Tuesday, December 7, 2010



Problems cannot be solved at the same level of
awareness that created them.
Albert Einstein

[We’ve had torrential rains these past few days (before the snows began), and it reminded me very much of the kind of rains in the tropics.

[Warning: this was written in Panama, in anger, unrelenting heat, and fear. The language is mine, all mine!]

Another day in paradise is what I said to myself during the umpteenth day of rain when leather shoes, purses and everything else was covered with mildew due to constant dampness; when the power went out taking the air-conditioning with it; when I couldn’t get water from the tap because the pressure was too low; when I bathed in dirty water for two days in a row; when bomb threats forced me to flee the office; when I was sick and didn’t know which end to throw over the toilet first, and just when I thought things could get no worse, they did.

We’re not talking Peace Corps here; we’re talking the Diplomatic Service, the U.S. Foreign Service. The American public thinks we live in mansions, have servants waiting on us, drink champagne for breakfast, and do little else. Ha! We live in some wretched conditions, compounded by stiflying heat, snakes – the two-legged kind and the slithering kind, and every other critter known to man that flies or crawls; uncooperative government officials, and then the real kicker now – a hurricane.

It was October 18, and Hurricane Joan was heading toward Panama. Our boss said we should stock up on water and get out the flashlights because the radio reported that power and water would probably go. He said that we would know whether or not to go into work the next day. I suppose if the wind is blowing down everything in sight that’ll be a clue to stay at home. What next? We’ve had an attempted coup; a regime in power that we refuse to recognize; the constitutional president is in hiding; yellow fever is back in the country; dengue fever is on the way with no protection against it; Americans are on everybody’s hit list, and then up jumps a friggin’ hurricane! At home I dutifully filled the two bathtubs and every vessel with water. The Southern Command Network said there would be a “little” rain for most of the next day. I thought that was probably an understatement. I knew in my heart of hearts that it would be raining polecats the next day! The least bit of rain and the damn streets were flooded and we plowed – and I do mean plowed – through the water.

It didn’t help that I was right on the ocean. The waves had been dashing the hell out of the rocks ever since I got home that evening. When Hurricane Gilbert was nowhere near Panama, we caught hell. My apartment was alive and everything shook all night long – the doors, the windows, and me. I felt, as a friend was fond of saying, that if it wasn’t for bad luck, I wouldn’t have any luck. Another day in paradise.

All U.S. diplomatic license plates were going to expire in January and since we didn’t recognize the reigning government, there would be no more license plates issued to American embassy personnel. All American diplomats will then be driving illegally, and there was a strong possibility that our cars would be confiscated. I ran that risk everyday since I had been driving with expired plates for months. I could not drive outside the city – not that I ever wanted to - because there were car checks for proper documents. However, the embassy didn’t dwell on unpleasant matters until the ambassador was going to be affected, then the embassy got concerned. They had no answers as usual. They would think about that tomorrow. Meanwhile, just another day in paradise.

On the whole, life was interesting during those days. Our scholarship program was huge, and university students were clamoring for more scholarships to enable them to study in the U.S. despite the pro-Noriega newspaper blasting my office, the U.S. Information Agency (USIA) for “infiltrating” the university. One newspaper’s headline read: “CIA-USIA infiltration at the University of Panama.” I was invited by the students in international relations to help them put on a fair. Their leader got the leaders of the rowdier movements to agree to have no protests while I was on the campus. They welcomed me, and I felt very comfortable. I was invited back to help judge an English speech contest. I sent books to help build the university’s library., and the director of the new Center of Latin Studies at the university met with me to ask for our help. So much for infiltration.

The New York Times and The Washington Post published stories that American diplomats in Panama were operating in the same circumstances as our colleagues were in Iran when they were taken and held hostage for 444 days. I wondered why our media was so anxious to give Noriega ideas! It was a scary time. One of our political officers was quoted in the New York Times as saying, "Noriega has not harmed a hair on an American head, and yet we are all terrified." We knew what he was capable of doing.

As we prepared to greet a new year, we ate, drank and tried to make merry, despite knowing that at any moment all hell could break loose. Our orders from the embassy were to get to one of our six military bases on the outskirts of Panama City. We were aware that the Panamanian military would block the main streets. Once before they blocked access to our bases to show us that it could be done. I was painfully aware that I probably would not be able to reach one of our bases. My secretary was as afraid for me as I was, and she suggested that I drive my car to within a mile or so of her house, leave it, and walk to her house. That was our plan.

Many of us knew this would be the last year for the Panama that we knew. There was little hope. The Americans were to save the Panamanians from General Manuel Noriega, but he was no longer listening to us, and we weren't talking to him.

A few days later, a consular colleague was groaning about an American who had been arrested. The consular officer had finally gotten the authorities to agree to release the man, but his passport and plane ticket had been stolen, and he had no money. He was desperate to leave the country.
My colleague asked, “How can I tell him that nothing can be done until tomorrow or the next day?”
I grinned, “Tell him he has another day in paradise.”


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