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The Country of Nada

Not long before Alvarez assumed supreme command, John D. Negroponte was appointed US ambassador to Honduras. He was said to be Secretary of State Alexander Haig’s personal choice. Negroponte, a counterinsurgency expert with experience in Cambodia and Vietnam, was by most accounts a clever but astonishingly arrogant man, and soon he made his presence felt throughout Honduras. Riding about the capital in a limousine surrounded by armed guards, seeming every inch a chief of state, Negroponte appeared to revel in his role as “el Proconsul norteamericano.”

He and General Alvarez took to each other, and became in effect the joint rulers of the country, with Negroponte the senior partner. Soon Alvarez received the Pentagon’s Legion of Merit. Rarely bothering to consult President Suazo, he dealt with the Pentagon and Ambassador Negroponte directly. He willingly consented to Negroponte’s plans for turning Honduras into an American military base. Disappearances and killings of “subversives” continued, but that did not seem the chief reason why, suddenly at the end of March in 1984, General Alvarez was sacked by his fellow officers and (at gunpoint) exiled to Miami. The deliberations of the Honduran military are kept secret, but evidently Alvarez gave favors to many of his cronies and impeded the promotion of other senior officers. Besides, he was too corrupt, even by Honduran standards. Ambassador Negroponte, also, was reassigned (to Washington) later in 1984, perhaps partly as a result of the disgrace of his protégé.

General Alvarez was succeeded as Commander in Chief by a milder man, Air Force General Walter López Reyes, who appointed a commission to investigate charges of human rights abuse by the Honduran military. As pro-American as his predecessor, an evangelical Protestant, a reputed womanizer, López had such reverence for the United States (where he was trained) that his highest hopes were said to be to pilot a US F-15 or to play baseball for the Cincinnati Reds. He did not, like Alvarez, rule the military autocratically, but rather by consensus. Such hardliners as colonels Riera Lunattí and Said Speer were able to exercise a veto when he displayed his own more liberal leanings. The army remained a caste apart, elite of the elite, as distant from the squalor of Honduras as was the US embassy, and like the embassy a sealed fortress unto itself. Under López teenage boys were pressganged into military service. As for the human rights investigation, last year López’s commission completely absolved the military of any guilt for killings, torture, or disappearances.2

Dr. Ramón Custodio López, a liberal physician and president of the Committee for the Defense of Human Rights in Honduras, told me there are more than 130 still unsolved “disappearances” in the country—nothing to compare with the record of El Salvador or Guatemala (or Sandinista Nicaragua, for that matter) but disturbing still. Moreover, Dr. Custodio claims that in recent months the security forces have again been carrying out selective “disappearances,” imprisonments, and tortures. After two sessions with Dr. Custodio and examining his evidence, I was convinced of its authenticity, though two officials of the US embassy dismissed him as a “communist” and his charges as baseless.

On February 14, however, James LeMoyne reported in The New York Times:

The Central Intelligence Agency aided Honduran security forces that it knew were responsible for having killed a number of people they detained for political reasons between 1981 and 1984, according to two American officials and a Honduran military officer.

The CIA agents did not directly take part in actions by the Honduran Government units, the two American officials said. The help they provided included training and advice in intelligence collection as part of a program to cut off arms shipments from Nicaragua to leftist rebels in Honduras and El Salvador….

An American official said the political killings troubled some members of the American Embassy and the CIA. Although embassy human rights reports at the time mentioned abuses, they minimized the extent and seeming systematic nature of the killings, officials said….

As many as 200 people, almost all of them suspected leftists, may have been killed or made to disappear for political reasons in Honduras between 1981 and 1984. It is not clear how many were killed by the units in question.

Still, Honduras is not as repressive as pro-American El Salvador or Sandinista-Marxist Nicaragua. Hondurans generally speak with candor; the press (though corrupt, many newspapers being subsidized by political parties) is relatively free, although it exercises self-censorship particularly in its coverage of the army. American economic aid since 1981 has exceeded half a billion dollars, much of it to finance Honduras’ foreign debt (over $2 billion). Without it the Honduran economy might collapse.

The embassy has sponsored a long list of health and agricultural projects it claims have helped the poor. Trying to look into the projects, I found little evidence that the hundreds of millions of dollars we have spent on aid have truly touched the people. Much of the money seems to get lost in “feasibility” and “pilot” projects, high salaries for American technicians, and in the joint US and Honduran bureaucracies who sit in air-conditioned offices and rarely venture into the hills and hovels of the poor. At least it can be said that without American aid Honduras would be even worse off. It is an article of faith of the Reagan administration that, whatever the tribulations of her past, Honduras today—like El Salvador and Guatemala, and unlike nasty Nicaragua—is firmly “on the road to democracy.”

4.

Thus the presidential election in Honduras last November 24 became an obsession for the Reagan administration: the election would have to be seen as a convincing display of free democratic institutions. Political parties in Honduras, however, do not resemble those of most liberal democracies; they are more like clans than parties, in which the faithful attach themselves to particular caudillos in quest of favors, jobs, and money. Not least for this reason, Dr. Suazo, a deft political manipulator, was intent on retaining power beyond his four-year term (legally he could not succeed himself). He was thus maneuvering to create a constitutional crisis that would enable him to remain in office, or at the least be succeeded by an underling who would leave Suazo as president in fact if not in name.

At this point the embassy intervened. According to senior Western diplomats in Tegucigalpa, the embassy told the Honduran colonels they might not get their new military hardware (they wanted updated F-5 aircraft, for example), and economic credits might be suspended, unless the election were held on schedule. After much political maneuvering, General López put pressure on Dr. Suazo. A compromise was struck; the constitution was disregarded, congress passed a new law providing that the leading candidate of the party with the most votes would become the next president. José Azcona del Hoyo, a civil engineer of the Liberal party (and a longstanding political enemy of Dr. Suazo), and Rafael Leonardo Callejas Romero, a young, conservative economist of the National party, emerged as the chief contenders. Issues were few and neither candidate put forward a serious program for dealing with poverty or development; beyond vague promises of a more abundant life, Azcona and Callejas said little about Honduras’s appalling problems and they noticeably abstained from attacks on the army or the proconsular presence of the United States.

And proconsular it was. Rarely has a foreign power been so visible or so heavy-handed in promoting elections in a client state. Journalists arriving at Tegucigalpa Airport were greeted by an enormous sign: USIS PRESS CENTER, SALON DEL NORTE, HOTEL HONDURAS MAYA. Briefings on the election, on Honduran politics, the economy, the armed forces, and the American military presence were conducted by senior American officials in the commodious offices of the United States Information Service across the street from the embassy. Bushels of briefing papers were handed out, and, at the Honduras Maya, USIS computers and telex machines were available to any reporter who cared to use them. The United States paid for the election’s ballot paper, ballot boxes, ballot machines, and even for the ink into which Hondurans were obliged to dip their fingers to insure against fraud. On election eve, John A. Ferch, the new US ambassador, called a crowded press conference at the Honduras Maya and said nothing of substance about the elections. He didn’t need to, really; already the US had spent by its own admission $900,000 in financing the election, though other Western diplomats estimated the cost at three million dollars.

There was much fuss about the ink; it wouldn’t come off, except with Clorox. On voting day, Ambassador Ferch stood in the election center of the Holiday Inn and solemnly told some correspondents: “As chief representative of the United States Government in Honduras, I can honestly say that the ink was the only screw-up in this election.”

Was the election free? Yes. Fair? Not quite. Señor Callejas won by far the greater number of votes. But Señor Azcona’s Liberal party won more votes than the National party—and under the new electoral law, Azcona, as the leader of the Liberal list, was chosen president with less than 30 percent of the popular vote. (Though the constitution states the president should be chosen by direct popular vote, for this election, the political party with the most votes would win, and the candidate who placed first among the several contenders running on the list of the winning party would become president. Thus Señor Azcona’s victory.) However, it seemed to me that it did not truly matter much who took over the pink presidential palace. Señor Azcona is a religious man and seems personally honest, but his party like most Honduran parties is corrupt. The army and the embassy will retain ultimate power, and probably little will change. Azcona, during his inaugural address in late January, was candid enough to admit that Honduras was ridden with “innumerable problems…some of them, perhaps, without solutions.” In view of the atrocious condition of the country the election was largely meaningless, divorced from the tragic reality of Honduras. It seemed like political theater, put on for the benefit of an audience outside Honduras.

5.

I did not see how the election could have any effect on a rate of unemployment and underemployment that exceeds 50 percent; or on the rate of illiteracy, which is probably even higher, or on the teeming slums that surround Tegucigalpa, where hundreds of thousands live in shacks by open sewers, in garbage dumps where they breed large numbers of bastard children. From what I could learn, the children are often hungry, and often beaten and sent out to beg. A verse of Roberto Sosa, Honduras’s leading poet, came to mind as I went around the slums.

Es fácil dejar a un niño
a merced de los pájaros.

Mirarle sin asombro
los ojos de luces indefensas….

(So easy to leave a child
to the mercy of the birds,

Watch without surprise
his eyes of dimming light.)

Like the Brahmins of Calcutta who do not see the squalor of the casteless, the more well-to-do Hondurans seem collectively blind to what happens in the streets of their capital. The streets of Tegucigalpa swarm with abandoned children, some of them only two or three years old. One sees many prepubescent girls forced into prostitution at the age of twelve, and boys who sniff Resistól, a Guatemalan glue, which produces a trance that helps them to forget their misery. They prefer Resistól to food, but it damages their brains and before they reach twenty it turns them into walking zombies. This addiction has become so common they are known as los Resistoléros.

I tried to help several of these children. One night, returning to my hotel from a drink at the Honduras Maya, I stopped at an open food stand to have my shoes shined. At once I was surrounded by a horde of children, barefoot and in rags, begging for money. Fearing they would spend my coins on Resistól, I fed a few of them on chicken and fried potatoes. An old woman showed up, so I fed her, too. Other children converged on us, and all began to fight over the food, tearing the chicken and potatoes from each other’s mouths and leaving the old woman without any food. I returned to the food stand next day to look for Carlos, the shoeshine boy, and his friends Javier and Ernesto, all about thirteen, although their growth had been so stunted they seemed much younger. I found them fighting over a can of Resistól. I fed them again, and arranged to meet them some evenings later on the steps of the cathedral.

Meanwhile, not without difficulty, I arranged for them to be placed in a religious orphanage. At the cathedral, all three showed up, but when I mentioned the orphanage they would not hear of it.

He vivído en un centro, y no me gusta” (“I lived in an orphanage, and I don’t like it”), said Ernesto, the smallest and dirtiest of the three.

Didn’t he want food and clothes, a place to sleep?

Prefiero vivir en la calle” (“I’d rather live in the street”).

I took them to a cheap restaurant, fed them for the last time, and left them to their lives of begging coins and sniffing Resistól.

6.

In December I began to hear rumors of dissension in the army, of high officers chafing under the (relatively) liberal rule of General López, of his mild efforts to shake up the top command structure and to promote younger men. Several officers confided to diplomats that there was increasing dissatisfaction with the United States. On Armed Forces Day in mid-December, during ceremonies at a military base outside Tegucigalpa, I saw the assembled high command, portly men in dark glasses, in immaculate uniforms gleaming with gold braid and bright ribbons, as they watched their jets fly by in impeccable formations. Then came their cadets, dressed like toy soldiers in an operetta, goose-stepping. The high command, exposed to so many sophisticated American weapons during years of joint maneuvers, wanted more of these for their own arsenal, not only updated F-5s and helicopters but bigger guns and even modern tanks. They had turned their nation into an American military laboratory, and they felt the price the Americans were paying was not nearly high enough.

In fact, for some months a curious game had been played between the Hondurans and the United States over the anti-Sandinista contra army fighting against the Sandinistas from bases along the River Coco in the south of Honduras. The Honduran military had been holding up the “humanitarian” aid being sent to the contras from the United States; they had even been denying that the contras were present on Honduran soil. The embassy played along, seeming to agree in public with the palpable fiction that in Honduras the contras did not exist.

I had spent nearly a week with the contras in mid-November; at least 10,000 of them occupy the Las Vegas salient and other parts of El Paraiso province along the Nicaraguan border (with hardly a Honduran soldier in sight) much as the PLO had occupied “Fatah land” in southern Lebanon before the Israelis pushed them out.3 The contras, too, want sophisticated weapons—combat aircraft, more effective surface-to-air missiles, for example—to counter the large Soviet arsenal the Sandinistas have acquired. Their pleas for more weapons add more heat to the furious arms race into which Central America has been plunged. Having been installed by the CIA in a country that they see has become an American military laboratory, they are understandably frustrated when they are denied its products.

Honduran officials—civil and military—are keenly aware of the importance of the contra bases to the Reagan administration, and in exchange for the use of their territory are resolved to squeeze from us every dollar they can. They do not want a war with Nicaragua, but they will, I think, continue to shelter the contras, and to allow the United States to use Honduran territory as a military base, provided the price is right. They want money badly, and the price may be high. After all, Hondurans played this kind of game for centuries with imperial Spain, and they know how to practice “the tyranny of the weak.”

General López, however, has lost his chance to engage in this bargaining. On January 30—only three days after Señor Azcona, who owed his job to López more than to anyone, was inaugurated president—López resigned as supreme commander. Next day he withdrew his resignation, but on February 1 he was fired by his fellow senior officers. It is unclear whether Azcona had anything to do with the dismissal. It seems more likely that, in the murky councils of the high command, the senior colonels decided that López was too reformist. A power struggle took place, and the hardliners reasserted their control. Thus Colonel Humberto Regalado Hernández, who was running the Navy, was chosen by agreement among the high officers to complete López’s term as commander in chief, which runs until 1987. Regalado sat on the commission that exonerated the military of human rights abuses. He is expected to support the reactionary old guard and to favor their promotions. Beyond that he remains a shadowy figure.

7.

John A. Ferch, the United States ambassador, in spite of his known wish to keep a “lower profile” than his flamboyant predecessor, is today, with President Azcona, the most visible man in Honduras. Fluent in Spanish, bland in manner, Ferch is a career foreign service officer who formerly headed our Interests Section in Havana. (Fidel Castro is his favorite subject.) I talked with him just before I left Tegucigalpa, in his spacious office in the chancellery on the Avenida de la Paz.

He contradicted practically every conclusion I have stated in this article. No, he was not the American proconsul in Honduras. “I regret that…perception. US policy toward Honduras is based totally on respect for Honduran sovereignty and the independence of Honduran institutions…. That’s not pap. It’s a fact.” No, the elections were not political theater. “Emphatically not. The Honduran people demonstrated they understood what representative democracy is all about.” No, Honduras was not all that poor. “Most houses I’ve seen [here] are made out of tin roofs, lumber, and cement floors…. Any house here in Tegucigalpa is made with purchased materials [indicating] the owner is in the money economy.”4 Moreover, “the American military presence in Honduras is small.” Furthermore, “there is no human rights problem in Honduras today. I’m not aware of any disappearances or arbitrary arrests.5 The only human rights violations I’m aware of in 1985 came from the extreme left.”

Wondering whether we had been discussing the same country, I descended the Avenida de la Paz at dusk, walked through the dusty, twisted streets of Tegucigalpa to the Parque Central, under its canopy of tropical trees and screeching birds, into the Cathedral of San Miguel. The cathedral was crowded with poor men, women, and children. They were chanting “Ruega por nosotros” (“Intercede for us”), as a lay celebradór in dirty-brown trousers—standing before an eighteenth-century altar of priceless rococo gilt—chanted out the 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….

A young woman stood beneath an immense statue of Christ, robed in purple, bearing his heavy cross; she raised her arms aloft to him, pleading for some silent favor. I stood behind her, thinking I should pray for the abandoned three-year-olds I’d seen, for Carlos, Javier, Ernesto, for the twelve-year-old girls who were working as prostitutes. I might as well have prayed that somehow his wooden hand would reach down to comfort them: no one else’s would.

When I emerged from the cathedral to the Parque Central and the screeching birds, a filthy barefoot child, one hand clutching a can of Resistól, the other extended for coins, approached me with dull eyes. “No tengo nada” (“I’ve nothing”), I told him, and fled.

Letters

Honduras: An Exchange June 12, 1986

  1. 2

    For an exhaustive (if somewhat tendentious) account of human rights abuses and the US military buildup in Honduras, see also Nancy Peckenham and Annie Street, eds., Honduras: Portrait of a Captive Nation (Praeger, 1985). See also Padre J. Guadalupe Carney, To Be a Revolutionary (Harper and Row, 1985). Father Carney, an American Jesuit, is believed by his family to have been captured during a joint counterinsurgency operation directed by the US military in 1983 during the reign of General Alvarez, then interrogated, tortured, and killed at an air base in Olancho. His body has never been found. See also “Human Rights in Honduras After General Alvarez,” published by the Americas Watch Committee (February 1986).

  2. 3

    Most of the contras were not, as I expected them to be, a reactionary rightwing force (although 40 percent of their field commanders are ex-Somocistas) but simple peasant boys (and girls) who said they wanted to liberate their homeland from an oppressive Marxist government. I left them feeling they had genuine grievances but convinced that providing heavier military aid, as the administration wants, will only create more havoc and more deprivation of liberty in Nicaragua.

  3. 4

    For a view rather different from the ambassador’s, see the “Appendix to the Report of the National Bipartisan Commission on Central America” (or “the Kissinger Report”), authorized by Ambassador Ferch’s boss (President Reagan): “Per capita income is…under $600 and in the countryside is probably well under $200. According to the [Honduran] government’s own figures, 57 percent of Honduras’s families live in extreme poverty, lacking sufficient income to cover the cost of the basic basket of food…. And social conditions are deteriorating further…. The housing shortage has tripled over the last 20 years.”

  4. 5

    This conversation took place before the arrest and torture of Padre Tito. I do not know of the ambassador’s reaction, if any, to that incident.

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