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Bill Press is a syndicated columnist and the co-host of CNN's Crossfire, which airs Monday-Friday at 7:30 p.m.

Bill Press: The wrong team for Latin America

By Bill Press
Tribune Media Services

WASHINGTON (Tribune Media Services) -- As much as President Bush has alienated our European allies over global warming and missile defense, and as much as he has ignored the escalating violence in the Middle East, there is one area of the world to which he has paid attention -- Latin America.

But even here, his efforts are an unsettling mix of good news and bad.

Bush at least recognizes the existence and importance of our American partners, which most recent presidents have not. He speaks their language. He has traveled often to Mexico, and hosted a state dinner for President Vicente Fox this week. And, he talks about building new partnerships and charting new waters in Latin American relations. That’s the good news.

The bad news is that, for every one of his Latin American appointments so far, Bush has picked leftovers from the Reagan State Department: architects of one of the bloodiest and cruelest periods of U.S. policy toward Central America. Instead of looking to the future, he has u-turned to the past. Instead of healing old wounds, he has re-opened them.

Bush’s Latin American team reads like a roster of "America’s Most Disgraced Diplomats." They include John Negroponte, Bush’s pick as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations; Elliott Abrams, new senior director of the National Security Council; and Otto Reich, nominated as assistant secretary of State. Based on their previous records in Latin American policy, none of them deserve the job.

Negroponte served as Reagan’s Ambassador to Honduras from 1981 to 1985. He was personally responsible for carrying out the Reagan administration’s illegal policy of training and arming Contra rebels inside Honduras for the purpose of overthrowing Nicaragua’s Sandinista government. He also oversaw the build-up of the Honduran military, while turning a blind eye to their campaigns of death and torture.

This was a period when the Honduran military’s notorious Battalion 316, trained by the CIA, killed or “disappeared” at least 184 political opponents. Hundreds of articles in Honduran newspapers reported on the brutality of the government’s death squads.

International human rights organizations condemned Honduras. Negroponte's predecessor had warned him about the alarming increase in extrajudicial military executions and torture of political opponents. Yet Negroponte insists, still today, there were no death squads in Honduras and, if there were, he knew nothing about them.

Either Negroponte’s lying or he’s totally incompetent. Either way, the notion that he could now stand in the United Nations and condemn other nations for their human rights abuses is absurd.

Elliott Abrams was Negroponte’s comrade-in-arms. As Reagan’s assistant secretary of State, he worked closely with Ollie North in seeking illegal funding for the Contras. In 1991, he was convicted on two counts of lying to Congress about Iran-Contra -- and was later pardoned by the first President Bush.

Like Negroponte, Abrams never let human rights abuses get in the way of his support for right-wing governments. When newspapers reported that a U.S.-trained military unit had massacred hundreds of villagers in the tiny Salvadoran hamlet of El Mozote, Abrams told Congress the story was nothing but communist propaganda.

Later, when a United Nations commission concluded that 85 percent of atrocities in El Salvador’s civil war were committed by Reagan-assisted death squads, Abrams retorted: “The administration’s record on El Salvador is one of fabulous achievements.”

Hold onto your hat. This man is now in charge of “democracy, human rights and international operations” for the NSC. Which just proves that perjury and lying to Congress can go a long way.

Otto Reich was also up to his armpits in Iran-Contra, reporting directly to Ollie North. He was Reagan’s propagandist, charged with discrediting critics of U.S. policies in Central America. In 1987, the General Accounting Office reported that his office “engaged in prohibited, covert propaganda activities designed to influence the media and the public to support the administration’s Latin American policies.”

For his duplicity, President Bush has rewarded Mr. Reich with the post of Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere affairs.

Unfortunately, in trying to chart a new course in Latin America, Bush has called on those who represent the worst policies of our past.

Fortunately, the U.S. Senate will have the last word.

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