The Suazo Córdova Administration

Honduras Table of Contents

Suazo Córdova, a country doctor from La Paz, was a veteran of Honduran political infighting, but he lacked the kind of experience that might have prepared him for the internationalist role he would play as president of the republic. His initial approach to the question of Honduras's role in the growing regional crisis appeared to stress coexistence rather than confrontation. This approach reflected Honduras's historical passivity in regional and international affairs and took into account the regional balance of power, which did not favor Honduras. As a result, Suazo Córdova's inaugural speech stressed the issues of self-determination and the administration's desire to remain neutral in the face of regional upheaval.

In keeping with this conciliatory approach, on March 23, 1982, Minister of Foreign Affairs Edgardo Paz Barnica proposed a peace plan to the permanent council of the OAS. The plan was based on the following six points: general disarmament in Central America, the reduction of foreign military and other advisers (then a real point of contention with the Nicaraguan government), international supervision of any final agreement, an end to regional arms traffic, respect for delineated and demarcated borders, and the establishment of a permanent multilateral dialogue. The proposal met with little support from other Central American states, particularly Nicaragua.

Gradually, the Suazo Córdova administration began to perceive the FSLN (commonly referred to as Sandinista) administration as obstructionist in regional and international forums, as well as a subversive force that intended to undermine political stability in Honduras through intimidation, propaganda, and direct aid to incipient insurgent groups. The emergence of a consensus on this point within both the Honduran administration and armed forces coincided with a significant expansion of the United States role in Honduras, both as policy adviser and as purveyor of military and economic aid.

Brigadier General Gustavo Álvarez Martínez, who assumed the position of commander of the armed forces in January 1982 emerged as a hardliner against the Sandinistas. Álvarez publicly declared Honduras "in a war to the death" with Nicaragua; he believed such a war should be conducted under the auspices of a triple alliance among Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras. Some observers also believed that Álvarez had another aspect to his anticommunist strategy, namely covert domestic surveillance and extralegal executions. Álvarez's training in Argentina, where such "dirty war" tactics were common in the 1970s, lent some credence to the charges of increased disappearances and other less extreme forms of harassment against the Honduran left. Álvarez's main rival for the post of armed forces commander, Colonel Leónidas Torres Arias, the former head of military intelligence, had assumed an attaché post in Buenos Aires, Argentina, after losing the struggle for command. From Argentina, Torres proceeded to castigate Álvarez in the media, charging that the general operated a personal death squad. The Honduran Committee for the Defense of Human Rights appeared to confirm Torres's charges to some degree by reporting an increase in the number of political disappearances nationwide. According to foreign observers, the total numbers in no way rivaled those registered in El Salvador or Guatemala; the increase, however, was statistically significant for previously tranquil Honduras.

Álvarez's strong-arm tactics drew criticism from some observers, particularly the foreign press and international human rights groups. At the same time, however, leftist subversive activity did expand in the early 1980s. Much of this increase was attributed directly or indirectly to Sandinista support for like-minded Honduran groups such as the PCH, the Lorenzo Zelaya Popular Revolutionary Forces (Fuerzas Populares Revolucionarias-Lorenzo Zelaya--FPR-LZ), and the Honduran Revolutionary Party of Central American Workers (Partido Revolucionario de los Trabajadores Centroamericanos de Honduras--PRTC-H). Beginning with minor bombings, these groups eventually progressed to kidnappings and hijackings. The most ambitious effort was that launched by a platoon-sized unit of Nicaraguan-trained PRTC-H members who crossed the border from Nicaragua into Olancho department in September 1983. A rapid response by Honduran troops isolated the PRTC-H column; twenty- three of the guerrillas surrendered, and another twenty-six died in the mountains, many of starvation and exposure. A similar incursion in 1984 also failed to strike a revolutionary spark among the conservative Honduran peasantry.

The perception of a genuine leftist revolutionary threat to Honduran stability enhanced Brigadier General Álvarez's power and heightened his profile both in Honduras and the United States. The resultant appearance of an imbalance of power between the military and the nascent civilian government called into question the viability of Honduras's democratic transition. Some observers saw in Álvarez a continuation in the long series of military caudillos who had ruled the nation since independence. A coup and reimposition of direct military rule appeared a virtual certainty to those who doubted Honduras's affinity for any form of democratic government. Others, however, pictured Álvarez more in the mold of Argentina's Juan Perón--a military-based caudillo who successfully made the transition to populist civilian politics. Like most officers, Álvarez had ties to the PNH. Álvarez served as president of the Association for the Progress of Honduras (Asociación para el Progreso de Honduras--Aproh), a group made up mainly of conservative businesspeople and PNH leaders. The initial goals of Aproh were to attract foreign investment and to block the growth of "popular organizations" (labor unions, campesino groups, and other activist groups) such as those that supported the FMLN in El Salvador. Aproh's acceptance of funding from the South Korea-based Unification Church proved controversial and generated negative publicity for both the organization and for Álvarez. The general's purportedly popular following, moreover, was suspect. He seemed much more comfortable and adept at high-level political maneuvering than at grassroots organization. Eventually, even his support within the armed forces proved to be inadequate to sustain his ambitions.

Although Álvarez had appeared ascendant by 1982, some observers described the political situation in Honduras as a triumvirate: Brigadier General Álvarez formulating national security policy and refraining from a direct military takeover of the government; President Suazo supporting Álvarez's policies in return for military tolerance of his rule and military support for his domestic policies; and the United States government providing the economic and military aid that helped sustain the arrangement. Some disputed the claim that Suazo was subservient to the military by pointing out the fact that the president refused to increase the budget of the armed forces. That budget, however, failed to take foreign military aid into account. The increase in United States military aid from US$3.3 million in fiscal year (FY) 1980 to US$31.3 million in FY 1982, therefore, represented a substantial expansion in the military's role in government.

Álvarez strongly supported United States policy in Central America. He reportedly assisted in the initial formation of the Nicaraguan Resistance (more commonly known as the Contras, short for contrarevolucionarios--counterrevolutionaries in Spanish), arranged large-scale joint exercises with United States forces, and agreed to allow the training of Salvadoran troops by United States special forces at a facility near Puerto Castilla known as the Regional Center for Military Training (Centro Regional de Entrenamiento Militar--CREM). The latter action eventually contributed greatly to Álvarez's ouster in early 1984.

The other major factor in the Álvarez ouster was the general's attempt to streamline the command structure of the armed forces. Traditionally, a collegial board made up of field-grade officers consulted with the commander in the formulation of policy for the Honduran armed forces. Álvarez proposed to eliminate this organization, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (Consejo Superior de las Fuerzas Armadas--Consuffaa), and to replace it with a board of eight senior officers. The reorganization would have concentrated and enhanced Álvarez's power over the military by allowing him to name his most trusted commanders to a leadership board that would rubber-stamp his policy proposals. At the same time, the reorganization had promised to make the armed forces function more efficiently, an important consideration if hostilities broke out between Honduras and Nicaragua.

Alvarez's view on involvement in Nicaragua led directly to the 1984 rebellion by his officers. Most observers had expected Honduras to serve as one staging area for a United States military intervention in Nicaragua if such an operation took place. The flawed but successful Operation Urgent Fury on the Caribbean island of Grenada in November 1983 had seemed to increase the likelihood of military action against the Sandinista regime in Nicaragua. Although Álvarez supported a military solution to the "Nicaraguan problem," a significant faction of the Honduran officer corps held divergent convictions. These more nationalistic, more isolationist officers saw Álvarez as subservient to the United States, giving up more in terms of sovereignty than he received in aid. These officers also resented Álvarez's posturing in the media and his apparent aspirations to national leadership. On a more mundane level, certain officers also feared that Álvarez would force them out after he had solidified his power base within the officer corps. The prospect of early, involuntary retirement, with its attendant loss of licit and illicit income, prompted a clique of senior officers to move against Álvarez on March 31, 1984, seizing him and dispatching him on a flight to Miami.

The ouster of Álvarez produced a number of repercussions both in Honduran domestic politics and in Honduran-United States relations. The armed forces, which had appeared to be moving in a more activist and outward-looking direction under Álvarez, assumed a more isolationist stance toward regional relations and United States policy initiatives. Air Force Brigadier General Walter López Reyes, the new commander in chief, demanded further increases in military aid in return for Honduran cooperation in regional affairs. After some equivocation, López closed the CREM. He also scaled back Honduran-United States military exercises. On May 21, 1985, President Suazo Córdova and United States President Ronald W. Reagan signed a joint communiqué that amended a 1982 annex to the 1954 Military Assistance Agreement between the two countries. Although the new accord allowed the United States to expand and improve its temporary facilities at Palmerola Air Base near Comayagua, it generally limited Honduran cooperation in comparison to the terms of the 1982 annex.

By 1984 the armed forces under López began to exert pressure on the United States-backed Contra forces, the bulk of which operated from bases in the southern departments of El Paraíso and Olancho. Honduran foreign minister Edgardo Paz Barnica reflected the new attitude toward the Contras in January 1985, when he announced that the government planned to expel them from Honduras. Although that statement reflected bravado and frustration more than reality, the Honduran military took more active steps to pressure both the Contras and, indirectly, the United States government. In February 1985, the armed forces ordered the Contras to close a hospital that they had set up outside of Tegucigalpa. The Hondurans also ordered the Contras to shut down an office that had been used to receive official visitors, mainly from the United States. Around the same time, Honduran troops turned back two United States Department of State employees from a planned visit to a Contra training camp; the troops told the Americans that they lacked a newly required permit to enter the area.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress