Senate hearings to examine envoy's role in 1980s abuses

Critics say Negroponte, Bush nominee to U.N., ignored Honduran agony

September 07, 2001|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - The U.S. war against a leftist regime in Nicaragua in the 1980s will return to the spotlight next week when a Senate committee examines the career of President Bush's controversial nominee for ambassador to the United Nations.

John D. Negroponte, 62, served as Washington's ambassador to Honduras from 1981 to 1985, when the Republican administration of President Ronald Reagan enlisted Honduras as a staging ground for contra rebels seeking to oust the leftist Sandinista government of neighboring Nicaragua.

Critics say that to protect the relationship, Negroponte glossed over and might have suppressed damning evidence of human rights abuses committed by the U.S.-backed Honduran military in its crackdown on leftist elements.

At the time, the Democratic-controlled Congress and the Reagan administration were sharply at odds over Central America policy and such evidence would have given Reagan's critics added ammunition.

In 1995, The Sun published a series about a Honduran army unit, Battalion 316, that was trained and equipped by the CIA and which kidnapped, tortured and executed hundreds of suspected subversives during the 1980s. The articles showed that Negroponte had access to information about abuses committed by the battalion.

This slice of Cold War history might seem irrelevant when most of Latin America is solidly democratic and U.S. attention there has long since turned to trade and narcotics. But the underlying issues in Wednesday's Senate hearing remain fresh: how the United States reacts to human rights abuses by a key ally and the duty of a diplomat to furnish unvarnished reports.

Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Joseph R. Biden Jr., a Delaware Democrat, expressed confidence in early August that Negroponte would be approved by the committee and confirmed by the full Senate.

The White House hopes to have Negroponte on the job in time for Bush's speech to the United Nations on Sept. 24.

But the committee has been reviewing classified Central Intelligence Agency and State Department documents dating from Negroponte's tenure in Honduras and he is unlikely to escape tough questioning.

"There's going to be a full hearing that reviews the entire record of issues surrounding his service that will be raised and will have to be addressed," said Norm Kurz, Biden's spokesman. Biden, he said, wants to hear Negroponte's testimony and hopes to be able to vote for him.

A spokesman for the panel's Republicans, Lester Munson, said: "What the other side is engaging in here is trying to refight the wars of Central America of the 1980s - that they lost. The United States was on the side of the angels in the 1980s, and history since then has borne that out."

A focus of the questioning is likely to be the State Department's annual human rights reports to Congress on Honduras and how they contrasted with what actually was happening at the time. U.S. embassies gather information for the reports, although the final report is produced in Washington.

"Everyone's curious to hear from him today how much he knew about gross violations of human rights that were committed at the time that seemed not to capture his attention," said Jose Miguel Vivanco, executive director of the Americas division of Human Rights Watch.

Negroponte did not respond to a message left at his home yesterday. Nominees frequently refrain from public comments before they appear at a confirmation hearing.

A London-born, Yale-educated career diplomat, Negroponte served as ambassador to Mexico and the Philippines after his tour in Honduras and also worked in the White House on the National Security Council staff. Out of government for several years, he is now executive vice president for global markets at McGraw-Hill, an information services and publishing company.

The Sun's investigation showed that the CIA and U.S. Embassy knew of numerous abuses yet continued to support Battalion 316, collaborated with its leaders and kept the truth from getting into the embassy's annual human rights report, which was reviewed by Congress and had an impact on funding for the Reagan administration's program in Latin America.

Negroponte is one of at least three people instrumental in carrying out Reagan's Central America policy who have been tapped by Bush. Otto Reich, who led efforts to build public support for the policy, is awaiting a confirmation hearing for a State Department post. Elliott Abrams, under Reagan a key State Department official for Latin America, is now on the NSC staff, a post that does not require confirmation.

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