Soon after joining the Bureau of Inter-American Affairs in the early 1960s, Lister became focused on U.S. policy towards Chile. Lister saw parallels between Chilean politics and the political situation in Italy, where had had been stationed until 1961. Like Italy, Chile had a strong Socialist party, which Lister believed could be influenced to move away from the Communists. Nonetheless, Lister had little success in convincing U.S. policymakers to reach out to Chilean Socialists. In 1970, Socialist leader Salvador Allende was elected President of Chile, leading to U.S. fears that Allende would move Chile towards Communism.
In a memorandum entitled ''What Is To Be Done?-In Chile'' Lister lamented that the Chilean government was now ''run by people who know little or nothing of us and of whom we are abysmally ignorant.'' He argued that the U.S. should engage the Allende government and try to influence it away from the Soviet orbit. Instead, the U.S. pursued a policy of destabilizing Allende, especially by taking measures aimed at the Chilean economy.
On September 11, 1973, a military coup seized control of the Chilean government, putting an end to Latin America's longest uninterrupted democracy. With the overthrow and death of Allende, Chile entered a period of right-wing control that lasted for 17 years. The man in charge, General Augusto Pinochet, has since been held accountable for the abduction, torture, and murder of over 3000 Chileans, which he carried out in an effort to wipe out a perceived Communist threat and general opposition.
The Struggle for Human Rights in Chile
During the 1970s and 1980s, Chile became a proving ground for human rights in U.S. foreign policy. Often, when Pinochet's opponents appealed to the State Department, they looked to George Lister. Lister developed relationships with numerous members of the democratic opposition to Pinochet, particularly with exiles living in the Washington, D.C. area. He helped arrange meetings between them and Elliott Abrams and Richard Schifter, the Assistant Secretaries of State for Human Rights during the 1980s.
Lister's relationships with the Chilean democratic opposition were especially important during the Reagan administration. Although the administration in principle favored a return to democracy in Chile, it also sought to maintain good relations with the Chilean government. Thus, the democratic opposition, mainly composed of centrist and leftist political parties, saw U.S. policies and aid as evidence of support for Pinochet. At a time when an uneasy relationship existed between Pinochet's opponents and the U.S. government, Lister consistently welcomed this democratic opposition to the human rights bureau. ''I think that he was our best friend in the U.S. government,'' said Edmundo Vargas, an opposition member with whom Lister worked closely, in a recent interview.
When Patricio Aylwin assumed the Chilean presidency in 1990, Chile entered a new period in its history. As a fitting end to Lister's hard work with the Chilean left, in 1992 the Chilean government invited Lister to Chile to recognize him for his role in the return to democracy. The invitation came from none other than Vargas, who had since become Acting Foreign Minister.