One anonymous phone call to U.S. Embassy Santiago began George F. Jones’ most memorable experience during his post as Deputy Chief of Mission in Chile. The agitated anonymous caller revealed he had poisoned grapes bound for the U.S. On March 13th, 1989, two cyanide-injected grapes were found in Philadelphia. This forced the USDA to issue a temporary ban on Chilean grapes, which in turn led to angry demonstrations in Chile and another setback to bilateral relations, which were struggling to return to normalcy after the dark days of the Pinochet regime.
The Chilean Grapes of Wrath
Chile is the country of my most bizarre experiences…. That was the story of the poisoned grape. Timing in life is everything.…You stick around too long, you get into trouble.
Had I left Chile as [Ambassador] Harry Barnes did in November of ’88 right after the plebiscite [on whether Pinochet should stay in power until 1997], we would have all been covered in glory, both externally and internally in Chile and the U.S. It would have been great. Tony Gillespie came in as Ambassador. The agreement was that I would stick around for about six months after he got there before leaving myself, to help him get his feet on the ground and get started. I guess it was right around the turn of the year, we got an anonymous phone call. Somebody called up the embassy out of the blue and said that he had injected cyanide into grapes that were being shipped to the United States. I’m trying to remember what he used as a justification for this. It was nothing political. I mean he didn’t say this was because of the plebiscite or the Rodrigo Rojas case [a young Chilean photographer who grew up in the U.S. and who was burned alive during an anti-Pinochet demonstration in 1986] or anything like that. I think it was to the effect that he didn’t have a job, and the economy was going to hell, and nobody would listen to him. So he just wanted to warn us that he had taken this dramatic act of protest.
Well, what the heck do you do? Of course you report this. Bearing in mind all of the injunctions from Washington about not over classifying, we sent it in unclassified. Absolutely nothing to protect about this phone call. But that of course meant that it went to the Department of Agriculture, U.S. Customs and all these agencies in Washington who had no ability to discriminate between one kind of information and another, and they halted the importation of Chilean grapes over the weekend. When we found out about it, the State Department was horrified; we were horrified. We were told sternly never to send anything like this in unclassified ever again. ‘You can’t let Agriculture get their hands on a State Department cable, for gosh sakes!’
With a lot of frantic work by the embassy and by the State Department, we persuaded them to release the grapes and start importing them normally again. And in fact it was even by a miracle kept out of the papers because we had gotten it turned around again fairly quickly. The grape exporters of course knew what had happened. Once again I was chargé. All of these things seemed to happen when I was chargé, and I had the honor of calling them in and apologizing and explaining what had happened and so on, the heads of the major exporting associations. And so we breathed a huge sigh of relief; things were back to normal.
Then this guy called again, and assured us that ‘you haven’t found it but I did poison those grapes. I just want to assure you of that.’ So we reported that, classified this time. As a result of the second report, the fruit inspectors for the Department of Agriculture began a very intensive search. They didn’t stop the importation this time, but they began a very intensive sampling of imported grapes.
During the winter, because we have opposite seasons, Chilean grapes are grown when the snow is on the ground in the U.S., and vice-versa. Our two markets fit together relatively well. Lo and behold, on a Sunday I think, an inspector found a couple of strange looking grapes, literally two out of hundreds of thousands if not millions of grapes, and what looked to him like a couple of puncture marks. They were rushed off to the laboratory. On a Monday morning we got the call that the lab tests from the Food and Drug Administration had shown traces of cyanide. Boom! The Food and Drug Commissioner ordered not only the cessation of imports of Chilean grapes, but ordered all Chilean grapes taken off the shelves of American supermarkets and destroyed. Bearing in mind the Tylenol case and other instances where people had discovered poisonous substances in products on the shelves, there being no way to tell how many additional bottles of Tylenol had been poisoned, so the solution was to get them all off the shelves. And of course, at this point it did go public. The Food and Drug Administration made a public announcement. Here we thought we had just established the best possible U.S.- Chilean relations and laid the groundwork for Pinochet’s departure and everything else, and this thing hits us in the face. Demonstrations in the front of the embassy. And then to return to your question about the effect this had on senior people at the embassy.
“The bitterest kind of attack.”
In contrast to the Letelier case [the Chilean politician who was killed in Washington, DC, by Pinochet’s secret police], where there was no accusation of personal involvement or personal bias at all, in the grape case there was a prominent Chilean, not in the first rank but in the second rank of prominence, named Ricardo Claro. He was an attorney; he was president of Santa Rita Vineyards; he was president of the Chilean-American cultural center. He was a regular lunch companion of mine. He gave everybody to believe for years that he was basically anti-Pinochet, although he confessed to me at the time of the plebiscite that he had voted for Pinochet. The other thing is that he was a stockholder in a shipping company that shipped grapes to the United States.
He decided, this otherwise apparently rational man, an attorney for a number of prominent American companies, he decided that the United States government was responsible for this. Among many other things, he had a morning radio show, a five- or ten-minute broadcast in which he commented on various things that were going on in Chile. He began to use his radio broadcast to attack both Tony Gillespie and much more intensely, me, for having personally plotted this as a means of getting Pinochet out sooner. Because under the Constitution, Pinochet was to stay until March of 1990. There would be Presidential elections in the fall of 1989, so he was going to be around for a while. This was both punishment for Pinochet and a means of getting him out sooner. Of course, he never spoke about the fact there was personal punishment for Claro’s pocketbook. Some of his ships’ cargoes became worthless; there was substantial economic impact on him personally and on a number of other prominent Chileans. He held a press conference announcing his resignation as president of the cultural center and saying he wanted nothing further to do with the United States. Just the bitterest kind of attack. I spent the last two or three months in Chile defending myself to the right wing. The left wing generally kept their mouths shut with puzzlement and bafflement. The right wing unleashed all of the bitterness they had piled up over the plebiscite and many other things and said this was the last straw that the United States would do this. “Of course it was political. You mean to tell me the State Department doesn’t tell the Food and Drug Administration what to do! You’re lying through your teeth. This is all a calculated administration decision to punish Chile.” I mean it was unbelievably bad. Just about as hostile an atmosphere as we could possibly have. A terrible start for Tony in his mission. I could get out of there in a couple of months but he had to stay.
Q: I’m interviewing Tony now so when I get to Chile, I’ll bring up grapes.
When it comes time for Chile, just have a little dish of grapes on the table.