As United States and Honduran negotiators finalize an agreement that could deepen military cooperation between the two countries, many Hondurans are increasingly worried about their country's role in US military policy in Central America. Opponents of the new agreement say it is the first concrete step toward moving the US Southern Command from Panama to Honduras and that it could unwittingly involve Honduras in a Central American war.
US and Honduran officials fiercely deny there are any plans to move SouthCom to Honduras. And a US Embassy spokesman here in the capital, Tegucigalpa, insists the negotiations simply formalize the current US military presence in Honduras.
Various Honduran sources say that, if nothing else, the negotiations violate the spirit of Central America's peace accord. The pact restricts new foreign military aid, and calls for withdrawal of foreign military advisers and prohibition of foreign military bases.
A number of Honduran politicians have called the negotiations illegal because the Honduran Congress has not been consulted. After news reports surfaced about the existence of the draft document, the local press quoted politicians as saying that the construction of permanent foreign bases would violate the Constitution and that Congress must approve any treaty changes.
``What this does is diminish the sovereignty and independence of this country,'' said a senior adviser to the opposition Nationalist Party. who claimed familiarity with the talks.
The document at issue is a new, third protocol to a 1954 US-Honduran military assistance treaty that has been the legal basis for the current US military presence in Honduras. It and Protocol II, which deals with US maneuvers in Honduras, have been under negotiation since 1986 and are nearing completion, the US Embassy spokesman said. Once completed, they will be appended to the 1954 treaty.
While a draft of the Protocol III document makes no specific reference to the construction of permanent US bases in Honduras, it says the US would be allowed to build and occupy permanent military facilities and that the US could be given almost unlimited access to Honduran airfields and port facilities. The Monitor obtained a copy of the draft last week.
This directly contradicts previously stated US policy, which says the US's military presence here is temporary. Since 1983, the main US military facility in Honduras has been at the Palmerola Air Force base, about 50 miles northwest of Tegucigalpa. Technically, the base is the training center for Honduran Air Force pilots, but the 1,100 US personnel there outnumber Honduran soldiers by about two to one.
By rotating personnel in on short-duty assignments, the US has been able to say that its presence is temporary. Using temporary personnel as the base for on-going exercises, the US has built and upgraded a series of airfields, port facilities, and roads throughout Honduras that US officials privately say could be used in any direct US military intervention in Central America.
Some Hondurans say their country could be SouthCom's next site because the treaty allowing the US to keep its bases in Panama expires in 1999. They doubt it will be extended because of tensions between the US and Panama.
While no formal overtures have been made, a senior Honduran source said that US Army Gen. Fred Woerner, commander of SouthCom, and Gen. Humberto Regalado Hern'andez, head of the Honduran Armed Forces, had informally discussed the possibility of moving SouthCom to Honduras.
According to a US Embassy spokesman, the Protocol III draft is simply a document that justifies the already existing military relationship between the US and Honduras. ``We do not have in mind any permanent bases or other permanent military facilites, nor do we seek to establish any,'' the spokesman said. He added that permanent structures are not the equivalent of a permanent US presence.
The nine-page protocol contains 33 points detailing US-Honduras military cooperation. While the document says the Honduran Armed Forces would maintain ultimate jurisdiction over the presence of US forces and military installations, Honduran officials could be excluded from areas deemed sensitive by the US.
In some circumstances, US aircraft and ships would be able to enter Honduran territory without the permission of Honduran authorities, the document said.
A 10-page appendix to Protocol III is a technical agreement between the US and Honduran Air Forces assigning financial responsibility for the repair and maintenance of Honduran airfields used by the US to both nations. Three other agreements under negotiation outline cooperation to fight drug trafficking.
There is a general treaty to combat drug smuggling; a pact for a radar installation on the Caribbean coast to monitor suspected drug smugglers; and an agreement to allow US officials to board Honduran flagged vessels on the high seas suspected of running illegal drugs.