Message Control: Field Notes on Washington’s Golpistas

Adrienne Pine

As a recently arrived resident of the U.S. capital, and an ethnographer who has spent 13 years studying Honduras, I have closely followed the Washington-based campaign to legitimize the June 28 Honduran military coup. Washington’s golpistas (coup supporters) have successfully demonized ousted president Manuel Zelaya and persuaded many legislators to recognize the coup government of Roberto Micheletti and his successor, Porfirio Lobo. They have also tried to bury the well-documented record of state violence in Honduras following the coup. My research on this campaign in support of the coup has consisted of attending at least two dozen hearings, briefings, conferences, and press Q&As convened by lawmakers, the State Department, and Beltway think tanks. I met with congressional aides and attended demonstrations, where I spoke with dozens of activists, both pro- and anti-coup.

What accounts for the campaign’s success? I have concluded that it was closely tied to the absence of a real democratic process in Washington. The “debate” over who owns the concept of democracy—the golpistas or their opponents—was itself shaped by markedly anti-democratic practices. Think tanks like the Inter-American Dialogue (nicknamed the Monologue in left-wing Washington circles), the New America Foundation, the Wilson Center, and the Hudson Institute maintained close control over guest lists and questions at their Honduras-related events, and they always stacked their speaker lists with coup supporters.

These speakers—some of whom I began seeing over and over as the months wore on—included Roberto Flores Bermúdez, the former Honduran ambassador (stripped of his diplomatic credentials by the State Department but still welcomed with open arms throughout Washington); José Saúl Escobar Andrade, Enrique Ortez Sequeira, and David Andrés Matamoros Batson, the illegally appointed members of the Honduran Supreme Electoral Tribunal; Otto Reich, key administrator of the “Reagan doctrine” in Central America during the 1980s and senior official in both Bush administrations; Lanny Davis, an adviser to the Clintons and lobbyist hired by the Honduran chapter of the pro-coup Business Council of Latin America (CEAL); Diana Villiers Negroponte, a Brookings Institution analyst and wife of John D. Negroponte, who served as Reagan’s ambassador to Honduras during the 1980s, protected death squad Battalion 3-16, and expunged disappearances, tortures, and killings from the Country Human Rights Report; Craig Kelly, the State Department’s principal deputy assistant secretary for the Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs; and former Mexican official and academic Jorge Castañeda.

Like the think tanks that featured these speakers, the government also enforced the boundaries of acceptable debate. A typical example was a “public” hearing on Latin America held December 11 by the State Department, in which Honduras figured prominently. Only select individuals were permitted to attend, and most of the questions were pre-screened. Congress was little better. At a hearing convened July 10 by Eliot Engel (D-NY), chair of the House Subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere of the Committee on Foreign Affairs, the audience was forbidden to speak, and the panel of seven “witnesses” (dominated by coup supporters of questionable expertise) included Reich and Davis; the latter’s stated qualification was that he was a CEAL lobbyist.

The performance of the democratic process at Engel’s hearing was both fascinating and terrifying. Despite my cynicism, I had not expected the degree to which the public would be excluded from the process, nor had I anticipated the high school level of debate and subsequent purging of the record. For example, although “cleaned up” in the official transcript, I listened to Chris Smith (R-NJ) adamantly and repeatedly deny the “usurpication” of “Hondurian” democracy to justify Zelaya’s removal, citing articles from the Honduran constitution (which had not yet been entirely translated into English). Smith’s notes were clearly shared by all the Republicans on the committee, prompting Bill Delahunt (D-Mass.) to express his amazement at how many scholars of Honduran constitutional law were in the room.

In reality, the official debate on Honduras played out in Washington among people with little or poor information. It is not much of an exaggeration to say that before the coup (and perhaps still), most people in the United States, including many lawmakers, didn’t know Honduras from Malawi. Whatever appearance of Honduran expertise officials may have had largely resulted from what the public relations industry calls message control—pumping spokespeople with talking points and background information, ensuring that they are “on message”; assessing and adapting to reactions to the “messaging”; and excluding rival points of view.

Given Washington’s smug ignorance of Honduras, long a backwater for U.S. policy makers, the coup supporters’ message control was impressive from the start. This played out in myriad settings. My first opportunity to witness it was at an anti-coup rally outside the Organization of American States (OAS) on June 30. Honduran counter-protesters showed up and began distributing an all-English-language array of slick press materials, including a bullet-pointed press handout that I described in my field notes as “perfectly in line with Lanny Davis’s talking points, only 2 days after the coup, almost as if they’d been prepared ahead of time.”

With these techniques, Washington’s golpistas successfully constructed and disseminated an official narrative of the coup and its bloody aftermath as consistent with democratic values and practices. Central to this was the contention that Zelaya’s expulsion from Honduras at gunpoint was constitutional and therefore justified, a specious and thoroughly disproved argument that has served to obfuscate the real reason for Zelaya’s illegal expulsion: His policies threatened to open up a democratic process and impinge upon the Honduran oligarchy’s total political and economic control over the impoverished country.1

Another pillar of the pro-coup propaganda campaign was the depiction of Zelaya as a “radical populist” leader in the style of Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez, bent on seizing long-term power through the ballot box. But despite the claims of both Democratic and Republican members of Congress, the poll planned for June 28 could not possibly have led to Zelaya remaining in power for a second consecutive term; a constituent assembly resulting from a November vote (in the unlikely event that the Honduran Congress agreed to place it on the ballot based on the results of the non-binding poll) would have been convened after Zelaya’s term was over, and any suggested changes would have been ratified no earlier than the following presidential elections four years later.

Nonetheless, in Congress, in think tanks, and in the columns of The Washington Post, Zelaya’s alleged affinity for Chávez-style strongman rule converted his decision to join the Venezuela-led economic ALBA alliance—a decision approved by the Honduran Congress and de facto ruler Micheletti himself—into a sinister totalitarian plot to take over the region. The alleged Chávez link incorporated unsubstantiated accusations of nefarious drug-world ties (a claim originating from Micheletti’s foreign minister Enrique Ortez Colíndres, who gained notoriety for referring to Obama as a “little plantation Negro”) and marked a return to Cold War rhetoric. “What happens in Honduras,” Otto Reich declared, “may one day be seen as either the high-water mark of Hugo Chávez’s attempt to undermine democracy in this hemisphere, or as a green light to the continued spread of Chavista authoritarianism under the guise of democracy.” These claims completed a picture of Zelaya as a leader who was not only a Communist but a terrorist threat to the United States.2

U.S. lawmakers were easily convinced. In September a young representative named Adam Schock (R-Ill.) produced a report written by the Congressional Research Service parroting the claims of Washington’s golpistas. Legal scholars from the United States, the OAS, and Honduras thoroughly discredited this document; as a result, Senator John Kerry (D-Mass., chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee) and Representative Howard Berman (D-Calif., chairman of the House Foreign Relations panel) requested its withdrawal. Nevertheless, it had the desired impact of further cementing the argument through Schock’s initial press blast.3

Democrats were not immune to the anti-Zelaya agenda. At Engel’s hearing, Democratic lawmakers (present in equal numbers to the Republicans on the opposite side of the elevated and slightly curved table, giving the illusion of “balance”) repeatedly conceded that if everyone they had heard from, including even members of the Catholic Church (as represented only by the vocal Opus Dei cardinal Óscar Andrés Rodríguez Maradiaga and not the diverse sources of internal opposition), opposed Zelaya, then he must have been completely alone. Similarly, they asserted that the U.S. government should not support a military coup, even though Zelaya had been trying to extend his term in office (a false assertion, as mentioned above). Underlying most of their arguments was the unspoken but ubiquitous assumption that constitutionalism, elections, and rule of law were synonymous with democracy, leaving no room for the questioning of unjust laws, fraudulent elections, or the relationship between the distribution of wealth and democratic process.

If the Democrats’ performance was embarrassingly naive, they at least recognized, like President Obama (but unlike the State Department at that time), that the forceful military-led extradition of a president in his pajamas was a coup; as Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) stated during the hearing, “A coup is a coup is a coup.” The Republicans were unwilling to admit as much. After his introduction, Engel handed the floor to Representative Connie Mack (R-Fla.). “Now, let me just start by saying this,” Mack said. “This was not a military coup.” Laughter erupted from some audience members. Engel later chastised and threatened to remove them for holding signs. Mack went on to describe Zelaya as a Chávez pawn, intent upon destroying Honduran democracy.

*

In a far less dramatic fashion than the Honduran resistance, grassroots solidarity groups in Washington, finding themselves excluded from the “democratic” debate dominated by corporate lobbyists, corporate media, and corporate-funded think tanks, have turned to creative protest to express their deep concerns about democratic process in both Washington and Honduras. And while not normally faced with the brute military force that Hondurans now confront, the actions of Washington law enforcement in defending institutions of government from the public makes it clear to U.S. protesters that freedom of speech only goes so far.

Within minutes of the start of any peaceful protest action near the State Department, for example, burly agents of at least three of the more than a dozen law enforcement agencies in the district arrive, each covering their own jurisdiction. “The sidewalk is ours, the street is theirs, the walkway belongs to those guys,” one officer explained, after taking down my name at a protest. ICE vans, which always arrive in threes, are topped with large revolving cameras, recording every person holding a poster of a Honduran killed by the U.S.-supported coup government. A more striking example of parallel techniques of controlling political speech in Honduras and the United States was the simultaneous deployment of long-range acoustic devices (LRADs), of U.S. manufacture, as weapons against peaceful protesters outside the Brazilian embassy in Tegucigalpa and on the streets of Pittsburgh during the G-20 summit.

In September, after Zelaya himself was attacked in the Brazilian embassy, he denounced the extensive and open cooperation of the de facto government with Israeli companies in acquiring LRADs and other weapons, as well as in weapons training to assist in the violent repression of the nonviolent resistance movement.4 In response, the coup government’s highly paid Washington lobbyists embarked on a smear campaign against Zelaya, labeling him an anti-Semite. This claim was bolstered by the fact that David Romero, the director of the left-leaning Radio Globo (but unrelated to the president), made unmistakably anti-Semitic statements on the air the same month.

Press releases were issued, U.S. diplomats parroted the claim, and Israeli and mainstream U.S. press published articles in a coordinated effort to discredit Zelaya. In response to the Zionist offensive, Washington activists organized a targeted e-mail campaign against the Micheletti government’s newly hired Washington PR firm, Chlopak, Leonard, Schechter & Associates, and a lively group of 40 people protested the firm’s support for the coup outside their offices. While it is impossible to gauge the specific impact of such actions, it was notable that the firm’s website was shut down for a week after the joint action, and it ceased its strategy of labeling Zelaya an anti-Semite. In the end, they were unable to get the baseless accusation to stick.

Battles fought at the margins of Washington PR firms and the State Department are just as much about the lack of democratic process in Washington as they are about solidarity with Hondurans seeking democracy and self-rule. But given the intransigence of the structure, and the monumental indifference with which the coup and subsequent human rights violations are met, such battles remain at the margins. Beating Chlopak in one small battle is one thing; getting Congress or the State Department to budge is another.

A week before the November 29 presidential election in Honduras, I joined Annie Bird of Rights Action, Sergio Moncada of Hondureños por la Democracia, and Robert Blum and Dennis Chinoy of U.S.–El Salvador Sister Cities to meet with Christopher Webster, head of the State Department’s Central America office—a fact that drew shocked admiration from a congressional aide, who exclaimed to us: “He won’t return our calls!” At the meeting with Webster, our main objective (knowing full well we could not possibly succeed) was to pressure him to admit that—as the United Nations, the OAS, the Carter Center, and virtually every country in the world had determined—conditions for free and fair elections were not present in Honduras. Dozens of candidates had withdrawn from the elections, including presidential contender Carlos H. Reyes, whose arm was broken in a violent military attack on a peaceful protest; the same military that was to oversee the elections was shooting into crowds of peaceful protesters; dissident media had been forcibly shut down.

According to Webster, however, despite all our objections, the fact that the Guaymuras Accords, negotiated in Honduras under strong pressure from the State Department, were going “according to plan” meant conditions were adequate for an election. The accords built upon the San José Accords and vaguely stipulated, among other things, that a “unity government” be formed and that “[t]o achieve reconciliation and fortify democracy,” the National Congress would “return the incumbency of Executive Power to its state previous to the 28 of June until the conclusion of the present governmental period, the 27 of January of 2010.”5 In practice, however, Zelaya was not reinstated, and the “unity government” was formed by Micheletti without including Zelaya or anyone representing the vast resistance movement.

Deeply disturbed by the fact that the more than 4,000 well-documented human rights violations committed by police, military and other agents of the de facto government did not even seem to enter into his equation, I pressured Webster on the State Department’s silence on the issue.

“We have been quite clear about it,” he said, claiming the department had in fact denounced human rights abuses. I recorded the rest of our conversation in my field notes as follows:

I countered that although they had made one public statement about Micheletti’s declaration in September, there has not been a peep from the State Department about the over 2 dozen well-documented assassinations, the hundreds of beatings, tortures. . . . Again he cut me off, this time to claim, “I’m not so sure the assassinations are well documented.”

I started listing again, rapid-fire, all the organizations that had issued reports.6 He then went on to argue that some were actually common crimes, that all sides were committing violence, etc. I asked him to name me, apart from the quiet recrimination issued when Micheletti suspended constitutional rights to free speech, freedom of assembly, and freedom of the press, one time, one single example, of the State Department publicly coming out against the broader range of human rights abuses committed by the de facto regime. “We have talked about it . . . in press transcripts,” he said, trailing off. “I agree, we haven’t said much about it.”

After I met with Webster, I noticed a brilliant Orwellian turn in the Obama administration’s rhetoric: Rather than calling Micheletti’s government to account, officials began emphasizing that they had already thoroughly condemned human rights violations—in the complete absence of any such condemnation. In fact, rather than call to account the perpetrators of the military coup and of thousands of human rights violations, the State Department and U.S. ambassador to Honduras, Hugo Llorens—in line with Obama’s repeated call to look to the future, not the past—repeatedly expressed enthusiastic support for an amnesty for all involved in the coup and the de facto government.

In a similar fashion, the administration’s oft-repeated claim that it was acting multilaterally was blatantly countered by the facts. Beginning in July, the Obama administration effectively circumvented the OAS and undermined its authority by imposing the essentially bilateral Arias negotiations. In doing so, it showed the utmost disdain for not only the Honduran nonviolent resistance movement but also the community of nations as represented by the OAS and the United Nations. Most of the world’s nations refused to recognize and bargain with the illegitimate de facto government and called for the militarized November elections not to be recognized.

The same logics that allow for the continuation of U.S. practices of torture, extraordinary rendition, illegal wiretapping, and countless other usurpations of our democracy that have taken place during the past decade are being used to prevent democracy from taking hold in Honduras. And the funny thing is, while we in the United States have trouble grasping the comparison, most Hondurans do not.

One day, a few weeks before the November elections in Honduras and just after the scandalously fraudulent Afghan elections were canceled and U.S.-friendly Karzai declared president, I was invited to a small lunch with OAS Ambassador and Zelaya loyalist Carlos Sosa Cuello. Sosa Cuello, who in public had maintained a very conciliatory attitude toward the U.S. government and even toward the coup leadership, surprised me by announcing he planned to leave Washington to move back to Honduras and join the resistance. There was nothing left here that could be done, he said.

“You know what the problem is with the United States?” he asked rhetorically, waving his wine glass in the air. “The United States thinks that with elections you can solve anything. But elections are not what makes a democracy. Do you think Honduras stands a chance against their elections? Just look at Afghanistan!”


Adrienne Pine teaches anthropology at American University in Washington. She is the author of Working Hard, Drinking Hard: On Violence and Survival in Honduras (University of California Press, 2008). She blogs at quotha.net.


1. For a good historical overview of the development of Honduras’s oligarchy, see Darío A. Euraque, Reinterpreting the Banana Republic: Region and State in Honduras, 1870–1972 (University of North Carolina Press, 1996).

2. Hearing of the Western Hemisphere Subcommittee of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, The Crisis in Honduras, 111th Cong., 1st sess., July 10, 2009.

3. Norma C. Gutiérrez, Honduras: Constitutional Law Issues (Washington, DC: Law Library of Congress, August 2009); Rosemary Joyce, “Library of Congress Report on Honduran Coup Filled With Flaws,” UpsideDownWorld.org, September 25, 2009; RAJ, “Inaccurate Arguments About Constitutional and Legal Issues Persist,” hondurascoup2009.blogspot.com, October 19, 2009; Armando Sarmiento (Adrienne Pine, trans.), “Schock Thesis on Honduran Crisis Ignores Supreme Court Verdict,” quotha.net/node/384, September 25, 2009.

4. Although Zelaya’s claims were subsequently attacked and belittled in the right-wing press, he was in fact only repeating assertions made by one of the leading pro-coup newspapers, “ ‘Cañón sónico” para revoltosos,’ ” La Tribuna (Tegucigalpa), September 24, 2009.

5. RNS, “Tegucigalpa-San Jose Accord: A Translation,” October 31, 2009, available at hondurascoup2009.blogspot.com.

6. See, e.g., Amnesty International, “Honduras: Human Rights Crisis Threatens as Repression Increases,” August 19, 2009; COFADEH, Statistics and Faces of the Repression: Violations of Human Rights in the Context of the Coup d’État in Honduras (Tegucigalpa, October 22, 2009); Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, Preliminary Observations on the IACHR Visit to Honduras. Organization of American States, August 21, 2009.

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