Bad Things Come in Three's (Or Four's)

United - for good

To ebb and flow together

The unity of Central America is often taken for granted in the US by a worldview that often splices the intricacies and nuances into a firm, nation-state mold. Honduras’ golpe de estado two weeks ago is seen in isolation, but some voices exclaim the inevitable – the precedent that the world sets upon Honduras will have long range implications for Latin America as a whole, and Central America in particular.

To begin, this is not like other coups in the Americas. The seizure of power in Honduras was the first successful (barring Venezuela’s aborted coup in 2002 and Haiti in 2004) coup since the end of the Cold War. Central America has not seen a military confront civil society since the dirty wars of the 1980s. Central America negotiated its way out of bloodshed in the 1990s (Nicaragua’s Contra War ended in 1990 as the FSLN took power in 1979, El Salvador signed its peace treaty in 1992, Guatemala in 1996).

It is also unprecedented, in part, because of Washington’s response – tepid as it may be – in condemnation of actions in Honduras. While the US, who fully funds the Honduran military, knew of the coup and apparently did little to stop it – the echelons of power, namely Barack Obama, at least with words, display a posture of reconciling democracy in any form it may take over military dictatorship.

We do not want to go back to a dark past…We always want to stand with democracy.

Yet, some things do not change. Such as the response from the US right wing. It has attempted to reissue military aid recently cut off by the Pentagon. It has pushed legislation that celebrates the military response while pushing President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to stop supporting Miguel Zelaya. The right may be seen in dire light given the 2008 elections, but tides may turn and these voices – the same that pushed for the Contra wars and doubled or tripled Salvadoran military aid despite human rights abuses – may shift to the forefront. As described by Kevin Coleman, a researcher in Honduras, this coup is also an anomoly in that the rightist, upper-classes squashed ethnic and national beefs and chose to unify around the Micheletti pro-business government.

In past Honduran coups, either one political party overthrew the other, preserving their traditional patron-client relations and taking the spoils of the state for those within their patronage network, or the military overthrew a civilian government so that it could stay in power itself, as happened multiple times during the 1960s and 70s. This, however, is the first coup by a united upper class. The Honduran business community united across party lines, deciding that it was worth severing the traditional patron-client relations that they enjoyed through their affiliation with one of the dominant parties so that they could stop Zelaya in his effort to increase the participation of common citizens in the affairs of their government while he also drew the country closer to Venezuela.

This a prospect conservatives applaud – and could spell out the ever present future of Central America.


It's bad when you need to declare that you're not about to be deposed

It's bad when you need to declare that you're not about to be deposed

Alvaro Colom, President of Guatemala, who has been dealing with some problems with executive impunity, has had to physically assert this morning that he is not in danger of being deposed. Guatemalan Defense Minister Abraham Valenzuela does not sound too convincing when he is quoted:

“The army is one of the few institutions that on a daily basis helps defend the rule of law and the country’s institutions.”

The “rule of law” a euphemism that has defined the Honduran coup, and could lead to actions against Colom, like it or not a leftist; El Salvador’s newly elected president Mauricio Funes; and increasingly undefinable relic, Nicaragua’s Daniel Ortega. The rule of law (as it must be understood in Central America, especially if the rise of militarism is to accompany future plots against elected governments) has, as John Gibler writes about Mexico,

…nothing to do with the integrity of political institutions, due process guarantees, or checks and balances between the branches of governments – no, “rule of law”… is the exercise of authority.

With that in mind, the situations look grim for Central America. This is not to say that after the peace treaties the military remained independent. In fact, there have strides to incorporate the Civil Patrols and National Guards – formerly agents of repression – into agents of national security and social good. But how quickly the military was courted into the oligarchy of Honduras; how quickly we hear of communists and Marxism once again?

In Guatemala, there is a great divide as the nation attempts to grapple with, as Diane M. Nelson puts it, “the end/s of war;” the post-war civil society. Guatemala is only thirteen years removed from a thirty-six year civil war. The seeds of that time are still bearing fruit – in positive and negative ways. Guatemala may be on the top of the list as a sizable portion of the right has come out and has recently called for the resignation of Colom due to the scandal surrounding the death of attorney Rodrigo Rosenberg. Guatemala, unlike El Salvador, did not integrate its society after the peace treaty. Today’s Guatemala is as polarized as then. The left may be able to win a national ticket, but the power resides in the wealthy (and lighter skinned) few. As long as Colom does not stray from his class and color, nothing may happen. If Guatemala pursues overtures towards Venezuela (the new Cuba of 1959) then Colom will not stand a chance. Regardless, any coup will not benefit the “87 percent majority” Indian population, still sidelined from mainstream, legitimate political representation.

Martinez witnessed the birth and death of militarism in Central America in the 1930s

Martinez witnessed the birth and death of militarism in Central America in the 1930s

El Salvador witnessed the election of, arguably, the first leftist in the countries nearly two-hundred year history. Salvador can also be considered a “real” democracy now that the FMLN, the former guerrilla conglomeration, was able to secure the presidency after four failed attempts since 1992. Yet, if history is any indicator, whose to say this doesn’t make El Salvador the most vulnerable state in Central America? The election was tight – 51 percent to 49 – proving that Salvadoran society is split. Funes has rejected, thus far, Venezuela’s encompassing orbit (although at his election FMLN supporters waved Venezuelan flags and shouted slogans in favor of Chavez) but has embraced Cuba. While in Honduras, this has proven lethal to one’s political career, Funes has an integrated military that may be weary of toppling the newly elected president.

Finally, Nicaragua has long been divided and one can only wonder how far the divisions will go until the bottom falls out. Nicaragua is the second poorest nation in Latin America (Honduras is third, Haiti is first). Daniel Ortega, whose Sandinistas will celebrate the thirtieth anniversary of its own revolution this July 19, is becoming increasingly erratic and corrupt. Much of the Sandinista revolution does not survive the new FSLN, the party that survived nearly two decades out of power beginning in 1990. The hopes of that time have been dashed – once with Reagan’s Contra War that crippled the revolution’s goals and then the lengths Ortega went, such as his stance on abortion, to get elected, which ofen went counter to the ideals of 1979. There were reports of Nicaraguan troops massing on the Honduran border (later proven false) which would indicate Ortega’s control of the military – but it may not be that easy.

In the end, it is not the individual country assessments that matter. Central America has often ebbed and flowed against one another. When General Maximiliano Hernandez Martinez overthrows elected president Arturo Arias in December of 1931, Guatemala (Ubico) Honduras (Carías) and Nicaragua (Somoza) all followed. When Hernandez Martinez fell in 1944, so did Ubico (Carías would fall in 1949; Somoza is killed in 1953 and his son is deposed by the Sandinistas in 1979). When the military (all aided by the US) decide to end democracies in the 1950s, Guatemala is the last to fall (it being the only one really born following 1944) as the CIA overthrows Jacobo Arbenz in 1954. When the Sandinistas successfully throw off Somoza Debayle in 1979, El Salvador and Guatemala renew their own struggles against military rule. When peace comes to one, peace follows to all as the 1990s showed. Free trade is extended as a group. The shift to left has been felt across the board. Will we continue the trend?

Or will we witness an attempt – like Guatemala’s attempt at democracy – thwarted before it ever came to fruition? Let us hope that militarism is defeated in the name of the democracies ruined by bombs and guns 50 years ago.

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~ by Daniel on July 12, 2009.

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