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Policy Led to Conflict With U.S. : Honduras Discounted Split With Nicaragua

Times Staff Writer

In a move that led to a policy conflict with its ally, the United States, Honduras tried in recent months to play down differences with Nicaragua and quietly resolve border disputes with its Marxist-led neighbor, a high-ranking Honduran official said Wednesday.

This policy explains the recent diplomatic clash between the United States and Honduras over how to react to a border crossing by Nicaraguan troops. It also reflects a larger difference of opinion between the two governments over how to deal with Nicaragua.

At one point, a U.S. Embassy official here complained directly to Honduras’ president that Honduran silence in the face of the Sandinista incursion was embarrassing the Reagan Administration.

U.S.-backed Nicaraguan rebels, known as contras, are based in this country. Use of Honduran territory by both the rebels and U.S. troops is central to the Reagan Administration policy of maintaining armed pressure on the Nicaraguan government.

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U.S. Imposition Seen

Over the years, Honduras has wavered on its commitment to the contras program. With increasing frequency, civilian leaders in the government of President Jose Azcona Hoyo describe the contras’ presence as a U.S. imposition that they are helpless to alter.

The attitude appears to undermine the Reagan Administration’s assertion that its Central American allies are in full agreement with the policy of backing the contras. Reagan is currently trying to win $100 million in aid for the contras from Congress.

“We are allies,” said the high-ranking Honduran official, who asked not to be named. “But each state has its priorities. We are close to the problem here and look for all means of avoiding conflict.”

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The official, who participated in recent U.S.-Honduran discussions in response to the border incursions, said that he considers the Reagan outcry over the Sandinista attacks an effort to gain congressional votes for aid to the contras. Honduras complained about the border incident only under U.S. pressure.

“We did not want to lend ourselves to a campaign to get votes in Congress,” the official declared.

A Deal on Complaints

He added that Azcona in January informally arranged with Nicaraguan Vice President Sergio Ramirez, then on a visit to Tegucigalpa, to handle “bilateral complaints” quietly and “not inflame them.”

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The Sandinistas have long complained about sanctuaries in Honduras for the contras and often have sent troops across the border to pursue the rebels. Although the Sandinistas recently intensified their pursuit inside Honduras, the Azcona government protested little.

However, about two weeks ago, the Sandinistas launched an attack on a contras training base about 10 miles inside Honduras.

U.S. officials characterized the drive as an invasion of Honduras. The Honduran government, in contrast, shrugged off the incursion. On March 24, Shepard Lowman, deputy chief of mission at the U.S. Embassy here, met with Azcona to elicit a Honduran complaint about the Nicaraguan attacks.

‘Leaving Us Hanging’

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The U.S. diplomat contrasted the passion expressed in Washington with the “serenity in Tegucigalpa,” the Honduran official said. “He commented that, ‘We are helping you, but you are leaving us hanging in Washington.’ ”

This year alone, Honduras is receiving $123 million in U.S. economic aid and $80 million in military assistance, including the emergency $20 million recently granted by the Reagan Administration, presumably to help Honduras better defend its border.

After the March 24 meeting, Azcona agreed to publicly protest the Sandinista incursion and requested U.S. help in transporting Honduran troops to the border. By the time the soldiers were dispatched a day or two later, the fighting had all but ended.

The U.S. Embassy declined to comment on the meeting.

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In any event, Azcona’s policy of trying to deal with Nicaragua directly to ease tensions apparently failed. A day earlier, on March 23, he called Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega to inquire about the border crossings. Ortega denied that anything was going on.

“We ended up falling into the mess we tried to avoid,” the Honduran official said. Azcona officially protested the incursion to the Nicaraguan government on March 25, calling for “an immediate pullout” of Sandinista troops.

Inherited Hard Line

Azcona was elected president last year and took office in January. He inherited a hard-line policy toward Nicaragua, a policy highly influenced by tough-minded military officials.

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Azcona’s administration apparently is settling on something of a middle-of-the-road stand: Honduras can live with a Marxist neighbor to the south as long as it is not militarily superior.

“If we have security, we are not going to war for ideology,” the Honduran official said. In upcoming regional Contadora negotiations, Honduras is expected to emphasize the military balance as Central America’s overriding problem.

Honduras’ live-and-let-live policy has led to, at best, ambiguity on the contras question. While trying to keep the contras officially at arms’ length, Azcona aides admit that the Nicaraguan rebels are a useful counterbalance to Sandinista military strength and might prove a useful negotiating tool. “They are a key card on the table,” said the ranking official.

At the same time, Azcona and other members of his government maintain the fiction that Honduras does nothing to help the contras operate inside the country, even though it is well known that contras leaders live in Tegucigalpa and the rebels use a U.S.-built airstrip deep inside Honduras as a supply point.

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Dependent on U.S.

In any case, government officials contend that they can do nothing to rid themselves of the contras or their camps. “We have a problem of military dependency. The U.S. manages this with intelligence. It has a big capacity to influence us,” the official said.


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