By Diego and Nancy Asencio with Ron Tobias. Atlantic-Little, Brown. 244 pp. $17.50
The Washington Post February 13, 1983, Sunday, Final Edition
Book World; Pg. 5
By KAREN DEYOUNG; KAREN DeYOUNG is foreign editor of The Washington Post
ON FEBRUARY 27, 1980, terrorists belonging to a Colombian guerrilla group called the M-19 broke into a diplomatic reception in Bogot,a, took scores of people hostage at gunpoint and demanded the liberation of 311 imprisoned colleagues and $50 million. Fifteen of the hostages were ambassadors, among them U.S. Ambassador to Colombia Diego Asencio.
As a news story, the Colombian siege was somewhat overshadowed by the simultaneous captivity of American hostages in Tehran, not to mention by Abscam, Afghanistan and the wildly fluctuating price of gold. "The world at large was edgy," Asencio recalls, and events in Bogota seemed just a sign of the times. After 61 days, the hostages were released unharmed by their captors, who got no prisoners in exchange and a modest $1.2 million ransom.
If American tolerance for and interest in hostage-taking was pretty much pushed to its limit during those turbulent days, it is to be hoped that there still is room in our quota of ex-hostage books for Asencio's account of his two months with the M-19. Not only is the Colombia story far different in most respects from what happened in Iran, Our Man Is Inside differs from most ambassadorial versions of diplomacy in crisis--particularly those whose authors still are in government--by being interesting, provocative and often even funny.
But then Spanish-born Asencio is a different kind of diplomat. Two days into his captivity, an American reporter covering the siege wrote: "According to Asencio's associates here, he is highly intelligent, tough and self- confident, with a commanding presence, wide girth and quick sense of humor. He has an earthiness reflected in his love of dirty jokes--'the dirtier the better,' said a woman who talked with him recently--and an open mindedness not always apparent among U.S. diplomats serving in Latin America."
All of those qualities, according to news reports at the time and by Asencio's own account in this book, were displayed in spades during the Bogot,a crisis. Occasionally, his description of his central role in leading the hostages and resolving the crisis borders on self-aggrandizement, raising the suspicion that it contains the teeniest bit of exaggeration. But he tells the story with such good-humored, non-diplomatic verve, and with enough self-doubt and admissions to a preference for staying alive over dying for his country, that he is easy to forgive.
The key to the resolution of the siege was the direct participation of the hostages themselves--15 diplomats of varying experience and talent--in negotiations between the terrorists by the end of the book Asencio calls them "guerrillas") and the Colombian government. As Asencio explains, once the terrorists had shot their way into the diplomatic reception at the Bogot,a embassy of the Dominican Republic, made their demands and been promptly turned down flat by the Colombians, who surrounded the embassy with well-armed, trigger- happy troops, they were largely at a loss for what to do next. At first tentatively, and then with increasing enthusiasm for the task they decided could save their own lives, a core group of ambassadors, including Asencio and the envoys from Mexico and Brazil, began showing their captors how they could get out of their self-created mess with their dignity and their hides intact.
Eventually, a "hostage committee" was analyzing government negotiating documents for the M-19, suggesting new avenues of discussion, rewriting guerrilla manifestoes to take out the more egregious ideological screeds and pointing out where the government had made perhaps not readily apparent concessions. The final agreement under which they were freed fell into this last category--an at first incidental government agreement to allow international human-rights groups to monitor pending trials of imprisoned guerrillas for expeditiousness and justice.
Asencio's story of the 61 days is interspersed with brief chapters on the nature of hostage sieges and terrorists, professional theories on how to deal with them, the history of violence in Colombia, the background of the M-l9, the poor state of U.S. diplomatic training and the price of American cultural xenophobia in dealing with other countries. He pulls few punches and makes few concessions to official ideological or political dogma in either Colombia or this country. There are no Cuban or Soviet terrorist masterminds hiding under the M-19 beds in the Dominican Embassy, or even the Colombian equivalent of the brutal Iranian "students"--just a motley assortment of homegrown, hard-core Marxists, misguided patriots and idealists, and thuggish hangers-on, in a poor country where violence has begotten violence for decades.
Although Asencio's wrath, in his thoughts at least, often was directed at the M-19 for its stupidity or terror tactics, he spares neither the Colombian government of then-president Julio Turbay Ayala, so caught up in its own legalisms and officials watching other officials over their shoulders that it barely negotiated, nor the State Department, which he says kept treating him in the telephone conversations he was allowed as if his mind had turned to mush, convinced that it knew better than he what the terrorists were thinking.
What else does one expect from bureaucracy, even in the best of times? "Representatives in the field are usually convinced they're being second-guessed by a bunch of fatheads sitting in the comfort of Washington, far removed from the realities of the Department," he writes. "The people in the Department of State are equally convinced that if they don't watch those clunkheads in the field who are so immersed in the problem, they will disregard policy and get everyone in trouble. A good Washington staff will make observations to the fieldmen, but will not bind their hands on the sensible theory that the man in the field is in a better position to judge the dimensions of the problem he or she is facing. A good ambassador will not brook instructions from Washington that interfere with his ability to resolve what he is facing. Heated exchanges between embassies and State are not uncommon. In fact, some old line ambassadors cannily wait for Washington to say something stupid so they can land on the culprit with both feet."
But it is his narrative of life inside the Dominican Embassy, rather than Asencio's informative but not particularly deep or revealing policy analyses that carries the tale. From the opening negotiations--when two government representatives squared off against a T-shirted and bra-less female guerrilla accompanied by Mexican Ambassador Riccardo Gal,an Mendez in a van parked midway between M-19 and army front lines--to the final plane trip to Havana and release, it is an account full of fear and hope, boredom and anxiety, anger and, believe it or not, laughter.
He talks about his fellow hostages, a collection of well- fed, middle-aged men, used to having their own way. "Men you would have thought would be strong, crumbled. Others, whose capacity to sustain duress you would have seriously questioned, showed remarkable courage and tenacity." There was Bishop Angelo Acerbi, the papal nuncio, who wouldn't perform mass for a month until a package from the outside brought him his "kit" of vestments and implements, and was a bit of a wet blanket and a basic pain in the neck; the Egyptian ambassador, who went berserk when he said the Dominican ambassador "spit on my bed"; Israeli Ambassaador Eliahu Barak, a former tank commander, who right off the bat told the M-19 that "if any harm came to him, there would be no place on earth they could hide. His people would find them, hunt them down like dogs. . . . Because of his vigor and his military experience, we put Mr. Barak in charge of housekeeping."
"Some of the hostage diplomats were destined to be heroes, while others were destined to be cowards, knaves or just plain fools."
As for the terrorists, their leader, Commander One, was "on the whole, forthright and rigorous about the maintenance of order and security both in his own ranks and in ours. He listened thoughtfully to what others had to say and acted accordingly, whether his advice came from his own people or from one of us. Generally, he exercised good judgement in tactical matters, but I found his sense of strategy severely lacking." Norma, the woman negotiator who was Commander One's "revolutionary spouse," seemed an "inordinately tough, uncompromising woman. Once things settled down, however, we found her engaging and pleasant. . . . A sociologist by training, Norma had been working among the Indians in Colombia's hinterland and had joined the M-19 in protest of the flagrant injustices she had witnessed." Then there was Omar, "an extremist on the far left, so far, in fact, that he made some of the other terrorists look like political conservatives. Omar was clearly a man to avoid," especially when he was forcing the hostages to listen to his revolutionary poetry, or stealing away with somebody else's "revolutionary spouse."
Occasionally, but not nearly enough, Asencio talks about his own feelings. On his first night as a hostage, "I wasn't feeling panic--fear had already blunted its edge on me--I was feeling a disconcerting sense of isolation and unbreachable distance . . . for the first time in 23 years in the foreign service, I was 'without instructions' and without recourse. I didn't want to be the anvil on which U.S. policy was forged; I wanted to leave the Dominican Embassy unharmed and with honor. . . . My fatalism was being stoked by another consideration. Even if I survived, my career was at an end. I could think of no American ambassador or foreign service officer whose career had thrived or prospered after such an incident."
As it turned out, he was wrong. Asencio now serves as assistant secretary of state for consular affairs. If the department were smart, it would send him back to Latin America, a place sorely lacking in diplomats with what Asencio calls the knowledge of "cultural relativity," where he can put to good use his experience, understanding and basic good sense.
GRAPHIC: Picture 1, Diego Asencio inside the embassy of the Dominican Republic. Photo Copyright © Sygma; Picture 2, Venezuelan Consul Francisco Pacheco with a guerilla negotiator in April. UPI photo