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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.