“A coup anywhere in Latin America is a very big deal.”
Latin America has enjoyed 20 years of relatively stable governments, but Harvard professor Steven Levitsky told the HPR that the specter of coups still hangs over much of the region. “Latin America has undergone a remarkable change in the last 40 years, going from a time in which coups were commonplace—they replaced 40 percent of the governments during the Cold War—to a time where they were incredibly uncommon.” Because of this history, he explained, when a coup occurs, “alarm bells ring across the political spectrum in Latin America.”
This makes the 2009 coup in Honduras and the response of then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and the U.S. State Department all the more startling. Secretary Clinton’s reaction to the coup was initially ambiguous and evolved to support the replacement government much more rapidly than the United States has done in other foreign states. Her motivations appear to have been numerous, but many are troubling. In particular, her attention to business interests in a matter of state should be concerning. When seeking stability in Honduras, Clinton appears to have valued military and corporate interests above Honduran democratic integrity.
President Zelaya and his Leftward Drift
Upon winning the presidency in 2005, Manuel Zelaya, the nominee of the center-right Liberal Party of Honduras, hardly seemed likely to provoke a coup. Yet soon after entering office, Zelaya’s policy began tacking to the left. Under his leadership, Honduras raised the minimum wage by 60 percent, offered subsidies to small famers, and lowered interest rates, angering conservatives. The apprehension on the right continued to grow in 2008, when Zelaya sought membership in the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America (ALBA), a group pioneered by leftist governments of states like Venezuela, Cuba, and Bolivia.
These economic reforms also earned Zelaya powerful enemies outside of Honduras. Rodolfo Pastor, the Minister of Culture under President Zelaya, told the HPR that “American mining companies complained they were not being treated as they wanted [since] open pit mining had been prohibited, and petroleum companies could have complained as well, since they were losing their monopoly.” In an attempt to slow Zelaya’s drift, two Latin American business groups, the Business Council of Latin America (CEAL) and Association of Honduran Manufacturers (AHM), lobbied against him in both the United States and Honduras. Zelaya also faced growing opposition from the conservative National Party and transnational business lobbies. He sought to continue his policy of domestic reform but found himself limited by an uncooperative legislature and the 1982 Constitution of Honduras, which decentralized power after decades of military rule.
This political deadlock, in turn, drove Zelaya to seek constitutional reform. In late 2008, Zelaya sought a non-binding referendum on a vote to convene a constitutional assembly. However, in recent years, many other leaders affiliated with ALBA had modified their respective countries’ constitutions to weaken or remove presidential term limits. This precedent caused many of Zelaya’s political opponents to raise fears of similar action on his part.
In context, these fears could have been unfounded: Zelaya denied having any intent to change the term limits of the presidency, and he would not have benefited from these changes, as he would have left office by the time they took effect. Still, the poll provided a perfect excuse for Zelaya’s opponents to assert that he was plotting to remain in office. The accusations against Zelaya appear even more absurd as Juan Orlando Hernández, the current president and an architect of the subsequent coup, now advocates for reforms to allow presidential election.
Zelaya’s poll was illegal, as the Honduran constitution stipulates that only the Supreme Electoral Tribunal and Honduran Congress can propose changes to the constitution. The Honduran Supreme Court warned Zelaya that carrying out this referendum would result in criminal charges, but he proceeded with it nonetheless. On June 28, 2009, the military arrested and quickly exiled him to Costa Rica without trial. The military oversaw the next election, which took place in November 2009. For this and other reasons, major international observers such as the United Nations and the Carter Center refused to monitor the vote, and most countries refused to recognize the election. Levitsky characterized the current regime in Honduras not as a democracy but as a “hybrid regime” that “meets some basic requirements for democracy but is not quite there.”
It was not until just before the election that the United States, along with some allies, reversed its decision and decided to recognize the elections. The winner was Porfirio Lobo Sosa, a large landowner from the far-right National Party. Lobo continued the coup government’s policies as Honduras’s drug, violence, and corruption problems worsened. Worse still, according to University of California at Santa Cruz professor Dana Frank in an interview with the HPR, Lobo’s successor, current president Juan Orlando Hernández, “was an architect of the coup, and has continued the human rights abuses perpetuated by the Honduran government since the coup.”
Zelaya’s removal and exile has been deemed illegal by observers in and outside Honduras, including the Organization of American States’ Honduras Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The U.S. State Department’s 2009 Human Rights Report affirms that the governmental change was a coup that precipitated violence and limitations “on freedom of movement, association, expression, and assembly.” Yet following Lobo’s dubious election, the United States restored and even increased military aid, thereby demonstrating commitment to a government mired in human rights abuses.
The U.S. Response
Latin American governments immediately denounced Zelaya’s ouster as a military coup. The United States was not quite as decisive in its diction, with the initial statement from the Obama administration merely calling on “all political and social actors in Honduras to respect democratic norms.” Obama did go on to denounce the coup in the following days, but Frank noted that Obama’s characterization of the government change was very important. “He very clearly failed to call it a military coup. If he had called it a military coup, the United States would have had to immediately suspend all police and military aid,” Frank explained. “Eventually some money sent was suspended, but the vast majority was not.”
Following the coup, President Obama called many times for the reinstatement of Zelaya. In contrast, Secretary of State Clinton made remarks that were far more equivocal. When asked if the United States had any plans to alter aid to the coup government, , “Much of our assistance is conditioned on the integrity of the democratic system. But if we were able to get to a status quo that returned to the rule of law and constitutional order within a relatively short period of time, I think that would be a good outcome.” Clinton seemed to prioritize having a stable regime over preserving democratic ideals.
As further evidence, Clinton wrote in her book, Hard Choices, “In the subsequent days [after the coup] … we strategized on a plan to restore order in Honduras and ensure that free and fair elections could be held quickly and legitimately, which would render the question of Zelaya moot,” revealing that even as the administration publicly advocated for Zelaya’s return, Clinton was not working to ensure that it would happen.
Pastor added that Clinton had personal connections with supporters of the coup government that may have led her to soften her stance. For instance, Lanny Davis, Bill Clinton’s former personal lawyer and a longtime Hillary Clinton supporter, lobbied in Washington for the Honduran coup government, Honduran elites, the Business Council of Latin America, and the American companies that took issue with Zelaya’s reforms. Bennett Ratcliff, another top Democratic campaigner with close ties to the Clintons, also worked for the Honduran coup government as a lobbyist in Washington. These personal connections to advocates for the coup government raise troubling concerns that political ties influenced Clinton’s stance.
In Clinton’s defense, these personal connections were not the only political forces supporting the coup. Levitsky noted that initial opposition to the coup in the United States may have given way because “Republicans held a couple of major U.S.-Latin America appointments: the Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs and the Ambassador to Brazil. They held these positions hostage to a softening of U.S. policy toward the coup government.”
Arturo Valenzuela, the candidate for Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs whose nomination was initially blocked (and later confirmed) in 2009, stressed the pragmatic considerations that took precedence in the aftermath of the coup. “When we looked at Honduras, you can say they may not have followed the [Inter-American] Democratic Charter,” Valenzuela stated in an interview with the HPR. “But from the position of the United States, we had to address the problem [of establishing a stable government] and try to normalize the democratic process.” He also emphasized that “the State Department was opposed to the coup” and that only after extensive investigation did the United States decide to recognize the elections in 2009.
Another potential motivator that softened opposition to the coup was the U.S. desire to secure Palmerola Air Base. Palmerola is one of the United States’ most important military outposts in Central America, since it provides a platform to help train the armed forces of neighboring countries and combat drug cartels. Palmerola is also home to the Honduran Air Force, which assisted the coup and carried out Zelaya’s exile to Costa Rica. Pastor observed that the United States may have been worried that “Honduras had aligned itself with ALBA countries mostly because it needed cheap oil and finance, and that the United States was losing a strategic struggle.” The base may have provided a strategic motive for Clinton and the State Department to tacitly support the coup government, though Pastor said lobbying and an “entente with Republicans” played a larger role.
Latin American Concerns
“Since the 1990s, coups have been virtually non-existent,” Levitsky stated. “As soon as you tolerate military interventions, even interventions on governments you do not like, there’s a huge, huge risk of normalizing these interventions.” He emphasized the worry that the coup caused among many Latin American states. Pastor added that Latin American states were “absolutely outraged,” with the only exceptions being very close allies of the United States.
Many Latin Americans feared a region-wide return to a system of so-called “moderated coups,” which had removed governments that acted against the interests of an established elite or the military during the mid-20th century. Levitsky explained that moderated coups often lasted until a government more in line with the military’s ideology was elected and added that they were “somewhat common and horrible for democracy.” Although no coups have occurred since 2009, many governments saw the Honduran military coup as precedent for a resurgence of military control in governments and looked poorly on the United States for not opposing the coup government more vehemently.
Throughout the Cold War, the United States incited, encouraged, and supported coups around the world, including many in Latin America. In Latin America, this approach to foreign policy was motivated by a desire to preserve the free market, protect American corporate interests, and stymie the spread of leftist regimes. The actions of the State Department in response to the 2009 coup in Honduras were nowhere near so deliberate or involved as those undertaken in the Cold War, but the indifference and eventual acceptance of the coup government by Secretary of State Clinton may have similar motivations to those earlier actions.
In Pastor’s words, “the American government did not, as such, order or mount or stage the coup—it just danced along with its monsters.” Nonetheless, this dance sends a clear message to Latin American countries: the United States has priorities that supersede their governments’ independence from military influence.
Image Credit: Flickr // Nan Palmero under a Creative Commons 2.0 License; Wikimedia Commons // Agencia Brasil under a Creative Commons 3.0 Brazil License; Wikimedia Commons // U.S. Department of State.