THE month of May heralds the largest United States military maneuvers ever to take place in the Caribbean. Approximately 50,000 US military personnel are participating in exercise ``Solid Shield.'' A major theater of these operations is Honduras, the scene of almost continuous US military maneuvers since 1983. They seek to inhibit neighboring Nicaragua, whose revolutionary government Washington labels a threat to Central America, and to strengthen the Nicaraguan counterrevolutionaries both infiltrated within Nicaragua and camped in Honduras. The Honduran military also participates in these exercises and, of course, the Honduran government cooperates. It has little choice. Honduras is virtually an occupied nation, ``host'' to both US and contra forces. The US constructs an ever lengthening chain of military installations, the largest of which is the air base at Palmerola. Estimates of the number of US servicemen permanently stationed in Honduras reach as high as 4,000. For their part, the contras occupy a sensitive region of 450 square miles on the border with Nicaragua, from which most of the former Honduran residents have fled.
The long contra presence - it reaches back to mid-1979 - has served to enhance the Honduran military.
Officially, US funds flow to arm and to train the soldiers. Unofficially, funds from the Iran-contra affair, Saudi Arabia, the CIA, and assorted ``private'' enterprises have bribed and bought off the officers, elevating corruption to new heights in that forlorn land. Gen. Gustavo Alvarez Mart'inez, commander of the Honduran Army from early 1982 until March 31, 1984, fled the country with something close to $30 million in foreign bank accounts and in his luggage. One of his successors, Gen. Walter L'opez Reyes, pocketed at least one bribe of $450,000 from the $27 million Congress voted as ``humanitarian aid'' to the contras in 1985. The venal Honduran military is on the take.
While becoming increasingly exposed to state-of-the-art training, thanks to the endless succession of joint maneuvers with US forces, the Honduran military is also well armed by Central American standards.
It boasts the latest equipment - and is in the process of acquiring a dozen modern and expensive jets.
The modernity of the military and the bulging bank accounts of its staff officers contrast with the misery of Honduras, recognized as the second most impoverished nation in Latin America. Fully half of the population has never turned on a light or a water faucet. The World Health Organization reports an alarming infant mortality rate: 117 per 1,000 live births; 72 percent of all Hondurans suffer from one form or another of malnutrition; un- and underemployment figures hover near 50 percent.
The Honduran national budget in 1985 totaled less than $1 billion.
Yet, money for war games abounded.
By now the cost of US participation in the war against Nicaragua is a manipulated figure. Washington assured the taxpayers that military aid to Central America and the Caribbean cost $1.2 billion in 1985. Economists Joshua Cohen and Joel Rogers, among others, set the price at a minimal $9.5 billion. Many speculate that the billions might be better spent on schools, hospitals, and, certainly, housing.
Social and economic injustices provide the tinder to inflame future revolution, suggesting that the real danger to public order is internal rather than external. Any threat from Nicaragua would be one of example. Whatever the problems of the Nicaraguan revolution, it does provide access for all Nicaraguans to land, health care, and education, an access the impoverished Hondurans are fully aware of and crave for themselves.
So, while the massive May maneuvers aim to contain Nicaragua, they actually exacerbate the real cause for discontent in Honduras: all-pervasive poverty.
No amount of jet airplanes, no grandiose military exercises, will remedy the real problems of Honduras.
Teofilo Trejos, vice president of the National Union of Popular Cooperatives, voiced the frustration of increasing numbers of Hondurans, ``To build military airports, construct ports, buy arms, for all of that there is plenty of money. Here you have the spectacle of military maneuvers which cost millions in the very regions, like the south, where peasants are dying of hunger.''
E. Bradford Burns is professor of Latin American History at the University of California, Los Angeles, and author of the recently published ``At War in Nicaragua. The Reagan Doctrine and the Politics of Nostalgia,'' Harper & Row.