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Once the Contras Are Out, U.S. Could Make Honduras Its Priority

<i> Joe Eldridge was formerly director of the Washington Office on Latin America, a human-rights organization focusing on U.S. foreign policy. He currently works as a consultant in Honduras. </i>

For eight years, the Reagan Administration has been playing Honduras as a pawn, useful but not inherently valuable, to achieve bigger prizes elsewhere on the geostrategic chess board. But in the process the game has become much more complex, raising troubling problems for future U.S. moves.

In Honduras there now is a powerful, modern military in which many top officers are deeply involved in drug trafficking, a profoundly troubled economy and a sensitive refugee problem made potentially explosive by the presence of thousands of Nicaraguan Contras inside or near the Honduran border. Underscoring its unease on the latter point, Honduras appealed to the United Nations on Oct. 4 for a peacekeeping force to ensure the permanent removal of the Contras from its territory.

Wise policy demands a fundamental change in the assumptions of U.S. strategy, for using Honduras has created serious problems for the country:

A powerful, anti-democratic military. The Honduran military was never a democratic force, but it had a certain populist strain (it sponsored land reform in the early 1970s), and it resorted to violence only as a last resort against dissidents. U.S. pressure under President Carter led to the military’s withdrawal from government in 1980. But just when strong U.S. backing for the new civilian government was needed to nurture Honduras’ fragile democratic roots, the Reagan Administration’s Contra policy created the opposite dynamics. A deal was struck with the military: massive U.S. assistance in return for their help in protecting and supplying the Contra army being “secretly” trained and based in Honduras. One serious consequence of this deal was to weaken the civilian government’s will and ability to exercise authority over the military.

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A second serious consequence of the deal was U.S. tolerance of increasing military involvement in corruption, contraband and, most seriously, drugs. Although Honduras has been called the trampoline on which drugs bounce on their way from Colombia to the States, the Drug Enforcement Agency office here has been closed since the early ‘80s. The State Department has evidence of narco-militares operating in the armed forces, and there is strong suspicion in Honduras that the commander-in-chief, Gen. Humberto Regalado Hernandez is involved. In a shake-up in July, Regalado removed Col. Alvaro Romero from his command of the region most involved in drug transit. Romero was one of the few top officers who had begun to crack down on the drug trade.

A corrupted economy. The Honduran economy, traditionally the weakest in the region, suffers from the problems of debt and poverty that afflict its neighbors. But it was given more than $1 billion in economic support funds, development assistance and military aid since 1981 as part of the quid pro quo struck for Contra support. Vice President Jaime Rosenthal has charged that more than half of the money was being misused or wasted, often going to parties that need it the least.

The Contra war has also cost Honduras millions of dollars in lost coffee production near the border with Nicaragua, and has spurred massive capital flight (an estimated $500 million in the last several years).

The economy is so hooked on American subsidies that a projected cutback threatens to cause great economic dislocations.

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The Contras and the refugees. What is to be done with thousands of armed Contras and tens of thousands of Nicaraguan refugees if the war begins to wind down? Even the military is worried that this force of heavily armed fighters, if left without any U.S. support, could spawn bands of marauders that could destabilize the country for years. The Contras and the war have already been responsible for the deaths of dozens of Honduran citizens and the displacement of hundreds of families from their farms.

“The Hondurans know the Contras are a ‘busted flush’ and they feel it’s time to reach an accommodation with the Sandinistas,” one diplomat told me. Another said that last spring the Honduran military accepted weapons from Contra leader Enrique Bermudez for safekeeping and has refused to give them back. The military “is extremely worried about weapons leaking into Honduran society.” And an official in the Honduran Foreign Ministry confirmed that “we are ready to see if there’s a way we can learn to live with the Sandinistas as our neighbors.”

These are positive signs. And if the United States gave the green light of support, instead of trying to continue its Contra policy, progress toward settling refugee and border issues would be much facilitated.

The problems with the Contras and the economy, combined with the imperial attitude of the U.S. Embassy-- arrogance is the word heard often in conversation with Hondurans--have created a measure of anti-Americanism. It is usually kept bottled up because of the country’s great dependence on the United States, but it occasionally bursts to the surface. There was the burning of the U.S. Embassy annex on April 7, the markedly slow response of the Honduran authorities (2 1/2 hours) and the cool reception given Secretary of State George P. Shultz in early July. In his U.N. address Oct. 4, Foreign Minister Carlos Lopez Contreras put the United States in the same league as the Soviet Union in seeking to control other countries.

The anti-Americanism is not yet deep. “So far, it’s a reaction against American style, arrogance and not the system of domination itself,” explained one academic analyst. And nationalist elements of the Honduran military understand how dependent they are on U.S. assistance. Indeed, recent reports indicate that the military is considering an agreement to allow a permanent U.S. base in Honduras.

But as a recent confidential RAND Corp. study commissioned by the Defense Department warned, the Contra factor is damaging U.S.-Honduran relations. It will be up to the next Administration to draw on the reservoir of good feelings here and design a policy that makes Honduras, not the Contras, its priority.


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