In a growing embarrassment to the Reagan Administration, most U.S. aid to the rebels fighting Nicaragua’s leftist regime has been blocked for two months by the government of Honduras, leaving tons of supplies languishing in warehouses in New Orleans, officials say.
The Hondurans have held up the shipments in an apparent attempt to pressure the United States into increasing its financial aid to their government, the officials said.
As a result, the rebels, known as contras, have so far received less than $4 million of the $27 million in aid that Congress approved--following months of personal campaigning by President Reagan in favor of the program.
U.S. officials have been negotiating for weeks with the Honduran government of Roberto Suazo Cordova for an end to the ban on shipments to the contras, whose main bases are along Honduras’ southern border with Nicaragua.
‘Equivalent to Blackmail’
But so far, they have had no success. And with increasing anger, they accuse the Hondurans--Washington’s main military ally in Central America--of creating a situation, in one official’s words, “roughly equivalent to blackmail.”
“It’s an incredible situation,” said a State Department aide. “The Hondurans are basically shaking us down.”
The standoff has left the contras frustrated and angry as well.
Adolfo Calero, chief of the largest rebel force fighting to overthrow the Marxist-led Sandinista regime, refuses to comment, saying, “It’s at a level way above me.” But a close aide charged that the Hondurans “are holding out for money while our blood is being spilled.”
Honduras, which does not even acknowledge that the contras are on its territory, refuses to publicly address the issue at all. But Honduran officials have reportedly told American diplomats that they believe that their government deserves more compensation for putting up with the sometimes-troublesome contra army of 18,000 on their land.
One Planeload Allowed
Because of the Honduran ban on shipments, only one planeload of U.S. government supplies for the contras has been allowed to land, and that was on Oct. 8, a senior official said.
A second plane was turned back by Honduran authorities on Oct. 10 when they discovered that a U.S. television crew was aboard. Since then, no shipments of U.S. government aid have been allowed in, despite the entreaties of senior U.S. officials and the contras themselves.
The ban has not entirely crippled the “humanitarian” aid program; the United States has been able to reimburse the contras, for example, for their purchases of food inside Honduras.
But Robert W. Duemling, chief of the State Department’s contra program, told a House foreign affairs subcommittee last week that while $13.35 million of the $27-million fund has been committed to specific purchases, only $3.94 million has actually been paid out.
“There is a lag there,” Duemling acknowledged. “It’s partly technical, but some of it is due to delivery problems.”
In U.S. Warehouse
Even some of the supplies that have already been paid for with that $3.94 million are stranded in the contras’ warehouses near New Orleans International Airport, contra officials said.
“My warehouses are filled to the bursting point,” said Mario Calero, who is the contras’ chief procurement officer in the United States and brother of Adolfo Calero.
Among the supplies piled up are uniforms, medicine and thousands of Christmas gift boxes collected for the contras’ children by the Rev. William Murray, a Dallas evangelist who is the son of noted atheist Madalyn Murray O’Hair.
The Hondurans have offered a series of reasons for their refusal to allow the supply flights to land, officials say.
First was their annoyance at discovering that the contras had invited a television crew to ride on the Oct. 10 flight, apparently without Honduran permission.
Then the Hondurans explained that they were in the middle of a presidential election campaign, during which a too-visible airlift of supplies could turn the contras’ presence into a contentious issue.
But the election was over two weeks ago, and the Hondurans have not loosened the reins. The new president is scheduled to be inaugurated Jan. 27.
More Aid Sought
Instead, U.S. officials and contra leaders believe, they are holding out for one thing:
“Money,” a contra official said. “All the rest of it is just excuses.”
The Honduran government wants an increase in its assistance from Washington ($143 million in economic aid, $88 million in military aid this year).
Honduras is the second-poorest country in the Americas, behind only Haiti. But there are doubts that increased U.S. aid would be used solely to relieve that poverty. Many Honduran leaders have prospered from the funding that their country has won as the forward base for American troops in Central America, either through legitimate business contracts or simple corruption.
One official noted that there were fewer complaints from the Hondurans in the period from 1981 through 1984, when the CIA was supporting the contras with covert funds that did not require any open accounting to Congress.
“I’ll let you draw your own conclusion from that,” he said.