This post is in response to claims that Hillary Clinton helped mastermind a military coup in Honduras, a claim that relies on dubious interpretations of government documents and official accounts. (1) First I will address the claim that Clinton was the mastermind behind the military coup and that the United States supported it, then I will (2) address her assertion that the coup was technically legal under the Honduran constitution and finally (3) offer an interpretation of the record that is consistent with publicly available accounts from wikileaks, the UN, the US government and others.
US support of a Honduran coup d’etat
The events leading up to the Honduran coup of 2009 read like the pages of a novel. A country rife with violence caused by organized crime and the drug trade, impoverished by multinational corporations and addled with corrupt politicians and judges ousts a democratically elected leader. The government claims that they have done so legally, when all rational interpretations of events suggest that this not only wasn’t the case – but also that a military coup occurred. These are the facts, and they are generally not disputed.
“We believe that the coup was not legal and that President Zelaya remains the democratically elected president there”…”It would be a terrible precedent if we start moving backwards into the era in which we are seeing military coups as a means of political transition rather than democratic elections.” – Barack Obama
The United States denounces the coup at its inception and withdraws all but humanitarian aid two days after President Zelaya was removed. Following the coup the US government begins speaking to leaders of other regional powers. According to Hillary Clinton:
“In the subsequent days [after the coup] I spoke with my counterparts around the hemisphere, including Secretary [Patricia] Espinosa in Mexico,” Clinton writes. “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.”
Despite President Obama’s remarks about a military coup having occurred, the US government (including Obama and the State department) maintained that while a coup had occurred, it was not clear if a military coup had occurred. This is a delineation which had not – before this point – actually existed. This was consistent with precedent of disingenuous legalese set by John Yoo who did a similar thing in making distinctions between “torture” and “enhanced interrogation”; as well as “enemy combatants” and “illegal enemy combatants” (these distinctions were created to circumvent the Geneva Accords and the UN Declaration of Human Rights and allow the United States to utilize torture techniques, permanent detention without trial and extraordinary rendition…see my write-up here).
Under traditional legal interpretations both of Honduran law the United States Ambassador to Honduras found that the coup was both illegal and illegitimate despite any hypothetical or actual crimes committed by Zelaya. In a memo released by Wikileaks the Ambassador Hugo Llorens states:
The analysis of the Constitution sheds some interesting light on the events of June 28. The Honduran establishment confronted a dilemma: near unanimity among the institutions of the state and the political class that Zelaya had abused his powers in violation of the Constitution, but with some ambiguity what to do about it. Faced with that lack of clarity, the military and/or whoever ordered the coup fell back on what they knew — the way Honduran presidents were removed in the past: a bogus resignation letter and a one-way ticket to a neighboring country. No matter what the merits of the case against Zelaya, his forced removal by the military was clearly illegal, and Micheletti’s ascendance as “interim president” was totally illegitimate.
While it requires impressive legalese to differentiate between a coup and a military coup, such dissonance is not outside the norm for United States’ Presidential administrations of both parties. Complicating the interpretation of law does nothing to increase confidence in government, but it also is not suggestive of government support of a coup.
Based on the available evidence, there is not enough information to specifically implicate former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in overseeing a coup in Honduras, and further analysis will show that claiming she supported such a coup requires some rhetorical gymnastics. The same statement applies to the Obama administration generally.
Allegations implicating Southern Command
The following allegations are primarily leveled by former President Zelaya and former staff member on the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee Martin Anderson.
After emailing Frank Morra – the Obama Administration’s newly installed political appointee as deputy Assistant Secretary of defense for the Western Hemisphere – Martin encountered factions within the US government engaging with coup leaders (this presumably being in late June or early July, just before the coup took place):
Within days [I] “found that another senior (and far right staff member, a vicious and vocal critic of Obama, and his minions had coordinated meetings for uniformed Honduran coup representatives on Capitol Hill, including the once of at least one now retired Senator, and other places in our nations capital, even as deadly -mop up operations took place in Tegucigalpa and in the countryside.”
Anderson concludes his remarks by saying:
For Southern Command, the Questions remain: Are not the clandestine and unpunished involvement in the Honduran coup, as well as the promotion of torture and murder, challenges to the rule of law as well as fundamental American values?
Allegations that Southern command orchestrated the coup originates with Zelaya:
Aside from these allegations, there is very little evidence to suggest that Southern Command was involved, either. There are however, some Senators who supported the coup. One such Senator is Jim Demint (r). He wrote an op-ed for the Washington State Journal in which he said that the people of Honduras supported the ouster, that it wasn’t a coup and that it was the right thing to do.
Resuming relations = supporting the coup?
Following the coup, the United States brought Zelaya and the Micheletti led government together in order to negotiate a resolution to the tense situation in Honduras. The agreement meant that the Honduran Congress would vote on Zelaya serving out the rest of his term as President (three months) and that the international community would support the eventual winner of the coming election. This agreement acted as a pressure release valve on the Honduran government. Rather than facing strict penalties for deposing their leader and destabilizing the region, the international community (in large part due to the United States) agreed to recognized that government as well. But let’s rewind for a moment and see how this differs from their initial positions:
The international response was hostile as well. Honduras was suspended from the Organization of American States, and the coup was condemned by the United Nations. No country recognized Micheletti’s de facto government. The United States, although no friend of Chávez and wary of Zelaya, suspended all non-humanitarian aid. The U.S. visas of Micheletti and other coup leaders were revoked. The golpistas were privately stunned, I was told, by the firmness of the U.S. reaction—this would never have happened if the Republicans had still been in power. Even their promise to hold Presidential elections on schedule, in late November, left the Obama Administration unmoved. The results of those elections would not be legitimate unless the coup was reversed and Zelaya restored to office, the Administration said.
Several Republican Congressman had already been outspoken about supporting the coup government, with nine of them visiting the de facto government in Honduras. Much of the justification for the coup centered around three things:
(1) President Zelaya raised the minimum wage and issued several social reforms that businesses objected to.
(2) He reached an agreement with Hugo Chavez that provided Honduras with a cheap source of oil (while still also maintaining ties with the US in fighting the War on Drugs). This was seen as a larger part of a conspiracy to become a puppet state to Venezuela.
(3) He pushed for a ballot initiative in the next election that asked citizens if the Constitution should be amended. This was ruled Unconstitutional by the country’s Supreme Court and other parties insisted this was put on the ballot so that he could push for reelection (which he was ineligible for under the current constitution). He included it on the ballot, which was the impetus behind his ouster.
But this constitute actually masterminding the coup? The answer is no. There is no evidence linking Hillary Clinton or the Obama administration to the events in Honduras.
The next question would be whether or not their actions constitute ‘supporting the coup.’ The answer here is also a firm no. If the Obama administration were to support the coup from its outset, there would be some evidence for this. Considering their firm condemnation of it and their lack of cooperation until it became clear that the interim government would not remain short-lived, there is nothing to indicate that they supported the coup itself.
Would any of this constitute ‘supporting the coup government.’ Maybe. It certainly doesn’t mean that they supported it at the time of the coup, but resuming normal relations and helping to organize a “democratic” election would – in some sense – easily be construed as support. The outcome is certainly the same as support, and so a tentative ‘yes’ is a possible response to the final answer.
Secretary Clinton later began to revise the record on whether or not there was a coup in Honduras, and whether or not the removal of Zelaya was constitutional:
“The legislature, the national legislature in Honduras and the national judiciary actually followed the law in removing President Zelaya. Now I didn’t like the way it looked or the way they did it but they had a very strong argument that they had followed the constitution and the legal precedence.”
This statement clearly doesn’t square with prior US policy, or with the actual evaluation by the State Department about the constitutionality of Zelaya’s removal (this memo being leaked by wikileaks). However it does serve to provide a revisionist history that allows for ample justification for the support of the post-coup government under international law.
There are two primary principles that come into conflict here (and in many other scenarios): self-determination and sovereignty.
Self-determination is the right of individuals to form their own governments to govern and represent them. This necessitates some sort of international recognition, and giving international recognition is no small task. Self-determination is a right of people, of individuals. Assuming that the ouster of Zelaya represents the people of Honduras (and this is very inconclusive, if not possibly disproven) then there is an obligation to recognize the government that comes from the center of the fray.
Sovereignty is the right of states (countries) to not have other countries interfere in their own affairs. This means that there is a right for the Honduras not to have outside forces interfere in instigating a coup, and to a point there is a right to not have the international community recognize a coup government. This runs into issues when the coup government becomes the de facto government, restoring the old government is untenable and the international community wants to negotiate and dictate good policy making by the new government. This means that international recognition becomes a tool of statecraft, and at a certain point international recognition is a practical matter.
As a practical matter the United States may have needed to recognize the new Honduran government if it would indeed be the de facto government of Honduras. It was (and is) in reality the actual government of Honduras even if not substantiated by the Honduran constitution. Whether or not the United States wants to, at a certain point recognizing the actual representatives of a people is important, especially if it results in good policy making. The international community has a much greater chance of preventing human rights abuses if it can actively negotiate and interact with the government that actually is in control of a country. Sometimes it is impossible (many times also for humanitarian reasons) to recognize a government. Such is the case with terrorist regimes, but is a new Honduran government a reign of terror, or a government that can be taught how to avoid human rights abuses?
So why would we decide to not recognize a military coup from the outset? One reason not recognize a “military coup” is that domestic law dictates that in the case of a military coup the United States will withdraw all aid from that country, including humanitarian aid. Offering humanitarian aid is one of the underappreciated and important parts of our foreign policy. It is one of the few things which countries can do which directly benefit the undeserved; it gives a rhetorical advantage for your country within the countries we provide aid to; and it gives leverage when the US needs something from those countries (obviously this applies to every country that gives aid).
I believe another reason (unstated by the administration) was to continue DEA activity in Honduras to combat drug cartels and drug trade. The UN estimates that about 1/3 of all cocaine movement from Central America goes through Honduras, so continuing enforcement in that country would be important in the war on drugs. Considering that drug trafficking there has dropped 72% since 2011, the activities of the US and Honduran governments appear to be having a significant effect. Violence in the country is still incredibly prolific, but it isn’t to the same degree as it was 5 years ago (murder rates have dropped by about 1/4).
There is no evidence of United States intervention in helping to orchestrate a coup, much less involvement by Hillary Clinton. Speculation that she “supported” the coup is also unsubstantiated. The original US policy until it became overwhelmingly clear that the Zelaya government could not be reinstated was that President Zelaya remained the “democratically elected” leader. This does not indicate “support” of the coup. The final point, that the US supported the coup government, is only true in terms of recognizing it after it was firmly cemented and after they agreed to “democratic” elections (which may not have been so democratic, but that is another topic). Considering that there are some legitimate interests in recognizing governments, it is unsurprising that this would be the case.
Gets a ranking of “Pants on Fire” (to borrow from Politifact).