by Susan Clyde
American speaker programs were long a staple of US Information Agency (USIA) programs overseas. Not all went as planned.
In 1975 in Chile we were preparing to receive an experimental film maker, sent by USIA to speak to film classes at the universities. The gentleman was first scheduled to speak at various venues in Buenos Aires, and we were told that he would be flying his own small plane from Chicago to Buenos Aires, then over the Andes to Santiago. Because the flights depended on weather conditions, we did not have an exact date of arrival. He’d call us when he got there, we were told.
It was around noon when I got a call in the office from his girlfriend, who was along for the trip. They had arrived shortly before, she said, and “Harry” had gone out to do some filming. His specialty was manhole covers. Would that be a problem? Did he need some kind of permit? I allowed as how it might pose some problems, but I would quickly check with the security folks in the embassy.
This was two years into the Pinochet regime, and indeed, the Regional Security Office (RSO) staff said, he probably should get permission before he started wandering around the city with a camera filming infrastructure (which of course, he was already doing). I was hurrying back to my office to call the girlfriend and tell her she should quickly round Harry up before he got in trouble.
Too late. Before I could pick up the phone, a call came in from someone in the political section who had just received a call from a Chilean contact, saying he had been walking by the secret police headquarters as they escorted an American inside. The American had called out, “Call the American Embassy! Tell them there’s been a mistake!”
Turned out Harry had chosen one of the worst places in Santiago to film manhole covers – in front of the secret police headquarters. They, being suspicious types, immediately arrested him and took him at gunpoint inside to be questioned. The Embassy staff set to work, calling police contacts to explain that this was not a spy or a terrorist, but simply a naive American academic and filmmaker. Harry ended up being questioned for about five hours by skeptical cops (So, señor, you were filming manhole covers in front of our headquarters because you found them interesting? Of course you were. Please explain yourself again. What are you really up to?) He was finally released, and his camera returned, into the custody of the RSO staff. I don’t know if he ever realized just how fortunate he was that an embassy contact was passing by just as he was arrested.
Two days later, when he was leaving, we learned that he had landed his private aircraft not at the main Santiago airport, but at the military field, where for some reason they let him in, but did not have the facilities to give him an entry stamp in his passport. When he wanted to leave, oops, no entry stamp, no exit. That took some hours to resolve.
And as a footnote, when he went to the university for his lecture and to show one of his films, we all, Americans and Chilean students/professors alike, watched in total befuddlement. At the end, Harry said, “Well, we have to run it again, because that was in the projector backwards.” So we watched it again, in the “correct” direction. Didn’t make any more sense that way either.
Not one of our more successful speakers, fortunately an exception.
Susan Ann Clyde is a retired member of the Senior Foreign Service; she served overseas in Sao Paulo, Port-au-Prince, Lisbon, Managua, Porto Alegre, Panama, Santiago, Antananarivo, and Dakar. Most of her career was spent with the U.S. Information Agency before its consolidation with the Department of State in 1999. During the merger with State, Susan was Director of Foreign Service Personnel for USIA.