Published on Wednesday, June 6, 2001 in the Guardian of London
George W. Bush's America
White House Revives Iran-Contra Memories
US diplomat urges action to block Ortega in Nicaragua
by Duncan Campbell in Los Angeles
The US role in Central America has been brought into sharp focus by two recent events with echoes of the 1980s civil wars in the region.
Last week the state department sent a senior official to Nicaragua to encourage opposition to the Sandinista leader Daniel Ortega, who the polls suggest will win this year's presidential election.
But President Bush's nominee for ambassador to the UN, John Negroponte, who is accused of turning a blind eye to atrocities and helping the contras in the covert war against the Sandinistas when he was ambassador to Hondurason the 1980s, looks less certain of getting the job now that the Republicans have lost control of the Senate.
Last week Lino Gutierrez, number two in the state department's western hemisphere bureau and a former ambassador to Nicaragua, made it clear in a barely coded address to the American chamber of commerce in Managua that the US would not look kindly on the Sandinistas' re-emergence.
Observers say the message was that those opposed to the Sandinistas should bury their differences or suffer the economic consequences.
Mr Gutierrez also met leading members of the Conservative party, whose presidential candidate is running third to Mr Ortega and the governing Liberal Constitutional party's candidate, Enrique Bolanos.
In Nicaragua a candidate can win the presidency with 35% of the vote and a 5% clear lead over the next nearest. The latest poll gives Mr Ortega 37% and Mr Bolanos 30%.
A Washington official said: "We seek a free, fair and democratic election. We continue to have concerns about Daniel Ortega ... But we will support the will of the people."
The Sandinistas and others in Nicaragua have accused Washington of intervening in the election.
Mr Ortega was a leader of the Nicaraguan revolution which removed the dictator Anastasio Somoza in 1979. He was elected president in 1984, but lost in 1990 to a coalition candidate, Violeta Chamorro.
While he was president the US backed the contras - counter-revolutionaries - in the civil war. This led to the Irangate scandal: the use of profits from secret weapons sales to Iran to finance the contras after Congress voted to deny them aid.
Meanwhile the opposition to Mr Negroponte is intensifying. He is accused of ignoring the Honduran government's human rights abuses when he was ambassador there in 1981-85 in exchange for it ensuring a base for the contras.
His appointment must be confirmed by the Senate foreign relations committee, whose chairman is now the Democrat Joe Biden. Yesterday Mr Biden's communications director, Norm Kurz, said they were awaiting delivery of state department and CIA documents tohelp them assess the allegations
He said they had no intention of slowing down the confirmation, but "some very serious questions - we're talking about death squads" had to be addressed.
"No one here is trying to subvert anything, it's all in these documents and what they reveal," he said.
A Democrat member of the committee, John Kerry, said: "New information suggesting that the US embassy in Honduras knew more about human rights violations in Honduras than was communicated to the Congress and to the public needs to be probed carefully and thoroughly examined."
Mr Negroponte has been in the US foreign service for 37 years and has been ambassador to Mexico and the Philippines.
He was a member of Henry Kissinger's team in the Paris peace talks at the end of the Vietnam war.
But it is his time in Honduras that has prompted most questions.
Jack Binns, his predecessor in Honduras, warned Washington that the number of extra-judicial killings was rising, but he says now that he was told to stop reporting the abuses since they would damage the contra operation.
Mr Negroponte has said he was unaware of the activities of an army unit, Battalion 3-16, which operated as a death squad and has been accused of killing 184 leftwingers.
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2001