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…

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