OTTAWA – Canada is still providing training to members of the Honduran army, despite the military coup that sent the Central American country into turmoil late last month.
National Defence confirmed that the government has maintained its military training assistance program with Honduras, which provides language and peacekeeping training to soldiers.
The Conservative government is already facing criticism for not following the lead of the United States and European Union in taking concrete action against the regime, although it has condemned the coup.
“That’s a message to them, that we may criticize you in public but don’t worry we’ll maintain economic and military relations with you, and that’s what real power is, economic and military relations,” said Grahame Russell of Rights Action, a non-governmental organization that works in Central America.
“A logical step would be to say we’re going to suspend participation until the situation is resolved,” said Liberal foreign affairs critic Bob Rae.
“Otherwise it gives the impression that for us it’s just business as usual and there’s nothing more that can be said or done.”
Early on June 28, members of the Honduran military stormed the presidential palace in Tegulcigalpa and removed democratically elected president Manuel Zelaya.
They put him on a plane to Costa Rica, and have barred him from entering the country at border crossings. They’ve also broken up protests by supporters of Zelaya, and maintained curfews across Honduras. Some dissidents have been jailed.
Zelaya had challenged the country’s legislative and judicial branches by announcing he would hold a referendum on major constitutional reform, a move only the country’s supreme court was allowed to make.
A leftist, he also confronted the country’s elite by raising the minimum wage by 60 per cent and proposing other social reforms in the hemisphere’s second-poorest country.
Some conservative voices in the United States have backed Zelaya’s ouster, linking him with Venezuela’s president Hugo Chavez.
The Canadian government issued a statement condemning the coup. It also supported the suspension of Honduras from the Organization of American States and is backing the mediation efforts of Costa Rican President Oscar Arias.
But it has hesitated to take further steps.
Peter Kent, minister of state for foreign affairs, said Canada’s one-year-old military training program, known as MTAP, is “not a major issue.”
This year, three Honduran soldiers are receiving English-language training at bases in Kingston, Ont., and St. Jean, Que., and two others are attending Canada-funded peacekeeping courses in Chile and Argentina. The cost is estimated at $70,000 annually.
“The MTAP program that we support is, at this point in Honduras, a very small investment,” Kent said in an interview.
“We’re reviewing all of the security assistance that we provide, but at this point it’s not a major issue.”
The U.S., which has major military operations in Honduras, announced a week after the coup that it was suspending $17.9 million in military aid and an estimated $195 million in development aid. The EU also suspended development aid of about $100 million.
“We’re focusing our support on President Arias’s attempts to find a non-violent, mediated solution, and the earliest possible return of President Zelaya and Honduras to democratic practice and principle,” said Kent, who has spoken directly to the key players.
He added Canada is not cutting the $16.4 million in development aid it provides each year to Honduras.
But non-government groups that work in the region say Canada must go beyond words if it wants to send a message that it does not countenance the toppling of democratic governments – and a first step would be to end the military program.
“It doesn’t really matter what it’s doing, whether it’s training the military to be good polite people or training them to use new armaments,” said Rick Arnold of Common Frontiers.
“You need to have some areas where you stand up and say we’re not going to continue the kind of relationship we had with you in the past.”
Russell, who recently returned from Honduras, said the government should be taking a series of steps against Honduras as Washington has done.
The most recent action by the Obama administration was to strip visas from officials associated with the coup, and revoke the credentials from the Honduran ambassador, who had supported the coup.
“It sends a clear message to the regime that small measures are being taken, and if they don’t restore the constitutional order than larger measures will be taken,” Russell said.