[R-G] Palling Around with Dictators: McCain and Pinochet
fentona at shaw.ca
Mon Oct 27 13:04:32 MDT 2008
October 27, 2008
McCain and Pinochet
Palling Around with Dictators
By JOHN DINGES
John McCain, who has harshly criticized the idea of sitting down with
dictators without pre-conditions, appears to have done just that. In
1985, McCain traveled to Chile for a friendly meeting with Chile's
military ruler, General Augusto Pinochet, one of the world's most
notorious violators of human rights credited with killing more than
3,000 civilians and jailing tens of thousands of others.
The private meeting between McCain and dictator Pinochet has gone
previously un-reported anywhere.
According to a declassified U.S. Embassy cable, McCain described the
meeting with Pinochet "as friendly and at times warm, but noted that
Pinochet does seem obsessed with the threat of communism." McCain, a
member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee at the time, made no
public or private statements critical of the dictatorship, nor did he
meet with members of the democratic opposition in Chile, as far as
could be determined from a thorough check of U.S. and Chilean
newspaper records and interviews with top opposition leaders.
At the time of the meeting, in the late afternoon of December 30, the
U.S. Justice Department was seeking the extradition of two close
Pinochet associates for an act of terrorism in Washington DC, the 1976
assassination of former ambassador to the U.S. and former Foreign
Minister Orlando Letelier. The car bombing on Sheridan Circle in the
U.S. capital was widely described at the time as the most egregious
act of international terrorism perpetrated on U.S. soil by a foreign
At the time of McCain's meeting with Pinochet, Chile's democratic
opposition was desperately seeking support from democratic leaders
around the world in an attempt to pressure Pinochet to allow a return
to democracy and force a peaceful end to the dictatorship, already in
its 12th year. Other U.S. congressional leaders who visited Chile made
public statements against the dictatorship and in support of a return
to democracy, at times becoming the target of violent pro-Pinochet
Senator Edward Kennedy arrived only 12 days after McCain in a highly
public show of support for democracy. Demonstrators pelted his
entourage with eggs and blocked the road from the airport, so that the
Senator had to be transported by helicopter to the city, where he met
with Catholic church and human rights leaders and large groups of
Mark Schneider, a foreign policy aide and former State Department
human rights official who organized Kennedy's trip, said he had no
idea McCain had been there only days before. "It would be very
surprising and disappointing if Senator McCain went to Chile to meet
with a dictator and did not forcefully demand a return to democracy
and then to publicly call for a return to democracy," Schneider said.
McCain's visit with Pinochet took place at a moment when the Chilean
strongman held virtually unrestricted dictatorial power and those
involved in public, democratic opposition were exposed to great risk.
McCain's presence in Chile was apparently kept as quiet as possible.
He and his wife Cindy arrived December 27 and traveled immediately to
the scenic Puyehue area of southern Chile to spend several days as the
guest of a prominent Pinochet backer, Marco Cariola, who later was
elected senator for the conservative UDI party.
The trip was arranged by Chile's ambassador to the United States,
Hernan Felipe Errazuriz. According to a contemporary government
document obtained from Chile, Errazuriz arranged for a special
government liaison to help McCain while in Chile for the "strictly
private" visit, and described him as "one of the conservative
congressmen who is closest to our embassy."
Errazuriz also arranged the invitation for the McCains to stay at the
farm of his wealthy friend, Marco Cariola, according to Cariola, who
did not know McCain previously. The McCains spent the three and a half
days fishing for salmon and trout and riding horses. The area is one
of Chile's most beautiful tourist attractions, with dozens of crystal
clear lakes and rivers surrounded by luxurious estates such as the
Cariola farm where the McCains were staying.
On December 30, McCain traveled back to Santiago for a 5 pm meeting
with dictator Pinochet, followed by a meeting with Admiral Jose
Toribio Merino, a member of the country's ruling military junta.
McCain's meeting with Pinochet in 1985 are described in a U.S. embassy
cable, based on McCain's debriefing with embassy officials:
"Most of his 30-minute meeting with the president, at which foreign
minister [Jaime] Del Valle and a ministry staff member were present,
was spent in discussing the dangers of communism, a subject about
which the president seems obsessed. The President described Chile's
recent history in the fight against communism and displayed
considerable pride in the fact that the communist menace had been
defeated in Chile. The President stressed that Chile had stood alone
in this battle, and complained that United States Foreign Policy had
left them stranded. The congressman added that talking to Pinochet was
somewhat similar to talking with the head of the John Birch Society."
Other than to describe the warmth of the encounter, the cable does not
contain any account of what McCain said to Pinochet. There is no
indication that the subject of human rights or return to democracy was
raised with Pinochet. At this time in history, Pinochet was overtly
ostracized by most world democratic leaders because of his refusal to
move toward a restoration of democratic, civilian rule.
A second declassified U.S. diplomatic cable refers to a letter from
then-U.S. Ambassador Harry Barnes giving further detail of McCain's
meeting with Pinochet.
From his meeting with junta member Merino, however, McCain passed on
an tidbit of political intelligence that the embassy found useful.
"The most interesting part of the conversation, according to the
congressman, was Merino's statement that he and other members of the
Junta had recently told Pinochet that he should not expect any support
from the junta if he should decide to be a candidate for president in
In fact, three years later Pinochet was defeated in a plebiscite in
which he was the only candidate, and free elections a year later
restored democratic government. A healthy list of U.S. congressmen
traveled to Chile in support of the transition to democracy, including
Republican Senator Richard Lugar. McCain, by then a first term
senator, did not return to Chile.
In addition to the Chilean document and the U.S. cable cited above, at
least four other declassified documents refer to McCain's meeting with
Pinochet and his interest in Chile.
McCain campaign press office said no one was available to comment on
Former ambassador Errazuriz, reached by phone, said repeatedly "it is
not true" that McCain met with Pinochet, that he would have known
about it if it had, and that the state Department cable was possibly a
On September 11, 1973, Army General Pinochet led a bloody coup that
overthrew the democratically elected government of President Salvador
Allende. The four-man military junta that seized power bombed the
presidential palace, padlocked the congress, outlawed all political
activity and actively persecuted its opponents. Pinochet remained in
power until 1990 and in 2006 he was charged with 36 counts of
kidnapping, 23 counts of torture and one count of murder. He was
spared a trial for health reasons and died at age 91 in December 2006.
John Dinges is the author of Assassination on Embassy Row (with Saul
Landau) and The Condor Years: How Pinochet and His Allies Brought
Terrorism to Three Continents.
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