Wikileaks illuminates U.S. assessment of Honduran coup

The U.S. ambassador in Honduras said U.S. officials there had no doubt that the military, supreme court and the national congress conspired to effect an illegal and unconstitutional coup against then-president José Manuel Zelaya. However, the ambassador said that there may be a prima facie case that Zelaya may have committed illegalities and may have even violated the constitution.

Hugo Llorens and José Manuel Zelaya (Left to Right)

The report sent to Washington less than a month after Zelaya was ousted and flown to Costa Rica is one of the diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks, the tell-all Web site. The report from U.S. Ambassador Hugo Llorens is classified as confidential.

The Web site is in the process of releasing 251,287 leaked U. S. embassy cables from 274 U.S. diplomatic missions. The dates range from Dec. 28, 1966, to Feb. 28. Some 15,652 of the documents are classified as secret.

Not a lot of the Latin American material has been released yet. There are 623 unclassified cables and 133 confidential cables awaiting release that were sent from the U.S. Embassy in San José.

The only cable released involving the U.S. Embassy in Panamá is a Dec. 13, 1989, one that says that Panamanians hoped for a successful coup against Manuel Noriega. A week after the secret cable was sent, U.S. troops invaded Panama in Operation Just Cause to oust Noriega. The cable says that the U.S. Embassy in San José got a copy.

Said the cable, in part:

“Recent press reports of an alleged U.S. covert action plan against Noriega have once again raised hopes of some Panamanians that this may be the beginning of his end. Noriega himself is apparently attaching some credibility to the press reports. He has reacted nervously by stepping up harassment of the opposition and increasing the size, training, activity, and armament of his ‘dignity battalions.'”

The writer was John A. Bushnell, the career diplomat who was chargé d’affaires at the U.S. Embassy. Bushnell had served in Costa Rica in the late 1960s and was once considered as a possible ambassador here.

Then-president George H. W. Bush presumably had access to this cable when he spoke to the nation to defend the Panamanian invasion as it was taking place.

An article by WikiLeaks, based on another cable, said that Brazilian security forces cooperate closely with U.S. intelligence and law enforcement agencies on counterterrorism in the country, in spite of denials from the Brazilian government. According to a secret cable sent to Washington in January 2008 by U.S. Ambassador Clifford Sobel, the federal police and the Brazilian intelligence agency monitor suspected terrorists and have arrested some of them on other charges, the Web site said.

WikiLeaks said it is releasing the cables over a period of weeks so that important revelations are not hidden by a large flow of information.

The United States wants to prosecute the operators of the Web site, and Hillary Clinton, the secretary of State, characterized the cables as stolen in a talk to reporters Monday.

For those in Costa Rica probably the most interesting of the few Latin American cables available is the one from Tegucigalpa because the Honduran military flew the ousted president here June 28, 2009, and then-president Óscar Arias Sánchez attempted to negotiate a settlement.

The cable from U.S. Ambassador Llorens suggests that there is enough blame to go around. Said the ambassador:

Regardless of the merits of Zelaya’s alleged constitutional violations, it is clear from even a cursory reading that his removal by military means was illegal, and even the most zealous of coup defenders have been unable to make convincing arguments to bridge the intellectual gulf between ‘Zelaya broke the law’ to ‘therefore, he was packed off to Costa Rica by the military without a trial.'” Another section says:

“Although coup supporters allege the court issued an arrest warrant for Zelaya for disobeying its order to desist from the opinion poll, the warrant, made public days later, was for him to be arrested and brought before the competent authority, not removed from the county;

“Accounts of Zelaya’s abduction by the military indicate he was never legally ‘served’ with a warrant; the soldiers
forced their way in by shooting out the locks and essentially kidnapped the president.”

Opponents said Zelaya violated the constitution for going ahead with a referendum on calling a constitutional assembly even though the courts told him not to do so. The suspicion was that Zelaya wanted to change the constitution so he could be re-elected. But Llorens calls this speculation because Zelaya never really said that this was his goal.

The ambassador summarized the ouster and the role of congressional president Roberto Micheletti this way:

“The Honduran establishment confronted a dilemma: near unanimity among the institutions of the state and the political class that Zelaya had abused his powers in violation of the constitution, but with some ambiguity what to do about it. Faced with that lack of clarity, the military and/or whoever ordered the coup fell back on what they knew — the way Honduran presidents were removed in the past: a bogus resignation letter and a one-way ticket to a neighboring country. No matter what the merits of the case against Zelaya, his forced removal by the military was clearly illegal, and Micheletti’s ascendance as ‘interim president’ was totally illegitimate.”

Honduras was suspended by the Organization of American States as a result of Zelaya’s ouster, but the election Nov. 29 that year of Porfirio Lobo Sosa restored legitimacy to the national government. Zelaya, a friend of Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, periodically threatens to return to Honduras.

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