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Appointees spark controversy

Special to the National Catholic Reporter

Despite recent claims that he wants to chart new waters in Latin American relations, President Bush is pressing ahead with filling key foreign policy posts with figures connected to Oliver North and Washington’s secret war on Nicaragua in the 1980s.

Bush has set off alarm bells among human rights groups with his nominees for the U.N. ambassador and the top state department post for Latin American affairs, along with his appointment of a convicted Reagan administration official to head a National Security Council office.

While closely linked to the Reagan administration effort to overthrow the democratically elected Sandinistas in Nicaragua, the three controversial appointees -- John Negroponte, Otto Reich and Elliott Abrams -- all served in the 1980s as instruments of a wider U.S. policy to train and arm right-wing militaries in Central America.

The appointments are “a huge step backward in U.S.-Latin American relations,” said Jeff Winder, a director with School of the Americas Watch. The organization tracks graduates of the U.S. Army School of the Americas, now called the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation. Graduates of the school have been involved in human rights abuses throughout Latin America. “They represent a decision by the Bush administration to embrace the shameful legacy of suffering and death caused by U.S. foreign policy in Latin America during the 1980s,” Winder said.

Bush’s pick for U.N. ambassador, John Negroponte, was the U.S. ambassador to Honduras from 1981-85 when a U.S.-trained death squad known as Battalion 316 tortured and murdered scores of activists and possibly a U.S. priest. Negroponte helped arm the Nicaraguan contras, former Somoza National Guardsmen who operated out of Honduras while attempting to overthrow the Sandinistas.

Bush’s nominee as the assistant secretary of state for the Western Hemisphere, Otto Reich, is a hard-line Cuban-American who ran the Office of Public Diplomacy for Latin America and the Caribbean out of the State Department in the 1980s.

‘Covert propaganda activities’

While Reich was never charged with a crime, a 1987 report by the General Accounting Office, the investigative arm of Congress, concluded that his office “engaged in prohibited, covert propaganda activities designed to influence the media and the public to support the administration’s Latin American policies.” The office took orders from Oliver North, a national security aide to Reagan who ran the operation to fund the contras in the 1980s and was convicted of three charges related to the Iran-contra scandal. The office, staffed with military and intelligence “psychological warfare” specialists, planted op-ed pieces in major newspapers and tried to discredit opponents of the U.S.-backed contras and critics of Reagan administration foreign policy.

Elliott Abrams is already operating in the Bush administration as the senior director of the National Security Council’s office for democracy, human rights and international operations. Abrams, who worked closely with North in seeking illegal funding for the contras, was convicted of the lesser charges of withholding information from Congress during the Iran-contra investigations and was later pardoned by the first George Bush.

Abrams assumed his current post without public scrutiny because the position does not require Senate confirmation. The nominations of Negroponte and Reich have stalled in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which is trying to obtain classified documents on their activities in the 1980s.

Meanwhile, Bush has already succeeded in getting the Senate committee to endorse his nominee for ambassador to the Organization of American States: Roger Noriega, Jesse Helms’ longtime Latin America adviser.

What’s more, Bush is expected to name Adolfo Franco, the former counsel at the Inter-American Foundation with close ties to the Cuban American right, to the Latin American post for the Agency for International Development, said George Vickers, executive director for the Washington Office on Latin America, a human rights organization.

Pressure from Helms, Powell

“The message here is that the Cuban-American right in particular, and more generally, people who represent the most conservative and hard-line policies are being named to the key Latin American posts,” Vickers said.

“I’m worried about the message it sends to Latin America,” he said. “Bush goes up to Ontario and says he wants a new cooperative relationship, that the U.S. wants to promote trade, a more equal partnership with the countries in the hemisphere, and then he names all the people who represent a period and a policy where the U.S. dictated to the other countries and twisted their arms.”

Negroponte’s nomination has been held up by questions about his former role in Nicaragua despite pressure from Jesse Helms and Secretary of State Colin Powell, who has called Negroponte “one of the most distinguished foreign services officers and American public servants I have ever known.” Negoponte served as Powell’s deputy national security adviser under Reagan.

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee has put off a hearing on the nomination until September, reportedly awaiting a classified Pentagon report. Human rights groups say the report could shed light on what Negroponte knew about the abuses of the Honduran military, especially Battalion 316.

“It’s critical to study the historical record, but unfortunately much of that record is still classified and secret and not accessible, some not even to the Senate committee,” said Susan Peacock, co-author of In Search of Hidden Truths, a book about ongoing efforts to obtain U.S. and Argentine documents about human rights abuses in Honduras.

Negroponte has claimed he never saw any credible evidence of human rights abuses by Battalion 316. But Jimmy Carter’s Honduran ambassador, Jack Binns, has said he prepared a briefing book for Negroponte that addressed the rise of abuses by the military.

Honduran newspapers carried hundreds of stories about the abuses at the time, and a recent Los Angeles Times investigation concluded that Negroponte quashed several reports of Honduran military abuses, “including one U.S.-backed operation that resulted in the execution of nine prisoners and the disappearance of an American priest,” Fr. James Carney.

Furthermore, the battalion was trained and armed by the United States. The death squad’s creator, Gen. Gustavo Alvarez, and his top officers were trained at the U.S. Army School of the Americas.

One graduate of the school, Honduran Gen. Luis Alonso Discua, who succeeded Alvarez as the battalion commander, could tell the Senate panel plenty about Negroponte’s dealings with the Honduran military. Discua -- Honduras’ deputy U.N. ambassador since 1996 -- once said he held onto CIA documents as protection against being accused of wrongdoing. This spring, shortly before Negroponte’s nomination was announced, the United States speedily revoked Discua’s visa on grounds that he had been living outside New York, a fact that had been known for years.

According to Holly Sklar, author of Washington’s War on Nicaragua, Otto Reich, Bush’s nominee as the assistant secretary of state for the Western Hemisphere, was once an instructor at the School of the Americas.

Reich, whose nomination is seen as a payoff to right-wing Cubans who supported Bush in Florida’s contentious election, is currently a corporate lobbyist for British American Tobacco, Bacardi rum and Lockheed Martin, for whom he helped sell F-16 fighter planes to Chile.

‘Public diplomacy’

In the 1980s, his so-called Office of Public Diplomacy misled the U.S. public about the Reagan administration’s wars in Nicaragua and El Salvador. “Public diplomacy,” according to the Congressional Iran-Contra Report, meant “public relations lobbying, all at taxpayers’ expense.” Besides disseminating false information, the office targeted and tried to discredit critics and journalists who questioned the administration’s Central American policies.

“He wasn’t reporting through State Department channels but he was reporting directly to North at the National Security Council,” Vickers of the Washington Office on Latin America said. “He put out a great deal of information justifying armies in more than one country that were committing hideous human rights abuses and he misled Congress about all of this, but the law was vague enough they weren’t sure they could convict him.”

In 1986 Reich’s office was swept under Abrams, then the assistant secretary of state for inter-America affairs. Abrams used his office to strong-arm Latin American presidents to support the contra cause. In 1986, he got Honduran President Jose Azcona to falsely declare that a 1986 Nicaraguan raid on secret contra bases on the Honduran border was an invasion of Honduras, prompting the Senate to approve contra aid.

In the same year, he flew to Costa Rica to pressure President Oscar Arias to turn a blind eye to contra activity inside his borders. A short time later, Abrams and North threatened a cut off of all U.S. aid if Arias shut down an airstrip used by the contras in Santa Elena.

Along with helping North evade a Congressional ban on contra funding, Abrams also cast doubt on abuses by the Salvadoran military and downplayed atrocities such as the El Mozote massacre, where 700 unarmed men, women and children were slaughtered.

National Catholic Reporter, August 10, 2001