San Pedro Sula, Honduras
The hostage crisis in Honduras has ended peacefully, but Honduras remains a pressure cooker on the Central American stove.
With leftist Nicaragua to the southeast, with insurgencies in El Salvador and Guatemala to the west, with a stagnating economy and skewed distribution of wealth, this nation is threatened with the same future as its conflict-wracked neighbors.
''Our people are being attacked by countries that want to destabilize us and make us fall,'' declares Col. Daniel Balli Castillo, head of security forces in Honduras.
And it is true that the tiny guerrilla movements in Honduras do draw inspiration and support from neighboring countries. But they also find potentially fertile soil here in Honduras itself.
(After failing to win any of their demands for political concessions or release of jailed leftists, the members of the ''Cinchonero Popular Liberation Front,'' who had held some of the richest men in Honduras hostage Sept. 17 to 25 in the Chamber of Commerce building, were flown out of Honduras Saturday. A Panamanian Air Force plane took them into what was expected to be Cuban exile. They told reporters in Panama en route that they would return to Honduras to ''continue the struggle.'')
According to a US Agency for International Development study, 90 percent of the 2.5 million Hondurans living in the countryside have an annual income of $ 100. That compares with a national average of $530. Nearly two-thirds of the urban dwellers have incomes below the poverty line.
In November '81, Hondurans trekked to the polls in record numbers to put the traditional opposition party, the Liberals, into power. The clear feeling was that it was time for a change.
Today Hondurans' hopes are dwindling. Inflation and unemployment are spurred by low coffee and sugar prices. Investment has evaporated as the wealthy have moved their money to Miami.
The previous president, Gen. Policarpo Paz, was widely considered to be ineffectual. But at least he succeeded in keeping his nation on the sidelines of the conflicts raging in Central America.
The new President, Suazo Cordova, a country doctor, has ceded veto power over Cabinet appointments to the Army chief, Gen. Gustavo Alvarez, who has purged the Army of officers favoring the neutral line.
This coincides with the United States policy of using Honduras as the base for counterinsurgency in the region. The US Embassy in Tegucigalpa is the biggest between Mexico and Brazil. Scores of US military personnel are training their Honduran counterparts.
In recent months, the Honduran Army has carried out joint operations with the Salvadoran Army in border areas against guerrilla strongholds. The insurgents responded by blowing up a power plant, leaving the capital blacked out for several days.
On the Nicaraguan border, Honduran forces have been built up and clashes are increasing. Antigovernment Nicaraguan guerrillas find sanctuary in Honduras; there are persistant reports that the United States and Honduras provide direct support for them.
Up to now, Honduras has avoided the violence that has gripped its neighbors because the Army (which ruled most of the past 20 years) was seen as benign. It appeared to be willing to make reforms. An agricultural reform, for instance, was launched nearly 20 years ago.
However, the farm reform program has served to stimulate land hunger rather than satisfy it. And it has spurred the widespread growth of small farmer unions which could be instrumental in creating insurgent movements in the future.
After the director of the reform implied that it would take 150 years to complete, a leader of the small farmers' cooperatives responded: '' . . . How can that be? Hunger is spreading in the countryside. The people cannot wait that long.''
As conditions worsen, the military forces are cracking down. Press gangs sometimes grab young men off the street for the Army. As in some other Central American countries, those who step out of line politically are not safe physically.
Ramon Custodio, a pathologist and head of the human-rights commission, shows lists of student and peasant leaders who have disappeared. Some, perhaps, have joined the guerrillas. But in February a clandestine cemetery was discovered with the remains of more than 20 people.
A recent student demonstration called for the release of one of their leaders arrested in August. More than 100 demonstrators were arrested. Government officials deny knowledge of the student leader's whereabouts.
For the United States, Honduras provides a convenient base for looking after its interests in the rest of the region. But observers here are concerned that the United States, if it fails to take into account the problems of Honduras itself, risks seeing this country fall into the same morass as the rest.