by Alfonso Arenales
The author was a career U. S. diplomat from 1957 to 1988. In addition to senior assignments in Washington, DC, and on the U. S. delegation to the UN in New York, he held positions abroad in Mozambique and Brazil, including consul general at Rio de Janeiro. This sketch concerns Mr. Arenales’ unusual assignment as chargé, sent to reopen a post previously closed by the host government.—Ed.
The Flag Comes Down
Shortly after its independence from Portugal in June 1975, the new People’s Republic of Mozambique forced the U.S. consul general in Lourenço Marques (later renamed Maputo) to “strike the colors” and end all semblance of official American activity in that southern African country. A truckload of guerrillas-turned-soldiers pointed their weapons at the consul general and told him to lower the American flags flying at both his official residence and the consulate general’s downtown office by the docks. The consul general was shortly ordered home. His small staff was allowed to stay in Mozambique, but was relegated to an uncertain limbo with no official status. Unrecognized by the new government, they lived in splendid isolation among colleagues hesitant to be too friendly with American counterparts who had suddenly become outcasts.
Before Portugal’s African colonies became independent in the mid-l970s, the United States was represented in Mozambique (and in Angola) by largely autonomous consulates general which reported to Washington through the American embassy in Lisbon. After independence, the new sovereign governments of both countries were staffed by the leadership of the major guerrilla groups that had fought Portugal for independence for over a decade. In Mozambique, this group was FRELIMO (Frente pela Libertação de Mozambique—Front for the Liberation of Mozambique). FRELIMO considered itself to have fought not only Portugal, but Portugal’s staunchest friends and supporters, as well. Most prominent among these was the United States.
Samora Machel, FRELIMO’s top leader, became Mozambique’s first president. An ideologically committed and dedicated Marxist, he was totally oriented away from the United States and towards the Soviet Union.1 The Soviets and the People’s Republic of China (much to Soviet discomfiture) had long provided FRELIMO with political support and military assistance in hardware, training, and tactical advice. The United States tried to establish a relationship with Machel during Mozambique’s nine-month transition to independence, without success. After independence, however, Machel recognized that he could not permanently alienate the United States, and diplomatic relations were finally established in September. But the new government would not have anything to do with the handful of holdover Americans still cooling their heels in Lourenço Marques. A new and untainted face was needed to begin the new era.
A New Player
That face was mine. The State Department sent me out as chargé d’affaires to reopen our former consulate general as an embassy and to raise the flag again. This was easier said than done.
Before proceeding to Lourenço Marques I detoured to Zambia. It was important to assure influential President Kenneth Kaunda that the United States was seriously seeking a productive relationship with Marxist Mozambique. There being no direct flight to Lourenço Marques, and not wishing to arrive from South Africa, I backtracked to Tanzania, whose president, Julius Nyereyre, had been mentor to Samora Machel. It occurred to me there that our people in Mozambique would probably not have the customary embassy seal that identifies American diplomatic posts all around the world. So on a dusty Sunday morning in Dar-es-Salaam I was taken to the local U. S. embassy warehouse to look for a seal. We found one, washed it clean, and I held it between my knees on the flight to Lourenço Marques.
Upon arrival the holdover staff that had gathered at the airport fretted that no representative of the new government was on hand to meet me, as is customary for heads of diplomatic missions arriving at post. We all took this as a bad omen. My first official act was to send a formal note to Foreign Minister Joaquim Chissano2 announcing my arrival and requesting an audience. This brought no response. We were puzzled, because the foreign minister had personally met in New York with then-Secretary of State Henry Kissinger to establish diplomatic relations and agree to opening embassies in each other’s countries. I waited ten days before sending a second note. The silence deepened. Meanwhile, the story was getting around that something was really amiss with the Americans. Our diplomatic colleagues—the only other foreigners left in Mozambique—remained friendly but cautious, concerned that whatever disease we had might be catching.
I am still grateful, however, to various other diplomatic representatives, particularly including the head of the UNDP delegation and the British and Soviet ambassadors, for consoling us good-humoredly from time to time and making life bearable. The Soviet envoy, by the way, had been involved in the struggles for independence of all of Portugal’s African colonies and was said to have been in charge of covert operations in Angola. He delighted in thinking he had introduced me to vodka. As I discovered later, he had also broadcast this belief of his around town (see postscript).
Our situation went on for seven weeks. I wasn’t accomplishing what I was sent out to do. So we decided to go for broke. I cabled the State Department—which had been kept informed of all this—that unless otherwise instructed I planned to raise the flag and declare the embassy open for business the following Saturday morning, November 8. I told the foreign ministry the same thing. The silence became deafening. Washington appeared to have fallen into the same void the Mozambicans were in. Hearing nothing from anyone, we prepared all week for the big event. Among other contingencies, we considered the possibility of my being thrown in jail or railroaded out of town.
On Saturday, our American and Mozambican employees, with all available spouses and children, gathered by the fourth-story office window that sprouted our flagpole. At nine a.m. sharp, we held our collective breath, unfurled Old Glory and listened for footsteps or sirens. Nothing happened. We peered up and down the street. Directly opposite was a usually noisy dockyard bar and the remains of what in pre-independence days had been a popular bawdy house. Silence. We breathed again, smiled hesitantly at each other, and drove to the residence overlooking the bay. This, after all, was where the flag had originally been ordered down. The true test would take place here. The office area was deserted anyway so, we told ourselves, we had actually just been through a practice session.
At the residence, the tall flagpole had been repainted a sparkling white. It also boasted a new lanyard. Everything shone under the brilliant blue sky of a perfect morning. Our lookout at the gate signaled all clear. First we put up the embassy seal I had carried from Tanzania, and admired it for a moment. We again checked our two draft cables to the State Department, one of which would be sent, proclaiming either success or failure. Then we gathered in a semicircle on the gravel driveway by the flagpole. I had the flag. As prearranged, I handed it to the twelve-year-old son of our public affairs officer. I helped him unfurl it and carefully hook it onto the lanyard. We stood silently for a moment as the Star Spangled Banner began playing on the stereo set in the house. I nodded to the boy, who slowly raised the Stars and Stripes.
No one spoke. We were caught in the profound symbolism of the moment. It seemed as if we had been made whole again, far from home on the edge of the Indian Ocean in a country deeply suspicious of our presence and our motives. It was a morning none of us will ever forget.
Neighbors and passersby took notice. Some stopped or called to congratulate us. That was all. We slowly relaxed and enjoyed a peaceful, satisfying weekend. On Monday I told the foreign ministry what we had done. A few days later I was finally received by the Foreign Minister and we were officially in business.
President Machel held his first major reception a short time later. The diplomatic corps, such as it was, attended with the enthusiasm of those who literally (except for the Soviets) had no other official function to perform. Considering that the corps’ major preoccupation at the time was whether or not the hoped-for chickens would arrive from Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) in time for Christmas, the reception was a sumptuous feast. The president was in fine good humor and had playful repartee for all of the twenty or so foreign representatives present. When he got to me he called over the Soviet ambassador, nudged him in the ribs and asked, “Is he the one?” The Soviet grinned affirmatively, whereupon President Machel summoned vodka, salt, lemon, and two shot glasses, and said, “All right, let’s see it!” The Soviet and I locked arms, made mock salutes, and downed a few symbolic shots, tequila-style. The president beamed, and the Cold War turned warm in Mozambique for the remainder of the afternoon.
Alfonso Arenales, born in New York City, served in the U. S. Army from 1944 to 1947. He is a graduate of Columbia University and the U. S. National War College. Mr. Arenales now resides in Maryland, USA. Since retirement he has been active in consulting, research, and writing.