By Dan Beeton and Ming Chun Tang
May 26, 2016
When former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton sat down with the New York Daily News editorial board in April, she was asked what must have been a surprising and unwelcome question. In the years since the 2009 coup in Honduras, there has been remarkably little scrutiny in the major media of how Clinton’s State Department handled it, and she has had to answer few questions about it.
But Juan González asked why she resisted cutting off aid to the coup regime and instead brokered a deal for new elections. Clinton controversially doubled down on defending the coup, outrageously suggesting that the oligarchs and generals who had forced President Manuel Zelaya out had a legal justification. Worse, she suggested that Honduras emulate Plan Colombia: the U.S.-funded war on drugs and guerrillas that sparked the biggest internal refugee crisis in the world outside of Syria, involved the deliberate killing of thousands of innocent civilians by Colombian armed forces, and fostered death squads now poised to stick around even as the country nears an end to its civil war.
Honduras also pops up in Clinton’s memoir, “Hard Choices.” The paperback edition, published shortly after she launched her presidential campaign, is roughly 100 pages shorter than the original hardcover edition, but some of the abridgments seem rather convenient. In her original account of the coup and its aftermath, which was entirely deleted from the paperback, Clinton openly admits to having intervened directly to prevent Zelaya from returning to office:
In the subsequent days [after the coup] I spoke with my counterparts around the hemisphere, including Secretary Espinosa in Mexico. We strategized on a plan to restore order in Honduras and ensure that free and fair elections could be held quickly and legitimately, which would render the question of Zelaya moot and give the Honduran people a chance to choose their own future.
Clinton’s declassified emails shed light on her role in prolonging negotiations so that elections would occur before Zelaya returned to office. In an email a week after the coup, Assistant Secretary for Western Hemisphere Affairs Tom Shannon raises the possibility of former Costa Rican President Oscar Arias serving as mediator. This enabled the U.S. to avoid working through the Organization of American States (OAS), where most governments insisted on restoring Zelaya to the presidency and isolating the coup regime. A July 31 email from Craig Kelly, Shannon’s deputy, makes it clear that this was indeed the U.S.’ motive: “The OAS meeting today turned into a non-event — just as we hoped. We want Arias out front. We will keep at it.”
When Zelaya attempted to return to Honduras from exile, via the Nicaragua border on July 24, Clinton condemned it as “reckless” and counterproductive “to the broader effort to restore democratic and constitutional order.” And whereas the U.S. was quick to suspend aid following Madagascar’s March 17, 2009 coup, it would take months before the State Department would act in a similar fashion with Honduras. Notably, the U.S. suspended Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) money three days after Madagascar’s coup, but declined to hold up the more than $190 million of MCC funds designated for Honduras. As secretary of state, Clinton chaired the MCC board of directors at the time.
The split between the U.S. and its neighbors widened when, on September 28, 2009, U.S. State Department officials blocked the OAS from adopting a resolution on Honduras that would have refused to recognize Honduran elections without the prior restoration of the country’s elected president. While Latin America — seeing the inherent danger from the precedent of a successful military coup — demanded Zelaya’s “immediate and unconditional” restoration, the U.S. pushed instead for a “national unity government.” In Clinton’s telling, this was something she triumphantly pressured regime head Roberto Micheletti into accepting. The question is why this was the goal, instead of the restoration of democracy. Seen from another angle, Clinton’s State Department collaborated with an illegal government that had seized power through force. When Shannon made the administration’s true intentions public on November 3, by telling CNN en Español that Zelaya’s return to the presidency prior to the elections was not necessary, the coup regime had all the leverage and Zelaya and his elected government suddenly had none.
The November 2009 elections, held under a coup government, were widely seen as illegitimate, and the OAS, the European Union, and the Carter Center refused to send observers. Following the elections, Honduras continued to be excluded from the OAS for almost two years.
Most significantly, though, the actions of Clinton and her State Department precipitated a new low point in U.S.-Latin American relations. In a clear sign of rejection of U.S. regional influence, all the countries in the Western Hemisphere formed a new group, the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC) — all of them, that is, except for the U.S. and Canada, which were excluded.
If Clinton’s State Department was concerned by the extent of this foreign diplomacy failure in what Washington used to refer to as its “backyard,” their emails and diplomatic cables do not hint at it. Rather, senior officials appeared to revel at having gotten one over on Brazil and other governments that wanted to see Honduras’ democratic government restored. Just after the November 2009 election results were announced, Shannon emailed Clinton triumphantly, noting, “The turnout [ … ] and the clear rejection of [Zelaya’s] Liberal Party shows our approach was the right one, and puts Brazil and others who would not recognize the election in an impossible position.”
We can only assume that this is the sort of diplomacy we could expect from a Clinton presidency. Her feelings on military force are already well known, and are of course even more harmful to the interests of both the U.S. and the true “international community.” But Clintonian diplomacy might also further isolate the U.S. from its neighbors and even from some historic allies.
Dan Beeton is International Communications Director, and Ming Chun Tang is a researcher and analyst, at the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington, D.C.