The US Role in the Honduran Coup

The Obama administration’s waffling response to the coup in Honduras — calling it a coup, then pulling back; continuing diplomatic relations; failing to cut off military aid (update: $16 million in military aid has been cut off); allowing coup leaders into the US to hold press conferences — raises questions about the US commitment to democracy there, and whether the overthrow of President Manuel Zelaya represents a continuation of interventionist, anti-democratic US policy towards Latin America.

Discussions of possible US involvement have centered on Obama himself, rather than examining the military, business, and diplomatic networks that shape US policy towards Latin America. These networks are complex, powerful, and well-established; evidence suggests that their central movers and shakers deserve a bit more credit for what is going on in Honduras.

For an idea of how these elites feel about the situation in Honduras, let’s go to this passage from today’s Washington Post:

Sometimes you have to give political leaders credit.

President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton are on the verge of achieving their own coup in Honduras and advancing American interests with a deftness not seen from Washington in many years.

So, are we sacrificing Honduras? No. Zelaya is the main culprit in this crisis, but what counts is the rule of law. His hand has been slapped very hard. Allowing him to serve out the last six months of his term while not holding the referendum that would have opened the way to succession has a better chance of bringing peace and stability to the country than the current standoff.

The shameless celebration of this diplomatic “coup” is bad enough, given Honduras’s continued instability, but the suggestion that Zelaya is the “main culprit,” without even mentioning the coup plotters, pushes this piece over the top.

The author, Edward Schumacher-Matos, is deeply involved in the US Latin American policy establishment. His elite credentials are impressive: New York Times; Wall Street Journal; Tufts’ Fletcher School; Americas Society; Council of the Americas; Council on Foreign Relations; Harvard’s David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies and JFK School. During the “lost decade” of the 1980s, Schumacher-Matos reported from Latin America for the New York Times, penning such gems as Chile’s Junta is a Boon to Agribusiness and US Advisers Taking Care in El Salvador.

Looking back over his words, it’s disheartening to know that these are not the opinions of a fanatical outlier, but rather of an influential policy elite who is tightly linked to institutions that formulate US policy towards Latin America.

Beyond approval of the coup from high-level policy elites, evidence also suggests that senior US officials were well aware of plans to undermine democratic rule in Honduras, and — at the very least — failed to discourage military leaders from taking drastic measures.

Hugo Llorens, the Bush-appointed US ambassador to Honduras, and Thomas Shannon, Assistant Secretary of State, deserve far more scrutiny for their roles in the run-up to the coup. Both men cut their teeth in Central American diplomatic missions during the dark days of the 80s, when American policy fueled near-genocidal civil wars in El Salvador, Nicaragua and Guatemala. Llorens was the State Department’s “narcotics coordinator” in San Salvador from 1989-1992, while the civil war still raged. Shannon was at the U.S. Embassy in Guatemala from 1984-86.

As Director of Andean Affairs at the National Security Council from 2002 to 2003, Llorens was a top adviser to the President on Venezuela when Chavez was temporarily deposed in a US-supported coup. Shannon held the same desk before him.

Two days after the coup in Honduras, the New York Times reported that Llorens and Shannon had spoken with military leaders prior to the overthrow of Zelaya.

Their opposition to a coup appeared to turn on semantics, judging from the article’s description of the officials’ knowledge:

The White House and the State Department had Mr. Llorens “talk with the parties involved, to tell them, ‘You have to talk your way through this,’ ” a senior administration official said Monday. “ ‘You can’t do anything outside the bounds of your constitution.’ ”

Still, administration officials said that they did not expect that the military would go so far as to carry out a coup. “There was talk of how they might remove the president from office, how he could be arrested, on whose authority they could do that,” the administration official said. But the official said that the speculation had focused on legal maneuvers to remove the president, not a coup.

It’s hard to see how discussing options for deposing the elected president with the Honduran military just prior to the coup falls anything short of complicity. As long as it couldn’t be called a “coup,” it was ok. “Remov[ing] the president from office” by arresting him on cooked-up constitutional grounds is precisely what the Honduran military junta did in carrying out the coup: Zelaya was deposed after the Supreme Court stripped him of his powers.

These conversations did not take place at a distance. Several days prior to the Supreme Court ruling, Llorens convened a meeting that has not been widely reported in the English language press. According to the Honduran daily La Prensa, Zelaya was present, along with coup leaders Roberto Micheletti, Porfirio Lobo Sosa, Elvin Santos, and Romeo Vasquez Velasquez. Zelaya was reportedly told (by whom?) that the best “exit” was to cancel the constitutional referendum. (if I’m google translating correctly.)

The fact that the US ambassador convened a meeting where key opposition leaders were present and in the majority, at which demands were apparently placed on the table, just days before the Supreme Court ruling, suggests deep US involvement in the run-up to the coup.

The close ties between the US and Honduran military establishments are also cause for concern. It has been noted that several of the coup plotters, including Velasquez, were trained at the School of the Americas, a notorious US-run training ground for Latin American military leaders.

Less well-reported is the fact that James Stavridis, (then head of the US Southern Command, now NATO commander), made a special trip to Honduras in January 2009, where he met with military and political leaders and praised the US-Honduran relationship, according to the Defense Department press release: “Declaring an “excellent state of cooperation between our two militaries,” Stavridis lauded tremendous progress within Honduras’ 11,000-member military.” The Southern Command maintains its only permanently deployed base in Honduras.

Stavridis also met with Llorens “to explore ways to improve military-to-military training, education and other support to the Honduran government.” Stavridis wrote in a blog post about his visit that he and Llorens were “close personal friends.”

Given the apparent strength of the US-Honduran military relationship, it would be surprising if the Honduran military had gone against the wishes of the US military, ignored objections from Llorens, and risked the possibility of losing US military support by going through with the coup. It’s borderline inconceivable.

All this suggests US policy toward Latin America is business as usual, despite the end of the Bush era and the arrival of Obama. Leadership changes, but networks persist. It’s crucial that we understand this in the Obama era.