Responses to the Coup d'etat in Honduras on Sunday June 28, with special emphasis on producing English-language versions of commentaries by Honduran scholars and editorial writers and addressing the confusion encouraged by lack of basic knowledge about Honduras.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Reading (Military) Tea Leaves in the "Mystery of Zelaya's Return"

The title paraphrases a report by Marc Lacey and Ginger Thomas in the New York Times.

On one level, it adds little of substance to the story of the return of Zelaya.

But remarkably for a news story, it manages to hint at a tantalizing set of possibilities that may turn out to be as important to the playing out of the Zelaya return as today's announcement by the major party presidential candidates that the clock is running out for their support of Micheletti's regime.

They start with one of the most widely discussed questions: how did he do it? how, with everyone in theory watching the border for him, did President Zelaya-- a very recognizable character-- make it all the way to Tegucigalpa without being spotted?

I personally have no problem imagining him crossing the border without hitting the Migración agents' radar. Working in northwest Honduras, I have been told repeatedly by country people that they pass over in the mountains for convenience when they want. I personally know North Americans who accidentally walked across the border in the mountains when out in the countryside. There is no fence along the border, and the description of President Zelaya crossing mountains? that describes almost every inch of the Honduran frontiers with Guatemala, El Salvador, and most of the border with Nicaragua. Only in the extreme northeast is the frontier not mountainous; and crossing there would be pointless, because communication with the rest of the country from the oriente is arduous, in the absence of paved roads, or in some areas, any roads.

But still, the question does resonate. How did he do it?

The NY Times rehearses the now familiar bits of the story: landing under cover of darkness in a sympathetic El Salvador; presumably, crossing somewhere on the Salvadoran border--where a Honduran border agent at El Amatillo is quoted as saying there are a lot of mountain passes where he could have crossed--and then the
15-hour slog that required trekking through the mountains and navigating back roads in buses, cars and trucks to get around military checkpoints.
That last point really resonates: while Honduras has very few major highways, which allows both the tactic of the resistance of stopping commercial traffic by burning tires on the road, and the military security tactic of setting up checkpoints to stop buses and other large vehicles, there is a network of largely unpaved roads, running through the mountains, that you can use to drive around most difficult patches.

In the 1990s, at the end of one field season, we wanted to get to the coastal city of Tela to spend a few last days soaking in the sun on a beautiful beach. But there were labor actions all that summer, and this time, the takeover blocked the approach to the bridge over the Ulua river on the highway leading from San Pedro Sula to Progreso. Because we had very limited time, we had splurged and instead of taking buses (the same ones owned by Roberto Micheletti, actually), we had bargained for a cab driver to drive us all the way from La Lima to Tela. And boy, was he motivated-- even more than us (I was ready to go into San Pedro Sula and find a hotel with a pool for two nights). So off we went into the banana plantations, driving over unpaved roads leading in a zig-zag pattern to an old, unused railway bridge downstream, where we crossed the Ulúa and then eventually meandered back to the highway. I had driven the same network of roads day after day for months throughout the early 1980s, and I didn't know this was possible.

Without any local knowledge, later in the 1990s, I navigated a three-wheel drive vehicle (that's a four wheel drive vehicle that is actually broken but you don't know it) off the main San Pedro-Tegucigalpa highway, into the mountains east of Lake Yojoa, across a river spanned only by concrete segments over which the water rushed, through back lanes where the only way we stayed on target was always taking the branch leading back to the west.

So I can see this. Not really a mystery, and I read on wondering what about this was all so mysterious-- heroic maybe, a great movie plot, but mysterious?

And this is where this non-news article becomes interesting. The reporters get the Honduran military on the record about the apparent failure of what surely was supposed to be an impregnable security wall:
The Honduran military denied that his return was a major security breach. “Military intelligence did not fail,” Adolfo Lionel Sevilla, the de facto defense minister, told El Heraldo, a Honduran daily newspaper. He added cryptically, “Everything can’t be publicized because it would create anxiety.”
Stop and think about that for a minute. Everything can't be publicized because it would create anxiety.

My goodness, what is the military hiding? Again, thank the NY Times for answering this question by the time-honored technique of juxtaposition; what immediately follows is not a clarification of this remark by the military or the de facto regime's pretend defense minister (who one suspects bit his tongue right after those words came out). Instead, they connect the dots to long-rumored differences in the sentiment of the military:
One worry is that some members of the Honduran military loyal to Mr. Zelaya may have aided in his return. “There is a certain amount of concern among Hondurans about how Zelaya got into the country,” said Christopher Sabatini, editor of Americas Quarterly, a New York academic journal. “It’s hard to imagine that he could get in without some cooperation from the military. And Micheletti, in particular, has to be worried about whether he really has control over all his forces.”
Romeo Vasquez Velasquez has thrown his support fully behind the de facto regime. This is actually extremely problematic philosophically in Honduras, since the constitution decrees that the military is to stand apart from politics. This is why they theoretically were considered the ideal agents to guarantee free elections. This is reinforced by requirements that military officers not stand for office. This is why the Armed Forces tried, early on, to distance themselves from their own actions through the powerful medium of-- the press release.

As a result, the Armed Forces are now thoroughly tied to the de facto regime, and not to their credit. Abolishing the military has actually been mentioned.

Now Romeo has to look around and think, "who is dealing behind my back?". And Micheletti may find himself sooner or later without the club that his command of the military provides: the one thing, other than continued US financial support, propping up his regime.

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