The US role in Honduras

It is difficult to know what to make of the reorganization now under way in the Honduran government. Yet it is not hard to see what some of that nation's major problems are - and what overall approaches the United States could take that would be helpful.

The decision of Honduran President Roberto Suazo Cordova to ask his Cabinet to resign may have been an effort to deal with an undercurrent of public discontent, particularly with national poverty, by shuffling the government to give the appearance of action. Rather like a baseball owner firing the manager in response to fan unrest over a losing streak.

The Cabinet changes of themselves are unlikely to improve the nation's economic situation - it is the second-poorest country in Latin America - or to ease the various tensions that stem from the factional strife oozing across Central America.

But both problems require solutions, and the US has a positive role to play.

American aid ought to be restructured so as to increase the emphasis on economic assistance. The Suazo government then must be effectively pressured into seeing that this help reaches individual Hondurans, rather than being siphoned off through corruption.

Part of the reason for rising national tensions is that Hondurans see much evidence of military assistance throughout their nation - 32 helicopters, four base camps, and eight airfields, plus training of Salvadorean troops and operations from Honduras by Nicaraguan contras. Honduran civilians are beginning to ask why they're not getting discernible benefit from this expenditure - and just who is.

Four years ago the US gave Honduras $45 million in economic development help, and only $4 million in military aid. Two years ago the aid was equal - $31 million for each purpose. But in the current year, military help shot up to twice that for economic assistance, $79 million to $39 million. It is an imbalance the US should redress.

These figures do not include the approximately $50 million spent on the anti-Sandinista contras based in eastern Honduras.

There are other general steps the US ought to take. One is to be certain that it is aligned with progressive elements of the Honduran military. There has been a rise in right-wing violence against civilians, a lower-key parallel to the Salvadorean situation. In recent weeks it has been reported that the CIA has been involved with the right-wing military elements in Honduras who are believed responsible for these killings.

One result has been to increase opposition to the US from Hondurans, who see Uncle Sam as siding with the forces of repression. Removal of the strong man, Gen. Gustavo Alvarez Martinez, has helped. The US should make clear that it strongly opposes such violence.

Civilian government is new to Honduras, only recently out from under dictatorial military regimes. Political parties and their leaders are generally weak, and often unimpressive to outsiders. Yet they need support from Washington: the US cannot afford to be perceived as working primarily with the military.

Despite all its challenges - and there are many others - Honduras's most serious problem nowadays may be getting the attention of the United States to its own substantial needs. Once that is done, solutions can be found.

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