September 25, 2007

The president seems determined to add still another sorry chapter to the chronicle of Yankee imperialism in Central America. The Administration apparently has chosen Honduras to be our new "Nicaragua"--a dependable satellite, bought and paid for by American military and economic largesse. Jack Anderson, The Washington Post March 23, 1980. Honduras almost outdoes the stereotype of a banana republic. The vast plantations run by United Fruit (now United Brands) envelop the countryside, while Honduras is second only to Haiti in per capita poverty. It has seen 150 gov- ernments in 160 years, and spent the last 18 under military rule. Its present ruling General, Policarpo Paz Garcia, has what's politely re- ferred to as "a drinking problem," and corrup- tion is notoriously rife within the military High Command. Yet Honduras is being taken very seriously in Washington these days. In 1980, it was the sec- ond largest recipient of U.S. economic assis- tance to Latin America, despite a sparse popula- tion of three million. It has received $3.5 million in military aid since April 1980, with $10.7 mil- lion projected for fiscal 1982. This would amount to more military aid in just one year than Honduras received in all the years between 1950 and 1979.' Why the sudden interest? In the post-Somoza era, the United States is urgently trying to create a new balance of forces in Central America, with Honduras in the lead as the new "regional guard- ian" of U.S. interests. Jimmy Carter started the process by tying military and economic aid to 22MaylJune 1981 pressures for a return to civilian rule. Honduras was to be a showcase of democracy in a sea of revolutionary chaos, and therefore a more palat- able ally against regional "subversion." Elec- tions were in fact held, in April 1980, and a new Constituent Assembly chose to retain Policarpo Paz as interim president while it paves the way for presidential elections in November 1981. The Honduran Army is deeply divided over the planned elections and military retreat, and some sectors feel there will be less pressure from Reagan's White House to carry through with the plan. Meanwhile the military aid keeps flow- ing, justified by the need to cut supply routes to El Salvador's guerrillas and to prevent Hon- duras from becoming the "next target" of com- munist aggression. 2 CONDECA, the Central American Defense Council, has already been reorganized since Nicaragua's withdrawal in 1979, with head- quarters in Guatemala. 3 But the preponderant role of this regional alliance is reserved for Hon- duras. Its Army sees communism at both door- steps-a revolutionary offensive in El Salvador to the southwest and Sandinismo in power to the southeast. Accordingly, it has already assumed the tasks of supporting the Salvadorean Army in its battles against the guerrillas, and provoking frequent military confrontations along the Nica- raguan border. In short, Honduras is fast be- coming the new U.S. proxy in a Central American war. Burying the Hatchet Every weekend, rain or shine, Honduran Army officers pack a picnic lunch and set off for the border to break bread with Salvadoreans of corresponding rank. Back in the barracks, Hon- duran soldiers listen to weekly lectures on the need for cooperation with El Salvador-lest the communist menace cross the border to Hondur- as itself. Cooperation between the two armies might not be unusual, had these countries not gone to war in 1969, over a border conflict that involved complicated economic and demographic issues. Each side remembers vividly the other's atroci- ties during that five-day war. And the Hondur- ans, swearing revenge for their military defeat, proceeded to create the strongest Air Force in the region. Eleven years of negotiations between the two governments produced no headway toward re- solving the festering border dispute. Diplomatic and trade relations remained broken and a de- militarized zone, three kilometers deep into each country, stayed under OAS supervision. But in 1980, it was alleged that the FMLN had established guerrilla bases in the demilitar- ized zone. The Salvadorean Army's "clean-up" operations in the northern provinces were inef- fective. Coordinated actions between the armies of Honduras and El Salvador were seen as the urgent answer to FMLN expansion. If a common enemy can erase a few memories, "a common benefactor can arrange a quick deal. At "a meeting in Miami in April 1980, shortly after the U.S. Congress approved an aid package to Hon- duras, there was a sudden breakthrough in the deadlocked negotiations. Honduras abruptly dropped its long-standing condition that the bor- der line be finalized before relations could be mended. And five months later, a peace treaty was signed, with much fanfare, that simply outlined a procedure for future border negotiations while re- storing full diplomatic and economic relations. In May 1980, the first border massacre took place at the Sumpul River. The decision to carry out the attack on a suspected guerrilla base was made at a meeting of Salvadorean and Honduran military commanders at El Poy, a small border town. But the victims of the joint attack several days later were refugees-mainly women, chil- dren and the elderly. Salvadorean soldiers fired on them from helicopter gunships, forcing the refu- gees to seek cover in the river. Those who made it across were pushed back into the blood-red waters by Honduran soldiers. The president of Honduras went on national radio a few days afterward to say the massacre had never occurred. But one of his Army chiefs ad- mitted that the "incident" had in fact taken place, while denying any direct involvement by Hondur- an troops.' The massacres of refugees "mistaken" for guerrillas have continued. Coordination between the two armies is now chillingly precise, and thou- sands of refugees have died as a result. But even for those who make it to Honduras alive, the peace treaty has meant continued persecution and death. Honduras has allowed Salvadorean Air Force planes to fly raids over its territory; Salvadorean soldiers and paramilitary squads have conducted tent-to-tent searches in refugee camps, seizing those suspected of guerrilla ties. 5 And it now ap- 23NACLAReport pears that Honduras may be willing to do more than support slaughters on and within its own borders. No More Witnesses Honduran cooperation in the Salvadorean war is critical to the U.S. plan to rely on proxies and avoid the use of American troops. Accord- ing to the New York Times, Pentagon officials are already worried that the ratio of Salvadorean soldiers to guerrillas, at four to one, is insuffi- cient. Done by the book, they say, counterinsur- gency calls for an advantage of at least twenty to one. 6 Honduras is an obvious source of addi- tional personnel. Church sources in Honduras now report an unprecedented level of military activity along the Honduran side of the border, and a large foreign presence of the "gringo" variety. The town of Marcala, fifty kilometers from the Sal- vadorean border, is being used as a major center for Honduran counterinsurgency forces, newly- trained by U.S. advisers in late 1980. A new air- strip has been built within the last year, and the area has been declared a military zone. All civilian flights over Marcala are now prohibited. For Honduras, militarization of the border area has led to a plan, announced in February, to remove all Salvadorean refugees-estimated at 46,000-to tightly controlled camps in the in- terior. The plan would also remove all interna- tional relief agencies from the zone, as well as journalists interested in the refugee angle of the crisis. The absence of these independent observ- ers, according to priests involved in refugee work, could lead to much more direct Hondur- an involvement in "Operation Sandwich," an attempt to trap the Salvadorean guerrillas be- tween two lines of fire. The Honduran govern- ment has already threatened foreign priests-- the most outspoken witnesses to the massacres to date-with expulsion. Eyes on the Other Border In stark contrast to the plight of Salvadorean refugees, Nicaraguan exiles have found a hos- pitable new home in Honduras. Remnants of Somoza's National Guard, plus some new con- verts to their cause, are allowed to train on Hon- duran soil for the "liberation" of their home- land. They are also allowed, and actively en- couraged, to launch nighttime raids across the border, attacking frontier posts and Sandinista patrols. More than 100 Nicaraguans have been killed in these raids, including many young bri- gadistas teaching literacy classes in remote areas near the border last year. 8 The Nicaraguan government has docu- mented 37 attacks to date, 44 air space violations and 15 infiltrations from Honduran territory. Actions by the Honduran Army are included within these statistics. According to Nicaraguan Defense Minister, Humberto Ortega, Hondur- as' reconnaissance planes have violated Nicara- guan airspace and its Army patrols have covered the retreat of somocista raiders.' In the past few months, the exile raids have been overshadowed by direct clashes between Honduran and Nicaraguan troops. The 1,000 mile border has been closed since April, and heavy troop movements have been reported on both sides. Not all sectors of the Honduran Army agree with what appears to be a conscious plan to bait the Nicaraguans into a border war, and then use the Honduran Air Force to sweep the country and overturn the Sandinista revolution. But many dissidents within the military have been purged in recent months, and the Honduran Army High Command is dominated by a clique of right-wing colonels who favor the plan. Dubbed "the magnificent seven," these colo- nels see a double advantage to an invasion. First, it would eliminate what they see as an ex- ternal threat to domestic tranquility; and sec- ond, it would provide a convenient pretext for postponing the planned transition to civilian rule. The Honduran public is being steadily primed for a confrontation with Nicaragua. A propa- ganda blitz, making particular use of the Army's weekly TV program, plays up the border inci- dents and makes urgent appeals to defend the territorial integrity of Honduras. But the domestic risks of an invasion are still quite high. In addition to resistance from younger Army officers, the High Command is nervous about committing troops to a foreign war when domestic unrest is on the rise. A war with Nica- ragua, moreover, would doubtless be highly un- popular among large sectors of the population that sympathize with the Sandinista cause. The "magnificent seven" do draw courage from Washington, however. An invasion plan that was set to go in December 1979, according to reliable sources, was stopped by last-minute 24MaylJune 1981 pressure from Jimmy Carter. Now, with a new man in charge, Honduran officials see a green light for their plans. General Wallace Nutting, chief of the U.S. Southern Command, visited Honduras in March 1981, and reportedly as- sured the Hondurans that, "The Pentagon was fully behind their collaboration with the Salva- doreans, and would support them in any con- frontation with the Nicaraguans."' 0 State Department officials have reiterated that mes- sage by stating that U.S. military aid to Hon- duras would not be cut off in the event of a war with Nicaragua. In recent weeks, Honduran and Nicaraguan government officials have been talking to reduce tensions. And the Honduran Army seems unde- cided about where to commit the bulk of its re- sources-to counterinsurgency alongside the Salvadorean Army, or to counterrevolution in Nicaragua. Much will depend on how the High Command perceives the FMLN challenge, and how willing they are to risk a foreign adventure that might well bring in Cuba and Mexico as staunch allies of the Nicaraguan revolution.

HONDURAS 1. Department of Defense, Foreign Military Sales and Military Assistance Facts, December 1980, p. 6; State De- partment information released to Congressional commit- tees. 2. Testimony by Franklin Kramer, Principal Depu- ty Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Secur- ity Affairs, House Appropriations Subcommittee of For- eign Operations, March 25, 1980. 3. For more information on the origins and role of CONDECA, see, "U.S. Strategies for Central America," NACLA Report, Vol. VII, no. 5 (May-June, 1973). 4. London Times, February 22, 1981. 5. Washington Post, January 7, 1981; New York Times, June 8, 1981. 6. Editorial, Globe and Mail (Toronto), March 3, 1981. 7. Wheaton, op. cit., p. 20. 8. New York Times, April 30, 1981. 9. Latin America Weekly Report, May 8, 1981. 10. Latin America Regional Report, March 20, 1981.

Tags: Honduras, US aid, military cooperation, Salvadoran War, Nicaragua refugees

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