The quiet American

Harry Barnes, former U.S. ambassador to Chile

The new U.S. ambassador arrived in Santiago in 1985 and almost immediately ran afoul of General Augusto Pinochet. Harry Barnes, who died on August 9, made a point of meeting with as wide a range of Chileans as possible, from local military intendentes to opposition leaders.  The following year a teenage photographer who had grown up in Washington, D.C. died after being set on fire by a passing army patrol.  Barnes attended the young Chilean’s funeral, along with his French counterpart and diplomats from three other European embassies, and was tear-gassed by police.  The State Department backed Barnes, but Republican Senator Jesse Helms, an admirer of Pinochet, accused the ambassador of “planting the American flag in the midst of Communist activity.”

He also held the occasional off-the-record briefing for the U.S. news media in Santiago, something his predecessor never did, though his observations were always muted and circumspect.  He kept his ear to the ground and had no illusions about Pinochet’s willingness to cede power to civilians, and when the regime was preparing for a one-man presidential plebiscite in which Chileans were asked to vote “yes” or “no” to extend Pinochet’s presidency  for eight more years, he warned assistant secretary of state Elliot Abrams that

 “Pinochet’s plan is simple: A) if the “yes” is winning, fine; B) if the race is very close, rely on fraud and coercion ; C) if the “no” is likely to win clearly then use violence and terror to stop the process. To help prepare the atmosphere the CNI [the regime’s secret police] will have the job of provoking adequate violence before and on October 5. Since we know that Pinochet’s closest advisors now realize he is likely to lose, we believe the third option is the one most likely to be put into effect with substantial loss of life.” http://foia.state.gov/documents/StateChile3/00007B46.pdf

Such cables caused Washington to summon the Chilean ambassador to the State Department a few days before the plebiscite and warn that his country faced serious international condemnation if the voting process were sabotaged. But not all regime officials were going along with Pinochet’s plans. On the night of the vote the regime was still sitting on the results when Chile’s air force commander decided to “pull out the detonators” and announce to reporters that the “no” vote had won.

Chile was Barnes’ last foreign service post and he later joined the Carter Center as director of the Human Rights and Conflict Resolution Programs from 1994 to 2000.  A statement from the Center about Barnes’ career can be found here: http://www.cartercenter.org/news/pr/Barnes_081312.html

 

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