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WOLA vs. Honduran Democracy


By Adrienne Pine*
Source: CounterPunch
altInstead of the “new era of relations” Obama promised between the U.S. and Latin America, the past year has seen increasing U.S.-Latin American hostilities, largely centered around the June 28th, 2009 violent military coup d’etat that ousted democratically-elected Honduran president Manuel Zelaya. And while the U.S. role in Honduras appears to many Latin Americans to be a continuation of its imperialist policies in the region over the past century, there is one new twist in the case of Honduras: much of the State Department’s behind-the-scenes work is being carried out by one of the most respected human rights NGOs in Washington: the Washington Office on Latin America-WOLA.


Erasing the resistance

While the scant international media attention given to last year’s military coup in Honduras focused on individual players like president altZelaya, de facto ruler Roberto Micheletti, and Costa Rican President Oscar Árias (pictured in July 2009), the issues at stake for the hundreds of thousands of Hondurans who took to the streets and continue today in resistance were far bigger than any one person. Hondurans were outraged that their electoral democracy had been violently wrested from them in a U.S.-supported military coup. That outrage grew as the military began beating, raping, illegally detaining and murdering members of the non-violent resistance; militarizing schools, libraries and cultural centers and (bolstered by emergency laws and curfews) terrorizing people in their own neighborhoods, all in the name of the de facto regime. Various internationally recognized human rights organizations, including Amnesty International and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, documented over 4,000 human rights abuses carried out by the de facto regime against Hondurans who opposed it in the months following the coup.

The misrepresentation of the broad and diverse resistance movement in media and policy discourse as “Zelaya supporters” bolsters the main stipulations of the San José-Tegucigalpa Accords, imposed by the U.S. State Department in contravention of the strong early stance taken by the Organization of American States (OAS) against any recognition of the de facto government. These stipulations are: “free and fair elections,” the installation of a “truth commission,” and a “reconciliation government.”

In the first instance, the invisibility of the resistance movement in international media obscured the fact that president Porfirio Lobo Sosa was installed following an election carried out under circumstances of constitutional suspension and extreme state violence. The elections, which State Department officials hailed as a model exercise in participatory democracy, had in fact been boycotted by the resistance as well as the United Nations, the European Union, the OAS and the Carter Center. Furthermore, no international election monitors were present (although the U.S. federally-funded National Democratic Institute, chaired by former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, sent “observers” who played a central role in legitimating the theater of democracy), and entirely fictitious results were claimed by the illegally appointed Honduran Supreme Electoral Tribunal.

The State Department’s argument that the elections ended the crisis was bolstered by its false assertion, first voiced by Tom Shannon on November 3rd, that Zelaya’s camp had agreed to support the election with or without his reinstatement under the San José-Tegucigalpa Accords.

The United States, facing both an international community newly willing to stand up to it and a Honduran resistance movement of unprecedented scope, has nonetheless failed to change its modus operandi from the 1980s. U.S. Ambassador Hugo Llorens has taken several pages out of former ambassador John Negroponte’s 1980s playbook. In addition to helping to obfuscate the coup leaders’ responsibility for systematic human rights violations in the recently-released Country Human Rights Report, Llorens has been working to install the above-mentioned truth commission, which has been denounced by all major Honduran human rights organizations and the broad resistance coalition, and has attempted to broker the “reconciliation government” by bringing together Liberal Party leaders who opposed the coup and the extremely right-wing National Party precariously represented by Lobo. The position of the resistance movement on both the truth commission and “reconciliation” process is that rather than providing the necessary steps for a peace based in democracy and justice, they provide cover for repression aimed at destroying the demand for a new constitution.

Enter WOLA

altThe Washington Office on Latin America, or WOLA, is a human rights-focused non profit organization founded in 1974. According to its website,

Since 1975, when WOLA worked behind the scenes to write the first major legislation conditioning U.S. military aid abroad on human rights practices, WOLA has played a key role in all major Washington policy debates over human rights in Latin America. Today, WOLA staff are called upon regularly to provide information and analysis to the executive branch, to multilateral organizations, to members of Congress, and to U.S. and Latin American media.

To say WOLA plays a key role in U.S. policy toward Latin America is, perhaps, an understatement. Regularly the only voice of a “human rights” perspective in Congressional and Senate hearings otherwise stacked with neoconservative and neoliberal experts like Otto Reich and Lanny Davis, WOLA has a much higher degree of access to the legislature than other groups. At a meeting I and three colleagues had last November with the aide to a Congressman who has championed human rights issues in Latin America, in which we lobbied against U.S. recognition of the Honduran elections, the aide brushed our concerns aside; she knew everything there was to know about Honduras, she told us-she and her boss had already spoken to WOLA (which supported the elections) and LAWG (the Latin American Working Group, closely aligned with WOLA).

WOLA’s influence is so great that it is spoken of in whispers (literally) by the myriad grassroots-focused DC-based non-profits it overshadows. While a few people have critically opposed some of WOLA’s positions from the left, the price for doing so is high. Since I moved to DC last June, at least two dozen DC grassroots and non-profit activists have confided in me that they’ve been wishing for years that someone would challenge WOLA, but that, as one of them told me, “you’d have to be suicidal to do it.”

There are two reasons behind their hesitance, both having to do with WOLA’s power as an inside actor on the policy scene: first, because the organization, which does advocacy relating to all areas of Latin America, has been influential on human rights issues in U.S. policy and although many see it as doing more harm than good, it still does do a fair amount of good; second, because it is so powerful and well-connected that challenging it could seriously jeopardize organizations working in solidarity with Latin American advocates for justice and human rights on a grassroots level.

But at what point does the bad outweigh the good?

Golpista (coup-supporting) former Honduran ambassador Roberto Flores Bermúdez, mouthpiece for Micheletti’s de facto regime in Washington who has lately been attempting to refashion himself as neutral, has closely worked with WOLA on shaping its Honduras policy since the coup. WOLA’s collaboration with Flores Bermúdez is not out of step with the decidedly slippery, pro-State Department stance that it has taken vis-à-vis the coup since June 28th of last year.

In a Congressional hearing on July 10th, WOLA executive director Joy Olson, while recognizing Zelaya’s ouster as a coup, volunteered that rather than being extradited, Zelaya should have been imprisoned within the country. She also failed to correct any of the blatant lies coming from Congress members or other “witnesses” who had been prepped by Lanny Davis, who was himself there as an witness representing the Honduras chapter of the Business Council of Latin America (CEAL), that financed the coup. These included false allegations that Zelaya was attempting to install himself as dictator-for-life, that he was drug-running from Venezuela, and that the coup (which they referred to as a “constitutional succession”) had prevented a Chavez takeover of the hemisphere. (See Kirk Nielsen’s article “Canard d’Etat” for a refutation of these claims in the U.S. media).

“It seems like there was plenty of violating of the law going around on all sides,” Olson said, praising “the administration’s” handling of the situation (while admitting she did not know if the State Department had yet acknowledged a coup had occurred-it hadn’t) and the Arias negotiations. “There can be opportunity in crisis,” she said, five days after the regime murdered its first peaceful protester, Isis Obed Murillo.

WOLA’s other primary DC-based Honduran collaborator since the coup has been Francisco Machado. As a featured speaker (invited by WOLA) at a LAWG plenary on February 4th, Machado described the Honduran conflict as one between extremist factions, the extreme right wing and the FNRP (the National People’s Resistance Front)-an assertion that deligitimizes the broad coalition of organizations and hundreds of thousands of Hondurans who identify themselves as being part of the non-violent resistance movement. This is particularly dangerous at a moment when former death squad leader Billy Joya appears to be training paramilitaries in preparation for a massacre of peasant farmers in Aguán, similarly identified by Honduran pro-coup media as “extremists” and “terrorists” as a means to justify their extermination.

At the Ecumenical Advocacy Days conference on March 20th in Arlington, Machado was listed as a co-presenter for WOLA’s panel on Honduras:

4:50-6:20pm Track Time III Honduras: Back to the Past, On to the Future – Potomac View Room

We thought that coup d’etats [sic] were a thing of the past in Latin America, but on June 28th, 2009, Honduran President Manuel Zelaya was sent by force into exile. Despite a tentative resolution, this sharply polarized society must grapple with the political exclusion and social inequality that fueled the crisis.

Speakers: Vicki Gass of Washington Office on Latin America; Honduran Activist Francisco Machado; others TBA.

The language in this panel description is telling: apart from WOLA, only the U.S. State Department and Congress really seem to believe a “tentative resolution” has been achieved, while “social inequality” would have been more accurately phrased as “violent oligarchy that gleans legitimacy from a radically anti-democratic constitution and uses the military to control the rabble when the latter demands self-representation.”

At the March 20th event, Machado did not actually show up; however, the progressive crowd of 30 or so present responded negatively to Gass’s presentation, which numerous attendees later described as pro-coup. She was challenged by a Honduran member of the audience identified with the resistance, who told me she was horrified at what she saw as Gass’s extremely dangerous misrepresentation of the situation in her country.

Shortly before the Ecumenical Advocacy Days conference, Representative Eliot Engel, Chair of the Subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere of the Committee on Foreign Affairs, convened a second Congressional post-coup hearing on Honduras. At the March 16th hearing, the focus was no longer on whether or not a coup had taken place (although the issue was brought up numerous times), but rather about how to ensure an ideal climate for U.S. investors.

altAs a witness, Vicki Gass (pictured) – who worked from 2004 to 2006 in Iraq for the National Democratic Institute before joining WOLA – rovided a welcome respite from the seemingly endless monologues equating U.S. investor interests with Honduran democracy, by bringing up the issue of human rights. However, in addressing human rights she repeatedly argued to the nearly empty hall that Honduras’s crisis was not new-that, in effect, it had precious little to do with the coup at all (see WOLA’s written testimony and a video of the hearing). Despite lamenting that “[a] recent poll conducted by the Federation of Development Organizations of Honduras (FOPRIDEH) revealed that 59.9 percent of Hondurans no longer believe in democracy” (with a footnote that reads “January 2010 – find exact quote”), Gass failed to link this statistic in any way to the coup itself.

The problem, as WOLA’s argument goes, lies not in the usurpation of the elected government on June 28th, 2009 followed by untold numbers of targeted political assassinations of individuals who believe in their right to real democracy, but in the lack of faith in the existing “democracy”-a lack of faith caused by decades of “a seemingly entrenched culture of corruption and impunity.” Such a culture-of-crime argument is the perfect segue into a law-and-order solution and impunity for police and military violence, to wit (also from the March 16th hearing):

1:51:00 Mr. Mack: Thank you Mr. Chairman and, you know I listen with great interest to all your, uh, testimony and, uh, I’m not sure that there’s a lot that we can-well let me just find a point that I’d like to probe a little bit more. Moving forward, what type of um, activities do you think that the United States should engage in on issues of poverty, human rights, um, what types of things looking forward is it that you think that the United States can do to help, uh, show that we support the people of Latin America and that uh, we might not necessarily support some of the governments in Latin America but that we support the people of Latin America, um, so if you wanna just go down the line and each of you give me a quick thought on that I would appreciate it.

1:51:30 Ms. Gass: Well, I think there are several things that the administration could do, first, is restore military and police aid, they can use that to strengthen the institutions, perhaps by investigating the human rights violations that have taken place since the coup in June and and use that to strengthen an institution that is incredibly weak. And then secondly I would say that they really need to work hand in hand in pushing a, a, a meaningful dialogue over a longer period of time, not a consultation of two or three days but do something that’s being centralized in the region and supporting that financially.

It beggars belief that an organization whose mission is to support human rights would suggest sending money to death squads; in fact, that is exactly what WOLA is doing. The arguments presented by WOLA at the hearing, which include the claim that Porfirio Lobo was elected in free and fair elections, frame a decontextualized portrait of human rights in Honduras. In the WOLA narrative, resistance members are killed not by a de facto regime, but by other violent Hondurans, who kill out of a defective “culture.”

In a Huffington Post piece on the eve of Lobo’s inauguration, Gass and WOLA founder Joseph Eldridge (chaplain at American University and husband of United States Under Secretary of State for Democracy and Global Affairs María Otero, who herself was instrumental in creating the case for recognizing the illegal elections) describe Honduras as “this politically alienated and distrustful country.” They proceed to lay out a plan for restoring international relations that exactly mirrors the State Department’s distorted version of the San José-Tegucigalpa Accords, omitting any mention of the resistance movement. Given that the “crisis”-as the military coup and de facto regime have been euphemized by coup supporters-was “over,” the next steps, Eldridge and Gass posited, were the formation of a truth commission and a “national dialogue process.”

As noted above, the broad Honduran resistance coalition and all the major Honduran human rights organizations have roundly rejected both these proposals based on the fact that resistance members are still daily being murdered by the military and police (hardly conditions for dialogue or honest investigation) and that the main demand of the resistance movement-a truly popular constituent assembly to rewrite the Honduran constitution-is being swept under the rug by them. Amnesty has already been assured to the worst Honduran criminals who have been punished for their role in crimes against democracy and humanity with sentences like “senator for life” (Micheletti) and being appointed head of the national telecommunications company Hondutel (General Romeo Vásquez Velásquez).

So who should enforce truth and reconciliation? Ambassador Llorens’ faltering attempts to resuscitate the imploded Liberal Party by pushing through the truth commission and brokering “reconciliation” have failed, due to the fierce, unwavering opposition of the resistance. As the State Department’s program of enforcing the San José-Tegucigalpa Accords flounders, it has looked to its “non-governmental” partners to help Llorens with his task.

altOn February 25th, WOLA sent Porfirio Lobo a letter, cc’ing Llorens and United States Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Arturo Valenzuela (pictured left), and nominating a member for the truth commission. But WOLA’s involvement in the reconciliation process goes even deeper; the non-governmental organization has taken the lead in planning and implementing the “dialogue” on “democratic” development, scheduled to begin Wednesday, April 14th on Capitol Hill.

At least nine Hondurans, who were secretly invited to participate, were scheduled as of Thursday, April 8th to be flown up for this “Conference on Analysis and Perspectives on Democratic Development in Honduras,” which is closed to the press. An email sent from WOLA to participants on that day, states the following:

Once again, we have invited representatives of the new government and civil society organizations from Honduras, [as well as] representatives of the United States Government, Embassies from other countries accredited in Washington, and other NGO organizations that work on Honduras. The goal of the conference is to provide a space for frank discussions about the current situation in Honduras and explore opportunities for substantive change.

The program itself details several panels led by selected participants. A description of a panel titled simply “Political Analysis” reads in part:

“The crisis in credibility and trust of the citizens in the State, its institutions and the major challenge of transforming it into the solid pillars of democracy.”

Here again we see the crisis framed not as being located not in the absence of state legitimacy, but rather in citizens’ belief that the state is illegitimate. A subsequent panel, “The Political Crisis” addresses

“advances and challenges in the democratic process, and the goal of reconciling a divided society, thirsty for greater and better benefits from the democratic system.”

The wording here is similarly specious, including the euphemistic use of “crisis,” the allegation that there exists a democratic process in Honduras and that “reconciliation” (rather than justice) is what is needed to fix it, and the idea that “benefits”-not participation-are what Hondurans expect from a democratic system.

Other panels, like that led by President Lobo’s Minister of Planning and Development Arturo Corrales Álvarez, focus specifically on strategies for carrying forward the dialogue process. The Q & A session scheduled for the noon hour is described as, “Questions from conference attendees [literally “public” in the Spanish version, but the conference is closed] and answers from the panelists.”

Compare this-in terms of focus and depth-to the Popular Constituent Assembly that took place from March 12 to 14th in La Esperanza, attended by approximately a thousand Hondurans including Father Ismael Moreno, Jesuit priest, liberation theologian and director of Radio Progreso who rejected WOLA’s personal invitation to participate in their “dialogue.” That conference is described in an open invitation as follows:

We are once again invited to construct our utopias, think about who we are, come together and see ourselves as profoundly equal and diverse, as we try to make these dreams come true: the construction and exercise of popular power, water for everyone, respect for land and territory, the value of ancestral cultures, the wisdom of biodiversity, a common good, based on fundamental rights, the dignity of a full life for women, recognition of youth as a force of rebellion and of its contributions and proposals, the importance of a secular political military, the necessity of providing a happy childhood for our children.

The contrast between WOLA’s approach in collaboration with the State Department and Lobo administration and that of the Resistance movement is similarly stark in terms of transparency, democratic process and inclusiveness, also evident in the invitation to the La Esperanza conference:

Here, we will engage in the enthusiastic mission to construct a People’s Assembly in which the ideas and dreams that have been waiting for centuries will come together. In the Assembly, we will debate how we will share in the future. Our voices will raise together and we will become one voice.

The people of Honduras will practice their Constituent People’s Power. The Assembly will therefore have to speak for the voice of the absent. We hope that their words will be brought in written form so they are not forgotten or silenced.

The people will meet in great solidarity on the road to La Esperanza but, as well, they should bring as much solidarity in their sack of dreams.

Bring anything you can: water, beans, blankets, corn, rice, and sugar to share these days; as our country is calling us.

On Friday, April 9th, I was invited to debate Francisco Machado about the upcoming WOLA meeting, which had been leaked to the resistance movement, on Radio Globo (a station that has been subject to ongoing harassment and attacks since the coup). To his claims that the meeting was designed to be democratic and inclusive, I responded that in addition to being invite-only, it was being carried out in Washington, DC, not a particularly accessible location for Hondurans.

To his claim that it was open to the press, I responded that when a reporter from Telesur had called WOLA the previous day to confirm the event was taking place and ask permission to attend, the person she spoke with confirmed the event but told her it was closed to the press.

During the interview I told the program host, Félix Molina, that in fact, I was somewhat uncomfortable having the debate. I do not believe it is my role to debate Hondurans about they should be doing with their country; however, to me this is a case of the U.S. government and NGOs working together to undermine other people’s democracy, and to that extent, I had to speak out. The following day, responding to pressure from the resistance movement, the three participants identified with the resistance, Héctor Soto, Víctor Fernández and Edgardo Chévez, pulled out, taking with them the argument that the dialogue could form the basis of a “reconciliation” without justice or constitutional reform.

Critics of the “Non-Profit Industrial Complex” have pointed to the noxious role of what Dylan Rodríguez, writing in the edited volume, The Revolution Will Not be Funded, called “the velvet purse of state repression.” The policy of coopting the radical left by funding and thus incorporating it into a legal non-profit structure has had the intentional effect of criminalizing truly oppositional movements and justifying the use of police brutality against them in the United States and elsewhere.

This is true even in the case of movements that (as in the case of Honduras) are steadfastly opposed to the use of violence. In an era of neoliberal privatization tied to regressive taxation and the de-funding of government services, corporate-funded non-governmental organizations around the world have overtaken government services from education to healthcare to fighting wars, taking with them any notion of democratic accountability. WOLA-which received $1,757,656 from the Ford Foundation in 2009-is now carrying out, behind closed doors, the repressive Honduran government’s work of fabricating a veneer of “democracy.”

Has WOLA’s exclusive policy focus blinded it to what is happening among the Hondurans it purports to defend? Has its insistence on portraying human rights through a liberal democratic lens that filters out non-state, non-“civil-society” actors (where “civil society” is understood to mean corporate-funded NGOs) made it impossible for WOLA to see the Honduran resistance movement? Have all the years spent sidled up to Congress and the State Department made it impossible for WOLA to recognize that the very power structures it supports are the principal violators of human rights-the assassins-of Hondurans? Is the fact that it is beholden to its funders and not to Honduran or U.S. citizens to blame for its anti-democratic actions in Honduras…or has it become the very power it claims to influence?

When my colleague went to WOLA two weeks ago asking to speak with someone about our shared concerns regarding WOLA’s actions in Honduras, she was told that it would be impossible; the people involved were at a meeting at the State Department all day. Perhaps WOLA would do well to reflect on the meanings of justice, reconciliation, and tolerance, as the Honduran Resistance movement has been doing:

“That which we have been calling tolerance requires a realm containing intolerable ideas, a social space in which it is possible to discover and indicate which kinds of proposals, ideas and social practices cannot be tolerated: racist practices; violence; corruption; misery created by governments that put themselves at the service of the powerful; torture and death provoked by state terror. There is no way to tolerate the anguish that the majority of the nation suffers while going another day without eating, nor the repression promoted by the State to maintain injustice and exclusion”. Gustavo Zelaya (resistance member, no relation to President Zelaya), April 3, 2010.

For that matter, perhaps all of us have something to learn from the Honduran resistance movement.

* Adrienne Pine is an Assistant Professor of Anthropology at American University and a Senior Research Associate at the Council on Hemispheric Affairs. She blogs at: Her latest book is Working Hard, Drinking Hard: On Violence and Survival in Honduras (UC Press 2008) She can be reached by email at

Any opinions or viewpoints that are published herein are directly from the contributing author and does not represent the philosophy or viewpoints of Latin America Bureau

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