Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Everything you think you know about Honduras is wrong

Let us keep the people of Honduras in our prayers as they struggle to retain their democracy in the wake of the entirely unconstitutional power grab by their thankfully deposed former president, Mel Zelaya. I traveled over most of the country in 1989 and in this post will explain why the "template" of historic Latin American military coups does not apply here.

First, there has not been a military coup. It was Zelaya who attempted a coup by placing the issue of his own succession in office on a referendum. The country's constitution forbids more than one term for a president or the amendment of the constitution by referendum (amendments have to begin in the national congress). Zelaya's plan to hold a referendum to endorse his own succession was struck down by the Honduran supreme court. The congress, including almost every member of his own party, opposed it. The Honduran attorney general stated it would be illegal.

Even so, Zelaya had ballots printed in Venezuela and demanded the army distribute them, as the army always does for national elections (for why, keep reading). The supreme court ordered the army to retain the ballots under lock. Zelaya ordered the army's chief of staff, Brig. Gen. Romeo Vásquez Velásquez, to distribute the ballots. The general refused. Zelaya fired him. The supreme court ruled the firing illegal and ordered him reinstated. Zelaya refused.

With the army refusing to help him overturn the constitution, Zelaya literally decided to take matters into his own hands. Last Thursday he led a mob to the warehouse where the ballots were being kept and had his followers start handing them out.

Recognizing that a constitutional crisis was now well developed, the supreme court, with the agreement of practically every member of congress and the attorney general, ruled that Zelaya's term of office was ended. The court directed the army to remove him physically from office if he refused to leave on his own. This the army did, packing him onto a plane to Costa Rica.

Note this well: the Honduran supreme court was the primary actor here. It ordered the army to enforce its ruling. All the rest of the Honduran government supported this.

As I explain below, the Honduran military has historically had a role in its society very different from what we estadounidenses understand our own military's place to be. I'll go into some detail, regarding the Honduran constitution's specifications, as an endnote. Suffice here to say that it is very different from our own Constitition and we err massively when we view events of the past days through our own domestic template.

It must be pointed out that at no time did the Honduran army ever control the organs of government. No military officer ever declared himself el jefe. The Congress immediately swore in its majority leader, Roberto Michiletti - who is of Zelaya's own party! One has to wonder what sort of coup allows the deposed president to be succeeded by the next-leading member of his party!

A post at the mostly left-wing DailyKos blog punctures the media's and administration's template about how a "military coup" has destroyed democracy in Honduras. Says Kos's writer:

You could not be more wrong about what is happening in Honduras; personally I blame the US media. Then again, when have they covered a story, much less an international news item, correctly in recent history? And at the end of the day, that is what this is about, recent history tainting the current situation based on out-dated USA-Latin American memes.
He also cites a blog by Honduran blogger, Rschenkel:

I want to remind everyone that this was not a military coup, this was the arrest and destitution [sic] of a criminal president, with the help of the military. Proof that it is not a coup, is that as of this moment we already have the Constitutional State of Right re-established, with a new president, and new cabinet. Let us Hondurans be, we have already defenestrated what was causing us such stress, division and unrest, and we will reunite ourselves, to again perform our right of suffrage in 5 months.
Back to Kos, which has some penetrating questions:

So why are people here on this site and USA media asking for Zelaya, who was removed per provisions in Honduran law, be restored so he consolidate power under a system that haunted Latin America for most of the last century?

Why does the USA media support the over-throw of Latin American constitutions, why is this site doing the same?

Where are the pictures of the 100,000 people marching against Zelaya in Tegucigalpa? Where are the stories of the local support for the constitution, the laws set in stone, instead of just accepting Zelaya's worth as bond, why is no one looking into the events leading up to his ouster?

Why is everyone here and the media just accepting the old tried but true meme of Latin American coup d'état without realizing this was an action by the sovereign people of Honduras to preserve their constitutional government?
Why, indeed?

The role of the Honduran army in its society

I lived in Honduras for six months in 1989, assigned to US Joint Task Force Bravo, stationed at a Honduran air force base Soto Cano in the Comayagua Valley. I did not live in the nearby town so I didn't rub elbows with everyday Hondurans most of the time. The Honduran civilians working for JTF-B were well educated, from the higher economic levels of society. As director of public affairs, I had a Honduran secretary, a recent college graduate with outstanding command of English.

But I did get around the country from one end to the other, north, south, east and west. My commander, a US Army colonel, was completely fluent in Spanish and had served at the US embassy in El Salvador. Since the principal mission of JTF-B was civil affairs and civil assistance, this colonel spent a lot of time on the road visiting Honduran battalion commanders. (Honduran battalions were posted on individual bases around the country. Honduras has no large army bases like the United States.) My colonel always took a handful of principal staff with him, of which I was one.

Why was it necessary to spend so much time coordinating with Honduran battalion commanders? Because unlike much of the rest of Latin America's armies, the officer corps in Honduras has always been of the people, not the upper, ruling classes. This is in marked contrast to El Salvador's military, as my boss explained, where the officers came from the upper classes and jealouslydefended the uppers' privileges and power.

But in Honduras, going back to the 1840s, battalion commanders had not only a military-command responsibility, but a civilian law-enforcement responsibility. They were closely equivalent to American sheriffs in many regards. Because of their ordinary roots, battalion commanders, officers and their soldiers were much less "classed" than elsewhere in Latin America. There never formed a significant rift between the people and the military.

The Honduran army has long had a traditional role as keeper, and sometimes guardian, of civil order and has been viewed by the people as such. I remember one battalion commander we visited who almost every day went for walks for an hour or two somewhere in his district, mixing with the people, sometimes with a staffer accompanying him, sometimes not. He was highly respected and warmly regarded by the people.

Another battalion commander, whom I'll call Rodrigo, spent about half his time supervising his battalion's construction of civil-building projects in the district, especially schools and water management works. This officer was sharply critical of JTF-B's management of civil-engineering projects for villages and small towns because, he said, we did too much for the people. We needed to involve them more so that they "owned" half the project. We stayed the night at his base, arising early the next morning only to find that Lt. Col. Rodrigo had canceled the morning's activities with us. In fact, he wasn't even there any more.

Most, maybe all, the Honduran lieutenant colonels I met were graduates of the US Army's Command and General Staff College at Ft Leavenworth, Kansas, or of the School of the Americas, then located at Fort Benning, Ga. Many were graduates of both. These schools served to strengthen and deepen Honduras' democratic traditions, especially teaching them of the United States' entrenchment of civilian control of the military. Here's a plain illustration.

Just after returning from Rodrigo's base in late summer 1989, the other principal staff officers and I were summoned to the task force's SCIF, the Secret Compartmented Information Facility, a super-secure room in the intelligence office area. It was the only place on our compound where were could be positive that the our conversations could not be overheard.

There we learned the reason for Lt. Col. Rodrigo's mysterious disappearance overnight. He and the other battalion commanders had converged on Honduras' capital, Tegucigalpa, to confront the army's chief of staff. It seemed that this general had decided to mount a coup of some kind - probably not the full-scale coup Latin America was known so well for, but a significant seizure of power nonetheless. When the battalion commanders got wind of it, they went the capital, entered together into the chief's office and forced him to resign on the spot. Not a shot was fired and the country's civilian government remained intact.

What the Honduran army did last week in shoving Zelaya, a would-be puppet of Venezuelan strongman Hugo Chavez, out of office was not a coup by even the wildest imagination. It was Zelaya who was trying to mount a coup, by using an unconstitutional referendum (with ballots printed in Venezuela!) to justify remaining in office as long as he wanted. No one in government, including his own party, supported Zelaya.

In fact, the Honduran Supreme Court actually ordered the army to remove him, a perfectly sensible development because of the historical role of Honduras' military in civil order. In fact, the army was constitutionally required to do so, see endnote.

If the media and administration had stopped to consider Honduran history and culture (or had the State Dept. paused even to consult its own experts), they would not (one supposes) have been so quick on the trigger to denounce the Hondurans' salvation of their own democracy. But instead, they practiced "ready-fire-aim," though there is no evidence that they actually aimed.

A highly informative site, written by Hondurans, is here. This post by a Honduran writer explains, "What we Hondurans want."

The BBC invited Honduran readers to leave their comments on an open thread. Very revealing.



Translation by Google (yeah, I know). Since I was once reasonably fluent in Spanish, I have massaged it a little herein; my glosses are in brackets [ ].

Let's consider the following facts seriatim (italics added throughout):

Chapter VI, Article 237: "The presidential term is four years... ." There is no provision for self succession.

Article 42 forbids inciting, encouraging or supporting the re-election of a president, which Zelaya was unambiguously doing.

The Honduran constitution makes no provision for impeachment as we understand the process. However, Article 239 provides that,
No citizen who has already served as head of the Executive Branch can be President or Vice-President.
This re-emphasizes that a president may not succeed himself in office - having "already served as head of the Executive Branch," Zelaya was constitutionally inelegible to remain in office. Article 239 continues,
Whoever violates this law or proposes its reform [Sp.: reforma, or amendment], as well as those that support such violation directly or indirectly, will immediately cease in their functions and will be unable to hold any public office for a period of 10 years.
Since the constitution strictly prescribes a single term for the president, and since Zelaya was openly campaigning for a second term, the country's supreme court properly ruled, on purely constitutional grounds, that Zelaya must "immediately cease" in his function as president.

Chapter 10, Article 272:
The Armed Forces of Honduras are a National Institution of a permanent nature, professional in essence [character or nature], apolitical, obedient and not deliberative [that is, do not set policy].

They are established to defend the territorial integrity and sovereignty of the Republic, keep the peace, public order and the rule of the Constitution, the principles of free suffrage and alternation in the presidency of the Republic.
Consitutionally, it is the military that is charged, in concert with civilian organs of government, to ensure that the one-term limit of the presidency is enforced. It is the military that is constitutionally charged with ensuring the intregrity of national elections.

Therefore, the removal of Zelaya from office by the army was not merely appropriate, it was actually constitutionally required that the army do so.

Furthermore, when the army's chief of staff refused to send Zelaya's ballots to polling places, Zelaya personally led a mob to the warehouse, stole the ballots and had his minions start to distribute them. This act also violated the constitution.

Update: Carlos Alberto Montaner, writing in the Miami Herald:
Almost by unanimity, the Honduran Congress, supported by the Supreme Court, had removed him for breaking the law and ignoring the rulings of the Electoral Tribunal. But that was a technical excuse. The deep truth is a lot more dramatic: Zelaya, obstinate and rash, intent on being reelected at any cost, heedless of all the warnings of the judiciary and the legislature, intended to drag the nation in the direction of Chávez, something that in Honduras would have been the beginning of a huge economic and social Via Crucis. ...

What we're seeing in Honduras is not a clash between uniformed men and civilians, or between putschists and innocent functionaries. Nor is it a return to the lamentable past of military governments. We are witnessing a conflict between two ways of understanding the function of the state and the role of the political leaders. Chávez's way -- an incipient ruling concept that Zelaya irresponsibly assumed in Honduras -- is a variant of state-run collectivism, a political stream that does away with the separation of powers that is part and parcel of republics. It exalts the personalist style, eliminates replacement of the leader, and adopts anti-Western positions that are expressed in dangerous alliances with countries like Iran and North Korea.
As I have written, what happened last week in Honduras was the salvation of democracy and the sovereignty of the Honduran people (also guaranteed by its constitution). Zelaya was a Chavez protege. What would that have meant for Honduran democracy? Well, here's Chavez's record.

1 comment:

wrightnotleft said...

"Why indeed?" The mainstream media and the Obama Administration are engaged in a not-so-transparent subtefuge, namely, the support of left-wing dictatorships in South and Central America because their ideology suits many in the Administration especially our vaunted leader, President Barack Obama.

Rev. Phillip Wright
Mt. Pleasant, TN