1998-2000. Embassy Luanda, Angola

Luanda Charter FSN Association, 2000
Combined State/USAID gathering at our house in Bairro Azul.

November 1998. Approaching Luanda by air, you see this beautiful city on the coast with tall buildings and winding avenues. Only as you get closer do you realize the tall buildings are empty shells of construction halted when the Portuguese left suddenly in 1975. And when you get real close, you can see bullet holes from Savimbi’s last stand in 1992. Not to be confused with Savimbi’s last stand of 2002. My oh my! Luanda! No place like it on earth.

Embassy Luanda was a trailer park, plain and simple. As admin officer I was the only American in the admin section, which meant I was also leasing officer, contracting officer, certifying officer, and HR adviser. I saw this coming and managed to get enrolled in all the financial mgmt and HR courses before leaving Washington. I had time to take the overseas management officer course, but my brainless Career Development Officer (CDO) informed me that you had to be FS-02 to take that course. When I countered that I was going to fill an FS-02 job, she simply said, “but you’re an FS-04, No exceptions.” It was a big disappointment for me. I could have used that class. But that is spilled milk, no use crying over it.

One by one, we found residential properties outside, negotiated leases, and moved all remaining staffers off the compound and into newly rented houses and apartments as quickly as our guys could complete the make-ready preps. Of course, it was never quick enough, nor the make-ready good enough for the prospective tenant. We did our best. Then we started the arduous task of securing the permits and permissions from various government offices to begin the New Office Building (NOB) construction project.Side note. Not at all incidentally, the prevailing practice in Angola real estate was that the finder was paid a fee of 14% of the annual rent payment. On a single residence with $6000 per month rent, the finder’s fee balloons to a payment of $10,800. That’s only one residence. I had no inclination to take that fee because, while prevailing practice, it was most definitely a violation of US contracting law. I can’t say what my predecessors did, nor can I speak for my successors. But I was having nothing to do with it. Of course, our Angolan landlord thought I was crazy. So I negotiated with them to delete the finder’s fee, i.e., subtract it from the total rent payment, resulting in an under market negotiated price. They didn’t care, $10K was actually $10K, and so they agreed to the proposal. We must have negotiated close to ten rent contracts, saving OBO and the State Department over $100K on my watch. End side note.

After several meetings with several different ministries and regional and local government departments, we arrived at a stalemate regarding a “showstopper” for the prospective NOB, closing off the back street to enhance, no to secure setback requirements. In a final meeting I attended with the Provisional Governor (who was on our side) and representatives from the Interior Ministry (who were not on our side), the Interior Ministry folks drew a line in the sand. Their position was that to grant us permission to close off the back street “for security reasons” somehow suggested that they were not doing their job to provide adequate security for a foreign mission (which of course, in their estimation, they were. The Interior Ministry guys studied under the Russians, the East Germans, and the Cubans back during the good old days. They were the best at what they did in the world.). It was all in the wording.

One of the city traffic planners offered the following olive branch proposal: Close off the back street, not for security purposes, as stated, but to provide for temporary construction, knowing full well that once the traffic patterns were changed to close the road for the three years of the construction period, no one would bother to change them again afterwards. I phoned the DCM to get the go ahead. We cut the deal and shook on it. It was done. Ground was broken, and a few years later, after my departure, the New Office Building became a reality — the trailer park, a distant memory.

We made a couple of important budgetary discoveries. One, FAS, a cost sharing device for spreading the costs of maintaining the physical platform across all the the various agencies at post, had been supplanted and replaced by ICASS, International Cooperative Administrative Support Services. When we did the arithmetic in Excel over the years, we discovered that one agency at post was making the cash transfer agency-to-agency in Washington over the past four years. I checked with the budget office in AF/EX and lo and behold, discovered that no payment had been transferred for the past four years. In effect, the State Department was subsidizing that particular agency. AF/EX budget office got us a windfall payment covering the four years.

Similarly, the mission had experienced tremendous growth, new agencies had been added, and what was previously USIS had been absorbed. But there had been no corresponding increase in our representation funding as should have happened. All it required was a written request by the administrative officer. That was me. We scored yet another windfall of back payments. I was flying high and my bosses were loving me!

The FSN’s invited us to their outings from time to time. Once or twice we went to restaurants that were outside the 17km boundary and we had to get RSO approval. Such field trips always ended in good eating and dancing! One of our favorite “picnic” areas was Cacuaco, across the road from this ancient structure:

In retrospect, while I didn’t fully recognize it at the time, I would certainly come to miss the support DCM Jeff Hartley and Ambassador Joe Sullivan always extended to us. Telephones didn’t work half the time. There was no e-mail to the Admin annex where I worked, Casa Inglesa. But I could count on the support of upper management to do the work I had to do. I could take it to the bank. The support I enjoyed and took for granted in Luanda, the collegiality we shared, I would later learn, was rare in this outfit. I remain grateful for having experienced it there.

Next stop, Embassy Accra, Ghana.

Addendum: Farewell to Luanda (10/2000)

Dear friends and colleagues,

We are packing out and already I am missing this sad, strange place. Luanda. No place like it. No place like it on Earth.

Coming down with malaria is a pain that I won’t miss. Nor will I miss that illness we get from time to time that fakes out the malaria test. The locals call it catolotolo, while I call it total physical misery. But I will miss the peaceful sunsets and late dinners out on the ilha, the hypnotizing popular music, dancing (more like watching them dance) the kizomba and the high-fives shared when one hits that out-of-sync step with rhythmic perfection.

I’ll miss the taste of zindungo (a spicy sauce made from peppers, garlic and whiskey), the smooth harshness of Angolan robusta coffee, the sweetness of overripe pineapple sold at inflated prices by the women on the street who swear it will last until tomorrow, and the bitter-sweetness of gimboa (a type of local greens) fried with onions and olive oil. More than anything else, though, I’ll miss the effusive, infectious enthusiasm of our local Foreign Service National (FSN) employees, their willingness to learn, their professional dedication and loyalty.

The war, which resumed in earnest two years ago, continues in earnest. The rebels continue to wreck havoc and random mayhem in the distant and not-so-distant provinces. The government continues to blame the rebels and, by extension, the war for all the ills of the kleptocratic society it leads. Luanda’s majority continues its struggle to survive and overcome desperate, oppressive poverty. Luanda’s privileged elite continues to revel in opulent, ostentatious wealth. International oil companies continue to discover and suck out black gold, Texas tea, like there’s no tomorrow. And then there are diamonds. Diamonds are forever. Diamonds are a girl’s best friend. Diamonds. Y’all know the rest of that story. The American Embassy continues its bifurcated operation in the Miramar trailer park and on top of the downtown garage known as Casa Inglesa. Continuity, for better or for worse, is Luanda’s most obvious constant. The strong get stronger, the weak go further off track. Or, if corruption empowers, then absolute corruption empowers absolutely.Angola diz basta, Angola quer paz. Angola vai vencer. Or so says the steady flow of local media propaganda. Angola says enough. Angola wants peace. Angola shall win. An associate with party connections gave me the red, black and gold t-shirt that repeats the mantra. That makes it so.

The NOB didn’t start on time and may or may not start in the foreseeable future. While I am buoyed by our accomplishments of the past two years, I am a little disappointed over the NOB delays and the failed prospect of being personally involved in yet another building project in yet another former Portuguese colony. Never mind. A luta continua e vitoria é certa (translation: the struggle continues and victory is certain).

We are coming up on two years of official USG presence in Angola in the post-Cold War era (1992-2002). I am soliciting information, anecdotes, photographs, etc. from folks who have served in Luanda, and from PMO’s, FBO Area Managers and desk officers who have paid Angolan dues, so to speak. While talking with people in Luanda and in Washington, I’ve made interesting discoveries regarding the colonial-era Luanda consulate and its employees (1952-1975) and the Benguela and Luanda consulates that supported US Navy ships (the African Squadron) involved in slave trade interdiction efforts in the 1840’s and 1850’s. Keep those cards and letters coming and let’s all meet for a big birthday bash in Luanda in 2002!

Some lost diary entries

Saturday, November 14, 1998

First weekend in Luanda. I haven’t done any shopping, but Filomena says everything is available and the prices of many items, food, cleaning supplies, etc., are comparable to prices at Safeway or Giant.

I gave my first “speech” to the combined Admin/GSO section yesterday. The GSO told me the FSN’s received it well and no American had ever addressed the section like that before. A driver voiced similar comments to Filomena. It was a simple 10-minute talk: I introduced myself, gave a short work bio, and shared my general expectations. I told them, as I was told in MM “A” School, that every job in the Embassy was important and necessary. But I stressed that their role in the Admin/GSO section was vital to the maintenance and operation of the diplomatic mission platform. Finally, I told them what my father told me: Don’t take no wooden nickels, and if you can’t be good, be careful. Of course, something was lost in the translation, but I think they got the idea.

The city of Luanda: Awesome sprawl view from the plane as we approached the airstrip. A million baracos, shacks all connected in neat little rows – very little urban development in terms of housing. The central city was not much better: unfinished high-rises from the seventies, tenement slums and ghettoes, vacant buildings occupied by squatters, children and mutiladoes (orphans who lost their parents and people who lost limbs because of the zillions of landmines we gave UNITA and Russia/Cuba gave MPLA during the twenty years of civil war) on every corner, open streams and puddles everywhere, breeding mosquitoes who carry parasites resistant to anything we can throw at them (the rainy season is “atingindo,” but the “river” in the street in front of our house comes from a leaking water main (I traced it, using those ancient naval engineering skills, ha! ha!, and if water can leak out, God alone knows what filth can leak in!!!!), not from the rains).

My boss, the DCM, is going to be a great guy to work for. I‘ve already started working with my American subordinate, described by many as a social “problem child.” I think he is going to be O.K.

Filomena is adjusting well. She has a buddy already, Anna, the Korean wife of the Defense Attaché, who whispers to people at social functions and who helped fudged the figures on the Retail Price Survey to get post an increase to 30 percent on the COLA (Cost of Living Allowance).

Haven’t done much at work: certified some routine vouchers, read through some old files. Next week, I’ll make my way to USAID, the PolMIL section, and MONUA to meet with the Admin folks there.

Off the screen.

Sunday, November 15, 1998

The folks have been very hospitable here since our arrival. Wednesday night we attended a cookout at Miramar held by the departing TDY Army guys.

Thursday we went to Anna and Mike’s house, where we dined with three military guys from MONUA (can’t remember names, but they were from India, Hungary and Portugal (Fulgencio)), Carol from POLMIL, and Cindy from “the Pentagon.”

Friday we were hosted by the DCM, where we met most of the country team: Pat (Econ-Comm), Paul (RSO), Alfreda (Acting AID director), her XO, Cleveland (I think), Carol, Mike, Anna, Phil Ives (USIS), and, of course, the DCM. Saturday night Alex invited us to his suite on the Marginal (what a view of the bay!!!). There we met Doug (Equator Bank), and Corinne and Mateus (she, French, with UNHCR, he, Swiss, with (I’m not sure what he does). We had a great after-dinner conversation, which gave me some good ideas for my dissertation: how the army controls the economy by repatriating dollars to manipulate the unofficial exchange rate and the interest rate and how the black economy drives the official one; how oil is not the curse of Angola, greed and avarice are (the seven deadly sins); contending forces in Angola as a struggle that predates the Cold War and is thus not caused by it (guerra fria); the influence of the Protestant missionary movement in Angola, as a source of the liberation movement against the Portuguese, played out as a protestant/catholic luta (catholic/communist Luanda against the Methodist/Baptist/Congregationalist adherents taught by missionaries in the provinces (including Jonas Savimbi, whose father was a Methodist missionary and whose grandfather was a Bailundo revolutionary. Alex has many books and admits to being a part of State’s Greek Mafia.

Today we finish cleaning the Ambassador’s house in preps for his arrival tomorrow. There is another cookout at Miramar this afternoon. We meet the new Ambassador tomorrow morning at the airport.

Thursday, November 19, 1998

New Ambassador arrived Monday AM. Had a small dinner do at his house that evening. Monday Ricardo and I went to see Cine Miramar, where the owner gave us the good news that they want to offer us a long-term lease with option to buy, 20K per month, an idea which FBO also likes. We still need to figure out what to do about the erosion going down the hill. Also visited the bottom floor of the house next door to Miramar. The offer is $4500 per month on a ten-year lease, plus amortized discount for the cost of renovations.

Tuesday I wrote the cable, completed my travel voucher, did some routine work, attended the Country team meeting, and made far too many trips to Miramar. Tuesday night we ate at home, finally. Filomena made chicken soup (calde de galinha) and it was good!

Wednesday I toured the warehouse. The most important thing that happened was a meeting with Phillip Ives, PAO, about the STATE/USIS “crosswalk.” We determined that three of his employees would likely come over to the Admin section, retaining some specific USIS responsibilities: the Systems guy; the Admin woman; and his driver/expediter. I shared with the DCM my long-term vision for property acquisition and for personnel. Will detail in the journal later.

I hope today to look at the top floor of the house next to Miramar. We also need to prepare a cable of yesterday’s meeting with USIS. Finally, today Ricardo and I are going to schedule our meetings, which we’ll start next week.

Meeting with the DCM today on the MPP.

Friday, November 20, 1998

Emergency Action Committee is meeting today. RSO tried to gloss over the issue of “tripwires.” I raised a few points, then Bob Evans chorused in. The Ambassador acknowledged, but the RSO was visibly disturbed at the interruption. Afterwards the DCM and Alex whispered to me that they understood exactly what I was saying about the tripwire thing.

Returned to LightHouse, caught some adu, an interesting Nigerian-American who owns a real estate appraising firm in Dallas. Went out to the Ilha, hit all the spots in the cidade.

Sunday, November 29, 1998

Went fishing yesterday with Tony and Lusiana, Richard and Steve, and Mike. The POL/MIL bunch. WE had a pretty good time, but only caught three fish. Did a little swimming off Mussulo; great exercise.

More thoughts about work, i.e., real estate acquisitions. Luanda’s is a dynamic, almost fluid real estate market. It is market driven. It is chaotic and sometimes appears anarchic. However, the anarchy and chaos is only a mirage, a façade: beneath all the appearances of disorder, there exists a cool, sinister, and invidious system of horse-trading, price fixing, and gouging. I’m trying to figure out what is going on inside the heads of FBO. Why do they move so slowly? We are dealing here with market forces that behave, metaphorically, consistent with the properties of steam. Nevertheless, with the right valves, the right piping arrangement and the correct auxiliaries, we can harness the power of this steam and make it work for us, not against us. First, however, we have to recognize that we are dealing with steam, not toothpaste, and certainly not peanut butter. In this equation, FBO is the King of Ice, or worse yet, rigid steel. Ice tools aren’t useful in a steam environment!

I am reading the files. Countless are the times that post management has had suitable properties in their grasp, only to lose out to competing interests, often American companies, banks and oil. Why are we even here? To protect American interests? What American interests? Commercial interests? Oil companies. Fucking oil companies. The same oil companies that beat us at the real estate table each time we go to play. It is early in my tenure, but I already have an inkling of the frustrations my predecessors must have endured.Finally, a few words about this house. When the power switches from city power to generators (more often that one might imagine), only the air conditioners work. No lights, no appliances, no receptacles. Only air conditioners. Either there is a short circuit in the wiring system, or there is a weak circuit breaker or transfer switch somewhere. Either way, one day the wires are gonna fry and this house is going to burn down. Moreover, because of the design of the house and its distance from the center of the city, everything in it is going to burn with it. Forewarned is forearmed!!! Alright!!!!!!!!

Part 1 – Foreign Service Exam and Oral Assessment
Part 2 – A-100 and reassignment training
Part 3 – Embassy Bissau – the first year
Part 4 – Embassy Bissau – the second year
Part 5 – The London Embassy
Part 6 – The Ops Center
Part 7 – Embassy Luanda, Angola
Part 8 – Embassy Accra, Ghana
Part 9 – Domestic Assignment – AF/EX
Part 10 – Epilogue: the final eight years
Part 11 – Bonus: Reflections on War and Peace in Iraq

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