By Appointment Only
Nineteen floors above the gum-stained sidewalks of downtown Miami, in a private room within the First Union Financial Center's exclusive Miami Club, an assembly of South Florida's most important but least known individuals gathered recently for their monthly luncheon. Between them they represented some 40 nations, and each spoke several languages, though none so fluently as protocol, their lingua franca. It was protocol that bound them as diplomats and protocol that, after twenty minutes of subdued socializing, gently called for an end to the tinkle of liquored ice and the titter of false modesty.
There were matters of global import to be reviewed -- the business of nations brought face to face over starched tablecloths -- and protocol demanded that Nabil Achkar, the Lebanese-born secretary of Miami's Consular Corps, open the proceedings. The Corps, by now seated, favored Achkar's pronouncements with one of two responses: polite applause or, more rarely, grave nods.
Achkar began by acknowledging the passing of the King of Belgium (grave nods) and honoring the new king (polite applause). He then listed those nations that had celebrated national holidays during the Corps' summer hiatus (polite applause for each). Next he introduced the manager of the Miami Club (polite applause) and the honored guests on hand: the local head of a federal agency (polite applause); a magazine editor (polite applause); a visiting consul of Malta (polite applause). Achkar delicately lamented the tragic shooting of a German tourist (grave nods) and hailed German consul general Klaus Sommer's triumphant handling of the crisis (polite applause).
Gustavo L centspez, consul general of Guatemala and dean of the Corps, introduced the new Canadian consul, Doug Campbell (polite applause), who promised a fully operational office by November (polite applause). Only as L centspez announced the City of Miami's intention to issue local consuls ID cards did the Corps' bedrock of propriety begin to fissure.
Perhaps it was the pressure of spin-doctoring yet another dead countryman. Perhaps the tedium of mixing with fledgling envoys. Perhaps simply an excess of vinegar in the salad dressing. Whatever the reason, Klaus Sommer, the German, shot up. "Why do I need an ID card from Miami?" he asked, throwing down his napkin. "I have already three cards from the State Department. Why do I need another? Am I expected to get a card from Coral Gables and Hialeah, as well?" His blue eyes glared through owlish spectacles. "What is the purpose of this activity?" he barked.
The Corps fell mute, groping for an appropriate response. A few colleagues laughed politely. Others nodded gravely. L centspez, a small and smiling man, took a step backward to compose himself. "Yes, well, you are very frank, Klaus," he stammered. "We don't necessarily need the ID. But perhaps it would help the local police. Anyway, I think it is more a gesture by Miami to show us they are willing to cooperate with us. Of course, it is up to every delegation to decide if they would like such IDs."
Without a perceptible pause, L centspez whisked on to other matters. There was still the Consular Ball to be considered, the presentation of a silver plate to the departing British consul, Philip Grice, and the introduction of the day's guest speaker, Miami Herald publisher Roberto Suarez. But the magnate's cloying speech -- rendered practically incoherent by a malfunctioning microphone -- did little to quell the tension.
No sooner had Suarez made his way back to his seat when the bickering began anew. Richard Allan Nixon, newly appointed consul of Grenada, carped ardently about airport staff, who had the audacity to question his passport. Madge Barrett, Jamaica's regal consul general, complained that a police officer had, in violation of immunity laws, issued her driver a parking ticket. "We must be recognized," she snapped. "And that is not going to happen simply by having people come talk to us."
As the luncheon dissolved into awkward small talk and Suarez dug into his tepid fish, a confused portrait of Miami's Consular Corps emerged. They were, on one hand, esteemed members of the fastest-growing diplomatic outpost in the world, the vanguard in post-Cold War expansionism. And yet....
And yet they whined about parking tickets.
Sommer's indignant speech was the quintessential reflection of this tug of war between grandiosity and insecurity. Which is one reason the Corps was still clucking over the outburst weeks after the luncheon. The other, more obvious reason, was left unspoken: No one likes to see a diplomat snap.
Two camps of prehistoric men are engaged in an ongoing battle over hunting turf. Midnight raids are carried out, traps set, clubs swung, corpses stacked. Eventually a realization dawns on the larger-brained combatants: not much hunting is getting done. In a bold move, one side sends a special representative to the opposing cave to resolve the situation. In his best opposing-caveman dialect, the envoy explains his mission. He is quickly clubbed to death.
This should clear up any lingering questions about the concept of diplomatic immunity.
History is full of instructive lessons detailing how warring clans and states have come to terms peaceably. Homeric scholars will recall, for instance, the many diplomatic missions undertaken in the Iliad, all of which failed until the Greeks convinced the Trojans to accept a large wooden horse as a gift, at which time the Greeks poured out of the horse and burned Troy to the ground.
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?
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.
On the morning after the killing, at 9:00 a.m., Merrett Stierheim, the president of the Greater Miami Convention and Visitors Bureau, walked into the office of Dade County Commission Chairman Art Teele. I think this is it, he told Teele, I think the German consul general is going to tell his travel agents to list Miami as off-limits. "It was at that moment I realized that our fate as a community was pretty much in Sommer's hands," Teele says.
A meeting was quickly brokered by Teele between Sommer and Gov. Lawton Chiles, who had flown down to Miami for a day of damage control. The hourlong tate-a-tate went well. Four hours later, Sommer went before the press with Chiles. Though he had been stern after the April killing, he was on this occasion supremely gracious. He stressed the overall decrease in crime against Germans. He praised local officials for their cooperation. Most important, he did not issue any sort of embargo on traveling to Miami. In fact, he told the media, "This is a beautiful area with warm-hearted people. There are also certain risks, but I would not say, 'Stay away, Miami is an unsafe place.'"
Stierheim and Teele heaved deep sighs of relief. "My understanding is that the German press was asking for blood," Teele notes. "And truthfully, Sommer gave this community a second chance." His forgiving posture, more pointedly, helped ensure that the 300,000 Germans who visit South Florida annually would continue to spend their dollars here.
The incident also jolted local officials into recognizing the potential influence of the Consular Corps. "People might see this stuff as hogwash, or PR. But no city in America is more dependent on what happens outside our national borders than Miami, and these consuls are our direct line. We've done a horrible job of recognizing them," says Teele, who has ordered his office to find ways to strengthen the county's relationship with the Corps.
Airport officials have been most responsive. In 1989 they established a Department of Protocol and International Relations (annual budget: $175,000) to guarantee that all visiting dignitaries are made to feel like dignitaries. No waiting in line for Customs. No hunting for connecting flights. No bullshit. The department's five staffers are all versed in at least four languages and must keep abreast of current affairs so they can make small talk with the bigwigs they greet. There has even been talk of setting up a diplomats' lounge.
"Something like a protocol room for them at the airport -- that should be a drop in the bucket," argues Metro Commissioner Maurice Ferre, who rattled the same saber a decade ago while he was mayor of Miami. "We need to throw many more functions for them. We need to set up intercultural exchanges. And most important of all, we need to build a world trade center. To me this is not some sort of dreamy thing," adds Ferre, renowned for his grand-scale scheming. "Right now a third of the business done here is international, and we're talking billions, not millions."
As usual, Miami commissioners are a step ahead, if a bit off base. In 1991 they set up their own Protocol Commission -- which they have yet to fund. "We asked for money, less than $100,000, six months ago," says volunteer chairman Virgilio Perez. "We're still waiting." The commission has, however, spearheaded the effort to provide local consuls ID cards so they can better identify themselves to local police. Unfortunately, federal officials say they're the only ones legally permitted to furnish consular employees with IDs.
For its part, the Corps has whined over the lack of recognition from local officials for years. Former Bahamian consul Peter Drudge proposed reorganizing the Corps in 1981 to make its lobbying efforts more aggressive, after a mob of angry Haitians broke into his consulate and terrorized his staff. He was unsuccessful. "We seem to be back at square one," says Drudge, who recently rejoined the Corps as an associate member. "Despite all the promises and hopes, your average consul here is still sort of out in orbit."
A Little Perspective from the Old-timers
Thomas Flynn, former consul of Panama: "Hell, the Corps has just gotten so big and busy. Used to be there was this one little guy from France running around taking care of everything. Now they got five secretaries and all the rest of them doing what he did. You walk into the French consul and you'd think you're walking into the UN."
Gui Govaert, of Belgium: "You must learn, over the years, which invitations not to accept."
George Combaluzier, former consul of Guatemala: "I still get to order a few cases of liquor tax-free. You put in your request to the consul, and he gets it from the State Department. Scotch, vodka, whatever. I do some work for them, too, as a lawyer. I've got time since I retired. Mostly I help defend the guys who get arrested for DUI. You know -- one hand washes the other."
An Honorary Consul
The strangest object in Michael S. Hacker's office in the First Union Financial Center is not the life-size gold Buddha that peers, wide-eyed, from one corner. Nor the brick of pure silver Hacker rescued from a sunken Spanish galleon. Nor the chunks of the Berlin Wall. Nor even the telescope whose lens affords an up-close view of the sunbathers lounging poolside, 600 feet below.
No, the most curious of his countless artifacts is a small dish that sits on the outskirts of his chaotic desk. Inside the dish are three sets of business cards, and on these cards, in capital letters, are three titles:
MICHAEL S. HACKER, CONSUL GENERAL, (HON.) REPUBLIC OF TURKEY
MICHAEL S. HACKER, CONSUL GENERAL, (HON.) REPUBLIC OF SENEGAL
MICHAEL S. HACKER, CONSUL GENERAL, (HON.) REPUBLIC OF TOGO
You are no doubt wondering how Michael S. Hacker, a man you have probably never heard of, a man who recently returned from a vacation with a braided ponytail dangling from his gray coiffure, could serve as consul general for three nations. The key here is the abbreviation, "Hon.," short for "Honorary." Honorary consuls, or HCs, are not career diplomats sent by a foreign country, but private citizens with political or business connections in a particular country. They almost always work part-time.
In the great pecking order of diplomacy -- and diplomacy is nothing if not a pecking order -- HCs are generally looked down upon by career consuls, who are in turn looked down upon by ambassadors. The HC's historical reputation is perhaps best conveyed in Graham Greene's novel The Honorary Consul, in which the author baldly assesses his protagonist's worth at one case of Scotch.
Though approved by both the sending government and the U.S. State Department, HCs cannot stamp visas or passports, and are usually unpaid. If anything, they are allotted money for office supplies, or perhaps a secretary. Thus, the sending country gets a bargain-basement representative, and the HC gets, well, any number of benefits. Party invites. Entree to business deals. Tax-free booze. The right to tear up parking tickets. Fees for notarizing shipping lists.
Not that HCs are in it for the money. Talk to any of the twenty-some-odd in town, and they'll swear up and down that they accepted their post to repay the debt they owed the sending country. For HCs like fish distributor Thorir Grondal (Iceland) or chiropractor Urs Lindenmann (Switzerland), who grew up in the countries they serve, this allegiance is easy to trace.
In Michael Hacker's case, though, it's hard to say what debt he might owe the predominantly Muslim republics of Senegal and Turkey, or Togo. He is, after all, an American Jew, raised in Chicago and educated at Indiana University. He came to Miami as a state prosecutor in 1966, went into private practice two years later, and spent most of the coke-crazed Seventies defending accused drug traffickers. "Then all the laws changed and all the drug people left," Hacker notes glumly. "And I turned to civil law and diplomacy." So how did he swing this unique troika of appointments?
Hacker, a normally garrulous sort, won't say exactly. "In each instance I knew the presidents of the countries through my father. These were hand-me-down connections," he concedes. He mumbles something about U.S. interests and the persistent threat of socialism. "It goes much deeper than that, but we won't go into it."
He is perfectly forthright, anyway, about the perks. He receives fees for authenticating documents. He gets to schmooze and booze with diplomats from the host countries on his vacation romps around the globe. He gets to play diplomat here in Miami, where he recently hosted a ritzy reception for a touring contingent of 35 Turkish mayors. Should any of his countries establish direct flights to Miami, Hacker says, he will look to make some money arranging tours or trade deals. It may seem a long way from his lavishly appointed 38th-floor enclave to Lome, the capital of Togo. But Hacker likes to believe that his steady protestations had something to do with that government's decision to re-establish diplomatic relations with Israel.
There are no rules to prevent HCs like Hacker from serving more than one government simultaneously. But stiffer members of the Corps frown upon the practice, for obvious reasons. Suppose a Turkish exchange student and a tourist from Togo got into a nasty, drunken scrap. Suppose both phoned their local consul demanding help. "I'd probably have to remove myself from that situation," is the best Hacker can offer.
A Related Practical Joke
1) Get a phone book and find the number for attorney Michael S. Hacker.
2) Call Hacker and, in your best Jimmy Olsen tenor, say: "Mr. Hacker, this is _______ _______ from the Associated Press. I just wanted to get your reaction to the Turkish declaration of war against Togo."
3) Do not tell anyone where you got this idea.
Many of you lowly nondiplomats are probably wondering just how you might join the glamorous world of the Consular Corps. We can safely assume, since you are still reading this article, that landing a high-level role in the foreign service is somewhat out of your league. Winning an appointment as honorary consul may be a more realistic goal. With this in mind, a few tips:
Perform open-heart surgery on generals -- for free: Dr. Walter Janke, a native of Peru, was named HC in 1978, after operating on hundreds of heartsick countrymen, many free of charge. "I got a call one day out of the blue asking if I wanted to be an honorary consul. I guess some of my patients talked to the president there," Janke explains. "Would you turn them down?"
Target an obscure country: Several years back Deborah Balliette-Jacobson played tour guide to a group of African ambassadors on a trade mission. She met a deputy ambassador from Tunisia. The two hit it off. One thing led to another. This spring HC Balliette-Jacobson hosted a gala for 25 Tunisian businessmen, replete with belly dancers and a chef flown in from Tunis by the government.
If it comes down to an interview situation, don't lie: After a lengthy process of winnowing nominees, Japan selected Richard Swann as HC. "I told them my only connection to Japan was that I was a radio gunner on a torpedo bomber in World War II," says the retired attorney. "I haven't the slightest idea why they chose me."
Use your pull: "If you don't have someone to push you in the Latin countries, you don't get anywhere," reports George Combaluzier, whose old chum, the minister of defense, helped him win his appointment as HC of Guatemala in 1969. Guatemalan Consul General Gustavo L centspez could tell you the same thing -- he's the son of a former minister of the interior, and son-in-law of a former vice president.
When all else fails, call Uncle Sam: Paraguayan officials hoping to name Thomas Chegin, a retired military attache in their country, as their HC back in the Seventies ran smack into a law that forbids former army personnel from serving as consuls. Fortunately, the soft-spoken was able to appeal to a sympathetic congressman, who passed a bill exempting him, by name, from the provision.
When all else fails, call Jorge Mas Canosa: In select circles it is known that Jorge Mas Canosa, chairman of the Cuban American National Foundation, put his imprimatur upon the selection of attorney Alan Becker as HC of the new Czech republic. Becker himself admits Mas played a role in his selection by introducing him to the country's minister of foreign affairs at a 1991 CANF function. Mas, Becker notes, has had a longstanding interest in the former Communist countries of the Eastern bloc. Becker, meanwhile, is so impressed with the Czechs' capitalist potential that he recently opened a law office there.
P.S.: Corps dues are about $200 per year, luncheons included.
The exequatur, or date of recognition, is the document that makes any consular appointment official. It must be signed by presidents of the sending and host countries. Framed exequaturs hang on the walls of every consul in town, no matter how lowly. Except Jean Gabriel Augustin's. A lawyer and former educator at Miami-Dade Community College, Augustin was appointed consul general of Haiti in March 1991 by then-president Jean-Bertrand Aristide. Five months later Aristide was deposed by a military dictatorship -- before Augustin's exequatur could be processed. Thus, for the past two years Augustin has served as an unofficial consul reporting to a president in exile. That ended last month, when Aristide named his own prime minister, Robert Malval. Augustin and his staff of fourteen are again reporting to Port-au-Prince. The exequatur is expected any day now.
A Little Tiger
Hsu-Fu Huang leans close enough that the beer on his breath outranks his cologne. "Maybe you don't know this, so I tell you: We are the fourteenth-largest trading nation in the world. The world! We trade $36.4 billion with the U.S. annually. That's billion." Huang checks to make sure the figure has been properly recorded. "We have 55 companies from Taiwan operating here. We have a new Taiwan Trade Center near Doral, with 75 products for prospective buyers. Our commercial division on Brickell has fifteen staff."
Huang, Taiwan's trade representative, is a man of meek appearance: short, thin, slightly bowed at the sternum. But there is something feral about his eyes, a crust of assurance on his thin smile. His is the face of the Corps' emerging Far East contingent, an aggressive squad of businessmen/diplomats racing to establish markets as fast as Latin America can produce them. The Japanese set up shop last year. Now Hong Kong has a trade rep.
"Taiwan is called 'The Tiger,'" says Huang, springing forward again. "We have just twenty million people, but we are the fourteenth-largest trade partner in the world. We trade $600 million a year with the State of Florida. Now you will see the Pacific Rim countries grow more and more important. Taiwan, Korea, Hong Kong, Singapore -- they call us the four little tigers! The four little dragons!"
The only reason Taiwan doesn't have a fully accredited consul in Miami, as Huang indignantly notes, is due to that nation's relationship with the Republic of China: "Because of Communist China we are not part of the UN. It's very unfair, you see? We have no diplomatic relations since 1979." The little dragon spits fire a bit longer, then returns to the matter at hand. "This tie," he announces, triumphantly fingering the silk design. "Made in Taiwan."
Everyone was waiting to see what the Mexican consul general would say, because, for once, at long last, his words actually mattered. Bulmaro Pacheco, a jocular man in a shiny blue suit that stopped just short of garish, was standing on-stage, beneath the Mexican flag. Gathered before him in the ballroom of the Inter-Continental hotel were several hundred of the most influential Latins in Miami, mostly Mexicans who had paid 40 bucks a head to celebrate their nation's day of independence in style.
The flower arrangements on each table were red, white, and green -- Mexico's colors -- as were the balloons that clung to the ceiling. Along with personalized place cards, commemorative menus greeted each diner, disclosing on one side the relevant corporate sponsorship (Aeromexico, AT&T, Bacardi) and on the other the evening's fare (ensalada tricolor, mole de pollo, mousse de guayaba). The band, upscale mariachis, dependably mangled "La Bamba."
In details subtle and plain, the event was the Mexican government's way of showing off for the local gentry. The other Central American countries had celebrated their own independence with far humbler receptions. "Everyone showed up for this one, though, because they know we throw the best party of all," remarked a Mexican consular staffer.
As Pacheco stood under the flag listening to a young girl recite his nation's endless virtues, he knew there was more at stake than social bragging rights. For the preceding month, after all, Cuban exile leaders had camped outside his consulate, shouting epithets and burning the Mexican flag to protest his government's decision to deport eight Cuban rafters.
In the early Eighties Cuban exiles had expressed their wrath at Mexico's cordial relations with Fidel Castro by planting a bomb in the consulate. Thus, the recent demonstrations had not been taken lightly. A dozen Metro-Dade police officers were deployed to secure the consulate, on the fifth floor of a bank building on Le Jeune Road. The State Department's local Diplomatic Security Service, the agency charged with safeguarding the Consular Corps, had a team of agents surveilling Pacheco around the clock for several days.
Eventually the Mexican government -- fearful that the powerful exile lobby would oppose the North American Free Trade Agreement -- bowed to pressure and allowed the rafters to immigrate to Miami. Pacheco, in fact, served as the link between exile strongman Jorge Mas Canosa and the Mexican foreign minister. But the affair left Miami's Mexican American community bristling with indignation. And tonight, with his most esteemed countrymen present, with Mas Canosa seated in his very midst, with cilantro and jingoism perfuming the air, Pacheco was expected to break his official silence. Protocol required that he defend the honor of la patria.
After a few opening remarks, he did just that. "Our flag was burned by a minority who doesn't know what they want," he thundered. "They are angry at the government of Mexico, but they take it out on the people. The majority of Cubans don't feel anything against Mexico. But we don't need Cubans to teach us about oppression because we have a long history: 300 years with Spain, a painful revolution. We don't need anybody to teach us about oppression." In the foreign-relations scheme of things, the comments weren't worth the paper they were scribbled on. But the crowd greeted his words with a sustained chorus of "Viva Mexico!" Before quietly exiting, Mas Canosa pledged his support for NAFTA. Pacheco looked as pleased as a future ambassador.
Perhaps it wouldn't have been so bad if it weren't the Spaniard. But then, you have to understand the role Spaniards traditionally have played in the Corps. Because they are considered the cultural progenitors of Latin America, they are treated like royalty. Local brahmins inundate them with invites. Other Latin consuls fawn over them.
When Erik Martel arrived in 1989, he seemed to possess everything one could want in a consul general. An Iberian pedigree that dated back to the Moorish occupation. Years of seasoning as a diplomat. And grandiose plans for the 500th anniversary of Columbus's voyage. Sadly, the strong-willed Martel proved less than diplomatic in his dealings. He clashed over the Columbus event with prominent exile banker Carlos Arboleya. He angered his staff. Rumors began circulating in the Corps that he was abusing the privileges of his office. In July 1992 the Spanish government ordered him home.
But Martel refused to leave the consular residence, claiming he had immunity. The siege dragged on for ten months. The eleven-room Coral Gables mansion, built by a Dominican dictator and once owned by Lucille Ball, fell to ruin. The pond in front turned green, the shutters tattered. The electricity was terminated. The new consul general was forced to conduct business from his hotel room. When the new consul's wife confronted Martel, he summoned the police to expel her. In a quixotic bid to clear his name, Martel sued the Spanish government last year for $81 million. The suit was dismissed, and this past January a county judge evicted him.
Even his father, a retired admiral and the marquis of San Fernando, turned against him. Martel, who will someday inherit that esteemed title, remains in Miami. His lawyers say he will carry on the legal crusade, but they refused to return several messages from New Times seeking specific comment from the embattled ex-consul general.
Martel is not the only consular bad boy, of course; he's merely the loudest. Over the years a number of diplomats have run afoul of the law. During the Seventies a Haitian consul was found with marijuana in his back yard. More recently a Colombian staffer was nabbed at the airport with a false-sided briefcase full of cocaine. Unlike ambassadors, who can literally get away with murder, consuls and consular staff enjoy very limited immunity. They can be arrested, detained -- even issued traffic tickets. Only if they commit a crime while engaged in official consular duties can they escape prosecution.
But these are not matters upon which Corps members like to dwell. "There was some unpleasantness there, yes," comments secretary Nabil Achkar, succinctly summarizing the Martel affair.
A Benign Imperialist
Richard Allan Nixon, who likes to joke that he is not a crook, became the HC of Grenada this past spring, thanks at least in part to a business card. Nixon, who works for a telecommunications company, kept running into the same problem with investors. "They'd say, 'You're asking me to build a hotel in Grenada and handing me a telecommunication card. Where's the link?'" Nixon recalls in his slightly clipped British accent. "I was explaining this to the prime minister [of Grenada], and he said, 'Listen, how'd you like to be our consul up there?'" Within months Grenada's senate had stamped its approval, and Nixon had a new set of business cards.
But Nixon makes little pretense of his status as a diplomat. He is a businessman who has come to where the deals are made, a benign imperialist seeking to remodel his homeland, project by project. "I think the whole focus of diplomacy is going to move toward industrial development in the Third World," he says earnestly. "To assist these countries in bettering themselves."
There is something almost quaint in his rhetoric about privatization and tax incentives and his tiny nation pulling itself up by its bootstraps. It is all so Reaganesque, from the earnest insistence that the U.S. invasion of 1983 was in fact a "rescue" to the two gold-capped Montblanc pens that peak from the pocket of his crisp shirt. Once a high school radical, the Nixon of today says he is sick of seeing the children of Grenada walking around barefoot. With the proper incentives and a good diplomat to broker the deal, those small feet, he argues, could be sporting bright new Nikes.
A Sense of Closure
At a cocktail party not long ago, the local representative of a once-great empire stepped atop a cooler of soda pop to address his besotted subjects. "I am glad to have this evening to properly recognize the people who have made my stay here such a joy," announced British consul Philip Grice. "Unfortunately none of them showed up this evening. Actually, as many of you know, I have been called back to London, on exceedingly short notice, I might add. They want me to help set up some sort of new trade department. I am truly sorry to report that this will be my last function here after over three years. Yes, yes, quite sad. But the point of this gathering is business. Also, please sign the visitors' book there in the front. Our government reimburses us a dollar-fifty for each name. I hearby proclaim the bar reopened." By Her Majesty's command, the spirits renewed a steady pilgrimage from smudged bottles to girdled bellies.
The three dozen Britons wedged into Grice's consular office mingled with ferocity. My, did the business cards fly. Safari guides swapping with travel agents, journalists trading with bar owners. The problem was, everyone seemed to be selling, and no one buying. This lent the proceedings an air of gracious desperation, not entirely inappropriate given Britain's economic malaise.
Grice, an amiable, fortyish chap with a bowl of blond hair and a radish nose, spent his last party clutching a Coors, openly rueful. "Come, have a look at my office. Now isn't this a spy's paradise? Look there, you can see all the planes that come into the airport. And 'round here all the ships that dock in port. But that's all James Bond stuff," he sighed. "I spent three years here, you know. Beautiful weather. Like in Cuba. I was there during the missile crisis as a secretary. Damn glad you bastards didn't drop the bomb on us."
In the next room guests feasted on canned ham and sausage, the flatulent reek of Stilton cheese -- "Britain's finest" -- rising from a mound on the table. For two hours Grice dutifully made the rounds, until it was just him and the consular staff and the stinky remains of the Stilton.
"When I applied for this job, there were sixteen other applications. Everyone wants to be in Miami," Grice lamented at the end. "If Florida were a nation, it would be the thirteenth-largest economy on earth. Bigger than Australia. Damn sorry to be leaving." He tugged discreetly at his crotch. "You've even got cable.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Miami New Times' biggest stories.