Lopez: Negroponte, declassified

By Fernanda Lopez

KUBARK – The CIA’s declassified manual on counterintelligence and torture — opens with a preliminary disclaimer: “There is nothing mysterious about ‘questioning.’ ”

In KUBARK-speak, “questioning” presupposes a simple substitution: The “death threat” must be countered with requisite measures of brutality sufficient to culminate in confession or suicide. Rather than directly threatening subjects with death, agents should inspire within them a boundless disgust for life. Subjects should be blindfolded, doors slammed. Resistant prisoners must be defiled with their own excrement and often subjected to solitary confinement. This “impresses upon the subject [the sense that] he is cut off from the rest of the world.” Finally, the neurotic impulse must be exploited, and the subject demoralized so as to compel full confession.

At the height of the Latin American Cold War — during the Reagan administration’s war against Nicaragua’s Sandinista insurgency in the 1980s — Honduras became a repressive laboratory for counterintelligence. In particular, Honduras became a testing ground for KUBARK interrogation techniques during a pilot operation directly overseen by then-Ambassador John Negroponte ’60 between 1981 and 1985. (For contemporary resonance, think Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo and the recently closed CIA “black sites”). During this time, 200 Hondurans “disappeared,” countless scores tortured, and an unknown number massacred and entombed in undisclosed locations. Honduras was the United States’ sole ally in the region, its best-versed disciple in anti-communist theory and a military accomplice to Reagan’s fascistic policies toward “subversive” peoples.

In early 1981, Jack Binns, Negroponte’s predecessor, cabled Washington to express “deep … concern … at increasing evidence of officially sponsored/sanctioned assassinations” in Honduras. Not ready to relinquish USS Honduras — a common epithet for the U.S. military base during the 1980s — to the Hondurans, President Reagan swiftly retired Binns and appointed Negroponte to be the new head of embassy.

Where Binns had cautiously denounced Honduras’ nascent death squads; now Negroponte wined and dined them. In a 1983 cable, Negroponte praised General Gustavo Alvarez Martinez, chief torturer at Battalion 316 — “the KUBARK experimental lab” — for possessing such civil graces and “[commitments] to the constitutional process,” as warranted decoration (this in spite of accusations by Alvarez’s own colleagues that the general harbored dictatorial pretensions that culminated in his eventual ouster in 1984.)

Negroponte’s cables portrayed a Honduras “almost Scandinavian in its tranquility, a place where there were no murderous generals, no death squads, no political prisoners, no clandestine jails or cemeteries,” according to former New York Times correspondent Stephen Kinzer in his article “Our Man in Honduras” (Sept. 20, 2001). Negroponte’s self-conscious prevarications allowed Reagan’s regime to secure further Senate funding for the Contra War. During Negroponte’s term in office, U.S. military aid to the Contras increased from $4 million to $77 million. By 1985, “economic aid” — a clever euphemism for weapons supply — surpassed $200 million, making Honduras, with its population of 4 million, the eighth-largest recipient of American foreign aid.

In 1998 the CIA declassified several secret director-general reports, acknowledging that “the Honduran military committed hundreds of human rights abuses [in the 1980s], many of which were politically motivated and officially sanctioned,” and that this included “death squad activities.” The CIA cited “reporting inadequacies” by U.S. stations in Honduras as the contingency that “precluded its investigating” the Contra abuses.

Disingenuous or not, the CIA’s concession at least falsified important aspects of the farcical, almost utopic, Honduras which Negroponte to this day upholds. In 2001 Negroponte maintained: “I have never seen any convincing substantiation that they were involved in death-squad–type activities,” that the “Honduran government neither condones nor knowingly permits killings of a political or nonpolitical nature,” and that there were “no political prisoners in Honduras.”

But the diplomat par excellence is a schizophrenic performer. In a 1997 interview on the CNN’s Cold War series, he said the following: “Some of these regimes … may not have been as savory as Americans would have liked; they may have been dictators … when you would have been wanting to support democracy in the area. But with the turmoil that was there, it was perhaps not possible to do that.”

In 2001, President Bush nominated Negroponte to be U.S. ambassador to the U.N., a post requiring Congressional approval. Foreseeing that his selection’s legacy in Honduras might come under intense scrutiny, Bush responded with a characteristically preemptive strategy.

On March 25, 2001, the Los Angeles Times reported on the “sudden deportation from the United States of several former Honduran death-squad members who could have provided damaging testimony against Negroponte.” The Bush administration had pocketed Negroponte’s confirmation; it had also condemned Central America’s past to blanket amnesia. On a 1982 trip to Latin America, Reagan quipped: “You’d be surprised. They’re all individual countries down there.” A slap in the face, rivaled only by the U.S. Senate’s indifference to the Cold War’s harrowing genocide.

I do not believe that Honduras’ gory-scarlet cheeks can withstand another blow. In spite of this, Yale seems intent to privilege Mr. Negroponte with a lectureship here next fall.

Doubtless, “professor” Negroponte plans to distract students with faraway narratives about Cuba. Surely he does not plan to reminisce about Honduras. As NYU Professor Greg Grandin writes in “A Companion to Post-1945 America”: “Poets [have seen] the world in a grain of sand but only diplomatic historians” — and politicians, I might add — “could reduce the Latin American Cold War to a Cuban beach.”

I do not delude myself that petitions, words or even demonstrations can prevent Negroponte’s coming. Perhaps this is still the intergenerational power of KUBARK, impressing upon me the sense that Honduras will always “remain cut off from a world” of lawful retribution, historical redemption and justice.

For me, KUBARK was once a bedtime story: a mythical machine that reaped souls at dusk. Negroponte was a sinister folk tale. These popular legends were never as paralyzing to me then as they are now, when I — no longer cut off from the world — can ascertain their truth.

Shrouded in lux, I encounter veritas which is not veritas. In veritas, I also discover a lux too dark for tangible contestation. I encounter ideological propaganda, impunity, the usual handful of warmongers disguised as university historians. I see a war criminal about to don professors’ clothing. But there is nothing much mysterious about it anymore. The legend has been declassified.

Amid so much facticity, I can only ask the following of our University’s administration: Please rescind your invitation to Negroponte and thus redeem Lux et Veritas from the Chimera it presently finds itself in. Please invert the Reagan slapstick, and at last conceive the many worlds within a world that historians would otherwise forget.


  • Luke Berliner

    Thank god someone finally had the chutzpah to stand up and say something! Negroponte and his ilk - the many sponsors, mentors, and Yale buddies that advanced his career throughout the years - have NEVER had to answer for their criminal acts in Latin America. It's laughable and lamentable that Negroponte can sit and cogitate on Charlie Rose in with impunity.

  • This is America

    These are some quotes about what happened in Honduras under Negroponte's watch, from the School of the Americas Watch website:


    "(…) the order was to take everyone: parents, grandparents, kids, wives, everyone. It was very rare that anyone survived after being taken by my battalion. At first the children were abandoned in the park or the marketplace. But then General Alvarez Martinez said ‘These seeds will eventually bear fruit’. So we had to eliminate the children as well." -- SOA graduate who once was a member of a secret death squad in Honduras, Battalion 3-16. Gen. Alvarez Martinez was trained at the SOA. Four of the five ranking Honduran officers who organized death squads as part of Battalion 3-16 also are graduates.

    At least 19 key members of Honduran Battalion 3-16 graduated from the SOA. U.S. and Argentine advisors helped establish that death squad battalion around 1980. It operated in secrecy for years, until former members came forward to reveal its clandestine campaign of kidnappings, torture and disappearance. Members of the Battalion trained at the SOA on two, three, and even four separate occasions.

    Generals Gustavo Alvarez Martinez and Daniel Bali Castillo took a Joint Operations course at the SOA in 1978, just prior to establishing Battalion 3-16. General Luis Alonso Discua, first commander of the Battalion, took three courses at the SOA. General Juan Lopez Grijalva, second in command of the battalion throughout the early 80s, took three SOA courses. He was also a guest speaker at the SOA in 1991 and 1992, long after an Americas Watch report detailed his involvement with the death squad. General Humberto Regalado Hernandez took four courses at the SOA. As commander of the Honduran Armed Forces in the late 80s, he shielded the Battalion from investigations. He was inducted into the SOA Hall of Fame in 1988.

    In one 1982 incident, Battalion members kidnapped six university students. They were taken to the house of SOA graduate Amilcar Zelaya, which several witnesses state was a clandestine prison where many were tortured and killed. There, they were beaten, had rubber hoods placed over their heads until they nearly suffocated, and they were threatened with death. They were released when the father of two students, a government official, pushed for their release. Charges were brought against ten military officials, four of whom were SOA graduates.

  • roflcopter


  • Honduran

    I lived in Honduras in the 1980’s and the constant fear of having a family member being dragged away in the middle of the night forever is something that will remain with me always. Silence of opinion and of thought contrary to the government was demanded in order to survive.

    I know the pacific sedated honduran reaction to the government's constant violations even today traces back to the 1980's "desaparecidos". Perhaps it's not a condoning silence, but rather a protective hush not only of words said but of thoughts which run the risk of becoming words and later actions.

    If Yale honors Negroponte with a lectureship, it will have forever compromised it's integrity.

  • Anonymous

    That was eloquent, roflcopter. Cat got your tongue? Or are you just overwhelmed in the face of that much evidence?

  • Anonimous


  • Yale '10

    This is really quite appalling. I'm glad the author had the guts to speak up. If the Yale I attend would appoint someone with so dubious a history, regardless of his "credentials," I can't but be ashamed.

  • rolfcopter2


  • Disgusted Eli

    No one ever contests the facts; instead, they merely ask to understand that during the Cold War "things were different," "we had no choice." We always have choices: and in these cases, Negroponte and other U.S. officials chose that some lives were expendable for their goals, for what they called "America's national security." The only thing more unforgivable as torture is silence and quiet acquiescence in its face — if not encouragement.

  • Raphael

    Excellent article!
    For more information I strongly recommend to watch this documentary on Negroponte's days as ambassador to Honduras.


    "Democrats - and anyone who claims to care about human rights anywhere - ought to see The Ambassador"

    David Corn, The Nation

    "This film is an excellent example of untradtional journalism on foreign news"

    The Norwegian Freelance association, giving the "Freelancer of the Year" 2005 award to Erling Borgen

    The Ambassador

    A documentary about human rights and human dignity
    58 minutes
    Beta SP
    Norwegian, English and Spanish versions (subtitled)

    Directed by: Erling Borgen
    Camera: Alejandro Reynoso
    Editing: Line Bie
    Music: Ragnar Bjerkreim
    Finished: June 2005
    Produced by:INSIGHT TV, Elisenbergveien 5, 0265 Oslo, Norway

    Phones: 47 22 55 38 30 / 47 9506 5101 (cellular)


  • insider

    In a few words: wonderful and excellent!! This is why history is important: so we all can learn from it!

  • second best

    It really is ridiculous Yale is even considering Negroponte to teach…hmmmmm…I guess Yale really is second best to Harvard.