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Behind the Coup in Honduras

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.

Otto Reich

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.

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From Honduras Coup to Venezuela Coup: Same Old Torture School Graduates and Globalizers

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.

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

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.

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Meet Jim DeMint: Honduras Coup Apologist

President Obama has decried it. The Organization of American States and countries throughout Latin America have condemned it. The European Union has protested loudly. The majority of world leaders have raised their voices in opposition, confirmed by a resolution just passed in the United Nations General Assembly. And yet, one prominent legislator on Capitol Hill has leapt to the defense of the new coup regime which took power in Honduras on Sunday. That politician is Republican South Carolina Senator Jim Demint.

Honduran President Manuel Zelaya was deposed by the military just as he was seeking a non-binding referendum which the Honduran Congress and courts pronounced illegal. Zelaya’s move was seen as an effort to alter the constitution so he could seek a second term. Honduras’ Supreme Court said Zelaya’s referendum violated the constitution, a decision which the military has used as a justification for overthrowing the government. The White House however is not buying these justifications, saying that it’s the military which has behaved unconstitutionally. “Concerns or doubts about the wisdom of his [Zelaya’s] actions relating to his proposed non-binding referendum are independent of the unconstitutional act taken against him,” an administration official stated.

If you’re still having some doubts about whether what happened in Honduras constituted a coup, consider the following: the military invaded Zelaya’s home, kidnapped the President and forced him to leave the country. The military then installed an unelected President without due process or adherence to the Honduran Constitution. On Wednesday Honduras’ new government, spearheaded by former head of Congress Roberto Micheletti, established a nighttime curfew, suspended personal liberties and freedom of assembly, declared the right to detain suspects for more than 24 hours, and restricted freedom of movement both inside Honduras as well as in and out of the country. Thousands have protested the new government in Tegucigalpa and union leaders have announced a national strike.

Audaciously taking on Obama, Demint chastised the White House for what he called “a slap in the face to the people” of Honduras. “The people of Honduras have struggled too long to have their hard-won democracy stolen from them by a Chávez-style dictator,” Demint remarked. The South Carolinian, who is a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, went even further, attacking the Organization of American States for “trampling” over the hopes and dreams of a “free and democratic people.”

It’s hardly surprising that Demint would come out for the military takeover in Honduras given that he’s been a long time booster of Central American free trade. In this sense, he shares the ideological views of newly installed Honduran President Roberto Micheletti, a former businessman and conservative politician who has supported the trade initiative. In recent years Micheletti had criticized Zelaya for moving Honduras into the Bolivarian Alternative of the Americas, known by its Spanish acronym ALBA, a socially progressive trade pact backed by Hugo Chávez of Venezuela seeking to counteract U.S-style corporate free trade. The regional trade group includes Venezuela, Cuba, Nicaragua, Bolivia and Dominica. Since its founding in 2004, ALBA has promoted joint factories and banks, an emergency food fund, and exchanges of cheap Venezuelan oil for food, housing, and educational investment.

Demint has long been on the other side of the fence from the likes of Zelaya and Chávez. First elected to the House in 1998, he has been an eager promoter of far right wing economic orthodoxy like privatizing social security and abolishing the federal minimum wage. His small town, rural Piedmont district was traditionally dominated by non-union textile mills but more recently had been transformed by the arrival of foreign manufacturing investment which was lured to the area through cheap labor.

In 2003, Demint opted to run for Senate when Democrat Fritz Hollings retired. Placing a big political bet, he vocally supported the Central American free trade agreement which had been opposed by South Carolina textile executives. One of five Republican contenders in the Senatorial primary, Demint sought to establish his credentials as a true believer in free trade, a somewhat risky proposition predicated on the notion that the textile industry was washed up and new economic players tied to free trade would now be calling the shots statewide.

The Central American free trade agreement, Demint argued, would create manufacturing jobs in South Carolina while helping to expand overseas markets for some of South Carolina’s new economic players like BMW. But Lloyd Wood of the American Manufacturing Trade Action Coalition said that the agreement would throw thousands of South Carolinians out of work. In an editorial entitled “Demint’s World More Like Fantasy Island,” South Carolina’s largest newspaper The State slammed the Senate hopeful: “Unfair trade agreements like NAFTA have cost South Carolina tens of thousands of jobs. Now the new Central American Free Trade Agreement threatens to do even more damage.”

In the Republican primary, Demint came out in second place and faced former Governor David Beasley in a runoff. “This campaign is going to be all about jobs and unfair trade,” said Beasley, a born again opponent of wide open international trade. Originally a free trade booster himself, Beasley was voted out of office in 1998. After that, thousands of South Carolinians also lost their jobs in a recession.

In a television ad, Beasley featured a middle aged man who had been laid off after the worker’s manufacturing company moved jobs overseas. Demint for his part refused to back down from his free trade advocacy, winning applause from the likes of the right wing Cato Institute and Club for Growth. Demint beat Beasley handily after capitalizing on the former governor’s negative image.

In the general election, Demint faced off against Democrat and State Education Superintendent Inez Tenenbaum who also took a more protectionist stand on trade. The textile industry donated $100,000 to Tenenbaum’s campaign and an industry lobbying group put up billboards across the state reading “Lost Your Job to `Free Trade’ and Offshoring Yet? Register. Vote.” In the end however the state’s strong support for Bush in the election helped to push Demint over the top. Heading to the Senate, Demint later voted for the Central American Free Trade agreement in 2005, helping to secure passage of the initiative.

Over the past five years Demint has promoted his globalizing agenda, the same agenda shared by the likes of Roberto Micheletti and the Honduran elite which has just taken power in Tegucigalpa. In the days ahead it will be interesting to see whether his fellow Republican compatriots, also believers in free trade, will be so brazen as to come out for a government which brutally represses its people.

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Honduras: Latin American Media War Continues

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.

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Honduras Coup, Chavez and the U.S.

Could the diplomatic thaw between Venezuela and the United States be coming to an abrupt end? At the recent Summit of the Americas held in Port of Spain, Barack Obama shook Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez’s hand and declared that he would pursue a less arrogant foreign policy towards Latin America. Building on that good will, Venezuela and the United States agreed to restore their ambassadors late last week. The diplomatic overtures provided a stark contrast to the miserable state of relations during the Bush years: just nine months ago Venezuela expelled the U.S. envoy in a diplomatic tussle. At the time, Chávez said he kicked the U.S. ambassador out to demonstrate solidarity with left ally Bolivia, which had also expelled a top American diplomat after accusing him of blatant political interference in the Andean nation’s internal affairs.

Whatever goodwill existed last week however could now be undone by turbulent political events in Honduras. Following a military coup d’etat in the small Central American nation on Sunday, Chávez accused the U.S. of helping to orchestrate the overthrow of Honduran President Manuel Zelaya. “Behind these soldiers are the Honduran bourgeois, the rich who converted Honduras into a Banana Republic, into a political and military base for North American imperialism,” Chávez said. The Venezuelan leader urged the Honduran military to return Zelaya to power and even threatened military action against the coup regime if Venezuela’s ambassador was killed or local troops entered the Venezuelan Embassy. Reportedly, Honduran soldiers beat the ambassador and left him on the side of a road in the course of the military coup. Tensions have ratcheted up to such an extent that Chávez has now placed his armed forces on alert.

To be sure, Chávez has a certain taste for hyperbole and has not provided any proof that the U.S. could be behind the coup in Honduras. On the surface at least it seems unlikely that Obama would endorse an interventionist U.S. foreign policy in Central America. Over the past few months the U.S. President has gone to great lengths to “re-brand” America in the eyes of the world as a reasonable power engaged in respectful diplomacy as opposed to reckless unilateralism. If it were ever proven that Obama sanctioned the overthrow of a democratically elected government this could completely undermine the U.S. President’s carefully crafted image and lead many to conclude that he is just as cynical as his predecessor.

Officially the military removed Zelaya from power because the Honduran President had abused his authority. On Sunday Zelaya hoped to hold a constitutional referendum which could have allowed him to run for reelection for another four year term, a move which Honduras’ Supreme Court and Congress declared illegal. But while the controversy over Zelaya’s constitutional referendum certainly provided the lightning rod for military intervention, it’s no secret that the President was at odds politically with the Honduran elite for the past few years and had become one of Washington’s fiercest critics in the region.

The Rise of Zelaya

Zelaya, who sports a thick black mustache, cowboy boots and large white Stetson hat, was elected in late 2005. At first blush he hardly seemed the type of politician to rock the boat. A landowner from a wealthy landowning family engaged in the lumber industry, Zelaya headed the Liberal Party, one of the two dominant political parties in Honduras. The President supported the Central American Free Trade Agreement which eliminated trade barriers with the United States.

Despite these initial conservative leanings, Zelaya began to criticize powerful, vested interests in the country such as the media and owners of maquiladora sweatshops which produced goods for export in industrial free zones. Gradually he started to adopt some socially progressive policies. For example, Zelaya instituted a 60% minimum wage increase which angered the wealthy business community. The hike in the minimum wage, Zelaya declared, would “force the business oligarchy to start paying what is fair.” “This is a government of great social transformations, committed to the poor,” he added. Trade unions celebrated the decision, not surprising given that Honduras is the third poorest country in the hemisphere and 70% of its people live in poverty. 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.”

In another somewhat jarring move that must have raised eyebrows in Washington, Zelaya declared during a meeting of Latin American and Caribbean anti-drug officials that drug consumption should be legalized to halt violence related to smuggling. In recent years Honduras has been plagued by drug trafficking and so-called maras or street gangs which carry out gruesome beheadings, rapes and eye gouging. “Instead of pursuing drug traffickers, societies should invest resources in educating drug addicts and curbing their demand,” Zelaya said. Rodolfo Zelaya, the head of a Honduran congressional commission on drug trafficking, rejected Zelaya’s comments. He told participants at the meeting that he was “confused and stunned by what the Honduran leader said.”

Zelaya and ALBA

Not content to stop there, Zelaya started to conduct an increasingly more independent foreign policy. In late 2007 he traveled to Cuba, the first official trip by a Honduran president to the Communist island in 46 years. There, Zelaya met with Raul Castro to discuss bilateral relations and other topics of mutual interest. But what really led Zelaya towards a political collision course with the Honduran elite was his decision to join the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas (known by its Spanish acronym ALBA), an alliance of leftist Latin American and Caribbean nations headed by Chávez. The regional trade group including Venezuela, Cuba, Nicaragua, Bolivia and Dominica seeks to counteract corporately-friendly U.S-backed free trade schemes. Since its founding in 2004, ALBA countries have promoted joint factories and banks, an emergency food fund, and exchanges of cheap Venezuelan oil for food, housing, and educational investment.

In an emphatic departure from previous Honduran leaders who had been staunch allies of the U.S., Zelaya stated “Honduras and the Honduran people do not have to ask permission of any imperialism to join the ALBA.” Speaking in the Honduran capital of Tegucigalpa before a crowd of 50,000 unionists, women’s groups, farmers and indigenous peoples, Chávez remarked that Venezuela would guarantee cheap oil to Honduras for “at least 100 years.” By signing onto ALBA, Zelaya was able to secure access to credit lines, energy and food benefits. As an act of good faith, Chávez agreed to forgive Honduran debt to Venezuela amounting to $30 million.

Infuriating the local elite, Chávez declared that Hondurans who opposed ALBA were “sellouts.” “I did not come here to meddle in internal affairs,” he continued, “but…I cannot explain how a Honduran could be against Honduras joining the ALBA, the path of development, the path of integration.” Hardly content to stop there, Chávez lambasted the Honduran press which he labeled pitiyanquis (little Yanqui imitators) and “abject hand-lickers of the Yanquis.” For his part, Zelaya said “we need no one’s permission to sign this commitment. Today we are taking a step towards becoming a government of the center-left, and if anyone dislikes this, well just remove the word ‘center’ and keep the second one.”

It wasn’t long before private business started to bitterly attack Zelaya for moving Honduras into Chávez’s orbit. By joining ALBA, business representatives argued, the President was endangering free enterprise and the Central American Free Trade Agreement with the United States. Former President Ricardo Maduro even claimed that the United States might retaliate against Honduras by deporting Honduran migrants from the United States. “Don't bite the hand that feeds you,” Maduro warned, alluding to Washington. Zelaya was piqued by the criticisms. “When I met with (U.S. President) George W. Bush,” he said, “no one called me an anti-imperialist and the business community applauded me. Now that I am meeting with the impoverished peoples of the world, they criticize me.”

Zelaya’s Letter to Obama

In September, 2008 Zelaya further strained U.S. relations by delaying accreditation of the new U.S. ambassador out of solidarity with Bolivia and Venezuela which had just 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.

In November, Zelaya hailed Obama’s election in the U.S. as “a hope for the world,” but just two months later tensions began to emerge. In an audacious letter sent personally to Obama, Zelaya accused the U.S. of “interventionism” and called on the new administration in Washington to respect the principle of non-interference in the political affairs of other nations. According to Spanish news agency EFE which saw a copy of the note, Zelaya told Obama that it wasn’t his intention to tell the U.S. President what he should or should not do.

He then however went on to do precisely that. First of all, Zelaya brought up the issue of U.S. visas and urged Obama 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.”

As if that was not impudent enough, Zelaya then moved on to drug trafficking: “The legitimate struggle against drug trafficking…should not be used as an excuse to carry out interventionist policies in other countries.” The struggle against drug smuggling, Zelaya wrote, “should not be divorced from a vigorous policy of controlling distribution and consumer demand in all countries, as well as money laundering which operates through financial circuits and which involve networks within developed countries.”

Zelaya also argued “for the urgent necessity” of revising and transforming the structure of the United Nations and “to solve the Venezuela and Bolivia problems” through dialogue which “yields better fruit than confrontation.” The Cuban embargo, meanwhile, “was a useless instrument” and “a means of unjust pressure and violation of human rights.”

Run Up to June Coup

It’s unclear what Obama might have made of the audacious letter sent from the leader of a small Central American nation. It does seem however that Zelaya became somewhat disenchanted with the new administration in Washington. Just three months ago, the Honduran leader declined to attend a meeting of the System for Central American Integration (known by its Spanish acronym SICA) which would bring Central American Presidents together with U.S. Vice President Joe Biden in San José, Costa Rica.

Both Zelaya and President Daniel Ortega of Nicaragua boycotted the meeting as they viewed it as a diplomatic affront. Nicaragua currently holds the presidency of SICA, and so the proper course of action should have been for Biden to have Ortega hold the meeting. Sandinista economist and former Nicaraguan Minister of Foreign Trade Alejandro Martínez Cuenca declared that the United States had missed a vital opportunity to encourage a new era of relations with Central America by “prioritizing personal relations with [Costa Rican President] Arias over respect for Central America's institutional order.”

Could all of the contentious diplomatic back and forth between Tegucigalpa and Washington have turned the Obama administration against Zelaya? In the days ahead there will surely be a lot of attention and scrutiny paid to the role of Romeo Vasquez, a General who led the military coup against Zelaya. Vasquez is a graduate of the notorious U.S. School of the Americas, an institution which trained the Latin American military in torture.

Are we to believe that the United States had no role in coordinating with Vasquez and the coup plotters? The U.S. has had longstanding military ties to the Honduran armed forces, particularly during the Contra War in Nicaragua during the 1980s. The White House however has rejected claims that the U.S. played a role. The New York Times has reported that the Obama administration knew that a coup was imminent and tried to persuade the military to back down. The paper writes that it was the Honduran military which broke off discussions with American officials. Obama himself has taken the high road, remarking “I call on all political and social actors in Honduras to respect democratic norms [and] the rule of law…Any existing tensions and disputes must be resolved peacefully through dialogue free from any outside interference.”

Even if the Obama administration did not play an underhanded role in this affair, the Honduran coup highlights growing geo-political tensions in the region. In recent years, Chávez has sought to extend his influence to smaller Central American and Caribbean nations. The Venezuelan leader shows no intention of backing down over the Honduran coup, remarking that ALBA nations “will not recognize any [Honduran] government that isn't Zelaya’s.”

Chávez then derided Honduras’ interim president, Roberto Micheletti. “Mr. Roberto Micheletti will either wind up in prison or he'll need to go into exile… If they swear him in we'll overthrow him, mark my words. Thugetti--as I'm going to refer to him from now on--you better pack your bags, because you're either going to jail or you're going into exile. We're not going to forgive your error, you're going to get swept out of there. We're not going to let it happen, we're going to make life impossible for you. President Manuel Zelaya needs to retake his position as president.”

With tensions running high, heads of ALBA nations have vowed to meet in Managua to discuss the coup in Honduras. Zelaya, who was exiled to Costa Rica from Honduras, plans to fly to Nicaragua to speak with his colleagues. With such political unity amongst ALBA nations, Obama will have to decide what the U.S. posture ought to be towards the incipient "Pink Tide" sweeping across Central America, a region which Washington traditionally viewed as its own “backyard.”

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