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 hasÂ 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 SalvadoreanÂ 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,Â 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.