PANAMAX 2009 and Honduras: Did They or Didn’t They Attend the Annual War Games?

In another blow against the prestige of the de facto government, ousted President Manuel Zelaya’s unexpected return to Honduras has complicated matters for interim President Roberto Micheletti, who helped plan the seizure of the government on June 28. As public demonstrations suggest, a growing number of Hondurans now appear to be aligning in support of Zelaya. Several thousand of his supporters rallied at the Brazilian Embassy where Zelaya took refuge after arriving last night on Honduran soil. The interim government did not respond kindly to the public display of support for the ousted president, imposing a military curfew from 4 pm Monday to 6 pm Tuesday. El Heraldo, the Tegucigalpa daily, reported that 200 demonstrators were arrested after violence erupted as a result of confrontation between the protesters and the police. The Brazilian Embassy has also been cut off from water and electricity; food is scarce.

As violence and repression ensue in Honduras, recent events in Panama are reminiscent of Washington’s traditional approach to hemispheric policy, which in the past has been marked by lies and deceit. As the PANAMAX military exercises came to a close on September 22, it still remains unclear whether Honduran military units were present for these maneuvers, as was planned before the military-led coup. Although the twenty other participants in the PANAMAX joint maneuvers have refused to recognize the illegitimate interim government, the U.S., Honduras, and Panama have released conflicting information regarding whether or not the Honduran military was in attendance. If Honduras has taken part in or was designated as an affidavit observer to the games —as some evidence suggests—the U.S. as well as the other countries that condemned the coup will be exposed for their implicit collusion with the illegal government led by Roberto Micheletti.

Twenty countries officially participated in PANAMAX, a military exercise led by the US Southern Command that simulates how to multilaterally protect the Panama Canal if it were to be attacked. Honduras was one of the 21 countries initially invited to participate in the 12 day long training sessions, but according to a report on the U.S. Southern Command website, Honduras withdrew from the exercises on August 10.

However, in an exclusive interview with COHA, Honduran ambassador to Panama Juan Alfaro verified Honduran attendance at the PANAMAX inauguration ceremony. Alfaro’s statements challenge the official version of events provided by both the de facto Honduran government and the U.S. Southern Command. Alfaro was invited to the inauguration of PANAMAX, where he says a Frigate Captain of the Honduran navy was also present. According to Ambassador Alfaro, of the 21 officials in the Honduran navy delegation in Panama, only 1 attended the inauguration ceremony in an attempt to hide Honduran participation in PANAMAX. Another diplomat who has requested confidentiality, confirmed the presence of Honduran military representatives at the event. Moreover, this source went on to say that the U.S. military commander present was angry about the Honduran military’s attendance.

In a conversation with COHA, Milton Mateo, a spokesperson for Department of Foreign Affairs of the newly-installed coup regime, firmly insisted that Alfaro is “disqualified” to make any official comments on behalf of Honduras even though he remains the sitting ambassador to Panama. In light of Mateo’s comments, it is clear that Micheletti lacks control over his administration’s diplomatic representation abroad, undermining his already fragile case for legitimacy.

A public relations officer from the Southern Command, commenting on PANAMAX to COHA, stated that uninviting Honduras was unnecessary because the Honduran Army officially declared their withdrawal on August 10th in a letter to the U.S. Military Group at the embassy in Honduras. The officer proceeded to claim that there was absolutely no interaction between the U.S. military and that of Honduras: Honduran military units did not participate in or observe the PANAMAX military maneuvers. Thomas Buck, a media action officer for the U.S. Navy, reaffirmed, “Honduras did not participate.”

The Honduran Department of Foreign Affairs echoed the Pentagon, insisting that their armed forces were absent from PANAMAX. Conceivably meant to save face, the official version of the Honduran Chief of Staff is that the armed forces are deployed elsewhere, and now is not the appropriate time to participate in such games as PANAMAX. Osvaldo Ureña, Subcommissioner of the Air and Navy Service of Panama, confirmed that the Honduran military was invited, but due to last-minute mechanical issues, declined to attend. Of the varied and inconsistent reasons for Honduras’s absence at PANAMAX, none constituted a rejection of the Honduran military’s role in the recent coup.

Regardless of whether or not Honduras actually participated in the exercises, the official invitation was never explicitly revoked, leaving the decision to attend to the discretion of the Honduran government, and even worse, to its military. The international community has no reason to protect the Honduran military with its long history of human rights abuses, particularly with respect to Battalion 316 in the dirty war of the 1980s. The inaction and resounding silence of PANAMAX participants in this matter stands in stark contrast to the official rejection of recognition throughout the hemisphere.

The evolving relative tolerance of the coup, both in the U.S. and in Latin America, is troubling given the approaching elections. Yesterday, Panama, the host of PANAMAX, became the first government to officially state that they would recognize the outcome of the planned November 29 elections, to be held under the auspices of an illegal regime. Legitimizing the Micheletti government sets a dangerous precedent: an illegitimate government holding a supposedly legitimate, constitutional election.