It is an island in the Greater Antilles of the Caribbean Sea, shared by two sharply different countries. The one in the east is solvent, the other in the west is dirt poor. One speaks Spanish, the other French, because both were once enslaved by colonial rulers, one Latin and the other Gallic. Freedom from the colonial vampires did not improve their lot. Both were long ruled by indigenous tyrants, brutal and sadistic.
I was assigned to its neighboring country as a diplomat. My assignment was less than pleasant. A military junta had taken power there, ousting the democratically elected president by a coup d’état. Our job was to persuade the military to return to their barracks and let the legitimate leader return and rule. We didn’t want their oppressed and miserable people to take to boats in hundreds and land on the US shore as refugees.
But we soon realized the wisdom of the oriental adage: the thug doesn’t listen to homilies. The generals were not only enjoying the perquisites of power, but they were also building a fortune by using military planes to surreptitiously channel Colombian cocaine to Florida. The US applied sanctions as punishment. But the country had little world trade where sanctions could make a dent; the only hope was to slash its supply of gasoline and cripple its transportation – and hurt the high-living generals. The generals worked out an escape route. They quickly befriended the generals of their eastern neighbor and started smuggling in gasoline at a premium price.
Our mission then became to stop the smuggling. That was the first time I visited the country in the west. Their generals of course denied that gasoline was being smuggled across the border. Still, they quickly reached a deal. They agreed to let our agents monitor the border when we let them know that the high-price vehicles we will import for such monitoring will be theirs once the sanctions period was over.
My week in the country was over before I could breathe peacefully after some hectic negotiation. I had seen little of a beautiful country, spent barely an hour on its incredible beaches, tasted just once its flagship dish of rice, beans and meat rightly called The Flag.
I longed for the opportunity of a second visit.
The opportunity came when a diplomat friend was assigned to the country. We managed to get a week’s leave exactly at the same time, started driving east and west, met at the frontier, exchanged keys and then drove on each to the other’s home in the two countries. My friend was to enjoy my home and vacation in a new country for a week, while I would do the same – use his home as my base and explore the country in the east.
It was a fascinating land with an intriguing history. Columbus had landed here in the fifteenth century and promptly made it the base for Spain’s rapacious colonial conquests in the western hemisphere. I went to see the Colonial Zone where you can still marvel at the Roman and Gothic buildings, brown churches and green houses. You can see the Columbus Citadel, built as a palace for his son, now a World Heritage site, with its fabulous gardens and courtyards, medieval art and artifacts.
You will also see the Cathedral of Santa Maria, a magnificent coral-studded limestone paragon of renaissance architecture, the first church in the New World, which too became the base for the Catholic Church’s brutal campaign of proselytization throughout the Americas. I went to see also the famous San Francisco monastery, which sadly, thanks to cyclones and human neglect, was now entirely in ruins.
I left the country at the end of the week mesmerized by its charm and hospitality, its cafés and restaurants, its streets and shops. I didn’t expect to see them again.
In a popular film, Auric Goldfinger tells James Bond that once is happenstance, twice is coincidence, but the third time it is enemy action. For me, the third time was action of a very different kind.
My daughter, Monica, surprised me by saying she planned to get married. Then she surprised me more by adding she wanted to do so in that far-off country, which she had visited with me and retained a cheery impression of. So, here I was, packing again to visit, after many years, a land whose memory had begun to fade.
There I stood, next to a beach glistening in the late-afternoon light, in a canopy swiftly erected next to an elegant hotel outhouse, close to my daughter in her white wedding regalia, shaking hands, muttering politesse, thanking guests, mumbling toasts, smiling all the time for the many cameras, but feeling the surge of an intense feeling for which smiles were hardly the right expression. Across the water the golden sun was slowly setting, and a band appropriately struck the tune of a Broadway song, Sunrise Sunset, “Is this the little girl I carried?” I glanced at the luminous face of my beautiful little girl. I was happy and I could have cried.