The early front-runner in this country's presidential campaign says that he would seek to prevent Nicaraguan antigovernment guerrillas from maintaining a presence inside Honduras if he is elected.
Jose Azcona, a former minister of communications, public works and transportation, held large leads in opinion polls conducted in June and April in the race for a four-year term in the Nov. 24 election. He has a reputation for moderate views and opposition to corruption, according to other politicians and foreign diplomats. He also is a leading critic within the governing Liberal Party of its own President Roberto Suazo.
Honduras, one of the poorest countries in the hemisphere, is a close U.S. ally in Central America. In addition to providing a logistical and supply base for the contras, as the Nicaraguan rebels are known, it has been the site of U.S. construction of an extensive network of airfields and other military installations.
Azcona was careful in an interview to say that he did not know whether the contras in fact have bases inside his country. As president, he said that he would have a responsibility to find out and, if necessary, to arrange for them to move into Nicaragua.
If Azcona, 56, won and stuck to his position, it could cause problems for the contras and for their backers in the Honduran armed forces and the U.S. government, according to the politicians and diplomats here. While civilian politicians here historically have had considerably less power than the military, Azcona has displayed the kind of public assertiveness that might lead him to make an issue of the contras' presence, these sources said.
It is an open secret that the largest contra organization, the Nicaraguan Democratic Force or FDN, has bases inside Honduras near the Nicaraguan border. Journalists have visited FDN military camps and supply bases inside Honduras on several occasions, both on their own and at the FDN's invitation.
"I don't think that these camps should be in Honduran territory. I think that Nicaraguans who seek to overthrow the Sandinista government should fight on Nicaraguan territory," Azcona said.
The candidate said that Honduras should not risk provoking a conflict with Nicaragua by hosting the contras. "It's necessary to seek a solution to this problem, because it is a threat to peace," he said. But he added that "it is very difficult for Honduras to maintain vigilance along its entire frontier with Nicaragua."
According to a survey of 471 persons by a radio station here last month, Azcona was the choice of 77 percent of respondents, compared with 12 percent for his nearest rival, Oscar Mejia. In April, a poll gave him 60 percent against a field of other candidates.
In the topsy-turvy Honduran politics, Azcona's apparent chief opponent Mejia also is a Liberal, but is considered primarily to be a representative of President Suazo. Personality and clout among party factions matter more than ideology in elections here. A prominent Liberal remarked that "the only difference between the parties is the phone numbers of their headquarters."
Suazo's maneuvering to influence the choice of his successor through control of the Supreme Court -- which gave him legal power over the political parties' internal balance of power -- led to a weeks-long constitutional crisis.
For a time, the country had two supreme courts, but the crisis was resolved under pressure from the armed forces with a decision allowing both Azcona and Mejia to campaign as Liberals.
Azcona broke with Suazo in September 1983, when he resigned from the Cabinet. In the interview, he accused the current administration of a lack of "professionalism," and urged programs of health, education, land reform and jobs.
He is not considered a leftist, and in the interview he strongly criticized the Nicaraguan government's "dictatorial" tendencies.
Several politicians and diplomats cautioned that Azcona's early lead could evaporate in the campaign.