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June 30, 2009

The Myth of the Messianic Military: The Coup in Honduras

Just as the world was recovering from the turbulence convulsing Iran—the result of an election lacking anything resembling transparency and generally perceived as rigged—the Honduran military, with the support of members of that nation's Supreme Court and Congress, decided to forego the fraud and jump right to the coup.

It is the first military takeover in Latin America since the Guatemalan military ousted Jorge Serrano in 1993 (Serrano had dissolved Congress and suspended the Constitution). That coup did little to help Guatemala: All these years later, the country topples near failed-state status with a military deeply in bed with narcotraficantes, a murder rate near the highest in the world, and popular confidence in government institutions and democracy plummeting.

The fact that sixteen years have passed since the last coup in a region once plagued with them, however, betrays a flicker of hope that democratic institutions in the region are finally gaining some stability—a hope that this overthrow seriously degrades.

A form of governmental takeover once all too common in the region, coups have faded from view as militaries have largely adapted to civilian authority. This is a seismic shift in self-perception, for Latin American militaries historically considered their role vis-à-vis society as "messianic," in that military officers believed it was their responsibility to "save" the government from itself if democracy could not maintain sufficient order. Needless to say, their tolerance for disorder was minimal, and often this justification was used as a smokescreen to oust governments the military deemed too leftist.

However, despite a generally leftward turn in virtually every Latin American government, with the exceptions of Colombia and Mexico, the militaries have not risen up to seize power. This was an incredible testament to the increasing maturity and sophistication of the region's militaries, a trend that could arguably be attributed at least in part to changes at the Western Hemisphere Institute of Security Cooperation (previously known as School of the Americas) that involved instruction in human rights and respect for civilian oversight and authority. That trend, however, took a serious hit on Sunday, as did the reputation of WHINSEC as a beacon of institutional change in the region.

Most of the military leaders involved in the coup have strong ties to the American military, but the coup took place during a transition in leadership at the US Southern Command. Admiral James Stavridis, USN, who has led SOUTHCOM for several years, was highly regarded in the region as a believer in human rights, cooperation and humanitarian missions (he now leads the US European Command). It is presently unclear what if any communications are taking place between US military leaders and their counterparts in Honduras.

Oscar Arias, president of Costa Rica, the country to which ousted Honduran president Manuel Zelaya was exiled, remarked:
This coup is regrettable, not just for Honduran democracy but for Central America and the entire hemisphere. We thought Central American democracy had consolidated sufficiently to avoid this. It is sad to see some civilians applaud a coup just because they disagree with policies. This has shown us that democratic institutions in Central America are still fragile . . . vulnerable.
Zelaya was an ally of Venezuela's populist president Hugo Chàvez and was linked to other populist leaders in the region with a neo-socialist bent such as Daniel Ortega of Nicaragua, Rafael Correa of Ecuador and Evo Morales of Bolivia. He was trying to schedule a national referendum to schedule a November vote on a revision of the Constitution to permit presidents to serve more than one four-year term. This was seen by conservatives in Congress and the Supreme Court—which, like the military, are traditionally seen as bastions of oligarchical power in Honduras—as a power grab similar to what Chàvez has attempted in Venezuela.

The Supreme Court and Congress had ruled the referendum was unconstitutional, but Zelaya was going forward regardless (it was scheduled for the day of the coup). When the general in charge of distributing the ballots refused to comply, Zelaya removed him. The Supreme Court re-instated him, but Zelaya refused to recognize the re-instatement. This institutional showdown was polarizing the nation, and the Court and Congress used this polarization as its excuse in sanctioning the military's takeover.

Latest word is that the Supreme Court order the military to depose Zelaya. News from inside the country is spotty, however, and the new regime has closed all news outlets perceived as supportive of Zelaya or critical of the coup. (Reporters Without Borders have decried the blackout, stating it proves the new regime does not want the world or Honduran citizens to know what is happening. As took place in iran, news is trickling out via Twitter and Facebook and through US and other international news organizations.)

The coup has been universally condemned, uniting otherwise adversarial parties such as Presidents Obama and Chàvez. The OAS and the UN have similarly denounced the takeover, with the former stating it would not recognize the new government and calling for an emergency meeting to respond to the crisis. The new Honduran leader, Roberto Micheletti (an ardent Zelaya foe and head of Congress), responded that his presidency was entirely legal and refused to bow to pressure to step down from other governments throughout the region.

The coup poses several problems in the short-term, but there are two long-term issues that bear consideration as well.

First, due to the increasing violence of drug cartels throughout Central America, their corruption of governments and physical control of vast regions, effectively setting up de facto narco states-within-states, there has been much discussion of "full spectrum" policing in the region, melding military and police units to match cartel firepower and forming alliances with other militaries in the region for a transnational response to the security problems posed by drug trafficking and other manifestations of organized crime. The Honduran military has been particularly close to the US military in such efforts. This coup seriously undermines the legitimacy not just of the Honduran military as a democratic institution but undermines as well US efforts to forge a legitimate full spectrum response to transnational crime syndicates. The US will need to continue to denounce the takeover and demand the military disentangle itself from the governmental power struggle. The legitimacy or lack of same for the referendum proposed by Zelaya could have and should have been resolved by civilian institutions; the fact that Congress and the Supreme Court have legitimized the military's involvement discredits them and their position—which is curious, for they appear to have had no small amount of popular support. But what could have been an exercise in institution-building has instead degenerated into force and farce.

The coup could also seriously discredit WHINSEC, which has tried to reform its image as the "School of Assasins" its critics on the left have portrayed it to be.

If the Honduran military will not respect civilian institutions, how can it be trusted to respect human and civil rights when linked to police work against drug traffickers—a problem that is by no means abstract. Full spectrum policing bears a strong resemblance to counterinsurgency, and as our efforts in Iraq have shown, over-aggressive tactics that turn a blind eye to human rights can subvert the whole endeavor. The civil wars that until recently plagued the region were typified by military intrusion into routine police work with often ghastly results. Neighboring El Salvador's peace agreement specifically called for the de-militarization of the national police force. But the threat of the narcotraficantes has added pressure to modify or even reverse that progress. The Honduran coup suggests that such a reversal could have dismal consequences.

The prospect of a coup that is allowed to stand could also have another unintended consequence. Security analysts fear that compromised Mexican military units, linked to Los Zetas, the former special forces troops who defected in order to serve as enforcers for the Gulf Cartel and now are a narcotics trafficking syndicate of their own, might stage a coup under the guise of stabilizing the country in the wake of the increasing violence President Calderón's anti-drug operations have prompted. Such a coup might take place after a "decapitation" of the Calderón regime, i.e., the successful assassination of President Calderón. It would be all the harder to decry, let alone unseat, such an illegitimate seizure of power if the Honduran coup is permitted to stand. And a Mexican coup, with officers linked to the cartels wielding power, would be a security nightmare for the US, and might oblige cross-border intervention, a prospect fraught with limitless tactical difficulties and strategic downsides.

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