An Interview with Larry L. Memmott, Chargé d’Affaires of the U.S. Embassy in Bolivia
Since July 2012, Larry L. Memmott has carried the title of Charge d’Affaires of the U.S. Embassy in Bolivia — the same country where he started his diplomatic career in 1987. Prior to taking this position, Memmott served as Deputy Chief of Mission in the Kyrgyz Republic. A Foreign Service Officer for the past 26 years, Memmott has taken residence in U.S embassies in Norway, Chile, Uzbekistan, Ecuador, and the Philippines. Throughout his career, he has won several State Department awards for his contribution to U.S. diplomacy. Before beginning his extensive work for the Foreign Service, Memmott attended the University of Utah for his undergraduate studies and was awarded a Bachelor’s Degree in International Political and Economic Relations. He then went to the University of Chicago to pursue postgraduate studies in economics.
The Politic: What motivated you to become involved in Foreign Service?
I had traveled overseas when I was young and loved it, so I was initially then drawn to working overseas. I looked at international business as a possibility or development in an NGO. Then, I found out about the Foreign Service exam and started reading about the State Department. I took the exam and happened to pass it just when I graduated from college. From there, it seemed obvious.
The Politic: You started your career with your first assignment in Bolivia, and you have worked at embassies in a number of countries — including Norway, Chile, Uzbekistan, and Ecuador — before returning to Bolivia. Over the course of your career in the Foreign Service, and during the experiences you have had, what do you find are some of the greatest challenges that are involved with being a member of the Foreign Service?
The challenges vary widely from one country to another. If you are in a place like Norway, then all of the challenges are straightforward. You are assigned to a specific topic to lobby. For example, I worked on the issue of whaling and lobbied the Norwegian government to end the practice. Everyone understands what you are doing, and it isn’t easy, but it is straightforward and comprehensible to everyone.
If you are in a place like Kyrgyzstan, where there is a revolution, or Ecuador, when there is a semi-presidential constitutional change of government, then things are much more complicated. You are worried about multiple issues at the same time — about security of your people, about how to contact a new government that is just taking shape, about where that government is going and how to try and connect with it and influence it in the right direction.
The Politic: So what are the particular significant challenges you face as a member of the Foreign Service in Bolivia?
Bolivia has a very complicated relationship with the U.S. The Bolivian government has a negative attitude toward the United States, pretty much across the board. So the huge challenge is trying to develop relationships of some level of confidence. Of course, those levels of confidence vary across people and across time, but [you try] to build confidence with different people within and outside of the government so you can do your job. That is the biggest challenge.
The Politic: You mentioned some of the challenges that you face. How do you then go about trying to improve the relationship between the countries on a day-to-day basis, and what does the structure of a day usually look like for you?
You start out with the press — looking at what happened overnight, and how local press treated us this morning and on TV the night before. Then, you get together with the Embassy team and see where everybody is to see if there are any concerns or issues. The first step during the day is this gathering and sharing of information, and making sure everybody is on the same page.
After that, it varies a lot. There is a meeting or two meetings with different local officials. Sometimes, there might be a meeting with someone from the press. It may be on the record or off the record. Sometimes, there might even be some event at the embassy. With USAID, those are quite frequent. USAID is now in the process of closing here in Bolivia. So we have our public affairs sections, and we also have lots of scholarship-type programs that we host. Among all of the different things you might be doing, you have to find time to connect with Washington via email to see what the concerns are from there and see if there is anything that needs to be answered.
Another job of the ambassador is to represent the U.S. government at all of the official functions. Probably every other day, there is a reception that you have to go to that is representational in nature. All of the embassies will have a National Day celebration, and I am invited to all of those. It would be offensive if I did not show up to those, especially if the United States was not there. Some other ambassadors may be able to pick and choose, but for us, if we are not there, people will be offended.
The Politic: Shifting more towards the policy side of the equation, is there one experience or event or even person in your country that has greatly influenced one or more of your policies, and how so?
Clearly, the person who has the most direct and most constant impact at U.S.-Bolivian relations is the President of Bolivia. Very often, he will talk about the United States in his speeches, always in a derogatory negative tone. Recently, on May 1, he announced, without any consultations at all, the expulsion of USAID in Bolivia. That was, of course, a huge change. And we are now struggling with that, working to get AID closed down and out of the country as quickly as possible. Additionally, he announced nationalizations on the first of May, but there were no nationalizations.
The Politic: Do you see any room for improving the relationship and, more specifically, the opinion the President has towards the United States in the future?
You work on the margins of these kinds of things. And that is what we are doing. Over the last year, we have managed to build relationships — some of them closer, some of them less close — with the ministers in the government. Not with the President, but with most of the ministers in his cabinet, we have at least the ability to get together and talk. We are taking small steps forward, but I think those are steps forward, so our voice is not completely unheard within the government. In certain cases, the top people in the government have told ministers: “Yes, it is okay for you to meet with the U.S. government to see what you can do together.” While there is a lack of confidence on the part of the top people in the government, slowly, we work on building and understanding that, in fact, the United States is not out to get them. We are not, as the President says repeatedly, trying to bring down his government or conspiring to get them. I think we are slowly building a sense, at least among some of the people in his cabinet, that that is not the case.
The Politic: What are the opinions that the average citizen of Bolivia has towards Americans and visa versa, and are there any misperceptions that citizens of both countries have toward one another?
It is certainly the case that a lot of supporters of the President and of the present government are suspicious of the U.S. government. They buy into the whole idea that the United States is an imperialist power trying to control Bolivia. It is an interesting dichotomy in that people are extremely friendly and extremely open on a personal level, but, on a political level, they are suspicious. I think that feeds the government suspicions, and it is also fed by the government’s own statements. But on a personal level, they are very, very open and we find, any place we go, we are received with open arms. So our job to some extent is to try to build on that.
I think, for many Bolivians, they have never seen or met an American. So they have this ideological, untested view of Americans as these imperialists and strange beings. I think just meeting them breaks those stereotypes, so, at this Embassy, we are very, very out there in terms of people-to-people outreach and social media, trying to connect with people as much as possible.
The Politic: What are some of the types of community outreach programs that you find most effective?
I try to take advantage of the different talents of the different people on our staff. For example, I have one of the office management specialists or secretaries who is a musical person, along with her husband, and very into rock and roll. He plays the banjo, and we get them out a lot. In fact, they were out last Friday down in the Yungas, doing an English language musical event with English students. That breaks down the stereotypes for all of those kids that meet them. Suddenly, an American is something else entirely: a fun person to be around.
We also have a scholarship program where we give two-year English language scholarships to kids in El Alto, a poor and difficult part of town from our perspective — people who are very suspicious of us and have had no connection. If you look on Facebook, you can see kids who graduated a couple of months ago from two years of scholarship. And all of their parents are just as proud as can be. For all of these kids and all of their families, those stereotypes are gone — they are gone forever.
Some of us are into rock-and-roll here in the Embassy, and there is a big rock-and-roll and metal movement up in El Alto, so we have been going to some of their events and concerts. A Spanish band is coming to town next Friday, and the promoters have put the U.S. Embassy logo on the posters for the band. We didn’t have anything to do with bringing this band in. We haven’t actually provided any monetary support at all, and, yet, we are being called one of the sponsors because we are friends and we are making connections with them.
The Politic: Those seem like some incredible community outreach programs. Even though there is this difficult relationship between the countries that you have touched on, what are the ways that you promote American economic, political, and cultural interests in your country, outside of these community outreach programs?
It is hard to promote U.S. interests in a lot of areas, because the government is so dead-set against them. One area, though, where we have done a lot of work is in commercial interest. We work with the Bolivian Chamber of Commerce and help them put on expositions, like one in Santa Cruz every year. We also do minor, on-the-side funding to help them put on a reception for everybody. And we send out our people from the commercial section on road shows around the country, helping Bolivians connect with American businesses. That is one area where we help to promote U.S. interests.
On a lot of the interest areas — the political areas, like what happens in the United Nations, for example — Bolivia is so dead-set against U.S. positions that, really, it is a long-term effort to build relationships so eventually we can have some influence. That is because this government right now is going to vote against the U.S. position on most things that come before the United Nations.
The Politic: Generally, are there areas in the U.N. that you think need more support and ones that could help the relationship between Bolivia and the United States?
We have a lot of relations here with different agencies of the United Nations. For example, with the UNDCP, the drug control portion of the UN, we have actually done a fair amount of funding for their operations because we find them very effective. It is our common effort against drugs, and it’s definitely helped Bolivia as a country.
For example, we realized, a few years ago, that Bolivia had developed a serious problem disposing of the drugs once they captured them. If they seized cocaine, they would have no way to dispose of it. They would just build a big bonfire out in the countryside, which was polluting and dangerous. Some people even got burned and hurt with these fires, because this stuff does not burn itself; you have to get a lot of fuel in there and build up a really big fire to burn it. So we, together with the UNDCP and several other donors — the French, the British, the Germans — put together a project to buy three state-of-the-art furnaces that would burn this stuff. We all donated a lot of money, and the UN organized the project, and we have installed two of the three furnaces over the last few months. Now, they will be able to destroy the drugs with certainty that they really are being destroyed. There has always been suspicion that maybe the drugs go back onto the streets. Now, [the Bolivians] will be able to destroy them without environmental pollution and without danger to the people who are doing the job. And that is just one example of how we cooperate with the UN In addition to the UNDCP, the UN Development Program is also active here in Bolivia, as well as various other agencies.
The Politic: Would you say that drug control and anti-drug programs are one of the greatest challenges facing Bolivia, as a country, right now?
Well, it is definitely one of the most important issues facing Bolivia. It has become less of a central part of our bilateral relationship, because very little of the drugs that Bolivia produces actually go to the United States anymore. Almost all of it goes to Brazil and to Europe. So we provide some support and coordination, but most of the focus is now [from] the Bolivians with the Europeans and Brazilians.
The Politic: What would you say are the three most critical issues facing Bolivians that government is trying to tackle right now?
I would say, although it is going reasonably well on the economic side, it still is a very poor country. Poverty and alleviation of poverty — finding ways to use the earnings that the government has from gas in order to alleviate poverty — is huge. I would say the second one is drugs, and I always tell the Bolivians I think their most important issue is really education. The education system is not what it should be and requires a lot more investment and work.
The Politic: We have already discussed drugs in detail, but for the two other areas, do you think the United States can help and isn’t taking on that responsibility? Or is there not a lot the U.S. can do given the nature of the relationship between the two countries?
We have worked on education in the past, and we certainly have worked on economic development in the past. But the decision by the Bolivian government to close USAID does not leave much space for us to help. They do not really want our help much. We have very active Bolivian-American centers that work mostly on English language training. These are important programs, and the government has recognized that. Last year, the Ministry of Education made the decision that all Bolivian students should learn English. So that is a valuable support, and actually I have been working with Bolivians on the idea of increasing our support for their English language programs. But in terms of broader development assistance and education assistance, they are not interested right now. With the closing of AID, that was basically the statement: We will not work with the U.S. on these things.
The Politic: We have touched a lot on Bolivian-U.S. relations. More widely, how do you feel U.S. is represented abroad on a global scale?
I do think that the United States is really well-represented abroad. We have more embassies than any other country in the world. We are represented in more countries, and we are represented in a very professional way in general. There undoubtedly are weaknesses scattered here and there. But, talking to my colleagues from other countries, they are often very jealous because we have an ability to educate our people in different languages so that, wherever we go, we always have a staff that is able to speak at a professional level in the local language. That is something that many other countries struggle with and some countries do not even try to do. There are a couple of countries represented here in Bolivia where the ambassador does not speak Spanish — that makes it much, much more difficult. I think that we are represented at a professional level, almost across the board throughout the world, with people who can speak the local languages and who try to understand the local cultures, and I think that is pretty good.
The Politic: Is there anything — about the relationship between Bolivia and the United States, or your experience in the Embassy in Bolivia — that I have not asked about and would be important to share?
The one thing that maybe we haven’t covered is that a lot of time we focus our attention, as we should, on the American employees in embassies. But one of the crucial assets that we have that gives the U.S. an advantage over other countries is that we usually have a lot of local employees, who are very high-level professionals, very qualified for their jobs, and really understand their country in ways that we never will, no matter how long we stay. That two-thirds or three-fourths of an embassy’s employees are local and have high professional skills makes a huge difference wherever we are. I have seen this everywhere that I have been. We always have a nice set of professional employees who have spent their whole lives dedicated to the relationship between the United States and their country. And they are great people who do a great job. A lot of other embassies are jealous of that; they don’t have those professional employees who provide that background to what is going on in a country.
Embassy of the United States to Bolivia: http://bolivia.usembassy.gov/