Honduran locals roll up `contra' welcome mat

Coffee growers in this isolated area of Honduras are no fans of Nicaragua's ruling Sandinistas. But they are starting to speak out against the presence of the Nicaraguan ``contra'' rebels, a presence they say has forced many farmers to flee the area and provoked a major drop in coffee production among the small growers of the region.

``They are unwelcome guests,'' says one prominent coffee grower, whose hilltop home sits close to the Nicaraguan border. ``In the beginning we supported them, helped feed them. But they killed people, they ate our cattle, they took liberties with us, and the people started to hate them. Even the soldiers don't like to see foreigners in our territory,'' said the grower, who asked for anonymity out of fear of contra reprisals.

Some Honduran officials still deny that the contra camps are on Honduran soil. But locals say otherwise. They say they clearly heard the sounds of battle a month ago when Nicaraguan troops crossed the border to hit the camps of the United States-backed contras. Honduran Army troops have sealed off a dirt road east of here that is said to lead to hidden Nicaraguan rebel camps.

``People say the contras are lazy,'' says a source from a town near the border. ``They just make small raids into Nicaragua and then come back and sit around drinking.''

Local coffee growers have unsuccessfully sought indemnities from the US Embassy in Tegucigalpa for the loss of their harvests.

``We lost the '83 harvest completely,'' says the coffee grower. In 1983, the contras launched a major unsuccessful effort to take Jalapa Valley. Artillery duels were fought across the border during nine days of heavy fighting. It was the contras' last major attempt at frontally assaulting a Nicaraguan border town. Since then, the growers have had difficulty obtaining credit; the zone is considered too dangerous.

``Before, everybody had cattle. But not anymore. Some the contras robbed, and the rest I sold. Now we're up to our necks in debt. In five years, the whole region has gone downhill -- and for something that isn't our problem.''

Many families have been forced to abandon their farms because of the risk of clashes between the Sandinistas and the contras. Local Honduran papers carried the story of one farmer, Jorge Flores, who fled his farm with his family after being wounded by mortar rounds carelessly fired by contras into an area where he was working.

``The contras are responsible for the misery in which thousands of farmers are living in the zone,'' Mr. Flores told the paper. Some growers say that there are 192 Honduran families living as refugees in the town of Las Trojes alone, and that many others have left the area. Some estimates put the total number of displaced Hondurans at more than 3,000.

Local residents contrast US aid to the contras -- $27 million in US nonmilitary assistance last year -- with the minimal assistance given to the Hondurans that the contras have displaced. ``The contras are sitting fat with all the food President Reagan sends them,'' one grower complains. ``And what do the Hondurans get?''

Few Hondurans, either along the frontier or in the capital of Tegucigalpa, think the contras can overthrow the Sandinistas. Hondurans seem united in their desire to avoid going to war themselves; many fear Nicaragua.

In the conservative business sector, many support action against the Sandinistas. But these businessmen do not agree on what that action should be. Some support aid to the contras. Others think that maintaining the contras on Honduran soil risks pulling Honduras into direct confrontation with Nicaraguan troops.

Although some government officials say they want to reduce tensions with Nicaragua and that they can coexist with a Marxist-led Nicaragua as long as the US ensures Honduras's security, some conservative sectors favor a harder line. Some members of the strongly anticommunist, pro-US private sector privately favor a direct US invasion of Nicaragua. They see such an invasion as the only way to get rid of the Sandinistas.

Some Honduran labor leaders oppose the contra presence.

According to the leader of the large National Farmworkers Union, Marcial Caballero, the contra presence ``steps all over our national sovereignty and runs the risk of a direct confrontation with Nicaragua in which we would provide the dead, and others [the US] would pay the bills.''

With or without US aid, Hondurans see the contras as a problem. ``We can't afford to have an armed, frustrated group 15,000-strong in our territory,'' says Gilberto Goldstein, a congressional deputy and business leader.

Some analysts say it's unlikely Honduras could force the contras out, despite the problems they cause. ``The level of economic and military dependency on the US has grown incredibly,'' says Victor Meza, director of the Honduran Documentation Center. ``Honduras can't break with the US, and the contras are the essential part of the Reagan administration's strategy against Nicaragua.''

Carlos Montoya, president of the Honduran Congress, says, ``Our dependency is so great [that] our foreign policy is very limited.''

``Why is Reagan trying to impose this thing on us?'' asks the Cifuentes coffee grower. ``We have already made our sacrifice.

``What sacrifice has he made?''

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