Bush’s Death Squad Ambassador to Iraq
by Lance Selfa
May 9, 2004
First Published in Socialist Worker

Send this page to a friend! (click here)



[Editor's Note: This article went to press just before the Senate voted 95-3 on Friday to confirm John Negroponte as the Bush Administration's ambassador to Iraq]

As Socialist Worker went to press, it appeared that John Negroponte would sail through his Senate confirmation to become the Bush administration’s ambassador to Iraq after June 30. With perfunctory and fawning questioning, senators refused to ask Negroponte -- currently the U.S. representative to the United Nations -- anything that might have caused him difficulty in the hearing room.

When a human rights activist jumped up from the audience, shouting that the senators should ask Negroponte about the death squads he helped to defend in Honduras in the 1980s, the senators acted as if they didn’t hear the man. Yet the unasked questions -- about Negroponte’s key role in the Reagan administration’s 1980s contra war against the left-wing Sandinista government in Nicaragua -- tell a lot about what Washington expects from Negroponte.

The contra operation may have had better-known and more flamboyant champions -- from President Ronald Reagan to then-Lt. Col. Oliver North. But no one was more important in providing political and ideological cover for Washington’s secret war than Negroponte, the U.S. ambassador to Honduras from 1981 to 1985.

Honduras became the main staging ground for attacks on Nicaragua by the right-wing contra army. A huge increase in military aid turned Honduras into a virtual U.S. base. Meanwhile, the Honduran military used its power to suppress not only those in the country who opposed the contra war, but also virtually anyone who fought for human rights and workers’ rights.

The main vehicle of repression was a special unit of the Honduran army called Battalion 316, led by a fanatical anticommunist Gen. Gustavo Álvarez Martínez. Álvarez was a graduate of the U.S. military’s School of the Americas and trainee under the Argentinean military junta during its "dirty war" against the left.

Back in Honduras, he used Battalion 316 to carry out his own dirty war. Formed on the recommendation of the CIA, Battalion 316 "disappeared" and murdered hundreds of leftists, unionists and other dissidents, and tortured hundreds of others.

In addition to facilitating U.S. aid to Honduras’ military thugs, Negroponte orchestrated the official cover-up of their atrocities, according to an excellent report by Stephen Kinzer published in the New York Review of Books in 2001. A 1994 CIA investigation confirmed this, quoting a diplomat who said that the U.S. embassy (i.e. Negroponte) actively suppressed information about Honduran atrocities because it "would reflect negatively on Honduras and would not be beneficial in carrying out U.S. policy."

Required to rule each year on Honduras’ eligibility to receive U.S. military aid based on its human rights record, Negroponte never failed to give glowing reports. Sounding like a Stalinist bureaucrat defending himself against charges of imprisoning dissidents, he insisted that "there are no political prisoners in Honduras" in a 1983 report. When a Senate panel questioned him about Battalion 316 in 1989, Negroponte asserted: "I have never seen any convincing substantiation that they were involved in death squad-type activities."

Negroponte also defended Álvarez as a man "committed to the constitutional process" and human rights--a characterization that even other Honduran military chiefs didn’t buy. In 1984, fearing that Álvarez planned to seize power and declare himself dictator, Honduran generals staged a coup and forced Álvarez into exile.

Negroponte also actively intervened in Honduran politics to silence opponents of U.S. policy. For example, when Juan Almendares--a vocal critic of the U.S.--won reelection as rector of the Autonomous University of Honduras in 1982, his victory was challenged in court. Honduras’ Supreme Court voided Almendares’ election--after Negroponte, Álvarez and the country’s titular President Robert Suazo Córdoba met with the justices and strongly "suggested" which way they vote, according to Kinzer.

In an administration known for putting foxes in charge of henhouses--for instance, appointing lobbyists for the timber industry to protect the nation’s forests--the appointment of Negroponte is a rare honest admission. He’s the perfect choice for the jobs he’ll be handed when he gets to Baghdad.

Jobs like organizing "private contractors" and shadowy militias into death squads against "insurgents." Or directing the torture of suspects in Iraq’s military prisons. Or turning the U.S. embassy into the biggest nest of spies in the region. For sure, Negroponte will be Washington’s man in Baghdad just as he was Washington’s man in Honduras.

Lance Selfa writes for the Socialist Worker. This article first appeared on the SW website: www.socialistworker.org.