"Latin America is the garbage dump of the foreign service," says an American diplomat. This sentiment is the nucleus of this poorly organized and diffuse embassy life "docu-drama" (that feeble, illegitimate offspring of literature and journalism). Michaels, a former Time correspondent who spent six months in Bogota, Colombia uses real names--often misspelled--and real events, but relies heavily on her own inferences and other people's implications and in so doing sacrifices verisimilitude and chronological cohesion. Transitions from one conversation or scene to another are so confusing that the reader feels lost in a maze without a roll of twine.
The author has, however, a point. Had the United States State Department been able to remember, for example, where Nicaragua and El Salvador were, and been a bit more--how shall we put it--persuasive with Somoza in particular, to moderate his corruption and contain his greed and cruelty, and if it had helped aggressively structure a stable middle class, then we would not be in the fix we are today. And make no mistake--we are in a fix.
Hindsight is easy, but I lived in El Salvador from 1971 to 1973 amid the poverty, the volcanoes, and the coffee beans. It was clear then that in these countries of such extremes in living standards, the perfect soil mixture existed for the seeds of revolution to take root and flourish. You did not even have to be too bright to recognize a fertile field and conclude, as did Will and Ariel Durant in The Lessons of History, that concentration of wealth is natural and inevitable but history periodically alleviates the situation by "legislation redistributing wealth or by revolution distributing poverty." No members of Congress came to visit then and no members of the press, except for an intrepid few like Robert Pierpoint and Morley Safer of CBS. It was simply not chic. Now it is. El Salvador is the "inest" place to be. There must be one newsperson to every 20 Salvadorans in this critically over-populated country.
Michaels fires off broadsides of generalization at both Colombia and the American foreign service. To her sources, Colombians are duplicitous, inept, and corrupt: "Colombia was not a colonized country like the United States. We were conquered. The Spanish came to take our gold and emeralds to Europe. People were slaves. Plunder is still a way of life. And the Catholic Church? The Spanish brought that too. The clergy try to put in the hands of God everything that happens. We call God 'fate.' There is no God--only good luck and bad luck. There is no feeling that work makes any difference. Only luck. That is why drug-trafficking is so successful here. Easy money is good luck."
It would be hard to dream up a cultural ethic more in opposition, on the surface, to our own. What Michaels misses is the double meaning, the Janus quality of the minds to our south. If you give to one of the swarms of beggars, there is a ritual thanks: "Dios se lo paga." It is a bitter beatitude and contains both genuine appreciation and a hidden hope that He will indeed repay, but in counterfeit coin. Machines, schedules, and plumbing do not function as well and as fluidly in Latin America. It is a harsher life with very different political origins from ours, but there is a skeptical humor, an earthy vitality and sinew, and an anonymous invincibility, the source of which is mysterious to us in still unconquered lands.
"You Americans are white, blond, and you have good milk," says a Colombian newscaster. "We are a poor, disorganized country with milk full of amoebas. Some hate is logical. Besides you are not sent here to make friends. . . . All your intelligence-collecting and you never know exactly how to relate. You don't send your first-class people to Colombia. Your first-class people go to Paris or London. We distrust American politics. In matters of foreign policy, the U.S. plays poker, while the Russians play chess. Our 'Big Brother,' John F. Kennedy. . . then LBJ and Nixon. Do you know whose image the poor hang in their house? Castro's! Maybe Castro is good. He finished the rich--that's enough for the poor."
The foreign service does not come off much better--corrupt, not yet, but only a few steps away. The underlying argument is that the embassy functions as a flaccid bureaucracy, inattentive to the business of serving as an effective link between one country and another. "One guy's job had been to get desks into the conference room," she has one embassy staffer say. "What kind of a job is that for a grown person?. . . . Others were just making rules about how many batteries to use, or making up duty rosters. A competent secretary can do a duty roster. You don't need someone making forty-plus a year. Some of them were as good as their jobs. Some were disasters: incapable, drab lifers." Smaller embassy staff and fewer outside agency personnel would probably help keep the eye on the doughnut, not the hole, a back to basics movement for the foreign service.
Michaels' subject--how effectively the United States government operates abroad--is timely and important. She points up the petty jealousies among the staff, the jousting with Washington, the lonely and difficult lives of foreign service wives (the sketch of Nancy Ascencio, the ambassador's wife, is particularly appealing), and the fulsome words and empty actions behind the policies on drug trafficking and human rights. Her idea is fine but her execution spotty and often trivial; embassy personnel consulting psychics is given more space than the imprisonment of and escape from guerillas by the ambassador, Diego Ascencio, an interesting man of obvious craft and ingenuity. The form is not functional. Better a real novel with character development and insight or a diary or an unvarnished chronicle than a sickly hybrid.