641. Memorandum From the President’s Assistant for National Security Affairs (Kissinger) to President Nixon 1 2

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SUBJECT:

  • Honduran-Salvadoran Relations

El Salvador broke diplomatic relations with Honduras on the evening of June 26, charging that Honduras had committed “genocide” against Salvadoran emigrants. The rupture followed ten days of deteriorating relations after anti-Salvadoran riots swept Honduras in the wake of reports that Honduran soccer fans had been assaulted while accompanying the national team to a World Cup regional playoff in San Salvador. Although press reports have dubbed this the “Soccer War,” the basic causes of the dispute are deep-rooted and of long standing and could seriously disrupt the course of regional economic and political integration in the Central American area.

Some 300,000, or fifteen percent, of the Honduran population are Salvadorans who have left their small, densely populated country. Most of the Salvadoran emigrants are undocumented and their presence in Honduras has given rise to latent animosities because of job, trade and land competition. A further source of friction between the two states is their undelineated border, a factor which figured prominently in the arrest and year-long detention two years ago of nationals of each other’s states.

Sensationalist journalism and rumors rather than specific government harassment served in Honduras to inflame these latent animosities. At this time it is estimated that 10,000 Salvadorans living in Honduras have fled across the border since June 17. The flow of returning expatriates aroused Salvadoran nationalism and brought forth a massive, virtually nation-wide volunteer effort to aid the returnees. At the same time, Salvadorans held the Honduran Government responsible for the conditions which forced their compatriots to flee and, prior to the break in relations, the Salvadoran Government denounced Honduras to the Inter-American Human Rights Commission (IAHRC).

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When the flow of returnees continued into the second week, the Salvadoran Government believed it had no alternative but to break relations or face severe public criticism. Worse, it feared that failure to take a hard line might give rise to a golpe by dissident military officers, long critical of the lack of leadership in the current administration and now dissatisfied with the government’s inability to protect nationals living abroad.

Each country is convinced it is the aggrieved party. Both, however, have also been careful to avoid large-scale troop movements and have sought to keep the confrontation limited to the diplomatic level. Foreign Ministers from the other three Central American states (Guatemala, Nicaragua and Costa Rica) have been travelling to Honduras and El Salvador since the rupture seeking to mediate the dispute. Final acceptance of this mediatory role by the Salvadoran Government remains in doubt, however, because of the hard-line demands it has put forward that such mediation be aimed at and conditional on requiring Honduras to reinstall all who have fled the country and pay reparations for the material losses of the refugees.

The Inter-American Human Rights Commission has also sent a subcommittee last week to the two countries to look into the conflict (Honduras also invited the IAHRC to send a subcommittee in order to dispel the Salvadoran charges already made to the IAHRC and to look into the treatment in El Salvador of Honduran soccer fans).

The deterioration of relations appeared to have reached a plateau last week. The determining game in the Honduran-Salvadoran soccer competition was played on neutral Mexican soil on June 27 without further provocation. (Salvador won.) The flow of refugees declined.

However, tension flared again at the end of the week as a result of exaggerated and erroneous reports of an incident in which a Honduran civil airliner overflew Salvadoran territory and was shot at by the Salvadorans. Reported incursions along the border led both sides to protest to the OAS, which held a Council meeting on July 4 at the request of Honduras. A unanimous resolution was adopted calling on both parties to avoid any act which might aggravate the situation and voicing support for the mediation efforts of the three Central American Foreign Ministers. The Council has scheduled another meeting on this matter for July 10.

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The OAS resolution should give a boost to the Foreign Ministers’ mediation attempts. However, mediation and an eventual resolution of the dispute probably will be protracted given the offended national dignities of both countries, the long run problem of the returning Salvadoran nationals and the status of migration between the two states. In the meantime, the rupture of diplomatic relations has interrupted trade between the two and disrupted trade with their Central American Common Market partners. Additionally, there may very well be intensified pressure for a mini-armament competition between the two states with further dislocation of economic development priorities.

U.S. Position

We are, of course, anxious to see this dispute resolved peacefully. The State Department has tried to be helpful in supporting a negotiated settlement, but the Department’s basic position is that this is a Central American problem in the first instance and that the primary responsibility rests within the Central American family.

In the early stages of the dispute, our Embassies sought to provide the two governments with an impartial assessment of developments free of the more sensationalist press play, and to urge them to sit down together and negotiate a settlement. When both governments hardened their positions and indicated reluctance to engage in bilateral discussions, our efforts shifted to encouragement of the Central American initiative toward mediating this dispute “in the family,” or, alternatively, supporting OAS mediation efforts.

  1. Source: National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, Box 786, Country Files, Latin America, Honduras–Salvador Dispute. Limited Official Use. Sent for information. A stamped notation on the memorandum indicates the President saw it.
  2. Kissinger reported that El Salvador had broken diplomatic relations with Honduras following 10 days of anti-Salvadoran riots in Tegucigalpa that began when Salvadoran soccer fans assaulted Honduran fans during a World Cup regional playoff in San Salvador. While hoping for a peaceful settlement to the dispute, Kissinger declared that the U.S. Government’s position should be that this was a Central American problem that should be resolved within the region.