Article Forthcoming in the Journal of Contemporary History



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Article Forthcoming in the Journal of Contemporary History

At the End of Influence: The Letelier Assassination, Human Rights, and Rethinking Intervention in U.S.-Latin American Relations
Vanessa Walker
“The tyranny of the Pinochet government has now been extended to Washington,” declared Senator James Abourezk.1 Two days earlier, on the morning of 21 September 1976, former Chilean ambassador to the United States Orlando Letelier was killed, along with a young co-worker named Ronnie Moffitt, when a bomb exploded under his car as they drove to work along on Washington DC’s embassy row. As the investigation unfolded, evidence pointed to the complicity of Chile’s secret police (DINA) and the highest levels of Chile’s military regime; only 10 days before his death, this same regime, under the leadership of General Augusto Pinochet, had stripped Letelier of his citizenship for “gravely endangering the essential interests of the state.”2 Letelier had been one of the most visible and outspoken opponents of the Pinochet government and human rights violations in Chile.3 Exiled from Chile after the 1973 coup, he arrived in Washington DC as a senior fellow at the left-wing Institute for Policy Studies at a time when human rights violations, particularly by U.S. allies, were receiving increasing attention from activists and government alike. Revelations about the United States’ involvement in the Chilean coup reinforced the urgency for a new direction for American foreign policy, heightened by the Vietnam War. Moreover, disclosures about President Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger’s support for the coup raised particularly pointed questions about human rights and U.S. foreign policy.4 The assassination further disrupted already tense relations between the United States and Chile, which had been strained in recent years by widespread reports of human rights abuses, Congressional hearings, and pressure from increasingly active and influential non-government groups. 5 By 1979, ongoing conflicts over Letelier’s assassination, part of the Carter administration’s larger campaign to promote human rights, brought relations between the two countries to their nadir after the Chilean Supreme Court refused to extradite to the United States three high-level Chilean officials implicated in the assassination.

During the Carter presidency, human rights would dominate U.S. relations with Chile, and no single human rights issue loomed larger than Letelier’s assassination. The assassination offers a vignette into the tensions and paradoxes that marked the Carter administration’s human rights agenda in Latin America and beyond, tensions between affecting change and respecting sovereignty, between high expectations and limited influence, between public affirmation of principle and competing national interests. Carter sought to use human rights to move U.S. policies toward a greater respect for sovereignty and ideological diversity in the Western Hemisphere in the shadow of the legacy of U.S. hegemony and paternalism. Yet the aggressive pursuit of Letelier’s assassins drew the Carter administration dangerously close to the patterns it sought to reshape—namely U.S. interference in internal affairs of Latin American countries—and risked provoking nationalist backlash within Chile in response to U.S. intervention in its judicial system and infringement on its sovereignty. Not wishing to mirror the interventionism it critiqued nor back away from its commitment to human rights, the Carter administration sought a course of action that would promote human rights in Chile yet not compromise the change in U.S. behavior that Carter’s human rights policy promised. It was a course of action that proved elusive as the Carter administration reached the end of its influence in the Letelier investigation.

In the weeks prior to Letelier’s assassination, human rights had emerged as a leitmotif of Jimmy Carter’s 1976 presidential campaign, promising to restore American values to government. Building on the earlier efforts of Congress and the NGO community, Carter placed increasing emphasis on the idea of human rights, promising to re-center U.S. foreign policy within a more humane, less interventionist framework. He was at his home in Plains, Georgia, preparing for his upcoming debate with Gerald Ford when he received news of Letelier’s assassination earlier that morning. Carter immediately responded to the news by sending a telegram to Letelier’s widow, which read, “I have just learned with shock and horror of the senseless and brutal assassination of your husband Chile’s respected former ambassador to the United States Orlando Letelier. My deep personal sympathy is with you and your family at this time of tragedy.”6 Two weeks later, in his 6 October debate with President Gerald Ford he put Chile at the center of his emerging ideas of human rights and foreign policy, arguing that “the past destruction of elected governments, like in Chile, and the strong support of military dictatorship there,” symbolized the failings of Cold War paradigms and the need for a new direction in U.S. foreign relations.7

U.S.-Latin American relations in particular needed a new framework. Throughout the 20th century, and even before, the United States continuously intervened—militarily, economically, politically, socially, overtly, and covertly—in the affairs of its neighbors to the south. These past pursuits often negated self-determination and humanitarian objectives when other countries deviated from the United States’ vision of democracy and development.8 Carter sought to use human rights as the backbone for a new regional policy that would transcend these patterns of intervention and recapture popular opinion in the region. A U.S. administration promoting a particular moral and political vision in its foreign policy was, however, nothing new to Latin America. Michael Ignatieff recently observed that human rights can be seen “as the language of a moral imperialism just as ruthless and just as self-deceived as the colonial hubris of yesteryear.”9 This sense of moral imperialism is heightened in the Latin American context by the long history of U.S. intervention there. It is not surprising then that many scholars of U.S.-Latin American relations tend to Carter’s human rights policies as another, albeit gentler, chapter in U.S. hegemony in the region, casting human rights as necessarily interventionist. Moreover, many scholars who focus on Carter’s policies and human rights similarly miss the crucial legacy of U.S. paternalism and intervention in Latin America when critiquing Carter’s approach to human rights, which they often label ineffective, inconsistent, and naive.10

These critiques overlook the way in which Carter’s human rights policy aimed to reform the United States’ own conduct. The administration’s human rights agenda sought to redefine how Americans perceived their interests in the world, maintaining that the basis of the country’s strength was its values of liberty, democracy, and respect for human dignity. For Carter, as well as many of the Congressmen and activists who had preceded him on this issue, human rights was as much about changing U.S. behaviors that contributed to political repression and violence in other countries as it was about convincing other governments to modify their practices and adhere to international standards.11 This policy, Carter argued, would be consistent with American values and also serve national interests by reestablishing credibility and leadership in the post-Vietnam international sphere.12 It would increase the United States’ influence not only on humanitarian issues, but also on a spectrum of national interests that required cooperation and support from other nations and peoples.

In Latin America in particular the Carter administration sought to use human rights to demonstrate an increased respect for sovereignty in the region and divorce the United States from paternalistic legacies that had both undermined self-determination and exacerbated humanitarian crises. Distancing the U.S. from dictators and establishing a credible human rights policy would help counteract the “Yankee No!” mentality fostered by decades of U.S. intervention and paternalism.13 Yet the ability to pursue human rights in this context also had limits. Distancing itself from dictators would only change U.S. behavior, and do little to give those regimes an incentive to improve human rights conditions. To push or prod too forcefully, however, would simply return the United States to a position of coercion and intervention in the internal affairs of other countries, the very behavior the administration sought to remedy by embracing human rights.14 At the same time, eschewing intervention all together would limit dramatically the diplomatic tools available to affect change. Carter had to navigate a difficult path between these competing considerations.

Carter’s address to the Organization of American States (OAS) on 14 April 1977 stressed three elements of a new U.S. policy for the region that reflected this difficult balance: respect for the “individuality and sovereignty” of the nations of the region, respect for a broad spectrum of human rights, and America’s “desire to press forward on the great issues which affect the relations between the developed and the developing nations.”15 Vance reinforced this message three months after Carter’s OAS speech, clearly anticipating the cry of national sovereignty from governments critiqued on domestic human rights conditions. Vance asserted “My government believes in the sovereignty and independence of all states,” but he also warned “our cooperation in economic development must not be mocked by consistent patterns of gross violations of human rights.”16 Though the Carter administration would work to accept different political and economic systems, it would not allow the principles of self-determination, non-intervention, and ideological pluralism to justify egregious violations of internationally recognized human rights. Carter’s emphasis on sovereignty, ideological diversity, and partnership in the region—very much informed by human rights violations stemming from US intervention in the region by past administrations—directed and in cases limited his ability to pursue an active policy to improve human rights conditions.

The administration’s initial approach to Chile reflected this twin desire for an effective human rights agenda and a less interventionist policy. Yet further complicating the desire to improve human rights was the equally strong necessity of distancing the Carter administration from the United States’ previously close relations with the Chilean junta. The Carter administration had to cool relations sufficiently to demonstrate its seriousness on its human rights program, yet maintain relations strong enough to exert influence. At first, these goals proved to be mutually reinforcing as a distant and critical posture demonstrated to the public its seriousness about human rights while pushing the Chilean government to address the issue. The administration signaled publicly its disapproval of human rights violations in Chile by delaying for almost two months the formal interview to give credentials to Chile’s newly appointed ambassador, Jorge Cauas. In June, former Chilean President and moderate opposition leader Eduardo Frei made a highly publicized visit to the White House to meet with Vice President Walter Mondale and National Security Advisor Zbignew Brzezinski. Further, Rosalynn Carter “pointedly omitted” a visit to Chile during her trip to Latin America that same month. The State Department similarly “kept up a drumbeat of criticism” and reinforced earlier Congressional actions on military and economic sanctions, and the U.S. voted with the majority of the UN to censure human rights abuses in Chile.17

Carter’s election corresponded with a growing awareness within the Chilean junta that its human rights record was becoming a serious liability in its international relations. The Chilean government was cavalier about Carter’s campaign rhetoric, saying “It is very difficult to maintain that which is said before the election, because in that moment, one doesn’t have responsibilities.”18 However, an internal report of the Vicaría de la Solidaridad--Chile’s foremost human rights organization, organized under the Archbishopric of Santiago--stated in October that the U.S. elections, and the apparent majority opinion supporting the termination of foreign aid to governments with systematic violations of basic human rights, were indeed creating pressure on the regime to act. “In this context, the detentions and disappearances are reduced,” the Vicaría reported.19 Two weeks after the U.S. elections, the Chilean government released 302 political prisoners. Pinochet asserted that this action was undertaken in the spirit of “Christian humanity” and “absolutely sovereign and free from considerations of foreign pressure.” 20 He particularly insisted that this did not indicate that he had been influenced by Carter, and that he had already decided on these measures in September.21 The release was followed by a decree relaxing internal political restrictions and easing limitations placed on Chileans in “internal exile,” allowing them to travel around the country.22 The first half of 1977 was especially notable for its absence of reported disappearances and killings between January and May.23 In July, Pinochet announced his “Chacarillas Plan,” charting a course for national elections in 1985 to establish a legislative body. These actions reinforced the notion that the junta was moving toward moderation and re-democratization in Chile, however slowly.24

Despite these early signs of improvement in 1977, the Pinochet government vacillated throughout the year between liberalizing measures to improve foreign perceptions and repressive tactics to squelch opposition and retain control domestically. Pinochet would not allow gestures to the international community to compromise the government’s mission to root out the “Marxist threat” domestically, nor would he take measures that eroded his grip on power domestically. A CIA intelligence brief on 25 May 1977 noted that “reports of gross violations of human rights which had nearly ceased earlier this year are again on the rise. The Pinochet government is reverting to the practices that have jeopardized its international standing since the 1973 coup,” including torture, illegal detentions and disappearances.25 The CIA also reported numerous instances when the Carter administration’s emphasis on human rights and its linkage to foreign aid provoked resentment within Chile and throughout the Southern Cone; yet there was also evidence that the regime was responding. In June, U.S. intelligence indicated that the Chilean Foreign Ministry was pressing the military government to work with the United States on human rights issues and to make concessions on its powers under the state of siege.26

Pinochet made an effort to improve at least the appearance of human rights conditions in Chile. Perhaps one of the most significant concessions to human rights pressures came on the eve of U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Terrence Todman’s visit to Chile. On 12 August 1977, Pinochet announced that he was going to abolish DINA, the Chilean Secret Police. While this organization would be replaced with the new National Information Center (CNI), the Carter administration viewed this announcement as an important step toward normalization of relations with the Chilean government, since DINA had perpetrated most of the gross violations of human rights reported.27 The junta dissolved DINA in part because it believed it had taken care of its domestic threat sufficiently and thus the organization was no longer necessary for internal security. Moreover, the negative human rights image of DINA had become an embarrassment to the military government, and particularly Pinochet as DINA, and its director Manuel Contreras, was directly under his command.28 The Chilean government wanted signaled to the international community, particularly the U.S., that it was trying to improve its international standing. An intelligence brief noted that “Chileans have been debating whether the risks of internal subversion are so great that they have to risk jeopardizing their traditional good relations with the US, especially when there is no alternative benefactor.”29 The Carter administration, wary that these changes were merely superficial, met the announcement with cautious optimism, hoping that they provided an opportunity for real change from within Chile.

The Pinochet government’s steps to dismantle DINA and return to constitutional rule, “despite some wavering and back-pedaling on the government’s part,” seemed to indicate movement towards sustained improvements.30 With Chile’s inconsistent record on human rights, however, the Carter administration decided to maintain a “cool but correct” posture going into 1978. Despite promising indicators from the Chilean government, no “significant changes” could be expected in its behavior in the short term. As such, the State Department recommended that cooperation with Chile “should be kept to a minimum and that our relations should be cool.31 This position reflected the administration’s desire to change the United States’ association with these dictators, and symbolized its new approach to the region, as envisioned in Carter’s OAS speech. Moreover, a cool and correct posture would also signal to Congress, domestic constituents, and the international community that the administration was serious and committed to its human rights agenda.

To have a policy that not only distanced the U.S. from the Chilean government but also improved human rights conditions in Chile, however, the administration needed to guard against the impression that it was irrevocably hostile to the current Chilean government. A September report emphasized Pinochet’s ongoing sensitivity to foreign criticism and “interference,” noting that he “took a swipe at ‘impatient’ Chileans who seek foreign support for their aspirations.” These comments reflected “Pinochet’s stubborn determination to avoid the appearance of caving in to foreign pressures.”32 In response to a vote condemning Chile’s human rights practices at the UN, another intelligence report noted the Chilean government’s growing agitation with the Carter administration, and warned that this frustration was likely to lessen U.S. influence on human rights conditions in the region. The report cautioned, “there is some danger of a resurgence of the siege mentality that characterized the Chilean Government during 1975 and 1976. Should the government become convinced that U.S. and world opinion will be against it regardless of the measures it takes, slower progress in human rights, and perhaps even some recidivism, can be expected.”33 The administration needed to communicate to the Chilean government that a real improvement in human rights conditions would have tangible results in its relations with the U.S.

At the end of 1977, the Carter administration seemed to have achieved a tentative balance among these competing pressures—promoting human rights in a way that gave the Pinochet regime an incentive for change while distancing the U.S. from traditionally close relations with the junta. Although it faced some challenges and resistance at home and abroad, the policy generally seemed to be working, and human rights conditions appeared to be improving. In 1978, however, escalating tensions from the Letelier investigations challenged the administration’s moderate course and stretched its influence to the limits.

The federal government’s investigation into the assassinations of Orlando Letelier and Ronnie Moffitt retained a fairly low profile within the administration’s foreign policy until spring 1978.34 The investigation suddenly gained new stature when Chile finally conceded to the extradition of American citizen and former DINA agent Michael Townley. Townley’s subsequent testimony to U.S. officials, which would become the lynchpin of the investigation, implicated high-level Chilean officials, including former DINA director Manuel Contreras, in the assassination.35 His confession led to a U.S. indictment of three high-level Chilean intelligence officers—Contreras, his deputy Pedro Espinoza, and Fernandez Larios. In April 1978, the United States government officially requested the extradition of the three DINA officers.

Even before Townley’s testimony, Pinochet had exhibited signs of political instability resulting from the investigation and ongoing human rights problems, which pushed him toward liberalizing measures. In March and April, Pinochet lifted the state of siege, including the curfew that had been imposed since the coup. He permitted Jaime Castillo, a Christian Democratic leader exiled in 1976 for writing a letter to the OAS denouncing human rights abuses, to return to the country. He also allowed the United Nation’s Ad Hoc Working Group access for the first time, a huge victory for the human rights community. Manuel Contreras, the former head of DINA increasingly linked to the assassination by the United States’ investigation, resigned from the army to avoid further embarrassment and damage to the regime, and especially to Pinochet, his direct superior at the time of the assassination. Finally, on 19 April 1978, Pinochet issued blanket amnesty to anyone who had committed a criminal act between 11 September 1973 and 10 March 1978.36 Intelligence reports indicated that Pinochet implemented these actions in order to “end Chile’s isolated international position” and ameliorate criticism of its human rights conditions.37

These measures, instead, had the opposite effect. Most human rights advocates saw Pinochet’s gestures as just that, gestures. The end of the state of the siege in Chile, in conjunction with the earlier reorganization of DINA, provided an opening for domestic dissent.38 Historian Steve Stern notes that the “Letelier affair was a galvanizing event, and networks of relatives and human rights defenders kept up the pressure.”39 Human rights groups and family members were able to speak out publicly about ongoing repression and disappeared peoples. Cardinal Raúl Silva Henríquez, backed by the Catholic Church’s Vicaría de Solidaridad, declared 1978 as “The Year of Human Rights in Chile.” The press likewise took advantage of the less restricted environment, and “even media that were not regarded as part of the opposition occasionally published information on human rights violations.”40 Increasing dissent expressed within Chile reinforced the international community’s ongoing censure of Chile. The United Nations continued to vote in favor of resolutions condemning human rights violations in Chile. The Washington Office on Latin America, Amnesty International, the Chile Committee on Human Rights, and others utilized the personal testimonies coming out of Chile to raise awareness at government and grassroots levels of the ongoing human rights problems in the country. The international media coverage of the investigation into Letelier and Moffitt’s assassination constantly raised the question of human rights in Chile and tied Pinochet directly to the abuses. The outright speculation about Pinochet’s viability by other members of the junta indicates the fissures created by this ubiquitous international attention.41




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