US role under fire in Honduras

''If we're going to sell ourselves, we might as well get well paid for it.'' This is how one politician sums up a significant change in attitudes here, a change which is leading Honduras to reassess its relations with the United States.

Like most snappy quotes, it is something of an oversimplification. But it does reflect a widespread feeling here that ousted strongman Gen. Gustavo Adolfo Alvarez Martinez made Honduras subservient to US policy interests in Central America - without receiving much in return.

Today, Honduras's new military leaders and government officials are publicly and privately voicing concern about the US role here. They are especially concerned about:

* The high visibility of the US military presence here.

* The presence of the US-sponsored anti-Sandinista contra guerrillas based in Honduras.

* Their relations with the US-backed government in El Salvador.

The US, in turn, has expressed some short-lived anxiety about a possible leftward drift within the Honduran armed forces.

For two years, General Alvarez dominated Honduras without officially ruling it. He was thrown out of the country by dissident officers late last March. Since then, Honduran President Roberto Suazo Cordova has had more say in his country's affairs. In addition, his foreign minister, Edgardo Paz Barnica, has exerted more influence than before on Honduran foreign policy. However, the Honduran military establishment, now led by Gen. Walter Lopez Reyes, is still the ultimate power in the country. And it is largely the concerns of this establishment (acting in conjunction with the foreign minister) that have led to the formation of four different committees to study Honduran relations with the US.

Specifically, the committees are looking into the renegotiation of the formal and informal accords existing between the two countries. There is a military commission, an economic commission, a foreign ministry commission, and a joint civilian-military commission headed by the President and General Lopez.

The gradual reorientation in Honduran policy has led to a series of visits by high-level US officials in the last two weeks. The first to arrive in Tegucigalpa were John W. Vessey Jr., chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Paul F. Gorman, chief of US Military Southern Command in Panama. Their visit was followed by that of Fred Ikle, undersecretary of defense for policy and his deputy, Nestor Sanchez.

According to US government officials and prominent Hondurans tied into the top levels of the Honduran Army, the purpose of these visits was to explore just how much Honduran leaders wanted to change their relations with the US.

US military leaders, as well as the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), were concerned over potential shifts toward the left within the Honduran Army.

When General Vessey came to Honduras, he told Honduran Army leaders that he had come to see ''if they wanted to touch Castro's beard,'' according to a Honduran close to military circles.

The Honduran government, according to US officials and prominent Hondurans, has no such plan in mind, and is far from considering a political flirtation with the left. However, it does want basic changes in some areas of US-Honduran relations.

''The Hondurans want to redefine the terms of the alliance without affecting the essence of it,'' says Victor Meza, head of a left-of-center think tank. ''They want to be allies without being subordinates. Alvarez gave a lot in return for little; the new military leaders want to give less in return for more.''

Honduran leaders are also motivated by a desire to change their international image. According to a Western diplomat, Honduran Foreign Minister Paz Barnica was greatly disturbed by the attitude toward Hondurans that he found in his travels abroad.

As Paz Barnica put it in a Monitor interview, ''We found (in world opinion) a distorted image of Honduras. People abroad thought that Honduras was a US colony.''

The one area of change that is most problematic for the US is the question of the continued presence of the Nicaraguan contras in Honduras. The Hondurans have been frightened by the US congressional cutoff of aid to the contras.

''The Hondurans are terrified of being stuck with thousands of armed, unpaid, uncontrollable men rampaging through the Honduran countryside,'' a Western diplomat says. ''They have also been somewhat unsettled by US talks with Nicaragua, and fear that any potential US-Nicaragua rapprochement would leave Honduras out on a limb after having pushed a hard anti-Sandinista line under General Alvarez.''

One of the reasons behind Alvarez's ouster, say most prominent Hondurans interviewed, was that the Army became increasingly nervous about taking the lead , ahead of the US, in a conflict with Nicaragua that it felt it could neither win militarily nor afford economically.

Currently, Honduran leaders are telling the contras to lower their profiles. A contra hospital and contra military encampments have been moved away from the environs of Tegucigalpa. According to a politically moderate observer with top level government contacts, the camps and clinic will be moved to a remote spot of the Honduran-Nicaraguan border where the terrain is so rough it is accessible only by mule and helicopter.

Another prominent Honduran, linked to the governing Liberal Party and with close ties to the military leadership, states that the Honduran government's ultimate goal is to get rid of the contras altogether. Top Honduran officials have made this goal known to the US, he says.

The US, the observer adds, asked Honduras to wait until after the November elections in Nicaragua and the US. If the Nicaraguans were to radicalize, then US aid to the contras would probably resume. The Hondurans stated that they would wait only if they received assurances that, if Nicaragua did not radicalize and aid remained cut off, the US would evacuate the contras.

Meanwhile, Honduras is taking tentative steps to improve relations with Nicaragua. For the first time in several years, it sent a delegation to observe the July 19 celebration of the anniversary of Nicaragua's 1979 revolution.

Another point of contention is joint US-Honduran maneuvers. Under Alvarez, one long maneuver stretched into another, and US military personnel crowded the streets of Tegucigalpa. Honduras's new leaders want the maneuvers shorter, less frequent, with fewer US soldiers, and, above all, with the US picking up a greater portion of the tab.

While the US paid for its own personnel, Honduran leaders say their own costs were too high, especially the cost of fuel to transport Honduran soldiers around the country. Fewer US soldiers would also temper growing anti-American feelings.

Salvador is Honduras's traditional enemy. Before Alvarez's fall, the American-run regional training center in Puerto Castilla trained roughly two Salva-doreans for every Honduran. Honduras now wants these proportions reversed, at the very least.

A Honduran with ties to the ruling Liberal Party says many Honduran leaders want the center under Honduran, rather than US, control. He and other well-connected Hondurans state that another major goal is to force the US government to use its influence with Salvador to pressure that country into beginning talks with Honduras that would resolve mutual territorial disputes.

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