Jul 13, 2009

The Criminal Right and the Obama Ultimatum

This is a video of an anti-Zelaya rally taken just days after the military coup in Honduras and shown on the the coup-run national television channel. It is typical of constant broadcasts from the coup-controlled press that seek to pound into the heads of Hondurans and the world the 1984-ish messages that run along the bottom of the screen in Spanish: "Our government is recognized by all Hondurans," "On to the elections next November!" "We are under a legally constituted government," "Substitution is in our legal norms," "Hondurans on the side of the Constitution," "Honduras has gained democracy."

Never mind that no Constitution in the civilized world, including Honduras', condones Armed Forces kidnapping a democratically elected president. Or that no country would recognize elections staged by a military coup. Or that the majority of Hondurans disagree with the forced exile of Zelaya and hundreds of thousands have hit the street calling for his return. The messages here are standard practice when attempting to justify the unjustifiable.

But this montage of doublespeak begins with an interesting twist. Initiating the rally, the speaker says, "We are not alone. I want to recognize a brave man by the name of Robert Carmona." The crowd, which would be deemed a "mob" by the mainstream press if it were against the coup, cheers wildly.

So who is Robert Carmona?

The man with the anglicized name who has become a hero to the Honduran coup is actually a Venezuelan businessman and lawyer and a veteran of rightwing coups. Carmona is credited with writing the decrees for the short-lived coup d'etat against President Hugo Chavez in April of 2002. The Apr 26, 2002 Miami Herald reports that after that claim to fame he arrived in the US the week of the 15th, where he sought asylum.

Carmona is co-founder of the Arcadia Foundation. The Arcadia Foundation bills itself as an anti-corruption group but its political agenda is up-front. Although it says it works in many countries, the media section lists only Honduras in specific actions.

The foundation launched a campaign in Honduras focused on the telecommunications company Hondutel. In the video Carmona is recognized as "the first to denounce the maneuvers of Hondutel" and thanked for leading to the coup's arrest, the day before, of former head of Hondutel, Marcelo Chimirri. Chimirri is among more than 1,000 people arrested by the regime since the June 28 coup. The campaign was aimed at weakening and ultimately bringing down the Zelaya government and the hat-tip at the rally explicitly revealed its role in the overthrow.

Honduras was finishing up an investigation of Chimirri, charged with accepting kickbacks for re-routing calls through a U.S. private carrier. The Justice Department fined the carrier, LatiNode, in the case.

In the end, armed force proved a faster route than the slow wheels of justice. Regardless of the merits of the case, the politicized nature of Arcadia's anti-corruption offensive was clear from the start. Carmona, along with Otto Reich, charged President Zelaya of complicity. The issue grew so hot that Zelaya threatened to file a defamation claim against Reich.

Otto Reich is another name that has come up repeatedly since the Honduran coup as the man behind the scenes. Although Arcadia has denied a formal affiliation, Reich was intimately involved in Arcadia's anti-corruption charges against the Zelaya government. Honduran government officials note that he was formally featured on the Arcadia site up until Sep 10, 2008 when he was erased from the web page. Reich is infamous for his involvement in the illegal Iran-Contra affair. A 1987 report by the U.S. Comptroller-General, “found that some of the efforts of Mr. Reich’s public diplomacy office were ‘prohibited, covert propaganda activities,’ ‘beyond the range of acceptable agency public information activities….’"

Under fire, Reich felt compelled to pen a guest column in the Miami Herald entitled "I Did Not Orchestrate Coup in Honduras." He spends the entire first half of this article attacking Venezuelan ambassador Roy Chadderton who denounced Reich's involvement in the OAS. He then goes on to say that he would have allowed legal processes to take their course.

Reich does not mention, or deny, his involvement with the Arcadia campaign or say anything about his activities in Honduras. He concludes, "Without my involvement, these steps (the legal charges issued after the coup) were taken. Therefore, under Honduran law, the new government is legal and constitutional. The United States should not betray our values by joining the efforts of some of the most repressive and undemocratic leaders of this hemisphere to seek the reinstatement of lawbreaker Mel Zelaya."

Reich thus contradicts his own title, which calls the events a "coup," and in passing accuses the entire 34-nation Organization of American States that have called for Zelaya's reinstatement "some of the most repressive and undemocratic leaders of this hemisphere."

Carmona and Arcadia's involvement in Honduras did not stop with the coup. Honduran Radio Globo reports that Carmona returned to Honduras after the coup. Luis Galdames, who hosts the radio program Detras de la Noticia, located him at the downtown Plaza Libertador Hotel in Tegucigalpa under a false name. He reportedly was in attendance at the above rally.

Why did Arcadia choose Honduras? A brief review of Carmona's recent writings reveals his abhorrence of progressive governments in Latin America and his broad political agenda to defeat them. Most recently he published a piece against the Feb 2009 referendum to lift term limits, saying "The regime (of Hugo Chavez) is desperate, faced with its eventual defeat next Feb 15. Venezuelans no longer believe in the revolutionary farce, in the equality it professes, in Chavez's participatory democracy. Only its beneficiaries and collaborators, some who scarcely believe in it themselves, accompany this destructive project in Venezuela." The referendum passed easily with 54% of the vote.

Carmona also campaigned heavily against the election of Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua, comparing him to Chavez and calling him a wolf in sheep's clothing.

This string of failures in popular elections no doubt soured Carmona on the popular will. After exhorting, "The utter failure of populist regimes in the region dangerously opens up a new stage in the political history of the region. Let us hope that the people react in a more civilized manner than their political leaders and find a path that guarantees peace and stability in new societies", it has been the people who have continued to vote for candidates and measures calling for more equitable distribution of wealth and participatory measures like the constitutional referendum proposed in Honduras.

I attempted to reach Arcadia to find out its position on the Honduran coup and ask about the Reich connection and the recent activities of Carmona. The Washington and Mexico City offices answered with a cheery recording on the foundation's fight against corruption but then routed the call to voice mail with no human intervention. The New York office recording replied that it does not receive anonymous callers.

The Weakest Lamb in the Flock

Arcadia picked Honduras to block the spread of "populism" by pushing for the fall of Zelaya. It picked Honduras because of its failures in other countries and because Honduras is a small, poor nation with a somewhat erratic president with a low approval rating and weak institutions. In other words, the international right picked Honduras because it was the weakest lamb in the flock.

The coup has consistently portrayed Zelaya as a tool of Hugo Chavez—you see more anti-Chavez signs than anti-Zelaya signs in the video. Coup leaders have developed a message that hides the aspirations of the Honduran poor (70% of the population) for a more fair and equal society. The desperate move to block the vote-on-a-vote over a constitutional assembly reflected their deep suspicion that it would win.

Honduras is a land of deep contradictions where an oligarchy has attempted to destroy logic through the force of repetition. Logic and basic human rights dictate that something has to give in the economic model. No society would be considered viable for long where the top 10% of the population earns 42% of the income, the free-zone wage is 63 cents an hour and more than 10% of its population has been forced to migrate to the United States. A population forced to live under those conditions cannot be called free. Whether or not you agree with what Zelaya did or how he did it, his overwhelming support among poor people demonstrates that he was attempting to take steps toward increasing their wellbeing.

That invariably comes at the price of the haves vs. the have-nots. And that's why Honduras has become a battleground for the international right—to preserve the privileges of the haves. Today the critical battle on that battlefield is to defeat the coup in the name of law and democracy; it bears repeating--a military coup cannot be tolerated in our Hemisphere or anywhere else on the planet.

But the coup would not exist if it weren't for the battle against entrenched interests and for greater equality.

The U.S. Must Choose Sides

Ironically, as coup supporters scream "Whoever doesn't wave the flag is Venezuelan" at their rallies (did Carmona wave his flag, or not?), they have received significant outside help from the Venezuelan and U.S. right and other well-funded and organized rightwing organizations that will emerge as we continue to investigate the roots of the coup.

Despite the involvement of former U.S. diplomat Otto Reich, if the international campaign against the elected government of Zelaya were entirely run and carried out by private organizations like Arcadia, there would be little room for citizens to pressure the U.S. government. The revolving door that permits former diplomats like Reich to use contacts and inside information to carry out political agendas after leaving office, is an established and regrettable pillar of U.S. politics.

But unfortunately, efforts to topple the Honduran government do not end with Arcadia and raise questions about the involvement of U.S. government agencies. These are the opaque "democracy promotion" programs, in particular the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) that in turn channels funds to other government-affiliated and non-government organizations in Honduras and the U.S.

According to NED reports the International Republican Institute (IRI) received $550,000 "To promote and enhance the participation of think tanks in Mexico and Honduras as 'pressure groups' to impel political parties to develop concrete positions on key issues. Once these positions are developed, IRI will support initiatives to implement said positions into the 2009 campaigns. IRI will place special emphasis on Honduras, which has scheduled presidential and parliamentary elections in November 2009."

Under another NED grant, IRI received another $400,000 to "equip elected officials with practical institutional management skills" in Honduras, Guatemala and the Dominican Republic.

Obviously these "positions on key issues" are not politically neutral and represent U.S. interests, and yet the IRI does not specify to taxpayers what they are or whose U.S. interests they represent. Nor does it specify the criteria for selection of elected local officials within the country. Many of the groups who have reportedly received these funds now form part of the coalition supporting the coup. Similar programs were found to favor local governments rising up against the government of Evo Morales in Bolivia.

What little we know of these programs does not prove by itself U.S. government instigation of the coup. But in terms of self-determination and democracy, they constitute a reprehensible form of intervention, as well as being notoriously secretive with public funds.

It is no coincidence that Congresswoman Ros-Lehtinen, strongly anti-Castro and ranking Republican on the house Foreign Affairs Committee, proposed an amendment to cut funding to the OAS for "its knee-jerk support of Manuel Zelaya" and transfer the $15 million to NED. The ideological bent of the institution is demonstrable and virtually undisputed.

The indigenous organization OFRANEH made these links in a recent communiqué:

"If a total economic blockade is not established against the de facto government, the polarization of the country will continue, promoted by the existing disinformation and the clamor of groups close to the most feudal sectors of the country. From the churches to the business groups to the shrunken middle class, the effects of the work of NED and the USAID can be felt in the country. For the OFRANEH, it is urgent that the Obama administration stop the work of intelligence agencies dedicated to destabilization and disinformation since they seek to create conflict between groups supporting the coup and the defenders of democracy. The government of the United States will be directly responsible for any bloodshed."

The U.S. government, including the Obama administration, has said it does not agree with Zelaya's policies. The Bush administration sought to isolate and undermine ALBA countries and center-left governments throughout its tenure. At stake was not so much an economic model in the abstract but the powerful interests of transnational corporations and national elites.

In Russia, Obama made a strong statement on the Honduran coup saying that self-determination is a principle that should be defended regardless of political differences. The U.S. government took strong steps early on to join with the international community to condemn the coup and call for the reinstatement of Zelaya. That hasn't worked. The attempt to pass the matter on to mediation has not worked either.

President Zelaya has issued an ultimatum saying he will consider the talks failed unless he is reinstated in the next meeting. The Obama administration also faces an ultimatum, this one from the international community and Hondurans putting their lives on the line in an attempt to restore their democracy: be consistent in upholding principles above shady interests or the attempt to build a new, respectful foreign policy will be considered hypocrisy.

In the short term this means:
1. Issuing the definition of the coup as a coup and suspending remaining aid as stipulated by law;
2. Removing Ambassador Hugo Llorens. In the strict sense, the Bush-era ambassador should not merely be withdrawn in line with the withdrawal of other ambassadors to the country but should be fired. At best, he was inept in avoiding the coup; at worst, he didn't really try.
3. Assuring the safe and immediate return of President Zelaya.

In the longer term, a public review of "democracy promotion" programs like NED and IRI forms part of the urgent need to coordinate a new consistent foreign policy in the region that will demonstrate the primacy of diplomacy and the principles of non-intervention and self-determination.


  1. IRI’s work in Honduras supports the efforts of Hondurans to develop their own solutions to the challenges facing their communities. We aren’t supporting positions that represent “U.S. interests.” In addition, IRI does “specify the criteria for selection of elected local officials within the country.” That information is outlined in IRI’s reports to NED and USAID.

    It is also false to say that IRI programs in Bolivia “favor local governments rising up against the government of Evo Morales.” In fact, members of President Morales’s Movement Towards Socialism party actively participate in IRI programming.

    IRI’s programs are transparent and detailed reports are available to anyone who is interested through the Freedom of Information Act, so accusations that IRI is “notoriously secretive with public funds” is false.

  2. Speaking of shady Web sites and Arcadia, I saw that American University had Robert Carmona Borjas as adjunct faculty. But then I went back to the Web site and this was taken down...

    Nikolas Kozloff

  3. Dear "Lisa",
    Thank you for the comment. Given the goal of transparency of the organization, going through the Freedom of information Act seems unnecessary. Please send the IRI reports to USAID and NED on both Honduras 2008-2009 and Bolivia 2007-2009 that presumably detail the specific organizations and municipalities that received funds to this address: americas@ciponline.org.

    I did an analysis with available information on Bolivia and found that a large percentage was directed to the anti-government Media Luna region, although I never said that no MAS supporters received funds.

    In any case, given the information you are sending me, we will be able to do a far more detailed analysis. On receipt of this information on the use of taxpayer funds, I will of course consider rescinding my statement that the IRI is secretive regarding how it uses its money in foreign countries.