Sunday, May 14, 2006

Film Exposes Negroponte’s Human-Rights Abuses

Copyright © 2006 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

On September 13, 2001 — just two days after the terrorist attacks on New York City and Washington, D.C. that supposedly “changed everything” — it was business as usual in a U.S. Senate hearing room, where the Senate Foreign Relations Committee was considering President Bush’s nomination of John Dimitri Negroponte as ambassador to the United Nations. One man in the audience, Andreas Tomás Gutierrez, came to the hearing with a mission: to do what he could to expose Negroponte’s involvement in death-squad killings and other human-rights abuses in Honduras during the early 1980’s, when he was U.S. ambassador there.

Gutierrez had been asked to go to Negroponte’s hearing by Sonida Velasquez, Honduran human-rights activist and sister of one of the victims: Manfredo Velasquez, who had “disappeared” on September 12, 1981. “She called me and asked me to go to the hearing and carry a sign saying, ‘Manfredo Velasquez, presente,’” Gutierrez recalled at the First Unitarian-Universalist Church in Hillcrest May 10. “I couldn’t make the first scheduled hearing date — September 12, 2001 — because I was supposed to go to New York to do some translation work. Then 9/11 happened, and Negroponte’s hearing was rescheduled — but just by one day because they wanted to rush it through — and I was able to go after all.”

Originally Gutierrez had intended only to do what Sonida Velasquez asked him — sit through the hearing silently with the sign memorializing her brother — but he was so appalled by the lies Negroponte told the committee he decided on the spot to disrupt the hearing. “I gave my friend Kathy the keys to my car and told her, ‘I have to do something,’” Gutierrez said. “I stood up and said, ‘The people of Honduras consider you to be a state terrorist.’”

Unlike Cindy Sheehan, who got arrested for showing up at President Bush’s 2006 State of the Union address wearing a T-shirt commemorating the U.S. servicemembers killed in Iraq, Gutierrez managed to avoid being taken into custody. “The D.C. police were on me very quickly and were very confused,” he recalled. “The Democrats were in power in the Senate at the time and Joe Biden was chair of the committee. It was his call to decide whether I’d be arrested. They held me in the hallway and the press started asking me questions, while the police still didn’t know whether to arrest me or not. Ultimately they decided not to, because they didn’t want a news story about someone in the Capitol disrupting a hearing two days after 9/11.”

Gutierrez spoke to the audience as part of an event sponsored by the church’s Peace and Democracy Action Group, which included a showing of an hour-long documentary film about Negroponte that explained exactly why many Honduran people would consider him a state terrorist. The film, The Ambassador [Ambassadøren], was directed by Norwegian filmmaker Erling Borgen for Norwegian TV in 2005. The church’s copy was in English, though an occasional insert — like a map of central America which identified the Caribbean Sea in Norwegian — gave away its national origins.

According to Gutierrez, he worked as a consultant on the film, mostly by talking to his friends in the Honduran human-rights movement and getting them to participate in the production. He’s not listed in the screen credits because, he explained, Borgen saw himself as a journalist and Gutierrez as an activist, and felt that with his name listed people would see the film as activist propaganda against Negroponte rather than honest journalism.

But the film is a meticulous indictment against Negroponte, highlighting not only his history of human-rights abuses but his consistent promotion from job to job under the presidencies of Reagan and both Bushes. Negroponte began as a low-level attaché in the U.S. embassy in South Viet Nam during the Viet Nam war in the 1960’s. He attracted the attention of Henry Kissinger, who picked Negroponte as his assistant in the peace negotiations in Paris — where, according to Gutierrez, he took a harder-line stand than Kissinger’s and urged him to sabotage the negotiations and keep the war going.

In 1981, President Reagan appointed Negroponte U.S. ambassador to Honduras to replace another ambassador, a Carter appointee who’d upset the Honduran military by sending the State Department reports on its human-rights abuses. At the time, Honduras had a nominal civilian president but the country’s real ruler was General Alvarez, an Argentinian-trained army officer who’d organized his own death squad, “Battalion 316,” to carry out extra-judicial killings of activists and political opponents of the regime. According to the film, Negroponte and Alvarez worked closely together to destroy political opposition and murder people the general or the ambassador considered “subversive.” According to Gutierrez, Negroponte and Alvarez were such close friends they became compadres — making Alvarez the godfather to Negroponte’s children — and it was Negroponte’s denial at his Senate hearing of any knowledge of “Battalion 316” during his ambassadorship that led Gutierrez to make his outburst.

Though Alvarez was overthrown in a coup by other Honduran officers in 1984 and Negroponte’s ambassadorship ended a year later, Gutierrez said, “The years Negroponte was head of the wars in central America were those in which the seeds were put in place for Iran-contra.” The contras — U.S.-backed rebels dedicated to launching a civil war in Nicaragua to overthrow the Leftist Sandinista government, which had taken power in a revolution in 1978 — trained in Honduras, and many of the people who trained them were Honduran military officers who had themselves been trained in Argentina. According to Gutierrez, many of these officers taught the contras the tricks they’d learned from the Argentinian officers who ran that country in the late 1970’s, including kidnapping political activists and dissidents so no one from their families would know what happened to them — the so-called desaparecidos or “disappeared” — and killing them by pushing them out of airplanes in midair.

The film The Ambassador repeats two clips of Negroponte from the September 13, 2001 hearing. In one he says, “One human rights abuse is one too many.” In the other, he claims that there were no “systemic” human-rights abuses by the Honduran government or military during his tenure there — a claim the film shows to have been a lie. Unlike some other Left-leaning political documentaries, The Ambassador takes pains not only to argue that Negroponte bore some overall responsibility for the Honduran military’s abuses but to tie him to specific cases in which people were killed or otherwise punished for opposing the regime. In one chilling sequence, Borgen interviews the former president of the autonomous university in Tegucigalpas, the Honduran capital, who was re-elected by the faculty and students but needed ratification by the Honduran supreme court to continue in that position. Negroponte and Alvarez personally visited the supreme court justices to intimidate them into vetoing the university president’s re-election because he had been publicly critical of the Honduran military’s suppression of political dissent.

Negroponte was well rewarded for his role in aiding the Honduran military and supporting the contras. By the end of the 1980’s he was the U.S. ambassador to Mexico, where he was serving when the North American Free-Trade Agreement (NAFTA) was signed and when the Mexican government brutally repressed some student demonstrators. When the current President Bush took office, he nominated Negroponte as U.N. ambassador in 2001 and ambassador to Iraq in 2004. The Iraq appointment was part of a strategy to shift control from the “Coalition Provisional Authority,” which had directly governed Iraq after the U.S. conquered it in 2003, to a nominally independent Iraqi government closely supervised by a so-called “embassy” which would be the largest U.S. diplomatic establishment in the world and would effectively dictate to the Iraqi “government.”

In 2005 Bush tabbed Negroponte for an even bigger job: the first U.S. Director of National Intelligence (DNI), coordinating the work of all U.S. intelligence agencies, including the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and the National Security Agency (NSA). Once he was appointed DNI, Negroponte picked Air Force General Michael Hayden, head of the NSA from 1996 to 2005 and the man who implemented the Bush administration’s controversial programs to wiretap phone calls between Americans and people in other countries and log the phone numbers of every call made by users of three of the four largest U.S. phone companies. According to mainstream news reports, Negroponte’s micromanagement of the intelligence agencies under his supervision upset CIA director Porter Goss so much that Goss resigned after just 18 months in that job — whereupon Bush immediately chose Hayden, Negroponte’s deputy, to replace him.

Many of the members of the church audience were veterans of the solidarity movements which had opposed U.S. support for the contras in the 1980’s, and a lot of the questions Gutierrez got were about current politics in Latin America. Audience members were especially interested in the growing number of Left-leaning presidents being elected there and the chances that the U.S. will stage or support coups to get rid of them the way they did in Guatemala in 1954, Brazil in 1964 and Chile in 1973. Gutierrez said, not surprisingly, that the biggest thorn in the side of the U.S. in terms of its position in Latin America is Hugo Chávez, the president of Venezuela, who so far has survived not only a coup but several attempts to remove him from office through electoral means.

“Chávez has been re-elected three times and has tremendous support in his country,” Gutierrez said. “Venezuela is in the U.S. interest because of its oil. Some people hav e said that if it weren’t for Iraq, the U.S. would be invading Venezuela now. Because the American Empire is overreaching, as all empires do before they fall, some in the administration are saying we shouldn’t invade Iran or Venezuela” — including Negroponte himself, who had been on the Sunday network news shows the weekend before the meeting to question the idea of a military strike on Iran. But Gutierrez stressed that the U.S. government “has their eye” on the situation in Venezuela, even if they choose not to intervene militarily at this time.

Asked if anyone in the U.S. diplomatic service today is playing a role similar to Negroponte’s in Honduras in the 1980’s, Gutierrez mentioned his namesake, the U.S. ambassador to Argentina — who formerly served in Nicaragua — who’s “a gusano Cuban, very anti-Castro. But there’s no one now who compares to Negroponte or wields that much power.” Gutierrez also mentioned that the U.S. has built an enormous military base in Manta, Ecuador — “the largest U.S. base in the Western hemisphere outside the U.S.” — and as a result, a group he’s associated with that seeks an international ban on countries maintaining military bases outside their own territory is planning its first worldwide convention for March 8, 2007 in Ecuador’s capital, Quito.

Regarding the upcoming elections in the three central American countries in whose internal conflicts Negroponte was most intimately involved in the 1980’s — Honduras, Nicaragua and El Salvador — Gutierrez said, “Honduras just had an election in which Hilda Rivera, the woman who was one of the students who was tortured in the 1980’s, is now the Secretary of State in Honduras. But Honduras is still a pretty conservative country. In El Salvador, the FMLN [the former guerrilla movement that fought the government in the 1980’s] is in parliament, but the government is still dominated by the ARENA party, formed by the military officers who killed Archbishop Romero in 1979. Nicaragua is facing a major election this year, and this could be the year [Sandinista leader] Daniel Ortega will be re-elected. The Bush administration is ardently against the Ortega candidacy.”

The film The Ambassador is still not available for general release in the U.S. Peace and Democracy Action Group coordinator Tanja Winter pledged her support to help find a U.S. distributor for the film so it can be seen widely. To help, please contact her at