The recent release of hundreds of thousands of diplomatic cables by Wikileaks will undoubtedly focus the greatest attention on U.S. policy in the Middle East, but it could also shake things up in Latin America. Already, one of the leaked diplomatic cables has revealed the United States embassy’s assessment of the Honduran coup as a conspiracy against President Zelaya by the Supreme Court, Congress and military.
The summary reads as follows:
The Embassy perspective is that there is no doubt that the military, Supreme Court and National Congress conspired on June 28 in what constituted an illegal and unconstitutional coup against the Executive Branch, while accepting that there may be a prima facie case that Zelaya may have committed illegalities and may have even violated the constitution. There is equally no doubt from our perspective that Roberto Micheletti's assumption of power was illegitimate. Nevertheless, it is also evident that the constitution itself may be deficient in terms of providing clear procedures for dealing with alleged illegal acts by the President and resolving conflicts between the branches of government.
The cable then offers a detailed legal analysis of the coup. It acknowledges that there was reason for concern that Zelaya might have acted—or subsequently act—illegally, and that the Honduran constitution is plagued by ambiguity on matters relating to impeachment. But it finds that the lion’s share of accusations against Zelaya were either based on supposition or fabrication. The cable then concludes that the Congress lacked the authority to remove Zelaya, as his removal from power would require court proceedings and due process. His capture by the military and removal from the country was also completely unjustified.
This cable is both remarkable and it is not.
First, what is not really news: that Ambassador Hugo Llorens, the U.S. State Department and the Obama administration knew that what took place was a coup. Lest it go unsaid, the Obama administration categorically rejected Zelaya’s ouster all along. Hugo Llorens, then-U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Thomas Shannon, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and all the other State Department officials involved in this matter were quite clear about the illegality of Zelaya’s ouster and the illegitimacyof Micheletti’s de facto government.
But this cable is still remarkable for its tone and its level of detail. By using the language of “conspiracy” and systematically debunking the arguments made by coup supporters, the cable makes the wrong of Zelaya’s removal abundantly clear. Today, the revelation of the Llorens cable is the top headline in Honduran newspapers, where it will hopefully advance public debate within the country about last year’s crisis.
The cable also undermines the arguments made in an influential Law Library of Congress Report, which argued that Zelaya’s removal from power (though not from the country) was legal. Conservatives in the United States used this report to claim that Zelaya’s ouster was really just Honduras’ version of a legal impeachment. Republicans in Congress kept pushing this line, using it as a tool to pressure the State Department and place holds on presidential appointments.
This pressure made the Honduras affair a headache for the Obama administration, which tried to wash its hands of the matter by prematurely stating it would recognize the November 2009 elections. Meanwhile, there was little pushback from within the Obama administration on the details of the events leading to the coup.
The leaked analysis by the embassy offers such a systematic rejection pro-coup case, but it was never advanced publicly. Had the administration made public such an assessment of the Honduran coup—and its implicit rejection of the LLC report—it would have provided a useful tool for refuting the spurious arguments made by conservatives. Instead, as summer 2009 drew to a close, the position that the coup was a defense of the rule of law gained traction inside the Beltway.
This dealt a blow to both the chances of Zelaya’s restitution and defenders of democracy in the Americas more generally.
*Daniel Altschuler is a contributing blogger to www.AmericasQuarterly.org. He is a Copeland Fellow at Amherst College and a doctoral candidate in Politics at the University of Oxford, where he was a Rhodes Scholar. His research focuses on civic and political participation in Honduras and Guatemala.