Sunday, January 12, 2014

Under a January Haitian Moon

Under the Electric Mango Tree

Fok ou konnen kote ou soti pou ou konnen kote ou prale.
You must know where you come from to know where you’re going.
Haitian Proverb

The Electric Mango Tree at Canne a Sucre #30

Welcome to 2014, and to more excitement from the Caribbean.  Just like the American Airlines slogan, “We’re glad you’re here!  (I’ve been flying them a lot lately…)

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year! (Jwaye nwel ak bon ane!)
In mid-December, amid warm but strong Caribbean breezes and under a cloudless sky, the Ambassador hosted a Christmas party at her home for about 400 embassy employees and their families.  Two bouncy castles and a live band along with donated turkeys, hams and dozens of side dishes made for a very pleasant evening.  Santa even made an appearance, assisted by several helpers and elves, and the kids all received a gift handed out by the Marine Security Guards all dressed up in their ‘finest.’

Elvin Marines

Me and my girl

The Ambassador's Christmas Party

The next day we also celebrated with a nice Christmas party at SMDT (the local orphanage we frequent).  Kate cooked up a 20 pound donated turkey along with an assortment of potatoes, corn and other dishes, and lots of other folks pitched in with more food and drinks along with plates and cups and all the necessities for a great party.  The kids gave a small recital of songs and dance, and a great feast was had by all.  The US Marines Toys For Tots program provided gifts for all the kids, Santa and the Ambassador came by for a visit, and a few extra kids stopped by from the neighborhood to join the 30 who live there for a very nice celebration of the season.

More Marine Elvishness

The Ambassador at the recital

Santa and the Ambassador hand out gifts

Kate and her pal Boudleyson
Kate and I left post the following week to see the kids and our families for the holidays, and we enjoyed a very nice, cold but white Christmas.  Once again we find ourselves extraordinarily grateful for the blessings in our lives, and are reminded on a daily basis just how lucky we are.

“I’m from the government, and I’m here to help!”
President Ronald Reagan famously uttered these words in 1986, of course to great laughter and applause for his acute sense of irony and pithiness.  It’s one of those oft repeated, worn-out old saws that fits nicely on a bumper sticker and no doubt has been used time and again to accuse the United States federal government of incompetency, probably to similar laughter and applause, despite the passage of three and a half decades.  However, consider a few things about the mission and purpose of the State Department and the other foreign affairs agencies of the federal government:  An embassy has many objectives, but the overriding goals are to protect the interests of the United States and to promote American ideals and business in foreign countries.  Of course the worldwide embassy system is just one (rather large) part of the State Department, but here is what Thomas Nides, University of Minnesota grad and former Deputy Secretary of State for Management and Resources had to say back in 2011 about the real situation, and impact, of US foreign affairs agencies for our country:

(Before we get to that however, I invite you to take a moment or two and estimate what percentage of the US federal budget is spent on foreign assistance.  ….  Ok, all done?  Then on you go, dear reader…)

·        *   The total price is roughly $55 billion per year for all US foreign assistance.  (State, USAID & the Millennium Challenge Corporation are the principal foreign affairs agencies; others include the Foreign Commercial Service, the Foreign Agricultural Service, and the Broadcasting Board of Governors.  This annual price also includes US military support but not military action.)  That is just over 1% of the entire US federal budget, and with that 1.5% or so we do some pretty remarkable things.  (By the way, the typical American, in poll after poll, believes the US federal government spends upwards of 25-30% of the federal budget on foreign affairs.  How close were you?  Another way to look at this cost is as a percentage of GDP, which equals .19%, or good for #19 in the world.)

·       *    “Former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates used to say that the Department of Defense has as many people in military bands as the State Department has in the Foreign Service.”  I am a generalist, and at any one time there are only about 6200 of us who work for the Department of State worldwide.  In terms of total number of officers (from all agencies and including both generalists and specialists), there are about 15,500 of us, charged with protecting and advancing US interests in more than 290 diplomatic missions around the globe.  In September 2012, Apple Corporation had 72,800 full-time employees for comparison.  How many band members the military has is a bit difficult to pin down, but I suspect Mr. Gates knew what he was talking about.

·         *  With that 1.5% of the federal budget and by those 15000 officers (and of course support staff), State, AID and others directly support between 10 and 20 million American jobs, according to the US Global Leadership Coalition and the Secretary of State.  More specifically, we protect intellectual property, promote the opening of more markets and encourage the fair treatment of American business in sometimes hostile economic climates, and promote the expansion of the Open Skies Initiative for free and fair movement of goods, people and ideas around the globe, among other things.

·        *   We promote democracy and foster economic and political stability around the world.  Aid to citizens of foreign countries may seem an odd way to help ourselves, but consider that more stable nations make better trading partners, which directly affects American markets and American jobs.

·        *   We help ensure the world is a safer place.  The New Start Treaty with Russia (negotiated by diplomats) will serve to reduce nuclear weapons stockpiles to 1950s-era numbers, and in recent years the State Department helped 40 nations clear millions of landmines which maim and kill thousands every year.

·         *  We save lives.  Financial and medical assistance from the American people helps to reduce the prevalence and spread of HIV/AIDS, malaria, tuberculosis, smallpox and polio, and provides assistance in providing clean water to millions.

·         *  We help countries feed themselves.  We know how to grow, process and distribute food, and every year we assist the less fortunate to advance toward the same goals.  Food shortages can cause riots, unrest and starvation.  Food security begets political and economic security, and aids in creating better trading partners for American ag products.

·        *  We help in times of crisis.  Consider the major natural disasters and humanitarian crises of the past decade (Haiti, Fukushima, Pakistan, Thailand; earthquakes, floods, famine, drought, fires).  We have the capacity – and use it – to aid those at times of great humanitarian catastrophe.

·         *  We promote the rule of law and protect human dignity.  All over the world we advocate for basic human freedoms and rights that we have known for more than two hundred years.  We encourage the release of political prisoners in Central Asia, train law enforcement officials, lawyers and judges in modern practices, combat child- and sex-trafficking, and train journalists to keep the pressure on governments to reform and respond to the will of their people.

·        *   We help Americans see the world.  Millions of passports were issued last year (14 million as of 2010), facilitating legal travel for business and tourism for millions of Americans annually, and hundreds of thousands of foreign students receive visas to study in the US every year, bring their cultures, ideas, initiative and money to America.

·         *  We are the face of America overseas.  Sometimes the only real American a foreign national has ever talked to occurs at the visa interview window.  We do our best to represent you well.

·        *   We help Americans in times of distress when they are overseas.  Lost your passport or had it stolen?  Contact us and we can issue a new, emergency passport so you can travel.  Victim of crime or violence?  Contact us and we can coordinate with local emergency support services on the ground and in the local language.  Worried about a family member living, working or traveling overseas who hasn’t been heard from in some time?  Contact us and we can make inquiries about the health, welfare and whereabouts of your loved one.  In my opinion, everyone who travels internationally should make it a point to note the basic contact information for the US Embassy where they are traveling both for themselves and their loved ones back home.

Is it or are we perfect?  No, not quite.  But like any human enterprise we try to make necessary improvements in the systems and their implementation, we strive to do the right thing by the American people, to work hard in advancing your (our) interests, and hopefully to leave the world a bit better than it was when we arrived.

The view From Six Feet – Maybe Above Ground, Maybe Below…
Now if you’re like me, those bullet points will seem quite impressive.  One can argue about whether we should be doing those things, but it’s without question the reality that we are actually doing them.  However, that is information on a macro scale – from 30,000 feet, if you like – and means little to the average American.  How ‘bout some stories from the trenches to further assist in your appreciation of … well, something anyway.

In November I moved to the American Citizen Services (ACS) unit in the Consulate.  There are quite a few tasks we take on in this unit, but every one of them involves providing some type of service to American citizens in Haiti (or wherever you might be traveling; see last bullet point above).  The bread and butter of our work here in Haiti typically involves interviewing Americans who wish to document the legality of their child’s birth (which occurred here) and then issuing a legal birth certificate (known as a Consular Report of Birth Abroad, or CRBA), and renewing or replacing expired, lost or stolen passports.  In addition, we notarize documents, authenticate documents and signatures, take note of incidents that Americans (whom we refer to as AMCITs) would like us to take note of (more on this in a moment), provide death certificates to the families of Americans who have passed away and letters of transit which allow the body of the deceased to be transported back to the United States, and provide assistance to American relatives back home trying to locate or gain information about a loved one who might be in distress here in Haiti. We can even assist AMCITs in processing the necessary paperwork who might qualify for benefits from federal programs like Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid or federal pension payments.

Finally, we directly assist those AMCITs in distress, if we can.  For example, if an AMCIT is injured in an accident (automobile or otherwise), they may need some type of assistance in locating a respected hospital or doctor, and while we are prohibited from recommending one provider over another, and can’t transport an AMCIT to a hospital or pay for any of the services (a surprising number of people expect that we do this), we do provide contact information and can make initial arrangements for care; check in regularly with people who’ve been hurt; maintain contact with the medical staff; and stay in touch with any family back in the US or here in Haiti.  And hard as it is to believe, sometimes AMCITs find themselves in trouble with the law, like citizens of all nations occasionally do.

Now, we can’t protect against stupidity, and what often happens in such cases is that an AMCIT winds up in jail or prison.  (Please, please, please remember that US laws and protections do not apply in foreign countries!)  The Vienna Conventions on Consular Relations allow for Consular Officers (like me) to visit detained or arrested citizens and interview them about their living conditions and treatment, lodging protests and advocating for improvements if necessary; stay in communication with their families, friends, lawyers, the press and public, and occasionally Congress; and to provide them with some basic comforts (if needed) like toothpaste, soap, books and magazines, second-hand clothes and occasionally small snacks.  We cannot pay for lawyers, bribe judges, ask for special privileges like private cells or otherwise spring the accused from jail just because they are Americans.  You made this bed, Sparky, now you have to deal with it.  (You might be saying to yourself –  “But wait!  Aren’t we innocent until proven guilty?”  In the US maybe, but where are you when you asked the question, and were you forced to travel there against your will?)

Where’s Waldo?
So in my second week in the ACS unit, we received a phone call early one morning from a man in the US claiming that his wife had abducted their child and brought him to Haiti.  The mother and father weren't getting along, and the child wound up in Haiti without either parent.  (By the way, while the details of such stories are accurate, some items have been changed to protect the privacy of the parties involved.)  First, we verified that the child is indeed an AMCIT, and if he wasn’t we would regretfully inform them there is nothing we could do other than suggest contacting the relevant authorities.  Then, using information provided by the parent, we tried to determine the location of the child.  In this case a ‘welfare and whereabouts’ visit could be conducted relatively easily, and that is exactly what we did. 

That same day we arranged for a car and driver to take a Haitian colleague and me to visit the home where the child was staying.  We interviewed the extended family who was caring for him, inspected the home, and talked to the child (as much as that is possible with a child).  We looked for signs of abuse – or the opposite – and tried to ascertain if he was being adequately cared for.  We did investigate the circumstances of how the child arrived in Haiti without either of his parents, and tried to determine what the plan is for his future, and while those details are important, we are not in the business of determining fault or guilt, as our primary purpose is to make sure the AMCIT child is safe and healthy.  We concluded our interview and inspection, returned to the Embassy and wrote up our report for the Children’s Issues office back in Washington.  Keep in mind traffic conditions in Haiti, and you won’t find it surprising that this part of the story took up most of an entire work day for two of us and a driver, and (as is usually the case), was just one part of a case that is still evolving.

In this instance it was pretty easy to arrange such a visit; but imagine if the child were in the rural far north of the country, or if this happened in a very large country like China or Russia, or if information was hard to come by or the family was less than cooperative.  All of these things happen as well, yet we have an obligation to the American public to do what we can.

The Hospital Bed that Came to Us
Shortly thereafter, we were contacted by an older gentleman who requested assistance in returning to the United States.  He was in a local hospital out in the country, and had lost his passport and needed us to issue a new one for him.  It’s not typical to issue a new passport for someone without an in-person interview with a Consular officer, so if circumstances allow we can go visit a person, conduct the interview and issue the passport in remote locations.  He indicated this wasn’t necessary just yet, as he would contact his family back in the US and see what they could do first as he didn’t have travel plans confirmed yet.  So the notes were written up in his file, and the case was put on hold until further contact was made.

About a week later, our unit received a call from the security guards out in front of the Embassy.  The older gentleman had made his way to us but had no appointment, so the guards wanted to know what to do.  Further inquiry revealed that he was not only out in front by the street, but was also in a hospital bed and unable to move or walk independently.  He had been transported from rural Haiti to the Embassy in a private ambulance (there are scant few of these in Haiti), and had two aides assisting him.  It turns out that about three weeks earlier he had had his leg amputated below the knee as a result of acute diabetes.  Not only that, but he was blind and mostly deaf.  A security officer and I went out to see him at the entrance, and we then witnessed his rather awkward entry into the Embassy as a local security guard donned gloves and gingerly searched around his battered body and the hospital bed so he could safely enter the Embassy and get his new passport.  About three hours after his arrival he left us with his new passport and was left to arrange travel back to the US with the assistance of his family.

Welcome to the Pen
One of the more weighty services we provide are arrest visits.  My time in ACS is nearing a close and I’ve had the opportunity to make three prison visits thus far (by regulation we are to visit an arrested person within 48 hours of notification by the AMCIT, so anything is possible in these final weeks).

It bears re-emphasizing that when an American travels in a foreign country, they are not bound by US laws and have no guarantee of US-style legal protections.  Violate local laws and you may find yourself up against the blunt end of the criminal justice system, and in some countries that might be quite draconian.  And no, the US Marines are not going to swoop in and save your sorry ass the moment you proclaim “But I’m an American citizen!” a la Hollywood.  This may be a good time to suggest, if I may be so bold, that one really doesn’t want to spend time in a Haitian prison.

I arrived at the National Penitentiary early one December morning, accompanied by a Haitian colleague and a pocket full of stories from others who had gone before me into the breach.  (Perhaps most famously that several walls of The Pen had collapsed in the earthquake of 2010, and something like 5000 hardened criminals had escaped into downtown Port-au-Prince, many of whom are still at large.)  An AMICT male had been arrested several months earlier, but had only just a few days earlier notified the Embassy of his citizenship, meaning he had spent something like three months in prison and had yet to see a Consular Officer.

He was charged with a crime and of course was innocent, like everyone in prison (except perhaps Red from Shawshank Redemption).  We interviewed him about the charges against him, his legal representation, and his general health and overall treatment during his time there.  First let me say that prison is loud, unexpectedly so.  Perhaps that’s to be expected when more than 4000 men are imprisoned in a space that is decidedly not large enough for that many bodies, the cells are exposed to the elements and electric lighting is rare, and human waste runs freely down channels in the floor.

How crowded is it?  Well, our interview took place in a small room, perhaps 20 feet by 25 feet or so.  “You share the cell with others?” I asked at one point, knowing the answer but unprepared for the detail.  “Yes,” he said, “the cell is about the size of this room, and there are maybe 30 or 40 others in there with me” he concluded.  “Mostly I just mind my own business and stay in the cell.  I don’t want to stick my neck out, so I just read or think or sleep and stay in the cell.  We have no choice but to take turns sleeping.  I have one bed sheet from home, and there are not nearly enough beds, so I just sleep under my sheet on the concrete floor and hope nobody bothers me.”  “Are bathrooms available?” I asked.  “We are allowed one bathroom break per day each morning” he replied.  “Are you treated well?” I asked.  “Well” he shrugged with a smile, “I’m in a Haitian prison, so there’s that.”  Yup, I guess that about summed it up.

Perhaps it was a bit easier for him as he was born in Haiti, but I shudder to imagine what it might be like for regular old white guy like me under such circumstances.  Maybe visions such as these are worth sharing in order to keep the children from straying too far from the mean when traveling overseas, so feel free to share widely.

In the event you’d like to explore the topic of aid to American citizens in distress further, I invite you to read this blog post from 2011 by a fellow FSO, who details one of the more harrowing experiences I can imagine in the service to our country as a Foreign Service Officer.

A Potpourri of Preposterousness
My time in ACS has also allowed me to encounter, in no particular order of importance or craziness:  A Puerto Rican off his meds with little money who ‘lost’ his passport and wanted to return to the US (he had only a month before been released from prison in the Dominican Republic – they had his US passport – and wasn’t supposed to leave the DR); a man who wanted to make a report to the Embassy and was seeking assistance from us because he held the ‘key,’ about which President Obama knew everything yet was doing nothing (‘It’ being the real story behind 9/11 and the conspiracy laid out in the symbols on a US dollar bill); a lady who wanted us to authenticate the signature on her ‘legal document,’ in which she claimed membership in the Moorish Science Temple of America (go ahead, I dare you to Google that one); a group of seven college kids from California who bought into a medical mission travel package, only to discover once they’d invested several thousand dollars and had arrived in country that it was all a scam, and then needed our assistance in calling their parents, finding shelter and getting home; and an ongoing saga involving a woman who adopted children from Haiti before the earthquake and then, when the oldest became a teenager and started rebelling, decided it was a good idea to send the child back to Haiti with nothing more than a wing and a prayer (her passport, and a airline ticket, and ‘arrangements’ that had been made for transport and accommodations).  And on a daily basis I interview people who want to document their child as an AMCIT, the majority of whom are older, English speaking Haitian-American males (sometimes born in the 1930s or 40s) who are married to women in the US but then had a child with a much younger Haitian woman (sometimes born in the 1970s or 80s – yes, you can connect the dots there; all can now collectively emit the requisite “Eeewwwww!”).

They say the ACS unit has the most interesting stories.  I’m beginning to believe that’s true, and most officers I know describe their time in ACS as providing them with the most fulfilling experiences, and most closely resembling the reason they joined the Foreign Service.

Mèsi anpil tout moun!
If you’ve managed to get this far, then you’ve wasted another perfectly good 30 minutes of your day adventuring with us here in Haiti.  We just hit the point at which we have exactly one year remaining in country, for my transfer onward was recently approved, and so I’ll be leaving post on January 2, 2015 for Washington, and then it’s on to Moldova later that summer.  Thanks for hanging out with us on this crazy adventure, and as they say here in Haiti: “Piti, piti wazo fe nich li.”

Not interested?  Just send me a note and I’ll gladly take you off the list, no harm, no foul, no hurt feelings.  J

Disclaimer: This opinions expressed above are my own and not those of the U.S. Government.
Please do not disseminate widely without permission.

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