About My Husband and the General
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
Laska, my Siamese, and I were driving home from a morning appointment with her vet, and she had been quiet for almost two minutes. Grateful, I turned on the car radio. It was almost noon and I thought to catch the news.
There had been a coup. Laska began to wail again, and I turned up the volume.
A coup d’etat in Santiago, Chile. The military had bombarded the palace where the president was refusing to resign. I caught a name: Salvador Allende.
The continent was Latin America. I wasn’t doing so well with the country. I could draw a map of Eastern Europe, of India, and the kingdoms of Nepal, Sikkim and Bhutan riding the Himalayan massif to the north. But we’d never served south of the border. I’d check the atlas when we got home.
Bethesda, Maryland, was where we lived when Harry had a Washington assignment at the Department of State. This coup in Chile wouldn’t affect his area of work, but the Department would be buzzing and he’d know what was known.
On that eleventh day in September of 1973, the Chilean government’s military had wrested power from President Salvador Allende, thus ending the country’s one hundred years of constitutional government. Chile’s coup was one of the bloodiest of Latin America’s twentieth century, and yet the Nixon White House raised little protest, noting only that the Chilean press remained docile.
The U.S. press did take note of the violence, but then the story moved onto back pages — there were more tantalizing events taking place in our own capital. Richard Nixon and our media were heatedly invested in the Watergate drama.
And there were additional reasons for silence from the White House.
Salvador Allende had come to the presidency of Chile in 1970 as a socialist with radical ideas for the transformation of his government. His election had convinced Nixon and his closest advisor, Henry Kissinger, as well as many in Congress, that Allende was another Fidel Castro in monk’s clothing.
Indeed, after a year of popular acceptance, Allende’s pursuit of nationalization began to slow the nation’s economy. Inflation in Chile had reached 150 percent. Allende had paid allegiance to that first commandment of the Manifesto: All industries and private properties belong to the workers. Adding insult to injury, he then took over the banks. And despite the country’s natural blessings of fertile land and a friendly climate, food production was failing.
In Washington tempers finally spiked when Allende nationalized two American copper firms.
“I don’t see why we need to stand by and watch a country go communist due to the irresponsibility of its people,” said Henry Kissinger.
And we did not stand by.
President Nixon effected a blockade. Doing everything possible to “make the Chilean economy scream,” he cut off financial aid and pressured international organizations to suspend loans. And, covertly, he saw to an increase in monies to Chile’s military, which was frothing at the mouth for the overthrow of their “Communist” president.
Eighteen days before the coup, Allende had promoted his trusted commander of the Santiago garrison, Augusto Pinochet, to be his Commander-in-Chief of the Chilean Army. And it was General Pinochet who led the army in the coup that seized power that morning in September. When the general offered Allende a safe passage out of the country, his instant response was, “Up your ass.”
But when the military stormed the presidential palace, they found Allende dead. And in June of 1974 it was Augusto José Ramón Pinochet Ugarte who assumed full power as president of Chile.
Without delay he returned the nation to free-market principles. The country’s industries were back in the hands of private owners, her currency was stabilized, and the rich soil of the land was not only producing enough for home consumption, but for export as well.
“My goal,” said the new president, “is to make Chile not a nation of proletarians, but a nation of entrepreneurs.”
So center stage had been this “miracle of Chile” that scant attention was given to what was going on offstage: the brutal measures he was taking to silence his opposition.
Pinochet’s immediate moves wiped out all democratic institutions. He suspended the Constitution, did away with Parliament and its political activists, eliminated voter registration rolls, banned trade unions, fired all liberal judges, drew a line in the sand for the press…
Terrified of a government overthrow and his own assassination, Pinochet, in a paranoid frenzy, set out to destroy anyone not in step with his policies. Most essential would be to guarantee an unquestioning military—to silence with finality even a hint of dissent, and to create within the remaining ranks that atmosphere of fear so vital to control. This crusade would require a man whose temperament was absolutely assured, and he blessed General Sergio Arellano Stark with the command of what came to be known as “the Caravan of Death.” The first step, the execution of close to 100 of Chile’s questionable military, was accomplished between the 16th and the 19th of October, 1973. General Stark’s further task was to eliminate, by whatever means available, all the leadership from Allende’s Popular Unity party.
Still, there remained that other opposition. Thirty percent of the population stubbornly grieved for Allende, another forty percent were Christian Democrats. With 70 percent of the population in need of “persuasion,” an edgy Pinochet fashioned the National Intelligence Directorate, the DINA, and to make it effective, he called upon his trusted old comrade, Colonel Manuel Contreras.
The DINA became Pinochet’s arm of extermination, not only in Chile, but reaching beyond the country to shadow exiled Chileans.
At home Contreras served as Big Brother, “watching over” all aspects of life—churches, universities, businesses—creating, as Harry and I knew so personally in Eastern European dictatorships, that pervasive mistrust of neighbor for neighbor, even of parents for their school-indoctrinated children. Pinochet’s survival relied on suspicion and terror.
For detention and torture, the city’s soccer stadiums and military bases were taken over. When even more room was needed, construction of prisons began.
But for that most dangerous opposition, the colonel was taking no chances, and the disappearances began.
Santiago was becoming a city of fear. Contreras and his legion nurtured threats of leftist revolution. Fake ammunition storage was uncovered and its “discovery” widely broadcast. Curfews were issued, and citizens were encouraged to report suspicious behavior by those of “unstable” ideology. The news and radio, all now government controlled, daily broadcast their propaganda. Public squares were scenes of bonfires as all insurrectionary materials went up in flames.
When the first grumbles of civil-rights abuses filtered through to Washington, neither Nixon nor Kissinger was inclined to lecture our new ally.
But when those grumbles became visible protests, the U.S. press reacted. It was suddenly evident that this new ally was creating a police state.
And when fifty mothers of those “desaparecidos” marched through Santiago, we learned those mothers had been arrested. The trickle of departures from Chile became a stream, and from those exiled came more stories of concentration camps and the horrors so sickeningly familiar.
It is estimated that the Pinochet regime was responsible for the torture and internment of some 80,000; for countless deaths and disappearances, including women and children; and for close to 1500 banished into exile.
One of those banished was economist Orlando Letelier, who had served as both foreign and defense minister in Allende’s cabinet. Arrested and tortured after the coup, he had been held in a number of concentration camps until diplomatic pressure from our government had exiled him to the U.S. Now he was a Washington-based activist.
On September 21, 1976, a bomb detonated beneath his car, blowing him and his American aide, Ronni Moffitt, clear across Sheridan Circle. It was an act of spectacular theatre carried out in the very heart of our capital, planned and executed by Colonel Contreras and his outfit, the DINA.
Reaction in our capital in 1976 to the first act of foreign terrorism on American soil was mixed.
A conservative columnist accused Letelier of being a recruit from the Stasi of East Germany. A Chilean spokesman protested any finger-pointing, saying it was clear Letelier’s assassination had stemmed from his alliance with leftist terrorists.
Human rights activists, distraught at the lack of immediate action by the Ford administration, demanded investigations. But, claiming no proof of responsibility, the White House appeared to accept the Chilean response.
But in 1977 when Jimmy Carter picked up the reins, he openly confronted the Pinochet dictatorship. Following his words with action, he voted against loans to Chile by international organizations. And to demonstrate his resolve still further, he made a point of welcoming Chilean opposition leaders to Washington.
And then Ronald Reagan arrived, Carter’s policy was reversed and emissaries were quickly sent to mend fences. For the following four years, because of Reagan’s blithe and forgiving attitude toward all things anti-Communist, the U.S. continued unquestioning and friendly relations with the government of Chile.
I do not know when Secretary of State George Shultz began to focus more acutely and personally on what was happening in General Augusto Pinochet’s Chile.
We had been serving in New Delhi since 1981, and when Indira Gandhi was gunned down by two of her Sikh guards in 1984, it was Secretary Shultz who represented the United States at her funeral and cremation.
As Secretary, Shultz would have been closely involved in the unusual progress of Indo-American affairs. Those three years since Harry’s arrival in New Delhi would have given him a measure of my husband. Shultz had made one comment that I well remember. “Harry Barnes is truly a distinguished Foreign Service Officer. Wherever he goes he has a knack of finding out what’s going on and that means he makes people nervous.” I remembered the observation because I wondered if George Shultz knew why such an apparently unassuming man could make people nervous.
Harry had no bombast. He was a quiet man, more prone to listen than to discourse. At receptions or dinner parties you’d rarely hear his voice. He was lousy at telling stories.
But among his assets was a sharp brain, nicely balanced by a minimum of ego, giving him the advantage of learning from criticism, as well as advice. He liked people, seemed vague about race, color, gender, or whatever, and so benefited from richer, more diverse sources of information. When possible, he preferred to work with his team. Another of his assets was a keen sense of persons, an almost intuitive perception for quality. And he knew what he wanted. Those he looked for would be smart but also wise. He sought the curious and open-minded, those willing to challenge as well as to complement his own ideas.
But what amused and impressed me was that Shultz had got hold of a significant piece of my husband, a piece that didn’t seem to fit with the rest of him. It was basic, it surprised, and indeed it could make people nervous.
Once assured that he understood a problem, both sides as well as the middle, and once comfortable with a plan and the meeting of minds, he’d set the problem-solving in motion.
Harry’s natural approach was pleasant and agreeable—he was generously endowed with those positive genes. But I must add that his was a good-humored doggedness—stubbornness, if you will—an amiable obstinacy. If a goal was worthy and attainable, the way would be found, willy-nilly, and that gentle but relentless nudging could frazzle nerves.
“What a quiet, kindly man to cause such heat,” a Chilean acquaintance of mine once said to me. Well, she didn’t live with my husband.
But he had his limits. I’d felt that heat. Harry had witnessed cruelty and horror. He didn’t futz around with evil.
At the time of his appointment to New Delhi, relations between our two countries could have been worse. We were not at war and we were speaking, if not cordially. To his friends at State the assignment seemed the waste of a good diplomat. For Harry, an irrepressible optimist, India was the challenge he had asked for.
There were things going for him: we’d lived in India—our first post had been Bombay—and he spoke Hindi.
But going for him especially were those robust genes—he was certain the relationship between our two countries had every reason to flourish. He began to nose around, to find out what was going on —what was going wrong—and with that obstinate dedication, to search for areas of mutual interest with Mrs. Gandhi’s government.
In the following three years before her death that sour relationship was reversed. It called for that persistent dedication, for some objective analysis, and plenty of innovation. There were some symbolic way stations Harry created that marked that route to improvement:
Secretary Kissinger came to Delhi to apologize. The U.S. policy for years had been seen as “tilting towards Pakistan.” Kissinger had charmed and convinced a gathering of high-ranking Indians filling our dining room that this policy was now changed.
We had spent a long and engaging evening at our residence with Indira Gandhi, her son Rajiv and his wife, Sonia.
And Prime Minister Gandhi had been invited to the Reagan White House, an invitation that would neither have been extended nor accepted during the previous decade of bilateral bitterness.
It was the spring of 1985 in New Delhi, and the voice on the phone from Washington said, “You have your pick of any assignment you want, provided it’s in Latin America.”
Harry blanked out. “I don’t know anything about Latin America.”
And the voice replied: “Doesn’t matter. Here’s a list of open posts. Choose what you want.”
But I think the decision had already been made.
Chile was on that list, and of course he was intrigued. Of the countries offered, to say it was the least attractive would be an understatement—a rigid, firmly rooted dictatorship, known for thuggery and a dismal human rights record.
“Might as well go back to Eastern Europe,” I complained. “At least Ceausescu doesn’t murder his people.” I blamed George Shultz for this “opportunity.”
We returned to Washington.
From The New York Times: “Mr. Barnes was named Ambassador to Chile at a time when the Reagan Administration was frustrated by its seeming inability to influence General Pinochet toward a democratic transition. When Elliott Abrams was named Assistant Secretary of State for Inter-American Affairs he looked around for a world-class ambassador to handle a difficult situation.”
Harry plunged into Spanish. He began his usual intensive pursuit of information from anyone and everything related to Chile. He rooted through history, read anything pertinent, even now in Spanish as his language picked up. He spoke with dozens of people who knew the country; they prepared him, they provided background, they introduced him to key Chileans. He was gathering a portfolio of the people he would want to know when he got there. The more he learned, the stronger his conviction that if this assignment were to serve any purpose it would be the promotion of human rights. He talked with professionals, with those who had labored in the field and with those whose strategies had worked. Among them was his friend Aryeh Neier the founder of Human Rights Watch.
In this year of 1985, if Ronald Reagan considered the situation in that country at all, it was still with that tolerance due a fiercely anti-Communist partner. It was early yet, and important to be understanding of consequences from Allende’s socialism.
But I knew my husband could not work within that easy sufferance. I believe George Shultz knew it too, and that Harry had his blessing as he departed for this dicey assignment.
Some voices out of Chile were suspicious. “From India to Chile is not exactly a promotion, so he must be on some kind of ‘Mission Impossible.”
And another: “A lot of officials, from the president on down, are apprehensive that Barnes is bringing a totally different policy, which is nothing less than to destroy Pinochet.”
And a prominent newspaper headlined: “Is Harry Barnes an agent of the CIA?”
So how did Harry view this assignment?
“What I saw was an opportunity to modify our policy. What I did was to develop an outline—a brief list of points, which seemed to me to be basic in any further American policy dealings with Chile. First of all, a respect for human rights. Second, a support for what we call market economics, or at least an open economic system. And certainly an American policy of encouraging a return to democracy.”
And at the top of his “immediate” list would be his search for a deputy—a partner with similar hopes and aims for this “mission impossible.” And in particular, someone who would be at home in Latin America. He found it all in George Jones.
The Chilean press was there to greet him when his plane set down in Santiago that morning in 1985. It was the beginning of a long affiliation—I almost want to say camaraderie. In contrast to the Eastern European countries we had known, Chile’s press, while operating within the constraints of a totalitarian state, showed a certain amount of independence. And in our years in Santiago they tracked my husband wherever he went, tenaciously, gleefully, curiously, affably and acrimoniously. It was a period in his life when he became an unlikely star attraction in the evening news.
President Pinochet feigned disinterest in his new American envoy. He would certainly have dispatched the DINA, his KGB, to ferret out my husband’s entire history, and there wasn’t a hell of a lot in it that would have made him happy. He read this appointment correctly: the Reagan White House was doing a “rethink” of its Chile policy, and Pinochet was peeved.
From The Christian Science Monitor: “…the Reagan administration changed course. With the appointment of Harry Barnes as the ambassador to Chile, the U.S. distanced itself from the Pinochet regime, aligned increasingly with the growing democratic opposition in Chile, and pressed for greater respect for human rights and political freedoms.”
A new ambassador is required to present credentials and have them accepted by the host government shortly after arrival. This ceremony marks the moment when the new envoy is recognized as representing his or her country, and only then can speak officially on its behalf.
But President Pinochet ignored my husband’s presence long enough to make his displeasure demonstratively clear.
Bemused and undeterred, Harry conspicuously used the interim period to get to know the opposition. One vital and generous member of that increasing body of Chileans was Cardinal Juan Francisco Fresno. Fresno was to become a good friend and valued advisor for Harry and for the embassy.
The Roman Catholic Church was powerful enough to defy the junta. In 1976, alarmed by increasing human rights abuses and persuaded that it must not remain passive or neutral, it had founded the Vicariate of Solidarity, an organization that was to become its voice of protest. The Church, as probably the country’s most cohesive and publicly untouchable institution, was becoming a major irritant for the government. George, Harry’s astute deputy, writes that Fresno could have closed down the Vicariate of Solidarity at any time, and he could have discouraged the embassy from supporting it. He did neither. Fresno was a man of faith, grace, and courage: a hero of his time.
Shortly after Harry’s arrival was Human Rights Day, and in recognition, the Vicaria de la Solidaridad had planned a Mass for that evening. Harry not only attended the Mass, but joined in the procession which followed, carrying his own candle through the streets of Santiago. Pinochet was infuriated.
The Los Angeles Times had this to say: “A new U.S. approach to Chile became evident with the arrival of Ambassador Harry Barnes. Energetic and outgoing, Barnes promptly opened the embassy to opponents of Pinochet, making clear by his words and his actions that the United States was looking forward to a post-Pinochet Chile.”
When the day arrived and he was received at the Moneda, the presentation of credentials proceeded only within the rigid bounds of protocol. What probably sealed the relationship beyond repair were Harry’s remarks upon presenting his credentials:
“In the United States it has been our experience that the pursuit of freedom and search for security are inextricably related. We know that societies cannot be free unless they are secure and they cannot be truly secure unless they are protected by free men and women. Nor can democracies afford ever to be complacent about their freedoms or their independence. In our country we have concluded that the ills of democracy can best be cured by more democracy.”
Pinochet’s retort: “Since when are some ambassadors arbiters of our internal problems? We are not anyone’s colony or slave.”
And with that welcoming salvo, our “official” years in Chile began.
Harry was never actually refused admission to the Moneda, but meetings he requested with the president were turned down. The only post in our Foreign Service life where I was nervous much of the time was Santiago, Chile. Pinochet hated my husband, and I was never sure what he and his DINA might be prepared to do about him—this man whose mission, they had decided, was to “destroy Pinochet.” I carried with me the memory of Orlando Letelier.
When I first arrived, the person Harry especially wanted me to know was Mónica Jiménez de la Jara. Mónica was working on development and poverty-alleviation projects. She had returned from a Fulbright in Washington D.C., and her English cut the time we would have spent getting to know each other. I had my first taste of her that morning en route to one of her projects. She drove leisurely, questioning me, interested—really interested: yes, my mother was failing and I would need to make repeated trips to the States. But after more questions I turned the conversation around. Harry had given me something of her background, and she had already impressed me.
With her five children mostly grown, Mónica’s heart, her soul and the better part of her life was now immersed in Chile’s return to democracy. She seemed so gentle, so reasoned, belying what I knew about her passion for human rights and the innumerable ways she was fighting to bring some sanity back to her country. The list of involvements in which her role was crucial, both with the church and with the political opposition, was a story I wouldn’t learn from her. But even as she pointed out various landmarks and navigated the cluttered morning streets, radiating through that calm I sensed a burning energy. I suspected the work that so consumed her might be a vent for her anger. I knew she was a member of the National Commission for Truth and Reconciliation as well, and that with them she was looking into those deaths and disappearances. This morning she was driving us to one of Santiago’s poblaciónes (slums) where she had “good friends” she wanted us to meet. These were people working with her to “resolve some of the country’s problems.” It occurred to me that she undoubtedly had families and friends “working with her” in the hundreds of poblaciónes throughout Santiago. And over time I came to know that Mónica and her husband, Juan, had friends throughout the country.
Back in 1980 Pinochet had “made a gift to the people of Chile” in the form of a new constitution, a replacement for Chile’s 1925 constitution. Among other things, this new creation gave him the power to imprison or to exile any citizen with no recourse. The country was given the chance to approve this “gift” in a plebiscite. The regime came out of it, if not smelling like a rose, buttressed at least by what appeared to be a decisive vote of approval. Pinochet had solidified his place as President of the Republic for an additional eight years, with one obligation: a second plebiscite would be held in the eighth year. At that time voters would decide with a simple Sí or NO whether Pinochet’s presidency would extend for still another eight years.
Dictators do not allow themselves to be voted out of office, and it was no secret that Pinochet was a poor loser and determined at all costs to remain where he was. Eight years must have seemed a comfortable eternity.
Since 1983, the opposition had been actively gathering momentum, bringing together a broad alliance of eleven different groups, ranging from center-right to socialists. They met over breakfasts, as Mónica says, with “extraordinary carefulness” to work on compromise, to resolve their differences, to recognize that power would come only when they could speak with a single voice.
She tells about this. “With growing surprise, the participants discovered how many agreements had been reached.” They welcomed this rapprochement, and agreed on a mutual statement, which came to be called the National Accord for the Transition to Full Democracy.
The document demanded a plebiscite, and with their newly achieved harmony, hopes were high that this would end the nightmare of the Pinochet years.
When the Accord was taken to Pinochet, his reply came without hesitation. “You are nuts. This is not relevant. This has nothing to do with the needs of the country.”
And thus ended that conversation.
Mónica writes, “Until 1985, the diplomats of the European Community had felt pretty much alone. With the arrival of Barnes, who gathered them together for a cocktail party on November 14, the situation changed. Harry Barnes met with the signatories of the agreement and with the ambassadors of the European Community. This upset the Pinochet government.
“The formal rejection by the government of the National Accord stimulated the idea of an intensive social mobilization to force the regime to change its position. In this context, Harry began meeting with all the people that were on his list of key people. He was interested in everything.”
Three of those key people with whom he became good friends would have historic significance in the country’s future—a future that seemed improbable in 1985 and 1986: Patricio Aylwin, Eduardo Frei, and Ricardo Lagos, the first three presidents of a democratic Chile.
Gabriel Valdés had been the leader of the opposition: Genaro Arriagada was to become the principal man of the NO campaign: Máximo Pacheco was the president of the Commission for Human Rights: José Miguel Barros Franco, along with Sergio Molina, was on the Committee for Free Elections: Sergio Valech headed the Vicaria de la Solidaridad. The list goes on.
But a crucial piece of work now lay ahead, for the opposition, for the diplomatic corps, and especially for the Americans, now so fiercely engaged.
The plebiscite would be the death knell for this government only if the Chilean people voted to make it so. It was therefore of the utmost urgency to help them do so. They must overcome their fear, they must be persuaded that the only hope for a return to the free world they had known was through the plebiscite—that the choice was theirs.
In 1986 Mónica made a second trip to the U.S., this time at the invitation of the State Department. The visit was to help prepare her for the leadership that this campaign demanded.
She met with many members of Congress, various think tanks, and spent probably the most influential period of her visit at Columbia University at the Civil and Political Rights Training Center at the School of Social Work.
“It was there where I first linked my profession with what would become my future work in the Crusade. Harry knew all about this. I talked with him on my return.”
And the campaign began. “With many ups and downs, in Chile, Costa Rica, and the U.S., the program of work of what became the Crusade for Citizenship took shape—an example in the world of citizen participation, which was able to motivate 4 million Chileans to register to vote.
“Harry was close to this whole process. We had breakfast together frequently. He would read our brochures, would encourage us, and got us to persist in the face of a multitude of difficulties.”
Senator Edward Kennedy arrived in Santiago. As one of Pinochet’s most detested American politicians, he ran into a nasty government-contrived demonstration complete with tomatoes, eggs, posters, and loudspeakers. “Who will shake hands with this enemy of Chile?”
Mónica writes, “Ambassador Harry Barnes contacted Carabineros director General Rodolfo Stange to ensure the safety of diplomats and the visiting senator. After much tension, Barnes and the Kennedys boarded a Carabineros helicopter that was arranged by several Chilean politicians and Barnes himself.
“Ambassador Barnes was starting to be seen by the government as a deeply hostile figure.”
President Pinochet had rejected the Accord, the opposition was mounting its campaign, and the U.S. Congress was laying down some rules for a fair and legitimate election. Harry returned to Washington to confer with George Shultz. Harry and the Secretary, along with Robert Gelbard, then Deputy Assistant Secretary for South America, took themselves to the White House.
Reagan’s stardom had wooed the world, his charm had helped propel him to the White House, and he was confident it would work on Pinochet. Harry described what followed.
Reagan was enthused. “We’ll bring him here, give him a wonderful time, show him how a democracy works.” But Shultz grabbed his arm. “Don’t you touch that man,” he said. “He has blood all over his hands.”
It was 1986, and Rodrigo Rojas DeNegri was a photographer, an émigré from the Chilean coup who was now living in Washington, D.C. There was continuing political unrest in Chile, and a protest had been organized for the month of July. Rodrigo was anxious to participate and decided to visit his home country for the first time since his exile: as his mother later said, with “the idea of knowing his people, to find his roots. He was always dreaming of Chile.”
It was early morning in Chile on the second of July when he joined the protest—a group of young people setting up a barricade of old tires in one of the neighborhoods of Santiago. He’d also brought his camera and was taking pictures, when suddenly a Chevrolet truck appeared, spilling out uniformed men with blackened faces.
All except Rojas and a young Chilean woman named Carmen Gloria Quintana managed their escape. But Carmen stumbled and when Rojas returned to help her, the soldiers seized the young pair and began beating them. And then, using a flammable liquid, the two were doused and set ablaze. In flames and unconscious, wrapped in blankets, they were loaded into the truck and driven away.
Workers wandering home that afternoon found them lying in a ditch. Horrified and frightened, they called the police. And only then, late in the day, were Carmen and Rodrigo taken to the nearest hospital.
Since Rodrigo Rojas was a U.S. resident, our embassy was informed. When we learned of his critical condition, I remember my husband’s frantic efforts to get him transferred to the burn pavilion at the Hospital de Trabjadores. Those demands were obstructed by the doctors at the hospital where Rodrigo had been taken. Now, angry and very worried, Harry interceded with the government, speeding the arrival of Rojas’ mother.
Veronica DeNegri arrived on the 4th of July, in time to be with her son. But Rodrigo’s burns were fatal and he died two days later.
The Reagan Administration did not waffle. “The death of Mr. Rojas was preceded by a deeply disturbing pattern of events, including the refusal of Chilean authorities to permit his transfer to a first-class hospital.”
The embassy cabled Washington that the ambassador and his wife would be attending the funeral of Rodrigo Rojas DeNegri on the 9th of July.
Harry and I were not the only foreigners at the service. Ambassadors and representatives from France, Spain, Belgium and Italy had come to the church to pay their respects and to demonstrate their repugnance for this crime. We remained after the service, waiting just inside the building where we could look out at the packed streets. There was little room for movement out there, only a silent, waiting crowd. I remember thinking that if you lit a match, that tensely constrained body would explode.
A Chilean friend who was with us at the service had gone out to join his people and was a witness to what followed.
Breaking an understanding with the church, an officer and a policeman forced their way into the crowd. Remarkably, the only disturbance was that the officer lost his hat, but our friend noticed that the police then withdrew. He presumed this was a signal, because almost immediately two trucks began to inch their way into the crowd, one vehicle decked with a water cannon.
When the cannon fired, a blast of water flattened wherever it aimed, and those caught in the confines of that constricted area had nowhere to go.
Then came the tear gas. You read about it—it doesn’t aim to kill, only to disperse. But this crowd was trapped within those narrow streets as we were trapped inside our little room.
I remember the burning misery and that it lasted. I have absolutely no idea how we got home. We learned later that when the hearse reached the plaza, followed by that massive crowd, the route to the cemetery was blocked by the police and again by tear gas.
Rodrigo Rojas was barely in his grave when Jesse Helms, the Republican senator from North Carolina and a friend of Augusto and Lucia Pinochet, arrived at the airport. The Senator had decided he would come to Chile and investigate for himself why it was that “the American flag had been displayed at the funeral service for a terrorist.” He steamed into town.
Helms, the second-ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, spoke with the voice of God. Known for his righteous and vocal adherence to certain issues—he was opposed to civil rights, to gay rights, to foreign aid, to modern art—that righteous wrath at this moment in time was directed at my husband.
Helms’s first opportunity was an interview with a state-run television station.
“Harry Barnes has planted the American flag in the midst of a Communist activity. If President Reagan were here, I believe he would send this Ambassador home. Barnes had notified the Department of State of the burnings in a manner calculated to produce criticism of the Chilean regime. Except for Barnes and his wife and the French Ambassador, everybody at that funeral belonged to the extreme left. I don’t wonder that the Chilean people asked whose side this man is on.”
And the torching of the two young people? “The boy’s parka was burned only on the inside and this indicated that he had in fact set himself on fire while setting a fire.”
It was three days after the funeral that the Senator required my husband’s presence. Harry did go. “I decided that I should see Helms on my own. His complaint was with me and my actions. I didn’t think I should link anyone else with that.”
They met at the Crowne Plaza Hotel, in a room equipped with a large table and five chairs. “The Senator sat me across the conference table from him and placed two of his aides at either end and one alongside of him. Two of them took notes, so I decided I would too.”
The tone was set by the Senator’s remarks. “There’s no point beating around the bush: You’ve really screwed it up, you and the people in Washington.”
Harry’s notes: “He said he wanted to meet me because people in Washington had told him I was advertised as someone sent to Chile to undermine Pinochet. I responded that that was not the mission George Shultz had given me.
“Helms went on to complain about our presence at the funeral, which he described as an indication that I was supporting the Communists in this country. I replied that I was as anti-Communist as he was, because I knew what Communism meant from my years in Eastern Europe. My job in Chile, with the support of the Reagan government, was to help promote a return to democracy and advance human rights. It was in this context that my wife and I had gone to the Rojas service.
“Helms seemed not to listen. He wanted to know whether my attendance was my decision or Washington’s. I said it was mine based on both the strong interest in the U.S. as indicated by the White House, as well as by the horrible nature of the crime itself, a repugnance that was shared widely in Chile.”
Harry later commented, “One of the worst interviews I ever had was with Jesse Helms and his staff. Essentially I got a grilling from him and his staff and I know my responses did not satisfy him. But what it did was to produce even more than what I already had in the way of support in Congress, and the Administration was very good about supporting me.”
I entertained myself with a vision of Jesse Helms, his fury mounting, face purple as my husband refused to be cowed, his responses calm, his denials polite if curt.
As for the Senator’s public remarks, Harry was angry and he let the Senator know it. For someone in Helms’ position to assault the U.S. Embassy and the ambassador while in a foreign country was a serious breach of ethics and protocol. And, Harry went on, to condone this murder, as his words and action would imply, was to demonstrate an incredible insensitivity.
The Helms visit to Santiago, like the Senator himself, has passed into history, but at the time it gave fodder to much of the U.S. press. For weeks we were regaled by editorials, much like this one from The New York Times:
“The blunderbuss assaults on American diplomats by Senator Jesse Helms are already legend. But the North Carolina Republican has outdone himself on his new foray into Chile. Unmoved by the fate of a young man apparently burned to death by Chilean soldiers during an anti-Government demonstration, Mr. Helms rages instead at the American Ambassador’s gesture of compassion.”
[END PART I] To Be Continued in April 2015
American Diplomacy is the Publication of Origin for this work. Permission to republish is freely granted with credit and a link back to American Diplomacy.
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.