Honduras: Militarized and Denationalized
One of the most persistent accusations by the Reagan administration against Nicaragua can be summed up as “Nicaragua has become another Cuba.” From this, those in the central administration draw their conclusions and plan their strategies, rhetorical as well as military. The latter strategy has as one of its key objectives the militarization of Honduras. The Reagan administration is trying to make Honduras into “another Nicaragua” (reminiscent of Nicaragua’s unconditional compliance with the United States under Somoza), with the difference that present day Honduras is better equipped for a war of “counterinsurgent containment.”
The principal tendency has been to prepare in Honduras, through almost continual maneuvers, a military infrastructure designed to complement the US bases in the Panama Canal Zone. Assuming that the reader is familiar with both the structure and context of the basic data regarding Honduran realities, we shall attempt a more global analysis of how militarization has caused the denationalization of the country.
Two serious crises of the past Over the last twenty years Honduras has experienced varied and dramatic developments, two of which we will mention without going into detail.
The first was the emergence of the Central American Common Market, in which Honduras played the most disadvantageous role. From the objectives outlined by the Common Market—free transfer of capital, trade and labor and a balance in regional development—Honduras gained no benefit. Moreover, it found itself sacrificed for the benefit of more developed countries in the region, and was unable to secure an arrangement that would have allowed for certain trade preferences corresponding to the country’s lower development level.
Secondly, there was the 1969 war with El Salvador, whose fundamental cause was rooted in land disputes. In the years preceding the war (1967-1968), the Salvadoran oligarchy and government made a series of offers to assist in financing the colonization of Honduras’ La Mosquitia through the migration of Salvadorans. The Salvadoran oligarchy realized the need for an agrarian reform and was willing to support its implementation, under the condition that it be carried out on Honduran territory. Large landowners in Honduras were not pleased by this idea and reacted strongly.
The last Salvadoran effort—the visit to Honduras of Rochac, a minister in the Sánchez government—brought with it threatening proposals. The response was a Honduran agrarian-reform law sponsored by the large landowners and intended to benefit only native-born Hondurans. All this made conditions ripe for war, while frictions over the land and the Common Market served to heighten hostility between the two countries.
The war brought important consequences to bear on the Honduran army, exposing its corruption. For example, of the 1,000 soldiers supposedly stationed in Santa Rosa de Copán, only 463 actually existed, while the remaining 537 were to be found only on the payroll. In Choluteca, there were 150 fictitious soldiers. Furthermore, the corruption sparked a near revolution among the officers, who felt support from the people that the Salvadoran armed forces never achieved. From the cleanup and support emerged a relatively moderate and reformist army, which, though it feared the organized masses, could not be characterized in later years as repressive when compared with the armies of its neighbors.
Reagan’s strategies obstruct democratic changes The agrarian reform implemented under the de facto regime of General López Arellano and those who followed him did not resolve the country’s serious economic problems. Only 568,100 acres of land have been distributed since 1974, and only 439,660 were distributed between 1974 and 1977. (It is worth noting that within four years the revolutionary government of Nicaragua has distributed 1,852,500 acres of land). Today in Honduras, between 180,000 and 200,000 families are without land. In 1975, this number was 135,000.
The initiation of an electoral process in 1980, culminating with presidential and legislative elections in 1981, inspired a sense of hope in Hondurans. They had seen the failure of reformist regimes and how Melgar and Paz, the military successors of López Arellano, had held back the process of agrarian reform, so fundamental to a basically peasant society. They had also seen the triumph of the revolution in neighboring Nicaragua, despite its high cost in lives and destruction. From this emerged hope and a concrete desire for peaceful social transformation in Honduras, which could only begin if power were handed over to civilians.
In the last elections 80% of those eligible to do so voted for this plan. The process was characterized by an honesty and participation unknown before in the country’s history. The National Party, which had an historical alliance with the military, was voted out of power and the Liberals were elected.
Throughout the twentieth century, the Liberal Party only governed Honduras for a total of five and a half years. During three of those years, Liberal President Villeda Morales (1959-1962) oversaw the legislating of the Labor Code, established the beginnings of an agrarian reform and denied the United States the use of Honduran territory as the logistical base of operations for a counterrevolutionary invasion of Cuba in 1961.
The Carter administration pressured the army to yield power to civilian rule. This pressure temporarily resolved the division with which the military viewed the upcoming elections. During the electoral process, there were coup attempts, both by extreme rightwing military factions and by reformists. The former did not want to abandon power and the latter were convinced that there was no difference between the two candidates, Zúniga (National Party) and Suazo Córdova (Liberal Party). It was believed that both candidates would provoke a social crisis, which the reformist military had been trying to avoid for years.
Liberals like Suazo Córdova came into power at a very critical time for the region. Surrounded by revolutionary Nicaragua and the dramatic struggles for liberation in El Salvador and Guatemala, the Carter administration policies assigned Honduras a strategic role on the border with El Salvador. In the months preceding the elections, the Honduran and Salvadoran armies cooperated in joint counterinsurgency activities in the “Bolsones” (border areas in dispute since the end of the 1969 war). Such counterinsurgency activities have resulted in the widely know massacre of 600 Salvadoran peasants as they crossed the Río Sumpul in 1981.
Up until the Honduran presidential elections (November 1981), there appeared to be considerable continuity between Carter’s policies and those of Reagan regarding Honduras. However, upon realizing that the problems in El Salvador could not be resolved within weeks, toward the end of 1981 the Reagan Administration began to map out new strategies for the role Honduras would play on the Central American chessboard. Suazo Córdova, the Liberal civilian voted in to bring about change and put an end to military regimes, would soon adopt this role unconditionally in a game of growing militarist escalation.
Militarization of the country: A two-pronged objective What is Reagan’s strategy for Central America and more specifically for Honduras? According to the Santa Fe document, drawn up by Reagan’s foreign policy advisers before his election, Central America is disputed territory between the United States and the Soviet Union. Since, according to this document, Nicaragua is “already in the hands of the Soviet Union, Reagan’s attempts to counteract that influence include using Costa Rica as a propagandistic tool against Nicaragua. Honduras has been assigned the dual military role of opposing this alleged Soviet influence in Nicaragua and “containing” insurgent forces in El Salvador.
However, the dynamics of events that escaped Reagan’s control (consolidation of the Sandinista revolution and strengthening of the Salvadoran guerrillas) have significantly broadened the scope of the two roles allocated to Honduras. Today Honduras serves as the launching base for US intervention in Central America, specifically against the government of Nicaragua and the Salvadoran guerrillas. In the last two years, pressure has been directed more toward Nicaragua than El Salvador. The Kissinger Report ratified this strategy, while re-adorning it in a more complex manner with a proposal for a combination of economic and military support.
Before the latest anti-Nicaragua developments in Costa Rica, the strategies previously outlined for that country in the Santa Fe document seemed to have suffered serious setbacks. The same cannot be said of Honduras. Whereas in Costa Rica we saw the failure of the Central American Democratic Community, Costa Rica’s declaration of “perpetual neutrality” and the subsequent removal of Foreign Minister Volio, in Honduras the initial hard line prescribed by the United States has remained unbroken and continues to grow stronger. Not even the removal of General Álvarez from the top ranks of the military can be considered a break in the unconditional compliance with which Honduras has yielded to US strategies.
Though Álvarez’s removal did not imply a disruption (see envío number 34, April 1984), his rise in the military ranks certainly had laid the groundwork for a militarization strategy. Suazo Córdova promoted Álvarez to the position of commander-in-chief of the armed forces in spite of majority opposition from within the army high command and a vote against his promotion by the Armed Forces Superior Council in the very presence of Álvarez. Suazo’s response to this opposition could be synthesized as: “There are more serious commitments…”
Essential to any analysis of current events in Honduras is the arrival in Tegucigalpa of US Ambassador John D. Negroponte. The many changes occurring in the army at the time of his arrival served to sustain the newly emerging militaristic power represented by General Álvarez.
In order to understand this, one must consider that many officers in the Honduran army share the Reagan administration’s national security ideology, which was first put to work in Brazil toward the end of the sixties and later implemented at the cost of many lives in the Southern Cone countries and Bolivia. Álvarez, like many other Honduran officers, received military training in Argentina (1958-1962), where this ideology was rampant. The proponents of this view perceive the world as a global battleground where East confronts West and every country, like it or not, is at war. In line with this perception, Honduras is therefore at war on both borders since the Sandinista government and the Salvadoran guerrilla forces represent the “threat from the East.” The only way out for Honduras is to “defend” itself from this international communist offensive by confronting the enemy.
Such an outlook provides the logical basis for support of the counterrevolution against Nicaragua and cooperation in counterinsurgency activities between the armies of Honduras and El Salvador. It is also the ideological basis for complicity with the United States in the development of ever greater strategies for containment: military bases, highways, airports, massive troop maneuvers… all on Honduran soil.
The internal price paid by Honduras in order to serve this ideology has been very high. The incipient democratization process has virtually been destroyed while politics have become militarized. The country has been driven down a fatalistic road to war. In general terms, this has denationalized what little there was of a Honduran nation.
Militarization and bankruptcy The rapid militarization and denationalization process imposed on Honduras by the Reagan administration has prevented the country from coming to grips with deeply rooted social and economic problems: education, need for land reform, health care, energy, etc. Without any exaggeration, we can classify Honduras as a country in bankruptcy. The document that Suazo Córdova’s government presented to the Kissinger Commission during its visit to Central America described the 1980-83 period as one of “negative growth and instability.” The abundant loans received by the government in 1983 have only prolonged both of these problems. In October 1983, a series of loans totaling US$240 million served only to avert an overall economic collapse and the paralysis of basic projects for the country’s infrastructure.
On a social level, the consequences of this economic situation have been tremendous. In 1962, 13% of the population of Tegucigalpa, San Pedro Sula, Choluteca and Progresso was living is slum areas. By 1982 that figure had increased to 46%. The unemployment rare is now 30%--or 50% if we include those who are underemployed. Malnutrition has increased from 76% to 80% of the population over the last three years. None of these figures are mentioned in the document presented to Kissinger. Some of this data comes from the Bank of Honduras, which also affirms that 57% of Honduran families live in conditions of extreme poverty.
The military buildup has much to do with this situation. The Honduran government sees American aid as the only hope for its bankrupt economy and has made a request to the Kissinger Commission for US$10 billion in medium- and long-term loans. In return for this astronomical sum, the Honduran government is offering to remain an unconditional partner in implementing US military strategy in Central America. On July 14, 1983, President Suazo sent President Reagan a letter in which he set forth the critical state of the Honduran economy. In his letter, Suazo unabashedly lays bare his government’s subservience to the will of the US administration: “United States strategic interests are also being protected at a very low cost to your country… On a long-term basis, the requested budget support represents a relatively low sum [for the US], considering the political and military risks Honduras is taking… These risks are being taken not only in our own defense but also in defense of your country’s vital interests.”
Moreover, the tendency to perpetuate the dramatic social inequality in Honduras can be clearly seen in plans for distributing the $10 billion requested of the United States. The government proposes to offer $250,000 to each of 4,400 large farm owners with at least 170 acres, whereas each small landowner would receive only $7,500. Loans have been requested for the large landowners, while the peasants will have to continue buckling under to the government’s credit terms. Assuming the US decides to grant the full request, 160,000 small landowners (according to a government estimate) will receive the same amount of money as 4,000 large landowners. If by patriotism we mean an earnest and realistic attempt to overcome underdevelopment, then not even a patriotic plan for economic development can be foreseen in exchange for the high cost of militarization.
APROH’s sensational success The Association for the Progress of Honduras (APROH) was founded in January 1983 as a way to deal with the new situation created by the country’s militarization and the ensuing crisis faced by traditional rightwing forces. APROH is a combination of extreme rightists from the economic sector and military fascists whose representative, General Álvarez, was the president of the association from the time it was founded. Although APROH’s statutes state that its membership is to be formed on an entirely individual basis, all the most important figures from the country’s big business sector happen to be members. National and foreign bankers, technocrats, representatives from the television networks and those from the chemical, textile and agricultural industries are all members of APROH. Its ideology is closely linked to that of the Korean “Moonies.” A branch of the sect known as “International Cause” offers a series of anti-communist seminars for business people who belong to APROH and for middle-level executives. In their April 1983 pastoral letter, the Catholic bishops of Honduras were critical of the sect’s rising social status. This criticism brought about gestures toward a severing of economic ties between APROH and the Moonies.
There is nothing particularly suspicious to be found in APROH’s statutes. Outwardly, a group of business leaders has formed as association to analyze common problems and provide aid for other sectors. The economic model put forward by the associates is clearly that of free enterprise, with very few control mechanisms and a great deal of ways to maximize profits. Members are required to “have proper respect for confidentiality regarding documents and other information with which they have become familiar through their participation in APROH’s activities and which, if circulated, could be detrimental to APROH or its members.”
APROH drew very little attention during the first half of 1983. The organization was simply perceived as a new attempt to unite the country’s most conservative sectors. In November, the Tegucigalpa newspaper El Tiempo leaked one of the association’s internal documents: a recommendation for the Kissinger Commission—to be transmitted by a personal friend and adviser of the former Secretary of State—calling for a military solution in Central America. In a certain sense, APROH had conferred upon itself the right to represent the Honduran government. At the Miami meeting where their proposal was made, the Honduran businesspeople were accompanied by colleagues from other Central American countries, including Panama.
On December 9, El Tiempo made public another APROH document, this time concerning internal politics. The associates proposed certain control over labor unions and suggested that a number of forestry projects be put in the hands of peasant cooperatives whose members would thereby become subject to the military draft. This document fueled the fire. A private organization was virtually taking on governmental responsibilities. The affair was further complicated by the fact that APROH’s principal leader was also the head of the Honduran armed forces, none other than General Álvarez. Toward the end of 1983, insistent rumors had it that the US Embassy was concerned over the growing consolidation of APROH because of its rightwing extremism and its vulnerability to criticism from outside Honduras.
APROH and those it represents have been the only ones benefited by the present Honduran economic policy, which maintains the country in a state of bankruptcy through US loans in exchange for increasing militarization. In contrast, a large proportion of those involved in private enterprise have repeatedly requested a halt to the aggression against Nicaragua and the wearing pre-war situation that the hostilities have entailed. Among those representatives of private enterprise opposed to the attacks on Nicaragua are the small and medium-size coffee producers, more numerous than their larger counterparts. Their importance is obvious in a country where coffee is the primary source of export revenues. The textile manufacturers, whose only outside market is based on an exchange system with Nicaragua, also object to the policy of aggression.
The ultimate expression of Honduran denationalization is to be found in a draft prepared by the government containing a unique proposal for the Kissinger Commission: according to the document, if “America” allows the consolidation of the Sandinista government, Honduras will be unable to survive without the status of an associated state, such as Puerto Rico, or a permanent defense treaty, like South Korea’s. Although the government itself admitted that both these proposals are incompatible with the preservation of Honduran national identity, the second proposal was officially presented to the Kissinger Commission in the final summary of the document.
The fall of Álvarez: No obstacle to militarization General Gustavo Álvarez was the top dog in Honduras. At the head of APROH, he was above the civilian government, and was a convert to the Moonies. He also ruled over the armed forces with an iron fist.
It is estimated that 20% of the officers in the armed forces opposed Álvarez from the moment President Suazo promoted him to the top of the military ladder. His arrogance in dealing with other members of the armed forces only perpetuated and increased the latent discontent. He had forbidden high-ranking military officers from talking with representatives of the government without first presenting him with an agenda of the proposed conversations. This is just one example of why the reasons for his dismissal are principally related to an internal crisis that allowed a person of his nature to concentrate a great deal of power.
Despite his shortcomings, the armed forces did respect Álvarez’s efficiency in dealing with “subversion,” as did the Reagan administration. However, in 1982 the fervor of a national-security ideology began to result in an unusual increase in the number of missing persons, political killings, secret cemeteries, death threats, etc. In mid-1983, the US Embassy in Tegucigalpa sent a note to President Suazo (with a copy to General Álvarez) expressing how inappropriate it was for repressive acts of this sort to occur while US troops were on Honduran soil. Although the note was addressed to Suazo, its warning was clearly intended for Álvarez.
It did help somewhat to curb the growing wave of repression for which Álvarez was ultimately responsible. It was also the Reagan administration’s initial show of concern about the extremist leadership of the all-powerful general. This concern continued to rise until the day Álvarez was removed from power. Álvarez did not help provide Honduras with the kind of democratic, civil-oriented international image required by the US government for the efficient implementation of its militaristic strategy in Honduras and its regional policy of “democratic normalization.”
All these factors came together to bring about the demise of Álvarez. It is improbable that he was planning a coup d’état to overthrow Suazo for, with the different powers he had accumulated, he was actually already in control of the country. He had even broken away from the collective decision-making structures in the army. If indeed he did attempt to stage a coup—it is not clear whether or not he did—it could only have been a response to the coup that the fascist and moderate military officers who were unhappy with him had decided to carry out. As far as the US was concerned, Álvarez’s removal could pave the way for an improved human rights situation, a better international image for Honduras and greater control over the Nicaragua issue. Álvarez had become uncontrollable with respect to his southern neighbor.
As for the people of Honduras, they have felt a certain amount of relief with Álvarez’s fall. In the first place, repression is expected to be less severe. Secondly, thanks to Álvarez’ aggressive rhetoric, the population had the impression that the final decision concerning war with Nicaragua was in his hands. Although a closer analysis of the situation seems to indicate that any ultimate decisions about war with Nicaragua were and still are under US control, the specter of war no longer dominates public opinion.
General Walter López, the new commander-in-chief of the Honduran armed forces, while seemingly more prone to dialogue than his predecessor, has made it clear that he would not object to war with Nicaragua. In fact, he stated that such a war would not displeased him because he would be in command of the most powerful air force in Central America (and the third largest, after Cuba’s and Venezuela’s, in the entire Caribbean region). According to López, Honduras would win the war because of “its” aircraft. López has even made comparisons with the Falklands war, in which Argentina won at least a few victories owing to the strength of its air force. The latest inventory, containing data from May 1983, reveals that the Honduran Air Force had 13 French Super Mystere fighter jets, 11 US A-37A Dragonfly jets, several US T-41 jets and 28 US UH-1H and UH-1B helicopters.
Unexpected and yet expectable, given the way he monopolized power, Álvarez’s downfall and the significant changes resulting from it have opened a period of internal restructuring that could easily last for a year.
Honduras’ immediate future The armed force’s increasing political control over the elected civilian government and the deterioration of social and economic conditions have not only frustrated the Honduran people but have also begun to produce a serious crisis within the ranks of the traditional political parties. The Liberal Party, already divided into two tendencies (the Rodistas, President Suazo’s tendency, which is led by powerful rural landowners, and ALIPO, the more modern and urban tendency), has undergone a new split. The new tendency bears the name of Revolutionary Democratic Liberal Movement (M-LIDER) and is led by the Reyna brothers. Its politics are social-democratic, and its strategy is based on the organized mobilization of the people. The M-LIDER hopes to gather support from those people—the majority of Honduras, according to its analysis—who believe it is still possible to fix social and national objectives and develop them peacefully after taking power via elections. This analysis also sustains that elections are absolutely essential if Honduras’ democratic image is to be maintained.
The followers of the National Party’s traditional boss, Mr. Zúniga Agustinues, have been challenged by the Unity and Change Movement, which is even more in tune with the military than its counterparts. Zúniga is considered a friend of the armed forces, but is also seen as a nuisance because of his independent power base. Unity and Change has reached a temporary compromise through the election of former head of state General Melgar Castro to the presidency of the party. (According to the Constitution, Melgar Castro cannot be re-elected President of Honduras.) This way, Unity and Change has so far been able to maintain its links with the armed forces without breaking away from Zúniga, whose political ability and social base seem essential to the movement if it is to be successful in elections. Behind the scenes, the armed forces, private enterprise and the US embassy continue to pressure and manipulate both the government and the different parties.
The disappearance of Álvarez and his unconditional supporters has purified the army’s image. The contradiction that could come to a head in the future would pit those willing to go to war against those who consider that a war might lead to a national disaster.
The most reactionary sector of private enterprise has lost some of its capacity to exert pressure on other sectors of society because APROH was deprived of its direct connection with the armed forces by Álvarez’s departure. This new situation may provide more maneuvering room for “progress-oriented” bankers and publicists—such as the group backing the newspaper El Tiempo—who are interested in a more national approach to developing the economy. The change also favors the coffee producers and textile manufacturers. It is interesting to note how certain representatives of private enterprise continue to travel to Nicaragua to maintain their investments and business relations.
The US Embassy will have to deal with the electoral factor this year. The Democratic candidates will be confronting Reagan with the continued presence of US troops near combat zones. By using the formula of continual military maneuvers, Reagan has circumvented Congressional checks on military aid and US troop deployment in Honduras. The maneuvers formula also makes it harder to enforce the War Powers Act, which would enable Congress to remove troops from combat zones after a period of 60 days. Disturbed by this expedient, Congress has used Senator Sasser’s report on US military construction in Honduras as well as its control over appropriations as a basis for blocking Reagan’s plans to further the construction of a military infrastructure in Honduras. This infrastructure would allow for rapid intervention in El Salvador or Nicaragua and eliminate the need to violate treaties by using US military bases in Panama. Finally, the contradiction between growing militarization and the democratization process in Honduras reveals the inconsistency of Reagan’s Central American policy. For all these reasons, “Reagan could be put on the defensive with respect to Honduras,” according to US political observers.
It will be interesting to observe how the Honduran people use the leeway for freedom of expression that will arise to some extent from the lessening of repressive measures. How much capacity for reorganization lies latent in the people of Honduras? How far will such reorganization be allowed to go?
Elections in Honduras will not take place until the second half of 1985. Meanwhile, as evidenced by the April meeting in El Salvador of the Costa Rican, Salvadoran and Honduran foreign ministers, who issued public proposals intended to hinder the Contadora negotiations, Honduran foreign policy will probably continue to be closely aligned with the dictates of the US government.