Honduras election is bright spot amid Central American unrest

With El Salvador slipping steadily into civil war and Nicaragua edging toward Marxism, there is mounting concern here in Mexico, as well as in Washington, that all of Central American will soon be engulfed in political chaos.

But there is at least one bright spot on the Central American horizon -- Honduras, which has held its first elections in nine years.

Those elections were for a Constituent Assembly designed to lead Honduras back to civilian rule.

The results were something of a surprise, and they amount to a mild slap at the country's ruling military. But the military promises to respect the will of the electorate.

Honduras's traditional National Party, which has links with the military, was expected to easily win a majority of the 71 seats in the assembly. But when the votes were counted, its rival, the Liberty Party, had won more than 50 percent of the tally. The National Party came in second with 43 percent. That gives the Liberals a seven-seat majority.

But equally impressive for observers here is the 70 percent voter turnout in the elections. Obviously, Hondurans felt it was important to take part in the election even though a small but vocal number of Hondurans argued that the balloting was a sham and a smokescreen to keep the military in power.

The assembly has the power to immediately replace the military man who has assumed the presidency, Gen. Policarpo Paz Garcia -- or to call direct elections for president after drafting a new constitution.

It is unclear which course the assembly will follow. If the National Party had won, the latter course was regarded as more likely. But with victory of the Liberals, either course seems possible.

Such questions appear less important to observers, however, than the fact that Honduras went ahead with the election. This presents a sharp contrast to events elsewhere in Central America.

El Salvador, to the west of Honduras, is beset with civil anarchy as leftists and rightists engage in increasingly brutal skirmishes. To Honduras's south, Nicaragua has just come through a civil war in which a right-wing military government was replaced by a leftist guerrilla government that is moving the country toward Marxism. And to the north, Guatemala is troubled by escalating political violence.

Amid all this, Honduras is an oasis of tranquility. Still, concern that trouble elsewhere might engulf Honduras was felt both in Tegucigalpa, the capital, and in Washington. The United States has encouraged General Paz Garcia to move toward civil rule and to implement a variety of social and economic changes.

US economic aid in 1980 amounts to $59 million, most of it allocated to immediate impact programs, such as low-cost urban housing, rural health and sanitation, and agricultural supplies. Washington also has approved $3.9 million in military aid aimed largely at helping Honduras tighten its border against guerrillas and arms traffic.

For his part, General Paz Garcia and his fellow military commanders who seized power from other military leaders in 1978 have begun a literacy campaign and revived an land-reform program that was derailed seven years ago with top-heavy bureaucracy and evidence of corruption.

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