E. Howard Negroponte,
INTERVIEW WITH JOHN NEGROPONTE
INTERVIEWER: tape number 10840 and we're beginning the interview with Mr. John Negroponte. Ambassador, could you tell me something of your CV especially relating to the period of the late 70s to the middle 80s.
JOHN NEGROPONTE: Right, well I am, I was a career diplomat for 37 years from 1960 until 1997 during the early 1980s from 1981 to 1985 I was the United States Ambassador to Honduras.
INTERVIEWER: When you took up that position, how did you perceive, what was your briefing about the state of the country you were going to and its neighbors.
JOHN NEGROPONTE: Well my briefing was that Honduras was a small and vulnerable country just back on the path towards democracy it was about to have just before I arrived, the first elections for a civilian president in more than 9 years. But that while it was on the right politically it was surrounded by trouble. Literally surrounded by trouble. There was the situation in Nicaragua where the Sandinistas had taken over a couple of years earlier. There was a civil war going on in El Salvador and there was a similar situation in Guatemala. So Honduras was in a rather precarious geographic position indeed.
INTERVIEWER: Wasn't there then evidence of Soviet/Cuban infiltration into these disputes?
JOHN NEGROPONTE: No I don't think there was any doubt of Cuban involvement there was evidence of that, of people being trained in Cuba recruited in those countries, be it Nicaragua, or El Salvador in particular. trained in Cuban training camps and then re-infiltrated back into their, those countries. I think there, there also had been just before I got to Honduras a rather spectacular capture of an arms shipment that from Nicaragua across Honduran test, territory destined for El Salvador and I think that some of that equipment had been also to Cuba and the Soviet bloc. But I, certainly in my own mind I had no doubt that these conflicts were being fuelled by Cuba and I think by implication by the Soviet Union.
INTERVIEWER: Could you talk to me in, I find it fascinating because there is sort of a double edged sword here, because you have the Monroe Doctrine which America has, certainly in terms of its what we call its backyard. The Monroe Doctrine has affected a lot of American Policy for hundreds of years but with the coming of the Cold War and indeed in this period the heating of period that there is quite a hot war. how did you and your colleagues react given there was, it wasn't just an infringement or something of a challenge to your own Monroe Doctrine, it was you were coming up against representatives of the enemy. Marxist, communism, whatever you want to call it. How did that affect the way you approached the policy of what you were going to do in the area?
JOHN NEGROPONTE: Well I think we were influenced a lot by the context of what else was going on in the world at the time, you gotta remember and you yourself mentioned this question of the Reagan administration having inherited a situation from President Carter before him. the experience of the late 1970s was for the United States I think a very sobering one indeed as far as the Cold War is concerned, you have and I'm thinking in particular of two events, I'm thinking of the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia in 1978 and the ensuing Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, so viewed in that context, what then started to happen in El Salvador, or was happening, in El Salvador and in and in Nicaragua were I think of considerable concern to Washington, well gee is this you know all a part of a pattern and if it is, or if as that appears to be the case then we really have to do something about it and it wasn't Reagan who started this process I think it was clearly Mr. Carter himself who at first very sympathetic to the Sandinista takeover, but then just before leaving office, I think becomes rather concerned about what's happening in El Salvador, lifts the suspension literally hours, days if not hours before leaving office lifts the suspension on providing Aid military aid to El Salvador and initiates a program to bolster that country. So, and perhaps not so much the Monroe Doctrine as yes, this is a ramification if you will of the cold war. Not as alarming as and not as dramatic if you will as Cambodia or Afghanistan but of concern nonetheless because of its proximity to its own country.
INTERVIEWER: There was a period when you were very concerned that El Salvador actually might fall is that true?
JOHN NEGROPONTE: Absolutely, absolutely, yeah I would say it was it was after I got to Honduras I would say its in 1982 I got there in November of 1981, but I think during the course of 1982 the course of the battles and the engagements were such that the Salvadoran government was progressively losing control of more and more territory the FMLN were winning victories and we had imposed these we had these self-imposed restrictions on what our own people could do, the level the extent of our presence and so forth, and so we were very mindful of that in Honduras because we ended up serving as sort of a rear area for our presence in El Salvador. We established we negotiated during 1982 with Honduras, access to air fields in that country so that we could do some logistical and other training and other kinds of support for what was happening in El Salvador, but I think by the end of 1982 and early 1983 there was real concern as to whether El Salvador would make it. It manifested itself in another way, we established a regional military training center in Honduras. We negotiated with the Honduran government the establishment of a regional military training center, for training central American forces, but the primary motivation for doing that was to be able to bolster the quality, improve the quality of the El Salvadoran fighting forces.
INTERVIEWER: So in that context and alarm bells ringing in Washington and you receiving the necessary information what do you think in the hypotheses would have happened if Salvador had fallen to the FMLN?
JOHN NEGROPONTE: Well you would have, you could perhaps have gone through another Nicaraguan type situation, that government's similar to that of the Sandinistas and then what we visualized at least was the prospect was that they would systematically then try to explore that kind of model to the neighboring countries, that seemed to be what was happening. So that if it was a central American domino theory if you will, so that if it happened at first in Nicaragua then in El Salvador and if they succeeded in El Salvador then presumably they would try to finish off the situation in Guatemala which was rather ripe at the time you may recall and then maybe Honduras would have fallen of its own volition, without necessarily even having to make that much effort. That was the theory in any case and it seemed a plausible hypothesis at the time.
INTERVIEWER: Even Cuban gentlemen and some Soviets that we have interviewed in the course of this series have admitted that in terms of looking at Central America, it was obvious to them it was the weak link and a good place to try and exert some influence. your colleagues and the people in the State department and the various agencies that worked whether they be secret or overt or covert. Was that of real American concern during your period of office there? That this was a weak link, this was a dangerous place.
JOHN NEGROPONTE: Well I think we've always, as long as I've been focused on these questions or been aware of them I think its been recognized that Central America had vulnerability both politically and economically because of the their social structure, because of their excessive dependence on a very small number of products for export. Because of the disparities in wealth between the rich and the poor and so forth. So they were vulnerable societies, they were both so small as you know. The populations of Central America are very, very small indeed, so that while no one was denying and this was one of the great debates we used to have, whose fault was it that there were communists were able to do so well down there, well, that wasn't the point. There, there is no questhat these societies were vulnpolitically and socially. the point was whether just because of these vulnerabilities, should we allow external forces such as the Cubans or the Soviets to come in and try to take advantage of those situations. That was the issue. And that was what we were reacting to and that is why we put so much effort into Central America, but let me be clear about one thing, because I think it was much misunderstood at the time, and I don't know how well it is understood now. President Reagan, I, I know from my subsequent service with him, as the Deputy National Security Advisor, and I knew at the time also, did not want to send US troops into those situations, he wanted to achieve our objectives by providing support to the governments concern and definitely did not want to involve US forces directly. This was sort of a Vietnam syndrome, the Vietnam lesson if you will, and I mention that because I recall at the time speaker of the house who was of course a democrat speaker O' Neill saying President Reagan won't be happy until he has American troops in there. And that was absolutely wrong, there was no intent to involve no effort, no intent as far as I could tell to involve American forces.
INTERVIEWER: Which brings me to exactly what I wanted to talk about next, which was the opposition within your own camp if you like. You had a media that was basically against the policy of running the contras, you've gotta lot of criticism and a lot of flak in Congress and in the House how did that affect the way you approached the job and did it seem that you know people bent to public opinion, like Carter had and other people in other situations.
JOHN NEGROPONTE: Very hard, very hard to represent a country, or carry out a policy that does not have consensus support. It is an agonizing responsibility and I guess I did then and I think even more so now, would attribute it to the fact that we did not devote the necessary effort right up front to achieving consensus for our policies. Now that could be because President Reagan was and I think Chief of Staff Baker he was the White House Chief of Staff at the time, were much more focused on our domestic priorities and getting the tax reform legislation and other important domestic bills through the Congress. So it isn't really Reagan takes office in January of 1983, but it isn't until about 2 years later if I remember correctly that he makes a speech to a joint session of Congress about the situation in Central America. Meanwhile the die has been cast with respect to the details of our policy and what element of our policy takes the lead? Well the covert action part, because that's the first decision of the Reagan administration really which is to take which is to support these counter revolutionaries, and that decision is taken in November of 1981. So both at the time I felt and I certainly feel now in retrospect that perhaps too much burden was placed on the covert action element and not enough emphasis was placed on mobilizing public support for a well articulated public policy and by the time we got around to articulating our policy and really trying to sell it to the American public, it was already perhaps a bit too late in terms of keeping Congress on board, because people had already taken positions based on their reaction to our covert action policies.
INTERVIEWER: Do you think it was also, I mean perhaps it was hard in the selling of it to demonstrate it as real cold war out there. Who the enemy really was. It wasn't a bunch of left wing college students from Managua, this was a little bit more serious, and as you went through those years and the funding started to be reduced after amendment, after amendment, after amendment and the problems of fin, maintaining the financing of what I gather was just about the biggest army, or guerilla army ever assembled in the area, how did, how did that affect the way you had to do your job, out there in Honduras? With the, with the fact that the funding was being reduced by Washington, but you knew you were in a Cold War confrontation which is perhaps, Congress didn't, did not.
JOHN NEGROPONTE: Well the way it affected our work was that at one point with the passage of the Boland Amendments which prohibited, ultimately prohibited assistance, to the contras there was nothing more we could do than to bide our time. and wait for a better day to come around and as you know we continued to try and get support from the Congress for the contra program, but in the meanwhile all we could do was as ambassador to Honduras, the focus of my efforts was in shoring up Honduras's own defenses helping them inoculate themselves if you will as best they possibly could against the implications of what was going on around them. So we worked on building up their military, and building their self-confidence, we worked on encouraging them to continue on the democratic process and we provided, we served as a sort of a rear area, if you will on a modest scale for the efforts in El Salvador, there were still things we could do, but the policy and the strategy were very much debilitated we were in effect fighting with one arm behind our backs as a result of these funding cover-ups.