I was forced to visit the Honduran military museum in Tegucigalpa on my own after proving unable to convince any of my Honduran acquaintances that the armed forces were not sufficiently showcased on the streets. A few blocks from the parque central, the museum boasts signs denoting it as such on both sides of the building; I approached the side closest to the park and was directed by a teenage soldier to the opposite side of the building, where another teenage soldier denied that there was a museum on the premises.
The soldier nonetheless unlocked the gate for me and motioned me inside, whereupon I directed his attention to a banner listing all of the features of the museum, such as an arms exhibit and a library. He shrugged, and we stood staring at one another until two more young soldiers arrived to confirm that there was in fact a military museum but that it currently being renovated, by the military itself.
The new arrivals assured me that renovation duties would be abandoned in the event that the Honduran military needed to attend to a civil war perpetrated by Venezuelans and Cubans. When I asked them to elaborate on how a conflict pitting the Honduran military against Venezuelans and Cubans would qualify as civil, a 21-year-old soldier named Ángel replied that they all still had a lot to learn—especially the soldier who was not yet aware that the museum was a museum—and that they were being aided in their learning endeavors by the museum’s library.
Ángel had joined the Honduran armed forces upon his return from three years of prison in the United States, where his sentence for possession of false papers had been exacerbated when he attacked fellow prisoners who had reportedly tried to skewer him with a fork in the bathroom. Patting his gun as a testament to the progress he had made since then, Ángel grinningly informed me that I could do anything I put my mind to in life. He then asked me if there had ever been a book that I had been unable to put down, explained that this was a common occurrence among the Honduran military, and added that he liked to feed pigeons.
The theme of assigning non-military jobs to national armed forces surfaced once again when I ended up seated on a plane out of San Pedro Sula next to a 23-year-old US helicopter pilot, thanks to whom I now know of the existence of the term “gyroscopic procession.” The pilot, who was currently stationed at the joint US-Honduran Palmerola Air Base in the state of Comayagua, explained that he had recently returned from a mission in Costa Rica in which he had been tasked with searching for a lost hiker from Chicago. According to his analysis, the diversification of military chores may have had something to do with the wealth of the lost hiker’s family and the fact that the US military was not supposed to be cooperating with the Honduran military at the moment, as the US State Department was still determining whether or not the June 28 coup against President Mel Zelaya had been military in nature or not.
The pilot reported that the search for the hiker from Chicago had been abandoned after the hiker’s family hired a psychic to guide the helicopters, and cited other recent military chores he had participated in, such as a Black Hawk helicopter deployment to Nicaragua a few days after the coup in order to transport Nicaraguans with cataracts and other afflictions to the USNS Comfort waiting offshore. As for US collaboration with the Honduran armed forces, he explained that it currently consisted of displaying one’s ID to Honduran soldiers guarding the base at Palmerola, but that this was not in fact necessary as the guards’ guns were not loaded anyway.
According to the helicopter pilot, the lack of ammunition was a result of an incident in which an emergency vehicle was fired upon for not stopping; the Honduran military meanwhile had a different interpretation of the contents of its gun barrels, and claimed to merely shoot rubber bullets at anti-coup protesters. The pilot predicted that Honduran battle readiness would plummet even further as a result of the moratorium on military cooperation with the US, although his prediction was not as dire as that of US Ambassador to Honduras Hugo Llorens, who had declared at a meeting in August that the Palmerola base had been shut down.
Upon further questioning Llorens had conceded that US troops were still stationed at the base but that they were not talking to anyone, thus casting some doubt on the helicopter pilot’s personal account of taunting bullet-less Honduran guards before finally agreeing to show his ID. The pilot predicted another effect of current US military silence at Palmerola, which was that Honduran soldiers would no longer be able to practice jumping out of US planes and would be limited to jumping off of buildings instead. He allowed that this might in fact constitute a face-saving modification, as it would mean that the Hondurans would no longer have to be removed from trees; the shortage of Honduran military aircraft might meanwhile explain why the military is parking buses on Honduran airfields in order to prevent Zelaya’s sudden homecoming.
Prior to the cessation of bilateral military communications, the helicopter pilot informed me, the Hondurans had participated in US operations against narcoterrorist targets, although their contributions had not affected his estimate that 90 percent of narco traffic still got through to the US. The pilot was not distressed by the minimal success rate of such operations and assured me that the real US war was currently being fought in Afghanistan, a perspective apparently not shared by Honduran army commander Miguel Ángel García Padget.
In an August 5 article in La Prensa, García is reported as declaring that the most serious threat over the next 10 years is for Central America to become a breeding ground for anti-democratic military bases, by which he does not mean the current US military presence that is not talking to him but rather potential Venezuelan bases. García credits Honduras with having halted Hugo Chávez’ expansionist designs on US territory and announces that “la historia nos va a juzgar”—“history will judge us,” the optimism of which is nonetheless bested by Fidel Castro’s 1953 conviction that “la historia me absolverá.” The army commander goes on to remind Hondurans to have faith in the dignity of their armed forces and in the immortality of “that little book called the Constitution,” although he does not establish whether that little book is one of the page-turners that the Honduran military is unable to put down.
Coup general Romeo Vásquez Velásquez elaborates on military dignity elsewhere in the article, affirming that noble sentiments are being taught in all military schools but failing to specify whether the school list includes the former School of the Americas, which he himself attended twice. Vásquez’ remarks indicate that he is unaware of the opinion of the Deputy Mission Chief of the US embassy in Tegucigalpa, Simon Henshaw, who—during the same August meeting in which Ambassador Llorens declared the Palmerola Air Base shut down—had classified Honduran military troops and policemen as “extremely uneducated.” As for sentiments currently being instilled in non-military academies, the front page of the August 18 edition of La Prensa warns of indoctrination in schools nationwide.
As proof of willful coercion of pupils by teachers opposed to military coups, the paper has photographed an exam supposedly administered at a school in San Pedro Sula, which consists of fill-in-the-blank requests such as: “Hondurans have the right to_______.” The exam has been completed and graded prior to being handed over to La Prensa, which draws our attention to the X through the idea that Hondurans have the right to “democracia” when they in fact have the right to “insurección.” A different answer is provided by Honduran Air Force commander Luis Javier Prince in the August 5 La Prensa article lauding Honduran blockage of Venezuelan expansionism, who reckons that Hondurans have the right to “una sustitución presidencial.”
As for other air force employees dabbling outside their traditional range of duties, the US helicopter pilot I met on the plane in San Pedro advised me that he was en route to Fort Benning, Georgia—home to the former School of the Americas—for UFC training. Under the impression that it was stranger for me not to know what the Ultimate Fighting Championship was than for him not to know who Romeo Vásquez Velásquez was, he patiently outlined the martial arts organization for me and explained that he would be importing grappling techniques to Palmerola Air Base.
I joked that the Honduran military would presumably not be invited to the training sessions based on the moratorium on inter-military communications. The helicopter pilot reminded me that the physical size of Honduran soldiers was not compatible with certain sports and made a crushing motion with his hand, which does not constitute an auspicious beginning to the historical judgment that the Honduran armed forces are awaiting from history.
First published in Narco News, 7 September 2009