President Roberto Micheleti of Honduras warned on 5 July that Nicaragua is deploying troops to its border with Honduras. President Daniel Ortega promptly denied the charge.
But President Hugo Chavez’s week-old threat of Venezuelan military intervention in Honduras still hangs in the background.
A friend calls and asks, “Could Chavez deploy his Sukhois to Honduras?”
Since Mel Zelaya was sent packing a week ago for repeatedly defying the Constitution, Supreme Court and Congress of Honduras, the world’s Spanish-language news media has buzzed with expert political commentary about the political crisis in Honduras.
But we haven’t seen any military experts talking about the risks of an armed confrontation between the armed forces of Honduras and other Latin American countries.
What are the risks of an armed confrontation between Honduras and other countries? Can Chavez make good on his threats of military intervention in Honduras to restore Zelaya to power?
Geographically, the governments of Nicaragua and El Salvador could deploy troops into Honduras.
But as much as Chavez may be working behind the scenes to persuade Ortega and El Salvador’s President Mauricio Funes to intervene, it won’t happen.
Ortega is Chavez’s paid lackey, but Nicaragua’s Sandinista military commanders will not obey Ortega’s orders to cross the border into Honduras.
El Salvador’s Funes is FMLN, but so far he hasn’t joined the braying pack of chavista extremists which include Ortega, Evo Morales of Bolivia and Rafael Correa of Ecuador.
And Funes knows that El Salvador’s US-trained military commanders definitely will reject even the slightest hint by Funes that they should “support” Zelaya’s return to power in Tegucigalpa.
But what of Micheletti’s warning of Nicaraguan troops “massing” at the border?
It’s likely that Nicaragua’s military is reinforcing its border with Honduras, as the military in Honduras already have done.
But Nicaragua’s armed forces have less than 20,000 active personnel, about the same as the armed forces of Honduras.
On paper, Nicaragua has more armored fighting vehicles than Honduras, including 31 operational Soviet-made T-55 battle tanks. The air force of Honduras has more combat aircraft – including 11 F-5’s and half a squadron of Brazilian Tucano trainers – than Nicaragua.
However, 20-plus years of post-Cold War budget cutbacks have hollowed out Nicaragua’s armed forces – and the armed forces of Honduras – to the point where their main activities include border security, drug interdiction and other internal security activities in support of civilian law enforcement – like battling the powerful Maras or gangs which infest Central America.
Military commanders in both countries likely will do everything in their power to avoid cross-border clashes.
The militaries of Honduras and Nicaragua are roughly even on paper in terms of reported active-duty personnel, but both have major staffing, equipment and armament deficiencies.
From a military perspective, whether in Managua or Tegucigalpa, the crisis is political and internal to Honduras.
The national security and territorial integrity of the other Central American countries are not threatened by the political crisis in Honduras, so there is no need whatsoever for the armed forces of these countries to mobilize units against Honduras.
Nicaragua’s military commanders know this, irrespective of their allegedly Sandinista ideology.
If Chavez decides in one of his mad moments to order his Sukhois or other Venezuelan military assets to Honduras, it would constitute an overt act of war by Venezuela against Honduras and would confirm what everyone already knows: that Chavez is directly involved in the political crisis playing out in Tegucigalpa.
But Chavez doesn’t have the air refueling capability to fly his Sukhois to Honduras and back. The Sukhois would be forced to refuel, say, at air bases in Nicaragua or El Salvador.
For all his bluster, Ortega doesn’t want to get sucked into a regional conflict created by Chavez. And Funes certainly won’t dance to Chavez’s tune. Funes is a socialist, but he isn’t stupid.
He won’t give El Salvador’s conservative forces, which include the armed forces, an excuse to impeach and remove him from the presidency for illegally and unconstitutionally starting a war with a neighboring country by sending Salvadoran troops into that country.
However, Chavez and his pal Ortega do have the capability to deploy paid political agitators on the ground in Honduras.
The Chavez regime has been in Honduras since before Zelaya was elected president at the end of 2005, funding and organizing Bolivarian groups in that country, including activists trained in the instigation of violent street protests.
President Micheletti claims that his new government’s security forces already have arrested numerous Nicaraguan nationals in poor sections of Tegucigalpa and other cities in the act of trying to instigate violent street protests.
Dozens of civilians who tried to enter Honduras from Nicaragua overland during the past week also have been turned back at the border by Honduran troops at reinforced border crossings.
Several thousand Zelaya supporters have massed at the international airport in Tegucigalpa. Clashes are already erupting. The potential of increased violence today and in coming days is significant and growing.
But the chances of military clashes between Honduras and its neighbors would appear to be practically nil – por ahora, anyway.