You've come to an old part of SW Online. We're still moving this and other older stories into our new format. In the meanwhile, click here to go to the current home page.
John Negroponte: Washington's dirty warrior

March 4, 2005 | Page 5

LEE SUSTAR looks at the U.S. government's dirty war on Central America in the 1980s and how it has become a model for Iraq and the Middle East.

THE SEQUENCE is different, but the elements are similar, and even the personnel executing the policy is the same. A U.S. invasion to carry out a "regime change," destabilization of neighboring countries through economic sanctions and military pressure, dirty wars to eliminate popular opposition--all dressed up with elections at gunpoint and a "peace plan" that consolidates Washington's imperial power.

As it was in Central America in the 1980s, so it is today in Iraq and the Middle East.

The parallels are even more obvious in the person of John Negroponte, the U.S. ambassador to Iraq until he was named to the new post of Director of National Intelligence. As the ambassador to Honduras in the 1980s, Negroponte orchestrated U.S. counterrevolutionary measures in neighboring Nicaragua and El Salvador.

The Negroponte connection highlights how the mixture of military force and manufactured democracy in the Middle East is based on a template used in Central America under Ronald Regan.

Reagan campaigned for president in 1980 claiming that the "communist" Sandinista Revolution in Nicaragua the previous year, which had ousted the Somoza family dictatorship, would soon spread to the U.S. border. This was nonsense, but it reflected Washington's determination to draw the line after its defeat in Vietnam--a goal that was shared by both major parties. "It's another Vietnam, and it's in this hemisphere," said Democratic Rep. John Murphy of New York.

U.S. imperialism had gathered its strength in the early 20th century with repeated interventions in Central America and the Caribbean; a loss of U.S. dominance was unthinkable.

Democratic President Jimmy Carter first offered aid to Nicaragua after the 1979 revolution that toppled the dictator Anastasio Somoza--but simultaneously intervened to support a "democratic center" in Central America that would bring modest reforms and isolate the revolutionary left.

In socially polarized El Salvador, Carter's State Department tried to avert a civil war by orchestrating a transition of power from a military regime to a civilian junta. State Department personnel championed the kind of moderate land reform that had failed in Vietnam. In any case, the Salvadoran military continued to run the show, systematically murdering trade unionists and leftists.

Meanwhile, the Carter administration ramped up military aid to the dictatorship in neighboring Honduras to further pressure Nicaragua and spread fake accounts of Russian troops in Cuba.

By July 1980, wrote author and activist George Black, "the die had already been clearly cast--military aid to Honduras, repression in El Salvador, subversion and militarization of the Caribbean. Months before Reagan set foot in the White House, the USA had committed itself to holding the line against any repeats of the Nicaraguan Revolution."

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

THE INCOMING Reagan administration added an important new element to Carter's policies: a U.S. military buildup in Honduras itself and the use of the country as a base for a Washington-funded Nicaraguan counterrevolutionary army--the contras.

The first order of business was the "democratization" of Honduras, with the military bowing to Washington's demands for an elected government that wasn't pre-selected by the armed forces. But the newly elected civilian government that took office in 1982 soon found that the man in charge was really Col. Gustavo Álvarez Martinez, who had run the previous government's security forces.

Trained in Argentina under the murderous military dictatorship, as well at the U.S. military's School of the Americas, Álvarez had been on the payroll of the U.S. company Standard Fruit--for which he repressed organizers of a peasants' cooperative. Álvarez had already negotiated a deal with the CIA and the Pentagon before Honduras' election. He was soon promoted to general and minister of defense, while the U.S. built 19 military bases, airstrips and roads to the Nicaraguan border.

As many as 24,000 U.S. troops rotated through the bases, and 5,000 U.S. soldiers took part in the "Big Pine" military exercises with a small number of Honduran troops. In little more than a year, a country with a population of just 4.3 million had become the eighth-largest recipient of U.S. aid. Michael Sheehan, then a captain with the Army's Special Forces operations, summed up the U.S. perspective on Honduras: "This dump is the center of the world now."

And John Negroponte was in charge.

Shortly before the 2001 Senate hearings to confirm Negroponte as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, journalist Stephen Kinzer recalled the scene in the early 1980s at the Maya Hotel in the Honduras capital of Tegucigalpa. "Counterrevolutionaries hatched bloody plots over breakfast beside the pool," he wrote. "You could buy a machine gun at the bar. Busloads of crew-cut Americans would arrive from the airport at times when I knew there were no commercial flights landing, spend the night, and then ship out before dawn; they said they didn't know where they were going, and I believed them. Friends told me that death squad torturers stopped in for steak before setting off on their night's work."

Negroponte professed to know nothing about human rights violations in Central America, despite numerous reports of repressive activity. Indeed, at the forefront of the dirty war was the CIA Battalion 316, which, according to numerous investigations, was involved in the kidnapping, torture and murder of hundreds of civilians.

Álvarez was ousted in 1984 by other military officers, and Negroponte left Honduras the following year. But the U.S. war on Nicaragua continued, with the contras torching villages and murdering unarmed civilians. The CIA participated directly with rocket attacks and economic sabotage, including the mining of Nicaragua's harbors.

The Iran-contra scandal broke the U.S.'s momentum and definitively ended the possibility of a U.S. invasion of Central America. The capture of a CIA contractor pilot led to the exposure of Washington's sales of weapons to Iran in exchange for the release of hostages in Lebanon; the funds went to aid to the contras.

A series of negotiations ensued in which the Sandinista government--forced to spend more than half its budget on defense--agreed to reintegrate the contras into political life as the war wound down.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

A U.S. invasion did take place in Central America in December 1989--but in Panama, where the U.S. already had major installations around the Panama Canal.

The immediate aim of George Bush Sr.'s administration was the ouster and capture of Panamanian strongman Manuel Noriega due to his alleged involvement in drug smuggling and repression. But Noriega's real crime in Washington's eyes was his involvement in the networks of arms and drug dealing connected with funding the contras.

The invasion killed thousands of Panamanian citizens--the exact figures are unknown because U.S. troops buried the bodies in mass graves. Taking place just weeks after revolutions that overthrew the Stalinist dictatorships of Eastern Europe, the invasion also sent a signal to the world about a newly aggressive U.S. foreign policy.

A couple of months later, the U.S. finally got the victory it sought in Nicaragua when the Sandinistas were voted out of power.

The U.S government had funded the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), which supported the conservative opposition in the election. The NED poured $9 million into the vote--more than triple the amount it had spent on previous elections in other countries--even though only 1.6 million people voted. The conservative alliance also received nearly $100 million in other U.S. government aid targeted for the "Nicaraguan resistance." With this backing from the U.S.--and the Nicaraguan economy shattered by a decade of war--the opposition prevailed.

Today, Central America is once again in the U.S. crosshairs--this time through the proposed Central America Free Trade Agreement, which would enable U.S. corporations to gain control of the region's biodiversity and further exploit cheap labor in the maquiladora factories of these impoverished countries.

In Iraq and the Middle East, the stakes are higher and the situation more complex. But the U.S. aim is essentially the same: a mix of military force and "democratization" to impose Washington's will no matter what the cost in deaths and shattered lives.

The experience of Central America in the Negroponte years is a warning about what to expect from John Negroponte as super-spy--and another reason to step up efforts to end the U.S. occupation of Iraq.

Home page | Back to the top