The June 28 military coup that overthrew the legitimate government of Honduras was a shock. When the Central American wars of the 1980s finally ended, the region seemed on a path toward electoral democracy at last. The military's ouster of President Zelaya, followed by the suspension of civil liberties and repression of non-violent protests, looks like a return to the bad old days when coups were the rule and real elections the rare exception.
Together with all Latin American nations and the UN General Assembly, the United States condemned the coup. President Obama said, "The coup was not legal," and added "President Zelaya remains the president of Honduras." The US has also taken modest steps to pressure the post-coup acting government to accept mediation and restore some form of democracy. That US response was a positive change from the past, when this country would have welcomed such a coup or even instigated it. (Guatemala 1954, Chile 1973, Venezuela 2002, to mention only a few.)
So far, so good - but subsequent statements by US officials, and the limited actions that have been taken (or not taken), are troubling. For example, all countries in the region except the United States have withdrawn their ambassadors from Honduras. Worse, a recent letter by Assistant Secretary of State Richard Verma addressed to Senator Richard Lugar blames the victim, implying that President Zelaya brought on the coup through "provocative actions." Verma's letter seems to indicate that the US is not, after all, committed to the return of President Zelaya to office.
A State Department web page, dated February 2009, asserts "US policy toward Honduras is aimed at consolidating democracy, protecting human rights, and promoting the rule of law." The United States must hold to those declared principles and join the rest of the hemisphere in restoring the elected president of Honduras.
Beyond that immediate need, there are two important lessons for US policy.
First, at least six of the military officers who implemented the coup and the subsequent Iran-like repression of pro-democracy protests are graduates of the (in)famous "School of the Americas." The SOA, providing US training to Latin American military personnel, has long been known throughout Latin America as the "School of Coups," or sometimes the "School of Assassins," because so many coup plotters and abusers of human rights have trained there. The coup leaders in Honduras, Generals Romeo Vasquez and Luis Suazo, are both SOA alumni, twice so in the case of Vasquez, and other coup plotters are also SOA grads. Although the SOA has officially changed its name to "Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation," the old epithet "school of coups" evidently still fits. And despite the coup, Honduran soldiers are still training at the SOA as if nothing had changed.
A long-running movement to close the SOA as part of a new "good neighbor policy" toward Latin America has gained considerable support in Congress. Currently, a bill numbered HR 2567, the "Latin America Military Training Review Act," would suspend operation of the SOA and mandate review of all US training for Latin American militaries. The involvement of SOA grads in the Honduras coup, and the army's brutal attacks on pro-democracy protestors afterwards, show once again that such legislation is badly needed. It should pass promptly.
Second, it may seem surprising that one US response to the coup was suspending some military cooperation with Honduras. What military cooperation?? In fact, the United States has maintained a military presence in the country since the 1980s, when Honduras served as the main staging area for the Reagan administration's "contra" war against Nicaragua and interventions in El Salvador. During that period contras and Honduran soldiers committed numerous crimes against Honduran civilians, including hundreds of murders and "disappearances," with no protest from US authorities. Joint US/Honduran maneuvers such as Operation Solid Shield in 1987, intended to intimidate the Nicaraguan government, involved nearly ten thousand US troops. But when the wars ended, the military operations and cooperation did not.
US military aid to Honduras has recently run around $10 million per year, a sum that sounds small but one that represents perhaps 1/7 or 1/8 of the nation's military budget. (The US reportedly "suspended" $16.5 million in military aid after the coup.) The main US military presence on the ground is Joint Task Force Bravo, based at the Honduran Soto Cano Air Base (Palmerola). The US State Department says that Bravo "plays a vital role in supporting combined exercises in Honduras and in neighboring Central American countries." According to a 12th Air Force Fact Sheet, Bravo's mission also includes "supporting Latin American armed forces as they ... demonstrate support for human rights and subordination to civilian authority," areas in which the Honduran military has spectacularly failed. Some 500 to 600 US troops are stationed at Soto Cano on an essentially permanent basis, joined by a roughly equal number of US and Honduran civilian employees. Recent visits by outside observers found that despite the coup, it is essentially "business as usual" for US/Honduran cooperation at both Palmerola and at the SOA.
Clearly, all this strongly supports the Honduran military establishment, providing it with political legitimacy in addition to the direct assistance. Even leaving aside the issues raised by the coup, is this a good policy? Arguably, it is not.
Undoubtedly the most successful nation in Central America since the 1950s has been Costa Rica. It has by far the best social indicators (literacy, life expectancy, etc) in the region, and has been largely peaceful while its neighbors suffered from civil wars and foreign interventions. One major reason for these advantages is clear: Costa Rica abolished its military establishment in 1948. As a result it has invested in social welfare instead of weapons, avoided military coups or rebellions, and maintained the most democratic government and the most legitimate elections in the region.
Costa Rica's president, Oscar Arias, has attempted to mediate the Honduran crisis; so far his proposals have been accepted by President Zelaya but not by the coup leaders. In a recent article (The Washington Post, 7/9/09) Arias emphasized that militarism is a widespread and chronic problem in Latin America. Events such as the Honduran coup, he wrote, "are the price we pay for one of our region's greatest follies: its reckless military spending. This coup d'etat demonstrates, once more, that the combination of powerful militaries and fragile democracies creates a terrible risk." The "nearly $50 billion" that Latin American governments will spend this year on their armies, Arias continued, "is nearly double the amount spent five years ago, and it is a ridiculous sum in a region where 200 million people live on fewer than $2 a day." He concludes that more weapons and soldiers will contribute nothing to meeting human needs, and will only "destabilize a region that continues to view armed forces as the final arbiter of social conflicts."
Honduras, like Costa Rica, does not need an army or an air force. No foreign nation threatens to invade, and those tens of millions of military dollars could be far better spent on human welfare. Internal security is a police, not a military problem, and neither poverty nor domestic crime can be fought with advanced jet aircraft. The Honduran military has not provided security to the Honduran people; on the contrary, without that military the coup and subsequent ugly repression could not have taken place.
The United States, of course, cannot dictate to Honduras or any other nation that it must follow Costa Rica's lead, and the example of our own enormous military spending is hardly one to emulate. Still, we could and should use our influence and our aid to strengthen the civil societies of our neighbors and seek to reduce the size, importance and influence of their military institutions. In particular, there is no good reason to continue to strengthen and legitimize the Honduran military. All US aid to Honduras should be civilian, helping to build a more prosperous and just society. Supporting the military does not help the Honduran people.
For the United States to heed these two "lessons" would mean a major shift in how we relate to our neighbors. Defunding the SOA would be a small but important step in the right direction, away from endorsing the militarism that has plagued Latin America. We might then truly help in "consolidating democracy, protecting human rights, and promoting the rule of law."