¡Golpistas! Coups and Democracy in the 21st Century

February 24, 2011

On November 22, speaking to a regional forum of defense ministers that included U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, Bolivian president Evo Morales denounced U.S. drug and terrorism-related policies as pretexts for interventionism throughout Latin America. He also discussed the ongoing problem of coups in the region. Referring to the Honduran coup of 2009, the short-lived Venezuelan coup of 2002, and more recent destabilizations in the Andes, he stated: “Latin American compatriots, we must recognize that the United States beat us in Honduras, the North American empire beat us. But the people of America also won in Venezuela, Bolivia and Ecuador. The score is three to one.”1


Although there is no direct, unambiguous evidence that the coups of the 21st century were orchestrated from Washington, less than a week after Morales’s comments, Wikileaks began releasing State Department cables that appear to support his argument that the United States has continued its imperial role in the region. Cables show that U.S. intelligence agencies have illegally collaborated with their Brazilian counterparts to frame alleged terrorists on fabricated drug and customs violations charges, undermining the authority of the Brazilian state. They furthermore show that the State Department demanded that the U.S. Embassy in Asunción, Paraguay, collect “biometric data” on the country’s presidential candidates, and that the U.S. Embassy in La Paz, Bolivia, collaborated with groups that tried to undermine Morales’s presidency.2 A 2007 cable from former ambassador Craig Kelly in Santiago, Chile, detailed extensive, specific plans to destabilize Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez government, and another from Bogotá, Colombia, made clear that the United States was providing intelligence on Venezuela and Ecuador to the country’s military in 2008, a month after Colombia had bombed a guerrilla camp in Ecuador.3


Cables also show that in Honduras—the one loss on Morales’s scorecard—the State Department supported a de facto government that its own embassy unequivocally recognized as illegal and illegitimate.4 They demonstrate that a year before former Honduran president Manuel Zelaya was ousted by a military general trained at the School of the Americas, U.S. Ambassador Charles Ford accused Zelaya, without evidence, of having direct drug and terrorist ties, and suggested that Zelaya’s critiques of U.S. imperialism were symptoms of a behavioral disorder.5 In Haiti—which Morales failed to mention in his November 22 speech, but where U.S. Navy Seals removed President Jean-Bertrand Aristide in a 2004 coup—a cable from U.S. Ambassador Janet A. Sanderson to the U.S. Southern Command (SOUTHCOM) noted that “managing [René] Preval,” Aristide’s post-coup successor, “will remain challenging during the remainder of his term yet doing so is key to our success. . . . ”6


While Washington think tanks like the Inter-American Dialogue are quick to run to the State Department’s defense, saying it is a “bad time for leaks” that put our security at risk, it is worth questioning a “security” that hinges on perpetuating bloody and seemingly endless drug wars, specious allegations of terrorism, claims of a need for unilateral U.S. state secrecy, and support for coups.7 Morales’s denunciation, combined with new evidence from State Department cables and initiatives like Florida International University’s partnership with SOUTHCOM to create “strategic culture” reports legitimizing U.S. military occupation of Latin America and Caribbean countries, serves as a reminder that for too long, the U.S. definition of security has excluded any definition of democracy, as well as the self-determination of sovereign nations throughout the hemisphere.


Clearly the U.S. diplomatic corps and military continue to see their role in Latin America as that of the local hegemon. And the dark days of the region’s late-20th-century military dictatorships, which came to power through U.S.-sponsored coups, comprise a sinister legacy that continues to inform how leaders and social movements in the region frame current events. Yet things have changed dramatically in the years since the dictatorships were succeeded by liberal democracies in the 1990s; the fight to overcome neoliberalism in the region has produced not only left-leaning governments but, perhaps more significantly, a widespread, commonsensical respect among citizens for transparent, democratic norms and institutionality. Coups are seen as an extra-legal retrogression to a barbarous past.


Yet coups are still a part of the Latin American reality, even in the 21st century. NACLA has collected in this Report a series of articles analyzing these 21st-century coups—in Venezuela (2002), Haiti (2004), and Honduras (2009)—against the backdrop of popular movements for democracy and economic justice. Honduran historian Rodolfo Pastor Fasquelle connects the ongoing violence stemming from the Honduran coup to both U.S. imperialism and the country’s internal struggle between a small, entrenched bourgeoisie and the poor majority whose living standards are among the worst in the region. He notes that the coup took place in the context of growing popular support for convening a constituent assembly to rewrite the country’s patrician constitution dating to the 19th century, and that the spark that lit the fire of the right-wing coup was Zelaya’s move to modestly increase the minimum wage. Reminding us that the unresolved Honduran coup represents a threat to democracy throughout Latin America, Pastor argues that profound structural change is necessary to give substance to claims of democracy.


Roger Annis and Kim Ives, a solidarity activist and journalist, respectively, paint a stark portrait of Haiti’s unfolding election debacle, which recalls the 2009 demonstration elections in Honduras. Asking the question “Why should subverting Haitian democracy be so important to the United States and its allies?,” Annis and Ives challenge the rhetoric of “stabilization” and, like Pastor, remind us of the interconnectedness of democratic struggles in the hemisphere. The threat of Haitian democracy, they maintain, remains its potential to inspire others.


Venezuelan anthropologist Fernando Coronil addresses how the opposing sides in the 2002 Venezuelan coup harnessed the particularities of the country’s ideology of democratic governance, which developed a historical emphasis on balancing and protecting the nation’s “two bodies”—its social body (the citizenry) and its natural body (its natural resources, especially oil)—in leaders’ quest for legitimacy. In analyzing the discourse employed by each faction, he notes the irony of their frequent confluence, despite the vast difference in political stance. Coronil concludes that one of the most important effects of the 2002 coup on both sides has been to strengthen the ideology of elections—rather than coups—as constituting the proper basis for democracy.


We also include coverage of recent upheavals in Bolivia and Ecuador, where leaders have invoked the legacy of coups in the face of right-wing rebellions. Carlos de la Torre of FLACSO–Ecuador takes on the police uprising in September, echoing the analysis in the official statement put out by the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador (CONAIE), included in this issue, and elaborates on it to challenge the viability of President Rafael Correa’s “citizens’ revolution,” which concentrates power in the president while excluding popular participation. De la Torre further argues that the Ecuadoran police and their allies—who openly spoke of overthrowing the president and even opened fire on the soldiers who rescued him—was not merely a right-wing plot, but rather a logical consequence of “the Correa government’s attempt to do away with long-standing ‘corporatist’ privileges” as a part of his anti-neoliberal platform.


Finally, anthropologist Nicole Fabricant, discussing Bolivia’s “civic coup,” shows how the right wing in Bolivia—like the rebelling police in Ecuador, anti-Chávez forces in Venezuela, and los blancos in Honduras—has borrowed from the left’s playbook in its efforts to stymie participatory and redistributive democracy. The latest tactic, she notes, is the resort to a kinder, gentler human rights discourse, which positions the country’s opposition leaders as righteous victims of an authoritarian government. She also highlights the ongoing role of the U.S. government in providing financial, logistical, and political support to golpistas (putschists) throughout the region.


If there is one thing we learn from the articles in this issue, it is that we must not be lulled into thinking that right-wing coups are a thing of the past. Nor should we be swayed—as released U.S. government cables responding to Latin American coups of this century make abundantly clear—by the false distinction created by the U.S. government between military and “civilian” or “administrative” coups to justify its support of those deemed to be in the latter categories. While tactics of the neoliberal right continue to evolve, the similarities between coups past and present are too many to ignore. On this point, let us not mince words. As Representative Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) stated in a July 10, 2009, hearing on the Honduran coup convened by Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.): “A coup is a coup is a coup.”




1. Quoted in BBC News, “Bolivia’s Morales Rages Against US ‘Coup-plotting,’ ” November 23, 2010.


2. Jesse Freeston, “Get Me the Paraguayan President’s DNA: Three Devastating Wikileaks from Latin America,” The Real News (blog), December 1, 2010; Pratap Chatterjee, “Al-Qaida’s South American Connection,” The Guardian (online), December 6, 2010; Ben Dangl, “The Ambassador Has No Clothes: WikiLeaks Cable Lays Bare Washington’s Stance Toward Bolivia,” UpsideDownWorld.org, December 1, 2010.


3. Ambassador Craig A. Kelly, “A Southern Cone Perspective on Countering Chavez and Reasserting U.S. Leadership,” cable, 07SANTIAGO983; Ambassador William R. Brownfield, “Armed Forces Commander Padilla on Farc, Hostages, Palanquero, Regional Relations, and Human Rights,” cable, 08BOGOTA1391.


4. Ambassador Hugo Llorens, “Open and Shut: The Case of the Honduran Coup,” cable, h09TEGUCIGALPA645.


5. Ambassador Charles A. Ford, “President Jose Manuel Zelaya Rosales: Personal Reflections of Ambassador Ford Ref: Official Bios on File,” cable, 08TEGUCIGALPA459.


6. Ambassador Janet A. Sanderson, “Deconstructing Preval,” cable, 09PORTAUPRINCE575.


7. Michael Shifter, “Mal momento para filtraciones,” El Espectador (Medellín), November 30, 2010.




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