Thursday, August 06, 2009

The Honduran Military's Defensive Apperance on Television

More than a month after their coup, the Honduran military finally went on television Tuesday to explain itself.

The five generals at the head of the Honduran armed forces made a rare appearance on national television to explain their role in the ouster in late June of President Manuel Zelaya, and to respond to charges that they acted in defense of the country’s elite.

In language that often veered into confessional, they repeated that they did not act to take sides in the political fight that had polarized the country, but out of obedience to the law. And they said they were confident that history would judge them as patriots for their actions.

The more they spoke, however, the more they showed how concerned they were that their image had been damaged by their actions, and the clearer it became that they continued to play a leading role in Honduran politics, nearly three decades since the end of military rule.

There's a lot to comment on in this story. First, there's the absolutely risible defense that the military offered, claiming the coup that overthrew Zelaya was done to protect not just Honduras, but to save the United States itself! Seriously:

As if taking a page from a cold war playbook, Gen. Miguel Ángel Garcia Padget said the military had disrupted Mr. Chávez’s plans to spread socialism across the region. “Central America was not the objective of this communism disguised as democracy,” he said. “This socialism, communism, Chávismo, we could call it, was headed to the heart of the United States.” [my emphasis]

In spite of continuous whining not just from the fringe sectors of the wingnuts, but from Republican Senators and Congressional Representatives themselves, Chavez and socialism are in no way a "threat" to America, and this seems about as plausible as the belief that the Russians, Chinese, and "Islamo-fascists" are joining forces to take over America via submarines.

Beyond that, though, this television appearance was an interesting play on the part of the military. Many have observed that the Honduran military's support is what will keep a president afloat through this crisis, be it Micheletti's government or the return of Zelaya. Bloggers have generally agreed that the military's strength and support is central to the outcome of this crisis. However, coming on television and trying to defend yourself as an institution with any and every explanation and defense you can hurl and hope will stick ("We were just obeying the constitution!" "We don't want to hurt the poor!" "We're saving the world from Chavez!" "It wasn't a coup - if it were, we would have arrested and killed a lot more people!") isn't exactly the sign of a powerful institution that has the final say. This isn't to say the military isn't important in the way these events have played out and will play out; certainly, the military will be important, for, as they've already demonstrated, they have the power, legitimate or not, to remove a president if they disagree with his actions. Still, in the past, you would see militaries pull this kind of move and not seem nearly as panicked in defending themselves (see: Chile in 1973; Brazil in 1964; Argentina multiple times; El Salvador and Guatemala in the 1980s; etc.). This television appearance had a far greater defensive attitude than any I remember historically seeing, and I think it indicates that, while the military is indeed still a major actor in these events, its power as an institution is dulled somewhat.

This leads into a second point. While the Cold War analogy in reference to the "save the world from socialism/communism" rhetoric is straight out of the Cold War (and out of more basic "our good vs. their evil" rhetoric since time immemorial), we have to be careful not to stretch that analogy too far. One anonymous, high-ranking member of the Honduran defense ministry commented that “In the end, there is a chance that the civilians will all kiss and make up, and the military is going to be held as the bad guys. [...] These guys are worried. They are worried about going to jail.”

If this were the Cold War, these guys wouldn't be remotely worried about going to jail; they'd be celebrating their acts, flaunting it in front of the world, and rounding up thousands of "subversives." The only way jail would possibly cross their minds is if there was a tendency within the military for a counter-coup to install even more hard-line leaders. They wouldn't be nearly pleading their case on television in an effort to not come off looking like the perpetrators of a crime; they would be defiantly and aggressively stating why they did what was essential for the "good of the nation." This not only shows how tenuous the military's position is in this whole situation (even as it remains a central actor); it shows how much things have changed since the Cold War.

Again, none of this is to say that the Honduran military is an ineffective force in the way events from here on out play out, nor to suggest that the military was clumsily lucky in the coup; it knew what it was doing, and did so efficiently. However, it would be equally wrong to suggest that the military will be the final arbiter of how things work out from this point onward. Whoever ends up leading Honduras will probably need to at least know that he/she has not antagonized the military to the point that it would just repeat with him/her what it did with Zelaya. But the fact that neither Zelaya nor Micheletti is working closely with the military, despite the latter coming to power thanks to the military and the former's return being accepted by the military when the Honduran armed forces accepted the (failed) Arias accords' term, seems to indicate that the military is nowhere near as monolithically-powerful as some would portray it. The recent appearance on television has just served to reinforce the fact that, while the military will continue to be involved either tacitly or explicitly in the politics of Honduras through the rest of this crisis, it is far from the final arbiter on the fate of Honduras.