Seldom has U.S. influence over this impoverished country been demonstrated so clearly as in the shove that Washington gave Honduras this week to dramatize Nicaragua's border raid on anti-Sandinista rebels.
The Hondurans have played down or simply ignored scores of past incursions, except when Honduran soldiers or civilians were wounded or killed. A diplomat estimated that there have been between 50 and 60 such incursions during the past six months. The government here has viewed the border raids as part of the price that it must pay for allowing the rebels, known as contras or counterrevolutionaries, to use southern Honduras as a sanctuary, according to Honduran officials and foreign diplomats here.
Until now, the United States also has paid little attention to the Sandinista Army's incursions. When hundreds of Nicaraguan troops attacked a contra base last May in the same part of Honduras where last weekend's attack occurred, neither the Hondurans nor the U.S. government made an issue of it.
This time, however, the Reagan administration was campaigning for congressional approval of $100 million in aid for the contras, and it jumped on the border raid as a way to discredit the Sandinistas.
The Honduran government initially resisted heavy U.S. pressure to call attention to the raid, according to Honduran and other sources.
But the United States was able to force the Hondurans' hand by leaking information about the raid in Washington and by rewarding the Hondurans' cooperation with $20 million in emergency military aid and a helicopter airlift of Honduran troops to the border.
The government here viewed the airlift as an important sign that the United States was willing to come to its aid in a crisis, even if Washington had exaggerated the seriousness of the situation for domestic political reasons, according to sources who have been reliable in the past.
"The fact is that our future is decided in the Congress of the United States. In moments like this one we have little room for maneuver. We are victims of circumstances," a well-placed Honduran official said Wednesday.
A West European diplomat here said: "I think that the incursion would have passed by relatively unremarked except that a congressional vote in the House of Representatives didn't go President Reagan's way, and Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega wasn't going to Moscow, so he Reagan needed something else. This was seized, and a fire was put under it." He was referring to the reaction of liberal congressmen last year when Ortega traveled to Moscow immediately after the House of Representatives voted down another request for aid to the contras.
There also have been indications in recent weeks that the U.S. government is no longer willing to go along with Honduras in pretending that the contras do not have bases in this country. The Honduran government maintains that stance publicly because it is sensitive about its sovereignty and does not want to grant the Nicaraguans a debating point.
Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger caused a small political storm here earlier this month when he acknowledged publicly that there are contras in southern Honduras. He was asserting the need for U.S. military personnel to train the contras, and said that such trainers, if used, would be placed in Honduras rather than Nicaragua.
Weinberger's statement led the small opposition Christian Democratic Party here to propose forming a government commission to investigate whether the contras have bases inside Honduras. The U.S. Embassy repeatedly has urged Washington to show greater sensitivity to the Hondurans' views, but to no avail, according to several sources who declined to be identified by name, job or nationality.
"The public relations imperative in Tegucigalpa and Washington as to how you handle the presence of the Nicaraguan insurgents is different," a source here told reporters today under similar ground rules. He made the same point more bluntly later in the briefing: "Call a spade a spade. Washington is at the point where they want to do that."
The now-you-see-it, now-you-don't quality of this border war is not limited to the peculiar situation of the Hondurans' silence about bases that everyone knows are in their country.
The Nicaraguan government, after denying for three days that its troops had entered Honduran territory, indirectly confirmed yesterday that its forces had crossed the border.
The Defense Ministry in Managua announced that Sandinista troops had destroyed the contras' main training center. The statement said the attack had taken place in the "border region," but Nicaraguan officials have said in the past that the center, and the contras' other bases, were located inside Honduras.
In a press conference today in Managua, Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega said Honduras had lost its sovereignty over the border area and called it "an occupied zone, a war zone," in an apparent effort to justify Nicaraguan attacks there.
It now seems certain that the Nicaraguan raid that began last Saturday was one of the two largest such incursions in the four years of border incidents between Honduras and Nicaragua, and it probably was the largest, as the U.S. government has said. U.S. estimates of the number of Nicaraguan troops involved have ranged from a low of 800 to a high of more than 2,000, while Honduran estimates have ranged from 600 to 1,200.
The size of the incursion contributed to the Hondurans' action Tuesday in confirming U.S. reports of the incursion and formally requesting U.S. assistance. But Honduras did not ask Washington for the helicopter airlift until after U.S. officials in Washington had leaked information about the raid Monday morning. Honduran and other sources said the U.S. government had initiated the plan to provide the $20 million in aid.
Sandinista Popular Army units drove across the border at three points in the eastern part of El Paraiso province starting Saturday, according to U.S. accounts.
The largest column moved northwest across the Coco River and staged four assaults Sunday on the contras' training center, 11 miles inside Honduras. The Sandinistas reached the training center's inner defense perimeter but did not overrun the base, according to sources here with access to intelligence reports.
At the same time, two smaller Sandinista forces drove against a contra base at Las Vegas, about four miles inside Honduras. The contras were able to stop these columns before they got close to the base, which once was the contras' main installation in Honduras but now is used much less because it is so close to the border.
Heavy fighting continued Monday after the contras successfully defended the training center, according to the sources here. But the main Sandinista force began to pull back on Tuesday, and the only Nicaraguan Army troops left in Honduras today were described as a few stragglers.