Honduras: A Key Piece In The Central American Puzzle
Honduras has come to play a key role for the future of all Central America, and the U.S. has taken care to support policies that guarantee that Honduras will assume this key role.
Over the past months, we have been making increasingly frequent references to Honduras in our articles updating the month’s events and in articles dealing with U.S. covert operations (March, 1982) and the “silent invasion” (August, 1982). During that same period of time, Honduras has come to play a pivotal role in the future of all of Central America, and the United States has pursued a policy towards Honduras to assure that it take on that important role. As far back as March 23, 1980, columnist Jack Anderson described the Carter Administration’s determination “to add still another sorry chapter to the chronicle of Yankee imperialism in Central America. The Administration apparently has chosen Honduras to be our new ‘Nicaragua’ – a dependable satellite bought and paid for by American military and economic largess”.
Compared to the other countries of Central America, relatively little is known about Honduras, except perhaps that it grows bananas, that it had an election recently, and that, as a result, the United States calls it an oasis of peace and democracy in a region otherwise marked by violent conflicts. The Hondurans themselves bemoan their lack of international visibility, charging that the big media only come to Honduras when guerrillas carry out some daring action as in their recent takeover of the Chamber of Commerce building in San Pedro Sula.
In this article, we will present three different aspects of the current situation in Honduras. First, we will look at U.S. policy towards Honduras and why Honduras is an exceedingly appropriate ally to carry out U.S. policy in the region. Second, we will examine relations between Nicaragua and Honduras as they have grown steadily more strained over the past six months, largely due to the dictates of U.S. policy. Finally, we will turn our attention to the effect that Honduras’s increasing regional role is having on human rights, popular movements, and political alignments within the country itself.
If the United States was looking for a new regional surrogate to replace Nicaragua after the Sandinista victory in July, 1979, this effort was complemented by Honduras’ unique suitability to assume the task of trying to contain revolutionary movements and launch counterrevolutionary attacks.
I- U.S. Policy: Defining a Role for Honduras
The most obvious, although not necessarily most important, reason for Honduras assuming this role is its strategic location bordering on Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Guatemala. Its southern border with El Salvador, the scene of the 1969 “Soccer War”, is of great strategic value since the demilitarized zones along the border, created after the war, have served the Salvadoran guerrillas as a rearguard. This area has also been the scene of several bloody massacres along the Río Sumpul, carried out jointly by Salvadoran and Honduran troops. Honduras’ long border with Nicaragua has also been the scene of major attacks by and infiltration of anti-Sandinista forces into Nicaragua. From the U.S. viewpoint, Honduras has been the channel through which the alleged arms flow from Nicaragua to Salvadoran guerrillas has passed.
A- Geographic Position
While Honduras’ geography may be a happy coincidence of fate for U.S. interests, other more substantive reasons also explain Honduras’ new role in the region.
B- Traditional Dependence on the United States
For decades, Honduras was the archetypical “banana republic”, where the United Fruit Company and later Castle and Cooke’s subsidiary, Standard Fruit, controlled the bulk of economic and political power in the country. As recently as 1975, a scandal involving United Brands toppled the government of then President General Oswaldo López Arellano. If the banana companies’ influence has diminished in recent years, the continued dominance of U.S. interests remains as strong as ever, usually articulated through the U.S. Ambassador. Current Ambassador John Dimitri Negroponte, a veteran of posts in both South Vietnam and Cambodia, has filled the post well, serving as a close advisor to President Suazo Córdoba and an active backer of Armed Forces Chief, General Gustavo Alvarez.
A second form of U.S. domination in Honduras, and one which takes on increasing importance as internal contradictions mount, is U.S. penetration into the Honduran labor movement through the American Institute for Free Labor Development. Honduras has a long tradition of a strong and well-organized labor movement dating back to 1954, when the banana company workers struck for the right to unionize. Seeing the danger that such a development posed to the interests of the U.S., the AFL-CIO and later the AIFLD began an active program in Honduras to co-opt the most militant union leadership and instill a strongly anti-Communist sentiment into the unions. As a result, Honduras’ largest union confederation, the Honduran Workers Confederation (CTH), is ideologically dependent on AIFLD and follows a staunch anti-Communist line.
A third reason why it is suitable to playing an increasing military role in the region is that the Honduran military, starting in the middle seventies, had begun its own arms buildup. This gave the Hondurans a good running start even before the U.S. began to pour in substantial amounts of military aid in 1981.
C- Honduras’ Arms Buildup
The reason for the Honduran arms purchases was its defeat at the hands of the Salvadoran military in their 1969 border war. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute Yearbook for 1980, between 1975 and 1979 Honduras was the fourth largest arms importer in the Caribbean Basin area and the single largest in Central America. Honduras’s air force, considered the best in Central America, includes 12 Israeli-modified French Super Mystere jet fighters, Yugoslav-modified Canadian F-86 saber jets, 6 SA-37 counter-insurgency combat planes, and other training and reconnaissance aircraft from Britain and the U.S. In addition, the army is equipped with light-weight British Scorpion tanks, Israeli patrol boats, and a variety of U.S. trucks, jeeps, communications equipment, M-16 and M-14 rifles, grenade launchers, mortars, recoilless rifles, and side arms.
Even before U.S. military advisors arrived in Honduras, the U.S. had been active in training Honduran officers. Between 1971 and 1980, 2259 Honduran military personnel received training by the U.S., and the number of Honduran officers who attended “Command and General Staff” courses at the U.S. Army School of the Americas in the Canal Zone from 1976-1980 was three times more than any other Latin American Country. (See NACLA’s “Honduras on the Border of War”, Nov/Dec, 1981). In March, 1980, the Carter Administration also sent 10 Huey helicopters to Honduras on a one-year loan agreement. The agreement has since been extended to five years.
Since the time that Honduras was propelled into its new regional role, U.S. military aid has increased dramatically, almost quadrupling between 1979 and 1981, and then doubling again between 1981 and 1983. Military aid for the current year consists of $10.7 million in aid, $12 million in arms sales, an additional $17 million in the proposed Caribbean Basin Initiative (CBI), and $21 million in military construction funds for airfield improvement. There is now a total of $32 million in military assistance to Honduras being considered by the U.S. Congress. The airfield agreement grants the U.S. rights to use the improved airfields, on 24-hour notice, for a tactical jet fighter squadron. A rather telling historical note on the agreement is that the present agreement, reached between Honduras and the United States on May 7, 1982, is an addendum to an earlier U.S.-Honduran agreement reached on May 20, 1954. The result of the 1954 agreement has now been recorded in history as the CIA’s use of Honduran airfields to launch the CIA-sponsored invasion of Guatemala and the overthrow of Guatemalan President Arbenz.
In 1979, only 9% of U.S. aid to Honduras was military aid, whereas by 1982 that ratio had changed considerably with 24% of aid being military, and under the CBI fully 33% of Honduras’ allotment would be military aid. If one adds Economic Support Funds to these calculations (these are unrestricted funds to be used at the country’s discretion) in 1983 only 46% of U.S. aid will be for development purposes and the other 54% will be for military and economic support. These figures show clearly that, Administration claims notwithstanding, U.S. support has shifted away from the civilian sector and towards the military.
The fourth major reason for Honduras’ role as a key component of U.S. policy in the region is the fact that Honduras has loyally followed U.S. prescriptions for elections to give the government legitimacy. The other side of this policy, however, is that the military continue to hold ultimate power behind the façade of a civilian regime.
D- A Civilian Façade to a Military Regime
Bowing to strong U.S. pressure, Honduras held its first elections in nine years in April, 1980, eventually leading to a return to civilian rule after 19 years of military regimes, save a ten month interlude in 1971-1972. The 1980 elections, in which the Liberal Party won a surprising majority, elected a constituent assembly, which voted to retain conservative General Policarpo Paz García as president. This led observers to comment that the Liberals had won the elections and lost the presidency.
In the November 1981 elections, the Liberals ran a humble country doctor, Roberto Suazo Córdova, against National Party candidate Ricardo Zúñiga. In a large voter turnout, the Liberal Party was swept into office by a substantial margin. The voting clearly reflected a rejection of the Armed Forces (the National Party had always been more closely identified with the army) and the people’s hopes that the Liberals, after being out of power for 19 years, would steer the country on a new course.
In fact, however, behind-the-scenes negotiations between both parties and the military prior to the elections had already severely restricted the civilian government’s room to maneuver before it had even taken office. In exchange for allowing the elections to take place, the military high command demanded that there be no investigation into corruption, that the Armed Forces have veto power over all cabinet appointments and that they have complete and unrestricted control over all matters related to defense and internal security. The military, therefore, pulled off an alliance with the Liberal Party which allowed elections to proceed without any mishaps or fraudulent vote counts, to the U.S.’s obvious pleasure.
Two days before Suazo Córdova was inaugurated, the Armed Forces held their internal election for Commander in Chief, which was won handily by the Colonel Gustavo Alvarez Martínez. At the time, Alvarez was head of the country’s security apparatus (FUSEP), which, under his careful tutelage, had been responsible for a wave of repression and disappearances unknown to Honduras before. Alvarez received his military training in Peru, Argentina, and Fort Benning, Georgia. While head of the Fourth Army Battalion in 1975, he was on the payroll of the Castle and Cooke multinational and responsible for the military takeover of the Las Isletas banana growers’ cooperative. Later, Alvarez commanded troops in the country’s major industrial center of San Pedro Sula, where he developed close links to both the national modernizing industrial bourgeoisie and to Texaco, the operator of the country’s only oil refinery.
Alvarez seems to be the perfect answer to U.S. dreams of having a powerful military figure behind a weak and subservient civilian president. Some of Alvarez’s statements which give most insight have been that “subversives have no human rights”, or his appraisal that “the Honduran peasant is as hungry as the Salvadoran peasant. The difference is that the Honduran peasant doesn’t know he’s hungry.” In April, just days after Foreign Minister Paz Barnica presented Honduras’ peace plan to the OAS, Alvarez set the record straight by saying that Honduras would welcome U.S. troops on its soil to repel the communist threat.
Ever since the triumph of the Sandinistas in July, 1979, the presence of members of Somoza’s ex-National Guardsmen in neighboring Honduras has been a source of tension between the two countries. It was not, however, until the incursions took on more serious proportions early this year, coinciding with the Administration’s approval of a $19 million covert operation campaign against Nicaragua, that Honduran-Nicaraguan relations began to deteriorate.
II- Honduran-Nicaraguan Relations
Past Envíos have discussed at length the nature of these border attacks, Nicaragua’s proposal for a joint border patrol to contain both the attacks and the alleged arms flow (rejected by Honduras under U.S. guidance), and more recently, joint U.S.–Honduran military maneuvers along the Nicaraguan border. We will now limit our discussion to a synthesis of Nicaraguan-Honduran relations.
Just as the United States prefers to use Honduras as a proxy for direct U.S. intervention in Nicaragua, Honduras has preferred to use the Somocista forces and Miskito Indians to fight instead of Honduran forces. One reason why it has been difficult to establish the direct link between the CIA and its covert support to the Somocistas and the Miskito Indians fighting the Sandinistas from Honduras is that this aid seems to be channeled almost exclusively through the Honduran military. According to a recent article in a leading Mexican newspaper, the aid to the anti-Sandinista forces comes to the FUSEP, the Public Security Force, which then sees to its distribution. The FUSEP, formerly under the command of General Alvarez, is now headed by Colonel Daniel Bali Castillo, a close associate of Alvarez and formerly battalion commander in El Paraiso, a zone of heavy ex-National Guardsmen concentration.
A- Honduran Support for Counterrevolutionary Forces
A second important aspect of Honduran collaboration with anti-Sandinista forces is that only those groups with a strong military base and ties to Somoza’s ex-National guard operate out of Honduras, while the anti-Somocista, anti-Sandinista groups have been told by Honduran authorities that they are not welcome. As a result, the 15th of September Legion, the FDN (Nicaraguan Democratic Front) and Steadman Fagoth’s wing of MISURASATA (now referred to as MISURA in Honduras) are all based in Honduras. When Eden Pastora came to Honduras earlier this year, he was given food, lodging and transportation, but not the freedom of movement or promises of logistical support accorded to the FDN. This apparently reflects both Honduran and U.S. policy to support those groups with some military muscle and try to get the political fronts such as Pastora’s FRS to unify behind the FND. (This attempt has failed, however, as Pastora, Brooklyn Rivera of the other wing of MISURASATA, Alfonso Robelo of the MDN, and Fernando “El Negro” Chamorro Rappaccioli of the UDN-FARN recently announced their unification in Costa Rica into the so-called Democratic Revolutionary Alliance).
In addition to Honduran support of counterrevolutionary forces, recent months have seen a dramatic increase in the possibility, some refer to it as the inevitability, of direct war between the two countries. This possibility, much more palpable in Honduras where the press has whipped up a frenzied campaign against Nicaragua than in Nicaragua where no mass mobilizations of troops or militia has been undertaken, is seen by some observers as a direct result of both an aggressive policy by the United States against Nicaragua and General Alvarez’s own bellicosity.
B- The Threat of War Between Nicaragua and Honduras
According to a New York Times article on July 8, Alvarez had planned an air strike on Puerto Cabezas in July but was talked out of it by the U.S. State Department. Likewise, the Washington Letter on Latin America, part of the London-based Latin American Newsletter, reported that Alvarez had planned a preemptive air strike against Nicaragua for the first week of August. Again, the State Department got wind of his plans and prevented such an attack for fear that Honduras, and not Nicaragua, would be seen as the obvious aggressor.
Both of these incidents reveal, however, that Alvarez is acting, to some extent at least, independently of U.S. directives. On the question of a direct war with Nicaragua, U.S. policy has been ambiguous. On the one hand, the Symms Resolution, supported by the Administration, would indicate that the U.S. would go to the aid of any country fighting Cuban, and by extension, Nicaraguan subversion. The agreement to let U.S. planes use Honduran airfields would tend to further boost Honduran confidence of U.S. support. On the other hand, Defense Secretary Weinberger said recently that the U.S. would not support Honduras with troops in case of a war with Nicaragua, reflecting conventional Pentagon thought that it would be infinitely easier to put troops into Central America than it would be to get them out. The most paradoxical of U.S. signals, however, is the case of Honduran Colonel Leónidas Torres Arias.
It is by now an open secret in political circles in Tegucigalpa that Torres Arias had the backing of some sector or sectors of the U.S. government in making his declarations against Alvarez in a press conference in Mexico (See Envio 15 for details). The most reasonable interpretation of this support is that the U.S. is sending a warning to Alvarez that his pre-emptive air strikes are not in line with present U.S. policy towards Nicaragua and his independence of action is not appreciated. While the statement of Torres Arias (who was one of Somoza’s most ardent defenders in Honduras and remains a good friend of Somoza’s son) was officially repudiated by both the Liberal Party and the Armed Forces, it has, momentarily at least, weakened Alvarez and put a damper on war preparations with Nicaragua. In addition, Torres Arias is known to have support among some of the officers at a level of major and lieutenant colonel, to whom he showed his statement against Alvarez prior to its release.
U.S. policy seems to be designed to prevent Alvarez from being, according to one prominent political analyst in Tegucigalpa, “an unreliable ally who was likely to do a Galtieri on them”. That is to say, a Honduran attack on Nicaragua would generate an immediate Nicaragua counter attack, which would then ignite an entire regional conflict and force the U.S. to commit its troops to the battle. At present, U.S. policymakers, besides being diverted by events in the Middle East, are content with the political capital they have gained from the Salvadoran elections and with the war of attrition being waged against Nicaragua which is, they believe, having the salutary effect of creating domestic unrest and worsening economic conditions. In the face of this favorable status quo, they do not want a General Alvarez upsetting the marbles which the U.S. has carefully set in place.
While this does not represent a fundamental change in U.S. policy towards either Nicaragua or Honduras, it does represent an assessment of U.S. policy as having met with some success in the region and a change in style with the replacement of Haig by George Schultz as Secretary of State. The policy of waging war on Nicaragua remains firmly in place although the form of that war is what one U.S. analyst called “a slow-motion Bay of Pigs invasion” and not the type of pre-emptive air strike that General Alvarez had in mind.
Extensive parallels have been drawn between U.S. intervention in El Salvador and the early period of the Vietnam War. To draw out the comparison further, one can imagine Honduras as the Cambodia of Central America: a supposedly neutral country hoping to remain so, but that gets pushed or dragged into the regional conflict due to the dictates of U.S. policy. As a result, the domestic fabric of society is destroyed and the same process of political polarization takes place as has occurred in neighboring countries. The question is, how accurate a description is this of the current domestic political situation in Honduras?
III- The War at Home
The elections in November 1981, that brought the Liberal Party to power, reflected both a repudiation of the Armed Forces as well as a genuinely popular sentiment favoring the Liberal Party and its reformist past. The fact that the Liberal Party has joined forces with the army and that President Suazo Córdova has thrown his complete support behind General Alvarez can be explained by the fact that the Liberals have defined their own staying power in terms of their subordination to the military. Despite the fact that the Liberal Party is thereby losing popular support, large sectors of the population continue to be willing to give the Liberals more time to prove themselves.
A- Political Parties
Another reason for Liberal Party support is that there is very little in the way of an alternative. ALIPO, the Popular Liberal Alliance, which is the progressive wing of the Liberal Party, was marginalized during the party congress last year and its primary voice, the newspaper El Tiempo, has been taking a steadily more conservative stance on issues. The Christian Democratic Party, which has maintained an independent position from the hemispheric body and did not support the Duarte government in El Salvador, polled a meager 19,000 votes in the elections, although it has recently been outspokenly opposed to war with Nicaragua. The main leftwing parties did worse than the Christian Democrats, garnering only 4,000 votes in the elections and no representation in the Chamber of Deputies. The net result is that at the level of political parties there is very little organized opposition to the present government’s headlong flight towards intervention.
Dr. Ramón Custodio, president of the Committee for the Defense of Human Rights on Honduras, identifies the beginning of large-scale disappearances in Honduras with the naming of Colonel Alvarez as director of security forces. Since then, Custodio says that Honduras has been submitted to a “campaign of systematic repression” in what he calls “an undeclared state of siege”. Furthermore, with the election of a Constitutional government inaugurated this January, Custodio has seen no improvement whatsoever in the human rights situation.
B- Repression and the Popular Movements
Repression in Honduras, however systematically it is done, has not been carried out on a massive level but rather has been selectively applied. The major target has been groups tied to or supporting the Nicaraguan revolution or the Salvadoran struggle, as well as Honduras’ own revolutionary movement. COSPUCA, the Committee in Solidarity with the People of Central America, has seen its entire leadership arrested, threatened, tortured and forced into exile for the “crime” of working with the Salvadoran refugees and denouncing their treatment at the hands of the Honduran authorities. COLPROSUMAH, one of the teachers’ unions, which denounced Honduran support for Somocista forces, likewise has had sixteen of its leaders arrested.
One effect of this repression has been to make it very difficult for popular peasant and trade union organizations to speak out in favor of the Nicaraguan revolution or the Salvadoran guerrillas for fear that they too will be labeled as “communist agents”. This has been accomplished through unleashing a fierce ideological campaign through the nation’s communications media. Thus, the recent Cinchonero takeover of the Chamber of Commerce building in San Pedro Sula was effectively manipulated by the government into another example of Nicaraguan or FMLN subversion in Honduras, and the government even got some 20 to 30 thousand people out into the streets to repudiate the action.
The revolutionary armed organizations in Honduras, of which there are several including the Cinchoneros, have been able to pull off some spectacular and daring actions but have little mass base to work from. The actions and demands of these groups do, however, reflect indigenous roots and stem from the conditions of repression and intervention which prevail within Honduras and in its relations with its neighbors. The Cinchoneros’ demands, for example, included the repeal of the anti-terrorist law used mainly to repress peasants involved in land takeovers, freedom for 57 political prisoners and disappeared persons, an end to generalized repression against the popular movements, the withdrawal of Honduras from the Central American Democratic Community, the expulsion from Honduras of U.S., Israeli, Argentine, and Chilean military advisors, an end to intervention in El Salvador, dismantling the camps and expelling the Somocista groups operating in Honduras, and, finally, investing the sums of money from U.S. military aid into social and economic projects.
In launching its ideological campaign against its opponents, the government has also made use of its own particular from of press censorship. El Tiempo, which was the only paper to present the full text of the Cinchoneros’ statement and demands, mysteriously found that the next day, right at the hour of the press run, their electricity was cut off. The paper failed to appear that day.
Popular sentiment in Honduras seems to run equally strongly against what the government and the press label Nicaraguan or Salvadoran guerrilla-induced subversion as it does against Honduras’ military intervention in neighboring countries. Given the repression leveled at organizations which have spoken out in the past, the ideological campaign being waged by the government and U.S. control over large segments of the labor movement, the popular movements and opposition forces in Honduras are generally weak and splintered and have been largely neutralized as an effective voice against Honduran intervention.
There are divisions within the military and between it and the civilian government, between the hawks and the doves, with Alvarez being the leader of the former and Foreign Minister Paz Barnica the leader of the latter. What the Torres Arias affair demonstrates, however, is that the hawkish or dovish position is strengthened or weakened depending primarily on the course that U.S. policy takes. Given the present circumstances, the political balance of forces will more likely be determined in Washington than in Tegucigalpa.
Seen from the perspective of Honduras, tensions have definitely eased in the past month and the imminence or inevitability of a war with Nicaragua is not a forgone conclusion. Statements made by Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Stephen Bosworth during the Cinchonero guerrilla takeover, charging that these actions “were orchestrated by Nicaragua’s Sandinistas and the FMLN”, only add fuel to what is still an explosive regional situation and tend to reinforce the hard-line Alvarez position within Honduras.
Honduran democratic institutions are notoriously weak, and although the U.S. has worked hard to build up the image of a civilian government, the Reagan Administration probably needs Honduras’ cooperation in Central America more than it needs a civilian government. The U.S. policy towards Honduras had strengthened the hand of the military to such an extent that Alvarez may believe that any action he might take against Nicaragua would meet with Washington’s support, even if it were not in the U.S.’s best possible interest at this moment. To reinforce his independence of action, Alvarez has also recently traveled to Western Europe to purchase arms, including anti-tank weapons for possible use against Nicaragua’s T-55 tanks.
Given Honduran superiority in the air (Honduras has 39 combat-ready aircraft as opposed to 7 for Nicaragua), an air strike would be the most likely strategy the Honduran military could pursue, perhaps in response to a real or alleged Nicaraguan provocation. The fact that such an attack has not yet occurred is, in large part, due to the restraint Nicaragua has shown in not responding to past provocations. It should also be remembered that Alvarez does command loyalty among the highest level of the military brass. The possibility that such an attack could take place, despite its being contrary to the current nuances of U.S. policy, is entirely consistent with the Reagan Administration’s fundamental policy of “rolling back the Marxist takeover of Nicaragua”. Without a basic shift in U.S. policy towards Central America, which is nowhere in sight, the threat of open war between Nicaragua and Honduras, leading to a regionalized conflict, is ever present.
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