Honduras: Regional Pawn

A piece in a political chess game, Honduras wavers between militarism and democracy

HONDURANS HAVE USUALLY been quick to live up to American notions of their nation. When the Alliance for Progress, in the 1960s, envisioned schools and roads leading the Third World out of misery, Honduras paved its roads, though it had few cars, and dotted its lovely green hills with schoolhouses, though it bought no books. When the idea of recycling petrodollars for development became popular, in the 1970s, the Honduran military, in power at the time, signed rafts of loans that the country had no realistic hope of repaving. And when, in the panic that followed Somoza’s fall in Nicaragua, the Carter Administration impressed on General Paz Garcia the urgency of Honduras’s becoming a democracy, elections were called, and the officers returned to their barracks—or, to be more accurate, to Miami.

As the economic largesse and political reformism of the seventies gave way to the geopolitical militancy of the eighties, the new Honduran high command submitted a detailed report to Washington. The report placed the blame for the crisis in Central America squarely on the Sandinista revolution and volunteered that Honduras was the “tapón natural”—the obvious plug—for “SovietCuban expansionism,” an analysis that conformed closely with that of President Ronald Reagan’s transition team for Central America. The new Administration responded with a two-track policy of first using military aid to build “security shields” around client states, and only afterward attending to their economic and social crises. Honduras was swiftly transformed into the image of the frontline state: a stalwart young democracy ready to combat the communist threat, imperfect but free of gross violations of human rights.

What the United States’ final bill in Honduras will come to is far from being known. In Honduras, the poorest country in Central America, only the military has profited so far. Honduras received $53.1 million in American economic aid and $3.9 million in military aid in 1980; however, the Administration’s commitment to military solutions has been signaled by a drastic change in the levels of American support. By 1983 Honduras was receiving roughly $80 million in economic assistance, whereas military grants and credits had multiplied almost twentyfold, to $77 million.

I SAW AN INDICATION of the scale of the military buildup one morning recently when the U.S. and Honduran armed forces held closing ceremonies for the second phase of their Big Pine joint exercises.

The maneuvers, the longest and costliest ever held in the region, involved 5,000 Honduran soldiers and, as the press release put it, “significant elements" of the U.S. Armed Forces, in simulations of every conceivable contingency, from rapid response to amphibious assault to border patrols. U.S. military engineers had upgraded four airstrips to take the big C-130 transport, and preliminary work was going forward on a munitions-storage area at Palmerola and on a $160 million naval port complex at Puerto Castilla, on the Caribbean coast. Joint maneuvers, which the Pentagon has announced may continue for the next twenty years, have become so pervasive as to blur any useful distinction between maneuvers and occupation, between temporary facilities and permanent bases.

The ceremony was held on the dusty parade grounds of the 1st Infantry Battalion Headquarters, outside Tegucigalpa. The display of hardware was most impressive. Overhead were sleek Blackhawk choppers, for rapid deployment, and A-37 combat aircraft, which the Honduran Air Force wants upgraded to F-5s. Rolling along the ground was a dazzling array of artillery, including the new 105mm howitzers, long-range pieces made to order for setting up on hills and shelling across a border. What impressed spectators the most, however, was the new Honduran Special Forces units—the first homegrown Green Berets in Central America—marching past in smart new camouflage fatigues, their faces covered with ghoulish green warpaint. They made the Kissinger commission’s recent recommendation that the United States foster “U.S.-style counterinsurgency forces” to cope with Salvadoran-style rebellions seem already superannuated.

Up on the dais, making a rare joint public appearance, stood the four powers in Honduras: the elected president, Dr. Roberto Suazo Cordova; General Paul Gorman, head of the U.S. military’s Southern Command; the American ambassador, John Negroponte, known in Honduras as “the proconsul”; and General Gustavo Alvarez Martinez, then commander of the Honduran armed forces. In his prepared remarks President Suazo spoke of the military alliance as fortifying “our young democracy, struggling against poverty and the threat of totalitarianism,” though he did not define that threat further. General Alvarez also veiled his words, eschewing his usually explicit warning that war between Honduras and Nicaragua is inevitable in favor of a declaration that the Honduran forces had grown better prepared for any eventuality, “offensive or defensive.” General Gorman said that the exercises had given American troops outstanding experience of Central American terrain, a statement laden with implication. The diplomatic Mr. Negroponte remained silent. Neither diplomacy nor force but the wish to avoid committing American forces to Central American combat underlies the Reagan Administration’s military-political tactics in the region—from the uncovert Contra war against Nicaragua to the crude attempt to link military aid for El Salvador to African famine-relief legislation.

Restrained from policing its sphere of influence through the expedient of direct military force, the United States is involved in a risky regional chess game of proxies. The situation on the board is complex and fragile. In more than two years of fighting, at an estimated cost of $45 million, the Nicaraguan Democratic Force (FDN Contras) on the Honduran— Nicaraguan border has failed to overthrow the Sandinistas but has succeeded in mounting a crippling war of terror and economic sabotage.

The likelihood of war between Honduras and Nicaragua is discounted by most observers. The strategic argument goes that a thrust by the infantry of either nation into the territory of the other would quickly run into supply problems, leaving the forward troops vulnerable inside enemy territory. The political argument goes that Honduras won’t move against Nicaragua without the participation of American troops. Providing such support would likely necessitate pulling 100,000 American servicemen out of Europe for redeployment in the Caribbean Basin, but nothing of the sort has been indicated. Whereas Congress has so far refused to supply Honduras with the advanced aircraft it wants, Nicaragua’s most sophisticated weapons are said to be its Soviet anti-aircraft systems, a consideration that reduces the plausibility of air war for the time being.

In the view of military analysts a Honduran infrastructure of docks, airstrips, new roads, and radar facilities is being constructed mainly as a supply line to the Contras: a kind of Ho Chi Minh Trail in reverse. As the FDN Contras are set on a firm logistic footing, the Costa Rican-Nicaraguan border is undergoing a parallel buildup. A little-publicized section of a report by Senator Jim Sasser, of Tennessee, on the American buildup in Central America informed the Senate Military Construction Appropriations Subcommittee that as many as 1,000 military engineers and U.S. National Guardsmen were for the first time entering neutral Costa Rica “to provide for infrastructure construction in the Costa Rican northern zone bordering Nicaragua,” not far from where Eden Pastora’s Democratic Revolutionary Alliance (ARDE Contras) has been previously isolated. With strengthened fighting pieces north and south, a blockade by U.S. naval forces would hold Nicaragua in check.

PRESIDENT SUAZO SPOKE of Honduras as a “struggling” democracy, but one of the things it is struggling against is the suspicion that its president does not exist. Dr. Suazo does not grant interviews or hold press conferences, and only rarely makes speeches or ventures out in public. Few Hondurans seem to know or care much about the president’s whereabouts. The first civilian head of a Honduran government in more than a decade, he has gained a reputation for illness and feeble rule. Thus it came as a complete surprise when, at the end of March, General Alvarez was ousted and put on a plane for Costa Rica. Apparently an alliance between Dr. Suazo and junior officers concerned about General Alvarez’s political machinations had led to what one Western observer called “a typical Central American coup in reverse,”whereby the civilian had organized an intrigue against the military chief.

Under Honduran electoral law voters mark their ballots for the color symbolizing the party of their choice. There is no ticket-splitting, and the voters are unaware of the identities of any candidates except those running for president. After elections for the Constituent Assembly in 1980, seats in the one-chamber legislature were apportioned according to each party’s national tally of votes. The party bosses named their deputies, freeing themselves from the accountability to a constituency obtaining in most democracies. Divorced from the electorate, congressmen have also become divorced from reality: they carry handguns on the door of the Congress and sit twirling them during the sessions, as if to protect themselves from a nonexistent guerrilla threat.

Despite its weakness as an institution the legislative branch has managed a record that one leading legislator has called “the worst in Honduran history.” With the economy dead from depressed commodity prices and the flight of capital, with intense pressure to devalue the currency, with unemployment galloping at 30 to 50 percent, with the International Monetary Fund’s having ruled that Honduras is out of compliance with its debt-renegotiation agreement, and with future American economic support in doubt because of the U.S. deficit, the Honduran Congress passed the national budget in one evening session, without debate. General Alvarez smashed whatever pride the assembly had left by signing an agreement that would allow the United States to establish a Regional Military Training Center, for Salvadoran soldiers, on Honduran soil, and then surrounding the capitol with his troops and announcing his decision. Only the lone representative of the Christian Democratic Party, Efrain Diaz, had the courage to retire from the hall.

Did he think that the military buildup was subverting the democratization it was intended to protect? I asked Diaz. “Es cierto,” he said. “American military pressure strengthens the military here, just as it does in Managua. The civilians can say the government favors the Contadora peace process while the military carries out a contradictory policy. The only way to strengthen democracy is to strengthen Honduran neutrality in Central America through Contadora. The argument is between the U.S. and the Sandinistas, not between Honduras and Nicaragua.”

IDROPPED FROM THE burlesque of Tegucigalpa to the coastal lowlands on the Gulf of Fonseca with a sense of relief. There, hemmed in on one side by the gun smoke rising over El Salvador, opening on the other toward the mountains of northern Nicaragua, lay the abiding Central America, a blistered land of peasants and soldiers, of droughts and vultures, of street funerals and priests.

I had gone south to visit a young cleric whose ordination, a week before, had occasioned both great local pride, since he was the son of Cholutecan campesinos, and an unusual amount of publicity. In his ordination remarks Padre Florentino Gonzalez had said, “We live like foreigners in our own country.” This reference to the American military presence had created a stir in the Honduran press.

The Padre is a vigorous and articulate young man much influenced by Vatican II and the example of the martyred Salvadoran archbishop Oscar Romero. “I did not mean to denounce anyone, but our situation here is critical,” he told me. “ The year before last the rains did not come and the entire crop was wiped out. Then came inundations, which swept away the topsoil. We are struggling not only with the world recession and the political crisis in Central America but with an environmental crisis as well.” The entire southern zone of Honduras has been deforested for export timber, he explained, but nothing has been replanted, a situation that increases the heat and lessens the annual rains.

The few rich who had lived in the border zone fled after Somoza’s fall, and with the drought, the collapse of the local economy, and the increasing risk of war, the small middle class followed. Now even the peasants are migrating north, some displaced by the border fighting, some by the new military installations, most by desperation. Teenagers stay off the streets of Choluteca at night, fearful of being kidnapped by raiding army recruiters. The only thriving businesses are the munitions shop and the Contra recruitment office, where Honduran boys are offered 200 lempiras ($100) a month to fight in Nicaragua. Malnutrition is rampant; there areno medicines. “Only recently I accompanied our bishop to Tiger Island, where the Americans have installed a radar system,” said Padre Florentino. “The people there suffered the death of a child every day for fourteen days straight. How can I keep silent? The Church asked the government to declare the south a disaster area, so at least we’d be eligible for international relief. But they decided we are too close to Nicaragua. It would look bad.”

—Jonathan Evan Maslow