Chile and the No Vote--a Bravo for U.S. Role

<i> Abraham F. Lowenthal, a professor of international relations at USC, is executive director of the Inter-American Dialogue</i>

At a time when campaign considerations tempt both our presidential candidates to exaggerate their differences, it is worthwhile highlighting one truly bipartisan success: the U.S. role in helping to bring about last week’s national plebiscite in Chile.

Even those who have been intensely critical of the Reagan Administration’s Latin American policies--its Nicaragua obsession, its humiliating standoff with Panama strongman Manuel Noriega and its lack of adequate attention to the region’s crippling debt burden--applaud its skillful approach in Chile since 1986. Both in Santiago and in Washington, the U.S. government has sensitively and effectively pushed during the past two years for a free and fair national plebiscite, one that would genuinely express Chile’s popular will and therefore be accepted, nationally and internationally, as legitimate.

Chile’s united opposition--the No Command--certainly deserves most of the credit for accepting Augusto Pinochet’s challenge, overcoming the odds and defeating him in the plebiscite. But the United States merits praise as well. The Administration and Congress, working together for once, kept up diplomatic and political pressures on the Chilean government to provide the opposition with meaningful access to the media, to allow for orderly registration of political voters and to provide electoral procedures that would protect the vote from fraud. Equally important, the United States--through the Agency for International Development, the National Endowment for Democracy and related Democratic and Republican party institutes--actively helped to facilitate the registration process, supported opinion polls that enabled the opposition to design its campaign, provided valuable technical and political advice, and helped to make possible the establishment of an independent press. Chilean political leaders, some of whom used to denounce Yankee intervention in Chile, worked closely with American consultants to expand political space in Chile under the difficult conditions of authoritarian rule.

President Reagan did not start out to promote democracy in Chile or the other South American countries gripped by authoritarian military rule. On the contrary, the first Reagan impulse, as advised by Jeane Kirkpatrick, was to mend relations with the “moderate authoritarian” regimes of South America, relations that had been strained by the human-rights policy of President Jimmy Carter. Before 1986, the United States sided with Pinochet against his critics more often than not; the late Ambassador James Theberge, the first Reagan appointee in Santiago, was widely perceived as the military regime’s “fifth man.” It was only after Argentina and Uruguay had ousted military regimes on their own, and especially after the collapse of Ferdinand Marcos in the Philippines underlined the fragility of even friendly tyrants, that the Reagan Administration shifted its stance.

A new U.S. approach to Chile became evident with the arrival of Ambassador Harry Barnes in mid-1986. Barnes, a senior career official whose most recent assignment had been as ambassador to India, wasted no time in conveying a new signal in Chile; almost immediately after his arrival, he attended a candlelight service for the victims of human-rights violations. 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. Ably assisted by a career Latin America specialist of the State Department, George F. Jones, Barnes and the embassy have won broad respect in Chile. They have largely overcome a legacy of distrust and resentment, and have positioned the embassy in a position to assist in the mediation and conciliation efforts that lie ahead in Chile.


Some important lessons can be learned from this successful bipartisan effort to foster peaceful democratic change.

First, it is by no means impossible to achieve effective cooperation between the executive branch and Congress on foreign policy, as well as solid bipartisan support, when a policy is designed in close consultation with congressional leaders and takes their views fully into account.

Second, the career Foreign Service provides the expertise and experience that our country needs to handle complex and difficult assignments like that in Chile. One of the worst aspects of Reagan’s first Administration was its virtual purge of the senior Foreign Service officers most knowledgeable about Latin America; the Administration’s eventual recognition of what career diplomats can contribute has measurably improved the United States’ hemispheric position.

Perhaps most important, the case of Chile provides a textbook illustration of how the United States can best use its influence to help protect human rights, expand political space and improve the chances of democratic politics. Discreet but firm diplomatic pressure--not so blatant as to provoke nationalist reactions but not so silent as to be unheard--is the main instrument we can use. Specific, well-targeted sanctions, such as the denial of trade preferences to regimes that fail to meet international standards for the protection of labor’s rights, can make a difference. The United States can provide moral encouragement and material support to those who are working with a country’s framework to expand democracy. But democracy cannot be imposed from outside by fiat, much less by a mercenary army. Only the courageous opposition in Chile could have brought about last week’s victory for democracy in Chile, and only comparable efforts by Nicaragua’s democratic opposition will have a chance to build a similar triumph someday in Nicaragua.