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The Country of Nada

1.

In early December of last year, the season of Advent, Monseñor Geraldo Scarpone, a diminutive Franciscan of middle age from Watertown, Massachusetts, sat in a room of his seventeenth-century Spanish cloister, sorting out and tearing up the personal papers of a young priest, a Honduran who had just been killed in a car accident. Monseñor Scarpone is Bishop of Comayagua, about fifty miles north of the Honduran capital of Tegucigalpa. “O Raúl,” he said quietly, “why did you die on me?”

Monseñor Scarpone explained that for a nation of nearly five million people, Honduras has only two hundred priests, many of them foreigners. Like Monseñor Scarpone himself, the Honduran church is traditional, and though nominally it accepts the progressive social doctrines of the modern popes, in practice it prefers the ancient devotional symbols that console the poor. Honduran cathedrals, churches, and chapels abound in enormous statues of Christ, robed in purple, bearing a cross of real wood, his head crowned with real thorns, his brow sprinkled with drops of painted blood. The churches resound with wails and lamentations, the chanted Litany to the Virgin, Madre inmaculada, Trono de sabiduría, Rosa mística, Torre de David, Torre de marfil, Casa de oro, Estrella de la mañana, Consoladora de los afligidos (Mother Immaculate, Seat of Wisdom, Mystical Rose, Tower of David, Tower of Ivory, House of Gold, Morning Star, Comforter of the Afflicted).

Another affliction of the Honduran church is that so many of its native priests take concubines, and their children (often by different women) are to be found throughout the steep countryside. At a recent meeting in Rome, Pope John Paul II asked the Honduran bishops about this problem. They admitted it was so. “Debilidadas humanas” (“human frailties”), the Supreme Pontiff said, and went on to other things.

No doubt the bishops also told the Pope of the poverty of Honduras. Except for Haiti it is the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. Honduras is about the size of Ohio. Though not as poor as India or several countries I have seen in Africa, it is a country of dismaying squalor. Outside Comayagua, in the mountains and towering escarpments—up and down the cruel terrain, with its spectacular vistas, narrow streams, and clumps of white orchids—I traveled with a priest by mule as he brought the sacraments to his scattered flock. There are no roads, no doctors, no medicines, no electricity, few schools, and much disease. The campesinos live in hovels, without potable water, and the children are infested with parasites that stunt their growth. (“¿ Tienes diez años?”—“are you ten years old?” I asked a child. “Tengo quince“—“I’m fifteen,” he answered.) Forlack of priests, the Gospel is preached by laymen, celebradóres de la Palabra, some of whom also advocate modest social improvements. They are considered communists by the security forces, and (so several priests told me) some celebradóres have been imprisoned, killed, or disappeared.

Not all Honduran priests are either lecherous or traditional. One of them, Father Eduardo Méndez (“Padre Tito” to his friends), of the parish of Taulabé, sat with me at dusk in Monseñor Scarpone’s cloister, amid lush palms, brilliant hibiscus, the songs of exotic birds. A young, intense man, with a dark beard, Padre Tito pleaded quietly but passionately for changes that would help the poor. But what of all the American aid? I asked. “It hasn’t touched the people,” he said. “American aid is planned in Tegucigalpa with Honduran bureaucrats who are corrupt or have no sense of the reality of Honduras. I’ve formed cooperatives for the campesinos, to do away with middlemen, but our problems are so immense.” Wouldn’t the recent presidential election in Honduras help? “It won’t change much. The army will stay in charge, the same bureaucrats will run the country, the people will continue to suffer.”

Soon after I left Honduras, Monseñor Scarpone called a press conference. The bishop charged that the Honduran antiterrorist “Cobra” police (some of whom were trained by the United States, the bishop said), had arrested, blindfolded, shackled, and tortured Padre Tito. Apparently because of the Bishop’s intervention, Padre Tito was released—but the signal was clear. Reformers, proceed at peril. To advocate cooperatives or other changes is still subversive in Honduras.

Small wonder then, that an air of hopelessness, a sense of the futility of ever truly changing anything, pervades the entire country. The favorite Honduran word is “nada“—“nothing.” “El gobierno no hace nada…la Iglesia no tiene nada…no tenemos nada…yo soy nada” (“the government does nothing, the Church has nothing, we have nothing, I am nothing”)—phrases I heard everywhere. The people are passive and fatalistic, low in self-esteem. (In Spanish, Honduras means “the depths.”) Honduras was the original “banana republic,” and in some ways it still is one.

2.

Just outside Comayagua stands Palmerola, the chief American military base in Honduras, which the United States shares with the Honduran Air Force. The Honduran side of the base is surrounded by barbed wire and guarded by troops with submachine guns. I managed to talk my way inside and was impressed by what I saw. Honduras has the strongest air force in Central America (much of it trained in the United States); its officers and cadets are the elite of the armed forces, and the contrast of their circumstances with the rest of the country is stunning. They live in attractive stucco buildings, furrowroofed, with floors that sparkle of spit and polish. Their Hughes training heli-copters, American A-37s, Spanish Casa 101s, French Super Mystères are arranged in perfect rows upon the ground and one sees them flying in tight formations. They proudly display a huge sign boasting of their efficiency: DIAS SIN ACCIDENTES—299.

The Hondurans share with the Americans an 8,005-foot airstrip, built by the United States at a cost estimated at $14 million, where regularly we land C-130 and C-5 transports (the biggest we have), UH-1 and CH-47 helicopters, and even, occasionally, air force attack planes. The Palmerola airstrip is the nucleus of the immense American military base much of Honduras has become, a central element of the US strategy to surround Sandinista Nicaragua with armed and hostile states.

During the last five years, US military assistance to Honduras has (conservatively) exceeded $220 million, but that figure does not include the unknown tens (possibly hundreds) of millions more we have spent on joint maneuvers and the improvement of Honduran facilities for our own use. Operation Big Pine II, between August 1983 and February 1984, involved 6,000 American soldiers, sailors, marines, infantry units, amphibious forces, combat engineers, communication specialists who took part in artillery, naval, and field training maneuvers, parachute landings, beach landings, and practice air strikes. US Navy ships maneuver off the Honduran coast, and call regularly at Honduran ports on the Caribbean. Our vessels include submarines, destroyers, cruisers, guided-missile frigates, and the battleship Iowa.

Besides Palmerola, we have military landing rights at the Honduran bases of Trujillo, La Mesa, and La Ceiba. From San Lorenzo near the Nicaraguan border we release remote-powered drones to intercept Sandinista communications and photograph their military movements. Throughout much of 1986, the US Army Corps of Engineers will conduct a joint project with the Hondurans for training in road building over tropical and mountainous terrain similar to the topography of nearby Nicaragua.

In what seems to be an effort to prove the “impermanent” nature of our presence at Palmerola, the Pentagon has given the American side of the base an oddly ramshackle appearance—in contrast to the elegance of the Honduran establishment on the other side of the barbed fence. Since 1982, about a thousand American troops have been rotated at brief intervals (exactly 179 days for the army, 89 days for the air force) in “Joint Task Force Bravo.” This was set up to provide assistance to the other American forces participating in the nearly continuous combined training operations with the Honduran armed forces. The Americans live in crude canvas tents, in “hootches” of rude wood and galvanized metal roofs without air conditioning, they trudge over dirt trails to communal showers and latrines. Their only comforts are old videotapes of professional football games and gallons of alcohol. The officers kill the hot evenings guzzling beer, rum, and Chivas Regal, and by midnight they are stoned. However crude, this US base keeps growing larger.

On weekends the troops pour out of Palmerola into dusty Comayagua, where their dollars have attracted a horde of prostitutes and begging children. The Americans take care that the women are injected against infection, and they have even supervised the set up of their own brothel—“Rosie’s”—with private showers and a parking lot.

There are other, more edifying, results of the American presence at Palmerola. Periodically Joint Task Force Bravo flies helicopters to remote villages, where American doctors, dentists, and veterinarians treat diseased Hondurans and their animals—though many Hondurans I talked to dismiss these visits as marginal exercises in public relations. “We have no real benefit from the American military,” says Victor Meza of the prestigious Honduran Documentation Center in Tegucigalpa. “All we get is ‘cervezas y putas“’ (“beer and whores”).

3.

There are three main power centers in Honduras: the United States embassy, the military, and the presidency—roughly in that order of importance. During approximately the first third of this century the United Fruit Company (now United Brands) wielded such power that Honduras richly deserved its contemptible title of “banana republic.” United Fruit made and unmade governments and was supported several times by the intervention of US Marines. The power of United Fruit gradually gave way to a succession of (mostly) military dictatorships until the early 1980s, when Roberto Suazo Córdova, a country doctor of the Liberal party, was constitutionally elected civilian president. Though more interested in holding power than in lining his own pockets, Dr. Suazo was saddled with a deeply corrupt party; for his own prestige, if not profit, he built a stadium with 30,000 seats at La Paz, his home town, whose population was perhaps 7,000. The most significant development during his period in office, however, was the rise of an ambitious thug—General Gustavo Alvarez Martínez—to command of the armed forces.

Dr. Suazo had no direct part in General Alvarez’s promotion; the army chooses its own commanders, and its choice is automatically confirmed by the one-chamber congress. Alvarez had been trained during the early 1960s at the Military College in Argentina, where his teachers included the officers who later “disappeared,” tortured, and killed thousands of Argentines. During the 1970s, as a colonel, Alvarez brought to Honduras a number of these Argentine officers to instruct Honduran officers in the arts of selective disappearance, torture, and murder of Hondurans—particularly peasant agitators and leftists suspected of insurgency—who were casually designated as “subversive.” Alvarez’s squads created an atmosphere of terror among a helpless population. He put into place an elaborate repressive apparatus under his “Doctrine of National Security.”1

  1. 1

    See “Militarismo en Honduras: El Reinado de Gustavo Alvarez, 1982–1984”, Serié: Cronologías, No. 2 (August 1985), Tegucigalpa: Centro de Documentación de Honduras (CEDOH), published by Victor Meza, a disenchanted leftist now refreshingly nonideological and one of Honduras’s best-informed intellectuals.

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