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Rebel With a Cause — Struggling with the Armenian Genocide

2015 marks the 100th anniversary of what a number of international organizations, countries, and even some U.S. states formally recognize as the Armenian Genocide of 1915, the Ottoman government’s planned extermination of minority Armenians inside present-day Turkey. Historians estimate that the Armenian Genocide resulted in 800,000 to 1.5 million deaths, as well as thousands of cases of rape, robbery, deprivation, and forced deportation. However, despite what many call a preponderance of evidence, the U.S. government has consciously avoided using the term genocide so as to not harm its strategic — and sometimes delicate — relationship with NATO ally Turkey.

At times, this has meant that some top State Department officials have had to walk a fine line between publicly supporting their country’s policy and adhering to their own moral code, none more so than Ambassador to Armenia John Evans. Evans did considerable research on the events in 1915 before and during his ambassadorial appointment in 2004 and came to the conclusion that they could be described as “genocide.” Read more

Saving a Lost Generation – The Rush to Adopt Romania’s Orphans

The despotic reign of Romania’s Nicolae Ceauşescu caused deplorable living conditions for Romanians and left its most vulnerable citizens – abandoned children —  to be literally warehoused. Orphanages were overrun due to Ceauşescu’s policy of making abortions and contraception illegal while also practically forcing women to have at least four or five children. Most could simply not afford to keep their children and orphanages were unable to adequately care for the children placed there. Around 180,000 children lived in inhumane conditions – no heat, poor clothing, little food, and little health care. HIV became rampant due to a misguided belief in blood transfusions and a lack of proper medical care.

After Ceauşescu was deposed and the issue was highlighted on news shows like 20/20 and 60 Minutes, thousands of Americans went to the country to adopt. Read more

The Seychelles – Gangsta’s Paradise

A country of white sand beaches and palm trees, the Seychelles is an exotic tourist destination. It also happens to be a haven for international criminals. Ambassador David Fischer describes his time there like something out of “an Eric Ambler novel, where an innocent character suddenly stumbles on something, and he becomes involved in a huge conspiracy.” Fischer became a character in a much larger story that included fraudulent banking, Mob activity, money laundering, drug smuggling, and murder, much of which involved France Albert Rene, the president of the Seychelles.

When Fischer informed Rene that people were plotting to overthrow him, the suspects were rounded up, beaten to death and their bodies disposed of in the Ambassador’s yard. Rene then threatened the Ambassador’s son. (In its wisdom, the Department agreed the son should leave the island immediately; however, it declined to pay for his travel.) Read more

A Flood of Cuban Migrants — The Mariel Boatlift, April-October 1980

One of the most contentious events in mass migration started on April 1, 1980 when several Cubans took control of a bus and drove it through a fence of the Peruvian embassy in Havana; they requested – and were granted — political asylum. After Fidel Castro retaliated by having the Cuban guards protecting the embassy removed, over 10,000 people crammed into the tiny Peruvian embassy grounds. Castro ultimately stated that the port of Mariel, just outside of Havana, would be opened to anyone wishing to leave Cuba, as long as they had someone to pick them up. Cuban exiles in the United States rushed to Key West and to docks in Miami to hire boats to transport people to the United States.

That set in motion a six-month drama in which more than 125,000 Cubans fled their country and overwhelmed the shores of the U.S. Castro, whose façade of popularity and support was badly shaken, then upped the ante by allowing thousands of criminals and mental patients to leave as well. Read more

The Ivory Coast’s Félix Houphouët-Boigny – “A Master Manipulator and Destabilizer”

The late President Félix Houphouët-Boigny of Côte d’Ivoire (Ivory Coast) did not look like a “strong man.” He was small of stature, and he spoke softly. Nevertheless, during his 33 years as head of state (1961–1994) he was one of Africa’s most powerful leaders. He brought prosperity to his farmers and interfered in the internal affairs of his neighbors, often with deadly results. President Houphouët-Boigny is one of Africa’s founding fathers profiled in detail by former Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Herman J. Cohen. It is through the one-on-one conversations Cohen had with these leaders that we come to understand why Africa has lagged behind the rest of the world since the end of colonialism a half-century ago. His account of these conversations provides a road map for U.S. policy toward Africa in the twenty-first century. Read more

“There were no full bodies” – The Crash of Pan Am Flight 812 in Bali

On April 22, 1974, Pan American Flight 812, a plane known as the Clipper Climax, crashed into the mountainous terrain of Denpasar, Bali, claiming the lives of all 96 passengers and 11 crew members on board, including 26 Americans and 29 Japanese. En route from Hong Kong to Sydney, Australia, with a stop in Denpasar, the aircraft crashed into the rough terrain as a result of a prematurely executed right-hand turn by the pilots of the plane. Following the crash, the U.S. Embassy and military worked alongside Balinese forces to recover what was left of the aircraft and the passengers’ remains. Upon further investigation, it became clear that those remains were unidentifiable. (At right, the memorial to Pan Am flight 812 in Bali.)  Read more

We’re Not in Washington Anymore — Culture Shock in Liberia

Adjusting to a new job position or a new town has its challenges, but moving to another country —on another continent — is a whole other adventure. George Jaeger experienced this adjustment shock when he was assigned his first foreign tour as Third Secretary for Commercial Affairs in Monrovia, Liberia from 1958 to 1960. Jaeger recounts his first few weeks in Liberia and the surprises, such as being offered a wife of a local chieftain, disasters, such as the sinking of a new boat during christening, and lessons he experienced during that time. He eventually left Liberia with a heavy heart, as he had come to love the country a great deal. He was interviewed by Robert Daniel in 2000. Read more

The Carnation Revolution – A Peaceful Coup in Portugal

“There was real jubilation in the streets the first few weeks. It’s still known as the Revolution of the Carnations, and is famous for its civility. I have a wonderful picture of my son, who was six years old, standing in between two young Portuguese soldiers. They’re holding rifles, each with a carnation in the barrel and they’re smiling. Steve is there holding a sign saying “Viva Portugal”. From the outside [of the country] it appeared different from what we saw inside. I don’t think Washington really recognized what was happening in the beginning.” – Robert S. Pastorino, Commercial Attaché,  1974-77

On April 25, 1974, Portugal experienced a coup like no other. In an era characterized by the clash of ideologies and power players, the nearly bloodless revolution became known as the Carnation Revolution. What began as a military revolution led by the Movimento das Forças Armadas (MAF) quickly became a mass movement of civil unrest. Read more

The Iran-Contra Scandal

One of the biggest foreign policy scandals of the last half-century was the Iran-Contra affair, in which the Reagan Administration, prodded by CIA Director William Casey and NSC Advisor Oliver North, secretly arranged for an arms-for-hostage deal with one of its bitterest enemies in the Middle East. Put simply, Israel would sell weapons from the U.S. to Iran, which had been designated a State Sponsor of Terrorism in 1984 and the subject of an arms embargo, in exchange for the release of American hostages held by Hezbollah, Iran’s ally, in Lebanon.

North and Casey then doubled down, funneling the profits from the arms sales into yet another illegal venture, a secret plan to support the Contras, the militants in Nicaragua which opposed the communist Sandinistas. This was in direct contravention of the Boland Amendments, which Congress had passed from 1982-84, specifically prohibiting U.S. support of the Contras. Read more

Get Your Cameras Ready: Celebrities in the Embassies

While the work at embassies can often put Foreign Service officers in harm’s way, on occasion they have the chance to rub elbows with the rich and famous. That could range from helping the niece of a famous actor get a passport, arranging a meeting between a diplomatic rock star and George Harrison or, in a more serious case, grant a visa to a famous punk rocker despite serious opposition, only for that person to be arrested for murder while in the States. Read more