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Honduras seeks more US aid in return for backing Reagan goals

Tiny Honduras is in an increasingly tight spot. For four years, Honduras has played a key role in abetting the Reagan administration's Central America policy goals of containing Nicaragua's Sandinista revolution and El Salvador's leftist insurgency.

But stepped-up military pressure from Nicaragua -- including raids across Honduras's border -- has thrown the risk of cooperating with Washington into sharp relief.

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In a meeting today with President Reagan, Honduran President Roberto Suazo Cordova will seek new breathing room by raising the asking price for future cooperation with the United States. Specifically, President Suazo, whose last state visit here was in 1982, is expected to request an increase in US economic and military assistance.

He is also likely to raise again a long-standing Honduran request for a bilateral security treaty with the US. But although promises of new US aid may be forthcoming, few expect that the administration will agree to a new security arrangement with Honduras.

Honduras has been key to US interests in Central America since the early 1980s, serving as base for 1,000 US soldiers, as a staging area for large-scale joint ground and naval exercises, and until recently as a training site for the Salvadorean Army.

More important, Honduras has been home base for the largest of the Nicaraguan contra factions, the Nicaraguan Democratic Force. As host to the FDN, and as jumping-off point for resupply flights to contra units operating inside Nicaragua, Honduras has been indispensable to the conduct of the guerrilla war inside Nicaragua.

But a senior administration official indicated that Honduran support for US interests in the region could be jeopardized by two factors: the increasing threat posed to Honduras by Nicaragua's Army; and growing doubts about future US funding for contra forces operating in the area.

The result of these two factors has been to reinforce the growing desire of many Honduran Army officers and civilian political leaders to distance Honduras from US policy objectives in the region. Last year Honduras suspended training exercises for Salvadorean Army officers. Honduras has also informed the US that it wants future US military maneuvers scaled down.

Now, in the face of stepped-up Nicaraguan raids on contra positions inside Honduras, US officials are concerned that Honduras may impose tighter restrictions, or an outright prohibition, on contra forces -- a move many say could undermine what has become the centerpiece of Reagan administration efforts to weaken the Sandinista government.

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But most here agree that even in the face of such risks to US policy, Suazo will enjoy little bargaining leverage with his US counterpart.

For one thing, Honduras is too poor, too dependent on the US financially, and too concerned about leftist threats to its own security from El Salvador and Nicaragua to jeopardize relations with the US altogether.

Reagan administration officials are also known to oppose any new security guarantees favoring the more flexible umbrella arrangement for regional security defined in the 1947 Rio Treaty. Moreover, US officials are concerned that any bilateral guarantee could be used against the other key US ally in the region, El Salvador. Relations between Honduras and El Salvador have been tense since a longstanding border dispute erupted into the 1969 ``soccer'' war.

``Security guarantees would not benefit the US,'' says Leyda Barbieri of the Washington Office on Latin America. ``The Honduran Army is trained with the mentality that Salvador is their enemy. Where would it put the US if war started between Salvador and Honduras?'' Ms. Barbieri asks.

There may be no clear solution to the delicate diplomatic problem Suazo brings to Washington this week.

``Honduras has mortgaged itself to the Reagan administration. Now they're really in the soup,'' says one private consultant who works on Central American issues. ``Suazo's not likely to get a security guarantee. And even though the administration may offer more money, Congress is unlikely to go along. It's a real `Catch 22.' ''

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