Remember Mullah Omar, leader of the Taliban, the Islamist movement that mis-governed the failed state of Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001? He and the Taliban played host to Osama bin Laden, providing him and his al Qaeda organization a safe haven from where they could plot terror attacks and train recruits who came to Afghanistan from every corner of the globe.
Well, it turns out that Mullah Omar has much in common with _ may even have patterned his career after _ John Negroponte, the veteran diplomat who the Senate has now confirmed for the post of U.S. Ambassador to Iraq, where he’ll oversee the largest embassy and CIA station in the world.
You see, the most important chapter in Negroponte’s career took place in the failed state of Honduras. From 1981 to 1985 he was the most powerful figure in that banana republic, just as Mullah Omar was The Man 15 years later in Afghanistan. And while Omar welcomed and protected bin Laden and al Qaeda, Negroponte arranged for Honduras to provide sanctuary for the nastiest terrorist group in the entire Western Hemisphere: the contras.
Yes, the contras. You may remember them as the outfit hailed by President Ronald Reagan as “the moral equivalent of the Founding Fathers.” But the voluminous reports of Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International show that my characterization, not Reagan’s, is the correct one.
Precise body counts are hard to come by, but the contras may well have killed more defensiveless civilians in the 1980s than al Qaeda has killed in its decade of terror _ albeit one slit throat at a time rather than 3,000 blown up one day in New York and 2,000 another day in Africa, among other al Qaeda atrocities.
Negroponte was dispatched to Honduras in 1981 to replace U.S. ambassador Jack Binns, who had provoked the wrath of the Reagan administration. Binns was concerned over escalating torture and killings by Honduran security forces at a time when U.S. policy was to hush up such crimes. From the Reaganites’ perspective, Binns just didn’t have the right stuff to supervise what was about to become the largest U.S. embassy in Central America and the transformation of large chunks of Honduras into a sanctuary and training facility for cold-blooded killers.
The Reagan team in 1981 had an unstated policy of “regime change” in Nicaragua, although it pretended to Congress and the media (yep, both were lapdogs then, just like now!) that its actual goal was to stop the alleged flow of Weapons of Minimal Destruction (small arms and the like) from Nicaragua, overland through Honduras, and on to El Salvador, where Marxist guerrillas had the audacity to resist a 50-year-old <U.S.-backed> military dictatorship that, in 1980-81 alone, had killed 20,000 or so civilians.
But the arms flow was largely illusory (another parallel to the present), particularly by the time Negroponte arrived in Honduras. The Reaganites’ pretense that the contras’ mission was to interdict the alleged arms flow was a necessary lie to get a spineless and gullible Congress to fund the project. In fact, the Reaganites were all about regime change, and their chosen instrument would be led by former officers of the Nicaraguan National Guard _ itself a <U.S.-trained> outfit that killed 30-40,000 Nicaraguan civilians from 1977-79 in a vain attempt to keep in power the long-time <U.S.-backed> dictator Anastasio Somoza.
The new outfit came to be known as “contras” _ short for counter-revolutionaries, for the regime the Reaganites wanted to change was the Marxist-oriented Sandinista government. Whether called Guardsmen or contras, these guys were darn good at killing nurses and teachers, and absolutely fearless in executing captured and disarmed enemy combatants _ executions that were standard operating procedure. But the Guardia pedigree and cutthroat tactics prevented the contras from functioning as a true guerrilla force, where you live among the people you’re ostensibly liberating and rely on them for food, shelter and information. Hence the need for a sanctuary in a neighboring failed state run by corrupt, authoritarian army officers and an imperious U.S. ambassador, John Negroponte.
Without that sanctuary, the contras wouldn’t have lasted a month. With it, they terrorized for a decade. Relying on the U.S. for food, intelligence, arms and assassination manuals, they’d maraud through the Nicaraguan countryside for a spell, then retreat to their safe haven when they needed a break from raping, torturing and killing. Actually, they also committed such crimes in their Honduran camps, albeit at a more leisurely pace.
Unfortunately, the Nicaraguan government didn’t have the firepower or the gumption to blow up the contra camps and topple the <U.S.-controlled> Honduran cabal that sustained the contras. Probably just as well, for if the Sandinistas had done so, the Reaganites would have destroyed Nicaragua and the U.S. media would have cheered the destruction. That’s because only the U.S. has the right to attack a state that harbors terrorists who’ve killed thousands of its citizens.
Negroponte’s pretend job in Honduras was to implement the pretend U.S. policy of democracy promotion. (Sound familiar?) His real job was to prevent any meaningful democracy, and to ensure that key foreign-policy decisions were made not by the democratic facade _ the irrelevant Honduran president and legislature _ but by two hard-nosed, hard-line SOBs: Negroponte and the head of the armed forces, General Gustavo Alvarez.
Thus, in the name of “democracy,” Negroponte and the Reaganites not only supported military rule, they even prevented the military from practicing democracy (“one colonel, one vote”) within its own institution! Alvarez’s extremist views and repressive policies did not reflect a consensus within the army. Many officers believed Alvarez had prostituted the nation, sold it body-and-soul to Uncle Sam. And there were rumblings over the escalating torture and killings perpetrated by a CIA-backed army unit, Battalion 316.
So in 1984, right under Negroponte’s nose, a group of officers overthrew Alvarez! This was treated in the U.S. as a “change of government,” and rightly so. But democracies don’t “change government” when army officers oust their boss, because in a democracy the army chief is not “the government.” If Negroponte and the Reaganites had believed their own rhetoric about Honduran democracy, Alvarez’s ouster would not have been a big deal, because Honduras still had the same president and legislature. But it was a big deal. Really big.
Negroponte and the CIA swung into action, confident they could marginalize a faction of reformist army officers who supported the ouster of Alvarez and wanted the new army chief to reduce repression and re-claim Honduran sovereignty. Using such time-honored democracy-enhancing and sovereignty-respecting tactics as bribery and arm-twisting, the U.S. team averted the crisis. It was a slow process, but by late 1985 (at which point Negroponte had moved on) the reformers were isolated and army power rested with a clique of CIA-bought rightwing officers.
Negroponte’s team also subverted contra-affiliated individuals and groups.
Edgar Chamorro, a contra PR official whose duties included bribing Honduran journalists, received praise from his CIA handlers when he lied to U.S. reporters about the goals of the contras. But he was read the riot act on those rare occasions when he let the truth slip out, either about real goals or the routine nature of contra atrocities. Sickened by the atrocities and his role as a paid deceiver, Chamorro resigned and told his story in a sworn affadavit to the World Court in 1985.
In a letter published in the Jan. 9, 1986 New York Times, he described the end results of one particular policy countenanced by the Reagan-CIA-Negroponte crowd: “During my four years as a ‘contra’ director, it was premeditated policy to terrorize civilian noncombatants to prevent them from cooperating with the [Sandinista] Government. Hundreds of civilian murders, tortures and rapes were committed in pursuit of this policy, of which the contra leaders and their CIA superiors were well aware.”
James LeMoyne reported in the June 7, 1987 New York Times on U.S. “support” for the Miskito faction of the contras: “Top Indian leaders and diplomats in Tegucigalpa [the Honduran capital] say that for the last five years, the CIA has relied on bribes, threats and the exile of selected Indian officials to prevent the Indians from choosing their own leaders, because it feared losing control of the Miskitos and also feared they might choose not to fight.”
That is the reality behind the rhetoric of “promoting democracy,” Reagan-style: thuggish tactics to prevent people from freely choosing their own leaders who would set their own course.
My guess is that when young Negroponte decided to pursue a career in diplomacy, he didn’t anticipate an assignment where he would be required to subvert an impoverished country’s institutions to ensure rule by a corrupt, brutal military that would rent out its country to <U.S.-trained> terrorists. But the assignment came, and Negroponte carried it out. He’s obviously very bright and capable, but also amoral if not immoral.
What will his real duties be in Iraq? Will he be promoting a transition to genuine Iraqi sovereignty and democracy, or merely the appearance? He’ll be supervising a huge staff of diplomats and intelligence officers. Will they respect Iraqis, or will they engage in massive bribery and other dirty tricks to manipulate and subvert Iraqi institutions and individuals? Is the real goal to purchase influence over so wide a range of Iraqis that even a freely elected government in 2005 will end up serving U.S. strategic and economic interests at the expense of Iraq’s own needs and aspirations?
Negroponte is capable of promoting either real or fake democracy, and history shows that if asked to do the latter he’ll nevertheless tell Congress and the media he’s doing the former. And that leads to our closing parallel: The current U.S. president, just like the one we had when Negroponte was in Honduras, has a great appreciation for underlings who make false or misleading statements to keep the U.S. Congress and citizenry in the dark. Iraq is not the only nation in need of a transparent and genuine democracy.
DENNIS HANS is a freelance writer who has taught courses in mass communications and American foreign policy at the University of South Florida-St. Petersburg. Prior to the Iraq war he wrote “Lying Us Into War: Exposing Bush and His ‘Techniques of Deceit‘” and “The Disinformation Age“. He can be reached at: HANS_D@popmail.firn.edu