John D. Negroponte, President Bush’s nominee for U.N. ambassador, is likely to face a fierce fight for confirmation over questions about his role in the Central American wars of the 1980s--and the abrupt deportation of people who might have answers has heightened the mood of uncertainty.
While ambassador to Honduras from 1981 to 1985, Negroponte directed the secret arming of Nicaragua’s Contra rebels and is accused by human rights groups of overlooking--if not actually overseeing--a CIA-backed Honduran death squad during his tenure.
Although Negroponte, a career diplomat, has in previous confirmation hearings denied knowledge of systematic human rights abuses, declassified documents and disclosures by former death squad members since his latest testimony in 1993 have cast doubt on whether he was telling the whole truth before Congress.
Human rights groups and Democratic Party opponents are preparing for a fight, making Negroponte the Bush administration’s first foreign policy appointee to kindle serious opposition from Congress.
The sudden deportations of several former death squad members, however, have raised questions. The men, who had resided for years in the United States and Canada and could have provided evidence for the hearings, were returned to Honduras within a few weeks of Negroponte’s floated nomination.
But one of them, Gen. Luis Alonso Discua Elvir, who was Honduras’ deputy ambassador to the U.N. until Washington revoked his visa in February, went public this month with details of U.S. support for the rogue battalion. His comments could provide fodder for Negroponte’s opponents on Capitol Hill.
Members of Congress who served on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee during the Iran-Contra investigations said Negroponte must satisfy doubts about his past performance before he can be confirmed as the face for U.S. interests around the world.
“In the 1980s, John Negroponte was at the center of a clash over deep disagreements we had about the role the United States should be playing in Central America and, more importantly, the way--often secretive or, at best, unclear--that our policy was being conducted,” said Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.), a member of the Foreign Relations Committee.
“New information suggesting that the U.S. Embassy in Honduras knew more about human rights violations in Honduras than was communicated to the Congress and to the public,” he said, “needs to be probed carefully and thoroughly examined.”
Opposing Negroponte, a key Bush appointment, will be a politically risky task. Taking him on means challenging Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, who is said to have handpicked him.
Powell is a close friend of Negroponte and made him his deputy national security advisor in the Reagan administration after the diplomat’s Honduran stint, presumably having found nothing disqualifying in his background at the time. And Negroponte has been confirmed twice as ambassador since then, to Mexico in 1989 and to the Philippines in 1993.
Negroponte, who spent 37 years as a foreign service officer, is largely well thought of in the diplomatic corps as a man who speaks five languages but knows when to keep silent. His friends say he is brilliant and urbane, and carries out orders with a cool and quiet efficiency.
“It’s terrific that the administration has appointed a professional like him,” said Richard Holbrooke, the most recent U.N. ambassador. Negroponte was Holbrooke’s roommate and fellow political officer in Saigon--now Ho Chi Minh City--in 1966 and his State Department deputy for East Asian affairs in 1980-81. “It will be good for the U.N., good for the foreign service, and I believe it will be good for the United States.”
No one is disputing Negroponte’s foreign policy experience or willingness to wade into tough situations. Stationed in Saigon during the Vietnam War, he learned to speak Vietnamese so well that Henry A. Kissinger chose him to act as his secret liaison with the Vietnamese during the Paris peace talks in 1968.
While ambassador to the Philippines from 1993 to 1996, Negroponte curtailed the careers of two consecutive consul generals in the embassy suspected of trading U.S. visas for sexual favors and kickbacks. As ambassador to Mexico, he is credited with quietly easing the two countries’ long estrangement and paving the way for the North American Free Trade Agreement.
Colleagues describe him as a dedicated diplomat who did the bidding of whatever administration was in office at the time--a quality his friends see as loyalty, and his critics as amorality.
“John doesn’t have an agenda,” said one former senior State Department official who worked closely with Negroponte in the 1980s. “John is not ideological. He believes in nothing.”
In 1981, President Reagan sent Negroponte to Honduras, a tiny country of farmers that had become Washington’s base for covert military operations against the leftist Sandinistas who controlled neighboring Nicaragua.
Jack Binns, Negroponte’s predecessor in Honduras, had cabled Washington several times about an alarming increase in extrajudicial executions and torture of political opponents by the Honduran government. There was no response, he said, until the day he was summoned to Washington and told by Assistant Secretary of State Thomas Enders to stop reporting human rights abuses through official channels.
“He was afraid it would leak and make it more difficult for us to continue our economic and security assistance,” said Binns, now retired. “And it would prejudice the Contra operation, though I didn’t know it at the time.”
Binns’ assignment lasted only a year, ending not long after that meeting. But before he left, he compiled a briefing book for Negroponte detailing the human rights problems.
Negroponte took a different approach. Under his direction, U.S. military aid to Honduras grew from $4 million to $77.4 million. He also helped orchestrate a secret deal later known as Iran-Contra to send arms through Honduras to help the Contras in Nicaragua overthrow the Sandinista government.
In the background, a murky military unit called Battalion 3-16, trained by the CIA, carried out the dirty work of making sure that communism didn’t spread to Honduras--a business that involved the torture and “disappearing” of at least 184 political opponents, according to a 1994 Honduran human rights report called “The Facts Speak for Themselves.”
Negroponte testified later that he knew little about the battalion or systematic abuses and that he was an advocate of human rights in Honduras.
Embassy colleagues believe that he was indeed involved but not quite in the way he claimed.
“In Honduras, he told these guys [the death squad leaders] to cut it out, but he wasn’t going to say that publicly,” said a former official who asked not to be named because of the sensitivity of the situation. “This is the problem with most of Washington. You tell political bosses what they want to hear and don’t let the truth get in the way of policy.”
In fact, compared with the reports of kidnappings and murders regularly recorded by local newspapers and human rights groups, cables about the human rights situation in Honduras were so sanitized that staffers at the U.S. Embassy in Tegucigalpa, the capital, joked that they were written about Norway.
Jose Miguel Vivanco, director of Human Rights Watch/Americas, called Negroponte “the ostrich ambassador. He never saw anything wrong. He never heard about any serious human rights violations. It was like he was living in a different country.”
Activists such as Honduran Human Rights Commissioner Leo Valladares have been pursuing the truth since the late 1980s, making hundreds of Freedom of Information Act requests for documents. The U.S. government has released thousands of pages to him and other petitioners over the years, but the documents are heavily redacted, blacked-out page after blacked-out page.
“They gave me thousands of pages, but they didn’t give me anything,” Valladares said. “I trust the U.S. Senate to look at the original documents. Perhaps they will help determine if there are other American citizens who can perform better than Negroponte because they don’t have a past of knowing about human rights violations and keeping silent about them.”
If questions remain, there is one person who could know the answers: Gen. Discua Elvir, a founder of Battalion 3-16. Honduran President Carlos Roberto Reina sent Discua to the U.N. in 1996, in part to give the general diplomatic immunity from investigations into the battalion’s past--and in part to protect himself from a feared military coup.
Discua’s title was deputy representative, and he reportedly was paid about $6,000 a month--more than the ambassador. But he seemed to spend most of his time living in Miami, where he owned several houses and operated an import-export business.
Periodically, human rights groups protested his assignment, the outrage tempered only by the fact that he rarely bothered to act as a diplomat.
In January, a Florida-based human rights group, the International Educational Missions, received a tip about Discua’s presence in Miami. The head of the group, Richard Krieger, a former government official, sent a letter to the State Department on Jan. 12 with the details. In February--three weeks before Negroponte’s name was floated--the State Department revoked Discua’s diplomatic visa for failing to fulfill his ambassadorial duties. He was out of the country by month’s end.
State Department officials said that they had been aware of Discua’s controversial posting since he arrived in the U.S. and that he spent more than a fair share of time in Miami. While pleased that the deportation process worked so efficiently, officials said privately that the speed of his removal was unprecedented.
“My colleagues and I could not fathom how it could work so easily,” said one State Department official who asked not to be named. “If you’re inclined toward conspiracy theories, the fact that it did work so quickly raises some questions.”
Discua’s removal coincided with the January deportation of Juan Angel Hernandez Lara, another alleged member of Battalion 3-16 living in Florida, and the expulsion from Canada on Feb. 20 of Jose Barrera, an interrogator from 3-16.
Both had given detailed descriptions of their activities as members of 3-16 in attempts to receive political asylum, asserting that they would be killed if they were to return to Honduras now that the political climate has changed. Although Lara and Barrera recanted their claims that they were involved in 3-16 once they returned in Honduras, Discua Elvir defiantly elaborated on his history in the battalion and the U.S. role in it.
Two days after returning home, Discua told the Tegucigalpa newspaper La Prensa that he was brought to the United States for two months in 1983 to organize Battalion 3-16 to work with Contra forces. He has also appeared on television in full uniform with promises of more to tell. Discua is protected by his knowledge of other Honduran leaders’ involvement in past crimes, human rights groups say.
“He is sending an explicit message to the United States: If they continue to do damage to him, he will disclose the role of the U.S. in Battalion 3-16 and the situation of that time,” said Berta Oliva di Nativi, the director of a group representing the families of “the disappeared.”
Emboldened, at least one other former member of 3-16 has offered to provide evidence linking Negroponte to the battalion if he is assured of protection within Honduras.
In the meantime, human rights groups are comparing notes and Senate staffers are delving into classified documents to prepare for the contentious confirmation hearing. Negroponte has declined all interviews before the hearing, which has yet to be scheduled. But he has been exercising his trademark quiet diplomacy, paying visits to key senators and their aides, emphasizing his experience and trying to erase doubts.
“He’s gotten through before in a more liberal Congress, so I don’t see why he’d have trouble now,” Holbrooke said. " We need a professional on the job. If professional diplomats are penalized for carrying out the instructions of their government, then we’re all in trouble.”
Farley reported from the United Nations and Kempster from Washington.