The Reagan Administration’s ambassador to Chile during the final years of General Augusto Pinochet’s rule died August 9. Harry Barnes, a career diplomat, was hailed in his Washington Post obituary for defending human rights in Chile and helping nudge Pinochet towards the 1988 plebiscite that led to the peaceful and democratic transition of 1990.
This narrative of the Reagan Administration’s role in peacefully democratizing Chile contrasts with the secular and Religious Left’s portrayal of the Pinochet years. “I think he [Ambassador Barnes] did a magnificent job,” the Post quoted Elliott Abrams, the Reagan era State Department official often demonized for his role in Iran-Contra.
Chile in the 1970s and 1980s was a key flashpoint in the Cold War. Marxist Salvador Allende was elected in 1970 in a three-way race and promptly ushered Chile into what the Post obit called a “chaotic socialist period.” The economy collapsed while Allende tormented the opposition media, armed his supporters, and invited his hero Fidel Castro for an extended visit while hailing the Cuban model. Prior to Allende’s taking office, U.S. covert action unsuccessfully tried to unify the opposition and prevent his accession to power.
These bungled attempts were later exposed and fed the popular impression at least on the Left that the U.S. had orchestrated the eventual 1973 military coup against Allende, resulting in his suicide and Pinochet’s empowerment. This legend was the basis of the 1982 film, Missing, starring Jack Lemmon and Sissy Spacek, based on the story of a U.S. journalist missing in the wake of the 1973 coup. As the aggrieved father, Lemmon seeks answers about his son against a villainous, unnamed U.S. Ambassador ostensibly complicit in the coup.
The Nixon Administration was indeed relieved by Allende’s collapse, as was much of Chile, whose judiciary and legislature had virtually green lighted his overthrow, the Congress having accused Allende of “totalitarian” ambitions. But the Chilean military had acted on its own, perhaps mindful of earlier U.S. ineptitude. Although Chile is a relatively small nation, Allende’s collapse had much wider geo-strategic and philosophic implications, rebutting the 20th century Marxist claim of once Marxist, always Marxist, which the Brezhnev Doctrine sought to enforce.
By the time of Allende’s 1970 election, the Religious Left in the U.S. and around the world was endorsing Liberation Theology’s understanding of a Gospel aligned with Socialist revolution. Under Allende, U.S. United Methodist missionaries wrote President Nixon imploring the U.S. not to “impose its own solutions on Chile.” When Chilean Methodist Church leaders commended Pinochet’s new regime, a United Methodist missions official back in New York was befuddled by the “dilemma.” Another U.S. missions official insisted: “We cannot affirm the junta even to affirm the Methodist Church of Chile. If that’s intervention in Chile’s affairs, then history will have to say which one of us is right.” The United Methodist missions board even debated whether to meet at a Sheraton Hotel because its parent company ostensibly had opposed Allende.
More realistically, one United Methodist Bishop admitted after returning from Chile in the mid 1970s: “As undesirable as the military regime is, most dependable people of the Church, university and seminaries said to me that the situation had become so desperate that they preferred [the military government] to what they had before.” Many Chilean evangelical Protestants, especially Pentecostals, supported Pinochet, a Roman Catholic who presided over relative stability and prosperity, and who once hosted a visit by U.S. televangelist Jimmy Swaggart in the 1980s.
The Catholic Church, although relieved by the collapse of Allende’s socialism, largely defended human rights and worked for a peaceful transition to democracy. Cardinal Juan Francisco Fresno Larrain, archbishop of Santiago, convened Chile’s democratic parties in 1985 to call for free elections and protections for private property (not desiring a return to the Allende fiasco). In 1989, Cardinal Fresno received a Religious Freedom Award from my organization for advocating democracy and reconciliation in Chile. He credited God as the “first source and the permanent support of our work for reconciliation and the promotion and defense of human rights within the framework of religious liberty — fundamental values in all authentic democracies.”
The Religious Left did not foresee Chile’s peaceful transition to democracy during the Reagan years. Instead, some United Methodist bishops warned Reagan in late 1980 of “increasing acts of oppression and racism” globally because of his election. “We are firmly convinced these events are in response to campaign statements and positions taken by persons associated with you,” they decried. Other Methodist bishops at the time noted that Reagan’s election had fueled an “alarming turn toward violence, confirmed by a soaring arms race, by the belligerent rhetoric of a revived cold war, a turning away from human rights in the name of national expediency and support for a variety of military governments abroad while neglecting the poor and wretched at home.” An ecumenical Religious Left statement warned of an “international blood bath” if Reagan did not denounce human rights abuses by pro U.S. regimes.
Instead the end of the Reagan years and the immediate aftermath witnessed not only the collapse of Soviet communism but also of rightist, non-democratic regimes in South Korea, the Philippines, South Africa, Argentina, and Chile, among many others. It was a dramatic transition from the bleak 1970s, which concluded with the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the Islamist revolution in Iran. Such a shift would have been impossible absent the resurgence of American economic, political, and economic power in the 1980s, accompanied by vigorous U.S. affirmation of democracy and human rights.
The secular and Religious Left opposed nearly every step of that resurgence, unable to see beyond their own grim assumptions. Ambassador Barnes was just one of many players who helped create a new global era when freedom, at least momentarily, prevailed over oppression.