“You’re Outta Here!”: Getting Declared Persona Non Grata
When a nation declares a diplomat “persona non grata,” it is essentially kicking him or her out of the country. The host nation does not have to explain why it wants to PNG someone, but that person must leave the country in a given time period, often within 24-48 hours. Governments declare people persona non grata for many reasons, most notably for espionage; this will usually lead to the other government PNGing someone of equal rank and responsibility from its country as a quid pro quo.
Robert C. F. Gordon was posted in the recently formed Tanzania in 1964 when he and Frank Carlucci were declared persona non grata unexpectedly; it took them years to find out why. Samuel Vick Smith was posted in Madagascar as a vice consul in the mid-1970s when one of his coworkers was PNG’ed after meeting with student protesters. The odd thing was that the government also PNG’ed someone who had not been in the embassy for over 10 years. Arthur H. Davis, Jr. was preparing to be Ambassador to Panama when the Panamanian National Assembly actually voted to declare him persona non grata even before he got there (the U.S. forced Noriega to back down and he went anyway). Smith, Gordon and Davis were each interviewed by Charles Stuart Kennedy in July 2001, January 1989 and May 1991, respectively.
Robert C. F. Gordon
GORDON: In the spring of 1964 it had become Tanzania and had united with Zanzibar. And we had an office in Zanzibar comprised of two officers, Frank Carlucci (at left), who has gone on to great fame since then. And the other one was a fellow by the name of Donald Peterson, who [was] the Ambassador to Dar es Salaam. That was a subordinate post since it was a consulate reporting through Dar es Salaam.
I arrived there in June and was out in January, and also out three weeks in the London Hospital for Tropical Diseases, so I didn’t spend an awful lot of time there. I just barely got myself oriented where I started producing something when the Ambassador was called in by the President who told him that Frank and I were declared persona non grata and we had 24 hours to get out of town. Never gave any reason or anything, which you don’t have to do.
And one of my ambitions has always been to find out exactly what the reason was. We found out through a quirk that they had tapped the telephones and were listening to conversations I had with Carlucci. He would phone me or I would phone him back and forth just keeping in touch on things.
And we had a long discussion a couple days before we were declared PNG. He had called me and said the Independence Day Anniversary of Zanzibar was coming up. I said yes. He said, “I’d like to do something. Some message of some kind.”
I said, “Don’t forget it’s now Tanzania. It’s no longer Tanganyika and Zanzibar. It’s Tanzania.” I said, “I want to move fairly slowly on this.” I said, “Let’s wait and see what Nigeria, Ghana, Great Britain, Members of the Commonwealth, let’s see what the members of the Commonwealth countries do about this type of thing, whether they are going to send a message or not. And if they do, then that will give us the ammunition we need to go back to Washington and maybe get a message out of [Assistant Secretary for African Affairs] Soapy Williams or somebody.”
Now at that time we weren’t aware that our lines were being tapped. Now, a few days later we were declared PNG and no reason given.
Many theories of why. One was the fact that I had used the word “ammunition” with Frank and, theoretically, it was interpreted that Frank and I had plotted against the Government of Zanzibar behind the Ambassador’s back through direct contacts with CIA. Joe Palmer at that time was Director General and he sent a big rocket around to every post in the Foreign Service saying to be very, very careful when using slang. This and that could be misinterpreted and so forth. Giving credence to the fact that that was the real reason.
Well, baloney. I never had believed that. I still don’t know. I can remember when I was going out as Ambassador to Mauritius. I went over to CIA for the usual briefings. Frank Carlucci, at that time, was Deputy Director of CIA.
I went up and had a cup of coffee with him. I said, “Frank, now that you’ve got this job, find out what the hell was the reason.” He said, “I’ve never been completely satisfied, either. And I can tell you there’s not much here because one of the first curiosity files I poked into was that one.”
About two years ago, three years ago, I got a letter from Frank telling me that he had met a very high Soviet official at a reception. And this Soviet official told him that they had set us up on this and that they had fiddled with the tape of what we said and didn’t say.
I remember [Julius] Nyerere, the President of Tanzania, said to our Ambassador, “Well, they used a word which I think is a very insulting word and they think I wouldn’t know that word.”
And the word was — whatever the word was. I couldn’t repeat the word now and it had no meaning to us. So that made me feel that those guys had been fiddling with the tape, too. Anyway, this may be the answer, that the Russians set us up.
Samuel Vick Smith
SMITH: The admin officer was driving home from work one day for lunch and there was also a student strike and a shortage of buses. There were students standing along the road hitchhiking and he picked up two or three of them. He got to talking to them and invited them to lunch.
I should preface this by saying in Madagascar, the students have a history of political activism and at the same time the Madagascar government was hosting an international conference on the teachings of Djuche which they spell with a “d” like Djibouti. Many people will know Djuche is the philosophy of Kim Il Sung’s communism in North Korea, and Madagascar was hosting an international conference on North Korea’s political philosophy. All these international leftists from all over the world, many of whom couldn’t go home to their own country, were coming to Madagascar. In the middle of all this they had the student strike and the bus shortage.
Our admin officer picked up these students and arranged to have them for lunch a day or two later. When the lunch is over, they left his house and the police arrested the students.
When the Chargé and I, who were having lunch together, came back to the embassy, there was a message for the Chargé to go to the foreign ministry. He went to the foreign ministry and was given a list of three people who were declared persona non grata by Madagascar and had to leave the country in either twenty-four or forty-eight hours. At the top of the list was the admin officer’s name. Second on the list was the second man of the two-man defense attaché’s office, an army sergeant. The third person on the list was Charles Twining.
So, Gil Sheinbaum, our Chargé, got this list over at the foreign ministry and said, “Well, I think I know why you want to persona non grata our admin officer, but I urge you to reconsider. He hasn’t done anything wrong. I have no idea what you have against the sergeant, and I’ve never heard of Charles Twining. He’s not in my embassy. I don’t know who he is.”
He came back to the embassy and said, “Who is Charles Twining?” One of the local employees said, “Oh, he was the political officer here ten years ago.” So, we sent a cable back to Washington saying you may want to inform Charles Twining that he has been declared persona non grata in Madagascar.
When the diplomatic note came over, informing that these people were declared persona non grata for interfering in the internal affairs of Madagascar, they’d left Twining’s name off. We figured they realized what fools they’d made of themselves and wouldn’t put it in writing. The other two had to leave.
Well, we weren’t a big embassy to start with. We had the Chargé, me, a vice consul, the defense attaché and his assistant, the admin officer and then there were a couple of people in USIS [U.S. Information Service] and the Marine guards. A few days later Washington declared persona non grata the admin officer of the Madagascar Embassy in Washington, DC.
A few days after that the Chargé was called over to the foreign ministry. We looked at each other before he left and said, “Who’s next?” When he got over there they let it be known that there weren’t going to be anymore persona non gratas.
I’ve always said that what happened to them was that they realized that they were going to run out of English speakers to replace their staff before we ran out of French speakers to replace ours. That’s the way my first four or five weeks in Madagascar began.
Ambassador Arthur H. Davis, Jr.
DAVIS: I would say this, if I had gone by the State Department briefing that Dick Wyrole and Rich Mayer had given me, I wouldn’t have been in the mess that I was in. They told me to steer away — See, you remember, [Hugo] Spadafora, an opposition member in Panama, had been killed by Noriega’s forces. We knew that Noriega’s forces had killed him, and his body was found, in a U.S. mailbag on the Costa Rican side, with no head. To this day, they haven’t found the head. And so that created quite an uproar.
And then, after that happened, Noriega, one year to the day after the elections of 1984, which, while they may have been very democratic (and they were completely democratic, wide open, because Noriega was so sure his team would win), the indications were that Eno Ferarias and the opposition democratic forces had won, but since everybody else was recognizing [the election results]… the United States went along with it because everybody else in Latin America did… You know Latin America — how many elections do you have in Latin American where there is not a controversy? They claim fraud all over the place.
So the actual election went fine, but there was no doubt that the votes were changed after the election. We didn’t have any proof of that, so we went ahead and recognized the new president, a man named Nicolás Barletta, a world-famous economist who had worked up here in the World Bank and was well respected and who was also a student of George Shultz back in the University of Chicago. So they recognized that government.
And then, a year later, he had not been politically successful — he had been quite a failure in handling the political part of it and there was a lot of dissension in the streets. But, on top of that, he called for an investigation of the Spadafora murder. So while Noriega was in France, they called Barletta back to Panama…, removed him from office, and President Delvalle went in.
Of course, from that time on, our Ambassador, Ted Briggs, didn’t go to the swearing-in of Delvalle, didn’t have anything to do with Noriega. So I think that’s one reason they figured they’d better make a change and bring a new ambassador in.
And so, getting back to my confirmation, I went over there, and I’ll be very truthful, I shouldn’t have talked about the Spadafora case as much as I did. But Ted Briggs made a very strong statement about, just before my hearing….
And so, in my hearing, when they asked, I said, “Well, our Ambassador reacted as the United States would want him to. He expressed his great displeasure that the [Panamanian authorities] closed the case. And also we can feel very good about one thing, and that was, one of the judges at least could express his opinion that he did not agree with closing the case, and evidently there was freedom of speech there. But it would have been better if they had let the case continue, to find out what really happened.” I shouldn’t have got that deep into it. That was the main thing….
And I said, “Look, all I know is that I have seen nothing in all my briefings to show me any indication that the Panama Defense Forces are involved in drugs. But certainly, if anybody is involved in drugs, the embassy under my control will certainly make every effort to put a stop to it, whether its drug dealing or money laundering.”
And it got to [Noriega], he said I was interfering.
And so Noriega’s Assembly (he had thirty-nine members of the sixty-five Assembly) got together and voted thirty-nine to nothing to declare me persona non grata. They asked the president to withdraw my name and cancel my agrement [the approval of a diplomatic representative by the state to which he or she is to be accredited].
Secretary Shultz and Elliott [Abrams, Secretary of State for Inter-American Affairs] stood by me. And so the foreign minister was called up, and I know Shultz told him bluntly, “This is the Ambassador. If you don’t want him, you can recall yours. We’ll have no relations if that’s what you want.”
So they finally put a statement out, a joint statement signed by both parties, and they agreed they’d wait thirty days. And so my going down there was delayed thirty days.
Meantime, though, Shultz called me in one time to say, “I just got these photographs for you.” And there were a lot of photographs and newspaper articles. I hadn’t even arrived yet, and all the walls, Noriega had had them printed up: FUERA DAVIS! DAVIS GO HOME! WE DON’T WANT ART DAVIS! and all this.
And so Shultz said, “You know, I’ve checked. I think you’re the first Ambassador who has been asked to leave before he got there.”