Throughout his presidential campaign, George Bush said he had been unaware of Reagan administration efforts to sustain the Nicaraguan contras after Congress outlawed assistance in 1984. A government report released for the trial of Oliver North, now before the jury, suggests Bush was not telling the truth, that he traveled to Honduras in 1985 to arrange support for the contras in return for a hefty increase in aid.
Evidence of Bush’s complicity – and duplicity – in the Iran-contra affair can only further erode the electorate’s trust in politicians. Equally significant is the Reagan administration’s “Honduran Connection.” Of the many governments the White House pressured to back the contras, Honduras was – and remains – the key because of its strategic location between Nicaragua and El Salvador.
In the early 1980s, Washington was preoccupied with El Salvador’s bloody civil war, which just last week saw the assassination of the Salvadoran attorney general. The White House insisted that Nicaragua’s Sandinista government was arming El Salvador’s guerrillas and prodded the Hondurans to interdict the alleged shipments. The Hondurans came up with scant proof of such assistance.
A contra sanctuary in Honduras
The Reagan administration also went to great lengths to secure the contras a base in Honduras for their forays into Nicaragua. Washington’s preoccupation with preventing a revolution in the land of one of Honduras’ neighbors and overturning one in the land of another played into the hands of rightist elements in the Honduran military. And the CIA, as usual, turned a blind eye to death squads, drug traffickers and corrupt generals.
The central figure in the Honduran Connection was Gen. Gustavo Alvarez Martinez. According to “Inside the League,” a book by Scott and Jon Lee Anderson, Alvarez rose to prominence around 1980 as head of the Public Security Forces (the Spanish acronym is FUSEP).
Ordered to suppress Honduras’ leftists, who were small in number but emboldened by the Sandinista’s 1979 ouster of Nicaragua’s dictator, Gen. Anastasio Debayle Somoza, FUSEP relied on paramilitary death squads.
Before Alvarez, according to the Andersons, “the nation lived in relative peace … With him, Honduras was dragged into the fray and joined the list of nations conducting ‘dirty war’ to deal with its dissidents.”
For advice on such matters, Alvarez went to the experts – Argentina’s military junta. Alvarez had studied at Argentina’s military college, where his teachers included future general and dictator Jorge Rafael Videla.
Videla was at the helm during the bloodiest phase of Argentina’s “dirty war” against subversion that claimed some 9,000 civilian lives between 1976 and 1983. A Nuremberg-style tribunal, following the restoration of Argentine democracy, sentenced Videla to life in prison for mass murder and torture.
According to a former FUSEP agent interviewed by the Andersons, the Argentines professionalized the Honduran death squads: “They … perfected it: the safehouses, electric shock, and so on … When there wasn’t enough evidence for a trial, it was necessary to work this way … The majority of those detained ended up in the weeds … When we captured someone we took them to the safehouses. These are the ones who disappeared … The biggest problem all along has been what to do with the cadavers.”
Assistance from Argentina
Argentine know-how was similarly prized by the White House. Within months of assuming power, the Reagan administration played host to Gen. Roberto Viola, another member of the junta, who is serving a 17-year sentence for his role in Argentina’s dirty war.
In March 1981, Washington lifted the embargo on arms sales to Argentina that had been imposed by the Carter administration. Soon thereafter, Argentine advisers in Honduras began organizing the contras for their attacks on Nicaragua’s Sandinista government. According to a report by Christopher Dickey in the Washington Post, a joint staff to manage and coordinate this program was created. The Nicaraguan rebel forces were represented by Nicaraguan National Guard officers from the Somoza era. Two Argentine colonels, according to Dickey, represented their country, and Alvarez represented Honduras. “And the CIA station chief and one of his assistants,” Dickey wrote, “represented the United States.”
The Reagan administration’s surrogate war on Nicaragua had begun, with Honduras the staging ground.
By 1982, Gen. Alvarez, with the assistance of Argentine and CIA advisers, had broken the back of the Honduran guerrilla movement. A grateful President Roberto Suazo Cordova appointed Alvarez commander in chief of Hondura’s military forces.
But the presence of the contras angered many Hondurans, including a growing number of military officers. Dissension climaxed in March 1984, when Gen. Alvarez was ousted and driven into exile in the United States.
The contras were also becoming a headache for Washington. Reports of CIA-authorized mining of Managua harbor and distribution of a contra training manual that sanctioned the assassination of civilians undermined support for President Reagan’s Central American policy.
Anticipating a congressional cutoff of funding for its war on Nicaragua, the White House convened a National Security Planning Group meeting on June 25, 1984. According to a recent article in The New York Times, a heated debate ensued over whether seeking third-country support would expose President Reagan to impeachment.
Vice President Bush asserted at the meeting that soliciting such support would be legitimate unless “the United States were to promise to give these third parties something in return.” Nonetheless, Reagan later personally approved, with Bush’s active involvement, special aid for Honduras.
According to the summary document released during the trial of Oliver North, at a Feb. 7, 1985, meeting of high-level Reagan administration officials, the “principals agreed … to provide several enticements to Honduras in exchange for its continued support” of the contras.
Twelve days later, Reagan approved a plan to release millions in economic aid to Honduras. On March 16, 1985, Vice President Bush paid a visit to President Suazo, during which it is reasonable to assume he discussed a quid pro quo on support for the contras.
On May 1, 1985, President Reagan approved a $4.5 million increase in CIA support for the contras. A memo from national security adviser Robert MacFarlane to the president, written that same day, records Reagan’s approval and Bush’s concurrence.
Why would Bush go along with a plan he earlier considered impeachable – especially since Congress had in the meantime passed and Reagan signed into law the Boland Amendment outlawing official support for the contras?
The answer may lie with the Honduras Connection.
On Nov. 1, 1984, just after the Boland Amendment was passed, the FBI arrested eight men in Miami and charged them with plotting to overthrow the Honduran government and assassinate President Suazo. The plot was financed with $40 million in cocaine profits.
The Honduran government later requested the extradition of Gen. Alvarez in connection with the plot. But Alvarez remained safely within US borders. In fact, according to a May 1987 story in The Washington Post, he was retained as a consultant on a Pentagon-funded study of “low-intensity conflict” in Central America, and paid $50,000 for six months of work.
Light sentence for Bueso-Rosa
Even stranger was US treatment of Gen. Alvarez’s close associate, Gen. Jose Bueso-Rosa. Bueso-Rosa had been chairman of Honduras’ joint chiefs of staff and, like Alvarez, an avid supporter of the contras until Alvarez’s March 1984 ouster. He was then demoted to military attache in Santiago, Chile.
Sought by Hondurans in connection with the 1984 coup and murder plot, Bueso-Rosa turned himself in to federal authorities in Miami in late 1985. Like Alvarez, he was not extradited. In June 1986, Bueso-Rosa pleaded guilty of two counts of “traveling in furtherance of a conspiracy to plan an assassination,” for which he was sentenced to serve five years at a minimum security federal prison.
Bueso Rosa’s remarkably light sentence – one of his coconspirators got 40 years – may be related to Oliver North’s appeal to State and Justice Department officials for leniency for the Honduran general. North was apparently buying Bueso-Rosa’s silence on Washington’s actions in support of the contras.
The timing of Bueso-Rosa’s plot in late 1984 suggests it was part of the Reagan administration’s elaborate plans to sustain the contras. A revitalized Honduran Connection would have guaranteed the necessary support. The coup’s failure made it necessary to use economic leverage with President Suazo. Because the Boland Amendment appeared to make this impeachable, it was vital that Reagan’s – and Bush’s – roles be covered up.
Bush isn’t talking, Reagan doesn’t remember. Gen. Bueso-Rosa has remained silent. And Gen. Alvarez, who returned to Honduras a year ago, was assassinated there in January.