Honduran civilian rulers under fire

Since the ouster of Honduran armed forces chief Gen. Gustavo Alvarez Martinez last March, the Honduran government has been criticized and hounded as never before.

So it was no major surprise when President Roberto Suazo Cordova asked his Cabinet to resign last week.

General Alvarez, who virtually ran the country even after a civilian government was inaugurated last January, served as a magnet, drawing most criticism to himself. But after his departure, all eyes turned on the civilian government. And it rapidly became clear that Honduras's governmental, political, and social systems are inadequate to meet the needs of its poverty-stricken people and to cope with the changes sweeping Central America, say Hondurans and Western diplomats.

''What we are faced with is the bankruptcy of a political and economic system ,'' says a Honduran closely linked to the ruling Liberal Party.

The general feeling is that time is running out for this country. The radical regime in neighboring Nicaragua and the insurgency in El Salvador, combined with Honduras's lack of economic development and the backward living conditions of most of its people, lead many observers to believe it will not be too long before Honduras faces a serious insurgency problem of its own.

There is a strong sense here that Honduras has a limited period of time in which to effect social changes before events spiral completely out of control.

The strongest criticism of the Honduran political system seems to come from educated Hondurans, including those traditionally pro-government, such as Army officers and businessmen. Some business leaders with major financial ties to the government still have a few kind words for it, but most businessmen are increasingly critical. Despite growing disenchantment, an Army coup, while possible, is for many reasons unlikely before elections scheduled for November 1985; and because opposition parties are weak and badly divided here, it's possible that the Liberal Party could be reelected, say many knowledgeable Hondurans and Western diplomats. The Liberals, they note, have a strong party machine among a traditional peasantry that is not very politically conscious.

The nation's acute economic crisis, however, is aggravating criticism of the government. Honduras is the poorest country in the hemisphere after Haiti. It has had three successive years of negative economic growth. Prices for its basic export commodities - bananas, coffee, sugar, and timber - continue to fall. The country is also deeply in debt to the International Monetary Fund (IMF), whose austerity program is unpopular here.

When Hondurans are being asked to make economic sacrifices, government inefficiencies, special privileges, and corruption become all the more noticeable. There is a feeling that the government is not capable of meeting the country's crisis, say a wide range of Hondurans and Western diplomats.

One Western diplomat says, ''What you (the Honduran establishment) are doing is sowing kindling all over this country, and one day someone is going to come and put a torch to it. I see the corruption and incompetence in the government and business sector and then I see the shoeless people on the street and I ask myself, 'How long can this go on?' ''

In recent months, the government's problems were provoked by increased taxation and austerity measures taken in May in order to obtain IMF help. The measures provoked demonstrations in the streets of Tegucigalpa and the government was not able to avoid a general strike planned for June.

Several Honduran economists say that the steps taken in May are not enough and that by the end of 1984 the government will face another crisis.

Opposition political parties here are weak and divided, say many Western diplomats and Hondurans.

One respected Honduran economist and moderate political observer said that Honduras is still at the stage of having warring factions under the leadership of caudillos (Spanish for political and military strong men) rather than modern political parties. He and other prominent Hondurans also described the unions, student groups, and professional organizations as weak and not very politically conscious, although recovering somewhat from the period of repression under Alvarez.

The largest opposition group is the Nationalist Party, which historically alternated power with the Liberals. Whatever ideological differences exist between the two were significant only in the 19th century. Both are largely old-fashioned alliances of political and financially prominent families who control political machines among the peasantry and some sectors of the middle classes.

There are two offshoots of the Liberal Party - Alipo and the Reinista movement - that are considered more forward-looking, with the Reinista movement slightly to the left of Alipo. But these groups and the third major opposition party, the Christian Democrats, are thought to have little chance of gaining power.

One factor that might complicate the elections is that the government has been unusually slow in compiling voter registration lists. Almost all Honduran and Western diplomats interviewed say that any appearance of electoral fraud or sense that Suazo was trying to stay on as president could serve to provoke an Army coup.

Many Hondurans say the Army itself is wary of taking over. If a coup occurred , it would probably be a result of a consensus within the Army that the civilian system was incapable of running the nation with even minimal efficiency.

Moderate Hondurans connected to the military leadership speculate that the possible players in a coup would be either (1) Army chief Gen. Walter Lopez Reyes, acting with the backing of the Army and support of the reformist elements , or (2) right-wing military officers linked to former military strong man Gustavo Alvarez and more conservative elements in the US government. The last scenario is considered the less likely of the two.

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