David H. Popper, 95; Ambassador to Chile During Pinochet Era

David Popper had experience in politically volatile countries, beginning his ambassadorial career in 1969 with four years in Cyprus, ruled by Makarios III.
David Popper had experience in politically volatile countries, beginning his ambassadorial career in 1969 with four years in Cyprus, ruled by Makarios III. (Family Photo)
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By Adam Bernstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 31, 2008

David H. Popper, 95, a career Foreign Service officer who became U.S. ambassador to Chile months after Gen. Augusto Pinochet overthrew socialist President Salvador Allende, died July 24 at Georgetown University Hospital of complications from a fall last week.

Mr. Popper had experience in politically volatile countries, having completed a tour as ambassador in embattled Cyprus before arriving in Chile in 1974.

Mr. Popper spent the next three years balancing U.S. policy to support anti-Communist military regimes, against public demands from Congress and humanitarian groups that the Chilean junta stop killing, jailing and torturing its political opponents.

The New York Times reported in 1974 that Mr. Popper was warned by Secretary of State Henry Kissinger to separate the issues of human rights and military aid.

When the ambassador is said to have ignored Kissinger's warning by challenging high-level Chilean defense officials on their human-rights record, Kissinger cabled the embassy in Santiago: "Tell Popper to cut the political science lectures" to the Chileans.

John Dinges, author of "The Condor Years," on the Pinochet era, said Mr. Popper's staff members "universally said he had tried to walk a fine line between promoting the Kissinger policy of 'defend, defend, defend' Pinochet -- that's a quote from the Chile desk officer -- and letting the officers report to Washington on the human rights violations."

Dinges said Mr. Popper "presided over the delivery of such an ambiguous message on human rights that the Pinochet government heard what they wanted to hear -- that the U.S. supported the dictatorship, including the repression."

According to declassified U.S. government papers, Mr. Popper received a request from Kissinger in August 1976 to meet with Pinochet and address concerns about "Operation Condor," an effort among right-wing Latin American regimes to eliminate political opponents.

Mr. Popper wrote back that Pinochet would "take as an insult any inference that he was connected with such assassination plots."

He, instead, asked Washington for permission to send the CIA station chief to talk to the head of the Chilean secret police, Manuel Contreras, and added a question about whether the State Department had "received any word that would indicate that assassination activities are imminent."

No official record exists of a direct reply to Mr. Popper's question. On Sept. 21, 1976, a Condor-sponsored car-bomb attack in Washington killed Orlando Letelier, who had been Allende's foreign minister, and an American co-worker, Ronni Moffitt, who was riding with him.

Former U.S. ambassador Thomas Boyatt, who served under Mr. Popper in Cyprus and Chile, said the embassy team working with Mr. Popper in Santiago was effective in implementing a program to resettle in other countries hundreds of Chilean detainees not deemed politically violent.

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