Despite Pledge to Cut Military Ties to Coup Regime, US Continues to Train Honduran Soldiers at School of Americas
July 21, 2009 - democracynow.org
While the European Union cut off aid to the coup regime in Honduras, the United States continues the money flow, and while the US says it has cut military ties, the National Catholic Reporter reveals Honduran army officers are still receiving military training at the notorious School of the Americas in Fort Benning, Georgia.
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James Hodge, co-author of Disturbing the Peace: The Story of Father Roy Bourgeois and the Movement to Close the School of the Americas.
Linda Cooper, co-author of Disturbing the Peace: The Story of Father Roy Bourgeois and the Movement to Close the School of the Americas.
AMY GOODMAN: We turn now to Honduras, where the coup regime is defying growing international pressure to restore ousted President Manuel Zelaya. On Monday, the European Union announced the suspension of over $92 million in aid. The move came one day after the regime rejected a proposal for Zelaya's return but with new limits on his authority and under a power-sharing government. Presidential elections would also have been moved up to October. Zelaya accepted the entire plan, which was proposed by mediator Oscar Arias, the Costa Rican president, but the de facto coup government said it won't accept Zelaya's reinstatement under any condition. After the talks broke down, Arias warned Honduras is on the brink of "civil war and bloodshed."
Zelaya has vowed to return with or without an agreement. In Honduras, his supporters continue daily protests, leading up to a two-day national strike set to begin Thursday. On Monday, hundreds marched near the Honduran Congress.
EDGARDO VALERIANO: [translated] He will come as the circumstances allow it. As he said himself, it could even be this week. There needs to be enough time for the mediation by President Arias to have an effect and for the oligarchy to retreat and for diplomatic pressure from the United States and other civilized countries to force them to realize that the path to military coups has fallen away.
AMY GOODMAN: The Obama administration has also put new pressure on the coup government. On Monday, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton telephoned the installed Honduran President Roberto Micheletti and warned of, quote, "long-term consequences" if ongoing talks fail. It was the Obama administration's highest-level contact with the coup regime so far. The US has so far suspended $18 million in aid but could withhold another $180 million.
Although the US appears to be increasing diplomatic pressure on Honduras, questions are being raised about its vow to cut military ties. The National Catholic Reporter has revealed at least two Honduran army officers are still receiving military training in the United States. The officers are currently enrolled at the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation, known as WHINSEC, formerly known as the School of the Americas, at Fort Benning, Georgia. That's the facility that has a long record of training Latin American military officers involved in human rights abuses. Six Honduran military officials linked to the coup have trained at Fort Benning, including the coup's military leader, General Romeo Orlando Vásquez Velásquez.
For more, I'm joined by three guests. James Hodge and Linda Cooper broke the story on the ongoing military training for the National Catholic Reporter, also co-authors of the book Disturbing the Peace: The Story of Father Roy Bourgeois and the Movement to Close the School of the Americas. James Hodge and Linda Cooper join us from Columbus, Ohio. And here in the firehouse studio, Nikolas Kozloff, journalist and author of the book Revolution!: South America and the Rise of the New Left. He has been writing extensively on the Honduran coup.
Let's begin with our guests in Columbus. I'd like to begin with Linda Cooper. Tell us who the US military is training, has trained and is training today, of Honduran officers.
LINDA COOPER: The US military has trained, as you said, General Romeo Vásquez Velásquez, who was the commander of the army and instigated the coup; the general who's in charge of the air force who facilitated the exile of Zelaya into Costa Rica; General Nelson Willy Mejía has been named minister of immigration, and he's a graduate and a former instructor of the school who was also involved with Battalion 3-16, a known death squad; General Herberth Inestroza, the army's top lawyer, who has admitted that the coup—who has admitted that when Zelaya was flown into exile, it was a crime, although he feels that it was justified; Lieutenant Colonel Ramiro Archaga, who's the army's director of public relations, who's denied that the military is harassing protesters; Colonel Jorge Rodas Gamero, who's a two-time graduate and the minister of security. Along with—
AMY GOODMAN: Let me go to James Hodge for a minute. Talk about the significance of this training. I mean, it's very significant what is happening right now. Clearly, the United States has—holds a lot of sway over Honduras. The European Union just cut off all economic aid, and yet the United States has yet to do this, though they did say they've cut military ties, and yet we're hearing this story.
JAMES HODGE: Yes. The Foreign Appropriations Act requires that the United States suspend all aid and training if a coup—if a country has undergone a coup. And President Obama said right after the coup that it was an illegal action and that President Zelaya was the democratically elected president. However, what we found is that the School of the Americas, now known as WHINSEC, has continued to train Honduran soldiers. And that gives a very strong signal to the Hondurans that the United States is sending mixed messages.
The military ties between Honduras and the United States go way back. Honduras used to be called the USS Honduras, because we used the country in many ways during the '80s. President Reagan used it to launch the Contra war against the Sandinistas in Nicaragua.
AMY GOODMAN: This was when the former US ambassador, right, John Negroponte was the US ambassador under Reagan to Honduras.
JAMES HODGE: That is correct. Ambassador Negroponte was there and basically turned a blind eye to all of the abuses by the Battalion 3-16 death squad. So, you know, you can't underestimate the significance of this training, because if you—
But it's happened before. This is not a partisan issue. After Oscar Romero, who was the archbishop of San Salvador, in 1980 sent a letter to Jimmy Carter asking him to cut off aid to that country, he was assassinated. And Jimmy Carter turned on the aid very shortly thereafter. And the US church women who were also assassinated in that same year, the aid was cut off for a couple of weeks, and then it was turned back on.
So the problem is, is that the United States sends these mixed messages. On one hand, they condemn, you know, the coup in this situation, or they condemn the assassination of Bishop Romero, but it's sort of like a wink and a nod. The aid continues, and the training continued, as it did in El Salvador in the 1980s.
AMY GOODMAN: How did you find out, James Hodge, that the US is continuing today to train Honduran soldiers, officers, at the School of the Americas, WHINSEC, in Fort Benning?
JAMES HODGE: Well, what happened was Father Roy Bourgeois, who had taken a fact-finding mission to Honduras about a week ago, he went to the military base there outside of Tegucigalpa and found that the—nothing had changed. He talked to the officer, US officer, in charge there, and they said that, you know, everything was going on just as—just like normal.
So we decided to call WHINSEC and find out if that training was, in fact, going on. We talked to Lee Rials, who is the spokesman, and he said, "Yes, they're in class right now." And I was a little dumbfounded. And he said that, you know, they do not make the policy, that that's a State Department, White House decision. And he said they just do—you know, nothing had changed there, either. The operations were going on, and no one had told them to—for them to cease.
He did, however, refuse to give us the names of the graduates, because since 2005 the Department of Defense has refused to release the names of the graduates after it was found out that they were admitting soldiers that had known human rights abuses. And so, supposedly, WHINSEC was supposed to be more transparent than the School of the Americas, but in fact it has not been.
AMY GOODMAN: And that's not the only school, as they said.
JAMES HODGE: Yeah, we do train—I mean, the School of the Americas, or WHINSEC, trains soldiers in Spanish. So it's the premier school to teach Latin American officers. However, there are other military bases in the United States that do train Latin American soldiers, but the training is done in English.
AMY GOODMAN: Nikolas Kozloff, you've been following the coup very closely right now. Talk about the latest developments and who you feel is behind it. And what exactly is the US role here? If the US cut off aid, economic and military aid, do you feel that would end the coup?
NIKOLAS KOZLOFF: I don't think so. I think there's this revolving door of Washington insiders that are supporting companies like Chiquita banana. I just wrote an article about Chiquita, formerly known as the United Fruit Company. And, you know, throughout history, Chiquita banana has had enormous sway and power over Central American nations.
And we know that prior to the coup d'état in Honduras, Chiquita was very unhappy about President Zelaya's minimum wage decrees, because they said that this would cut into their profits and make it more expensive for them to export bananas and pineapple. And we know that they appealed to the Honduran Business Association, which was also opposed to Zelaya's minimum wage provisions.
And we also—and what I find really interesting is that Chiquita is allied to a Washington law firm called Covington, which advises multinational corporations. And who is the vice chairman of Covington? None other than John Negroponte, who your previous guest mentioned in regards to the rampant human rights abuses that went on in Honduras throughout the 1980s. So I think that's a really interesting connection.
AMY GOODMAN: You talk about the money and the support, Chiquita, then and now. It's interesting, this is so reminiscent of the coup against the Haitian president Jean-Bertrand Aristide. He wasn't in office but a year, 1990, 1991, when he was ousted, and one of his first acts when he became president was to increase the minimum wage, as Zelaya has done.
NIKOLAS KOZLOFF: Well, right, and this is nothing new, as I point out in a recent article. Throughout the twentieth century, Chiquita, formerly known as United Fruit, was associated with some of the most backward, retrograde political and economic forces in Central America and indeed outside of Central America in such countries as Colombia. And we know that United Fruit Company played a very prominent role in the coup d'état against democratically elected President Jacobo Arbenz in Guatemala in 1954. And, you know, after that, that ushered in a very turbulent period in Guatemalan history, rampant human rights abuses, genocide against the indigenous people of Guatemala. And so, Guatemala is only now recovering from that.
But, you know, Chiquita has played a role in such countries as Guatemala and also Colombia, and now it maintains these ties to Covington, this law firm in Washington, to this day. And there is this revolving door, as I say before, of these Washington insiders. Covington, in turn, is tied to McLarty and Kissinger Associates, McLarty being President Clinton's former Chief of Staff and envoy to Latin America, who was pushing the free trade agenda in Latin America, and Kissinger, who doesn't even need an introduction. His ties to the coup in Chile in 1973 are well known. And so, it's disturbing that there is this history of abuses in Central America throughout the twentieth century with Chiquita and the fruit companies, which continues to this day.
AMY GOODMAN: And then you have—well, we played Lanny Davis's testimony before Congress, Lanny Davis, who we were speaking to Ken Silverstein about last week, the superb investigative reporter, about his representing the Chamber of Commerce, which is very much on the side of the coup regime right now. Lanny Davis is the former White House counsel for President Clinton.
NIKOLAS KOZLOFF: Right, and there's these—there's the circle of Clintonites that are still around. And as I mentioned before, you have Mack McLarty, who's now associated with a law firm which is defending Chiquita. Also, as I point out in my recent article, you have the current Attorney General, Eric Holder, who was also Deputy Attorney General under Clinton, who defended Chiquita and its actions in Colombia, when Chiquita was allied to right-wing paramilitary death squads in the 1990s, was found guilty of paying off paramilitaries. And Eric Holder, the current Attorney General, who was also in the Clinton administration, was the lead counsel for Chiquita.
AMY GOODMAN: And explain the significance of what he was representing Chiquita around. I mean, we know the story of the Cincinnati Enquirer that did this remarkable exposé of Chiquita, which they were forced to apologize for, not because they were wrong, but because the reporter had gotten access to voicemail system within Chiquita, and they said that it was illegal how he had gained access to that voicemail system. But what he exposed was quite astounding.
NIKOLAS KOZLOFF: Right. Well, Chiquita claimed that it was merely paying protection money to the paramilitaries in Colombia. But the victims of the paramilitary violence in Colombia claim otherwise. They say that Chiquita was engaged in this systematic campaign to control banana production in Colombia and terrorize the population. And Chiquita was the only company in US history to be found guilty of paying bribes to a terrorist organization, as defined by the United States.
Eric Holder was the lead counsel defending Chiquita. He's the top justice official in the United States with ties to this fruit company that was complicit in right-wing paramilitary violence.
AMY GOODMAN: So, the latest right now—the developments of the EU dropping support for Honduras, the talks with Oscar Arias breaking down. Though the elected president, Zelaya, has fully accepted what he proposed, the coup regime has said no. What's going to happen? Oscar Arias said there could be a civil war, the President of Costa Rica and the Nobel Prize winner.
NIKOLAS KOZLOFF: Well, I don't really—I don't see how this is going to be resolved, because he's already tried to come back militarily—I mean, not militarily, but force his way back into the country.
And I think that the problem is that, you know, up until recently, Honduras was a very—had very traditional right-wing politics, was one of the most reliable countries, most compliant regimes in Central America towards the United States. And now you see the resurgence of these right-wing forces. And so, there is this vibrant—these vibrant social movements in Honduras—for example, the Garifuna people, the Afro-Honduran, the indigenous people, and labor. But I think perhaps this could be the resurgence of these right-wing forces that really haven't gone away, that it seemed for a while that we had the pink tide from South America, the rise of the left spreading into Central America. This could be, perhaps, a disturbing sign that those old retrograde forces are now trying to prove that they can stage a comeback. And I think that's disturbing for other countries that are, say, allied to Venezuela, you know, such as small nations in the Caribbean, and this could be a very disturbing message to other countries that are following and trying to cultivate ties to Venezuela.
AMY GOODMAN: Nikolas Kozloff, I want to thank you for being with us, author of the book Revolution!: South America and the Rise of the New Left. His latest piece, "From Arbenz to Zelaya: Chiquita in Latin America."
And thanks to James Hodge and Linda Cooper, co-authors of Disturbing the Peace: The Story of Father Roy Bourgeois and the Movement to Close the School of the Americas. Their latest article, published in the National Catholic Reporter, exposing that US is still training Honduran officers at the School of the Americas, WHINSEC, at Fort Benning, Georgia.
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