Honduran vote: key issues ignored. Candidates won't discuss US role, low living standards

The real issues of Honduras's presidential campaign are problems that many Hondurans worry about. But the leading candidates in Sunday's elections have chosen not to discuss them, most Honduran and foreign analysts say. The first set of issues concerns Honduras's role as a front-line outpost in the Reagan administration's struggle against the ruling Sandinistas of neighboring Nicaragua. Specifically, these issues deal with the presence in Honduras of United States troops and bases the Nicaraguan Democratic Force (FDN) -- the anti-Sandinista armed Nicaraguans known as ``contras.''

The second set of issues is tied to the deteriorating living standard for the average Honduran and a lack of social change or reform that might improve that standard.

Most Hondurans say their next president will have to face these issues, as will the Army, since the Army will be the power behind the president.

``The Honduran people do not oppose the presence of American troops in the country as much as they are against the presence of the FDN. In large part, this is due to the crime wave which has hit Honduras since the Nicaraguans arrived and the high proportion of contras among the perpetrators of crime,'' a Honduran journalist says.

The FDN has also antagonized important sectors of the Honduran officer corps. These sectors fear that the FDN is trying to create a state within a state.

Many top Honduran officers are, according to several analysts close to them, becoming increasingly aware that it is improbable that the US will invade Nicaragua. These officers are aware that the contras can neither overthrow the ruling Sandinistas nor seriously modify the nature of their government without such a US invasion.

US officials in Honduras have hinted that the US will be making budget cuts. US assistance to Central America will not continue forever at its present level. US military aid to Honduras has increased from $9.1 million in 1981 to $77.5 million in 1984.

Many Honduran Army officers fear that one day the United States will back away from a failed contra policy and leave Honduras with some 15,000 to 20,000 heavily armed men marauding through the countryside.

The Army is divided on the issue of the FDN operating out of Honduras. Officers, who are slated by normal rotational procedures to reach top Army positions by the end of next year, oppose the FDN. Another group, which currently heads the Army, is more conservative and more inclined to accept the FDN presence in Honduras.

It is hard for any military officer or leading politician to completely oppose the presence of contras here, one Honduran analyst says.

``The presence of contras in Honduras has become the cornerstone of the US-Honduran relationship, and of the millions of dollars of US aid on which Honduras has become financially dependent,'' he adds.

``No Honduran politician dares to attack the FDN presence strongly because in this country, the US Embassy is so powerful that no one wants to be suspect in its eyes.''

The analyst goes on to say that many Army officers do not oppose the FDN because, with US aid, the FDN has become good business for the Honduran Army. Not only do individual officers get bribes and kickbacks from the FDN, but the FDN also regularly pays the armed forces large fees, for example, for the rental of helicopters, the analyst says.

When they speak privately, there is little division among Honduran military leaders or ranking politicians in their perception that the main threat to Honduras's security comes more from El Salvador than from Nicaragua.

``The Honduran military believes increasingly that war with El Salvador is inevitable. We have no underlying problem with Nicaragua as we do with El Salvador. It is not just a question of disputed pockets of territory along our common boundary. It is a question of demographics,'' a Honduran academic says.

Although the Honduran population is growing rapidly, Honduras is relatively underpopulated. Compared to El Salvador where many more people are crowded into less land, Honduras has much more land. (About 4.4 million Hondurans live on 43,400 square miles. About 4.9 million Salvadoreans live on 8,300 square miles.)

Hondurans fear that Salvadoreans will move near their mutual border and take over chunks of Honduran territory. They also fear that whoever loses the civil war in El Salvador, be it the US-backed government or left-wing guerrillas, will take refuge in Honduras.

Out of deferrence to US wishes, the Salvadorean problem is not often discussed publicly, analysts say. It has hardly been mentioned during the campaign.

The candidates have barely touched the issue of the continuous fall in living standards for most Hondurans. In 1982, the economy did not grow. The population grew by 3.5 percent. The economy grew by 2.8 percent in 1984-85. The population continued at its same rate.

Structural changes, such as a more equitable distribution of land, are needed to help Honduras, analysts say.

This is impossible now because wealthy families control the country. They would lose the most if such a reform took place, analysts say.

Social pressures still mount.

``Our social situation, the standard of living of our people, worsens every day,'' says Marcial Caballero, a peasant leader.

``If it continues for a few more years, we could become another El Salvador, Nicaragua, or Guatemala.''

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