Politics Monday: My Parents’ Democracy is Back

The more we and other democracies can show the world that we can deliver, not only for our people, but also for each other, the more we can refute the lie that authoritarian countries love to tell, that theirs is the better way to meet people’s fundamental needs and hopes. It’s on us to prove them wrong.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken
A Venezuelan newspaper ran this photo of six-month-old me and my young, optimistic parents in Caracas in 1955.

Moving abroad in the post-WWII world, Bob and Nan Amerson were steeped in liberal democracy. Their years at Macalester College (Dad, Class of ‘50; Mom, ‘49), like those of Walter Mondale (Class of ‘51), were deeply influenced by President Charles J. Turck’s commitment to internationalism, community service, and civic affairs. Fritz Mondale became a champion of liberal politics, while my parents expressed their civic spirit in their willingness to live abroad as America’s representatives, allowing the world to get to know our country through them. For a quarter century, my parents shared American culture, hospitality, arts, and traditions, believing in the vision so beautifully described by David Brooks.

Liberal democracy is based on a level of optimism, faith and a sense of security. It’s based on confidence in the humanistic project: that through conversation and encounter, we can deeply know each other across differences; that most people are seeking the good with different opinions about how to get there; that society is not a zero-sum war.

David Brooks, The New York Times

When my parents joined the US Foreign Service in 1955, they became part of, to borrow from President Obama’s memoir, A Promised Land:

the American army of diplomats and policy experts promoting the principles of a liberal, market-based system — individual freedom, the rule of law, strong enforcement of property rights and neutral arbitration of disputed, plus baseline levels of government accountability and competence — and the economic and political heft to promote these principles on a global scale.

Barack Obama, A Promised Land (get here on Audible, narrated by President Obama)

Around the world, American diplomats are carrying out that duty today, holding to the challenge laid forth by President Biden in his speech to Congress last week.

Can our democracy deliver on its promise that all of us — created equal in the image of God —have a chance to lead lives of dignity, respect, and possibility? Can our democracy deliver on the most pressing needs of our people? Can our democracy overcome the lies, anger, hate and fears that have pulled us apart?

President Joe Biden

Our diplomats are counting on us to answer with a resounding yes.

America is back

Together, these public servants will restore America globally, its global leadership and its moral leadership. It’s a team that reflects the fact that America is back, ready to lead the world, not retreat from it.

President-Elect Joe Biden, in announcing his foreign policy team

The President-Elect’s national security nominees are smart, ethical, and experienced government professionals committed to returning America to its position as a global leader.

experience is back

Three are distinguished US State Department veterans — John Kerry, former Secretary of State (and Foreign Service kid); Antony Blinken, former Deputy Secretary of State; and Linda Thomas-Greenfield, a career Foreign Service officer. National Security Advisor nominees Jake Sullivan is an Obama White House alumnus. Director of National Intelligence nominee Avril Haines is a former deputy director of the CIA. Alejandro Mayorcas, Homeland Security nominee, a Cuban refugee brought to America at age 1, was Homeland Security deputy secretary.

Diplomacy is back

Here are the words I will remember when Joe Biden is inaugurated on January 20, 2021.

My fellow career diplomats and public servants around the world, I want to say to you, ‘America is back, multilateralism is back, diplomacy is back.’

Linda Thomas-Greenfield, UN Ambassador nominee

My father and mother brought me to this country to escape communism [in Cuba]. They cherished our democracy, and were intensely proud to become United States citizens, as was I.

Alejandro Mayorcas, Homeland Security nominee

[My stepfather, the only one of 900 children in his Polish school to survive WWII] got down on his knees and said the only three words he knew in English that his mother had taught him before the war. God bless America.

Antony Blinken, Secretary of State nominee

Public service is back

In his remarks, Kerry did homage to President Kennedy, gunned down 57 years ago. I’ve written about being in Washington that day.

57 years ago this week, Joe Biden and I were college kids when we lost the president who inspired us both to make a difference, a president who reminded us that, here on Earth, God’s work must truly be our own. Joe Biden will trust in God, and he will also trust in science to guide our work on Earth to protect God’s creation.

John Kerry, Presidential Envoy on Climate Change

To a person, Biden’s nominees have careers that answer Kennedy’s ringing challenge.

Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.

John F. Kennedy’s inauguration address, January 20, 1961.

Sixty years later, on January 20, 2021, we will celebrate the return to public service.

#FSProud, Foreign Service Proud

This was a week that showcased the brilliant and honorable Foreign Service officers that represent us around the globe. As David Brooks said in The New York Times, Yovanovitch, Taylor, Kent and Hill showed us what public service looks like:

Let me tell you a secret. The public buildings of Washington are filled with very good people working hard for low pay and the public good. There are thousands of them and they are very much like the Foreign Service officers that we’ve seen or are expected to see testifying at the impeachment hearings: William Taylor, George Kent, Marie Yovanovitch and Fiona Hill.

David Brooks, NYT
(Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

After Ambassador Yovanovitch’s testimony yesterday, the Foreign Service community rose as one on Twitter to stand proud. Here’s some of what they said:

Thanks to the dedicated, brilliant, exhausted, energetic foreign officers I met and worked with. So grateful for what they do to keep us safe and represent us.

KAREN KORNBLUH, GERMAN MARSHALL FUND
@KarenKornbluh

As the daughter of Cuban refugees I am forever grateful to the United States of America for all it gave to me and my family. Now I am able to give back and represent my country and tell our story around the world!

LESLIE GOODMAN @GoodmanLesNunez




WASHINGTON, DC – NOVEMBER 15: Former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch is sworn in prior to providing testimony before the House Intelligence Committee in the Longworth House Office Building on Capitol Hill November 15, 2019 in Washington, DC. In the second impeachment hearing held by the committee, House Democrats continue to build a case against U.S. President Donald Trumps efforts to link U.S. military aid for Ukraine to the nations investigation of his political rivals. Drew Angerer/Getty Images/AFP
🇺🇸

I am #FSProud of George Kent, Masha Yovanovitch, Bill Taylor and Mike McKinley for their patriotism. They were true to their oath of office in choosing to testify before Congress against the wishes of the White House and Secretary of State. These four are profiles in courage.

HARVARD PROFESSOR NICHOLAS BURNS @RNicholasBurns


Mandatory Credit: Photo by Andrew Harnik/AP/Shutterstock (10473936g) Career Foreign Service officer George Kent and top U.S. diplomat in Ukraine William Taylor, right, are sworn in to testify during the first public impeachment hearing of the House Intelligence Committee on Capitol Hill, in Washington Trump Impeachment, Washington, USA – 13 Nov 2019

Reinforced my faith in decency of American public who responded so enthusiastically to the heroic performance of Amb Yovanovitch- can’t remember another time when audience breaks into applause at a Congressional hearing.

AMBASSADOR LAURA KENNEDY @AmbKennedy_ret

Former U.S. Ambassador to the Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch testifies during the second public hearing of the House impeachment inquiry. Image: Saul Loeb/AFP via Getty Images

In an otherwise dark moment for our country, I have been inspired by the selfless service of George Kent, Bill Taylor, Marie Yovanovitch who this week refused to be intimidated and did their duty to defend the truth and uphold the constitution. I am truly #FSProud..


Madeleine Albright

@madeleine


For 31 years I have been #FSproud to represent & advance America’s interests as a Foreign Service Officer. Serving abroad often in hardship, under threat, away from family, we promote freedom, peace, human rights, the rule of law & US business around the world. #Patriots

Mike Hammer
@MikeHammerUSA

I’m #FSProud to be serving my country around the world, and grateful to be working alongside so many dedicated and talented colleagues.

CEDAR PHILLIPS @CedarImboden

So moving to read the #FSProud tweets from US Foreign Service folks today, telling their stories of working on our behalf around the world. I’m the daughter of a career FS officer, & a former @StateDept appointee who worked alongside stellar career officers; I too am #FSProud

Tamara Cofman Wittes
@tcwittes

💗

One side effect of these public impeachment hearings is that America has had a two day crash course in what American diplomats actually do day-to-day. Some see that as a silver lining to all the clouds hanging over State right now.

Robbie Gramer
@RobbieGramer
My father, Foreign Service Officer Robert C. Amerson.

I became an American diplomat to thank this great nation, a beacon of hope for the world, for taking in my parents when they fled communism & oppression. US diplomats advance our nation’s security, prosperity & values. I am honored to be one of them. #FSProud AMBASSADOR JULIETA VALLS NOYES

Julieta Valls Noyes
@JVNoyes

And heed the warning inherent in their testimony. In his Washington Post column on Ambassador Yovanovitch’s testimony, Dana Milbank said:

As a U.S. diplomat, Marie Yovanovitch braved gunfire in Moscow, the violence of Somalia’s civil war, an attack on the U.S. Embassy in Uzbekistan and 10 trips to the front line of Ukraine’s war with Russia.

But her greatest service to country may well have been what Yovanovitch did on Friday before the House Intelligence Committee. All Americans — however they feel about impeachment — should care deeply about her warning.

She used her moment in the spotlight at the impeachment inquiry to make a passionate plea for American diplomacy, which is being destroyed under the Trump administration, with dire consequences for U.S. influence and security.

DANA MILBANK, WASHINGTON POST

Foreign Service Training

I’m happy to be following a fellow blogger who is a Foreign Service Officer. She connected with me yesterday to say that she got her government start at the Voice of America, after serving in the Peace Corps in Macedonia. She’s been posted to our embassies and consular offices in Uzbekistan and Australia, and she is on her way to Mexico. Her clear and candid writing brings us beyond the headlines and behind the scenes to experience who this diplomat is and how she carries out her life as she represents us abroad.

She is midway through an intensive Spanish language course at the Foreign Service Institute, the State Department’s training institution in Washington, DC. Here’s some of what she’s written about that experience:

“I just finished the fourth week of Spanish language training at the Foreign Service Institute (FSI) in Arlington, where the State Department sends its diplomats and staff for training ahead of overseas assignments, sometimes for months at a time. In my case, late next spring I will become Deputy American Citizen Services (ACS) Chief at our consulate in Cuidad Juárez, México, so I get six months (24 weeks) of Spanish. FSI teaches dozens of languages and tradecraft courses, so you’ll find employees from across the U.S. government studying there, too …”

“…This is my third time studying at FSI. I was there full-time for nearly a year from the time I joined the Department in mid-2014. I did A-100 (the introductory course for all new diplomats as they come in), then six months of Russian, followed by area studies, ConGen, and various other courses before departing for my first tour in Tashkent in May 2015. I also came back in mid-2017 before my second tour in Canberra to take political and economic tradecraft training. Last month I hit 14 total years of federal service, and I have to say that never in my career have I had as much excellent training as the State Department provides. It is truly an incredible opportunity to be paid to assemble the skills you need to be better at your job.

When Dad was hired by USIA in 1956 to work at our Embassy in Caracas, his Spanish-language proficiency was not tested. America was in good hands, however: Dad was born, as Mom said, with languages on his lips, and his summers in Mexico during his journalism studies at Macalester College had given him a strong base. He’d teach himself Italian via his Caraqueño barber before being posted to Italy, and he learned Portuguese via tape during his commute when his responsibilities included Brazil while we were in Washington, DC. Italian and Spanish remained in-family code for the rest of his life.

The American University Press, 1995

Where he did feel at sea, however, was filling the role of “diplomat.” He reflected on that concern in his book about serving as Press Attaché in Caracas, How Democracy Triumphed Over Dictatorship, recounting his feelings during his first day on the job. It was July 4, 1956, at the Ambassador’s annual Fourth of July reception for the who’s who of Venezuelan diplomatic relations:

Back home [on the farm in South Dakota], ask anybody to associate a descriptive word with “diplomat,” and you would most likely hear “elite” or “striped pants” or something similar. All I had ever read about the US Foreign Service suggested that American diplomacy traditionally meant Eastern Establishment, professional practitioners trained at exclusive prep schools and Ivy League universities. People born to the social graces, accustomed to cocktail parties and big receptions. One simply assumed that those assigned abroad to an American embassy personified — or should — years of applied preparation: mature men truly educated on the major aspects of our own history and culture; conversant with the most erudite thinking of our greatest institutions; skilled in negotiation and able to articulate all this fluently in the language of the host country.

Instead, here was I, expected to assume duties tomorrow at Press Attaché and Information Officer, American Embassy, Caracas, Venezuela — after only two months of practical orientation in Washington, preceded by five years of corporate public relations, a BA from Macalester College, St. Paul, Minnesota, and roots reaching all the way back to a one-room school on the prairies of South Dakota. Not exactly elite.

His start may not have been elite, but Dad had what Eisenhower was looking for when he created USIA in 1953 to help project America’s image overseas and deal with the public aspects of diplomacy. Augmenting VOA direct broadcasts, USIA officers would handle cultural programs as well as placement in foreign media of information favoring US interests. Dad wrote:

Word got around regarding opportunities for employment overseas. Hundreds of us with modest professional experience in fields of communication — men and women who had never considered working as civilians for the government, but who had developed deep interests in international relations — found ourselves querying Washington about this new line of “foreign service” work. Not that many of us aspired to instant conversion into polished diplomats … Nevertheless, amazingly, Washington seemed hungry. Overseas employment became an imminent reality.”

Mom (and me) in her passport picture
Dad’s first diplomatic passport picture

Dad worked for USIA from 1955 to 1979, serving in Caracas, Milan, Bologna, Rome, Bogotá, Washington DC, Madrid, and Rome (again!). He rose through the ranks from Press Attaché in Venezuela and Italy; Director of USIS in Colombia; Public Affairs Advisor to the Latin American Bureau of the Department of State; Assistant Director of USIA for Latin America; and Public Affairs Officer in Spain and Italy. His final position was as the Murrow Fellow in Public Diplomacy at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy.

The farm boy became a professor at one of those Ivy League schools of diplomacy.

Project Neighbours

I recently had the opportunity to be interviewed by writer Zuzanna Fiminska, creator of Project Neighbours, a series of interviews with people from around the world about diversity and a world fit for purpose. This unique initiative is demostrating that there are many ways to see the world, and that they’re all right. Please subscribe to Project Neighbours !

Project Neighbours

Zuzanna asked open-ended questions: Where are you from? What was it like to be somewhere other than your passport country? What did going “home” mean? I thoroughly enjoyed our conversation and collaborating on the resulting essay. While Zuzanna is queueing this in the pipeline to post on the Project Neighbours website, I wanted share to the results of our conversation.

overseas, I was american

Most Americans have roots in another country, and we are inclined to leave the place of our birth for college, for work, for another life. I was born in Minnesota, not far from where my parents met. My roots are there. It was where we visited family every few years. My extended family there is my rock.

Although I grew up mostly in other countries, it’s always been very clear to me that I am from the United States. My father was with the United States Information Agency, the public diplomacy arm of the State Department, from 1955 (when I was 6 months old) to 1979. We lived in Venezuela, where my sister was born; then in Italy (Milan, Bologna, and Rome); and Colombia before moving to the United States (Washington, DC) for junior and most of senior high. I finished high school and began university in Spain, before returning to the US on my own for college.

An early passport picture

Being an American Embassy kid is one of the common categories — like business, ex-pat, or military kids — when you’re at an English-speaking school abroad.

in america, i felt like a foreigner

When we moved to the States in the mid 1960s, the identity question became more complicated. I did not have the same generic American suburbs background as the other kids in our new neighborhood outside Washington, and I just wanted to blend in.

Here’s an example: We’d been in Bogotá for nearly three years right before moving to the States. The junior high school guidance counselor had put me in the advanced Spanish class with kids two years older than me. On the first day of class, I took a seat against the wall toward the front of the class, trying to shrink: imagine a skinny little twelve year-old surrounded by all these adult-looking strangers.

When the teacher started the class with buenos dias, I blurted out a loud buenos dias sounding straight-up Colombian. The class laughed and one of the boys said, “Hey, how’d you get so smart?” I wanted to die. The teacher pulled me aside as the bell rang: “You don’t belong in this class.” Yes, I agreed! “You belong in the high school Spanish classes.” Nooooo. I pictured myself walking alone to the high school across the enormous sports fields. No way. I switched to beginning French and never let on that some of the vocabulary was familiar from Spanish. I was careful not to sound too good at the accent either. I just wanted to belong.

By the time I turned 16, I had nailed the whole American suburbs act: I had long blond hair and a tall, blond boyfriend, and I was in line to become the next captain of the popular pompon marching team. I had made it. Of course, it was time to move on. And it felt like we were returning to normal.

let’s go find out

My mother used to say that Dad had itchy feet: like the Norwegian pioneers who were his ancestors, he was always ready to move forward. The next post, the next life. And, like those courageous men and women, he took a leap of faith in leaving home behind for an overseas venture. He was headed out into the world to represent America.[I did a blog post about the similarities between Foreign Service wives of my mother’s era and pioneer women; these were the true heroines.]

My sister Susan and me in the folklore outfits our maid, Julia, made for us

We were guests, not occupiers. We plugged into the local character as much as we could. Mom and Dad wanted to understand wherever it was we were living, the people who were around us, their music, their language, their customs. We were aware of the “ugly Americans” clustering together, underdressed, speaking English louder and louder. We were not that. We took trips, read guidebooks, did whatever we could to be part of where we were. Learning the local language was essential.

Dad’s job was to promote American democracy: human rights, open elections, a free press, free speech. Diplomats do their best to carry out directives, whether they agree with them or not. Trump has made representing this country so much more difficult: his attacks — on the media, on his challengers, on NATO, on immigrants — do not represent what our country stands for. We don’t disparage people who are willing to come to our country to work and build a life. We support the media. We don’t buy “alternate facts.” We speak truth to power.

As I said in a recent blog post about diplomacy, those were the very things that my father spent his career supporting.

From our years in South America

a special connection

Of all the places we lived, I really connected with Madrid. I was a confident seventeen year-old and there were a million good looking Spanish boys around. I loved the dramatic Spanish character, the late-night lifestyle, wandering from bar to bar savoring tapas, flamenco. What sealed the relationship was being able to spend a year at the Universidad de Madrid. By the time I left for college, a friend said my Castellano was crazy good: “mas papista que el Papa,” more papist that the Pope.

My husband’s mother was from Barcelona. We’ve both felt a special connection when we’ve traveled to Spain.

From outside Granada

Telling my story

I began writing about growing up in the Foreign Service many years ago: When the Dictator Flew Over Our House & Other True Stories: Growing Up in the Foreign Service is nearing completion. Excerpts from the book and other essays are on RaisedintheForeignService blog

The book started as a search for a home, an attempt at understanding what happened and what it all meant. I had lots of memories and family stories to draw on. My sister has added her perspective and reminds me of stories I’ve forgotten. Although our parents are no longer alive, they left behind an extensive archive of the Foreign Service years: letters my mother wrote to her family every Monday for twenty years; my father’s two books and volumes of notes; and boxes of photographs, videotapes, movie reels.

I am very fortunate to have a lot of support in writing the book. My husband, my daughter, and my sister are my first readers, and I get a lot of encouragement from my extended family and my peers in the Florida Writers Association.

The journey to find home is over. I’m from there, wherever I was the past; and I’m at home here, wherever I am now.

Diplomacy: America’s Quiet Power

In the lead-in to her March 19 interview with former Deputy Secretary of State William J Burns regarding his book The Back Channel: a Memoir of American Diplomacy and the Case for its Renewal, Judy Woodruff of the PBS News Hour posed this question: “You say [diplomacy] is an unheroic, quiet endeavor unfolding in back channels, out of sight and out of mind. If that’s the case, in this noisy 24/7 world we live in, why do we need to restore it?”

we became complacent

William J Burns: “After the end of the Cold War, when we were the singular dominant player on the landscape, I think we became a little complacent. Diplomacy didn’t seem quite as important.

Then came 9/11, a huge shock to our system, and an even greater emphasis on the military and relatively less emphasis on diplomacy. What I would argue President Trump has done is taken that drift and accelerated it and made it infinitely worse.”

An exercise in narcissim

WJB: “What you see in President Trump is a tendency to see diplomacy more as an exercise in narcissism than the kind of hard work and reliance on institutions that his predecessors, in different ways, I think, all appreciated as well.

I’m the only one who matters

“President Trump was asked a little more than a year ago about the number of senior vacancies in the State Department, and he said I don’t really care about that. I’m the only one who matters. And I don’t — I think that’s a very ineffective way of looking at the way in which the United States promotes its interests in the world.”

leaving the field open to our adversaries

JW: “You talk about [Trump’s] erratic leadership leaving America and its diplomats dangerously adrift. Can that be fixed?

WJB: “I think we’re digging a deep hole for ourselves today. And my concern is, when we stop digging, which we eventually will — the sooner, the better, I hope — we’re going to climb back to the surface and look out over a landscape that I think in some ways will have hardened against our interests and our values, because adversaries are taking advantage, rivals are taking advantage.”

China’s “New Silk Road” (courtesy of Australian International Education)

Losing our allies

WJB: “I think many of our closest allies are beginning to lose faith and beginning to hedge a little bit. And the institutions that we worked so hard to shape, in our own enlightened self-interest over the last seven decades, are beginning to teeter.So what I worry about is the long-term corrosive damage we’re doing to ourselves. You know, if we understand the significance of diplomacy, we can certainly repair a lot of the damage …”

selling us citizens on diplomacy

It’s never been easy to sell diplomacy. As Burns says, it works best when it’s least visible. Dad’s agency, the United States Information Agency (USIA), was a yet harder sell: the public relations arm of diplomacy, what Joseph S. Nye at Harvard University called the “soft power [that] helped to win the Cold War” and Wilson P. Dizard, Jr., in his book about USIA, Inventing Public Diplomacy,called “the uncertain art of winning public support abroad for one’s government and its foreign policies.”

Eisenhower created USIA in 1953 (just five years before Dad signed up) after to build an American bulwark against the Russians: championing the tenets of democracy abroad would defend the world from Russian communist control. Dad and his peers showed how Americans lived in a democracy: a free press; freedom of speech; human rights; open elections; transparency. The United States was an open book even as we struggled with civil rights, Vietnam war protests. But that was the whole idea: a real country dealing with the challenges of a living democracy, and far from perfect.

As Burns notes, the end of the Cold War diffused diplomacy: without a known adversary, the stakes became more difficult to find; and as the two super-powers were overcome by a proliferation of independent nation states and power became diffused, the old Good Guys-Bad Guys equation no longer worked. USIA was able to justify its independent existence until 1999, when most of its functions were shifted into the Department of State.

The shock of 9/11 thrust military intervention to the fore, with, as Burns says in his March 8 opinion piece in the NY Times, diplomacy as an underfunded afterthought.

“We buried our agility and initiative with layer upon layer of bureaucracy. And as the costs of misadventures abroad became more obvious, a yawning gap emerged between a Washington establishment preaching the gospel of American indispensability and a skeptical American public.

the global order we did so much to shape and defend is teetering.

“President Trump channeled those frustrations and difficulties, fed them and made them infinitely worse. At precisely the time when diplomacy matters more than ever to American interests — when we are no longer the only country calling the shots — the president is engaged in unilateral diplomatic disarmament: hollowing out the idea of America, retreating from international commitments and disdaining the institutions and practitioners of diplomacy. Not surprisingly, adversaries are taking advantage, allies are hedging and the global order we did so much to shape and defend is teetering.”

The Association for Diplomatic Studies and Training (ADST) is committed to strengthening public appreciation of diplomacy’s contribution to America’s national interests. In its extensive archives, ADST has captured, preserved, and shared the experiences of America’s diplomats, “classic organizers, harnessing the levers of American influence, investing in alliances, adapting institutions and managing the gray area between peace and war … with a nuanced grasp of history, mastering foreign languages and facility in negotiations. … with an unmatched capacity for alliances and coalition building.” Burns’ March 10 NYT piece.

Yale Richmond’s Practicing Public Diplomacy, like Dizard’s Inventing Public Diplomacyis one of ADST’s many volumes of personal narratives published in partnership with DACOR, an organization of foreign affairs professionals united in their belief that diplomatic relationships based on deep understanding can solve international problems.

Here are some additional titles to whet your appetite: Abroad for Her Country: Tales of a Pioneer Woman AmbassadorJean Wilkowsky; Ambassador Brandon Grove’s Behind Embassy Walls; Bush Hat, Black Tie by Howard Simpson, whose press calls him the David Niven of Foreign Service officers. There are dozens more, all candid recounting by the men and women who’ve chosen to be our Foreign Service servants. This treasure trove is yet another remarkable exibit of America’s open-book democracy.

Dad’s exit interview from USIA is in the ADST oral history collection. This very blog is also linked there. I’m completing a memoir — When the Dictator Flew Over Our House & Other True Stories — some of which you’ll see exerpted in this blog. Sharing the stories that I feel need to be told is my small contribution to the challenge of promoting one of our country’s biggest assets.

“we can help shape international order to safeguard our interests and values, before others shape it for us.

“Diplomacy at its best rarely swaggers. It’s about quiet power. But if we’re not louder about one of our nation’s biggest assets and best-kept secrets, we risk losing it.”Burns’ March 10 NYT piece.

The Valentine’s Day Assassination in Afghanistan of Ambassador Spike Dubs

 [This account, along with hundreds of other true first-person narratives by America’s diplomats, is from the Moments in US Diplomatic History of the Association for Diplomatic Studies and Training.https://adst.org/2013/01/the-assassination-of-ambassador-spike-dubs-kabul-1979/

Adolph “Spike” Dubs was a career diplomat who served in Germany, Liberia, and the Soviet Union. In 1978, he was appointed Ambassador to Afghanistan following a coup d’etat which brought the Soviet-aligned Khalq faction to power.

On February 14, 1979, Dubs was kidnapped by armed militants posing as police. The kidnappers demanded the release of the imprisoned leader of their party. Hafizullah Amin’s government refused to negotiate with the militants. Dubs was then assassinated. A successor to Dubs was not named and the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in December 1979. The U.S. embassy was finally closed in 1989 as security deteriorated.

Documents released from KGB archives in the 1990s showed that the Afghan government clearly authorized an assault on the kidnappers despite forceful U.S. demands for peaceful negotiations and that the KGB adviser on the scene may have recommended the assault as well as the execution of a kidnapper before U.S. experts could interrogate him. Dubs is buried in Arlington National Cemetery; Camp Dubs, a U.S. base in southwest Kabul, was named in his honor.

Bruce Flatin was the Political Counselor in Kabul at the time of Dubs’ assassination. He was interviewed by ADST’s Charles Stuart Kennedy in 1993. Read about other Foreign Service officers who died in the line of duty and other Moments on Afghanistan. Listen to the podcast here. Learn more through the Washington Post’s article here.

Bruce Flatin: Spike Dubs was murdered on Valentine’s Day, 1979. I was at the embassy as political counselor meeting with Bruce Amstutz, the DCM [Deputy Chief of Mission], shortly before 9:00 a.m. to discuss the staff meeting we’d be holding at 9:00. The ambassador was not yet in. The security officer and the ambassador’s chauffeur burst into the DCM’s office to announce that the ambassador had been “arrested by the Afghan government” and was being held at the Kabul Hotel.

Well, by this time in Kabul one could be paranoid enough not to be surprised that an ambassador would be arrested by the host government. In other places that may strike you as being unusual, but in Afghanistan that was not a concept that was impossible to grasp.

I told Bruce I’d go to the Kabul Hotel and call him from there. When I passed my office I   told Jim Taylor, my deputy, where I was going and what had happened. His first reaction   was it must have been the human rights report. We’d just delivered it shortly before. It   was not a very pleasant report. Once again, it may seem strange, but it was not out of the question that such an unpredictable government would react in that kind of a fashion.

Kabul_downtown

I traveled to the Kabul Hotel with a couple of other people from the embassy. We used the ambassador’s car. I saw letters he had been prepared to post — and noted that he had   been reading the New York Times.

When we got there the hotel lobby was swarming with police and troops. We were told that terrorists had seized the ambassador. They had   one down in the lobby as a prisoner, and the other ones — they didn’t tell me how many   there were — were up in a room with the ambassador on the second floor. (The original   report stated that four men had seized the ambassador.)

It struck us as odd that the terrorists would come to a hotel in the center of town to hole up with the ambassador. Soviet embassy people were there as well. I was talking to the Soviet official and the Afghan police and military leadership on the scene. They told me that these people were demanding the release of some anti-regime people in return for Ambassador Dubs, specifically a man named Yunus Khalis.

The important point to note is that we Americans never ever had any direct contact with the people holding the ambassador. Everything we knew, about who was holding him,   and what they wanted, was through the Afghan communist leadership and the Soviets. This is an important point. We brought up our embassy doctor, ambulance, nurse, and the ambassador’s blood type, just to be ready in case there were problems with his being   injured. We wanted to make certain we could take care of him right away.…

“Talk to your ambassador in German so that they can’t understand”

The DCM was trying to reach Foreign Minister Hafizullah Amin. We sent officers out trying to find him like process servers. He was not available anywhere and couldn’t be reached on the telephone. At the hotel, I kept telling the police that our embassy was trying to reach Hafizullah Amin with a special message from Secretary of State [Cyrus] Vance urging that there be no precipitous action. This was the theme we repeated all morning.

I was assured by the Afghans and the Soviets that they would not endanger the ambassador. I was assured they were going to do their best to negotiate. I said that we would like to get someone up to the second floor to talk to the ambassador so we could reassure him that things were going all right. They did not respond to this initially, but later at a certain point a Soviet officer came up to me. The Soviet I’m referring to was a person whom I knew to be a Soviet security type.

He asked me, “What languages does your ambassador know besides English?”

I replied, “His best language, of course, is Russian.”

He responded, “Besides Russian?” I said, “He knows German rather well.”

He asked, “Do you know German?” When I replied that I did, he went away.

Then a little later, the chief Afghan police official came up to me and he said, “Would you please come upstairs with me?” This was finally the moment to see what the situation was upstairs.

He said, “We’d like to have you talk to your ambassador in German so that the people inside the room will not be able to understand what’s being said.”

I replied, “Fine.”

As we walked down the hallway, I could see a group of troops and police outside this one room. I noted that the suite next to it was open too. I asked, “Do you want me to   talk through the wall from this suite on the other side?” The police official replied, “No,   it’s best if you talk right through the door into the suite where the ambassador is being held.”

When I looked at this keyhole through which he wanted me to talk, I could imagine myself swallowing a bunch of bullets. I said, “Are you sure the people inside the room have agreed to this procedure?” And he replied, “Yes.”….

And when that was made clear, I knelt by the keyhole, and I said in German, “Good morning, Mr. Ambassador. How is it with you?”

And the ambassador replied in a strong voice, “I am all right.” Then the police instructed, “Now ask him what kind of weapons   they have.”

So I asked, “What kind of weapons do they have?”

The ambassador started to answer but unfortunately in his German he used words close to “pistol” and “revolver.”   By that time, his captors caught on to the fact that English was not being used, and they ordered, “Stop this conversation! We won’t stand for any tricks. There’ll be no further conversation.”

The ambassador then remained silent. The police tried to get the captors   to loosen their controls, but they refused to let any more conversation continue.

Hafizullah_Amin

Then the police official said to me, “Tell your ambassador that exactly ten minutes from now he’s either to try to go to the bathroom, or he is to fall to the floor.”

I replied, “Just a minute, I want to talk to you elsewhere.” So we went down to a cross hallway where I said, “We’ve spent the whole morning telling you that we don’t want any precipitous action here, and you’re now telling me to help you light a fuse that’s going to go off in  exactly ten minutes?” I said, “I want to repeat once again that we’re trying to find Foreign Minister Amin to deliver an urgent request from Secretary Vance that there be no attack on this room.”

He shrugged his shoulders, and muttered, “I have my orders.”

So then I went to the Soviet security officer, and I said, “Once again, I want to tell you that we have said this many times that we don’t want any precipitous action here.” The Soviet then talked to the Afghans and that particular raid appeared to have been called off.

“He was taken out on the stretcher, clearly dead”

But later in the morning, I’d say about an hour and a half later, it was clear they had received an order to hit the room. They got prepared. The Soviets came forward and   provided some with some special weaponry. They had police and troops on a building across the street who were responding to hand signals from the Soviets in our building.

At a certain point there was a loud shot and then a gun fight lasted exactly 40 seconds; I checked this with my watch. That’s a long time. The floor just shook with the gunfire coming from the hallway where I was standing and from the bank building across the street into the room.

When the whole thing was over there could not have been one cubic centimeter in that room that didn’t have a bullet pass through it. A gnat flying in that room would have been hit.

Other Americans had in the meantime come up the stairs and were on the opposite side from this cross corridor with me, and they had the stretcher. When the initial burst of   firing stopped we were ready to go to the room with the stretcher, and the Afghans told us to wait a minute. Then there were four more loud shots.

Then we were told to come. When we looked in the room, the room had water all over the floor because the gunfire had shot up the radiator. There were some two or three inches of water on the floor. The ambassador was slumped in a chair against the wall, but one-half of his body was wet as though he had been lying on the floor. He was taken out on the stretcher, clearly dead. He had many bullet holes in him.

There were two men in the room; they were brought out and dumped at my feet. One was probably dead, and the other one looked definitely dead; they were taken away. The third man they had held as a prisoner, who appeared to be a confederate of theirs and had been used from time to time to talk to them through the door, was held nearby in the hallway — as alive as you are. They put a brown bag over his head and took him away screaming and kicking.

Then I went downstairs and saw the police official in charge and said, “I just want you to know our Ambassador is dead.” He’s the one who had kept assuring me that if anything happened there would be a very small chance of any problem.

He said, “I’m very sorry.” He did not sound very convincing.

I went back to the embassy then and after about an hour I got a call from the Afghan authorities asking me if I wanted to come to the military hospital to see the dead bodies. So I went there with the security officer and our consular officer. We were brought into a  hallway where there were four nude, dead bodies on the concrete floor. I should point out, incidentally, that one of the earlier reports, including that of the ambassador’s driver, was that four people had seized the ambassador….

USAID_vertical_rgb_600

There were only two “captors” in the room, and both were now definitely dead. The man who was just as alive as you are with a brown bag over his head was now dead too. He had contusions all over his body, and was turning grayish blue. Then there was a fourth person whom I had never seen before in my life lying there.

The police colonel, who was showing us this display, said, “These are the four men shot in the room during the shoot-out.” He and I had been standing together in the hallway, outside the room.

He knew perfectly well what we’d seen. But this was going to be their official story. The ambassador’s body was then brought by our medical crew and ambulance to the American AID [U.S. Agency for International Development] compound, where they brought him into the dispensary.

Afghan troops then entered the AID compound in violation of our diplomatic status. When we complained about it, they said they were in there to “protect” the ambassador. We were very concerned that they would try to seize the body.

The White House, responding to the situation, sent a special plane from Washington. We let the Afghans know that it was on the way to pick up the body. So they didn’t press us any further inside the compound.

The body was brought back here to Washington for autopsy at Walter Reed. There were many bullets in the body, but the ones that caused death were .22 caliber bullets in the brain, about four of them.

The official Afghan incident report to us, in the form of a diplomatic note, had listed weapons found in the room, and none of them were .22 caliber. And as you know, police and troops don’t use .22 caliber, but certain types of official security agency assassins do use .22 caliber as a favorite weapon….

We insisted on seeing these weapons taken from the room, and they promised us we could. We went after this issue time and time again. It must have been ten or eleven different times we insisted upon this in notes and personal conversations. Bruce Amstutz became our chargé, and I became acting DCM [Deputy Chief of Mission].

Whenever we saw Foreign Minister Amin or any other appropriate official, this subject would be raised and we would receive slippery answers. On one occasion Amin told us, “We have all kinds of weapons we pick up here throughout the city for various crimes all the time.” We were apparently to get the impression that weapons were being thrown in some coal bins somewhere, and who could tell which weapons were which anymore.

In June of 1979, we sent a note to the Afghan Foreign Ministry telling them the results of the autopsy at Walter Reed and, in essence, telling them they were liars and challenging them to give us a straight account as to what really happened in view of the fact that their original note was incorrect. It had conveyed false information. Well, we never got an answer to that note. That was the end of that subject from their viewpoint.

“It always puzzled us as to why they would do it”

We also discussed this with the Soviets, who drew the obvious conclusion that we were saying the Afghans had murdered the ambassador. Therefore, you couldn’t help but reach the conclusion that his death certainly seemed to involve the responsibility of the Afghan government, and probably the Soviets. But it always puzzled us as to why they would do it.

Some people said it was because Spike Dubs was a Soviet expert, and the Soviets wanted him out of the way before they went into the next phase of their Afghan adventure. But that made no sense, because we have many Foreign Service experts on the USSR who could have been assigned there. He was not the only Soviet expert we had….

Others said it was because they wanted to terminate our relationship with Afghanistan. And indeed that did happen. It did terminate the AID relationship, but that wouldn’t have made any sense either, because if I were the Soviets I wouldn’t give a damn if Americans were shoving money down that rat hole. I didn’t see any communist purpose served by getting us out of our AID programs there.

Whatever the reason, he was dead. It was a hardball game there. This occurred, as I said, on Valentine’s Day, 1979. Our bilateral relationship went steeply downhill from that point onward.

The Mujahadeen reaction started right after the revolution and got worse and worse for the regime. We reported that huge amounts of military materiel were being brought into the country. Far more tanks were brought into Afghan tank parks than there were tank crews in the Afghan army. At the same time the Afghan government army was melting away, as we described in our messages, “like an ice floe in a tropical sea.” Entire units were deserting to the Mujahadeen. Therefore, the Russians had to face this manpower leak. Something had to be done to give the regime replacement manpower.

Soviet tank in Kabul

We were evaluating what the Soviets were going to do along these lines. There were people who said, “Maybe they’ll bring in Cubans.” We said, “No, that wouldn’t make any sense.”

Soviets then started to beef up their strength in the country with Soviet forces. They actually took over military installations, such as the big airbase at Bagram, north of Kabul. It was put under direct Soviet military control.

Then things really got rough on the political scene. In September, Amin killed Taraki in a botched attempt on the part of the latter to eliminate Amin. It appears that Taraki was more favored by the Russians, and the   Russians had hoped that Amin could be eliminated. Something went wrong in this bloody encounter. The Soviet ambassador was physically present at the palace when this happened. Amin was the one who survived, and Taraki was the one who died.

Therefore, the Soviets now had a dangerous man who was clearly alerted to their hostility although he was a convinced Communist. Things became very tense toward the end of 1979. At Christmas time Soviet special forces came into Kabul, where they killed Amin   themselves. Other Soviet units joined Soviet forces already in the country and launched a direct assault against the Mujahadeen.

spike-dubs-tombstone

Venezuelan Diplomacy, Part III

Caracas, January 1958
The Venezuelan president Pérez Jiménez has fled the country overnight in the lumbering propeller plane “The Sacred Cow”. Caraqueños awaken to the chaos of freedom.


La Vaca Sagrada, in which Marcos Pérez Jiménez fled to the Dominican Republic. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1958_Venezuelan_coup_d%27état

Mom lay listening to the looters shuffle by, wondering how she had ended up in a South American revolution 3,000 miles from home. None of it made any sense. By rights, she should be waking up in Winona, ready for a day managing the family store and planning a tuna hot-dish dinner. Instead, she was a Foreign Service wife managing a household with a maid who’d made Spanish her children’s first language while their mother cut up tea sandwiches at the Ambassador’s home. Her head spun.

As Dad lay on the other side of the bed, the excitement of what was taking place made him almost twitch. Being in the middle of a country’s transition from dictatorship to democracy was exactly where he wanted to be.

He’d hit the ground running on his first day at work three years earlier: the Ambassador’s annual Fourth of July party was a command performance for all Embassy staff. Dad had informally met his Embassy colleagues, both those with USIS and those with economic, political and military portfolios. President Marcos Perez Jimenez was the latest in a series of military dictators who ruled the oil-rich country. The regime’s anti-communist agenda had won PJ the tacit support of Washington, and his second-in-command, Pedro Estrada, kept a lid on dissent with his Seguridad Nacional secret police. American oil companies were growing rich and the American expatriate community numbered over 20,000.

American Creole Petroleum Corporation (in Maracaibo) world’s number one oil producer until 1951 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Creole_Petroleum_Corporation#/media/File:Letrero_de_Creole,_San_vicente.jpg

As the Embassy’s Press Attaché, Dad had developed personal relationships with journalists, professors and students for three years, maintaining an active presence in the Caracas newspapers and television programming with pro-American articles and programs. Journalists, along with university professors and students, had been involved in clandestine work against the military dictatorship for months. The Embassy was officially hands-off, not taking a public stand against repression, but the underground leadership looked to the American democratic experience for guidance. With PJ’s overthrow, the revolution had succeeded, and Dad would soon be able to celebrate with his contacts who knew where his personal sympathies lay.

January 23, 1958
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1958_Venezuelan_coup_d%27état#/media/File:23_de_enero_de_1958.jpg

The pitter-patter of little feet told my parents that I was up first, as usual, and had gone in search of Fina; Susie would sleep in for another hour. Slips of quiet Spanish made their way from the maid’s room beyond the kitchen. It was Mom’s cue to get moving: she’d have coffee ready and cereal out by the time Fina and I came into the kitchen, the maid in one of the flowered dresses Mom had insisted she wear instead of the head-to-toe black outfit she’d worn when they’d met. Although Fina was only a few years older than my parents, she’d already experienced the loss of family and friends in the Spanish Civil War, and she wore the traditional dark mourning clothes of an old lady. Mom would have none of it: her girls needed a happy environment, and freeing Fina from luto had allowed her to become a powerfully positive influence on us little girls.

Mom hadn’t realized quite how much our whole family had connected with Fina, and with Caracas, until we spent a month back in Minnesota the previous summer. It was what the Department of State called Home Leave: a required visit to the United States hometown every few years to reconnect Foreign Service officers and their families with America. We cycled through the obligatory gatherings of family and friends in Winona and the Twin Cities, greeted like foreign dignitaries. As good as it was to see family, Mom and Dad realized how much they, and their view of the world, had changed. After the initial thrall, the family’s attention span was reliably short. In truth, people did not really have much interest in hearing about some far off place that meant little to them.

Divorced from old home connections, we headed home to Caracas. Home, to our too small, ground-floor apartment where street noises and the occasional flying cockroach came in through the open window vents. Home to a waiting Spanish-speaking Josefina, whose “Ay, mi amor!” as she scooped up her babies was matched by immediate joyful cries of recognition. Home again, in a foreign land. It was a funny feeling.

Mom was putting the coffee water on when the phone rang. Dad pulled on his bathrobe as he walked to the living room. He picked up the phone. “Hello.” He nodded. “Yes, all fine here.”

Mom craned her head, trying to pick up the conversation.

“OK, roger that,” Dad said. He hung up and walked into the kitchen. “Well, looks like we’ll make it.” He smiled and patted Mom’s shoulder.

“That’s good,” she said, waiting for more. She poured Dad a cup of coffee.

Buenos días, Mommy!”  I danced into the kitchen, Fina’s pilot fish. 

Mom scooped me up. “Good morning to you.” She gave me a faceful of squeeze and deposited me onto my regular chair at the little kitchen table. “Fina.” Mom nodded with what she hoped was confidence. There was no need getting everyone going again, least of all the kids. 

Fina finished tying on her apron. “Señora,” Fina said. “Yo me ocupo.” I’ll take it from here. She smiled, holding her lips tight over her bad teeth. She found a saucer to go with Dad’s coffee cup and handed it to him and then turned to me. “Geni, Corne Flex?” The Kellogg’s cereal was a staple in our house. She poured me a bowl.

Mom followed Dad back to the living room, balancing her cup and saucer like the dancer she had been before getting married. She sat on the edge of the pheasant-print sofa. Dad sat by the telephone, his coffee balanced on a knee. “Well, things are settling down but the communists are emerging. The Boy Scouts, in fact.”
“But that’s an American organization, isn’t it?” Mom said.
“International, but this region is headquartered in good ol’ Havana. So these commie-trained kids have seen an opportunity to be helpful, and, damn it if they aren’t doing just that.”
“Well, the craziness of last night could hardly continue,” Mom said, sitting back on the pheasant-print sofa.
“It’s been months brewing, Nan, so, no, it’s still crazy. Probably’ll get more so as these Caraqueños realize the shackles are off. Best we stay off the street for a while longer.”

And so our little family stayed indoors the rest of the day. While Dad kept the telephone tree information flowing through the Embassy, Mom worked up a batch of lemon bars and Fina oversaw Susie and me playing in the aluminum washtub next to the cement laundry sink behind the kitchen, keeping an eye out for the rat that lived in the drain. A poison-laced banana had kept the varmint away during my grandparents’ visit. The day limped along for the adults while Susie and I chatted away in Spanish, had lunch, played some more, had dinner. After our baths, Susie and I cozied into our hooded towels while Mom read us a bedtime story. h

Meanwhile, enraged mobs surrounded the headquarters of the dreaded Seguridad Nacional. The National Guard, initially supposed to control the crowd, fired on the fortress instead when the trapped secret police began shooting at the crowd. When the police were smoked out, hundreds of political prisoners, some barely able to walk, emerged into the arms of their families and friends. A junta of military and civilians from the underground movement emerged in control, but mobs continued battling throughout the city for the next three days, causing the death of hundreds, and thousands more were wounded. Looting slowly ebbed.

A fragile democracy took shape. The secret police were no more. Venezuelan citizens had liberty for the first time since 1810.  And, for the first time in a decade, Venezuelans could read uncensored newspapers.

Clandestine revolutionaries were now in positions of leadership in the government, the media and the business community. The new political scheme gave Dad’s job new meaning. He had made many good friends among the local press and radio people in producing the television program he’d created for USIS, Venezuela Mira a Su Futuro, and now he could enjoy the new freedom of tapping into a diverse pool of journalists. The programming at the bi-national Centro Cultural expanded as well, drawing in larger and more relaxed audiences. The Embassy’s lending library saw books flying off the shelf. 

Dad had also been taken into the confidences of a number of very prominent people who were upset about their country’s conditions and wanted an understanding ear. A few days into the new Venezuela, Mom and Dad were invited to a small dinner party at the home of a newspaper editor just returned from forced exile to Bolivia. The other men at the party had been jailed by the secret police, one for six years. They asked Dad how the American government could support a suppressive government while preaching democracy. Dad’s personal feelings must have bled a little into the official answer — the Embassy practiced a policy of non-intervention — and his reputation was such that his questioners averred their friendship with him and the people of the United States.  

Dad and Mom’s cross-cultural communication responsibilities grew richer as the new democracy settled into the business of governing. USIA beefed up the cultural envoy trips: Nat King Cole, fresh from the Tropicana in Havana; Aaron Copeland; Louis Armstrong; Woody Herman. 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. Dad got a kick out of watching Lennie work his renowned charm at a press conference, with Dad doing the interpreting. The headlines in the local newspapers the next day spoke of “international understanding.” 

Conductor Leonard Bernstein
https://goo.gl/images/GzW5z1

Mom and Dad resumed evening hours’ “representation” at cocktail parties, dinners and other social obligations. Embassy staff to continued their comradely entertainment habits. I went back to preschool at Kinder Mickey. My mother resumed her visits to the Military Club swimming pool with Susie and me, holding me up by the back of my suit as Susie played on the shallower steps. 

The eternal springtime of Caracas worked its magic. All was well again.


https://www.forgottenweapons.com/arms-of-the-venezuelan-coup/

Venezuelan Diplomacy, Part II

Britain, Germany, France, Spain and Belgium all said on Saturday they would recognize Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaido​, left, as interim president unless President Nicolas Maduro called fresh elections within eight days. (Yuri Cortez/AFP/Getty Images)

Wednesday’s opposition rally against Venezuelan President Maduro (and pro American-supported activist Guaidó) marked the 61st anniversary of the overthrow of Venezuelan president Perez Jimenez.

I have recreated the events of that day in the title story of my draft memoir, WHEN THE DICTATOR FLEW OVER OUR HOUSE & OTHER TRUE STORIES, from which this excerpt is taken. For more insight into the American Embassy’s delicate diplomatic position, I will post portions of Dad’s 1994 historic first-person account of that day, the attack on Vice President Nixon some months later, and the rest of his 1955-59 first post: HOW DEMOCRACY TRIUMPHED OVER DICTATORSHIP.  https://www.amazon.com/How-Democracy-Triumphed-Over-Dictatorship/dp/1879383330

PART II. [Perez Jimenez has fled Venezuela. The American Embassy team is watching and listening through the night.]

Dad turned down the radio for a minute and leaned forward, his elbows on his knees. He took a deep breath. “We’re to sit tight. Hard to tell what’s going to happen, but better to be here together than get caught up by a crowd in the street.”

Supporters of the Venezuelan opposition marching in Caracas on Wednesday, the anniversary of the 1958 uprising that overthrew the military dictatorship.CreditCreditAdriana Loureiro/Reuters

He wasn’t sure how much my mother had heard about the deadly chaos of rampaging mobs the last time Venezuelans threw out a tyrant. The Canadian Embassy had approached the office several months ago about consolidating evacuations. That had seemed like a remote possibility. Maybe not anymore. The Embassy was in downtown Caracas, several miles away from the tree-lined residential neighborhood on the western edge of town where we and several other Embassy families lived. Time to touch base with one of those colleagues. 

“Let me give Russ a call.” He lifted the receiver and dialed. He spoke quietly into the receiver as Fina arrived with the coffee, her face noticeably more relaxed. 

Algo mas?” Anything else?

My mother forced her lips into a smile.“No, gracias, Fina.” 

The maid nodded.“Pues, buenas noches.”

Buenas noches.” Good night. My mother took a sip of the strong brew. None of that wimpy American coffee down here, and there was so much more they truly loved about this place. She took another sip, allowing the liquid heat to relax her back into the sofa. 

Riot police clashing with opposition demonstrators (2019) .CreditYuri Cortez/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Dad hung up the phone and turned the radio back up. Better to know what’s coming. He sat back. “Okay, so maybe there’s something,” 

My mother was instantly back on high alert.

“We may want to hide the car,” he said.

“Hide the car?”

“They’re looking for PJ’s head honchos. Russ just had a mob in front of their house thinking his diplomatic plates were Venezuelan issue for the regime. Lucky for them they headed down the block before Russ pulled out his gun.”

“His gun?” Mom sat up straighter. “We don’t have a gun.” She paused. “Do we?”

“No. And, no, I don’t think it’s going to come to that.”

The radio crackled as an enthusiastic voice broke in.

Periodistas!” he said. Newspaper editors! You are finally free. Tell the public that the dictator is gone!

“Imagine that,” my father said. “An uncensored paper. First time in ten years.”

“The car?” my mother prompted. The diplomatic plates on the Oldsmobile sitting in our driveway a few feet from the street could easily be confused with those issued for the Venezuelan government. “Do you think maybe we should put out the American flag? I mean, we’re the good guys, right?”

Senator Marco Rubio, center, Republican of Florida, has become a chief policy architect and de facto spokesman in a campaign to involve the United States in the unrest that is now gripping Venezuela.CreditMandel Ngan/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

My father considered the suggestion.  “Well, we know we’re the good guys,” he said, “but I’m not so sure everyone agrees. Better play it safe. Got some Crisco?”

My mother hurried back to the kitchen and returned with the blue tub. Dad dipped out a handful. He opened the front door slowly, paused, and stepped out. The air was still and heavy with the scent of ripe mango. The pop pop pop of fireworks echoed from downtown, or was that gunfire? But nothing closer. 

My mother huddled by the doorway as Dad crept across the little yard to the Oldsmobile, dropping down to smear the license plate with grease and dirt. He hurried back inside and my mother shut the door, securing the lock. Dad turned off the radio. They both took a breath.

“Let’s try to get some sleep,” he said.

The words were barely out of his mouth when a car careened around our corner, brakes screeching, horn blaring in defiance of Perez Jimenez’ edict against honking. My mother froze, her eyes wide. Would the Olds camouflage work? They didn’t have the firepower Russ had used to intimidate the crowd at his door. But the driver and his euphoric passengers flew by cheering and continued toward downtown.

“Like winning the big game,” Dad said, downplaying the anxious moment with a shrug of his shoulders. Another car swept loudly by. “I think all the action’s downtown. Nothing more to do except get that rest. I think it’s going to be a long day.”

Mom looked in on us girls again. Susie and I were still fast asleep, untroubled by the noise and innocent of the drama unfolding around us. Mom wondered if she’d be up to the task of keeping to a normal routine in a city that was in chaos. My preschool would be closed so both us kids would be home, and Mom hoped that Dad would stay home as well. She’d need to watch Fina: Susie and I would absorb her mood without understanding it. Everything needed to be normal.

She climbed back into bed.

“Everyone OK?” Dad said.

“So far.”

They lay still, eyes closed and ears open. Another few cars gunned by. In the distance, the bleating of car horns sounded. And gunfire. The night wore on. 

As dawn made its tentative advance, they heard a whispered sound like prairie grass in the summer wind. It grew steadily louder. They crept to the living room window and peered through the glass slats and metal bars. Out of the fading night, a parade of men and women shuffled by, their passage marked by the soft whoosh whoosh of the alpargata slippers worn by the people that lived in the shacks up the hill. It was like the Easter processionals, only instead of the statue of a saint, each person carried a chair, or a television, or a file cabinet.

“Looters,” my father said.  “They’ve broken into the police station.”

This was way more than my mother had signed up for.

https://www.nytimes.com/2019/01/26/world/americas/marco-rubio-venezuela.html
https://www.nytimes.com/2019/01/23/world/americas/venezuela-protests-guaido-maduro.html?module=inline
https://www.cbc.ca/news/world/venezuela-un-session-juan-guaido-pompeo-1.4994285

Friends in Bogotá

I recently discovered photographs of our home in Bogotá among pictures taken by my grandfather in early 1964, a few months after we’d arrived. Especially dear is the photo of my sister (7) and me (9) with our neighbors, the Cárdenas family. Here is how we met.

We had never lived in a whole house by ourselves, and this was the home provided by the Embassy for the Public Affairs Officer, Dad’s new job in Bogotá. We were not allowed to be alone on the street, but the house included a walled-in backyard where we could play on our own.

Ours is the white house in Teusaquillo, a residential neighborhood of Bogotá.

Behind Rosanna’s garden, we played Foreign Service ladies in the wooden crate that had carried Mom’s piano, using old Embassy paper for our calling cards.

Rosanna’s flower garden and our playroom piano crate

Closer to the house and just beyond the kitchen window, Dad hung a tire swing, like in the Bobbsey Twins. If I faced the neighbors’ tall brick wall and trailed the toes of my shoes in the dirt, I could go straight away from the kitchen window and then back again, but usually one of my shoes didn’t keep up and I’d be twisting in a circle with my stomach beginning to hurt. If I looked up, I could get a deep breath and let my hair blow while I wound my way back again. I usually just pushed Susie back and forth, pretty nicely most of the time. Sometimes, if we called him, our new boxer Caesar would come out and let us chase him and tackle him, avoiding his piles of poop. No one was strong enough to walk Caesar.

Wrestling Caesar

About a week into the new year, Susie and I were playing when a clod of dirt came flying over the brick wall, narrowly missing Susie’s head.

“Hey!” I yelled. The wall was too high to see over. I jumped back as another clump of dirt soared into the air. I was getting mad now. “Ma, cosa fai?”

Italian was my best defense. Spanish was beginning to sound familiar, but I still counted on Italian to express myself when it really mattered. It was such a good language to be angry in. Here we were in our own backyard, without an adult to protect us, and we were under attack by a invisible enemy. “Managia!” I grabbed Susie and turned toward the house.

A shock of cold hit me right between the shoulder blades. I pivoted. A wiggly stream of water wavered in the air like a wary snake, wobbling here and there in search of its next victim. Susie let go my hand and tripped over a soggy clump of dirt. I reached down, took a few steps toward the wall, and heaved the clump as hard as I could over the wall. The stream of hose water died down. We were fighting back.

I took a deep breath, feeling not very filled: at 8,000 feet, Bogotá’s air was very thin on oxygen. I took off my sweater, never minding the cold damp of the grey afternoon, and led Susie parallel to the wall to the edge of our yard where the fragrant leaves of a eucalyptus tree hung like icicles.

A peach tree hung over the wall; you can see a branch and peach in the upper right corner.


“Okay,” I knelt down and spread my sweater next to the dirt. “Help me.” We quickly covered the red wool with old leaves, dead grass, and dirt and tied the arms together. I lifted the weapon by its buttonholes, ready to launch.

Instead, more dirt came flying over the wall. Both of us yelled this time, and suddenly our maids Julia and Rosanna were next to us, screaming at the wall in Spanish and herding Susie and me back toward the house. In moments, we were seated at the kitchen table, wrapped in Julia and Rosanna’s bright wool shawls, their ruanas, which they normally kept in their room next to the courtyard.

Julia fussed at us, shaking her head at the ruined sweater. She had worked and lived at this house for the other families of the men that used to have my father’s job, and she spoke a little English. “Cardenas children very bad! Maleducados! ” Rude. So, these attackers had a name: Cárdenas.

Julia carried the ruined sweater out to the laundry tub while Rosanna stayed at her stove, shaving dark chocolate into scalded milk and whipping it into brown foam with a whirly paddle she rubbed between her palms. She poured the hot chocolate into two big cups. “Tomen, niñas.” Here you go, girls. She stood back looking uncomfortable, her arms folded in front of her chest.

The carved wooden beater Rosanna made our hot chocolate with.

The milk and tangy chocolate spread their warmth inside me, offsetting the wet war and the chilly day. I felt my stomach begin to relax. I swung my leg into Susie’s foot. “We will win this war,” I said, and smiled. We had the name: Cárdenas, and we’d win this fight without involving Mom and Dad. It was good to feel confident about something.

The following Saturday afternoon I was pushing Susie on the tire swing, keeping a wary ear open for the sound of scuffling or water dribbling and my eye on some very nice dog poops to toss over at the Cárdenas enemy if they made any moves. I knew I could pull this sweater over my hands like gloves. We weren’t going to lose another battle.

There was a scrambling on the other side of the wall, where branches of our huge peach tree stretched onto the neighbors’ side. A pair of hands followed by a boy’s head popped up over the tiled top of the wall. The boy looked at me in surprise, and then disappeared. Then, another boy looked over the wall and also disappeared. Susie climbed out of the tire and we walked over. Muffled conversation, then two pairs of shoes poked over the wall as the boys swung from the tree and onto the flat tiled surface.

They raised empty hands, grinning big sheepish smiles. They looked to be about our ages. “You are not Abramsons boys, yes?” the bigger one said, speaking about the family who we’d replaced. “We fight those boys, not girls.”

I stood astride a dog poop, my hands on my hips, and looked up. I knew Susie was just behind me. I hoped she’d seen the poop.

Muy malos,” I said, very bad. My Spanish was not much better than their English, but I wasn’t going to let them get off the hook that easily. Confusing us for boys? It still was not okay.

“Yes, we are sorry. Very bad. Sorry,” the older one said. He smiled a little bigger. “Soy Luis.”.

Andres,” the other one said, nodding.

It was only polite to follow suit. I used the names that Julia and Rosanna called us. “Juanita,” I said. “Mi hermana Susi.” My sister Susie. I took a step back and knew I’d landed right in the poop. There wasn’t anything to do but wait the boys out, smiling.
Hola,” Susie said.
Hola,” Luis and Andres said in unison. We looked at each other. “Adios,” Luis said. Andres waved and they disappeared.

“Yuck!” Susie said, pointing at my shoe.

“I know, I know,” I said, sidestepping the rest of the stuff as I limped toward the edge of the grass to grind the poop off with dirt. My shoe smelled the whole rest of the weekend while it aired out in the laundry area outside the maids’ room.

Luis. Andres. Not the enemy. Maybe even friends?

Isabel, her twin Luis, Susie, Jane, Teresita Cardenas (not pictured, Andres and Magdalena) against our driveway gate. The Cárdenas family was the best neighbor we ever had.