James R. Cheek, U.S. ambassador and expert on Latin America, dies at 75

May 19, 2011

James R. Cheek, a senior U.S. envoy and Latin America specialist who became President Clinton’s ambassador to Argentina after having spent a dozen years exiled to diplomatic posts in Nepal, Ethiopia and Sudan under presidents Reagan and Bush, died May 14 at a hospital in Little Rock. He was 75.

The cause of death was complications from myelodysplastic syndrome, a bone-marrow disorder.

Mr. Cheek joined the Foreign Service in the early 1960s and served at U.S. embassies in Chile, Nicaragua and Uruguay before emerging as a top architect of Jimmy Carter’s Latin America policy.

As deputy assistant secretary of state for inter-American affairs from 1979 to 1981, he worked on unsuccessful efforts to persuade the dictatorial regime of President Anastasio Somoza Debayle to hold open elections in Nicaragua.

After Somoza was overthrown by the Marxist-influenced Sandinista National Liberation Front, Mr. Cheek and his superiors attempted without much luck to get the Sandinistas to follow a democratic path. They also publicly criticized the violence prevalent on all sides.

At a Yale University forum on Latin America in 1980, Mr. Cheek held out hope that the fragile political situation in Nicaragua would force new, more moderate alliances that would result in “pluralistic, democratic political systems and mixed economies with a significant private sector.”

But having the Sandinistas in power symbolized a militantly left-wing beachhead in Central America, and the incoming Reagan administration purged many high-level Latin America experts who were neither party loyalists nor hard-line enough against the perceived communist threat south of U.S. borders.

The next several years were marked by extensive U.S. military assistance to the military government in El Salvador and the illegal financial support of right-wing Nicaraguan rebels known as the contras, prolonging a vicious civil war.

Meanwhile, Mr. Cheek’s boss, William Bowdler, was effectively forced into retirement. Mr. Cheek was sent to the Himalayas as deputy chief of mission in Katmandu for three years.

“Most of us were swept off the map,” Mr. Cheek later told the Miami Herald. “I just went on a long detour.”

After his stint in Nepal, he held hardship posts in famine-ravaged Ethiopia, where he was chief of mission, and then in Sudan, where he served as ambassador from 1989 to 1992.

His prospects were revived by the incoming Clinton administration, which named him ambassador to Argentina in 1993. Over the next three years, he worked to strengthen relations with the government of President Carlos Menem, who was in the process of making controversial free-market reforms such as privatization of public utilities and linking the peso to the dollar.

In retirement, Mr. Cheek moved to Little Rock and worked as a business consultant for aviation companies doing business in Latin America.

James Richard Cheek was born in Decatur, Ga., on April 27, 1936. After his father’s death, he was raised by his mother in Arkansas.

Following Army service, he graduated from Arkansas State Teachers College in 1959 and received a master’s degree in international service from American University in 1961.

His wife of 53 years, the former Carol Rozzell, died in January. Survivors include three children, Forrest Cheek of Sherwood, Ark., and Leesa Ferguson and Surya Cheek, both of Little Rock; and three grandchildren.

In Argentina, Mr. Cheek’s enthusiasm for soccer could be less than diplomatic. He rooted passionately for the San Lorenzo soccer team, even dressing in team colors, and was quoted as having shouted that they were “robbed due to bad refereeing” during a pivotal match against the reigning champions.

This outburst prompted a brief diplomatic tempest.

“He’s a total fanatic and has a San Lorenzo badge next to a picture of Bill Clinton in his office,” Menem said. “But that doesn’t give him the right to criticize one of Argentina’s best referees.”

The referee Mr. Cheek singled out said the ambassador was meddling in internal affairs and threatened to sue.

Mr. Cheek later sent an apology to the Association of Argentine Referees.