by Robert Naiman
30 November 2010
The streets of
Honduras following a coup in July 2009.
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
"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
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
The cable was addressed to,
Tom Shannon, then assistant
secretary of state for western hemisphere affairs
Harold Koh, the State
Department's legal adviser
Dan Restrepo, senior director
for western hemisphere affairs at the National Security
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.
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
But the July 24 cable shows that this
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
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
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
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
"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
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.
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
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
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
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