Carlos Roberto Reina

Reforming president of Honduras

Carlos Robert Reina, politician: born Tegucigalpa 13 March 1926; president of Honduras 1994-98; married Bessie Watson (two daughters, and one son deceased); died Tegucigalpa 19 August 2003.

Carlos Roberto Reina, a Central American politician of the old style and the former president of Honduras, has one principal claim to be remembered outside his country.

He was committed to removing the stain on his country's reputation which came from the fact that Honduras, the original banana republic, had been manoeuvred by the US President Ronald Reagan into becoming a base for the 12,000 Contra terrorists who waged a bloody war to overthrow the democratically elected government of neighbouring Nicaragua. "The US has put its eyes on Nicaragua, its hands on El Salvador and its feet in Honduras, flattening us," said Reina in 1985.

Carlos Roberto Reina was born to Antonio and Marina Reina, a doctor and a teacher, in the capital Tegucigalpa in 1926. His political awakening as a member of the Liberal Party came early when, in 1944, he was imprisoned for several months for taking part in demonstrations against the Western-supported General Tiburcio Carías Andino.

Carías, leader of the National Party against its traditional enemies the Liberals, was in the pocket of the United Fruit Company of Boston, known locally as "El Pulpo", "The Octopus". It controlled the vast banana plantations and did good business establishing a local railway network and a fleet of refrigerated cargo vessels which dispatched the fragile fruit to a growing US market. It also had the use of the army and police to prevent the organisation of trade unions seeking better wages.

Reina eagerly sought knowledge, going on from the National University of Honduras to university studies in London, Cambridge and at the Sorbonne in Paris. He qualified as a lawyer and profited from the fact that the presidency was occupied by the Liberal José Ramón Villeda Morales He became a magistrate and in 1956 the chargé d'affaires in the Honduran embassy in London. After returning to the foreign ministry to aid his country in its border claim against Nicaragua at the International Court of Justice in The Hague, he had three years as ambassador in Paris from 1960.

In 1963 things fell apart for him, as the Liberal Villeda government was overthrown by Col Oswaldo López Arellano. As a back-room plotter, López had foreshadowed the later strategies of South American military dictators such as Augusto Pinochet by drafting legislation, later written into the constitution, which allowed the officer corps to sideline civilian politicians. As a result Honduras was almost uninterruptedly ruled by soldiers from 1963 to 1981.

During this time Reina had his first taste of elective office, winning a seat for his faction of the badly divided Liberals in 1965. He went on to become the vice-president of the legislature and to be active in the Latin American Parliament, though neither of those bodies ever seemed to achieve much - if anything. More promisingly, he did a stint at the Inter- American Court of Human Rights, acting as president from 1981 to 1983.

When civilian rule was restored in 1982 Reina and his brother Jorge Arturo put together a branch of the Liberal Party, the ALIPO or People's Liberal Alliance, to counter the strategies of the elected President Roberto Suazo Córdova, a fellow Liberal who acted hand in glove with those who were pursuing the terrorist campaign against the Nicaraguan government.

Amid the sort of highly developed infighting which characterised Honduran politics, where everything seemed to revolve around proving yourself to be the only "true" Liberal or only "true" National, the two brothers quit ALIPO and founded the Revolutionary Democratic Liberal Movement or MOLIDER, which moved toward social democracy and the Socialist International.

These manoeuvres availed him little at a time when Hondurans could see no way of going against the wishes of the United States during the dark days of Reaganism. In the 1985 presidential elections he was soundly beaten by José Azcona, a pro-Washington Liberal.

Reina, however, was not to be crushed. In the Liberal Party's primary elections in 1992 he won with his platform of a "moral revolution". This rang a bell with electors who had seen the widespread financial and moral corruption in the armed forces occasioned by the large quantities of cash which had swilled around Honduras as Washington sought by every means, including the trading of drugs by Colonel Oliver North, to overthrow the Nicaraguan government.

Reina's hour had come. He swept into the four-year presidency in January 1994 with 52.3 per cent of the votes and the Liberals won 71 of the 148 seats in Congress. He immediately set about putting order into what had become a politico-military brothel. In April he abolished compulsory military service which, he pointed out, was no longer necessary since a form of peace had been achieved in neighbouring Guatemala, El Salvador and Nicaragua. He gave the military a budget of $29m, instead of the $52m they requested, and disbanded the Battalion B3-16 trained by Argentine and US forces. A civilian police force was set up.

The next year he made the armed forces completely professional. He also attempted to fight corruption and thus call a halt to "popular justice" which was meted out by vigilante gangs to known criminals.

He sought to balance the budget, but to soften the impact of expenditure cuts on the poorest by attempting to strengthen Honduras's rickety welfare services. The country is the poorest in Central America and the streets of its former capital Comayagua were not paved until comparatively recently. But annual economic growth during his term was slow, no more than 2.5 per cent on average, while in the first three years inflation rose to more than 25 per cent.

After he left office in 1998, he became the eighth president of the Central American Parliament.

Hugh O'Shaughnessy

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