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Getting the U.S. President to Write to the President of Guatemala About Human Rights (Hint – It’s Who You Know)

With the end of the Cold War, the U.S. began to put greater emphasis on enforcing its policy of protecting human rights worldwide, based on the core belief that people have a set of inviolable rights simply on grounds of being human. Some foreign counterparts were skeptical that the U.S. would give priority to human rights at the expense of other goals. Among them was President Vinicio Cerezo Anevalo of Guatemala, who refused to accept the word of Ambassador Thomas F. Stroock that the U.S. would no longer tolerate human rights abuses in his country. This led Ambassador Stroock to devise a plan to prove that his admonitions did in fact reflect the official stance of the U.S. Government. He decided a letter of support from President George H.W. Bush would persuade Guatemala’s president. The question now was how to get President Bush to sign it, and it had to be done in less than a week.

Getting a letter signed by the President requires the right connections and a lot of persistence. Stroock had made his fortune in the oil business and became heavily involved in Wyoming politics. As chairman of the Western States Republican Organization, Stroock fervently supported George H.W. Bush, who had been a classmate at Yale. After Bush was elected President in 1988, he named Stroock ambassador to Guatemala, a role in which he served from 1989 to 1992. Andrew Low interviewed Stroock in November 1993. To read more about Guatemala, Central and South America, or presidential dealings, please follow the links.


“I know Tom… these are just his personal opinions, I’m sure they don’t reflect the opinions of the United States Government”

Thomas F. Stroock, Ambassador for Guatemala, 1989 to 1992

I was scheduled to make a speech to the Rotary Club [in Guatemala], which is the biggest gathering with businessmen in the country. I got ahold of the Public Affairs Officer, John Tracy; a marvelous Irishman, a great friend of mine and an excellent PAO [Public Affairs Officer.] I said, “I want to make a speech. I want to make it as friendly as possible under the circumstances, but as firm as a rock about human rights.” (Stroock is seen at left.)

That’s what it was. There was a phrase in there that said, “The United States cannot long have productive relations with a country that either promotes, or tolerates, human rights abuses of its own citizens because that is not in the tradition of the American people.”

Well, that created quite a sensation. The press asked Vinicio Cerezo, the President, about it, and he said, “Well, I know Tom. He’s kind of a cowboy, and these are just his personal opinions. I’m sure they don’t reflect the opinions of the United States Government.”

So, for the first time, I really pulled in whatever chips I had. I called Bernie Aronson [Assistant Secretary of State for Inter-American Affairs from 1989 to 1993] in the State Department, and I said, “You guys have got to support me.” I give Bernie a great deal of credit for a lot of things; but certainly on this one. He backed me up 100 percent. He was mad at me, “Damn it, why didn’t you send up the speech for me to read before you gave it?” “Bernie, I did.” (Aronson is at right.)

What we’d done, John and I, was to write the speech in Spanish. We’d sent it up in Spanish because it was going to be given in Spanish. What neither of us knew, and I didn’t realize until quite a bit later, was that Bernie didn’t speak Spanish. He saw it but he didn’t read it, or have it translated. Because it was in Spanish he just skipped it. From then on out, of course, I cabled everything I was going to say in English as well as Spanish.

Regardless of the fact that he was upset about that, Bernie backed me up 100 percent. He said, “What we’ll do is we’ll bring you home. We’ll recall you as a sign of our displeasure with the president’s statement.”

When I got back to Washington, I thought to myself; just being recalled and coming back, that’s not dramatic enough. I need something dramatic. I need a letter signed by the President of the United States saying that Ambassador Stroock does indeed speak for this Administration. To get a letter signed by the President through the fudge factory down at Foggy Bottom, is not going to happen in a week. I wanted to get back to Guatemala in a week while this thing was still hot.

Joe Sullivan (seen left), who was the Deputy Assistant Secretary for Central America, was in favor of doing it. Bernie Aronson was in favor of doing it. You have to understand that Guatemala was not large on their radar screen — they had a few other problems.

It was essentially turned over to me: “If you can get a letter, hurray.”

“Yes, I’d like to talk to Stroock. I want to talk to him about my ranch in Wyoming”

The first thing I did was get ahold of Margaret Tutwiler (seen right) who had worked on the Bush campaign as Jim Baker’s secretary. She was now the Assistant Secretary for Public Affairs. I got an appointment with her and asked Margaret to get me an appointment with Jim Baker so I could get my letter.

Then I worked with the Guatemala desk officer, a brilliant girl by the name of Debbie McCarthy. She ran around the Legal Department and I got input from anybody she could. We worked up a one-page letter in Spanish — with a good English translation this time — for the President to sign. It said that indeed I did speak for the Administration, and while the President had every kind of admiration and respect for President Cerezo, he really wanted him to know that human rights were an important component of our relations.

I have a copy of the letter. I forget all the details but it was a good friendly, fair, but very firm letter. I was trying to get up to see Jim, and Bernie said, “You’ll never get to see Jim on this. He’s flying around…” He had the Middle East, and Poland.

I said, “Let me try.” So I got ahold of Margaret, and we got ahold of Karen Davidson, Jim’s scheduling secretary, and the next thing you know Baker said, “Yes, I’d like to talk to Stroock. I want to talk to him about my ranch in Wyoming.” Jim looked at and almost bought the Moose Willow, our place in Dubois, and he did buy a place 50-60 miles away. “I want to talk to him.”

So I had an appointment at 11:00 on Thursday. In the meantime I had also contacted Chase Untermeyer (Assistant to the President and Director of the Office of Presidential Personnel, 1989-1991, seen left), and Nancy Wong on the staff in the White House. I wasn’t getting anywhere to get in to see the President. Suddenly I remembered that General Brent Scowcroft, who was the head of the National Security Council, was a good friend of Dick Cheney’s. I had met him through Dick and we had gotten along well at subsequent meetings.

So I called Kathy Enbody, Dick’s secretary — she has been his secretary for years — and got her to call Brent Scowcroft’s secretary. Then I called Brent and said, “I really, really need to talk to you.”

So I had an appointment on Thursday with Baker, and Friday with Scowcroft. The deal with Scowcroft was that he would take me to see the President with this now-famous letter. Saturday I would spend with my sister Sandra and then Sunday I was going to fly back to Guatemala.

“If we go through channels, I’m never going to get this letter signed in time”

Nobody in the State Department really thought that all this would hang together, but I did persuade the ARA [Bureau of Inter-American Affairs] staff to help. Thursday morning Bernie Aronson said, “If you’re going to see Baker, I’d like to go with you.” I said, “Of course.” We showed up in Baker’s office at 11:00, and were marched right in.

Jim wanted to spend the whole time talking about his ranch near Boulder in Wyoming. He’d shot an elk 400 feet away at his neighbor’s ranch, at the Skinners. Of course I love to talk about Wyoming too, and we exchanged fishing lies. (Baker is seen at right with Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Sheverdnadze, fly-fishing in Wyoming in 1989.)

Finally, we could tell it was getting to the end of the time and he said, “Oh, about this Guatemala thing, you’ve got a letter you want signed by the President?”

I said, “Yes, Mr. Secretary, I sure do,” and I explained to him why. He turned to Bernie and said, “Bernie, what do you think?”

Well, by this time Bernie has realized that Jim and I go back a little ways. To be fair and to be truthful, he was not as gung-ho as I was. He would have sent me back to Guatemala with or without the letter. But he said, “Yes, I’ve read it, it seems it’s okay.”

“Okay, then let’s do it,” replied Baker.

And I said, “Mr. Secretary, I have an appointment over at the White House to expedite this.”

And he said, “I’d rather you go through channels, but the letter is okay.”

When we went out in the hall, I said to Bernie, “If we go through channels, I’m never going to get this letter signed in time. I’m going to take this letter over to Brent Scowcroft with me. Would you authorize it to be typed?” And he did, bless his heart. So I had the letter typed in final form, the official letter in English, and also the official translation in Spanish.

“You can hear that there is a chopper warming up on the White House south lawn. That’s how close it was”

Friday I waltzed it over to the White House at about 10:30 in the morning. I waited for about 50 minutes, and finally got in to see Brent Scowcroft, and of course, no chit-chat there, just me and Brent Scowcroft. I told him my problem, and he read the letter and he said, “Bernie Aronson has signed off on it?” I said, “Yes,” and I had the whole file, and I said, “I’ve talked to Jim Baker about it too.” (Scowcroft is seen with President Bush at left.)

“Okay,” he said. “You better hurry.”

So he picked up the phone, and spoke to the President. Immediately, he walked me from his office down two corridors into the Oval Office. You can hear that there is a chopper warming up on the White House south lawn. That’s how close it was.

The President was headed off at noon for some place — I think Camp David, I’m not sure. We spent two or three minutes chatting: how are you? how is Marta? and how are things going?

He was very flattering: “You’re doing a wonderful job, and I hear there’s a problem? You’ve got a letter for me to sign?”

And I said, “Yes, Mr. President, here it is.” He said to Brent, “Is it okay if I sign this?”

And Brent said, “It’s been approved by everybody in the State Department.”

He looked at me and said, “This better not be wrong,” and he put it up on the door jamb as he heads out the door, signed George Bush, and handed it to me. Then he went out with his entourage, got in the helicopter and lifts off. Very impressive: Marines saluting — everything. I breathed a sigh of relief.

“That letter, I think, was the pivotal point that changed the whole direction of the way the embassy moved on Human Rights”

That’s how I got the letter. Then I took that letter back to Guatemala over the weekend and arranged an appointment that Monday with the President at his official office in the palace. The people in the embassy were really impressed with that letter. Until then, they didn’t know whether I was for real or not.

We had our Country Team meeting that morning. [Among those present was] a lady that ran one of the missions in AID — ROCAP. It was the regional AID [Agency for International Development] mission that did regional things, mostly in the environment. This gal was a real friend. Her name was Nadine Hogan, and she’s a great politician, a good friend of the Coors family who has been active in Denver politics, Colorado politics and national politics for years.

She has great political instincts, so I asked her, “How do you think I ought to handle this thing?” (Hogan is seen at right.)

She said, “You show that to everybody on your Country Team. They’re all wondering whether you’re for real.” So we called them all in, 19 or 20 people, and I showed the letter before I took it down to the palace to show the president.

I said, “I’ve got this letter and this is the way we’re going to go. We’ve got Bernie Aronson and Jim Baker and the President behind us 100 percent.”

That letter, I think, was the pivotal point that changed the whole direction of the way the embassy moved on Human Rights. It changed the way the Guatemalan government perceived us. It also changed how the rest of Guatemalan society perceived us.

Because previous to that, talking about human rights violations wasn’t quite the right thing to do. After all, it meant that everybody knew you were bad mouthing the security forces, and the army, and the government; because they did most of it. It was considered maybe a little too pro-Communist, and a little too far to the left to do that.

But once the American ambassador came back with a letter from the President after that speech, it was very obvious where the United States stood; and where the United States stands is where most of Guatemalan society wants to be. From then on out I really did begin to notice great change in the way the Guatemalans approached human rights violations publicly, privately, and governmentally.