Career diplomat expected as negotiator on canal U.S.-Panama relationship to be determined

September 11, 1996|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- The State Department is expected to tap a controversial career diplomat, John D. Negroponte, to negotiate the future U.S. relationship with Panama once the canal and U.S. bases there revert to Panamanian control in the year 2000.

Negroponte served as U.S. ambassador to Honduras during the Reagan administration at a time when the Central American nation was a staging ground for American efforts to topple the leftist Sandinista regime in neighboring Nicaragua.

During his tenure, the Central Intelligence Agency trained and funded a Honduran military unit that tortured and killed hundreds of dissidents. The unit, Battalion 316, was the subject of a series of articles that appeared in The Sun last year.

Negroponte has since said that he worked diligently behind the scenes to prevent human rights abuses in Honduras during his tenure. State Department human rights reports for that period, relying on material supplied by his embassy, consistently misled Congress and the public about abuses perpetrated by the Honduran military.

Negroponte later denied that evidence was withheld from Washington.

Since serving in Honduras from 1981 to 1985, Negroponte has been ambassador to Mexico, and, most recently, ambassador to the Philippines until this summer. He has been awaiting a new assignment since leaving Manila.

Reached at home last night, the 57-year-old diplomat refused to confirm the description of his new post provided by others at the State Department. But he said, "It is my understanding that some announcement is on the verge of being made with respect to my next assignment."

Officials said the announcement could come as early as today.

State Department officials say the job involves developing a clear U.S. policy and then negotiating with Panama over the terms. No actual title has been assigned.

The big question facing the United States and Panama is whether any American military personnel should be stationed in Panama in the future. The U.S. Southern Command, headquarters for U.S. military activities in Central and Latin America, is due to be shifted from Panama to Miami next year.

The Republican-controlled Senate passed a nonbinding resolution this week urging that a new accord be reached with Panama allowing the United States to keep bases there. Exploratory talks between the two countries broke down last year over which country would pay for the bases.

It could not be learned yesterday whether Negroponte's expected new job requires Senate confirmation. Some congressional aides have predicted that he would run into opposition on Capitol Hill for any State Department post requiring confirmation because of his record in Honduras.

The CIA role in Honduras during the time Negroponte served as ambassador has been the subject of an internal agency review that has not yet been completed.

Pub Date: 9/11/96

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