The United States refusal to sign a strong bilateral defense treaty with Honduras has angered top officials in this impoverished but strategic Central American nation. The lack of a signed promise of American support in the event of an attack by neighboring Nicaragua or El Salvador has deepened the sense of disillusionment felt in official circles here over Honduras's role as the Reagan administration's closest regional ally.
Honduras's longstanding request for a new defense treaty was flatly rejected in last week's surprise meeting in the Honduran capital between President Reagan's national security adviser, Robert McFarlane, and Honduran President Roberto Suazo C'ordova and armed forces chief Brig. Gen. Walter L'opez Reyes, according to top Honduran officials.
Mr. McFarlane told Honduran officials that the United States could not revise its 1954 mutual military cooperation treaty with Honduras to include firm American defense guarantees, Honduran sources say. McFarlane told the Hondurans to rely instead on ``verbal guarantees'' and is said to have reminded them that in any event, Honduras is covered by the ``Rio Treaty'' in case of invasion.
Disappointed Honduran officials point out, however, that the 1949 Rio Treaty did not produce American solidarity in the 1982 Falklands war. The US sided with Britain against Argentina in the conflict.
Foreign Minister Edgardo Paz Barnica refused to confirm or deny details of the Jan. 18 meeting with McFarlane. But when asked why Honduras wished to win firmer defense promises in ongoing bilateral negotiations when Honduras already enjoyed the protection of the Rio Treaty, Mr. Paz Barnica retorted: ``and during the Malvinas [Falklands] war -- what good was it then?''
Honduras's greatest fear is that the presence of Nicaraguan rebels will provoke an attack by the Sandinista government. Another scenario envisions renewed clashing with neighboring El Salvador over a long-simmering border dispute.
``We have had to learn a very difficult lesson -- that US interests are not Honduran interests,'' said a Foreign Ministry official after McFarlane's visit. Hondurans complain that in the three months since officials from both countries met to discuss bilateral relations, their US counterparts have often been arrogant or insensitive and made it clear they view Honduras's national concerns as secondary to US policy goals.
The move to update relations with the US and the challenge to US policy have been spearheaded by junior military officers who back General L'opez, himself trained in US Air Force bases. L'opez's political leanings, which are widely viewed as moderate, and his strong sense of nationalism have annoyed many US officials -- as well as Nicaraguan contras -- who until his ascension to power last April enjoyed a close relationship with former armed forces chief Gustavo Alvarez Mart'inez.
General Alvarez, ousted in a coup last March, was a virulent anticommunist who had come to be viewed as the real power behind the government after forging intimate ties with the Reagan administration.
Under Alvarez, Honduras allowed the United States unprecedented freedom to conduct both covert and overt military activities in this country, including permitting American Green Berets to train Salvadoran troops at the regional military training center established at the Atlantic coast port of Puerto Castilla. This infuriated younger Honduran officers who came of age during the 1969 ``soccer war'' between the two countries.
And under Alvarez, the CIA trained, funded, and supplied the contras. Some contras allegedly were allowed to wear Honduran Army uniforms and work with army intelligence units investigating Honduran leftists.
``Honduras allowed the United States to put the contras here, to put the training center here, and toed the Reagan administration line,'' says Manuel Acosta Bonilla, a former finance minister and a leading member of the opposition National Party. ``Now people call Honduras the vassal, the puppet, of the United States. We have lost the respect of Central American countries because we do not even have our own foreign policy.''
Soon after L'opez came to power, the military reportedly stripped the contras of Honduran uniforms, ordered them to lower their profile here, demanded more US aid, and halted the training of Salvadorean troops.
Beyond those initial measures, however, L'opez has failed to win strong defense commitments from the US, and his suggestion that Nicaraguan rebels be moved to Nicaragua has met with a cool reaction from US officials.
Honduran officers say that McFarlane brought up the contras in his visit, insisting that Honduras continue supporting the rebels because the US would find funding for them ``somewhere,'' even if Congress rejects further aid. But there is still discontent in the ranks.
But diplomatic observers here note that the armed forces still give logistical support to the contras and say it is doubtful that Honduras's mounting dissatisfaction will produce a serious threat to American plans to station troops here for continuous exercises.
Pointing out the $247.4 million in US economic and military aid last year, many here say that for all its born-again nationalism, Honduras still sees its fortunes as too integrally tied to Washington's interests for it to abandon its role as the major US ally in this region.