Thursday, August 4, 2016

Interlude: March 8-11/1999 Trip to Central America with the President


I served on the National Security Council 1998-99 covering Latin America.  This comes from my journal entry for a trip to the Central America Summit held in Guatemala.

Monday afternoon, Hotel Princess, El Salvador. The ride in from the airport was something else. I really had to whiz, drank a lot of water to hydrate myself. It was a rough ride over the mountains. Looking out now, reminds me of Third World tropical cities I’ve seen elsewhere with pleasant parts -- this is one of them -- and some interesting buildings. The ride on the Air Force plane was neat. Got one of the older models of Air Force One but were still treated nicely. Had great seats and it was like super first-class. NSC takes care of its own staff and we outranked a deputy assistant administrator of AID. Even got in a nap after a filling lunch.

Later same day. El Salvador is quite nice, weather is warm but dry and very comfortable. I have been reading my classified email and cables. Looks like my job will be to introduce good sense where it's needed and not much more. The hotel is first rate and my room is nice. I should have brought more money since we get no advance.


Tuesday. It is 8:30 am here and I had a light breakfast -- several muffins and pastries -- which will be perhaps my only free meal of day. Last night, I smoked a Cubano with a reporter from AP before the presidential party arrived. Had to eat in the hotel since once the President returns, all hell breaks out. Finally got to bed around 12:30 local time. I will be checking items -- calling [Ambassador] Don Planty to read him the riot act -- and trying to get a tour of the town for us from the Embassy. Tomorrow, I'll be with the "party" for event here. San Salvador looks lovely from the admittedly privileged area in which hotel is located. Air smells nice and clean and tropical. Reminds me of good side of going to such places.

Having a great time. Just got back from a tour through San Salvador in an embassy car. A big, spread out city with lots of traffic and sun. Walked through a market and ate some "apple bananas" and local cheese. Toured the new cathedral and saw the grave of Archbishop Romero, who was murdered by the military bad guys in 1980. Finished up with a nice lunch in a Peruvian restaurant (there being no "typical Salvadoran" places that anyone could recommend) complete with cool beer. (Until last night at midnight, it was illegal to drink alcohol here because of the presidential election on Sunday.) Now to work again.

Wednesday morning. Today will be a busy day and I will leave shortly as part of my first presidential motorcade. My chief concern at this point is that I don’t get left behind or go into the wrong vehicle, that I simply find a vehicle, because none of this stuff is clear to me.

Looking out the window of my hotel room on the 8th floor. San Salvador is a large town. It’s not like it is all Manhattan or Chicago or even Washington, but it is a crowded town. Here in the rich section where the hotels are, there are houses with walls and a few with pools. Naturally enough, the higher up the hills you are, the richer you are. Downtown -- where we went yesterday -- is a good bit of a ride through some very heavy traffic passing through mostly narrow streets. Going downtown means going down the hills. San Salvador -- nestled among the hills and mountains and with all the sights and smells -- is really quite attractive. The most striking building in the city is a mirrored high-rise of some 20-25 stories that reflects the hillsides around it and seems almost invisible. At night, they highlight the various shapes of the building with lights and the building assumes an entirely different aspect. Also looking down at the street in front of the hotel. It is closed off with hundreds of cops and cars positioned for the motorcade. In a little while there will be little crowds of people waiting to catch a glimpse of the President. Meanwhile, about two blocks away, just behind one of the neighborhood’s main streets, I can see the tops of what looks like one of the small shantytown I have seen here and there in the city. The city is green with all sorts of different buildings. There are Pizza Huts, Coca-Cola and Yoplait signs; it’s as if -- and this must be true -- a bunch of Salvadorans liked what they got used to in the United States and thought “gee, we can take this home.” It is an interesting exchange of cultural icons and items that we in the U.S. usually see only one side of.

Wednesday afternoon, Guatemala. Arrived and are now going through what I’ve just described to someone on the staff bus as the “route one” of Guatemala. Passing McDonalds, Burger Kings, Dominos Pizza, 3M, Abbot Labs, Texaco, Nestle and Bayer Aspirin factories. Cleaner that San Salvador, lots of activity and businesses. Lots of cars but wider roads than San Salvador. Traffic moving around us even though we have a police escort. The Jacaranda are blooming. Going through the cuts in the mountains toward Antigua, you can see the same compressed volcanic ash rock that we saw in Salvador. Lots of volcanic history here. In some places you can see the layering of ash from repeated eruptions. Approaching Antigua, the countryside is beautiful. Passing through a valley between green mountains with flowers blooming and little houses, something like Cayo in western Belize but more.

Sitting in my room at the Casa Santo Domingo, around midnight. Got done with work about 10pm and got to dinner just before the hotel restaurant closed. Dined until just after 11 with some NSC colleagues. This is probably the most amazing hotel I have ever seen. Built on the ruins of a convent and/or monastery. The ruins are actual ruins with only a bit of reconstruction. The hotel blends almost seamlessly with them. It is spread out with areas in the back where I went walking tonight. It was lit just right, enough so you could see where you were but not so much that you could not have a sense of the mysterious walking through the ruins coming on things like a partially reconstructed altar (see daytime Summit picture below). Antigua was destroyed in an earthquake or eruption when it was the old capital of Guatemala (thus its formal name, Antigua Guatemala). The place is just marvelously done. (The price list on the back of the door says $200 a night but because tourism is slack, the running price is apparently just $130.) My room has a high wooden ceiling, stucco walls and a fireplace with wood I am tempted to light because of the mountain chill. Tomorrow I’ll be doing some note taking at the Summit. We were working late tonight redoing some memos for the President. But walking through the ruins tonight, the stars were bright, Orion was up.