Assistant Secretary of State for Asian Affairs Gaston J. Sigur had planned to make an early night of it. He was due to fly out of Washington early the next morning to join Secretary of State George Shultz on an 11-day diplomatic tour of the South Pacific. But just as Sigur was preparing to leave his office, a long and disturbing message arrived from the U.S. Embassy in South Korea. It said that President Chun Doo-hwan was seriously considering the use of massive force to stop nationwide demonstrations. Earlier that day Chun had received a personal letter from President Ronald Reagan that counselled restraint. But the message said that Chun was on the verge of calling out South Korea’s 600,000-strong military to quell the turmoil.
Sigur studied the dispatch for most of the night, and he left the United States as scheduled on June 20. After radio discussions with the White House, Sigur left the diplomatic tour in Australia and flew to Korea to personally reinforce Reagan’s letter and apply pressure on Chun. His mission was a visible, and successful, example of a dramatic change in the Reagan administration’s foreign policy: after Sigur’s visit, Chun made important concessions to the op-
position. Indeed, from Panama to the Philippines, from Haiti and Chile to South Africa and South Korea, Reagan seems prepared as never before to risk rifts with right-wing regimes as he pushes for democracy.
Still, experts say that the administration appears to have stumbled into its new role, largely as a result of the ousting of Ferdinand Marcos from the Philippines in February, 1986. After initially being slow to act, U.S. officials persuaded Marcos to step down. Gaining confidence from that, the administration has applied pressure on Haiti and South Korea and seems set to act more forcefully toward Panama, Chile, Taiwan—which last week ended 38 years of martial law—and South Africa. Said former National Security Council member Helmut Sonnenfeldt, now a foreign policy scholar with Washington’s Brookings Institution: “I don’t think there is anyone sitting in this government with a master plan. There is a general Marcos: impetus
trend towards democracy. It is happening on the Reagan administration’s watch—and they are responding well.”
There are signs that Washington’s latest target may be Chile. The latest indication came earlier this month when the state department publicly charged that the Chilean government’s failure to punish soldiers responsible for the fatal burning of teenager Rodrigo Rojas de Negri in Santiago last year demonstrated that Chile’s security forces were able to commit human rights violations with relative impunity. As well, Harry G. Barnes, the U.S. ambassador to Chile, has become increasingly outspoken in his criticism of Gen. Augusto Pinochet, 71, who took control of Chile in a military coup 14 years ago. Pinochet is due to retire in 1989, but has signalled that he may stay on for another eight-year term. The United States is expected to actively discourage him—and to campaign for open elections.
U.S. spokesmen are also insisting that, in Haiti, the elections scheduled to take place over the next few months be conducted in strict accord with the constitution approved last March. The Reagan administration has announced that “absolute respect for the democratic transition” by Haiti’s rulers is a vital condition for continued congressional support of U.S aid, now amounting to $135 million a year. Haiti’s provisional military government, brought to power with the overthrow of the Duvalier dictatorship last year, tried in late June to make arbitrary changes to the election rules which would, in effect, have allowed the government to manipulate the voting. Faced with a huge local protest and the threat of U.S. aid being withheld, the military backed down.
In South Africa, Panama and Taiwan, the Reagan administration is also pushing for democratic change. David D. Newsom, associate dean and director of the Institute for the Study of Diplomacy at Georgetown University in Washington, declared: “Although internal factors ultimately decide events in another country, the voice of the United States is important in those countries that see U.S. interests linked to theirs. The unequivocal signal from Washington has undoubtedly been a factor in recent events in Korea. And that American voice will still be important if the authoritarian escape hatch is to remain closed.”
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