President Roberto Suazo Cordova went on television here Tuesday night to assure the nation that he is recovering satisfactorily from a heart attack suffered a month ago and to deny what the government called "absurd speculations" about a possible military coup here.
According to a government communique on the address, Suazo took the step to end reports "published abroad in which it is recklessly asserted he is in a coma and awaiting a fatal result."
But it is here in Honduras that some of the most alarming "speculations" concerning Suazo's health and whereabouts have circulated during three weeks when the government provided nary a clue to what had happened to the president.
The lack of any official public explanation of his absence from public view had been one of the great mysteries of Tegucigalpa. In addition to spawning a rash of rumors, each more alarming than the last, Suazo's continuing absence from public life has reinforced the fears of those who believe it is not the elected civilian president who is in charge of Honduras, but his ambitious and powerful chief of the armed forces, Gen. Gustavo Alvarez Martinez.
So prevalent had the rumors about the president become that Friday the government Ministry of Information, in its first statement on his whereabouts, issued a communique asserting that Suazo was in Tegucigalpa and not in a hospital somewhere in the United States as the talk in the street had it. The official communique added that despite all appearances--or lack of any presidential appearances--to the contrary, Suazo continues to take care of that state business that demands "his personal attention."
Almost simultaneously the minister for the presidency, Carlos Flores Facusse, insisted to party leaders who were in some doubt about the matter that the president was alive and well in Tegucigalpa.
Only privately did government officials acknowledge that Suazo, a 56-year-old doctor, had suffered "a mild heart attack of some sort" and was convalescing in specially set up quarters at the Honduran Air Force Base adjacent to the capital's Toncotin International Airport.
The first public mention of his confinement there, prior to Tuesday's taped television and radio address, came in the Honduran newspaper La Tribuna when it reported that Suazo had met Sunday with U.S. envoy to Central America Richard Stone. U.S. officials described the visit as a "courtesy call."
Government reluctance to make such details public has been based in no small part on fear of alarming the populace in this fragile democracy.
With Suazo having come to office only last year after almost two decades of military or military-controlled governments, any hint that he might be incapacitated raises serious questions about the future of Honduras' tenuous experiment in democracy.
The information that the president is ill and ensconced in a military base and under the care of Gen. Alvarez's cardiologist brother is something that could add to public fears that the new government might once again be slipping under military control, a situation that Suazo's administration appears indirectly to have acknowledged with the presidential appearance and accompanying official statement designed to ward off speculation.
"Ever since the president took office there has been much confusion and doubt about who really runs the country," Manuel Gamero, the editor of the capital's newspaper El Tiempo, said last week.
"Now with the president's true condition surrounded in mystery there are valid reasons for wondering if in fact he can govern even if he is disposed to."
The public's unease about who really rules Honduras was not without some foundation. It is generally accepted in political circles here that before the military relinquished power in 1982, Gen. Alvarez--then a colonel--and Suazo reached a private understanding on the delineation of their respective powers in the new democracy.
Knowledgeable analysts here said that the understanding gives Alvarez the final say in all military and security questions, something that gave him a decisive voice in international and internal affairs.
What that has meant in practice is that Alvarez shares power with the president and wields such influence that he even had an infantry battalion commander sit in on the negotiations between a labor union and the Ministry of Labor in a minor labor dispute last spring.
Although Hondurans take pride in the carefully crafted constitution that was promulgated in a lengthy constitutional assembly before the elections that brought Suazo to the presidency, analysts say the real center of decision-making today in Honduras is neither the Cabinet nor the National Assembly but a National Security Council that is nowhere mentioned in the consitution.
The National Security Council is equally divided between senior civilian officials under Suazo and senior military officers under Alvarez. In the absence of the president, Alvarez is assured an almost automatic majority.
It is an open secret here that Suazo and Alvarez often do not see eye to eye on many key issues.
Indeed, last year,the very week that Suazo unveiled an ambitious--if since ignored--initiative for a negotiated and demilitarized Central American peace, Alvarez publicly undermined the proposal with harsh talk of military options that might include, if necessary, inviting U.S. troops to Honduras. While Suazo has sought to emphasize the need for economic and social improvements to prevent the sort of internal revolts that have gripped neighboring Nicaragua, El Salvador and Guatemala, Alvarez has demanded a buildup of the military.
U.S. officials insist that Suazo did indeed suffer a heart attack and may even have suffered two of them the same day, although neither was serious. In his speech Tuesday, Suazo confirmed additional rumors that he plans to visit the United States in the next week or so for a "scientific checkup" at a hospital.