Politics Monday: American Support for Haiti’s Slain Autocratic Leader Has Echoes in My Father’s Foreign Service Career

In a front-page, above-the-fold article in Sunday’s edition of The New York Times, reporters Natalie Kitroeff and Michael Crowley write that the United States backed the increasingly autocratic rule of President Jovenel Moïse prior to his assassination this month:

Critics say the American approach to Mr. Moïse followed a playbook the United States has used around the world for decades, often with major consequences for democracy and human rights: reflexively siding with or tolerating leaders accused of authoritarian rule because they advance American interests, or because officials fear instability in their absence.

Natalie Kitroeff and Michael Crowley, The New York Times, July 18, 2021

America’s position was similar in my father’s first Foreign Service assignment in Venezuela (1955-59). Protecting US oil interests was the driving force in supporting the regime of dictator Pérez Jiménez, but that very support nearly cost Vice President Richard Nixon his life and prolonged chaos after Venezuelans overthrew the dictator.

Here is what Dad said about how he balanced the official American position against his personal sympathies for —and friendships with — the underground political resistance who ousted Pérez Jiménez and established a long-lasting participative democracy. My father was interviewed by the Association for Diplomatic Studies and Training in 1998, becoming part of ADST’s extensive diplomatic oral history collection.

Oil drove US support of Venezuelan Dictator Pérez Jiménez

We arrived in Caracas in 1955 during its boom country heyday under the repressive rule of dictator Pérez Jiménez:

Venezuela was known mainly by North Americans who followed Latin American affairs as the boom country: petroleum was, in a word, the reason for its economically robust condition. There was a very high level of American investment in Venezuela — something close to $3 billion — mostly in the strategically important oil industry. Protecting those oil and U.S. business interests, working for stability in this government, were keystones of U.S. policy towards Venezuela.

Robert C. Amerson, interview with the Association for Diplomatic Studies and Training

Dad’s job was to work with the Venezuelan media, making positive relationships with many who chafed under the repressive rule during our first three years in Caracas.

I’d visited countries under this kind of rule, but to work with local media, as the Information Officer is required to do, to watch government pressure and censorship in action, was by itself quite an education. We observed all of this through ’55, ’56, ’57 as the tensions grew and the frustrations mounted among the journalists. Over that time, naturally, through personal contacts with media people, we built up a lot of friendships and confidences.

Robert C. Amerson, interview with the Association for Diplomatic Studies and Training

Resentment against America boiled over

When military Pérez Jiménez was overthrown in 1958, resentment against America for its support of the dictator — who had been awarded exile in Miami —boiled over.

In January of 1958 the people, in effect — specifically, clandestine political movements and dissident elements within the military — rose up against Perez Jimenez, because of corruption, because of widespread dissatisfaction under aregime where civil rights were restricted, where political prisoners were tortured.

There was strong nationalist feeling about the United States over the years having cozied up to Perez Jimenez, having in fact awarded him a few weeks earlier a special official honor. This was part of the Administration’s policy — maintaining stability, keeping the oil flowing, supporting U.S. investments and so forth. But the idea of officially honoring a military dictator was poorly thought through, because the popular resentment against the U.S. thus created was just enormous. That plus the fact that Perez Jimenez by this time had sought and been awarded exile in Miami. So we were harboring their former dictator as well as Pedro Estrada, his hated secret-police chief. All of these emotional things were causing heated resentment.

Robert C. Amerson, interview with the Association for Diplomatic Studies and Training

Incriminating letter added fuel to the fire

They had effective anti-American material to work with. Besides the U.S. award and then exile for the dictator, as mentioned a moment ago, there as the matter of a letter written by a former American ambassador — a professional FSO. He’d been a very good ambassador, but he had indiscreetly written right after Christmas a Holidays greeting to the secret-police chief, something to the effect that, with reference to an abortive revolution attempt, “I see you’ve had a little problem there, but I expect you boys are taking care of it. . .”

Well, this letter then was discovered by opposition forces when they wrecked secret police headquarters, and they held it as a bit of condemning evidence about American complicity with Perez Jimenez.

Robert C. Amerson, interview with the Association for Diplomatic Studies and Training

Vice President Richard Nixon was attacked

Caracas was Richard Nixon’s final stop in a South American goodwill tour that spring, when resentment against America nearly cost him his life.

The ambassador’s incriminating letter was published in the new Communist newspaper showing a full-page photo of the VP, retouched to give him sharp, animal teeth.

So by the time Nixon arrived there was a good deal of primitive political passion among certain elements, and some doubt within the Embassy as to whether this visit was a wise idea. But the decision was made: we should not back down now, especially in the face of Nixon’s problem a few days earlier in Lima, San Marcos University, where he’d had some adversarial and highly publicized confrontations with students.

So he and Mrs. Nixon arrived as scheduled on their special U.S. Air Force plane. What images this recalls, for anyone who was there at the airport! Who can forget the sight of those crowds that had been bused down by the professional agitators and organizers, the banners that had been printed up for it, their stationing themselves in the balcony above where the Nixons and the official party had to pass. This arrangement allowed the demonstrators to throw things down, shout epithets and even spit on the visiting Vice President and his wife. This agitation escalated into a major security problem by the time the motorcade reached the city and could have cost lives — including those in the Nixon party.

Fortunately, in that mob scene, the cars did not turn over. They were badly beaten upon and dented, windows smashed, spittle all over them. They were a sight to behold! (I was just looking at a Life Magazine of that time a couple of days ago and it brings back the realities.) The official Nixon party finally took refuge in the American Ambassador’s residence.

Robert C. Amerson, interview with the Association for Diplomatic Studies and Training

Relationships with the resistance helped usher in democracy

When things finally exploded our contacts [with journalists, academia, labor, the church] paid off in a handsome way for us at the Embassy because we were then close to people who were in the opposition and about to take charge.

Robert C. Amerson, interview with the Association for Diplomatic Studies and Training

In 1994, my father published a book about his four years in Caracas, working in a dictatorship, through a revolution, and into a nascent democracy, How Democracy Triumphed Over Dictatorship: Public Diplomacy in Venezuela. That democracy has lasted until today, albeit under populist leader Hugo Chavez and his putative heir, Nicolas Maduro.

Trump strives to drive out Maduro, but is himself ousted

In 2018, then president Donald Trump promised to take out Maduro, one of the reasons that he did so well with South Florida’s Latin vote in the 2016 campaign. Indeed, the uprisings against Maduro echoed the 1958 overthrow of Pérez Jimenez.

Instead, here we are three years later, with Maduro still in place and the failed Trump in his summer residence on a New Jersey golf course.

Leave a Reply