Diana Villiers Negroponte, a nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, took a somewhat circuitous route to a life of academic contemplation of Latin America. Rather than racing from her undergraduate studies to a doctoral program, she first began to develop a deeper understanding of the region while laboring as a trade lawyer.
“I was a young attorney and therefore helped a number of partners in drafting legal briefs on a wide range of issues,” Negroponte said. “Paul, Hastings, Janofsky & Walker is a Los Angeles firm, but with a large practice in D.C., where administrative law, regulatory practice and the drafting of legislative language form the guts of a new lawyer’s work.”
But when she and her husband, John Negroponte, a veteran U.S. ambassador who was stationed in Honduras at the time, adopted five Honduran children in the early 1980s, the demands of raising a large family helped steer her away from the grinding life of an associate attorney. The shift was also driven by curiosity, though.
“I wanted to know more about the culture and the history of where they came from. So this European — I’m a European; I have a British father and a Belgian mother — began to probe, investigate,” she explained. “You understand Latin American culture by breathing it, listening and absorbing every drop of verbal, written and body language. There is no single book to teach you. Instead, you must live within the culture to know and love it.”
Negroponte’s passion for Latin America has led to an impressively varied career. On the one hand, she specialized in legal, judicial and police reform issues, as well as international trade matters, playing an active role with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in Mexico during negotiations for the North American Free Trade Agreement. On the other hand, she’s also spent a lifetime devoted to social and development issues, particularly in the developing world.
In Uganda, she taught blind children mathematics and music, according to her bio. In Honduras, she worked with refugees displaced by civil wars, taught illiterate adults, and provided medicine for children with cancer. In the Philippines, she dedicated time to micro-credit programs. And in Mexico, she built low-income homes in city slums with Habitat for Humanity International and initiated a program for the artistic development of people with disabilities.
Eventually, Negroponte also completed a doctoral program at Georgetown University and embarked on a career in academia. After a stretch teaching history at Fordham University, and then a stint at the U.S. Institute of Peace, she arrived at Brookings in 2007.
Her focus on social issues stands somewhat in contrast to her husband John Negroponte, the first-ever U.S. director of national intelligence under the Bush administration and a former deputy secretary of state who dealt largely with security issues during his lengthy Foreign Service career in hotspots such as Honduras in the early 1980s, when America built a strong military presence there to counter leftist revolutionaries, to Iraq in the midst of the U.S.-led war, to the United Nations just after the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
But Diana Negroponte’s own scholarly career — like her work in the developing world — has also covered a range of subjects, from cracking down on money laundering, to U.S.-Latin relations, to Mexico’s state-owned oil industry. She’s also focused heavily on public security. In researching her dissertation, which was published earlier this year as a book under the title “Seeking Peace in El Salvador: The Struggle to Reconstruct a Nation at the End of the Cold War,” Negroponte delved into the country’s civil war in the 1980s that pitted leftist rebels funded by the Soviet Union against a right-wing government backed by the United States. Some 75,000 people were killed in the conflict, one of the most notorious of its era, but, as the book’s title indicates, Negroponte was less concerned with the fighting itself than with the process by which the two sides laid down their arms, as well as America’s role in the conflict’s end.
But while the study of a brutal war’s end should naturally lend itself to optimism, Negroponte concluded by asking whether the civil war in El Salvador, and in Central America more generally, has ever really ended. The isthmus’s northern triangle — El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras — is now the most violent region on earth, with street gangs and drug traffickers wreaking havoc from one coast to the other (also see the cover profile “Central America: Out of Control?” in the January 2012 issue of The Washington Diplomat).
“The effect of that violence [from the civil wars] on that generation, who is now in their late teens or 20s, is to create in them this impervious nature to violence,” Negroponte told The Diplomat. “And interestingly, the psychiatrists who interviewed them in the late 1980s, early 1990s, warned the authorities these kids need therapy. ‘No, no, we got no money for that,’ [they said]. So it wasn’t given. So my argument is that nation-building at the end of a civil war requires a generational commitment to those who have lived through the violence and whose scars will continue to demonstrate themselves in various ways.”
Because of the ongoing importance of public security in Latin America, Negroponte’s research at Brookings, which concentrates primarily on Central America and Mexico, including the relationship between criminal gangs and state institutions, has allowed her to expand further on the issues she explored in her dissertation.
One of the more unusual evolutions she’s noticed in the region is Nicaragua, which suffered through decades of civil conflict and remains politically unstable today, but is nonetheless far safer than its northern neighbors. To explain that contradiction, and many of the related security problems in Latin America, Negroponte points to the police.
“The police in Nicaragua are a very respected institution. Your son or daughter would become a policeman or policewoman, and that was an element of pride,” Negroponte explained.
“That’s not the case in Guatemala, Honduras or El Salvador — nor in Mexico. And then [there’s] the Sandinista creation of the neighborhood watch. They knew who came into their neighborhood,” she added, referring to Nicaragua’s ruling Sandinista socialist political party. “So those two elements have enabled Nicaragua to have a much lower level of intentional homicide, and to pretty well have avoided the kidnappings and drug violence.”
Negroponte’s research into Latin American police forces has also taken her to Mexico, where respect for the police among the population is rare. According to Negroponte, the beat cops, who are well aware of their predicament, hold some of the greatest potential to reverse Mexico spiraling violence. Many of the potential fixes she mentions, such as police-only reading clubs, are only tangentially related to actual police work and are more so geared toward endowing the police (who generally receive meager salaries) with a sense of self worth and esprit de corps.
She cited her work in Nezahualcoyotl, a populous Mexico City suburb, where the police’s top request was to: “Please give us dignity.”
Negroponte in fact took the head of the police force to see Mexican Secretary of Public of Security Genaro García Luna, to whom he said, “Sir, if you can give a scholarship to the sons and daughters of policemen, which would be continued so long as the police official remains in line, uncorrupted, that will give the policeman a standing in his community. The policeman also knows that if he starts receiving payments or behaving in such a way that indicates that his loyalty is ambiguous, his kids lose the scholarship,” Negroponte recalled.
She also remembered Luna’s response: “I have no interest in that whatsoever. We will provide subsidized housing.”
“He missed the point,” she lamented. “The point is that individuals are ready to go to enormous lengths to ensure that their sons and daughters do better than they through education. And thereby the police themselves were creating that incentive to become more effective.”
Yet part of the challenge is that corruption in the ranks of the police is long rooted in Latin American history, stretching much further back than the recent boom in drug trafficking. Negroponte says weak oversight and wealthy local interests have long conspired to create a culture of graft — the only difference is that today, the ones who have the police in their back pockets are the organized criminals and drug traffickers, not corporate barons or corrupt local officials.
“Their pay at $300 a month requires that they take money on the side in order to be able to provide for their family. And so there is the expectation that the policeman is there to be bought. We’re objecting now because it’s the illicit [actors] who are buying. For centuries, they’ve been bought by the business community, the powerful, the politicians.”
What the U.S. government can do to strengthen security in Central America and Mexico is the subject of heated debate. On the one hand, because much of the drug-related violence in the south stems from the insatiable demand up north, greased by lax U.S. gun laws, and because the United States has far more money to spend than the nations of Latin America, many argue that the U.S. government has both a moral responsibility and practical ability to combat the problem. At the same time, it’s not clear that U.S. policies are the solution. While many point to Plan Colombia as a successful model for the region, the Mérida Initiative, the multibillion-dollar aid package to Mexico initiated in 2008, has coincided with a dramatic surge in violence as the Mexican government wages all-out war with powerful drug cartels.
But Negroponte says there is a role for the United States to play, helping with much-needed training and equipment, among other assistance. “That long-term commitment will pay off.”
America’s role must also be a multifaceted one, addressing the all-important economic and political dimensions that are often overshadowed by grim headlines of decapitations and kidnappings.
“In the case of Mexico, I believe it is very important to rework the balance,” she said. “You’ll recall that 10 to eight years ago, with the so-called security and prosperity partnership, security got the predominance of attention. And that has continued. But the economics, the shared prosperity, has to get greater attention too.
“I’d really focus on that border. I’d really focus on public-private partnerships to increase the number of crossings,” she added, arguing that economic links between the United States and Latin American nations do not exist in a vacuum. Rather, they have a profound impact on a wide range of issues, of which security is just one.
“The economic [side of the relationship] doesn’t stand alone,” Negroponte said. “The disparity of incomes — which in this hemisphere is worse than anywhere else, and growing — how do we all within the hemisphere recognize that greater wealth must be distributed. You cannot go on having an increasing number of millionaires when a majority of your young men and women are emerging from schools uneducated.”
Negroponte praises a new mix of politicians such as former Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva who’ve instituted popular social reforms, but not at the expense of private sector growth.
“While the left doesn’t have the same strength it had in the ’60s and ’70s, I see real need for it over the next 10 years in order to achieve the greater level of equality,” Negroponte said. “So you have a greater focus on socioeconomic issues, but you maintain the liberal free market economy. It works so long as everyone feels that they have a stake in the present and they have prosperity in the future.”
She adds: “I think that the anger isn’t only the inability of the government to keep people safe. It’s the inability of the government to recognize that the majority are owed better hospitals, better schools, and a decent pension.”
The desire for a more comprehensive social safety net is not only an issue in the poverty-stricken nations of Central America, but also among the emerging powerhouses further south. The nation with the best economic performance over the past 20 years is Chile, but despite its successes in the post-Pinochet era, the government last year was rocked by a wave of student protests demanding educational reform and an end to the nation’s for-profit university system.
“Chile has a growing middle class, but a middle class who found a ceiling they could not break,” Negroponte pointed out, noting that “private school fees were so high that they were in excess of the average wages which people earn. The protest has been sustained since by many educated men and women and their parents and their teachers saying we’ve got to invest in quality public education.”
She added: “Society in general is reaching a point of exhaustion, that it is ready to say no más and to demonstrate in thousands is sporadic.”
To that end, Negroponte says that with several major presidential elections in Latin America in 2012, including Mexico’s presidential race in July, it will be up to the people as a whole to decide how to forge ahead — and change will require society-wide effort, such as what happened over the last decade in Colombia, with everyone pitching in.
“The public commitment to end this, which existed in Colombia, [was] created by the government, motivated by the government, supported by the government, but it was very strong and demonstrated by the wealthy agreeing to pay a wealth tax.
“I want to be optimistic,” she said of the region’s security prospects. “And I think the example of Colombia suggests that if you can maintain the goals of the process over 10 to 14 years, you can beat it. But consistency is essential. So there’s continued focus on justice reform, police reform, penitentiaries too, combined with addressing the underlying causes of the violence.”
About the Author
Patrick Corcoran is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.