U.S. relations with Honduras, until now the Reagan Administration's staunchest Central American ally, have been strained lately--one more sign that Washington's military-oriented strategy in that unsettled region is doomed to failure and must be changed.
Honduran political and military leaders are now resisting the role that they have been assigned by White House and Defense Department strategists, a mission described by one Honduran as serving as "just one big military base." Honduran territory has been used by U.S. military personnel helping the government of El Salvador fight its guerrilla war. U.S. military bases established in Honduras have been used for the military maneuvers that keep pressure on the Sandinista government in Nicaragua. And Honduran territory is used as a staging area for the contras, Nicaraguan rebels funded by Washington, fighting to overthrow the Sandinistas.
Until recently all this military activity was conducted with little concern for Honduran sensibilities. But that began to change a year ago when the rabidly anti-Communist chief of the Honduran armed forces, Gen. Gustavo Alvarez, was replaced by a younger officer, Gen. Walter Lopez, who gives higher priority to Honduran nationalism than he does to President Reagan's anti-Communist crusade in Central America. Lopez has joined civilian Honduran leaders in demanding specific benefits in return for helping Washington.
Honduran leaders are worried not just about the increased militarization of Nicaragua but also about the military buildup in El Salvador. The last war that Honduras fought was against El Salvador, in 1969, and a handful of border disputes arising from that war remain unresolved. Honduran authorities also fear that if the rebel war against Nicaragua collapses, they will have to cope with bands of contras wandering their countryside.
As a result, Honduran leaders want a dramatic increase in U.S. military and economic assistance for their country. In exchange for the training of Salvadoran soldiers at a U.S. military base on Honduras' Caribbean coast, they want an equal number of Honduran soldiers to be trained at the facility. They also want more of the modern equipment that the United States is giving to the Salvadoran army.
Washington is understandably reluctant to give the Hondurans a blank check. U.S. officials say that the controversial training base may be closed in April, and, to calm Honduran fears about El Salvador and Nicaragua, U.S. diplomats are drafting a statement pledging to defend Honduras if it is attacked.
But the best guarantee of Honduras' security lies not in training more Honduran soldiers or pledging to help defend the country. It lies in Honduras' joining other Central American nations in signing the regional peace treaty drafted by the Contadora Group--Mexico, Venezuela, Colombia and Panama. Those four countries all border on Central America; they want the region to be at peace as much as do Honduras and the United States. For two years they have worked on an agreement through which all five nations of Central America will end their military buildups and pledge not to interfere in each other's affairs.
Until the Administration accepts the fact that a Contadora treaty is the most realistic solution to Central America's turmoil, and until it works to have that treaty signed, U.S. diplomats will periodically find themselves besieged with problems like those now driving a wedge between Washington and Tegucigalpa. Reagan and his aides helped create the problems with Honduras, and even more difficult situations with Nicaragua and in El Salvador, by relying too much on military solutions and too little on diplomacy.