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Opinion Hillary Clinton’s dodgy answers on Honduras coup

Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton speaks at the Univision, Washington Post Democratic presidential debate at Miami-Dade College, Wednesday, March 9, 2016, in Miami. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)

As I have written before, Hillary Clinton has a lot to answer for with regard to her record as Secretary of State under the Obama administration, particularly in Haiti and Honduras, two countries that are still reeling from U.S. intervention into their affairs. At the last Democratic debate, Bernie Sanders brought up the epidemic of violence in Honduras that has forced many unaccompanied minors to flee, but stopped short of bringing up Clinton’s role in the 2009 coup in Honduras that removed the democratically elected Manuel Zelaya and helped lead to a new era of repression and lawlessness.

However, Bernie Sanders yet again missed a chance to press Clinton on her foreign policy at last week’s debate. (To be fair, yet again, the debate moderators failed to bring up U.S. policy in any countries aside from the usual topics of Syria, Iraq and Libya.)  At Thursday’s debate in New York, Sanders brought up regime change, but yet again missed a chance to grill Clinton on her record.

The only major outlet last week that questioned Hillary on her role in regime change outside of the Middle East was the New York Daily News. Toward the end of an interview with the paper’s editorial board, Daily News columnist Juan Gonzalez pressed Clinton specifically on her decisions during the coup in Honduras, and if she had any “concerns about her role in the aftermath of the coup.” Clinton replied:

Well, let me again try to put this in context. The legislature, the national legislature in Honduras and the national judiciary actually followed the law in removing President Zelaya. Now I didn’t like the way it looked or the way they did it but they had a very strong argument that they had followed the constitution and the legal precedence. And as you know, they really undercut their argument by spiriting him out of the country in his pajamas, where they sent the military to take him out of his bed and get him out of the country. So this began as a very mixed and difficult situation.
If the United States government declares a coup, you immediately have to shut off all aid including humanitarian aid, the Agency for International Development aid, the support that we were providing at that time for a lot of very poor people, and that triggers a legal necessity. There’s no way to get around it. So our assessment was, we will just make the situation worse by punishing the Honduran people if we declare a coup and we immediately have to stop all aid for the people, but we should slow walk and try to stop anything that the government could take advantage of without calling it a coup.

In other words, Clinton had no problem with the forced removal of a democratically elected leader of a country; she only took issue with the fact that things got a little messier than she would have liked. In her glib response, Clinton never elaborates on what the “strong arguments” were that justified the United States not calling the ouster a coup, despite the fact that various governments around the world, as well as the United Nations, condemned Zelaya’s ouster as a coup and called for his restoration as president. Dana Frank, a professor of history and expert on U.S. relations with Honduras called it “chilling that a leading presidential candidate would say this was not a coup . . .  .  She’s baldly lying when she says [the United States] never called it a coup.” Indeed,  President Obama himself said soon after, “We believe the coup was not legal, and that President Zelaya remains the president of Honduras, the democratically elected leader of the country.” By November 2009, the United States had backtracked on its position and focused on pushing for elections, but the claim that it didn’t call it a coup is simply not true.

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As for Clinton’s contention that the reluctance to cut aid boiled down to concern for poor Hondurans, U.S. actions in the wake of coups in countries that have strong ties to America may cast doubt on that claim. As Max Fisher noted in 2013 when the United States kept the aid flowing to Egypt despite a coup, America has a pretty shaky record of cutting off assistance after an ouster of a democratically elected leader, frequently preferring to preserve aid to U.S. military allies. In Honduras it did suspend some foreign assistance at first, and revoked the visas of key figures in the government. But Honduras has long been a recipient of generous U.S. aid — nearly $96 million, with around 11 million going to military and counter-narcotics initiatives — and Honduran security forces receive training and equipment from the U.S. government, both in bilateral aid, and as part of the Central America Regional Security Initiative. As the United States has requested more aid to Honduran security forces, the Honduran police has been increasingly militarized, including growing human rights abuses. According to Reuters, Honduran soldiers were accused of being involved in nine murders, 20 cases of torture and 30 illegal detentions between 2012 and 2014. The military was also accused of abuses in the protests following the 2009 coup.

In the New York Daily News interview, Clinton claimed that Honduras could have descended into more bloodshed, even going so far as to say that the country could have descended into a civil war “terrifying in its loss of life.”

What Hillary fails to mention is that bloodshed reigns supreme in Honduras today, not only in terms of its astronomically high murder rate, but also for activists, LGBT persons, journalists and indigenous leaders. At least 174 LGBT persons have been killed in Honduras since 2009. According to Global Witness, 101 environmental activists were murdered between 2010 and 2014, including Berta Cáceres, a fearless environmentalist who fought for indigenous land rights and who was assassinated in her home in March. In 2014, Cáceres  called out Clinton for her role in the 2009 coup, saying, “We’re coming out of a coup that we can’t put behind us. We can’t reverse it. It just kept going. And after, there was the issue of the elections. The same Hillary Clinton, in her book, ‘Hard Choices,’ practically said what was going to happen in Honduras. This demonstrates the meddling of North Americans in our country.”  (As Roque Planas of the Huffington Post pointed out, while Clinton discussed her role in the hardcover of edition of ‘Hard Choices’,  the paperback edition of ‘Hard Choices cut out the discussion of the Honduras coup entirely)

Clinton could have used the Daily News’s question as an opportunity to call upon the Honduran government to do its utmost to bring Cáceres’s killers to justice, as well as the killers of Nelson Garcia, another environmentalist who was murdered in Honduras just days after Cáceres. Instead, Clinton’s silence spoke volumes.

As Honduras and other Central American countries continue to grapple with corruption and violence, the presidential race is as good a time as any to reexamine U.S. policy toward the region. Clinton’s questionable record as secretary of state will invariably influence her polices toward Honduras and the region if she is the next president. Clinton’s dodgy answers on her role in Honduras should alarm anyone concerned with human rights and stability in Honduras, Central America and around the world.