Paul Durand

Below is Paul Durand’s forword to John Kneale’s “Volcano Rising”. 


An Ambassador’s Diary 

John Kneale’s book serves a very useful dual purpose: for those wishing to acquire a sense of Latin America, with all its foibles and complexities, it does a splendid job; the author has compressed into a single volume many of the characteristics of the region, using Ecuador as the template. At the same time, he has provided - by describing in detail his own daily experiences – a compelling description of what it is that a Canadian diplomat at the level of ambassador actually does.

For the most part, Latin America has made impressive progress in recent years; economies are expanding, poverty is decreasing, and democracy has been consolidated. But Ecuador belongs to a small group of countries that are mired in the past; a past of populism, erratic government and economic autarchy. For a number of complex reasons, when the rest of the region began to modernize over the past fifty years, these countries stayed behind or followed a different path.

In the late nineties, they found an ideological organizing principle in the precepts of ALBA (Alianza Bolivariana para los Pueblos de Nuestra America), a creation of Hugo Chavez of Venezuela. Chavez, a powerful leader of the ‘caudillo’ style and a spell-binding orator, arrived with an agenda that was equally antagonistic toward the corrupt elite of Venezuela and American influence in the region; his mantra has been “socialism for the 21st century”.

Using his country’s considerable oil wealth, he signed up a number of countries, starting with Cuba, followed by Bolivia, Nicaragua and Ecuador. A handful of Caribbean countries followed, unable to resist the allure of cheap oil, even if they didn’t share the ideological extremes of ALBA (they had little choice; conventional aid programs historically provided by Canada, the US and Europe, were being dismantled to the point that these small island nations were destitute). Others are lined up to join, and Argentina is an enthusiastic outlier.

Americas-watchers attach various degrees of significance to ALBA. Many see it as an empty vessel, soon to collapse under the weight of its own contradictions – if not by the demise of Chavez. Others take it more seriously: a Latin American colleague at the OAS once confided to me that ALBA is “a struggle for the soul of Latin America – a struggle between the Bolivarianos and the Monrovianos!”.

Even by the exuberant standards of the ALBA group, Ecuador’s history stands out for its bigger-than-life politicians, its turbulent history, and the consistent instability that has debilitated its economy. For reasons that are hard to explain, it has suffered from unstable governance, decade after decade. Here is a country that, since independence in 1830, has produced 19 constitutions and twice as many presidents – a procession of colourful, charismatic but often ineffective populists (it should be noted, however, that Ecuador has also produced brilliant leaders, some of whom have achieved renown for their country and for the region).

John Kneale arrived on this turbulent scene in 1998, as Canada’s newly-appointed ambassador; although an experienced, professional diplomat, nothing could have prepared him for the wild mix of events that would take over his life for the ensuing three years. He dealt with it all: a military coup d’etat; life-threatening volcanic eruptions; kidnappings, indigenous uprisings, and default on the national debt, to mention just a few.

One would like to think that, under such circumstances, the Canadian representative would be supported by the full strength of the Canadian government but, alas, this was not the case. Ecuador had long been considered by Ottawa to be a country at best marginal to Canada’s interests; not big enough, or rich enough, or stable enough to warrant serious attention. For years the embassy itself was regarded as an afterthought, having been closed and then re-opened twice. Even when it was open and functioning, the embassy was starved of the most basic staff and resources needed to fulfill its responsibilities. As a result, it fell upon the ambassador to make up the shortfall, by using his ingenuity and sheer hard work to make the Canadian presence credible.

John Kneale accomplished this to an impressive degree, and then went one step further: he recorded his activities in a daily diary. The record he kept is the backbone of Volcano Rising, giving the book a sense of “being there” in real time - a ringside seat to the drama of Ecuador in the late nineties. It is a balanced account, because the author recognizes, in addition to the faults, the many positive things that there are to say about the country and its people. Also, through a series of historical flashbacks, he puts the colourful present into the context of an equally colourful past.

Most Canadians’ knowledge of Latin America is pretty thin, simply because the material available - material that explains our hemisphere from a Canadian perspective - is sadly lacking. This book, brief and concise but packed with detail, does a lot to remedy this situation.

Paul D. Durand

Ottawa, January 2013


Tags: Paul Durand