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U.S. Military Civic Action Programs and Democratization in Central America

The Democracy Backgrounder, A publication of the Interhemispheric Resource Center, Vol.1 no.3, 6 September 1995

As part of our ongoing examination of the democratization process and U.S. influence in Central America, the Interhemispheric Resource Center has produced a report on U.S. military Humanitarian and Civic Assistance (HCA) projects in the region. These "humanitarian" activities by the U.S. military have in recent years become one of the most important ways in which the United States relates to the Central American militaries.

These HCA projects have come under little public or congressional scrutiny. This lack of monitoring is due largely to a process of accounting to Congress that makes it appear that HCA projects involve insignificant expenditures by the Department of Defense (DOD). The nonlethal character of HCA projects in the region and the resolution of the military conflicts in Nicaragua and El Salvador also help explain why few nongovernmental organizations have focused their attention on this aspect of U.S. military presence overseas.

As part of the DOD's Humanitarian and Civic Assistance (HCA) program, the U.S. military engages in relief and development-type projects in developing countries in conjunction with the armies of host nations. Such projects include the construction of roads, wells, and schools, as well as the provision of medical, dental, and veterinary services. In Central America, these projects are supervised by the United States Southern Command (SouthCom), and are performed in large part by National Guard and Reserve units.

Known variously as "humanitarian assistance," "civic action," and "military civic action", the HCA program has roots dating back several decades during an era when the Cold War dominated U.S. foreign policy and when the DOD viewed "civic action" as an essential component of counterinsurgency and national security doctrine. The Pentagon regarded civic action by U.S. and local militaries as part of a larger effort to widen public support for anticommunist and pro-U.S. governments and to strengthen governmental capacity to respond to leftist insurgencies. With the Cold War over, HCA projects are seen as playing an important role in influencing the host country's military while contributing to democratization and economic development.

The U.S. military conducts HCA projects throughout the world, although they are heavily concentrated in Central America. In 1994, 44 percent of these projects occurred in the Central American region.

The U.S. military argues that the HCA program supports democratization by putting host country militaries in direct contact with the U.S. military. According to the commander of the Panama-based Southern Command (SouthCom), not only does this military-to-military contact increase military skills but it also professionalizes the host country armies by instilling in them proper respect for civilians and for the principles of democratic and civilian control of the military. Furthermore, "the thrust of SouthCom's efforts is to assist these militaries in understanding the role of the military in democracy and to make the military part of the solutions to the problems in that region rather than part of the problems." The Department of Defense describes HCA projects as providing "U.S. and foreign militaries the opportunities to improve a country's economic and social infrastructure, demonstrate their regard for human rights, and show respect for local and national civilian authorities." In addition, military officials argue that the HCA program increase the legitimacy of host country militaries by helping them meet the basic needs of the public.

Central America and Democratization

The HCA program raises serious questions about the appropriateness of methods used by the United States to pursue its main foreign policy objectives for Central America, namely the enhancement of democracy and economic development in the region. In testimony before Congress in early 1995, Secretary of State Warren Christopher stated that U.S. foreign policy seeks to "adapt and build institutions that will promote economic and security cooperation...[and] continue to support democracy and human rights."

Central America is in a critical period of transition from war to peace and from authoritarian rule to democracy. During this time, clear distinctions must be made between the proper role of the military and the civilian government in a democratic society. In 1995 HCA programs are under way in Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador. All these nations are at a critical stage in the democratization process, when civilian institutions must firmly establish control over the military. The promotion of HCA projects that increase the nonmilitary operations of local armies during this period has the potential to undermine the process of democratization. HCA projects allow the military to appropriate functions, such as the development of infrastructure and the provision of social services, that in a democratic society should fall within the purview of civilian institutions. At a time when civilian institutions are weak, HCA can send the message that "to get things done" people should turn to the military.

El Salvador is an example of a country in which HCA programs are in clear opposition to the post-conflict definition of the military's role. During more than a decade of civil war in El Salvador, the military was the central authority in the country. In 1992, a Peace Accords was signed that strictly limits the role of the military to that of national defense. The Accords stated:

The doctrine of the armed forces is based on a distinction between the concepts of security and defense. National defense, the responsibility of the armed forces is intended to safeguard sovereignty and territorial integrity against outside military threat. Security, even when it includes this notion, is a broader concept based on unrestricted respect for the individual and social rights of the person. It includes, in addition to national defense, economic, political and social aspects which go beyond the constitutional sphere of competence of the armed forces and are the responsibility of other sectors of society and of the State.

El Salvador is one of the participants in the 1995 Fuertes Caminos exercise. In El Salvador this program consisted of a joint and combined exercise involving about 300 members of the Salvadoran Armed Forces and about 600 U.S. Army, Navy, and Air Force personnel. The 1995 program was projected to end in late May having built 10 schools, 2 bridges, and drilled 14 wells. Such HCA projects legitimize a role for the Salvadoran military in domestic activities just at the time when the Salvadoran peace process is attempting to limit the military's realm of authority and when the military is seeking new ways to justify its large budget.

In Honduras, HCA projects are a regular part of military training exercises in which the U.S. military or National Guard is involved. As a part of "Deployments for Training," U.S. military teams carry out Medical Readiness Training Exercises, Veterinary Readiness Training Exercises, and Dental Readiness Training Exercises. The DOD's HCA program has also been responsible for the building of roads, schools, and other civilian infrastructure in Honduras.

Official rule by the military in Honduras ended in 1981. However, during the 1980s, the armed forces remained powerful to a great extent due to the U.S. strategy to use Honduras as a staging ground for the counterrevolutionary (contra) war against the Sandinistas in Nicaragua and as a source of logistical and intelligence operations to assist in the counterinsurgency war in El Salvador. In exchange, the Honduran military was granted vast sums of U.S. military assistance.

Contrary to the norm in democratic societies, the military still retains control over the largest branch of the police. The Honduran military also has a number of its own businesses, including a bank, an insurance company and a cement-producing plant.

In the 1990s Hondurans are in the process of trying to restrain the military and reduce its influence. The National Congress recently passed a constitutional amendment to end obligatory military service. In addition, the Congress removed the feared National Investigations Division from military control and set up a new investigations office under civilian authority. Moreover, both the executive and legislative branches are trying to limit the economic power accumulated by the military in the form of control over such state companies and agencies as the telephone company, merchant marine, customs, and immigration. These are all highly controversial and politically charged efforts. Yet while Honduran society is attempting to control and restrict the role of the military, the United States is involving the Honduran military in infrastructure and social service functions, at odds with domestic civilian trends.

The operation of HCA programs in Guatemala has been one of the most alarming U.S. practices in the region. Guatemala is currently engaged in peace negotiations to settle a 30-year civil war. Assertion of civilian control over the repressive Guatemalan military is one of the necessary conditions for democracy and a lasting peace. The Guatemalan military has such a dismal record of human rights abuses that the United States suspended military assistance to Guatemala in 1990. Even though military aid had been terminated, the DOD through its Office for Humanitarian and Refugee Affairs has seen fit to carry out civic action projects in conjunction with the Guatemalan military.

In Guatemala, the Fuertes Caminos civic assistance program for 1995 involved 3,700 U.S. Army Reserve, National Guard, and active duty soldiers, air crews, and sailors. They were scheduled to build 5 schools and 3 clinics, drill or repair 15 wells, build 3 bridges and repair 26 kilometers of road, and carry out 3 Medical Readiness Training Exercises. Presumably because of escalating concerns about the Guatemalan military, the U.S. Department of State said that Fuertes Caminos will not be resumed in 1996. However, other HCA activities that have taken place in Guatemala such as Medical Readiness Training Exercises could still be carried out.

Any continuing cooperation with the Guatemalan military, even for purportedly humanitarian projects, sends other messages in Guatemala, a country still at war. The message sent by this cooperation is one of U.S. support for the Guatemalan military--a situation that is unacceptable given the U.S. role as a member of the "Group of Friends," a collection of nations aiding the peace process in Guatemala. As in other countries where the armed forces continue to exercise strong control over government and society, it signals to the Guatemalan people that their military can produce results. Furthermore, this close association between the U.S. and Guatemalan militaries reflects badly on the U.S. commitment to human rights. As noted by Human Rights Watch,

Joint military exercises by the U.S. National Guard units and the Guatemalan army in rural areas present the problem of boosting the image of the army in areas where its power remains excessive and where memories have not faded of the scorched earth policies of the 1980's....the United States should be sensitive to the symbolism of its actions and their impact on local conditions, especially since the officers responsible for scores of massacres in the areas where the civic actions are taking place have never been investigated or punished.

This article is drawn from a policy report published by the Interhemispheric Resource Center. U.S. Military Humanitarian and Civic Assistance Programs and their Application in Central America is available for $5.95 plus postage and handling ($3.00).

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