Civil Society Fighting Resurgent Militarism, Cronyism in Post-Coup Honduras

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Inter Press Service

Civil Society Fighting Resurgent Militarism, Cronyism in Post-Coup Honduras

Putting Defence In the Hands of Civilians

by
Thelma Mejía

Romeo Vásquez now heads the state telecom operator Hondutel. It was Vásquez, who as commander of the armed forces, who gave the order to remove then-president Zelaya from his home at gunpoint in the middle of the night and put him on a plane to Costa Rica. Other retired military officers head the migrations office, the merchant marine, the social housing fund and even civilian review boards set up to investigate and take over public bodies. (Undated File)

TEGUCIGALPA, Honduras - Prominent academics and activists say one of the main pending challenges in Honduras is a resumption of the demilitarisation of the country and the strengthening of civilian control over defence policy that was brought to an abrupt halt by the June 2009 coup d'etat.

The effects of the June 2009 ouster of president Manuel Zelaya by a military commando that flew him – still in his pyjamas – to Costa Rica were so profound that "the military believe that the country is at their service, rather than the other way around," former defence minister Edmundo Orellana told IPS.

"Since the coup, we have returned to an ignominious past, and we have seen former members of the military, who still have strong ties to the armed forces, taking over key enterprises and institutions that had been removed from their control. This highlights the weight of Honduras' militaristic past," said Orellana, who is also a former attorney general.

Orellana, who was defence minister under Zelaya (2006-2009), had resigned a week before the coup because of discrepancies over the growing public presence and visibility that the president was actually giving the military.

He also disagreed with the government's determination to hold a non-binding referendum on establishing a constituent assembly to draft a new constitution, even though the courts had declared the vote illegal. (The attempt to go ahead with the referendum precipitated the coup.)

The former minister, along with a number of academics and civil society organisations, is drafting proposed constitutional reforms aimed at eliminating the military tutelage enshrined in the constitution, and at bringing about changes in society's relations with the military.

The project, "Fortalecimiento de la conducción civil de la defensa y del control civil sobre las Fuerzas Armadas" (Strengthening civilian leadership in defence and civilian control over the armed forces), is led by the Honduran Documentation Centre (CEDOH).

The head of the think tank, Víctor Meza, says the Jun. 28, 2009 institutional collapse "obliges us to tackle these issues with a deeper look, to help us build a more viable and democratic model with respect to the military."

Meza told IPS that the slate of proposed reforms is the product of a consensus reached over the last four months in intense debates among different academic groups and civilian institutions which discussed aspects related to the demilitarisation of the state, the political system, and the role of political arbiter enjoyed by the Honduran military.

Sociologist Leticia Salomón, an expert on military and security issues, said the main challenge is the demilitarisation of the country. Civilians "have not concerned themselves with questions of defence, but now they see that the time has come to create a community that exercises oversight, sets forth proposals, and warns about the risks of giving the armed forces more power."

She said the proposals include the restoration of civilian control over telecommunications and the leadership of other key enterprises and institutions that have once again been put in the hands of retired officers "whose ties to their military functions have never been severed."

"The impression, actually, is that (these leadership positions) were their part of the spoils for having participated in the coup, because several of the men heading these institutions played a direct role in the rupture of the constitutional order," Salomón told IPS, citing the case of retired general Romeo Vásquez, who heads the state telecom operator Hondutel.

It was Vásquez, as commander of the armed forces, who gave the order to remove then-president Zelaya from his home at gunpoint in the middle of the night and put him on a plane to Costa Rica.

Other retired military officers head the migrations office, the merchant marine, the social housing fund and even civilian review boards set up to investigate and take over public bodies.

There is even talk now of presidential aspirations on the part of retired officers.

The proposed reforms would also be aimed at bringing about changes in the country's political culture, to leave behind the idea that "defence issues, as well as police matters, must be left up to the military," said Salomón, who quoted a popular saying: "it's best to keep the military happy."

The CEDOH-led project, which referred to the "leap backwards" that the armed forces took in the June 2009 coup, pointed to the reformist efforts by the military in the 1970s, when "they looked like progressive, development-oriented promoters of significant changes in land ownership, amidst a climate of tolerance and respect for differences."

And in the 1990s, the military also accepted the process of demilitarisation launched by former president Carlos Roberto Reina (1994-1998).

But all of that "was done away with in one fell swoop, and getting them to go back to the barracks will depend on the pressure applied by citizens, and on their proposals," said Meza.

The proposed reforms would abolish the military's role as enforcer of alternation in power, as established by the constitution, and as guarantor of elections, in charge of transporting and guarding the ballot boxes.

Opposition lawmakers are now waiting for the CEDOH-led draft reform proposals to reach the legislature, to begin to break down the myth "that the military are untouchable. This is the time to do this, before they are given more control over security issues, under the pretext of the fight against drugs," social democratic Congressman Mario Vásquez told IPS.

Ruth Diamint, a university professor from Argentina who is an expert on defence issues, says the proposed reforms "are very clear and feasible, and are heading in the direction of the demystification of military concepts that do nothing to strengthen the political or democratic culture."

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