The strengthening of democracy in Honduras

IN the midst of a spate of disheartening news from Central America a positive note merits our attention. In Honduras a reaffirmation of the democratic process is taking place as the citizenry goes to polls this Sunday to vote for president in elections that are expected to be orderly, clean, and honest. Because of a very complex voting procedure and ambiguities in the voting laws, there may be a certain amount of confusion surrounding the outcome. Nevertheless, the process will be democratic and the victor will have the support of the nation.

This event is particularly significant in that it will be a second successive open and free election, the first time this has happened in Honduras in over half a century. It is an affirmation of the democratic process at work.

When Roberto Suazo-Cordoba won what all observers agreed were free and clean presidential elections in 1981, not many who follow Honduran affairs expected that he would complete his term. Each of his few predecessors who had come to the presidential chair in similar fashion -- Ramon Villeda-Morales in 1959 and Ramon Ernesto-Cruz in 1971, for example -- had been deposed by military coups before his term had finished.

The signs for Suazo-Cordoba were ominous. The Honduran military establishment was under the control of a dynamic, politically ambitious general who seemed to enjoy the confidence and support of the American ambassador and the Pentagon's representative in the area. The military appeared to be impatient with civilian decisionmaking. Rumors of possible coups began almost at once. A coup did come, but not against the president. Rather, it was against the powerful general, Gustavo Alvarez Martinez. His fello w officers ousted him to assure the continuity of the democratic process and to protest his apparent total subservience to US military wishes. He had permitted Honduran military areas to be used for the training of Salvadorean troops against the sentiments of the majority of his military colleagues.

Threats to the viability of the democratic process came not only from the military. At the very heart of the system, the incumbent president himself seemed tempted at one moment in time.

Honduran presidents have an unhappy tradition of presidential ``continuism'' through which chief executives have found it convenient to postpone elections for years as they continued in office in order to ``confront national crises.'' When Suazo-Cordoba began political maneuvering directed to this end, public opinion, the legislature, and the military establishment combined to make it clear that such conduct would not be tolerated.

All of this took place in a four-year long atmosphere of crises. Guerrilla wars on Honduras's three frontiers brought thousands of refugees streaming into the nation, which already had the lowest per capita income on the American mainlands. In the north Guatemalan Indians came to escape the heavy hand of their nation's Army and its pacification operations. In the west Salvadorean peasants filled hastily constructed refugee camps as they sought to escape the ravages of their country's continuing civil st rife. In the south Nicaraguans came to escape Sandinista collectivization, the military draft, or the Contra-Sandinista conflict.

All of this put great strain on Honduras's fragile governmental administrative structure and economic wherewithal. The presence of large numbers of US troops on continuing joint maneuvers also brought pressure to bear on the Honduran government, as might be expected in any such circumstances.

The country's economic situation has not been rosy during the first four years of a democratically elected government. The world market for bananas, coffee, and non-ferrous minerals, the country's prime earners of foreign exchange, has hardly been favorable. Strong pressures to devalue the nation's currency were barely resisted. Consequent government budgetary stringencies resulted in labor strife including a nationwide teachers' strike.

In spite of all these pressures, the strong national commitment to the maintenance of the democratic process remained unshakable. With a military establishment firmly in support of the electoral process and a legislature similarly dedicated, the Honduran political parties selected their presidential candidates and have been vigorously campaigning. No one doubts that the election on Nov. 24 will be hard fought, but it will be honest, too. The process of democracy seems at last to be firmly planted in Hon duras.

Hewson A. Ryan, Murrow professor of public diplomacy at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, was US ambassador to Honduras, 1969-1973.

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