Congress Ignores 'Dirty War' Past of New Iraq Envoy
Negroponte, the Bush administration's nominee to become Washington's
first ambassador to Iraq since last year's invasion, was talking
about how much "sovereignty" the country's new government
will enjoy after Jun. 30, when U.S. military forces will remain
in control of security.
it comes to issues like (the siege of) Fallujah," said Negroponte,
currently Washington's ambassador to the United Nations, "I
think that is going to be the kind of situation that is going to
have to ... be the subject of real dialogue between our military
commanders, the new Iraqi government, and, I think, the United States
mission as well."
was too much for Andres Thomas Conteris, a human rights and peace
activist who was sitting in the hearing room.
that point, he stood up and, in a determined voice, said: "There
is no sovereignty, Mr. Ambassador, if the US continues to exercise
security. Senators, please ask the ambassador about Battalion 316.
Ask him about a death squad in Honduras that he supported."
personnel quickly confronted Conteris and escorted him from the
room, while Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Richard
Lugar gaveled the hearing back to order, and Negroponte, the smooth-as-silk
career diplomat fluent in five languages, went on as if nothing
while everyone in the hearing room knew exactly what Conteris was
referring to, the senators also ignored the interruption, repeatedly
praising Negroponte for his distinguished career and his courage
in taking on such a challenging and potentially dangerous assignment.
Only two senators alluded to Honduras, albeit obliquely, suggesting
they may have had some differences with the nominee in the distant
past, but that it was all behind them now.
the committee's approval in hand, Negroponte, by all accounts an
accomplished diplomat who has held senior posts in the White House
and the State Department and headed US embassies in Quito, Tegucigalpa,
Mexico City and Manila, will direct the world's largest US embassy
when it opens its doors in Baghdad on July 1, the day after "sovereignty"
is to be transferred from the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA)
to a yet-to-be-chosen new Iraqi government. He will be in charge
of nearly 2,000 employees, most of them Americans.
longtime friend of Secretary of State Colin Powell, Negroponte is
generally considered to be a pragmatist rather than an ideologue
albeit one with a hawkish reputation that dates to his work
as a young diplomat in Vietnam in the 1960s. Some describe him as
a low-key version of CPA chief Paul Bremer.
Bremer did not work in Honduras.
spoke up because Negroponte at that moment was talking about sovereignty,"
Conteris, whose mother is Uruguayan and who has lived in Bolivia
and Honduras, told IPS later. "I lived in Honduras for five
years, and I know the impact Negroponte's policies had there in
the early 1980s (when) Honduras was known as the USS Honduras, basically
an occupied aircraft carrier."
was sent by the incoming administration of then President Ronald
Reagan (198189) to Tegucigalpa in early 1981 to transform
Honduras into a military and intelligence base directed against
Nicaragua and the left-wing insurgents in neighboring El Salvador
a mission he largely accomplished in the four years he spent
running what at that time was Washington's biggest embassy in the
do so, he and the station chief of the Central Intelligence Agency
(CIA) Donald Winter, formed a close alliance with Gen. Gustavo Alvarez
Martinez, the army's ambitious and murderous commander who admired
and implemented the "dirty war" tactics
that he had learned from the Argentine military in the late 1970s.
Argentine junta sent advisers to Honduras at Alvarez' request to
begin building what would become a U.S.-backed contra force against
Negroponte's arrival, Honduras was a sleepy, relatively untroubled
backwater in the region whose military, unlike those of its neighbors,
was seen as relatively progressive, if corrupt, and loathe to resort
to actual violence against dissidents. But with the support of the
CIA and the Argentines, Alvarez moved to change that radically,
according to declassified documents as well as detailed and award-winning
reporting by the Baltimore Sun in the mid-1990s.
special intelligence unit of the Honduran Armed Forces, called Battalion
316, was put together by Alvarez and supplied and trained by the
CIA and the Argentines. It was a death squad that kidnapped and
tortured hundreds of real or suspected "subversives,"
and "disappeared" at least 180 of them including
US missionaries during Negroponte's tenure. Such activities
were previously unknown in Honduras.
the same time, Negroponte, who was often referred to as "proconsul"
by the Honduran media, oversaw the expansion of two major military
bases used by US forces and Nicaraguan contras, and, after the US
Congress put strict limits on the training of Salvadorian soldiers
in-country, he "persuaded" the government to build a Regional
Military Training Center (RMTC) on Honduran territory, despite the
fact that Honduras and El Salvador were traditional enemies who
had fought a bloody war less than 15 years before.
this period, Negroponte steadfastly defended Alvarez, at one point
calling him "a model professional," and repeatedly denied
anything was amiss on the human rights front in Honduras despite
rising concern in Congress about reports of disappearances and killings
by death squads.
a 1982 letter to The Economist magazine, he asserted it was
"simply untrue to state that death squads have made their appearance
in Honduras." He said much the same in testimony before Congress
at the time.
employees were told to cleanse their reports about rights abuses,
even as the military's role in the killings and disappearances became
widely known and reported by Honduran newspapers within
the country. One exiled colonel living in Mexico denounced Alvarez
for creating a death squad: Negroponte denied the charge.
excesses, the unprecedented human rights abuses and the country's
total alignment with US plans eventually became too much for the
Honduran military itself. In a move that caught Negroponte and Winter
completely by surprise, his fellow-officers deposed the armed forces
chief in a barracks coup in 1984. Negroponte, whom the insurgents
reportedly wanted to have declared persona non grata, was back in
Washington within the year.
more details about Battalion 316 have come to light in the 20 years
since, Negroponte has continued to deny any knowledge of its existence
or activities. As late as 2001, when President George W Bush nominated
him as United Nations ambassador, Negroponte insisted, "To
this day, I do not believe that death squads were operating in Honduras."
protests of innocence are simply not credible to many observers,
including his predecessor in Tegucigalpa, who claims to have personally
briefed him about Alvarez and his murderous plans. Rights groups
have also pointed out he successfully intervened with the army to
gain the release of at least two people who had been abducted, suggesting
that he must have known who was responsible.
and some senators with whom he had tangled over Honduras in the
past had hoped his record would have been closely scrutinized by
the Senate when he was nominated to the U.N. ambassadorship, but
his nomination was rushed to the floor for confirmation in the immediate
aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on New York and the Pentagon,
when the administration argued there was no time for extended hearings
given the urgency of directing the US response at the world body.
he goes to Iraq to oversee its democratization.
Lobe is Inter Press Service's correspondent in Washington, DC.
© 2004 Inter Press Service