Roberto Micheletti, who took power in Honduras following the June 28 coup, has come under intense criticism from the international community for rejecting a compromise, negotiated by Costa Rican President Oscar Arias, that would allow Manuel Zelaya, the democratically elected president forced into exile by the military, to return as head of a reconciliation government. But Micheletti’s obstinacy is encouraged by those who see the crisis as a chance to halt the advance of the Latin American left. A month and a half after Zelaya’s overthrow, the small, desperately poor Central American country has become the site of a larger battle that could shape hemispheric politics, including Barack Obama’s foreign policy, for years to come.
In the 1980s Honduras served as a staging ground for Ronald Reagan’s anticommunist operations in neighboring Nicaragua, El Salvador and Guatemala and as a portal for New Right Christians to roll back liberation theology. Central America’s anticommunist crusade became something of a death-squad Da Vinci Code, pulling together a carnivalesque cast that included first-generation neocons, Latin American torturers, local oligarchs, anti-Castro Cubans, mercenaries, Opus Dei ideologues and pulpit-thumping evangelicals.
The campaign to oust Zelaya and prevent his restoration has reunited old comrades from that struggle, including shadowy figures like Fernando “Billy” Joya (who in the 1980s was a member of Battalion 316, a Honduran paramilitary unit responsible for the disappearance of hundreds, and who now works as Micheletti’s security adviser) and Iran/Contra veterans like Otto Reich (who ran Reagan’s Office of Public Diplomacy, which misused public money to manipulate public opinion to support the Contra war against Nicaragua). The Honduran generals who deposed Zelaya received their military training at the height of the region’s dirty wars, including courses at the notorious School of the Americas. And the current crisis reveals a familiar schism between conservative Catholic hierarchs and evangelical Protestants who back the coup, on the one hand, and progressive Christians who are being hounded by security forces, on the other.
Joining the coup coalition are new actors like Venezuelan Robert Carmona-Borjas, who was involved in the 2002 attempt to overthrow Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez. According to Latin American analyst Laura Carlsen, Carmona, working closely with Reich, turned his attentions to Honduras after having failed to halt the electoral success of the left in Venezuela. Starting in 2007, Carmona’s Arcadia Foundation launched a press campaign to discredit Zelaya by accusing his government of widespread graft. As Carlsen writes, the “politicized nature of Arcadia’s anti-corruption offensive was clear from the start. Carmona, along with Otto Reich, charged President Zelaya of complicity” in assorted misdeeds. The crusade was similar to the way International Republican Institute-linked “democracy promotion” groups destabilized the government of Haitian president Jean-Bertrand Aristide, resulting in his overthrow in 2004.
Also fresh to the fight is Lanny Davis, a former Hillary Clinton adviser turned lobbyist, who was hired by business backers of the coup to push the Clinton State Department to recognize the Micheletti government. The Clinton wing of the Democratic Party has deep ties to Latin American neoliberals who presided over ruinous policies of market liberalization in the 1990s, now largely displaced from office by the region’s new leftists. Clinton pollsters and consultants, such as Stanley Greenberg and Doug Schoen, have worked on a number of their presidential campaigns, often on the losing side.