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A Sketch in Time: Cape Verde from an Ambassador’s View

The nation of Cape Verde, now known as Cabo Verde, is a group of islands located off the western coast of Africa. Its total territory is slightly larger than Rhode Island, and its citizens number just over 550,000 inhabitants. The United States and Cape Verde have deep historic links. Cape Verdeans have long been known as skillful sailors. As early as the 1740’s New England whaling ships began recruiting crews from the islands. Many of these sailors later settled in the United States. Today, over 95,000 members of the Cape Verde diaspora live in the United States, primarily in Massachusetts and Rhode Island.

The first U.S. consulate in sub-Saharan Africa was established in Cape Verde in 1818. The United States established diplomatic relations with Cabo Verde in 1975, following its independence on July 5 from Portugal. Cape Verde and Guinea-Bissau – 900 kilometers south-east of Cape Verde on the west coast of Africa — were both Portuguese colonies which campaigned together for independence with a plan for unification, but the countries separated after 1980. Cabo Verde was under one-party rule from independence until 1990; the first multiparty elections were held in 1991. American Foreign Service Officers stationed in Praia have witnessed the nation’s transition to democracy, the expansion of its economy, the evolution of its social practices, and American commitment to the region.

In a series of interviews with Charles Stuart Kennedy from March to November 1993, Francis Terry McNamara offers a peek into life in Cape Verde and American interests. He witnessed the country transform itself from a single party authoritarian government to what the American Embassy in Praia now calls, “a democratic and development success story” and describes how Cape Verde was able to use its diaspora community to effectively lobby Congress. McNamara served as the American Ambassador from 1989-1992 and later lived there as a private American citizen.

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“The country was getting restless…”

Francis Terry McNamara, Ambassador (1989-1992)

The country was governed by a moderate Marxist government. Authoritarian, but not oppressive. There were no political prisoners, for instance, or anything of that sort, but it was authoritarian. They had never had a contested election. The party was put in power by the radical young officers who had mounted a coup d’etat in Portugal. (McNamara is seen at right.)

There was never a revolution against the Portuguese colonialism in Cape Verde itself. Whatever fighting was done took place in Guinea-Bissau, where there was a real war. But less than a hundred Cape Verdeans took part in that. In fact, they supplied the political leadership for the movement. The Bissauans were the foot soldiers….

I’m sure, in my own mind, that, at the time of independence, if they’d actually had a free election, a majority of the Cape Verdeans might well have voted to stay with Portugal as a quasi-independent province, as, for instance, Madeira or the Azores are. But they weren’t given that choice.

The young officers who controlled things in Portugal at that time decided, at the insistence of these Cape Verdeans who were involved in the war and the settlement of the war in Guinea-Bissau, that Cape Verde should be granted independence. The small band of former freedom fighters came over from Guinea-Bissau and were given control by the radical young officers who were in charge in Portugal….

[They] came to independence together, as one country, Cape Verde and Guinea-Bissau. But then in 1980, the Bissauans revolted against the Cape Verdean domination of the government. They chucked the Cape Verdeans out and took over control themselves in Guinea-Bissau, without killing anybody. The Cape Verdeans went back to Cape Verde, and they set up an independent country there….[Cuba sent troops to Guinea-Bissau to support the rebels. At right, Fidel Castro meets with the leader of Bissaun troops, Amilcar Cabral.]

It had been run, up until this point, by the same small clique that had been in Bissau. Probably less than a hundred people from Cape Verde had been in Bissau and participated, in one way or another, in the war. Not all in combat. Some were poets, a few were soldiers. But that’s all there were. And these are the guys who came back, took control of the country, and dominated it for those intervening fifteen-odd years.

The country was getting restless, however. Younger generations had grown up since independence in 1975. Things were happening in Eastern Europe: democracy was coming, the Berlin Wall fell, changes came in Russia, the Marxist regimes were beginning to be viewed as bankrupt, politically and intellectually. There was pressure for change taking place, within the ruling party as well as among the population.

“I predicted they were going to lose the election six months before the election was held”

Finally, rather than try to resist these pressures, the ruling cabal decided to hold democratic popular elections. I’m sure they never thought that they’d lose power. But the outcome of the election was that an opposition party, which was formed only six months before the elections were held, won an overwhelming majority in the National Assembly. Later, an independent defeated the long serving President….

I was convinced that [the ruling party was] going to lose. I predicted they were going to lose the election six months before the election was held.

Oftentimes, politicians delude themselves (and not just Cape Verde politicians). Also, political leaders that have been in uncontested power for long periods oftentimes surround themselves with sycophants. They hear and are told only things they want to hear. They hear selectively, and, of course, also, they choose to surround themselves with people who are only going to tell them what they want to hear.

My relations with the old government’s leaders were very good. I had close relations with the president, who also came and saw Bush several times. He’s really a fine old man. He wanted to introduce genuine democracy in the country.

The prime minister was more of a dedicated Marxist. His name is Pedro Pires (seen left), a very bright guy. My relations with him were good; they were amicable. He knew that he had to deal with the world as it is, and that America was the only great power at this point, and that he needed our aid and also our goodwill.

He also realized that America was by far the most popular foreign country in Cape Verde, because of all the connections, and that it was very important for him, politically, to be seen to have good relations with the American ambassador. So he used to take me around with him sometimes on some of his trips….

[The] change came, and it was accepted by the ruling party. The opposition took over [in January 1991], and they’re in control now.

“Ultimately, a community of Cape Verdeans grew up that was at least double the population of Cape Verde itself…spread all over the United States”

American interests in Cape Verde are based largely on sentiment. There are large numbers of Cape Verdeans living in the U.S. Indeed, we have had a Cape Verdean colony in Massachusetts and Rhode Island since colonial days.

It started with whaling. The Yankee whalers stopped by the Cape Verde Islands on their way to the whaling grounds in the Pacific. They would pick up some extra seamen there, because they were much cheaper than employing American seamen.

As a result, a colony of Cape Verdeans grew up in New England. They came back with the whalers, and they settled down. So, small colonies started in New Bedford and Providence and along the Massachusetts coast.

[In] Cape Cod, there’s a small group. Then more came to work in the cranberry bogs. And then more came to work in the textile factories and in nineteenth century New England. Ultimately, a community of Cape Verdeans grew up that was at least double the population of Cape Verde itself, centered in New England, but now spread all over the United States.

And, of course, it’s difficult to say who’s a Cape Verdean now, because some people are fourth and fifth generation. They have intermarried with other Americans. In fact, the Cape Verdean-Americans constitute the largest African community in the United States that still retains roots in its country of origin. Moreover, the Cape Verdeans vote.

[Their presence in the U.S.] had nothing to do with slavery. These were regular immigrants who came to the United States. Cape Verde had been a center for the slave trade earlier on, but that’s a different question. These were Cape Verdeans who had grown up in Cape Verde and were not taken as slaves, but were free men who came to the United States as immigrants.

Certainly, the sentimental tie is there. And it’s not just a sentimental tie, but it’s a political tie, because the congressional delegations from New England are very aware of the political potential of the Cape Verdean community. Many of them do vote.

And people, like Senator Pell from Rhode Island (seen left), are conscious of the Cape Verdeans and very protective of their interests. In fact, before I went to Cape Verde, I went to see him, and he said to me, “You take care of those Cape Verdeans for me.” He gave me my marching orders before I left.

Of course, we have lots of consular activities in Cape Verde. Every Cape Verdean has cousins, brothers, sisters, and sometimes mothers and fathers in the United States. There are loads of Cape Verdeans who live in Cape Verde but are American citizens.

The connections are so intimate and so intertwined that the consular business is very big and complex. We have, therefore, a requirement to have a consul in Cape Verde, given all of the consular business that has to be transacted between the two countries.

The presence of so many Cape Verdeans in the U.S. is the principal reason we have an embassy in Praia….

“Look, in American politics, there’s no wrong time.… You can’t have too much influence”

Cape Verde is completely dependent on foreign aid. Foreign aid and remittances from overseas Cape Verdeans are the two big sources of income for Cape Verde.

They have long droughts, and the country is extremely poor as a result. Agriculture is a very uncertain thing. And they have little else. There are no known mineral resources. It’s a very poor country. That’s, of course, one of the reasons why so many have migrated.

Anyway, I was focused, number one, on assuring that the aid program continued and was well focused, and, number two, on assisting the Cape Verdeans with their plans to privatize the economy….

Under the old regime, I was focused mainly on the elections, the path towards democracy. A new regime, this was really pretty exciting. Now they had a chance to really change what was going on, have a systemic change….

To do this, I suggested to the minister of finance that the key would be getting the World Bank involved. I said, “A way of doing that is for us to do some preliminary studies, which we can finance through our USAID program. These then can be used by people in the World Bank to bring on a World Bank program. But they can’t finance the preliminary studies.” I worked out a strategy for them.…

[The] finance minister seized my suggestion like a man who is drowning and grabs a life buoy. And that’s what happened. We did preliminary studies for them which were used to encourage the entry of the World Bank. The World Bank came in, in a big way.

The World Bank needed a successful model in Africa, and so they seized on Cape Verde as a place where they had good perspectives. Cape Verde was a democracy by this time. There was virtually no corruption in the government. People were keen on privatization and liberalizing the economy, and were willing to accept the Bank’s suggestions.

They had promising human resources, with fairly sophisticated responsible people at the top of the government. The Bank has been very generous in their aid. And not only that, but they’ve mobilized other donors. So a whole program has been worked out for the modernization and liberalization of the economy, with aid from a variety of donors….

“He asked, ‘Well, what can you do for us?’”

The minister of finance was just here for the [April 1993 International Monetary Fund] meeting, and he called me up and asked me to come to a lunch with him. We had lunch together. He asked me for my advice on this and that. They’re worried that the USAID mission might be withdrawn and that aid could eventually be cut.

In any case, he’s worried about the symbolism of the American USAID mission going, and its effect on other countries’ aid, not just ours. Ours, in terms of the amount of the finance, isn’t all that great. I asked him if he’d been to see anybody in Congress, and he said, yes, he’d gone to see a couple of congressmen. I asked him if he’d seen any senators, and he said, no, he hadn’t, his embassy didn’t suggest it.

And I said, “Well, it’s very important. Has anybody done anything about mobilizing the community, getting them to write letters and call congressmen?”

And he said, “No, I was told that it wasn’t the right time.”

I said, “Look, in American politics, there’s no wrong time. You always want to keep those lines with congressmen open. You can’t have too much influence. It’s not possible. You want to remind them that they’ve got a lot of votes who are Cape Verdeans. So anything that comes up with Cape Verde, they’re interested in it. And they have a direct interest, because they’ve got guys who vote for them, or don’t vote for them, on that basis.

This is the way it works in American politics. It’s not just the Jewish population in this country that mobilizes in support of Israel. The Greeks have done it over Cyprus. The Greeks really mobilized an awful lot of action with Congress. And congressmen paid attention.”

He asked, “Well, what can you do for us?”

I said, “I’ll go and see the four senators, because you do not have time to do it, and the ambassador hasn’t done it.”

He asked me if I would do it, and so I saw Pell, who is the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee and the senator from Rhode Island. Pell, before I went to Cape Verde, had told me to take care of those Cape Verdeans. So I reminded him of all that, and told him it was his turn to take care of those Cape Verdeans. He said he would. And I wrote a letter for him to send to the AID administrator.

I saw Kerry, from Massachusetts (seen at left in Cape Verde), and Chaffee, the other senator from Rhode Island, and Senator Ted Kennedy. I saw their staff; I didn’t see them. And one staffer on the Foreign Relations Committee is trying to get me in to see Simons, who is the chairman of the Subcommittee on Africa.

So I’ve done all that for them, and I told him, “Now you’ve got to mobilize.”

I called him the other day to tell him what I had done, and warn him that staffers told me, “Look, we never hear from the Cape Verdeans. We know there are Cape Verdeans in Massachusetts and Rhode Island. They never write to us; they never say anything. Jesus Christ, you’ve got to get these guys to make their presence known and write to these congressmen.”

One girl in Kennedy’s office said, “Look, if a congressman gets four or five hundred postcards, calls, letters, anything, he’ll do flips. This will really get action.” So, anyway, I told the minister this, and he said he’d work on it right away, tomorrow.…

Hopefully, they’ll wind up with a self-sustaining economy. Obviously, this is not certain, given their lack of resources, but it’s certainly worth a try. If it happens, it’ll be based on fisheries, tourism, secondary industry, and maybe a free port.

The secondary industry is perhaps the chanciest. This would be in conjunction with a free port, of course.

But they’ve already gotten some textile mills coming in from China. The Cape Verdeans, under the Lomé Treaty, have access to the European Common Market at preferential levels of tariff. They also have access to the American market, under some regulation or other.

The Chinese, of course, don’t have this, and so some Chinese textile people came from Hong Kong and mainland China and set up textile factories. They don’t make the textiles there. They cut and sew them together, do the fabrication of garments, and then export them. That’s something that’s happened within the last year, since I’ve been gone. It was in the mill before that, but it’s now actually happened. Hopefully, they’ll get some more of these small industries to come in.

I started a coast guard to protect their fisheries, because other people were coming in to exploit their fishing resources, legally and illegally. The Cape Verdeans needed to protect them and to exploit them themselves. So, with the help of the U.S. Coast Guard, I got a little coast guard started. We got a boat, through the Biodiversity Fund. It’s a USAID fund that was set up for biodiversity, but I justified a patrol boat out of it. So, anyway, they’ve got a coast guard started.

They have some people interested in setting up a fishing industry there, so, hopefully, that’ll go, too.

As for tourism, it’s the best windsurfing in the world there. A lot of people come just for the windsurfing. And if it becomes better known, hopefully more people will come. It’s great sailing; there’s always a good wind. You don’t have a lot of heavy storms, but you always have a good, brisk wind, so it’s very good for sailing….

“You’d sit around for hours drinking “Grog” (rum) and listening to great Cape Verdean music”

…As for the quality of life in Cape Verde… [an] interesting feature of service in Praia was the embassy’s 32-foot motor-sailer. We went sailing all the time….

[We] had one of the smallest, most modest residences in the Foreign Service. A nice little Portuguese colonial house. Certainly nothing very grand or ostentatious. Very small, with a very small living room. It was very difficult to entertain.

When we had 4th of July parties, we used to invite four and five hundred people, because the American connection is a big thing for the Cape Verdeans. Our relations are very important to them. Also, my wife is a great cook. So we would take all the furniture out of the first floor of the house and open it, from the front gate to the back yard.

Neither the front yard nor the back yard were more than postage stamps, but nonetheless, we’d just take all the furniture out and have a cocktail and then a big dinner, because they expected dinner. When you have a cocktail, it means dinner.

And my wife would work for about a month producing enough food for about four-five hundred people. They’d come in and they’d clean the whole place up. It would be just as if we had invited vacuum cleaners.

The diplomatic community was very small, only seven missions, plus a group of UN international-organization representatives. So there wasn’t a great diplomatic life. But I got to know a lot of Cape Verdeans, and they would invite me to Cape Verdean cookouts and things up in the mountains or in their houses.

They loved music, and they’d always play music and sing. You’d sit around for hours drinking “Grog” (rum) and listening to great Cape Verdean music.

The traditional music is the morna, sad songs of farewell as people were migrating. These are a migrant people. Being of Irish origins, I understand this, because the Irish did the same thing. These were very sentimental songs that they would be singing on the eve of departure. (Renowned singer Cesaria Evora seen at right.)

In the 19th century, obviously, and even early 20th century, leaving was for good. They probably were never coming back. These songs were sung as people were going off, perhaps forever. They were very sad, but very sentimental and very warm. Sad and warm.

Well, they also have more modern music. They have something called the funana, which is a song and a dance. The dance was outlawed by the Portuguese when they were there, because they said it was virtual copulation to music. And it is. I mean, it’s really, really close. There’s an awful lot of gyrating.

It’s not so much hands; it’s bodies. It’s a body massage. Anyway, it’s now, of course, widely accepted, and anybody who tried to stop it would have a revolution on his hands.…[There’s] just great music and great fun.

For instance, a pal of mine, who had a big, extended family, would have a cookout every Sunday at a house in the mountains. You arrived at about one o’clock in the afternoon. It would go on, if you stayed, until maybe one o’clock that night. Loads of food, lots to drink, and lots of music and dancing….And people would come, all kinds of people. They just sort of dropped in and dropped out….

The Cape Verdeans are among the nicest people in the world. They are an island people. Mixed blood. You can see Mendel’s Law in operation. In the same family, you can encounter blonde, blue-eyed, Nordic types, and coal-black people. And you would find all of the shades in between.

Most people are coffee colored, but they’re every complexion. Some you could easily mistake for Europeans; others are definitely African type. Yet they all live in harmony. There aren’t any open racial problems.

Differences, however, do exist between islands. But, of course, there are no tribal differences, because there are no tribes there.

The islands were uninhabited when the Portuguese arrived in the 15th century. They brought colonists from Portugal, and slaves from Africa. The two mixed, creating a Cape Verdean nation.

Life was very pleasant, very pleasant indeed.…Oh, yes, it was really a nice place to have a twilight tour.