THE Sandinistas have left their mark on Central America in the ten years since the overthrow of Anastasio Somoza Debayle in Nicaragua. But for neighboring Honduras, the threat is not Nicaraguan aggression nor the leftist insurrection in El Salvador. It is the imposing United States presence. The embassy in Tegucigalpa is one of the largest US diplomatic missions in the world. The economic and military assistance programs are the largest in Latin America, after those in El Salvador, and the Peace Corps contingent is the largest in the world. There are over 1,000 US troops stationed in Honduras ``indefinitely,'' says their new commander. National Guard units regularly fly in from the states for training exercises.
A plausible case can be made for the United States presence in Honduras. Certainly it is hard to question the $138 million foreign aid program. Honduras is the third most impoverished nation in the Western Hemisphere, and needs to break its dependence on bananas and coffee in order to develop. With per capita gross domestic product under $800 per year, most Hondurans live at a subsistence existence. Peace Corps volunteers are effective in reaching the poor in the urban slums and remote regions of rural Honduras.
The $40 million military assistance program and US troops help contribute to Honduran development. Aside from strengthening the defense of Honduras against the Sandinistas, US military aid, training, and joint maneuvers modernize the Honduran armed forces and reinforce their commitment to the country's fledgling democratic political system. US troops and the visiting National Guard units perform civic action activities like road building and school construction, and offer medical assistance.
Important as these and other activities are, objections to the US presence in Honduras are understandable. To begin with, the sheer magnitude is overwhelming. The regular and National Guard troops, totaling over 2,000, the 300-plus Peace Corps volunteers, hundreds of AID development specialists, visiting professors and artists, and the huge embassy staff cast a large shadow in this poor nation of only 4.7 million people. This shadow will grow when the huge, new, fortress-like embassy building, which sits on a hill overlooking the capital, is finished.
US officials stationed in Honduras frequently appear insensitive to local conditions and feelings. Hondurans are openly skeptical that the United States can depoliticize the armed forces. If anything, the US embrace has increased the respectability and prestige of the military.
The last two US ambassadors were very visible on the local scene. In 1988, the Drug Enforcement Agency masterminded the arrest and extradition to the US of a Honduran national allegedly linked to the Medellin drug cartel.
During my visit, not a day passed that some US official was not quoted in the newspapers on some local issue.
The AID mission is currently holding up a $70 million loan in order to pressure the Honduran government to enact painful economic reforms.
These actions, justified as they may seem in Washington, reinforce the view held by many Hondurans that their nation is less than sovereign in its own territory.
The principal affront to Honduran sovereignty, however, is the contra army. While Hondurans hold no sympathy for the Sandinistas, it is the contras who are perceived as a danger in Honduras. The presence of thousands of exiled Nicaraguans with arms and nothing to do is widely blamed for growing social unrest and violence. It also makes Honduras vulnerable to retaliation from Nicaragua.
More importantly, everyone knows the contras are in Honduras because Washington wants them there. In this sense, Honduras is nothing more than a base from which the US directs its effort to contain the Sandinistas. Hondurans across the political spectrum resent it.
Honduras holds presidential elections in November. In an interview, one of the two leading candidates, whose platform sounded as though it were drafted by the Republican National Committee, complained that US officials are insensitive to the consequences of the US contra policy for Honduras. He had spoken to both Vice President Dan Quayle and Secretary of State James Baker, and neither was responsive to his inquiries about what will happen to the contras after 1990 when Nicaragua holds its presidential election and the current humanitarian aid package runs out.
There have been isolated instances of violent anti-Americanism. In April 1988, a large mob attacked the US Embassy to protest the forced extradition of the alleged narcotics trafficker. During my visit, seven US soldiers were wounded in an attack by left-wing extremists.
The majority of Hondurans, however, are firmly pro-American. What they would welcome from Washington is a lower profile and greater respect of Honduran sovereignty. With a new undersecretary of state for Latin America and a new ambassador, the Bush administration has an opportunity to do just that.