Economy & Trade, Headlines, Latin America & the Caribbean

HONDURAS: Soldier, Sailor…Airport Builder?

Thelma Mejía

TEGUCIGALPA, Jun 2 2009 (IPS) - Civilian tasks carried out by the Honduran armed forces seem to have overtaken their traditional role of defending the country and, in the past, quelling internal dissent. As well as engaging in mosquito control and forest protection, soldiers are now building a commercial airport.

A decade ago, the armed forces began to take part in sanitation work and environmental protection to improve their image, which had been seriously damaged during the Cold War, when Central America was torn by dictatorships and leftwing guerrillas. Now President Manuel Zelaya has charged them with building a civilian air terminal at the Palmerola military base, in the central Comayagua valley.

A United States military contingent stationed at the site of the new airport for the last 26 years, which has shrunk from 1,200 men in the 1980s to 300 in the past decade, reflected the national security doctrine implanted by Washington in Latin America in the 1970s and 1980s.

But the assignment of this new role to the military has raised strong criticism within the armed forces, now in an enviable third place among the country’s most credible institutions according to local polls and international studies. The first place is occupied by Catholic and evangelical churches, followed by the media.

The recovery of the image of the armed forces is the result of a modernisation plan and new defence policy aimed at removing the stigma they had previously earned as a result of corruption and human rights violations.

The government has also drawn criticism over the airport construction plans because it allegedly authorised 12.5 million dollars for the work by means of unjustified emergency decrees, in contravention of the laws on state procurement, acquisitions and tendering procedures.

The funds came from agreements between the Honduran government and Venezuela within the framework of the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas (ALBA), a leftwing bloc made up of Honduras along with Bolivia, Cuba, Dominica, Nicaragua and Venezuela.

Honduran Defence Minister Edmundo Orellana told IPS that the new functions entrusted to the armed forces “are normal, and we hope to inaugurate flights from this, the country’s fifth air terminal, by the end of 2009.”

“I don’t know what people are afraid of,” he said.

Orellana denied that the military are straying from their role of defence of national sovereignty and said “there are other demands that they can fulfil. There is nothing to fear. As part of the other work they can do, the country deserves a high-quality international airport,” he said.

The Palmerola air base is 70 kilometres from Tegucigalpa, and its main runway is 2,666 metres long and 50 metres wide.

The Zelaya administration’s decision to authorise the new airport arose from a recent airplane crash at Toncontín, the country’s main airport in Tegucigalpa, which left four people dead and about 60 injured. An official report said it was caused by pilot error.

Toncontín, located in the heart of the capital city, is surrounded by mountains which make landing difficult.

Political analyst Efraín Díaz Arrivillaga said it is incomprehensible “that, having a Secretariat of Public Works, Transport and Housing, this job should be given to the military.”

“I have the impression that the armed forces are becoming seriously politicised, a process that not only distances them from their traditional functions, but may undermine the credibility they have gained,” he told IPS.

“Over the last year we have seen the military being given a series of roles that do not contribute to their institution, nor to the work of defending national sovereignty and territory. This building work is within the competence of the civil administration, not the military,” he said.

In November 2008, the armed forces refused to fulfil their constitutional duty to provide security for political party primary elections held to choose presidential candidates for the November 2009 general elections, saying they were “tired” by their emergency work in flooded areas. The primaries had to be postponed, and concerns were raised about military functions.

And in January they were dragged into an ongoing year-long conflict between the government and parliament, to the point that lawmakers accused them of conspiring to interfere with the institutional order when Congress was preparing to elect a new Supreme Court.

Both governing party and opposition lawmakers complained to the Attorney General’s Office that troops were waiting near Congress to respond to the executive branch’s call if a new Supreme Court could not be elected.

Although the armed forces denied the allegations, their explanations were not convincing. In the view of Jesuit priest Ismael Moreno, the political role they are being given appears to be part of “a government that has loaded itself with booty and that now, with the end of its term approaching and new elections coming up, wishes to stay on beyond its four-year mandate, with no clear sense of direction except to secure more power.”

Moreno told IPS that the government’s erratic behaviour is enveloping many sectors, including leftwing parties with scant popular backing. This coopting action, he said, reflects the government’s interest in carrying out a referendum to change the constitution and the system of government.

The referendum, due to take place in late June, has had the country up in arms for the past month, because it is alleged to be illegal and unconstitutional.

Centre-left President Zelaya maintains that a new constitution is urgently needed “for the rebirth of the country and so that we can improve human development indices in the short term.”

The armed forces have been caught in the crossfire between those who defend the current constitution and those who are pushing for a new one, and the announcement that they are to be entrusted with building the Palmerola airport, using millions of dollars in discretionary funds, has ratcheted up tensions.

According to the Social Forum on External Debt (FOSDEH), the defence budget increased from 47.3 million dollars in 2005 to 62.4 million dollars in 2008. Officers consulted by IPS admitted that no other government has treated them “so well” in recent years.

Members of the business community, politicians and religious leaders have exhorted the armed forces to stay out of the conflicts and confrontations between the executive and legislative branches that have arisen from the referendum.

In response the head of the armed forces, General Romero Vásquez, said the military will respect the constitution and live up to its duty to be obedient and apolitical. Meanwhile, the Supreme Audit Court announced that it will investigate the government’s “direct” transfer of funds to the military without proper accountability.

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