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Honduras: An Exchange

In response to:

The Country of Nada from the March 27, 1986 issue

To the Editors:

Edward R.F. Sheehan’s article about Honduras [“The Country of Nada,” NYR, March 27] grossly misrepresents the role I played in Honduras as United States Ambassador from November 1981 through May 1985.

First, as to errors of fact, I am not a “counterinsurgency expert” as alleged. I am a career diplomat whose service has spanned ten different assignments on three continents, mostly in the fields of political reporting, negotiation and consular affairs. I have never served in Cambodia, as stated by Sheehan, and I was not reassigned to Washington in 1984 as Sheehan claims. It should be self-evident that inaccuracies of this kind could easily have been avoided by an effort to double-check such basic facts.

What may be less apparent are the slanderous innuendos designed to discredit my years of service in Honduras. For example, I would be interested in knowing what sampling of Honduran opinion permitted Mr. Sheehan to refer to me as “by most accounts a clever but astonishingly arrogant man.” Was it the Honduran government, which conferred to me the highest decoration which can be given a foreign civilian in that country? Or was it the Honduran media which repeatedly and with notably few exceptions referred to me as an effective representative of my country and a good friend of Honduras?

The article’s reference to General Alvarez as my protégé is laughable in light of the fact that he was already slated to become commander of the Honduran armed forces before I had arrived in Honduras. Also our relationship was never as chummy as Sheehan’s article would suggest. My dealings with Alvarez were correct, relatively infrequent and very much on an equal footing. Anyone who personally knew both of us can attest that it would have been totally out of character for Alvarez to accept a role subordinate to the United States Ambassador.

But these personal insults apart, I am distressed by Mr. Sheehan’s apparent unwillingness to concede, even grudgingly, that in today’s Central American context Honduras has something to show for itself politically, socially and economically. The country has a free press and a labor movement considered a model in Central America. Discrepancies of wealth are less than those known in neighboring countries; and land reform has been in effect for more than twenty-five years. (For example, Honduras has 45,000 independent coffee growers who stand to gain substantially from recent increases in international coffee prices, thereby bringing sorely needed foreign exchange to the Honduran economy.) Despite regional instability and world recession in the early 1980s, the Honduran currency is the only one in Central America not to have been devalued even once in the past sixty years and the percentage drop in per capita standard of living has been the least of all countries in the region. Indeed, per capita income in Honduras may now be higher than that of neighboring Nicaragua or El Salvador belying Sheehan’s claim that it is the second poorest country in the hemisphere.

Last but not least, Honduras’ second consecutive free election in 1985 of a civilian president represents a signal accomplishment for which credit rather than ridicule is due. It is an achievement which reflects the Honduran people’s rejection of military rule and the consolidation of a democratic trend which began with Constitutent Assembly elections in 1980 and a presidential contest in 1981. Personally, encouraging the consolidation of Honduras’ democracy in every appropriate manner was my first priority throughout my tenure as Ambassador to that country. Under circumstances of regional turmoil, Honduras’ political progress and relative social tranquility were a source of considerable satisfaction for all of us associated with US policies towards Central America.

There was a story, a very positive one, for Mr. Sheehan to glean from his visit to Honduras. I regret for your readers’ sake that by apparently relying on such a narrow range of opinions, and by neglecting to verify the facts, his reportage was so egregiously off the mark. He has done a grave injustice to the good people of Honduras and to the US government policies and programs which work in support of Honduras’ aspirations.

John D. Negroponte

United States Department of State

Washington, DC

To the Editors:

Though my acquaintance with Honduras is only slight, I am prepared to accept Edward Sheehan’s analysis of the situation there. But I object to his characterization of John Negroponte, the former US ambassador to Honduras, which I regard to be shoddy journalism that reduces your fine publication to the level of a news magazine.

I have known Negroponte for more than twenty years, and have disagreed with him on several issues, including Vietnam and Central America. Sheehan should have stuck to the issues, rather than personalizing his criticism with cheap shots.

Sheehan writes, for example, that Negroponte “was by most accounts a clever but astonishingly arrogant man.” Whose accounts? Sheehan never bothered to interview Negroponte, who far from being arrogant is easy to approach and just as easy to argue with Negroponte is further described, in somewhat sinister terms, as having been Secretary of State Haig’s “personal choice” for the post of envoy. Secretaries of State, whatever one thinks of them, have been known to propose ambassadors. As for Negroponte riding around the Honduran capital “in a limousine surrounded by armed guards,” Sheehan might be reminded that we live in the age of terrorism. I will admit to my own weakness by confessing that I was reassured by those guards when I rode around with Negroponte in Tegucigalpa.

Another of Sheehan’s distortions is his reference to “Negroponte’s plans for turning Honduras into an American military base.” That Honduras has become a US base is undeniable. But Sheehan should be sophisticated enough to know that plans are conceived at higher than the ambassadorial level. Negroponte can be reproached for executing those plans. That, however, is another matter.

Once again, I am not writing to defend the Reagan administration’s policies or Negroponte’s role in carrying them out. Nor do I dispute Sheehan’s right to question those policies, as I do. But I would prefer to see The New York Review maintain its high standards.

Stanley Karnow

Potomac, Maryland

To the Editors:

I noticed in Edward Sheehan’s article on Honduras a reference to John Negroponte, our former ambassador to Honduras. Since John and I have been friends for over twenty years, and for two years he served with distinction as Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian Affairs while I was Assistant Secretary, perhaps I could make a brief comment. As I read Sheehan’s piece, I believe that he is recycling previous attacks on John, particularly an article written in Newsweek some years ago.

It is probably true, as Sheehan says, that Al Haig personally chose John to go to Honduras, since they had known each other during the Nixon administration, but that is hardly a major issue. John is a career foreign service officer who has served with great distinction under every Secretary of State since Dean Rusk. I know that he had the full respect of Cy Vance, and I am sure that George Shultz would not have given him the senior policy job in the Department that he now holds if he did not also consider John an outstanding career diplomat.

John is not “astonishingly arrogant,” and I do not know what the basis for this ad hominem attack is since I note that Sheehan simply bases this statement on “most accounts.”

Finally, Sheehan refers to John driving around “in a limousine surrounded by armed guards, seeming every inch a chief of state.” I visited John while he was ambassador and saw, indeed, that he had heavy security. But this was an essential safety precaution for anyone in a position as dangerous as the one he held. His personal style seemed to me to be unassuming and friendly. He was no different in Honduras than he is in Washington, except for the added tension surrounding his assignment. He and his wife cared deeply about the problems of that sad little country, and they adopted two Honduran children while they were there.

Sheehan may have legitimate grounds for disagreement with some of the policies that the US has followed, but I do not think that the attack on John is warranted. Since I have known Ed Sheehan—indeed, I edited a magnificent article he wrote for Foreign Policy—and respect him, I am sorry that this unfortunate characterization of John crept into his article.

Richard Holbrooke

New York City

To the Editors:

What could have impelled Edward R.F. Sheehan, in the midst of a serious and apparently well-researched article about Honduras, suddenly to inject, coyly enclosed in parentheses, a libel on neighboring Nicaragua as false as it was gratuitous? I refer to his characterization of Honduras’ more than 130 “unsolved ‘disappearances”’ as “nothing to compare with the record of El Salvador or Guatemala (or Sandinista Nicaragua, for that matter).”

As far as I can ascertain from the Americas Watch report, With Friends Like These, issued in early 1985, and the recent Americas Watch and Amnesty International reports covering the year 1985, unsolved disappearances in Nicaragua consist of 69 Miskito Indians who were arrested between July and September 1982 and have yet to be accounted for by the Nicaraguan Government. This is terrible indeed, but how is it that Honduras’ 130 is “nothing to compare” with Nicaragua’s 69? More important, the quoted words imply that Nicaragua is in a category with El Salvador, a country with 40,000 noncombantant civilian murders up to 1985 plus a reported 1,596 political murders in 1985, and Guatemala with its untold carnage—some estimate 100,000 victims; the word “genocide” peppers the literature on Guatemala. This is a calumny so grotesque, one is staggered to find it in a respected journal.

A possible clue to how so gross an error could have been made is provided in With Friends Like These, which tells us that the State Department, in reporting 169 disappearances in Nicaragua for the year 1983, simply added up all the disappearances reported monthly by the Permanent Commission on Human Rights (CPDH) without correcting figures to reflect the subsequent reappearance of disappeared persons. In Nicaragua, most detained persons are within a few weeks either released or formally charged with a crime. CPDH itself does make these corrections and by February 1984 had reduced its 169 figure to 28. Perhaps the State Department, unchastened, continued to report temporary disappearances as permanent, and Mr. Sheehan has swallowed this whole. If so, he displays an astonishing credulity toward State Department reports on Nicaragua, contrasting with the healthy skepticism he displays toward State Department pronouncements on Honduras. And he does so in face of the flat statement by Amnesty International in its report issued in February 1986 that it did not find a pattern of torture, disappearances, or political killings by the Nicaraguan Government. He also ignores the Americas Watch report for 1985, which found numerous arrests followed by quick release and which mentioned no disappearances. That report did find 12 murders in 1985. Perhaps these murders occurred in remote areas in the context of sweeps against contra forces, as is the case with rumored murders in past years. Nevertheless, this is a dismaying finding. But even if you add these murders to the Miskito disappearances you still have a way to go even to equal the Honduras record reported by Mr. Sheehan, much less the horrendous nightmares in El Salvador and Guatemala.

A throwaway line like the parenthetical phrase here objected to, considering the context in which it appears and the prestige of the publication in which it appears, is likely to do far more damage than the transparent fantasies of President Reagan. Considering that not only are lives at stake in the current debate over US policy toward Nicaragua, but also the possibility of the Nicaraguan Government’s ever returning to the amazing progress it once was making in providing food, health care, and education to a desperately poor people, I would hope that uninformed remarks like this were not so casually made.

Jane Burnett

New Canaan, Connecticut

Edward R.F Sheehan replies:

It distresses me to have to disagree with Stanley Karnow and Richard Holbrooke, both of them old friends whose integrity and writings I respect. It is, moreover, understandable that they should hasten to the defense of their old friend, Ambassador Negroponte, whom likewise they must have reason to respect. I might say that I did not “bother” to interview Mr. Negroponte because he was in Washington and I was in Honduras. I bear no personal animus toward Mr. Negroponte. I met him once, at a dinner in Paris in 1968, when he was attached to the delegation of the late Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge during the initial Vietnam peace talks; we exchanged a few words, and he seemed reasonable and pleasant.

As for his letter, Mr. Negroponte served in Vietnam as second secretary of the US embassy from 1964 to 1968, during the presidency of Lyndon Johnson and the height of American military involvement in that country. I would be surprised if, given his long service during such a period, he did not emerge as extremely knowledgeable about counterinsurgency. I regret the minor error about the year of his return from Honduras to Washington (1985 not 1984); the reference to Cambodia was taken from the otherwise well-documented book on Honduras edited by Peckenham and Street and cited in my footnote.*

Regarding the remainder of Mr. Negroponte’s letter, with due respect I find it a self-serving and misleading polemic, at variance with most of my direct observations in Honduras contained in the body of my article, which I firmly stand by. To cite but three examples, several international agencies still list Honduras as the second poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, a conclusion supported by the Kissinger Commission report on Central America. If Nicaragua has recently become poorer, this does not make Honduras a less miserable country. As for the Honduran currency, it is a known (and published) fact that for many months the US embassy in Tegucigalpa has been urging the Honduran government to devalue its currency, its overvaluation being one of the chief causes of the country’s immense economic problems. Mr. Negroponte seems unaware of current embassy policy. Concerning elections, certainly the Hondurans should have them. The tragedy, as I tried to make clear, is that they have not been given choices that would bring about a serious change in the economy of the country.

My description of Mr. Negroponte’s tenure as ambassador to Honduras was not based on any news magazine article but on conversations with a cross section of opinion, Honduran and foreign, inside Honduras. These included at least half a dozen American and other Western correspondents with long experience in that country, several respected Honduran journalists, human rights activists, several academics, businessmen and lawyers, three senior Western diplomats from countries friendly to the United States, an official of an important Honduran government ministry, two former cabinet ministers, several churchmen both Honduran and American, and a number of Hondurans of more modest status. Common to these conversations were descriptions of Ambassador Negroponte as “intelligent…bright…clever…intrusive…overbearing…arrogant…the proconsul.” Victor Meza, head of the Honduran Documentation Center and possibly the country’s best-informed intellectual, among more positive statements about the United States, told me for the record that Ambassador Negroponte inserted himself into practically every sector of Honduran public life. Even two senior officials of the US embassy implicitly acknowledged the infelicities of Mr. Negroponte’s performance by stressing that the present ambassador, John A. Ferch, is deliberately seeking to cultivate an opposite image.

Mr. Karnow is of course correct in suggesting that Ambassador Negroponte was executing higher administration policy in turning Honduras into a US base. But both the style and substance of Mr. Negroponte’s performance seemed offensive to many Hondurans I talked to. Whatever his more positive accomplishments—and despite his protestations to the contrary—he is remembered in Honduras mainly for his close association with the despotic General Gustavo Alvarez Martínez, whose cruel reign under US tutelage marks one of the darkest periods of modern Honduran history.

As for Jane Burnett’s letter, my two references to human rights abuse in Nicaragua were addressed to the spectrum of repression as a whole, not simply to the number of disappearances, though even on that point I have reason to question her arithmetic.

Last December, Lino Hernández, head of the independent Permanent Commission for Human Rights in Managua, told me that there were at least 5,500 political prisoners in Nicaragua (excluding former national guardsmen), who were summarily detained without due process and often psychologically or even physically tortured. In January, Miguel Cardinal Obando y Bravo, Archbishop of Managua, told me that the number of political prisoners was probably considerably higher, and he graphically described to me the torments such prisoners endure. Pressing his palms against his temples, hurling imaginary men to the floor, he said: “They squeeze their heads like this, and beat them on the ground. They give them no food or sleep for three or four days.”

According to Sr. Hernández, it is true that some political prisoners are released after ten to twenty days, their brief detention being a tactic by the state to intimidate dissenters, but he added that many other prisoners are held for longer periods or indefinitely. He went on to describe the horrible treatment they receive, and in various parts of Nicaragua I talked to several former prisoners whose personal experience confirmed his claims. Political prisoners are often shut in tiny, underground solitary cells where they can neither lie nor stand, forced to live in their own urine and excrement, beaten, suspended from iron bars, deprived of food and sleep, and subjected to terrible psychological torture such as the screams of loved ones from nearby rooms or being told that a wife, mother, child, etc., is dead.

As to the number of disappearances, they are less easy to calculate than Miss Burnett suggests. In December Virgilio Godoy, until only two years ago a minister in the Sandinista government, now a leader of an opposition party, told me that two months previously a large part of the population of a village near Estelí had been abducted by the Sandinista security forces and had not been heard from as of late December. (I had no independent confirmation of this.) Other opposition figures told me of individual disappearances elsewhere in the country, difficult to confirm because of the families’ fear and the extraordinary secrecy of Interior Minister Tomás Borge’s state security apparatus. “Disappearance” can be defined in many ways, without reference to State Department documents—which, incidentally, I did not use. Instant killing is the most graphic method of “disappearance.” (According to evidence gathered by the International League for Human Rights, two activists of the Social Christian party were murdered in November.) If you combine all of the credible accounts above with the regime’s suspension of civil liberties last October, the harassment of political parties, trade unions, and the press, and the increasingly harsh persecution of the Roman Catholic Church—you find a pattern of repression and violation of human rights that considerably exceeds the abuse of human rights in Honduras.

Tyranny, wherever it is found, must be condemned—whether on the right, as in Honduras, or on the left, as in Nicaragua. I say this as an observer who opposes the Reagan administration’s military policy in Central America, including more aid to the contras, despite my sympathy for the authentic grievances of the peasant contra army, it being my belief that such aid to the contras would intensify the fratricide in Nicaragua and the insane arms race in Central America. Diplomacy, however difficult, is preferable to military solutions. But as much as I oppose the Reagan policy, I find the Sandinistas repugnant as well.

San Salvador, El Salvador

  1. *

    Nancy Peckenham and Annie Street, eds., Honduras: Portrait of a Captive Nation (Praeger, 1985).

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