Henri Daniel, HD, known to us as a sleuth due to the problem-solving ability in his veins, lately had been with a lobbying firm as his full-time employment. Because of his previous involvement with security work, he could be called occasionally for a special assignment, aka moonlighting, but depending on the level of risk involved, it can be called a “black job.” In the cloak-and-dagger world where see-no-evil-hear-no-evil is a convenient mantra, doing a black job meant using unorthodox means to obtain valuable information without leaving any trace and of course the client will deny any association with you if you are stupid enough to get caught.
In all honesty the difference between the two types is a blurred line. I will leave it up to the reader to decide where this particular assignment fits. As usual, his role demanded use of brain and not brawn, guile with tactfulness and above all carte blanche for persuasive skills. So, you may ask, what was so pressing to require his expertise?
Somewhere in the Caribbean, a bunch of congressmen and women whose mission it is to make laws, had developed the nasty habit of not showing up for work, upping the ante for the spoils and entitlements while the rest of society was mired in wretchedness. Things had gotten so bad that foreign aid had become a casualty, despair and political instability always twin brothers in good times had grown to be so enmeshed that they were now Siamese entities. Needless to say, insecurity had reached such a critical level that true to form, a cottage industry had mushroomed because of it. It started as security firms but lately, it switched to kidnapping, afflicting rich man, poor man. Even the business community started crying foul because it was giving schadenfreude a bad name. HD’s role was to convince stakeholders in the Parliament to find a way to establish a working relationship.
HD’s antenna went into high gear. He knew from experience that this wouldn’t be such a simple task. As usual he took the time to do due diligence and learn about the players, the environment and not be blindsided. In our digital world, finding information is a cinch. Any quick perusal of YouTube is replete with videos of daily scenes. He quickly surmised that brinkmanship was a pastime and blowing off steam had morphed into another realm. Instead of a temporary ranting, a vitriolic steam was being released full of ad hominem insults that carried a life of its own and boxed people in a corner. Yet, yesterday’s most vociferous opponent can change in a second into a supporter to the extent that enough Benjamin bills switched hands.
HD delved further and found that there’s Jekyll and Hyde side to the equation: outside help is equally reviled and sought interchangeably and as much as people were complaining about human rights violations, human life held little value because cruel and lethal punishments were being meted out on both sides. Tolerance and compromise were verboten and not the doppelgängers they need to be. This type of scenario was not part of Kabuki-like elaborate theater staging or a modern reenactment of Greene’s The Comedians, but simply a bewildering paradigm. Faced with this type of zeitgeist, HD’s initial reaction was to refuse the assignment; however, Jean Delfié, or JD, a friend from that island during a phone call mused that “A lot of these brazen pols making bombastic statements in real life are craven. Get your toolbox out and use some clever tactics and I bet you it can be easier than you think to have these folks sit down and talk to one another.” Intrigued after the conversation, HD sat on his decision and decided to think about it further. The same idea kept recurring: why can’t they get their act together? Such a great question, yet its answer has eluded so many great minds over the years. That reminded him of a stint he did in Kabul in a country renowned for the divisiveness of clans when they are not united against a common enemy. That stint was a hellish experience. Despite the advice of his buddy, he was not convinced that he should take this gig. He saw lots of risks and no upside. He was nursing such thoughts till he read an Op-Ed in the NY TIMES titled Looking The Other Way, by his favorite columnist. In essence, he mentioned why even souls of goodwill often find it convenient to ignore the plight of others, especially when they are from third-world region. He took as an example America’s effort to come to the rescue of white Muslims being slaughtered during the breakup of Serbia but withheld any help to the Tutsi being massacred. He was so moved by the argument that he changed his mind.
He looked at classified profiles of some of the main characters and was bemused to find that quite a few of them ratted on each other and were too proud to be at Uncle Sam’s beck and call. Just as interesting was the list of those benefiting from connection to the narcotic trade. Knowing that in previous generations that society had gifted the world with preeminent thinkers, HD couldn’t help but observe that it has now fallen on hard times, victim of a pernicious dumbing down, shortchanged by the spread of low moral standards. The more profiles HD read, the more disgusted he became about the prevalent rapaciousness, similar in breadth and scope to the matabiche wont in Congo during his assignment there. He remembered the public arrogance of such flawed individuals and he wanted to settle some scores and take some of them down a peg for the benefit of society.
HD traveled under the guise of member of a think tank who wanted to do research and engage some of the pols. To set the tone, a reception was set at the US embassy and targeted lawmakers were invited. After proper introduction, “I look forward to working with political and thought leaders and hopefully we can find a way out of the quagmire,” he said in a bespoke suit and “I hope to see as many of you at the seminar that will be set up so we can work together.” Invitations for a three-day retreat at a posh resort were distributed. As is customary of HD, any organized event reeks of first-rate status. On the schedule, seminars about good governance, small group breakout sessions and one-on-one sit-down discussions with HD were planned. The plenary sessions included sleek presentations on PowerPoint. Taped scholarly lectures or interviews with seasoned lawmakers from different parts of the world gave this the semblance of a serious academic powwow. The topics varied from proper decision making to negotiations in a democratic process and so on.
The offering on the social side during the retreat was tantalizing. Replays of UEFA Champions League matches were available. Nothing was left to chance. In this male-dominated society, just a couple of female legislators came and didn’t stay long. Strategically posted young, very attractive, masseuses were available to give deep massage. Needless to say, the masseuses were in high demand. Our legislators once they had their fill of liquor developed a need to relax their tense muscles. Quite naturally wowed by the sight of a buxom body and under the influence, the tongues were ready to wag. With little goading, tongues loosened. The talks were barely about fools and kings but mostly diatribes about each other. They used vicious epithets such as ragamuffin, reprobate, grifter, grubber, illiterate, thief, mendacious. As often happens, gossiping entailed giving detailed information about each other’s private lives. It was as if they were in the midst of talk therapy. The interesting part was that the conversations were taped, unbeknownst to them. That pattern repeated itself the following night.
The morning of the last day, one-on-one sessions were held with HD when the attendees were likely to be sober. That was theoretically the time to offer a feedback about the benefit of the retreat. For quite a few of the actors, it turned into an earful session. To the surprise of each targeted individual, a high-quality recording of one’s jeremiad about others was played in edited segments. In the most straightforward way, “I am sure you don’t want this to leak,” HD would say with a pat on the shoulder. He was careful not to play any recording of criticism leveled at the person. That would be saved for later if needed. Ever the astute player, he wanted to stay two steps ahead, and push one’s button at the right time but never overplaying his hand or act in a predictable manner.
In the case of those who had a close relationship with the narcotic trade, he would show some airtight proof of it and, “You either play ball or you will feel the unpleasant sting of hardball at play; make a choice and be willing to live with the consequences,” an unequivocal warning delivered in a transactional manner and a steely tone. To each one as a final dagger, “Once and for all stop blaming others. Be responsible and man up. Do your job and find common ground.”
The response to this type of pressure varied. Some became scared quickly. Others were either bluffing or didn’t believe they were at risk. One particular influential member who was always ready to make noise and condemn corruption received a sealed envelope from HD that contained evidence of secret offshore accounts and copies of recent transactions made. At the bottom of the page, a laconic message was hand-written, “These are the following options:
1-Release of this information to a foreign reporter.
2-Freezing of the asset sine die.
3-A combination of both.
4-Behave like an outstanding citizen and none of the above will happen.
His shrill rants came to a screeching halt.
HD methodically called off each bluff, including playing a taped conversation of a legislator requesting his cut of a drug deal. That stunned lawmaker couldn’t believe his ears. He shaped up quickly. The few and honest members of parliament held strong convictions and couldn’t be swayed because they had no Damocles’ sword hanging over their head. It wasn’t long before HD gained the reputation of one not to trifle with. Most of the loudmouths had some serious skeletons in their closets. HD had no problem digging them and letting them know about it. HD was also bluffing because he didn’t have the authority to freeze anybody’s asset. He had plenty of authority to cause some serious trouble, no doubt. Well-seasoned adults avoid unnecessary trouble and our lawmakers were no exception to this rule.
Our legislators changed posture from belligerent to subdued, from obstructionist to collaborator, as if responding to a consign or that the shibboleth in politics had changed. They were applying some of the principles gone over at the retreat such as the simple tools of talking to and not at each other, to listen and be listened to, honest horse trading, and the satisfaction of compromise. That turnaround was salutary and most welcome. Its quick development was as difficult to conceive as the existence of the previous opposite status quo was hard to fathom. It started right on the premises of the retreat. By its end, many of opposing clans joined in small groups, socializing and playing dominos. Others started a spontaneous pickup game of football. A good time, they all seemed to have, behaving like the brothers they were instead of participants of an unending internecine warfare they had become accustomed to. No one expected that to last long since such harmonious situations usually are short lasting in that environment. HD helping, it looked like from the resort to the halls of parliament, a breath of fresh air swept and rearranged the equation of into the tryptic of competence, patriotism, honesty.
HD and a magic wand, it can only happen in a fairy tale. Here I go daydreaming again.
Reynald Altéma, MD.