HAVANA TIMES, April 3 (IPS) — Reasserting effective civilian control over the Honduran armed forces, after a coup that overthrew President Manuel Zelaya in June 2009, will require constitutional reform and a greater grasp by society on defense issues.
This is the view of academics, analysts and retired military officers, who told IPS the time has come to put a stop to the “remilitarization” of society. The political leadership “has neglected” the issue and has left “sensitive and vital areas to the military,” said Víctor Meza, interior minister under Zelaya.
Meza, now head of the Honduran Documentation Centre (CEDOH), a think tank, said addressing these issues in the context of the post-coup crisis is still a sensitive area “but Honduras must embark on a process of democratic reconstruction, in which the armed forces must be less authoritarian, more subordinate and more accountable.”
CEDOH is promoting a project for debating and proposing policies to strengthen civilian control of the armed forces and defense matters in Honduras, in order to put them on the public agenda and contribute academic knowledge.
“From April to June, we will intensify dialogue to allow us to identify the direction in which the armed forces should go, and how civil society can learn all about defense issues, in order to prevent coups and have greater control over the military budget and the intelligence services,” he said.
The armed forces in Honduras were established in the 19th century, but only in the mid-20th century was a comprehensive law passed for their institutional development, and the first infantry battalion created.
Their first intervention in politics came in 1956, when they ousted President Julio Lozano Díaz (1954-1956). In 1963 they again staged a coup against President Ramón Villeda Morales (1957-1963) and remained in power until 1982, when the government of President Roberto Suazo (1982-1986), the first democratically elected leader in years, took office.
The military returned to the scene with a vengeance in the pre-dawn hours of Jun. 28, 2009, when they removed Zelaya from his house at gunpoint, still in pajamas, and put him on a plane to Costa Rica. He was replaced by then senate president Roberto Micheletti, but power remained in the hands of the armed forces in the background.
At present there are 15,000 members of the armed forces, divided between the army, the navy and the air force, and their budget is approximately 171 million dollars a year.
Before the coup against Zelaya, the military had managed to partially undo their reputation for repression, earned in the 1980s when under the national security doctrine they imprisoned and tortured thousands of people and forcibly disappeared at least 187, according to an official report by the National Commissioner for Human Rights.
“The coup was a historic setback,” political analyst Rodil Rivera told IPS. “Now we are back to discussing how to secure civilian control over the military, a problem we thought had been overcome.”
The expert said the armed forces must be “restructured and reeducated” so that they are subordinated to the democratic authorities. This would require a constitutional reform to eliminate the role of the military as “guarantors” of the orderly and democratic handover of power.
Such a role, according to political scientist Ernesto Paz, “makes the armed forces the arbiters of democracy, and changing this will not be easy, since the political class is over-indulgent and sometimes even submissive to the power of the military.”
Retired colonel Mario Maldonado said he believes Honduras “still has a chance” to redefine a “closer and more professional” civilian-military relationship that would keep the armed forces out of politics. “That is what must be avoided,” he said with concern.
In the view of sociologist Leticia Salomón, an expert on military affairs, to make this leap the country needs a new political leadership and a more active citizenry, because “the proposals and criticisms put forward in the past have fallen by the wayside.”
Salomón said that the redefinition of the role of the military must include changing the terms of reference of the armed forces, which include serving as border guards, arbiters of political power and of social conflicts, forest rangers, guarantors of public safety, and serving the private interests they “supported with the coup d’état.”
One of the cornerstones of the proposals for change is closer monitoring of the defense budget, to improve accountability.
The military have a poor track record for making information public. Edmundo Orellana, former defense minister in the Zelaya administration, remarked that the expenditure accounts from the armed forces “can only be understood by the Directorate-General for Budget.”
“When battalions are posted a long way away, they cannot buy anything with checks, so they are sent cash, while trust is put in the good faith of the officer in charge,” Orellana told IPS. “Under these circumstances it is common for distortions to arise in budget management.”
That is why accountability is central to the new proposals, together with subordination of the military to democratic institutions, and making the Defense Ministry an effective means of civilian control instead of filling the largely decorative role it has today, the experts told IPS.