The Role of the International Republican Institute (IRI) in the Honduran Coup
AUTHOR: Eva GOLINGER
The International Republican Institute talks of “coup” in Honduras, months before
The International Republican Institute (IRI), considered the international branch of the U.S. Republican Party, and one of the four “core groups” of the congressionally created and funded National Endowment for Democracy (NED), apparently knew of the coup d’etat in Honduras against President Zelaya well in advance. IRI is well known for its role in the April 2002 coup d’etat against Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez and its funding and strategic advising of the principal organizations involved in the ouster of President Jean Bertrand Aristide of Haiti in 2004. In both cases, IRI funded and/or trained and advised political parties and groups that were implicated in the violent, undemocratic overthrow of democratically elected presidents.
After the 2002 coup d’etat occured in Venezuela, IRI president at the time, George Folsom, sent out a celebratory press release claiming, “The Institute has served as a bridge between the nation’s political parties and all civil society groups to help Venezuelans forge a new democratic future…” Hours later, after the coup failed and the people of Venezuelan rescued their president, who had been kidnapped and imprisoned on a military base, and reinstalled constitutional order, IRI regretted its premature, public applause for the coup. One of its principal funders, the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), was furious that IRI had publicly revealed the U.S. government had provided funding and support for the coup leaders. NED President Carl Gershman was so irritated with IRI’s blunder, that he sent out a memo to Folsom, chastising him: “By welcoming [the coup] – indeed, without any apparent reservations – you unnecessarily interjected IRI into the sensitive internal politics o Venezuela”. Gershman would have much prefered that NED and IRI’s role in fomenting and supporting the coup against President Chávez have remained a secret.
IRI, chaired by Senator John McCain, was created in 1983 as part of the National Endowment for Democracy’s mission to “promote democracy around the world”, a mandate from President Ronald Reagan. In reality, one of NED’s founders, Allen Weinstein, put it this way in a 1991 interview with the Washington Post, "A lot of what we do today was done covertly 25 years ago by the CIA." IRI’s own history, according to its website (www.iri.org) also explains that its original work was in Latin America, at a time when the Reagan administration was under heavy scrutiny and pressure from the U.S. Congress for funding paramilitary groups, dictatorships and death squads in Central and South America to install U.S.-friendly regimes and supress leftist movements. “Congress responded to President Reagan’s call in 1983 when it created the National Endowment for Democracy to support aspiring democrats worldwide. Four nonprofit, nonpartisan democracy institutes were formed to carry out this work – IRI, the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs (NDI), the Center for International Private Enterprise (CIPE), and the American Center for International Labor Solidarity (ACILS).”“In its infancy, IRI focused on planting the seeds of democracy in Latin America. Since the end of the Cold War, IRI has broadened its reach to support democracy and freedom around the globe. IRI has conducted programs in more than 100 countries.”
In its initial days, IRI, along with the other coup groups of the NED, funded organizations in Nicaragua to foment the destabilization of the Sandinista government. Journalist Jeremy Bigwood explained part of this role in his article, “No Strings Attached?”, "’When the rhetoric of democracy is put aside, NED is a specialized tool for penetrating civil society in other countries down to the grassroots level’ to achieve U.S. foreign policy goals, writes University of California-Santa Barbara professor William Robinson in his book, A Faustian Bargain. Robinson was in Nicaragua during the late ‘80s and watched NED work with the U.S.-backed Nicaraguan opposition to remove the leftist Sandinistas from power during the 1990 elections.”
The evidence of IRI’s role in the 2002 coup d’etat in Venezuela has been well documented and investigated. Proof of such involvement, which is still ongoing in terms of IRI’s work, funding, strategic advising and training of opposition political parties in Venezuela, is available through documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act posted here: , and also available in my book, The Chávez Code: Cracking U.S. Intervention in Venezuela (Olive Branch Press 2006). None of the claims or evidence regarding IRI’s role in fomenting and supporting the April 2002 in Venezuela and its ongoing support of the Venezuelan opposition has ever been disclaimed by the institution, primarily because all evidence cited comes from IRI and NED’s own internal documentation obtained under FOIA. Hence, when the recent coup d’etat occured in Honduras, against democratically-elected President Manuel Zelaya, there was little doubt of U.S. fingerprints. IRI’s name appeared as a recipient of a $700,000 Latin American Regional Grant in 2008-2009 from NED to promote “good governance” programs in countries including Honduras. An additional grant of $550,000 to work with “think tanks” and “pressure groups” in Honduras to influence political parties was also given by the NED to IRI in 2008-2009, specifically stating, IRI will support initiatives to implement [political] positions into the 2009 campaigns. IRI will place special emphasis on Honduras, which has scheduled presidential and parliamentary elections in November 2009.” That is clear direct intervention in internal politics in Honduras.
The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) also provides approximately $49 million annually to Honduras, a large part of which is directed towards “democracy promotion” programs. The majority of the recipients of this aid in Honduras, which comes in the form of funding, training, resources, strategic advice, communications counseling, political party strengthening and leadership training, are organizations directly linked to the recent coup d’etat, such as the Consejo Nacional Anticorrupción, the Archbishop of Tegucigalpa, the Honduran Private Enterprise Council (COHEP), the Council of University Deans, the Confederation of Honduran Workers (CTH), the National Convergence Forum, the Chamber of Commerce (FEDECAMARA), the Association of Private Media (AMC), the Group Paz y Democracia and the student group Generación X Cambio. These organizations form part of a coalition self-titled “Unión Cívica Democrática de Honduras” (Civil Democratic Union of Honduras) that has publicly backed the coup against President Zelaya.
Alex Sutton Regional Program Director, Latin America and the Caribbean
Alex Sutton began his career at the International Republican Institute (IRI) in 1992. He currently serves as Regional Program Director, Latin America and the Caribbean where he oversees the Institute’s programs work with Bolivia, Colombia, Cuba, El Salvador Guatemala, Mexico, Nicaragua, Peru and Venezuela, in addition to overseeing the Latin America Regional Governance Program.
From 1992 through 1996, Sutton was a part of IRI’s Eastern Europe Division. During that memorable period of democratization in Eastern Europe, Sutton worked with emerging political activists who would eventually go on to play prominent leadership roles in countries such as Romania, Bulgaria and Macedonia. In 1998, Sutton established IRI’s presence in Nigeria and helped to execute voter-education programs in every part of that country leading up to the 1999 elections.
From September 2006 through May 2008, Sutton served as Resident Country Director in Colombia, where IRI worked with black members of Colombia’s Congress from the Afro-Colombian Caucus, an important and influential legislative bloc. Prior to managing IRI’s Colombia operations, Sutton held similar positions in Bangladesh (2003-2005) and Cambodia (2005-2007), where he worked on innovative youth programming.
Sutton has served in the administrations of two Massachusetts governors – his last state-government post was Chief of Staff for Economic Affairs under Governor Jane Swift. With a background in communications, Sutton has also worked as a state government press secretary, an advocacy consultant for education reform and a public relations specialist for technology companies and nonprofits.
Sutton attended college at Washington & Lee University in Lexington, VA, and received a B.A. in Journalism in 1988.
IRI’s press secretary, Lisa Gates, responded to claims that IRI funded or aided (which also involves non-monetary aid, such as training, advising and providing resources) groups involved in the Honduran coup as “false reports”. However, there are several interesting links between the republican organization and the violent coup d’etat against President Zelaya that do indicate the institute’s involvement, as well as to the above mentioned funding that exceeds $1 million during just this year. In addition to its presence on the ground in Honduras as part of its “good governance” and “political influence” programs, IRI Regional Program Director, Latin America and the Carribean, Alex Sutton, has recently been closely involved with many of the organizations in the region that have backed the Honduran coup. Sutton was a featured speaker at a recent 3-day conference held in Venezuela by the U.S.-funded ultraconservative Venezuelan organization CEDICE (Centro para la Divulgación de Conocimiento Económico). CEDICE’s director, Rocío Guijarra, was one of the principal executors of the 2002 coup d’etat against President Hugo Chávez, and Guijarra personally signed a decree installing a dictatorship in the country, which led to the coup’s overthrow by the people and loyal armed forces of Venezuela. The conference Sutton participated in, held from May 28-29 in Venezuela was attended by leaders of Latin America’s ultra-conservative movement, ranging from Bolivian ex president Jorge Quiroga, who has called for President Evo Morales of Bolivia’s overthrow on several occasions, Peruvian Mario Vargas Llosa and his son Alvaro, both of whom have publicly expressed support for the coup against President Zelaya in Honduras, and numerous leaders of the Venezuelan opposition, the majority of whom are well known for their involvement in the April 2002 coup and subsequent destabilization attempts. The majority of those present at the CEDICE conference in May 2009, have publicly expressed support for the recent coup against President Zelaya.
Campaign by the CEDICE to “defend private property” in Venezuela
But a more damning piece of evidence linking IRI to the Honduran coup, is a video clip posted on the institute’s website at http://www.iri.org/multimedia.asp. The clip or podcast, features a slideshow presentation given by Susan Zelaya-Fenner, assistant program officer at IRI, on March 20, 2009, discussing the “good governance” program in Honduras. Curiously, at the beginning of the presentation, Zelaya-Fenner explains what she considers “a couple of interesting facts about Honduras.” These include, “Honduras is a very overlooked country in a small region. Honduras has had more military coups than years of independence, it has been said. However, parodoxically, more recently it has been called a pillar of stability in the region, even being called the U.S.S. Honduras, as it avoided all of the crisis that its neighbors went through during the civil wars in the 1980s.”
Important to note is that what Zelaya-Fenner refers to as “U.S.S. Honduras” and “avoid[ing] all of the crisis that its neighbords went through during the civil wars in the 1980s” was because the U.S. government, CIA and Pentagon utilized Honduras as the launching pad for the attacks on Honduras’ neighbors. U.S. Ambassador at the time, John Negroponte, and Colonel Oliver North, trained, funded and planned the paramilitary missions of the death squads that were used to assassinate, torture, persecute, disappear and neutralize tens of thousands of farmers and “suspected” leftists in Nicaragua, El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras.
Zelaya-Fenner continues, “Thus, Honduras has been more recently stable, and it’s always been poor, which means that it’s below the radar, and gets little attention. The current president, Manuel Zelaya and his buddies, the leftists in the Latin American region have caused a lot of political destabilization recently in the country. He is a would-be emulator of Hugo Chavez and Hugo Chavez' social revolution. He has spent the better part of this administration trying to convince the Honduran people, who tend to be very practical and very 'center' that the Venezuelan route is the way to go. Zelaya's leftist leanings further exarcerbate an already troubled state. Corruption is rampant, crime is at all time highs. Drug trafficking and related violence have begun to spill over from Mexico. And there's a very real sense that the country is being purposefully destabilized from within, which is very new in recent Honduran history. Coups are thought to be so three decades ago until now (laughs, audience laughs), again.”
Did she really say that? Yes, you can hear it yourself on the podcast. Is it merely a coincidence that the coup against President Zelaya occured just three months after this presentation? State Department officials have admitted that they knew the coup was in the works for the past few months. Sub-secretary of State Thomas Shannon was in Honduras the week before the coup, apparently trying to broker some kind of deal with the coup planners to find another “solution” to the “problem”. Nevertheless, they continued funding via NED and USAID to those very same groups and military sectors involved in the coup. It is not a hidden fact that Washington was unhappy with President Zelaya’s alliances in the region, principally with countries such as Venezuela and Nicaragua. It is also public knowledge that President Zelaya was in the process of removing the U.S. military presence from the Soto Cano airbase, using a fund from the Bolivarian Alliance of the Americas (ALBA – Bolivia, Cuba, Ecuador, Dominica, Honduras, Nicaragua, St. Kitts, Antigua & Barbados and Venezuela) to convert the strategically important Pentagon base into a commercial airport.
IRI’s Zelaya-Fenner explains the strategic importance of Honduras in her presentation, "Why does Honduras matter? A lot of people ask this question, even Honduran historians and experts. Some might argue that it doesn't and globally it might be hard to counter. However, the country is strategic to regional stability and this is an election year in Honduras. It's a strategic time to help democrats with a small “d”, at a time when democracy is increasingly coming under attack in the region.” There is no doubt that the coup against President Zelaya is an effort to undermine regional governments implementing alternative models to capitalism that challenge U.S. concepts of representative democracy as “the best model”. Countries such as Venezuela, Bolivia and Ecuador, are building successful models based on participatory democracy that ensure economic and social justice, and prioritize collective social prosperity and human needs over market economics. These are the countries, together now with Honduras, that have been victims of NED, USAID, IRI and other agencies’ interventions to subvert their prospering democracies.