Jose Azcona took office as president of Honduras today in a ceremony that marked the first time in more than 50 years that one elected civilian succeeded another as chief executive.

In his inaugural address, Azcona called for measures to ease the nation's foreign debt burden and to promote exports. He offered few clues about his position on foreign policy, although he said that Honduras would maintain its "unchanging friendship" with the United States.

Azcona, 59, whose silver hair and erect bearing give him a statesmanlike appearance, has a reputation for personal honesty. Departing president Roberto Suazo Cordova was known for political wheeling and dealing.

"I am not going to tolerate immorality in my government, nor laziness," Azcona said. That line received loud applause from the crowd at the windswept National Stadium.

Vice President Bush headed the delegation from Washington that attended the ceremony. He also attended the inauguration of Guatemalan President Vinicio Cerezo on Jan. 14.

Bush lauded this inauguration, like Cerezo's, as evidence that democracy is taking root in a region where the armed forces historically have dominated politics.

"In 1981, fewer than one-third of the people of Latin America lived in countries that were democratic or moving to democracy. Today, more than 90 percent do," Bush said at a news conference.

Both the Honduran and Guatemalan militaries still pose powerful limits to presidential power.

Cerezo and Salvadoran President Jose Napoleon Duarte attended today, while Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega was notably absent. Nicaraguan Vice President Sergio Ramirez stood in for Ortega, who did not come, in part, because of fears that Nicaraguan antigovernment rebels known as contras might try to assassinate him, according to Nicaraguan officials.

Azcona did not mention the contras, who have camps in southern Honduras along the Nicaraguan border. Some of Azcona's supporters, as well as some factions in the armed forces, are uncomfortable with the contras' presence, which is strongly supported by the U.S. administration.

In a statement that suggested he would restrict the contras' activities, Azcona said his government's foreign policy "will be clearly framed within the sacred principles of respect for nonintervention of one state in the affairs of another state, and of the free self-determination of peoples."

But in reaffirming Honduran friendship with the United States, Azcona referred to "the ideals that unite us in the defense of pluralist and participatory democracy." Both Azcona and the U.S. government have sharply criticized Nicaragua's Marxist-led Sandinista government for limiting political pluralism.

Bush said he had not received assurances from Azcona here that the new administration would allow U.S. nonlethal aid for the contras to be delivered through Honduras. But his comments indicated that he did not anticipate serious differences with Azcona.

Azcona devoted much of his speech to economic and social issues, but he did not outline any specific initiatives. Honduras is one of the poorest nations in Latin America and has the hemisphere's second-highest infant mortality rate.

Azcona criticized past administrations for financing the nation's development through excessive borrowing from abroad, which has raised this nation's foreign debt to $2.3 billion, and said that Honduras should cooperate with other Latin American countries in seeking ways to reduce the burden.