The United States

Honduras Table of Contents

In the twentieth century, the United States has had more influence on Honduras than any other nation, leading some analysts to assert that the United States has been a major source of political power in Honduras. United States involvement in Honduras dates back to the turn of the century, when United States-owned banana companies began expanding their presence on the north coast. The United States government periodically dispatched warships to quell revolutionary activity and to protect United States business interests. Not long after the United States entered World War II, the United States signed a lend lease agreement with Honduras. Also, the United States operated a small naval base at Trujillo on the Caribbean Sea. In 1954 the two countries signed a bilateral military assistance agreement whereby the United States helped support the development and training of the Honduran military. In the 1950s, the United States provided about US$27 million, largely in development assistance, to Honduras for projects in the agriculture, education, and health sectors. In the 1960s, under the Alliance for Progress program, the United States provided larger amounts of assistance to Honduras--almost US$94 million for the decade, the majority again in development assistance, with funds increasingly focused on rural development. In the 1970s, United States assistance expanded significantly, amounting to almost US$193 million, largely in development and food assistance, but also including about US$19 million in military assistance. Aid during the 1970s again emphasized rural development, particularly in support of the Honduran government's agrarian reform efforts in the first part of the decade.

It was in the 1980s, however, that United States attention became fixated on Honduras as a linchpin for United States policy toward Central America. In the early 1980s, southern Honduras became a staging area for Contra excursions into Nicaragua. The conservative Honduran government and military shared United States concerns over the Sandinistas' military buildup, and both the United States and Honduran governments viewed United States assistance as important in deterring Nicaragua, in both the buildup of the Honduran armed forces and the introduction of a United States military presence in Honduras.

In 1982 Honduras signed an annex to its 1954 bilateral military assistance agreement with the United States that provided for the stationing of a temporary United States military presence in the country. Beginning in 1983, the Pamerola Air Base (renamed the Enrique Soto Cano Air Base in 1988) housed a United States military force of about 1,100 troops known as Joint Task Force Bravo (JTFB) about 80 kilometers from Tegucigalpa near the city of Comayagua. The primary mission of the task force was to support United States military exercises and other military activities and to demonstrate the resolve of the United States to support Honduras against the threat from Nicaragua. In its military exercises, which involved thousands of United States troops and United States National Guardsmen, the United States spent millions of dollars in building or upgrading several air facilities--some of which were used to help support the Contras-- and undertaking roadbuilding projects around the country. The United States military in Honduras also provided medical teams to visit remote rural areas. In addition, a military intelligence battalion performed reconnaissance missions in support of the Salvadoran military in its war against leftist guerrillas of the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (Frente Farabundo Martí de Liberación Nacional--FMLN). In 1987 the United States approved a sale of twelve advanced F-5 fighter aircraft to Honduras, a measure that reinforced Honduran air superiority in Central America.

During the early 1980s, the United States also established an economic strategy designed to boost economic development in the Caribbean Basin region. Dubbed the Caribbean Basin Initiative (CBI), the centerpiece of the program was a one-way preferential trade program providing duty-free access to the United States market for a large number of products from Caribbean and Central American nations. Honduras became a beneficiary of the program when it first went into effect in 1984. Although the value of Honduran exports had increased by 16 percent by 1989, this growth paled in comparison to the growth of United States-destined exports from other CBI countries such as Costa Rica and the Dominican Republic.

During the 1980s, the United States provided Honduras with a substantial amount of foreign assistance. Total United States assistance to Honduras in the 1980s amounted to almost US$1.6 billion, making the country the largest United States aid recipient in Latin America after El Salvador; about 37 percent of the aid was in Economic Support Funds (ESF), 25 percent in military assistance, 24 percent in development assistance, and 10 percent in food aid. The remaining 4 percent supported one of the largest Peace Corps programs worldwide, disaster assistance, and small development projects sponsored by the Inter-American Foundation.

By the end of the decade, however, critics were questioning how so much money could have produced so little. The country was still one of the poorest in the hemisphere, with an estimated per capita income of US$590 in 1991, according to the World Bank, and the government had not implemented any significant economic reform program to put its house in order. Many high-level Hondurans acknowledged that the money was ill-spent on a military build-up and on easy money for the government. According to former United States ambassador to Honduras Cresencio Arcos, "If there was a significant flaw in our assistance, it was that we did not sufficiently condition aid to macroeconomic reforms and the strengthening of democratic institutions such as the administration of justice." Moreover, as noted by the United States General Accounting Office in a 1989 report, the Honduran government in the 1980s became dependent upon external assistance and tended to view United States assistance as a substitute for undertaking economic reform. The report further asserted that the Honduran government was able to resist implementing economic reforms because it supported United States regional security programs.

Many observers maintain that United States support was instrumental in the early 1980s in bringing about a transition to elected civilian democracy and in holding free and fair elections during the rest of the decade. Nevertheless, critics charge that United States support for the Honduran military, including direct negotiations over support for the Contras, actually worked to undermine the authority of the elected civilian government. They also blame the United States for tolerating the Honduran military's human rights violations, particularly in the early 1980s. They claim that the United States obsession with defeating the Sandinistas in Nicaragua and the FMLN in El Salvador resulted in Honduras's becoming the regional intermediary for United States policy--without regard for the consequences for Honduras. Indeed, some maintain that the United States embassy in Tegucigalpa often appeared to be more involved with the Contra war effort against Nicaragua than with the political and economic situation in Honduras. United States-based human rights organizations assert that the United States became involved in a campaign to defame human rights activists in Honduras who called attention to the abuses of the Honduran military. United States embassy publications during the 1980s regularly attempted to discredit the two major human rights groups in Honduras, Codeh and Cofadeh, because of their "leftist bias," while also calling into question the large number of disappearances that occurred in the early 1980s.

Hondurans' frustration over the overwhelming United States presence and power in their country appeared to grow in the late 1980s. For example, in April 1988 a mob of anti-United States rioters attacked and burned the United States embassy annex in Tegucigalpa because of United States involvement in the abduction and arrest of alleged drug trafficker Juan Ramón Mata Ballesteros, a prime suspect in the 1985 torture and murder of United States Drug Enforcement Administration agent Enrique Camarena in Mexico. Nationalist sentiments escalated as some Hondurans viewed the action as a violation of a constitutional prohibition on the extradition of Honduran citizens. The mob of students was reportedly fueled by then UNAH rector Osvaldo Ramos Soto, who later became Supreme Court president and the PNH candidate for president in 1993.

By the early 1990s, with the end to the Contra war and a peace accord in El Salvador, United States policy toward Honduras had changed in numerous respects. Annual foreign aid levels had begun to fall considerably. Although the United States provided about US$213 million in fiscal year (FY) 1990 and US$150 million in FY 1991, the amount declined to about US$98 million for FY 1992 and an estimated US$60 million for FY 1993. Most significant in these declines is that military assistance slowed to a trickle, with only an estimated US$2.6 million to be provided in FY 1993.

Although aid levels were falling, considerable United States support was provided through debt forgiveness. In September 1991, the United States forgave US$434 million in official bilateral debt that Honduras owed the United States government for food assistance and United States AID loans. This forgiveness accounted for about 96 percent of Honduras's total bilateral debt to the United States and about 12 percent of Honduras's total external debt of about US$3.5 billion. Observers viewed the debt forgiveness as partially a reward for Honduras's reliability as a United States ally, particularly through the turbulent 1980s, as well as a sign of support for the bold economic reforms undertaken by the Callejas government in one of the hemisphere's poorest nations.

In the 1990s, the United States remained Honduras's most important trading partner and the most important source of foreign investment. According to the United States Department of State, in the early 1990s Honduras was a relatively open market for United States exports and investments. In 1992 the Callejas government took important steps toward improving the trade and investment climate in the nation with the approval of a new investment law.

Under the rubric of the Enterprise for the Americas Initiative (EAI), a United States foreign policy initiative was introduced by the George H.W. Bush administration (1989-93) in June 1990, with the long-term goal of free trade throughout the Americas. The United States and Honduras signed a trade and investment framework agreement in 1991, which theoretically was a first step on the road to eventual free trade with the United States. Some Hondurans in the early 1990s expressed concern about the potential North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) among Canada, Mexico, and the United States, which could possibly undermine Honduran's benefits under the CBI and also divert portions of United States trade and investment to Mexico.

A point of controversy between Honduras and the United States in the early 1990s was the issue of intellectual property rights. In 1992, because of a complaint by the Motion Picture Exporters Association of America, the Office of the United States Trade Representative (USTR) initiated an investigation into the protection of private satellite television signals. Local cable companies in Honduras routinely pirated United States satellite signals, but as a result of the investigation, the Honduran government pledged to submit comprehensive intellectual property rights legislation to the National Congress in 1993. If the USTR investigation rules against Honduras, the country's participation in the CBI and the Generalized System of Preferences (GSP) would be jeopardized.

A significant change in United States-Honduran relations during the early 1990s was reflected in United States criticism over the human rights situation and over the impunity of the Honduran military, as well as recommendations to the Honduran government to cut back military spending. In one public statement in 1992 that was severely criticized by the Honduran military, Cresencio Arcos, who was then United States ambassador, stated that "society should not allow justice to be turned into a viper that only bites the barefoot and leaves immune those who wear boots."

Despite the winding down of regional conflicts in the early 1990s, the United States military maintains a 1,100-member force presence at the Enrique Soto Cano Air Base. Joint Task Force Bravo is still involved in conducting training exercises for thousands of United States troops annually, including road-building exercises, and in providing medical assistance to remote rural areas. A new mission for the United States military in Honduras, and perhaps its number-one priority, is the use of surveillance planes to track drug flights from South America headed for the United States. Although Honduras is not a major drug producer, it is a transit route for cocaine destined for both the United States and Europe. A radar station in Trujillo on the north Honduran coast forms part of a Caribbean-wide radar network designed for the interdiction of drug traffickers. The United States military in Honduras maintains a relatively low profile, with soldiers confined to the base, and the sporadic anti-Americanism targeted at the United States military in the past appears largely to have dissipated, most probably because of the end to regional hostilities and the new supportive role of the United States as an advocate for the protection of human rights.

More about the Government and Politics of Honduras.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress