Part one of a two-part article. (Go to part two).
Wikileaks recently published documents suggesting that PR spin helped determine the final outcome of the June 2009 Honduran coup. At the same time that a July 2009 diplomatic cable from the U.S. Ambassador in Honduras to top government officials confirmed that the Honduran president's removal was illegal, professional lobbyists and political communicators were beginning a PR blitz, eventually managing to manipulate America into believing the coup was a constitutional act.
On June 28, 2009, the Honduran military deposed Manual Zelaya, their country's elected president since 2006, taking him at gunpoint from his home and sending him to Costa Rica. The international community quickly condemned the act as a coup, and the Organization of American States (OAS) issued an immediate and unanimous call for Zelaya's return to office. President Obama stated "We believe that the coup was not legal and that President Zelaya remains the President of Honduras," but he and Secretary of State Hilary Clinton stopped short of formally declaring the actions of the military to be a "military coup."
America's Initial Caution Was Justified
As a diplomatic and legal matter, it may have been prudent for Obama and Clinton to be cautious about making a formal coup declaration. U.S. law requires that America cut off aid once a country is determined to have experienced a military coup d'etat, and there were initially questions about whether the removal of Zelaya was constitutional under Honduran law.
Zelaya was no angel, and an earlier Ambassador described him as a "rebellious teen" in a different cable released by Wikileaks. Zelaya had pushed the limits of his power by requesting a non-binding referendum (essentially an opinion poll) about whether there should be a second, binding referendum to convoke a constituent assembly that would rewrite the Constitution (many believed Zelaya's goal was to revise the Constitution's one-term requirement so he could make a second presidential run). The Honduran Constitution can only be amended through a two-thirds vote of Congress in two consecutive sessions, so had the assembly actually been invoked, its proposed constitutional changes would have been invalid. Zelaya pushed forward with the referendum after the opposition-controlled Congress passed a law prohibiting it and two lower courts had ordered him to suspend his efforts. When the head of the military refused to carry out the poll, the president dismissed him, and refused a subsequent Supreme Court order to reinstate the General. That refusal led the Court to order his arrest; in carrying out the arrest, the military pulled him from bed at gunpoint and sent him out of the country.
Whether this conduct and arrest order justified forcible removal by the military was another matter. Both the Supreme Court and Congress were dominated by Zelaya opponents who were disturbed about the president's leftward shift, and with Zelaya opponent Roberto Micheletti in line to succeed the president, the judicial and legislative branches had clear incentives to favor Zelaya's removal. Congress' after-the-fact resolution supporting the coup had the effect of ascending Micheletti to the presidency, clearly benefiting party interests.
The Embassy Deemed the Coup Illegal, but the Obama Administration Hesitated
With the methods and motives of Honduran political actors in question, the U.S. was correct to tread cautiously. By July 24, though, the U.S. government was informed by the American embassy in Honduras that "there is no doubt" that the events of June 28 "constituted an illegal and unconstitutional coup." The Ambassador sent top U.S. officials a cable titled "Open and Shut: The Case of the Honduran Coup" on July 24 that analyzed and dismissed each of the constitutional and legal arguments made by coup supporters. The cable notes that Zelaya never actually modified the Constitution to allow presidential reelection, and many other Honduran officials, including presidents, had proposed presidential reelection without being deemed illegitimate and removed from office. The Embassy's legal analysis states that the Constitution does not clearly delineate impeachment procedures, but "confirms that the removal of the president is a judicial matter" where the Attorney General files charges with the Supreme Court, the Court indicts the accused president, and a full, transparent trial takes place. Congress' after-the-fact resolution "disapproving" of Zelaya also did not make the removal Constitutional. While acknowledging that there may be a prima facie case against Zelaya, the cable notes "there was never any formal, public weighing of the evidence nor any semblance of due process" as required by the Honduran Constitution. Because an alleged Constitutional violation was the purported basis for Zelaya's removal, it is necessary that opponents follow the Constitution's removal procedures and due process requirements -- a Constitutional wrong is not made right by committing another Constitutional wrong. "No matter what the merits of the case against Zelaya," the cable says, "his forced removal by the military was clearly illegal, and [Roberto] Micheletti's ascendance as 'interim president' was totally illegitimate."
Despite this unequivocal assessment of Zelaya's removal as an illegal military coup, the U.S. continued to express confusion about the constitutionality of the events. The Obama Administration supported mediation between the Zelaya and Micheletti camps, expressing "support for rule of law" and "disapproval" of Zelaya's forcible removal, but took its time cutting aid to the coup regime, did not freeze the assets of the coup supporters (as the Los Angeles Times editorial board had urged), and unlike the rest of the world, never fully denounced the coup. Meanwhile, even though America's ambassadorial "ears on the ground" determined that the coup was illegal, a small Republican minority and some members of the media continued parroting the legally incorrect claims of the coup supporters and alleging that Zelaya's removal was constitutional. In what is now recognized as familiar Obama territory, the administration took a middle-of-the-road approach and neither supported nor opposed the coup regime.
As the Obama Administration Stood in the Middle of the Road, it was Run Over by the Coup Regime's PR Machine
Despite the Embassy's findings, the U.S. eventually handed the coup regime and its elite business supporters a victory by agreeing to recognize the November 2009 elections that installed the coup supporters' right-wing candidate of choice. Honduran elites achieved this victory not through the use of force, but through the use of spin. Within two weeks of the coup, the New York Times reported that Honduras' coup regime and its elite business supporters had hired a set of top-notch PR specialists and lobbyists with strong political connections. In September, the coup regime hired a major lobbying firm to further spin the coup as constitutional. This PR machine steered the coup regime towards victory by dictating the talking points echoed by the mainstream media and parroted by right-wing American congressmen, dominating the political field and overcoming the Obama Administration's restraint.
First, the coup regime hired veteran lobbyist Bennett Ratcliff, a partner at the Vander Ark Ratcliff PR and political communications firm, to guide them through the U.S.-brokered mediation between Michelleti and Zelaya. Ratcliff had honed his political skills in his previous role as a senior executive for the late Bob Squier, known as the father of the modern political campaign. The Times reported that the interim government did not make a move without consulting Ratcliff, and that "every proposal that Micheletti's group presented was written or approved by [Ratcliff]."
Second, the Honduran equivalent of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, CEAL, paid $210,000 to lobbyist and political insider Lanny Davis to manufacture support for Zelaya's overthrow. (Many, including Honduran Catholic Bishops, proclaimed that Zelaya was ousted because he raised the minimum wage and threatened elite political and economic interests; this would certainly explain CEAL's interest in supporting the coup regime.) Davis was a senior advisor in Bill Clinton's White House, a close ally of Senator Joe Lieberman, and a major fundraiser and supporter for Hilary Clinton's 2008 Presidential bid (Davis attacked then-candidate Barack Obama for his ties to Reverend Jeremiah Wright, and questioned Obama's "electability" by claiming white males would not support him). G. Gordon Liddy, the Nixon operative who served time in prison for orchestrating the infamous Watergate break-in in 1972, once said of his friend Lanny Davis that "he can defend the indefensible." Most recently, Davis has been hired as top spinmeister for the President of Equatorial Guinea, who took power through a coup in 1979 and has won "elections" with 95% of the vote ever since.
Davis quickly went on the attack, calling the coup constitutional in talk shows and other media, alleging that Zelaya was deposed because he wanted to illegally consolidate power, and claiming that calling coup supporters "elites" was an ad hominem attack. Update Dec 23: Davis has most recently
been in the headlines for serving as spinmeister for Ivory Coast leader Laurent Gbagbo,
who refused to relinquish power after losing elections in November and has
since been committing what the United Nations calls "massive violations" of human rights.
Third, on September 8 the interim Honduran government hired the lobbying firm Chlopak, Leonard, Schechter and Associates to further spin the coup regime. Foreign Agent Registration Act records show that the lobbying firm made over sixty contacts with government officials and media between September 21 and November 11, 2011 (the contract expired in December, 2009).
During this period, Chlopak, Leonard, Schechter and Associates lobbyist Juan Cortiñas-Garcia had several contacts with Republican legislators, including Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) and Cuban-born Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla,-18), both of whom became outspoken supporters of the coup regime. Prior to his lobbying work, Cortiñas-Garcia had spent six years working as a Press Secretary and Legislative Assistant for Ros-Lehtinen, in another example of the revolving door in Washington.
On September 30, Ros-Lehtinen announced "I am traveling to Honduras to conduct my own assessment of the situation on the ground and the state of U.S. interests in light of the U.S.'s misguided Zelaya-focused approach," and departed on October 5. Perhaps Ros-Lehtinen did not accept the embassy's July 24 interpretation of events because she needed to make an independent assessment; if this is the case, though, it seems strange that an "independent assessment" would include staff meetings with the coup regime's lobbyists on October 8 and 14.
For Senator DeMint, his contact with lobbyists track his public actions on Honduras. On October 1, lobbyist Cortiñas-Garcia met with DeMint, the same day that DeMint announced via Twitter that he would be leading a delegation to Honduras. A week before DeMint wrote a Wall Street Journal op-ed, entitled "What I Learned in Honduras," he was briefed by the coup regime's lobbyists; perhaps the article should have been titled "What I Learned from Honduras' Lobbyists."
All Power to the PR
DeMint brought fellow Congressman Aaron Schock (R-Ill.-18) on his visit to Honduras, who commissioned a Law Library of Congress report on the legality of the coup. The report's findings elicited fierce rebuttals in several different places, with Dr. Rosemary Joyce of the University of California-Berkeley issuing a particularly thorough refutation (noting, among other things, that the LLC report relies on a single right-wing Honduran legal analyst, and that the report erred in finding that congress can get rid of a president by "disapproving of him"). Despite these rebuttals, Republican coup supporters cited the report selectively, generally failing to note that even the LLC report conceded that the Honduran Supreme Court and Congress lacked the authority to remove Zelaya from the country. There is no question that Zelaya's removal was illegal, and American acquiescence to an unconstitutional regime holding power until elections sets a dangerous precedent for U.S. foreign policy.
In the end, the power of spin helped coup supporters achieve victory. Zelaya was never fully returned to office, and despite protests by most of the international community, the November 2009 elections went forward and the U.S. recognized the right-wing candidate Porfirio Lobo Sosa as president. Despite the elections' questionable legitimacy -- Zelaya supporters boycotted the vote, and the vote took place in what was called a "political environment contaminated by repression, violence, and fear," with groups such as Amnesty International and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights deploring human rights violations -- American support for the electoral outcome was decisive.
American acquiescence to the coup regime lent implicit support to the de facto government's violent suppression of political opponents and opposition media. The outcome of the November 2009 vote was greatly influenced by the conduct and statements of American officials in the months leading up to the election. And that conduct and those statements were largely determined by a small group of talented PR practitioners and lobbyists. As the next article in this series will show, Honduras 2009 is not the first time that PR spin helped topple a Latin American regime.