Seven years ago, in the middle of the night, soldiers burst into the bedroom of Honduran President Manuel Zelaya. Still in his pajamas, the president was forced at gunpoint onto a waiting jet and flown to exile.
Then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was among many officials around the world who condemned the ouster of the democratically elected leader as a coup. She called for “the full restoration of democratic order in Honduras.”
Last month, the Democratic presidential front-runner appeared to hedge her position. She suggested that the Honduran soldiers had acted legally in their late-night raid because they were carrying out orders from the country’s supreme court.
“The national legislature in Honduras and the national judiciary actually followed the law in removing President Zelaya,” Clinton said in response to a question in an interview with the New York Daily News editorial board before the New York primary.
“Now, I didn’t like the way it looked or the way they did it, but they had a very strong argument that they had followed the constitution and the legal precedence,” she added.
Clinton, who served as President Obama’s first secretary of State, also said the administration could not officially label the ouster a coup because that would have triggered a suspension of U.S. aid to a poor nation facing political upheaval.
Under U.S. law, however, only declaration of a “military coup” stops aid to a foreign government.
The Obama administration repeatedly called Zelaya’s removal a coup, while carefully avoiding the “military coup” designation.
Clinton may have meant to say “military coup” in the interview, since that was how the question was phrased to her. But she repeatedly said only “coup,” according to a transcript.
As she runs for president, Clinton’s record during her four years as the nation’s top diplomat is under fresh scrutiny, including her role during and after the 2012 attack on a U.S. diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya.
The FBI is also investigating whether she or her aides mishandled classified information by using a private computer server based in her home to pass thousands of work-related emails.
The appearance that she is shifting her position on the Honduras coup may expose Clinton to criticism on the far left, where she already has faced attacks from rival candidate Bernie Sanders. It also could hurt her with some Latino voters, whose support she needs to win in November.
The June 28, 2009, coup in Honduras — the first in Central America in nearly two decades — revived an ignominious practice that promoters of democracy in the region thought was dead.
It also highlighted the then-new Obama administration’s seeming neglect of Latin America as the White House focused on other priorities.
The fallout threatened to drive a wedge between Washington and Latin American countries that wanted to see more unequivocal U.S. support for democracy.
The Clinton campaign last week denied that she changed her position on the coup, and argued that she helped isolate the post-Zelaya government in Honduras to force democratic reforms.
“Hillary Clinton immediately and consistently denounced the removal of President Zelaya,” Jesse Lehrich, a campaign spokesman, said Thursday.
Clinton “helped lead an international charge to isolate the coup government, revoke the visas of those responsible, and slash foreign aid.”
Her stance and work with regional allies “helped pave the way for a political resolution that quickly led to a democratic election and the end of the coup government,” Lehrich added.
Clinton accepted elections in Honduras several months after the coup, which gave the country a new president but never restored Zelaya.
In her 2015 memoir, Clinton is clear that she opposed the coup — a word she uses twice in three pages — even though she did not fight to have Zelaya restored.
“No one wanted to see a return to the bad old days of frequent coups and unstable governments,” she wrote in “Hard Choices.”
Soon after Zelaya’s ouster, wealthy Honduran businessmen and politicians who had opposed him and who had influential friends in Washington, including lobbyists and some members of Congress, mounted a campaign to defend his removal.
They used much of the same language that Clinton used last month, arguing that the coup plotters had acted with legal authority.
Neither the Organization of American States, the main regional governance body, nor former Costa Rica President Oscar Arias, the Nobel Peace laureate brought in to mediate the Honduran constitutional crisis, saw the ouster as legal.
Arias said defenders of the coup were distorting the Honduran Constitution to make their case.
Zelaya, a populist who took a turn to the left, prompted a constitutional crisis when he began efforts to hold a referendum on allowing presidents to run for reelection. Honduran law allowed only one term.
His critics feared Zelaya was trying to change the law to hold power indefinitely, following the lead of other leftist leaders in Latin America, including the late Venezuelan strongman Hugo Chavez and Nicaragua’s Daniel Ortega.
Ironically, last year some of the Honduran politicians who engineered or backed Zelaya’s ouster supported a campaign to change the constitution to allow presidents to seek reelection.
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