An Interview with Honduran Coup General Romeo Vásquez Velásquez
When I arrived last week at the headquarters of the joint chiefs of staff of the Honduran military in Comayagüela—twin city of Tegucigalpa, the capital of Honduras—I was informed that General Romeo Vásquez Velásquez had been delayed in a meeting at the presidential palace with coup president Roberto Micheletti who, according to Vásquez’ aide-de-camp could “not be rushed.” The general, head of the armed forces that had carried out the June 28 coup against President Manuel “Mel” Zelaya, was said to be finalizing security preparations for the scheduled electoral process of November 29; the infeasibility of rushing Micheletti was meanwhile suggested by the fact that after 5 months he had still not come up with a way of legitimizing the elections.
I had started to suspect over the past few weeks that the Honduran military had adopted the delaying tactics of their political counterparts when my communications with the aide-de-camp, Colonel Wilfredo García Rodríguez, for the purpose of procuring an interview with Vásquez had begun to consist of García answering the phone and promptly hanging up.
Around November 10 García ceased hanging up and it was decided that I could email him my proposed interview questions for review, which meant that they had to be organized around traditional euphemisms for the coup against Zelaya such as “the events of 28 June” and “the presidential succession.”
I arrived to military headquarters in Comayagüela and was first placed in a waiting room outside the main building, where a lone soldier shrugged when I asked why he was listening to anti-coup radio and where available reading materials included a magazine highlighting the battle readiness of the Colombian armed forces and congratulating Israel on 60 years of existence.
I was eventually escorted into the building, where it was decided that it was not necessary for me to display any sort of identification. Deposited in the anteroom of Vásquez’ office, sparsely decorated with yellow couches and curtains, I acquired new reading materials showcasing the functions of the Honduran armed forces aside from executing coups, such as protecting the forests.
García appeared suddenly with a broad smile and the remark that he had expected me to be “old and fat,” although he denied that this was his motive for continuously hanging up on me. Emptying his pockets of a host of cellular and cordless phones, which he scattered across one of the couches, García indicated that he could not even keep track of the number of telephones he was in charge of, much less the people who called them; the credibility of the claim increased when during a tour of his office García discovered additional phones in a drawer and added them to his pockets.
The tour also included a meeting room with a long table and an amateurish painting on the wall featuring a battle coordination scene, in which García requested that I identify his likeness and I guessed the camouflaged figure clutching the telephone.
Vásquez’ delayed arrival meant that García and I had 2 hours in between phone calls to discuss such themes as how the colonel had once seen Jennifer López in person, how the weather in Fort Benning, Georgia—home of the former School of the Americas (SOA)—was similar to the weather in Honduras, and how the colonel’s studies in the Dominican Republic had led him to the conclusion that Dominicans spoke barely intelligible Spanish because they were negros, a term for which he provided the English translation “niggers” in case there was any confusion. Extensive international training conducted by the Honduran armed forces had nonetheless not prevented Simon Henshaw, Deputy Mission Chief at the US embassy in Tegucigalpa, from classifying them at a human rights discussion in August as “extremely uneducated.”
Vásquez would respond later that afternoon to Henshaw’s classification with the explanation that the free and democratic nature of Honduras enabled people to express whatever opinion they wanted, despite the fact that Henshaw’s comment had been in reaction to military and police methods of dealing with peaceful crowds expressing themselves against the coup. As for persons exercising freedom of expression vis-à-vis Dominicans, García assured me that the general was even nobler than he, with an even bigger heart, and wanted to know what I had heard about Vásquez.
When “good things” was not deemed a sufficient answer, I said I had heard the general was a very religious man, which was merely what Vásquez had consistently said about himself, confessing to the daily La Tribuna that prior to 28 June 28 he had been prepared to retire to a quiet family life but that god had made alternate arrangements. Whether god had made these arrangements all on his own was of course called into question by an El Heraldo interview with Vásquez that had also occurred prior to June 28, in which Vásquez responded to the question of where he visualized himself in 10 years by saying: “Well… I might be the president of Honduras, ha, ha, ha, ha… Anything is possible.”
The general arrived a little after 4 p.m. and was greeted enthusiastically by García while I was left with the moral quandary of having been kissed on the cheek by the perpetrator of the Honduran coup. 52 years old and dressed in fatigues, the diminutive Vásquez led me to his office, which consisted of predictable items such as artwork depicting Jesus Christ and a wine rack and less predictable items such as a book about Western Sahara on his desk. The presence of the latter, it turned out, was not part of a research project to determine appropriate exile destinations for Zelaya but rather a result of Honduran military participation in the United Nations Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara.
As for parts of the world in which illegitimate elections had been deemed preferable to referenda, Vásquez declared that the current mission of the Honduran military in Honduras was to prevent violence on November 29. Seating himself in a chair to my right, Vásquez rejected suggestions by the anti-coup Resistance that the elections would be characterized by sangre y fuego—blood and fire—with the argument that “there will always be people who want to attain power through ways other than the proper way of being elected.” It was not clear whether Vásquez understood the implications of his assertion given that Zelaya had been elected and Micheletti had not, and given the Resistance’s assumption, based on recent trends, that blood and fire would be initiated by the Honduran military and police.
Other sorts of fire were reported on November 13, when the Honduran media hype for the day consisted of an alleged explosion the night before in the vicinity of the warehouse where election materials were being stored. The initial story was that the explosive device had been launched from a passing aircraft; when it was eventually conceded that the aircraft in question had been a TACA Airlines flight arriving from Guatemala, the explosion was instead blamed on an RPG—a weapon the Honduran police had determined was only possessed by the army of Nicaragua despite the fact that they were still unable to determine where exactly the explosion had taken place.
Vásquez nonetheless blamed the practice of inventing things on opponents of the coup: “They try to create fictitious scenes in order to make the world think that Honduras is in the midst of conflict, right? And as you can see since you are in Honduras, we are not in conflict at the moment; we have simply had problems with regard to the law.” I refrained from elaborating on what I had seen in Honduras, such as the October burial of union leader Jairo Sánchez, who had gone into a coma after being shot in the face by police; Sánchez’ niece had informed me at the cemetery that the police had subsequently denied the existence of the bullet.
Legality factored heavily into Vásquez’ outline of the events leading up to June 28, in which he stressed that the refusal of the military to follow Zelaya’s orders to retrieve public opinion survey materials from the Air Force base outside Tegucigalpa was “not because the armed forces didn’t want to carry out the mission but rather that we simply couldn’t because we had to uphold the rule of law.” The supposed illegality of complying with orders from the commander in chief of the military had been determined, according to Vásquez, by “all of the judges”—meaning the Honduran Supreme Court of Justice—and other entities such as the Attorney General’s Office, the Public Prosecutor’s Office, and the College of Lawyers. The general stressed that all of these institutions had been consulted by the armed forces in their search for “a peaceful solution to the crisis” of what to do about the survey, which he attributed to “part of an international project commanded by Hugo Chávez via countries belonging to the ALBA [Bolivarian Alternative for Latin America].” Vásquez nonetheless maintained that the Honduran armed forces were not ideologically motivated—possessing, rather, “a very flexible mentality because the world is changing”—and refrained from mentioning that Micheletti had endorsed Honduras’ ALBA debut.
Military acceptance of global change apparently did not extend to the artículos pétreos of the Honduran Constitution of 1982—the articles that were not permitted to be reformed, such as those prohibiting the reelection of presidents and the presidential candidature of the current vice-president and congressional president. Intermittent institutional flexibility with regard to reforming these articles had however been exhibited by the Supreme Court of Justice which, despite determining that potential modifications to the Constitution in accordance with the aspirations of the Honduran populace was unconstitutional, had nonetheless determined that Micheletti could run in the presidential primaries of 2008 even though he was the president of Congress. Micheletti’s superior flexibility had additionally been observed in 1985 when as a Congress member he attempted to prolong the presidency of Roberto Suazo Córdova; more successful Constitutional sleights of hand meanwhile consisted of the fact that Elvin Santos, the current Liberal Party candidate for president, served as vice-president in the Zelaya administration.
As for Article 102 of the Constitution prohibiting the forced expatriation of any Honduran citizen, Vásquez responded to my question of why Micheletti had announced that the decision to remove Zelaya from the country had been incorrect by saying that the military respected the coup president’s opinion but that he should understand that “what we did was based on humanitarian considerations.” According to the general, had Zelaya not been expatriated “he would have been taken to a military facility… and his followers would have gone to take him out of there just as they did at the Air Force base”—where they had however been retrieving survey materials neglected by the armed forces, not retrieving a captured president—“which could have caused a lot of deaths, including his [Zelaya’s] own.”
Vásquez did not explain who would have been perpetrating such deaths as Zelaya’s followers presumably would not have killed him, and was similarly noncommittal in his explanation of civilian deaths at Toncontín Airport and on the Honduras-Nicaraguan border during the president’s two failed attempts at repatriation: “Confrontations between protesters and other groups tend to create violence and cause deaths.” The identity of the other groups could be narrowed down by a consideration of who besides protesters was generally present at protests; as for why Costa Rica was the traditional destination for victims of Honduran military coups, de facto Honduran defense minister Adolfo Lionel Sevilla had opined that Zelaya had simply wanted to go there.
At a October 5 press conference at the presidential palace with Florida Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, Micheletti had professed to be “sure” that the judicial process against the sectors responsible for Zelaya’s removal from the country was already underway. More expedient judicial processes however included the Supreme Court of Justice’s restitution of Vásquez as head of the joint chiefs of staff on 25 June, one day after Zelaya had dismissed him for refusing to follow orders with regards to the survey materials—which Vásquez told me had not been a refusal but rather a respectful request “that he give us an order that was constitutional.” The general’s grasp of the proceedings was then partially cast into doubt with his assertion that Defense Minister Edmund Orellana had also been dismissed, as Orellana had in fact resigned.
Additional inconsistencies in perspective included Vásquez’ proclamation that the “goal of the military at the moment is the protection of life” and that “human life is the priority of the state,” a position contradicted not only by Honduran and international human rights groups. iRegarding Vásquez’ position that “no Honduran is above the law,” meanwhile, this appeared to be at odds not only with his enthusiasm at the prospect of illegitimate elections but also with military disregard for Article 102 of the Constitution.
Despite Vásquez’ allegation that Zelaya’s intended public opinion survey was part of a project spearheaded by Chávez, he refrained from directly specifying the provenance of the survey materials: “I don’t know where they came from, only that they came through El Salvador.” Other characters who had pleaded ignorance of all but the Salvadoran portion of travel trajectories included Salvadoran President Mauricio Funes, who following Zelaya’s return to Honduras claimed to have no details of the event beyond Zelaya’s stopover at the San Salvador airport. Andrés Pavón, president of the Committee for the Defense of Human Rights in Honduras, suggested to me several weeks ago that the reappearance of the Honduran president had been a sign of weakness on the part of the Honduran armed forces; Army commander Miguel Ángel García Padgett had meanwhile denied military weakness on the Frente a Frente television program in August when he announced that the Honduran military had succeeded in halting the spread of socialism.
According to García, socialism disguised as democracy had up until June 28 been en route to the “heart of the United States,” which he declared already had enough to deal with given organized crime and narcotrafficking problems on the US-Mexican border. Different forms of democratic disguise had been implied by Víctor Meza, Zelaya’s lead negotiator in talks with the coup government, who in a 2007 essay outlined the tendency of powerful Honduran economic groups to place their relatives and allies in key political positions; Vásquez had meanwhile tempered García’s condemnation of socialism by reminding the Frente a Frente audience of the flexible mentality of the armed forces when it came to ideological varieties, and by denying to me that the decision to remove Zelaya was an altruistic move designed to ease the stress imposed on the global superpower—although he did agree with the threat that narcotrafficking posed to the region as a whole.
Vásquez declared that it was “obvious that the political conflict in this country would be exploited by narcotraffickers” and argued that exploitation had been facilitated by the fact that “basic international cooperation” against the movement of drugs “had been reduced almost to zero,” leaving Honduras to “face the narcotrafficking threat alone.” Ileana Ros-Lehtinen had seconded Vásquez’ assessment by claiming during her October 5 visit to Tegucigalpa that narcotraffickers would use international isolation of Honduras in order to strike at the US; less devastating results were, however, suggested by the fact that US troops stationed at the joint Honduras-US Soto Cano Air Base in Comayagua continued to perform their anti-narcotic duties independent of the Honduran military.
According to a conversation I had in September with a Black Hawk helicopter pilot stationed at Soto Cano, Honduran soldiers had never been instrumental in such operations, anyway, and had proved more adept at getting stuck in trees while practicing jumping out of planes—a phenomenon that had been temporarily suspended in the post-coup period given that the planes had to be borrowed from the US. Vásquez confirmed that Honduras had few resources, especially when compared with the “unlimited resources” possessed by drug runners and regularly displayed in Honduran newspapers. The front-page headline of the October 25 edition of El Heraldo, for example, proclaimed that a “Narco-plane cemetery” had been discovered in the region of Mosquitia; the corresponding article included a photograph of what appeared to be a patch of dirt, grass, and household light bulbs, with the following caption: “The area has also been used as a secret landing strip. Here is the evidence.”
Similar varieties of evidence are found in the popular pro-coup claim that narco-plane activity in Honduras had subsided while Zelaya was in exile but resumed upon his reentry, as though it was possible to convert the Brazilian embassy in Tegucigalpa into an air control tower when it was not even possible to engage in jamming-free cell phone communications with people inside the building. As for other kinds of interference, Vásquez denied that the military and police had ever played irritating music in the environs of the embassy at early hours of the morning but professed to understand why the embassy inhabitants would register such complaints: “They are saying a lot of things because the situation they are in is difficult and complex, and they have to continue blaming all the bad things that happen to them on someone else”—which appears to be an even more logical practice when the “someone else” being blamed for the bad things is the one actually committing them.
Vásquez went on to contend that any music occurring in the vicinity of the Brazilian embassy was a result of “normal things, like for example the birthday of a soldier or policeman,” in which case the birthday song “‘Las Mañanitas’ is sung… but it’s in the street, right? [Laughing] And ‘Las Mañanitas’ is with a guitar, right? But it’s in the street and not inside [the embassy]. And there is no order to harm [the occupants] in any way… We are soldiers but we are not people who want to hurt anybody.”
The final assertion, which would presumably be questioned by coup opponents who had been on the receiving end of military-induced cigarette burns, was upheld by de facto defense minister Sevilla, who proclaimed on October 21 —Armed Forces Day—that Zelaya should thank god he was on the receiving end of music and not bombs as was the custom in other countries. As for countries with similarly beneficent attitudes, Sevilla did not explain whether “Las Mañanitas” had also been the theme of the US serenade of Panamanian leader Manuel Noriega at the Vatican embassy in Panama City in 1990; a visit to the Brazilian embassy in Tegucigalpa on the afternoon of 21 October meanwhile revealed obstacles to the flow of information in Honduran military channels when soldiers told me that no music whatsoever had ever been played in the vicinity of the building and that even Armed Forces Day celebrations were merely taking place inside their own hearts.
I had been surprised to discover on the morning of October 21 that it was Armed Forces Day, as I had been under the impression that the very same holiday had just been celebrated in September. Cursory research revealed that the September celebration had merely been the Day of the Soldier, which to its credit had lasted only a single 24-hour period; a more liberal interpretation of the word “day” was enjoyed by the later celebration, which continued until October 26.
The holiday was celebrated by La Tribuna in a 12-page section commemorating the fifty-third anniversary of the Honduran armed forces, page 5 of which highlighted the military declaration of October 21,1956, explaining that it was due to a great sense of duty that the armed forces had not been able to “remain indifferent to the aspirations of the Honduran people” and that “the greatest desire of the armed forces of Honduras [wa]s the return of the country to constitutional normality.” The continuity of Honduran military vocabulary throughout time was rendered even more significant by the fact that 21 October 1956 was the date of the military coup against Julio Lozano Díaz.
At our interview Vásquez categorized the 1956 events—which he had lauded as the date of the armed forces’ “birth as a professional institution” in the Tribuna commemoration—as a “coup d’état,” and explained that the military had been required to intervene in order to rectify Lozano’s accumulation of absolute power, just as the current armed forces had been called on almost 5 months previously. He nonetheless rejected the possibility of lauding the current coup as a coup, claiming that “[i]n this case it is different because… the order to act was delivered to the military by the Supreme Court of Justice” and that “there has not been a constitutional interruption but rather a constitutional succession, since the powers of the state—the executive power, etc.—have continued functioning.” The argument that there has not in fact been a constitutional interruption in Honduras calls into question the necessity of the coup in the first place; the term “functioning” is meanwhile called into question by the recent decision on the part of the de facto executive power to give itself a week of vacation from the presidency.
Vásquez assured me that “we are very democratic soldiers” and that “we want liberty and we ourselves guarantee the liberty in this country, right, because if there wasn’t such [an amount of] liberty there wouldn’t be so many people going around doing things they shouldn’t be doing, like insulting people, dirtying walls [with graffiti], setting buildings on fire, etc, etc… In fact, there is probably too much liberty [here].”
As for the spiritual side of the armed forces, Vásquez explained that “religiously devoted armies are generally the ones that win,” which raised the issue of why Army commander García was concerned about halting the spread of socialism northward when Rear Admiral Juan Pablo Rodríguez had decreed that said ideology did not allow any space for god. According to Rodríguez, the exclusion of god was undemocratic, with proof of Honduran commitments to democracy consisting of the admiral’s statement that god was “on our side.” This same divine alignment with democracy had been threatened by Micheletti in the event of a foreign invasion of Honduras to impede elections; Vásquez meanwhile commented to me that spiritual devotion by bellicose men had been a historical constant: “Even when they did not know god the pagan kings made sacrifices when going to war; I mean, they had faith in someone.”
Vásquez’ personal faith had been put on display in recent weeks when he appeared on television clutching a crucifix at a commemorative mass on Armed Forces Day. The general explained to me that Honduran military training instilled three different feelings in the soldiers: “profound love for god, profound love for the patria, and profound love for… for… the people, the population.” Vásquez’ momentary difficulty in recalling the third profound love was rectified in an interview with El Heraldo in which he professed that what made him proudest was helping the needy of Honduras; also professed in the interview was that his family “depends on loans from the bank” but that his wife’s family “does have a lot of land,” a claim that was somewhat buttressed by El Tiempo’s definition of Vásquez as being “known as a prominent rancher in the department of Olancho.” The general’s definition of the Honduran armed forces as a “serious institution” was meanwhile called into question by the fact that he waited until I had turned off my tape recorder to suggest that he could have two wives.
Other kinds of Honduran military training aside from the inculcation of the three profound loves included Vásquez’ stints at the School of the Americas, where he told me the course he had most enjoyed was on civil-military relations—which it turned out was not merely an SOA code name for military repression of civilians. Vásquez explained that civil-military relations in Honduras were sometimes complicated “given the complexity of the actions” undertaken by certain politicians, with complexity on the part of Zelaya having led Vásquez to adopt the phrase: “Friendship ends where duty begins.”
According to Vásquez, duty had begun due to the fact that “we are in the twenty-first century” and that power should be pursued by legal means. The implication that Zelaya had determined to remain eternal president of Honduras was of course contradicted by the proposed public opinion survey question of June 28 —which was not “Should Zelaya be appointed eternal president of Honduras?” but rather “Are you in favor of installing a separate ballot box at the 29 November elections such that citizens might vote on the whether or not to convene a national constituent assembly to rewrite the Constitution?”—as well as by Zelaya’s ineligibility to run in said elections in the first place.
Vásquez’ argument that national constituent assemblies can be convened “only when there has been an interruption of the constitutional order” does not include an explanation of why dissatisfaction with the current constitutional order on the part of the majority of the populace does not suffice to delegitimize it. The head of the Honduran armed forces may have found himself in a new century, but so has the determination to extinguish popular will.
BELÉN FERNÁNDEZ can be reached at email@example.com.