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Zelaya: Socialism or Martyrdom

USA considered Zelaya dangerous for democracy long before he tried overthrowing the constitution.

A secret cable has today been released by El Pais in Spain, written by former U.S. ambassador to Honduras Charles Ford, on May 15, 2008. It was written to inform his successor Hugo Llorens about the situation. The words and descriptions are so strong, so striking, so revealing of the background to the deposal (what some call a military coup) of Zelaya on June 28th, 2009, that I will just encourage you to read it for yourself. This text is on fire!

S E C R E T SECTION 01 OF 04 TEGUCIGALPA 000459

SIPDIS

MADRID FOR HUGO LLORENS

E.O. 12958: DECL: 05/14/2018
TAGS: PGOV, PINR, PREL, KDEM, ECON, SOCI, KCRM, ENRG, EFIN,
SNAR, SMIG, MARR, MASS, MOPS, HO
SUBJECT: PRESIDENT JOSE MANUEL ZELAYA ROSALES: PERSONAL

REFLECTIONS OF AMBASSADOR FORD

REF: OFFICIAL BIOS ON FILE

Classified By: AMBASSADOR CHARLES A. FORD FOR REASONS 1.4 (b and d)

1. (S) Summary: Honduran President Jose Manuel “Mel” Zelaya Rosales is a throwback to an earlier Central American era, almost a caricature of a land-owner “caudillo” in terms of his leadership style and tone. Ever the rebellious teenager, Zelaya’s principal goal in office is to enrich himself and his family while leaving a public legacy as a martyr who tried to do good but was thwarted at every turn by powerful, unnamed interests. Various public statements over his tenure suggest he would be quite comfortable as a martyr who tried but failed honorably in his attempt to seek out social justice for the poor. He is comfortable working with the Armed Forces and until recently with the Catholic Church, yet resents the very existence of the Congress, the Attorney General and Supreme Court. Over his two and a half years in office, he has become increasingly surrounded by those involved in organized crime activities. End Summary.

2. (S) I have gotten to know Mel Zelaya quite well over my tenure as Ambassador, and offer these personal reflections on his character, his views of the United States, and on what his presidency means for our interest in the region with the objective of informing future policy choices.

3. (S) Personally, I have found Zelaya to be gracious and charming, quite willing to tell me whatever he thinks I want to hear at that moment. For example, in the period June-August 2007, we must have met weekly, with his agenda focused on explaining his nomination of Jorge Arturo Reina (who lost his U.S. visa for past terrorist connections) as the UN Ambassador, his presence in Managua at Sandinista celebrations and his intentions with regard to Hugo Chavez. It was interesting to see how his explanations differed from meeting to meeting, almost as if he had no recollection of our exchange just a few days before.

4. (S) In the period May-June 2006, Zelaya pressed me hard to obtain President Bush’s approval of his plan to join PetroCaribe. When he met in early June with President Bush who confirmed our strong opposition to his intention, Zelaya later told me that he was surprised that this item had been on our agenda. In short, over an almost three year period it has become crystal clear to me that Zelaya’s views change by the day or in some cases by the hour, depending on his mood and who he has seen last.

5.(S) Not surprisingly, Zelaya has no real friends outside of his family, as he ridicules publicly those closest to him. In the days preceding his inauguration, Zelaya without prior notification canceled a country team briefing for his new cabinet. Over a private lunch he explained that he trusted no one in his government and asked me the question: “Who is the most powerful; the person with a knife behind the door or the person outside the door who knows there is someone behind the door with a knife?” It is clear to me that tactically he will work with almost anyone, but strategically he stands alone.

6. (S) Zelaya also has been quite erratic in his behavior. Despite his often harsh public rhetoric, such as describing U.S. immigration policy against illegal aliens as “persecution” by “fascists”, Zelaya would meet again with President Bush in a heartbeat. At one point he even planned to go uninvited to a bilateral Bush-Berger meeting in Guatemala. Zelaya not only allowed the first visit of a U.S. warship to mainland Honduras in 22 years, but he delivered a ringing speech extolling bilateral relations on the ship’s deck, only briefly expressing pride in Honduras’ capture and execution of the American interventionist William Walker. Always suspicious of American intentions, he inexplicably submitted to a psychological profile at my Residence – twice. His erratic behavior appears most evident when he deliberately stirs street action in protest against his own government policy – only to resolve the issue (teacher complaints, transportation grievances, etc) at the last moment. This approach to problem solving seems to be Zelaya’s way of gaining acceptance, challenging the established political power structure, and moving his agenda – which is not populist or ideological, but is based on popular appeal.

7. (S) Zelaya remains very much a rebellious teenager, anxious to show his lack of respect for authority figures. Cardinal Andres Rodriguez has told me that not only did he not graduate from university but he actually did not graduate from high school. The Cardinal should know, as he was one of his teachers. The problem is that Mel has acted in this juvenile, rebellious manner his entire life and succeeded in reaching the highest office in the land. No need to change now. He will continue to lead a chaotic, highly disorganized private life.

8. (S) There also exists a sinister Zelaya, surrounded by a few close advisors with ties to both Venezuela and Cuba and organized crime. Zelaya’s desperate defense of former telecommunications chief Marcelo Chimirri (widely believed to be a murderer, rapist and thief) suggests that Chimirri holds much over Zelaya himself. Zelaya almost assuredly takes strong medication for a severe back problem and perhaps other drugs as well. His vehement attacks on the press have reportedly endangered journalists opposed to Zelaya’s policies. His style and tone in order to get his way is one of intimidation and bullying, threatening tax inspections and worse rather than substantive debate on issues. Zelaya’s inability to name a Vice Minister for Security lends credibility to those who suggest that narco traffickers have pressured him to name one of their own to this position. Due to his close association with persons believed to be involved with international organized crime, the motivation behind many of his policy decisions can certainly be questioned. I am unable to brief Zelaya on sensitive law enforcement and counter-narcotics actions due my concern that this would put the lives of U.S. officials in jeopardy.

9. (S) Finally, Mel is very much a son of Olancho, aware of his roots in the land and his family’s ties to Honduras since the 1500’s. Unlike most other Honduran leaders in recent times, Zelaya’s view of a trip to the “big city” means Tegucigalpa and not Miami or New Orleans. While he and his family have been part of the Honduran landscape for 400 years, they have not until recently inter-married with the Honduras elite in Tegucigalpa or San Pedro Sula. His son’s marriage in 2006 to one of the country’s leading Honduran-Arab families was very important to Zelaya yet a complex event, signifying acceptance into the very elite group that he so very much resents.

10. (S) I have found Zelaya’s real views of the United States hidden not too very deeply below the surface. In a word, he is not a friend. His views are shaped not by ideology or personal ambitions but by an old-fashioned nationalism where he holds the United States accountable for Honduras’ current state of poverty and dependency. Zelaya’s public position against the Contra War and against the establishment of Joint Task Force Bravo at Soto Cano Air Force Base are manifestations of this underlying viewpoint.

11. (S) Other behavior by the President confirms, in my view, the depth of his feeling. While Zelaya was open to our point of view of the selection of key members of his Cabinet, he was absolutely closed to listening to us on his appointment of his Ambassador to the OAS and to his appointment of Jorge Arturo Reina as Ambassador to the UN. The Honduran voting record in the UN in terms of coincidence with US positions is at the lowest point in decades.

12. (S) More revealing, at public events with key officials present, Zelaya will make clear that anyone interested in becoming President of the country needs first to get the blessing of the American Ambassador. Personally, in private conversations at the Residence, Zelaya has recounted to me, multiple times how a previous American Ambassador had ordered the President of the Honduran Congress to accept the Presidential candidacy of Ricardo Maduro, even though in Zelaya’s view Maduro was Panamanian-born and thus ineligible. Other sources have documented Zelaya’s views on this point where his anger and resentment are more apparent than in his exchanges with me. It is clear by the way he recounts the story that on one level he resents very much this perceived dependency yet accepts it exists and looks to me to define for him the rules of the game. He becomes frustrated at times when he believes I am not carrying out this responsibility.

13. (S) Most noticeable to me has been his avoidance of public meetings with visiting US officials. Whether Cabinet officials or CODELs, Zelaya always is a gracious host, but never comes out of the meeting to have his picture taken publicly with our visitors, as he is so anxious to do with other visitors from Nicaragua, Cuba and Venezuela. Almost all of our meetings take place at my Residence rather than at the more public setting of the Presidential Palace. He made no attempt to disseminate his may photo ops with President Bush after the June 2006 meeting in Washington. The fact is that the President of the country prefers to meet quite often in the privacy of my Residence but not to be seen in public with American visitors.

14. (S) Finally, Zelaya recently is fond of saying that we need to improve our communication, which I interpret to mean that we need to agree with him more often. A similar fate has befallen Cardinal Rodriguez who used to meet, as I do, regularly with the President. As the Cardinal in recent months has found himself in disagreement with Zelaya and is not participating publicly in his projects, Zelaya is working increasingly with pastors in the evangelical community. The Cardinal recently told me that he and the President hardly speak now as the President is unhappy that he doesn’t agree with the direction Zelaya is taking the country. For Zelaya, communicating means agreeing unquestionably with his point of view.

15. (S) GOING FORWARD: The last year and a half of the Zelaya Administration will be, in my view, extraordinarily difficult for our bilateral relationship. His pursuit of immunity from the numerous activities of organized crime carried out in his Administration will cause him to threaten the rule of law and institutional stability. Honduran institutions and friendly governments will need to be prepared to act privately and in public to help move Honduras forward.

16. (S) We will need, in my view, to continue to engage Zelaya whenever we can in order to minimize damage and to protect our core interests. As a rebellious teenager, he will need a significant space to move, in but we must be very direct in our conversations with him as to our core interests. Despite his feelings towards us, he does respect the role the U.S. Embassy is still perceived to play in Honduran society and will expect us in private to be direct and clear in our views. Using an analogy from American football, we will need to continue to carry out an aggressive bend but not break defensive game plan in the run up to the next elections in November 2009. In this way, I believe we can engage Zelaya intensely in the hope of so as to minimizing damage to Honduran democracy and the economy.
Ford

My observation: After having read this, nothing of what happened in 2009 should be any surprise. Ford predicted it in significant detail more than a year in advance, even down to Zelaya’s willingness to fail trying to help the poor, and to be prepared to become a martyr. Exactly what he is now in the Dominican Republic, not interested in coming home, as president Lobo is finding out when trying to assist him. He is just where he wants to be, a martyr, a symbol, content with having become infamous while almost destroying his country. It should give pause to those who have supported him. But will it?

Llorens misled Washington: Wikileaks

Through a Wikileaks leaked U.S. diplomatic telegram (backup link using the IP number) from Tegucigalpa on July 23, 2009, we now know what the ambassador, Hugo Llorens, reported home regarding what he considered a coup.

First he reports the facts as he saw them. I note that he left out the fact that the Supreme Court had ordered president Zelaya to stop his activities with the referendum that he had planned for June 28th, and to report how he had obeyed the order no later than June 25th (see point 6). The president’s failure to submit that report on June 25th constituted a prima facie failure to obey the order. Llorens was thus wrong as regards the facts when he wrote to Washington that Zelaya’s breaking the law was “alleged but not proven”.

Whereas Llorens reported that it was just suspected that Zelaya might violate the court order by holding the referendum on June 28, he was in fact already in defiance of a court order by not submitting the report. The court case had played out, which Llorens either missed or chose to omit.

Regarding the arrest order for the president, he is implicitly dismissing it, by saying that the military does not have the authority to carry out judicial orders. He does not say whether he thinks that it was issued on the date that appears on it, or after the fact with a false date; he just says that they don’t have the authority, and that they did not act as if executing a judicial order of arrest on the morning of June 28th.

In his comments, Llorens speculates that they fell back to the old-fashioned ways of dealing with an unwanted president when the democratic institutions seemed unable to come up with a way to deal with the situation. He also expresses the hope that the prosecution of the militaries may open the door for a way out of the conflict. As we know, they were prosecuted in January, 2010, but it didn’t change the game – probably for coming way too late, and for the militaries to be let off the hook way to easy.

There is of course no arguing that the handling of the matter was poor. Llorens himself admits that they probably had due cause for the arrest and prosecution of the president (something that the U.S. did not admit publicly), so one cannot but be angry at the incompetence of those who deposed Zelaya. However, that incompetence in the execution can not justify Zelaya’s crimes, or render them null and void. Each crime must be handled independently by the courts.

The bottom line is that Hugo Llorens misled Washington, to the detriment of Honduras, but to the benefit of Zelaya. However, what is most misleading is the omission of any mentioning of Llorens’s own participation.

When reading the telegram one gets the image that Llorens tried to figure out what happened post facto. The truth is, though, that Hugo Llorens very much was a participant in the events that culminated June 28th. He participated in several meetings the week before, according to my sources who were in those same meetings. However, he does not pretend to know anything about that in this telegram. It definitely leaves me with a feeling that he was being disingenuous to his own boss. (In early July he was suspected of having alerted Zelaya about the legal proceedings against him, and his imminent arrest; this cable mentions neither any legal proceedings nor his knowing about them.)

El Salvador wants to Reform OAS

El Salvador wants to reform the Democratic Charter of OAS (OEA in Spanish). It is obviouslys not functioning, since Cuba was allowed back, Honduras is not allowed back, and they do nothing in response to the coup d’état that Daniel Ortega i slowly carrying out in Nicaragua right now.

The foreign minister of El Salvador, Hugo Martínez, said that “it is already overdue that Honduras returns to OAS”. He critized the “heterogenous” reaction and announced that El Salvador is working on a proposal to reform OAS.

White-Shirts Demand Rule of Law

The organization Union Civica Democratica, or UCD, who went out en masse to demand that Zelaya stopped the attempts of overthrowing the Constitution last year, has today taken to the streets again to demand the same thing from the new president, “Pepe” Lobo.

Demonstration by the National Congress in Honduras, 2010-10-20.
Demonstration by the National Congress in Honduras, 2010-10-20.

One sign reads “Why do our leaders have to ask things that they should already know?”, referring to Lobo’s rhetorical statement “How can it be wrong to ask the people?”. Of course, the asking is just a trick to go around the democratic institutions, which is why it is explicitly ruled out as a way to change the constitution (in article 373).

Another sign reads, “Who does a constitutional assembly benefit?” and it has a check mark for “Politicians” but not for “the People”.

A sign in the back reads “Education YES, Re-election NO” (the president cannot be re-elected, and changing that is widely seen as the only credible reason for the call for a constituyente).

One sign near the center reads, “We demand RESPECT for the Constitution and the Rule of Law”. This is the core of the message of the white-shirts.

Without rule of law, no laws, no rights, no freedoms, no democracy matter. And that is why the Constitution must never be changed in an unconstitutional manner, no matter how justified it may be to change it. It is simply not worth the price. Besides, all important changes can be made perfectly legally already today.

While on this matter, a bird sang that people in the U.S. State Department believe that Honduras is at the brink of an insurgency. Since I have known the country, for about 15 years, I have noticed a striking similarity to Finland at the previous turn of century. They had very similar social tensions, they also had a small ethnically distinct upper class, and they had the reds and the whites just like Honduras today.

The Swedes in Finland correspond to the Palestinians in Honduras, and the Gringos in Honduras correspond roughly to the Russians in the Grand Duchy of Finland. On one occasion the red came to the house where my grandfather was alone at home, a young boy, totally defenseless except for a machine gun that he was prepared to use against them, should they break through the door. Fortunately for him the workers in the nearby factory came to save him before he had to pull the trigger. When I was young that machine gun still hang on the wall.

The red insurgency in Finland was beaten down, every time, until the revolution succeeded in Russia and Finland became independent. But that’s not the main point, the point is why did it exist in the first place? My guess is that the ethnic stratification of the country created a glass ceiling for the domestic Finns, just as there is a glass ceiling for the “Indios” in Honduras. It’s unintentional, since the Swedes kept to themselves, the Palestinians keep to themselves, and similarly the Jews in Europe kept to themselves. When an ethnic group comes out on top of the others but keeps to itself, perhaps it is inevitable that resentment is created, that can be exploited to foment racist hatred by cynical persons striving for power (Stalin in Russia, Hitler in Germany, Zelaya in Honduras). This is just an attempt at an explanation, it is by now means an excuse. There is no justification for racism.

It is a fact, though, that Honduras needs democratic reforms, though this has nothing to do with race. However, the reforms must be done with respect for the Constitution. That work should start NOW, not mañana, and the goal must be to make the country rich – for everyone.

Two more journalists murdered in Honduras

With the two radiomen who were shot dead near Juticalpa, coming from Catacamas, at 11:10 local time today, the total number of journalists murdered in Honduras in just this month has reached five (5!). When number 3 was shot I wrote that it started to look ugly. Now…

The murders took place in the departamento of Olancho, known for drug smuggling by airplane from Venezuela. The killers were riding in another car. As usual there is no clear indication of motive. The only common denominator in these 5 murders, on 4 occasions, is that it was a pre-planned attack carried out by several persons. The victims do not have a common political background. That is why I suspect the drug cartels.

Update 2010-03-28: One of the victims, Mairena, had recently done reporting on organized crime as well as the conflict over land ownership.

A third journalist murdered in Honduras in 2 weeks

It is starting to look ugly. Five journalists murdered the past year, and three already this year: On March 1st, 11th, and now 14th. The latest journalist victim of the rampant crime in the Central American country was Nahúm Palacios, shot dead by two men armed with AK-47 near his home in Tocoa.

Palacios was the news director of a local TV station. The murder took place Sunday night as he was returning home.

Tocoa is a city in lower Aguán, and the center for the farm occupations in recent months (see La Prensa’s videos in Spanish). It is about 30 km downstream of Sabá, where Sweden built a 450 m long bridge after hurricane Mitch, the longest bridge in Honduras (coincidentally, yours truly picked that length).

There are reports in media that these occupations is more than what first meets the eye. They reportedly have heavy arms, receive training from the FARC narco-guerilla in Colombia, and monetary support from either drug smugglers, Hugo Chávez, or both. A few days ago they failed to occupy a factory for palm oil, which they attacked at 5 AM, since a group of militaries on the way to buy bananas by chance passed by. Even though only a few of the soldiers were armed it was enough to swing the balance of the battle in favor of the guards defending the place.

These land occupiers have shown over and over again that they do not like media attention, for instance by shooting at journalists who enter the palm tree plantations. If they had had peaceful intentions, wouldn’t they have welcomed media attention? What is it that they wish to hide?

The police has not yet said anything to my knowledge about the reason for this latest murder, if it had anything to do with his work. However, regardless of the reason in this specific case, it is clear that media should look closely at the development in lower Aguán, since the peace could be threatened by the developments in that sector.

Perhaps a serious injustice was made there in the 90’s, I don’t know, but I do know that two wrongs don’t make one right. If they have a legitimate complaint then the government should take them seriously, but ONLY as long as they don’t go outside the law themselves. Starting a guerilla is a very counter-productive move, and in my opinion it is as certain as Amen in the church that Chávez is behind it. One may wonder if it is not time to start treating Hugo Chávez the same way we treat Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Kim Jong-il. Venezuela is rather obviously a state sponsor of terrorism by now. The farmers in lower Aguán are well advised to stay as far away from Chávez, FARC, and drug cartels as possible, and to inform the security forces of any foreign infiltrators in the area. Only death and destruction will come from letting this continue to escalate.

To all journalists, reporters, bloggers, and you who write in social media: You can honor Palacios’s memory by continuing to report the truth, now more than ever. For every journalist that is silenced, let there be a hundred more who takes up the torch and spreads the news!

Media: SvD.