653. Memorandum From the Executive Secretary of the Department of State (Eliot) to the President’s Assistant for National Security Affairs (Kissinger)1 2

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  • Honduras-El Salvador Conflict: Status and Prospects

Notwithstanding the emotions generated by the five-day war between Honduras and El Salvador and the unwillingness of the two governments to negotiate their differences, a special committee established by the 13th Meeting of American Foreign Ministers has been able to get both sides to agree to certain steps designed to ease tensions and pave the way for direct negotiations. A prisoner of war exchange was carried out. Honduras has released all of the 13,000 Salvadorans interned during the conflict, promptly implemented an OAS plan for pulling troops back from border points of “dangerous confrontation”, and has agreed to allow documented and even some classes of undocumented Salvadoran immigrants to remain in the country. After delaying because of fear of adverse public domestic reaction, El Salvador has now released all 233 Honduran civilians it interned during the conflict, has reestablished telephone and postal communication with Honduras (Honduras had earlier agreed to this step), and through a process of demobilization and withdrawal has removed all army troops from the border with Honduras. The press and radio, especially in Honduras, have begun to show a measure of restraint, although inflammatory reports continue to poison the atmosphere.

Despite these favorable indicators, tensions remain high; Honduras continues to block the transit of Salvadoran goods through its territory and the flow of Salvadoran expatriates out of Honduras continues. El Salvador’s initial exultation [Page 2] over its “victory” and the MFM “guarantees” it obtained for its expatriates living in Honduras diminished as the Salvadorans began to realize that their invasion actually worsened the lot of their nationals in Honduras, who now find it harder to compete for land and jobs in the unfriendly environment that prevails in that country. The continued disruption of Central American trade is threatening to permanently damage the economic integration movement and the longer Honduras prohibits the transit of Salvadoran goods the greater the risk of countermeasures by El Salvador. There is pressure in El Salvador to retaliate by closing its own borders to the transit of third country merchandise and by this means force Guatemala, Nicaragua, and Costa Rica to pressure Honduras to allow the passage of Salvadoran goods.

The fear of a renewal of hostilities has caused both countries to make large arms purchases, frustrated only in part by our own continued embargo and embargoes by most Western European countries.

At this moment key Honduran and Salvadoran officials are negotiating in Washington through third parties. For Salvador the immediate issues are the reopening of transit rights through Honduras and the continued return of Salvadoran expatriates from Honduras. A high level Salvadoran official told us on October 1 that the President of El Salvador told his negotiators that El Salvador will accede to reasonable Honduran demands, but cannot do so in the face of continued Honduran refusal to open the Pan American Highway. Honduran negotiators have indicated that their interest is to obtain a “package deal” including a non-aggression pact, delineation of the Honduras-El Salvador frontier, and concessions in Common Market matters from its Central American partners. Except for the boundary question, the Hondurans apparently are willing to be flexible on the specifics of the package. They feel, however, that they must obtain some Salvadoran action before opening the highway if they are not to risk losing their main bargaining counter. The Honduran Minister of Economy told Assistant Secretary Meyer on October 1 that Honduras cannot at this point negotiate directly with El Salvador and will insist that any agreement between the two countries be announced in the form of an OAS resolution.

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In the face of hemispheric pressure, both Honduras and El Salvador probably will agree to measures that will satisfy OAS demands that the two countries arrive at a peaceful settlement of their differences, but no permanent solution can be expected while each fears the intentions of the other. The governments of both countries are locked into attitudes that will make impossible a restoration of mutual confidence; only new leadership and the passage of time will bring about a definitive resolution of the conflict. If both governments last their allotted terms, a new administration will take office in Honduras in mid-1971 and in El Salvador in mid-1972. Domestically, frustration is growing in both countries over the course of economic and political developments. The conflict and the more recent natural disasters have caused deterioration in the economies and neither government is locally perceived as effectively confronting these problems. In El Salvador, this economic disquiet may serve to heighten political tensions as the country moves toward congressional and municipal elections in March, 1970. In Honduras, younger military officers are critical of their superiors’ handling of the war and the government’s inability to capitalize on the conflict-born national unity, the latter already badly fraying. In the circumstances, we face an interim period of up to three years with an essentially unstable situation, one in which any spark might cause resentments to flare up and create new tensions.

Theodore L. Eliot, Jr.
  1. Source: National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, Box 786, Country Files, Latin America, Honduras–Salvador Dispute. Confidential.
  2. In a report on the status of the Honduran–Salvadoran conflict, the Department of State noted that despite progress with troop withdrawals, prisoner repatriations, and protections for immigrants, tensions remained high and both countries were engaged in large arms purchases, auguring poorly for short-term regional stability.