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American Diplomacy
Foreign Service Life

May 2011

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In this fifth and last in a series of “letters” from West African postings in the 1977-1980 period, our correspondent looks at the relationship between the two former Portuguese colonies in which he served. –The Editor


 Letter from Guinea-Bissau, 1979


 Letter from Praia, 1978
Since the independence of Guinea-Bissau, observers have speculated on whether or not any significant tension existed between those of Cape Verdean background and those of pure African parentage. There have been rumors that many Africans, including some highly placed in the Party, resented the Cape Verdean predominance in the Party and Government. The question raised by observers was whether or not this tension would or could result in a coalescing of Africans into an anti-Cape Verdean movement, creating a divisive racial element in local internal politics.

Previous Embassy reporting has stated our opinion that while racial tension did exist; it was tempered by other factors to the point that we doubted if any serious possible of meaningful divisiveness existed in the immediate future. First of all, we identified the more complex nature of the racial and social composition of the GB ruling political class; that it was not merely if a question of Cape Verdeans and Africans, but rather of Cape Verdeans, other mulattos, urban class Africans from the colonial period (assimilados), and rural or urban proletariat Africans. We pointed out that there were family ties crossing these boundaries; ties reinforced by a strong sense of camaraderie stemming from the long independence struggle. In conclusion we stated our opinion that while a level of racial awareness did exist and was accompanied by a low level of background tension, we felt that it was unlikely to surface as a political factor of importance pending other developments which dramatically changed the political atmosphere of Guinea-Bissau.

Further reflection and acquaintanceship with Guinea-Bissau has caused us to further refine our opinion on the role of race in internal politics in GB, towards a further downgrading of the role of race as a potential element. In a sense we had viewed the Cape Verdean-African difference as a passive source of trouble, requiring a spark to ignite it. Now we are inclined to believe that it is also glue binding the leadership together. (Our analogy is even more complicated in that some glue is highly inflammatory.) Continued contact with GB has brought us to a greater awareness of the strength and extent of family ties among Guinea-Bissauns, regardless of color. In fact, we have come to the conclusion that with the exception of one group, all—repeat all—members of the Guinea-Bissau modern elite are related by family ties. Given the small size of this group, possibly 4,000 individuals—including children—most have several ties, both by blood and by marriage. The vast majority of individuals are probably related within the category of third cousin and the numbers of people who have double and triple relationships (e.g., third cousin through one relative, first cousin through another, related by marriage) are legend.

These ties cross all the racial boundaries; Cape Verdean, mulatto, and African. The old saying we have quoted before that Guinea-Bissau is a family not a country is probably literally true with respect to the leadership class. The common word of address in Crioulo or Creole (the country’s lingua franca) is primo or cousin. We now realize that this meant literally, that those who do not have a closer tie in fact consider each other at least cousins.

This state of affairs is obvious, when one thinks about it, given the small size of the population involved, their casual sexual habits (illegitimate births are common and carry little or no social stigma), and breeding proclivities of local men. The President of Guinea-Bissau, Luis Cabral, recognizes somewhere between twenty and thirty siblings, and the Minister of Justice recognizes twenty-four. An Embassy officer listened to several senior government officials, including the Minister of Justice, debate that from among their parent’s generation who deserved the prize as the most productive paterfamilias. They could not agree.

The reporting officer has come to believe that these ties among the literate class of Guinea-Bissauns, combined with the strong wartime camaraderie which continues among the political leadership, essentially vitiates racial tensions, tensions which do exist. While it is true that families fight, and often very nastily, it appears that the nature of the ties here precludes racial divisiveness and severely inhibits political infighting. It is another explanation for the relative lack of political tension and competition in Guinea-Bissau, noticeable even between figures of significantly different political opinions.

A close family linkage situation of this type has another, and less pleasant aspect. As all are related, promotions and assignments have a whiff of nepotism about them. Certainly much of this is unavoidable given the size of the country. Nevertheless, the nomination of President Cabral’s divorced wife as Ambassador to the Ivory Coast and the appointment of Amilcar Cabral’s widow as Ambassador to East Germany are representative of a number of situations, which lead to some raising of eyebrows.

The above discussion largely refers to the non-Moslem part of the population, although there are Moslem Bissauns in the governmental and party elite; e.g., Minister of Defense Umaro Djalo. The elite is largely derived from the old colonial bourgeoisie plus a number of Africans of peasant origins who came up through the Army and the Party in the liberation struggle. Those Moslems who are members of the new leadership class do not appear to be any different from their peers, possibly because they are lapsed Moslems just as the others are mostly lapsed Catholics. However, the reporting officer is not really confident of his information on this subject and suggests it might be a useful area to look into in the future.

In any case, the most interesting current development is the growth of high living habits among the country’s new leadership class. A noticeable rise in living standards among the elite began approximately two years ago: house renovations, stereo and radio sets, wine and whisky, overseas trips, tennis, and increasingly expensive clothing for wives, girl friends, and daughters. This was not a surprising development—to the victors belong the spoils—if only because many of the new leaders and particularly their wives are from the old local bourgeois class, many wealthy by local standards. The Minister of Tourism’s wife, for instance, is only doing her Lisbon shopping where she has done it all her life.

Earlier this year, the reporting officer referred to this phenomenon as RHIP rearing its head and that the level was not yet serious although the trend was. Even in the short period of seven months since that comment was made, the trend has continued and shows signs of picking up speed. For instance, the craze for champagne (French only, of course) among the top governmental and party leadership has become embarrassing. At large public affairs, cold bottles of champagne are brought ostentatiously to the Prime Minister and other senior officials, while the common run of guests (including diplomats and other ministers) content themselves with more normal refreshments. The top leadership openly discusses the obvious superiority of champagne and appears unaware of how blatant and, it might be said, how nouveau rich is their behavior.

Other stories are beginning to circulate: the hard currency given to pilots of the national airline to purchase special foodstuffs and drinks in Dakar; the special shopping flights to Dakar in the President’s executive jet; the high per diem rates in hard currency for the seemingly endless official visits overseas and particularly to Europe; and the special access local VIPs are given to the state trading company’s import shipments. Most of these rumors are easily substantiated by the evidence of one’s eyes in the daily round of life in Bissau. Only in the most traditional area of new country ostentation—official cars—has the government been relatively restrained. Here the Swedish connection has meant that ministers and other senior officials flit around in Volvos rather than Mercedes: not quite Volkswagens, but still. (It should be noted, however, that the Governor of the National Bank insists on a more traditional international standard and does drive a very large and black Mercedes.)

The concern about all of this comes down to the question of corruption. Is there any, if so, is it serious. A tentative answer is that little or no large-scale corruption exists. There are no rumors (or at least only one) of government officials taking kickbacks. or receiving other sorts of large-scale payoffs. Government contracts, the most obvious source of corruption, still appear to be openly (within the government) and honestly concluded. What is going on, as described above, is a relatively rapid growth in—or return to—comparatively high living styles for the leadership. As their salaries are modest (about $500 a month for ministers, plus a car, driver, house, and utilities) the question arises as to how they support their new style. In some cases, family money (usually through the wives’ side) may be a partial answer. However, the most obvious answer is the use of official funds and the receipt of friendly assistance from overseas interests. For instance, several leaders have their children in Portuguese private schools, with the bills being paid by Portuguese business friends. On trips, many leaders receive extensive hospitality, possibly including financial supplements to their government-authorized traveling expenses.

None of this is yet serious and certainly not yet dangerous to the regime, or Party discipline. Amilcar Cabral was never an ascetic, and left a tradition of enjoying the good things of life. It is, nevertheless, worrisome and potentially serious.

These developments in Bissau have already brought sharp private criticism from Cape Verde President and FAIGC Secretary-General Aristides Pereira. He is reportedly increasingly concerned by what he considers drift and slackness in the Guinea-Bissau government. Pereira himself runs a tighter ship, and, in particular, sharply controls overseas travel by his senior people.

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Otherwise life in the first half of 1980 has gone on in Guinea-Bissau without any marked changes. Foreign economic assistance continues steadily, and grows despite mounting absorption problems. The numbers of foreign experts, advisors, volunteers, and what have you are daily more obvious in the streets of Bissau. At the end of June, the first American volunteers — eleven from Crossroads Africa — showed up in the country.

The country’s major development projects continue to move ahead. While some of them are under criticism, it is clear that even ‘the most pessimistic judgments fall far short of saying that the government has yet made any truly serious or catastrophic mistakes. A negative virtue, possibly, but the persistent tendency to show caution continues to serve this new country.

External relations also jog along with no sharp breaks or significant new developments. The Senegalese decision to close down its Bissau embassy, along with twenty-two others around the world, was a surprise but would probably not materially affect the steady growth of ties between the two countries. Dakar is Bissau s obvious regional entrepot, and the Bissauns appear perfectly content for it to be so. Otherwise the government’s low-key approach to foreign affairs continues.

The balancing act choosing between the old liberation struggle ties and the new realities (and often preferences) calling for ever-closer relations with the West remains the centerpiece of Guinea-Bissau’s foreign policy. The Bissauns appear so comfortable and satisfied that this policy that probably only an enormous shock could change it. This should be of some comfort to us.

This last half-year ended with a local event which has already become a part of local legend. On June 12, President Cabral held his long promised fishing trip for the Diplomatic Corps in Bissau. By special plane and helicopter the Corps flew to the island of Bubaque for an evening party. The next day, clutching cameras, sun hats, and in the case of the Chinese Ambassador and his interpreter, umbrellas, the Corps filed onto the regular inter-island ferry specially leased for a day on the water, to include fishing. The Ambassadorial competition for the first fish was won by the North Korean (prize of twenty kilos of shrimp) and a good time was had by most (a few people were seasick).

Then at about one o’clock the ferry approached a most beautiful and romantic stretch of beach on the ocean side of the island of Bubaque where a beach buffet awaited the Corps. Suddenly, the mood changed as the ferry ran into high waves. Efforts to offload people - diplomats, ministers, protocol officers, wives, girl friends, and children - was supervised by an increasingly distraught President as his personally laid plans ran into trouble. The transfer into small boats became chaotic, and soon the beach area was littered with water soaked dips that had thrown themselves, or were thrown, into the surf. The President’s smaller yacht became trapped on the beach by the surf and the gallant efforts of a large number of more or less sober dips and VIPs to push it off failed. Although there was in fact some danger, the mood was festive and lasted throughout the two hours required; the transfer being implemented with enthusiasm if not much professionalism.

Individual scenes occurred which have become part of local legend: the Chinese Ambassador and his interpreter wading to shore in very baggy and striped boxer shorts still carrying their umbrellas; the Soviet Ambassador climbing down the side of the ferry boat in his undersized orange briefs; the American Ambassadress being thrown into the waiting arms of the commander of the Guinea-Bissau Navy as he stood chest high in the surf; the Foreign Minister’s wife walking up and down the beach in the confusion, alternately shaking her head and roaring with laughter; and finally, the five foot two, brush-cut French Charge d’Affaires standing ankle deep in the surf, chortling with glee as he filmed the whole two-hour debacle on his Super 8 camera. Soon labeled “The Longest Day”, the landing of the diplomatic corps on Bruce Beach of Bubaque Island has passed into local legend and the largely amateur crowd who starred in it anxiously awaits the first public showing of the film covering the event.blue star


imageEd Marks served more than 40 years in the U. S. Foreign Service, including an assignment as ambassador to Guinea-Bissau and Cape Verde. He graduated from Michigan and Oklahoma universities and attended the National War College. Retiring in 1995, he subsequently served on detail to the U. S. Pacific Command. He is currently a Senior Fellow at the Joint Forces Staff College and a member of the American Diplomacy board.

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