Controversy builds over growth in US military involvement in quiet Honduras
Most Americans would probably have trouble locating on a map the Central American nation of Honduras. The poorest of those nations, it is also one of the most seemingly quiet.
Until recently, at least, Honduras had the virtue of avoiding the extremes that have led its neighbors - Nicaragua, Guatemala, and El Salvador - to violence.
But the United States Congress is beginning to discover Honduras.
Alongside the congressional debate over aid to El Salvador, a parallel debate is developing over military facilities built or expanded by the Reagan administration in Honduras and over the lengthy military exercises it has been conducting there.
Administration officials assert that the facilities, including airfields, are for the most part ''temporary'' and are intended for use only in the exercises or for certain unspecified ''contingencies.'' But skeptical senators and congressmen suspect that the administration may have more in mind for Honduras than it reveals.
Some of the critics, such as Rep. William Alexander of Arkansas, deputy Democratic whip, charge that the administration has drawn up a secret ''war plan'' to use Honduras for an attack against its neighbor to the south, leftist-led Nicaragua. President Reagan's ultimate aim, says Mr. Alexander, is to overthrow the Nicaraguan government.
But the Reagan administration is apparently directing the next of its Honduras-based exercises as much toward El Salvador as toward Nicaragua. One site chosen for exercises to be conducted this spring or summer is not far from the Honduran border with El Salvador. NBC television news reported last week that 2,000 American troops are to be sent to locations in Honduras and near that border during the next two months to show support for the Salvadorean Army and the March 25 presidential election.
In the US Senate, meanwhile, Sen. Jim Sasser of Tennessee, ranking Democratic member of a subcommittee on military construction, is taking the lead in drawing up legislation to be proposed this week which would require specific congressional approval for any additional military construction in Honduras. This could have the effect of placing limits on the exercises currently planned.
A more ambitious bill, introduced earlier this year by Rep. Gerry E. Studds (D) of Massachusetts, would prohibit US participation in Honduras exercises and put a ceiling of 200 on the number of Americans troops who may be stationed there. It has gathered more than 60 signatures.
The administration has already encountered great resistance to its proposed five-year plan of more than $8 billion in economic and military aid to Central America. Last week, it failed in an attempt in the Senate to attach emergency requests for El Salvador military aid and aid to anti-Sandinista guerrillas in Nicaragua to an energy assistance bill.
A State Department official said the administration's troubles in Congress could be attributed in part to election-year politics and to the perceived incompetence of the administration in dealing with Lebanon.
But in the case of the proposed limits on military construction and exercises in Honduras, senators and congressmen seem to be reacting not only because they fear the administration has a secret plan but also because they believe it is not disclosing to them all that the law requires.
Rep. Mickey Edwards (R) of Oklahoma, a member of the House appropriations subcommittee on military construction, told Defense Department witnesses at a hearing last week that he was not a critic of the administration's Central American policies and would normally side with it on an issue such as the Honduras maneuvers.
But Mr. Edwards, who is also chairman of the American Conservative Union, and his collegues argued that the administration had failed to comply with a law requiring it to submit a detailed construction plan for the Caribbean region.
''I have no intention of giving you a dime until you comply with that mandate ,'' Edwards said. Later in the same hearing he suggested the Defense Department witnesses ''get some more lawyers'' if those they have don't understand the language of the law.
Nestor D. Sanchez, deputy assistant secretary of defense, told subcommittee members that the Defense Department was not trying to keep information from them. He said the department would submit its construction plans ''as soon as possible.''
Gen. Paul F. Gorman, commander in chief of the US Southern Command, said the military exercises conducted thus far in Honduras had provided invaluable training to US troops and had reassured the Honduran government.
Some State Department officials say the bespectacled, round-faced General Gorman has become too powerful and is ''calling the shots'' in Honduras. But the officials say they do not have any evidence the Reagan administration intends to invade Nicaragua or El Salvador. It is more a matter of using the Honduras facilities to put pressure on Nicaragua, keep options open, and provide evidence of US commitment to friends in the region, one official said.
Gorman indicated in last week's hearing that the US was reacting primarily to ''the militarization'' of Nicaragua and threats which it posed to its neighbors. The Reagan administration has charged that Nicaragua, backed by Cuba and the Soviet Union, has been a source of supplies, training, and communiciations for the Salvadorean guerrillas fighting the US-supported government in El Salvador. Administration officials said the military exercises conducted in the region last year by the US Navy and thousands of American troops were intended to convince Nicaragua and Cuba to ''stop exporting arms and subversion.''
Senator Sasser argues, however, that the pressure being brought to bear on Nicaragua is not designed to meet a Nicaraguan invasion of Honduras. According to Sasser, not one US official he interviewed has suggested that the threat of such an invasion is real.
But Sasser says the Southern Command, headed by General Gorman, has proposed building a permanent US-Honduran naval base at Puerto Castilla, on the Caribbean coast of Honduras.
Sasser says other facilities already constructed or planned for Honduras will make a war in the region easier to conduct. The senator is convinced these facilities may eventually encourage Honduran military commanders to attempt a military solution to their diplomatic and political conflicts with Nicaragua.
Sasser's findings have been criticized by Sen. Ted Stevens of Alaska, the Senate Republican whip. After a recent trip to Honduras, he argued that the US is not building permanent military facilities there. In his view, the US military exercises in Honduras have demonstrated American resolve and a willingness to support allies.
Lost amid the headlines concerning the region, meanwhile, is the plight of 18 ,000 Salvadorean refugees - most of them women and children - in camps along the border inside Honduras. The Honduran government is threatening to move many of them away from the border to Olanchito, deep inside Honduras.
Most refugees strongly oppose to such a move, fearing a repetition of a previous forced relocation when a number of refugees were killed. The refugees know Olanchito is located near a training base for Salvadorean Army soldiers, who they expect to be hostile to them. Olanchito was also the site of expulsions of Salvadorean settlers in 1969. Both the Salvadorean and Honduran governments view the refugees as ''subversives'' who sympathize with the Salvadorean guerrillas.
Refugees have told visitors that they suspect the relocation plans are designed to free the border for military operations.
''It's possible that the relocation of the refugees away from the Salvadorean border indicates preparation for a conflict in that region,'' said Representative Alexander. '' . . . I think that, but for the Congress, the administration would be shooting already.''