By Appointment Only

What could be more exciting and fulfilling than the life of a consul? Well, lots of things, actually.

The truth of the matter is that the most successful leaders, from Genghis Khan to Adolf Hitler, generally are the least diplomatic. This is because, as Plato noted at about the time Philip II of Macedon was very undiplomatically plundering the Aegean peninsula, "Every city is in a natural state of war with every other, not indeed proclaimed by heralds, but everlasting." In Plato's era it was not uncommon for incompetent diplomats to be sentenced to death. So, too, in Stalin's. "Bring out the machine guns," the Soviet dictator once proposed during a cocktail party. "Let's liquidate the diplomats." These days, failed diplomats are more often demoted, which usually involves relocation to a city without cable TV.

This is not to diminish the historical significance of diplomacy. America owes its very existence to statesman Benjamin Franklin, who traveled to Paris in 1776 and managed to compel France, a bankrupt country, to bankroll the Revolutionary War. This might help explain America's passion for brinkmanship, which has, in just two centuries, transformed a once-rarefied arena into big business. With the eager patronage of the Yanks, world leaders joined in creating the United Nations, an institution that spends hundreds of billions of dollars in the name of diplomacy.

Today's diplomatic triumphs are celebrated on a grand scale, as concrete evidence that enemies can put aside native hatreds and shake hands. One thinks of Yalta, the hard-won treaties that dismantled the Cold War, the Camp David accords, and, just weeks ago, the historic agreement between Palestinian Arabs and Israeli Jews.

What has all this to do with Miami? Not much, frankly.
World peace does not rest on the shoulders of our Consular Corps. Miami is not what you'd call a diplomatic hot spot, in the traditional sense of the word, anyway. But as the global economy expands, Miami has become a capital in a new kind of international relations, one that is centered on trade and tourism, not treaties. Foreign ministers looking to broaden their commercial base view Miami -- politically stable and fax-friendly -- as the ideal gateway to the Caribbean and Latin America. Conversely, developing interests down south view Miami as the conduit to North America and Europe. Consequently, Miami's Consular Corps, for years a languid outpost stocked with the favorites of assorted dictators, has grown into the fourth-largest diplomatic settlement in the U.S. Three nations have assigned consuls to Miami this year alone, lifting the official count to 56; a dozen others have upgraded their offices. All of which leads to one inevitable question:

What in God's name is a consul?
A Definition
For a definitive answer, New Times went straight to a pair of certified experts: Hope Ridings Miller, the editor emerita of Diplomat Magazine, and the late Ambrose Bierce, author of the Devil's Dictionary. The results were, uh, mixed.

"Consuls," Miller questioned, nervously. "I don't really know what consuls do. But I know they're important." Bierce offered this wicked assessment: "Consul, noun -- In American politics, a person who having failed to secure an office from the people is given one by the Administration on condition that he leave the country."

Fellow author Nathaniel Hawthorne, who spent four years as consul in Liverpool, probably wouldn't dispute Bierce. Nor would most of the hundreds of other consuls dispatched overseas before World War II. For years, the consular wing of the foreign service was a hotbed of nepotism.

Today's consuls, of course, scoff at the cushy-political-appointment label. In its broadest definition, a consul is an official appointed to reside in a foreign city to represent his or her government's commercial interests and give assistance to its citizens there.

Most Miami consulates, however, have extensive jurisdictions. Italian Marco Rocca, for instance, is responsible for Florida, Georgia, North and South Carolina, Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and the Cayman Islands. For this reason a consul general often heads a mission with up to twenty staffers, including a consul, vice consul, and the lowest rung, attaches.

But in the excruciating caste system of foreign service, consular posts are still seen as a stepping stone to the highest of all diplomatic callings: ambassador. For this reason consuls have long been considered the bush-leaguers of the diplomatic world, wanna-be's who aspire to high-level negotiation but spend most of their time stamping passports and visas and shipping invoices. Or wiring money to stranded tourists. Or bailing drunken comrades out of jail. Ambassadors occupy capitals and toast muckety-mucks. Consuls haunt the boonies and field calls about their country's ferret importation laws.

To make matters worse, most of Miami's 300 or so consular employees are hidden away in skyscraper offices, virtually invisible to the natives. A dicey international depot like South Florida, however, has a way of shoving consuls into the limelight, sometimes overnight.

A Case Study
The recent dilemma that befell Klaus Sommer, Germany's moody consul general, provides a pointed example. When two youths killed German tourist Barbara Meller Jensen in April, Sommer was so incensed that he threatened a tourism boycott. Last month another German visitor was murdered while trying to escape armed thieves in his rented car. The story led all three major network news programs. The White House issued a statement. Sommer, a foreign service veteran who had served in Zaire, Ecuador, Sierra Leone, India, Brazil, and Spain, was inundated with requests for comment.

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