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The Cambodianization of Honduras

By Donald E. SchulzDonald E. Schulz teaches Latin American politics at the University of Tampa. / August 27, 1984



United States policy toward Honduras is now in a shambles. Congress is in the process of terminating aid to the CIA-backed Nicaraguan counterrevolutionaries who have been using the country as a base. The government in Tegucigalpa has signaled that the contras are no longer welcome. Demands are being made for a major restructuring of US-Honduran military relations. From now on, it is said, Honduran rather than North American interests will determine government policy. If Washington desires military cooperation, it will have to offer increased economic aid and trade.

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To all this the Reagan administration has responded with surprise and alarm. The latter is justified; the former is not. Anyone with a rudimentary understanding of Central American history could have predicted trouble. Using Honduras as a training base for Salvadorean soldiers was one of the most ill-advised ideas in recent memory. The two countries are longstanding antagonists. In 1969, 2,000 people were killed in the brief ''Futbol War''; 130, 000 Salvadorean residents were ousted from Honduras. The Honduran Army suffered a humiliating defeat, and an entire generation of officers came to view El Salvador as the primary threat to national security. It should hardly have been a surprise that Hondurans would view the Salvadorean presence in their country with apprehension. The training being lavished on their traditional enemies may someday be used against them.

Another problem was Washington's embrace of the military strong man, Gustavo Alvarez. Even as the country was attempting a difficult transition to democracy, Alvarez was undermining the civilian government. Before the 1981 election, which restored a civilian to the presidency for the first time in a decade, limits were placed on the policymaking power of the new government. The armed forces received cabinet posts and veto power over others. Subsequently, without the high command's having been consulted, Alvarez was promoted to brigadier general, the highest rank in the military.

The CIA and US embassy were delighted. Alvarez became a staunch ally in the Reagan administration's ''secret war'' against Nicaragua. Honduras was turned into a US military base. But while his fellow officers appreciated the military aid that began pouring into the country, Alvarez's attempt to impose his will on them was resented. Trouble was inevitable.

Matters were made worse by the decision to militarize the country. The nation was thrust into the same reform-repression-revolution syndrome that had destabilized its neighbors. Socioeconomic reforms were frustrated. Since President Suazo was inaugurated, only 11,300 families have received land out of an estimated 150,000 that need it.

The upshot has been an increase in land invasions - and violent military-landowner reactions. In turn, many peasants have taken up arms as guerrillas. Even more unsettling was Alvarez's decision to align Honduras behind Washington's campaign against Nicaragua. One could have predicted Nicaraguan retaliation in the form of support for the nascent Honduran guerrilla movement. And so it has occurred - so far at a low level. More hazardous, Honduran support for the contras increased the danger of war with Nicaragua. One can imagine a combined conventional/guerrilla struggle in which the Sandinistas send 5,000 commandos into Honduras, transforming Honduran military fears into a reality.

As Congress has moved to close down the CIA's contra operation, Hondurans have become acutely aware of their vulnerability. If war does break out, will the US stand by them? The memory of Vietnam is not reassuring. Equally important , there is a major disposal problem. In its zeal to destabilize the Sandinistas, the Reagan administration overlooked the problem of what to do with the contras if its plans went awry. Having armed them, can those weapons now be reclaimed? Between the contras, the US and Honduran militaries, the Sandinistas, and the indigenous guerrilla movement, there exists a potential for transforming this ''bastion of stability'' into a Central American Cambodia.

The situation is not yet unsalvageable. Earlier this year, the Honduran military moved to eliminate one obstacle to peace when it deposed General Alvarez. Still, the American problem remains. It would help enormously if Washington were not so rigidly committed to military victories.

In short, the time has come for a thorough reevaluation of US policy. It will not be enough to cut off aid to the contras. There are some 15,000 armed insurgents who have no place to go. Their continued presence in Honduras and Costa Rica will simply spread instability. Accordingly, Congress should make it possible for those who want to come to the US to do so.

We should also push for regional reconciliation or, at least, a willingness to live and let live. US policies toward all of Central America are urgently in need of change.