The era of banana-republic dictators propped up by U.S. military aid is dead, but the Carter administration refuses to give it a decent burial.
Instead, the president seems determined to add still another sorry chapter to the chronicle of Yankee imperialism in Central America. The administration apparently has chosen Honduras to be our new "Nicaragua" -- a dependable satellite, bought and paid for by American military and economic largesse.
In secret meetings with the Pentagon's emissary, Maj. Gen. Robert L. Schweitzer, the Honduran military junta was told specifically that it is expected to assume the regional role played for years by Nicaragua's Anastasio Somoza -- to become a bulwark of anti-communism against the pressures of popular revolt. Guns and dollars will flow if the regime achieves legitimacy in next month's elections.
Unfortunately, that legitimacy will be cosmetic at best. All the evidence indicates that the elections will be a complete sham. The military-backed National Party is the pre-ordained winner. The Christain Democrats don't even have a place on the ballot. Voter registration if a farce. Birth certificates -- required at registration -- conveniently disappear if the prospective voter is not a known National Party supporter.
Nine months ago, my associate Bob Sherman traveled throughout Honduras, interviewing business leaders, politicians, students, workers and religious leaders to assess the chances for democratic change. The signs were hopeful, and I wrote then that, if the junta made good on its pledge of free elections, "Honduras could become a showcase of peaceful democracy in Latin America."
But that optimistic hope has been dashed by the junta. The elections have generated little interest, Honduran sources explained, because everyone knows nothing will change. "The National Party is controlled by the military, and they will win," said one sources. "Life will not improve, it will get worse."
Although younger members of the Honduran army's 900-man officers corps have petitioned the junta to take more moderate positions on agrarian reform, the judicial system and human rights, the general view is that Honduras will swing to the right after the elections. The junta is already laying plans to tighten its control. One secret internal memorandum discusses ways to get rid of dissenters, including the time-honored practice of shipping "unreliable" officers to distant diplomatic posts.
And the junta's chief, Brig. Gen. Policarpo Paz Garcia, may become the National Party's candidate for president. Certainly he is acting like a candidate, milking his recent meeting with Jimmy Carter at the White House for all the prestige and propaganda he could.
The Carter administration, rebuffed embarrassingly in Nicaragua and unable to influence events effectively in Guatemala and El Salvador, has seized upon Honduras as the oppoutunity for a show of strength. The administration is planning to give the 15,000-man Honduran army $500,000 in training funds, with an anticipated $5 million in aid and equipment next year.
Military aid is the last thing Honduras needs. It air force is considered to be the best in Central America, its officers are already highly trained, and the guerrillas have been ineffective in the country. All the U.S. armaments will do is enable the generals to solidify their control -- or pave the way for yet another military coup.
The big question, of course, is why the Carter administration feels the need for another Somoza. The last-ditch U.S. defense of the hated Nicaraguan tyrant won us no friends among the people of Latin America.
Time was when the United States was the symbol of hope for the oppressed peasants of South and Central America. But in recent years, as the United States propped up one general after another, the oppressed people of Latin America have turned to another symbol of hope -- Fidel Castro's Cuba. It's a false hope, but they have no way of knowing that.