Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 81 | Marzo 1988


Central America

Dependence and the Military

Envío team

To no one's surprise, the focal point of Honduras in 1987 again had a more geopolitical than national character; the position of the Honduran government and armed forces has not varied substantially with respect to the United States. Honduras' dependence on the superpower from the north—the greatest of any country on the isthmus—has been singularly important for Esquipulas II in that Honduras has become the major obstacle to the success of the peace accords signed in Guatemala.

The peace plan's major importance is that it favors the legitimacy of the Nicaraguan revolution and faces up to the US role in Central America. The Honduran government and military can determine the life or death of the plan, however, because they have in their hands the key to the existence of the Nicaraguan counterrevolution—its use of Honduran territory for recuperation, logistics, training and open or covert resupplying (the latter as a byproduct of the joint US-Honduran military maneuvers).

Honduras' dependency has an economic base in an economy always on the edge of crisis, but given just enough so that it never blows up. Honduran Private Business Council president Jorge Gómez Andino said in 1987, with no visible shame, that "we live off of the little check from AID [the US Agency for International Development]." It also has a structural base, in that Honduras is the only country in which the foreign enclaves are still vital. Juxtaposing the traditional banana enclave with the shrimp fishing one demonstrates the considerable nature of the country's structural economic dependency.

All this is worsened by the fact that the armed forces have converted their profession into a "business," consisting, in part, of perpetually blackmailing the United States: if the military are not given enough aid, they might give into the temptation to take power again, putting an end to what President Reagan has ostentatiously called "the four Central American democracies." It also consists of the commissions charged for permitting the Nicaraguan counterrevolution to be resupplied. Finally, and perhaps most crucially, it consists of the payment received for the exaggerated role assigned its security apparatus—which has less to do with what has to be "secured" inside the country than with what must be assured geo-politically in the region.

Honduras' institutions are tightly laced into this straightjacket, turning the government into nothing more than a crisis manager and a source of lucrative desk jobs for the political hacks of the two traditional parties.

Yet locked deep within Honduras' incarnation as Central America's stumbling block is also its best hope for transformation, because in Honduras, more than in any other Central American country, what is at stake is precisely its own liberation as a nation. The March for Dignity and Sovereignty, called by the National Rural Workers' Confederation (CNTC) and others, which brought together thousands of Hondurans, as well as demands by the Church and popular and human rights groups that Honduras comply with Esquipulas II, could be the seed of this possibility.

As yet, however, the popular movements do not demonstrate either the unity or the conviction needed to make this seed grow into a spreading tree under which the aspirations of the majorities could gather. The mounting repression is in large measure responsible for the slow growth of this movement, as is the brutal poverty that deepens every year.

US-Honduran Relations: A Constant

Nothing of import that has happened in Honduras is unrelated to the constant in US-Honduran relations regarding Nicaragua and, to a lesser extent, El Salvador and Guatemala. The first half of 1987 was characterized by a dizzying succession of military maneuvers, which, given the insignificant role of Honduran troops in them, are rather euphemistically termed "joint." They culminated on May 3 with a military exercise called "Solid Shield 87," in which several thousand US Marines simulated an invasion of Honduras from along its Atlantic coast. The invasion could not better mirror Honduran reality as a militarily occupied country: between 1983 and last year, there were only three months in which the United States was not carrying out some maneuver in Honduran territory. Assistant Secretary of State Richard Armitage has called the maneuvers "temporary but indefinite."

This particular culmination, in which massive air and naval forces were deployed, was preceded by rapid-deployment exercises in the department of La Paz in February; the "Lempira 87" maneuvers (rapid deployment of troops on the north coast); "Pegasus 87" (air exercises from bases in Tegucigalpa, Palmerola and La Ceiba in April and May using AWACS planes—whose sale to Saudi Arabia caused such controversy in Congress two years ago for their possible harm to Israel); and the "Vicente Tosta 87" maneuvers (in all departments bordering Nicaragua). The last were considered the best of all by the Honduran armed forces because in them the Honduran troops fraternized with their US counterparts under the joint direction of Generals John Galvin, then head of the Southern Command in the Panama Canal (today Supreme Commander of the NATO forces), and Regalado Hernández, Commander of the Honduran armed forces, and because they included officer training. In this first half of the year 1,100 Honduran soldiers also worked to improve several air strips and the "Terencio Sierra 87" exercise was continued, in which US National Guard and reserves members improved what our sources called the "most expensive highway in the world" in the department of Yoro.

Both civilian and military representatives of the Honduran government have stated that the only reason for the maneuvers is to help train the Honduran armed forces, and the value of increasing their professionalism compensates for the loan of national territory. General Galvin gave another interpretation. While the above motive was indeed implicit, he said that the first was "to show the Sandinistas that they should stay at home;" the second was "to show the [Honduran government, armed forces and people] that yes, we are allies, and yes, we are willing to come here"; the third was "to carry out operations to learn how we can jointly execute maneuvers"; and the fourth was "to develop our training in an environment completely different" from that of the United States. Naturally Galvin said nothing about the fifth motive, which was to leave behind a good number of military supplies, which eventually find their way down the road to the bases of the Nicaraguan counterrevolution.

These maneuvers have left as a bonus more than 50,000 US soldiers trained in Honduras since 1983 at an admitted cost of more than $300 million. While this responds mainly to the intransigent US policy toward Nicaragua, these soldiers could, if necessary, also act against the guerrillas in El Salvador and—should the case arise—Guatemala.

The specter of the counterrevolution in strategic decline, incapable of winning the war against the Nicaraguan revolution, throws a long shadow over this special relation between Honduras and the United States. Honduran politicians have recurring nightmares of all the US bases becoming useless ruins in a future marked by a new US Administration's disinterest in Honduras and the contra forces. Indeed, it is not hard to imagine a US exodus similar to the US abandonment of Saigon in 1975. In this case, despite General Galvin's rhetoric to the contrary during the maneuvers, the danger comes not from Nicaragua, but from Nicaraguans inside Honduras (the contras).

Honduran legislators who traveled to the United States to sound their concern to Congress were told that this is a problem for Honduras, a sovereign country (!), and not for the United States. Carlos Orbin Montoya, president of the Honduran Congress, responded with certain bitterness that the United States is a "mediocre and traitorous" ally.

President Azcona seems blissfully unaware of the problem. Admittedly some say his signing of the peace accords was precisely due to residual political subtlety—to avoid chaining himself to Reagan's wagon since it is unclear who will win the next presidential elections; others, however, cite his visit to Washington, managed by ultra-right US senator Jesse Helms, and his hindrance of the peace accords as conclusive proof of his inability to comprehend how lashed to the wagon he is, as it careens on to the end of its run.

The armed forces, for their part, are playing both sides, not daring to define themselves. Foreign Minister López Contreras' OAS speech (offering Tegucigalpa for bilateral peace talks between Honduras and Nicaragua, and even offering their capital as a possible site of talks between Nicaragua and the United States) must have been linked to the military position, as he was named from a list provided by Azcona. His speech was rapidly forgotten, though, overshadowed by General Regalado's letter to the US Congress recommending a favorable vote on contra aid. Then there was the statement by the armed forces that the contras could be expelled from Honduras, which contrasted somewhat with President Azcona's that it would cost $250 million to do so successfully. The armed forces appear to be caught between the ruinous idea of war with Nicaragua and their conviction that they could not coexist with a revolutionary Nicaragua in the region.

The bottom line, however, has been the continuous effort of the government and the armed forces to limit the reach of Esquipulas II, fruit of Honduras' special relations with the United States. López Contreras arrived late to the first executive committee meeting of the International Commission on Verification and Follow-up (CIVS) and was not present in the United Nations when the other ministers handed over the peace accords to the UN Secretary General. From the beginning he has echoed Assistant Secretary of State Elliott Abrams, calling the peace accords "provisional."

The nearly mortal blow was Honduras' refusal to accept the concept of on-site verification of the accords, resolved by the CIVS, which allowed that in situ could mean within the respective country, and not necessarily in its military installations, which Honduras rejected as taboo.

And finally, Azcona made common cause with El Salvador's President Duarte at the January 14-16 summit meeting in San José to assure that the time limits for compliance with the accords not be set down in a more structured calendar, as recommended by the CIVS. Instead, the outstanding accords were converted into "immediate" obligations which, despite being also affirmed as "unavoidable" in the Joint Declaration of the Presidents, could be gotten around by all countries—except Nicaragua—through shameless passivity.

The March for Dignity and Sovereignty took place in this context on March 5. The initiative remained isolated in a year of many dignified words but few actions.

A government of crisis management

"I'm the strongest President this country has had," declared President José Azcona Hoyo during 1987, bragging that "I have no commitments to anyone." And indeed it seemed the case; but it also seemed that nobody in Honduras was committed to him either. During the internal elections for the Liberal Party's presidential candidate, the first majority vote went to Carlos Flores Facussé, the sinister adviser to President Suazo Córdova (first of the civilian presidents) and today a representative to Honduras' Congress. Orbin Montoya, a lukewarm supporter of Azcona and president of the Congress, took second place.

The President is very isolated; when there was talk of a coup in the middle of the year, Azcona declared, with notable serenity but also with awareness of his own weakness, "I will go home calmly." That weakness was further evidenced by his ridiculous trip to Washington, in which he did not even lunch with Senator Robert Dole, who had invited him. His surreptitious return to Honduras after the signing of Esquipulas II, like a naughty child awaiting punishment, was yet another sign, as was his performance after the presidential summit in San José: At the final press conference, Azcona was the only Central American President who did not address the press. Before his arrival in San José, he complained that "they've tarred us all with the same brush," by which he meant that the CIVS report had not played its expected role of concentrating on Nicaragua's "sins," absolving the other countries.

Nor does the lack of autonomy and political principle stop with the President. The Honduran Congress has not revoked Decree 33—a profoundly repressive law dating from General Alvarez's era—despite the fact that it should have been nullified with the promulgation of the new Penal Code in 1986. The reason is that the Honduran Army and the security forces (FUSEP) still justify their repressive measures with this decree.

The same Congress has debated certain austerity measures that would reduce the number of congressional representatives and, of course, their benefits, with the profound result of reducing the number from 134 to 128, and, borrowing from revolutionary Nicaraguan policy, adding the losing presidential candidates (three at least). The national budget was debated for the first time ever, resulting in cuts from the presidential budget and big cuts from social services, but defense and security expenditures were not affected at all. These costs are embedded in the national budget in such a way that the actual costs are not public. While Congress threatened to reveal the quantities, it ultimately backed off from a direct confrontation with the armed forces.

When it came time to vote on military promotions, Orbin Montoya announced that "by higher orders" they could only vote up or down on the whole list. Only the PDC representative, Efraín Pérez Arrivillaga, abstained, since the list included recently returned Major Alexander Hernández, the well-known death squad organizer during the command of General Alvarez.

The judiciary also demonstrated extraordinary submission to the illegal armed forces' activities in 1987. The Supreme Court president declared that the military forces are allowed to employ "exceptional measures" in cases where they suspect subversion, and did not change his position even in the wake of strong criticism from the national press and human rights organizations. When FUSEP forces assassinated a supreme court judge, the armed forces argued that the civil courts did not have jurisdiction in the case. Later, the accused disappeared and was found hundreds of kilometers away in a military battalion in the Mosquitia region of Honduras. One of the principal witnesses in the case was institutionalized in a psychiatric hospital.

Human rights denunciations that the courts refuse to hear have been recorded by the Court of Human Rights, based in San José, Costa Rica. In these affidavits, the Honduran government is accused of involvement in the disappearance of a number of Honduran and Central American citizens. A military officer summoned by the Court as a witness in one case was later assassinated, as was Miguel Angel Pavón, a congressional alternate, just before the Esquipulas III summit. Pavón had received a number of death threats stemming from his willingness to testify in the case.

In 1987, the Honduran armed forces distinguished themselves by displaying an unexpected degree of stability. What was expected was that a recently promoted group of army officers, known as the "6th promotion" would bring reform to the armed forces, but that has not been the case; the new officers have remained loyal to Azcona and his policies.

They are somewhat more subtle in carrying out repression against the Honduran people, leaving the bulk of the dirty work to FUSEP. With Honduras assigned the role of regional security by the United States, however, the armed forces' security units—principally the G-2 intelligence unit, the special Battalion 3-16 created by Alvarez and the National Investigation Unit (DNI)—have begun to play an increasingly broad internal security role, with significant repercussions. The Honduran population, which had long maintained a certain sympathy for the armed forces, has now come to hate them, regarding them as contributing to a sense of insecurity as well as to the growing repression. This shift in the character of the Honduran armed forces has also led a number of Hondurans to fear the rapid transition to ongoing violence such as that in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Nicaragua during the Somoza dictatorship, a vision that has seriously damaged the Honduran government.

The repressive measures often include outright murder of the members of revolutionary organizations (for instance, the "Lorenzo Zelaya" group, known popularly as the "Lenchos"), with no thought of detaining them. This is essentially because the revolutionary groups are small, weak and no doubt infiltrated, and thus easily detected. But it is also because the intelligence services consider they have all the information they need and thus the best route is to make an "example" of those involved in opposition activity.

The politicians (including the armed forces, which have restrained themselves from once again grabbing the reigns of power only for fear of angering their US allies) are merely administrators of a worsening crisis. Instead of using the substantial US assistance for development projects (only 23.3% of US aid goes to productive projects), it is used to put right the government's poor administration, service payments on the debt, fiscal deficits and the rapidly growing corruption. The politicians will only enter into direct contradiction with US interests when supporting them would mean the possibility of losing elections. For instance, it was virtually impossible in political terms for the government to carry out a devaluation of the lempira, Honduras' national currency.

In the hands of these politicians, the Constitution is being manipulated or ignored, as was demonstrated when municipal elections, mandated for November 1987, were suspended. Though the Liberal and National Parties, Honduras' two traditional parties, claimed that they did not have enough time to ready their slates, the reality was that they feared significant inroads by smaller, more progressive parties at the local level.

The Economy: Poverty and Corruption

In our introduction we referred to data gathered and analyzed by the Social Research Institute of The Hague, which characterizes Honduras as one of the countries least able in recent years to meet the basic needs of its population. UNICEF also offers disastrous statistics. Seventy-eight percent of the Honduran peasant population lives in extreme poverty, with no possibility of meeting minimal nutritional standards. With 50% of all births born to anemic mothers, 72.5% of children under five years of age suffer from some degree of malnutrition. A number of residents of Tegucigalpa's marginal neighborhoods have been violently displaced from their homes, and the street vendors who set up shop on the sidewalks outside established businesses have met the same fate. The Technological Business Administration Institute surveyed some 5,000 people and concluded that 71.6% of Honduras' economically active population (EAP) is without steady employment. In the central part of the city of Comayaguela, 45.8% of the families have no housing.

The crisis worsens with each year. The expected increase in the 1987 gross domestic product is between 1-2%, far less than the increase in the EAP. Consumer buying power has declined steadily over the last nine years. The public sector deficit has actually decreased somewhat, due to the completion of a massive hydroelectric project, but Honduras' foreign debt continues to grow—reaching $2.6 billion last year—and the country continues in arrears in its debt service payments. The international financial institutions are reiterating their call for a devaluation of the lempira to make Honduras' economy more competitive worldwide.

Meanwhile, the national budget suffered a number of serious modifications. In effect, there is no planning other than that effected by AID. The Honduran economy is on the brink of disaster, sustained only by substantial US aid. Last year, Honduras received $220 million, $80 million of which was military aid. This year the Reagan Administration is asking for $250 million in economic aid, along with $80 million in military assistance. Senator Christopher Dodd, member of the Subcommittee on Hemispheric Affairs, called for a reduction in those amounts to $150 and $30 million respectively. In January, the State Department announced that Congress had reduced the amounts to $85 and $40 million respectively.

Honduran exports went from $630 million in 1982 to $982 in 1987, but only $90 million of it is due to increased agroexports such as coffee or beef (the latter due largely to the illegal transfer of beef cattle from Nicaragua to Honduras.) The greatest growth was recorded in the shrimp and banana industries, Honduras' two foreign enclaves. Honduras is the only country in Central America that has agreed to develop its fishing industry under enclave conditions.

The grassroots movement:
Peasant unity and a new church stance

The most notable event related to the grassroots movement was the alliance between the old National Association of Honduran Peasants (ANACH) and the newer CNTC. The former, created in 1962 with the aid of the AFL-CIO and its regional spin-off, the Inter-American Regional Labor Organization (ORIT), has more members but—understandably—has generally had a less combative stance.

This alliance has held now for a year, originating in a number of militant land takeovers (a total of 100,000 hectares). There is an agricultural frontier in Honduras, and a lot of idle productive land in private hands, but paradoxically, there are 100,000 rural families without land, a breeding ground for agrarian unrest. The demands of the takeovers was that the government comply with the existing agrarian reform law and that it replace the current director of the National Institute for Agrarian Reform. President Azcona, demonstrating a fierce loyalty to his collaborators, publicly stated that he would sooner step down than acquiesce to the peasants' demands. The armed forces stepped in to mediate, substantially toning down the movement.

Unity did not materialize between urban and rural unions on May 1, however, when two competing demonstrations were called. One drew some 5,000 and the other (called by the CNTC and other groups) was 20,000 strong. The May Day declarations sharply criticized the government and denounced the presence of foreign troops on Honduran soil.

Repression in the countryside has increased significantly, though somewhat more selectively in the wake of growing criticism of the armed forces. General Regalado has referred several times to the existence of plots against the government. His tone became more strident after Esquipulas III and the US Congressional vote on February 3 defeating Reagan's request for more aid to the counterrevolutionary forces. Of late, he has referred to a plot by the Cinchonero guerrilla group, which he charges is being prepared in Nicaragua.

Near the end of 1987, a number of peasants belonging to the CNTC were captured in Morazán, in the province of Yoro. The operation was particularly repressive and the detained peasants were tortured. In the Aguán Valley, characterized by a number of peasant mobilizations in 1986, the brutal and arbitrary actions by the armed forces and government's success in buying off some of the local leaders resulted in an unusually calm year in 1987.

Nor did 1987 see any significant actions on the part of Honduras' small armed movements (the Cinchonero and Lorenzo Zelaya movements), and they would appear to be in retreat. Three leaders in the area around San Pedro Sula and El Progreso were captured and summarily executed or committed suicide. The armed forces reported that they had died in combat with Honduran troops.

The Catholic Church took a much more active role in human rights activities than in previous years. This, along with the attitude expressed by ANACH in allying with the CNTC, could mean that the terror sown after Alvarez' repressive reign (1982-83) is finally being overcome.

In addition to calling for the formation of a National Reconciliation Commission, justifying it on the grounds of the need to stop human rights abuses and political corruption, the Church has taken a strong stance, particularly in Santa Rosa de Copán, in defense of the Salvadoran refugees. They have also defended priests who have come under government suspicion or attack.

It was only in the vicarage of Santa Barbara, however, that they actually defended the organized peasant movement when it suffered repression. This same courageous attitude was displayed in the vicarage of Yoro, part of the Tegucigalpa archdiocese, where a legal aid group was created to facilitate the rapid defense of peasants kidnapped in Morazán and El Progreso. As a consequence of these activities, a number of religious people have come under suspicion from armed forces officers, and generally have been forced to back down on orders from their superiors.

The Catholic Church appears to be the only institution in the country the military is forced to respect. While a number of bishops have acted with courage in recent years, the archbishop, head of Honduras' National Reconciliation Commission, refused to attend the November meeting in New York between the CIVS and representatives of the reconciliation commissions from all five countries.

In summary, Esquipulas II shook the security of the Honduran military in 1987, which stems from the business coming their way from their role in supporting US interests—principally the counterrevolutionary forces—in the region. At the same time, the Honduran government has deepened its dependence on the United States, entering a stage that, given its low level of national integration, could well end in a dangerous dead-end. Neither the Honduran bourgeoisie, including the famous San Pedro Sula group, nor the armed forces are capable of taking a course of action that would extricate Honduras from the continuing trend toward denationalization of the economic enclaves.

The divisions among the different progressive groups (the M-Lider party headed by the Reyna brothers, the Human Rights Commission directed by Dr. Ramón Custodio, the Committee for the Disappeared led by Zenaida Velásquez, etc.) would seem to preclude the formation of a broad opposition coalition that could offer concrete alternatives to traditional Honduran politics. Much attention is on the Catholic Church, although its role would be to advance the people's consciousness and cultural patterns through prophetic action rather than to take on an explicit leadership role in any opposition grouping.

While Esquipulas II might be able to resolve the Central American conflict in Nicaragua or El Salvador, Honduras is too entangled in the problem of the counterrevolutionary forces and their increasing influence in Honduran political life. The contras have infiltrated a number of student organizations and, unwilling to end up confined to the status of refugees, are deeply involved in drug trafficking—as are some members of the Honduran armed forces, according to recent information published in The New York Times.

The regional role the armed forces have accepted keeps them from carrying out some of the national aspirations they once professed to have. The structural weakness of the Honduran state was more evident than ever in 1987 and, at the moment, that is not helpful to the Central American cause, although in the long run it could be the factor that pushes the Honduran people to rescue their national identity. The very signing of Esquipulas II, despite everything, indicates that Honduras is no longer a mere pawn of the United States.

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Modernization and Militarism

Military Solution in Crisis

Dependence and the Military

Steps on the Road to Peace

Between Dignity and Submission

Conclusions: Whither Central America
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