E. Howard Negroponte,
INTERVIEWER: But it was a sort of ricochet, because it seemed to me, reading the books and talking to people like yourselves and others, that Congress hadn't understood what the Carter administration had gone through in terms of its double dilemma of trying to play, pin human rights to the flag staff of its policy and not intervene. Certainly the consequences as even President Carter had realized by the time he was finishing, but congress hadn't learned, that the problem had, would not go away if they maintained as I believe they did, they were concerned about human rights abuses and therefore also started limiting the funding, and do you find it frustrating sitting out there in
JOHN NEGROPONTE: Well it was terribly frustrating it was exasperating, but I think they cut the aid off, really for a variety of reasons I think first of all there was the "not invented here" syndrome. Secondly the, it was sensationalized. thirdly, they tended to portray the contras as former Somosa National Guardsmen, which was sort of a epithet that the contras were never able to completely shake, even though they were a much more representative group of people than they were characterized as being. And there was the David and Goliath syndrome. this comes back to your point about the difficulty in explaining the situation in Central America to the American people and I think that the adversaries of our policy had succeeded in portraying this entire situation as the big United States picking on these poor little countries. And we never quite were able to shake that. In spite of the merits of the case.
INTERVIEWER: And, even after the evidence when the Soviets started pouring aid in as they did after 81, because they told us and admitted that they did.
JOHN NEGROPONTE: Right, right they just, we just weren't able to make the case sufficiently well, but I would come back to my point, my main point maybe as this conversation is helping, you know elucidated a bit better. It seems to me one of the key errors we made was to initiate the covert action program before we had convinced the American people of the need to mount an overall strategy to contain and to remedy the situation in Central America, and I think that President Reagan might have been better advised to go public with an overall strategy for the region first and then fit the contra policy within that. Instead support for the contras became the policy and came to be viewed as the policy and as such I think it wasn't viable.
INTERVIEWER: It was sometimes said that it was an unfortunate title that they were called the contras, and I wondered what they should have been called?
JOHN NEGROPONTE: Well President Reagan called them freedom, freedom fighters, people called them anti-Sandinistas there was a variety of, of names, I never really, it was hard to come up with the exactly right title.
INTERVIEWER: The dilemma I often about, from the point of view of the Reagan administration, is the turmoil in the area, you know in the region, it prevented what would have been the natural American attitude towards the fostering of democratic regimes in the area if it was going to be possible, but in the case you actually had to support a dictator here or a likeliness of a dictator there whose policies perhaps wouldn't be quite as, as acceptable under normal circumstances.
JOHN NEGROPONTE: I think you'll find amongst those of us, who were involved, you'll find a very strong disagreement with what you've just said. In other words I think you'll find that we were all extremely focused on encouraging the electoral process in each of these countries. Certainly in El Salvador
INTERVIEWER: The point about some of these regimes to the outside observer may not have been as savoir as the Americans would have liked in terms of they may have been dictators, or likely to be dictators, when you would have been wanting to support democracy in the area, but with the turmoil that it was perhaps not possible to do that.
JOHN NEGROPONTE: Well I you know, I think that you'll find that the people, those of us who actually were working in the region at the time, will, will point out how strongly committed we were to supporting the democratic process and encouraging elections, in spite of the fact that a war was going on in several of these countries so I don't think there was any thought on our part of supporting authoritarian behavior for some short terms expediency, to the contrary I think we bent over backwards to press for elections and for democratic reform and I think you can certainly see evidence of that in El Salvador and in Honduras as well, and as I mentioned earlier, shortly after I arrived they had the first presidential election for a civilian president in 9 years. They conducted mid-term elections during the time I was there. That pattern replicated itself throughout central America, so I think that the commitment to democracy, the democratic process was very, very much a part of our of our strategy and our policy and frankly I think that some of the retrospective efforts to try and suggest that we were supportive of or condoned the actions of human rights violators is really revisionist.
INTERVIEWER: Is in the terms of your career is that your sort of hottest moment in the cold war experience in terms of you, you described yourself to me I remember once as a cold war warrior, but did is that the peak of your active service or ...
JOHN NEGROPONTE: No I wouldn't say, I don't think I consider myself a cold war warrior, but I am definitely a product of that and was exposed to many of the different hot spots, but of course I did serve in Vietnam for 4 years and was involved in the ensuing peace process for another 4 or 5 years or so, so I had a equal exposure if you will to both central America and Vietnam, and I must say that my Vietnam experience certainly influenced, there is no way, I'd be the first to admit, that it influenced my thinking about how to deal with Central America and I think that the practical effect that it had was to cause me to be very skeptical of the contadora peace process. I was probably a bit more skeptical and cynical than quite a few of my other colleagues, about the likelihood that we could negotiate a satisfactory solution to this problem.
INTERVIEWER: What do you think the Soviet Union were actually up to in Central America, did they stand a chance of influencing anything there or were they just in the game to try and annoy America and keep stealing marches on its influence there.
JOHN NEGROPONTE: Well I you know I can't say that I really know I certainly think that they must have enjoyed our discomfort whether they micro-managed this or not, I'd I just I don't know, I'd be reluctant to say, my sort of working hypothesis was that they sort of let Cuba have the lead on this and basically said to them, have at it boys and see what you can accomplish.
INTERVIEWER: They've told us or various representatives of either covert services or government services that, that what we have to have understand, and what we have to understand now is that it was people like Khrushchev to use the phrase of one of them, the one that poked the hedgehog down Uncle Sam's pants. After Brezhnev they were going to avoid a second Cuba at all costs and in fact had a lot of debate with the Cubans about their fostering of revolutions and guerilla wars here there and everywhere, and I wonder how America reacted to the different Russian regimes throughout the period of the Cold War or actually whether their policy remained the same that the Soviets weren't gonna change their attitude?
JOHN NEGROPONTE: Well of course Reagan himself went through a bit of a transformation and I think that the relationship with the Soviet Union may in fact have also been a factor in public attitudes in the United States towards what we were doing in Central America and particularly in Congress, I think there was, those in Congress who felt that we should be making more efforts to conciliate with the Soviet Union, were also tended to be the same individuals who had serious questions about our Central America policy. So that when President, those who were concerned about President Reagan's characterization of the Soviets as an evil empire were the same people who had a problem with our contra policy for example. I think things began to change when President rather significantly when President Reagan goes to Geneva in the fall of 1986 and meets with Gorbachev and establishes that personal relationship with president Gorbachev and the relationship with the Soviet Union begins to evolve. But the change in Soviet attitudes towards Central America and discouraging them from, discouraging Castro from pursuing guerilla warfare and so forth, my own impression is, again this is really just based on a very limited observation, by my own impression is that that came very late in their own thinking. Perhaps the latter part of the 1980s. Finally its clear when Gorbachev goes to Cuba I think he makes a speech where he discourages them from exporting revolution, but that's very late in the game.
INTERVIEWER: When the Americans
JOHN NEGROPONTE: You might say "where were you Gorbachev when we needed you? Where were you in the 1970s and early 1980s?"
INTERVIEWER: When the Americans invaded Grenada, you were still in Honduras? And how, what do you remember the traffic through your office at the nominate I'd love to hear you tell me about...
JOHN NEGROPONTE: I wasn't involved, I was not involved and I don't remember much, but I remember one thing very vividly which was that I, I basically learned about the invasion of Grenada from the President of Honduras, who called me up to say "Do you know what's going on?" and I said, "Well I have an idea, but I don't know for sure." And he said "well you're invading Grenada" and he said "please tell the troops that when they're finished there to just keep on coming to Nicaragua." So it had that effect on the leadership of Honduras and I'll never forget that phone call from the President of Honduras.
INTERVIEWER: But it was the US invasion that you were obviously part of the policy to, and actively involved in trying to ... that's what the, you were not going to do that in Central America at any cost, that's I mean, down the road.
JOHN NEGROPONTE: That's right, that was certainly my understanding of our policy towards Central America and it still is, so while I didn't get into a long conversation with the President of Honduras at the time, I certainly know that in other conversations we discouraged them rather strongly from thinking that US troops might ever get involved. I think that they wanted, they would have very much liked for the US to just come and take care of the problem for once and for all, but it wasn't in the cards and that was certainly the line we took with them.
INTERVIEWER: Did it harm your cause in terms of the opposition that was already in Washington and in terms of the worlds media, that we were saying thAmerica is going to, incapable of invading these countries, and then when Grenada happened it wasort of evidence that whatever you were saying or trying to justify, that it was just a sham, that you that you could have at any time have invaded Honduras, Salvador, Guatemala, Nicaragua.
JOHN NEGROPONTE: Frankly I don't remember it having much effect one way or another, and I think people took Grenada for what it turned out to be which was a, you know a very specific incident and from which one couldn't necessarily make a lot of generalizations. on the other hand of course it's a signal that one, you know that we could act decisively. I think the one military action that we did signal to the Central American governments that we were we were prepared to take if the situation arose was that we were prepared to take if the Soviets or the Cubans provided Migs, Mig aircraft to Nicaragua, we would be prepared to take them out militarily. I think that I recall as being a signal that we sent rather consistently to the region and to its leadership.