117. Memorandum of Conversation1



New York, September–October 1968


  • Secretary’s Talk with the Honduran Vice President, Foreign Minister, and White House Ambassador
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  • US
    • The Secretary
    • Mr. John M. Cates, Jr., USUN
  • Honduras
    • Vice President Ricardo Zuniga
    • Foreign Minister Tiburcio Carias Castillo
    • Ambassador Midence (Washington)
    • Johnson’s enjoyment with his visit to Honduras.2

The Honduran presentation began with a review of the economic difficulties, and also of the progress recently made, in Honduras. As part of the development program, tax reforms had been introduced, in accordance with the protocol of San Jose, growing out of the Central American Common Market. The taxes were on luxury items outside of general public use. However, after the tax had been introduced in San Jose, Costa Rica, and thus supported by, and with the full knowledge of, the Secretary General of the Confederation of Workers, FESESITLE, FESISTRAN and SITRATERCO, public unrest had followed, charges being made that the tax reform would affect the standard of living of the workers by increasing their cost of living. This argument was seized upon by the opposition party (Liberals) union with a segment of the business community.

After a certain number of civil disturbances, the Minister said, one Celio Gonzalez was arrested. It developed that he was actually the leader of certain political interests, a Deputy in the opposition Liberal Party, that were allied with employer interests in a plan to overthrow the Government. The activity of this capital-labor coalition against the Government was limited to the San Pedro Sula area. Although they declared a general strike for the whole country it was not approved by all unions and it only took hold in San Pedro. The Honduran Government became concerned when the opposition announced that it had found allies in its cause against the Government, and that one of its allies was the United States. Despite claims on the part of the opposition that the U.S. was supporting its cause, the U.S. Embassy had not publicly denied the charges and this silence on the part of the U.S. Embassy allowed the idea that the U.S. was involved to grow. Mr. Johnson of United Fruit had obtained a denial from the State Department in a phone call to Washington after Celio Gonzalez had told him of U.S. support for the strike. This type of denial was not enough. Belief in U.S. support for the opposition actually came to be a stimulant to the opposition forces. The Minister pointed out that it put the Honduran Government in a very difficult position when a diplomatic [Page 275] representative of a friendly country was believed to give aid to the Government’s local opposition.

The Secretary noted that the U.S. Government’s relations were with the Government of Honduras and that these relations were friendly and correct; that the U.S. maintained the practice of not interfering in the internal affairs of Honduras and had no intention of interfering in the future.3 He noted that in many countries people in opposition parties liked to claim U.S. support. However, he pointed out that there was a big difference between what people said the U.S. was doing and what it was actually doing. The Secretary stated that if any U.S. representative had done anything that departed from our policies and practices, he wanted to be informed. He noted, however, that the U.S. cannot accept responsibility for words that someone else had put in its mouth. He then asked the Minister what Honduras wanted the U.S. to do.

Vice President Zuniga then reported details on the alleged activities of Mr. Mike Hammer, a member of the staff of the Institute for Free Labor Development in Latin America. He said that Mr. Hammer had come from El Salvador to deal with Mr. Johnson of the United Fruit Company. Mr. Hammer as well as others are reported to have told Mr. Johnson that the U.S. and AID favored the strike and the opposition to the Government. Mr. Zuniga said that Mr. Hammer had been aided by the American Consul in San Pedro Sula4 having lived in his house, used his car, and operated out of the U.S. Consulate as his headquarters in working with the opposition strikers.

The Secretary said that he would investigate the matter at once and that the U.S. had no intention of making difficulties for Honduras.

The Minister then said that the real interest of Honduras is to have constructive friendly relations with the U.S. but that these relations may be frustrated by local diplomats whose views do not conform to both governments’ official interests.

The Secretary reiterated that there is a great difference between what the U.S. does and what someone says we do.

The Minister then commented, however, that it was easy for the opposition to exploit the failure of the U.S. to deny charges against it and that U.S. contacts with the opposition had made people suspicious. The Minister stated that the U.S. Ambassador himself requested that the President of Honduras grant interviews to the opposition party leaders, thus giving the impression of U.S. backing.

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The Secretary reiterated that he would investigate the situation thoroughly.5

Following the departure of the Secretary, Vice President Zuniga and Ambassador Midence sought out the Reporting Officer to fill in, between them, details on the rather general presentation given formally to the Secretary.

AID and thus is viewed as a U.S. agency. When he came to San Pedro Sula, he was at home in the Consulate and was taken around by the Consul more or less as a protege. It is important to realize that the head of the strikers, Celio Gonzalez, is not only a labor man but a Deputy in Congress for the opposition party and that his interest was not the betterment of the strikers but the overthrow of the Government. Midence pointed out that Gonzalez had been the leader in the Honduran legislature of a move to criticize the U.S. for its intervention during the Dominican crisis, implying that the return to power of the opposition party would result in weakening the close Honduran-U.S. working relations. Zuniga reiterated that the real complaint from the Honduran Government was that the U.S. Embassy does not deny rumors of U.S. implication in opposition maneuvers. In the public opinion, Zuniga said, the American Ambassador is fighting against the Honduran Government.

Another example of the U.S. interference on the side of the opposition was seen in a visit to Honduras by Andrew McClellan, AFL/CIO representative. McClellan had come to visit a project developed by the Syndicato del Centro for giving land to various unions for housing, etc. The Union was seeking financial support from the AFL/CIO. However, according to Zuniga, the American Ambassador advised Mr. McClellan against the project on the grounds that the particular Honduran union did not deserve the loan from AFL/CIO because the union was in favor of, and too friendly towards, the present Honduran Government. Mr. McClellan subsequently advised the Honduran labor leaders that the AFL/CIO was refusing the loan on the advice of the U.S. Embassy. The labor leaders then wanted to issue a condemnation of this interference by the U.S. Ambassador but the GOH stopped them. Zuniga said he would be glad to have these labor leaders come to Washington to corroborate this story.

Comment: The presentation was extremely confusing with all three persons sometimes talking at the same time. The Foreign Minister was somewhat embarrassed by bothering the Secretary at a moment like this with a matter which appeared so trivial. The details of alleged U.S. [Page 277] interference and the exact request for U.S. rectification of the situation were difficult to identify. According to Midence, most of the information put before Secretary Rusk on October 3 had already been given to Assistant Secretary Oliver. The main purpose of the Vice President’s interview with the Secretary was apparently to make clear on a personal basis the Honduran Government’s deep concern and to make sure that the “U.S. did something.”

The Hondurans were critical of two former U.S. officers in Honduras: Robert White, whose departure, Midence said, had been requested by the GOH, and Thomas Killoran, alleging that these officers’ reports had to be taken “with a grain of salt.”

Midence made a particular point of saying that the full political implications of the situation had not been spelled out for Assistant Secretary Oliver in their meeting last week6 nor had the names of the American individuals whom the Hondurans felt had been working against their interests been exposed. He and Vice President Zuniga also emphasized that this matter was being handled only by the Foreign Ministry and themselves.

Ambassador Midence at the end made it clear that in his opinion Mr. Killoran was the villain of the piece, as far as the Hondurans were concerned, and could not be expected to give a correct account of the events.

One thing was clear: the Hondurans are badly rattled about what they consider American interference to aid the opposition party and took special care to send to Washington and New York their Vice President to impress upon Secretary Rusk the seriousness of the situation.

As to what action the Hondurans really believed Secretary Rusk should take, the Hondurans, after repeated questions by the reporting officer, suggested that the American Ambassador should be warned of the serious consequences of the continued interference of his officers, and indeed of himself, for the safety of the present Honduran regime, and for the future of Honduran–U.S. relationships. Elaborating on the theme, they requested that the American Ambassador “normalize his activities” so that he does not lend support to the aims of the opposition and become an unwitting instrument of the opposition. This would mean, they said, that the Ambassador follow a “more correct policy” and be “more distant”. The Hondurans apparently do not wish a public denial by the U.S. (the possibly fatal consequences of this were suggested by the Secretary and subsequently by the Reporting Officer) but they do wish to be sure that the U.S. Embassy in Honduras “gets the word.”

  1. Source: National Archives and Records Administration, RG 59, Central Files 1967–69, POL HOND–US. Confidential. Drafted by Cates and approved by S on October 5.
  2. Reference is to President Johnson’s brief and informal visit to Honduras on July 8.
  3. According to a note attached to the memorandum, this sentence was inserted by S/S.
  4. Herbert D. Swett.
  5. In a December 2 memorandum to Rusk, Oliver reported that the allegations had been fully investigated and were without foundation. (National Archives and Records Administration, RG 59, ARA/CEN/H Files: Lot 70 D 59, Honduras 1968, POL 1 General)
  6. Oliver met Carías and Midence on September 23; a memorandum of the conversation is ibid.