Roberto Suazo Córdova (born 1927) was a small-town physician who gained international attention when he became president of Honduras in 1982 after its military rulers agreed to restore civilian government to the country. He promoted the democratic process and moderate economic reform, while at the same time cooperating with a U.S. military build-up in Honduras.
Roberto Suazo Córdova was born in La Paz, Honduras, on March 17, 1927. After receiving his M.D. at the University of San Carlos in Guatemala in 1949 and working in the Guatemala General Hospital until 1953, he returned to his native La Paz and practiced medicine for 25 years. His career as a small-town doctor put him closely in touch with the common people and folk culture of his country. He was an active, if conservative, member of the Liberal Party, serving often in the Honduran Congress and as a delegate to constitutional conventions in 1957 and 1965. emerged as a major figure in Honduran politics in 1979 when he succeeded Modesto Rodas Alvarado as general coordinator of the Liberal Party and leader of its conservative, or Rodista, wing. Suazo began a rapprochement between the Liberal Party and the military, working especially with the national security chief, Colonel Gustavo Alvarez Martinez.
In 1980 Suazo won election as president of yet another constitutional convention after the military rulers agreed to restore civilian government under a new constitution. Subsequently he became the Liberal presidential nominee for the November 1981 election and convincingly defeated the National Party candidate, Ricardo Zúñiga Agustinus, winning nearly 53 percent of the vote. The Liberals also won control of Congress.
In an atmosphere of high expectations, but facing serious economic problems, Suazo took office for a four-year term on January 27, 1982, promising "a revolution of work and honesty" and to strive for peace in Central America, but his real power was limited. He named Colonel Alvarez, soon promoted to general, as head of the Armed Forces. In accordance with an agreement a month before the election between Suazo, Zúñga, and the military, the Armed Forces retained a veto power over cabinet appointments and would have full authority over "national security" matters. Moreover, the agreement precluded any investigation into alleged corruption in the military or in the outgoing government.
Concerned over the rise of the Sandinistas of Nicaragua and the guerrillas in El Salvador, Suazo was strongly anti-Communist and cooperated with U.S. efforts to aid Nicaraguan counterrevolutionaries who operated from Honduras. Suazo joined with the governments of El Salvador and Costa Rica informing the Central American Democratic Community, with support from Venezuela and the United States. The United States held large-scale military and naval maneuvers in Honduras designed to intimidate Nicaragua and the Salvadoran guerrillas. U.S. military and economic aid to Honduras rose dramatically after Ronald Reagan visited Suazo in Tegucigalpa in December 1982.
Within Honduras, despite civilian rule, there was an increase in the presence of the military. Salvadoran and Nicaraguan refugee camps within Honduras were one source of security problems. The turmoil and terrorism in Central America touched Suazo directly in December 1982 when a revolutionary organization kidnapped his Guatemalan daughter, Dr. Judith Xiomara Suazo Estrada, not releasing her until several Central American newspapers published the organization's declarations. Although guerrilla activity was not significant within Honduras, the military instituted more security measures and increased the army's size.
Constitutional amendments in late 1982 added to the military's power, most notably transferring the title of commander-in-chief of the armed forces from Suazo to Alvarez. The impression was widespread by early 1983 that Alvarez was the real ruler of the country in collaboration with U.S. Ambassador John Negroponte. Suazo was under increased criticism even from within his own party, and there were manifestations of a rising anti-Americanism in opposition to the military build-up and Honduran involvement in the Salvadoran and Nicaraguan civil wars. Relations with Nicaragua deteriorated steadily. Assassinations and mysterious disappearances became a part of Honduran political life, leading moderate and leftist groups to accuse the government of applying the "Argentine solution" to Honduras. Human rights violations contributed to a rift between Suazo and some Catholic clergy.
When heart and stomach illness forced Suazo into the hospital in July 1983, first in Honduras and later in the United States for 12 days in September, Alvarez appeared even stronger. There were rumors of a coup throughout 1983, but as Suazo recuperated he appeared to recover control of the situation. In March 1984 he dismissed General Alvarez. Resignations of several more high-ranking military officers followed. Suazo quickly named the leader of what had amounted to a coup within the military, Air Force Brigadier General Walter López Reyes (a nephew of former President Oswaldo López Arellano), as the new commander-in-chief. In November 1984 the FBI arrested Alvarez and seven others in Miami for plotting Suazo's assassination.
While improving Suazo's prestige and confirming civilian authority over the military, the military shake-up did not signal any significant change in Honduras' close relationship with the United States or its support of the Nicaraguan contras. A major cabinet shakeup in August 1984 reflected the continued turmoil within the Suazo government and his inability to reverse a severe economic decline. Government deficits soared as military expenditures rose. Suazo supported a modest agrarian reform program, but he lost much of his earlier popularity, especially among teachers and labor. Promises of democratic rule with social and economic reform had borne little fruit by mid-1985.
Suazo had served U.S. policy goals in Central America, but American support of "democratization" in Honduras under Suazo appeared to many to be simply a cover for "militarization." Border incidents involving Nicaraguan forces and the contras concerned the Suazo government, which expressed growing annoyance at the use of its territory for the anti-Sandinista campaign. Ineligible for reelection, Suazo faced considerable opposition from within his own party as he tried to secure the nomination of his choice, Carlos Flores Facussé, as successor. The effort failed, however, as Jose Azcona Hoyo won the election. There were continuing rumors of a possible military coup by General Reyes.
In 1989, Honduras and Suazo became embroiled in the Iran-Contra affair (involving the trial of White House aide Oliver North). During that trial, evidence was introduced that implicated Presidents Ronald Reagan and George Bush as circumventing the Congressional ban on aide to Nicaraguan rebels. This was premised on allegations that President Bush had met with Suazo to offer increased aid to Honduras in return for its assistance to Nicaraguan contras (rebels). (Such allegations were later dispelled by additional documentary evidence provided by the White House.) Although the Nicaraguan conflict was ultimately resolved, the Honduran election of 1989 took its toll on the Liberal party. Rafael Leonardo Callejas became the first opposition candidate to win an election in Honduras since 1932. However, during the 1990s, the established democracy in Honduras remained intact.
Further Reading on Roberto Suazo Córdova
Detailed information on the first two years of the Suazo administration may be found in James D. Rudolph, editor, Honduras, A Country Study (1984). Also informative are James A. Morris, Honduras, Caudillo Politics and Military Rulers (1984) and Morris' chapter on Honduras in Steve C. Ropp and James A. Morris, editors, Central America: Crisis and Adaptation (1984). For additional coverage see Keesing's Contemporary Archives. A good source of information about contemporary Honduras and its government may be found in, Merrill, Tim L., ed., Honduras: A Country Study (Federal Reserve Division, Library of Congress, 1995).