In an extensive interview this week, the editorial board of the NY Daily News grilled Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton on her record, including her tenure as Secretary of State. The editorial board asked specifically about the role she played in Honduras, where the military overthrew the democratically-elected president. On June 28, 2009, soldiers raided then-President Manuel Zelaya’s home before dawn, arrested him in his pajamas at gunpoint, and forced him on a plane to Costa Rica.
Leaked State Department cables revealed that the U.S. ambassador in Honduras pleaded with Clinton to call what happened in Honduras a military coup, as did members of Congress. But she refused, and worked instead to broker a deal that elected a new government that was much friendlier to multinational corporations and the U.S. military.
Clinton told the NY Daily News on Monday that the Honduran government “followed the law” in ousting its president and said, “I think in retrospect we managed a very difficult situation without bloodshed.”
“I didn’t like the way it looked or the way they did it,” she said, “but they had a very strong argument that they had followed the constitution and the legal precedence.”
But at the time, the U.S. embassy in Honduras wrote that “there is no doubt” that what happened was “an illegal and unconstitutional coup.” The Embassy cable also emphasizes that the Honduran “Congress and the judiciary removed Zelaya on the basis of a hasty, ad-hoc, extralegal, secret, 48-hour process” and called their reasons for doing so “mere supposition or ex-post rationalizations of a patently illegal act.”
In the months after the coup, violence and impunity proliferated. The State Department’s own human rights report from the year after the coup cited the following:
Unlawful killings by police and government agents, which the government took some steps to prosecute; arbitrary and summary killings committed by vigilantes and former members of the security forces; harsh prison conditions; violence against detainees; corruption and impunity within the security forces; lengthy pretrial detention and failure to provide due process of law; politicization, corruption, and institutional weakness of the judiciary; corruption in the legislative and executive branches; government restrictions on the recognition of some civil society groups; violence and discrimination against women; child prostitution and abuse; trafficking in persons; discrimination against indigenous communities; violence and discrimination against persons based on sexual orientation; ineffective enforcement of labor laws; and child labor.
Jesse Freeston, a Canadian documentary filmmaker and reporter, told ThinkProgress what he witnessed on the ground in Honduras in the months following the coup. “What I saw was a huge cross-section of Honduran society, the indigenous community, the black community, farmers, the LGBT community, all in the streets protesting every day. And I saw daily teargassing of those protests,” he said. “There were also what appeared to be targeted assassinations.”
Following the coup, Honduras became the homicide capital of the world and led the globe in murders of environmental activists. The International Trade Union Confederation also documented nearly 60 murders of agricultural workers, and Reporters Without Borders has counted more than two dozen journalists killed since the coup, and noted that almost all of these murders have gone unpunished. “Journalists working for opposition or community media are the targets of frequent physical violence or death threats,” they added.
Freeston, who has worked for Al Jazeera and the BBC and has made two documentaries about Honduras, says the harm caused by the coup continues to this day. “A word that people use in the streets of Honduras is golpismo, which translates roughly to coup-ism,” he said. “Basically it means that the coup is not just something that happened on June 28th, 2009. It’s a long project, and it’s a way of thinking, that the ends justify the means. It’s the government saying, ‘We can do whatever we want to get what we want.’”
Freeston cited, as an example, the Honduran government ousting the majority of its Supreme Court in 2012, removing only the justices who voted against allowing corporations to set up autonomous “charter cities.”
Clinton also claimed in this week’s interview that she avoided designating Zelaya’s ouster a coup because doing so would have cut off humanitarian aid to struggling Hondurans.
“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,” she said.
Yet foreign policy and foreign aid experts, including Mark Weisbrot with the Center for Economic Policy Research, told ThinkProgress, “That’s just not true.”
“There is an exception for humanitarian aid,” he explained. “Look at the recent coups d’etat in Mauritania and Madagascar, where the U.S. cut off the Millennium Challenge aid but not humanitarian aid.”
At the end of the lengthy interview, Clinton does acknowledge that her department’s work with post-coup Honduras “did not in any way address the structural, systemic problems in that society,” but she does not respond to the reporters’ assertion that the country “deteriorated” after the coup. She also notes that when it comes to Honduras, “We have a lot of work to do to try to help stabilize that and deal with corruption, deal with violence and the gangs and so much else.”
Clinton’s campaign did not respond to ThinkProgress’ queries about her comments regarding Honduras.