The Generals in Their Labyrinths
Demilitarizing Honduras will be a long and complicated process, but it is underway. Despite many ups and downs, the power of the military is meeting up with limits.
On May 3 of last year, to the delight of civil society, Honduras' National Assembly unanimously voted to approve the establishment of a voluntary and educational military service. It had been one of the most important promises of President Reina's electoral campaign, since the army had used the obligatory draft to hunt down young men from the poorest families, then threat them brutally in the barracks.
Pressure from students and other social sectors for the voluntary service had been mounting, triggered by an almost two week hunger strike by a group of women who formed the Christian and Popular Civic Committee. They ended their hunger strike only when the vote was announced. The opposition National Party bench had finally decided to support the bill because of the high political cost it was paying for its opposition.
The announcement early this year that a bill to ratify the new military service would be introduced in the National Congress in March revealed the accumulated contradictions around this burning issue. The military used the moment to solidify its position. General Lázaro Avila, who heads the armed forces Chiefs of Staff, declared that the military openly opposed ratification of this service for national security reasons. He argued that if soldiers entering the service were not offered a good salary, "no one will want to enlist and, as a consequence, if there is no one to fill out the rank and file, the army's very existence will be endangered; and if there is no army, there will be no security for defending our sovereignty and territorial integrity, and no security for normal citizens."
Behind this rhetoric is the high command's fear that, in practice, this novel measure is a mechanism to reduce the size of the Honduran army, which it naturally opposes.
Ramos, a "Chameleon"Trying to take the new times into account and avoid being targeted by the institutions representing civil power, General Avila commented, "If the National Congress decides to ratify these constitutional reforms we will respect them, but we must note our opposition for history." Armed forces head General Luis Alonso Discua Elvir and Colonel Mario Hung Pacheco, the Commander General of the army, also expressed their opposition.
The military leaders offered an alternative they experimented with last November: a draft lottery. This mechanism attempts to correct the traditional class bias of the obligatory military service, which systematically excluded all "rich boys." Several hundred young men from the November experiment who did not respect the recruitment are currently pending an arrest order.
Echoing the high command's open opposition, Oswaldo Ramos Soto, president of the National Party's Central Committee and its presidential candidate in the last elections, also came out in favor of obligatory service, forgetting his electoral promises. In one of his most widely seen and later publicized television spots during the campaign, Ramos Soto promised his son Oswaldo José that he would do away with the obligatory service.
What arguments did he give for his 180 degree turn? That when he proposed to eliminate the draft, he had not reflected sufficiently about the impact this measure would have on the number of soldiers in the armed forces. "Making this obligation of citizens voluntary," he said, "endangers the existence not only of the military institution, but of the Honduran state itself."
Ramos Soto's position sparked a veritable political torment within his party, made even more intense by its members' pre electoral debate and the questioning of Ramos' leadership. His supporters in Congress declared themselves in rebellion, while others accused him of being a political "chameleon" who discredited the party.
On March 8, a specially created National Party commission recommended that its 55 member congressional bench vote in favor of the voluntary military service if: 1) it would guarantee a specific number of soldiers in the armed forces "that would not drop below the level in the other Central American Republics;" and 2) an increase of 120 million lempiras in the armed forces budget is approved, to be able to offer recruits a minimum wage (some 750 lempiras monthly). Recruits currently get only 50 lempiras.
Giving and GivingIt has been said that this change by the Nationals resulted from a secret negotiation with the government which, in turn, promised to eliminate the commission against corruption. The commission is giving former President Callejas and high officials of his National Party administration many headaches.
It appears the current government liked the deal. It kept one of its electoral promises, but in exchange for not keeping another: its much touted moral revolution. Honduran society does not seem as pleased with the negotiations.
The issue of a minimum wage for recruits also caused heated debates. President Reina is of the opinion that the armed forces budget should be increased by the amount cited in the proposal. But Treasury Minister Juan Ferrera (National Party) rejects the increase, and says he prefers to resign if approval of the new aspects of the military service implies new taxes for the people. Ferrera argued that rationalizing armed forces spending by reducing both officers and soldiers is the best way to guarantee a minimum salary for recruits.
The proposal of Chamber of Commerce and Industry president Eduardo Facussé was to reduce the number of National Party Congress members by half and pass the savings to the armed forces budget.
In Civilian Hands
The ratification of the voluntary and educational military service is part of the military's growing subordination to civilian power and the process of demilitarizing the Honduran state. Other measures of this same process, which are currently going through legal channels are the transfer of the police and the merchant marine to civilian control. The Honduran police has been in military hands ever since the October 1963 coup that brought down Liberal Ramón Villeda Morales.
The transfer of the merchant marine from military to civilian hands is already a consummated fact. Rafael González, chosen to lead the new merchant marine, is a lawyer with the firm of President Reina's family. He has promised to substantially improve the income the state receives for registering foreign ships, a practice frequently accused of being one of the sources of illicit enrichment for the military, as well as for civilians who join it in this "profitable" business.
Spanish President Felipe González, who visited Honduras in February, clearly backed the actions that are beginning to subordinate military power to civilian power. In his speech to the Honduran Congress on February 15, he emphatically maintained that "in democratic nations the military estate must be subject to the civilian powers. Honduras has understood this and is completing the task."
Military MillionairesOn July 22, 1994, a public letter sent to the President of the Republic by an anonymous group of officers and soldiers was released to the press. It made clear the dimensions of the personal fortune of former Honduran Air Force head Hector Castro. Among the mentioned sources of this fortune were arms and drug trafficking, diversion of US military aid funds, and the cashing of checks in the names of officers, technicians and soldiers already released from the army.
The accusation, broadly disseminated by the media, was dismissed as anonymous libel and no investigation took place, either by the General Accounting Office or by any other state monitoring organization. But, although the institutions ignored it, public opinion was more than interested in what one journalist termed "the royal lifestyle" of high level military leaders.
On March 14, Honduras was surprised by yet another new accusation against the military. This time General Luis Alonso Discua, current head of the armed forces, was accused of having amassed a fortune. An extensive public letter signed by a retired officer whose name and code, according to a high level military officer, do not exist in the military organization's registers revealed the General's personal fortune and its sources. Only Radio America and the daily Times of San Pedro Sula published this letter, although it appears to have been sent to other media as well. Radio America and the Times have a well earned reputation of objectivity.
The letter speaks of a personal fortune of some 30 million lempiras. Discua supposedly owns a condominium in Washington, an apartment in Miami, various millionaire residences in Tegucigalpa, a luxury apartment building also in Tegucilgalpa, and dollar accounts in Miami, Washington and the Bahamas.
All of this fortune has to have been gathered during the six years General Discua has been at the head of the armed forces, because he only had "a modest middle class house in the Los Robles neighborhood" when he took charge. Among the main sources of this fortune mentioned are commissions for the purchase of equipment and services offered by state institutions under military jurisdiction. The letter also refers to General Lázaro Avila and Colonel Hector Fonseca.
The letter's anonymous nature served to disqualify the information and as in the previous case no investigation is expected. In any case, whatever the origin of the accusations, those who wrote them appear to be very well informed.
Speaking in the name of the organized grassroots sector, Juan Almendárez, president of the Coordinating Committee for Popular Organizations, maintained that "the accusation has enough elements for the government to begin proceedings against the military chief." Speaking in the name of the military, Colonel Hung Pacheco, head of the army, considers the accusation part of "a defamation campaign." He justified General Discua by saying that "he has always had an inheritance that he has known how to administer." Hung also tried to defend the other members of the military high command, stating that they "always look for ways to invest money in businesses that obviously offer profits, not dedicating themselves to partying their life away."
For "Concertación"Two years ago, President Callejas named an ad hoc commission to develop a series of measures for the government aimed at deciding what to do with the National Investigation Office (DNI), the police force and the judicial branch, in order to guarantee citizen security and effective application of the law.
The commission, made up of state and civil society representatives, was given 30 days to carry out this task. Its public report focused on dissolving the DNI, creating a Public Ministry and eventually transferring the police from military to civilian hands. The report also contained recommendations still pending to eliminate political sectarianism and the corruption of the judicial branch.
On March 6 of this year, President Reina swore in the new members of the revived ad hoc commission, giving them the responsibility to produce, within 60 days, recommendations to contain the growing spiral of delinquency and social violence in the country. They are also to offer recommendations to improve the penitentiary system and create the basis for a culture in which human rights are respected.
The new ad hoc commission, like two years ago, is made up of representatives from the state and civil society. It is presided over by Bishop Oscar Rodríguez.
The commission began its work by consulting various social sectors, trying to initiate a dialogue and consensus building (concertación) process around these social issues. Watching this experience get underway, a question from society turned into a demand: Why not an economic concertación as well? National Congress president Carlos Flores Facussé declared it "urgent" to give life to the convergence forum created for this purpose by the Congress. Unions have not only emphasized the urgency, but have even suggested a debate agenda. Among the themes on the workers' agenda are: wage and price policies, labor productivity and training, agrarian and forest reform, food security and a quarterly evaluation of the government's economic and social policies. The Honduran unions continue to gamble on a general wage increase and a price regulation policy as basic alternatives for the poor to deal with the cost of living.
A "Lung" in DangerAttending the demands of peasant organizations that want land distribution to continue, President Reina declared the approximately 30,000 hectares of the fertile valleys of Sico and Paulaya, in the extreme northeast of the country, subject to agrarian reform.
During the first decades of the century, Sico and Paulaya were exploited by the Trujillo Railroad Company, United Fruit's banana producing subsidiary in Honduras. Trujillo left the area at the end of the 1930s because of the destructive effect of two plagues in the plantations: sigatoka and the "Panama evil." The 1930s depression also influenced its withdrawal. Since it pulled out, the Sico and Paulaya valleys have remained relatively isolated and with deficient communications.
The decision to declare this an agrarian reform zone sparked opposition from environmental groups, because these two valleys adjoin the buffer zone of the protected Plátano River biosphere, one of Central America's most important ecological lungs.
The ecologists fear that a massive transfer of peasants to the area could have negative repercussions on this relatively protected ecosystem. "We are concerned and alarmed," they said. "In some 10 or 20 years the Plátano River biosphere could totally disappear, together with the Tawahka biosphere, currently awaiting a congressional decree to be declared a protected zone." The biosphere of the Tawahka people adjoins the Rio Plátano biosphere and the Patuca National Park, another area awaiting a governmental decision to be turned into a protected area.
President Reina refuted the importance of the ecologists' claims with the superficial argument that "ecology should not be a brake on the development of countries." Ubodoro Arriaga, director of the National Agrarian Institute, referred critically to the ecological campaign by saying, "It can degenerate into fanaticism." The forests, he declared, "are not taken care of from a desk or with proclamations, announcements or press conferences, but in the forests themselves. And the peasants can do that." He announced that the peasant colonization will take place in an ordered manner.
A bit more ponderous was the vice minister of the Environmental Secretariat, who laid out the need to do an environmental impact study of the possible agrarian reform in Sico and Paulaya. This is also the position of the Coordinating Council for Peasant Organizations in Honduras, which gave the government 60 days to develop the study. The peasants have promised to comply with the recommendations, decisions and policies emerging from the impact study.
Military LandA preliminary study carried out in the area demonstrates that the agrarian reform project will have to confront not only ecologists, but also important military and political leaders who bought state lands there as speculation.
The land conflict in Sico and Paulaya has not reached the level of crisis facing the Tela tourist port and groups settled in the Punta Sal National Park buffer zone. Those conflicts took the life of Blanca Jeannette Kawas, an environmental leader in the area.
Blanca Kawas, 48, was president of the Foundation for the Protection of Lancetilla, Punta Sal and Texihualt. Her organization was in conflict with groups from the National Peasants' Union, which provisionally occupies lands in the zone, together with the Hondupalma agroindustrial processing plant and with politicians, cattle ranchers and lumber mill owners who were depleting the natural resources in the Punta Sal National Park. She was killed in her home on the night of February 6 by a single gunshot. Everyone knows it was a paid assassination, which to date has enjoyed total impunity.
Various marches, the biggest of which was in the port city of Tela, have been held throughout the country to demand clarification of this crime. Greenpeace in Central America echoed the demand in a letter sent to the President of the Republic, calling for clarity and punishment of the crime.
Blanca's history is very similar to that of Brazilian ecologist Chico Mendes, who was killed by paid assassins of lumber business owners for opposing the irrational exploitation of the Amazon jungle. Is it possible that the labyrinth of Honduras' military leaders does not wind through this tragedy?