The Washington Diplomat / October 2009
By Larry Luxner
At 5 a.m. on the morning of Latin America’s first coup d’état of the 21st century, Honduran Information Minister Eduardo Enrique Reina García was awakened by an urgent phone call.
“The president’s secretary told me soldiers had surrounded the president’s house and that shots were being fired at his daughter’s house. We didn’t know what was happening,” Reina told The Washington Diplomat, recalling the dramatic events of June 28, 2009.
“I tried to reach Honduran media, but they didn’t know anything. Then I called correspondents for Reuters and [Spanish news agency] EFE. I drove to the national TV headquarters, but army trucks were coming through. So I went to the Embassy of Spain and they gave me refuge.”
Reina’s boss, President José Manuel Zelaya, wasn’t as lucky. Yanked from his bed by troops acting on orders from the Honduran Supreme Court, the leftist president — still in his pajamas — was bundled into a military aircraft and flown against his will to neighboring Costa Rica. All this happened on the day Zelaya’s government was supposed to hold a non-binding referendum on constitutional reform that critics — including many in his own party — say was part of a coordinated effort by leftists to consolidate power and turn Honduras into a populist dictatorship resembling Venezuela under Hugo Chávez or Bolivia under Evo Morales.
Nothing could be further from the truth, retorts Reina.
“The Honduran constitution does not provide any process for impeaching a president. So they tried to arrange things by faking his resignation,” he argues. “Then they jumped due process. If they had a legal process against him, whey couldn’t he defend himself in a court of law? Whey did they call the army out?”
Now the Honduran army is back — and so is Zelaya. Despite worldwide condemnation from the United Nations, the Organization of American States and the Obama administration of the coup, the new de facto government of Roberto Micheletti refused to budge on allowing Zelaya back into the country, vowing to arrest him on charges of violating the constitution if he stepped back onto Honduras soil.
Impatient for a resolution, Zelaya did just that, staging a daring return shortly before the U.N. General Assembly met Sept. 23. As of press time, the deposed president remained holed up at the Brazilian Embassy in Tegucigalpa as thousands of his supporters rallied outside despite threats from Micheletti's people to disperse.
Reina also stands by his boss, telling The Diplomat that the “illegal” government won't win the standoff by stalling in the hopes that November’s elections would give the impoverished nation of 7.6 million inhabitants a clean slate.
“He’s not going to relinquish his right to come back. Zelaya's a politician and he knows how to keep in touch with the Honduran people,” the envoy said.
“Many people in Honduras were under the impression that the people would not rise up against this, that within a week all their diplomats would convince the international community to accept the new government, then as a second step try to get recognition through the elections,” Reina added. “But they were wrong.”
Like Zelaya, Reina faces arrest on numerous counts of corruption if he returns to the country he represents. He’s also worried about the safety of his wife and children back in Tegucigalpa and wonders how long the standoff will continue.
"We are very worried about the situation in Honduras, since President Zelaya is in the Brazilian Embassy and the golpistas [those who carried out the coup] have cut off all water and electricity," he said. "This is a clear violation of the Vienna Convention."
At press time, 300 people were trapped inside the embassy, while another 10,000 to 15,000 people — mostly Zelaya supporters — had surrounded it before being forcefully dispersed by police using tear gas and water cannons. The U.S. Embassy in Tegucigalpa shut its doors for security reasons, and Honduran aviation authorities closed the country's four airports to international traffic.
"The United States calls on all parties to remain calm and avoid actions that might provoke violence in Honduras and place individuals at risk or harm," said State Department spokesman Ian Kelly. "We urge that all parties refrain from actions that would lead to further unrest."
Talks moderated by Costa Rican President Oscar Arias stalled over the interim government's refusal to accept Zelaya's reinstatement to the presidency. That proposed power-sharing agreement would limit his powers and prohibit him from attempting to revise the constitution.
"I think this is the best opportunity, the best time, now that Zelaya's back in his country," Arias said in New York. Yet Micheletti showed no inclination to give ground, saying Zelaya had violated those mediation efforts by returning.
Meanwhile, the Honduran Embassy in Washington has been a microcosm of the drama that’s been playing out for months back home. Within days of his exile, Zelaya replaced Ambassador Roberto Flores Bermudez — who quickly declared his loyalty to the interim Micheletti government and resigned his post — with Reina. A 40-year-old Liberal Party loyalist who arrived here on July 9, Reina has been awaiting State Department confirmation as ambassador for nearly two months.
“For any career diplomat, Washington is one of the top posts in the world. Maybe I’m not very good friends with the new government, but that doesn’t matter. Right now, I’m working for the principle of restoring democracy in Honduras,” said Reina, interviewed at the half-empty Honduran Embassy, located on the fourth floor of the Intelsat building off Connecticut Avenue.
Since Zelaya’s ouster, six of the embassy’s 12 staffers have abandoned their jobs and gone back to Honduras. One employee who was in charge of the embassy's website even sabotaged the site and disabled all the passwords, though Reina's team has since been able to put the site back online.
"The international community is very well aware how this military government works," he said. "I think presssure will increase very decisively, and the golpistas are also losing support within their own group, because their position is weakening day by day. Hopefully, they won't do anything foolish like trying to take Zelaya out of the Brazilian Embassy."
Meanwhile, Flores has been shuttling between Washington and Tegucigalpa, lobbying on behalf of those who overthrew the controversial president. At the same time, Zelaya himself shuttled from the Honduran Embassy in Managua, Nicaragua, to Washington, D.C., where he pushed U.S. officials to take a tougher stance against Micheletti. There, Zelaya — less than a week before the coup — called “a pathetic, second-class congressman who got that job because of me.”
The diplomatic split has left Reina and Flores in the unfamiliar position of being on opposing teams. Reina mused about the deterioration of his once-solid friendship with the man he replaced.
“I don’t know if I can call us friends now,” he said with obvious regret. “Roberto Flores was a respected diplomat here. He was my boss in London, when I was the deputy chief of mission at our embassy there and he was the ambassador. Afterward, when he was minister of foreign affairs, I was his chief of cabinet. Then, during President Zelaya’s inauguration, he was in charge of the ceremony and I was one of the coordinators. And my first job in the Zelaya government was vice minister of foreign affairs, so I was his boss.”
Reina, who started as a career diplomat in Brussels, served as a director of foreign investments within the Ministry of Foreign Affairs as well as a private consultant for the Inter-American Development Bank and the U.N. Development Fund before joining the Zelaya campaign. In September 2008, he was appointed Zelaya’s private secretary and minister of information.
Reina says the former ambassador called him July 3, five days after the coup. “He told me, ‘I understand this will end my functions with the Zelaya government, but this is the decision I have taken.’ He didn’t explain it to me,” Reina said, recalling the conversation. “He only said that he respects that I’m doing for my country what I think is right, and that he’ll do for his country what he thinks is right.”
What’s right is a matter of intense debate both in Honduras and throughout Latin America, where Zelaya’s forced removal and the subsequent soap opera of his return have generated emotions ranging from outrage and indignation to pride and defiance.
The president’s critics still contend that the referendum he planned was really a power grab and that the military acted legally in removing Zelaya because he had defied the Supreme Court in pushing ahead with efforts to change the constitution
Zelaya, who was due to leave office in January after elections in November, has denied he was seeking to extend his term. Supporters also point out that that the poll was nonbinding and even if Zelaya had gotten everything he wanted, a new president would have been elected on the same November ballot, so he would have been out of office in January 2010 no matter what.
Despite Zelaya’s stridently leftist credentials, most of the world has sided with the president that his ouster was illegal and sets a dangerous precedent.
Yet the impetuous, at times erratic Zelaya isn’t exactly a beloved figure either. His antics along the Honduran border and more recently, his surprise return to the country despite persistent warnings that he’d be thrown in jail if he ever came back have only pushed Honduras further toward the brink of conflict — and given headaches to even his staunchest supporters.
Some officials even suggested that the Brazilian Embassy — despite its protection under the Vienna Convention — would be no haven for the ousted leader.
"The inviolability of a diplomatic mission does not imply the protection of delinquents or fugitives from justice," said Micheletti's foreign ministry adviser, Mario Fortinthe.
So far though, none of the 192 member countries of the United Nations have recognized Micheletti as the bona fide president of Honduras after the U.N. General Assembly voted unanimously to condemn the coup. Likewise, the Organization of American States has suspended Honduras, invoking for the first time ever Article 21 of the Inter-American Democratic Charter, with OAS Secretary-General José Miguel Insulza declaring that “a military coup is a rape of democracy.”
The White House was also quick to issue a condemnation of the events in Tegucigalpa, although afterward, it was not as quick to formally declare what happened a military coup d’état, sending mixed messages by publicly saying that it supported Zelaya’s return while hesitating to use its financial might Honduras to pressure the de facto government to resign.
In early September. though, an increasingly impatient State Department formally terminated $30 million in non-humanitarian aid to Honduras and revoked the visas of specific members of the Micheletti government and its supporters. (It has also suspended the issuance of new U.S. tourist visas for all Honduran citizens until further notice.) In addition, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton suggested for the first time that it might not recognize the country’s elections this fall.
Yet the conspiracy theories remain, as some observers insist that the U.S. ambassador in Tegucigalpa, Hugo Llorens, coordinated Zelaya’s removal from power along with U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Thomas Shannon and John Negroponte, who works as an advisor to the secretary of state.
Asked if he believed that the United States was behind the coup, Reina said “maybe not the U.S. itself,” but he pointed an accusing finger at “some right-wing groups who supported the golpistas” within the Washington power structure.
In fact, shortly after the coup, a Honduran business group hired lobbyist Lanny Davis, who served as White House counsel for President Clinton, as well as Bennett Ratcliff, a public relations specialist with ties to the former president, to represent it in Washington.
“There’s very little Lanny Davis won’t do for money. He has worked for dictators in the past,” Ken Silverstein, the Washington editor of Harper’s Magazine, told a recent panel sponsored by the DemocracyNow.org daily TV/radio news program. “In 1999, when he was at Patton Boggs — one of the big law firms here — he worked for a Kazakh front group, just as he’s working for a Honduran front group now.”
On the flip side, Zelaya has his own numerous U.S. supporters, among them leftist, grassroots groups such as the New York-based International Action Center, which is planning a three-day “Conference Against the Coup” in Tegucigalpa for early October. Back home, Reina says Zelaya’s base of support stems from the 70 percent of Hondurans who are considered impoverished. In fact, the country’s annual per-capita GDP is around $1,840 — making it the fourth-poorest country in the Western Hemisphere after Haiti, Nicaragua, Guyana and Bolivia.
The wealthiest country in Latin America, by comparison, is oil-rich Venezuela, with a per-capita GDP of $11,388. Chávez is a model for Zelaya, who has made no secret of his admiration for the “Bolivarian revolution” and his contempt for “American imperialism” over the years.
Yet Reina says Chávez has nothing to do with the current crisis in Honduras. He insists the Venezuelan president is “just the scapegoat” — and that Micheletti, as president of Congress, heartily approved Tegucigalpa’s participation in both ALBA (a Venezuela-led economic bloc) and Petrocaribe (an oil preference program conceived by Chávez to help poorer Caribbean and Central American nations).
“The real reason behind the coup is that Zelaya upset the multinationals,” Reina declared. “The Honduran government buys liquidity from the banks, and he announced that he would not buy all the liquidity, but only half, in order to make more money available for borrowing. Before, if you wanted to buy a house in Honduras, you paid interest rates of 30 percent. With this measure, Zelaya lowered interest rates to 8 or 9 percent. Construction started to improve and we reached almost 8 percent GDP growth in the first two years of his administration.”
But Reina claimed the bankers were angry because the strategy reduced their profit margins and forced them to invest more money in attracting new clients.
“We raised more tax revenues by 40 percent just by making larger companies pay bigger taxes. In the past, those big companies were evading taxes,” he told The Diplomat. “The president also raised the minimum wage by 60 percent, from 3,500 lempira (around $185) per month to 5,000 lempira (about $265) per month. And the private sector didn’t like that.”
Reina also criticized the “intransigence of the golpistas” for causing immeasurable damage to the Honduran economy. “Foreign investment dropped by 18 percent in the three months since the coup, while international reserves have fallen from $2.5 billion to $2.1 billion. I don’t see the coup leaders really worrying about the poor people. The elite who supported the coup are the richest people in Honduras, and they don’t feel the pressure. But sooner or later, they’ll start feeling it when it affects their business.”
He added: “This de facto government has to understand the damage it’s doing to the country and the people. They’re not trying to find solutions. They’re just buying time.” Meanwhile, Reina says he’s concerned about the coup’s spillover effect into other Central American countries — particularly El Salvador and Guatemala — where democracy is on shaky ground and powerful business interests clash with those of poor people.
“It’s very troublesome that some Guatemalan businessmen have visited Micheletti to congratulate him on what he did,” he said, warning that “Latin America cannot go back to the ’60s or ’70s. This is a matter of principle. If the international community permits this, it will open a Pandora’s box. Whenever you don’t like a president, you can just throw him out and call elections, and everything will be fine.”
On that score, Reina said that even if presidential elections scheduled for Nov. 29 somehow go ahead, he doubts the vote can be pulled off without violence. “One of the candidates, Carlos H. Reyes, was beaten by the police and had his arm broken. Another one, César Ham, was followed and detained. And the mayor of San Pedro Sula, Rodolfo Padilla, has been persecuted,” Reina said.
And with tensions still boiling over three months after Zelaya’s ouster, Reina warned that nothing will change without the president’s official restoration to power.
“The candidates have to understand that the international community will not recognize any of the winners of these elections," he said. "Maybe a solution will be reached, but if we go to elections under current circumstances and the people are divided, it will be worse, much worse.”