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.

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