History Haunts Honduras

The past as prologue to the future

by , July 01, 2009

About the crisis in Honduras, let’s get this out of the way from the very beginning: the U.S. government has no right to lecture the Hondurans about the virtues of democracy. It was, after all, Uncle Sam that encouraged, even masterminded, the dominance of the military that colors so many chapters in the history of Honduras. For the president of the United States to get up on his high horse and call for the return of democratic rule is like the Iranians hectoring us about Waco – as they did recently – even as the regime’s thugs shoot unarmed civilians down in the streets.

That said, the question of what exactly is going on in Honduras is a subject of much dispute, and – as is usual when it comes to foreign affairs – the debate takes place without consideration of the context: that is, without any knowledge of (or apparent interest in) specific conditions inside the country.

Right-wing blogs aver that the military takeover isn’t really a coup – because, you see, President José Manuel “Mel” Zelaya Rosales was in violation of the constitution himself by insisting on a national referendum to change that document. After defying the Honduran Congress and Supreme Court, Zelaya issued orders to the military to assist in the distribution of ballot boxes. When the commander refused, he was summarily fired by Zelaya. That’s when the military moved in. The presidential palace was invaded in the early morning hours, and Zelaya was sent on a plane to Costa Rica, where he arrived in his undershirt.

So what’s the real story? Is the Honduran military destroying democracy, as its critics claim, or saving it, as its mostly foreign cheerleaders would have it? With both sides posturing as defenders of liberal democracy, it’s hard for anyone not immersed in Honduran politics and history to come up with a halfway convincing answer. As always, American commentators barge into these matters without any real knowledge of the context in which they occur – so let’s educate ourselves, first, and then take a position. (Gee, what a novelty!)

The history of modern Honduras is a narrative about the struggle against militarism as a socio-political system. Ever since Honduras emerged as a separate entity from the early Mexican "empire" and a short-lived "Central American Federation," the Honduran military has had a monopoly on the economic as well as the political life of the nation: corruption was rampant, and the army ruled with an iron hand, albeit not without a measure of popular support. In this, it was not unlike many of its neighbors.

However, Honduras, unlike other Central American countries where big landowners monopolized scarce land, had a relatively generous land reform program and a moderate welfare state that managed to keep a lid on popular discontent. The military also protected the entrepreneurial class from fierce competition unleashed by regional free-trade agreements. In the 1970s, however, there was an upsurge on the part of virtually every sector of society against military domination: As J. Mark Ruhl put it in "Militarism and Democratization in Troubled Waters": "Peasant and labor support eroded as social reform slowed, while the private sector blamed military mismanagement for rising fiscal deficits and foreign debt." The economy under the generals was in decline, and the social and political turmoil that was roiling the region had reached the streets of Tegucigalpa as well as more rural areas.

The current Honduran constitution was written and promulgated under pressure from the Carter administration to make a transition to civilian rule. For decades, the country had been lorded over by this or that general or junta: under Gen. Policarpo Paz Garcia, the army moved to install its own version of democracy, which allowed elections to take place, set up a tripartite constitutional system – with an executive, a national legislature, and a Supreme Court – and yet maintained the near-complete autonomy of the military.

The 1982 constitution says that the chief of the armed forced is to be picked, not by the president, but by the Congress, from a list of candidates supplied by CONSUFFAA (Consejo Superior de las Fuerzas Armadas), the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (made up of senior military officers trained in the U.S.). Dismissal of the army chief requires a two-thirds vote of Congress.

Furthermore, Gen. Paz insisted on a number of conditions before he allowed the constitution to go into effect: the army demanded of the two presidential candidates veto power over cabinet appointments, complete control of the internal security apparatus, and – perhaps most importantly – a ban on investigations into military corruption.

The de facto military dictatorship was given a cosmetic makeover, but the real power continued to be held by the armed forces, which ran much of the country’s economic infrastructure as well as overseeing its political institutions. This was a slight improvement, however, over the previous constitutions, which explicitly stated that the military had the right to ignore presidential orders!

With the ascension of Ronald Reagan to the White House, however, U.S. pressure to democratize ended, and the military strengthened its stranglehold over the economy as well as the military. Tens of millions in military aid poured into the generals’ coffers, and the country was used as a base for U.S. covert actions in the region. The Americans’ target was Nicaragua, which had come under the sway of the leftist Sandinista movement. Honduras was used as a base for the so-called contras in their efforts to destabilize the Sandinista regime. The president was reduced to a figurehead, while the army chief, Gen. Gustavo Alvarez Martinez, a fanatical anti-Communist, wielded the real power.

Under Gen. Alvarez, a comprehensive "anti-subversive" pogrom was carried out, and death squads roamed the land. Labor organizers, dissidents of every stripe, even Catholic priests were rounded up, jailed, tortured, and murdered. Trained in Argentina in the tactics of the "dirty war," Alvarez was unrelenting in his ferocity, and his reign of terror effectively shut down Honduran civil society – with the enthusiastic approval of the American embassy.

Alvarez was determined to provoke a border clash with Nicaragua, which he believed would lead to a U.S. invasion. He was deposed in an internal army coup, however, and the military began to factionalize. This provided the more liberal forces in the country with an opening, and, slowly but surely, they began to make progress against the domination of Honduran society by the military.

The army had always recruited by simply going into villages and kidnapping likely candidates: this was ended, and the military ranks were subjected to some healthy shrinkage. The military budget was cut, by liberal reformers, by over 30 percent. The reformers also began to hack away at the military’s economic privileges. The Honduran telecommunications industry, from its inception a military asset, was turned over to civilian control and later partially privatized. Yet the military still owned outright a number of large business enterprises, making it the fifth-largest economic entity in the country.

In addition to these structural reforms, the liberals initiated investigations into the abuses of the 1980s carried out by Alvarez and his successors against dissident elements. This led to a series of bombings planned and executed by military intelligence officers in alliance with Cuban exiles, and several witnesses died, suddenly, in very suspicious circumstances. A whole sector of the military descended into outright criminality: as the 1990s rolled around, your typical bank robber, drug dealer, and/or kidnapper-for-ransom was, all too often, a Honduran army officer. Colombian drug cartels extended their tentacles into the Honduran high command, and violence and repression increased.

This scary development brought the generals into popular disrepute, and the stage was set for the eclipse of military dominance by the end of the Cold War. The alleged security threat represented by Soviet-supported insurgencies throughout Central and South America was abruptly ended, except in Peru, as leftist guerrillas came in from the cold and integrated themselves into emerging democratic structures.

In Honduras, where U.S. military and economic aid had been drastically cut, the influence of the military began to wane, and the U.S. embassy, instead of being the epicenter of the repression, became a force for positive change. When an army colonel committed a gruesome rape-murder and was let off lightly, the U.S. ambassador denounced the whitewash, which unleashed a popular wave of rebellion against years of military misrule.

Yet civilian supremacy has not proved to be a panacea: democracy degenerated, in Honduras, into a spoils system, and politicians have since that time inspired no more support than the military because both are perceived as vessels of corruption. Furthermore, the army has never reconciled itself to its formal subordination to the political class – as the recent coup shows.

In spite of that, however, the fabric of Honduran society had remained largely intact, as the country avoided the deep polarization experienced by other states in the region. It has had no guerrilla insurrection and no coup against a sitting president since 1978. What brought this tenuous stability to an end was the entry of an external factor – the rising influence of Venezuela’s president, Hugo Chavez.

The entry of Honduras’ into ALBA, the Chavista version of the U.S.-initiated Free Trade Area of the Americas, was a turning point, politically, for the formerly moderate leftist Zelaya, and it angered the military beyond the point of endurance. With his ploy of a popular referendum to reform the constitution – not to necessarily extend his term of office, but primarily to end the institutional autonomy of the army once and for all – the economic and political power of the military was facing a formidable challenge. When Zelaya fired the army chief, an old – and very deep – wound was reopened. Now, the bleeding commences…

A bit of comedy, albeit on the dark side, was exhibited by the new "president," appointed by the military-controlled Congress, when he declared that democracy had been "restored" by the soldiers, whom he hailed as "heroes" – this, even as all communications were shut down, including SMS messages, as well as opposition newspapers and all but two television stations (with those two limited to showing soccer games). Just like in Iran! Except that the reactions were inverted – with the "Left" (including the Obama administration) denouncing the coup, and the Right (e.g., the Wall Street Journal and our neocons) supporting it.

The dishonesty of the latter is particularly brazen in this instance, because the Honduran constitution is hardly a sacrosanct document devoted to individual liberty, and it can hardly be considered on the same level as our own. Certain key articles are – "legally" – permanent and cannot be amended, not even by a unanimous vote of the Congress, let alone the people. No document created by humans is perfect, least of all the Honduran constitution, and the idea that holding a popular referendum on the question of changing it is a "violation" of democracy is an idea that could only gain currency in Bizarro World – or on the editorial page of the War Street Journal.

The coup looks suspiciously like a ploy from the repertoire of the late Gen. Alvarez – found dead in 1989 what looked very much like a revenge killing – who, you’ll recall, sought to provoke an incursion into Honduran territory by the Sandinistas, which would in turn unleash U.S. military intervention. Only this time, it’s the Chavistas instead of the Sandinistas, and the alleged threat comes from Venezuela instead of Nicaragua.

Understood in the context of Honduran history, the effort by Zelaya to change the constitution has to be seen as an effort to wrest power away from the military and invest it in the civilian sector, not a quest for personal power. What’s going on in Honduras is yet another chapter in the protracted struggle against the unrestrained power – economic as well as political – of the military, and, as such, Zelaya’s is a righteous cause.

The Obama administration is threatening to cut off all aid to Honduras. It should stop talking about it and just do it. On the other hand, the "pro-democracy" rhetoric coming from the White House, accompanied by demands for Zelaya’s reinstatement, have little, if any, effect: indeed, if anything, they increase popular support for the coup leaders. Actions speak louder than words.

What we are seeing in Honduras is yet another occurrence of "blowback" from the Cold War era – former "allies" (in this case, the Honduran military) in the battle against communism gone bonkers and rendered dangerous. In spite of blustering threats by Chavez that he’ll overthrow the Honduran military regime, Venezuela is hardly capable of launching an amphibious invasion, and, in any case, Chavez is no doubt just bluffing anyway, as is his wont.

In the Bush era, the U.S. launched a curiously overt "covert" operation aimed at regime-change in Venezuela. Although they would never resort to the brazenly interventionist tactics of an earlier era, when U.S. Marines landed on South and Central American beaches at the drop of a hat, there are other ways to topple governments, as the "velvet" revolutions sponsored by the U.S. in the former Soviet Union taught us all too well. In spite of – or, perhaps, in large part because of this – a thuggish Castro clone has managed to stay in power, despite our best efforts. Chavez, a wily poltician, is quite good at manipulating the nationalist instincts of his people. As to whether these same policies of destabilization are being carried out under the Obama administration, we don’t know for sure – but if I were Chavez, I would certainly assume so, and I’d be glad of it, too. Without the bogeyman of Yankee imperialism, Venezuela’s "Bolivarian" revolution would have gone to ground on the shoals of the economic downturn. As it is, he’s got the moral high ground, and he is not likely to make the mistake of directly intervening in Honduras, militarily at any rate.

In the Latin tradition of grandiose gestures, Zelaya is planning to return to Honduras, accompanied by the president of Argentina, Cristina Kirchner, and a growing horde of Latin American dignitaries, including the secretary-general of the Organization of American States, on Thursday. The coup leaders, including the new "president," Roberto Micheletti, have threatened to arrest him. Whatever happens, this week promises more high drama than a Honduran radio-novela.

Read more by Justin Raimondo