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The Last American Diplomat in Medellín—Countering Anti-Americanism in Cartel-Era Colombia

Guns, cocaine, and kidnappings—this was the state of much of Colombia in the early 1980s. Medellín in particular, home to the rising Cartel de Medellín and leftist guerrilla insurgents, was the bedrock of anti-Americanism in the country during these years. Strikingly, Medellín was also home to a U.S. consulate at the time, hosting a total of four Foreign Service officers. Among them was Peter DeShazo, a public affairs officer and consul dedicated to improving the local perception of the United States and of Americans.

Amid the growing insecurity and tense environment, DeShazo’s goal was to retain a high profile as director of the U.S.-Colombian Bi-national Center (BNC). Kidnappings, murders, and violence were the norm in the epicenter of Colombia’s illegal narcotics trade. Yet surprisingly, the left-wing guerrillas were the main concern for Americans in Colombia; organizations such as the FARC and most notably M-19 posed the greatest security threat for DeShazo and his colleagues. Nonetheless, DeShazo confronted the rampant anti-American sentiment as the BNC gradually became a vital cultural institution in Medellín under his directorship. The center effectively disseminated U.S. culture through literature, film, and language programs as well as through visiting cultural attractions. After DeShazo left Colombia, the BNC continued to grow and ultimately became one of Latin America’s most successful centers, despite several attacks conducted by M-19 shortly after DeShazo’s departure. Once DeShazo’s tour in Medellín concluded, the Department of State decided that he would not be replaced as a result of the deteriorating security situation, essentially making Peter DeShazo the last U.S. diplomat in Medellín.

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New President, Bad Plan: the Bay of Pigs Fiasco

After Fidel Castro ousted Cuban strongman Fulgencio Batista, expropriated American economic assets and developed links with the Soviet Union, President Eisenhower authorized the CIA in March 1960 to develop a plan to overthrow Castro. The agency trained and armed Cuban exiles to carry out the attack. Shortly after his inauguration, John F. Kennedy learned of the invasion plan, concluded that Fidel Castro was a Soviet client posing a threat to all of Latin America and, after consultations with his advisers, gave his consent in February 1961 for the CIA-planned amphibious assault.

Launched from Guatemala on April 17, 1961, the invasion force of 1,400 Cuban exiles known as Brigade 2506 landed at the beaches along the Bay of Pigs on the south coast of Cuba. They immediately came under fire. Cuban planes strafed the invaders, sank two escort ships, and destroyed half of the brigade’s air support. Over the next 24 hours, Castro ordered 20,000 troops to advance toward the Bay of Pigs and the Cuban air force continued to control the skies.

President Kennedy authorized six unmarked American fighter planes to help defend the brigade, but the B-26’s arrived late and were shot down by the Cubans. The invasion was crushed later that day. Castro’s military had counterattacked with surprising speed, sinking most of the supply ships, killing over a hundred of the exiles and capturing 1,200. Brigade 2506 was defeated within two days by Cuban armed forces under the direct command of Castro. The Cuban leader used the attack to solidify his power in Cuba and to justify more military assistance from the Soviet Union, including missiles and the construction of missile bases. Kennedy publicly accepted blame for the catastrophic outcome. Read more

Looking at the War in the Falklands/Malvinas from Both Sides Now

In 1982 a long-simmering dispute between the United Kingdom and Argentina over a small group of islands – the Falklands for the British, the Malvinas for the Argentinians – erupted into war. The disagreement arose from a dispute that goes back to the 1700’s when France, Spain, and Britain all tried to claim and settle the islands (with France selling her claim to Spain). Britain and Spain almost went to war over the archipelago before coming to a compromise that while neither recognized the claims of the other, they would not interfere in each other’s settlement activity. Eventually both sides abandoned their outposts due to the economic pressure of supporting the distant, windswept islands.

Businessman Louis Vernet began a settlement in 1829 as a business venture with the permission of the new Argentine government, which had inherited the Spanish claim. After a series of disagreements and violent incidents among several parties that involved the near destruction of  Vernet’s settlement by an American warship (the U.S. did not recognize the claim of any country over the islands at the time) the British reestablished authority in 1833 and brought in settlers whose descendants make up most of the current Falklanders.

During the post-WWII populism of Juan Peron, Argentina began to raise the issue again. Britain told Argentina that there was no hope of an eventual transfer. Seeing no diplomatic way forward, the Argentine military junta launched a surprises attack on the Islands in April, 1982. Within three months the British retook the islands. Read more

Grapes of Wrath and Strained Relations with Chile

Grocery stores throughout the United States pulled tons of grapes from their shelves when traces of cyanide were found in two grapes shipped from Chile to Philadelphia on March 13, 1989. The Commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration advised Americans to get rid of all fruit in their homes unless they were certain it was not from Chile.

Hundreds of inspectors from the food agency and the Agriculture Department checked Chilean fruit stopped by the U.S. Government at ports of entry. The inspections began after an agitated anonymous caller to the U.S. Embassy in Santiago revealed he had poisoned grapes bound for the U.S. The ban on Chilean produce led to angry demonstrations in Chile and posed another setback to bilateral relations, which had been struggling to return to normalcy after the dark days of the Pinochet regime. Read more

The Technology of Terror – South America in the 70s and 80s

Terrorism the world over poses a threat to the lives of Foreign Service Officers. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s terrorist groups threatened the safety of FSOs serving in South America. In Argentina, two such groups, the People’s Revolutionary Army (ERP) and Montoneros, resorted to armed resistance 1969-1970 in response to the regime of Juan Carlos Onganía. The ERP was a Marxist group with the goal of establishing socialism in Argentina. Active in Tucuman and Buenos Aires, its members resorted to kidnapping people as well as sabotaging the police and military outposts. Like the ERP, the leftist Montoneros also operated in urban areas and were known for political kidnappings, assassinations, and bombings of police and military outposts. The Montoneros worked to bring about the return of exiled former president Juan Peron; ironically, upon his return, Peron distanced himself from the group. Peron proceeded to form close relationships with right wing groups which prompted the Montoneros to resort to political violence.

Colombia also has a long history of terrorism not only with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), but also with narcotraffickers who conduct illicit drug trade throughout the country. These traffickers were constantly fighting the Colombian military as well as U.S. efforts to combat the drug trade during the 1980s. The United States fought to stop the flow of cocaine from the Medellin and other prominent cartels, into the U.S. by working with police in Colombia and bringing in Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) agents. Actions to undermine American intervention in the drug trade included blowing up police stations and attacking U.S. buildings in Bogota. Read more

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. Read more

Negotiating the Mexican-American Border: the Case of Chamizal

Defining the border between Mexico and the United States has not always been in the hands of politicians; at one point, a shift in the Rio Grande River created a new boundary and generated a diplomatic dispute. In February 1848, the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo ended the Mexican-American War and designated the Rio Grande the boundary line between the two nations. However, due to flooding and the changing flow of the river, over time, the banks of Rio Grande shifted. The alteration was so significant that a 600 acre piece of land between El Paso, Texas and Ciudad Jaurez, Chihuahua, known as the Chamizal, went from being in Mexican territory to north of the river in American territory.

Americans began to settle in the Chamizal and incorporated the land into the city of El Paso. In 1895, the Mexican government, which claimed the land as part of Mexico, elevated the dispute to the International Boundary Commission (IBC), a body of U.S. and Mexican officials. Four years later, the IBC created a cement track to redirect the Rio Grande and avoid future floods, a project jointly funded by the U.S. and Mexico. This man-made alteration moved yet another piece of land, Cordova Island, from the Mexican to the American side.

Later, the Arbitration of 1911 awarded the Chamizal to Mexico, but the land remained disputed and Americans continued to live there. Cordova Island, an essential “no-man’s land” for decades, became a haven for illicit activities from drug smuggling to human smuggling. Both the Chamizal and Cordova Island remained a source of friction between the countries. Read more

Drogas y Derechos Humanos: Changing U.S. Policy towards Guatemala

In June 1954 the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, concerned about the threat of communism in Guatemala, assisted in the overthrow of the government led by President Jacobo Arbenz Guzmán. A five-member junta assumed power. Following communications with Guatemala’s Foreign Ministry and consultations with countries in Central America, the U.S. determined that the new Guatemalan government intended to fulfill international obligations and was not communist.

A little more than a month after the coup, Secretary of State John Foster Dulles instructed Ambassador John Peurifoy at the U.S. Embassy at Guatemala City to establish diplomatic relations with the new Guatemalan Government. With the end of the Cold War, U.S. policy toward Guatemala began to prioritize eliminating the drug trade and human rights abuses. Thomas F. Stroock, who presided over the U.S. Embassy in Guatemala from 1989 to 1992 when bilateral relations shifted, was interviewed by Andrew Low in November 1993. Read more

The Overthrow of Haiti’s Aristide

Haiti has long been plagued by coups d’état and regime changes, leading to long-time political instability and weak governance. In this volatile political field, it was easy for a Haitian leader to assume dictatorial powers, as was the case with President François Duvalier, also known as “Papa Doc.”

After becoming the President of Haiti in 1957, he soon took on the title of “President for Life” and established a repressive and authoritarian government. His regime was supported by the Tonton Macoute, a paramilitary force, which also served to counter the considerable power of the Haitian military. With the passing of Duvalier in 1971, his son, Jean-Claude Duvalier, or “Baby Doc,” assumed the role of President of Haiti. This in essence established a dynastic dictatorship that would last until he was overthrown from a popular uprising in 1986.

Following a series of failed elections and military coups, the first democratic election in Haitian history was held between December 16, 1990 and January 20, 1991. Winning with a clear majority was the Salesian priest, Jean-Bertrand Aristide. With representatives from both the United Nations and the Organization of American States monitoring the election, it was declared free and fair. However, within eight months of being sworn into office, President Aristide was deposed in yet another military coup on September 29, 1991; his life was spared only due to the intervention of U.S., French, and Venezuelan diplomats. Read more

Jesse Helms: The Senator Who Just Said No

Jesse Alexander Helms, a five-term Republican Senator (1973- 2003) from North Carolina, was known not only for his conservative beliefs but for the lengths he would go in support of them. A proponent of the conservative resurgence movement in the 1970s, Helms cherished his nickname: “Senator No,” granted for his obstructionist tendencies. As a member and later chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Helms demanded a staunchly anti-communist, anti-leftist foreign policy. He took a special interest in Latin American affairs.

To that end, he obstructed the appointment of dozens of State Department appointments over his three decades in the Senate. Helms’ staff shared their boss’ conservatism and could be as tough to deal with as the Senator himself. Read more