TEGUCIGALPA, HONDURAS -- With the departure of the Nicaraguan rebels from Honduras, this nation, which played a key role in U.S. policy in Central America during the 1980s, has left the world stage to become yet another Third World nation striving to overcome severe economic problems.

But the legacy of the U.S. role in Honduras will be felt for years as this country struggles to overcome both its international image as a pawn of Washington and the economic distortions caused by massive amounts of U.S. aid.

Many observers are hopeful that new Honduran President Rafael Leonardo Callejas, a conservative technocrat who took office in January, can accomplish both objectives. But they question whether he has the political courage to carry through with needed but unpopular economic reforms and if he has the international stature to erase Honduras's negative image.

"I think it's a wonderful thing, the end of the contra question," said Gilberto Goldstein, Callejas's private secretary. "As a new government, we can finally concentrate on development."

But Honduras, like all the nations in the region, will be hampered by having to compete for fewer international aid dollars from the United States and other countries, and by the legacy of 10 years of violence in Central America.

During the 1980s, Honduras was best known internationally for its role as a launching pad for U.S. policy in Central America.

The contra rebels were trained and run from bases hidden in the Honduran jungles. In what were described as military exercises, U.S. forces built bases in Honduras that are technically Honduran but give the United States access to military facilities in Latin America that are exceeded only by those in Panama. Those bases have been used for intelligence-gathering operations against the Sandinistas in Nicaragua and the leftist Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front, which is fighting the Salvadoran government.

In exchange, the United States gave Honduras, a nation of 4.5 million people, one of its largest aid packages -- more than $1 billion in economic and military assistance in the last decade.

But Honduras paid a price. The contras' presence earned Honduras the derisive sobriquet as a United States aircraft carrier, the "U.S.S. Honduras," and there were frequent clashes with the Sandinista army along the border with Nicaragua.

Many Hondurans feel that the economic aid hurt more than it helped, flooding the economy with money that could not be absorbed.

"It created the mind-set {among Honduran officials} of an international beggar," said Victor Meza, the director of the Honduran Documentation Center, an independent think tank in Tegucigalpa. The aid allowed Honduras to ignore needed economic reforms, Meza said.

When Callejas took office, he was greeted with a national economy in shambles. The country had a staggering public debt, it had lost its credit at most international lending institutions, there was almost no hard currency in the Central Bank, exports were low and unemployment was high.

"Now the medicine is much more dramatic. We have to take it on the chin and like it," Goldstein said.

As an example of the bitter medicine Hondurans have been forced to take, Meza pointed to the value of the Honduran currency, the lempira. Honduras used U.S. aid to help keep the currency's value at an artificially high level during the 1980s, permitting low consumer prices for imported goods such as gasoline.

Callejas's government allowed the lempira to fall quickly to half of its previous value, and gasoline prices went up, literally overnight, by 50 percent. Gradual devaluations over the years would have reduced the price shock felt by most Hondurans, Meza said.

Callejas, who also has fired thousands of government employees, has acknowledged that it will be at least a year before the economic programs bear fruit, and some diplomats question whether Callejas will be willing to provoke domestic unrest by fully implementing all the needed measures.

But Goldstein said the programs already were bearing fruit. For the first time in years, organizations such as the International Development Bank and the International Monetary Fund are preparing to offer Honduras new loans and grants, he said.

While U.S. aid to Honduras, and most other countries in the region, is being cut, Goldstein said the government hopes to be able to make up the difference with help from other countries, such as Taiwan and Spain.

Internationally, Callejas is working to change Honduras's negative foreign image. "He is trying to give Honduran foreign policy a more Latin American focus," Meza said.

Callejas was helped by the election of Violeta Chamorro to the presidency of Nicaragua in February. The last armed contras left Honduras in April to return to Nicaragua to try to reintegrate into national life. Tens of thousands of Nicaraguan refugees and relatives of the contra fighters remain in Honduras, but they are the responsibility of the United Nations and the Organization of American States and not a direct Honduran worry, a Western diplomat said.

Within days of the departure of the final contra from Honduras, Callejas was in Yamales, the site of the rebel headquarters for much of the eight-year war against the Sandinistas, and formally declared that no foreign irregular force would ever again use Honduran territory.

In an effort to distance himself from Washington, Callejas made his first foreign visits as president to Venezuela and Mexico. He waited three months before visiting Washington.

While the military threat to Honduras diminished greatly after the electoral ouster of the Sandinistas in Nicaragua, Goldstein said he foresees little change in the exisiting U.S.-Honduras military relationship and that he believes U.S.-Honduran relations will continue to be good.

U.S. military exercises in Honduras "have nothing to do with the threat," he said. "They have helped professionalize our army. There is no urgent need to change the policy."