Fmr. Honduran Human Rights Commissioner: “Impossible Negroponte Did Not Know About Human Rights Violations” in Honduras

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Senate confirmation hearings on John Negroponte’s nomination to the post of National Intelligence Director are scheduled to begin Tuesday. We take a look at his record as U.S. ambassador to Honduras with a Honduran activist whose brother was disappeared by Honduran security forces, the former Honduran National Human Rights Commissioner and a filmmaker who has profiled human rights issues in Latin America. [includes rush transcript]

Senate confirmation hearings on John Negroponte’s nomination to the post of National Intelligence Director are set to begin tomorrow. Most recently, Negroponte was the Ambassador to Iraq and before that, the Ambassador to the United Nations. Negroponte also served as the Ambassador to Honduras from 1981-1985. During that time, Honduras was the staging ground for the contra war in Nicaragua and the home of the brutal, CIA-backed Battalion 316, which is responsible for deaths and disappearances of many Hondurans.

The selection of Negroponte to National Intelligence Director has focused renewed attention on how much he knew about the Honduran military’s involvement in almost 200 disappearances and what he did about it. Former official Rick Chidester, who served under Negroponte, says he was ordered to remove all mention of torture and executions from the draft of his 1982 report on the human rights situation in Honduras.

During Negroponte’s tenure, US military aid to Honduras skyrocketed from $3.9 million dollars to over $77 million dollars. Much of this went to ensure the Honduran army’s loyalty in the battle against popular movements throughout Central America. In the hearings on Negroponte’s appointment to UN ambassador, he was questioned by Senate Foreign Relations Committee staff members on whether he had acquiesced to human rights abuses by death squads funded and partly trained by the Central Intelligence Agency. Negroponte testified that he did not believe the abuses were part of a deliberate Honduran government policy. He said, “To this day I do not believe that death squads were operating in Honduras.”

  • Zenaida Velasquez, sister of Manfredo Velásquez, who was abducted and disappeared by Honduran security forces. In 1982 she founded the Honduran Committee of Family Members of the Disappeared (COFADEH).
  • Roz Dzelzitis, worked as a photojournalist and filmmaker, profiling human rights issues in the U.S. and Latin America. Roz is producing Lost Decade, an MISF feature documentary film on the legacy of U.S. involvement in Honduras in the 1980s.
  • Leo Valladares, Former Honduran National Commissioner for Human Rights. He is the author of “The Facts Speak for Themselves” about the 184 cases of the disappeared in Honduras.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We are joined on the telephone from San Jose, California, by Zenaida Velasquez. She is the founder of the Honduran Committee of Family Members of the Disappeared. Her brother, Manfredo Velasquez, was abducted and disappeared by Honduran security forces in 1981. Welcome to Democracy Now!

ZENAIDA VELASQUEZ: Thank you, Amy. Good morning.

AMY GOODMAN: It is very good to have you with us. Can you talk about what you know of John Negroponte as Ambassador to Honduras. What about your own dealings, and what happened to your brother?

ZENAIDA VELASQUEZ: What I know is that we were insisting to get a meeting with the ambassador knowing how powerful the ambassadorship to Honduras from the United States is. And we finally met in October of 1983, but to no abate. We were not either — lucky to have, save the lives of our people. Whenever I think that Negroponte as the Ambassador of the United States to Honduras had the power to intervene before the Honduran authorities to stop the human rights abuses, he could have saved the lives — not say about my brother, because he got there a little bit after my brother was kidnapped and disappeared. And who knows? Maybe he was still alive. But, at least, what I say is at least he could have saved the lives of people that were kidnapped, tortured and disappeared during his tenure as Ambassador to Honduras.

AMY GOODMAN: Let me bring Leo Valladares into this conversation. He is the former Honduran National Commissioner for Human Rights. Could John Negroponte, who was not the Honduran Ambassador, who was the U.S. Ambassador to Honduras, have made a difference in what was going on in Honduras at the time?

LEO VALLADARES: Well, in my personal point of view as a Human Rights Commissioner, it is impossible, totally impossible, that Mr. Negroponte didn’t know about the human rights violations in my country, Honduras. He could have stopped all of this abuses and killings, because he have the power to give orders to stop it.

AMY GOODMAN: In what way did he have that power? And I should say that we’re speaking with Leo Valladares from Tegucigalpa, Honduras. How did he have the power as the U.S. Ambassador?

LEO VALLADARES: Because at this time in the earlier 1980s, Honduras had a very important role in the fighting against Sandinistas. And he was a very important piece of United States intelligence.

AMY GOODMAN: What about Battalion 316, that was tied to the C.I.A.? Leo Valladares, can you talk about its role?

LEO VALLADARES: Well, he knew all about of this operation against Sandinistas in our country, and he — well, he always take the opportunity to give all the people that he was the man in charge.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re also joined on the telephone by Roz Dzelzitis. She is headed down to Washington to be there at the hearings for the confirmation of John Negroponte to the highest intelligence position in this country, a photojournalist and filmmaker who filed a brief against John Negroponte for this position. Why are you involved in this, Roz?

ROZ DZELZITIS: Well, for six years, I and the staff of May I Speak Freely? Media have been researching the legacy of human rights abuses in Honduras. And in response to Negroponte’s testimony in his last two confirmation hearings, May I Speak Freely? Media produced a memo to address members of the intelligence committee directly about Negroponte’s human rights record in Honduras, and the memo describes evidence that suggests Negroponte knew, or at the very least should have known, about what widespread government sanctioned abuses. In addition to not reporting abuses in annual human rights reports, which incidentally we now know that the C.I.A. knew about and were reporting, he praised the government’s protection of human and civil rights to the U.S. press. And because the U.S. Congress did not receive information about government sanctioned abuses, it increased military aid to Honduras in order to fight communism in the region.

AMY GOODMAN: Roz Dzelzitis, you said that you have information that the C.I.A. did know about the abuses during that time through Negroponte’s tenure as Ambassador there?

ROZ DZELZITIS: Mm-hmm. Well, both in a 1997 C.I.A. inspector general report, which found that abuses were politically motivated and officially sanctioned, the C.I.A. stipulations, which were included in the Congressional record for the 2001 confirmation hearings for Negroponte’s position to Ambassador of the U.N., also stipulate to that. In addition, in 1988 the Inter-American Court of Human Rights found that the Honduran government was involved in systemic abuses.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Roz Dzelzitis, who is a filmmaker, making Lost Decade, a May I Speak Freely? feature documentary on the legacy of U.S. involvement in Honduras in the 1980s. Also on the line with us from Honduras, Dr. Leo Valladares, the Honduras first National Commissioner for Human Rights. And Zenaida Velasquez, on with us from California, her brother disappeared under — during the early 1980s in Honduras. We’ll be back with them in a minute.


AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!… as we talk about the confirmation hearings for John Negroponte. They begin tomorrow. He has been nominated by President Bush to be the Head of National Intelligence, a new position, the highest position in intelligence in this country. Our guests are Zenaida Velasquez, sister of Manfredo Velasquez, founder of the Honduran Committee of Family Members of the Disappeared. Her brother died in the early 80s in Honduras. Roz Dzelzitis is with us, a photojournalist and filmmaker with the group May I Speak Freely? Media for Social Change, and Dr. Leo Valladares is with us, former Honduran National Commissioner for Human Rights. Dr. Valladares, speaking to us from Tegucigalpa, what was your reaction when you heard that John Negroponte was going to be nominated and now going for the confirmation hearings as the highest intelligence officer in this land? Actually, let me put that question to Zenaida Velasquez.

ZENAIDA VELASQUEZ: For me, it was a slap in the face. But at the same time, it wasn’t strange to me, because that’s what happens, that people who have done bad things are always awarded, you know. It happened to him. He is awarded with this high position, and it has been the story about the criminals in Honduras, like the chief of the army, General Gustavo Alvarez Martinez, who was awarded by President Reagan with a Legion of Honor award. And so it is the same story. And it is not casual to me, not pure coincidence that Negroponte was also named the Ambassador to the Iraq, and before that to the United Nations. It is like paying him for his good job, quote-unquote, done. I mean, he knew what was going on, and he allowed all of these things to continue. He overlooked the Honduran military use of torture and other coercive interrogation techniques against suspected dissidents, and he also — I think he was aware of the existence of another death squad. The Honduran Anti-Communist Liberation Army operated during his tenure as ambassador; how could he was not aware of ELACH existence? ELACH is the Honduran Anti-Communist Liberation Army and was linked to the National Directorate of Intelligence, the DNI in Honduras. He was meeting frequently with the president of Honduras and with the chief of the army almost on a daily basis. This is well known in Honduras. That’s the capital city, Tegucigalpa, a small town. When they move, when they go away from their offices, they are preceded by a motorcade and that stops all of the other traffic to have the car with the American ambassador is driven to whatever he’s going or the same to the chief of the army or the same to the president. So this is well known in Honduras. He was meeting constantly with these people. He should have known. I, frankly, am disturbed, and this is really a slap on the face to us.

AMY GOODMAN: Zenaida Velasquez, what was your brother doing in Honduras? What was his job before he was disappeared?

ZENAIDA VELASQUEZ: My brother was educating peasants. He worked all over the country — north, south, east, west in the country — in educating peasants, educating them to know that they had rights to a piece of land to cultivate their crops. He was really involved in educating these people that have always been abused by the powerful, and I think that was probably a bad thing to do, and then lately when he was kidnapped, he had gone back to the university and, of course, in those days when we had the presence of a foreign armies like the Contras in Honduras, there were protests, and as a university student leader, he was giving speeches, and we were always saying — we were supporting the struggle of the people in El Salvador, the struggle of the people in Nicaragua, the struggle of the people in Guatemala. That was probably considered dangerous, and so what they certainly applied was a doctrine of national security in Honduras, where they see the enemy as internal, and I guess that’s what he was considered, an internal enemy.

AMY GOODMAN: Roz Dzelziis, as you go down to Washington for the confirmation hearings, do you expect that democrats will raise questions? There was hardly protest when he was nominated to be Ambassador to Iraq. Even those who had protested his ambassadorship to the United Nations for the US then reserved those criticisms later.

ROZ DZELZITIS: Well, because he said that he still believes that abuses were not a result of government policy, and — for example, at the time when he was presented with intelligence from the CIA and other agencies that suggested that, and he confronted the commander, General Alvarez, and Alvarez denied those charges, Negroponte suggested that the intelligence was wrong and that abuse was the result of — was the result of the actions of a few rogue agents and that they were not acting under the command of the military. And Negroponte has said that, according to his definition of “death squad,” which he thought of as the right-wing paramilitary groups operating in El Salvador that killed tens of thousands of people, that there were no death squads in Honduras. And he suggested also in his testimony that the end, which was quashing communism in Central America, justified the means of not reporting abuses. So these facts raise questions about his credibility with regard to his record in Honduras and his competence with regard to his reading of intelligence. So I hope that the intelligence committee asks critical questions about his record, because in light of recent failures and abuses of U.S. intelligence agencies, we need a director of national intelligence who is honest and capable and who stands up for human rights.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you for being with us, Roz Dzelzitis, photojournalist and filmmaker; also Zenaida Velasquez, sister of Manfredo Velasquez. Zenaida Velasquez founded the Honduran Committee of Family Members of the Disappeared.

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