Global Policy Forum

Negroponte, Honduras and Iraq


By Peter Watt

July 9, 2004

Until the word became unfashionable in the West, Iraq would have been called a colony. The equivalent of the colonial office, the US embassy in Baghdad, will be the biggest embassy in the world and will be headed by John Negroponte, a veteran neo-conservative of the Reagan administration.

Negroponte's specialty, while ambassador to Honduras under Reagan (1981-1985) was to ensure that any resistance to US hegemony in Nicaragua would be utterly crushed. The ambassador carried out his duties with considerable success. A brief look at Negroponte's Central American period gives us a hint at what bodes for US-run Iraq.

When the Sandinista revolution took power in Nicaragua in 1979, alarm bells rang in Washington. Somoza, the brutal US-backed dictator, had been overthrown by revolutionary forces after 43 years in power. US hegemony in Nicaragua, and thus in Central America was under serious threat. Washington's paranoia about Cuba and Bolshevism had thus spread to Central America – any challenge to the US system of control was treated with absolute contempt, as Nicaraguans were to learn right throughout the 1980s. Indeed, any government in Latin America that refused to give in to US domination, regardless of its policies, was decried as Communist – a label which provoked the most vitriolic condemnation in Washington throughout the Cold War.

In 1980 Jimmy Carter put pressure on the Honduran government to act as a "bulwark against Communism" against the Sandinista government. With Somoza gone the US had no internal grip inside Nicaragua and would thus have to control much of its anti-Sandinista operations from outside the country's borders. Some 5000 members of Somoza's hated brutal National Guard fled Nicaragua to Honduras when the Sandinistas took power. It was in consequence that Honduras became the training ground and launching pad for the US-funded Contra war against Nicaragua.

During the Reagan administration, and while Negroponte was ambassador to the country, "Contra" militias were trained in Honduras. The Contras had hitherto made relatively small attacks across the border into Nicaragua until in 1982 thousands of marines arrived with up to 200 military advisers – airstrips were built, arms supplied and radar stations erected, all courtesy of the US taxpayer.

The Contras were trained in some of the most gruesome guerrilla war techniques. Some were trained by military officers from Argentina's dirty war who knew nothing about the jungle but plenty about torture and execution. Others were trained in Florida and California while many others, like Honduras' military dictator, General Gustavo Alvarez Martí­nez, were educated in torture techniques, execution and combat at the School of the Americas in Fort Benning, Georgia. While it was purported by Reagan that the Contras were fighting the evil scourge of communism, referring to them as "freedom fighters," the Contras raped, tortured and terrorised the civilian population throughout the subsequent decade, leaving the destroying the civilian infrastructure, leaving tens of thousands dead and many more displaced.

Negroponte's role in Honduras was crucial as it meant maintaining US dominance in the region. Jeane Kirkpatrick, Negroponte's predecessor at the UN once declared that "Central America is the most important place in the world for the United States today." Maintaining political control of the region meant controlling its vast and rich natural resources. The Sandinistas were beginning to take matters into their own hands and started to redistribute wealth and land in Nicaragua, thus threatening US dominance in the region. Panic in the Reagan administration reached feverish and sometimes surreal levels, with the president declaring that the Sandinistas were on the verge of invading the United States. The real cause for alarm among Reaganite neo-conservatives (including the virulent anti-communist Negroponte) was that the Sandinista revolution would spread throughout El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala. It had nothing to do with communism, just as the invasion of Iraq has nothing to do with preventing terrorism. More, it was that the economic system the US had maintained in Central America since 1945 was falling apart – it was simply untenable for the impoverished masses who barely had enough to eat. Washington's solution, like its present incarnation in the Middle East, was one of force and overwhelming military power in order to maintain US hegemony. Just as Negroponte acted as the strong arm of US imperialism in Central America in the 1980s he will protect US business and political interests in the Middle East, now the "most important place in the world for the United States today."

While the country was used as the launching ground for the war against Nicaragua, US aid to Honduras increased from 5 to almost $100 million with $200 million given in economic aid. Honduras now received more aid than anywhere else in the region, most of the money ultimately being controlled by the military.

Jack Binns, Negroponte's predecessor as ambassador appointed by Jimmy Carter, complained about the blatant human rights abuses in Honduras and briefed him as he took office. He later reported that Salvadoran nuns who fled to Honduras after the assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero had been tortured by the Honduran secret police and thrown out of helicopters alive – a speciality of the Argentine military officers employed in Honduras during Negroponte's stint. One official, Rick Chidester, claims Negroponte ordered him to remove all mention of torture and execution from his report on human rights in Honduras.

During Negroponte's stay in Honduras, human rights violations peaked. The infamous US trained death squad, Batallion 3-16, was notorious for the torture, rape, kidnapping and killing of Honduran dissidents. Hundreds of people disappeared. By the end of the 1980s at least 10,000 were dead, not to mention the conservative estimate of 200,000 deaths in Central America as a result of US intervention. Negroponte, however, claims no knowledge of the human rights abuses the US carried out and funded despite being ambassador at the time. He told CNN, "I think on balance if you look back at what we did, I think a good case can be made that there was actually less suffering in Central America as a result of the actions the United States took than there would have been if we had just folded our arms and done nothing."

Many other Honduran victims of the US led war in Central America ended up at the El Aguacate airstrip, whose creation was supervised by Negroponte, and where dissidents were detained and tortured – 185 corpses were dug up there in 2001. When George W. Bush appointed Negroponte as US ambassador to the UN, members of Honduran death squads who had previously been granted asylum in the US were deported. It was feared they testify about Negroponte's role in human rights abuses while ambassador to Honduras.

Interestingly, none of this came up in the US and British mainstream media when career journalists heaped praise on Reagan shortly after his death. Somehow, amidst the fawning in mainstream and elite circles it was forgotten that the Reagan administration carried out in Central America one of the worst campaigns of state terrorism of the late 20th century. All of this in the context of the present situation in Iraq – one might expect that the media would pick up on the fact that many of the present incumbents in Washington are those who were responsible for the terror in Central America in the 1980s. John Negroponte's appointment as ambassador, as if it was not clear enough by now, tells something about what Bush et al have in store for Iraq.

What should we expect now that the US has handed "sovereignty" back to Iraqis? What kind of sovereignty is it? Will it be more sovereign than Honduras, which was effectively controlled by the CIA and the US military?

Of course, it is nothing like sovereignty. Some 250,000 occupation soldiers will stay in the country long after the US has left. Not having allowed any free elections, the US has installed a puppet government that will receive orders from Washington. Should the new government fail to do so, it can expect to be overthrown either by US backed coup organised from the US embassy or outright invasion (again). Iraqi sovereignty does not even allow the courts to prosecute foreign civilians or contractors or mercenaries should they commit a crime. Any mercenary guilty of killing an Iraqi is immune from legal prosecution. The new government has no control of the quarter of a million soldiers that will continue to occupy the country and intimidate the civilian population. The American government will determine how the budget of $18 billion for reconstruction is spent. Iraq's natural resources will be handed over to mostly American private companies – control of oil reserves the most obvious example. Moreover, the Bush administration has ensured that Iraq's public services should be milked for profit for US corporations who will now control much of the country's infrastructure. So much for "sovereignty."

We might consider the reaction of people in the US if a foreign power invaded, killed thousands of civilians, destroyed the country's infrastructure after a ten year bombing campaign and sanctions that left up to a million dead, denied Americans the right to vote while making lofty claims about freedom and democracy, shot people protesting the invasion, shot carloads of people at checkpoints and condemned present and future generations to all kinds of disease and illness and maiming as a result of exposure to depleted uranium and contact with unexploded cluster bombs. How would Americans react when the foreign power supposedly left the country, leaving hundreds of thousands of soldiers and mercenaries in the US, all immune from prosecution in American courts after appointing a puppet government that took its orders from the foreign capital and having given American natural resources and public services over to foreign companies. How would Americans react to being denied the right to vote when the leaders of the occupying power strutted about making asserting this was a victory for democracy?

The anger and outrage Americans would feel is now felt by Iraqis. Resistance to the US occupying forces will increase, and eventually, like all imperial powers, the Americans will be forced to leave – because of the scale of the resistance and because of the chaos wreaked by the occupying forces. Yet before that happens we are likely to see a great deal of violence. The US will attempt to crush all kinds of resistance to their power, which is only likely to become more organized and apparent.

About the Author: Peter Watt is an independent journalist and activist. He presently lives in France.

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