Field Notes

An Abandoned Oasis Of American Comfort In Tiny Guinea-Bissau

As demand in Europe for cocaine soars and the U.S. dollar weakens, West Africa is becoming a new transshipment hub for Colombian drug cartels, with the tiny, fragile country of Guinea-Bissau at the epicenter.
By Kevin Sullivan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, June 1, 2008

BISSAU, Guinea-Bissau -- Down a rutted road behind the Hotel Libya, past the aggressive Nigerian vendors selling cheap sneakers hanging from the branches of a mango tree, I found the embassy of the United States of America sitting empty as a heartache.

The last American diplomats left this West African country amid whistling mortar shells and small-arms fire in June 1998. Their embassy had the misfortune to be located near the front lines of a hot little African civil war. The warring sides had nothing against America, per se, but that didn't give the ambassador and her staff any kind of ballistic immunity, so they were evacuated.

When I visited there recently, I decided to go have a look at the shuttered embassy. So at 10 a.m. I hopped one of the baby-blue Mercedes taxis that cruise the streets of Bissau, the capital, piling into the back seat with two men who bopped along to a cassette of the Senegalese American singer Akon.

I paid the 50-cent fare for the 15-minute ride. And after a sweaty walk in the 100-degree heat, I came upon the embassy, looking like a forlorn monument to a lost lifestyle.

Its gate was locked; I peered in from outside. The ambassador's pool was still painted a pretty aqua but was filled with dust instead of water. The tennis court was cracked and dry, like unloved lips. The shady pavilion between the two, where I could imagine diplomats in linen suits entertaining each other over chilled gin and tonics, now hosts nothing more posh than a few darting lizards.

The ambassador's residence was decorated with the drying laundry of a caretaker. I shouted a couple of times from the empty U.S. Marine guard post, and the caretaker stood up from his washing. He apologized and said he wasn't authorized to show visitors inside the chained and padlocked compound.

The residence is separated from the embassy by a street that was virtually deserted, except for an occasional woman walking by with a tray of mangoes balanced on her head.

The street is called Ulysses S. Grant Road, in honor of the 19th-century U.S. president's assistance in settling a dispute between Portugal, then Guinea-Bissau's colonial ruler, and Britain. The Portuguese erected a statue of Grant, which was later stolen and hacked up by scrap-metal thieves.

I've seen U.S. embassies in developing nations all around the globe. I remember sitting in the U.S. ambassador's residence in Burma a few years ago and marveling at the sprawling grounds that were once property of the British colonial government. I sat on a tropical patio sipping a cold drink as the top American diplomat in the country smoked the most enormous black cigar I had ever seen.

That's what U.S. embassies are often like in places like this: little oases of calm and comfort. The water might be undrinkable outside, but inside, the diplomats enjoy Americana that most of the local people have never contemplated, like Cheerios or root beer. Marine sentries in smart uniforms guard their posts with crisp efficiency, calling everyone "sir" or "ma'am," no matter how sweaty or caked with dust. Amid all the Third World exotica, there is suddenly Ohio.

Many other countries closed their embassies here during the war. Though the conflict ended in 1999, most have never reopened. A country of 1.5 million people, which produces mainly cashews and mangoes and has only one road with streetlights, Guinea-Bissau remains a faint afterthought in the era of Iraq, Afghanistan and soaring oil prices.

Resurrection may yet come for the U.S. mission. Last summer, the United States officially relaunched its diplomatic presence in Guinea-Bissau. The country's emergence as a key transshipment hub for Colombian cocaine cartels exporting their wares to Europe helped bring on that decision.

But, for now, the entire U.S. team in the country consists of two locally hired staffers who handle administration of the U.S. mission -- what little there is -- from a nearby office building. All official diplomatic business with the Guinea-Bissau government is still conducted through the U.S. Embassy in neighboring Dakar, Senegal.

Greg Holliday, spokesman for the U.S. Embassy in Senegal, told me that the embassy's continued vacancy here is "really a question of budget."

Meanwhile, as the Americans let their embassy decay, the Chinese are pouring money into theirs. Next door to the U.S. ambassador's crumbling residence, a flashy-looking Chinese Embassy stands behind a gleaming white wall. Modern buildings that appear to be housing for embassy staff are lined up in a neat row, with shining solar panels on their roofs.

The Chinese are everywhere in Africa these days, cutting deals to build roads and dams and mines in exchange for African oil and other natural resources. Even in Guinea-Bissau, which is so poor that at night it is almost pitch black, lighted only by cooking fires, China is making sure it has a showy, "look-at-me" presence.

The United States has a caretaker with a broom.

At 11 o'clock on a Thursday morning, the view from Ulysses S. Grant Road couldn't have been more stark.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company