Last Friday, I debated lawyer-turned-lobbyist Lanny Davis, now working for the business backers of the recent Honduran coup, on Democracy Now! It actually wasn't much of a debate -- in the way that word means an exchange of ideas -- as Davis was fast out of the box, preemptively trying to taint host Amy Goodman and me as "ideologues."
As Hillary Clinton's major fundraiser during last year's presidential primary, Davis is known for, among other things, leading the attack on Barack Obama for his association with Reverend Jeremiah Wright. "Why didn't he speak up earlier?" Davis asked in a Wall Street Journal op-ed, demanding to know why the candidate didn't distance himself from Wright's remarks. Recently, Davis has been hired by corporations to derail the labor-backed Employee Free Choice Act, which would make it easier for unions to organize, all the while touting himself as a "pro-labor liberal."
Davis was also the chief U.S. lobbyist of the military dictatorship in Pakistan in the late 90s and played an important role in strengthening relations between then President Bill Clinton and de facto president General Perez Musharraf.
Now Lanny Davis finds himself defending another de facto regime in Honduras that is engaging in "grave and systemic" political repression, suspending due process, harassing independent journalists, killing or disappearing at least ten people, and detaining hundreds as "constitutional," all the while touting himself as a (Honduran) constitutional expert.
The Honduran coup occurred on June 28, when soldiers, working on behalf of a small group of business and political elite who control the country, kidnapped democratically elected president Manuel Zelaya and sent him into exile. Since then, the military-backed de facto regime of Roberto Micheletti has tried to argue to the world that it was acting constitutionally, even though nearly every country in Latin America, along with the European Union, isn't buying it. Only in the U.S. is there a debate as to whether Micheletti government is legal or not -- largely thanks to the lobbying efforts of Lanny Davis.
Davis's argument is based on a disingenuous description of the legal and political maneuvers by Zelaya's opponents in the Supreme Court and Congress prior to the coup. He calls these power grabs constitutional.
Never mind that several clear violations of Honduras' constitution were carried out on June 28th, including the detention of president Zelaya by the armed forces (violation of articles 293 and 272), his forced deportation to another country (violation of art. 102) and Congress' decision to destitute the president (this is not within Congress' constitutional attributions).
But the best response to this position -- in addition to pointing out that Davis' description of events is so selective as to be false (see below for details) -- is that throughout Latin America's long history of coups, those who executed them usually counted on legal and political backing. Pinochet in Chile, for example, had both.
In retrospect, I should have made this point. But Davis was running through so many lies -- they were too focused and polished to be simple mistakes or errors of interpretation -- it was hard to catch up.
Through the program, host Amy Goodman demonstrated almost superhuman restraint, professionally refusing to respond to Davis's provocations. His very first lie accused her of an ideological rant, for simply reporting the truth, for saying that Zelaya accepted a proposal to settle the crisis brokered by Costa Rican president Oscar Arias. This is demonstrably true -- Zelaya has repeatedly indicated a willingness to accept the compromise; Micheletti, on the other hand, is playing for time until November's regularly scheduled presidential elections -- yet Davis repeatedly insisted otherwise. My favorite part of the debate took place about a third into the show, when in response to me pointing out that he was carrying out ad hominem attacks, Davis said that I was the one engaging in ad hominem, since I used the word "elite" to describe supporters of the coup. "'Elite' is an ad hominem word," Davis said.
Business Week tells us that Honduras is one of the poorest countries in the Americas, where "two-thirds of its 7.8 million citizens live below the poverty line, and unemployment is estimated at 28%. The country has one of Latin America's most unequal distributions of wealth: The poorest 10% of the population receives just 1.2% of the country's wealth, while the richest 10% collect 42%." What would Davis call those in this last, lucky category, if not "elites"? "Friends" perhaps, at least those he doesn't work for.
Below is a list of Davis's major lies, roughly in the order they appear in the transcript of the debate, followed by fact checks.
#1: Lanny Davis: "I do want to say that I appeared on Democracy Now! with the assurance, Amy, that you would be a neutral moderator, yet your opening is an ideological rant that distorts the facts. For example, you said that Mr. Zelaya accepted the Arias accords. In fact, Mr. Zelaya rejected President Arias's proposal, and the government of Mr. Micheletti has announced, and has, in fact, said it would continue to discuss."
Fact Check: This is not true. On July 19, Oscar Arias made the following statement: "The Zelaya delegation fully accepted my proposal, but not that of Don Roberto Micheletti." Zelaya reaffirmed his willingness to accept the Arias plan just a few days ago.
In the face of international condemnation, Micheletti began to backpedal, saying that he would submit the accords to Congress and the Supreme Court. But Micheletti's own backers admit that this is an attempt to buy time until the November elections: "It isn't the conversations that will provide an exit for the people, rather, the elections in November," said one prominent supporter recently. Micheletti himself, on August 1, said he would never allow Zelaya back as president, which is clearly part of the Arias plan.
#2: "By the way, the Congress, 95 percent of the Congress, even if you quarrel with plus or minus ten votes, voted to remove Mr. Zelaya."
Fact Check: Also not true. So far twenty-seven of the Honduran Congress' 128 members have publicly stated that they opposed the coup, that is, more than 20% of Congress members. The congressional vote Davis references was not transparent; some members who were suspected of being sympathetic to Zelaya weren't called to session; others were told that congress was adjourned. And even before the vote that Davis touts, Congress also voted to "accept" an obviously fake letter of resignation from Zelaya, dated June 25th -- that is, three days before the coup. This was before Davis took his current job, as I'm sure he would have caught that typo.
#3: Davis said that he doesn't "defend what was done [that is, the way in which Zelaya was sent into exile by the military]. He should have been put in jail, as the Supreme Court ordered him. He violated the law."
Fact Check: Not true. Zelaya has only been accused of violating the law. There has been no trial, much less a conviction.
#4: "The Congress overwhelmingly voted to remove him from office, because he violated Article 239 by his referendum."
Fact Check: False. The congressional decree that Lanny Davis here references did not mention article 239 of the Honduran constitution. The invocation of that article was retroactive, with the goal of justifying the military's illegal intervention into civilian politics.
#5: When I accused Davis of an ad hominen attack on me and Amy Goodman -- calling us ideologues -- he responded by saying "You're using ad hominem words, my friend, not me."
Fact Check: I checked the transcript and don't believe anything I said up to that point, or after for that matter, was an ad hominem attack on Davis.
#6: Davis followed by saying that my use of the word "elite" was an ad hominem attack: "'elite' is an ad hominem word," Davis said.
Fact Check: I'm not a grammarian, but I don't believe this is true. But if Davis wants to argue it is, how would he explain these recent articles from the AP and the Catholic News Service: "Honduran Coup Shows Business Elite Still in Charge" and "Honduran Bishop Says Wealthy Elite Were Behind the Ouster of President"? Or this 2008 State Department observation: "many observers argued that the considerable institutional control exercised" by the Honduran "elite created the potential for abuse of the country's institutions and democratic governance."
#7: "The Church, every civil institution in Honduras, so we're talking about the judiciary, the Congress, the Church, all of the parties but one, supported his ouster from government."
Fact Check: False. Important sectors of the Catholic Church, including the Bishop of Copán, have denounced the coup, as have many "civil institutions," including the country's three main union confederations and peasant organizations. Even as we debated, the Honduran military was entering national hospitals to put down a strike by health care workers . Last week, the police attacked the National Autonomous University, beating its rector with riot clubs.
#8: Again, regarding Article 239: "The Supreme Court's decision was a review of Mr. Zelaya's actions and whether it violated Article 239. That's a fact," Davis said. When I pointed out that the court's ruling did not in fact invoke article 239, Davis said I was "wrong."
Fact Check: I am correct. The Supreme Court's June 25th decision -- the one repeatedly touted to justify the coup -- makes no mention of Article 239.
#9: "I do agree that both parties are now moving to the center and are now at least willing to go back to the table with President Arias, who's a Nobel Peace Prize winner. There needs to be a negotiated solution."
Fact Check: This is PR spin. Davis knows well that Micheletti, as well as the business men who pay him, will not accept the return of Zelaya under any conditions unless forced to by the international community and protests within the country. He also knows that his job is to run out the clock until November's scheduled presidential elections, with the hope that the US will recognize the winner. Davis pretty much admits this in the interview.
#10: In response to my list of human-rights violations committed by the current government -- which an international human rights observation team described as "grave and systemic," and now includes the executions of at least ten Zelaya supporters, Davis responded by saying: "I don't defend, if any of those things are true, if any of them are true."
Fact Check: False; Davis is paid to defend the current regime and to paint it in the best light possible. Davis is a considerable talent, yet it is hard to both argue that a government that terrorizes its citizens is constitutional. How does Davis get around this dilemma? He deflects. An example of this occurred in the interview when in response to charges that the Micheletti government was engaging in political repression, he referenced a CNN report on a supposed political abduction that turned out to be a case of spousal abuse. Davis is well versed in PR techniques, and this one is straight out of the playbook used in the 1980s, when operatives linked to the Reagan White House worked hard to muddy the water, to cast just enough doubt the record of human rights violations in Central America. The point wasn't to disprove any given allegation that a US ally was engaged in political terror, but sow just enough confusion to keep human-rights activists on the defense -- and the public distracted.
#11: "If there have been media organizations shut down by the Micheletti government, which I do not believe is the case . . . "
Fact Check: Perhaps this is not a lie and just an unintentional error. In any case, Davis is wrong. The Miami Herald writes that "the newly installed Honduran government kept several news outlets closed." The respected Honduran Human rights group COFADEH documents various brief closures, blocked broadcasts and military occupations of television and radio outlets.
#12: Davis contested my claim that the U.S. State Department, prior to the coup, criticized the Honduran Supreme Court for corruption and for being controlled by political elites. This charge got Lanny particularly agitated: "I challenge that statement," he said.
Fact Check: The State Department's 2008 human rights report writes: "Although the constitution and law provide for an independent judiciary, the judicial system was poorly funded and staffed, inadequately equipped, often ineffective, and subject to patronage, corruption, and political influence.... Low wages and lack of internal controls rendered judicial officials susceptible to bribery, and powerful special interests exercised influence in the outcomes of court proceedings. There are 12 appeals courts, 77 courts of first instance with general jurisdiction, and 330 justice of the peace courts with limited jurisdiction. The Supreme Court of Justice names all lower court judges. The media and various civil society groups continued to express concern that the eight-to-seven split between the National and Liberal parties in the Supreme Court of Justice resulted in politicized rulings and contributed to corruption in public and private institutions."
#13: "So if you're attacking the Supreme Court, I assume you're attacking Mr. Zelaya, who put those justices on the Supreme Court."
Fact check: False. The president does not name Supreme Court justices. They are elected by the National Congress (see article 311 of the Honduran Constitution) which is controlled by the two major political parties. This is one of the reasons why the State Department, as mentioned above, considers the court corrupt.
#14: "Now I make my case that that's an ideological statement, not a factual statement," said Davis in response to my statement that Honduran politics is controlled by elites.
Fact Check: This is false. It is a non-ideological and widely accepted fact; see AP story referenced above.
#15: Honduras is "one of the great democracies in Latin America."
Fact Check: Again, false. See above referenced State Department Human Rights Report, as well as any recent United Nations Development Program reports, for a baleful description of the quality of Honduran democracy. According to the World Bank, "Overall, 50.7 percent of Hondurans has a consumption level below the full poverty line, and a total of 23.7 percent of the population has consumption levels below the extreme poverty line." It's difficult to build a functioning democracy on that level of misery.
#16: "I assume that the professor and I are both liberals."
Fact Check: I'll leave this for others to judge.