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Who's Who Among Persona non Gratis
The Washington Diplomat / October 2008

By Larry Luxner

It's not every day a U.S. ambassador is declared persona non grata by a foreign government, let alone two American ambassadors on the same day.

In fact, the last time anything like this happened was 20 years ago, when Richard Melton was expelled by Nicaragua — which at the time was ruled by Sandinista leftists fighting the American-backed contra rebels. In retaliation, the Reagan administration kicked out Nicaragua's envoy in Washington, Carlos Tunnermann, and seven of his colleagues.

In a July 16, 1988, declaration remarkably similar to Chαvez's speech last month, then-Foreign Minister Miguel d'Escoto called the United States an "imperial bully" and said Melton had tried to foment opposition to President Daniel Ortega and his ruling Sandinista Party.

"Mr. Melton not only represents a government that behaves like an international bandit, ignores the basic rules of civilized coexistence among nations, disregards international law, refuses to abide by the International Court of Justice's rulings and finances the systematic killing of our people, but he also came to Nicaragua and tried to behave as if he were on a cattle ranch in the United States," he said.

The tit-for-tat expulsions followed a particularly bad week in Nicaraguan-American relations, during which the Sandinistas had arrested political protesters, closed the Roman Catholic radio station and suspended publication of the main opposition newspaper. That led both the U.S. Senate and the House of Representatives to condemn Nicaragua and pushed Reagan to boost covert support for the contras fighting to overthrow Ortega.

Tunnerman waited until less than three hours before the 72-hour deadline for his departure to announce that he would comply with the State Department's order to leave town on a one-way ticket back to Managua.

"One of the most honorable things that will be written in my biography," he told reporters that day, "is that the Reagan administration expelled me from the United States. Being declared persona non grata by this administration is quite an honor."

But what does that designation really mean?

Under Article 9 of the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations, any country may "at any time and without having to explain its decision" declare any member of a diplomatic staff persona non grata. Individuals so declared are considered unacceptable and are usually recalled to their nations of origin. If that doesn't happen, the receiving state "may refuse to recognize the person concerned as a member of the mission."

Such declarations date back to the very beginning of the Cold War, and have often been used to expel lower-ranking diplomats suspected of espionage.

George F. Kennan, who served as deputy head of the U.S. Embassy in Moscow from 1944 to 1946, was named ambassador to the Soviet Union in May 1952. But a slip of the tongue got him in big trouble after only four months on the job. During a press conference, Kennan compared the constant police surveillance at the ambassador's residence in Moscow to his internment in a Berlin jail during World War II. The Kremlin — offended at the implied analogy with Nazi Germany — declared him persona non grata on Oct. 3, 1952, and banned him from ever returning to the USSR.

It wasn't until 1975 that another U.S. ambassador was to suffer the same fate.

Deane R. Hinton, Washington's newly designated envoy to Zaire (now Democratic Republic of Congo) had become increasingly critical of the country's despotic ruler, Mobuto Sese Seko — even though the CIA considered Mobuto a crucial ally in stemming Soviet advances in Africa.

"In an effort to shock the White House into reassessing the value of U.S.-Zairian ties and making policy more consistent throughout the executive branch," writes Peter J. Schraeder in a 1994 analysis of U.S. foreign policy toward Africa, "Mobutu on June 19, 1975, accused Washington of plotting his overthrow, declared Ambassador Hinton persona non grata, and arrested the majority of the CIA's contract Zairian agents."

That same year, Herbert J. Spiro was appointed U.S. ambassador to Equatorial Guinea. But only six months later, on Mar. 14, 1976, he was declared persona non grata by that country's corrupt and brutal president, Francisco Macias Nguema (who was himself overthrown and executed in 1979).

If history is any guide, then Philip Goldberg nor Patrick Duddy — both of whom are U.S. career foreign service officers — have nothing to worry about following their respective expulsions from La Paz and Caracas.

Neither Hinton's ouster from Kinshasa nor Spiro's ejection from Malabo — nor Kennan's permanent eviction from Moscow, for that matter — put dents in any of those ambassadors' diplomatic careers. Hinton went on to postings in El Salvador, Pakistan, Costa Rica and Panama before retiring; these days, he's a member of the Council on Foreign Relations and the American Academy of Diplomacy.

Spiro, who made an unsuccessful bid for Congress in 1992, lives in San Antonio, Tex., and is an active member of the Washington-based Council of American Ambassadors.

And Kennan, who had so angered Stalin back in 1952, was later named ambassador to Yugoslavia, and went on to receive two Pulitzer Prizes in history and biography, as well as a Presidential Medal of Freedom. The highly respected diplomat, shortly before his death in 2005 at the age of 101, acknowledged that the off-the-cuff comment which cost him his Moscow job half a century before "was a foolish thing for me to have said."

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