WHOSE MAN IN HAVANA? By John Graham, Reviewed by Paul Durand
WHOSE MAN IN HAVANA?
Adventures from the Far Side of Diplomacy
By John W. Graham
Review byPaul Durand
John Graham has produced a rollicking, engaging memoir - a combination of black humour, wry observations on life in exotic climes and - woven throughout - sophisticated socio-political analyses of places most of us really don't want to experience in any depth.
Drawing on a long career in Canada’s foreign service, followed by more years in the service of various international organizations, Graham serves up a fascinating menu of anecdotes based on a sometimes chaotic life in the international arena. Many of these are bizarre, others deeply troubling; but they’re an informative window into places well off the beaten track. What makes them especially interesting is the fact that they’re based on real events that weren't always covered by the ‘main-stream media’, but had real and often devastating consequences for the people involved.
John writes very well, and has a keen eye for the absurd; his self-deprecating tone mixes nicely with deeper discourse on serious topics, and his 'absent-minded professor' air lends to the overall effect.
It's difficult to choose among so many gripping - sometimes hilarious - accounts, which start with his first posting in the Dominican Republic in 1960, ending with the last of many visits to Haiti in 2010. Between these bookends there is a feast of colourful tales that doesn't quite obscure a serious piece of work on the diplomacy of the period.
For example, see the title-bearing chapter on Cuba where John - an improbable spy - was actually a CIA asset, doing espionage work in the aftermath of the Cuban missile crisis, under cover of his Canadian diplomatic status. He had been appointed under an arrangement blessed by PM Pearson and President Kennedy, and was tasked with charting the movements of Russian missiles and other offensive weapons as they were re-positioned in the Cuban countryside. He documented his finds with written reports backed up by hand-drawn sketches, choosing this method rather than use the proffered spy camera, which - if found on his person - he rightly assumed would land him in a Cuban prison (sketches are found throughout the book, covering a variety of subjects).
The time in Guyana is also notable, for the series of encounters with story-book characters in the capital, and wilderness adventures in the interior - punctuated by the Jonestown tragedy. Many of the tales strain credulity, but those who have known him over the years can attest to their veracity
In 1988 Graham was appointed ambassador to Venezuela, just before President Carlos Andres Perez saved President Aristide of Haiti from certain death at the hands of the military junta which had overthrown him. Aristide was then given asylum in Caracas, a situation of some interest to the governments in the region, as well as the Organization of American States. Graham played an important go-between role, keeping Aristide alive in the minds of Canadian and regional officials. Aristide eventually returned to resume his presidency, but the results were not good.
In the midst of his weighty responsibilities, he found time to be a judge in the highly publicized Miss Venezuela beauty contest. When seeking permission for this dubious venture from headquarters (I was at the other end of the phone), he explained that he would be participating "with the noblest of intentions". Although highly skeptical, I agreed, on condition we put nothing on paper .
The treatment of the war years in Central America is especially well done, harking back to the times when Canada could play a useful, constructive role in conflict situations, even when at odds with the aims of the United States. These were the days when a Pearsonian approach - in this case as practiced by Joe Clark - still made sense.
Other chapters - covering his post-diplomatic career - are no less intriguing, with titles such as "Boiling Toilets and Fermented Mare's Milk" on Kirghizstan (you'll just have to read it).
And, more seriously, Bosnia, which opens with the quote:
"Bosnia at this time was characterized by mismatched encounters between occasionally earnest, usually cynical, sometimes corrupt internationals and frequently depressed, equally cynical, often corrupt locals. There was a generous sprinkling of decency on both sides, but, like Haiti, it was a place more imprisoned than enriched by its history".
This is writing of the highest order, and the quality is sustained throughout the book, which makes for easy but captivating reading from beginning to end. At just under 300 pages, readers will be wishing for more, and at $35 (Canadian!) it's a bargain.
Tags: Paul Durand