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Our Man in Honduras

When a country finds itself at the center of world history, it begins attracting spies, mercenaries, war profiteers, journalists, prostitutes, and fortune-seekers. Often they gravitate to a particular hotel. In Honduras, which was shaken from its long slumber in the 1980s and turned into a violent staging ground for cross-border war, the Maya was that hotel. Perched atop a high hill near the central plaza in the capital city, Tegucigalpa, its tinted windows giving it an air of mystery, the Maya attracted a variety of sinister characters. Counterrevolutionaries hatched bloody plots over breakfast beside the pool. You could buy a machine gun at the bar. Busloads of crew-cut Americans would arrive from the airport at times when I knew there were no commercial flights landing, spend the night, and then ship out before dawn; they said they didn’t know where they were going, and I believed them. Friends told me that death squad torturers stopped in for steak before setting off on their night’s work. But in those days, much of what anyone said in Honduras was a lie. That was certainly true at the Maya, and equally so at the American embassy a couple of miles away.

The diplomat who presided over that embassy from 1981 to 1985, John Dimitri Negroponte, was a great fabulist. He saw, or professed to see, a Honduras almost Scandinavian in its tranquillity, a place where there were no murderous generals, no death squads, no political prisoners, no clandestine jails or cemeteries. Now that President Bush has nominated Negroponte to be United States ambassador to the United Nations, his record in Honduras is coming under new scrutiny. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee will hold a hearing on his nomination soon, probably in September. With the chairmanship of the committee now passed from Jesse Helms to Joseph Biden, this hearing promises to be anything but routine. It will recall the polarizing drama of Central America in the 1980s, a historical chapter that seemed closed but that the Bush administration has chosen to reopen. It may even throw some light onto places that have for two decades been as dark and scary as the Maya Hotel bar at midnight.

Over the last few weeks, investigators for the Foreign Relations Committee have been reading classified government documents written by or about Negroponte. They have also conducted an extensive private interview with him. At the committee hearing on his nomination, senators are likely to ask him about what they suspect were false reports that he filed on human rights conditions in Honduras, and about questionable sworn testimony he later gave the committee.

The material we reviewed pertains specifically to that time in Honduras and to the question of the alleged and real human rights abuses that took place,” said Norman Kurtz, a spokesman for Senator Biden. “The key question people are asking is what John Negroponte knew at the time and to what extent did he report back to the State Department. We are trying to have some of these documents quickly reclassified so we can have them on the record at the time of the hearing.”

In Honduras Negroponte exercised US power in ways that still reverberate throughout that small country. His most striking legacy, though, is the Honduras of his imagination. Most people who lived or worked in Honduras during the 1980s saw a nation spiraling into violence and infested by paramilitary gangs that kidnapped and killed with impunity. Negroponte would not acknowledge this. He realized that the Reagan policy in Central America would lose support if truths about Honduras were known, so he refused to accept them.

By nominating Negroponte as ambassador to the United Nations, the Bush administration is sending at least two clear messages. The first is addressed to the UN itself. During his years in Honduras, Negroponte acquired a reputation, justified or not, as an old-fashioned imperialist. Sending him to the UN serves notice that the Bush administration will not be bound by diplomatic niceties as it conducts its foreign policy.

Negroponte’s nomination is also part of a concerted effort to rehabilitate those who planned and organized the Nicaraguan contra war of the 1980s. When last heard from, these men were objects of public opprobrium and, in some cases, criminal indictments. Bush administration officials believe that they were shamefully mistreated and that they ought to be honored for their much-maligned service. No one is more worthy in their eyes than Negroponte, whose work made it possible for the United States to turn Honduras into a staging area for the contra war.

In this new administration, we have a lot of people who are a decade or two older than the people who had the same jobs in the last administration,” a State Department official told me. “They remember the cold war. They want to reward and elevate people who fought on our side, including people who supported the contras. Negroponte is known as a guy who is devoted to realpolitik, which is in many ways the opposite of what the UN stands for. Giving him this job is a way of telling the UN: ‘We hate you.’”

Honduras has fallen far from the world’s attention, which may be a good thing. During the 1980s it was the base for a marauding army of anti-Sandinista fighters from neighboring Nicaragua, the platform for American military maneuvers in which thousands of soldiers and paratroopers staged mock invasions, and a dangerous place for dissidents. Guerrilla war raged across all three of its borders. Jack Binns, the American ambassador who arrived in 1980, was horrified by what he saw. In June 1981 he sent a cable to Washington saying he was “deeply concerned at increasing evidence of officially sponsored/sanctioned assassinations” and warning that “repression has built up a head of steam much faster than we had anticipated.” That was not what the Reagan administration wanted to hear. Binns fell from favor and was soon recalled. John Negroponte became the new sheriff in town.

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Born in London to a well-to-do Greek family, Negroponte attended Exeter and Yale, joined the foreign service straight out of college, and was dispatched to Vietnam, where he served as a political officer at the American embassy. Between 1971 and 1973 he was officer-in-charge for Vietnam on Henry Kissinger’s National Security Council, and he advised Kissinger during the Paris peace talks. He developed a reputation as a hard-liner and broke temporarily with Kissinger when he thought Kissinger was making too many concessions to the North Vietnamese. In 1981, when the Reagan administration’s Sandinista-hunters needed a reliable man in Honduras to replace Jack Binns, he was an obvious choice.

If Honduras is thought of at all, it is as a quintessential backwater, the epitome of the banana republic. That stereotype is not entirely inaccurate, nor is it necessarily negative. Being a backwater has not allowed Honduras to escape the poverty and social inequality that afflicts most of Central America. It has, however, brought a measure of domestic peace that is remarkable on the isthmus. Honduras never had great massacres like the one that shattered El Salvador in 1932, or bloody family dictatorships like the one that dominated Nicaragua for nearly half a century, or waves of sustained repression like those that have devastated Guatemala. During the twentieth century, Hondurans managed to work out social arrangements that, while not seriously addressing the needs of the poor majority, at least allowed that majority to live and work in relative peace. The army played an important part in national life, even ruling directly for several periods, including one that lasted until 1982; but it treated the population with a measure of respect. By Central American standards, these were precious and highly important achievements.

During the early 1980s, the social peace to which Hondurans were accustomed was shattered. Leftist revolutionaries had taken power in Nicaragua and were gaining strength in El Salvador and Guatemala. The Reagan administration was determined to turn back this tide by force, and chose Honduras as its platform from which to do so. American military engineers built bases, airstrips, and supply depots at key spots around the country. American troops poured in for saber-rattling maneuvers whose main purpose was to intimidate the Sandinista government in Nicaragua. American intelligence agents trained Hondurans in techniques of surveillance and interrogation. Between 1980 and 1984, United States military aid to Honduras increased from $4 million to $77 million. Economic aid surpassed $200 million by 1985, making Honduras, with its four million people, the eighth-largest recipient of American foreign aid.

After Congress cut off aid to the contras in late 1984, the Honduran government also began to distance itself from the contra project, even intercepting a shipment of arms intended for contra fighters. This alarmed the White House. President Reagan telephoned his Honduran counterpart, Roberto Suazo Córdova, and sent then Vice President George Bush to meet with him. Honduras soon resumed its old policy of helping the contras. At the same time, according to a US government document, the United States released aid to Honduras that had been blocked, “expedited delivery of US military items to Honduras,” and expanded “several security programs underway for the Honduran security forces.”1 Ambassador Negroponte, who was present at the Bush–Suazo meeting, was asked about it at a 1989 Senate hearing. He said he could not recall any direct mention of an arrangement under which the United States increased its aid to Honduras in exchange for Honduras’s commitment to support the contras.

As the United States raised Honduras to the status of an important military ally, cultivating its senior officers and pouring money into its modest army, the military naturally became a more powerful force in Honduran society. Almost overnight it found itself with unimaginable amounts of money and resources, along with the blessing and active encouragement of the United States. The delicate balance that had kept Honduras at relative peace for generations was upset.

The personification of this change was General Gustavo Álvarez Martínez, a passionate anti-Communist who had been trained at the US Army School of the Americas and in Argentina. He believed that Honduras should take the Argentine approach to dealing with dissent, which consisted largely of kidnapping suspects and torturing them to death in secret jails. His fanaticism disturbed some of his comrades, but when American officials decided to use Honduras as a base for the contra war, they found him an eager ally. He was willing not only to turn over parts of Honduran territory to the contras and allow them to function with impunity, but also to tolerate and even direct the “disappearance” of Hondurans who protested.

There is no doubt that Marxist subversives were at work in Honduras. In the summer of 1983 a band of ninety-six guerrillas entered Honduras from Nicaragua with the declared intention of setting off a revolutionary war. They were tracked with the help of American helicopters, and in a matter of weeks their column was wiped out. The fate of many of the guerrillas, however, remains unclear. Two whose bodies were never found, a former Green Beret named David Arturo Baez Cruz and a Catholic priest, Reverend James Carney, were American citizens. Relatives of both men say that Ambassador Negroponte repeatedly stymied their efforts to find out what the United States knows about their cases.

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    US Government Stipulation on Quid Pro Quos with Other Governments as Part of Contra Operations,” filed April 6, 1989, at the trial of Colonel Oliver North; quoted in The Iran-Contra Scandal: The Declassified History, edited by Peter Kornbluh and Malcolm Byrne (New Press, 1993), p. 91.

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