Jul/Aug 2019  •   Fiction

The Reward

by Peter Bridges

Multimedia artwork by Belinda Subraman

Multimedia artwork by Belinda Subraman

Outwardly, Kursch thought, this afternoon all looked fine at Malabo, that world capital. Two olivebacks were chirping on the wire. Beyond the garden trees Pico Basilé, the highest point on the island of Bioko, rose ten thousand feet into the sky south of town. The fine cumulus clouds were luminous with the sun behind them. They looked, he thought, almost like clouds in some old landscape from the Hudson River school. It was altogether peaceful in the garden of Barton Kursch, the Ambassador Extraordinary & Plenipotentiary of the UnIted States of America to the Republic of Equatorial Guinea.

But all was not fine at Malabo. This bloody dictator, Teodoro Obiang, was better than his uncle Francisco Macias Nguema, who had preceded him as president of Equatorial Guinea—but he wasn't that much better. Nguema had been the Pol Pot of Africa. People guessed he had killed off almost a quarter of the country's population in little more than a decade. Obiang wasn't trying to equal that record, but there were a lot of people in the island's stinking Black Beach prison and a lot of people were being tortured and abused by the police and ragtag army. God only knew whether there was any truth to the rumor being deliberately spread by Obiang's people, that the president was a cannibal who actually feasted on the flesh of some citizens who were not of his own people, the Fang, who lived on the mainland.

Why, thought Kursch, why ever had he taken this job? He asked himself the same question every day, and he knew the answer. He had seized on this ambassadorship when it was offered to him. He had wanted it as compensation for the way he had been treated in Chile.

Kursch had been the second-ranking officer in the political section of the embassy at Santiago, and he had arrived there sometime after that tinhorn general, Augusto Pinochet, took over as president at the end of 1974.

Soon he began hearing horror stories. Kursch was an energetic officer who spoke fluent Spanish. Within weeks he got to know a wide range of Chileans, many of them politicians and journalists. They told Kursch numbers of their friends and colleagues had been disappearing. The DINA, the secret police, had seized a walled villa on the outskirts of the capital belonging to a family named Vasallo, who had run a restaurant on their property, a gathering place for Santiago intellectuals. No more; now it was the main place where DINA put its prisoners—and tortured them before "disappearing" them.

One of Kursch's contacts told him the DINA had help from the air force in arranging an untraceable mode of murder. Prisoners wearing handcuffs and leg irons would be put on a plane which was to take them to exile in Peru. Peru is north of Chile... but the plane would fly west, and 100 miles off the coast the prisoners would be pushed out the door. That would give them, Kursch supposed, at least a minute to say their prayers.

After Kursch was as sure as he could be that the accounts he heard were accurate, he drafted a three-page classified report on the horrid scene to be cabled to SecState WashDC. He left it on the desk of his boss, Cartwright Jaynes. In an hour Jaynes called him in.

"Bart, you know this is going nowhere. At least not in this form. I suggest you redraft it. You know what I mean."

Qué finura, thought Kursch. It just would not be nice to say out loud that the Ambassador, the former president of a small college, thought Pinochet was doing God's work, protecting Chile from the Communists. Kursch perhaps knew more about Spanish literature than he did about the Communist world, but at his first post abroad, Beijing, he had been a visa officer. More than once, English-speaking visa applicants had muttered to him about the horrors they had undergone in the Cultural Revolution. Protecting Chile from the Communists? Truer to say Pinochet's DINA had learned its lessons from the Communists.

"Cart," said Kursch, "I do know what you mean. But this is not some sort of think-piece I've written. It's fact, hard fact. Why don't you send the cable up to the DCM, and let him talk to the ambassador about it?"

"Okay. In fact I'll walk your cable up to our friend Potter"—Gerald Potter was the DCM, the deputy chief of mission—"and see what he thinks."

Later in the day Jaynes told Kursch that Potter thought his report was "interesting," but it needed to be put in context.

What context? Kursch redid his cable, and redid it once again, but it never got sent. In the next six months any and all things Kursch wrote about the DINA and Pinochet got watered down with commentary that almost—almost—made it sound like the American embassy was an apologist for Pinochet's brutal cops. Kursch hoped the CIA station was reporting accurately and frankly, but only the ambassador and DCM saw anything of what they did.

Meanwhile, although Ambassador Bigler had nothing to do with mid-grade officers like Barton Kursch, if they met in the hall, Bigler would greet him politely.

One afternoon Kursch had tea at a Santiago café with Luis Carvallo, a professor at the University. They had met at some diplomatic dinner not long after Kursch arrived. Carvallo was pleased to learn Kursch had written his master's thesis at Columbia University on Julio Barrenechea, who had been a Chilean poet, an ambassador, and a democratic activist from his youth onward. Kursch and Carvallo were soon friends and often met for either tea or lunch. Carvallo made no secret of his hatred for Pinochet and his people. Kursch had thought briefly of trying to see Carvallo in a less than public place, but the DINA was relatively efficient, and if they found out the two were meeting secretly, they would no doubt grow even more suspicious.

This afternoon Carvallo reminded Kursch he had some well-informed friend in the foreign ministry, a person he never named but who, Kursch guessed, was linked with him by blood or marriage. Carvallo's informant said the American ambassador had recently complained to the foreign minister that one of his junior officers was staying in touch with the "Communists" and kept preparing reports he had to tear up. Carvallo asked "Is that you?"

"No doubt," said Kursch; "it's a bad scene, Luis." But, he thought to himself, how dare the ambassador talk to the Chileans about one of his own staff?

The scene got worse. Two weeks later Carvallo disappeared, and when Kursch called Carvallo's home, his wife was distraught. Carvallo was never seen again.

The following month came the time to prepare annual efficiency reports at Embassy Santiago. Foreign Service officers are, like military officers, promoted not to a job but to a rank, by annual selection boards. Board members are sworn to rank officers not on a basis of hearsay or reputation but only on their performance files, which contain mainly the annual reports.

When Kursch saw his new report, he was devastated. Cartwright had ranked him toward the bottom on discretion, analytical ability, interpersonal relations, almost everything but energy. The DCM had if anything made the rating a little worse. The ambassador's name was nowhere on the report, but Kursch knew he had had everything to do with it—and neither Jaynes nor Potter had tried to defend their man. Pure cowardice, Kursch thought.

Kursch got out of Santiago as soon as he could, which turned out to be in another year, and was transferred to the Department. He had friends there. They knew well what had happened, so he soon found himself on the staff of the Operations Center.

The center worked around the clock, and its officers stood shifts. When a crisis occurred somewhere in the world, assassination or revolution, earthquake or tsunami, the Op Center was the first point of contact with our embassies abroad and quickly brought in all those in Washington who needed to be involved, from the Secretary of State on down. It was a good testing ground for an officer. Kursch passed the test. The Op Center was supervised by Jim Subblefield, an officer with wide experience, and Subblefield wrote an efficiency report identifying Kursch as an excellent officer destined to rise to the top. Despite Kursch's awful reports from Santiago, he got promoted.

One day soon after the promotion list had come out, his friend Ken Blackburn asked him to come by. Blackburn and Kursch had entered the Foreign Service together, but Blackburn, unlike Kursch, had risen steadily. Now as an officer of Class Two—Kursch had just been promoted to Class Three—Blackburn headed AF/W, the Office of West African Affairs.

Kursch looked intently at Blackburn as he took the cup of black coffee—awful, he thought after a sip—Blackburn had given him. What was up? Did Ken want to know how the Op Center thought his office had performed in recent crises? As best Kursch could recall, there hadn't been any crisis involving AF/W.

"Bart," said Ken, "I'll get straight to the point. We need somebody, and I would say somebody who is both frank and diligent—somebody who speaks good Spanish—to go out to the only former Spanish colony in West Africa. To go as ambassador, I mean."

Dear God, thought Kursch, does he mean Equatorial Guinea? It was not much of a country. As best Kursch could recall, it amounted to one decent-sized island and maybe several thousand square miles of jungle on the mainland.

Equatorial Guinea was indeed what Blackburn meant. Two months later the Senate confirmed the appointment without any questions being raised, and Bart and Rita Kursch flew to Malabo via Paris.

Their new post was as bad as they had expected. The climate was tolerable and their garden was a pretty place, but Obiang was suspicious of foreigners and they found it almost impossible to have any sort of relationship with the local people. There were only 15 foreign embassies and just two, the French and Spanish, were headed by ambassadors with any stature or experience. When they could, Bart and Rita escaped for a weekend, flying over to Douala in nearby Cameroon, a rainy place but a real city with a pleasant hotel, Le Méridien, and two good restaurants.

Our consul at Douala was María Sánchez, a promising officer in her 30s with a husband, Dale Gopnik, who had published two collections of African tales. The first weekend the Kursches went to Douala, María and Dale had them over for drinks. The consul was attractive and clearly ambitious. Bart sensed she thought that when he left Malabo, she might be able to leap up the ladder a couple of rungs and replace him as ambassador.

"María," he said, "I can see an ambassadorship coming to you before long—but you don't want Malabo. It's not just a hardship post; you'd find it's a terrible place."

"Ah. You mean, because I'm a woman."

"No. I mean because you're a human."

Bart told her a little about Obiang. Consul Sánchez decided to aim elsewhere.

The Kursches also found escape in climbing, almost two vertical miles, up through fine forests to the grassy top of Pico Basilé. They carried heavy packs with equipment and camped out on the summit, looking across the placid sea at the long coast of Africa eastward. But the climb took two long days up and a long day down, and one could not do that every week; they did it just twice.

After four months Rita went back to Virginia with no argument from Bart, although he hated to see her go. Her good job in the Arlington schools was still waiting for her, and there was really nothing for her to do in Malabo. And he would be back in Washington soon enough.

No, not soon enough, he told himself. This morning he had gone to see the foreign minister, a scar-faced fellow whose sole strong point, apart from being a cousin of the president, was a knowledge of English—but Kursch always spoke Spanish with him since that was the official language.

Kursch had gone to see the minister on instructions from the Department, to raise the case of a resident of Malabo whose sister was an assistant professor at Georgetown University. The professor had told the Department her brother, who was not an American citizen like her but who had studied in the United States and then returned home to become a school principal, had been imprisoned and tortured. The Department cabled the ambassador that he should make clear to the minister that while we had no grounds in international law to discuss the case of someone who was not our citizen, the man's sister was an American, and we would like to inquire as to his well-being.

The minister flew into a rage—or at least a pretended rage that would be useful when he reported to President Obiang on his meeting with the American envoy. He told Kursch he should be careful about interfering in what was none of his business, lest he suffer some unpleasant personal consequences.

Kursch replied that up until now, during the many years he had spent as a diplomat, he had never been threatened by an official of another government. If there were any consequences such as the minister was threatening, he said, he and his staff (a total of four Americans) would all go back to Washington, and it would be a long time before the president or his minister saw any American diplomat again. The minister walked back his words, a little, but Kursch was still fuming when he went back to his residence.

He thought, What shall I do? He needed to act responsibly. American interests may be involved here. Big interests, maybe. Someday an American company was going to find oil in the shallow seas off Malabo, as they did a dozen years ago not far away, off the coast of Cameroon. So what? Oil companies know how to fend for themselves.

The embassy had closed for the day, but Kursch phoned his communicator and told him to meet him there in an hour. It was still midday in Washington when the Department received a cable from the ambassador at Malabo.

In his cable Kursch reported his latest unpleasant exchange with the foreign minister. He hoped the Department would concur with what he had said—but there was more he wanted to say.

The embassy at Malabo still lacked the communications equipment to feed a typed cable into a machine that encrypted it and got it to Washington in a minute. Anything Kursch wrote had to be retyped by his communicator, Styles Weldon, a bearded Navy veteran who had joined State after 20 years on frigates and carriers. Kursch was as concise as he thought he could be:

It is time to raise basic question of my role here. I have in past told FonMin I hope for future involvement US companies in Equatorial Guinea, but important for EG to provide proper business climate—meaning they sometimes arrest European businessmen who do not come up with bribes. But our companies are good at protecting own interests abroad; if we ever need weigh in on their behalf we can do so through EG ambassador at Washington. I am sorry about brother of Ms. Asumu, but case like that does not warrant having American ambassador resident at Malabo. Almost only instructions I received in recent months were to ask FonMin to vote with us on UN resolutions, e.g. Cuba and Israel. As Department will recall, EG voted against us consistently. All things considered, US does not need resident ambassador here. We could accredit ambassador to Cameroon as nonresident ambassador to Equatorial Guinea, as other governments do...

The Department of State responded in a week. Fine, said the Department. You can send in your resignation and come home. He did so.

The next month the White House announced the new American ambassador resident at Malabo was to be Kenneth T. Blackburn, a career officer with long experience in African affairs.

Nor did Kursch ever get another post of his own. After a couple of years he retired. His pension was small, but he and Rita moved to Houston. She started a private school, and he went to work happily for a major oil company that paid him twice what he had made as ambassador. He traveled throughout the world for them—but not to the Republic of Equatorial Guinea, where murder and torture multiplied.

A friend in the Department told him Ken Blackburn had been shot at twice by unknown persons. His dog had disappeared from the garden, his car was vandalized, and customs officials held up the embassy's diplomatic pouches for weeks on end. Too bad, thought Kursch; but then, he has the glory of his ambassadorial title.