US embassy cable - 02TEGUCIGALPA2444

SOTO CANO AIRBASE TO BECOME COMMERCIAL AIRPORT?

Identifier: 02TEGUCIGALPA2444
Wikileaks: View 02TEGUCIGALPA2444 at Wikileaks.org
Origin: Embassy Tegucigalpa
Created: 2002-08-28 20:40:00
Classification: CONFIDENTIAL
Tags: EAIR MARR PREL ECON ECIN HO
Redacted: This cable was not redacted by Wikileaks.
This record is a partial extract of the original cable. The full text of the original cable is not available.

C O N F I D E N T I A L SECTION 01 OF 03 TEGUCIGALPA 002444 
 
SIPDIS 
 
STATE FOR WHA/PPC, WHA/CEN, EB/TRA 
 
E.O. 12958:  DECL: 08/28/12 
TAGS: EAIR, MARR, PREL, ECON, ECIN, HO 
SUBJECT:  SOTO CANO AIRBASE TO BECOME COMMERCIAL AIRPORT? 
 
Classified by PolChief Francisco Palmieri, Reasons 1.5 
(b) and (d) 
 
1.  (U) Summary:  On August 15, President Maduro 
announced his intention to convert the Soto Cano military 
airstrip into an international airport for commercial 
use.  The Comayagua business community embraces the 
concept, which seeks to transform the area into a new 
commercial center with an eye toward bolstering a 
flailing economy.  Maduro reiterated that the airstrip 
will continue to be used for military purposes and 
suggested that U.S. authorities have already agreed to 
the conversion--although no one at the Embassy has 
discussed the matter with the Administration. At a 
Comayagua Chamber of Commerce forum, Minister of 
Government and Justice Jorge Ramon Hernandez Alcerro and 
President of Congress Pepe Lobo extolled the benefits of 
a conversion, giving this initiative high-level political 
support.  End Summary. 
 
----------------- 
THE U.S. PRESENCE 
----------------- 
 
2.  (U) Since 1982 the U.S. military has shared the 
airbase at Soto Cano (commonly known by Hondurans as 
Palmerola--the name of the town previously located on the 
site) with the Honduran Armed Forces (HOAF).  Currently, 
Joint Task Force Bravo (JTF-Bravo) is the guest of the 
HOAF on the base; houses more than 600 U.S. troops; and 
employs more than 700 Hondurans.  Through salaries, 
contracts, tourism and donations, JTF-Bravo contributes 
approximately $17.5 million annually to the economy 
(primarily in the Comayagua valley). 
 
3.  (SBU) JTF-Bravo's initial mission was to deter 
Nicaraguan aggression--thereafter its duties included 
regional counternarcotics, humanitarian and civic 
assistance operations.  Recently, USCINCSO appointed JTF- 
Bravo as the central coordinating authority for U.S. 
military operating within the region--including Honduras, 
Belize, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Nicaragua and 
Panama.  JTF-Bravo conducts joint, combined and 
interagency operations, and supports contingency 
operations throughout the assigned area to enhance 
theater-wide operational security and reinforce regional 
military cooperation. 
 
4.  (SBU) JTF-Bravo is the first responder to crises in 
the region, and it conducts operations in support of 
counternarcotics and counterterrorism missions. 
Moreover, it conducts and supports recovery and 
evacuation operations in Central America (CENTAM). 
Additionally, the task force is charged with providing a 
C-5 capable airfield (the only one of its kind in 
Honduras), base support for joint combined exercises and 
unit training, theater deployable surgical team, all- 
source intelligence, operational footprint for immediate 
reaction forces, and maintains pre-positioned stocks for 
theater-wide military operations.  Secondarily, JTF-Bravo 
conducts and supports humanitarian civic assistance and 
military civic action operations, supports USAID and 
provides base support for joint combined exercise 
training, exercises, and unit training. 
 
------------------------- 
CONVERSION IN THE OFFING? 
------------------------- 
 
5.  (U) In mid-August, President Maduro announced that he 
is considering the conversion of the airstrip at Soto 
Cano, enabling the facility to be used by commercial 
airlines.  He was careful to make clear that the airstrip 
would continue to be used for military operations. (Note: 
Since the HOAF shares the base with the U.S. military, 
the airstrip is also used by the HOAF. End Note.)  Maduro 
indicated that he wants an airport for the city of 
Comayagua (the one-time capital of Honduras, adjacent to 
Soto Cano) in order to strengthen the economy of the 
Comayagua valley and create a new center for commercial 
activity in Honduras. 
 
6.  (U) Maduro emphasized that if commercially available, 
the airport could be extensively used for carrying cargo 
for exportation--including mangos and other 
produce(especially oriental vegetables, which require 
special handling), tilapia, and cleaning products 
produced in the area.  Moreover, he opined that 
commercialization of the facility would increase the 
potential for industrial development in the region-- 
including "maquilas," which are currently found primarily 
in the San Pedro Sula area.  He also mentioned the 
possibility of constructing a four-lane highway from 
Comayagua to Puerto Cortes (on the north coast) and 
between Tegucigalpa and Comayagua.  (Comment: A new 
international airport in Comayagua and highway to the 
capital could prompt U.S. air carriers to provide cargo 
and passenger services in central Honduras.  Currently, 
such service is restricted at Toncontin Airport in 
Tegucigalpa due to limits on the size of planes that can 
safely land there.  However, post notes that construction 
of a four-lane highway between Comayagua and Tegucigalpa 
is highly unlikely in the near future given the high cost 
and technical difficulties of building such a road.  End 
Comment.) 
7.  (U) The Comayaguan business community strongly favors 
the conversion of the base airport to accommodate 
commercial flights.  The Comayagua Chamber of Commerce 
and local authorities have developed specific plans for 
such a conversion at Soto Cano. 
 
----------------------------- 
SUFFICIENT POLITICAL SUPPORT? 
----------------------------- 
 
8.  (U) On August 22, the Comayagua Chamber of Commerce 
hosted a forum in which the potential airport project was 
discussed by local authorities and business people.  Both 
Minister of Government and Justice Jorge Ramon Hernandez 
Alcerro and President of Congress Porfirio "Pepe" Lobo 
Sosa attended the event and expressed support for the 
project.  Hernandez Alcerro described the project as the 
realization of a vision for the future first conceived by 
the Spanish conquistadors.  He suggested that the region 
is a natural commercial center due to both geography and 
local economic interests.  He pointed out that the 
project would complement the Plan Puebla-Panama regional 
economic integration and would further the goal of 
uniting the region with a "backbone" for commercial 
transportation.  (Comment:  The public support of high- 
level, powerful political figures such as Hernandez 
Alcerro and Lobo is indicative of the robust backing that 
exists for the creation of a new international airport, 
either in Comayagua or closer to Tegucigalpa.  End 
Comment.) 
 
9.  (U) Lobo said that he had no doubt that such a 
project would be a success.  Lobo stated that he is 
confident that the natural resources, the climate and the 
infrastructure of the Comayagua valley are conducive to 
the success of a commercial airport component at 
Palmerola.  Additionally, he pointed out that it would 
contribute to decentralization(a goal of Maduro), which 
would relieve Tegucigalpa's problems with water shortages 
and unmanageable population growth.  Lobo pledged that 
Congress would consider the project proposal and do 
whatever is necessary to achieve the project objectives. 
The Comayagua Chamber of Commerce is seeking a meeting 
with President Maduro in the near future in order to 
pursue the airport issue in depth. 
 
------- 
COMMENT 
------- 
 
10.  (C) It is difficult to say what the ramifications of 
a commercial airport would be to JTF-Bravo.  The initial 
readout of Post staff is that such a conversion would 
probably have little effect on the U.S. military presence 
at Soto Cano.  In fact, an expansion of the runway 
facilities could benefit JTF-Bravo by making it possible 
for larger, fixed-wing aircraft to use the airbase.  All 
parties involved recognize that the U.S. military is 
present at the invitation of the Honduran government, and 
it is yet to be determined whether or not the U.S. 
Department of Defense would have any objections to the 
commercialization of the base airport. 
 
11. (C) Presumably, a commercial terminal would be built 
separate and apart from the military facilities. 
Moreover, any such project would need to include careful 
planning in order to not impede the military functions 
that must be carried out at Soto Cano--both U.S. and 
Honduran.  A variety of security and safety issues would 
be raised, including the appropriate level of air traffic 
control that would be needed.  Additionally, a combined 
military-civilian airport raises security concerns and 
costs--particularly in light of heightened worldwide 
airport security that has been implemented since 
September 11. 
 
12.  (C) Finally, there remain internal political issues 
to be sorted out--including longstanding competition 
between Tegucigalpa and Comayagua.  Powerful business 
interests in Tegucigalpa have not yet weighed in on the 
issue publicly, and there is a heavyweight political 
presence in the capital city and in San Pedro Sula that 
can be expected to vehemently oppose shifting commercial 
power to the Comayagua valley.  Tegucigalpa Mayor Miguel 
Pastor has already announced his opposition to the plan. 
Post anticipates that domestic political and commercial 
competition will affect the manner in which Maduro's 
airport plans proceed. 
 
ALMAGUER 

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