The pretext for the Honduran coup d’état is nothing new. In a remarkable replay, bogus charges that the corporate media in the U.S. and Europe have repeated endlessly without attempting to substantiate—that Honduran president Manuel Zelaya sought to amend the country’s constitution to run for another term—are virtually identical to the sham justification for the 1964 coup against Brazilian president João Goulart.
The Brazilian coup, depicted at the time as a victory for constitutional democracy, kicked off a series of extreme right-wing military coups against democratically elected governments throughout the Southern Cone of Latin America and beyond. Brazil was turned into a base for subversion of neighboring democratic governments (National Security Archive, 6/20/02); Goulart and a previous Brazilian president, Juscelino Kubitschek, both died in 1976 in incidents that have since been attributed to the multinational assassination program Operation Condor (Folha, 1/27/08; Carta Maior, 7/17/08). Given that history, the strength and unanimity of Latin American and international condemnation of the Honduran coup—despite a worldwide media disinformation campaign against Zelaya—is hardly surprising.
On March 31, 1964, the democratic government of Brazil’s Goulart, a wealthy rancher hated by big business for having dramatically raised the minimum wage, was overthrown in a coup d’état organized by ultra-rightist elements in Brazil’s military and strongly backed by the U.S. government. For decades, U.S. officials denied involvement in the coup, but in 2004 the nongovernmental National Security Archive (3/31/04) published newly declassified documents revealing President Lyndon Johnson’s personal involvement and a massive U.S. military and CIA commitment.
At the New York Times, which editorially cheered the “peaceful revolution” (4/3/64), influential columnist Arthur Krock (4/3/64) accused Goulart of seeking to “prolong [his term] by removing the constitutional ban against consecutive presidential succession.”
“What really happened,” Krock declared, in phrasing repeated almost word for word 45 years later in Honduran coverage, “was the failure of a bid for power, contrary to a fundamental principle of the Brazilian Constitution.” Newsweek (4/6/64) and Time (4/10/64) ran similar allegations, also without providing any evidence.
Evidence is just as little needed today, as corporate journalists drape baseless claims with the word “fear” (instead of “assert” or “contend”) in the apparent belief that it absolves them of any responsibility to evaluate whether there is any truth to the charge: “Critics feared [Zelaya] intended to extend his rule past January, when he would have been required to step down,” the New York Times wrote (7/6/09) in a typical passage. Nowhere did the article or others like it attempt to evaluate whether this would even have been possible, given that Zelaya was not a candidate in the country’s November elections and would have to give up the presidency to his successor in January. In fact, Zelaya’s own vice president had resigned in order to run for the presidency.
Media depictions of Goulart as a “leftist” and ally of Castro found their echo in coverage of Honduran President Zelaya as a “leftist” (e.g, Reuters, 7/31/09) and “power- hungry protégé of U.S.-hating Venezuela President Hugo Chávez” (Philadelphia Inquirer, 7/19/09). Forty years after the Brazilian coup, the New York Times (6/23/04) was still running the line that “the armed forces overthrew Mr. Goulart’s government, fearing he intended to install a Cuban-style Communist regime in Brazil.”
There was never the slightest evidence that Goulart intended to install a “Cuban-style Communist regime,” any more than that he was attempting to run for another term. As with Zelaya in Honduras, Goulart’s real crime was to use the minimum wage and similar measures to attempt to moderate the extremes of wealth and poverty in his country; Latin America has long suffered from the greatest income inequality in the world (U.N. Human Development Report, 2007/2008). As the National Labor Committee (6/27/07) reported, Honduras’ minimum wage was reduced in 2007, in a race to the bottom against neighboring Nicaragua, when the country joined the Washington-sponsored Central American Free Trade Agreement.
The U.S. corporate media’s cheering for the 1964 coup in Brazil foreshadowed their support for other Latin American dictatorships. In July 1976, four months after the military seized power in Argentina and while tens of thousands were being tortured and killed across the Southern Cone, the New York Times (7/24/76) published a dispatch from Rio headlined “Grip of Latin Military Squeezes Leftists Out.” The article, which did not mention or even hint at the death and torture squads operating across the continent, justified the overthrow of democratic governments in Brazil, Chile, Argentina and Uruguay, reciting unquestioningly the militaries’ own versions of why they seized power.
“Most of the South American military groups reached power during political and economic crises that saw the decomposition of civilian institutions, threats to the unity of the armed forces and open appeals by civilian leaders to the military to abandon its political neutrality,” the article declared, speaking of the militaries’ success in dealing with “subversives” in cooperation with the School of the Americas. It was accompanied by a photo from Pinochet’s Chile of a soldier standing over a box with several handguns. The caption read: “A Chilean soldier guards weapons taken from leftist terrorists.”
U.S. corporate media extolled the economic programs of the dictatorships, ultra-neoliberal policies that greatly increased inequality throughout the region and ended all too often in economic breakdown. Almost two years after the 1964 Brazilian military coup, by which time the intensity of the political repression was undeniable, Time magazine (12/31/65) praised the coup government for slashing wheat and oil subsidies, “thus halting a wasteful drain on Brazil’s treasury.” The effect in skyrocketing food prices was devastating to most Brazilian families. The same article praised the coup regime’s ending of “labor’s inflation-producing 75 percent-to-100 percent wage hikes.” “Many Brazilians still gripe about this year’s 45 percent increase in the cost of living,” the magazine acknowledged, “but businessmen give [Economic Planning Minister Roberto] Campos a rousing cheer, and foreign investors are registering their votes with money.”
Time added approvingly that the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, virtually or entirely absent from Brazil since 1959, had extended massive new loans. The loans, which often disappeared into the pockets of the key figures in the military dictatorships, saddled country after country with massive debts by the early 1980s.
U.S. corporate media typically depict the plotters of these sorts of coups as responsible leaders stepping in to save the country from an erratic left-winger who had lost all popular support because of disastrous economic policies; accordingly, the plotters in Tegucigalpa were described as the “interim government” (AP, 8/1/09), the “caretaker government” (New York Times, 7/6/09), even the “new government” (New York Times, 7/8/09). Newspaper editors are familiar with phrases like “coup leaders,” “coup government” and “de facto rulers,” and use them when they wish—but those were conspicuously missing in most coverage.
Unfortunately for their purposes, the media’s attempt to present the coup group as responsible leaders kept being undermined by the behavior of the leaders themselves. They flew the democratically elected president they had just overthrown into forced exile clad in his pajamas (Washington Post, 7/28/09). They waved around an obviously forged presidential “letter of resignation” that the Honduran Congress straightfacedly pretended to believe in order to “legalize” his ouster (BBC, 7/28/09). (The Honduran Congress has no constitutional authority to dismiss a Honduran president.) Apologists for the coup kept forgetting their lines about term limits, complaining instead about the deposed president’s raising the minimum wage (AP, 8/6/09).
Attempts by the coup leaders and their Washington-based apologists to claim that they were acting in accordance with the Honduran constitution were so laughable that even the corporate media relegated them to guest columns on the opinion page. The drumbeat of such op-eds (e.g., New York Times, 7/7/09), however, with virtually no opposing viewpoints published*, would lead U.S. newspaper readers to believe falsely that Zelaya was ousted because he tried to use a referendum to extend his term in office.
In one widely circulated column, the Los Angeles Times (7/10/09) featured Miguel Estrada, a Bush administration Appeals Court nominee blocked by a Democratic filibuster. Estrada, like other coup defenders, stressed that the current Honduran constitution mandates removal for any president who attempts to change the constitution to run for a second term. The trouble is that Zelaya never proposed anything of the sort—something Estrada had to admit. He asserted, however, that that was the “only conceivable motive” Zelaya could have had for seeking a new constitutional convention—which would have occurred after Zelaya’s successor had already been elected.
Even if Estrada’s sleight-of-hand assertion were true, Zelaya would have had a right to indictment and trial. But there are plenty of legitimate reasons to rewrite the Honduran constitution. It was written in 1982, during the thinly disguised military dictatorship of Gen. Gustavo Alvarez. Alvarez, a School of the Americas alum who worked closely with U.S. Ambassador John Negroponte, set up the death squads that terrorized Honduras and made the country’s security forces indistinguishable from the country’s extreme right wing. It was in May 1983, under the current constitution, that the Honduran congress adopted the infamous Decree 33. As Gerry O’Sullivan wrote in the Humanist (3/1/94), the decree “declared anyone a ‘terrorist’ who distributed political literature, associated with foreigners, joined groups deemed subversive by the government, damaged property or destroyed documents.”
The U.S. corporate media have carefully averted their eyes from such history as that of General Alvarez—as from the role of School of the Americas graduates in the current coup. It was thanks to the School of the Americas Watch and the National Catholic Reporter (6/29/09), not the corporate media, that the public learned of ongoing U.S. training of the Honduran military, despite the Obama administration’s claim to have cut military ties. When history repeats itself, don’t look for accurate coverage from those who got it wrong the first time around.
* The L.A. Times did publish one of the very few op-eds critical of the coup plotters’ pretexts, a piece by Mark Weisbrot (7/23/09).