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An Exchange on John Negroponte

To the Editors:

Though I worked closely with John Negroponte before going to Honduras and was his deputy at the American embassy in Honduras during much of his tour there, I could not recognize the person that Stephen Kinzer described in his article “Our Man in Honduras” [NYR, September 20]. Page after page describes dreadful events reported to have occurred in Honduras and implies that Negroponte was somehow complicit. The thrust of the article is that Negroponte was so determined to carry out United States policy that he turned a blind eye to such happenings. Indeed, the piece implies that Negroponte misled Congress.

John Negroponte is a highly professional career Foreign Service officer and a deeply moral man. On both counts, he would be repulsed by the person whom Kinzer describes. Kinzer clearly sees the United States’ goal in Central America, at that time, as to defeat the Sandinistas and put down the revolution in El Salvador regardless of the cost in human rights terms in Honduras or elsewhere. This is not the framework in which the embassy viewed United States policy or its job.

Of course, we valued Honduran cooperation on issues dealing with the conflict in Central America, but of equal importance was the consolidation of the democratic process in Honduras. If we failed in this, rather than winning the “cold war” in Central America, we would have stood by and watched the creation of another cancer on the body politic of Central America. It was with this in mind that Ambassador Negroponte guided his embassy.

One of many examples: In 1981, Honduras had its first open and free presidential election in many years. As his term progressed, there were reports to the effect that President Suazo desired a second term of office even though the constitution limited the president to only one four-year term. Despite the importance of the President’s cooperation on other issues, the embassy made it privately but widely known that the United States would be much disturbed by any departure from the constitutional process.

Our Man in Honduras” is a mean and hateful piece. One can only assume that Kinzer started with a strong dislike for the Reagan administration policy in Central America and, from there, proceeded to an assumption that anyone involved in the implementation of such a policy must be morally flawed and interpreted the facts and rumor accordingly. The picture of Negroponte joining with General Álvarez and President Suazo to pressure the entire Honduran Supreme Court in order to get rid of a university rector is so totally ridiculous as to be hilarious were it not for the tragic fact that Kinzer relates it at some length with a straight face and The New York Review prints it. It’s a good example of why good men are increasingly hesitating to submit themselves to the confirmation process.

Particularly offensive are Kinzer’s remarks about a Bush administration effort to “rehabilitate” Negroponte. Since Honduras, Negroponte has served with distinction as ambassador to Mexico and to the Philippines, as the deputy national security advisor to the president, and as assistant secretary for oceans, environmental and scientific affairs, a position which will serve him well in dealing with the many environmental issues which will be facing the international community. John Negroponte needs no rehabilitation, thank you!

I first worked closely with John Negroponte when, as deputy assistant secretary in State’s refugee bureau, I was charged with implementing the Indochinese refugee program and Negroponte was responsible for Southeast Asia in the East Asia bureau. He was immensely helpful in that role and will bring great compassion and activism to the seemingly endless string of complex humanitarian emergencies with which our government has had to deal in recent years. And he brings very effective, low-key diplomatic skills to the job which will serve our country well. He will make a fine ambassador to the United Nations.

Doesn’t sound much like that fellow Kinzer was describing, does it?

Shep Lowman

Fairfax, Virginia

To the Editors:

Stephen Kinzer’s article is full of errors and innuendo. Perhaps if we point out some of the errors, the innuendo will collapse.

Mr. Kinzer begins his article with a sort of pop psychoanalysis of John Negroponte—that he refused to accept the reality of Honduras, that he was a “fabulist.” In his biographical sketch of Negroponte, Kinzer notes that as an adviser to Henry Kissinger on the Vietnam peace talks, Negroponte broke with Kissinger when he thought Kissinger was making too many concessions to the North Vietnamese. Much is now being made of such accusations against Kissinger in Larry Berman’s new book, No Peace, No Honor. Yet Kinzer notes that Negroponte’s opposition to Kissinger’s concessions was merely the result of Negroponte’s hard-liner attitude. A better conclusion might be that Negroponte was very much a realist and could see that these concessions would lead to the betrayal of our South Vietnamese ally—his opposition to Kissinger was the act of a courageous young Foreign Service officer taking on the man who would become the secretary of state.

Kinzer alleges that during the early 1980s, the social peace Honduras had enjoyed for historical and cultural reasons was shattered. In fact, while much of Central America was consumed by civil war, Honduran officials wisely chose to use generous US economic assistance to subsidize many of the consumer goods needed by Hondurans in their daily lives. Life in the second-poorest country in the hemisphere did not get worse; social strife was avoided partially by a conscious effort by the government to maintain minimum standards of living for the people. Continuing on economics, Kinzer alleges that increased US military aid made the military in Honduras a more powerful force. The fact is that Honduras was a military dictatorship until 1982, when at the urging of the US it held internationally observed democratic elections and elected country doctor Roberto Suazo as president. Honduras did receive large amounts of military aid, but it was only a fraction of what a Southern Command study had estimated was needed by the Honduran armed forces to confront the increasingly well-armed Sandinistas. We told the Hondurans that the US would be at their side in a confrontation with Nicaragua, but much friction was caused in the US–Honduras relationship because we could not put our assurances in writing because of congressional opposition. Finally, when President Suazo determined that military strongman Gustavo Álvarez was getting too big for his britches, it was President Suazo who initiated the plot in the military to throw Álvarez out. Hence, in the early 1980s, Honduras went from a military dictatorship to a freely elected democratic civilian government whose president was able to throw out the “military strongman.” Kinzer and others consistently get that piece of history backward.

More on innuendo and former contra warriors: Roger Noriega is indeed a vigorous contra supporter, but did not have a prominent position in the administration in the 1980s. He began working with the contras directly when appointed to the AID-administered humanitarian assistance program for the contras in 1988. That program was established and funded by the US Congress when it cut off contra military aid. Since, Mr. Noriega has sought to ensure that the contras and their families received what was promised them under the peace accords signed when the contras disarmed. It has been a continuing and frustrating task. Elliott Abrams is indeed working at the National Security Council on human rights but he was not “a principal architect of the contras.” When the architecture of the contra program was being drawn, Mr. Abrams was working on his human rights expertise as the assistant secretary of state for humanitarian affairs. Recently, he was president of the Center for Ethics and Public Policy, and a member of the US congressional committee on freedom of religion. He has published books on ethics, religion, and foreign policy. Although he was not an architect of the contra project, when he moved to Latin American affairs at State he did come to have (like many of us) much admiration and affection for the peasants who made up the contra army after having been driven off their land by the Sandinistas. And like John Negroponte, he must have suffered much moral anguish at the thought of abandoning an ally at the behest of the US Congress.

Alfred R. Barr

Washington, D.C.

To the Editors:

As a board member and former president of the American Foreign Service Association, I take strong exception to Stephen Kinzer’s assertion in “Our Man in Honduras” that the administration is sending an unwelcome message to the UN by nominating career foreign service officer John D. Negroponte to be our permanent representative in New York.

In fact, other countries’ ambassadors to the UN, many of whom are also career diplomats, will almost certainly welcome a colleague who will be quick to appreciate their sensitivities and slow to moralize to them from the public pulpit. Four other career diplomats have carried out the job for the US with distinction at intervals in the UN’s past fifty-five years of life.

The centerpiece of Mr. Kinzer’s critique deals with Ambassador Negroponte’s service twenty years ago as ambassador to Honduras under President Reagan. Mr. Kinzer claims that Ambassador Negroponte discounted publicly and suppressed internally a growing number of reports that Honduran security forces under General Gustavo Álvarez were abducting and killing dissidents.

The charges are poorly substantiated. Even if they were true, Mr. Kinzer admits that Ambassador Negroponte had “mastered the key diplomatic skill, the ability to embrace the policy of the moment” (i.e., courting Honduras to help promote US regional goals in Nicaragua and elsewhere). Politicians are often critical of the career foreign service for not being quick enough to respond to new political priorities. Now we have a US diplomat being accused of being too responsive.

In his current answers to Congress, Ambassador Negroponte writes that he considered principal US goals in Honduras at the time to be threefold: democratic rule (including human rights), economic development, and support for US regional objectives. Whatever one may think in retrospect about the wisdom of Reagan administration regional goals, which included supporting the contras in their struggle against the Sandinista government in Managua, a public denunciation by the US ambassador of the Honduran military on human rights grounds would also have jeopardized a still-fragile constitution, under which the military had just turned over government to civilians, with adverse consequences for both democracy and development.

As for internal government reporting of human rights violations, Mr. Kinzer gained the impression that the embassy country team discouraged negative reports to Washington. I did not sense any such restraints, either explicit or implicit, when I arrived at the embassy to serve as political counselor in Honduras in mid-1984. Admittedly Álvarez had been removed as military chief, and the activities of the security forces were more transparent, but the human rights report that was prepared under my supervision for 1984 makes ample reference to both current and past malpractices by the Honduran security forces.

In suggesting that Ambassador Negroponte filed “false reports” earlier about Honduras that depicted a place that was “Scandinavian in its tranquillity,” Mr. Kinzer glosses over how human rights reports are actually prepared. Granted, the ambassador has the final say about what is submitted to Washington, but Ambassador Negroponte has stated to Congress that he gave his political officers a free hand to make the calls as they saw them. That was certainly true when I served with him at two posts, not only in Honduras but also in Mexico. However, the most relevant point is what happens after the drafts leave reporting posts abroad. Sensitive portions are messaged for months in Washington, and the final versions submitted to Congress in February often reflect compromises between the country desks (concerned about bilateral relations) and the human rights offices (whose constituencies are the nongovernmental organizations), with the posts as bystanders. In no way do the final reports belong to ambassadors alone.

Mr. Kinzer’s article is also factually incorrect in several respects, the most important being that Ambassador Negroponte “had some trouble finding another diplomatic post after leaving Honduras in 1985,” returning to “a job he had held before as deputy assistant secretary of state for oceans and fisheries affairs.” The truth is that he returned on schedule to the position offered to him months earlier as assistant secretary for oceans, environment, and international scientific affairs—a major boost for any career officer, especially one coming from a relatively small and normally unnoticed post.

The Senate should move promptly to set aside myopic critiques like Mr. Kinzer’s and to approve Ambassador Negroponte’s appointment. If it does, as is now expected, both the US and the UN will be well served.

Theodore S. Wilkinson

American Foreign Service Association

Washington, D.C.

Stephen Kinzer replies:

All three letter-writers evidently admire their former boss. None of them, however, disputes any of the facts I presented. They do not dispute my description of the torture, killings, and other human rights abuses that were committed in Honduras during the period when they served under Ambassador Negroponte at the United States embassy there. Nor do they dispute the conclusions reached by the sources I cited, including the CIA inspector general, who reported that embassy officials sought to minimize those abuses in their reports to Washington.

Without actually denying its factual truth, Mr. Lowman does single out one episode I reported as “so totally ridiculous as to be hilarious.” That is my citation of a column written in the Honduran newspaper Tiempo by Juan Almendares, former rector of the Autonomous University of Honduras. In it Mr. Almendares alleged that Ambassador Negroponte helped pressure the Supreme Court of Honduras to annul his reelection as rector in 1982.

Since that column appeared, Mr. Almendares has appeared on nationally broad-cast radio interviews in Honduras in which he and radio hosts have appealed to surviving Supreme Court justices of that era, and to then president Roberto Suazo Córdova, to deny the allegation if it is not true. So far, the justices have neither done so nor responded to direct requests for comment.

Mr. Wilkinson correctly asserts that the State Department’s annual human rights reports are prepared by both ambassadors and their superiors in Washington. The CIA inspector general, however, found that while Mr. Negroponte was ambassador in Honduras, embassy officers avoided citing rights abuses not only in their filings for annual reports, but also in routine cables to Washington.

At the Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on Mr. Negroponte’s nomination to be United States ambassador to the United Nations, Senator Paul Wellstone asked him about his reporting of human rights abuses in Honduras. “I just can’t understand why you were not more outspoken, why you were not more public and why, even today, you seem to be unwilling to acknowledge that the state was involved, that it was widespread that people were murdered,” he said. Mr. Negroponte replied: “Could I have been more vocal? Perhaps in retrospect I could have been, but that’s the way I handled it.”

On September 14, three days after the terror attacks in New York and Washington, the Senate agreed by unanimous consent to confirm Mr. Negroponte’s nomination as United States ambassador to the United Nations.

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