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.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Are you in the boat? Who's with you?

One day in the life of Jesus:
Mark 4:35-41 -- On that day, when evening had come, he said to them, "Let us go across to the other side." And leaving the crowd behind, they took him with them in the boat, just as he was. Other boats were with him.

A great windstorm arose, and the waves beat into the boat, so that the boat was already being swamped. But he was in the stern, asleep on the cushion; and they woke him up and said to him, "Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?"

He woke up and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, "Peace! Be still!" Then the wind ceased, and there was a dead calm. 40 He said to them, "Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?"

And they were filled with great awe and said to one another, "Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?"
This isn't really a story about how Jesus could command storms on the sea. It's a story about remembering that we are in the boat and that Jesus is with us even when it doesn't seem terribly apparent.

Faith, to be faith at all, can't be easy. Do you have faith that two plus two equals four. Of course not. It just is, and that's that. Do we have faith that Cornwallis surrendered at Yorktown? No, it's simply a fact and that's that.

Faith is what we believe in when the evidence is not necessarily conclusive. Where there is no room for doubt, there is no need for faith. But faith does require evidence and reason, otherwise it's just wishful thinking.

Faith's greatest challenge is when the stakes are highest, when the storms set about us and adversity threatens to drown the old and familiar.

Some the early churches used the metaphor of a boat to describe the church. So the disciples’ boat is the church itself, and the disciples are all believers. We are all in the same boat. Adversity will come, recessions will come, illnesses, deaths, discords, disputes all will come, sooner or later. Such are the seas that we sail as disciples.

We are all in the same boat. And we need to remember that Jesus is with us. We have eternal purposes. Storms will pass and they, like all things of the church, must be surrendered to the lordship of Christ.

What is in control – fear or faith? Faith in Christ is betting your life that Christ really is Lord. That is what the disciples finally did.

But we are deceived to think that if we had enough faith we could overcome all our problems miraculously. Thinking that faith is for miracles is wrong. We are not given faith to be served by God, but that we may serve God. Faith enables us to believe that Jesus is with us in our boat, and to act accordingly. Our faith is not just something we affirm; it is how we act and what we do, and how we live and what we give! We sin, sin even in faith, if we just ask for miracles rather than use what God has already given us to row the boat.

So, what are we looking at, the winds that push us or the Christ who is with us? Paul wrote, “We live by faith, not by sight” (2 Cor 5:7). The reality of Christ is discerned with faith’s eyes, says Paul: “we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal” (2 Cor 4:18 ).


Earlier this month, I attended the wedding of my nephew in Pennsylvania. It took place at an Episcopal church. The order of the service was held my attention since United Methodists and Episcopalians are "kissing cousins," having both been born about the same time from the Church of England (that is, soon after the end of the American revolution).

The priest followed the order of the Episcopalian Book of Common Prayer (BCP), which is their reference work for worship in the same way that we Methodists us the Book or Worship (BOW). I was intrigued at the inclusion in the wedding service of the old "if anyone objects to this wedding, speak now" etc.
Into this holy union N.N. and N.N. now come to be joined. If any of you can show just cause why they may not lawfully be married, speak now; or else for ever hold your peace.
Now, this is not religious language at all, of course, but legal language. In fact, a wedding ceremony is really a legal, contractual process that churches have overlaid with religious language. Many people do not know that getting married in a church by a priest or pastor is a relatively late development in Christendom. The great reformer Martin Luther, for example, was not married in a church and the habit did not start to become popular until late in the 16th century.

Until then, weddings were seen as civil procedures that could be (and almost always were) sanctified or sacramentalized by the Church. Couples got married by a civil magistrate of some kind and later a priest would bless the union. Sometimes this blessing took place on the wedding day and sometimes on the first anniversary.

Much of the litany we use in wedding services, both in the BCP and the BOW, reflects contractual language of the age of feudalism, when weddings formed obligations between the bride's and groom's families and were closely concerned with division and inheritance of property. For example:
In the Name of God, I, N., take you, N., to be my wife, to have and to hold from this day forward, for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, until we are parted by death. This is my solemn vow.
Any lawyer will immediately recognize that this is legal language, and nothing but, with only the name of God invoked at the beginning to put a religious gloss on it. "To have and to hold" is a property-law term of ownership. Then the bride repeats the same words to the groom and voila, the contract is sealed. In feudal days, these vows formed legal contracts between the two families as well.

Anyway, at my nephew's wedding no one objected to the wedding and priest continued thus:
I require and charge you both, here in the presence of God, that if either of you know any reason why you may not be united in marriage lawfully, and in accordance with God's Word, you do now confess it.
Neither of these charges are found in the UMC's Book of Worship. I have never included them in any wedding I have officiated nor, for that matter, would I agree to do so. By the wedding day itself, it's a little late for someone to pop up and say the couple shouldn't get married! What am I supposed to do, tell everyone to have a seat while I hold a hearing and render a decision? Sorry, "not my yob." And as for either the bride or groom self-disqualifying, I figure that if they show up at the altar, that answers the question.

In fact, nothing demonstrates the feudal source of wedding services today more than these two charges. They were included, 1,000 years ago or so, not for the benefit of the marrying couple, but to demonstrate publicly at the ceremony that all was legal and proper.

As I said, though, neither of them are included in the UMC's service. Nor, for that matter, is there any nonsense about asking "who gives this woman to be married to this man." The bride is not property and therefore cannot be given to anyone. However, I am quite comfortable with including "who presents this woman to be married to this man," which is altogether different. I have never officiated a wedding when the bride didn't want dad to hand her over to the groom no matter how "liberated" or financially independent she was. If dad was not there (deceased or deeply estranged) she still wanted a male relative to do so. Which is fine!

Finally, I do not "pronounce" the couple husband and wife, I "announce" that they are now husband and wife.