Reiterating Strong Support for the Democratic Process
The ADST team joins many others in the foreign affairs community in condemning recent attacks on our democracy and welcoming the upcoming peaceful transfer of power. As current or former diplomats, we swore a sacred oath to preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic.
This includes respecting the results of free and fair elections whereby the people select who will and who won’t govern. The shameful violence and desecration that broke out on January 6, 2021, in our capital—and the threats to congressional leaders, the vice president, governors and state officials—should never happen again.
American diplomats have experienced many such moments overseas in foreign terrorist and mob attacks such as those on U.S. diplomatic staff and facilities in Iran, Libya, Tanzania, and many others. And, they have witnessed successful and unsuccessful insurrections against fledgling and established democracies. Always, with a sense of commitment and duty, they work hard all over the world to bolster and support democracy and democratic institutions. At this critical time, as we reflect on how to strengthen our democratic traditions and processes, we at ADST have compiled a few “moments” of hope from our archives of U.S. diplomatic history to share with our members and our readership:
In 1988, the Chilean people voted no in a key plebiscite on continued military rule led by General Pinochet, but the junta hoped to cover up the true vote count. See previous ADST “moments”on the 1973 coup against President Salvador Allende and the 1988 national referendum,which was the beginning of the end of Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship. We focus here on the actions of a brave official who decided to safeguard the return to democracy by publicly announcing the true vote to the press, paving the way for democratic elections. See how it played out, as recounted by Ambassador Charles Gillespie, who served in Chile following the plebiscite. Charles Gillespie’s interview was conducted by Charles Stuart Kennedy on September 19, 1995.
In 1991, when the far right wing of the Soviet Union’s communist party kidnapped Premier Mikhail Gorbachev and attempted a military coup in order to hold on to power, the people of Moscow came out into the streets in order to resist. Col. James Cox (Ret.) was one of the military attachés in Embassy Moscow and provides a rare and exciting firsthand description of events. On August 19, 1991, at 7:00 a.m., he was having breakfast and listening to the Moscow news on his shortwave radio. Breaking news interrupted the broadcast to announce that Gorbachev had been removed from office. Cox dropped everything, grabbed his camera, and went out on the streets of Moscow. In his oral history ,he describes running around Moscow, talking to Russian soldiers, trying to get the scoop on what was happening, and nearly getting shot.
In December 1992, Brazil’s President Fernando Collor de Mello resigned in a failed attempt to stop his impeachment trial by the Brazilian Senate after being convicted of corruption. After years of military dictatorship and short-lived presidencies, the people of Brazil were believed to have elected a president who would strengthen their democracy. Notwithstanding his overwhelming popularity, thousands of people—ordinary citizens of a democracy—called for the removal of their once beloved leader. John D. Caswell witnessed the president’s decline, referring to him as “the only Brazilian president who was ever actually impeached for crimes and malfeasance.” As recounted by Stanley Myles, who served in Brasília, Brazil, during the trial, after the Brazilian people and the military lost faith in Collor de Mello, Congress pushed forward with articles of impeachment. This serves as an example of people taking action to preserve the sanctity of their democracy.
In the early 2000s, the Eastern European nations of Georgia and Ukraine each experienced a “Colored Revolution” that was a direct consequence of electoral fraud, perpetrated by the sitting government. Georgia’s 2003 Rose Revolution was a twenty-day revolt against President Eduard Shevardnadze, who refused to void the results of the parliamentary elections even after the discovery of serious electoral fraud. Nonviolent protests ensued in Tbilisi streets as protestors engaged in acts of civil disobedience and standoffs with the Georgian military. In his interview with ADST, Ambassador Rudolf V. Perina shares his perspective on the Rose Revolution and how it affected relations between Russia and Moldova. A year later, a fraudulent presidential election in Ukraine orchestrated by the sitting prime minister, Viktor Yanukovych, sparked Ukraine’s Orange Revolution. Widespread voter intimidation, electoral fraud, and corruption motivated the Ukrainian public to take to the streets, waving orange flags in support of Yanukovych’s opponent, Viktor Yushchenko. Carol A. Peasley, while serving as a monitor for the run-off election, recalls the revolutionary fervor of the orange-clad protestors who demanded, above all else, democratic change.
Read Charles Gillespie’s full oral history HERE.
Read James Cox’s full oral history HERE.
Read John D. Caswell’s full oral history HERE.
Read Stanley Myles’s full oral history HERE.
Read Rudolf V. Perina’s full oral history HERE.
Read Carol A. Peasley’s full oral history HERE.
Drafted by Derek Gutierrez, Randy Schmidt, Robin Matthewman, and Mark Rincón
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Washington, D.C.—Deputy Assistant Secretary for Caribbean Affairs, 1983–1985
Bogotá, Colombia—Ambassador, 1985–1988
Santiago, Chile—Ambassador, 1988–1991
“…the Pinochet people at least knew that we knew that if they implemented a plan to jigger the results of the plebiscite, for example, by delaying the announcement of the results, we were going to blow the whistle.”
Ready to Blow the Whistle on Fraud
GILLESPIE: First of all, we knew that Pinochet had not intended to lose the plebiscite. His polling, his opinion testing, and his own judgment led him to conclude that he would win the plebiscite—that the “Sí” or “Yes” vote would prevail over the “No” vote. However, we learned through clandestine intelligence, he had planned to make sure that the release of the results of the plebiscite would be tightly managed. If there were any reason to engage in any hanky panky, he would be able to do that. He thought that he could remain in control.
We knew that and knew that he was not prepared to leave power. That conclusion predated my arrival in Santiago and really affected some of my relationships in Chile. There were several reasons why Pinochet’s plot didn’t work. Ambassador Harry Barnes, Bob Gelbard, the Deputy Assistant Secretary for South American Affairs, and other people in Washington made sure that the Pinochet people knew that we knew that Pinochet was planning something. As we learned, that didn’t stop Pinochet from making his preparations. However, the Pinochet people at least knew that we knew that if they implemented a plan to jigger the results of the plebiscite, for example, by delaying the announcement of the results, we were going to blow the whistle.
“…we obtained from clandestine intelligence reporting information on an alleged Pinochet plan to upset plebiscite results which would be unfavorable to him. I don’t know if the ultimate source of these reports was General Matthei.”
Pro-American Chilean Insider was Key
Furthermore, Harry Barnes did something which perhaps few people have ever focused on. Harry had developed a relationship with General Fernando Matthei, the commander of the Chilean Air Force and a member of the governing junta. Remember, this was a Presidential system with basically a four-man “legislature.” This legislature was the junta consisting of Pinochet as President and commander of the Chilean Army. His deputy, General Sinclair, often sat in and did the work of the junta on the Army’s behalf. Another member of the junta was Admiral Merino, the commander of the Chilean Navy. Merino was, perhaps, more of a key actor in both the move to overthrow President Allende—and in the conduct of the Chilean government over the years—than public opinion was aware of, at least in the years immediately following 1973. Another member of the junta was General Stange, the commander of the Carabineros, the semi-militarized, national police force. It included both uniformed and plain clothes police. The plain clothes police were called the Investigations Police. Most of the other Carabineros were uniformed. They are something of a combination of the Texas Rangers, the California Highway Patrol, and the U.S. Forest Service. The other member of the junta was the Air Force commander, General Fernando Matthei. He was the second Air Force commander since the 1973 coup d’état.
Pinochet had obviously stayed on in office since 1973. Admiral Merino was from the same period. General Stange was a relatively recent appointment as chief of the Carabineros. General Matthei had replaced his predecessor, an Air Force general, who had concluded in the mid-1970s that it was time for the military to relinquish power. He felt that they had done what they needed to do and that, therefore, it was time to go. He was basically eased out and replaced as Air Force commander. General Matthei was an Air Force officer who, although a hot shot fighter pilot and truly dedicated to his service, had proven himself to be very efficient and effective as the Minister of Health in the military government. He had also held other, political posts, which we can discuss later.
General Matthei just treasured—and still does—his relationship with the United States and the United States Air Force. He was a committed supporter of the move to displace President Allende and was an effective and committed political actor in the junta. He never hung back. As I said, he was selected to replace another junta member who had said that it was time for the military to leave power. The clear implication was that General Matthei didn’t necessarily think that it was time for the military to leave power. As I had been briefed before I went to Chile, General Matthei had been a voice in the junta in favor of giving the people more options, more choice. He had really incited the anger and enmity of General Augusto Pinochet, to the point where some sources were saying that General Matthei had a mistress, that he had accepted bribes, that he was corrupt, and a number of other things. However, these allegations did not go so far as to suggest that General Pinochet had decided to ease General Matthei out of the junta, as he had eased out his predecessor in a very tricky little political game.
Harry Barnes had gotten to know General Matthei on a cordial and friendly basis. Harry told me that if there were anybody in uniform that I needed to talk to in Chile, it was General Fernando Matthei. The key to Matthei was that he had learned how to fly in Chile but, I believe, had had advanced training with the U.S. Navy, I believe, at Pensacola, Florida. He was as closely associated with the U.S. Air Force as a person could be. Interestingly enough, Admiral Merino had a similar relationship with the U.S. Navy, dating from World War II. During World War II he had served as a young Lieutenant and gunnery officer in the Pacific, in combat, aboard a U.S. Navy cruiser. He never forgot that.
I have mentioned that we obtained from clandestine intelligence reporting information on
an alleged Pinochet plan to upset plebiscite results which would be unfavorable to him. I don’t know if the ultimate source of these reports was General Matthei. Harry Barnes may also have obtained information of this kind from Matthei. Certainly, Harry discussed this possibility with Matthei, prior to the plebiscite. Matthei knew that we knew from various sources that something was going on.
“…General Fernando Matthei saved democracy in Chile because of his actions on the night of October 4, 1988.”
Courageous Actions to Save Democracy
The following events occurred prior to my arrival in Chile. However, in my view, and putting it very briefly, General Fernando Matthei saved democracy in Chile because of his actions on the night of October 4, 1988. The plebiscite had been held, the polls had closed, and Pinochet called the junta to meet at La Moneda Palace. General Matthei drove up to the Palace. The Palace has an underground garage. The junta members, more often than not, would drive up to La Moneda Palace and then down the ramp into the underground garage, where they parked their cars for security reasons. Remember that there was some anti-government violence occurring in Chile from time to time.
However, on this occasion Matthei drove up to the front door of the Palace, walked through the front door. As he did so, the press surrounded him and clamored for him to say something. There is a press corps assigned to La Moneda, equivalent to our White House press corps. The press was all around the entrance to the Palace, which was guarded by Carabineros—not by the Army, interestingly enough. The press asked him, “What’s going on? Why the meeting?” and so forth. General Matthei replied, “Well, I guess we’ve lost it.” The results were in and General Matthei did the one thing which General Pinochet could not stand to have happen, under his alleged scheme. General Matthei, a member of the governing junta, announced the results, which were negative.
Q: This was deliberate on General Matthei’s part?
GILLESPIE: Absolutely. He went into the Palace through the front door and made his statement. He had probably prepared in advance what he was going to say. He basically pulled the rug out from under General Pinochet and the gang around him, who had set up an elaborate scheme to postpone the publication of the results, alleging that the returns were not in from this or that part of the country. Meanwhile, they were going to stuff the ballot boxes or whatever they were going to do. So General Matthei pulled the rug out from under the junta, and the press went out with the story.
From that moment on, during the remainder of the period of the Pinochet Government, this animosity toward General Matthei on Pinochet’s part grew steadily. To the point that my CIA (Central Intelligence Agency) chief of station told me that General Fernando Matthei had better watch out, from the physical and personal point of view. I arrived in Santiago in December. One of the first people whom I met was General Fernando Matthei. You wanted to know about the Washington end of this story, but that set the scene that I was walking into. We knew that Pinochet had lost the plebiscite. We knew that Pinochet really did not want to leave power. In my view the Chilean military at the time fell into three categories. There were those who were the core of Chile’s military establishment. By and large, they were professional military officers and probably not terribly politically oriented. However, because of the way that they had been raised and trained, they tended to think in very conservative terms.
There was a second set of military personnel, mainly officers, who had all of the characteristics of the first group but who believed that it was time for the Chilean military to get out of the government and somehow turn it back to the civilians. They needed to protect their military institutions and themselves, and there had been human rights violations to be concerned about. There was tremendous tension, anxiety, and animosity toward the military among the general public.
The third group was composed of the political-military actors. These included generals, colonels, captains, and a few NCOs (Non-Commissioned Officers) – but mainly officers. They had basically made their careers in politics, whatever their professional qualifications as members of the military. They had a vested interest in sustaining the military in political life. If the military left power, they had to protect their butts, because they had been so closely wrapped up in policies, the implementation of these policies, and perhaps other actions which were not particularly good. They wanted to preserve and protect themselves and these policies.
Then there was a civilian, political structure. Some 17 political parties had gathered together for the plebiscite campaign in something called la Concertación para la Democracia, the Concertation for Democracy. They ranged from everybody to the right of the Communist Party of Chile almost far as you can go. That really amounted to the center right. In addition, there were two parties which wanted to sustain the military government. One was relatively new, the Independent Democratic Union. The other, traditional party of the right was called Renovación Nacional, or the National Renewal Party. Some of the members of Renovación Nacional felt that it was not yet time to return to civilian rule, while other members actively supported it. So the 17 groups to the left of Renovación Nacional and to the right of the Communists joined together to support the “No” vote in the plebiscite and the transition back to democracy.
It was fairly clear in 1988 that the traditionally strongest political party was the Christian Democrats, probably followed by the Socialist Party, in terms of numerical and political strength. They had been thinking about a return to democracy but not, in all cases, in a very practical way. They apparently just wanted to get the military out of political life. There was a 1980 Constitution which had been drafted by the military government and its civilian allies. Renovación Nacional had been involved in drafting that constitution, which provided for the plebiscite process and which set the rules under which the transition to civilian government would take place.
During the period of the military government Chile had begun a far-reaching process of economic transformation and change from a largely state-controlled economy to a fairly definite, free market orientation. Chile was viewed as a favorable place for investment, where law and order prevailed under the military. By the way, this was only partly true. This view reflected a lot of good public relations effort.
“The plebiscite had occurred, and the Chilean people had spoken. So I saw my job and my instructions, both those on paper and, more importantly, the ones that we talked about with the Assistant Secretary of State, as calling for this line of action.”
U.S. Diplomatic Support for Chilean Democracy
I began to learn more about Chile, particularly after I left Colombia and really started to read into the situation, particularly about the plebiscite which was to be held. If the vote was “Yes,” that is, keep Pinochet in office, a lot of difficult pressures would have been unleashed in that country.
In any case, you could see the situation developing. Had the plebiscite gone in the direction of keeping Pinochet in office, the Constitution provided what would happen then. However, a lot of forces would have been activated and indeed had been active during 1988. If that were to happen, you could see continuing difficulties and challenges facing the military, both in political, public relations, and public affairs terms, as well as, perhaps, the real emergence of various kinds of rebellious acts. An American Ambassador going into such an environment would need to be prepared for that. There was a lot of discussion in Washington about what happens if that should occur.
Based on everything that we knew, I think that there was an assumption from our own opinion polls that the outcome was uncertain. By the way, the Republican Party in the United States, through the International Republican Institute, was funding the Center for Political Studies CEP—(Centro de Estudios Politicos), a right of Center polling organization in Chile. However, it was very honest and very credible. Polls undertaken by the Center for Political Studies indicated that the outlook in the plebiscite was very close. That is, Pinochet could lose the plebiscite. His own pollsters were giving him another interpretation of the CEP polls. Meanwhile, the IRI basically supported that activity under the National Endowment for Democracy. It seemed that the plebiscite could go either way.
However, if, on the other hand, the “No” vote were to win, then there would be a kind of reopening of the political landscape and of the political Pandora’s box. This was because it wasn’t really clear to those of us who were outside and looking into this process, how well organized the various political parties were. I don’t think that there was a lot of confidence about the situation. At that point many of the civilian figures hadn’t been directly involved in government in Chile for 15 years. How were they going to function? What should the U.S. position be?
Well, first, we supported a change in the political situation. We felt that it was time for the military to leave government. I knew that that was an underlying assumption. When I went to Chile, that part of the basic equation had been defined for me. The plebiscite had occurred, and the Chilean people had spoken. So I saw my job and my instructions, both those on paper and, more importantly, the ones that we talked about with the Assistant Secretary of State, as calling for this line of action.
Moscow, Soviet Union––Defense Attaché 1991-1993
“…I realized I was shaking. I said to myself, “I just paid the United States government back for every dollar spent on my Russian training.”
Making Conversation During a Coup
COX: This is when everything in my career came together—all my training, all my instincts, and my desire to find answers to my main questions. The column of trucks was literally parked nose-to-tail, and the canvas flaps were down on the trucks. I figured the trucks had to be full of soldiers. I walked back three or four trucks and looked over my shoulder. The officers weren’t paying any attention to me. I got between the trucks. I took a deep breath, and I said, “This is it. I’m all in.” I climbed up on the back of the truck, threw open the flap. I totally startled the armed Russian soldiers sitting inside…I talked to them like a soldier. I said, “Aw, man, I’ll bet these damn officers got you up at oh-dark-thirty this morning, and you have no frigging idea what you’re doing here, why you came here. This is really screwed up.” I went on and on and on until I ran out of breath. Then I stopped and waited, hoping someone would say something…. Seconds felt like years at that point. I was thinking to myself, “This is not going well. I better back out,” when one soldier leaned forward, and answered me in G.I. Russian, “You are right, exactly right! These damn officers have no idea what’s going on. They got us up at 3:00 o’clock in the morning and said, ‘Grab your weapons! Get on the trucks!’ This is the most screwed up thing I’ve ever been involved in. This is a total cockup!” My eyes were huge now. He just told me everything I wanted to know. My next thought was, “I need to wrap this up.” I commiserated with them, saying, “Oh, man, I feel so sorry for you guys! I wish you the best of luck. Bye.” I got back down off the truck, walked back out to the sidewalk, and I realized I was shaking. I said to myself, “I just paid the United States government back for every dollar spent on my Russian training.”
“I took a step, looked up and stopped dead in my tacks. Facing me was an unshaven guy in a suit, wearing a flak jacket, bloodshot eyes, and pointing an AK right between my eyes.”
A Close Call in the Russian White House
COX: To set the stage here, it is important to recall that Yeltsin’s staff had not slept for three days. And they feared an assault by a KGB unit at any moment throughout that time. They hadn’t slept or showered in days, and they were still terrified….I had just been invited to visit a Russian general. A group of my fellow officers were standing behind me. My boss, Colonel Reppert, said, “Well, it looks like Jimmy is going to have all the fun today.” He told our new defense attaché, a Navy admiral who had replaced General Govan just before the coup. The admiral responded, “Tell Cox I’m going with him.” I got my notebook, and we headed over. We had to walk over and around barriers and all sorts of trash left over from the coup. When we got to the specified entrance; there was an escort waiting for us. He motioned us in. The very first thing we saw inside the building on the ground floor was a stack of gas masks. Clearly, they had expected the worst. We got to an elevator, and our escort motioned us to enter. He punched a button and we ascended for a while. As the elevator bounced to a halt, the Russian escort motioned me to the door. The door opened. I took a step, looked up and stopped dead in my tracks. Facing me was an unshaven guy in a suit, wearing a flak jacket, bloodshot eyes, and pointing an AK right between my eyes…. I completely froze. My hands went up in the air. I literally fell back into the elevator. The others had to catch me. I thought he was going to shoot me right between the eyes. That’s when I realized how much they were still on alert inside that building. I grabbed our Russian escort and said, “God dammit! You go first!” I pushed him out of the elevator, and then we followed behind. That was the last adventure of the morning, but I will never forget those bloodshot eyes. And ever since that day I’ve been reluctant to be the first one off an elevator.
Milan, Italy—Junior Commercial Officer 1974–1976
Khartoum, Sudan—Chief Economic Officer 1982–1983
Brasília, Brazil—Political Counselor 1991–1994
“The process was going to go forward according to the constitution; nobody in the military had any reason to keep Collor around as opposed to anybody else.”
Seeking Impeachment of President Collor:
MYLES: So, the summit was a pretty good success. We got everybody through it without anybody getting into any serious problems. But, at the end, Fidel found his way to stand right next to President Bush when they took the final class picture. And Mr. Aronson was very mortified by that. But in the middle of the conference, President Collor‘s brother went public, accusing his brother of trying to seduce his wife. This led very quickly to kind of a break of the logjam of all the political corruption issues that had been held back, and within the next few weeks there was a flood of complaints. It wasn’t so much that he was corrupt; it was that he was more corrupt than was tolerated in the Brazilian political culture. He was more greedy. Like, as I said, he had this guy going around shaking everybody down, you know. It was one thing to have a kind of casual corruption, but this was systematic. And over a very short period of time his popularity rating just went to the floor and the Brazilian Congress started impeachment proceedings. And so, for the next several months our primary job was to report on the impeachment proceedings and what this meant and what would happen if Collor was thrown out.
And the tension was is that we were only, at that point, seven years past the end of the military government. The military government that ruled from 1964 had given back power in ‘85, so Collor was, in effect, the second president after that military period. He was actually third, but the first one had died soon after taking office in 1985 and was replaced by his vice president, who served most of the term. So, the concern in Washington was mainly: will the military allow this process to take place, and we in the embassy said yes, they don’t want it back. They’ve gotten off the tiger now; they’re not running the government anymore. And this was all reinforced by our military colleagues who were talking to their military people; they’re reinforcing that they just weren’t interested. The process was going to go forward according to the constitution; nobody in the military had any reason to keep Collor around as opposed to anybody else. But there kept being a persistent worry in Washington that every time we turned around somebody would be back saying oh, you know, is this going to happen or not. So, we spent months not only reporting but also reassuring Washington that this was going to happen. And it did, in December 1992, they threw Collor out of office and he was replaced by his vice president, who did a tolerable job, but we reported on that aftermath and all the rest of that, and then we started reporting on the next election, which was going to happen when I left in the summer of ‘94 but that hadn’t happened yet.
John D. Caswell
Lima, Peru––Deputy Director 1982-1984
Lisbon, Portugal – Political/Military Affairs 1989-1991
Brasilia, Brazil––Deputy Chief 1995-1998
“…the only Brazilian president who was ever actually impeached for crimes and malfeasance.”
Last minute resignation
CASWELL: Itamar Franco, who had come to the presidency after the total disgrace of his predecessor, who was one of the most corrupt in a long history of corrupt Brazilian politicians—Fernando Collor de Mello. This guy was a thief of staggering proportions, even to the point that he was impeached, the only Brazilian president who was ever actually impeached for crimes and malfeasance. Actually at the last minute he resigned before they could bring the vote of impeachment, but in effect he was impeached. Itamar Franco, who was this sort of nonentity of a provincial politician, was his vice president, and thus became president.
Ambassador Rudolf V. Perina
Washington, D.C.––Special Negotiator for Eurasian Conflicts 2001-2004
“Frankly, he was a bit past his prime.”
A President Without Respect
Q: What was Shevardnadze’s attitude?
PERINA: I met with him a couple of times during my visits to Tbilisi. Frankly, he was a bit past his prime. There was a lot of unhappiness with him among Georgians, and his popularity ratings had fallen to single digits in some polls. He said all the right things about resolving the Abkhaz conflict but there wasn’t much energy behind the words. He was confused on how to go forward and seemed just to be coasting in his presidency. Our meetings were pleasant but never very productive.
Carol A. Peasley
Washington, D.C.––Counselor, USAID Office of the Administrator 2003-2005
“It certainly was interesting to see the people camped in the main plaza in Kyiv waving their orange flags and chanting for democratic change.”
Ukraine’s Second Chance for Fair Elections
Q: Did your job take you overseas at all?
PEASLEY: …I volunteered to be an election monitor in Ukraine for the December 26, 2004 presidential run-off election. I knew that it would be difficult to recruit monitors over the Christmas holiday and I thought my even rudimentary Russian language skills could be helpful. As you may recall, this was the “Orange Revolution” in Ukraine. It certainly was interesting to see the people camped in the main plaza in Kyiv waving their orange flags and chanting for democratic change. I ended up observing in Kyiv where everything operated very smoothly. While the proponents of that “revolution” prevailed in the election, the past ten years certainly have been disappointing. But, it was nice to have witnessed the early positive days of the change.