HAVANA TIMES, August 7 (IPS) – The demilitarization process that got underway in Honduras 15 years ago was buried on June 28 when more than 100 soldiers surrounded President Manuel Zelaya’s home, pulled him out of bed at gunpoint and sent him into exile. Now the armed forces are making no effort to conceal their interest in political protagonism.
After breaking their silence and offering statements to just about any media outlet that crossed their path, in order to justify their role in Zelaya’s ouster, the military brass have not beat around the bush, saying the country has entered “a new era,” and that the armed forces are an essential pillar in the country’s power relations.
“If this table was the state and the legs holding it up were an expression of power, we would say that what are represented here are political power, economic power, social power and military power,” said the head of the army, General Miguel Angel Garcia Padgeth.
After toppling Zelaya in compliance with a court order, as the military chiefs have stated, they have once again taken a front row position on the political scene.
“If we were proud before of being ranked in first place by society in terms of credibility, we are even happier today because of the backing received from a majority of the population for enforcing the constitution, since the country was moving towards an illegal political model,” said Garcia Padgeth.
He was referring to the shift to the left taken by Zelaya, elected as the candidate of the centre-right Liberal Party, after he took office.
The armed forces held the real power in this Central American country in the 1970s, 1980s and early 1990s, when the traditional political elites would knock on the doors of the barracks for approval for decisions to be taken. But a demilitarization process began in 1994.
But the late Liberal Party President Carlos Roberto Reina began to undertake a demilitarization process during his 1994-1998 term, abolishing compulsory military service and sending soldiers back to the barracks, measures that earned him intimidation and even two bomb attempts on his life, which were never clarified.
The active participation of human rights and women’s groups, as well as factions of the media and private enterprise, was decisive in that process.
The Army Has Veto Power
But it appears today that the armed forces once again enjoy “veto power” in Honduras, political scientist Ernesto Paz told IPS.
The analyst said the coup “has not only damaged our democracy, but also represents an extremely serious setback to the demilitarization process.
“Now they once again want to become the country’s political arbiters, recovering the veto power that was so hard to take away from them,” he said.
The university professor said “the political class is among those responsible for the military’s return to the political scene, because of their incapacity to manage the crisis faced by the country, which has been aggravated by the abrupt ouster of President Zelaya.”
Tuesday’s appearance of the military brass on the country’s leading TV station, Canal 5, is an indication that “we must step up the struggle for more education and political training among the political elites and society at large, which have not yet realized that we are losing 15 years of progress made in strengthening civilian control and democracy,” he said.
If It Had Been a Coup Many Would Be In Prison
The military chiefs, who showed up at the television studio in combat uniform, said Zelaya’s removal was a “painful decision,” but that there “was no other option.”
“Either we obeyed the constitution or we complied with an illegal order. Former president Zelaya was aware that he was asking us to do something illegal, and we had to live up to the law and safeguard the stability of the country,” said air force chief, General Luis Javier Prince.
He was referring to the military’s refusal to distribute the ballot boxes and provide security for a non-binding referendum – ruled illegal by the courts – in which voters were to be asked, on June 28, whether they wanted to elect a constituent assembly to redraft the constitution. In response, Zelaya sacked the head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Romeo Vasquez, and refused to comply with a Supreme Court ruling that reinstated him.
In the television interview Tuesday, Vasquez denied that the military had carried out a coup d’etat when they forced him out of bed and put him on a military plane for Costa Rica, still in his pajamas.
“If it had been a coup, things would be very different: we would have declared a state of siege and a lot of people would be in prison,” said Vasquez. “But who is governing now? The branches of power are operating as usual, and we are still in the barracks. What happened was a constitutional succession.”
Thwarting Chavez Expansion
The military officials argued that Zelaya’s removal thwarted a supposed “expansionist plan” by left-wing Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, to be carried out by means of ALBA (Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas), which he leads. Under Zelaya, Honduras became a full member of the bloc, along with Antigua and Barbuda, Bolivia, Cuba, Ecuador, Dominica, Nicaragua and Saint Vincent and the Grenadines.
“But they didn’t reckon that in Honduras, the military and society would get in this South American leader’s way,” Garcia Padgeth said in the interview.
He added that three years ago, in a meeting with military officers in Washington, he had warned them of Chavez’s “expansionist tendencies” and asked them why the United States had abandoned Latin America, one of the U.S.’s “back gates.”
Paz said “what this military language indicates is that the progress they boast of has had very little effect on the armed forces, and that the laws governing the military and the constitution itself must be reviewed again, to deprive them of that ‘supra-power’ discretional status they are granted, or we will return to the barbarism and authoritarianism of the past.”
Zelaya actually helped boost the military’s growing presence on the public scene. Since the start of his government in 2006, he gave them authority normally enjoyed by civilians, putting for example the temporary management of the state power utility in their hands, and giving them unprecedented visibility in the media by inviting officers to accompany him in a range of public activities, from concerts and trips to scuba diving sessions.
He also considerably expanded the defense budget and incorporated them into tasks usually done by civilians, such as the construction of an air terminal at the Palmerola airport in the central valley of Comayagua, where a U.S. military base is located with around 700 troops.
According to the Social Forum on Foreign Debt and Development (FOSDEH), a local NGO, defense spending in Honduras grew from 47.3 million dollars in 2005 to 96.1 million in 2008.
Sociologist Leticia Salomon, an expert on civic-military issues, said the political and economic elites took advantage of the military’s newfound visibility, placing in front of the cameras, prior to the coup, retired officers who had been involved in the human rights violations of the 1980s, “who incited disobedience and urged active members of the military to engage in insubordination” against the Zelaya administration.
The legitimacy that the military had gradually built up over a decade and a half began to deteriorate “when they were seen in the streets, side by side with the police, chasing and beating Honduran citizens” protesting the coup, Salomon told IPS.
Riot Police Attack Students
On Wednesday, the riot police used water cannons and tear gas to crack down on student protesters at the Autonomous University of Honduras, beating several students and journalists and even shoving the rector, Julieta Castellanos, to the ground as she was trying to approach to ask them to leave the premises.
The coups d’etat staged by the military throughout the history of Honduras have been marked by close ties with power groups linked to the two traditional parties: the centre-right Liberal Party and the right-wing National Party, both of which are around a century old.
The image of the military was further undermined during the Cold War years, when in a Central America torn by civil wars. Honduras housed U.S. military bases and served as the operating base for the U.S.-funded “contra” fighters who fought the leftist Sandinistas in Nicaragua in the 1980s.