by Betsey Barnes
To Harry’s friends and family:
After Harry’s death many friends asked if we would be holding a memorial for him in Washington. That is not feasible, nor is it anything he would have wanted. His written request was for a family gathering, and we have had that. It was very complete, with members coming from all over the country, from Canada and from England.
But I wanted something for those many friends who were not here.
From his thirty-eight years in the Foreign Service, I have chosen to tell about one particular overseas assignment. In his quiet way, Harry accomplished as much in all of his assignments, but his years in Chile happened, in addition, to tell a dramatic story.
TALES OF MY HUSBAND — A TESTAMENT TO HARRY BARNES
Even Webster’s New World Dictionary has a pejorative definition of the word. “A small group ruling a country, especially after a coup d’etat and before a legally constituted government has been instituted.”
It doesn’t say they are nasty, pot-bellied, and wear little white mustaches, but that is the image I enjoyed.
By the time we were approaching the fall of 1988 and the scheduled plebiscite, my picture of this junta had been modified. By 50 percent.
There were four members comprising Chile’s junta-led government. President Augusto Pinochet was Commander in Chief of the army. He was not pot-bellied, but he wore that little white mustache and he was nasty. Unlike the camouflage of so many unscrupulous and brutal leaders, this one lacked the charm, the social graces and easy banter that could soften and disarm a visitor. Pinochet was stiff and pompous, and had neither the interest nor the ability to disguise his animosity. I suppose you could say he was honestly himself. He certainly hated my husband and refused to meet with him. This duty fell to Harry’s deputy and friend, George Jones.
George writes: “When high-level visitors wanted or were expected to meet with Pinochet, word was conveyed in some manner that the appointment would not happen if Harry accompanied the visitor. So I wound up going with more than one visitor.”
The New York Times noted: “Among the items hanging in the office of Harry Barnes is a newspaper cartoon that shows him knocking in vain on the doors of Chile’s fortress-like presidential palace. ‘Closed’, the cartoon says. ‘No Service. Don’t insist.'”
George tells of a call he made with a U.S. general, and listening with some surprise as Pinochet launched into a story about Diem in Vietnam who, Pinochet claimed, had been killed by the CIA “because he was in the way of what the U.S. wanted.
“I think the fact was that Pinochet was afraid of us—afraid of a U.S. assassination attempt.” And George goes on. “He was a very, very paranoid and insecure man. I don’t think he relaxed with anyone other than immediate family. It’s an interesting illustration of the bully syndrome—of living in fear that what you did to others might be done to you.”
And certainly he believed that my husband was there to “destroy” him.
From a pro-Pinochet politician came this explanation: “The President is saying, ‘I’m not going to be a crying Marcos on the telephone asking if I have the support of the United States.'”
Admiral Merino, Commander-in-Chief of the Chilean navy, was one of the earliest planners of the coup, and appeared to be a loyal and supportive member of his president.
My surprise was the remaining two junta members.
Carabinero director General Rodolfo Stange and Air Force Marshal Ferdinando Matthei were both born of German immigrants. They were close, and often heard speaking together in German, a language that set them apart and made Pinochet uneasy and suspicious. They were decent men and military professionals, and it was undoubtedly devotion to their service that had brought them to the junta.
Good relations with members of the host government is certainly one of the important and necessary aspects of an ambassador’s job. This one promised to be a challenge. Harry had looked for at least a good working relationship with all three junta members, but he achieved more than that with these two. He liked and enjoyed them, and his feelings were reciprocated despite Pinochet’s relentless pressure that his junta have nothing to do with “that American ambassador.” Not only did their friendship with Harry defy those orders, but it was becoming increasingly clear that both Matthei and Stange were wanting to distance themselves from Pinochet.
Harry had hopes that the reforms General Stange was initiating within the Carabineros would change what had been a capricious, ruthless, and greatly feared organization. That possible accomplishment might have been reason enough for a good man to associate with a bad government. Harry had a high regard for Stange, but an awkward situation threatened that relationship. The embassy had offered some training in anti-narcotics work in the U.S. for a couple of Stange’s men. One of them, it seems, turned out to be involved in corruption and drugs, and Harry decided, after wrestling with it, that he had to tell Stange his man was unacceptable.
But I have a photograph of Stange and Harry together, grinning as if they were completely alone, their arms clasped about each other. Harry is draped with a brightly decorated banner that Stange has evidently just placed over his shoulders. Harry’s comment on the back of the photo: “Taken at the time of our departure from Chile.” So it seems their friendship survived that awkward incident.
Harry and Matthei saw each other both officially and informally. He and Harry became friends, close enough to exchange personal aspects of their lives—not the rule with members of the junta. And since there were no particular issues with the Air Force, their visits together remained relaxed and cordial. The General was funny and fun to be with. But for all his easy informality, this man was to play a pivotal role in the destiny of his country.
Mónica writes: “In February 1987 the electoral registers were opened. It was the necessary context for the Crusade for Citizenship and the Committee for Free Elections to take action, to seek the highest level of legitimacy for the plebiscite.”
And it was in December 1987 that Chile’s main opposition, now united, made their decision to challenge Pinochet in the October plebiscite. And as evidence accumulated, there was impetus aplenty for President Reagan, Secretary of State George Shultz, and members of Congress to set those ground rules for what the United States would consider a fair and clean contest. Significantly, and possibly not accidentally, U.S. policy and its summarizing statement coincided with the opposition’s demands. This included equal assess to plebiscite television.
Harry writes about the plebiscite: “The effort to persuade people to take part was quite successful. Citizen participation began to snowball. We worried that the government would find a modality for skewing the election, so we coordinated with the Brazilians, the Argentineans, the British and the French for technical expertise and support.”
An article from The New York Times, quoting my husband: “At this point, I think the ‘NO’ will win, if the process doesn’t get interrupted.” And the Times continues, with a quote from a Chilean opposition leader: “In a country where influence by foreigners in internal affairs has always been a sensitive issue, no one wants to praise a United States Ambassador openly. But privately many say he has been an effective advocate of American policy, despite his limited access to the President. He is acting out a policy very clearly decided by the United States Government, and he has done it with great audacity.”
But effective or not, further resources were needed: to register voters, to teach workers how to organize campaigns, to conduct polls, to train poll watchers and, crucially, to rehearse with those who would be participating in the plebiscite television spots. And money would be needed for photographs. A cunning decree. In order to register to vote, one needed a photograph.
Harry and George got to work. Financial help was sought and received from the National Endowment for Democracy, the Agency for International Development, related Democratic and Republican party institutes, and from other NGOs.
The plebiscite’s war of television began in September, Thursday nights from 9:00 to 9:30. The opposition was granted 15 minutes, followed by 15 minutes for the pro-Pinochet parties. While the government would never admit to influence, pressure from the U.S. had managed to establish acceptable ground rules. And those thirty minutes were intensely watched throughout the country by anyone with a television.
The Constitution of 1980, Pinochet’s constitution, did not call for opposition access to the networks, but in establishing for a plebiscite, and in giving it legitimacy, the courts had ordered that, prior to the date of the plebiscite, all legalized parties would have some television time.
The opposition was entering lush pastures. For fifteen years the Chilean public had watched their president kissing babies, cutting ribbons, donating housing, visiting and lecturing up and down the long stretch of their land. Now, after those fifteen years of media exile, the faces, voices and ideas of the opposition began to enter Chilean homes. As it turned out, most of Chile’s artistic world, artists, actors, and writers, were passionate supporters and gave their time and talents to the creation of these evening parcels of time. And they were excellent. In contrast, the SÍ was glitzy and abrasive, often insulting, and then, realizing how effective the opposition spots were, they resorted to mimicking and mocking the NO, only making it worse. Instead of answering in kind, the NO continued its perky programs. They were also serious. They dealt with the issues and spoke to the fears which the government had sparked and was daily fanning.
Viewers were choosing “winners” and “losers” like at a sports competition, and while we were not unbiased, it was clear to us that the NO was playing a better game.
The SÍ faction, aware of slippage, was extensively and continuously revamping its fifteen minutes. And in an effort to present the new, improved and democratic president, the government was now announcing largesse for women and for lower-income families.
But on September 12, the government’s TV council blundered, canceling the NO campaign’s spot on torture. This, happily, raised a storm, thus giving publicity to that issue—a gift the NO campaign could only have dreamed of.
And the embassy’s message to the Department in that period reads: “The NO campaign is proving skillful at using the media to get maximum mileage. Crowds for the NO rallies in the provinces continue to be good and appear to be getting better as the TV spots are having their effect.”
And again, after another Thursday night: “Clearly President Pinochet is going to have to come out with some new initiatives to reverse the trend. He is not selling as a born-again democrat.”
But Pinochet was pushing cleverly calculated propaganda, not only associating his opposition with communists and socialists, but with political violence. These were not unfounded insinuations, and were accurately aimed at a nervous population. There were leftist extremists whose answer to injustice would always include violence, and with good reason the opposition was worried. Pinochet was pouring it on, accusing the NO of being taken over by Marxist elements.
For the General, violence on the streets was always his most expedient excuse to cancel the vote.
There remained so many uncertainties, so many possibilities. Anxiety and tension were building throughout the nation. The government, aware of the surge in opposition support, had at its disposal infinite resources to manipulate the votes—to cancel the results. Ricardo Lagos, the opposition leader, warned of one: the government could cause a power blackout and blame it on extremists. Our embassy was doing everything possible to lessen the odds.
I have a document from the embassy in Santiago to the Secretary of State. “On September 11, the NO command staged a mock election in Santiago in order to teach people how to cast ballots and demonstrate that their vote would be secret. Nearly 100,000 participated.”
And another to the Department dated the third week of September: “Final voter registration figures were released: An amazing and unprecedented ninety-two percent of eligible voters.”
However, despite the government’s poor television showing, military officials were projecting supreme confidence that the plebiscite was Pinochet’s to lose. And Pinochet himself professed a bland assurance that the people of Chile loved him, looked upon him as the father of the country, and considered him their “candidate of the future.” This front of confidence was a bit unnerving since it smelled of some kind of chicanery.
The plebiscite was scheduled for October the 5th. The Church was expected to monitor the voting process, and international human rights groups would also be present. Reminders were broadcast to voters that they should not be alarmed to find military patrols at polling stations – the armed forces had always been a guarantee of public order in Chilean elections.
On October 4, I wrote to my sister-in-law: “This plebiscite has aroused a tremendous amount of interest outside of Chile. It has been anticipated and discussed in all sorts of forums not only in the U.S. and Latin America, but in Europe as well. For some days now observers and representatives from all over have been filling the hotels in town. They have been through our house for briefings and cocktails and lots of questions. We put them all together Monday night with Chileans involved in the process. It was a fascinating evening. They are all still here and will be monitoring that event tomorrow night. So, we head into it all!”
I’m remembering my surprise when Zacarias interrupted our dinner that nightMóhe had such strict rules for himself—that remarkable man who served as our butler, and in a more just world would himself have been served.
“There are two people who would like to see you. They say, please, that it is important.” He was looking at both Harry and me. “They are waiting at the bottom of the drive, by the guard house.”
It was unlike Zacarias to break into our evening meal, yet he offered no apology. It was a couple of days before the plebiscite and everything seemed a little out of sync.
Our residence sat atop a hill and the walk down to the main road was a good way.
Mónica and Juan were standing just under the light by the guard’s little house. We joined them there, but Mónica took my arm and steered us to the unlighted gatepost across the driveway. I had seen her face. Something serious had brought them.
She spoke immediately, her voice quiet but distraught.
The general commanding the garrison of Santiago had told her he had learned that on the day of the plebiscite, should the NO be winning, troops would be called out to “put down disorders, and the plebiscite would be cancelled.”
Knowing Mónica was incapable of exaggeration, we had no reason to question her urgency. She asked that Harry talk to Patricio Aylwin, now heading the group campaigning for the NO. See what he thought. She wanted a political judgment. Her own would have been enough for us.
Harry wasted no time.
Aylwin considered this both critical and credible, as did Harry, who went to the embassy. His “Immediate” to the Department of State urged them to call in the Chilean ambassador and report what we had been told.
It was a Sunday night in Washington, but the Department, judging this the emergency that it was, forthwith summoned the ambassador.
Nor was it an accident that when the Department’s press spokesman routinely briefed the press the following day, the news of the Chilean ambassador’s summons and its cause was leaked.
In the blink of an eye the headlines reached Chile.
The Chilean government indignantly denied such a preposterous story, but the “preposterous story” had already been widely circulated.
October 5, 1988 dawned clear and comfortably warm. Harry and I were up early, dressed, breakfasted and into the car. We were off to visit a voting station near our residence, and we arrived not too long after it had opened.
The place was jammed.
We watched and talked with voters, relieved to note that the voting was proceeding as promised, without obstruction or even much interest from the individuals in uniform. Chileans, like Chileans, were queuing in an orderly fashion.
I returned home. Harry drove on to the embassy. I would join him there in the afternoon, when we would begin the long night’s vigil as Chile’s future was decided.
It was still daylight when I was driven into town. I was on edge. All this had become as personal for us as an election at home. My gaze wandered the landscape, willing some omen of victory. But jerked from mindless dreaming, I realized something very odd was going on—or rather something very odd was not going on.
The streets were empty.
I asked Jaime what was happening, or not happening. His only reply, offered in the rearview mirror, was a broad smile. Then I got it.
The people of Santiago had voted early in the day, gone home, and firmly and finally closed their doors. There would be no “disorderly conduct” on the streets to justify interference in the process of this election.
The embassy was in a state of nervous excitement—the TV loud—only government TV—not much news, embassy staff shuttling through the rooms, eating, gabbing. I bit into my sandwich, left it somewhere, checked with the TV watchers.
Information was sifting in from various precincts—quick counts by the opposition. The NO was doing well.
Official plebiscite reporting began with the Minister of the Interior reading pro-Pinochet returns from various precincts. This lasted for a short ten or fifteen minutes, and then the Minister departed. All channels then switched to their regular evening programs—mostly American sitcoms. We waited for the Minister to return. The regular broadcasting continued. There was no plebiscite reporting, not on TV, not on radio. There was no sign of the Minister.
The evening advanced—four hours, five hours. None of us could settle, always someone on watch by the screen.
As midnight approached there was an announcement: the junta was to meet at the Presidential Palace—the Moneda.
TV crews scrambled to the Palace entrance. We watched as the junta members drove up and quickly disappeared through the doors to join their president; Merino, Stange…
Matthei was the last to arrive. He stepped out of his car and stood for a moment, bathed in light.
A cameraman called out, “So General, how are things going?”
Matthei paused—I haven’t a doubt he was enjoying his moment in time. And then, very clearly and very deliberately he said, “Well, it seems to me the NO is winning.” Then, walking by the cameras and the excited press, he went through those doors into the Moneda.
Matthei later recounted to Harry what happened when he entered the room to join his junta colleagues. Dead silence greeted him. They knew what he had done.
Pinochet, stunned and almost raving, had waited for Matthei. When he arrived, the General immediately handed around a copy of a decree he had drafted. He demanded that an emergency be declared and the plebiscite canceled. They were going back to the drawing board.
Even Merino refused.
Pinochet blustered and threatened, but eventually he threw up his hands. “Well then,” he said, “it’s all over.”
And finally, a very glum Interior Minister reappeared on TV and began to report the results.
George writes: “The next morning there were something like a million people on the streets and parks of downtown Santiago. Very peaceful, very orderly, but a tremendously joyful celebration.”
I have a stack of reaction from the U.S. Press. Here is one. The New York Times, two days after the results:
“Ambassador Barnes helped persuade reluctant democrats to make the most of a flawed but available opening. He stretched diplomatic norms to press home Washington’s identification with democracy’s causes.
“When challenged by the Pinochet Government and by Senator Jesse Helms, Barnes got full support from his boss, Assistant Secretary of State Abrams. He is entitled to a full measure of credit in Chile.”
The Minneapolis Star Tribune: “The vote is something of a victory for U.S. policy as well. In contrast to its mistakes elsewhere in Latin America, the Reagan administration’s actions in Chile have been helpful. Much credit must go to Harry Barnes, the outspoken U.S. ambassador who made no secret of his wish to see the Pinochet reign end. When Barnes first went to Chile, we thought he would inspire so much opposition from the U.S. conservatives that the administration would recall him. We’re delighted to have been proved wrong.”
From Senator Ted Kennedy, in the Congressional Record: “Mr. President, the Chilean people spoke clearly and firmly on October 5 when they voted for a return to democracy after 15 years of military dictatorship. That they did so in the face of overwhelming propaganda from the military government and despite that government’s enormous advantage in resources is a tribute to the Chilean’s people courage, determination, and commitment to democracy. The Government of Chile also deserves credit for conducting a fair vote and a fair count, and for quickly acknowledging the validity of the outcome…
“There is another individual who deserves credit for this historic step by the people of Chile. All Americans can be proud of the role played by the American Ambassador to Chile, one of our most distinguished professional diplomats. Ambassador Harry Barnes. Since his arrival in Santiago 3 years ago, he has been an eloquent champion for the cause of human rights and a steadfast voice for the restoration of democracy in that country. During his tour in Chile and throughout his entire career as an American diplomat, Ambassador Barnes has represented that which is best about America. As one American and as one Senator, I want to pay special tribute to him, not only for his extraordinary skill as a diplomat, but also for his personal courage, his professionalism, his patience in time of great testing and trouble, and for his faith in our country’s own best values.”
From Patrick Leahy, Senator of Vermont, in the Congressional Record: “Congratulations! The plebiscite victory is a tribute to all you’ve done over the past three years. We’re all very grateful to you for putting the United States so clearly on the side of democracy in Chile.”
From George P. Shultz, Secretary of State: “These have been good years. Strong American leadership has had much to do with the progress we have achieved. You should be proud of the clear example of resourceful leadership demonstrated by your role in the formulation and successful implementation of our policy to help restore democracy in Chile.
“Your record as Ambassador in Santiago is but one example of the dedication you displayed in your 38 years with the Department of State. Indeed, your service as Ambassador in Bucharest and in New Delhi, and as Director General of the Foreign Service during a period of great change will be looked upon as shining models for colleagues for years to come.”
And from the United States Senate: “First, we want to congratulate you for your distinguished service as our Ambassador to Chile. You have been an able and effective advocate for human rights and for the restoration of democracy in that country. During your term as U.S. Ambassador in Santiago you have stood for that which is best about America, and you have yourself done much to advance the cause of freedom in Chile. As American citizens and as members of the U.S. Senate, we are grateful for your service.” Signed by fifty-five members of the Senate, both Democrat and Republican.
From Hans Tuch, a Foreign Service colleague: “One of the reasons I am writing this letter is that I predicted that of all my colleagues in the Foreign Service Harry would rise highest and fastest, and my prediction proved to be correct. I have always thought, and continue to believe today, that Harry is the ablest, most intelligent, most energetic, most dedicated and most successful Foreign Service Officer I have had the pleasure to be associated with in my 35 year career. Beyond that, he is a man of humility and compassion, of wit and culture, of broad interests and, above all, of commitment to family and country.”
On December 14, 1989, Patricio Aylwin was elected President of Chile. Harry was invited to his inauguration. I have a film of that event, which took place in the National Stadium on the evening of March 11, 1990.
Aylwin has finished speaking to the people of Chile. The camera rises to show us the floor of the enormous stadium covered with the country’s flag as he crosses to the seating area. The people are standing, shouting and applauding as the orchestra begins to play. It is Chile’s song, “Gracias a La Vida,” and now the chorus has joined, and the stadium is singing with them. “Thank you to Life that has given me so much.” Aylwin shakes hands with friends awaiting him there, and then begins to climb one stairway. Harry is standing grinning as the new president reaches him. The two men embrace with emotion and great joy.
The night is closing, and a voice speaking:
“Tonight we are once again protagonists of history. We are beginning what we all have desired, to become again a nation that is just and good. Democracy has arrived.”
Betsey Barnes served with her Foreign Service husband in postings in South Asia (Bombay, Kathmandu and New Delhi); behind the Iron Curtain (Prague, Moscow and Bucharest), and finally Santiago, Chile. She has written two novels and is currently involved in a third, which takes place in Bucharest, Romania, where they were posted twice over a period of seven years.