The Intercept, August 29, 2017
FORT MCNAIR, one of the oldest U.S. military posts in the country, is nestled on an outcropping of land where the Anacostia and Potomac rivers meet in Washington, D.C. There, within the National Defense University, is the Center for Hemispheric Defense Studies, where hundreds of Hondurans took courses over the years. In mid-July 2009, Honduran military officials sought the center’s help to solve a problem that had recently arisen.
The Honduran military had just dispatched of its previous problem, President Manuel Zelaya, with a military coup. Now, the Central American military was facing international and regional condemnations for a brazen display of 1970s behavior in the 21st century. The military officials needed friends in the U.S. to rally behind it, but the Americans were wary of open shows of support. The U.S. had just revoked visas from top Honduran civilian and military officials, and suspended some security assistance.
Two Honduran colonels were dispatched to Washington on a mission to convince the Americans that the Honduran military’s involvement in the coup was in fact constitutional. The military had reached out to the CHDS’s academic dean to get help for the delegation. Officially CHDS said no, Kenneth LaPlante, CHDS’s then-deputy director, told me. However, according to Martin Andersen, a former CHDS communications director who became a whistleblower, Gen. John Thompson, the academic dean, had allegedly provided “behind-the-scenes assistance in Washington, D.C., to Honduran coup plotters.” Andersen’s allegation was made in a complaint being investigated by the Department of Defense Inspector General, which has taken no action.
At the time of the coup in Honduras, a number Republicans who supported the Honduran military sat on the American Security Council Foundation’s Congressional Advisory Board. One of the Republican representatives, Connie Mack, R-Fla., announced a “fact-finding” mission to Honduras while the colonels were in town. The Honduran colonels had a number of congressional meetings, which Andersen alleges Thompson helped facilitate. Thompson, who served on the foundation’s board in 2009, did not respond to a request for comment from The Intercept about his role.
Cresencio Arcos, a former U.S. ambassador to Honduras who had taken a job at CHDS by the time the coup occurred, told me that he received an angry call from a congressional staffer who had met with the Honduran colonels. The colonels, Arcos said, had told the staffer they had CHDS’s support. He confronted CHDS’s director, Richard Downie, and his deputy, LaPlante, telling them, “We cannot have this sort of thing happening, where we’re supporting coups.”
LaPlante denied ever being confronted about the allegations concerning CHDS or Thompson by anyone other than Andersen, the whistleblower, who raised the issue at the time. He said that since it was the allegation of just one individual, it was not seriously pursued. CHDS never officially provided any support or encouragement, LaPlante told me, but that “if it was CHDS or the Pentagon … yeah, personal opinions of professionals were shared.” That’s how the world works, he said.
For Arcos, however, the implication of assistance for the Honduran military by any U.S. general are clear. “What are they going to conclude?” Arcos asked rhetorically. “That indeed there was complicity on the U.S. side.”
Honduran politicians and businessmen who backed the coup were already hard at work lobbying in the halls of Congress – one group even set up an informal headquarters in a company’s conference room in downtown D.C., according to a former Honduran military officer who lives in the Washington area, who requested anonymity. While not a coordinated plan between the two parties, the support from a U.S. general likely buoyed their effort.
A retired U.S. military intelligence officer, who helped with the lobbying and the Honduran colonels’ trip, told me on condition of anonymity that the coup supporters debated “how to manage the U.S.” One group, he said, decided to “start using the true and trusted method and say, ‘Here is the bogeyman, it’s communism.’ And who are their allies? The Republicans.”
A network of former Cold Warriors and Republicans in Congress loudly encouraged Honduras’s de facto regime and criticized the newly elected Obama administration’s handling of the crisis. Zelaya, so his critics alleged, was simply an acolyte of Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, public enemy No. 1 of the U.S. in the hemisphere.
The U.S. had publicly worked for months to avoid the coup, and then to overturn it. But, on the ground in Honduras and behind closed doors in Washington, a parallel, personal diplomacy was leading U.S. policy down a very different path.
New details of how the coup and its aftermath unfolded— based on unpublished government records and dozens of interviews with high-ranking U.S. and Honduran military officials, policymakers, and other key sources as part of an in-depth investigation by The Intercept and the Center for Economic and Policy Research — offer a glimpse into how the U.S. foreign policy apparatus dealt with the crisis. The new information paints a picture of an American government with no single policy, but rather, of bloated bureaucracies acting on competing interests. Hidden actors during the crisis tilted Honduras toward chaos, undermined official U.S. policy after the coup, and ushered in a new era of militarization that has left a trail of violence and repression in its wake.
EARLY IN THE MORNING on Sunday, June 28, 2009, Honduran Special Forces escorted President Manuel Zelaya from his residence at gunpoint. Hours later, a dazed Zelaya appeared on the tarmac of the airport of San José in Costa Rica. He was still wearing his pajamas. Back in Honduras, the military cut off power across the country, blocking media from reporting on the unfolding coup d’état.
For months, Zelaya had engaged the country’s elite-controlled institutions in a risky game of chicken over a non-binding referendum on reforming the country’s constitution. Honduras’s traditional power brokers saw the referendum as means for Zelaya to consolidate power at their expense and were prepared to go to great lengths to prevent it from happening.
On June 25, Honduran legislators were prepared to vote in favor of deposing Zelaya, a power they did not have. Alerted to the machinations, U.S. Ambassador Hugo Llorens intervened, warning that the U.S. would oppose to the unconstitutional action. The Honduran legislators pulled back and the coup was put on hold — but not for long.
By the next day, Zelaya’s powerful opponents were stepping up pressure on the Honduran military to act to prevent the referendum from taking place on June 28, as scheduled. A top adviser to the Honduran military high command told me that that evening they called the U.S. embassy in order to make clear that Zelaya should withdraw the referendum, “or we would be forced to act.” But this time, according to the Honduran military adviser, the warning was met with indifference. “The embassy was too naive,” the military adviser, who requested anonymity because they are still involved in Honduran political and military affairs, claimed. “They believe everything that their sources tell them.”
Arcos, the former U.S. ambassador, agreed. He told me he spoke with Llorens the morning of Zelaya’s ouster. While Llorens had been working to avoid a coup, Arcos argued that the ambassador “gave [Hondurans] space because he thought some of his political interlocutors would prevail and stop these guys.” In the end, said Arcos, “he lost control.” Llorens did not respond to a request for comment.
But, similar to the microcosm of the U.S. government, embassies are composed of representatives from an alphabet soup of agencies, each with their own contacts, interests, and chains of command.
AFTER THE COUP, the State Department told the press that U.S. officials had been “almost constantly engaged” to find a peaceful solution and had been in regular contact with the Honduran military. In fact, the two militaries were so close that the night before the coup, American military officers and diplomats were at a party at the U.S. defense attaché’s house, with their Honduran counterparts.
The closeness was demonstrated in the timeline established by multiple interviews and an official record obtained through the Freedom of Information Act by independent researcher Jeremy Bigwood. At 9 p.m., while at the party, Col. Kenneth Rodriguez, the U.S. Military Group commander in Honduras, received an urgent call asking him to meet with the head of the Honduran military, Gen. Romeo Vásquez Velásquez. The Military Group, which operates outside the embassy’s chain of command, works directly with CHDS to oversee training programs and security assistance.
Rodriguez agreed to meet, and later advised Vásquez and other top officers present to remain within the bounds of the constitution. There was no discussion of what was about to occur, according to the official record. At 10 p.m., Vásquez allegedly received a call asking him to come to the Supreme Court. Vásquez invited the American officer, who declined the offer and returned to the attaché’s party.
The defense attaché was told of the meeting, but according to email records Bigwood obtained through FOIA, it wasn’t reported to the U.S. ambassador for 12 days. The attaché, Col. Andrew Papp, told me that when he heard about the meeting, it didn’t raise any concerns. He, as well as Rodriguez, insisted that the U.S. had no advanced knowledge of the coup.
As early as June 26, however, according to recently obtained intelligence documents, Pentagon sources in Honduras believed it likely that Zelaya’s proposed referendum would “not happen” and that Zelaya “could be forced to resign” due to military opposition.
The morning of Zelaya’s ouster, word of the military’s actions traveled quickly to Washington, and officials scrambled to respond. On June 28, the State Department and White House released statements that, while expressing concern, did not refer to the events in Honduras as a coup, instead simply calling for dialogue. Thomas Shannon, the State Department’s top official for the Western Hemisphere and a Bush administration holdover, emailed Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s aides to inform her he was “working up press points.” Shannon’s position made him a main architect of the U.S. response. He did not reply to a request for comment.
On June 29, however, President Barack Obama declared that “the coup was not legal,” and that Zelaya remained the legitimate president of Honduras. “It would be a terrible precedent if we start moving backwards into the era in which we are seeing military coups as a means of political transition rather than democratic elections,” Obama said.
Days later, Rodriguez, the same official who met with the Honduran military leaders the eve of the coup, reported: “Most Hondurans I’ve talked to are confused by the U.S.’s reaction and feel somewhat abandoned by us.” Rodriguez told me that most Honduran officers knew the U.S. didn’t really like Zelaya, and they thought “it would be seen as politically expedient to get a new guy that is favorable to the U.S.”
Col. Herberth Bayardo Inestroza, of the Honduran army, told the Miami Herald a few days after the coup that the military had broken the law in flying Zelaya out of the country, but then added, “It would be difficult for us, with our training, to have a relationship with a leftist government. That’s impossible.”
Read the rest at The Intercept.
Jake Johnston is a research associate at the Center for Economic and Policy Research. He is the lead author for CEPR’s Haiti: Relief and Reconstruction Watch blog and has authored papers on Haiti concerning the ongoing cholera epidemic, aid accountability and transparency and the U.S. foreign aid system.