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Who's Behind Honduras Destabilization? All Roads Lead to McCain

July 14, 2009

Tags: John McCain, Honduras coup, Central America, U.S. foreign policy in Latin America


Behind the recent pressure campaign against the Zelaya regime in Honduras lurks a shadowy world of right wing foundations, lobbying groups, and anti-Chávez figures. This tangled web of Washington, D.C. interests includes the Arcadia Foundation, a mysterious figure named Robert Carmona Borjas, and former State Department official Otto Reich. What do all these organizations and characters have in common? In one way or another, they are all tied back to Senator John McCain (R-AZ).

According to the Mexican newspaper La Jornada, Venezuelan lawyer Robert-Carmona Borjas helped to draft some of the infamous anti-constitutional "Carmona decrees" after Hugo Chávez was overthrown in the April 2002 military coup. After Chávez was returned to power, Carmona Borjas fled to the United States where he found his calling as a leading anti-Chávez figure and, more recently, as a fierce critic of the Zelaya regime in Honduras.

In 2004, Carmona-Borjas was listed as part time faculty at the Department of Romance Languages and Literature at George Washington University; as recently as November 2008, set up a class entitled "Political Management in Latin America" offered through the Graduate School of Political Management. According to the GW Hatchet, the local student paper, the class had a roster of right-wing, free-trade boosting speakers including Colombian President Álvaro Uribe, former U.S. ambassador to Venezuela Otto Reich, Leopoldo López, a Venezuelan politician, Secretary of Commerce Carlos Gutiérrez, and Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL).

According to the Hatchet, the class sought to "analyze Latin American governments that have failed social policies, which have led to anti-system political movements." "Many Latin American countries have forged ties with re-emerging powers and countries in pursuit of nuclear capability," Carmona-Borjas said, "ties that can endanger the interests of the United States in the region."

But it was not part time teaching in D.C. that distinguished Carmona Borjas as a political player. No, it was the Venezuelan's work as Vice President of the mysterious anti-corruption and watchdog outfit known as Arcadia Foundation that really set him apart. From his perch at Arcadia, Carmona-Borjas launched anti-corruption attacks against Honduras and the Zelaya regime. In particular, he conducted a massive public relations campaign against Hondutel, the state telecommunications company in Honduras. In article after article published in the Central American media, Borjas-Carmona accused Hondutel of corruption.

The Right-Wing Telecom Connection

The Venezuelan right winger was joined in his criticisms by Otto Reich, former U.S. Ambassador to Venezuela, State Department official under Bush, and foreign policy adviser for McCain's 2008 campaign. Reich was linked to figures in the 2002 coup against Chávez and has worked as a corporate lobbyist for firms such as telecom giant AT&T. His firm, Otto Reich Associates, advises U.S. corporations in Latin America and promotes the American free trade agenda by fighting privatization.

I speculated before that Reich and Carmona-Borjas might have known of each other, and the George Washington University connection is now proof of that. What seems to have united both Reich and Carmona-Borjas was their interest in the telecommunications issue. That's not too surprising in light of the history. Indeed, for McCain and his right-wing ilk the telecom industry has been a central political focus. McCain has had important historic ties to big corporations such as AT&T, MCI, and Qualcomm. In return for their financial contributions, McCain, who partly oversees the telecommunication industry in the Senate, has acted to protect and look out for the political and economic interests of the telecoms on Capitol Hill.

To get a sense of the sheer scope of McCain's incestuous relationship with the telecoms, one need only log on to the Web site of the Center for Responsive Politics. In the 1998 electoral cycle, AT&T gave $34,000 to McCain. In the 2000 cycle, the telecom giant provided $69,000; in 2002 $61,000; in 2004 $39,000; in 2006 $29,000; and in 2008 $187,000. Over the course of his career, AT&T has been McCain's second largest corporate backer.

What's more, AT&T has donated handsomely to McCain's International Republican Institute (IRI). McCain chairs this group and though he seldom talks about it, he has gotten much of his foreign policy experience working with the operation that is funded by the U.S. government and private money. The IRI, which receives tens of millions of taxpayer dollars each year, claims to promote democracy worldwide. In 2006, AT&T gave the IRI $200,000. AT&T spokesman Michael Balmoris declined to elaborate on why the international telecommunications provider wrote a big check. "AT&T contributes to a variety of charitable organizations," he said flippantly.

IRI and Telecom Agenda in Latin America

The IRI has fought against regimes in Latin America that resist privatization of the telecom industry. In Venezuela, where the government nationalized the telecom firm CANTV, IRI generously funded anti-Chávez civil society groups that were opposed to the regime. Starting in 1998, the year Chávez was elected, IRI worked with Venezuelan organizations to produce anti-Chávez media campaigns, including newspaper, television, and radio ads.

Additionally, when politicians, union and civil society leaders went to Washington to meet with U.S. officials just one month before the April 2002 coup, IRI picked up the bill. The IRI also helped to fund the corrupt Confederation of Venezuelan Workers (which played a major role in the anti-Chávez destabilization campaign leading up to the coup) and Súmate, an organization involved in a signature-gathering campaign to present a petition calling for Chávez's recall.

Like Hugo Chávez, Honduran President Zelaya was known to be as a fierce critic of telecommunications privatization. In this sense, he was at odds with the current coup president Roberto Micheletti as well as right-wing interests in the U.S. such as McCain's IRI, Arcadia, and Otto Reich Associates that push for the free trade agenda and privatization.

The Curious Case of Cormac

For evidence of further U.S. corporate and right-wing ties to the Honduran imbroglio, one need look no farther than PR Newswire for last Monday, July 6. In an article headlined "Honduran Congressional, Business Leaders to Hold Washington, D.C., Press Conference," we learn that a delegation sought "several days of meetings with United States policymakers to clarify any misunderstandings about Honduras' constitutional process and to discuss next steps to ensure the preservation of the country's democratic institutions."

Founded in March 2001, the Cormac Group is a "strategic consulting and lobbying firm" advocating "open and fair markets." Cormac works in the telecommunications sector and seeks to construct "a barrier-free regulatory structure that enhances competition." Cormac's Founding Partner John Timmons was a fundraiser for McCain and former Senate aide and has represented AT&T. Another partner at Cormac, Jonathan Slade, "has developed a well-known reputation from helping American and foreign companies impact the U.S. foreign policy process, particularly related to Latin America."

Hard Right and Not Obama

What seems to have united all these right-wing groups and figures -- from Arcadia to Otto Reich -- was their allegiance to free markets and privatization of the telecom industry. It was these entities allied to the hard right and McCain that played the most prominent role in the pressure campaign against Zelaya -- not the Obama Administration.

U.S. intervention in Honduras: From Negroponte to Posada Carriles

July 2, 2009

Tags: Manuel Zelaya, Honduras coup, John Negroponte, Luis Posada Carriles, Central America, U.S. foreign policy in Latin America


Ousted Honduran President Manuel Zelaya, who was overthrown in a military coup on Sunday, is irate about U.S. interventionism in his country. That’s not too surprising in light of the history. For years, successive U.S. diplomats in Tegucigalpa have cultivated close ties with right wing elements in Honduras while seeking to head off progressive change. If Zelaya is ever reinstated as President, the U.S. will have to work hard to erase Hondurans’ bitter memory of belligerent American ambassadors.

Consider for a moment the case of John Negroponte, U.S. Ambassador to Honduras from 1981 to 1985. Negroponte worked in his post at the height of the U.S.-funded Contra war against the Sandinista regime in Nicaragua. At the time, Honduras served as a vital base for the Contra rebel army. Negroponte played a significant role in assisting the Contras, though human rights groups criticized him for ignoring human rights abuses committed by Honduran death squads which were funded and partially trained by the Central Intelligence Agency. Indeed, when Negroponte served as ambassador his building in Tegucigalpa became one of the largest nerve centers of the CIA in Latin America with a tenfold increase in personnel.

The authorities built an airbase at El Aguacate for the Contras, which was reportedly used as a detention facility where torture occurred. The area also served as a burial ground for 185 dissidents whose remains were only uncovered in 2001. Jack Binns, Negroponte’s predecessor in Tegucigalpa and a Carter appointee, maintains that when he handed over power to Negroponte he gave the newcomer a full briefing about human rights abuses committed by the military. Negroponte denies having any knowledge about such occurrences.

But wait, there’s more: Negroponte also participated in a secret and possibly illegal quid pro quo in which the Reagan Administration bribed Honduran authorities with economic and military assistance in exchange for support for the contra rebels. Efraín Díaz, a former Honduran Congressman, remarked of Negroponte and other U.S. officials, “Their attitude was one of tolerance and silence. They needed Honduras to loan its territory more than they were concerned about innocent people being killed.” As a result of its cooperation with the U.S. war on Nicaragua, Honduras was rewarded with tens of millions of dollars in American military aid. If Negroponte had actually reported to Congress that the Honduran armed forces were involved in human rights abuses, the aid would have been jeopardized.

By the time Manuel Zelaya was elected President in Honduras in late 2005 Central America had finally emerged from its war torn past and was seeking to forge a new and more peaceful future. But Charles Ford, the Bush-appointed ambassador in Tegucigalpa, seemed determined to continue in the footsteps of Negroponte by pursuing a belligerent foreign policy. Just a mere eight days after Zelaya was inaugurated, Ford asked the Honduran President to provide asylum to Luis Posada Carriles, a Cuban exile linked to several terrorist attacks against the Castro government.

A former CIA agent, Posada’s crimes included the masterminding of a bombing of a Cubana airliner in 1976 that resulted in the deaths of all 73 passengers onboard, amongst other brutal attacks. In 2003 Posada was arrested in Panama in possession of a large quantity of C-4 explosives. He intended to use them to assassinate Cuban leader Fidel Castro who was in Panama to attend a diplomatic summit. Posada later escaped and fled to the United States.

Zelaya indignantly refused Ford’s request. “I told him [Ford] that it was impossible to grant a visa and political asylum to Posada Carriles because he was accused of terrorist crimes and they (the United States) defend this kind of terrorism; they defend it and I am sure of that,” Zelaya remarked. Speaking with journalists later, the President wondered, “Could it be the case that any Honduran is not aware that the U.S. Embassy here has always interfered with coup d’etats, promoting invasions in Latin America…and wars?” Throwing diplomatic caution by the wayside, the irate Zelaya continued “Were we note victims of the Cold War during the 1980s, when attacks were launched on Nicaragua from Honduran soil…and Honduras was lent out as a base from which to conduct war-like actions?”

Ford, a big booster of the U.S. free trade agreement with Honduras, apparently did not approve of such remarks nor did he warm to Zelaya after the Honduran cultivated a diplomatic alliance with leftist Hugo Chávez of Venezuela. Just as he was about to leave Tegucigalpa after serving out his three year stint, 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. 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 Venezuela.

As payback for Ford’s diplomatic insolence, Zelaya delayed accreditation of the new U.S. ambassador Hugo Llorens out of solidarity with Bolivia and Venezuela which had just recently gone through diplomatic dust ups with Washington. “We are not breaking relations with the United States,” Zelaya said. “We only are (doing this) in solidarity with [Bolivian President] Morales, who has denounced the meddling of the United States in Bolivia's internal affairs.” Defending his decision, Zelaya said small nations needed to stick together. “The world powers must treat us fairly and with respect,” he stated. To top it all off, Zelaya sent a letter to newly-elected President Obama in December. In it, the Honduran President urged Obama not to pursue “interventionist practices.” “Ambassadors should…avoid inappropriate public pronouncements…Meddling opinions are damaging and set the political climate on edge,” Zelaya wrote.

Llorens, who was formerly Director of National Security for Andean Affairs at the National Security Agency, doesn’t seem to share his predecessor’s penchant for diplomatic gaffes. Still, there’s nothing fundamentally novel to his approach to foreign policy in the region. A booster of the drug war and free trade, he offers up the same old and tired proscriptions of his earlier colleagues. If Zelaya is restored to power, Obama should make a clean break with the past and appoint a new ambassador. The new President has said he would like the U.S. to relate to Latin America as an equal partner and not simply impose its own will and dictates. Now is his chance to demonstrate that good will.

Honduras: Latin American Media War Continues

July 1, 2009

Tags: Manuel Zelaya, Honduras coup, Telesur, Central America


NOTE: FOR EARLIER POSTS CLICK HERE.

Read or listen to the mainstream media these days and you get the impression that Sunday’s coup in Honduras was all about a simple disagreement over the constitutionality of presidential term limits. But as the coup unfolds it’s becoming clear that the authorities want something more: the restoration of Honduras’s conservative political order and an end to President Manuel Zelaya’s independent foreign policy which had reached out to leftist countries like Cuba and Venezuela.

As part of their effort to consolidate power officials have moved quickly to restrain the free flow of information, in particular by cracking down on progressive leaning media. Only TV stations sympathetic to the newly installed coup regime have been left alone while others have been shut down. The climate of repression is similar to what we have seen elsewhere in Latin America in recent years. Specifically, there are eerie parallels to the April, 2002 coup in Venezuela when the briefly installed right wing government imposed a media blackout to further its own political ends.

Perhaps somewhat tellingly, the Honduran army cut off local broadcasts of the Telesur news network which is sponsored by leftist governments including Venezuela, Uruguay, Argentina and Cuba. Adriana Sivori, Telesur’s correspondent in Tegucigalpa, was in her hotel room speaking on the telephone to her network when ten soldiers arrived with rifles drawn. The men unplugged Telesur’s editing equipment in an effort to halt the network’s coverage of protests in support of ousted President Manuel Zelaya.

When a soldier lightly slapped Sivori’s hand so she would hang up, the journalist grew alarmed. “They’re taking us prisoner at gunpoint,” she remarked. Sivori along with producer María José Díaz and cameraman Larry Sánchez were taken to an immigration office in a military caravan. There, the authorities beat them and demanded to see their Honduran visas. Shortly later, the journalists were released. However, the authorities have warned Telesur journalists to cease transmitting images in support of Zelaya or face further detention.

What is so important about Telesur in particular? In my latest book, Revolution! South America and the Rise of the New Left (Palgrave, 2008) I devote considerable attention to the rise of the new station, itself a product of South America’s stormy political battles and contested media landscape. First launched in 2005, Telesur represents Venezuela’s effort to counteract the power of the right wing media establishment which played a role in the short-lived April coup of 2002 against the Chávez government. Seen as South Ameica’s answer to Al Jazeera and CNN, the station has been spearheaded by Andrés Izarra, up until recently the station’s president. A rising star in the Chávez administration, Izarra got his start as a journalist at NBC and CNN. Disgusted by right wing media coverage of the 2002 coup, he started to work for Telesur.

Since its launch, Telesur has given CNN en Español a run for its money and now has slick production values. Station Director Aram Aharonian says the news industry has gone through a dumbing down since the Gulf War. Journalism, Aharonian remarked to me during our interview in Caracas, had become instantaneous but also devoid of any investigation, analysis or debate. Telesur, by contrast, was “rescuing” journalistic ethics by providing context and opinions about goings-on. While you can expect to see more critical coverage of the Iraq War on Telesur than most mainstream U.S. media outlets, Aharonian says Telesur is independent and doesn’t have any particular political axe to grind.

Such assurances aside, the conservative establishment views Telesur as a threat. When the station announced a content-sharing agreement with Al Jazeera in 2006, Connie Mack, a right-wing Republican congressman from Florida, remarked that the decision was designed to create a “global television network for terrorists.” In light of Sivori’s recent detention, one may surmise that the Honduran coup regime agrees with Mack’s hysterical views.

In Latin America, media has become a crucial fault line in the battle between the pro-U.S. elite and the incipient left “Pink Tide” which has been sweeping into power. In Honduras, the coup regime has not only gone after Telesur but also Channel 8, the official broadcaster of the Zelaya government. The moves prompted Venezuela’s official Bolivarian News Agency as well as Cuba’s Granma newspaper to issue formal letters of protest. Meanwhile a climate of fear and intimidation reigns throughout the capital, with networks providing scant coverage of political protest. Soldiers are reportedly guarding local television and radio stations.

In recent years Zelaya had been embroiled in a war with the conservative private media in the country. Now that the President is gone, these outlets have rallied in defense of the coup regime. Honduras’ two leading radio networks, Radio América and Radio HRN, have urged Hondurans to resume their normal routine and not to protest. Even as hundreds of protesters rallied at the presidential palace in Tegucigalpa to demand Zelaya’s reinstatement, radio and TV stations made little reference to the demonstrations. Instead of reporting on political goings-on, the Honduran media outlets played tropical music or aired soap operas and cooking shows.

It’s reminiscent of the April, 2002 coup against Chávez when conservative media station Venevisión refused to cover pro-Chávez demonstrations and preempted its normal news coverage with a day-long marathon of American films such as Lorenzo’s Oil, Nell, and Pretty Woman. Venevisión, which substituted nonstop vitriolic anti-Chávez propaganda for its regular programming in the days leading up to the coup, was owned by billionaire media magnate Gustavo Cisneros, himself a leading figure in the Chávez opposition who reportedly bankrolled the opposition’s takeover of government.

In Venezuela, conservative coup leaders misjudged the popular mood. Amidst street protests, Chávez was reinstated in two days. In the wake of the coup Venevisión began to moderate its strident tone and the Venezuelan President went on the political offensive by spurring the creation of Telesur as well as other media outlets. If you flip the TV dial today you can still watch rabidly anti-Chávez stations like Globovisión, though the playing field has been leveled considerably. In addition to Telesur Venezuelans can also watch Venezolana de Televisión, a government channel, as well as state sponsored Vive which provides discussion on Venezuelan culture and politics. Chávez has his own TV talk show, Aló, Presidente, and there are dozens of pro-government papers including a tabloid called VEA.

The antagonistic media environment in Venezuela is echoed in other left-leaning countries in South America. Indeed, the newly elected Pink Tide regimes have taken on the private media with a vengeance: in Ecuador, President Rafael Correa has proposed that the constitution disallow bankers from financing media outlets. According to him, Ecuadoran television is controlled by powerful interests and the Association of Television Channels is nothing more than a “bankers club.” In Bolivia, indigenous President Evo Morales launched a weekly radio show called The People Are News. The show airs for two hours each week on the Patria Nueva (New Fatherland) state network.

If Zelaya returns to power in Honduras, which seems likely, then we could see the government take on the power of private TV, radio and the like more significantly, perhaps by emphasizing more state media. It will be merely the latest chapter in the ongoing information war between the conservative, globalizing elite and more left-leaning leaders who are coming to power throughout the region.