COVER

THE COMFORTS OF 10 LEMP ALLEY

MARCI McDONALD February 23 1987
COVER

THE COMFORTS OF 10 LEMP ALLEY

MARCI McDONALD February 23 1987

THE COMFORTS OF 10 LEMP ALLEY

Inside an abandoned adobe funeral home on the outskirts of Danlí, a dusty Honduran market town a half-hour’s drive from the Nicaraguan border, Santo Cristobal Cañadas swept his hand around the single barren room in disgust. “Here we live like beggars,” he said. In one corner, a baby wrapped in a soiled rag whimpered at an assault of flies on her makeshift bed. Beside her in the fetid afternoon heat dozens of sniffling, barefoot children played listlessly. In a muddy corral behind the building, their mothers stirred an iron pot of corn kernels provided by the Red Cross. They are desplazados, displaced persons, who now live as refugees in their own country.

Until recently Cañadas and the 90 other people now jammed into the shelter had been independent coffee growers near the Nicaraguan border. But those farms have become part of a 180-square-mile no man’s land of base camps and battlefields created by the contra rebels in their war against Nicaragua’s Sandinista government. And as a consequence, Cañadas and his neighbors have become the newest casualties in Washington’s proxy war in Central America.

Displaced: The Honduran Coffee Producers’ Association estimates that the fighting of the past three years has forced more than 2,000 small growers to flee 46 villages in the province of El Paraíso along the Nicaraguan border. Swelling the ranks of the 200,000 Nicaraguan and Salvadoran refugees already in Honduras, they represent another blow to the country of four million—the poorest in the Western Hemisphere after Haiti. The displaced growers were among 50,000 families producing a $500-million-ayear coffee crop, which provides the second-largest single source of foreign currency —after bananas—for Honduras.

Now, as the new Democrat-controlled U.S. Senate ponders whether to block the final $40-million (U.S.) instalment of its current $100-million aid package to the contras, a delegation of Honduran coffee growers is on its way to Washington to demand $25

million in compensation. “We were living in peace until the United States brought the contras in,” said Cañadas. “If they can give these people $100 million to use our territory for violence, why shouldn’t they help us a little?”

In fact, the problems of the desplazados have amplified a chorus of protests over the contras’ presence in Honduras. Critics blame the rebel army for the country’s rising crime rate and the fact that their tiny nation has been turned into an armed camp— the launching pad for any eventual U.S. invasion of Nicaragua. With the U.S. and contra armies both operating almost without restriction, many Hondurans feel that the situation is slipping out of their control. Said Nicolas Cruz Torres, an opposition National Party deputy who proposed a motion in the Honduran parliament on Oct. 26 demanding the rebels’ removal: “If the contras stay in Honduras, we’ll become another Lebanon.”

Threatened: But in a country where power has historically been held by the U.S. Embassy and the Honduran armed forces in that order, it has become dangerous to speak out against the contras, who are the cornerstone of U.S. policy in Central America. Cruz Torres, after tabling his motion, re-

ceived six telephone death threats. And even the displaced coffee growers have become victims of a smear campaign. Last November the contras took out newspaper advertisements branding them as Communist sympathizers who only wanted to avoid repaying their bank loans. Entansilado Osorto, one of the displaced farmers, said that he feels threatened. “By speaking out for our rights,” he said, “our lives are in danger.”

Opposition: To many Hondurans the displaced coffee growers have become symbolic of their country’s fate as a pawn in the struggle the Reagan administration is waging against the Sandinistas. “We have no quarrel with the Nicaraguans,” said Efraín Diaz Arrivillaga, head of the tiny Christian Democratic party, who has been the contras’ most vocal opponent. “But there is a very real possibility that our country will get dragged into a war that is not our war but that of the UnitHi ed States.” Said Cruz Torres: “Honduras is like the meat in a sandwich, being squeezed on both sides.”

U.S. pressure increased last month as the Pentagon launched Big Pine ’87, the latest and largest round of military exercises that, since 1983, have turned Honduras into a giant U.S. military proving ground. So frequent are the periodic manoeuvres that Hondurans now colloquially call all Americans Ahuas Taras—Big Pines. Between now and mid-May more than 6,000 U.S.

troops will land in Honduras, with as many as 2,500 on the ground at one time. At the U.S. headquarters at Palmerola air base, 56 km northwest of the capital, Tegucigalpa, the Americans have built a 3,400-metre airstrip to accommodate big military transport planes, at an estimated cost of $19 million. And they have constructed or upgraded five other airfields—two of them used for the secret air-drops to the contras revealed last year.

Intimidation: Reinforcing the display of American muscle, the 58,000-ton battleship U.S.S. Iowa anchored off Honduras’s Caribbean coast late last month.

U.S. officials publicly described it as a routine port call. But the Iowa unleashed a demonstration of its firepower, with deafening broadsides from its nine 16inch guns, that the Americans privately admitted was intended to intimidate the Sandinistas. “We’re sending messages,” said one official. “The message to the Hondurans is that

we support them, and the message to the Sandinistas is that the United States has power it can bring to bear on the region.” The opposition Honduran daily El Tiempo denounced the exercise as “gunboat diplomacy.”

For the past two years El Tiempo has led the fight against the growing U.S. military presence, which it charges is corrupting Honduran society and turning parts of the country

into a Central American Saigon. At sundown every evening a convoy of buses from Palmerola disgorges U.S. soldiers into the muddy back streets of nearby Comayagua, an impoverished town of tin-roofed shacks which now boasts a thriving zona roja, a red-light district. Dressed in jeans and Tshirts, forbidden to wear uniforms or talk about their duties, the Gis pick their way through the potholes to rows of hovels festooned with red and blue light bulbs, where the flower of Comayagua’s teenage womanhood awaits them.

Prostitution: In some narrow lanes where the rates are lowest —10 lempiras, or about $7 a session—seasoned prostitutes in miniskirts strut in front of doorways draped with flowered curtains, winning the street its nickname, 10 Lemp Alley. Around

the corner, in a prosperous brick-andstucco house preening among the shanties, Rosie’s caters to a more exclusive clientele, who can afford $15 on weekdays, double that on Fridays and Saturdays. Inside, in a decor of lace curtains and fringed lampshades, some of Comayagua’s prettiest teenagers, decked out in pink jumpsuits or navy dresses and pearls, hold hands and neck with crew-cut soldiers on maroon

velvet sofas. Then they invite them through the doorway beside the bar, where a long corridor is lined on either side with tiny private cubicles.

The U.S. army runs Comayagua’s red-light district as a virtual protectorate, sending uniformed military policemen to patrol at 15minute intervals — although with orders not to interfere with business—and doctors to test the girls once a week for disease. But since El Tiempo charged that U.S. soldiers are responsible for Honduras’s 20 known cases of AIDS (acquired immune deficiency syndrome), as

well as a virulent East Asian strain of a less deadly venereal disease, the U.S. military has become sensitive about its supervisory role in Comayagua’s night life.

The U.S. Embassy now provides printed handouts refuting charges that the army has spread AIDS. And as the clients of the zona roja see it, the army is merely offering a necessary recreational service. Said one of Rosie’s clients—a 19-year-old Texan GI in a 10-gallon hat who declined to give his name—“I guess you’ve got to get some affection somewhere.” The GI, on his first weekend pass out of the base since arriving on the Big Pine ’87 manouevres in early January, added, “Besides, what else is there to do in this hole?”

The government of Honduras, in turn, has become sensitive about the U.S. presence. The Reagan administration pumps at least $190 million (U.S.) in economic and military aid into the country annually. That keeps Honduras’s fragile economy afloat while pacifying its generals with the latest in military hardware. In a country where the U.S.based United Fruit Company used to run the government—winning Honduras its reputation as “the original banana republic” —Washington also spent $900,000 to finance the 1985 elections that brought President José Azcona del Hoyo to power.

Resentment: While a growing number of Hondurans oppose the contra rebels’ presence in their country, they say that they also fear that, if the contras were expelled, U.S. aid for their country would come to an abrupt halt. Still, some Hondurans already chafe at the fact that the contra war is costing their country badly needed investment at a time when the United States is giving millions more annually in aid to neighboring El Salvador. Said Fernando Montes, a businessman who is a former head of the Honduran Coffee Institute: “This is one of the resentments—that we are doing the Americans’ dirty work and receiving less.”

Officially, the Honduran government denies the presence of contra military bases on its soil, a widely mocked fiction. For that reason, it has now declared the rebel camps off limits to journalists. But the contras operate a public relations and communications headquarters out of a bougainvillea-shaded luxury villa near Tegucigalpa’s airport. There, one of the political chiefs, Adolfo Calero, a for-

mer Nicaraguan Coca-Cola distributor with a taste for expensive sportswear, openly meets with foreign journalists, surrounded by a phalanx of armed bodyguards. Calero currently insists that he knows nothing about the resignation late last month of Arturo Cruz from the United Nicaraguan Opposition, the political umbrella organization put together by the CIA two years ago to give the contras an image of unity and respectability. Cruz, a former Sandinista ambassador to Wash-

ington, had threatened last year to walk out of the uneasy triumvirate with Calero and Alfonso Robelo. He demanded more control over the contra army—created by the CIA in 1981 — which Calero runs as his personal fief. By January, however, Cruz indicated that he felt he was being subjected to personal humiliation as well as being frozen out of the decision-making process after lobbying for improvements

to the contras’ dismal human rights record.

Defection: American officials say that they fear that Cruz’s open defection may have dealt the contras their most serious blow yet, dashing the administration’s hopes of winning another $105 million (U.S.) in funding next year. Said one Washington official: “Some people in Congress voted for aid last time because the contras had this political fig leaf of democracy. Now, with that gone, a lot of them are going to balk at voting for a character like Calero.”

For many Hondurans, although they dislike the contras’ presence, the possibility that the U.S. Congress might end all funding for the Nicaraguan rebels is a cause for serious concern. Many say that they fear what the CIA’s former director Allen Dulles once termed a “disposal problem”: what to do with 15,000 armed and aimless insurgents abandoned on Honduran soil, who might turn to large-scale banditry to survive. Said Victor Meza, an analyst for the left-wing Honduran Documentation Centre: “It would be a national tragedy.”

Some critics point out that even if the contras did succeed militarily in toppling the Sandinistas—a prospect that even U.S. officials privately admit is highly unlikely without direct U.S. military intervention—Honduras would suffer. Said Meza: “If the contras did install a new government in Managua, then all the American aid would go to Nicaragua. This is a war Honduras could never win.”

MARCI McDONALD