Specter of war haunts fragile Honduran democracy

Honduran Army Col. Jose Serra Hernandez glanced briefly across the border into Nicaragua and then turned back to gaze at the peaceful Honduran hill country in front of him.

''We are an island of relative tranquillity in a sea of turmoil and unrest.

''But those troubled waters could engulf us.''

In the months since Colonel Serra Hernandez as defense minister made those remarks to this reporter, more and more Hondurans are wondering whether their nation's fragile democracy can survive as war and turmoil escalate in Central America.

Moreover, many Hondurans worry about the decisions allowing the United States to build bases on Honduran territory and to use these bases to train Salvadorean soldiers and Nicaraguan exile groups.

Hondurans are also wondering whether President Roberto Suazo Cordova or the armed forces commander, Gen. Gustavo Alvarez Martinez, is calling the shots.

As the US builds Honduras into its main bastion in Central America against Marxism and leftist insurgencies, US officials appear to be working more closely with the general than with the President.

It is not overlooked that it was General Alvarez Martinez, with the support of President Suazo Cordova, who initially granted the US permission to build the training base for Salvadorean Army units at Puerto Castilla on the Caribbean coast without first obtaining the approval of the Honduran congress.

''That is hardly the way a democracy should work,'' complains one legislator who is a member of President Suazo Cordova's own Liberal Party. ''He should have gone to Congress beforehand.''

It took fast political maneuvering by the Suazo Cordova government to work out a compromise with the congress on the issue and win legislative support for the base.

Underlying the debate over democratic performance, however, is fear that such unilateral moves will immerse Honduras irrevocably in the deepening Central American conflict - a step that many Hondurans worry could quash efforts to build a viable democracy in their land.

Those efforts got a fresh impulse with President Suazo Cordova's inauguration in January 1982, following almost 10 years of military rule. The new president, a moderate, promised a ''government of revolution, work, and honesty.''

Although he never spelled out what he meant by ''revolution'' or ''work,'' he early on won high marks for running what many believe is the most honest administration in recent Honduran history.

But Mr. Suazo Cordova's problems are many. The threat that his nation could be engulfed by Central America's conflict is only one. Equally troublesome is the country's struggling economy. Honduras is Latin America's second-poorest nation, after Haiti, with a per capita national product of $718 in 1981.

Even more telling is the disparity in income with roughly 90 percent of the population earning about $100 a year.

Unemployment, officially recognized at 17 percent, may really be as high as 35 percent.

Many wealthy Hondurans, worried by the specter of war, have taken their funds out of the country. This capital flight in 1981 and 1982 is estimated at $500 million. The Suazo Cordova government has not been able to get much of it back.

But his government has had success in slowing inflation. While the cost of living was galloping along at rates as high as 23 percent a month in 1981, it is now 20 percent a year.

Still, it is the specter of conflict all around them that most concerns Hondurans. And they don't need to look across the border at Nicaragua to recognize the signs.

They see the signs on all sides: construction of the US training base at Puerto Castilla, the lengthening of runways at two provincial airports (Comayagua and Potrerillos) to handle jets, the arrival by air of large amounts of military equipment at Tegucigalpa, the capital, and San Pedro Sula, the second-largest city, and increasing numbers of US civilian and military personnel.

Those numbers of US personnel could swell to 4,000 soldiers during joint Honduran-US military maneuvers next month. There is also talk of preparing four other airstrips, including one at La Ceiba, for use by jets.

''The smell of involvement is all around,'' said a columnist in the independent, slightly left-of-center El Tiempo of Tegucigalpa.

Many Hondurans feel that in this involvement, Honduran democracy will eventually be the loser, if it has not lost already.

Complicating the picture, President Suazo Cordova is again in the US for medical treatment. He may not be the figurehead that some political observers believe him to be, but his absence from the country adds to this perception.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.