THE Reagan administration must take care that its efforts to bring democracy to Nicaragua are not at the expense of democracy already in place in neighboring Honduras. Nicaragua's neighbor to the north has become Washington's prime ally and military staging ground in the '80s for the US proxy war against the Sandinistas.
The ``New Nicaragua'' area just inside the Honduras border has until recently served as the contras' main base.
Since 1983 the US has conducted almost continuous military exercises in Honduras. The largest joint maneuvers yet, involving 40,000 US troops, are now under way.
If Congress does not block the transfer within the next month - and it may - the administration plans to sell ten F-5E fighters and two trainer planes to Honduras. Nicaragua currently has no jet fighters and has threatened to tap the Soviets for comparable MiG-21 aircraft. The Reagan administration insists its action is not provocative; the new fighters, it says, merely replace aging French Myst`ere jets in Honduras and are needed to counter the Sandinista manpower advantage.
US economic and military aid to Honduras has quadrupled since 1981, strengthening Honduras's military establishment considerably. The US by law cannot establish a permanent military presence in Honduras. Still, Washington has invested millions of dollars to build barracks and recreational facilities for the 1,000 to 4,000 US troops at Palmerola air base.
These actions are ostensibly aimed at containing Nicaragua's efforts to export revolution. The Reagan administration also hopes its ``big stick'' approach will persuade the Sandinistas that the US is ready and determined to defend Honduras if needed. For its part, the US says it has no intention of invading Nicaragua but concedes it now has the ability to do so.
Without the acquiescence of Honduras, there would probably be no Sandinista-contra war. Costa Rica, Nicaragua's neighbor to the south, has no army at all and insists on remaining neutral.
Many Hondurans applaud the US action as protective, and they want US aid. But it is increasingly clear that the US buildup in Honduras also has its disadvantages:
When the US pulls out, as it will one day, Honduras will be left with a huge defense establishment to support. Yet Honduras is one of Latin America's poorest nations and has unusually high malnutrition and unemployment rates. The relatively free flow of money on the military side has led to numerous charges of corruption.
Strengthening the military establishment within a fragile new democracy tends to leave civilian authorities in a relatively weakened position.
Democracies usually cherish the right to make their own decisions. In this case the US has been making many decisions for Honduras, in effect, charting that nation's foreign relations. Many Hondurans now view their government as powerless.
The US would do well to let the Central Americans take more of the responsibility in solving the Nicaraguan dilemma. The largely unilateral US decisions to date carry significant side effects worth weighing; these encourage a dependency on US aid far easier to develop than to shake.
Honduras must not be asked to mortgage its future as a democracy.