Honduras's Azcona: proud, conservative, and maybe surprising

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

The man who almost certainly will be the next president of Honduras looks like the portrait of a 19th-century Central American statesman come to life. Tall, haughty, with a full head of straight, white hair brushed back from a wide expanse of forehead, Jos'e Azcona Hoyo, seems nothing if not presidential. A reputation for scrupulous financial integrity and a traditionally conservative ideology combined with an equally traditional concern for the poor, complete the idealized picture of a Latin founding father.

And yet, surprisingly, this man aroused some apprehension before the elections among right-wing groups in the oligarchy, Army, and United States government.

Mr. Azcona was distrusted in part because of his well-known pride, which his enemies call arrogance, and inflexibility, which many analysts here believe could make him a less reliable executor of US policies than the outgoing Honduran administration.

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Azcona will be weakened in carrying out his programs, because he received only 30 percent of the popular vote and a minority of seats in the National Assembly. His main opponent, Liberal Party candidate Rafael Leonardo Callejas, won 40 percent of the vote. The electoral system provides that the leading candidate of the party with the most votes wins. Azcona's victory will probably be challenged in court by opposition leaders.

Outgoing President Roberto Suazo C'ordova has been widely perceived here as complying completely with US wishes to turn Honduras into a base from which US-backed Nicaraguan rebels, known as ``contras,'' launch attacks on neighboring Nicaragua's leftist Sandinista government. There is a strong US military presence in Honduras. The US has held military maneuvers here and has a large number of US troops in Palmerola.

Ultraconservatives distrust the group of advisers around Azcona, a group that covers a surprisingly broad gamut, ranging from traditional Liberal Party politicians to bankers who consider themselves socially progressive, to former Marxists rapidly moving to the right.

Extensive interviews with several of Azcona's top advisers make it clear that many important groups around the Honduran leader favor policies that the US opposes. But, given Honduras's extreme economic and military dependence on the US and the mixed nature of the group around Azcona, the big question is: To what extent will these controversial policies prevail?

The policies are based on:

The withdrawal of the contras from Honduras.

The strong opposition to the fiscal policy of devaluing the Honduran currency, the lempira. The policy is advocated by the US and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) for third world countries struggling to pay back large foreign debts.

Several sources close to Azcona say neither the future president, who assumes office in January, nor most of his advisers are happy with the presence of the contras in Honduras. They feel uncomfortable with a foreign military presence that may grow to be as large as the Honduran armed services, which has roughly 22,000 troops. They also fear that the US might eventually back away from an unsuccessful contra policy, leaving Honduras stuck with the armed Nicaraguan exiles in its territory.

The problem, says a key Azcona adviser, is: ``How do we get rid of the contras without getting rid of US aid?''

Although the US shows no signs of budging from its insistence that Honduras serve as a contra base, some Liberal Party sources speculate that in a year or so, after finding that the contras are no closer to overthrowing the Sandinistas than they are now, the US might be willing to strike a deal. Such a deal, say these sources, might be the possible establishment of an official US naval base in the Honduran port town of Puerto Castilla, in exchange for the withdrawal of the contras. Other Liberal Party M DBRleaders believe that it is unrealistic to expect such a deal.

The chances that Azcona's economic policy will be somewhat independent of US dictates are greater than those of the outgoing administration. Washington and the IMF argue that devaluation makes a country's goods cheaper and thus easier to sell abroad.

But in a country that has little to export except bananas, devaluation is no panacea, say Honduran opponents of devaluation. Instead, devaluation leads to an endless round of inflation and further devaluation, says Azcona adviser Jaime Rosenthal.

Mr. Rosenthal is a leader of the Alipo faction. He says devaluation is inflationary, because much of the basic foodstuffs and mass industrial goods consumed in Honduras are imported. When their prices go up, wages must rise. Fears of further devaluation cause investors to keep their money in dollars and send it out of the country. The more liberal Alipo faction is expected to have a strong voice in Azcona's economic policies, as Alipo leader Jorge Bue-sos Arias will be Treasury Minister.

Those around Azcona want Hon-duras's foreign debt to be renegotiated with better terms of repayment and lower interest rates. The problem can be solved eventually, within the context of Latin American solidarity, they say.

Two other key politicians outside Alipo are close to Azcona. Jorge Madariaga, a young lawyer whose policies are slightly to the left of Alipo, and Carlos Montoya, a former Marxist who has become considerably more conservative. Political observers here see a potential power struggle developing between the two men.

Most analysts here say that, apart from some leftovers from the Liberal Party old guard, Azcona and his advisers will be more honest and efficient than the outgoing administration.

Azcona's group wants mass employment policies and to bring the stalled land-reform program back to life. Many analysts here doubt that the group will be able to carry out the kind of massive social change necessary to lift most Hondurans out of poverty.

``I don't think Azcona can make a big difference, because I don't think he can make deep structural changes here. Unfortunately, I believe that the groups behind the status quo, around him, in the Liberal Party, in the Army, and in the oligarchy will prevail,'' a foreigner working here in development projects says.

In an article on Honduras in Monday's Monitor, Rafael Leonardo Callejas was incorrectly identified as the presidential candidate of the Liberal Party. He was the National Party candidate.

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