Chinks in the US Plan
Against the backdrop of low intensity conflict, US policy towards Honduras since the early 1980s has been dominated by the following lines:
- The top priority is to convert Honduran territory into a base for US military activity in the region, particularly for activity against Nicaragua, but also for logistical support for the Salvadoran army in its anti-guerrilla campaign.
- A second feature is what we might call political reform without social content or national relevance. This is an attempt to maintain a democratic image, more in order to ride out the crisis than to seek a real end to the country’s grave problems, since such an end would necessarily involve greater grassroots participation in managing power.
- The third and final element is an ideological campaign to distort Honduran reality. Key elements include the manipulation of information, stimulation of consumption and introduction and financing of religious sects.
US economic aid, framed within a regional counterinsurgency plan, makes all of this possible. But the policy has created a profound and widespread division within Honduras. By 1984, the final year of Suazo Córdova's presidency, this division had infected nearly every social sector. The legal opposition was as much affected by it as the governing party. Traditional internal divisions were accentuated in the rightwing unions that predominate in the country. In the armed forces, where ambitions were admittedly always present among individuals or "generations," army unity was split by ambitions for power and wealth. ("Generations" in the Honduran military are based on the year of graduation from the military academy.) Private enterprise was split between those who sought to exploit the confusion and disorder and those frightened by the growing chaos. The media was indecisive, opening the door to a show of pluralism in the midst of the disorder. Finally, the Catholic Church acquired a moral authority that began to be somewhat dangerous to the system. The bishops' statements of October 1982 and July 1983 and the growing participation of the Catholic hierarchy in the national crises turned the Church into a force to be reckoned with.
The US plan, however, was fraught with contradictions that went well beyond the greed, administrative incompetence and gangsterism of those who were supposed to be carrying it out. The greatest contradiction was in the plan itself, which did not contain even the first steps towards a solution to Honduras' traditional problems.
In 1986, the US began to try to repair the damage of previous years. Two new ambassadors in one year were a clear sign that things weren’t going well. At the same time, diverse sectors on the Honduran political scene also tried to introduce new solutions to the chaotic situation. An analysis of these attempts and alternative solutions is the basis of our analysis of the Honduran reality in 1986.
Contra dance and army recompositionThe greatest political repercussions of the US military design for Honduras have to do with the Nicaraguan counterrevolution. Although the contras are not the most important aspect of the plan, they have, for many reasons, become the weakest and most conflictive aspect. In the first place, US aid to the contras financially benefits the Honduran military leadership. An estimated 20% of that aid has ended up in the private pockets of the country’s top military leaders. A scandal involving National Assembly representative Santos Zelaya—better known in the underworld of illicit dealings as "Clear Night"—resulted from the ambition of a group of military officers to get in on a lucrative deal. More than particular personal ambitions and control of contra dollars, however, this event revealed the struggles among power groups within the armed forces for hegemony within the army itself. The scandal was but the first in a succession of events culminating in the fall of Colonel Truman Cordón, leading candidate for commander of the armed forces, and the dismissal of Colonel Said Speer, strongman of the Fifth Class of the Military Academy, from his main responsibilities within the military structure. All of this was to the advantage of the officers from the upcoming Sixth Class.
In the second place, the counterrevolution has become the clearest symbol in the public mind of what might be called the denationalization of Honduras. The contras move around in Honduras as if it were their own territory; they have caused the forced displacement of thousands of Hondurans who live in areas near the border with Nicaragua; they have damaged the economy of large coffee growers in the border province of El Paraíso and are provoking a growing anti-communism within the country that has the character of a witch hunt. Exiled Nicaraguans in Honduras who are linked with the counterrevolution have been involved in numerous criminal activities, the most notable among them the murders of a priest and of retired Major Ricardo Zúñiga, who belonged to one of the most established political families in the country. The presence in Honduras of a foreign army, the members of which are criminals and felons, has been increasingly troublesome for all sectors of the population.
Little by little, the counterrevolution has ceased being good business for the Honduran military. Pressure from the US Democratic Party, not only against aid to the contras but also against the corruption that it provokes, has forced the Reagan administration to impose controls that make it harder for the aid to make its way into personal pockets. The naming of Crescencio Arias as administrator of contra funds in 1986 marked the beginning of more stringent control over the Reagan millions in Honduras. Arias, a man close to the CIA, was an obscure official in the US Embassy in Tegucigalpa, but he represented former Ambassador Negroponte whenever the ambassador was out of the country. According to reliable opinion, he is the one in the embassy with the best knowledge of the Honduran political and military world.
Alongside the discussion about how much of a cut they can get of the contra pie, another more geopolitical discussion has been going on among the Honduran military. Opposing the armed forces faction that favors prospering and maintaining its power through unconditional obedience to the US strategy, a new faction is emerging, under the leadership of the Sixth Class of the Francisco Morazán Military Academy. According to its way of thinking, the Honduran Army will always be the loser in any war with Nicaragua. This would surely be the case if, in a war provoked by the contras’ presence in Honduras, the United States were to leave the Honduran army to face the Nicaraguan army alone without massive aid. It is also clear that Honduras that would sustain the casualties in a more prolonged war, without gaining any political advantage.
Even more interesting to the thinking of this faction is that the Honduran army would still be the loser even if its participation in the conflict resulted in a victory for the counterrevolution. In such a case a good part of the US aid for the region would surely go to counterrevolutionary Nicaragua, and the Honduran army would be sandwiched between the Salvadoran army, the Guatemalan army and the counterrevolutionary Nicaraguan army, all stronger than itself and with more US aid. All of this, along with the Honduran military’s still present memory of their defeat in the war with El Salvador in 1969 and the consciousness, fainter but still alive, of the dispute with Nicaragua over the Mosquitia in the 1950s, makes the possibility of war a deep source of concern
Meanwhile, the struggle for power has been a feature of the Honduran army since the fall of General Álvarez in 1984. His departure was a mortal blow to the US strategy of controlling friendly armies through the use of key strongmen. Given the long-standing tradition of using high leadership positions for personal enrichment, the modernization of the Honduran army requires a more collective kind of leadership. Collective—or "general" leadership, to be more precise in the case of the Honduran army—could be a solution to this problem.
In the most recent struggles, it was the Sixth Class that showed the most potential for this collective leadership. This faction has not fallen victim to the insatiable greed for personal enrichment of many of its predecessors. Forged in the context of a certain amount of internal dissidence within the army under General Melgar and General Policarpo Paz, these men were "punished" with diplomatic service assignments. With a strong sense of group identity and a talent for negotiation—they reconciled with the military leadership under Álvarez—this group has, in addition, a clear geopolitical sense that avoids the crude anti-communism of many of their colleagues. There is even among them a small group—with no real possibility of taking power—disposed to seek a way to reach a stable peace with Nicaragua.
The central thread in reconstructing the Honduran army around the Sixth Class, on the other hand, has to do with the above-mentioned considerations about the contras and about a war provoked by their presence in Honduras. The conflict with the contras and all the geopolitical and economic contradictions already mentioned combined in such a way that this class captured the main command positions in the country in 1986 and, as a result, hegemony within the armed forces.
This change in hegemony in the military obviously carries consequences. In the first place, it is very possible that the Honduran army might continue its "forced march" toward the modernization and sophistication of its weaponry. Negotiations for the purchase of US F-5E planes or Israeli Kfirs and the opening of a new armored cavalry regiment equipped with advanced technology assault tanks at a point near the Gulf of Fonseca almost exactly equidistant from the borders with Nicaragua and El Salvador show that the internal differences in the armed forces have not impeded advancement in professionalization and armaments. The rise to power of the Sixth Class will mean greater efforts along these lines, given the special sensitivity to geopolitical issues among this group.
At bottom, it must always be taken into account that the entire Honduran military strategy is marked by a consciousness of the "sandwich dialectic" mentioned above. On the one hand, the Central American conflict has led to the profound modernization of the Salvadoran army, the Honduran army’s enemy ever since the 1969 "soccer war." El Salvador's need to expand its territory makes its army appear as a real military threat to its Honduran counterpart. On the other hand, the ideological "threat" that the Honduran army feels is coming from Nicaragua. In the face of this threat, the option of the Honduran military—of whatever generation—will be to manipulate the crisis to get, first of all, the greatest possible modernization for its army.
Second, it is foreseeable that the armed forces will once again insert themselves into the political scene. In fact, pressures on Azcona—who has a tendency to obsequiousness towards the United States—to ask Reagan to withdraw the contra forces from Honduran territory come directly from this new generation in the army. Based on the clearest tradition of the national security doctrine, the leaders of the Sixth Class are convinced that the army is the only institution capable of pulling Honduras out of the social chaos in which it finds itself.
Third, there is nothing to indicate that Honduras' policy toward Nicaragua is going to change very much. Even though the counterrevolution is no longer good business—at least not to the extent that it once was—and there is no advantage to a war with Nicaragua, the Sixth Class still judges the Sandinista regime to be a problem of Honduran national security with no other solution but a military one. The Honduran army thus needs the US presence in the country in order to professionalize its forces and upgrade its weaponry. This presence, in turn, is a piece of the regional counterinsurgency plan, the main objective of which is to overthrow the Nicaraguan government. All of this could bring the current Honduran military leadership to a reconciliation with the contras on a more discrete basis. It would demand that the contras remove their camps in Honduras and infiltrate into Nicaragua, in exchange for total logistical support from the armed forces for any plan to destabilize Nicaragua.
The first objective of this military group's strategy is to impede the development of the new dynamics generated by the Sandinista revolution in the region—through military means. Their second objective is to prolong the conflict as long as possible, without committing themselves to an all-out war, thereby gaining time and resources to professionalize and vitalize an army that has a complex about being the weakest of the regions' four armies. For the foreseeable future, only very strong pressure from the US, which would include direct and active participation of the US army in the war and at the same time guarantee that the Honduran army would, by the end of the conflict, have a certain military hegemony among its neighbors, could change Honduras' current military policy. We cannot, however, exclude the possibility of changes in this mentality of the military leadership, due either to the temptation for political power or the faster route of corruption.
Names and faces in the Honduran military changed at a dizzying rate throughout 1986, and the militaristic political lines seem to have hardened. The line regarding Washington, for example—to try to get the best possible portion of military aid in exchange for services rendered—has hardened. It has hardened regarding the contras, whom it will no longer allow to act as independent agents in Honduran territory, requiring instead that they submit to conditions that could be economic as well as political. It has also hardened regarding Nicaragua, which continues to be seen as a political and ideological enemy at the same time it is seen as the cause of the army's growth. And it has hardened, finally, in the face of the Honduran reality itself. It is very significant that elements of the worst kind, such as Juan López Grijalbao or Alexander Hernández, both allies of General Álvarez who were ostracized for a while, have reappeared in important positions in the military structure.
Least affected by this hardening is the Reagan administration, with whom the military agrees in seeing Nicaragua as a national security problem. At bottom, the differences between the generations of military leadership can be reduced to disagreements over the price that should be put on the services the country renders to the US war effort in Central America.
Politics: A return to traditionWhen the political sector is reduced to a mere screen for the current policy—in this case, a military strategy—politicians play at best a band-aid role in managing the crisis. A certain chain of events is automatically set in motion by not allowing any initiative that might go against US foreign policy, the interests of a corrupt and at times parasitic private enterprise sector or the army's conception of national security. First, there is a growth of cheating and cunning. Then a conception of politics as nothing more than a simple means for social climbing begins to prevail. Finally, all political activity ends up going completely against national interests. The history of Honduras, for so long subjected to the interests of the transnational banana companies, has made something of a tradition of this pattern of deterioration. Some efforts to overcome it have been made by grassroots movements and some political sectors. Among these was the Villeda reform of the 1950s; for the first time in Honduras, North-South relations were being talked about as more important than the Cold War concern with East-West relations. Even more important was the military reformism of the early 1970s, albeit rapidly co-opted by concerted pressure from private business, the banana companies and the US Embassy.
The political scheme that emerged out of those pressures was inaugurated during Suazo Cordova's regime and generated tremendous controversy, even within the governing Liberal Party. The problem continued to deepen, to the point that 1986 seemed an opportune time to recompose the Honduran political world.
With the elections of 1985 a formula was arrived at that allowed both a diversity of candidates within parties and a single result in the presidential election. What this meant was that Azcona was able to win the election with only 27.5% of the votes cast (the other Liberal candidates receiving the remainder of the 51% total vote for the Liberal Party) as against the 42.6% received by Rafael Callejas, the candidate of the opposition National Party, which tends to be more conservative. The US Embassy intervened quickly to avoid a crisis and the result was what later came to be called the National Unity Pact, an agreement between Callejas's supporters and Azcona's faction. Callejas' supporters would control the Supreme Court, two ministries, half the positions in the courts, the administration of state agencies and some foreign posts in exchange for supporting Azcona in the Congress.
This gave immediate stability to the new government—at least as compared to the previous state of affairs—but the growing political weariness it provoked has lasted throughout 1986. The still-divided Liberals tend to look on the current government as transitional, and new divisions have emerged already within the governing faction itself. In 1986 names of candidates were already being rumored for elections that won't be held until 1989. Patronage and corruption are the order of the day, while Azcona sees his role increasingly reduced to that of an extra in US policy and an impotent administrator in a crisis that is growing at all levels.
With his own party divided into factions and his own faction internally split, with hardly any internal force and a legacy of unwavering international disrepute, Azcona remains in power due more to the US need to say that there’s internal stability in Honduras than to any merit of his own. The threat that the Callejista faction will abandon the pact gives a somewhat tragic tone to the situation and it is reasonable to expect that a continuation of this state of affairs over the coming years will return public administration to the chaotic state it was in at the end of the Suazo Córdova regime.
Any hope for a political recovery that could bring some stability has to wait for 1990. The hope would be that Callejas can retain an aura of the strong young leader, as well as the support of a significant portion of the private enterprise sector, the army and the American Embassy until the elections—that is, if patronage, administrative inefficiency, corruption and chaos do not prevail before then.
The opposition that could be called reformist and that participates in the political arena has not come up with realistic alternatives to this situation. The social democratic tendency—the M-Leader Liberal faction and PINU—is caught up in an excess of politicking negotiations. The Christian Democratic Party, with a very slow growth rate, is the only one that presents any real opposition, but its role is relegated to the witness value of some honest politicians who are exceptions to the rule of national corruption given the force of electoral patronage, Honduras’ strong tradition of secular parties and the party's links with an increasingly conservative workers' movement. Pressures from the international Christian Democrats, who are trying to identify their Honduran namesake with Duarte’s policies and the right-wing Social Christian Party of Nicaragua, make it even more difficult to see how this party could project the image of being a viable way to a democratic and reformist solution to the country's deep crisis.
Economic and ideological crisisA policy geared toward war—albeit a war, like the present one, of "low intensity"—clearly conflicts with economic growth, especially if this growth looks to real social development. This is the dilemma for those in favor of the war policy: if people are getting poorer and poorer, they might rebel; but if they enjoyed greater development and well-being, it would be harder to manipulate them into supporting a war like the present one. With its economic policy designed in the US Embassy along the lines of "Reaganomics," Honduras is trying to avoid both these dangers.
The economic aid Honduras receives, however, is part of the counterinsurgency project characteristic of low-intensity warfare and, as such, will always be an emergency measure. It will be geared more toward preventing uncontrollable crises than starting development processes. Thus there will be a preference to channel it through the private business sector, which in Honduras has a greater foreign capital component than the regional average. The aid program will try to maintain the traditional capitalist structure and not spark the development of an economy in the people's interests. In this respect it is interesting to note that the aid going to cooperatives and peasant groups systematically tries to trap them into debt, dependency and consumerism, which automatically identifies these groups, or at least their leaders, with Honduran capitalist interests.
Finally, the aid will be accompanied by a systematic propaganda campaign to identify the private property system with democracy and freedom. Heading up such an effort are the Honduran property owners, who benefit from US financing, and the Protestant sects, which see in this propaganda a possible way to become legitimate and socially relevant to the somewhat artificial powers that be and the sectors of society dependent on them.
Ignoring all these weaknesses, the US economic plan can be said to have had relative success in 1986 and to have enjoyed the absolutely loyal political support of the country's rulers.
The Honduran economy is still standing. And although the population has grown at a faster rate than the economy since 1980, when US economic and military aid started, this has not stirred up the waters very much, incredible as that may seem. It does not appear to matter that the debt is beginning to reach the ceiling, with 44% of export earnings going to interest payments. Nor does it seem to matter that the people are sinking deeper into misery every year and that the gap between rich and poor is growing. Selective repression, ideological confusion and the economic co-optation of small groups of peasants have managed to keep control over a situation of increasing poverty which objectively has to be explosive. And if an ambassador, as in the case of John Ferch in 1986, makes the mistake of getting more concerned about the economy in crisis than issues like contra aid, he will soon be on his way out.
There are indications that the threat of chaos is very real: a GDP growth that is far below the population growth in real terms; a growing fiscal deficit; a drop in total investment, with no economic planning; capital flight that has been almost three times the average national budget during the last five years (the figure is calculated at $3.5 billion in trade losses together with direct capital flight); an 80% increase in the foreign debt and accompanying interest costs; and, finally, over 75% of Honduran families do not enjoy even a minimal standard of living.
The Reagan administration continues to think that the threat of chaos, by giving rise to fear and greater dependency, can continue to be used as part of the counterinsurgency plan. The administration is confident that military force and the ideological campaign—the latter working through the mass media, consumerism and the religious sects—will be able indefinitely to control those forces that threaten to brim over and lead to chaos.
Rebellion rebornThree factors weighed heavily in Honduras in 1986. First, there is the US occupation and the fact that the prolonged conflict is increasingly robbing the country of its national identity. Second, the civilian government functions are increasingly being taken over by the military as the political structures fail to deal with the crisis. Third, the living standard of the majority has declined dramatically, even to the point where there are outbreaks of hunger. The international crisis has led in part to this economic disaster, but another factor is the Honduran government's lack of capacity to implement social reforms.
For the first time in recent years, these three combined factors are touching off a growing mood of rebelliousness against the counterinsurgency program imposed by the United States. While most of the manifestations of this rebelliousness still do not translate into a definite opposition in the short run, they do say something about the military-political-ideological plan imposed by the Reagan administration: namely, it has enough holes in it that people's awareness and sense of protest can continue to evolve in the direction of an organized response.
It is ever harder to control a situation in which workers and the middle class are getting poorer, peasant farmers are increasingly being reduced to laborers in the private or cooperative agroexport enterprises, and belts of misery and unemployment continue to encircle the two main cities, especially Tegucigalpa. CONOCH, a coordinating committee of small farmers and workers, is the result not so much of the attempt to co-opt the grassroots movement as it is of the increasingly clear demand by the masses to make their presence felt in the country's chaotic political, economic and social panorama.
Until now those in charge have been able to work together to keep the lid on the masses' concerns. They have even managed to keep the United Federation of Workers of Honduras (FUTH), the most progressive labor federation, out of CONOCH. The most interesting development, however, is that the rank and file are forcing a relatively corrupt leadership to make a more militant commitment to deal with the national issues. Although this has been controllable until now, it is a two-edged sword. Landless peasants, slum dwellers, and minimum-wage workers whose salary is able to buy less and less every day are beginning to judge their leaders not only on their ability to get economic gains from the owners but also on their capacity to force the state institutions to take action for their benefit. The recent victory in the SITRATERCO strike is one example among many. This union, representing the banana workers at United Brands, received the unwavering support of the National Congress despite a clearly adverse Labor Ministry ruling.
At the same time there are signs that the membership of the grassroots organizations wants to put honest people into leadership positions. Evidence of this in 1986 was the victory by progressive sectors of COAPALMA and FECOHRA in Bajo Aguán. Although both executive committees were shortly victimized by repression, the case shows that intelligent work can result in inconceivable victories. The lesson is even clearer if it is borne in mind that COAPALMA is a front for a great deal of military corruption and self-serving manipulation by the fruit companies, which take advantage of their monopoly position in the country. The fact that what was achieved has been wiped out by repression is not an argument showing that "legal work" is impossible but rather a challenge to have a surer and more supportive base before taking the next steps.
On this same level of people's consciousness there is a growing feeling that national pride has been insulted. In spite of the systematic propaganda about the alleged advantages it offers, US presence is looked upon with increasing distrust by the Honduran people. The contras are unanimously considered undesirables. The degradation felt because of the US and contra occupation of the country is the seedbed for a growing awareness of Honduras’ true reality. These issues are getting some coverage in the mass media, not only because of their undeniable importance but also because of the strong divisions they have caused among the political families controlling the media. For them the US and contra presence is an arrow that can be constantly shot at their rivals in power.
Institutions such as the Human Rights Committees and above all the Catholic Church now have the possibility of clarifying people's thinking on these matters. For example, when the Choluteca diocese took action concerning the drought and hunger in the south, it ended up not only forcing the government to grudgingly open its eyes to these realities but also launching a vast project combining economic cooperation, consciousness-raising and the first steps of organizing. This can be recorded as one of the outstanding events in Church action in 1986 and a sign that the Honduran Church has decided to work to develop people's consciousness. The bishops' failure of nerve in not confronting the US presence and the contras' abuses does not negate the fact that the Church as such has helped to clarify the people's understanding of these important issues.
As for the revolutionary vanguards, they have grown steadily throughout 1986, and two guerrilla groups ("Cinchoneros" and "Lenchos") were constantly present in the mountains during long periods of the year.
All these signs of the people's rebelliousness, including outbreaks of armed rebellion, will require time, perhaps some years, to gather forces before being able to mount a more organized approach. Incipient as they are, though, these signs of rebellion are still very striking in a people that have been so passive for years. The rebellion has not been exported to Honduras by the Sandinista revolution or by the Salvadoran guerrilla forces. But it has certainly been produced by an imported item: the US counterinsurgency model.
In sum, Honduras begins 1987 with two of the three legs of its US-designed platform badly damaged. It has not been possible to put together a program of political reform without social reform on a lasting basis, despite all the efforts of the US Embassy—one broken leg and no sign of a way to repair it. Next, the project’s ideological coverage has been only half effective given a public consciousness so hard hit by the daily assault of hunger and unemployment—another leg broken, with anticipation of further damage. The only leg still firm is the growing militarization and the successes obtained by the army hard-liners in their efforts at internal re-composition. But any platform with only one leg to stand on is obviously pretty shaky. If people’s consciousness keeps growing during 1987 and there are coherent steps in efforts at grassroots organization, the Honduran counterinsurgency platform could begin to wobble very badly.