For a short spell in early June it seemed that relations between Honduras and the US were on the mend. Congratulations and honours were exchanged when General John Kelly, chief of the US Southern Command (Southcom), visited Tegucigalpa. Within days, though, President Juan Orlando Hernández was publicly castigating unnamed US officials for blocking his plans to upgrade his military aircraft, and the US ambassador was riposting in kind over the impunity enjoyed by drug traffickers in Honduras.
In a brief visit on 1-2 June, General Kelly congratulated President Hernández for his country’s progress in the area of security and was decorated by the Honduran military "in recognition of his collaboration with members of the Honduran military and in the defence of [Honduran] national interests". General Fredy Díaz Zelaya, chief of the Honduran joint general staff, said that Kelly was "a patriot, a person who enjoys our appreciation and respect".
The US embassy distributed a communiqué saying that "US Southern Command will continue to support Honduras’ Operation Morazán in the maritime and land domains and increase our efforts to reduce the amount of illicit trafficking into and around Honduras, and make the country and region less hospitable to transnational criminal networks". It also noted that "Southcom would increase the training of the Honduran military".
Not mentioned: the suspended sharing of intelligence about suspected drug flights because of reservations about Honduras’s shootdown legislation, or the fact that 35% of the aid allotted by the US State Department for the Honduran police and military in 2014 (up from 20% in 2012) remains frozen until it is certified that the Honduras government is reducing corruption, implementing agreements with the US over anti-drugs operations, and that the military and police charged with human rights violations are prosecuted.
On 9 June, attending the promotion of police officers at the headquarters of the élite Cobras unit, President Hernández said that "officials over there in the US are threatening that they will not allow us to upgrade the fleet [of aircraft] that some time back we bought from them". Directly addressing US ambassador, Lisa Kubiske, a guest at the ceremony, he said, "I’m sorry but things should be clear, Señora Ambassador, as clear as water: either you are helping us or you are not going to continue helping us. It would be good to know this clearly". Hernández did say that he did not count her as one of the officials to which he was alluding: "I know it’s not your case because you know the reality. I know it is not the case of the chief of the Southern Command, who was here recently".
That same morning the local daily, El Heraldo, published a lengthy article entitled ‘Honduras: USA Blocks the Repair of F5 Aircraft’. It attributes this information to "the specialised site www.defensa.com", noting that it did not cite any source. The article in El Heraldo draws extensively on a report published a week earlier by defensa.com, an online service of Spain’s Grupo Edefa, entitled ‘Is Honduras Buying F15s?’, which carries the byline of their correspondent in Central America, identified by the initials JMAH. The author makes reference to a "statement attributed to politicians who criticised the US for interfering with the [Honduran] government’s decision to repair the aircraft with the result that it is now Brazil and not Israel that is negotiating an agreement favourable to Honduras to be able to use again its air force’s Tucanos, F5s and F15s".
JMAH has been covering issues related to Honduras’s ‘rearmament’ for some time. The correspondent’s 2 June article draws on a previous one published last November, which says that the US was alerted to Hernández’s intention to refurbish the F5 engines in Taiwan when that country requested permission to do so, indicating that something similar had been done in Chile. It adds that the US embassy in Tegucigalpa verified that in 2005 Honduras had sent a batch of aircraft engines to Chile for repairs, and that at the time the embassy had recommended that no sanctions should be applied given Honduras’s role as a US ally. On the other hand, it says, the US blocked a Honduran attempt in 2011 to upgrade its A-37Bs with spares held by the Dominican Republic. It adds that back in 1995 there had been reports that two Honduran F5Es had been "spotted" in Chile.
President Hernández’s reaction on the very day El Heraldo published its report suggests that he knew in advance that the news was about to break. His reference to unnamed US officials as trying to block the upgrading of Honduras’s military aircraft does not necessarily mean that he knew their identities. Security Assistance Monitor, the project of the US-based Center for International Policy (which incorporates the monitoring of Latin America previously done separately by the NGO Latin American Working Group [Lawg] and think-tank Washington Office on Latin America, [Wola]), has chosen to be cautious about the matter. On 12 June it published a report entitled ‘Is the US stopping Honduras from repairing its fighter jets?’ which provides much of the background to the discussion of Washington’s "alleged refusal" to do so.
When El Heraldo published its 9 June report, it said that it had asked the US embassy in Tegucigalpa to comment. The reply: "We are not informed of pending export licensing procedures for the Government of the United States to sell or transfer parts to repair or restore F-5 jets owned by Honduras [and] the State Department is not aware of having received official requests from foreign governments related to the review of applications to transfer parts or aircraft to Honduras". The daily also requested an interview with General Fredy Díaz Zelaya, but said his press office had told them he would address the matter in a communiqué, "which has not been divulged".
On a visit to the US on 13 June, President Hernández he told a CNN interviewer that all he wanted was for the US "to let us work, for example, with our law for the protection of air spaces, which is Honduras’s sovereign right — the US has a law that does not even allow us to use equipment acquired from the US". A week later, when US Vice-President Joseph Biden met regional leaders in Guatemala to address the problem of unaccompanied children crossing illegally into the US, Hernández was absent (away in Brazil, watching Honduras lose to Ecuador in the Fifa World Cup). This was much criticised in the US, though he was not the only absent president: Mexico’s Enrique Peña Nieto also stayed away.