The streets of Honduras following a coup in July 2009. (Photo: codepinkhq)
By July 24, 2009, the US government was totally clear about the basic facts of what took place in Honduras on June 28, 2009. The US embassy in Tegucigalpa sent a cable to Washington with the subject, "Open and Shut: The Case of the Honduran Coup," asserting that "there is no doubt" that the events of June 28 "constituted an illegal and unconstitutional coup." The embassy listed arguments being made by supporters of the coup to claim its legality, and dismissed them thus: "None ... has any substantive validity under the Honduran constitution." The Honduran military clearly had no legal authority to remove President Manuel Zelaya from office or from Honduras, the embassy said, and their action - the embassy described it as an "abduction" and "kidnapping" - was clearly unconstitutional.
It is inconceivable that any top US official responsible for US policy in Honduras was not familiar with the contents of the July 24 cable, which summarized the assessment of the US embassy in Honduras on key facts that were politically disputed by supporters of the coup regime. The cable was addressed to Tom Shannon, then assistant secretary of state for western hemisphere affairs; Harold Koh, the State Department's legal adviser; and Dan Restrepo, senior director for western hemisphere affairs at the National Security Council. The cable was sent to the White House and to Secretary of State Clinton.
But despite the fact that the US government was crystal clear on what had transpired, the US did not immediately cut off all aid to Honduras except "democracy assistance," as required by US law.
Instead, a month after this cable was sent, the State Department, in its public pronouncements, pretended that the events of June 28 - in particular, "who did what to whom" and the constitutionality of these actions - were murky and needed further study by State Department lawyers, despite the fact that the State Department's top lawyer, Harold Koh, knew exactly "who did what to whom" and that these actions were unconstitutional at least one month earlier. The State Department, to justify its delay in carrying out US law, invented a legal distinction between a "coup" and a "military coup," claiming that the State Department's lawyers had to determine whether a "military coup" took place, because only that determination would meet the legal threshold for the aid cutoff.
Question: And so - sorry, just a follow-up. If this is a coup - the State Department considers this a coup, what's the next step? And I mean, there is a legal framework on the US laws dealing with countries that are under coup d'etat? I mean, what's holding you guys [back from taking] other measures according [to] the law?
Senior State Department Official: I think what you're referring to, Mr. Davila, is whether or not this is - has been determined to be a military coup. And you're correct that there are provisions in our law that have to be applied if it is determined that this is a military coup. And frankly, our lawyers are looking at that exact question. And when we get the answer to that, you are right, there will be things that - if it is determined that this was a military coup, there will be things that will kick in.
As you know, on the ground, there's a lot of discussion about who did what to whom and what things were constitutional or not, which is why our lawyers are really looking at the event as we understand them in order to come out with the accurate determination.
But the July 24 cable shows that this was nonsense. The phrase "military coup" occurs nowhere in the document, a remarkable omission in a cable from the embassy presenting its analysis of the June 28 events' constitutionality and legality one month after the fact, if that were a crucial distinction in assessing US policy. And indeed, initial press reports on the statements of top US officials in response to the coup made no such distinction, using the descriptions "coup" and "military coup" interchangeably.
Why did the State Department drag its feet, pretending that facts which it knew to be clear-cut were murky? Why didn't the State Department speak publicly after July 24 with the same moral clarity as the July 24 cable from the embassy in Honduras? Had the State Department shared publicly the embassy's clear assessment of the June 28 events after July 24, history might have turned out differently, because supporters of the coup in the United States - including Republican members of Congress and media talking heads - continued to dispute basic facts about the coup which the US embassy in Honduras had reported were not subject to reasonable dispute, and US media reporting on the coup continued to describe these facts as subject to reasonable dispute, long after the embassy had firmly declared that they were not.
As the Center for Economic and Policy Research noted in an August 2009 report, in the previous 12 months the US had responded to other coups by cutting US aid within days. In these cases - in Africa - there was no lengthy deliberation on whether a "coup" was a "military coup."
What was the difference?
A key difference was that Honduras is in Central America, "our backyard," so different rules applied. Top officials in Washington supported the political aims of the coup. They did not nominally support the means of the coup, as far as we know, but they supported its political end: the removal of the ability of President Zelaya and his supporters to pursue a meaningful reform project in Honduras. On the other hand, they were politically constrained not to support the coup openly, since they knew it to be illegal and unconstitutional. Thus, they pursued a "diplomatic compromise" which would "restore constitutional order" while achieving the coup's central political aim: removal of the ability of President Zelaya and his supporters to pursue a meaningful reform project in Honduras. The effect of their efforts at "diplomatic compromise" was to allow the coup to stand, a result that these supporters of the coup's political aims were evidently content with.
Why does this matter now?
First, the constitutional and political crisis in Honduras is ongoing, and the failure of the US to take immediate, decisive action in response to the coup was a significant cause of the ongoing crisis. After nominally opposing the coup, and slowly and fitfully implementing partial sanctions against the coup regime in a way that did not convince the coup regime that the US was serious, the US moved to support elections under the coup regime which were not recognized by the rest of the hemisphere, and today the US is lobbying for the government created by that disputed election to be readmitted to the Organization of American States, in opposition to most of the rest of the hemisphere, despite ongoing, major violations of human rights in Honduras, about which the US is doing essentially nothing.
Second, the relationship of actual US policy - as opposed to rhetorical pronouncements - to democracy in the region is very much a live issue from Haiti to Bolivia.
Yesterday there was an election in Haiti. This election was funded by the US, despite the fact that major parties were excluded from participation by the government's electoral council, a fact that Republican and Democratic Members of Congress, in addition to NGOs, complained about without result. The Washington Post reports that the election ended with "nearly all the major candidates calling for the results to be tossed out amid 'massive fraud'": "12 of the 19 candidates on Sunday's ballot appeared together at a raucous afternoon news conference to accuse the government of President Rene Preval of trying to steal the election and install his chosen candidate, Jude Celestin."
Yesterday's election in Haiti had the fingerprints of the US government all over it. It was funded by the US "Security" for the election was purportedly provided by UN troops, paid for by the US And the crucial historical context of the election was the 2004 coup that deposed democratically elected President Jean Bertrand Aristide, a coup engineered by the US with years of economic destruction clearly intended to topple the elected government.
Last week, Bolivian President Evo Morales called out the US for its recent history of supporting coups in the region.
AP's treatment of President Morales' remarks was instructive:
Morales also alleged US involvement in coup attempts or political upheaval in Venezuela in 2002, Honduras in 2009 and Ecuador in 2010.
"The empire of the United States won," in Honduras, Morales said, a reference to the allegations of former Honduran President Manuel Zelaya that the US was behind his ouster.
"The people of the Americas in Venezuela, Bolivia and Ecuador, we won," Morales continued. "We are three to one with the United States. Let's see what the future brings."
US officials have repeatedly denied involvement in all of those cases and critics of the United States have produced no clear evidence. [my emphasis]
It's certainly true that critics have produced "no clear evidence" of US "involvement" in any of these cases - if your standard for "clear evidence" of US "involvement" is a US government document that dictated in advance everything that subsequently happened. But this would be like saying that critics have produced "no clear evidence" for the Armenian genocide because researchers haven't yet found a Turkish Mein Kampf. [Some who dispute that there was an "Armenian genocide" do actually claim something like this - "there is no proof of a plan" - but claims like this are generally not taken seriously by US media - except when the US government is an author of the crime, and the crime is recent.]
In the case of the coup in Venezuela in 2002, we know the following:
- Groups in Venezuela that participated in the coup had been supported financially and politically by the US.
- The CIA had advance knowledge of the plans for a coup, and did nothing to warn the Venezuelan government, nor did the US do anything meaningful to try to stop the coup.
- although the US knew in advance about the plans for a coup, when these events played out, the US tried to claim that there was no coup.
- the US pushed for international recognition of the coup government.
- the International Monetary Fund, which would not take such action without advance approval from the United States, announced its willingness to support the coup government a few hours after the coup took place.
These facts about US government "involvement" in the coup in Venezuela are documented in Oliver Stone's recent movie, South of the Border. This is why it's so important for as many Americans as possible to see this movie: because there are basic facts about the relationship of actual US government policies - as opposed to rhetoric - to democracy in Latin America that major US media simply cannot be counted upon to report straight. In order to successfully agitate for meaningful reform of US government policy in Latin America, Americans have to know what the actual policy of the US government has been.
And this is why Just Foreign Policy is urging Americans to organize house parties on December 10 - Human Rights Day - to watch South of the Border. You can sign up to host a screening here.
Here is a clip from South of the Border, in which Scott Wilson, formerly foreign editor of the Washington Post, describes the "involvement" of the US in the coup in Venezuela:
And here is a clip from South of the Border in which President Morales talks with Oliver Stone about the role of the media:
Oliver Stone: "Now [Morales] joining the Hugo ranks, becoming more the 'bad left' in the American media."
President Morales: "The media will always try to criminalize the fight against neoliberalism, colonialism, and imperialism. It's almost normal. The worst enemy I have is the media."
Robert Naiman is Policy Director at Just Foreign Policy.