Jimmy Carter tried like no president ever had to put human rights at the center of American foreign policy. It was a turnabout dictators and dissidents alike found hard to believe as he took office in 1977.
The U.S. had such a long history of supporting crackdowns on popular movements — was his insistence on restoring moral principles for real?
The Associated Press reached out to several former political prisoners, asking what it was like to see his influence take hold in countries oppressed by military rule. They credit Carter with their survival.
Michèle Montas witnessed the impact from the control room of Radio Haiti-Inter, which carefully began challenging the dictatorship of Jean Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier after Carter said U.S. aid would depend on the growth of a civil society.
“So much was done in Haiti because of him. He managed to force the regime to open up,” Montas said.
But when they broadcast Carter’s reelection loss to Ronald Reagan in November 1980, Duvalier’s dreaded enforcers, the TonTon Macoutes, fired weapons and shouted, “Human rights are over, the cowboys are back in the White House!”
Haitians listened on their radios as Macoutes destroyed the station and imprisoned the staff, along with students, intellectuals, lawyers, human rights advocates and political candidates. “Everyone who could move in Haiti was suddenly arrested, and the country fell into complete silence,” Montas said.
But Carter was not out of office yet. Montas was put on a plane to Miami, one of a list of prominent Haitian prisoners U.S. diplomats presented to the dictator’s staff.
“We were expelled because there was a strong protest on the part of the Carter administration,” said Montas, who later became the U.N. secretary-general’s spokeswoman.
Other dictators across Latin America also released political prisoners and hastened transitions to democratic elections, a transformation Carter encouraged without sending Americans into combat. He noted proudly that no bombs were dropped nor shots fired by U.S. troops under his watch. Aside from the eight service members who died in an accident trying to rescue hostages in Iran, no one was killed.
Carter had been briefed by outgoing Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, whose “realpolitik” approach meant covertly cozying up to autocrats as they terrorized their citizens. But Carter sought a new approach to winning the Cold War.
“We are now free of that inordinate fear of communism which once led us to embrace any dictator who joined us in that fear,” he announced four months into his presidency. “For too many years, we’ve been willing to adopt the flawed and erroneous principles and tactics of our adversaries, sometimes abandoning our own values for theirs.”
Carter then sent his wife Rosalynn on a “goodwill” mission around Latin America to show the dictators he meant what he said, according to “President Carter,” the White House memoir written by one of his top aides, Stuart Eizenstat.
Carter also expanded the State Department’s report on human rights in each country, an annual document authoritarians loathed and feared. His Foreign Corrupt Practices Act aimed to abolish bribery by multinational corporations. And his embassies welcomed victims of state terror, documenting 15,000 disappearances in Argentina alone.
Years later, Carter described his finger-wagging treatment of the Argentine dictator Jorge Videla at a Carter Center event, where he was introduced to some of the people he saved.
“I said, ‘These are innocent people and I demand they be released.’ And they were,” Carter recalled.
Declassified documents eventually confirmed Kissinger’s secret encouragement of Operation Condor, an effort by South America’s dictators to eliminate each other’s political opponents. Carter’s presidential daily memos, by contrast, included names and numbers of people kidnapped, imprisoned or killed.
Fernando Reati was a 22-year-old Argentine college activist when his whole family was arrested. Although his parents were released and fled into exile, he and his brother were tortured — waterboarding, beatings and stress positions — and narrowly escaped being shot by prison guards.
“They came to the cells, they called the names, and we never saw them again. And later on we learned from other people that they had been killed outside. That took place throughout 1976. And at the end of the year, they no longer killed people that way,” said Reati.
The U.S. government’s sudden insistence on respecting human rights came as a complete surprise to political prisoners and must have been “very mind-boggling” for Argentina’s military, said Reati.
“They didn’t believe that he was serious, because it was so hard to believe it after decades of U.S. support for all kinds of military dictatorships in Latin America,” said Reati, whose testimony helped convict his torturers of crimes against humanity. He now leads Georgia State students on tours of dirty war sites in Buenos Aires.
Carter hadn’t focused on human rights until it proved to be a potent campaign issue. As president, he framed it in terms of civil and political rights, avoiding the more difficult rights to food, education and health care, and applied its principles selectively, reflecting pragmatic calculations about U.S. interests, according to historian Barbara Keys, who wrote “Reclaiming American Virtue – the Human Rights Revolution of the 1970s.”
So while Carter was personally committed to Latin America, he maintained a hands-off approach in Southeast Asia after the U.S. pullout from Vietnam — and his record there suffered for it.
Despite emerging evidence of brutality, Carter waited until 1978 to declare that Cambodia’s bloodthirsty Khmer Rouge was “the worst violator of human rights in the world.” Their nearly four-year reign of terror, from 1975-79, ultimately killed more than 1.7 million people.
Carter also stuck with his predecessors’ support for Indonesia’s authoritarian President Suharto, who used U.S. weapons and aircraft to crush an independence movement in East Timor. Hundreds of thousands died there in a quarter-century of conflict.
In Africa, however, his post-presidential Carter Center helped transform societies by fostering grassroots activism and social justice through public health initiatives, said Abdullahi Ahmed An-Naim, a former director of Africa Watch who taught human rights law at Emory University in Atlanta.
An-Naim was a University of Khartoum professor advocating for a Sharia that guarantees women’s equality when the dictator of Sudan, Jaafar al-Nimeiri, decreed a draconian version of Quranic principles. To stifle dissent in the religiously diverse country, al-Nimeiri detained An-Naim and 50 colleagues for 18 months without charges.
At another scholar’s request, Carter wrote a personal appeal. Al-Nimeiri became extremely angry and screamed about traitors and enemies, but “we were released without charge, without trial, without a word,” An-Naim said. “It is Carter the human being who did this.”