There are few people who embody the terror of U.S. foreign policy like John Negroponte. He advised the puppet government in South Vietnam during the Vietnam War, oversaw vicious counter-insurgency campaigns in Central America in the 1980s, advanced the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement and was a central player in the illegal invasion and occupation of Iraq. And yet the Ford School of Public Policy has invited Negroponte to discuss how “leaders handle dissent” and to assess the “successes and failures” of foreign policy. Will his talk today mention his own role in the murder and torture of millions of dissenters in countries like Vietnam, Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua and Iraq?
Negroponte’s crimes are well documented in the online National Security Archive. During the early 1980s Negroponte worked as U.S. ambassador to Honduras, where he helped ensure the flow of aid to brutal regimes in Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala and assisted the Contra terror forces that targeted civilians in Nicaragua (where a progressive government had overthrown the U.S.-backed dictator in 1979). By the end of the 1980s, over 200,000 people were killed as a result of U.S. intervention in Central America. They systematically massacred, “disappeared,” tortured and raped students, labor organizers, peasant and indigenous leaders, priests and nuns, journalists and others suspected of “dissent.” Negroponte’s strategy for dealing with criticisms of his own record has been simple: just deny the facts completely. Confronted with revelations about Honduran death squads in 1982, for instance, he replied that the reports were “simply untrue” and that Hondurans enjoyed “liberal democratic institutions including full freedom of expression.”
Negroponte’s oversight of the regime in neighboring El Salvador provides an indication of how he handled dissent. In 1980, after decades of state repression of peaceful protest, five Salvadoran peasant guerrilla groups formed the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (in Spanish: Frente Farabundo Martí para la Liberación Nacional) to fight the U.S.-backed dictatorship. The United States provided the Salvadoran military with $1 million a day over the course of the 1980s to eliminate the potential civilian support base of the FMLN. In one 1981 example, General Domingo Monterrosa, trained at the School of the Americas in Fort Benning, Georgia, ordered the massacre of over 1,000 civilians in and around the village of El Mozote. In the early 1990s, forensic exhumations of El Mozote revealed that a single mass grave included the remains of 143 children under age 12. Concepción Sánchez, three days old, was the youngest victim, though death squads also cut out the fetuses of pregnant women. The El Mozote massacre was unique only for its size; countless other civilian massacres stained the Salvadoran landscape with blood in the 1980s. Virtually all were committed by U.S.-backed state and paramilitary forces, as a UN Truth Commission report confirmed.
This savagery helped pave the way for the later imposition of neoliberal economic policies, which Negroponte himself advanced in places like Mexico and Iraq. Neoliberalism involves the privatization of public resources, the reduction in state spending on things like education, and, generally speaking, the removal of all barriers to corporate profits. It includes “free-trade” agreements like NAFTA and the looming Trans-Pacific Partnership, which seek to enhance the power and profits of U.S. corporations and banks overseas. Since this agenda is usually unpopular, military force is often necessary for eliminating dissent and “ensuring uninhibited access to key markets, energy supplies and strategic resources,” in the words of Clinton-era Secretary of Defense William Cohen. Negroponte learned valuable lessons about exterminating dissenters from his time in Central America. As U.S. ambassador to Iraq, he helped develop what some officials and journalists at the time called the “Salvador Option”: the training of Iraqi death squads to eliminate resistance to the occupation and the neoliberal model.
The system against which many of Negroponte’s victims struggled is an extreme version of the system currently being imposed across the United States, including in places like Michigan. Under this system education budgets are slashed, tuition rises steadily, student debt skyrockets and working people are made to suffer in numerous other ways while money is funneled into military budgets and the pockets of the wealthy. The bulk of the population is effectively disenfranchised from the political system, which is dominated by corporate giants and the super rich.
How might University students have been treated under Negroponte? If they denounced tuition hikes or demanded increased black enrollment, as they did in the 1980s (and currently), they likely would have faced torture or death. Religious students and leaders who advocated for social justice would likewise have been targeted (one slogan of the U.S.-allied death squads in El Salvador was “Be a Patriot: Kill a Priest”). Women who engaged in protest would have faced rape by military and paramilitary forces, who employed sexual violence as a key “counter-insurgency” strategy. Denouncing the University administration’s cover-up of alleged rape on campus would itself have been a crime punishable by death.
By hosting a war criminal like John Negroponte, the University and the Public Policy School express utter contempt for his victims. Officials like Negroponte should be in prison, not invited to academic forums.
Today at 6 p.m. at the Public Policy School, students, faculty and staff will be holding a vigil to mourn the victims killed under Negroponte.
Diana C. Sierra Becerra is a PhD student in History and Women’s Studies.
Kevin Young is an academic affiliate with the Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies and has a PhD in Latin American History.