Robert A. Pastor

January 09, 2014

By Victor C Johnson

My friend and international education’s friend, Bob Pastor, died last night at the age of 67, finally succumbing to a cancer that he had battled with characteristic courage, humor, and unrelenting determination for nearly four years—all the while ignoring, as only Bob could, the assurances of his doctors that he didn’t have that much time.

He will be remembered for many things, but among our last memories of him will be his absolute refusal to let his deteriorating physical condition interfere with his indefatigable professional lifestyle and his prolific scholarship. At the end, he was professor of international relations at American University and, until almost literally his last days, founder and director of that university’s Center for North American Studies.

I first met Bob when I moved to Washington, D.C., in the mid-1970s. Shortly thereafter, he became President Jimmy Carter’s senior advisor for Latin America on the staff of the National Security Council (NSC). Bob must have been the youngest person at that level on the NSC staff, but his knowledge, his amazing intellect, and the fact that he outworked everyone enabled him to be successful in that role.

I was not involved in Latin America policy at that stage of my career, but I do remember very clearly Bob’s important role in the passage of the Panama Canal Treaties by the United States Senate in 1979. The United States had annexed the Panama Canal Zone in 1903 in order to construct the canal. Eventually it became unacceptable to Panama and the rest of Latin America for the United States to exercise virtual sovereignty over part of its territory, and the movement to restore the zone to Panamanian control was born.

Far-sighted statesmen like President Carter and Bob Pastor understood that continued U.S. control of the Canal Zone as a virtual colony was untenable, and they began negotiations for a treaty to cede the zone to Panama under provisions that guaranteed the canal’s continued operation and free passage for the ships of all nations. The “giveaway” of the canal was strongly opposed by U.S. conservatives, notably aspiring U.S. presidential candidate Ronald Reagan (whose observation that “we stole it fair and square” has become part of U.S. political lore), and the matter was extremely controversial in this country. But the Carter administration concluded the treaties and fought hard for their ratification by the Senate, under the leadership of Bob Pastor and Assistant Secretary of State Pete Vaky.

Today’s generation has rarely if ever seen this, but in those days political and policy leaders took stands on principle and were prepared to pay costs for these stands. Some senators voted for the treaties knowing that they were risking their jobs, and some good senators were in fact defeated in the 1980 election because of their vote. Bob himself was later nominated by President Clinton to be U.S. Ambassador to Panama, but his nomination was blocked in the Senate in large part because Senator Jesse Helms opposed him because of his role in the treaties.

In 1981, I became staff director of the House of Representatives Subcommittee on Western Hemisphere Affairs at the same time that Ronald Reagan became president. U.S. relations with Latin America reached a low point under Reagan, but I was always struck by how often Latin Americans told me, “We know Reagan’s policies don’t represent the real America.” Their concept of what America “really is” was able to survive the policies of a particular administration. I believe one reason for this was that to them, the Panama Canal Treaties represented “the real America”—an America that was great enough to give them back their territory even though they weren’t strong enough to make us. I don’t know how we would have gotten through the 1980s in our Latin America relations without that good will “in the bank.”

Bob followed President Carter to Atlanta, where he began his remarkable scholarly career at Emory University and led the Carter Center’s Latin America work and its support for democracy abroad. He then became vice president for international affairs at American University. My colleagues at that institution will detail his accomplishments there; suffice it to say that Bob was instrumental in making that university the remarkably internationalized institution that it is today. I don’t know how many books Bob has written—surely more than a dozen. I only know that if I had read them all, I would be a lot smarter than I am.

I got a chance to work closely with Bob when I helped recruit him to serve on NAFSA’s Board of Directors from 2004 to 2006. Typically, Bob marched into the role with an aggressive agenda, which was somewhat of a shock to a body whose culture was quite different. And typically, he broke some china—but he also made things happen that would not otherwise have happened.

I recall particularly the day that Bob proposed that the Board endorse a new report by the Latin America Working Group (LAWG) on U.S.-Cuban academic relations under the Bush administration. These relations were practically nonexistent because of controls on academic exchange instituted by the administration. The report made several recommendations to restore and grow these exchanges, which it seemed to Bob NAFSA should endorse. Our Board was not used to endorsing controversial reports of other organizations, but Bob led them through a discussion and then made a motion, which passed. This action gave those of us on the staff permission to engage in the advocacy strategy, along with LAWG and others, which led to the removal of the restrictions by President Obama, so that today, almost any academic exchange with Cuba is permissible under U.S. regulations.

To international educators, Bob Pastor was truly one of us. In his final years, Bob was driven by his desire to see the formation of a North American Community of Mexico, Canada, and the United States. In the preface to his last book, The North American Idea, he wrote,

Today, the capability of the United States to lead is impeded by too much power and too limited vision. As a nation, we cannot see ourselves the way the world sees us, and until we do, we cannot lead the world through the new challenges that await us. . . . We need to find new ways to relate to our neighbors if we are to discover a new way to exercise global leadership.

The rationale for international education, and for study abroad in particular, could not be better stated. Bob believed it to his core—and he lived it.

As he finished this book, Bob knew—and acknowledged—that he was dying. He wrote,

If Canadians, Mexicans, and Americans stopped seeing each other as ‘foreigners,’ then I will rest peacefully, knowing that the future for my children and their children will improve on the past.

Our work as international educators will honor his memory if we always remember that that is why we do it.


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