FOR the past seven years, Honduras has been Washington's closest ally in Central America. Regarded as a loyal and reliable friend, that government has supported almost every Reagan administration initiative. Yet two weeks ago Honduran security forces dawdled while rioters firebombed the United States Embassy annex, burned American flags, and torched two dozen US government vehicles. US policy toward Honduras, calculated to preserve and deepen the bond of friendship, has failed miserably. The recent display of violent anti-American sentiments stems from a long-growing frustration with the US. The spark that ignited the tinderbox was the kidnapping and extradition of Juan Ram'on Matta Ballesteros. Though a known bandit and drug trafficker, he is widely considered to have been unconstitutionally abducted. The fury unleashed by the mob was less a demonstration of support for Mr. Matta than a display of defiance against the US.
Two weeks before the embassy incident, the White House pressured President Jos'e Azcona Hoyo into summoning US troops, ostensibly to defend Honduras from a Nicaraguan invasion. Four battalions of US soldiers parachuted into deserted Honduran cow pastures.
Defense Secretary Frank Carlucci's statement that the mobilization was to provide moral backing to the contras humiliated Honduran officials; they insist, as a legal nicety, that no contra bases are in their territory. A US Embassy press spokesman declared later that the US troops saved the contras from a ``mortal blow.''
Much of the resentment toward the US can be traced directly to the US contra policy. Since 1981, the White House has been using Honduras to pursue its war against the Sandinista government in neighboring Nicaragua. Some Honduran military and civilian officials have profited handsomely while cooperating with the contra war. The Honduran government is riding on a fourfold increase in its foreign aid - up to about $200 million a year - since the war began. And the Honduran military was rewarded with 12 F-5s in 1987, the only sophisticated jet fighters in the region.
The aid has clearly not achieved its objective. After US troops were rushed to Honduras, national legislators wondered aloud whether it was worth spending so much money on armed forces that apparently could not respond to a supposed threat. After the attack on the US Embassy, US diplomats asked the same question about the investment of hundreds of millions of US tax dollars for a Honduran military that appeared to lack the will to defend US property or lives.
The Reagan administration's contra policy has required great sacrifices of Honduras. The contras and the war have been responsible for the deaths of dozens of Honduran citizens and the displacement of hundreds of families from their farms. Yet the government's only response has been to relocate contra camps in other parts of the long Nicaraguan border region. The weariness of the Honduran people is reflected in President Azcona's recent remark, ``We are very tired of the Nicaraguan problems always ending up affecting Honduras.''
The administration's worst mistake, which can be blamed for the $6 million embassy trashing, is its continuing unwillingness to consult with its Honduran colleagues. The presence of the contras has never been discussed with the Honduran people.
Honduras has become accustomed to lightning visits by senior White House officials bearing instructions. In the Matta case, there are rumors in Honduras that his surprise capture was preceded by a visit from John Negroponte (of the National Security Council and former ambassador to Honduras). He may have relayed a US proposal to trade Matta for silence regarding Honduran military men implicated in drug trafficking.
Many US citizens live in Honduras. Thousands of military personnel are either permanently stationed in a sprawling base near the capital, or have arrived for temporary exercises. The US Embassy boasts of having one of the largest diplomatic corps in the hemisphere. Americans, however, are now greeted with derision and insults. Because of sporadic attacks, all embassy employees have been advised to remain in their homes. With shocking abruptness, Americans have become strangers in a land they once seemed to control.
The Honduran government declared a state of emergency from April 8 to 13. Radio and television news was shut down, and the military and police searched private offices and seized documents. Hundreds, especially student and left-wing labor leaders, have been arrested for interrogation. Yet even government sources privately admit that right-wing groups started the demonstration.
Recent events carry serious consequences for Honduras and for US policy in the region. The stability of Honduras, at the geographic center of Central America, is essential if the US is to be able to carry out creative diplomacy toward the crises in Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Panama. The US must stop looking past Honduras to Nicaragua, and concern itself with Honduras's own fragile, military-dominated democracy.
As a Honduran politician said recently, ``US arrogance has turned the Hondurans against US policy, something the left has never been able to do.'' To prevent future outbursts of anti-American zeal, the US must treat Honduras as an ally, not as a servant.
Joe Eldridge was formerly director of the Washington Office on Latin America, a Washington-based human rights organization focusing on US foreign policy in the hemisphere. John Burstein is an associate there.