Typologies of military rule, types of coup and the Honduran sub-type.

The thread on the post about the Honduran coup made me realise that there is much misapprehension about coups and military regimes. I shall attempt to clarify the key terms and concepts involved.

Coups are the forcible resolution of a conflict between elites. They stem from the failure to resolve said conflicts within civilian institutional boundaries. They are not revolutions.

Revolutions are mass-based armed collective action leading to parametric change in society. Parametric change involves fundamental economic, social and political change beyond the change of regime. Revolutions are mass mobilisational; coups are demobilisational. In the 20th and early 21st century the only regimes overthrown by armed revolutions have been oligarchic authoritarian, with the collapse of the Eastern bloc being a mix of mass based collective resistance (not always armed) mixed with elite fracture in favour of reform. Hence they have been called by some scholars “peaceful revolutions,” although there is considerable debate about the authenticity of their revolutionary character. No democracy has been overthrown by a revolution (although some have been created by them), but many a democracy has  fallen to a coups.

Coups can be hard or soft depending on the amount of mass mobilization preceding the coup and the degree of repression involved in the military intervention. The equation is simple: The more there is mass based collective action, particularly armed collective violence, the harsher the coup. The harsher coup, the more militarised the state will become after the coup, and the higher the degree of repression of regime opponents. Thus student riots, middle class demonstrations and wildcat strikes will invite a modicum of repression, whereas guerrilla attacks or civil war will invite a far more deadly form of military intervention.

Military rule has two variants: ruler and arbitrator (or mediator) military regimes. Ruler military regimes are rule by the military as an institution, with a defined ideological project and no time limit on their tenure in power. The ideological project has specified economic, social and political objectives, which means that ruler militaries often have a specific class coalition underpinning them. The Latin American military-bureaucratic authoritarians of the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s were allied with the export bourgeoisie, finance capital and foreign MNCs (as examples think of the Pinochet regime in Chile or the Argentine, Guatemalan or El Salvadorean  juntas of the 1960s and 1970s), whereas the Arab military developmentalist regimes of the 1950s through the 1990s were allied with the secular domestic bourgeoisie and urban working classes (think Nassar in Egypt, Saddam Hussein in Iraq and post-Kemalist Turkey prior to 1980). The Burmese junta is a contemporary example. Note that although civilians may be present in ruler military regimes, and they may even have parties, parliaments and civilian courts as legitimating facades, it is the military as an institution that ultimately governs.

Ruler military regimes often come to power after their prior failures as arbitrator military regimes. Arbitrator military regimes only intervene in politics in order to restore a broken institutional order after a period of conflict. The military approach to intervention is much like a “time out” given by parents to bickering children, although in this case the bickering is between civilian elites and their political representatives. The arbitrator military sets a time table for withdrawal from power and demands that the civilian elites put their political house in order less there be a more severe intervention down the road. The military has no ideological project of its own and prefers to return to its security functions sooner rather than later, understanding that the major internal problem of being in government is erosion of its combat skills (which is the Achilles Heel of ruler militaries that stay in power for extended periods of time, since rather than training for combat, officers become military bureaucrats whose major activity is issuing edicts, writing memos and answering the phone. That invites attack by adversaries).

For much of its recent modern history Honduras has been governed by ruler military regimes (following on oligarchic rule in the 19th and early 20th centuries). After the installation of democracy it has attempted to professionalise in order to better serve the national defense (and recalling that it lost the soccer war with El Salvador). In the 1980s the US cast a blind eye on the counter-insurgency campaign conducted against local Marxist and Maoist guerrillas in exchange for allowing the stationing of counter-revolutionary forces and US advisors on the border with Nicaragua. The US currently maintains a military force of 600 troops (mostly special operations and counter-narcotics detachments) at a Honduran military air base in Soto Cano. In the 1990s the US pushed hard on the Honduran military to remove itself from politics altogether, making a variety of military assistance programs contingent upon it doing so. Until a week ago the Honduran high command upheld its end of the bargain.

It should be noted that in a small country like Honduras the elite is very interbred. Military commanders are related by blood to political leaders, high ranking clergy, large landowning families and the rising urban noveau riche. The officer corps cannot escape, even at dinner conversations, the bickering of politicians and other influential civilians. Thus the pull on them to intervene emanating from these civilians is unusually strong, and almost always in favour of protecting elite interests against “socialist” threats.

The current coup is, therefore, a variant or sub-type of the arbitrator military regime. The military removed President Zelaya and his government and allowed the installation of his designated civilian successor (and opponent), Roberto Micheletti, after Congressional and Supreme Court requests to do so. It maintains a strong presence on the streets of Tegucigalpa and the border regions, but has not resorted to blanket repression, arrest, detention and murder of Zelaya supporters (although some deaths in clashes have been reported), nor has it imposed a state of siege (although a state of emergency is in force). It has not militarised the state apparatus, has not assumed a larger governmental role,  and other than on specifically security-related matters, prefers to have the new civilian government do the talking. The speed in which it intervened and withdrew is a novel twist on the arbitrator military story. By all measures this has been a relatively benign coup.

But a coup is a coup, and by the standards of the OAS and international community in general, an illegal usurpation of the popular will as expressed through regular elections and civilian political institutions. Therefore, the military command should have resisted the move (and civilian entreties), as military upholding of the constitution means simply to abide by it, not necessarilly act as the guarantor of its enforcement. It will now be interesting to see how the political negotiations over Zelaya’s fate work out, but whatever the outcome and whether Zelaya is allowed to return to Honduras or not, he is finished as president. The one good thing to take from this political farce is that the Honduran military command apparently underestands, even if only out of self-interest, that its days as a ruler military are as over as are Zelaya’s dreams of re-election.

9 thoughts on “Typologies of military rule, types of coup and the Honduran sub-type.

  1. Thanks David, I appreciate your interest. I am just trying to add conceptual depth to the discussion.

  2. Pablo – Having read all the last thread and this one I am perplexed.

    dictionary definition of a coup d’etat – ” a sudden decisive exercise of force in politics ; especially : the violent overthrow or alteration of an existing government by a small group”

    What we have in Honduras is the legal removal of a president by the military. Legal because it was authorised by the Supreme court and supported by Congress.

    What I find interesting is your condemnation despite understanding the context so well. You are not alone. It seems the entire international community has reacted the same way. Fake outrage and a misunderstanding and subsequent misrepresentation of the constitutional and legal context.

    There was no coup. The military was simply enforcing the legitimate rule of law. There will be a democratic election at the earliest opportunity (November). How is that so controversial?
    You yourself stated that the military has a more significant internal focus than other more advanced democracies.

    I think your and liberal antipathy to the military in general has lead the world down the completely wrong path.

  3. should we not be at least a little bit concerned about military intervention in the domestic politics of a country, especially a country in a region where there is a notable history of the employment of military force to stifle dissent and crush internal opposition.

    a healthy civil society simply does not have the military intervene in political affairs unless (as pablo has outlined) there has been significant institutional breakdown. i think the coup in honduras would be better read as a symptom of such breakdown rather than an attempt to avert it.

    it would seem to me that the honduran congress, courts etc would have done better to work through this crisis through institutional channels than solve it by armed force.

  4. clearly i’m sleepy and confused. a healthy civil society is by definition one which does not suffer from ‘significant institutional breakdown,’ and the kind of society where there is significant institutional breakdown is the kind of society where coups occur.

    whether or not a coup is justified still depends on whether the government has made a major assault on democratic institutions. i guess it’s up to your own personal judgment to decide whether there has been an assault on democratic institutions in honduras such as to justify the removal by force of an elected president, or whether the actions of the president that might be interpreted in that way were enough to justify the action of congress, the courts and the military in removing him from power.

    i think not, personally.

  5. jcuknz: That is not my read of the opinion piece. It is just a slam on all Honduran politicians. Plus, the Heraldo is known to be conservative mouthpiece, so I will take its views with a grain of salt.

    Phil: You appear to have misread much of the two posts, which strikes me as a reflection of your biases rather than mine.

  6. A good analysis, but your accuracy is somewhat astray. The contention that no democracy has fallen to a revolution can be questioned, for example both the Nazis and Fascists overthrew democracies in a revolutionary manner which included a mass mobilisation of a large proportion of the people, backed by power elites. What this indicates is that liberalism and the left have no monopoly on revolutions.

    In the case of “socialist” and “Maoist” movements in Central America I contend that their politics have more to do with indigenous resistance to colonial elites than to adherence to European political ideologies. Their struggle is as old as the first Spaniard to arrive. I am uncertain how these movements view the concepts of democracy or capitalism, I can safetly assume that their ongoing fight indicates they have indigenous values they must value.

  7. Nick: The fascist takeovers in Italy, Germany and Spain are examples of what are known as “passive revolutions.” These are regime changes that have a quasi revolutionary appearance in that they involve mass collective action, but they are designed to preserve the traditional status quo rather than overthrow it via full parametric change. They are therefore not genuine social revolutions such as what I have described above. German and Italian fascists sought to preserve the capitalist state in the face of Marxist challenges; Franco sought to preserve the Catholic, monarchical state in the face of secular progressive challenges. In all cases the putsch came from within the state, rather than from without it.

    Latin America has a long history of what is known as indigenous socialism. In the 1930s the term was coined by the Peruvian Marxist theoretician Carlos Mariategui. In his view, the emphasis was on indigenous forms of socialism (as opposed to European imports), rather than Indian-focused praxis. In the 1990s indigenous socialism re-emerged as a response to neoliberalism, with the emphasis now placed on indigenous issues rather than socialism per se. That is where the notion of “popular” or “participatory” democracy emerged from. Unfortunately the latter have come to be associated with Chavez’s brand of populism, which is what Zelaya was accused of attempting to institute in Honduras. Hence the move against him by a self-identified arbitrator military on behalf of conservative civilian political elites.

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