Honduras was the original banana republic. This nation of 4 million people has come a long way since the days when international fruit companies practically owned half the country. But it is still the poorest and most illiterate of the Central American republics. Bananas are still its chief export.
Despite its poverty, however, Honduras suffers from less violence than its neighbors, El Salvador and Guatemala. It has made a fragile commitment to political reform.
US Secretary of State Alexander Haig thinks Honduras is country No. 3 in a Soviet-Cuban plan that would lead ultimately to the takeover of Central America. The final target would be Guatemala, Honduras's oil-producing neighbor to the west and the most populous of the Central American republics.
Honduras has never produced anything so valuable as oil, but in some ways it has been protected by its poverty. A country where even the rich are said to be poor, Honduras has avoided some of the extremes of left and right, which have helped to wrack its neighbors.
Honduras's military officers are considered corrupt, but they also seem to be more in touch with their own people, and less brutal, than are some of their Guatemalan counterparts.
The Carter administration, which had strained relations with the Guatemalan military leadership, gave strong support, in the form of aid, to the Honduran military. But it also pushed the Honduran generals and colonels to return their country to civilian rule.
The Reagan administration's policy toward Honduras has been unclear, and apparently unformulated. But in the absence of signals from Washington, some of the country's politicians are getting the impression that the US is now less committed than it once was in this part of the world to democratic political reform. Despite elections a year ago which were won by the moderate, underdog Liberal Party, many Honduran politicians are beginning to think that Washington would prefer conservatives in power, and perhaps even a continuation of military rule.
But a huge turnout in the April 1980 elections gave the Liberal Party the leading role in setting ground rules for presidential and legislative elections to be held late this year or in 1982. Some diplomats think that if the movement toward civilian rule is reversed, the result might be popular violence.
Honduras has a number of safety valves: a relatively free press, the beginnings of social reform, and the promise of a new constitution and free elections. It has enough land to make subsistence farming possible.
The Communist Party is tolerated under a "semiclandesitne" status, which seems to mean that while its leaders try to hold meetings in secret, their activities are thoroughly infiltrated by the police. The daily assassinations of suspected leftists which occur in El Salvador and Guatemala are unheard of here.
But violence is not unknown. The Honduran military has had periods when it repressed its opponents. Honduran troops have been widely reported to have participated in a massacre of refugees fleeing El Salvador. Honduras serves as a sanctuary for former members of the Nicaraguan National Guard who have been launching hit-and-run attacks into neighboring Nicaragua.
Some of Honduras' leftists have helped move weapons through this country into el Salvador.
With its vast, rugged, and permeable borders, Honduras looks more like a sieve than a domino.
Economic pressures are growing. As elsewhere in the region, Honduras has been suffering from increased prices for its oil imports, and falling prices for some of its traditional exports. Corruption has generated cynicism. One need only to look up at the hills surrounding the tranquil capital city of Tegucigalpa to see that some Hondurans live better than others. The shanties jammed onto those hills could contain the shock troops of future revolution. These are the Honduran lumpenproletariat.m Their presence is a reminder that Honduras's populations growth is among the highest in the world while its arable land is limited.
A recent visitor to Honduras, Rep. Gerry E. Studds (D) of Massachusetts, a member of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, summed it up this way: "Honduras is either an island of tranquility or the next revolution. Perilously situated alongside revolutionary Nicaragua, reactionary Guatemala, and the Salvadoran basket case, Honduras is, to date, a miraculous survivor. Hope competes now on equal terms with fear amongst both its people and its leaders."