WASHINGTON - John Negroponte, the Bush administration's nominee to become Washington's first ambassador to Iraq since last year's invasion, was talking about how much ''sovereignty'' the country's new government will enjoy after Jun. 30, when U.S. military forces will remain in control of security.
''When it comes to issues like (the siege of) Fallujah'', said Negroponte, currently Washington's ambassador to the United Nations, ''I think that is going to be the kind of situation that is going to have to ... be the subject of real dialogue between our military commanders, the new Iraqi government, and, I think, the United States mission as well''.
That was too much for Andres Thomas Conteris, a human rights and peace activist who was sitting in the hearing room.
At that point, he stood up and, in a determined voice, said: ''There is no sovereignty, Mr Ambassador, if the U.S. continues to exercise security. Senators, please ask the ambassador about Battalion 316. Ask him about a death squad in Honduras that he supported''.
Security personnel quickly confronted Conteris and escorted him from the room, while Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Richard Lugar gaveled the hearing back to order, and Negroponte, the smooth-as-silk career diplomat fluent in five languages, went on as if nothing had happened.
And, while everyone in the hearing room knew exactly what Conteris was referring to, the senators also ignored the interruption, repeatedly praising Negroponte for his distinguished career and his courage in taking on such a challenging and potentially dangerous assignment. Only two senators alluded to Honduras, albeit obliquely, suggesting they may have had some differences with the nominee in the distant past, but that it was all behind them now.
With the committee's approval in hand, Negroponte, by all accounts an accomplished diplomat who has held senior posts in the White House and the State Department and headed U.S. embassies in Quito, Tegucigalpa, Mexico City and Manila, will direct the world's largest U.S. embassy when it opens its doors in Baghdad on Jul. 1, the day after ''sovereignty'' is to be transferred from the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) to a yet-to-be-chosen new Iraqi government. He will be in charge of nearly 2,000 employees, most of them Americans.
A long-time friend of Secretary of State Colin Powell, Negroponte is generally considered to be a pragmatist -- rather than an ideologue -- albeit one with a hawkish reputation that dates to his work as a young diplomat in Vietnam in the 1960s. Some describe him as a low-key version of CPA chief Paul Bremer.
But Bremer did not work in Honduras.
''I spoke up because Negroponte at that moment was talking about sovereignty'', Conteris, whose mother is Uruguayan and who has lived in Bolivia and Honduras, told IPS later. ''I lived in Honduras for five years, and I know the impact Negroponte's policies had there in the early 1980s (when) Honduras was known as the USS Honduras, basically an occupied aircraft carrier''.
Negroponte was sent by the incoming administration of then President Ronald Reagan (1981-89) to Tegucigalpa in early 1981 to transform Honduras into a military and intelligence base directed against Nicaragua and the left-wing insurgents in neighboring El Salvador -- a mission he largely accomplished in the four years he spent running what at that time was Washington's biggest embassy in the Americas.
To do so, he and the station chief of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) Donald Winter, formed a close alliance with Gen Gustavo Alvarez Martinez, the army's ambitious and murderous commander who admired -- and implemented -- the ''dirty war'' tactics that he had learned from the Argentine military in the late 1970s.
The Argentine junta sent advisers to Honduras at Alvarez' request to begin building what would become a U.S.-backed contra force against Nicaragua.
Until Negroponte's arrival, Honduras was a sleepy, relatively untroubled backwater in the region whose military, unlike those of its neighbors, was seen as relatively progressive, if corrupt, and loathe to resort to actual violence against dissidents. But with the support of the CIA and the Argentines, Alvarez moved to change that radically, according to declassified documents as well as detailed and award-winning reporting by the 'Baltimore Sun' in the mid-1990s.
A special intelligence unit of the Honduran Armed Forces, called Battalion 316, was put together by Alvarez and supplied and trained by the CIA and the Argentines. It was a death squad that kidnapped and tortured hundreds of real or suspected ''subversives'', ''disappeared'' at least 180 of them -- including U.S. missionaries -- during Negroponte's tenure. Such activities were previously unknown in Honduras.
At the same time, Negroponte, who was often referred to as ''proconsul'' by the Honduran media, oversaw the expansion of two major military bases used by U.S. forces and Nicaraguan contras, and, after the U.S. Congress put strict limits on the training of Salvadorian soldiers in-country, he ''persuaded'' the government to build a Regional Military Training Center (RMTC) on Honduran territory, despite the fact that Honduras and El Salvador were traditional enemies who had fought a bloody war less than 15 years before.
Throughout this period, Negroponte steadfastly defended Alvarez, at one point calling him ''a model professional'', and repeatedly denied anything was amiss on the human rights front in Honduras despite rising concern in Congress about reports of disappearances and killings by death squads.
In a 1982 letter to 'The Economist' magazine, he asserted it was ''simply untrue to state that death squads have made their appearance in Honduras''. He said much the same in testimony before Congress at the time.
Embassy employees were told to cleanse their reports about rights abuses, even as the military's role in the killings and disappearances became widely known -- and reported by Honduran newspapers -- within the country. One exiled colonel living in Mexico denounced Alvarez for creating a death squad: Negroponte denied the charge.
Alvarez's excesses, the unprecedented human rights abuses and the country's total alignment with U.S. plans eventually became too much for the Honduran military itself. In a move that caught Negroponte and Winter completely by surprise, his fellow-officers deposed the armed forces chief in a barracks coup in 1984. Negroponte, whom the insurgents reportedly wanted to have declared persona non grata, was back in Washington within the year.
As more details about Battalion 316 have come to light in the 20 years since, Negroponte has continued to deny any knowledge of its existence or activities. As late as 2001, when President George W Bush nominated him as United Nations ambassador, Negroponte insisted, ''To this day, I do not believe that death squads were operating in Honduras''.
Negroponte's protests of innocence are simply not credible to many observers, including his predecessor in Tegucigalpa, who claims to have personally briefed him about Alvarez and his murderous plans. Rights groups have also pointed out he successfully intervened with the army to gain the release of at least two people who had been abducted, suggesting that he must have known who was responsible.
Activists and some senators with whom he had tangled over Honduras in the past had hoped his record would have been closely scrutinized by the Senate when he was nominated to the U.N. ambassadorship, but his nomination was rushed to the floor for confirmation in the immediate aftermath of the Sep. 11, 2001 attacks on New York and the Pentagon, when the administration argued there was no time for extended hearings given the urgency of directing the U.S. response at the world body.
Now he goes to Iraq to oversee its democratization.
Copyright © 2004 IPS-Inter Press Service.