The Irrepressible Prudence Bushnell
As a teenage daughter of a Foreign Service Officer who moved his family from country to country every so often, Prudence Bushnell frequently complained that the Foreign Service ruined her life. It is ironic then — poetic even — that as destiny would have it, Bushnell found herself in Dakar, Senegal, in 1981 on her first post as an FSO, followed by 24 incredible years of service around the world.
During that time, Bushnell confronted misogyny, an embassy bombing, and warlords in several high-threat posts. But Bushnell also experienced the tenacity of women in West Africa, helped fight corruption in Latin America, and witnessed the gradual destruction of gender roles in the Foreign Service.
In her interview below with Charles Stuart Kennedy in 2005, Bushnell discusses her time in the Service starting with her decision to volunteer in 1981, the influence from her female predecessors, and working in the African Affairs Bureau, for which she travelled to Senegal, Rwanda, and other West African countries. Bushnell frequently faced skeptics from host governments and even within the Department, even as she pushed for progress on such issues as fighting the AIDS epidemic and empowering women.
Her honest account of the peacekeeping efforts in Rwanda after the genocide holds nothing back and is followed by an equally stirring discussion of terrorizing warlords in Liberia and Sierra Leone. After the devastating bombing of the Nairobi embassy in Kenya, Bushnell was assigned to serve in Latin America where she worked towards positively influencing the corrupt governments—for which she received some criticism. In closing, Bushnell talks about her forward-looking definition of leadership and her work in the Leadership and Management School of the Foreign Service Institute before retiring in 2005.
“There’s no way I was going to be a wife of a Foreign Service officer. I was already rebelling against that.”
BUSHNELL: The women I saw [growing up] were either wives and mothers or single women doing secretarial, consular, or personnel work who would come to our house for Christmas and Thanksgiving dinners. So, these were my role models. There’s no way I was going to be a wife of a Foreign Service officer. I was already rebelling against that.
What else was I going to be? Mom had both Susan [my sister] and me take typing and shorthand because “you can always be a secretary.” Women were still very constrained in their career choices.…
I found Dallas in the 70s to be culturally alien to me, especially since by now I had been working in professional jobs. I had a very hard time finding professional employment and finally decided to go it alone as an independent contractor. I did some supervisory training and the like. The most interesting, and certainly my greatest challenge, was a contract to help the senior engineers at NASA in Houston understand the male midlife crisis and cope with the sense of burnout they were feeling. Both were trendy issues.
So, there I was at the age of 33, spending my waking hours becoming an expert on the development cycles of American men. I can’t believe my chutzpa standing in front of a bunch of 50-something-year-old men. But I was prepared. When the inevitable question, “What makes you think as a woman you can stand up and talk about who we are?”
I was ready with the retort, “How many gynecologists or obstetricians are women?” At that time, of course, there were very few….
Once they got used to me, most were just fine. They recognized I knew what I was talking about and, once they relaxed, enjoyed the experience. I had one encounter, though, that left a significant mark. I met up with the nasty misogynist who made it his business to try to humiliate me as much as possible. It was my first taste of such behavior. It was a difficult and valuable experience to keep my cool, and I survived it. That was the lesson.
I could stand up to sarcasm, rolling eyes, and sexist remarks, maintain my dignity and survive to talk about it the next day. A good lesson in dealing with some of the jerks I later came across.
In 1979, Americans were taken hostage at our embassy in Tehran. All of a sudden a place and life I had put behind were in the headlines…. A day or so later, I heard an ad on the radio; Secretary of State Muskie was encouraging women and minorities who fit a certain profile to apply to a mid-level entry program. All of this was taking place during one of the hottest and driest summers in Dallas history. Dick (my husband) and I decided it was time to move on, and I might as well check out the Foreign Service. So, I applied and became so focused on the entry process I didn’t really think about the possible outcome….
[My parents] were shocked when I told them. After all my complaining about how the Foreign Service has ruined my life as a teenager when we moved from Karachi to Tehran, here I was voluntarily applying to join.
“Don’t let people know how smart you are, because men don’t like to hire women who are smart”
Q: How had the women’s movement affected you by then?
BUSHNELL: I found a whole lot to be sympathetic with. When I separated from my first husband, even though I had been joint and sometimes sole wage earner, I was denied credit. Couldn’t get a credit card. The bank did, however, let him cash our joint tax refund over his signature only. I was furious. They justified it saying he was “the man of the house.”
When I looked for work early on, an employment counselor told me, “Don’t let people know how smart you are, because men don’t like to hire women who are smart.” Years later, in Dallas, I interviewed with a guy who worked for the Office of Personnel Management — a federal agency, mind you. He advised me to wear skirts with longer slits in them so I could attract more attention. Don’t get me started. So, I was very grateful to the courageous women who decided to do something about the way we were being treated. Were it not for Alison Palmer and the women’s class action lawsuit against the State Department, for example, I would never have joined the Service.
There weren’t that many role models for professional married women. You either chose family or you chose career. I had the huge advantage of a husband who truly believed in me and who assisted me in appreciating my value and potential. He is passionate about people and he would push me to take risks and to stand up for myself. After doing so a few times, I did not need his encouragement. That said, in the Foreign Service, I encountered some terrific women leaders, like Roz Ridgway, Melissa Wells, Jane Coon, and others of the generation before me who paved the way.
Challenging Gender Roles in the Foreign Service – Dakar
[One] issue was the fact that my husband came as a so-called “dependent” (now termed “family member”). Remember, until the mid-70’s women officers who married were expected to resign. This embassy had experience with only one other male spouse, and that was not a good experience.
Within the first month of our arrival at post, Dick was offered a job. He had both accounting and legal skills to offer. About a week later, a group of women spouses came to the house very put-out that Dick had gotten the job so quickly when they had been unable to get one at all. They felt, probably correctly, that the administration of the mission had thought that a male spouse had better find decent work soon.
I felt very ambivalent. On the one hand, I understood exactly what they were saying; and on the other hand, I thought, why are you mad at me? It’s not my fault. Do you want me to tell Dick to quit the job? I certainly didn’t want him to….
It was my first post. I was checking things out—how things work, where I fit, and that Dick be accepted. He was. The second year, Dick applied for and got the job as Community Liaison Officer—I think he was one of the first men to have that position in the world—without any fuss.
“I can’t believe the United States would send a woman to do this job!” – Bombay
BUSHNELL: Indira Gandhi was the Prime Minister and … U.S. relations were not good. She threw out American businesses, for example. There were significant strains between the Indian government and the United States government, which made us all the more grateful that we were in Bombay and not New Delhi. Bombay was a very cosmopolitan city, home of “Bollywood,” and movie stars. The city was overwhelming….
Professionally, I found it challenging, because I was the first woman to hold the position of Admin Officer. A lot of Indians felt very uncomfortable dealing with a woman and made no bones about it. The first time I met the Chief of Police he stared and said, “I can’t believe the United States of America would send a woman to do this job!” The status of women was abominable.
In addition, there were tensions among the FSNs [Foreign Service Nationals] that I had not seen in Senegal. I found it difficult to form teams among the people with whom I worked at the Consulate. It’s not that I didn’t enjoy most of the people as individuals; I just couldn’t get the supervisors to see themselves as part of a larger team. So I stopped even having staff meetings. I’ve always regretted that. I think I should have put more effort into it….
Bombay was the point in my career when I began facing disasters. Twice when I was “acting” in the absence of the Consul General, we had crises. First, when Mrs. Gandhi was assassinated and then when the Union Carbide plant in Bhopal, which was in our consular district, experienced a chemical leak that killed I don’t know how many people, and injured thousands and thousands more. The British Consul General was assassinated during our tour, and we had the fall-out from President Reagan’s decision to bomb Libya. Lots of demonstrations in front of the consulate.
I was the post security officer, so Harry Cahill, our CG [Consul General] would always send me out to face them. “You’re such a nice lady, they won’t know what to do, and they certainly won’t harm you,” he would say….
“As an ambitious Foreign Service Officer and happily married woman, I decided to turn the job down”
My name was forwarded to the Deputies’ Committee by the AF [African Affairs] Bureau as one of their nominees for Ambassador to Conakry. I was so excited. This is the committee that decides on the names State Department is going to send to White House personnel as its candidate. For some unknown reason, the Committee decided instead to put my name up for Rwanda.
I began filling out forms the likes of which I’ve never seen before: for the White House, for the Senate, and, of course, umpteen ones for State, including medical stuff. I hadn’t gotten any word from MED, so I called just before Christmas. I was told that Dick had been denied clearance for Rwanda for reasons she couldn’t tell because that was confidential information. I was devastated.
Dick and I had to make a serious decision from pretty awful choices: me to go to Rwanda without Dick; have Dick come without a clearance on our own dime—and risk the reason for which he didn’t get a clearance; or say “no” to the opportunity. By this time in the bidding cycle … there weren’t that many slots open. So, as an ambitious Foreign Service officer and happily married woman, I had to confront what was most important to me: meet my values close-up. I decided to turn the job down.
Two weeks later I read in the newspaper that President Clinton, who had just taken office, was nominating George Moose [pictured] as Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs. I had been George’s DCM [Deputy Chief of Mission] only a couple of years before [at Dakar, Senegal].…
It was an unspoken mantra by the White House [that] Africa issues, unless they turned into disasters, seldom made it to the seventh floor, where the top of the hierarchy worked….George offered me the job as Deputy Assistant Secretary, responsible for transnational issues in Sub-Saharan Africa, i.e. policies relating to democracy, human rights, humanitarian assistance, conflict prevention, conflict resolution, peacekeeping, HIV Aids, environment, drugs, bugs, everything that crossed borders for 48 countries. George turned to Ed Brynn as his Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary…. Ed had responsibility for all of the daily oversight and paperwork of the Bureau. For more than a year, there were only the three of us….
A good deal of my time was spent trying to get the interagency to agree to sending UN peacekeepers to Rwanda to implement peace accords that had put an end to a civil war between the government of Rwanda and the Rwandan Patriotic Front, or RPF…. Eventually, the U.S. government was strong-armed by the UN and the French to support the Rwandan peace….
(Go here to read more about Ambassador Bushnell’s wrenching account on Rwanda)
It was after the Rwanda disaster that the U.S. government became keen about Africa regional peacekeeping, which eventually turned into an arm of the African Union…. Liberia was also in my portfolio, so I would go there now and then.
On one of these occasions I was standing on the tarmac with our Ambassador, Bill Tweddell, watching a plane being loaded up to head back toward Lagos. We were pretty sure the cargo was illicit stuff—diamonds, gold, or drugs. The corruption among the Nigerians in Liberia was well known. On the other hand, Liberia had a multi-faceted civil war going on and the Nigerians were controlling at least part of the country, maintaining a peace of some sorts. So, as corrupt as these peacekeepers may have been, we were even more concerned about what would happen if they left Liberia…. Poor Liberia. It was divided up into territories under the control of warlords who represented different ethnic groups.
We used [Liberia] for our radio relay stations during the Cold War and had strong ties. The Liberians had equally strong expectations that we would intervene in some way, but we did not. George Moose would send me to Liberia now and then to bawl out the warlords but we had no active involvement….
On the other hand we did not want to signal the Liberian people that we were washing our hands of them. Even if we could do no more than be present, we were determined to at least be present. I don’t argue with that as long as there are colleagues brave and willing enough to go there. So, we had a fairly minimal presence that we could pull out and put back in….
“Taylor began to call me ‘my dear.’ [By] the third time, I had had it.”
Q: Who were some of the characters that we were having to deal with?
BUSHNELL: Ha! “Characters” is right, none of them anyone you would want to meet. The most long-lasting warlord was Charles Taylor. I went to … Gbarnga [capital city of Bong County, Liberia], which was in the middle of the jungle, via UN helicopter to deliver a demarche. He made us wait an absurd amount of time and by the time we finally got to see him in his throne room … I was hungry and very irritated.
Then he talked, and talked and talked. I have an agreement with myself that I will allow men to talk at me without taking a breath for only a certain amount of time — usually, 15 minutes for Americans, 25 for Africans. About 30 minutes into his monologue, Taylor began to call me “my dear.” Twice I decided to ignore him. The third time I had had it.
I interrupted him suggesting that he never again call a Deputy Assistant Secretary of the United States of America “my dear.” He accused me of being culturally insensitive and told me he called everyone my dear. I retorted that I would call him Mr. President and he could call me either Ms. Bushnell or Madame Secretary. By this time, he had lost his rhythm to say nothing of face, and he ordered us out. He told the UN peacekeeping commander never to let me back in. I found out recently that Taylor really did call everyone “my dear.” Still, I have no regrets at my action.
Another warlord was Roosevelt Johnson. I met him on the same trip to Liberia with the same message: stop it. Johnson reveled in telling how Charles Taylor’s soldiers would kill people, slit open their chests, and eat their hearts. I think he was trying to impress me, so of course I refused to show it.
The last one I saw on that trip was El Hadji Kromah in yet another part of Liberia. To get to him we had to go through checkpoints of child soldiers who were often high on drugs. It was frightening. We sat in a living room with walls decorated with bullet shells. I had to use his bathroom and he locked me in. My first thought was that he didn’t like my message and was going to keep me hostage. Actually, he had done it because there was no way to keep the door closed….
“At every stop I would meet with women. It was a real privilege and one of the best parts of my job”
I also spent a good deal of time on women’s issues, which I strongly believed should have been part of our mainstream policy portfolio.
African women play a major role in their societies, even though they are shunted aside. In many countries they’re responsible for raising and educating their children, as well as tending the fields and the home. If you say you want to promote democracy you’d better promote the rights of over 50 percent of the citizenry at the same time or you’re not walking the talk. I spent a huge amount of time traveling, going to countries people from the front office seldom visited—Guinea Bissau, Chad, Burkina Faso, Niger… At every stop I would meet with women. It was a real privilege and one of the best parts of my job.
Unfortunately, women’s issues were relegated to the development assistance portfolio. Policymakers too often see women only as victims in need of economic and humanitarian assistance but that’s only part of it. They are also potential political actors. In Rwanda, for example, almost 50% of the parliament is now made up of women because so many men died in the genocide. So, one of the things that I wanted to accomplish in these countries was to bring the Ambassador face-to-face with women as political actors and not just as the subjects of need.
Q: But, when you start talking about giving women more power you’re upsetting the male dominance and I can see where an ambassador saying, “I don’t want to tackle this sort of thing” or feel uncomfortable about doing it. Were you able to both move our own apparatus and do anything else about it?
BUSHNELL: You know, the first human rights reports I worked on in ’82 did not include domestic violence because it was considered a cultural issue. So I can’t say that the Department or our ambassadors were particularly forward-leaning. On the other hand, the Clinton White House was serious about women.
Prep for the Beijing Women’s Conference had started and people were recognizing a shift. Some ambassadors would quietly go with me or host an event. A couple of them, who just didn’t get it, had their spouses host something.
“I was beginning to understand how to use power.”
As a senior government official I had the power of position. By going out to meet and show respect to women I could bring not only the U.S. Ambassador but also the local press, which helped them. I feel strongly that it’s in the interest of the United States Government and certainly is a moral imperative to deal with issues of women.
J’aime avec prudence
The United States was targeting resources to it. There was a certain amount of rhetoric given by other countries, but we were the ones who were most actively and strategically engaged…. It was a huge problem. Africans, like a lot of Americans, are very conservative and do not talk about these things.… Also, you cannot talk about HIV and AIDS without getting into the issue of women’s empowerment—or lack thereof….
We were into commodities big time, promoting safe sex. We were also into education. In Central Africa, the most popular condom was called “Prudence.” You can imagine what a wonderful time people had with my name. When I left the African Bureau I had a drawer full of Prudence condoms, Prudence aprons, Prudence t-shirts. These were francophone countries and the tag line in the advertisements was “J’aime avec prudence.”
(Read more about how Ambassador Bushnell and others tackled the AIDS crisis when it first appeared.)
“I had been patronized for addressing an issue others, men especially, had put in the category of ‘too hard’”
BUSHNELL: Daniel Arap Moi was Vice President under Kenya’s first president, Jomo Kenyatta. When Kenyatta died in office, Moi stepped in and never stepped down. He continued to rule through a coalition of small tribes…. He also played the U.S. pretty shrewdly during the Cold War. In return for his support, we turned a blind eye to how he ruled domestically. When the Cold War ended, we began to insist on democratic elections.
In order to “stay at the table,” which is how Kenyans referred to presidential politics, Moi and company held fraudulent elections in ’92. We showed our disapproval by withdrawing aid and giving Moi the cold shoulder. By the time I arrived in ’96, we were down to about 19 million dollars in bilateral assistance directed through non-governmental organizations. Nothing went to the Moi government….
What bothered Kenyans most was the effect of corruption on schooling, which they valued highly and the abominable condition of roads. Stolen road taxes meant greater difficulty getting goods to market. Among diplomatic colleagues, I found huge frustration both with the level of corruption and Moi’s reaction should anything be said about. It usually entailed public blasts about interfering in domestic affairs.
The game was pretty simple: the Moi government would steal assistance money, then insult us if we said anything. People would suffer, the government would go to more donors to get more money which they could steal, etc. I decided to try to change the dynamics by taking on the game. I was lucky that our embassy had a large and experienced Country Team, so there was plenty of experience, support and enthusiasm for confronting corruption.
This was hardly the first time I had been patronized for addressing an issue others, men especially, had put in the category of “too hard.”
I began talking about corruption in my speeches — something Kenyan people could not do with impunity. Pretty soon things were showing up in media and more and more people, including my diplomatic colleagues, began to chime in.
It was an attitude I had seen before – “This is Africa; what can you do?”…
President Moi —“Corrupt to his soul”
Initially, he [Moi] wouldn’t see me. I was the second consecutive woman ambassador, and Moi was not at all pleased to have another female.
Q: Elinor Constable had been there before that too.
BUSHNELL: And then Smith Hempstone, who caused an enormous great controversy by going head-to-head with Moi, then Aurelia Brazeal and then me. Moi was convinced that the U.S. Government was intentionally sending him women as a message that he was just not good enough to merit a white male. Nor, evidently did he like what he heard about my promotion of human rights. After presenting credentials, I had a hard time getting him to see me. Once I did, we crafted an interesting and rather strange relationship.
It started when I invited him to the Residence for breakfast one day. That one-on-one started a precedent which led to some very heated discussions. Respectful but blunt.
He would fly into tantrums sometimes, or just get mad and cranky. I’d bring him up straight by asking point blank, “Why are you yelling at me?”
Once I stopped an argument in mid-stream and asked if he enjoyed fighting with me. “Yes,” he responded, “I am a democrat.” I think he rather enjoyed our interchanges….
By the time I got there he had been in power for 20-some years, far too long for anybody. He was in his 70s, in good health physically and mentally, still very shrewd and fairly competent. Sometimes he’d ramble, but then don’t we all?
I think he is corrupt to his soul and had found a way to bring his actions into harmony with his evangelical religion. I think he really believed that he was beloved by his people, clueless that the opposite was true because he surrounded himself with sycophants. Domestically, he was shrewd and ruthless; around the region, Moi behaved as statesman. He used this to his advantage to keep us in his debt. We would ask him to pull together the Somalia warlords, and he would do it.
He was sympathetic to our efforts to bring peace to Sudan and, at our request, would talk to his crony, Mobutu, president of Zaire. Like a lot of presidents, Moi wanted to be known in history as the elder statesman and a regional peacemaker….
U.S. ambassadors need to be fairly circumspect. When the Country Team and I decided to take on the issue of corruption, we had to be clever about it….
The World Bank was going to provide around $100 million dollars in an energy sector loan. Given the government’s proclivity to steal, to say nothing of their lousy completion rate (something like three percent) my colleagues in Washington and I decided to do something. I knew the U.S. delegate to the World Bank. With other colleagues, we decided she would vote “no” on the energy loan. That got a lot of attention. Both the World Bank and other governments took notice that we were serious about corruption….
The proposal put to the Kenyans was to direct the energy sector loan through a private sector bank that would ensure transparency.
A social friend of mine arranged a meeting with Moi on a Sunday afternoon at his private residence – very hush-hush – to discuss this. I was struck by how sterile and lonely the house appeared. He said to me, “If I agree to this it’s going to set a precedent, and I’m worried.
I said, “You’re right, it will and I’d be worried about it too if I were you, because it means doing business differently.”
He said, “I don’t want to do business differently.”
And I said, “Then you’re not going to get the money. There you are, Mr. President, you need to choose. I know life is unfair and this doesn’t seem good and right, but you need to understand our perspective and you have a choice to make. That’s what leaders do, they make difficult decisions.”
He called me after I got home, about an hour later and said, “I’ve decided to do it.” And I said, “Good for you, Mr. President, you’ve made the right choice.”
I felt like a life coach.
Nairobi Embassy Bombing – August 7, 1998
On Friday, August 7, we started another business day as usual. The DCM [Deputy Chief of Mission] was on leave. Our Political Counselor was acting DCM and I had asked him to preside over the Friday Country Team meeting [with senior representatives of the sections and agencies at post]. I was finally successful in scheduling a meeting with the Minister of Commerce to talk about an upcoming U.S. trade delegation, a big deal given how we stiff-armed Kenya –so I was not present.
I remember asking that the Country Team discuss how our newcomers were settling in and whether we were reaching the right balance on issues of security alerting but not paralyzing people to the dangers.
In retrospect, that was a very ironic conversation….
As was the case in many official meetings, the Minister had invited the press to ask questions and take photos before the real talk began. A few minutes after they left, we heard a loud “boom.”
I asked, “Is there construction going on”? It sounded like the kind of boom you get when a building is being torn down.
The Minister said, “No, there isn’t.” He and almost everybody else in the room got up to walk to the window.
I was the last person up and had taken a few steps when an incredible noise and huge percussion threw me off my feet….
That summer was very difficult. I had spent so much time in Nairobi in the aftermath of the bombing focused on my leadership responsibilities that I did not fully appreciate how hurt I was — not physically hurt, but how wounded I was. I never had the chance to be a victim. When I came back to the U.S. the world became surreal. I sensed that somehow I was not behaving the way a proper victim should—whatever that meant….
When Secretary Albright visited Kenya after the bombing, she asked about my next assignment. My husband, Dick, and Linda Howard, who had been my OMS [Office Management Specialist] for years, had already decided they wanted Guatemala. So, when the Secretary asked where I wanted to go, Guatemala was what came out of my mouth.
It was a complete accident. She thought I’d be good in Guatemala, so that was it. WHA, the Western Hemis
phere Affairs bureau, was less than thrilled to have an interloper come into their turf and let me know that in no uncertain terms. I was told they already had their “minority candidate.”…
We left Nairobi in May 1999 and I had my confirmation hearing within two or three weeks of our departure. I then went into Spanish language training….
I also had yet another run-in before the first anniversary commemoration. I was told that the grand invitation-only event to be held in the Benjamin Franklin Room [at the State Department] was in part a response to family members of the Americans who were killed, some of whom remained very angry at the way they were treated by the Department. In other words, it was a rather forced event.
Space was obviously limited and I kept submitting names of people from Nairobi who had not been invited. I was told that I was ruining the seating chart and hit the ceiling. Then, of course, I was told I was over-reacting. So, the tension continued….
“I reminded him that this was the United States and as an American citizen I could say whatever I damn well wanted”
During courtesy calls to the Hill before my confirmation hearing I was specifically told that I was not to talk about anything that did not deal with Guatemala. Nevertheless, I mentioned my concerns for security because the Department still did not ask for or receive fund adequate to address the problems embassies had around the world. Got into big trouble.
In those days, you had to have someone from H [Department’s Congressional Liaison] accompany you. I was with a political appointee seeing a powerful Senate staffer, and began to talk about security. The baby-sitter interrupted and said, “Ambassador, you’re not allowed to talk about that.”
When we left the staffer’s office I reminded him that this was the United States and as an American citizen I could say whatever I damn well wanted.
Later that summer I ended up in the Department’s medical unit with a terrible, terrible earache. The doctor who saw me said it was TMJ [Temporomandibular joint dysfunction] and asked if I was clenching my jaw a lot. I’ll say! Anyway, after about six weeks of one-on-one Spanish at FSI, I got my 3/3 rating, and headed to Guatemala.
The WHA helped prepare me very well, though I have to say I was shocked to learn during the last days of consultations that I would have 24-hour security guards, because one of our ambassadors [John Gordon Mein] had been assassinated in 1968.
Thirty years later, Guatemala was still a violent country and bodyguards were not unusual among the elites and diplomats. It was so different from my experience in Kenya—I had an advance car, an armed guard in my vehicle and a chase car with more armed guards….
Guatemalan President Portillo — “What a guy. Actually, he was more of a little popinjay with a big ego”
BUSHNELL: Washington had given me two charges: To put pressure on the government to improve its human rights record – specifically, to get to the bottom of the murder of Bishop Gerardi, a human rights activist — and to persuade the government to disband the Estado Mayor, the Presidential Guard, which had a lock on the Presidency both literally and figuratively.…(Photo: AP)
It doesn’t take long to see the disparity of incomes. There are a few very, very wealthy families, some middle class and a mass of very poor people. Guatemala was second only to Haiti in statistics regarding poverty, maternal death, infant deaths, etc. It was second only to Columbia in gun ownership, violence, and kidnapping. And yet, perhaps this is apocryphal, I was told the country had the highest per capita rate of privately owned helicopters in the world. It did not take long to pick up a virulent strain of racism among some Guatemalan elites, nor the hard, cold mistrust of the Mayan people….
Regardless of their personal roots, the military was responsive to the elites. It a symbiotic relationship— elites allowed the military to go keep the government and countryside under wraps and in return, the military ensured that reforms— labor reform, tax reform, any kind of reform—were kept at bay so the elites could make the money they wanted….
But let me talk about Guatemalan elections first. The candidate who won, Alfonso Portillo, was a populist and a horror in the eyes of the elites. His political party was run by Efrain Rios-Montt, a military dictator who had seized power in the ‘80s and went on to sponsor the most bloody and most repressive years of the internal conflict.
He supplemented the military with civilian militias, giving them guns and saying, “Okay, go kill people in the villages over there.” He had Mayans kill other Mayans and implemented a deliberate strategy to accomplish three things: engage in conflict in the countryside; keep the mayhem away from the Guatemala City; and punish the people fighting the military — punish them, their families, their children, their fields, and their villages. People were baffled that Mayans would vote for the very man who created such horrors. But they did.
The elites decided that the sky had fallen, that hell had frozen over, that nothing worse could ever happen and that the American ambassador would, of course, have nothing to do with him. I didn’t have that option, nor would I have chosen it initially because, as I said, Portillo was mouthing all of the right things about human rights, tax structures, reforming the presidential guard, implementing the Peace Accords—everything the U.S. government wanted to hear. I was lambasted in the press for dealing with the new government.
Portillo didn’t speak a word of English, which was good for my Spanish, and was clueless about putting a government together. He had been a university professor in Mexico and made no bones about the fact that he left Mexico before he was brought to justice for killing. What a guy. Actually, he was more of a little popinjay with a big ego.
He lived near the Residence and would frequently come for breakfast. Over the period of two and a half years, my end of the conversations deteriorated. At the beginning of his administration I would start with something like “So, Mr. President, wonderful that you’re saying all these good things. Certainly hope that you will implement them.”
This morphed into “Mr. President, it’s now been six months, eight months, nine months, twelve months, two years since you have been talking about reforms but you still haven’t implemented them. Things are getting serious.”
“Women can say things that would get other men in big trouble”
I initially thought part of the reason he couldn’t get anything done was an ignorance of basic management. I invited Portillo and his vice president for breakfast one day and asked each of them to answer the two things in writing: 1) Three things I want to be sure to implement during my term of office. And 2) I would like to be known in history as….”
Once they wrote their answers down I asked them to exchange papers. At one point I thought to myself, “I can’t believe that I’m doing this.’
Q: Sounds like one of your management sessions.
BUSHNELL: It was, but it sure didn’t accomplish anything of particular good. As time went on, conditions in the country degenerated further. One of my last private conversations with Portillo ended with the following. “Mr. President, we know for a fact that your personal secretary is accepting money from drug dealers.”
Portillo responded: “So that must mean you think that the money ends up with me.”
I shrugged and replied “Mr. President, what can I say?”
Q: He would accept this and still come for breakfast?
BUSHNELL: Yes, he would. I think that women can say things that would get other men in big trouble. Women colleagues have noted that, as well.
Trust at some l
evel is easier to establish; men do not feel as threatened by women, and a particular tone of voice can allow us to say the kinds of things, like “Mr. President, stealing isn’t going to do you any good. You don’t want to end up in history as one of the greatest thieves in the country, do you? No? Well, then, you just have to stop.”
Q: My definition would be nagging.
BUSHNELL: That’s what men always say when women give negative feedback. Think of it this way: the U.S. Ambassador is advising a head of state to stop stealing while continuing her ability to influence. When National Geographic did a video called, “Inside an Embassy,” Portillo was asked to say a few words on camera.
Know what he said? “Relations between our two countries have never been as good and this ambassador, she’s really good. You know, she pulls my ear now and then and tells me to shape up.”…
“I had never been so vilified on the one hand and yet satisfied about what we accomplished”
Alien smuggling was another big issue that got a lot of our attention, although it did not directly connect to any particular funding program…. We dealt with boatloads of Chinese and mixed groups including Iranians, Egyptians, and even an Australian — people from all over the world….
I also tried, as I did in Kenya, to organize a group of the key donor countries. We called ourselves the Grupo de Dialogo and were quite successful in getting attention in the press to issues of corruption and other Peace Accord issues. Unfortunately, the multilateral banks, like the World Bank and Inter-American Fund consider it their job to give out money, so we only had a minimal impact in using funding as a lever of influence.
As we speak, the man who was Vice President of Guatemala at the time I was there is now in jail. Former President Portillo slipped over the border back to Mexico with the posse behind him…literally. So much for the gang I dealt with….
I left Guatemala [in 2002] with mixed feelings. I thought that the mission team could point to significant achievements but I was personally exhausted from the efforts. I had never been so vilified on the one hand and yet satisfied about what we accomplished. Even one-time critics in the media admitted I had made a positive difference.
As to Guatemala as a whole, I felt that the level of mistrust and violence would shackle it for years. Yet, I was also struck by the sense of optimism among so many Mayan people who had and continue to suffer the most. Most of all, I left with a sense of having survived one tough assignment….
“When I was a little girl I never could have dreamed of being a leader”
The kind of leadership that makes an activist ambassador effective is neither welcomed nor rewarded. In Washington, senior career people are expected to be implementers and managers of policy, not leaders of people or policy. We still have an old-fashioned system in which the most important work is done by the most senior level people. Everyone else is expected to feed the next level up. It’s a huge expenditure of time for possibly minimal results. But there you are.…
Q: Pru, you’re getting out of the garden spot of Guatemala and leaving your bodyguard behind I guess and heading for the more dangerous area of Washington, D.C., the political swamp.
BUSHNELL: The job as Dean of the Leadership and Management School… a gift of the cosmos. The last three years turned out to be among the best of my career…. It was … management and crisis training divisions into the newly created Leadership and Management School—LMS.
The notion of leadership has changed dramatically in my lifetime and therefore yours. When I was a little girl I never could have dreamed of being a leader because the notion at the time was that you were either a born leader or you were not — it was not something that could be taught. Plus, with rare exception, leaders were men.
The leaders engaged with people from the top down, keeping a distance to maintain a certain aura, had access to information that others didn’t, and were deemed to have all of the answers. They would make the decisions for everyone else to implement. In return, they were given the attention, resources and respect from below.
With technological changes, new demographics in the workplace, globalization, specialization and a host of other differences in our world, new concepts of leadership have emerged. Among them is the notion that a number of leadership behaviors can be learned. Also, that leadership means motivating and enabling others to go in a certain direction. The effective leader leverages team’s efforts toward an accomplishment, rather than going it alone. This is a different notion of leadership….
The whole point of leadership, and why I have such passion about it, is to make it easier for the people who want to make a difference to do so. Without leadership, we will still attract smart and committed people but they will end up doing a job with one hand tied behind their back. It’s the loosening of the hands that my job was all about these last three years.
(Below, Ambassador Bushnell receives the Service to America Career Achievement Award in 2004, with CNN’s Judy Woodruff and State Department colleague and Embassy Nairobi survivor Stephen Nolan.)