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A Central American tragedy

THE sale of F-5 aircraft to the Honduran Air Force to replace aging Mirages, while probably both tactically justified and politically necessary, is still a tragic commentary on the skewed priorities prevailing with regard to Central America. The acquisition of further helicopter strength by the Sandinista forces poses a serious threat to any military actions by the contra forces, even as strengthened by $100 million of recently authorized United States aid.

The area along Nicaragua's northeast border is helicopter country. Such roads as exist are hit by regular flooding, as are the very few airstrips. Guerrilla bands can melt away into the swamps and rain forests as soon as any sizable forces appear. This was demonstrated by Sandino himself as the US Marines pursued him fruitlessly through these same jungles half a century ago. In fact, the autogyro, the predecessor of the helicopter, was first used militarily by the Marines in Nicaragua in the late 1920s. Igor Sikorski conducted some of his first experiments with rotary-wing aircraft from a workshop at La Aviaci'on, on the outskirts of Managua. Today the helicopter provides the only sure and rapid means of deploying troops in such jungle terrain. A large helicopter-borne Sandinista force there puts any contra operations in considerable danger.

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Thus, in this undeclared war of feints and threats, an F-5-equipped Honduran Air Force, able to shoot down helicopters, must be considered an asset in any possible escalation of the conflict.

Politically, the sale may also be an important factor. It is probably instrumental in persuading the Honduran government, nominally civilian but still very much under the influence of the armed forces, to continue to turn a blind eye to the basing of the bulk of the contra forces in its territory. Paradoxically, to spend $100 million to aid the contras, the US may have to provide $250 million worth of aircraft to Honduras.

Overall, however, this tremendous investment in arms must be seen as tragic. Honduras's per capita income is second lowest in the hemisphere, after Haiti. Hunger haunts the Honduran countryside and the growing slums of Tegucigalpa and San Pedro Sula. The government budget must stint on education, public works, and public health in ways that we cannot even conceive. And yet the hard realities of the world scene force the expenditure of what are, to this poorest of nations, astronomical sums on state-of-the-art combat aircraft.

While the armed forces of the area increase their military might and political impact, the people continue to live in poverty and without social justice.

Hewson A. Ryan, a former US ambassador to Honduras, is Murrow professor of public diplomacy at Tufts University's Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy.

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