190. Letter from the Ambassador to Chile (Popper) to the Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs (Habib)1

Dear Phil:

During the last few weeks we here in Santiago have been carefully monitoring the unfolding of the Administration’s new policy on human rights, as it has come to us through official statements and press and media commentary.2 It is a landmark development.

It was a pleasure to read, this morning, the comprehensive and sensitive summary of the policy which the Deputy Secretary delivered [Page 576] to the Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on Foreign Assistance on March 7.3 His statement lays out succinctly what we are trying to do, the ways in which we will try to do it, and the difficulties involved. I will make sure that the text is made available to the appropriate officials and media representatives in Santiago.

As the six questions included in Secretary Christopher’s statement indicate,4 the successful pursuit of our objectives will require great sophistication and sensitivity. Implicit in the six questions is another: how do we justify differential treatment as between various countries violating human rights?

This question is sharply posed by the experience in the Southern Cone. To the people down here, it looks as if the United States is limiting its human rights initiatives with respect to the Soviet Union and countries such as Uganda to condemnation and exhortation, without any substantive follow-through; at the same time, material penalties are imposed, through restrictions in U.S. aid, against other human rights violators who are weak, or unimportant to us. This morning EL MERCURIO, the outstanding Santiago newspaper, editorialized on what it called “the human rights imperialism” of the United States.

I think I am as aware as any one of the human rights abuses committed in Chile, and in a general way in Argentina and Uruguay. I have lived through many months of official and personal unpleasantness during the deterioration of U.S.-Chilean relations as we tightened down our restrictions on assistance to Chile. This was necessary, and I do not complain about it. But I am concerned with the point Mr. Christopher made in his first question: what action can we take now, in Chile and other nearby countries, which will improve the human rights situation rather than make it worse?

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As regards Chile specifically, we have already passed the stage of an outraged Chilean reaction to the cutoff of U.S. assistance. Military aid went first; then the Chileans, seeing the handwriting on the wall, asked us last fall not to request Congress to provide any more economic assistance.5

Largely because of our attitude, the Chileans have taken certain steps to moderate the worst excesses of their internal security policies. The sharp drop in arbitrary detentions, reports of torture and mysterious disappearances in recent months could of course be reversed at any time. But for the moment it is a fact.

I would raise the question whether the time is approaching to move to a new stage. I note Mr. Christopher’s statement that “We must . . . . recognize that to be even-handed, we should not just penalize, but inspire, persuade, and reward”.

Assuming there is no relapse on the Chilean side, the Chilean Government might in a short time be ripe for a move to persuade it to consolidate what it has already done, and to move on to new constructive modifications of its internal security practices. No one should underrate the difficulties of such persuasion. We are dealing with tough military men. But if properly suggested, there would be nothing to lose. I think the exercise would be worth a try. The basic point would be that in return for significant and continuing performance on the Chilean side, we could envisage a phased progression toward more normal economic, military and political relationships with this country.

I will not burden you here with my detailed ideas on this subject, except to say that I have expressed the hope to Terry Todman that the U.S. Ambassadors in this part of the world might soon be summoned to Washington, to engage in an in-depth consultation on the best ways of applying our human rights policies in the region.6

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Forgive me for proceeding at such length, but I did want you to know of our reaction.

With warm regards,

Sincerely yours,

David H. Popper7
  1. Source: National Archives, RG 59, Philip C. Habib Papers, Lot 81D5, PCH–Correspondence–Official, January-June, 1977. Confidential; Exdis. According to a stamped notation, the letter was received in P on March 15. A copy was sent to Todman. Habib wrote on the front of the letter: “Don Tice Show to Todman & Derian; Lamb draft a reply.”
  2. Possible reference is to statements made at press conferences by Vance on January 31 and by Carter on February 23. (“Secretary Vance’s News Conference of January 31,” Department of State Bulletin, February 21, 1977, pp. 137–146; “President Carter’s News Conference of February 23,” Department of State Bulletin, March 21, 1977, pp. 251–255)
  3. In telegram 49664, March 5, the Department transmitted an advance copy of Christopher’s remarks to all diplomatic posts. Christopher said, in part, “The concern for human rights will be woven into the fabric of our foreign policy. If we are to do justice to our goals, we must act always with a concern to achieve practical results, and with an awareness of the other demands on our diplomacy.” (National Archives, RG 59, Central Foreign Policy File, D70077-0054) See Foreign Relations, 1977–80, vol. I, Foundations of Foreign Policy, Document 27.
  4. Christopher said, “We have been developing a series of questions by which to chart the direction of our policy and our progress.” They included, “Will our action be useful in promoting the cause of human rights?” “What will be the most effective means of expressing our views?” “Even when there is only a remote chance that our action will be influential, does our sense of values, our American ethic, prompt us to speak out or take action?” “Will others support us?” “Have we steered away from the self-righteous and the strident, remembering that our own record is not unblemished?” and “Have we remembered national security interests and kept our sense of perspective, realizing that human rights cannot flourish in a world impoverished by economic decline or ravaged by armed conflict?” (Ibid.)
  5. For the 1976 Security Assistance Act which prohibited U.S. military assistance to Chile, see Foreign Relations, 1973–76, vol. E-11, Part 2, Documents on South America, Document 235. For the Chilean decision not to seek economic assistance from the U.S., see Foreign Relations, 1973–76, vol. E-11, Part 2, Documents on South America, Document 251.
  6. In a March 16 letter to Popper, Habib responded that Popper’s letter “goes to the heart of the challenge posed by our human rights policy.” Habib wrote, “None of this of course will be simple, and we will want to consult closely with those of you on the firing line when the studies now in process are at that point where your views can be most usefully factored in. We will be in touch on that.” (National Archives, RG 59, Philip C. Habib Papers, Lot 81D5, PCH–Correspondence–Official, January-June, 1977)
  7. Popper signed “Dave” above his typed signature.