An Interview with Adrienne S. O’Neal, U.S. Ambassador to Cape Verde
Adrienne S. O’Neal is a career member of the Foreign Service with the rank of Minister Counselor. O’Neal was confirmed as U.S. Ambassador to Cape Verde on October 18, 2011. Before her nomination, she served as Director of the Senior Level Division of Career Development and Assignments in the Bureau of Human Resources at the Department of State. Previous assignments include Deputy Chief of Mission at the U.S. Embassy in Lisbon, Director of the Office of Public Affairs and Public Diplomacy for Europe and Eurasian Affairs, Principal Officer at the consulate general in Rio de Janeiro, and Deputy Press Secretary to the Director of National Drug Control Policy at the White House. O’Neal was Diplomat in Residence at the University of Michigan from 2007 to 2009.
The Politic: Why did you join the Foreign Service?
I think that when I graduated from college and finished my master’s degree and went on to my doctoral program, I discovered that academia was not my cup of tea, so I began to look for a job. In looking for a job, I was looking for something that would give me the opportunity to use some of the skills that I had acquired before I finished school. That included foreign language acquisition and it also included an affinity with foreign cultures, and so the Foreign Service was a very good fit.
The Politic: What are some of the challenges you have faced in the field?
I feel that it is a balance. In every cultural context, you have to figure it out. You have to understand what is polite to say, what in not polite to say, how American you can be. By that I mean how direct and straightforward you can be, and how much you have to be courteous and give distance. All of these adjustments are the backdrop challenge of the Foreign Service. But in terms of my own personal career, the toughest tour I had was being in Europe right after the start of the Iraq War. Finding a way to espouse the values of the United States that are considered universally positive, while being hounded, sometimes hated, with accusations of being a warmonger and unjustly going into Iraq.
The Politic: What is the most rewarding part of your job?
What people should understand about the Foreign Service is that it’s public service. When you go out on diplomatic excursions, you carry on the weight of your shoulders the representation, the embodiment of the United States of America, an absolutely fabulous country. The challenge is to always be the best that you can be, and to represent your country in the most positive light in everything that you do.
The Politic: What advice would you offer to students interested in joining the Foreign Service?
Someone who is interested in the Foreign Service should understand that it is truly public service, which means that it is a rather selfless occupation. Once they enter into the diplomatic rank, it’s not about them and what they think and what they feel, it’s about the agenda of the administration they serve. So, one has to sacrifice, to a certain extent, their own political opinions, political postures, and own behavior, if they don’t believe it that aligns with what the current administration is promoting. You have to realize that it’s not this big glamorous occupation. To become a public servant, it means the people, the country comes first, and many times, your own issues go to the background.
The Politic: This is your second year as Ambassador to Cape Verde. What would you say your biggest accomplishment has been so far?
Well there are a couple of things. Praia was one of our embassies, and we had a very crowded embassy, and were trying to expand in recent years. Shortly after I arrived, I was able to get a diplomatic security clearance to expand our premises. It has opened up opportunities for people who could not have offices in the previous locations, and it also provided us public space for the first time. Our clients once used the consulate waiting room, which has its own connotation because of consulate issues, and now we have a space here in Praia where we can receive the public without undue security checks and without offensive thinking down in order to interact with us. That was something that was very important.
The second thing is that we have, by using social media tools, by my being able to reach out directly to the public, we have increased the American presence here. We’ve always been a presence as a country across the water, a country where a lot of Cape Verdeans have relatives, and businesses and so forth. But America had no presence here on the ground, which was disappointing to look at in comparison to what the French, the Portuguese and the Brazilians do here. I think that we have now established a stronger presence, and with through out partnership other institutions, we will be able to build on that.
The Politic: The Millennium Challenge Corporation, or the MCC, has awarded Cape Verde twice with a compact, the first in 2005 and again in 2012. What tangible developments has the country seen because of these compacts?
The first MCC compact was all about infrastructure. On the basis of that compact, about $110 million dollars, there were roads built here in Santiago Island and the capital, the port was completely remodeled, and there were bridges built on some of the more remote islands that were previously inaccessible during the rainy seasons. Those are the types of things that were financed with the first MCC compact—the results very visible and dramatic enhancements that were made to the infrastructure here.
The second compact is the second compact award to any country, and also the first compact that has the reform of regulation. For example, one of the primary goals is to change to the laws and the ways that land ownership is determined. So when Cape Verdeans want to bring in commercial interests, or when people want to come in and build on land, they can have a more fair way and transparent way of determining land ownership and laws. The preliminary part of the second compact is to remap all of the land and the boundaries to try to obtain better records on land ownership and merge them into one electronic database. That’s something that will not be visually tangible to the Cape Verdean public, but it’s a huge improvement and something that will help them to continue their development.
The second part of that compact is water and sanitization. It consists just of simply devising a separate and independent entity to deliver and sell water to the public. Right now, water and electricity are combined so that the electric company is also the water company. This compact will consolidate all of the ways water is delivered, put them under one roof, refine and rebuild the delivery and production systems, and because we are 99 percent of volcanic rock, a lot of the water that is used has to be desalinated and purified. The process is to take all of that, separate it from electricity, and rework it in such a way that it costs less and that more people have access. This component of the compact offers huge and visible progress to Cape Verdean society. People know that they are going to have water every day, and that they are going to have drinking water when they need it. The ability of people to run their daily lives is made possible by clean water. In the past, our water supply was unreliable and in limbo because we didn’t know when the water supply was going to be able to deliver water and when it was going to be dry.
The Politic: Is there one experience, person, or event in your country that has greatly influenced one or more of your policies? How so?
Well I have to say that what has influenced greatly my ability and Cape Verdean policy is the very talented team of government administrators. They have highly skilled, highly educated technographs, in charge of each the portfolios that you named. Each individual makes it possible for me to know relatively easily what is possible, where we can expect changes, and sometimes, what the timeline of our initiative can have. I think, here in Cape Verde, we have great people in government who make us able to deal directly with civilians. It’s a big boost and it keeps us motivated to continue to engage.
The Politic: The leaders of four African countries, including you and Prime Minister Jose Maria Neves representing Cape Verde, visited the White House this past March to discuss leadership in African Countries. Obama stated, “The United States is going to be a strong partner, not based on the old model in which we are a donor and they are simply a recipient, but a new model that’s based on partnership.” What sort of growth is Cape Verde hoping to experience with the U.S. as a partner?
Well Cape Verde has been a donor recipient since the beginning of the founding of the Republic. The idea of donor-aid, this base of donation faded quickly in this economic crisis. What President Obama means by partnership is private investment. It’s a very big step for Cape Verde to allow the private sector economic activity going on here now. The government has a stringent plan on how it wants to develop. It controls the various development projects that are on its agenda. In order for a country now to move forward, as President Obama mentioned, it needs a private sector economy. Funds come in through commercial activity, and in this way, there would culminate jobs, which is a primary concern. Not only now do we look to building good industries but we also want to seek situations in which jobs for Americans can result. This is what he means by partnership. Cape Verde’s best bet would be to enhance the areas in which jobs are based.
One of those would be tourism. There is a lot support for adding new tourist initiatives for creating better jobs and for creating a tourism community. The second one in which Cape Verde have a strong base is renewable energy. Right now, the country has 20 percent of all of its power coming from renewable energy, and it has the opportunity to continue to build on renewable energy projects — to do this in terms of public and private sector projects. I think in those two areas, Cape Verde is a good partner with the United States, and we have interest in having energy, technical expertise from the United States come to Cape Verde. This hinges upon issues such as lower costs of power and other things that Cape Verde needs to step up in order to meet the challenge.
The Politic: At the same event, President Obama remarked how because of good governance and management, Cape Verde is now moving into the middle of the pack of countries in terms of development levels. What effective strategies has Cape Verde implemented to boost its economy, and what sort of policies should the country focus on in the future?
Unlike a lot of African countries, Cape Verde has a relatively free safety. People can come in and come out; they can purchase goods and import goods without having very high taxes and tariffs. The level of corruption is low, the level of transparency is high, so it is an inviting place for people to come and be and live. We have fewer security issues than other countries, such as terrorism and Al-Qaeda, which is present throughout the Pacific West Africa; this contributes to Cape Verde being a very inviting atmosphere for investments and trade.
The Politic: How do you feel America is represented abroad, and are there any elements of American foreign policy that you would want to change?
Well as a career diplomat, I can’t go on the record criticizing U.S. policy. I think that U.S. foreign policy has seen change with the first and second Obama administration, and by way of these changes, we have become far better respected in the world. That affords us the ability to push our interests a little bit stronger. I think that, as long as we continue to be good partners with our allies, and as long as we continue to bolster conflict resolution in different parts of the world, we will continue to be a stabilizing and peaceful force in the world, and I think that’s our goal.
Embassy of the United State to Cape Verde: http://praia.usembassy.gov/