“When Harry G. Barnes Jr. presented his credentials in 1985 to Chile’s dictator, Augusto Pinochet (left), he threw down a quiet challenge that eventually helped nudge the general from power,” the Washington Post reports.
“The ills of democracy can only be cured with more democracy,” the new American ambassador told Pinochet. Several days later, in an interview, the military ruler spluttered an angry retort. “Since when are some ambassadors arbiters of our internal problems?” he demanded. “We are not anyone’s colony or slave.”
For three years, Mr. Barnes pushed steadily for political change in Chile — opening his embassy to opposition leaders, standing up publicly for victims of repression and making it clear that he had Washington’s blessing. In 1988, after 15 years of military rule, Pinochet was peacefully defeated in a national plebiscite and forced to step down as president in 1990, ushering in an era of democratic governance and economic success that has become a model for Latin America.
“Harry had to navigate working with the opposition, the socialists and Christian Democrats, without becoming an enemy of the government or the Chilean right,” said the Council on Foreign Relations’ Elliott Abrams, then a senior State Department official for Latin America. “He also had to navigate in Washington,” where the new policy on Chile was opposed by powerful conservatives such as the late Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.). “I think he did a magnificent job.”
“He had a very hard time here in Chile,” Andres Zaldivar, a longtime Christian Democratic senator, wrote in a Chilean newspaper last week, noting that Mr. Barnes faced constant harassment from the regime but always “kept the embassy open to us in the opposition.” Without intervening in domestic politics, Zaldivar wrote, Mr. Barnes was “a very important factor in the democratic transition process.”
So that’s what they mean by transformational diplomacy?
Chile’s transition was also a critical event in demonstrating the value and non-partisan thrust of democracy assistance, activists and analysts agree.
“During the 1980s, an important lesson was learned about political transformations in countries like the Philippines and Chile—that political forces on the far left and far right enjoy a mutually reinforcing relationship, drawing strength from each other and, in the process, marginalizing the democratic center,” said Kenneth Wollack, president of the National Democratic Institute.
“Prospects for peace and stability only emerged once democratic political parties and civic groups were able to offer a viable alternative to the two extremes,” he told a Congressional Committee on International Relations. “These democratic forces benefited from the solidarity and support they received from the international community and in the U.S., Republicans and Democrats joined together to champion their cause.”
As in all democratic transitions, local activists and indigenous groups were the primary drivers of Chile’s transformation. For instance, Monica Jimenez de Barros (right),* the founder and director of the Crusade for Citizen Participation, was the catalyst behind the nonpartisan civic movement that registered and mobilized millions of Chileans to participate in the plebiscite of October 5, 1988. She organized over 100,000 volunteers throughout the country who distributed information to voters encouraging their participation in the democratic process at a decisive moment.
But a critical factor in Pinochet’s ouster was that with assistance from international pro-democracy NGOs, “the opposition camp succeeded in building a parallel tallying system for the plebiscite,” according to David Altman, Sergio Toro and Rafael Piñeiro, analysts from the Institute of Political Science at Chile’s Catholic University.
“Most notable among these were the National Endowment for Democracy and the German Stiftungen,” they note.
NDI began to work in Chile in May 1985, sponsoring conferences, seminars, and visits by external consultants to promote free elections, and the group also had an active role in the 1988 plebiscite, they write in International Influences on Democratic Transitions: The Successful Case of Chile, a paper for Stanford University’s Center for Democracy, Development and the Rule of Law.
Barnes also “made a mark” in his other postings, writes the Post’s Pamela Constable:
In Romania, while he was deputy chief of the U.S. mission in the 1960s during the communist reign of Nicolae Ceausescu, it was discovered that Mr. Barnes’s voice was being picked up and broadcast from inside the embassy. In an oral history years later, he recalled a colleague handing him a note that said, “You’re on the air.”
After a little experimenting, the mystery was solved: A microphone had been planted in the heel of one of Mr. Barnes’s newly-repaired shoes.
“I had sent them out with our maid,” he recounted. When they came back, something seemed amiss. “One heel felt a little bit higher, so I sent them back. When they came back they were OK, but that of course gave a clue to as to where to look.”
*Monica Jimenez de Barros received the NED’s 1989 Democracy Award (above, with fellow recipient Jacek Kuron, a key advisor to the Polish trade union Solidarity). The National Democratic Institute is one of the NED’s four core institutes.