THE ostensible motive behind the recent student attacks on United States government installations in Honduras is the apparent kidnapping by US drug agents of Honduran drug lord Juan Ram'on Matta Ballesteros. The protests left five young Hondurans dead and scores wounded; the government there declared a national state of emergency, while Washington warned Americans not to travel to Honduras. On its surface the effort to have Mr. Matta stand trial in the US would appear to be just another frightening manifestation of the ever-growing power of the international narcotics cartel. That cartel now, in many places, has powers superior to those of legitimate governments.
In this case the kidnapping incident can best be interpreted as the final straw in a series of events over the last several years. These have turned the government and people of Honduras from proud and admiring allies into bitter and resentful pawns in the obsessive US determination to overthrow Nicaragua's Sandinista government at any cost.
The university students who stormed the embassy annex may well have been led by agents paid by drug dealers, but the seething resentment was there, ready to be ignited by the first spark.
During the past several years the citizens of Honduras have seen their country overrun by foreign military forces and their fragile, nominally civilian government cowed by its bloated military establishment. Honduran military forces have received $525 million in US military assistance since 1982; their upper ranks are said to have profited personally from sharing the flow of US government funds for the contras.
The US built the huge Palmerola air base in the center of the country; in the process the neighboring, quiet former capital city of Comayagua has become a raucous center of brothels and massage parlors. Large US radar stations have been constructed in the north and south of the country. US troops have been conducting military exercises throughout Honduras on a continuing basis.
A US-financed mercenary army, the so-called freedom fighters, or contras, has occupied large extensions of Honduran territory along the Nicaraguan border. Honduran coffee farmers were forced off their traditional landholdings to provide space for this alien force. The Swan Islands, won from disputed US occupation in 1971 after decades of diplomatic negotiations, have also been provided to the contras for an air supply base and broadcasting site; Hondurans are not permitted to land there.
Honduras's civilian President and foreign minister have been humiliated in being forced publicly to deny the presence of contra forces in their country while the world's news media film extensive contra facilities and maneuvers in what is obviously Honduran territory. The President has been further humbled by finding himself forced to request US troop support to protect the contra army which, he has to maintain, is not there.
Last month's rapid deployment of US paratroopers and light infantry to protect the contra bases in Honduras may have played well in Peoria, but that was not the case in Tegucigalpa. There it was widely seen as one more denigration of Honduran dignity and independence. Thus when the news broke of Mr. Matta's seizure and removal, little tinder was needed to ignite the students' bonfire of pent-up resentment against the overbearing US presence.
The protesters were not demonstrating in favor of illegal drug dealing. They were expressing their very strong views against what they saw as yet another violation of Honduran law and Honduran sovereignty by the hemisphere's hegemonic power.
Continued heavy-handedness and disregard for the sensibilities and sovereign rights of an independent nation have left a tragic legacy in Honduras. The dead and wounded in this recent incident will not be easily nor soon forgotten.
The next US administration would be well advised to review carefully the woeful course of US relations with Honduras as it seeks to formulate a reasonable policy toward the nations of Central America. US legal obligations under international law and US moral obligations under higher law demand rectification and positive action.
Hewson A. Ryan is Murrow professor of public diplomacy at Tufts' Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy. He was US ambassador to Honduras from 1969 to 1973.