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The Proconsuls

America’s ambassadors to Central America wage war the old-fashioned way

The Proconsuls

Map of Central America


 The Colonels and Majors turned sharply on their heels and left the ambassador standing alone, just for a moment, before the runway. The huge cargo door of the C-130 closed painfully, slowly, like a high-tech drawbridge, and the coffin in its cavernous interior was lost to view. Now the plane was lifting off over the parched volcanic landscape and dingy industrial slums on the edge of the capital on its way back to the States. The ambassador raised his hand in a single, lost movement, half a salute, half a wave: goodbye to a soldier and, as it happened, a friend; to the first American adviser to die in El Salvador.

It was a last gesture. Within a few days, the White House had decided to end the ambassador’s service. He was burned out, suggested administration officials. A kind of demipurge was under way in the State Department, starting at the top of the Latin America division. Other ambassadors and staffers in the area were, in the normal course of things, ending their tours, and no one was sure whose head would be the next to be served up by the National Security Council. In a losing fight, everyone’s loyalties are suspect; the attitude of a California judge and an apostate Georgetown academic, the most trusted foreign-policy voices in the White House, was to depend on “people they know and feel comfortable with,” as a veteran diplomat put it.

“They don’t seem to know many people in the foreign service,” the diplomat added.

It was not surprising that President Reagan’s own right wing would want to see some of the administration’s team in Central America replaced. They had originally been picked by that quintessential non-team-player, Alexander Haig, then secretary of state.

As the Reagan administration was just beginning, Haig, the self-proclaimed vicar of United States foreign policy, was looking to make a point about American determination in the aftermath of Iran. And as one of his top people would say later, the little republics of Central America are “our-size countries.” The Marxist-led Sandinistas had triumphed in Nicaragua in July 1979, eighteen months before Reagan’s inauguration, and despite the leftist guerrillas’ abortive “final offensive” in El Salvador, the possibility lingered that revolution would sweep the region. To Haig, the challenge appeared made to order, and it seemed just a question of the right public resolve, the right money in the right places and the right men on the ground. They would all be professional diplomats, some of the best minds and some of the most ambitious ever sent to the proverbial “backyard.” They would not just bring solutions: they would be the solution. From time to time — as the bloodshed worsened and the United States slipped deeper into these little countries, beginning to manage their affairs more openly and more bluntly than anyone had ever intended — you would hear in Senate debates or see in a resentful Latin American press the word proconsul, which derives from the term applied to the provincial rulers of ancient Rome. It was used to describe our men on the scene, as if these latest proconsuls were the new striped-pants administrators of America’s declining empire.

What they did, in fact, was watch over the Americanization of Central America’s wars. They came and saw and could not conquer. They found problems that neither their skilled diplomacy nor the administration’s ideology nor any combination of the two could solve. What appeared worse, much worse, to the White House, was that some of them sometimes admitted the costs.

The history of America’s new and massive involvement in Central America is inextricably tied to the history of these men, a few of whom are still at their posts. For more than two years, with extraordinary personal authority and autonomy, the actions and personalities of the U.S. envoys in Central America seemed to move inexorably toward that last goodbye at the Ilopango military airport on a threatening morning in May. It was not what the proconsuls wanted, certainly, but it is what America got. It is August 1981. Or Perhaps January or June or November of 1982. Or maybe even April 1983. The image is always the same when a visitor, having made it past the marine guards and the local security men, finally walks unescorted through the open door of the embassy residence, San Salvador, El Salvador, and out to the yard.

Deane R. Hinton is sitting in a bright tropical shirt, smoking a long Honduran cigar, on a chaise lounge near the crystal, chlorinated waters of the pool. His oiled gray hair is slightly mussed. He is not a heavy man, but he seems to be. On his lap is a folder of documents with a fat red stripe slashed diagonally across it: Classified.

In the foreground is Wellington, an Old English sheepdog, oppressed by the heat. In the background, a bright yellow bird swoops among tropical branches.

Beyond the wall that children once peered over (before security men raised it to nearly twice its original height), Hinton was the first man to admit “some pretty god-awful things” had happened since he presented his credentials as ambassador in June 1981. In fact, in the steep ravines filled with squatter shacks that run like scars across the capital, the nights were filled with anonymous murder. The Catholic church counted more than 30,000 civilians murdered between 1979 and the late spring of 1983.

But all that was beyond the wall.

If it was Thursday, it was poker night at the residence.

The head of the military group, Colonel John Waghelstein, who made his reputation hunting Che Guevara’s guerrillas in Bolivia, would be coming over. His square-built, baby-faced second-in-command, Al Schaufelberger, would be along as well. The public-affairs officer might be at the game. Perhaps one of the Agency for International Development (AID) officials. The CIA station chief generally didn’t play. Three or four other staffers filled out the table.

There was no doubt, however, about who dominated.

“When the ambassador throws 800 colons at you, you can feel your balls just sort of shrivel up,” confessed a man who knew the sensation.

It was an all-American sort of game, one for tough guys who liked to act like tough guys.

Colonel “Wag” brought his jungle fighter’s flamboyance to the table. In poker, he advocated the “dread seminal backup theory,” which held that the less sex, the greater the competitive edge. In war, his focus — perhaps his obsession — was creating small patrols to move at night through the countryside, ambushing guerrillas in the guerrillas’ own style. It is a dangerous and proved tactic, but one the Salvadoran army never quite accepted. The officers on whom Waghelstein and Washington were counting were often men accustomed only to the garrisons with pool tables and refrigerators and Betamaxes. They didn’t know much about seminal backup.As America improved the army’s parts, the whole seemed to be edging toward collapse. The same force that proudly proclaimed it had held off the rebels’ all-out offensive in January 1981 “without a single cartridge” from the United States came to be utterly dependent on American aid to maintain even a stalemate.

Waghelstein’s ultimate solution was to rebuild the thing from the ground up. He sent local grunts to Fort Bragg, North Carolina. Officer candidates with shaved heads were shipped off to Fort Benning, Georgia, by the hundreds. When rebel sappers blew up almost the whole Salvadoran air force on the ground in January 1982, Waghelstein watched over its replacement. Meanwhile, his second-in-command, Schaufelberger, was putting together a little navy made up of fast-moving “piranha” patrol boats and crack little commando teams — Salvadoran SEALs who were trained to play hell with anyone suspected of arms trafficking along the coast.

Waghelstein, his poker buddies would tell you, was always known for his big raises. But he was a little obvious, and when he lost, he sometimes refused to keep on playing.

Hinton was more subtle. Beneath the put-on veneer of Montana roughness, Hinton was a man of disguised and often unreadable intent. Once, Al Schaufelberger remembered, even though he was holding two pairs and had a bet that topped $200, “the old man scared me right out of the game.”

The war might worsen, the investment might increase, and in the blood-dimmed future, no resolution was ever quite visible, but Hinton would say, “We’ve been enormously successful in a lot of things.” He would talk matter-of-factly about “generational change” — ten, maybe fifteen years when it came to cleaning up the armed forces, moving the murderers out. But “we’re not about to be beaten,” Hinton would conclude, adding, “I think some of these leftist intellectuals ought to recognize that.”

Haig had personally asked Hinton to take this job, to become one of the most senior foreign-service officers ever to represent the United States in Central America. Hinton, who could have stayed in Washington as one of the most senior men in the State Department, agreed. “I’m a soldier’s son and a professional foreign-service officer,” Hinton says. “When you’re asked to take on a hard one, you do it.”

But sometimes the strain would show on his 60-year-old face. It would go white, lined, gaunt and lonely. His family from two previous marriages seemed largely atomized by his career. The photographs of children and stepchildren, which filled several end tables of the residence, were not faces seen in San Salvador. When Hinton sent a birthday check to his grown daughter, Deborah, in London last year, she signed it over to a Salvadoran guerrilla solidarity group.

Asked about his best moment in El Salvador, Hinton once said it was the day — Valentine’s Day — when he wed 32-year-old Patricia López. She is a stylish ornament, a tough-minded supporter from a wealthy Salvadoran family. Even the rebel radio station noted the occasion. “What the oligarchy could not win in the diplomatic struggle,” it teased, “it will achieve in the marriage bed.” But others read the wedding as the act of a man looking for another life besides that of marine guards, bunkerlike embassies, classified papers, constant suspicion, mistrust and maneuvering.

Hinton’s has been a long career of intrigue and confrontation. He was a man with a lot of professional masks — the economist, the negotiator, the administrator. He says he was never part of the Central Intelligence Agency, but the aura of the spook has followed him to postings in Guatemala and Chile during tough and bloody times, and to Zaire when the fight next door in Angola “was just heating up,” as he put it. He was declared persona non grata there, for allegedly plotting to murder Zaire’s president Mobutu Sese Seko.

“Total nonsense,” he says. “My defense always was that if I’d have been out to get him, he’d have been dead.”

When Hinton took the assignment in Salvador, he and Haig understood each other perfectly. “We were going to make a success of this place, and we were not going to let it become a Marxist totalitarian state,” the ambassador recalled.

Steadily, he raised the ante. Hinton figured $110 million a year was necessary to keep that game going, but he looked for more than twice that sum in economic support. American aid has come to count for more than 20 percent of El Salvador’s gross national product, and still the economy cannot reach zero growth. But a more narrow goal, perhaps more vital, was satisfied. Hinton’s unstated but obvious mandate was to make things work the way Americans think things ought to work.

The minuscule middle class was allowed to go on living in the style to which it had become accustomed. Patricia’s friends had less to complain about. Factories might close, farms might founder, but the supermarkets with the bulletproof American station wagons parked outside were kept well stocked with imported deodorants and shampoos. McDonald’s reopened.The Salvadoran legal system, which is built on the Chilean model and resembles virtually every other legal system south of the Rio Grande, was considered unsatisfactory. Suspected reds, tens of thousands of them, were considered better dead than arrested. Worst of all, it could not even convict the men. Washington was sure were guilty of killing American nuns and American labor advisers. So the attorney general of the United States was brought down to give the lawyers, judges and the Salvadoran president a pep talk, and an American legal team set about showing them how to start remaking their whole system of jurisprudence.

Still, Hinton always insisted, “I am not a proconsul, I am an American ambassador.” But his was a pro forma declaration. “I never try to tell [the Salvadorans] what has to be done,” he would say. “I try to tell them, ‘These are the considerations and consequences of this line of action and not doing something could lead to the following. …’ ” Yet even he had to add, “Certainly, during the forming of this government, that was the tone I was using.”

In March 1982, hundreds of thousands of Salvadorans went to the polls. But as the ballot count would have it, the majority of the seats in the assembly wound up in the hands of an ultrarightist coalition that threatened to make the alleged leader of the death squads, ex-Major Roberto D’Aubuisson, president. The center could not hold, and anarchy was loosed on Hinton’s world.

The consequences and considerations he held out to the Salvadorans were perfectly blunt: a congressional cutoff of all aid. No more money was likely to mean no more deodorant, no more high command. D’Aubuisson found himself summoned before a stone-faced assembly of the Salvadoran army’s top officers and was curtly informed that he would not be president.

Looking back a year later, Hinton had no regrets about the way Salvadoran democracy was saved from itself except to say, “The down side of that operation is that one had to resort to the military.”

“Does Deane Hinton have influence here?” said one admiring embassy staffer, smiling. “He created this government on a yellow legal pad.” Do you think, Mr. Ambassador, the United States is perhaps too deeply involved in El Salvador for its own good?

“There’s no choice,” he said shortly before his replacement was announced this spring. “You’re playing for big stakes.”


For U.S. policymakers, the 1960s in Central America began with panic. Fidel Castro’s victory in Cuba provoked an Alliance for Progress and a Bay of Pigs. It was planned — and not quite executed — by much of the same CIA and Cold Warrior crew responsible for our incursion into Guatemala in the mid-Fifties. Yet by the late Sixties, there were revolutions under way on the isthmus and new demands for democratic openings being put on the old feudal patrons of the region’s politics. It was a time of possibilities. But nobody in Washington was paying much attention. There was Vietnam to worry about. As late as 1978, the United States would mistake the growing turmoil for the usual banana-republic torpor.

By the time the rot of our ally Anastasio Somoza’s dictatorship in Nicaragua became too obvious to ignore, there was little left for Washington to do but try to get rid of him and put somebody else in his place before a young bunch of Marxists called Sandinistas did the job themselves.

Washington failed. And in the process of failing, it made great strides in destroying its own credibility. The Carter administration sent tough guys to Managua in late 1978, which is what everyone in Central America expected. But because of Washington politics, trade-offs over the Panama Canal treaties and indecision at the highest levels, Carter’s fixers were left with empty threats.

“Somoza knew the Americans, but the Americans didn’t know Somoza. That was the problem,” says Adolfo Calero, an exiled Nicaraguan leader who never liked the dictator but likes the Sandinistas even less. “They should never have come in. They created expectations. It was a terrible disillusionment for the Nicaraguan people when the Americans didn’t get Somoza out. When they saw that the blue-eyed giant couldn’t get Somoza out, they had to put themselves in the hands of the black-eyed kids.”

Black-eyed kids whom the Reagan administration has learned to hate.


It was a fabulous plot. The poison was supposed to have been put in a bottle of liqueur. The foreign minister, a priest, would have lost his hair and eyebrows, gone sterile, become a blubbering idiot and died of untraceable causes over a protracted time. “Taste the magic of benedictine,” reads the promotional copy on the box.

For this nefarious scheme and other alleged plots some two months ago, Nicaragua declared three political officers at the U.S. embassy in Managua personas non gratas. The Reagan administration retaliated by throwing out more than twenty Nicaraguan diplomats. The Sandinista press raged.

Ambassador Anthony C.E. Quainton shook his head. “Clearly preposterous,” he called the charges.

Poisoned benedictine is not really his style.

Ace, as he is sometimes called behind his back by embassy staffers, is basically an analyzer, an observer whose public role often seems limited to walking out of state functions in response to gratuitous national insults.

“I may be the first U.S. ambassador to Nicaragua who is not a proconsul,” Quainton says matter-of-factly.

He serves in a country where everyone has learned the battle hymn of the revolution. “The children of Sandino don’t surrender or sell out. We fight against the Yankee, enemy of humanity.”

Yet Quainton still manages to have a certain cachet. His is a studied, feet-on-the-ottoman, cigar-in-the-teeth affability. He has the kind of all-American face it’s hard to mistrust: young looking, puckish, a little like Wally Cleaver at age 49. He makes himself fit. Even Tomás Borge, the man the Reagan administration pictures as the most red and menacing element of the Nicaraguan red menace, once said that Quainton “is a man with a great sense of humor that almost matches mine.”As a question of tact, Washington’s envoys no longer live in a huge white house in Managua. Their images — warmly shaking hands with the dictator — no longer grace the Nicaraguan 20-cordoba bill.

Quainton, like his predecessor Lawrence Pezzullo, accepts this change in tone. The new environment might be the perfect showcase for a diplomat who wants to practice the business of diplomacy as a personal art rather than an extension of Washington’s fist-waving and bribery. But that is not the way the State Department intends to play.

America’s is essentially a checkbook imperialism. Since American aid to Nicaragua was cut off in the spring of 1981 over the question of arms supplies to the Salvadoran rebels, America’s only leverage in Managua has been coercion or the threat of it. That is handled more out of Washington or Honduras than it is by the man on the scene.

What the embassy is left with is its reporting, the culling of whatever information it can gather by whatever means. But there is often the sense that nobody up there in Foggy Bottom is listening. On several occasions last year, embassy staffers in Managua complained that the picture they got of the place bore no resemblance to the one being pushed in Washington. For example, while Washington portrayed the military buildup in Nicaragua as the Sandinistas’ creation of a relentless juggernaut, the embassy was pointing out that the size of the regular Sandinista army, about 22,000 men, had not increased significantly in two years.

Quainton was once described by a subordinate as a “very bright man, but not the kind to risk his career for Nicaragua.” Coming out of Andover, Princeton and Oxford, he spent much of the 1970s in such diplomatic nowhere lands as Katmandu and the Central African Empire.

He caught Haig’s eye in the wake of Iran as the director of the State Department’s Office for Combating Terrorism. And terrorism was what the Reagan administration was sure Nicaragua was all about. The fact that Quainton had no experience in Latin America, spoke no Spanish, might even have seemed a plus. There was the idea floating around that President Carter’s people, Latin Americanists all, had somehow been co-opted by the Sandinistas.

To his credit, Quainton not only learned the language in a matter of months, he also learned the people. A member of the Nicaraguan junta went so far as to say, “Ambassador Quainton has fallen in love with the Sandinista revolution, and with the Sandinistas.”

It is not altogether clear whether this remark was intended to bury Quainton or to praise him.

The ambassador himself is discreet and philosophical about his awkward role. “Technology is making irrelevant a lot of what United States ambassadors, and diplomats in general, do.” There is the obvious element of rapid travel, the ease of communication. “More often than not, where you have a problem, you send in somebody to deal with it from Washington.”

The embassy in Managua, meanwhile, continues to operate out of temporary quarters, built in 1973, that look like strung-together mobile homes. The staffers do their jobs, then look to their hobbies. Quainton himself is an active member of both the Managua Players and the American Embassy Players. This year, he directed Neil Simon’s Plaza Suite. Last year, it was Agatha Christie’s Ten Little Indians. As it happens, he played the murderer.

Basically, he appears left to ponder or socialize, only making sure never to apologize, in a country essentially written off by the Reagan administration a long time ago.

The time is coming, Quainton has come to believe, when ambassadors, as such, may be phased out altogether in hostile places like Nicaragua. There will be a Telex placed in the foreign ministry, perhaps, doing all the official message delivery Washington needs or wants.


In a note to the alumni magazine of Phillips Exeter Academy (class of ’56), John Dimitri Negroponte let his old chums know he was back on the fast track.

“There is much more at stake in Central America than seems to come through in our media,” he exulted. “So writing to you from one of Central America’s potential dominoes, I urge fellow classmates to get more than superficially interested. … It’s a helluva lot closer to home than Saigon!!”

Central America is not the new Vietnam — yet — but for a select subset at the State Department, it is the next best thing. They are a generation that first began to flourish in Southeast Asia in the shadow of the best and the brightest. They are a generation of State Department survivors, and Negroponte has proved to be one of the most durable.

“There are people who try to take my record and try to make something out of it,” says Negroponte, whose interview sessions often are taken as studies in the attempted intimidation of the press. “Vietnam was the leading foreign-policy issue of the day.”

He spent three and a half years in the Saigon political section, then he was assigned to the Paris peace talks. In the spring of 1970, several members of Henry Kissinger’s National Security Staff resigned over our incursion into Cambodia. “Kissinger was looking for new recruits,” Negroponte remembers, and Negroponte was glad to be one. The winner of the Nobel Peace Prize would later refer to Negroponte in his memoirs as “my staff expert on Vietnam.”

But when Saigon started heading for its fall, the careers of men like Negroponte started slipping, too. Negroponte’s plunge started particularly quickly because in his ardent hopes for the Thieu regime, he accused Kissinger of selling it out. His next assignment was Quito, Ecuador. Then a consulate in the Greek provinces. The road back to official favor would take almost a decade.In professional purgatory, a lot of questions would be asked about Vietnam, a lot of lessons drawn from the experience there. But, it appears, there was never any question about the basic attitude that took them to the rice paddies in the first place.

With the election of Ronald Reagan and the advent of Haig, the bright young men who brought you Southeast Asia got a new showcase in Central America. Their special project would be Honduras, a sleepy, underpopulated little republic best known for bananas, corruption and relatively benign military dictatorships. That is, until Negroponte became ambassador.

For almost two years, the entire chain of command running from the sixth floor of the State Department to the windowless offices of the political section in Tegucigalpa was an uninterrupted string of Southeast Asia hands. The assistant secretary of state for inter-American affairs was Thomas O. Enders, who had chaired a panel responsible for directing secret bombing raids on Cambodia in 1973. The man responsible for Central America was L. Craig Johnstone, who served as future CIA director William Colby’s director of evaluations in Vietnam.

“The gang that couldn’t shoot straight gets another chance,” said one State Department official.

But unlike the others, Negroponte seemed to use his personal record on and in Vietnam to carve out a new constituency for himself. At first eyed warily by such ultra-conservatives as Senator Jesse Helms because of his connections with the “liberal” Kissinger and Enders, Negroponte told them how he opposed Kissinger’s supposed sellout of Vietnam at the Paris peace talks. And when Enders’ head rolled this spring, reportedly for the mere suggestion that negotiations might be in order for El Salvador, if only as a tactic for dividing the left, Negroponte kept his post.

Tall and balding, he appears aloof rather than imposing. Some of his colleagues consider it appropriate that he married Diana Villiers, the daughter of Catholic aristocrats in England, and that she should have more of the common touch than he. She exudes a good-natured noblesse oblige, the kind of ruling-class responsibility that had her working in Uganda before her marriage and took her for days at a time to the mud of Miskito Indian refugee camps after her husband was assigned to Honduras.

But Negroponte himself is of somewhat less self-assured origins. His family is Greek, his father a shipping agent who moved to England just before World War II, then to the U.S.

Negroponte’s is an intellectually, even artistically, adventurous family. One brother, Nicholas, is a professor of computer science at MIT. Twin brothers George and Michel live in New York’s Soho, where the former paints and the latter makes freelance films.

But oldest brother John Dimitri, 44, turned his arts to the more staid study of power, his ambitions to international affairs. When he was 21, fresh out of Yale, he joined the foreign service and became part of that special clique of officers who knew — as surely as they had known since they trudged the slick, snow-covered walks of New England’s prep schools — that they were meant to dominate the world around them.

Some of Negroponte’s colleagues at State — those who come from more pedestrian backgrounds — complain that he and that clique have very little sense of what the “real world” is like: the suffering, the drudgery and pain, the most basic kinds of emotions and personal relationships.

“J.D. doesn’t have friends, he has alliances,” says one fellow foreign-service officer.

This is almost certainly unfair, yet Negroponte is a man whom remarkably few people defend or compliment beyond perfunctory praise of his professional qualifications and skills.

The night before joint maneuvers between the Honduran and American armies in February, Negroponte threw a cocktail party for government officials and the visiting press at his residence. John and Diana Negroponte were adopting a little Honduran girl. Making small talk on the terrace looking down on Tegucigalpa, a reporter congratulated the ambassador, who smiled, said thanks, then felt compelled to explain that while he and Diana had agreed “in principle” to the adoption, he had been a bit surprised to return from a trip to Panama to find the baby already in the house.

Where Hinton had pictures of his family, Negroponte tends to have pictures of his more noteworthy superiors. Behind his desk is a photo of his wife, Diana, but directly above the couch — where any visitor to the ambassador’s office is asked to sit — Alexander Haig is offering Negroponte best wishes “on his challenging new venture.”

“I think Negroponte, if he subscribes to a theory of history, subscribes to the Great Man Theory,” suggests one associate. “A few people wield the power, and to exercise power, you get to know the few.”

When Negroponte took over the Tegucigalpa embassy in late 1981, it had just been upgraded from a four to a two in the service classifications. But that hardly obscured the fact that Honduras is little known as a haven for Great Men. Even the statue of heroic Francisco Morazán in the capital, so the story goes, is really a secondhand sculpture of Marshal Michel Ney from France. With only three and a half million people and, like its neighbors, a minuscule economy, its current claim to fame is, alternatively, as a domino or as a base for something the ambassador describes only with a smiling “no comment.”

Negroponte’s own sideshow.

Yet some of the men on the ground, the leaders of the Nicaraguan counterrevolution who depend on Washington and Washington’s men in Honduras for crucial support, are resentful and even bitter about what they see as the motive and manner of the backing they get.

“I hate the American approach,” says one counterrevolutionary leader. “They always talk about body counts and money.” He complains that he and his fighters are regarded more as policy options than as people. “I read somewhere,” he says with a sigh, “that in the American Revolution, a man said, ‘Leaders of a political movement, when they don’t win, they should be hanged.’ I believe that. You don’t play around with people’s lives, because children, families die in the field.”The stonewalling. The obvious lies from the high command. The reluctant and partial admissions that indicted only the most insignificant soldiers. When employees of a U.S.-funded education project were “disappeared” in the Guatemalan highlands on February 9th by troops of the same government Washington was trying to help, it must have been a very familiar scenario to Ambassador Frederic Lincoln Chapin. He had been to El Salvador first. He had seen basically the same thing there. It was nothing new that Guatemalans disappeared in Guatemala, only that they were working for the United States. But it was, nevertheless, the kind of thing that makes Chapin weary.

He was the first Reagan-appointed envoy to Central America. Although known around the department as something of a Democrat, he was also a traditionalist: St. Paul’s, Harvard, still parting his graying hair in the middle, just as his father used to do. When he took over the Salvadoran embassy as chargé d’affaires in February 1981, he would talk about being a third-generation public servant, with a grandfather who once commanded a U.S. dreadnaught in the days of gunboat diplomacy and a father who headed missions in Panama, Iran and Hungary.

When Chapin left El Salvador to make way for Hinton less than four months later, he told the assembled diplomatic corps bidding him farewell that there were times he felt more as if he were running a police station than a U.S. embassy.

It had been Chapin’s mission to find the murderers of three American nuns and a lay worker killed in December 1980. In the face of persistent obfuscation, he had succeeded in getting four of five enlisted men arrested.

The nuns’ case, along with the murder a month later of two American agrarian reform experts, have served to bring several American diplomats to a kind of epiphany. Some resigned. They were, in the eyes of one colleague still working in the embassy, “turned” by the intransigence, even the evil of the system they confronted. Whatever Chapin’s deeper feelings, when he went on to Guatemala as ambassador in the summer of 1981, he obviously was a tired man.

“Let’s just say the secretary’s idea of a reward for four months in El Salvador is not my idea of a reward for four months in El Salvador,” he told a friend on his last day in San Salvador. “You carry a bucket for just so long, and all they do is hand you another bucket.”

If Chapin is not a diplomatic Miniver Cheevy, if he does not wish for the days when gentlemen did not read one another’s mail, he does obviously admire the elegance and decorum of the diplomacy Quainton sees dying.

His bookshelves are full of history. He pores over the handwritten journals of his captain grandfather; leafs through the dissertation he did at Harvard on Homer Lea, an American, a hunchback, a military genius who was chief of staff for Sun Yat-sen in the Chinese Revolution.

Chapin was made to be the kind of quiet diplomat the Reagan administration talked about wanting, in the wake of some of President Carter’s seemingly flamboyant appointments. But Guatemala appears as impervious to whispers as to cries.

When Chapin arrived, the president was General Romeo Lucas Garcia, who projected an image of sullen slow-wittedness while he apparently built fortunes for himself and his cronies. His police death squads were killing suspected leftists in the capital, while his army was wiping out priests, peasants and the occasional guerrilla in the countryside.

When young officers installed ex-General José Efraín Ríos Montt in power in March 1982, the style of the violence changed but the scope stayed the same. For a few months, the success of his campaign — combining terror with the promise of reward to the country’s Indian majority — appeared likely to win him back American military assistance. Winners are easy to support, even if their methods are not.

Through it all, Chapin played along in a way that many observers found naive or worse. His embassy produced a long document attempting to debunk the human-rights reporting of Amnesty International. And before the coup but after the election, reporters were told that then-president Lucas Garcia’s handpicked successor, General Anibal Guevara, was really all right. After the coup, a similar session was called to say that Ríos Montt might be just what the country needed.

But Guatemala’s old self-destructive craziness loomed again. When officers started talking about Ríos Montt’s going soft, he held an American tourist and his Spanish lover for 28 days as suspected terrorists, even though everything pointed to their innocence. And practically on the eve of the pope’s visit to Guatemala and despite the pontiff’s expressed pleas for clemency, Ríos Montt lined up six men convicted by secret courts and had them shot.Then there was Patricio Ortiz Maldonado. He worked on one of the few projects of which the embassy was proud, and the army eliminated him, his driver, an associate and the associate’s mother on February 9th. Only after weeks of contradictory tales did the defense ministry come up with the story that the four were arrested because of a tip they were training “subversive delinquents.” They had been shot and killed while trying to escape, the ministry said.

For Chapin, no doubt, there was a moral issue in all this, something beyond simple concern over the safety of AID contract employees.

His temporary recall for consultations in the second week of March was reported as a protest over the killing. And when Reagan himself addressed the nation about stepping up assistance of all kinds to the region, he said nothing about any new money for Guatemala.

But there are many analysts who believe the move was more coldly pragmatic than moral. The Reagan administration had lost a lot of political capital in its attempts to resurrect aid and influence in Guatemala. By March of this year, that capital was needed elsewhere.

It always came back to Deane Hinton’s turf.


Sometimes a curious image is used to explain how El Salvador traditionally has worked. The country is likened to a footstool, with four legs.

“To govern this country, you’ve got to control three of the four legs,” says one embassy staffer. “If you’ve only got two, the stool doesn’t stand anymore. The church. The army Capital. The embassy. Things are kind of shaky right now. The army’s divided. The church is divided. Capital is gone, and the embassy is trying to be a one-legged stool.”

A year and a half after Hinton arrived in El Salvador, Washington had begun whittling away at the last remaining prop. To Reagan’s right-wing allies, it seemed no one was tough enough. The roots of Hinton’s departure might have begun like this: he had gotten the idea that if he could just “get one good case and use it for demonstrative effects” in the Salvadoran courts, then he could make at least some movement toward purging the worst elements from the armed forces and put a brake on the lawless slaughter of civilians. The most crucial cases, obviously, were those of the dead American nuns and labor advisers. But no matter how much pressure he brought to bear, anyone with rank in the army or money in the bank who was implicated in the killings was released by the courts.

On October 29th, 1982, Hinton denounced what he called “the mafia” in El Salvador, a group not too different from the oligarchs and officers long derided by the rebels. But at this crucial moment, the proconsul found himself crippled by the intrigues of Washington’s right-wing observers. Leaks came out of the White House suggesting Hinton had gone too far, that he had overstepped the bounds of “quiet diplomacy.”

The Salvadoran mafia believed all along that Washington would never cut the money flow, never let them lose to the Communists. Hinton was less and less able to dispel that illusion. It certainly appears that he always could and always would certify, as Congress demanded, that things were improving. Perhaps he had no choice.

The Reagan administration had set out to pump even more money into El Salvador, to put in the funds, if not the soldiers, to see the war was fought to U.S. specifications. Reagan went before Congress, redrew Al Haig’s old line against communism and said that any step back from it would be a disaster to United States security. The big commitment.

Down on the ground, Hinton said he was “weary” but more than willing to hang in there. The soldier’s son would stay as long as his commander-in-chief wanted him.

But some high-flown theatrics were demanded by Hollywood-on-the-Potomac. New appointments were being hatched for the people the president and his people felt they knew. Hinton was used up, it was said in Washington. Hinton, it was suggested, was no longer effective.

Then, just a few days later, at the end of May, everything came crashing.

The guerrillas had been calculating carefully an answer to Reagan’s new resolve. They stepped up their military campaign, and the army’s response was no more or less effective than usual.

“Fuck,” said Waghelstein’s second-in-command, boy-faced Al Schaufelberger, raising his stubby fists in the air in frustration with the guerrillas’ methods. “I wish for once they’d just stand and fight.” But the rebels were not standing still. They were stalking.

On the evening of May 25th, Al Schaufelberger drove to the University of Central America to pick up his girlfriend, Consuelo Escalante. As he sat in the twilight of the peaceful campus, a van pulled up. One young man pointed a gun at Escalante and told her to freeze. Another was at the wheel of the van. A third was up the street. The fourth pumped three bullets into Schaufelberger’s head. Schaufelberger was a hell of a fighter. Good with guns. Good with his hands, and as security-conscious as anyone. But he did not have a chance to make a move. He drove an ancient Ford Maverick, and when the air conditioning broke down and apparently couldn’t be fixed, he had the bulletproofing taken off the front doors so he could roll down the windows. He was, according to his friends, expert at varying the routes he took, and it seemed unlikely that anyone could have followed him successfully.

But he had one regular and fatal habit that was easy enough for the guerrillas to spot. Even though the university where she worked is full of students who sympathize with the rebels, Consuelo Escalante told reporters Schaufelberger went there like clockwork every evening to pick her up.

Every evening, that is, except one. If it was Thursday, it was poker night.


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