[Ed’s note: Marc Herman covered the 1996 presidential campaign, with uncommon insight and grace, for a number of periodicals, including Might, which folded soon after. We asked Mr. Herman to offer timely remarks about this year’s contest, and he agreed — as long as he could do so from his new home, in Chile. This is the second in a series of dispatches. These are very real.]
After your identity and money are stolen it is typical to sit around the hotel nursing drinks. It is a common situation here. Just last week, at least three tourists had their bags rifled while they slept on the night bus to Temuco, thirteen hours south of Santiago. They awoke in Chile’s southern lake district, a popular summer outdoor destination, to find their documents and money simply gone. In one case, the only things left in the victim’s backpack were a pocketknife, three shirts, two pairs of shorts, and a syringe.
Eventually, in cases where papers are involved, U.S. robbery victims speak to the Vice Consul of the American embassy. But first, they make reports to Interpol. Interpol has a representative in Temuco, a local detective specializing in foreign cases. He sits, doing apparently nothing, in a spare three-room suite. The only furnishings are two cheap desks with a blue typewriter and a computer. Interpol does not seem, despite its reputation, like an organization dealing with important matters. In Temuco it looks like an insurance agency.
In each of the three thefts and others like them, Interpol takes a statement and makes a report, and demands the peso equivalent of a two dollar processing fee. Next the officer asks the robbery victims to go to a nearby photography studio and have four new passport photos shot. Portraits made after night robberies are inevitably horrible: unshaven, unhappy people, awakened rudely, caught mulling their victimization by thieves. But the photos are sadly essential. Stolen passports, the Interpol officer explains, are often fenced on the black market within days, placing all involved at serious risk.
When your identity is stolen, unless you immediately open an Interpol file, your life is for sale. Within a week an Ecuadorian narco trafficker, for example, can fly into Miami with his picture glued into your documents. A week later your mother might be hauled in for questioning by men with short haircuts and little mercy. The situation may then get worse. Six months later you may try to return home. You present your old passport number and wait. Five minutes later someone looks up darkly from a console at the back of the customs office. Soon the beagle from the DEA comes prancing over, and with a chirping, amiable bark, identifies you as an accomplice to a coke mule. So begins a long docket of lawyer’s fees. Fortunately, before that happens, you can have a paper stamped by Interpol. With that you can speak to the Vice Consul and set things right again. A number of years ago in India, in 1979, you might have spoken with a similar consular officer, who was Alan Keyes.
Foreign service officers are strangely glamorous bureaucrats. It is as if a floor’s worth of staff from the Office of Weight and Measures has magically appeared in the Santiago suburbs, doffed their coats and ties, and ventured into the world to do good. The Vice Consul’s of Santiago’s hair hangs down behind his ears in neat blond vines. He looks like Jimmy Buffet. Lines of woeful, victimized Americans wind through the embassy, waiting for his attention (“You would understand if your wife was in jail!” pleads one, trying to cut the line).
His office is a teller’s counter in the embassy’s south wing. It sits behind a cliff of bricks forming one side of a windowless fortress, four stories tall, the embassy. The complex is ringed by a high wall. It feels like a compromise between an East German mental institution and an overvalued telecommunications firm’s campus. It does not look like the gateway to honest elections and good mutual funds. The flowers in the courtyard, white roses, lie in perfect, disturbing rows, like crops. Inside, through a heavy glass door, sits the Vice Consul.
His assistant, who has the skull of a praying mantis, vets most initial requests. “This picture is not five centimeters by five centimeters,” he says. “If you call the government information line — did you call the information line? — you will be told the picture must be five centimeters by five centimeters.” He does not meet anyone’s eyes and appears to only exhale. But if you can survive this man you do eventually earn an audience with the Vice Consul, the man in Alan Keyes’s old job, who is human. He arrives after twenty minutes.
For the first time in a week, six thousand miles from home, he is the one who expresses regret at your bad luck, and stamps a paper that proves who you are. This means you may not have to live in Santiago for the rest of your life. In these moments, you may think of Alan Keyes, if only for a second, the time it takes the Consul to close the thin lid on his inkpad.
Alan Keyes was reportedly the Vice-Consul of the American Embassy in India. Knowing this may go a long way toward helping us understand him. For an explanation, it is best to turn to the available literature.
Long before Keyes assumed his foreign post, Marguerite Duras, the French author, wrote a novel about a Vice-Consul of India. She wrote about the French consul, but the comparisons are still instructive. The book, called The Vice Consul, tells an elliptical story of a penniless, pregnant Cambodian woman walking from the Mekong River to the Ganges, intertwined with cocktail party gossip from French diplomatic circles. Underlying the story is the fact, addressed vaguely throughout, that the Vice Counsul of Lahore — here we get to Keyes — has gone insane.
The Cambodian woman’s plight, or the plight of those like her, is implied as one source of the Vice Consul’s madness. After becoming pregnant without benefit of marriage, she is forced from her rural home by conservative parents. En route she gives birth but the baby dies, and she continues walking in a trance. French diplomats witness her bathing in the river and raise hard moral questions about it, then drink themselves into oblivion. The only good person in the book is the Vice Consul, who is unstable.
The Vice-Consul is an uncompromisingly bleak book and too French by half. But it seems to raise the abortion issue Keyes has made the centerpiece of his candidacy, and describes the pressures of his old job. Perhaps this is why he is subject to raving, and stubborn, like Duras’s characters.
Have Keyes or his staff made reference to the book? It is difficult to know from here in Santiago. Probably it hasn’t had much impact, as Keyes has not. But as a reference on the Republican candidate, the Duras novel must be of some value. At the very least, there are heartbreaking descriptions of southern Asia, a good break from campaign literature.