What’s Behind the Coup?


Which do you prefer, the official version of U.S. foreign policy in Latin
America or the more hidden story? If you were reading The New York Times,
you probably got the impression that the military coup that just took
place in the small Central American nation of Honduras had everything to
do with President Manuel Zelaya’s bid to extend presidential term limits.

In a superficial explanation of events, correspondent Elisabeth Malkin
wrote “The military offered no public explanation for its actions, but
the Supreme Court issued a statement saying that the military had acted
to defend the law” against Zelaya who had spoken out against the
In Honduras, presidents are limited to a single four-year term but Zelaya
had called for a constitutional referendum which, he hoped, would change
the law so he could stand for re-election. The move, however, inflamed
critics who claimed the President had no right to try to change the law.
When the military refused to help organize the vote, Zelaya fired a top
military commander. Things escalated from there and on Sunday, the
military removed Zelaya from power. Thus goes the official Times version,
which gives the impression that the political conflict in Honduras boils
down to a simple disagreement about the limits of presidential power.
When reading the Times and its coup coverage in Latin America, a healthy
degree of skepticism is in order. Let’s not forget the case of the 2002
coup in Venezuela that briefly removed President Hugo Chávez from power.
At the time, the Times shamelessly parroted the official White House
version of events, writing “Venezuelan democracy is no longer threatened
by a would-be dictator…[because] the military intervened and handed
power to a respected business leader [Pedro Carmona, the “dictator for a
day”].” A scant two days later following popular protests, Chávez was
back in power and the Times was forced to apologize. “Forcibly unseating
a democratically elected leader, no matter how bad he may be, is never
something to cheer,” the Times wrote begrudgingly.
Perhaps not wanting to be caught flat-footed again, the Times proceeded a
bit more cautiously this time round in its coup coverage. In a second
article published today, the paper provides a bit more context to the
Honduran story, remarking that the U.S. has had longstanding military
ties to the Honduran military. The piece however gives the Obama
Administration the benefit of the doubt, repeating a high-up
administration’s claim that the White House was not involved in the coup
and was genuinely surprised when the military moved to depose the
Perhaps Obama is telling the truth and the U.S. wasn’t involved. Or
perhaps not — Chávez has claimed that the hand of U.S. imperialism was
at work in Honduras. I don’t endorse either version of events at this
point but I do believe the Times has overlooked vital facts that could
shed light on the recent political turbulence.
In a long piece that I published yesterday about the coup [1], I went
over some of this important history, pointing out for example that Zelaya
was a withering critic of official U.S. drug policy, opened up diplomatic
channels to the island nation of Cuba, pursued a tight diplomatic
alliance with Hugo Chávez of Venezuela and even sent an audacious,
strongly worded personal letter to Obama in December of last year in
which the Honduran accused the U.S. of pursuing interventionist policies
in Latin America and needlessly punishing Cuba through its longstanding
economic embargo. Needless to say, the Times chose to gloss over much of
these facts. Moreover the paper of record has failed to fully examine the
role of Roberto Micheletti, Honduras’ new president.
Who is Roberto Micheletti?
A former Congressman, Micheletti is a long time fixture on the domestic
political scene. A member of Zelaya’s own Liberal Party, he studied
business administration in the United States and worked as the CEO of
Honduras’ own state telecommunications company. Up until two days ago,
Micheletti was the President of Honduras’ National Congress. All these
details aside, what’s most important to know is that Micheletti has been
a long time foe of Zelaya’s diplomatic alliance with leftist Hugo Chávez.
At first, it looked like Micheletti would get along fine with Zelaya, a
politician who promoted free trade with the United States. But as the so-
called “Pink Tide” of left regimes came to power in South and Central
America, Zelaya became increasingly more politically independent. What
really set the two on a political collision course was Zelaya’s move to
bring Honduras into the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas (known by
its Spanish acronym ALBA), an alliance of leftist Latin American and
Caribbean nations headed by Chávez. The regional trade group including
Venezuela, Cuba, Nicaragua, Bolivia, and Dominica seeks to counteract
corporately friendly U.S-backed free trade schemes. Since its founding in
2004, ALBA countries have promoted joint factories and banks, an
emergency food fund, and exchanges of cheap Venezuelan oil for food,
housing, and educational investment.
Traditionally, Honduras has been known for its right-wing politics and
its close ties to the U.S. The third poorest country in the hemisphere,
Honduras has long been home to powerful U.S. fruit companies. The
military has looked out for business interests, liquidating any challenge
to the social order by the likes of organized labor for example. Given
the pervasive conservatism of Honduran politics, it’s no surprise that
when Zelaya moved to cultivate an alliance with Chávez, the maneuver
outraged the Honduran business sector and galvanized the media against
the president.
The Ford Imbroglio
It wasn’t long before diplomatic relations with the U.S. started to fall
to pieces. In the middle of July 2008, Zelaya went to Managua and met
with Chávez to celebrate the 29th anniversary of the fall of Nicaragua’s
Somoza dictatorship. Shortly afterwards, Chávez confirmed that Honduras
would join in the ALBA scheme. In a sharp retort to the insolent Zelaya,
outgoing U.S. Ambassador to Honduras Charles Ford said that a large
portion of remittances sent by U.S.-based Hondurans back to their home
country were the product of illicit drug trafficking. Ford added that he
frequently felt intimidated during his three-year stint serving in
Incensed, Zelaya charged that the U.S. was the “chief cause” of drug
smuggling in Latin America and the Caribbean. Ford was being
“belligerent,” Zelaya affirmed, simply because Honduras had pursued
diplomatic relations with Caracas, Havana, and Managua. Just because
Honduras received U.S. aid, Zelaya said, did not mean that his country
was a “vassal” of its northern benefactor. Moving on from his feudal
rhetoric, Zelaya accused the U.S. of promoting coup d’etats, invasions,
and uprisings across Central America. He added that Ford had suggested
that Honduras provide political asylum for the anti-Castro terrorist Luis
Posasa Carriles, an offer that Zelaya flatly rejected.
Defending his new found friend Chávez against the Honduran right, Zelaya
said he shared the Venezuelan’s antipathy towards superpowers that sought
to impose their will on other countries “like when Ambassador Charles
Ford asked me through the State Department to give a visa to Luis Posada
Carriles.” The Honduran Foreign Minister said that his country had sent a
formal letter of protest to the U.S. government, adding that Ford’s
remarks were unacceptable.
Needless to say, it wasn’t long before Micheletti joined others in
criticizing Zelaya’s moves to join ALBA. The President of the Honduran
Congress also called on Zelaya to show more respect towards Ambassador
Ford. “I believe we have the obligation to be close with the country to
our north because he is our friend and will continue to be so,”
Micheletti said. The politician also sought to delay Zelaya’s moves to
have Honduras join Chávez’s Petrocaribe program that would provide
Venezuelan oil to the Central American nation at subsidized prices, and
he also vowed to hold up passage of ALBA in Congress. ALBA, Micheletti
declared, would not pass Congress and would wind up as a “dead letter.”
The ALBA Debate
Facing political opposition, Zelaya indignantly declared that he did not
legally need to consult Congress to pass the ALBA accord with Chávez.
That in turn set up a confrontation with Congress and one legislator even
remarked that he was thinking about introducing a motion that would
declare Zelaya a usurper and mentally unfit to serve as president. By
this point, the Honduran private sector was going into hysterics with one
powerful association charging that ALBA would constitute “a political and
military alliance which would ideologically conspire against free trade,
the exercise of individual liberty and societal free choice.”
Insinuating himself further into contentious local politics, Chávez went
to Tegucigalpa where he spoke before a crowd of 50,000 unionists, women’s
groups, farmers, and indigenous peoples. Venezuela, Chávez said, would
guarantee cheap oil to Honduras for “at least 100 years.” Infuriating the
local elite, Chávez declared that Hondurans who opposed ALBA were
“sellouts.” Hardly content to stop there, Chávez lambasted the Honduran
press, which he labeled pitiyanquis (little Yanqui imitators) and “abject
hand-lickers of the Yanquis.” The outburst led Micheletti and members of
Congress to denounce Chávez for being “disrespectful” and “vulgar.”
With Honduran society becoming increasingly polarized over Chávez and
ALBA, Zelaya moved to mollify his political enemy in Congress. In
October, the President of Congress agreed to sign the ALBA agreement and
in exchange, Zelaya offered his political support to Micheletti who was
intent on running for president in 2009. In exchange for joining ALBA,
Venezuela offered to buy Honduran bonds worth $100 million with proceeds
spent on housing for the poor. Chávez also offered a $30 million credit
line for farming, 100 tractors, and 4 million low-energy light bulbs.
Cuba would send technicians to help install them, in addition to more
doctors and literacy teachers.. Relations continued to deteriorate with
the U.S. and in December 2008, Zelaya sent a strongly worded letter to
Obama criticizing the conduct of U.S. ambassadors, amongst other issues
[see my last article for a fuller discussion [1] of the note]..
Micheletti’s Towering Ambition
Ultimately Micheletti came up short in his bid to get his party’s
nomination, losing out to ex-Vice President Elvin Ernesto Santos. When
Zelaya declared his intention to proceed with the constitutional
referendum that would allow him to stand for re-election, Santos opposed
the move as illegal. Micheletti however won out in the ensuing power
struggle: following Sunday’s coup d’etat, Congress declared the veteran
politician Honduras’ next President.
In a press conference after being sworn in, Micheletti said that if
Zelaya “returns without the support of [the Venezuelan president] Mr.
Hugo Chávez, then we will receive him warmly.” Asked whether Honduras
would continue to participate in ALBA, Micheletti remarked, “I believe
that first we are going to revise what ALBA has produced for Hondurans.”
As a political figure, Micheletti is very reminiscent of another coup
plotter, Pedro Carmona. In April 2002, this politically well connected
businessman briefly became Venezuela’s “dictator for a day.” With the
support of Washington and The New York Times, Carmona held on until
Chávez was reinstated with the help of the military and angry protesters
in the streets of Caracas. Could history be repeating itself now in
Central America? Today, The New York Times presents Washington’s point of
view concerning events on the ground in Honduras without delving too
deeply into the political context or Micheletti’s possible motivations.
Nikolas Kozloff is the author of Hugo Chávez: Oil, Politics and the
Challenge to the U.S. (Palgrave, 2006)