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Foreign Service Life

April 2000

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About the Author
Previously by Patricia Linderman in American Diplomacy:
 

On medical encounters in Cuba in the late 1990's, in Doctors for Dollars:
"As a pediatric specialist and surgeon, ['Dr. Eduardo'] earned about 400 pesos per month. With that sum he could buy tiny cups of thick Cuban coffee, a few scrawny vegetables at the recently legalized farmers' markets, and entry into cultural facilities such as the Museum of the Struggle of the Ever-Vigilant People." [Autumn 1999]

In an interview carried in the same issue of this Journal, Ms. Linderman also responded to questions concerning general conditions in Cuba during her assignment there. [click here]

Elsewhere in
"Life in the Foreign Service"
 

William Dale, on Prime Minister Lester 'Mike' Pearson of Canada:
"At an informal reception given by my boss, the American minister, in the spring of 1948 in Ottawa, I met the [then] Canadian undersecretary for external affairs, Lester Pearson. To my surprise and pleasure he went out of his way to chat with that lowest form of diplomatic life, a third secretary and vice consul (my rank at the time). [click here]

Charles G. Stefan, in a personal view of Kissinger and CSCE Negotiations:
"In early 1974, the fate of the well-known Russian dissident, Aleksandr I. Solzhenitsyn, was a behind-the-scenes concern to the Western delegations at the CSCE. Deputy Foreign Minister Anatoli Kovalev, the head of the Soviet delegation reportedly played an important role in the resolution of the situation then facing us at that time. This situation lasted until Solzhenitsyn was expelled to the West instead of being incarcerated in the U.S.S.R. According to Kovalev’s own account many years later, he was instrumental in the Kremlin’s decision in the case. Kovalev reportedly argued then that a decision to jail Solzhenitsyn would mark the end of the Helsinki process." [click here]

 

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The author lived in Havana as a Foreign Service spouse in the 1990s. Here she presents — in fictional form — an impression of Cuban life at that time. ~ Ed.
THE SEA STRETCHES OUT, LUMINOUS AND BLUE, to the northern horizon. I lean, like a Cuban, against the rough, crumbling seawall of the Malecón.

Decrepit apartment buildings, eaten away by years of salt air and neglect, line the curving waterfront. Soviet-style housing blocks sport balconies with flaking blue paint. The modern U.S. Interests Section building stands out like a clean-cut American cop in mirrored glasses. In its narrow garden, palms gently shake their brushy heads, as if in disbelief. Outside the iron fence, unsmiling Cuban policemen in olive drab wave pedestrians away.

My thin silk blouse is already damp with sweat, sticking to my back. But the wind from the sea, fierce and pure, somehow makes my heart leap like the brilliant white spray on the rocks below.

A dark-skinned couple in T-shirts and jeans walks past on the broad sidewalk, laughing and kissing. An old American car rattles by, its windshield cracked in a deadly-looking star pattern.

A whole family passes on a bicycle, father pedaling in a faded red tank top, mother primly sidesaddle over the back tire, little girl perched on a makeshift seat between the handlebars. A shiny black sedan, casually steered by a foreign businessman talking on a cellular phone, veers too close, making the bicycle wobble.

The inevitable black-market salesman saunters up to me in the heat. “Cigars, señora?” he asks. I decline. He is young and handsome, despite a chipped front tooth. I am a perfectly ordinary single woman in my mid-30s. But a foreigner, and thus rich and glamorous. “Are you looking for a boyfriend, lady?” he asks in English, smiling ingratiatingly. It is time to go back inside.

My job in Havana is to process the twenty thousand Cuban immigrants the United States takes in each year. We used to accept any Cuban “rafter” who managed to enter our waters. But that policy was unsustainable — a moral hazard, as the economists say. It simply encouraged more people to pile into homemade vessels and risk their lives in the Straits of Florida.

Now the Coast Guard returns Cubans found at sea. Just yesterday, I was driven out to the concrete pier at Mariel, an hour from Havana, for another hand-over. I told the drained, sullen group of Cubans on the Coast Guard cutter how to enter our computerized visa lottery. They already knew all about it. I wrote down their addresses, and they were taken away on a rusty, windowless bus.

Once or twice a year, my colleagues and I will visit these rafters in their homes, holding the Cuban government to its promise not to persecute them. Cubans are easy to persecute. The government controls their jobs, their relatives’ jobs, their food rations, their children’s educations.

Since I was out at Mariel yesterday, the piles of documents waiting for my attention are thicker than usual. As I leaf through the first stack, two visitors from Washington stride down the row of cubicles toward my office, discussing U.S. policy toward Cuba in ringing English. They mention Fidel Castro. The name reverberates, almost shockingly, in the quiet hallway. Cubans usually refer to their leader by silently stroking an imaginary beard.

The visitors, a man and a woman, stop by to discuss some business with me. Since it is Friday afternoon, the conversation soon turns to their after-hours interests. A pair of consular colleagues and I have offered to take them to the beach tomorrow. They are also eager to go salsa dancing, and they ask about the “in” clubs. I’m not one for night life, so I don’t know the answer, but I promise to find out.

I can ask Javier, a Cuban employee in the press and cultural office. He always seems to know what is going on around town. And as a tremor of pleasure accompanies the thought, I realize that I am looking forward to seeing him, too.

Before the workday ends, I punch in the combination on numbered metal buttons and open the heavy security door to Javier’s section. The chemical smell of copiers hangs in the air. There is always a nervous, rushed feeling in this office. In an ordinary country, its cultural exchange efforts and work with the press would be conventional and well-respected. Here they are subversive, even dangerous. Last year, the hardworking and idealistic American deputy officer was badly bruised when two burly men in a dirty white Soviet Lada ran her off the road.

I approach Javier’s cubicle, and he smiles up through a phone call. His specialty is music. At official parties and receptions, I have listened in prickling rapture as he coaxed a piano into full-throated song. Other Cubans throw themselves into art, ballet or baseball, making their restricted lives temporarily disappear.

Javier’s dark head leans to the side in concentration as he talks. His voice is warm and gravelly, his American English charming and pure, without the annoying, over-emphasized “arrr” of the radio announcers on the tourist station.

He finishes his call and stands up to greet me. I am smiling too broadly, but so is he, his intelligent brown eyes crinkling at the corners. “What can I do for you?” he asks.

He talks to me formally and deferentially, the way I would treat an ambassador. He knows the difference between his salary and mine. Like all of our Cuban staff, he technically works for Cubalse, a government agency. We pay for his labor in dollars, and he receives Cuban pesos, for an effective tax rate of some 95 percent. We also pay these workers a small amount directly, but that is one of the things we are not supposed to discuss in our intelligence-compromised offices and homes.

And what must our Cuban colleagues do, to be permitted to retain their air-conditioned, dollar-compensated jobs? We can only imagine. Do they betray us willingly, or do they take heroic measures to protect us? Most likely they do the minimum required to get by. Informing seems banal, not sinister, when one is actually doing it. A few bits of gossip, some facts that everyone already knows. Satisfaction that one has not given away anything worse. After The Wall fell, astonished East Germans found transcripts of their dull dinner conversations carefully preserved in carbon-paper gray on yellowed white.

I exchange pleasantries with Javier and then ask about salsa clubs. Carmen, from the next cubicle, joins in with a few tentative recommendations: Palacio de la Salsa, Casa de la Musica, the disco at the Hotel Comodoro. Apologetically they both admit not having been to these places in a long time.

“Guess I need to ask some twenty-year-olds,” I suggest, chuckling stupidly.

“No, it’s not that,” says Javier quickly.

“They are for tourists,” Carmen clarifies.

Yes, the best clubs would be, of course. Although Javier and Carmen earn a small dollar salary, the cover charges are steep. And in some places, even if they have scraped together the money to pay, Cubans are not admitted at all.

I have placed a hand familiarly on Javier’s arm as we talk. Now electricity rises from his skin, rooting me to the spot. I suddenly feel as if I can reach deep inside him, into a place where there is anger and bitterness and pain. And my heart is flowing toward my hand, seeking the connection.

For an instant I rage and mourn for this gentle, talented man. For his dignity forced to choke down its daily spoonfuls of humiliation. For the lies he has to tell. For the secrets I must guard from him.

He turns his face to me, so near, looking slightly startled. He must feel it too. He looks as if he is about to say something. But everything else in the room remains normal. A phone rings. Carmen talks on. The fluorescent lights make a slight buzzing sound. I look into Javier’s eyes. They are friendly, respectful, even affectionate. But somewhere deep inside them, a door is still closed. I take my hand away. It burns in the pocket of my jacket, with a dull flame that seems to drain the strength out of me.
 

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