Honduras: From Banana Republic to U.S. Military garrison a Visit to Puerto Castilla's military center
If any country of Central America deserves the name “banana republic”, it is Honduras. The banana enclaves on the Atlantic side have made of this country a pseudo-colony, extremely dependent on the U.S., and not just in economic matters.
If ever a Central American country merited the classification of "banana republic," that country is Honduras. The banana plantations on its Atlantic Coast have made this nation a completely dependent state, and economic dependency is only one aspect of this dependency. In the 1950s, Honduras gave logistical and military support to the U.S. when the CIA overthrew the democratically elected government of Jacobo Arbenz Guzman in Guatemala.
In the current Central American crisis, Honduras is again playing a key role: armed gendarme under the facade of a civilian government. But the various political, economic and public sectors have such small representation in national affairs that this "camouflage" is beginning to worry even liberal sectors in the U.S. It is getting more and more difficult to make people believe that the Honduran military is not running the country.
The importance of the installation of the U.S. military base in Puerto Castilla, on the northeastern side of Honduras, goes beyond the fact that it is one more U.S. base in the region. it is becoming the cornerstone of the current U.S. policy toward Honduras and the rest of Central America. As long term, joint U.S. Honduran military maneuvers were announced, to be played out in the region with up to 20,000 U.S. troops, the Institute decided to visit Puerto Castilla.
REMOTE BUT STRATEGICPreviously, U.S. interests in Honduras had been agricultural but with the Puerto Castilla military base the infrastructure already in place and that which is planned – Honduras has been given the dubious distinction of becoming the most important geopolitical country of this conflictive area. The Reagan administration has described the Central American area in various ways: “our back door,” “our neighbors,” or as a “potential threat to our (U.S.) national security.”
The location of the new military installation is highly significant. According to experts, as a natural port, Puerto Castilla is second in the world only to Hong Kong. A second factor is that Honduras shares borders with Guatemala, El Salvador and Nicaragua, and its Atlantic coast faces Cuba.
In the early days of the Spanish conquest, Puerto Castilla was the privileged port for the loading of gold. During World War II, the U.S. used the port as a naval base. After that, however, the port and the surrounding area were virtually abandoned. The installation of the CREMS (Regional Military Training and Security Center) has changed all that. The unexpected decision of the Reagan administration to build this center is a key element in the U.S. strategy for Central America.
Currently, members of the Seventh Special Forces Group, better known as the Green Berets, are at Puerto Castilla training special units of the Salvadoran army. The purpose is to convert them into special counter insurgency battalions called "hunter battalions." A total of 2,400 Salvadoran soldiers will be trained in Puerto Castilla; 120 U.S. military advisors of whom 90% are Green Berets are in charge of this training. Other special battalions of Salvadorans have been trained and are still in training at Fort Benning, Georgia, at the cost of $54.5 million. Training Salvadorans in Honduras is much cheaper, and it diffuses U.S. public sentiment against the training.
The first choice for a military training site outside the continental U.S. was the Southern Command base in the Panama Canal zone, but the Panamanian government denied the request. Once the U.S. Congress put a ceiling on the number of U.S. military advisors in El Salvador at 55, training in El Salvador was also out of the question. So the administration was forced to seek a spot which would not meet with either congressional repercussions in the U.S. or internal opposition in the host country. Puerto Castilla, Honduras, remote and abandoned but highly strategic, met the bill.
WEAK ECONOMY, STRONG MILITARYHonduras is the poorest country in Latin America. In 1982, the income per capita fell by 4.6%. Currently it stands at $588 per person per year (Nicaragua's is $851). In May of this year, the Honduran Economic Commission reported that 66% of the economically active population are unemployed. Other sources estimate that only 12% of the EAP who are employed have full time work.
The U.S. government is trying to resolve these tensions by a general plan for economic aid to Honduras which would balance the increased military aid package. In 1982, Honduras received a total of $68 million from the U.S. in military aid and economic support funds. US/AID funds given to Honduras for 1982 totaled $31.17 million. The Congress originally proposed $20.3 million in U.S. military aid for Honduras for 1983. Reagan later requested an additional $17 million. For 1984, the administration is requesting $41 million in military aid and $40 million in economic support funds. One of the side benefits of U.S. favor is that Honduras is now supplying the U.S. with the sugar which the administration cut from the Nicaraguan quota.
A CASE OF SEMANTICSThe decision to use Puerto Castilla as a military installation was finalized on May 7, 1982, when Honduras signed an amendment to a 1954 military collaboration contract with the U.S. By September of last year, work had already begun at the base. The whole plan has been characterized by a tremendous urgency on the U.S. part to decide to use Honduras and on Honduras' part to respect and approve that decision.
In May 1983, General Gustavo Alvarez, Chief of Staff of the Honduran army, traveled to Washington for the final arrangements on the Puerto Castilla project. Upon his arrival, he received the Legion of Merit decoration. In June, when the Green Berets had already landed in Honduras, the Department of State confirmed the existence of the base and the Honduran government was also obliged to do the same. Infantry Colonel Filander Ucles Armijo was put in charge of the project with the responsibility of informing the National Congress about the installation.
There were conflicts in the Honduran Congress. The Conservative Party strong but without representation in the government stated their "dissatisfaction with the United States' domineering attitude." ALIPO, a minority sector of the Liberal Party, with Social Democratic leanings, also spoke out against the policy adopted by the government. The Christian Democrats came out against the military base and expressed their concern over the danger that the conflict in the region could involve all Central America in war. The National Party, an opposition party, stated their dissatisfaction over the fact that a project of this magnitude could be undertaken without a national consensus.
Other voices against the installation in Puerto Castilla were also raised. The teachers' union, which is the most tightly knit union in the country, took out a paid ad in one of the daily newspapers to point out the contradictions between the stated policy of neutrality which Honduras manifests outside the country and the obvious lack of neutrality which the installation evidences. This statement was supported by the National Union of Campesinos. The Catholic Church was upset at the fact that Salvadoran soldiers would be training on Honduran soil, and they felt that this could in no way be considered a contributing factor to regional peace. The mass organizations, under the umbrella group FUP (Popular Unity Front), organized a demonstration protesting the base.
But the opposition fell on deaf ears. On June 20, the National Congress held a "closed door" session to vote on the existence of the base. Rather incongruously, the Green Berets had already been in the country a week. A compromise was reached: the Salvadorans would not be called soldiers but rather "students," and the U.S. military personnel would not be called advisors, but rather "instructors." As the vote later showed, this was sufficient to quiet the political opposition: 76 for, 3 against, and 1 abstention.
WHAT MEETS THE EYE IN PUERTO CASTILLA AND WHAT DOESN'TThe training center, CREMS, is located between Puerto Castilla and Trujillo, the capital of the department of Colon. Paradoxically, it was in Trujillo in 1860 that William Walker was executed. (William Walker was the U.S. filibuster who had declared himself president of Nicaragua and actually governed two years before he was thrown out of the country.)
About twenty minutes away from Puerto Castilla is the small town of Silin where the 140 hectares of state lands are located which is now the home of CREMS. Already, 150 tents have gone up to house approximately 1,800 men. Wooden barracks serve as hospital wards and office buildings and additional tents are used as kitchens and mess halls. Barbed wire fences surround the entire base. Near the living areas are the training grounds for the infantry troops.
While we were there, a company of Honduran soldiers called the "advanced infantry" group were being trained in the use of M 16s and M 203 grenade launchers. Inside the port grounds another Honduran company was also receiving instruction. These two companies will guarantee the security of the installations and give a local Honduran flavor to the area for the visitors to see. Instruction given to the Salvadorans is not visible; it is obviously the big secret of the base. Where are they trained? Who trains them? What methods are used? How many are there exactly? These questions and others like them go unanswered.
The Salvadoran "students" enter the country unarmed, according to the Honduran authorities. The Green Berets, however, state that naturally the Salvadorans, just like the Hondurans, are armed and receive armed training.
According to Pentagon spokesperson John Meyer, 1,100 Salvadorans are currently in Puerto Castilla and have been since the middle of June. But they are not on the infantry training grounds which is where the journalists are allowed to visit. The "instructors" told us that groups of soldiers had left for a two week period of jungle training and that a special group of 50 "students" are receiving specific formation in counter insurgency, internal defense and psychological warfare.
According to information given by the Pentagon, the Salvadorans will be trained to form "hunter" battalions. Their main function will be military sweeps through areas occupied by the guerrillas, which the government will follow up with reconstruction projects of social and economic development. Each battalion will have a force of 350 men.
Currently, in the mountainous area around Silin, it is supposed that 1,050 Salvadoran soldiers are in training. As only 30 U.S. military advisors were visible at the base, it is to be supposed that the other 90 advisors/Green Berets are with the Salvadorans.
This training, like the training in Fort Benning, Georgia, is part of the new strategic offensive which the U.S. advisors have been advocating to the Salvadoran army for some time now. The biggest opposition to this type of maneuvers was raised by the former Minister of Defense, Jose Guillermo Garcia, who was in favor of carrying out a more traditional type of warfare, which involved large numbers of army troops. That opposition was overcome once Garcia was replaced.
AFTER PANAMA, PUERTO CASTILLA?The CREMS alone cannot be responsible for all the new construction which is going on in Puerto Castilla. The type of infrastructure would indicate that the project is going to include much more than just a place for Salvadoran soldiers to train while the war lasts. There are indications that the U.S. is thinking of this geographical area to transfer the Southern Command from the Panama Canal to Honduras.
The infrastructure now being constructed in Trujillo already is much more than would be needed by the training base alone. The dock has been extended 300 meters and another dock is being constructed a1ongside it. Warehouses are being built, and four storage tanks for oil are being installed.
Just about a year ago, the landing strip at Trujillo was considerably, and according to some observers, disproportionately lengthened, as far as local needs go. There is also another project in the mill for a new airfield which would be even longer.
But residents in Puerto Castilla are thrilled with the arrival of the Americans. This is not surprising as it means jobs, which translate into better economic conditions and an overall rise in the standard of living. Over 300 Honduras are already employed as carpenters, stonemasons, laborers, cooks, etc.
Puerto Castilla will soon be connected with both Tegucigalpa and San Pedro Sula, as well as with the counterrevolutionary camp near Mocoron, by way of new roads which are now being laid and asphalted. The Honduran Armed Forces just finished a road which goes between Puerto Castilla and the nearby port of La Ceiba. Heading south and cutting through the department of Olancho, only a few kilometers remain to be laid on the road which will unite Puerto Castilla to Tegucigalpa. As the roads far exceed the agro exporting capacity of the Trujillo region, it is easily surmised that their purpose is military transport.
The U.S. military is also carrying out civic action programs in the towns. These are seen by observers as an attempt to soften up the population for a military project of much larger dimensions.
According to the Carter Torrijos Treaty, by October l984, the School of the Americas must be out of the Panama Canal zone. There is considerable speculation that Honduras will be the new home for the School. The infrastructure already in place or that under construction would certainly point to that conclusion.
Forfeiture of national interests to U.S. interests is not new for Honduras. Honduran history has been a history of surrender – it started when the first banana tree was planted. The country has never recovered from this policy. Small capital investments, tax evasion, agricultural bankruptcy and a small but powerful elite who control the nation are obvious indicators. This situation has also impeded the birth of an independent bourgeoisie, as is found in some other Central American countries.
Due to its weak economy and its history of servility, Honduras was the obvious choice for the role which it is playing today. Power is more and more concentrated in the hands of a few high military officials, and this has brought about a militarization of the country which responds neither to the needs of its own people nor to its own internal situation.
Yet, the cost has been high. The press, radio and television have been silenced on the subject, the mass organizations have been repressed, and the number of political assassinations and/or disappearances continues to increase. The antimilitarist sentiment of the Honduran people has been ignored, as well as the anti-Salvadoran feeling among large sectors of the military itself as a result of the El Salvadoran Honduran war of 1969.
Honduras's future is uncertain. In great measure it depends on the future of the rest of Central America. What is certain is that now Honduras is being used as fodder for the U.S. cannons. War will only damage this country more and increased poverty will be the only tangible result. In the case of a regional war, Honduras will become both target and victim.