Honduran military: An institution against democracy?

This year's Day of the Soldier celebrations in Honduras got a mixed response. The military is now seen as tarnished by its role in the ouster of President Manuel Zelaya.

Henry Romero / Reuters
Honduras' interim President Roberto Micheletti shakes hands with soldiers as part of a military ceremony to commemorate Soldiers Day at the Presidential House in Tegucigalpa on Saturday.

With rifle shots into the air and the national anthem sung by soldiers in salute, Saturday's Day of the Soldier in Honduras seemed no different than any other year's commemorations for the armed forces.

But this Oct. 3, after the June ouster of President Manuel Zelaya catapulted the Honduran military into the middle of a political saga, the customary congratulations from Honduran citizens are more muted.

"I always defended the military; I never let anyone speak badly of it," says Justo Galo, who formed part of the military for five years in the early 80s. But when he woke up on June 28 and heard that the military had flown Mr. Zelaya out of the country, his lifelong views took a hard turn. "Now I see them as an institution that is killing democracy."

When Zelaya was removed from office, it was the military that arrested him and the military that deposed him. As Zelaya protesters have taken to the streets in protest, soldiers and police have been condemned by human rights groups for excessive force, beatings, and arbitrary detentions.

Military was popular, respected

Leticia Salomon, a sociologist and military specialist at the National Autonomous University of Honduras, says that until now, the military had enjoyed popularity in recent years. There have been no recent coups, little repression, and no more draft.

According to the most recent national report on corruption, the military ranked as one of the highest regarded institutions in 2006 surveys, just below the church and international aid organizations.

Ms. Salomon says that has undoubtedly changed. "The people had not looked at the military as the enemy, but since June 28 that image has taken a beating," she says.

The Day of the Soldier commemorates the birth of Francisco Morazan, one of the most important generals in Central America who was born in Tegucigalpa in 1792.

A 'coup in our home'

On Saturday, 200-some soldiers lined up outside the presidential palace, where interim President Roberto Micheletti thanked them for their dedication and sacrifice and family members looked on lovingly. "It has been difficult. It has been a coup in our home," says Gissela Munguia, whose husband, a lieutenant colonel, spent most of July on duty as well as the last two weeks, after Zelaya returned to Honduras and sought refuge in the Brazilian embassy. "But we are so proud of him."

Those in support of Zelaya´s ouster say the Day of the Solider is particularly significant this year given the work they are carrying out to protect a nation polarized by politics. "[Zelaya] supporters are vandals," says taxi driver Jose Rigoberto Cruz. "The poor soldiers must be so tired."

Not all look to them with thanks, however. Salomon says there are new calls to demilitarize Honduras, as neighboring Costa Rica did. (In 1949, Costa Rican President José Figueres abolished the army, and enshrined the change in the Constitution. The country has only police and Coast Guard as security forces.)

In Honduras now, many equate soldiers with "coup mongers." Those with mixed feelings about the ouster of Zelaya resent, and even fear, the heavy military presence in the country. Outside the Brazilian embassy, where soldiers guard every street leading to the complex, residents complain that the response is exaggerated for a single man and a slew of supporters with no weapons.

And for men like Mr. Galo, the Day of the Soldier is nothing to celebrate. Instead it is something, he says, that now makes him feel shame.

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