While awaiting the arrival of United States Ambassador to Honduras Hugo Llorens to a meeting at the US embassy in Tegucigalpa Friday morning, Deputy Mission Chief Simon Henshaw spoke to an American human rights delegation from Global Exchange. The meeting had been organized by Andrés Conteris, founder of Democracy Now! en Español, who had managed to get me into the embassy despite the fact that I was not on the list and that my shoes set off the metal detector.
In response to Global Exchange’s concern for current human rights violations in Honduras such as police beating of marchers opposed to the coup that ousted President Manuel Zelaya on June 28, Henshaw announced that the delegation was “preaching to the converted” and that “we condemn the [coup] regime and think they’re thugs.” Henshaw’s subsequent declaration that “the first issue is that [the Honduran coup] was a coup and that it was a military coup and that it was wrong” suggested that the US State Department had finally reached a consensus on the nature of the events of June 28 after debating for 48 days whether the coup was military. The consensus was called into question with the arrival of Ambassador Llorens and his exchange with Joe Shansky of Democracy Now! en Español:
LLORENS: It’s a clear-cut case of a coup.
SHANSKY: Military coup.
LLORENS: Well, whatever you call it.
Llorens went on to explain that—regardless of whether you called it a coup, a military coup, or a coup d’état—“it’s horrible,” and that coup President Roberto Micheletti was comparable to Napoleon given the zeal with which he had grabbed the Bible and sworn himself in as president of Honduras. As for why Napoleonic behavior had not triggered the freeze in US aid required by Section 7008 of the US Foreign Operations Law, Llorens momentarily supplanted the discussion of millions of dollars flowing into Honduras courtesy of US-funded Millenium Change Corporation (MCC) with a discussion of how the joint US-Honduran military base at Soto Cano had been shut down.
When pressed by Global Exchange delegate Maria Robinson as to the definition of “shut down,” Llorens explained that US troops were still there but that they were refraining from contact with their Honduran counterparts. Pressed once again by Judy Ancel on the issue of the MCC funds, Llorens claimed that 90 percent of the sum promised to Honduras had already been spent or was “in the pipeline” for such projects as highway improvement, which if interrupted would create a huge legal liability for the US government. Not addressed was why the US Foreign Operations Law was not also a legal liability, or why the “pause” Llorens described in US assistance to the Honduran government was “not a legal suspension but, you know, it’s the same thing.”
As for other legal considerations, Llorens advised us not to get bogged down in Honduran constitutional minutiae regarding the abilities of the nation’s president to consult his citizens, but admitted that—although it was “a problem” that Zelaya had intended to hold a referendum on the possibility of constitutional change—the military reaction had been more of a problem. According to Llorens, the Honduran crisis indicated a slight setback in the process of military reform that had begun in the 1980s with the return of democracy to Latin America, an interpretation that contradicted not only the events of the 1980s but also Deputy Mission Chief Simon Henshaw’s earlier description of Honduras’ “extremely uneducated troops and policemen.”
The Global Exchange delegation pursued the theme of education or lack thereof by interrogating Llorens as to the continued training of Honduran troops at the School of the Americas (SOA) while military and police repression occurred in the streets of Honduras. Llorens triumphantly announced that the SOA no longer existed; when delegation member Allan Fisher provided the updated acronym of the school, WHINSEC—standing for Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation—Llorens refined his answer and said that he didn’t think counterinsurgency was much of a curricular focus in such institutions. The possibility that Llorens’ confusion was due to a traditional conflation of democracy and counterinsurgency in certain geographic zones was supported by his announcement that he and Henshaw had for the past several decades dedicated their careers to supporting democracy in Latin America.
WHINSEC was again brought up when Llorens was asked what would happen if the San José Accord mediated by Costa Rican President Oscar Arias did not succeed in resolving the Honduran political impasse. Llorens replied: “Well, the US has a lot of options,” to which Andrés Conteris suggested that one of them be the suspension of Honduran troops from US military schools. Llorens in turn informed us that the troops in question were not subject to suspension based on the fact that they were already in the pipeline; the issue of whether Zelaya had not already been in the pipeline as well was not addressed.
Llorens continued to stress US condemnation of the coup and alignment with the international community, which was possibly what prompted Maria Robinson to ask why Llorens had not thus been withdrawn from Honduras. The ambassador began a lengthy explanation of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s request that he stay in order to put pressure on supporters of the coup regime in favor of a resolution, reminding us that he could not put direct pressure on the coup regime itself due to the pause in relations but that there were plenty of evangelical leaders and business people to talk to. As for international alignment, Llorens remarked that his European ambassadorial colleagues were spending their summers in Madrid, Rome, and Paris, which was fine but did not detract from the fact that he was “stuck here in the mud in Honduras.”
After stressing that “we realize that there is a time constraint here” and that “time is running out,” Llorens responded to a question regarding the cut-off date for Zelaya’s restoration to power by announcing that “Washington does not have deadlines. All I’m saying is that there is a sense of urgency.” He predicted that the visit of a group of foreign ministers belonging to the Organization of American States (OAS), whose scheduled visit this week was thwarted by Micheletti, could occur as soon as August 25, although Oscar Arias’ recent contraction of swine flu might provide a pretext to further postpone any discussion of the San José Accord. As for the potential holding of illegitimate elections in Honduras, Llorens advised against a US boycott based on the fact that boycotts complicate negotiations.
Another topic of discussion at the embassy this morning was the relationship between the Honduran media and the coup, one aspect of which was illustrated when Llorens turned on his office TV at 6.15 on the morning of June 28 to find static. According to the ambassador, he knew immediately that there had been a coup; it was not established whether he had also known immediately that the coup was not military.
The static had since been reversed, and Llorens cited Channel 36 and Radio Globo Honduras as evidence that “there is opposition press out there.” He then chided the delegates that “I mean, you want to be fair”—by which he intended not fairness in reporting but fairness in acknowledging the existence of at least two anti-coup media outlets.
The US embassy’s role in the dissemination of information had meanwhile been covered earlier that morning with Henshaw, whose announcement that “we’ve been reporting for weeks” on violent police repression in Honduras led to the following dialogue with Maria Robinson of Global Exchange:
ROBINSON: You’re reporting to who?
HENSHAW: To the State Department.
ROBINSON: Oh, so internally.
HENSHAW: That’s what we do.
ROBINSON: Because it [the report] wasn’t up on the website.
HENSHAW: We don’t put our reports on the web.
Llorens expressed a different interpretation of embassy policy when Judy Ancel later asked him about information on current human rights violations:
LLORENS: It’s on the web page, isn’t it?
Ancel stressed that it was not and that she had spoken with a previous audience of Llorens’ who reported that he had expressed the same shock the week before that the reports were not online. Llorens threatened another embassy employee that “they better be there; I really mean it,” and promised that we would be able to view them online prior to exiting the building. Possibly for good measure, the ambassador emphasized that he knew the Honduran police were arresting people without warrants, beating them, and then quickly releasing them so as to eliminate evidence.
The elimination of evidence again surfaced as a theme when Llorens requested that certain contents of this morning’s meeting not be published on the internet, apparently as an indication of the level of confidence the ambassador enjoyed with us. He later reformed the request, perhaps in deference to the earlier discussion of freedom of the press, and consented that the meeting’s contents were allowed moderate exposure on the internet “but I don’t want to see it, you know, picked up in China.” I would thus appeal to the Chinese not to pick up the fact that the Global Exchange delegation did not view any online human rights reports prior to exiting the US embassy in Tegucigalpa.
Appointed by George W. Bush, Ambassador Llorens appears to have adopted the Bush-era reliance on comedy and incorrect verb tenses in the forging of diplomatic relations, such as in the following discussion with Allan Fisher this morning:
FISHER: Did you meet with [Honduran] military leaders before the coup?
LLORENS: Yes, we do. We have contact.
FISHER: So you knew about the coup, or had an inkling?
LLORENS (laughs): No, no, not really.
Further humor occurred when Andrés Conteris asked whether it was four or five diplomatic visas that the US had revoked from the Honduran coup regime and Llorens chuckled: “I think it’s four.”
Near the conclusion of the meeting, Llorens reminded us that social justice is a great thing and implied that he had chosen to speak to us intimately rather than as a public official delivering official information. One of his intimate observations had been that a person could spend years building up a reputation and then destroy it in a minute, a reference to a coup official who had demonstrated considerable bravery in the 1980s but had recently had his diplomatic visa revoked by the US. It appears that Llorens’ own reputation has not undergone any fundamental change, as he was President Bush’s National Security Advisor on Latin America during the 2002 coup against Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez.
First published in Narco News, 15 August 2009