With an important election approaching, the Aruba People's Party was looking for help last summer. It turned to the Yellow Pages of the Distict of Columbia telephone book.
After several calls, party leaders ended up having dinner with political consultant John Rendon. Within a few days, Rendon was making the first of seven trips to the tiny Caribbean island of Aruba to offer American political know-how for hire.
Rendon, a former political operative for President Jimmy Carter, is among an increasing number of American consultants who gain fun and profit by helping foreign candidates win elections.
Matt Reese, the colorful West Virginian who helped John F. Kennedy win the presidency, gives advice to the Social Democratic Party in Britain. Roger Stone, a young Republican operative, split his time this fall working for New Jersey Gov. Thomas H. Kean and the United Bermuda Party in Bermuda.
In 1984, media expert David Sawyer added presidential-level campaigns in Panama (for winner Nicolas Ardito Barletta Vallarina), Greece (against winning Prime Minister Andreas Papandreou) and the United States (for also-ran Sen. John Glenn, the Ohio Democrat) to a list that included Nigeria, Costa Rica, Venezuela, Colombia and Israel, where Prime Minister Shimon Peres is a client.
David Garth, another veteran media expert, avoided foreign clients for years. "I was afraid of the 'ugly American' thing," he says.
But Garth changed his mind and has taken on campaigns in Colombia, Venezuela and Israel, where he helped make Menachem Begin the prime minister.
And Joseph Napolitan, considered the dean of American political consultants, boasts that he works on five continents and has been an adviser to eight foreign heads of state, including Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos in 1969 and former French president Valery Giscard d'Estaing.
After three decades in the business, Napolitan has quit working in American campaigns. He says he did so for the same reason he gave up an earlier career as a sportswriter. "After a while everyone sliding into third base looked the same," he said. "You can only go to Iowa or New Mexico so many times before it gets pretty old."
The romance of practicing politics on foreign turf is one attraction for consultants. The other is money. American political consultants are seldom hired for anything but national elections where fees run high.
"Generally, they are held in off-years for us," said one consultant. "Most of us have too much business during the on-years and not enough during the off ones."
The big thing Americans have to offer is experience, in part because the United States has more elections than other countries. But foreign politicians sometimes have an exaggerated view of what American political consultants can do for them, Garth says.
"It's part of the American myth. They think we have some kind of magic, which we don't," he adds. "They hear about a great commercial we did for [New York Mayor] Ed Koch or someone and they want it duplicated. That doesn't work. What we do have to offer is experience. We've had 25 years in this business to make every mistake in the book."
In some countries, American involvement in elections is a hot issue. As a result, consultants often try to work secretly. Napolitan says his role in Giscard's 1978 election wasn't publicized in France until 1980; media consultant Bob Squier kept his work for Spanish Premier Adolfo Suarez secret in the late 1970s.
But Squier says this isn't a problem in Venezuela, where American consultants have played major roles in every national election since 1973.
"They're proud of their gringos. They say, 'These are my gringos. Who are yours?' " Squier said. "They probably follow American consultants closer than most politicians in this country."
Squier tells of promising former Venezuelan president Carlos Andres Perez that he would learn to speak Spanish between the election and inauguration day if Perez won, which he did.
On inauguration day, Squier was ushered into the new president's office, and ordered to speak Spanish, which he was unable to do. Squier said he replied: "Mr. President, you above all people should have understood the value of a campaign promise."
The Aruban election was small potatoes compared with many contests that attract American consultants.
The island, part of the Netherlands Antilles chain northwest of Venezuela, has a population of only 68,000, occupies just 69 square miles and is far better known for beaches than politics.
But the election was an important one for the Aruba People's Party, known by the initials AVP, which was the No. 2 party on the island. The election was the first since Aruba achieved a new semi-independent status and lost its major employer -- an Exxon oil refinery that closed earlier this year.
Rendon, who managed Carter's efforts at the 1980 Democratic National Convention, brought all the technological trappings of a modern American campaign to Aruba, where the language is Papiamento, a combination of Dutch, Spanish and English.
He helped put together a party convention, brought in an American pollster and several political operatives, made television commercials and staged a high-technology political rally where he used laser light beams to write the AVP's slogan -- "For a New Aruba" -- on the skies above the island.
The AVP, trailing badly in the polls, had decided that "everything the campaign did had to be different," Rendon said. "The light show was so different that it was the only thing anyone talked about on the island for three days."
The AVP's secret weapon was a more conventional American political tool -- direct mail. The party divided Aruba's 42,440 voters into subgroups.
A separate letter was sent to each group. All boasted that the AVP had "a team to rescue the island." Rendon said 75,000 letters were sent in the 10 days before the election.
The AVP won seven seats in the island parliament, and was asked to form a new government with three smaller parties.
The incumbent governing party, known as the MEP, won eight seats, six fewer than in the previous election.