The Flag Comes Down
Before Portugal's African colonies became independent in the mid-l970s, the United States was represented in Mozambique (and in Angola) by largely autonomous consulates general which reported to Washington through the American embassy in Lisbon. After independence, the new sovereign governments of both countries were staffed by the leadership of the major guerrilla groups that had fought Portugal for independence for over a decade. In Mozambique, this group was FRELIMO (Frente pela Libertação de MozambiqueFront for the Liberation of Mozambique). FRELIMO considered itself to have fought not only Portugal, but Portugal's staunchest friends and supporters, as well. Most prominent among these was the United States.
Samora Machel, FRELIMO's top leader, became Mozambique's first president. An ideologically committed and dedicated Marxist, he was totally oriented away from the United States and towards the Soviet Union.1 The Soviets and the Peoples Republic of China (much to Soviet discomfiture) had long provided FRELIMO with political support and military assistance in hardware, training, and tactical advice. The United States tried to establish a relationship with Machel during Mozambiques nine-month transition to independence, without success. After independence, however, Machel recognized that he could not permanently alienate the United States, and diplomatic relations were finally established in September. But the new government would not have anything to do with the handful of holdover Americans still cooling their heels in Lourenço Marques. A new and untainted face was needed to begin the new era.
A New Player
Before proceeding to Lourenço Marques I detoured to Zambia. It was important to assure influential President Kenneth Kaunda that the United States was seriously seeking a productive relationship with Marxist Mozambique. There being no direct flight to Lourenço Marques, and not wishing to arrive from South Africa, I backtracked to Tanzania, whose president, Julius Nyereyre, had been mentor to Samora Machel. It occurred to me there that our people in Mozambique would probably not have the customary embassy seal that identifies American diplomatic posts all around the world. So on a dusty Sunday morning in Dar-es-Salaam I was taken to the local U. S. embassy warehouse to look for a seal. We found one, washed it clean, and I held it between my knees on the flight to Lourenço Marques.
Upon arrival the holdover staff that had gathered at the airport fretted that no representative of the new government was on hand to meet me, as is customary for heads of diplomatic missions arriving at post. We all took this as a bad omen. My first official act was to send a formal note to Foreign Minister Joaquim Chissano2 announcing my arrival and requesting an audience. This brought no response. We were puzzled, because the foreign minister had personally met in New York with then-Secretary of State Henry Kissinger to establish diplomatic relations and agree to opening embassies in each other's countries. I waited ten days before sending a second note. The silence deepened. Meanwhile, the story was getting around that something was really amiss with the Americans. Our diplomatic colleaguesthe only other foreigners left in Mozambiqueremained friendly but cautious, concerned that whatever disease we had might be catching.
I am still grateful, however, to various other diplomatic representatives, particularly including the head of the UNDP delegation and the British and Soviet ambassadors, for consoling us good-humoredly from time to time and making life bearable. The Soviet envoy, by the way, had been involved in the struggles for independence of all of Portugals African colonies and was said to have been in charge of covert operations in Angola. He delighted in thinking he had introduced me to vodka. As I discovered later, he had also broadcast this belief of his around town (see postscript).
Our situation went on for seven weeks. I wasn't accomplishing what I was sent out to do. So we decided to go for broke. I cabled the State Departmentwhich had been kept informed of all thisthat unless otherwise instructed I planned to raise the flag and declare the embassy open for business the following Saturday morning, November 8. I told the foreign ministry the same thing. The silence became deafening. Washington appeared to have fallen into the same void the Mozambicans were in. Hearing nothing from anyone, we prepared all week for the big event. Among other contingencies, we considered the possibility of my being thrown in jail or railroaded out of town.
On Saturday, our American and Mozambican employees, with all available spouses and children, gathered by the fourth-story office window that sprouted our flagpole. At nine a.m. sharp, we held our collective breath, unfurled Old Glory and listened for footsteps or sirens. Nothing happened. We peered up and down the street. Directly opposite was a usually noisy dockyard bar and the remains of what in pre-independence days had been a popular bawdy house. Silence. We breathed again, smiled hesitantly at each other, and drove to the residence overlooking the bay. This, after all, was where the flag had originally been ordered down. The true test would take place here. The office area was deserted anyway so, we told ourselves, we had actually just been through a practice session.
At the residence, the tall flagpole had been repainted a sparkling white. It also boasted a new lanyard. Everything shone under the brilliant blue sky of a perfect morning. Our lookout at the gate signaled all clear. First we put up the embassy seal I had carried from Tanzania, and admired it for a moment. We again checked our two draft cables to the State Department, one of which would be sent, proclaiming either success or failure. Then we gathered in a semicircle on the gravel driveway by the flagpole. I had the flag. As prearranged, I handed it to the twelve-year-old son of our public affairs officer. I helped him unfurl it and carefully hook it onto the lanyard. We stood silently for a moment as the Star Spangled Banner began playing on the stereo set in the house. I nodded to the boy, who slowly raised the Stars and Stripes.
No one spoke. We were caught in the profound symbolism of the moment. It seemed as if we had been made whole again, far from home on the edge of the Indian Ocean in a country deeply suspicious of our presence and our motives. It was a morning none of us will ever forget.
Neighbors and passersby took notice. Some stopped or called to congratulate us. That was all. We slowly relaxed and enjoyed a peaceful, satisfying weekend. On Monday I told the foreign ministry what we had done. A few days later I was finally received by the Foreign Minister and we were officially in business.
1. President Machel died in a plane crash in l986, and Mozambique formally renounced Marxism in l989.
2. Joaquim Chissano succeeded Machel as president of Mozambique.
February 5, 2002