To read my NACLA article, co-written with journalist Bill Weinberg, click here.
The mainstream media has once again dropped the ball on a key aspect of the ongoing story in Honduras: the U.S. airbase at Soto Cano, also known as Palmerola. Prior to the recent military coup d’etat President Manuel Zelaya declared that he would turn the base into a civilian airport, a move opposed by the former U.S. ambassador. What’s more Zelaya intended to carry out his project with Venezuelan financing.
For years prior to the coup the Honduran authorities had discussed the possibility of converting Palmerola into a civilian facility. Officials fretted that Toncontín, Tegucigalpa’s international airport, was too small and incapable of handling large commercial aircraft. An aging facility dating to 1948, Toncontín has a short runway and primitive navigation equipment. The facility is surrounded by hills which makes it one of the world’s more dangerous international airports.
Palmerola by contrast has the best runway in the country at 8,850 feet long and 165 feet wide. The airport was built more recently in the mid-1980s at a reported cost of $30 million and was used by the United States for supplying the Contras during America’s proxy war against the Sandinistas in Nicaragua as well as conducting counter-insurgency operations in El Salvador. At the height of the Contra war the U.S. had more than 5,000 soldiers stationed at Palmerola. Known as the Contras’ “unsinkable aircraft carrier,” the base housed Green Berets as well as CIA operatives advising the Nicaraguan rebels.
More recently there have been some 500-to-600 U.S. troops on hand at the facility which serves as a Honduran air force base as well as a flight-training center. With the exit of U.S. bases from Panama in 1999, Palmerola became one of the few usable airfields available to the U.S. on Latin American soil. The base is located approximately 30 miles north of the capital Tegucigalpa.
In 2006 it looked as if Zelaya and the Bush administration were nearing a deal on Palmerola’s future status. In June of that year Zelaya flew to Washington to meet President Bush and the Honduran requested that Palmerola be converted into a commercial airport. Reportedly Bush said the idea was “wholly reasonable” and Zelaya declared that a four-lane highway would be constructed from Tegucigalpa to Palmerola with U.S. funding.
In exchange for the White House’s help on the Palmerola facility Zelaya offered the U.S. access to a new military installation to be located in the Mosquitia area along the Honduran coast near the Nicaraguan border. Mosquitia reportedly serves as a corridor for drugs moving south to north. The drug cartels pass through Mosquitia with their cargo en route from Colombia, Peru and Bolivia.
A remote area only accessible by air, sea, and river Mosquitia is full of swamp and jungle. The region is ideal for the U.S. since large numbers of troops may be housed in Mosquitia in relative obscurity. The coastal location was ideally suited for naval and air coverage consistent with the stated U.S. military strategy of confronting organized crime, drug trafficking, and terrorism. Romeo Vásquez, head of the Honduran Joint Chiefs of Staff, remarked that the armed forces needed to exert a greater presence in Mosquitia because the area was full of “conflict and problems.”
But what kind of access would the U.S. have to Mosquitia? Honduran Defense Secretary Aristides Mejía said that Mosquitia wouldn’t necessarily be “a classic base with permanent installations, but just when needed. We intend, if President Zelaya approves, to expand joint operations [with the United States].” That statement however was apparently not to the liking of eventual coup leader and U.S. School of the Americas graduate Vásquez who had already traveled to Washington to discuss future plans for Mosquitia. Contradicting his own colleague, Vásquez said the idea was “to establish a permanent military base of ours in the zone” which would house aircraft and fuel supply systems. The United States, Vásquez added, would help to construct air strips on site.
Events on the ground meanwhile would soon force the Hondurans to take a more assertive approach towards air safety. In May, 2008 a terrible crash occurred at Toncontín airport when a TACA Airbus A320 slid off the runway on its second landing attempt. After mowing down trees and smashing through a metal fence, the airplane’s fuselage was broken into three parts near the airstrip. Three people were killed in the crash and 65 were injured.
In the wake of the tragedy Honduran officials were forced at long last to block planes from landing at the notoriously dangerous Toncontín. All large jets, officials said, would be temporarily transferred to Palmerola. Touring the U.S. airbase himself Zelaya remarked that the authorities would create a new civilian facility at Palmerola within sixty days. Bush had already agreed to let Honduras construct a civilian airport at Palmerola, Zelaya said. “There are witnesses,” the President added.
But constructing a new airport had grown more politically complicated. Honduran-U.S. relations had deteriorated considerably since Zelaya’s 2006 meeting with Bush and Zelaya had started to cultivate ties to Venezuela while simultaneously criticizing the American-led war on drugs.
Bush’s own U.S. Ambassador Charles Ford said that while he would welcome the traffic at Palmerola past agreements should be honored. The base was used mostly for drug surveillance planes and Ford remarked that “The president can order the use of Palmerola when he wants, but certain accords and protocols must be followed.” “It is important to point out that Toncontín is certified by the International Civil Aviation Organization,” Ford added, hoping to allay long-time concerns about the airport’s safety. What’s more, the diplomat declared, there were some airlines that would not see Palmerola as an “attractive” landing destination. Ford would not elaborate or explain what his remarks were supposed to mean.
Throwing fuel on the fire Assistant Secretary of State John Negroponte, a former U.S. ambassador to Honduras, said that Honduras could not transform Palmerola into a civilian airport “from one day to the next.” In Tegucigalpa, Negroponte met with Zelaya to discuss Palmerola. Speaking later on Honduran radio the U.S. diplomat said that before Zelaya could embark on his plans for Palmerola the airport would have to receive international certification for new incoming flights. According to Spanish news agency EFE Negroponte also took advantage of his Tegucigalpa trip to sit down and meet with the President of the Honduran Parliament and future coup leader Roberto Micheletti [the news account however did not state what the two discussed].
Needless to say Negroponte’s visit to Honduras was widely repudiated by progressive and human rights activists who labeled Negroponte “an assassin” and accused him of being responsible for forced disappearances during the diplomat’s tenure as ambassador (1981-1985). Moreover, Ford and Negroponte’s condescending attitude irked organized labor, indigenous groups and peasants who demanded that Honduras reclaim its national sovereignty over Palmerola. “It’s necessary to recover Palmerola because it’s unacceptable that the best airstrip in Central America continues to be in the hands of the U.S. military,” said Carlos Reyes, leader of the Popular Bloc which included various politically progressive organizations. “The Cold War has ended and there are no pretexts to continue with the military presence in the region,” he added. The activist remarked that the government should not contemplate swapping Mosquitia for Palmerola either as this would be an affront to Honduran pride.
Over the next year Zelaya sought to convert Palmerola into a civilian airport but plans languished when the government was unable to attract international investors. Finally in 2009 Zelaya announced that the Honduran armed forces would undertake construction. To pay for the new project the President would rely on funding from ALBA [in English, the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas] and Petrocaribe, two reciprocal trading agreements pushed by Venezuelan leader Hugo Chávez.
Predictably the Honduran right leapt on Zelaya for using Venezuelan funds. Amílcar Bulnes, President of the Honduran Business Association [known by its Spanish acronym COHEP] said that Petrocaribe funds should not be used for the airport but rather for other, unspecified needs.
A couple weeks after Zelaya announced that the armed forces would proceed with construction at Palmerola the military rebelled. Led by Romeo Vásquez, the army overthrew Zelaya and deported him out of the country. In the wake of the coup U.S. peace activists visited Palmerola and were surprised to find that the base was busy and helicopters were flying all around. When activists asked American officials if anything had changed in terms of the U.S.-Honduran relationship they were told “no, nothing.”
The Honduran elite and the hard right U.S. foreign policy establishment had many reasons to despise Manuel Zelaya as I’ve discussed in previous articles. The controversy over the Palmerola airbase however certainly gave them more ammunition.
Liberals who have idealized Obama don’t want to believe that their President is capable of bullish behavior towards Latin America. It was Bush, they say, who epitomized arrogant U.S.-style imperialism and not the new resident of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Recent events in Central America however force us to look at the Obama administration in a sobering new light. While it’s unclear whether Obama had advance warning of an imminent military coup d’etat in Honduras the White House has not emerged from the Zelaya affair unsullied.
In December, 2008, even before his inauguration, Obama received an irate letter from Honduran president Manuel Zelaya demanding an end to arrogant and interventionist U.S. ambassadors in Tegucigalpa. Just eight months earlier American ambassador Hugo Llorens had taken on the government by making inflammatory remarks. During a press conference the diplomat declared that Zelaya’s move to rewrite the constitution was “a Honduran matter and it’s a delicate matter to comment on as a foreign diplomat.” But then, contradicting himself and inserting himself into the volatile political milieu, Llorens remarked that “one can’t violate the constitution to create a constitution, because if you don’t have a constitution the law of the jungle reigns.”
If Obama was serious about restoring U.S. moral credibility world-wide he might have cleaned house by removing Bush appointees such as Llorens. An émigré from Castro’s Cuba, Llorens worked as an Assistant Treasurer at Chase Manhattan Bank before entering the Foreign Service. As Deputy Director of the Office of Economic Policy and Summit Coordination in the State Department during Clinton-time, he played an important role in spearheading the corporately-friendly Free Trade Area of the Americas or FTAA. But it was chiefly during the Bush years that Llorens distinguished himself, serving as the Director of Andean Affairs at the National Security Council. At the NSC, Llorens was the most important advisor to Bush and Condoleezza Rice on matters pertaining to Colombia, Venezuela, Bolivia, Peru, and Ecuador.
While Zelaya’s move to rewrite the Honduran constitution antagonized Llorens it also inflamed the local business elite and no doubt the U.S. foreign policy establishment. Perhaps these groups feared a Honduran repeat of the South American “Pink Tide”: across the region leftist leaders from Hugo Chávez to Rafael Correa have mobilized civil society in an effort to rewrite their respective nations’ constitutions.
Chávez’s 1999 constitution provides for some of the most comprehensive human rights provisions of any constitution in the world while also including special protection for women, indigenous peoples and the environment. The constitution moreover allows for broad citizen participation in national life. The preamble states that one of the Constitution’s goals is to establish a participatory democracy achieved through elected representatives, popular votes by referendum and, perhaps most importantly, popular mobilization. In Venezuela, it was Chávez’s constitution which helped to solidify his alliance with traditionally marginalized sectors of the population.
In Ecuador, traditional political parties and wealthy elites labeled Correa “dictatorial” after the president called for the drafting of a new constitution. In the end however a large plurality of voters approved the new 2008 constitution which provides for free universal health care, a universal right to water and prohibition of its privatization and the redistribution of large unused landholdings. Even more dramatically, the constitution declares that Ecuador is a “pacifist state” and outlaws foreign military bases on Ecuadoran soil.
As I explain in my recent book Revolution! South America and the Rise of the New Left (Palgrave, 2008), there’s been a potent alliance as of late between leftist Latin leaders on the one hand and dynamic social movements on the other. In Ecuador, the main indigenous federation supported the new constitution as did organized labor. Indeed, Correa’s move to draft a new constitution could help to establish tighter links between the president and progressive social forces as per Chávez’s Venezuela.
In the media, the Honduran imbroglio has been depicted as a struggle over presidential power and term limits. But while any new constitution might have extended presidential term limits, such a reform could have also led to new progressive amendments to the law and further radicalization on the ground. In recent years Honduras has seen the emergence of a vibrant social and political scene including labor, Garifuna (Afro-Honduran people) and Indians. If Zelaya had been successful at pushing through his constitutional reform he would have been able to mobilize such groups.
What is the connection between U.S. interests and constitutional reform? If you had any doubt about Washington’s true intentions in Honduras consider the following AP Report for July 8 about diplomatic negotiations between the coup regime and ousted president Zelaya: “Clinton would not discuss specifics of the mediation process, which she said would begin soon, but a senior U.S. official said one option being considered would be to forge a compromise under which Zelaya would be allowed to return and serve out his remaining six months in office with limited powers [italics added]. Zelaya, in return, would pledge to drop his aspirations for a constitutional change.”
It’s the State Department then under Hillary Clinton, allied in spirit to figures from the old Bush establishment, which is seeking to cut off constitutional reform in Honduras — reform which could lead to popular mobilization as we’ve seen in Ecuador and Venezuela. Obama meanwhile has condemned the coup but his failure to rein in either Llorens or Clinton suggests that he too believes that Zelaya’s proposal for a constitutional reform is dangerous and needs to be halted.
When the Honduran military overthrew the democratically elected government of Manuel Zelaya two weeks ago there might have been a sigh of relief in the corporate board rooms of Chiquita banana. Earlier this year the Cincinnati-based fruit company joined Dole in criticizing the government in Tegucigalpa which had raised the minimum wage by 60%. Chiquita complained that the new regulations would cut into company profits, requiring the firm to spend more on costs than in Costa Rica: 20 cents more to produce a crate of pineapple and ten cents more to produce a crate of bananas to be exact. In all, Chiquita fretted that it would lose millions under Zelaya’s labor reforms since the company produced around 8 million crates of pineapple and 22 million crates of bananas per year.
When the minimum wage decree came down Chiquita sought help and appealed to the Honduran National Business Council, known by its Spanish acronym COHEP. Like Chiquita, COHEP was unhappy about Zelaya’s minimum wage measure. Amílcar Bulnes, the group’s president, argued that if the government went forward with the minimum wage increase employers would be forced to let workers go, thus increasing unemployment in the country. The most important business organization in Honduras, COHEP groups 60 trade associations and chambers of commerce representing every sector of the Honduran economy. According to its own Web site, COHEP is the political and technical arm of the Honduran private sector, supports trade agreements and provides “critical support for the democratic system.”
The international community should not impose economic sanctions against the coup regime in Tegucigalpa, COHEP argues, because this would worsen Honduras’ social problems. In its new role as the mouthpiece for Honduras’ poor, COHEP declares that Honduras has already suffered from earthquakes, torrential rains and the global financial crisis. Before punishing the coup regime with punitive measures, COHEP argues, the United Nations and the Organization of American States should send observer teams to Honduras to investigate how sanctions might affect 70% of Hondurans who live in poverty. Bulnes meanwhile has voiced his support for the coup regime of Roberto Micheletti and argues that the political conditions in Honduras are not propitious for Zelaya’s return from exile.
Chiquita: From Arbenz to Bananagate
It’s not surprising that Chiquita would seek out and ally itself to socially and politically backward forces in Honduras. Colsiba, the coordinating body of banana plantation workers in Latin America, says the fruit company has failed to supply its workers with necessary protective gear and has dragged its feet when it comes to signing collective labor agreements in Nicaragua, Guatemala and Honduras.
Colsiba compares the infernal labor conditions on Chiquita plantations to concentration camps. It’s an inflammatory comparison yet may contain a degree of truth. Women working on Chiquita’s plantations in Central America work from 6:30 a.m. until 7 at night, their hands burning up inside rubber gloves. Some workers are as young as 14. Central American banana workers have sought damages against Chiquita for exposing them in the field to DBCP, a dangerous pesticide which causes sterility, cancer and birth defects in children.
Chiquita, formerly known as United Fruit Company and United Brands, has had a long and sordid political history in Central America. Led by Sam “The Banana Man” Zemurray, United Fruit got into the banana business at the turn of the twentieth century. Zemurray once remarked famously, “In Honduras, a mule costs more than a member of parliament.” By the 1920s United Fruit controlled 650,000 acres of the best land in Honduras, almost one quarter of all the arable land in the country. What’s more, the company controlled important roads and railways.
In Honduras the fruit companies spread their influence into every area of life including politics and the military. For such tactics they acquired the name los pulpos (the octopuses, from the way they spread their tentacles). Those who did not play ball with the corporations were frequently found face down on the plantations. In 1904 humorist O. Henry coined the term “Banana Republic” to refer to the notorious United Fruit Company and its actions in Honduras.
In Guatemala, United Fruit supported the CIA-backed 1954 military coup against President Jacobo Arbenz, a reformer who had carried out a land reform package. Arbenz’ overthrow led to more than thirty years of unrest and civil war in Guatemala. Later in 1961, United Fruit lent its ships to CIA-backed Cuban exiles who sought to overthrow Fidel Castro at the Bay of Pigs.
In 1972, United Fruit (now renamed United Brands) propelled Honduran General Oswaldo López Arellano to power. The dictator was forced to step down later however after the infamous “Bananagate” scandal which involved United Brands bribes to Arellano. A federal grand jury accused United Brands of bribing Arellano with $1.25 million, with the carrot of another $1.25 million later if the military man agreed to reduce fruit export taxes. During Bananagate, United Brands’ President fell from a New York City skyscraper in an apparent suicide.
Go-Go Clinton Years and Colombia
In Colombia United Fruit also set up shop and during its operations in the South American country developed a no less checkered profile. In 1928, 3,000 workers went on strike against the company to demand better pay and working conditions. At first the company refused to negotiate but later gave in on some minor points, declaring the other demands “illegal” or “impossible.” When the strikers refused to disperse the military fired on the banana workers, killing scores.
You might think that Chiquita would have reconsidered its labor policies after that but in the late 1990s the company began to ally itself with insidious forces, specifically right wing paramilitaries. Chiquita paid off the men to the tune of more than a million dollars. In its own defense, the company declared that it was merely paying protection money to the paramilitaries.
In 2007, Chiquita paid $25 million to settle a Justice Department investigation into the payments. Chiquita was the first company in U.S. history to be convicted of financial dealings with a designated terrorist organization.
In a lawsuit launched against Chiquita victims of the paramilitary violence claimed the firm abetted atrocities including terrorism, war crimes and crimes against humanity. A lawyer for the plaintiffs said that Chiquita’s relationship with the paramilitaries “was about acquiring every aspect of banana distribution and sale through a reign of terror.”
Back in Washington, D.C. Charles Lindner, Chiquita’s CEO, was busy courting the White House. Lindner had been a big donor to the GOP but switched sides and began to lavish cash on the Democrats and Bill Clinton. Clinton repaid Linder by becoming a key military backer of the government of Andrés Pastrana which presided over the proliferation of right wing death squads. At the time the U.S. was pursuing its corporately-friendly free trade agenda in Latin America, a strategy carried out by Clinton’s old boyhood friend Thomas “Mack” McLarty. At the White House, McLarty served as Chief of Staff and Special Envoy to Latin America. He’s an intriguing figure who I’ll come back to in a moment.
The Holder-Chiquita Connection
Given Chiquita’s underhanded record in Central America and Colombia it’s not a surprise that the company later sought to ally itself with COHEP in Honduras. In addition to lobbying business associations in Honduras however Chiquita also cultivated relationships with high powered law firms in Washington. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, Chiquita has paid out $70,000 in lobbying fees to Covington and Burling over the past three years.
Covington is a powerful law firm which advises multinational corporations. Eric Holder, the current Attorney General, a co-chair of the Obama campaign and former Deputy Attorney General under Bill Clinton was up until recently a partner at the firm. At Covington, Holder defended Chiquita as lead counsel in its case with the Justice Department. From his perch at the elegant new Covington headquarters located near the New York Times building in Manhattan, Holder prepped Fernando Aguirre, Chiquita’s CEO, for an interview with 60 Minutes dealing with Colombian death squads.
Holder had the fruit company plead guilty to one count of “engaging in transactions with a specially designated global terrorist organization.” But the lawyer, who was taking in a hefty salary at Covington to the tune of more than $2 million, brokered a sweetheart deal in which Chiquita only paid a $25 million fine over five years. Outrageously however, not one of the six company officials who approved the payments received any jail time.
The Curious Case of Covington
Look a little deeper and you’ll find that not only does Covington represent Chiquita but also serves as a kind of nexus for the political right intent on pushing a hawkish foreign policy in Latin America. Covington has pursued an important strategic alliance with Kissinger (of Chile, 1973 fame) and McLarty Associates (yes, the same Mack McLarty from Clinton-time), a well known international consulting and strategic advisory firm.
From 1974 to 1981 John Bolton served as an associate at Covington. As U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations under George Bush, Bolton was a fierce critic of leftists in Latin America such as Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez. Furthermore, just recently John Negroponte became Covington’s Vice Chairman. Negroponte is a former Deputy Secretary of State, Director of National Intelligence and U.S. Representative to the United Nations.
As U.S. Ambassador to Honduras from 1981-1985, Negroponte played a significant role in assisting the U.S.-backed Contra rebels intent on overthrowing the Sandinista regime in Nicaragua. Human rights groups have criticized Negroponte 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.
While there’s no evidence linking Chiquita to the recent coup in Honduras, there’s enough of a confluence of suspicious characters and political heavyweights here to warrant further investigation. From COHEP to Covington to Holder to Negroponte to McLarty, Chiquita has sought out friends in high places, friends who had no love for the progressive labor policies of the Zelaya regime in Tegucigalpa.
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.
When it comes to U.S. machinations and interventionism in Latin America, I’m not naïve: over the past five years, I’ve written two books about the inner workings of American foreign policy south of the border, as well as dozens and dozens of articles posted on the Internet and on my blog. As a result, when the Obama Administration claimed that it knew that a political firestorm was brewing in Honduras but was surprised when a military coup actually took place this strains my credibility.
Nevertheless, in the absence of cold, hard facts, I reserve judgment on whether Obama has turned into an imperialist intent on waving the Big Stick in Central America. Furthermore, the fact that Hugo Chávez of Venezuela says North American imperialism was behind the coup in Tegucigalpa does not make it so. In typical fashion, Chávez has failed to produce any shred of evidence to support his provocative allegations.
International Republican Institute
There are, however, a number of intriguing leads that point to U.S. involvement — not in a coup per se but in indirect destabilization. Eva Golinger, author of the Chávez Code, has just published an interesting piece on her blog about the ties between the International Republican Institute (IRI) and conservative groups in Honduran society. Golinger has followed up on my extensive writings documenting the activities of the IRI, a group chaired by Senator John McCain (R-AZ). Though McCain 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 group, which receives tens of millions of taxpayer dollars each year, claims to promote democracy worldwide.
Golinger reveals that IRI has thrown hundreds of thousands of dollars to think tanks in Honduras that seek to influence political parties. What’s more, she discloses that the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) has provided tens of millions of dollars towards “democracy promotion” in Honduras. I was particularly interested to learn that one recipient of the aid included the Honduran National Business Council, known by its Spanish acronym COHEP, a long time adversary of the Zelaya regime.
Another interesting lead comes via Bill Weinberg, a thorough and dogged journalist, founder of the Web site World War 4 Report and the host of WBAI Radio’s thoughtful program Moorish Orthodox Radio Crusade in New York. On Sunday, Weinberg posted an intriguing article on his Web site entitled “Otto Reich behind Honduras coup?” In the piece, Weinberg discloses that the Honduran Black Fraternal Organization, known by its Spanish acronym OFRANEH, has claimed that former U.S. diplomat Otto Reich and the Washington, D.C. based Arcadia Foundation were involved in the coup.
In my first book, I documented Otto Reich’s Latin American exploits in some detail. A Cuban native, Reich left the island in 1960. In 1973, while studying at Georgetown, he met someone named Frank Calzon. According to Honduras’ La Prensa, Calzon was an “expert in CIA disinformation” who recruited Reich. Later, when Reich served as U.S. Ambassador to Venezuela under Ronald Reagan, he established contact with Gustavo Cisneros, a media magnate, billionaire and prominent future figure in the Chávez opposition.
After his stint as ambassador, Reich went on to be a corporate lobbyist for Bacardi and Lockheed Martin, a company that sought to provide F-16 fighter planes to Chile. In 2002, he became assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere Affairs under Bush through a recess appointment. Although Reich has denied there was any U.S. role in the brief coup d’etat against Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez in April 2002, the veteran diplomat reportedly met regularly at the White House with alleged coup plotter Pedro Carmona. At the height of the coup in Venezuela, Reich called his old friend Cisneros twice. According to the media magnate, Reich called “as a friend” because Chávez partisans were protesting at Caracas media outlets.
Reich has also served on the board of visitors of WHINSEC, formerly known as the School of the Americas, a U.S. army institution that instructed the Latin American military in torture techniques. As a member of the board, Reich’s job was to review and advise “on areas such as curriculum, academic instruction, and fiscal affairs of the institute.” After leaving the Bush Administration in 2004, Reich went on to found Otto Reich Associates in Washington, D.C. On the group’s Web site, you can see a photo of Reich and John McCain shaking hands. A caption from McCain reads, “Ambassador Reich has served America with distinction by representing our fundamental values of freedom and democracy around the world, and I am grateful for his support.”
Reich’s outfit provides services in “International Government Relations/Anti-Corruption,” and “Business Intelligence/Policy Forecasting.” Specifically, the group seeks to “design and implement political and business diplomacy strategies for U.S. and multinational companies to compete on an even playing field in countries with complex ethical and legal challenges,” as well as “advise major and mid-size U.S. corporations on government relations to support trade and investment goals in South and Central American countries and the Caribbean,” in addition to identifying and securing foreign investment and “privatization opportunities” in Latin America.
Otto Reich and The Searing Case of Hondutel
In campaign ’08, Reich served as a foreign policy adviser to Republican John McCain. In an interview with Honduras’ La Prensa, Reich blasted Honduran President Zelaya for cultivating ties with Hugo Chávez. Reich had particular scorn for the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas, known by its Spanish acronym ALBA, an anti-free trade pact including Venezuela, Honduras, Cuba, and Bolivia. “Honduras,” Reich remarked, “should be very careful because the petroleum and Chávez problem is very similar to those who sell drugs. At first they give out drugs so that victims become addicts and then they have to buy that drug at the price which the seller demands.”
Reich went on to say that he was very “disappointed” in Zelaya because the Honduran President was “enormously corrupted from a financial and moral standpoint.” In another interview with the Honduran media, Reich went further, remarking brazenly that “if president Zelaya wants to be an ally of our enemies, let him think about what might be the consequences of his actions and words.”
When discussing Zelaya’s corrupt transgressions, Reich is wont to cite the case of Honduras’ state-owned telecommunications company Hondutel. In an explosive piece, the Miami newspaper El Nuevo Herald reported that a company called Latin Node bribed three Hondutel officials to get choice contracts and reduced rates. Zelaya, Reich remarked to El Nuevo Herald, “has permitted or encouraged these types of practices and we will see soon that he is also behind this.”
Reich would not provide details but reminded readers that Zelaya’s nephew, Marcelo Chimirri, was a high official at Hondutel and had been accused of a series of illicit practices relating to Hondutel contracts. “After an outcry in Honduras,” writes Bill Weinberg of World War Four Report, “Reich said he was prepared to make a sworn statement on the affair before Honduran law enforcement — but said he would not travel to Honduras to do so, because his personal security would be at risk there.” Reich’s pronouncements to the Miami paper infuriated Zelaya who went on national radio and TV to announce that he would sue Reich for defamation. “We will proceed with legal action for calumny against this man, Otto Reich, who has been waging a two year campaign against Honduras,” the president announced.
Turning up the heat on Chimirri, the U.S. Embassy in Tegucigalpa denied the Hondutel official an entry visa into the United States, citing “serious cases of corruption.” Zelaya may have taken the U.S. ban on his nephew to heart. Zelaya complained to Washington as recently as last December about the visa issue, urging U.S. officials to “revise the procedure by which visas are cancelled or denied to citizens of different parts of the world as a means of pressure against those people who hold different beliefs or ideologies which pose no threat to the U.S.”
Bush-appointed U.S. Ambassador Charles Ford was also turning the screws on Zelaya. Speaking with the Honduran newspaper La Tribuna, Ford said that the U.S. government was investigating American telecom carriers for allegedly paying bribes to Honduran officials to engage in so-called “gray traffic” or illicit bypassing of legal telecommunications channels. The best way to combat gray traffic, Ford said, was through greater competition that in turn would drive down long distance calling rates.
Perhaps the U.S. government was using the corruption charges as ammunition against Hondutel, a state company that Reich probably would have preferred to see privatized. The Honduran elite had long wanted to break up the company. In the late 1990s, none other than Roberto Micheletti, the current coup president of Honduras, was Hondutel’s CEO. At the time, Micheletti favored privatizing the firm. Micheletti later went on to become President of Honduras’ National Congress. In that capacity, he was at odds with the Zelaya regime that opposed so-called “telecom reform” that could open the door to outright privatization.
The Mysterious Case of Arcadia and Robert-Carmona Borjas
Building up the case against Hondutel and Chimirri was none other than the Arcadia Foundation, a non-profit and anti-corruption watchdog that promotes “good governance and democratic institutions.” For an organization that purportedly stands for transparency, the group doesn’t provide much information about itself on its Web site. The two founders include Betty Bigombe, a Ugandan peace mediator and World Bank researcher, and Robert-Carmona Borjas, a Venezuelan expert in military affairs, national security, corruption, and governance. The Web site does not list any other staff members at its D.C. branch. Outside of the U.S., the organization has outlets in Spain, Mexico, Dominican Republic, Chile, Argentina, and Guatemala.
In his columns published in the conservative Venezuelan newspaper El Universal, Borjas has gone on the attack against Chávez. In recent months, he had expressed skepticism about Obama’s foreign policy openness, particularly if it meant dealing with “totalitarian” figures such as the Venezuelan President. According to his bio, Borjas left Venezuela after the 2002 coup against Chávez and sought political asylum in the U.S.
Interested in knowing where Arcadia’s funding comes from? You won’t get any pointers from the Web site. Click on “In The Media” however and you get an endless list of Borjas’ articles and links to news pieces related to Hondutel (and I mean endless: I saw about 70 articles before I got tired and stopped counting). There’s no other published research on Arcadia’s site, leading one to wonder whether the organization’s sole purpose is to pursue the Hondutel case. There’s no evidence that Borjas knows Reich, though given their common interest (or should I say obsession) in the Hondutel affair it seems at least possible that the two might have crossed paths.
In recent months, Borjas had driven his anti-Zelaya campaign into overdrive. As Weinberg has written, “The Honduran newspapers El Heraldo (Tegucigalpa) and La Prensa (San Pedro Sula) noted June 11 that Carmona-Borjas had brought legal charges against Zelaya and other figures in his administration for defying a court ruling that barred preparations for the constitutional referendum scheduled for the day Zelaya would be ousted. A YouTube video dated July 3 shows footage from Honduras’ Channel 8 TV of Carmona-Borjas addressing an anti-Zelaya rally in Tegucigalpa’s Plaza la Democracia to enthusiastic applause. In his comments, he accuses Zelaya of collaboration with narco-traffickers.”
So, there you have it: the International Republican Institute, an enigmatic Washington, D.C.-based organization intent on driving back Hugo Chávez, an inflammatory former policymaker with business connections and a high profile effort to discredit Zelaya and the Honduran state telecommunications company. What does it all amount to? There’s no smoking gun here proving U.S. involvement in the coup. Taken together however, these stories suggest destabilization efforts by certain elements in the United States — not the Obama administration but the far right which was more allied to Bush and McCain. Perhaps if the mainstream media can drag itself away from the likes of Michael Jackson and Sarah Palin, we can get a more thorough picture of the political tensions between Washington and the Zelaya regime.
What political and social forces are at the heart of Sunday’s coup in Honduras? Let’s start by looking at the role of Roberto Micheletti, the man Hugo Chávez loves to hate. The former head of the National Congress, Micheletti declared himself Honduras’ new President on Sunday. He replaces President Manuel Zelaya, a politician who had been moving towards more politically and economically progressive positions in recent years. A member of Zelaya’s own Liberal Party, Micheletti studied business administration in the United States and worked as the CEO of Honduras’ state telecommunications company Hondutel in the late 1990s. While he was CEO of the firm Micheletti sought to privatize the firm.
As a believer in so-called “neo-liberal reform,” Micheletti found himself at odds with the Zelaya regime which came to power in early 2006. After he left Hondutel, Micheletti sponsored legislation in Congress which would have cut Hondutel’s rates. Zelaya and Hondutel condemned Micheletti’s provisions, arguing that they would further erode the company’s revenues. For years, long distance profits had provided a lucrative source of income for the government. Over time Hondutel had been subjected to deregulation and had lost its absolute monopoly on long distance calls, fixed lines and telex service. As part of the Central American Free Trade Agreement or CAFTA, Honduras was obliged to reform its telecommunications law which would allow Hondutel to attract private business partners. Observers believed that telecom reform would represent the first step towards outright privatization. Zelaya was one of the most fervent opponents of telecom reform, declaring that it would benefit the private sector and gradually weaken Hondutel’s control of long distance service.
Micheletti formed part of the influential business elite which had grown increasingly disenchanted with the government’s progressive drift. In Honduras, powerful businessmen are the main contributors to political campaigns. They are so powerful and linked to the political system that it can be said that they handpick presidents and dictate the news agenda in the media. Speaking to Inter Press Service, one Zelaya presidential adviser remarked that the country’s economic groups were “insatiable, they make one request after another…in a meeting with President Manuel Zelaya, they told him that in the 1980s, the most important political decisions were put to consultation in the military barracks, but that now they were here, the businesspeople and the media.” In the meeting the businessmen reportedly sought to put Zelaya in his place, remarking “You are only temporary, while we are permanent. We want to be consulted about decisions, we want contracts and to participate in the public tenders, we want to express our opinions on some appointments of public officials, and we want official advertising contracts.”
Apparently Zelaya was not intimidated and instituted a 60% minimum wage increase which angered the wealthy business community. When private business associations announced that they would challenge the government’s wage decree in Honduras’ Supreme Court, Zelaya’s Labor Minister called the critics “greedy exploiters.” One organization that was particularly critical of Zelaya’s measure was the Honduran National Business Council, known by its Spanish acronym COHEP. Amílcar Bulnes, COHEP’s President, argued that if the government went forward with the minimum wage increase employers would be forced to let workers go, thus increasing unemployment in the country. The most important business organization in Honduras, COHEP groups 60 trade associations and chambers of commerce representing every sector of the Honduran economy. According to its own Web site, COHEP is the political and technical arm of the Honduran private sector, supports trade agreements and provides “critical support for the democratic system.”
Such democratic pledges have been exposed as farce in light of COHEP’s reaction to the coup against Zelaya. The international community should not impose economic sanctions against the coup regime in Tegucigalpa, COHEP argues, because this would worsen Honduras’ social problems. In its new role as the mouthpiece for Honduras’ poor, COHEP declares that Honduras has already suffered from earthquakes, torrential rains and the global financial crisis. Before punishing the coup regime with punitive measures, COHEP argues, the United Nations and the Organization of American States should send observer teams to Honduras to investigate how sanctions might affect 70% of Hondurans who live in poverty. Bulnes meanwhile has voiced his support for Micheletti and argues that the political conditions in Honduras are not propitious for Zelaya’s return from exile.
Micheletti and the business elite receive support from the U.S.-trained military, without which they would not have been able to force Zelaya out of power. Two generals, Romeo Vasquez and Javier Suazo played a key role in the coup. Both had studied at the infamous U.S. School of the Americas which provided instructions in how to torture political dissidents.
There are uncanny parallels between the Honduran overthrow of Zelaya and the Venezuelan coup. In 2002, another Vasquez, Efraín, played a key role in opposing the government of Hugo Chávez. Like his Honduran counterparts, Efraín Vasquez also graduated from the School of the Americas. As army commander in chief, he reportedly met with Otto Reich of the State Department in advance of the U.S.-sponsored coup. On April 11, 2002 amidst opposition protests Vasquez was the only high military official to call for Chávez’s resignation. As I point out in my first book, Hugo Chávez: Oil, Politics and the Challenge to the U.S. (Palgrave, 2006), Vasquez halted deployment of troops to protect Chávez in the presidential palace. The following day, Vasquez negotiated Chávez’s ouster and worked to disarm and dismantle citizen groups allied to the regime.
As in Honduras, the military was allied to the globalizing business elite. Dictator for a day Pedro Carmona, who briefly overthrew Chávez in 2002, was a prominent member of Fedecámeras, a business association similar to COHEP in Honduras. In Caracas, Fedecámeras gave voice to the globalizing elite which was fearful of Chávez’s social and economic policies. Carmona, who worked as an executive in the petrochemical industry, was openly critical of Chávez’s moves to exert greater control over the state oil company.
Today it is the U.S.-trained military and the corporate globalizing elite which are most actively seeking the demise of progressive reform in Latin America. Time and again, it is these two key constituencies, acting in tandem, which have sought to overthrow governments.
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.