Receiving the Orden al Merito, Bernardo O'Higgins, Comendador
Swent: We got the story of the first medal but not the second one.
Haldeman: The first medal was in 1957, Orden al Merito, Bernardo
O'Higgins, the rank of Oficial--official. There are four ranks:
Oficial, Caballero, Comendador, and Gran Cruz. Comendador is
the highest recognition they give to a foreign citizen.
Diplomats are given the Gran Cruz. I got the Oficial in 1957
when I was the vice president of Braden. The government thought
I should have some recognition.
Now we come to 1993, the first days of September. I was
taking a shower in the morning. My wife called in and said,
"Telephone call for you."
I said, "Take the number; I'll call back."
She said, "I'm not taking any numbers from this. This is
the minister of mines, and he wants to talk to you."
Oops! I grabbed a towel and wrapped it around me. The
secretary said, "Mr. Haldeman?"
"The minister would like to talk to you." This was Mr.
Alejandro Hales, the same man who was minister in the last years
of Frei's government in "68 to '71, whom I had had conversations
with and finally reached an agreement on the overprice of
windfall profits of the business, which brought the wrath of
Anaconda on us. Now he was back again as the minister.
He came on the telephone, and he said, "Robert, good
morning. How are you?" He's a wonderful politician.
"Very fine, Mr. Minister."
He said, "I'm just calling you on the possibility that you
might be coming into town today."
I said, "Mr. Minister, I am coming into town today."
"Tell me, would you happen to be in town, say around noon?"
I said, "Mr. Minister, it just so happens I'm coming into
town today and will be in town at noon."
He said, "Will it be too much trouble for you to come by my
I said, "Mr. Minister, I will be in your office downtown
today at noon."
"Fine, I will wait to see you."
What has happened now? Have I done something wrong?
Peck's bad boy again? I can't understand why the minister was
calling me. I got down to the secretary's room a little before
twelve, and at twelve o'clock the buzzer rang. She goes in and
comes out, "The minister will receive you."
I walked in, and Mr. Hales said, "How are you, Robert?
Nice to see you again. Come over here and have a seat. Can I
offer you some coffee?" He's -a Lebanese, and he likes Turkish
coffee. It's a custom of these people to have it, and it's
really very good coffee.
I said to him, "Mr. Minister, I'd rather not, if you don't
He looked at me with wide-open eyes, and he said, "What's
I said, "Minister, twenty-three years ago when I came into
your office the last time, you offered me a cup of coffee, and I
took it. When I left the office, you had taken away from me
part of my price of copper."
He looked at me and said, "I forgot all about that. You're
perfectly right. Well, you drink this coffee, because it's not
going to cost you a thing." In talking, he finally got around
to saying that the government was very proud to tell me that
they were going to decorate me with this honor of Bernardo
O'Higgins and so on and so on. He sat back and smiled; it was a
very nice thing for him to do to me.
I thanked him profusely, said I was eternally grateful, and
this and that. "But I have a problem."
"What's your problem?"
I said, "I've already received the medal."
Oh, his face fell open. He clapped his hands, and he said
to get him what they call the secretarial administrative officer
of the ministry; they call him the Jefe de gabinete. "Get him
in here right away."
The young man came in, and he shouted, "Get the Foreign
Office on the phone. What the devil is wrong here? This fellow
has already received the award. Don't they know what they're
doing over there?"
The young man ran over and grabbed the telephone, dialed,
and said, "I've got Mr. Prieto on the line."
He said, "I don't know any Mr. Prieto there. That's not
He was getting furious, so I said, "Mr. Minister, just a
minute. Let me solve your problem. I would be just delighted
if you could give me the same decoration but with the rank of
He stopped, looked at the administrative jefe de gabinete,
and said, "Tell him it's a Comendador."
The fellow talks on the phone, and he says, "Mr. Minister,
Comendador. " [laughter] So that's how I was decorated. It
took him completely by surprise that I had already received it.
I think I am probably one of the very few, if there are any, who
have received the same medal twice in their lifetime.
Swent: Surely the only American.
Haldeman: That's exactly right.
Swent: Are you the only foreigner who has gotten the Comendador?
Haldeman: No, there have been several othersSwiss and Germans who have
been down south for years and have done a lot for German and
Chilean relations and the likes.
Swent : It's a wonderful honor and a beautiful medal.
Index to Haldeman Interview