For six years, the Honduran government has maintained the diplomatic fiction that it is not helping the contras. But as the Nov. 7 deadline for compliance with Central America's new peace treaty approaches, the time for fictions is running out. President Jos'e Azcona Hoyo now faces a painful dilemma: to betray the pledge he made in Guatemala to prevent the Nicaraguan rebels from using Honduras as a sanctuary, or to betray his strongest ally, the Reagan administration. (The administration has requested $180 million in aid for Honduras for 1988.)
Foreign Minister Carlos L'opez Contreras insisted recently that Honduras would ``comply fully with its obligations'' under the Aug. 7 peace pact. Honduras has made it plain to Washington that it would like to see the contras off its territory by Nov. 7, officials say privately.
But with President Reagan continuing to offer strong support for the anti-Sandinista rebels, the Hondurans ``know they can't kick the contras out, and they are clearly in a state of impotence in terms of their ability to comply with some of their obligations,'' a Western diplomat says.
So far, Honduras has made no move to get the peace plan under way on its soil. After inviting one opposition party to present nominees to a National Reconciliation Committee, the government announced Honduras had no need of such a body, and the initiative stopped there.
The Guatemala plan is ambiguous over whether all five Central American nations should set up National Reconciliation Commissions, or whether the commissions are required only where ``deep divisions'' have torn society apart.
President Azcona chose the latter interpretation over the protests of the Roman Catholic Church, opposition political parties, the trade union movement, and even the private business organization.
They all argue that a commission could usefully address unresolved cases of human rights abuses and help strengthen Honduras's infant democracy. At the same time, says Catholic Church spokesman Fr. Dionisio Potvin, ``there would be no danger for the government'' in establishing the forum, since Honduras's political problems are relatively minor.
``If the government says there is no need for a reconciliation commission because there is nothing to reconcile, why not create one anyway, to show good faith?'' a European diplomat asks. ``If they haven't done it, it's because there is one irreconcilable question here: the contras.''
The key clause for Honduras in the peace treaty is its ``commitment to prevent the use of its own territory by - and not to let or permit military logistical support to - persons, organizations, or groups seeking to destabilize'' its neighbors. In other words, the contra base camps along the border with Nicaragua and command posts elsewhere in Honduras, must be gone by Nov. 7.
Honduras has long claimed there are no contras on its territory, despite clear evidence to the contrary gathered by reporters. Officials recently modified their public stance to acknowledge the rebel presence, but insist they have not authorized it. But even that is hard to credit, given that the contras are known to make free use of Honduran Army bases, such as Aguacate and Swan Island, as key logistical and communications centers.
At the root of the government's dilemma, is the question of what Honduras can do about this before an International Verification Commission team arrives in November to check that the government is complying with the peace plan.
``Optimism about the plan would be widespread if we had answers to all the questions, such as the contras,'' says conservative politician Rafael Leonardo Callejas. ``But sometimes there are just no solutions.''
The only ways out that anyone can suggest are to hide the contra camps in the jungle, ``which would mean all would depend on how effective the verification commission is,'' says one Western diplomat. ``Or,'' he adds, another option might be `` to ask for international help in dismantling the rebel army.''
The government might, suggests one official privately, simply concede that it does not have the military or political strength to deal with the problem alone, and ask the verification commission and the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, for example, to provide help.
But that would require Honduras to confront US policy in a way it has never before proved willing or able to do. ``Honduras would like to see the backs of the contras,'' says one foreign diplomat, ``but it is powerless to do much about it.''
Honduras's dilemma is worrying the contras too, rebel leaders say. The problem is acute because large numbers of rebel troops are expected to return from Nicaragua to their base camps in November and December, says a contra official familiar with logistical plans.
``It's incredible that the Honduran government seems totally unconscious'' of the problems it might face with the verification commission, a contra leader said.
The contras' broader problem with the peace plan, says rebel political chief Alfonso Robelo, ``is that we have to be jugglers, keeping three crystal balls in the air.'' The contras must keep their political unity, ensure the physical existence of their army, and never appear an obstacle to the peace process, all at the same time, he says.
In talks with the Presidents of Costa Rica and El Salvador, contra leaders have accepted the Guatemala plan. They suggested to Mr. Reagan two weeks ago that their next installment of US aid, if the US Congress approves it, should be held in escrow until the plan's outcome was clearer.
The contras' difficulty, one official explains, is that their future depends on Congress's next aid vote, which will likely be decided by how far the Sandinistas go in keeping their promises. ``We depend totally on the Sandinistas making mistakes. We are the most vulnerable element in the accord and we are facing our gravest-ever crisis.''