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Viron Vaky, ‘giant’ of diplomacy in Latin America

WASHINGTON — Viron ‘‘Pete’’ Vaky, 87, a career diplomat who was the US ambassador to three nations and was the State Department’s chief architect of Latin American policy in the late 1970s, died Nov. 22 at Collington Episcopal Life Care Community, a retirement facility in Mitchellville, Md. He had pneumonia, his son Peter Vaky said.

Mr. Vaky joined the Foreign Service in 1949 and had assignments across South America and Central America. He became known for promoting a far-reaching vision of inter-American diplomatic relations that sometimes went against the prevailing views of other government leaders.

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After serving as an aide to national security adviser Henry Kissinger in the early 1970s, Mr. Vaky was named ambassador to Costa Rica in 1972. He later served as ambassador to Colombia, 1974-76, and Venezuela, 1976-78.

From 1978 to 1980, as assistant secretary of state for inter-American affairs, Mr. Vaky guided US policy at a time of volatile relations with Nicaragua, El Salvador, and other countries. He helped coordinate the transition of the Panama Canal from United States to Panamanian control and helped negotiate the release of US ambassador Diego Asencio and other diplomats taken hostage in Colombia in 1980.

‘‘He was a real giant and an extraordinary diplomat,’’ Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue and an authority on Latin America, said in an interview.

In 1979, Mr. Vaky attempted to persuade Nicaraguan strongman Anastasio Somoza Debayle to give up power during what became known as the Sandinista revolution. Somoza refused to yield and ended up unleashing bombs on neighborhoods suspected of harboring Sandinista sympathizers. Hundreds of civilians were killed and many others were tortured.

‘‘No negotiation, mediation or compromise can be achieved any longer with a Somoza government,’’ Mr. Vaky said in 1979. ‘‘Too much blood, too much hate, too much polarization have occurred for this to be possible.’’

Earlier in Mr. Vaky’s career, when he was deputy chief of mission in Guatemala, he wrote a sharply worded memo to his superiors at the State Department opposing US support of counterterrorist practices of the Guatemalan government.

In 1968, when kidnapping, brutal interrogations, and political assassinations of suspected Communists by state-sanctioned security forces were rampant, Mr. Vaky wrote that it was morally wrong to ignore the ‘‘violence of right-wing vigilantes and sheer criminality’’ of the Guatemalan regime.

‘‘In the minds of many in Latin America,’’ he wrote, ‘‘we are believed to have condoned these tactics, if not actually to have encouraged them.’’

Although it remained classified for 30 years, Mr. Vaky’s memorandum became known as a touchstone of diplomatic conscience and courage.

Viron Peter Vaky was born Sept. 13, 1925, in Corpus Christi, Texas, to Greek immigrant parents. He leaves his wife of 63 years, Luann Colburn Vaky of Mitchellville; three sons, Peter Vaky of Atlanta, Paul Vaky of Bogota, and Matthew Vaky of Gaithersburg, Md.; and 10 grandchildren.

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