EMBASSY KID: A MEMOIR. Episode 4: A Fragile Democracy Takes Hold in Venezuela (Caracas, 1958)

This is a condensed version of my book about being raised in the Foreign Service during the Cold War. EMBASSY KID is being evaluated for publication by the Association for Diplomatic Studies and Training

Episode 3: How My Mother Got Our Family Through a Revolution

Episode 2: The Mob Comes Roving

Episode 1: The Dictator Flies Over Our House

Preface

The End of the Secret Police

In the aftermath of the exit of dictator Marcos Pérez Jiménez, an enraged mob surrounded the headquarters of his dreaded secret police, the Seguridad Nacional. Hundreds of Venezuelans had disappeared into that fortress. The National Guard, a military force sent in to control the crowd, fired instead on the fortress when the trapped secret police began shooting from inside. After the military smoked out the secret police, prisoners, some barely able to walk, emerged into the arms of their families. Looters sacked and set fire to the building. 

When a couple of Dad’s colleagues investigated the damage, they found several letters to Embassy staff that the Seguridad Nacional had intercepted and opened, including one from Dad’s boss’ mother saying she was coming for a visit. She arrived three days later. 

The Seguridad Nacional was no more, and the police were in hiding. A group of military men and civilians from the underground movement asserted some control, but mobs continued battling throughout the city for the next three days. Hundreds died, and thousands more were wounded. Slowly, looting ebbed.

A fragile democracy takes shape

A fragile democracy took shape. The leaders of the three dominant political parties created a governing body, the Junta Patriótica, which the United States formally recognized. Previously clandestine revolutionaries took positions of leadership in the government, media, and the business community.

For the first time in a decade, Venezuelans could read uncensored newspapers. Mom and Dad could once again use the telephone without fear of being listened to. Trying to reach my father at the Embassy one afternoon, Mom had been told by a harsh, Spanish-speaking male voice, “This is the Seguridad Nacional. You do not have anything to tell your husband.” 

The new political scheme gave Dad’s job enhanced meaning. He had made many good friends among the media in producing a USIS (as USIA was called overseas) television program, “Venezuela Mira a Su Futuro,” “Venezuela Looks to Its Future.” Now he could enjoy the freedom of tapping into a larger pool of journalists. The programming at the binational Centro Cultural, a key to USIS activity, expanded as well, drawing in greater and more relaxed audiences. The Embassy’s lending library saw English-language books flying off the shelf. 

Information propaganda was USIA’s bread and butter, but sharing America’s rich culture was the long game, as my father’s contemporary Ambassador Samuel R. Gannon would later recount:

You make all your mileage out of culture, the long-term, slow moving crafty exploitation of the parts of your culture that have made you worthy of respect and admiration.

Ambassador Samuel R. Gammon III, oral history interview, Association for Diplomatic Studies and Training

Nat King Cole and other cultural ambassadors visit

Dad and Mom’s cross-cultural communication responsibilities grew richer as the junta settled into the business of governing. Taking advantage of the calm in the wake of revolutionary violence, USIA in Washington beefed up the cultural envoy trips. The great Nat King Cole arrived for a series of concerts, fresh from the Tropicana in Havana, followed by Louis Armstrong and Woody Herman, and composer Aaron Copeland flew in for an afternoon of music and conversation at the Centro Cultural. 

Nat King Cole at the Tropicana, Havana 1958
Nat King Cole at the Tropicana, Havana 1958

Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic flew down for a May 1 concert at Central University, where they played the Venezuelan national anthem with appropriate emotion in counterpoint to the May Day labor union march downtown. At the press conference before the event, Dad got a kick out of helping Bernstein work his renowned charm on the local press. The headlines in the newspapers the next day spoke of “international understanding.” 

Leonard Bernstein’s scrapbook news clip of Phulharmonic 1958 concert in Caracas
Leonard Bernstein’s scrapbook news clip of the Phulharmonic’s 1958 concert in Caracas

Diplomatic normal life resumed

Mom and Dad resumed evening hours’ “representation” at dinners, arts events, and other opportunities to engage with Venezuelans while Susie and I stayed home with Fina.

In the afternoons, my mother took Susie and me to the pool at the Circulo Militar, the private military club that diplomats were deemed members of.  Paddling in the shallow end, with Mom holding me up by the back of my suit, I had no idea I was enjoying a priviledge, just as I would take for granted throughout my childhood that my diplomatic passport would sweep me to the head of the line at customs.

Years later, my passport no longer special and relegated to the same line as everyone else when returning to the United States after overseas travel, I cringed to see how we treat visitors to our country. 

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