A New Cold War in a Small Tropical Country

THERE WAS A TIME WHEN golpes de estado—military coups—seemed as common in Latin America as elections. A president would lose the support of the army, the business oligarchy, American corporate interests, Washington, or any combination of the foregoing, and golpistas would depose the president—always promising to restore constitutional government as soon as the domestic tranquility they had shattered was restored. Twenty years have passed since a Central American president has been forced from power by a man in a uniform. So when masked soldiers shot their way into the presidential residence in Tegucigalpa on June 28 and dragged pajama-clad Honduran President José Manuel Zelaya onto an airplane to take him into exile, leaders in the region were stunned. On the day after the coup, 33 members of the Organization of American States voted to suspend Honduras. Had Honduras not abstained, the first vote to suspend an OAS member since Cuba was voted out in 1959 would have been unanimous.

Defenders of the coup created their own narrative: Zelaya was poised to use a national referendum to extend his tenure beyond the six-year term fixed by the constitution. The president of the Congress, Roberto Micheletti, next in line to succeed Zelaya, had no choice but to step in and initiate a “forced succession.” The putschists saved the country.

That was the story line that unfolded in Honduran media outlets allowed to continue broadcasting after the coup. Spanish-language CNN bought it, changing its story banner from “Golpe de Estado” to “Sucesión Forzada.” Most mainstream American media outlets also accepted it. The only problem with the story is that it’s not true.

The Honduran constitution makes it illegal for a president to tamper with term limits. But Zelaya didn’t cross that line. The referendum, scheduled for the day he was deposed, was a non-binding survey regarding constitutional term limits for the Honduran president and support for a national constituent assembly. You can question his intent, but he didn’t attempt to amend the constitution. Even if he had, nothing in the constitution provides for either forced succession or an armed assault on the presidential residence.

The referendum provided a pretext for the coup. The movement to overthrow Zelaya had been in the works for years. Much of the work was done by one individual under the cover of an obscure Washington-based foundation. Once the boots hit the ground and the shots were fired, Congressional Republicans in Washington stepped in to “legitimize” the new government and impede the tentative efforts of the Obama administration to restore the rule of law.

With the Obama administration consumed by Iraq and Afghanistan, a small group of extremist Republicans quietly seized control of foreign policy in Latin America.

WHY MEL HAD TO GO—José “Mel” Zelaya’s public embrace of Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez, Cuba’s Fidel Castro, and Nicaragua’s Daniel Ortega annoyed Washington. Zelaya led Honduras into ALBA (Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas), the economic alliance of leftist Latin American nations, created by Chávez and Castro. And he bought into PetroCaribe, Chávez’s discount oil cooperative.

But it was Zelaya’s domestic policies that antagonized economic elites at home and their friends in Washington. He cut gasoline prices—which averaged $4 a gallon in Honduras, the highest in the region—by 52 cents a gallon.

Zelaya increased the $159-a-month minimum wage by 60 percent, which might be considered extreme if two-thirds of the Honduran public were not living below the poverty level. “We are the poorest country in the region,” said Miriam Miranda, a national leader of the Organización Fraternal Negra Hondureña, an advocacy group representing the interests of Hondurans of African descent. “Hondurans now live on $250, maybe $300 a month.”

Zelaya also extended social security coverage to domestic workers, said Vicki Gass of the Washington Office on Latin America. “He didn’t make big structural changes,” Gass said, “but these were changes that made a difference in people’s standard of living.”

Yet it appears that it was Zelaya’s refusal to privatize the state-owned phone company Hondutel that put him on the plane to Costa Rica.

NON-PROFIT AND OPAQUE—From a distance the Arcadia Foundation, with offices in Spain, Mexico, Chile, Argentina, Guatemala, and the Dominican Republic, appears every bit as imposing as Brookings, Rand, Heritage, or any of the big Washington think tanks. Up close, not so much.

The Bethesda, Maryland, office address provided to me by the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) turned out to be a modestly upscale residential high-rise whose front-desk staff seemed baffled by the idea that any foundation is housed there, although Arcadia founder and vice president Robert Carmona-Borjas lives on the 16th floor.

Repeated attempts to contact Arcadia by phone led to a recorded message describing the foundation’s ambitious mission: “We are a non-profit established to promote democracy around the world while ensuring democratic values and ideals in order to preserve the well-being of all humanity.” Callers patient enough to follow the prompts at the end of the recorded message will usually find the voice mailbox full. Telephone, e-mail, and written requests to view documents the IRS requires non-profits to make available to the public were not answered.

The IRS informed me that Arcadia’s application for tax-exempt status was approved in March 2009. Yet the foundation was hitting its marks in 2007, when its vice president began a public attack on the Zelaya administration. A September 2007 news story in the Mexican newspaper El Universal alleged that millions of dollars were being stolen from Hondutel by officials close to the president.

The charges were vague. According to the newspaper, the story was based on an “investigation and confidential report provided by Arcadia Foundation director Robert Carmona-Borjas.” Arcadia’s confidential report was so confidential that it was never made available to the press in Honduras or the United States. The story was picked up by the Honduran media. With one article in a Mexican daily, Carmona-Borjas became a Washington authority on corruption in Honduras.

WHO IS ROBERT CARMONA-BORJAS?—According to the Mexican newspaper La Jornada, he was the author of the “Carmona Decree,” which dissolved Venezuela’s National Assembly and Supreme Court and dismissed the country’s attorney general. The Carmona Decree made Pedro Francisco Carmona (no known relation to Robert) president of Venezuela for two days in 2002, until he departed for Colombia, then Miami, after leading a coup countenanced by the Bush administration. Carmona-Borjas also fled and was granted political asylum in the United States, beyond the reach of thuggish Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez.

With his security assured by a U.S. immigration court, the Venezuelan expatriate began to use his non-profit foundation to undermine the elected government of a country to which he had no known connection.

His relentless accounts of public corruption in Honduras, published without question in Honduran media outlets, became remarkably detailed, including dates of wire transfers of tens of thousands of dollars and the numbers of Honduran bank accounts in which the money was deposited.

On one occasion, he provided a Honduran newspaper the names of Honduran citizens, identified by the U.S. Justice Department only as “A,” “B,” and “C” in a filing related to the prosecution of an American telecom company in Miami. He engaged Honduran public officials in debate on Honduran radio and in the print media. He even filed an official complaint against Zelaya at the Honduran Embassy in Washington.

Carmona-Borjas also taught a course at Georgetown University’s Graduate School of Political Management, where his guest-lecturer list read like a witness roster from the 1987 Iran-Contra hearings. Appearances by Otto Reich and Elliott Abrams were widely advertised. Both were involved in the Iran-Contra scandal. Abrams pled guilty to two counts of lying to Congress; the comptroller general described Reich’s domestic public diplomacy program as “prohibited, covert propaganda activities.” Both men resurfaced as George W. Bush political appointees.

THIRD REICH REDUX—Reich, a Cuban immigrant to the United States and now a lobbyist, was almost as energetic as Carmona-Borjas in attacking the Zelaya government. He went after the Honduran president in U.S. and Central American newspapers and in the U.S. Congress. Three months before the coup, in an article in Miami’s Nuevo Herald, Reich accused Zelaya of fostering corruption.

In a Miami Herald opinion piece published on July 9, Reich was pushed to deny that he orchestrated the coup in Honduras, while arguing that Zelaya had to go.

On July 10 Reich told a House committee: “The current battle for political control of Honduras is not only about that small nation. What happens in Honduras may one day be seen as either the high-water mark of Hugo Chávez’s attempt to undermine democracy in this hemisphere, or a green light to the continued spread of Chavista authoritarianism….”

Honduras is Reich’s most recent political venture in Latin America. After striking out with the Contras, as President George W. Bush’s assistant secretary for Western Hemisphere Affairs Reich left his fingerprints all over the failed 2002 coup in Venezuela. According to the New York Times, on the day Venezuelan President Chávez was toppled, Reich was on the phone with Pedro Carmona. Reich also hastily announced that Chávez had resigned, when he had actually been arrested by perpetrators of the coup.

There were issues that Reich didn’t address when he testified before Congress. In refusing to privatize Hondutel, Zelaya had limited telecom market penetration in Honduras. Reich’s lobbying firm has represented telecoms, such as AT&T and Verizon. Reich has also represented ExxonMobil, whose Honduran fuel terminal was temporarily taken over on Zelaya’s orders.

Reich won’t be lecturing in Carmona-Borjas’s course this semester. Georgetown graduate school Dean Christopher Arterton said in an e-mail that “Carmona-Borjas taught an elective, special-topics course for us during the spring semester. The faculty then decided not to renew his course.”

Carmona-Borjas won’t disappear. He still runs the Arcadia Foundation, although Ugandan Betty Bigombe serves as its president. IRS rules governing 501(c)(3) non-profit organizations are so stringent that they prohibit endorsing political candidates in the U.S. Arcadia has taken its political campaigning international. At a pro-coup rally in Tegucigalpa four days after Zelaya was flown into exile, a speaker told a crowd of several hundred, “We are not alone. I want to introduce a very brave man. His name is Robert Carmona-Borjas.” As if on queue, the crowd cheered, even if it knew as much about the Venezuelan expatriate as do the American taxpayers who provide a tax-free haven for his foundation.

BANANA REPUBLICANS—South Carolina Republican Senator Jim DeMint’s five-month “hold” (just-released) on the nomination of Arturo Valenzuela as assistant secretary for Western Hemisphere Affairs has limited President Obama’s ability to implement his own policy in the region. As Michael Shifter of the Inter-American Dialogue explained it, Republicans saw a vacuum in Latin America and exploited it, ensuring for almost a year that there was no one in charge of the State Department’s Latin American desk.

With Obama boxed in, DeMint, and a trio of Cuban-American House Republicans from Florida—Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, Lincoln Díaz-Balart, and José Díaz-Balart—are conducting their own foreign policy, which included a high-profile call on the office of Honduran interim President Roberto Micheletti in early October.

“The day after they arrived, the newspapers [in Honduras] reported that the United States supports the Micheletti government,” said Miriam Miranda. Newspapers didn’t say, “Three Republicans in the Congress support the Micheletti government,” she said. They said “the government of the United States.”

On September 21 President Zelaya slipped back into the country, reportedly in the trunk of a car, and took refuge at the Brazilian Embassy. Efforts by the U.S. State Department to negotiate Zelaya’s return to Honduras (legally he is on Brazilian soil) thus far have been unsuccessful.

Honduras doesn’t compare to Iran, Iraq, or Pakistan. It’s a country so small that remittances from expatriate workers in the United States make up 20 percent of its gross domestic product. Yet U.S. diplomatic failure there illustrates the difficulty created by a Republican Party incapable of governing, yet eager to obstruct.

The president standing with a risible hat-bearer at his side holding the presidential Stetson; the president in the trunk of a car; the president under siege in the Brazilian Embassy while Honduran soldiers assault him with deafening (and bad) Mexican pop music. It all reads like an opera bouffe libretto. Mel Zelaya may be better at political theatre than he was at governing.

Yet there is genuine tragedy in what happened in the wake of the June coup. More than 3,000 people were illegally detained. Twenty-one were killed. The country remained under a military state of siege for three months.

Illinois Democratic Congresswoman Jan Schakowsky visited Honduras on November 10. In a telephone interview, she described a country that has the feel of a repressive police state. Schakowsky said she interviewed individuals who described arbitrary detention and detention in places that weren’t jails.

News outlets are still arbitrarily shut down by the government, she said. “It’s done under the auspices of a threat to national security and public order, which is defined as anything against the coup regime.”

“From what I heard,” Schakowsky said, “There’s still a lot of fear and a fair amount of abuse.”

Schakowsky also described the bizarre circumstances at the Brazilian Embassy, where Zelaya and his wife have taken refuge. “It’s an armed camp, surrounded by barriers and guards in ski masks,” she said. She also described martial music and a high-pitched sound that is supposed to affect the nervous system, which is played outside the embassy in an attempt to wear down Zelaya. And armed guards sitting in boxes placed atop cranes surrounding the embassy, from which the guards train bright spotlights on the rooms. As she walked from the embassy, Schakowsky was filmed by a guard wearing a ski mask.

As we go to press, elections are scheduled for November 29. “We had democracy,” Miriam Miranda told me. “Now we have democracy at the point of a gun.”