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Dilemma for Honduras: What to Do About Contras It Agreed to Expel

September 17, 1987|MARJORIE MILLER | Times Staff Writer

TEGUCIGALPA, Honduras — U.S. Ambassador Everett E. Briggs listened impassively at a banquet last week as the Honduran foreign minister declared his government's plans to comply with a peace accord that requires it to expel the U.S.-backed contras from Honduras.

What Foreign Minister Carlos Lopez Contreras did not raise with the roomful of diplomats was that, hours earlier, Briggs' boss, Secretary of State George P. Shultz, had announced the Reagan Administration's own plans--to seek $270 million in aid to the contras that, necessarily, would flow through Honduras.

In fact, Lopez Contreras did not mention the Nicaraguan contras at all in his speech that night since, despite six years of war, his government still does not acknowledge the rebels' presence in Honduras or the U.S. infrastructure that has been established here to support them.

A Political Quandary

But in all that was not said, the evening underscored the quandary that Honduras faces as the United States' closest ally in region: whether to honor a peace accord its president, Jose Azcona Hoyo, signed along with the other four Central American presidents on Aug. 7 or to continue to comply with the Reagan Administration's policy of support for the contras.

So far, Honduras has leaned toward the latter course, Central American diplomats say. They charge that the Honduran government has been dragging its feet on the peace plan and has isolated itself from its Central American neighbors.

"They are the weak link. . . . They have done absolutely nothing to comply with the plan," said a Salvadoran Foreign Ministry official.

A Costa Rican official added that Honduran officials "are impeding the advance of the peace process with actions such as not attending meetings or, when they do attend, not participating."

Toeing the Line

Also, these diplomats complain that the Honduran government has made no move to expel the contras. Instead, they say, Honduras is toeing a Reagan Administration line on the peace plan because of its economic dependence on the United States--Honduras received $260 million in economic and military aid this year. While El Salvador receives far more U.S. aid, Honduras is the poorest country in the region and its needs are acute.

Last year, Costa Rican officials accused the Reagan Administration of holding up aid to their country after then-President-elect Oscar Arias Sanchez expressed his desire to prevent the contras from using Costa Rica as a sanctuary and opposed the Administration's $100-million aid package to the rebels.

In response to the criticism from other Central American diplomats, Lopez Contreras said that U.S. pressure on Honduras is "a myth" and that the criticism is unjustified.

"If the United States had pressured us, we wouldn't have signed (the accord). We will comply. . . . The only obligation for Honduras is to impede the use of our territory by insurgent groups, and we are ready to do that," Lopez Contreras said in an interview.

The peace plan, signed by the presidents of Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala, calls for cease-fires in Nicaragua, El Salvador and Guatemala, amnesty programs for insurgents and the adoption of democratic reforms by Nov. 7. It also requires that all foreign aid to insurgent groups be terminated.

President Reagan strongly criticized the plan last week, saying it does not have adequate safeguards for democracy and U.S. security interests. Administration officials and contra leaders say they fear the Sandinistas will make only cosmetic changes necessary to block further aid to the contras.

Under the plan, Nicaragua must lift the current state of emergency and allow political pluralism and freedom of the press, but the Sandinista government is not required to make structural changes such as adopting a new constitution or reorganizing the armed forces.

Honduran officials, as well as the military and the political opposition, are concerned that a cutoff in U.S. aid to the contras will leave Honduras with an unemployed, U.S-trained army in their territory.

They say that even if the political system in Nicaragua becomes more open, many of the ultraconservative contras, who have been at war for several years, are unlikely to return to civilian life as long as the Sandinistas are still in power.

"The most critical problem (for Honduras) is the contras," said Rafael Leonardo Callejas, leader of the opposition National Party. "We cannot be responsible for them. This problem could cause the plan to fail. Honduras cannot absorb the contras."

The Reagan Administration reportedly has promised Honduras all along that the United States would take care of the contras if the program failed. The Administration, however, cannot publicly discuss the issue without politically undermining its own program.

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