Recollections of my diplomatic experiences
December 2, 2016
Emilio C. was in charge of the Spanish Embassy in Tanzania when I was the American Press Officer there. This recollection came to mind when I learned of Fidel Castro's death last week.
Emilio's family and mine saw each other socially and professionally when we were both assigned to Tanzania. We sailed together at the yacht club, hunted together in Masaailand, and entertained each other.
One time he invited me to an official dinner, then rushed to meet me out front as I arrived, a little flustered, and explained quickly: "I forgot and invited both you and the Cuban ambassador tonight! He has already arrived! If this will be a problem for you, feel free to leave with my apologies."
Emilio was a classic diplomat: attentive to protocol and careful to seat guests in order of precedence. He was clearly embarrassed to have invited two diplomats whose respective countries didn't recognize each other.
Tanzania under then President Nyerere maintained diplomatic relations with every socialist country in the world, whether or not there was mutual benefit from those relations. Who in 1971 would have maintained diplomatic relations with North Korea and its reclusive dictator Kim Il Sung, for example? There was no good reason, commercial or strategic, for Tanzania to have diplomatic relations with North Korea, but since it was a Marxist-Leninist government and Tanzania was established on the same political path, Nyerere exchanged ambassadors with them.
Same with Cuba: there was no mutual benefit from diplomatic relations between Havana and Dar es Salaam, but they were good friends with little in common except an anti-capitalist viewpoint and a shared Marxist vision. And there I was on the front porch of the Spanish Chargé, with the Cuban ambassador inside and me trying to decide if I would enter or leave. I stayed, we ignored each other, and the evening passed without incident except Emilio was embarrassed for weeks afterward. Diplomatically, we weathered a teapot tempest.
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The Peoples' Republic of China was another country represented in Tanzania when I was there, and during the course of various press activities I met and became friends with Mr. Li, the head of New China News Agency office. Li didn't officially work for his government, but rather for a private press agency. Of course in China in the 70s NCNA was clearly a government organ, and he was surely a civil servant. Many of his colleagues were known intelligence operatives working under cover of NCNA, but I never knew if Li was a spy or a journalist. During the course of time we were in the same capital city, the two of us spent hours talking to each other, but always at events sponsored by a third party.
Until one day it occurred to me it would be interesting to invite him to a reception. I got permission from my ambassador and from my headquarters in Washington, and sent Li an invitation. Sure enough, he showed up, the first time (to my knowledge) an American diplomat entertained a Chinese government employee.
That was in mid 1971. Six months later Nixon made a surprise trip to China, the first American President to do so since the founding of the Communist government in 1949. All of which might have had nothing to do with my invitation to Li, but I've occasionally thought I got permission to invite him because folks in Washington knew a thaw was underway and gave it a small nudge in Tanzania.
The art of diplomacy can be arcane, but as these examples show, it offers a common basis for government-to-government interactions. Stay tuned for more diplomatic memories!
Fred LaSor served as an American diplomat in Asia, Africa and Latin America for almost 30 years. He lives now in the Carson Valley.