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Is Negroponte Clean Enough for the U.N.?

April 08, 2001|FRANK DEL OLMO | Frank del Olmo is an associate editor of The Times

We're eyeball to eyeball with the Chinese, talking tough to the Russians and not talking to North Korea at all. It's back to the Cold War.

Call me parochial, but what has me shivering after a brief but chilly visit to Washington is how the Bush administration is reviving the old U.S.-Soviet standoff in a part of the world where I spent my crazy youth as a correspondent: Central America. And if you loved how the Bushies tossed those alleged Russian spies out of the country, wait until you see what's for dessert. Warmed over Contras!

Or, to be more precise, a warmed-over Contra paymaster, John D. Negroponte, who has been nominated to be ambassador to the United Nations.

You remember the Contras--the CIA-funded guerrillas who waged a futile war to overthrow the revolutionary Sandinista government in Nicaragua, until the Nicaraguan people simply voted the Sandinistas out of power. Even those poor Central Americans, it turned out, know how democracy works. But more on the Contras later.

It is no longer news that most of the men (doesn't National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice know any women she can suggest for some of these jobs?) President Bush wants to put in key positions on his foreign policy team are Cold Warriors from the days of presidents Reagan and Bush the First. But some of the guys being hauled out of cold storage have worrisome histories that Congress needs to revisit before punching their tickets. We can start with Negroponte.

During his 37-year career with the State Department, Negroponte has held several sensitive embassy jobs in Asia (Vietnam, during the war, and the Philippines in the 1990s) and Latin America (Mexico, in the years leading up to the North American Free Trade Agreement, and Honduras, during the start of the Contra war against neighboring Nicaragua). It is Negroponte's tenure in Honduras, from 1981 to 1985, that the Senate needs to consider.

I traveled all over Central America in those days, knew Negroponte and members of his staff and have no illusions about anyone who was involved in those brush-fire wars. Some ugly things were done on both sides in the name of national security--from assassinations to wholesale massacres. It was quite literally a bloody mess, and Negroponte was in it up to his elbows.

Just how deep we don't know because Negroponte's involvement in covert U.S. activities in Honduras has never been fully investigated by Congress, even when the Mexican government protested Negroponte's 1989 appointment to run the U.S. Embassy there. Former Mexican President Carlos Salinas de Gortari wanted NAFTA so badly that he probably would have accepted any U.S. ambassador. Knowing that, Congress stamped Negroponte's passport after some token questions about Honduras.

Since then, however, much more has become public, largely because of an excellent, but insufficiently recognized, series of articles published by the Baltimore Sun in 1995. Through interviews with former Honduran soldiers and some of the people they kidnapped and tortured, the articles laid out in gruesome detail the activities of a CIA-funded death squad run by the Honduran military during the Contra war.

Those articles also made a credible case that Negroponte knew about the Honduran death squad, officially known as Battalion 316, and other covert operations taking place under his nose, and he ignored them. Worse, he may have lied to Congress about what he knew.

The Sun documents the fact that embassy staffers knew about human rights violations and duly reported them to their superiors in the embassy (including Negroponte) and Washington. Yet their annual human-rights reports to Congress did not reflect what they knew was going on all around them. In just one of the less egregious cases (no one was killed), the 1982 year-end report to Congress asserted there had been "no incident of official interference with the media" that year. Yet in June 1982, Negroponte had personally intervened with the Hondurans to free a prominent journalist, Oscar Reyes, who had been arrested and tortured by Battalion 316 for a week. The ambassador did so at the behest of his embassy's press spokesman, who warned Negroponte: "We cannot let this guy get hurt. . . . It would be a disaster for our policy."

The Sun series should be reread by every member of the Senate before Negroponte comes before them for confirmation later this spring. Better yet, the Foreign Affairs Committee should move beyond what one gutsy newspaper did and thoroughly review any and all still-classified documents that might shed light on just what Negroponte knew about Battalion 316 and the wider Contra war, and when he knew it.

Negroponte is, after all, the guy Bush wants in New York to lecture the Chinese and Cubans about human rights. We ought to be sure they won't have reason to laugh in his face when he does.

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