HONDURAN TRADERS PRESS FOR ACCESS TO AIR BASE

HONDURAN TRADERS PRESS FOR ACCESS TO AIR BASE

Citing decreasing tensions in the region, exporters and congressional officials in Honduras are pressuring the central government and military high command to allow commercial cargo flights from the Palmerola air base in that country.

Earlier this month, the Honduran congress approved a motion requesting that President Rafael Callejas, in his position as the chief of the country's armed forces, begin converting the 9-year-old base to a terminal for national and international cargo flights.The motion was warmly received by export associations in the country, which have been pushing for such a move for three years running.

"With the war in Salvador over now and the Sandinistas out of power in Nicaragua, there is really no reason for that base to be there, so it should be easier to convince the authorities to take this proposal more seriously now," said Daisy Avila, marketing manager with FPX, Honduras' main association of exporters.

The Palmerola base, built in 1983 with United States aid and still home to the central command for the combined Joint Bravo Task Force of the U.S. Army and Air Force, is the largest airport in Central America. It is located in the heart of the country's agricultural production land near Comayagua, roughly halfway between San Pedro Sula and the capital of Tegucigalpa.

The region around Palmerola, officially known as the Enrique Soto Cano Air Base, generates much of Honduras' non-traditional agricultural exports such as

melons, pineapples and ornamental plants. As it stands, the perishable products must be trucked long distances over poor roads before being shipped or flown to the United States and other export markets.

"Access to the (Palmerola) airport would greatly reduce our losses in shipping and the time it takes to get those products to market," Ms. Avila said.

While bananas still make up the bulk of Honduras' agricultural production, accounting for almost half of the country's agriculture exports, government and private-sector officials have attempted to promote a program of agricultural diversification to shield the country from price fluctuations in the international market.

The Palmerola motion approved by the Honduran congress earlier this month was in the form of a request that the necessary steps be taken by President Callejas to convert the base to a civilian terminal. Similar requests have been made by individual members of congress in earlier years, according to private sector leaders, but such a request has never been made by the entire legislative body.

In the past, the Honduran military has reacted coolly to the idea, citing continuing "instability" in Nicaragua and the war in neighboring El Salvador. U.S. military officials there have also opposed the idea, according to private sector leaders.

So far, neither Mr. Callejas' office nor officials in the military high command have responded to the latest request. The U.S. embassy has reasserted earlier positions that the United States would have no bearing in any decisions about what to do with the base.