointed itself the global police force, not to make the world safe for democracy, but to make it safe for U.S. business. Whenever and wherever a country’s elected leader undertakes a program of weakening U.S. hegemony and working toward social and economic justice, the U.S. government immediately and predictably looks for ways to delegitimize that leader, usually by labeling him or her as “undemocratic.” And once an elected leader is deemed undemocratic, any means used to remove him or her is automatically given the imprimatur of being in the interests of democracy.
This kind of rhetorical gymnastics isn’t very clever but, when few people are paying attention, it’s quite effective. Hence, why Zelaya was never returned to office, why the coup regime was able to legitimize itself through a serious of false elections, why one of the golpistas is being allowed to run for reelection (an attempt at reelection being the stated reason Zelaya was removed from office in the first place), and why all other sorts of changes are being made to Honduran law in order to convert the country back into what it was not so long ago: one, big latifundio; the private property of robber barons backed by U.S. capital.
In the end, the greatest trick achieved by the U.S.-backed coup in Honduras has been convincing the world that it never happened.
Featured image: A Honduran paratrooper shakes hands with a Green Beret at Palmerola Air Base, Honduras, April 3, 2014 (USASOC News Service/Flickr)