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The Case of Honduras

A fragile democracy on the edge of a whirlwind.

Tegucigalpa, Honduras

THIS IS A poor country—so poor it can't even afford an oligarchy. People get by any way they can. In the central square near my hotel, a ragged seven-year-old girl sells newspapers, snappily making change from the pocket in her apron. In the countryside, barefoot peasants run up to my bus to sell cakes and pineapples. Half the peasant families of Honduras have no land, and the peasants are 80 percent of the people. This is, in fact, the poorest country in Central America. It ought also to be the ripest for revolution. But it's not.

People on the left joke that Honduras is backward in everything—including political consciousness. The peasants, who vote for the traditional Liberal and National parties just as their grandfathers did, spend all their political energy trying to get the government to comply with an old land reform law. The government has always given just enough to defuse serious challenges. With a progovernment business class, no urban workers' movement to speak of, a fractionalized university, and an illiteracy rate of 70 percent, Honduras is a comparatively quiet place. But as the fighting in Nicaragua and El Salvador begins to seep throughout the region, there are signs that the relative peace here may be threatened.

A civilian government was installed last year, after elections for which the United States had strongly pressed. The military, discredited because of corruption and economic mismanagement, went along; but in many respects the transfer of power was more apparent than real. President Roberto Suazo Cordova—in the tradition of Honduran presidents, a man from a landowning family—is everywhere accompanied by the general of the armed forces, Gustavo Alvarez Martinez, and it is the general who makes decisions in the military and security area, which in a place like Honduras covers a lot of territory. Negotiations over a strike of factory workers in March were conducted among trade union leaders, the minister of labor, and the commander of an infantry brigade.

Like eighteenth-century Tories and Whigs, the National Party represents the landowners and the more conservative economic powers, while the Liberal Party speaks for the industrialists and bankers. The majority vote for the Liberals in the last election was largely a vote against the military, with which the National Party had become identified. After living under military government for most of the past two decades, voters wanted the army to go back to the barracks. They wound up with a president who praises General Alvarez as the savior of the nation. "The army historically was the instrument of the parties," Gautama Fonseca, an urbane lawyer and former minister of labor who now represents worker and peasant groups, told me. "Now it's reversed. The parties are the instrument of the army."

ALTHOUGH President Suazo's arrangement with General Alvarez gives the general control over "security matters," the president hasn't relinquished all power. For example, he named his friend Edgardo Paz Barnica foreign minister in the face of the general's strong opposition. And both Suazo and Alvarez must deal with a third element—the U.S. Ambassador, John Negroponte, whose ex-officio nickname is the proconsul. When Paz Barnica wanted to make an agreement with Nicaragua by which Honduras would not support the anti-Sandinista guerrillas and Nicaragua would not put military pressure on the border, Alvarez and Negroponte vetoed it.

The new hard line of the current military leaders is a recent phenomenon. Punning on the Spanish words for "hard" and "soft," one liberal critic said most of the years of military rule had not been a "dictadura" (dictatorship) but a "dictablanda." In fact, the 1971 coup was supported by peasant organizations in return for the military's promises of land reform, and the subsequent 1974 land reform law was the most radical in Central America, setting limits on the amount of land individuals could own. But when that government fell, partly because of opposition from landowners, including the big banana companies, the land reform dried up like a crate of old peels. When peasants began to organize and occupy land, the military—which had begun to acquire its own land—got tougher in its response, and in one notorious incident a dozen peasant leaders were killed.

Political murder and repression in Honduras have never been on anything remotely like the scale of El Salvador, Guatemala, or Nicaragua. But this is not Minnesota, either. Dr. Ramon Custodio, a genial elderly pathologist who runs the independent Committee for the Defense of Human Rights from his small laboratory, regularly publishes reports on disappearances, killings, and arrests. His most recent accounting, presented in February to the United Nations Human Rights Commission, cited fifty-five disappearances in the nine months before the civilian government took over and thirty-eight disappearances or assassinations in the thirteen months following. The earlier victims were mostly Salvadorans; the more recent ones have generally been Honduran university students, teachers, trade unionists, or peasants.

There have been at least a dozen disappearances and killings this year, some of them widely believed to be the work of the D.N.L, the secret police. A lawyer named Ines Consuelo Murillo disappeared on March 13; she was a supporter of the Salvadoran guerrillas and the Sandinista government. On June 1 the D.N.I, admitted they had her, and transferred her to the criminal courts. Gregorio Amaya, the president of a peasants' union, was kidnapped from his home on March 29, the same night that at least three other union leaders were assassinated. In April Salvador Diaz Valle, a well-known economist, disappeared and was discovered dead; his body showed signs of torture. In May Efrain Duarte Salgado, a university economics professor, was lured out of his home with a phone call that said a friend had been in an accident. He was taken away by two men with machine guns and has not been seen since.

"All the dead people had been tortured," Custodio told me. A government official acknowledged, "There are some people who disappeared. Whatever happened to them, I don't know. There's no official oppression." The government refuses to talk with the Committee of Relatives of Disappeared Persons.

"People don't just disappear if they're nice guys," Miguel Facusse, a suave graduate of Notre Dame (class of '45) and president of a conglomerate that owns businesses throughout Central America, told me. "If someone disappears, there's a reason. He's your enemy." In recent times there have been kidnappings, and Facusse tucks a pistol into his belt when he goes out. But he does not think Honduras will go the way of its neighbors: there will be no large-scale, quasi-official terrorism against what in regional parlance are called "the popular organizations." Miguel Facusse confirmed something I had heard from a Church source: that a proposal for a Guatemala-style death squad had been quashed a few years ago. "We said stop," Facusse declared. "That guy's got a sister, a brother, a neighbor. That's going to hurt you more." Honduran businessmen have learned a lesson from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Nicaragua, he said: "We don't want to go live in Miami."

THE ALTERNATIVE that Facusse and other business leaders hit upon was to "promote democracy and social welfare." In 1981 he and General Alvarez quietly set up a new organization—called at first simply "the committee"—to discuss policies for the future government. It was later named APROH, the Association for the Progress of Honduras, and had its official opening meeting last January with great public fanfare. Alvarez was named as its president. Among its members are a hundred of the country's most important businessmen, including the head of the chamber of commerce, the co-owner of a television and radio network, and several powers in the Liberal and National parties. Each member pays dues of $6,000 a year, which is one reason not every businessman supports APROH. Some don't like being leaned on for contributions. Fernando Lardizabal, a lumber company owner who heads the Honduran Council of Private Enterprise, told me, "It's a political power instrument Alvarez wants to use when he gets through with the army and wants to go into politics." But Facusse demurs. "It was the army's idea, but APROH today is different from when it started. We got Alvarez because he's an influential guy."

The first testing ground for APROH was the national university, which is governed by a rector chosen by an electoral college of students and faculty, and which had been under the control of the left for a dozen years. It was a center of support for the Sandinistas and the Salvadoran guerrillas. Facusse and his colleagues put together a campaign chest of about $125,000 and picked a thirty-six-year-old former dean of the university's law school, Oswaldo Ramos Soto, to run for rector as the candidate of the conservative student federation. "We opened up the doors to the newspapers and radio and TV for these guys," Facusse explained. "It was like a political campaign."

The left was racked by divisions, corruption, and even drug dealing. Students had grown weary of the strikes and demonstrations that interfered with classes. But the old rector would have won had not the courts invalidated his election on a challenge by the conservative students. They wanted the vote held after the pharmacy and engineering schools held new delegate elections that were expected to go to the right. Judges in Honduras are not independent and can be replaced readily by the government; Ramos Soto became rector. When I saw him, he said to me enthusiastically, "We're going to give courses to the students to say what democracy is."

The next confrontation with the "popular" forces offered the students a dubious example. This time the target was the elementary school teachers' union, with the unwieldy acronym COLPROSUMAH. Juan Ambrosio Savio, its thirty-six-year-old leader, is a hard man to track down. He's not reachable by phone, and he has been changing his domicile regularly ever since the February morning when five bullets shattered the windows of his house. I found him in a shabby office—a chubby, baby-faced black man who looks far too young to be the head of the most militant anti-government organization in the country.

Savio, who is a vocal opponent of the Honduran government's cooperation with anti-Sandinista guerrillas and with the Salvadoran army, heads a union of twenty-five thousand teachers. The union went on strike for a month last year for higher pay. In response, an obedient congress passed an emergency decree giving the executive extraordinary powers over the teachers in "time of instability." The result was selective firings, transfers, and general salary cuts. Savio was reelected overwhelmingly in December. However, factional strife in a local union led to a dispute about the voting eligibility of some members. Though the disputed votes wouldn't have affected the national outcome, the government invalidated the election and recognized a rump group. With the endorsement of a compliant judge, police took the union headquarters and ousted the elected leaders. Savio and his board have challenged the action in the courts. He told me, "If the government doesn't allow us to return, we will continue working with the grass roots." But he added, "There is fear among teachers, a lot of fear." President Suazo has publicly accused Savio of being a Communist. Ironically, like most teachers, Savio voted for Suazo and the Liberal Party.

THE MOST curious element in this anti-leftist tapestry is the international organization of Sun Myung Moon, the Korean evangelist. Moon's emissary. Bo Hi Pak, a former South Korean colonel who runs the company that publishes The Washington Times and the New York Tribune, Moon's newspapers, arrived for the first time last November, his way smoothed by Herman Padgett, the Honduran consul in New York, and by a number of Honduran journalists and community leaders, including the new university rector, who had taken expense-paid trips to Korea, Acapulco, and San Juan under the auspices of the Moon organization. Pak was welcomed by President Suazo and General Alvarez. He made a big hit by promising to use his newspapers to defend Honduras against attacks in the international press. He told his Honduran listeners that they needed to arm themselves with philosophical arguments against Marxism-Leninism. To that end, he returned in January, accompanied by Padgett, and led a seminar on "atheistic materialism." It was sponsored by a Moon front group called CAUSA, which stands for Confederation of Associations for the Unity of the Societies of the Americas, with headquarters in New York. About three hundred people attended. Pak also met again with Suazo and Alvarez. Facusse said the Korean was so impressive that he invited him to address the first public meeting of APROH a week later. Pak proceeded to make a donation of $50,000 to the businessmen's group.

But the United States Embassy put a damper on the relationship by suggesting to the APROH leaders that fooling around with the Moonies was not a good idea. The Catholic Church hierarchy also got worried, not only at the religious implications (Moon's followers regard him as the Messiah) but about the political impact. A high-ranking cleric told me, "We're afraid the entrance of CAUSA could create a repressive extreme right that doesn't exist in Honduras now." He said, "When terrorism began in 1980, many businessmen wanted to create an organization of the extreme right like the Guatemalan White Hand. Others who opposed it prevailed. We are afraid that under the pretext of anticommunism they may start such an organization." One of the bishops, I am told, got the message to the businessmen through their wives.

Eacusse now says it was "a boner" to have Bo Hi Pak at the APROH meeting. However, CAUSA still counts such adherents as the university rector, Ramos Soto; the government foreign affairs spokesman, Amilcar Santamaria; and the labor leader Andres Victor Artiies, who heads the union federation affiliated to the A.F.L.-C.I.O.-supported regional labor organization. Alvarez's relations with the Moonies are still close, if unsentimental. (When some businessmen recently expressed their concern over the Moon connection, Alvarez told them, "Money is money.")

FOR ALL the attention to these campaigns mounted by the right, the biggest bulwark against revolution has been the land reform program, which, as Facusse says, "has taken the steam out of the left." About a thousand of the most militant organized peasant groups got land from 1972 to 1975. Many of those groups are still pressing for more, and their activities tend to follow a certain pattern: they occupy a piece of land; the army comes in and moves them out; they come back the next day. They negotiate with the land reform institute, and, after months of occupations and protests, sometimes they get the land and sometimes they don't. In any case they do not translate their dissatisfaction into politics, much less armed revolt.

But a newly hardened government line toward the peasants is threatening to alter the pattern. Fifty members of two peasant unions involved in land occupations were jailed recently under an antiterrorist law approved last year. Efrain Diaz Arrivillaga, a slight man with a neat, clipped beard and prematurely gray hair who, as the only Christian Democratic member of congress, is the one-man legislative opposition, told me, "Land reform doesn't have the same importance for our government as before. I don't think the government is going to permit land occupations."

The attack on peasant organizations and other unions could backfire, according to Diaz. "When you start taking away people's right to organize, they tend to react in a different way," he said. "They're creating the conditions that radicalize people. They're not leaving political space." As if to show what is waiting in the wings, four clandestine communist factions have united; in Mexico last April, they proclaimed the opening of a "coordinated armed struggle." For the moment, though, they are leaders without many followers.

Clearly the Honduran solution compares very favorably to El Salvador or Guatemala. The country is much safer: fewer civilians have disappeared or been killed here during the past year than El Salvador counts as victims in a week. In contrast to Nicaragua there are elections here, and the last one was mostly honest. There is a relatively free press, although the only opposition paper, Tiempo, practices self-censorship and runs at a loss, because businessmen have been pressured not to advertise in it.

BUT the democratic forms are fragile, and Hondurans are timid about using them. Diaz has stood alone in trying to get the congress to talk about human rights violations and the U.S.-sponsored expansion of military airfields and installation of a radar system. Until recently, Diaz was also alone in pointing out that the Honduran constitution requires legislative approval for foreign troops to be stationed in Honduras. In June, however, Efrain Bu Giron, the president of the congress, who until then had stood solidly with Suazo and Alvarez, charged that Alvarez had violated the constitution when he reached an agreement with the Reagan Administration to establish a U.S. base here to train Salvadoran troops. Other members of the congress, taking courage from Bu Giron's example, then spoke out as well. This was the first crack in the alliance between Honduras's military and civilian rulers. Alvarez proved stronger than the civilians: the congress authorized the plan June 21, a week after one hundred Green Berets arrived in the Puerto Castilla area to join twenty U.S. advisers already there to set up the training base. This month the United States begins up to five months of joint maneuvers with Honduras that will involve as many as five thousand American ground and air troops—another boost to the militarization of the country.

Honduras today is at a crossroads. It could move to strengthen its incipient democracy and the land reform that has kept peasants inside the system. It could end the human rights violations and the attacks on independent organizations which, if continued, could convince some Hondurans there is no chance for peaceful, democratic change. So far, on balance, it seems as if the landholding, business, and military classes of Honduras have had a better answer than their equivalents in El Salvador and Guatemala. They have avoided the cycle of military domination, repression, and revolution that has trapped each of Honduras's neighbors. If men like Miguel Facusse mean what they say, now is the time to make General Alvarez listen. The United States also bears some responsibility. "There is one real problem for the advance of democracy in Honduras," said Elliott Abrams, Assistant Secretary of State for Human Rights and Humanitarian Affairs, at a meeting with reporters sponsored by the Woodrow Wilson Center of the Smithsonian Institution in May. "The advance of democracy in Honduras means right now the increase of civilian power and decrease of military power." Unfortunately, just the opposite is happening.

Lucy Komisar reports frequently from Latin America.