An Interview with Larry L. Palmer, U.S. Ambassador to Barbados
Larry L. Palmer was appointed the U.S. Ambassador to Barbados and the Eastern Caribbean in 2012. Palmer is a career member of the Senior Foreign Service and has served in numerous postings throughout his career. From 2005 to 2010, Palmer was President of the Inter-American Foundation; from 2002 to 2005, Palmer was Ambassador to Honduras. Previously, Palmer held Foreign Service positions in the Dominican Republic, Uruguay, Paraguay, Sierra Leone, South Korea, as well as in the State Department as staff assistant to the Assistant Secretary for African Affairs. Palmer also held the post of Pearson Fellow at the University of Texas at El Paso. Originally from Augusta, Georgia, Palmer earned a Bachelor of Arts degree from Emory University, a Master of Education in African History at Texas Southern University, and a Doctorate of Higher Education Administration and African Studies from Indiana University in Bloomington.
The Politic: Why did you join the Foreign Service?
Well, I was a Peace Corps volunteer in 1971 and 1972 in Liberia. I taught high school there — general science, biology, math, and chemistry. When I was in Liberia, I got a chance to see an embassy up close and personal. We would have to go there for our passport adjustments or from time to time if we needed something notarized, and I was very, very impressed with the staff that the embassy had. Many of them spoke some of the local languages, and they knew Liberia and the countryside very well, almost as well as the Peace Corps. Nobody knows the country better than the Peace Corps volunteers. I was very, very impressed with them and I said, “You know, I like what they are doing and I like the people that they are, and one day I may think about doing that.”
So I came back from the Peace Corps and I finished up my doctorate in African Studies and College Administration and I went to work at Wake Forest for three years. I taught and I was the director of Minority Affairs. But after about three years, I really thought about investigating this Foreign Service thing. So as not to jeopardize my status at Wake Forest, I did not take the Foreign Service exam there. I took the Foreign Service exam at Meredith College in Raleigh, about two hours away, in 1980. I passed the Foreign Service exam in November of 1980; I passed the orals, I passed the background checks, and I came aboard in November of 1981. But I was not sure about the Foreign Service so I went to my provost and he granted me a leave of absence from Wake Forest and said, “If you don’t like the Foreign Service then let us know and we’ll let you back on.” But you know, when I got in, I knew from the very first moment that this is what I wanted to do.
The Politic: Do you have a favorite assignment?
I have been so lucky with my assignments — I have been very, very lucky. I’m an Africanist — I have my doctorate in African studies — and I was going to become the world’s greatest Africanist, and my very first assignment was the Dominican Republic. I worked there as a consular officer. I really liked Latin America, so I went from there to Uruguay. I spent a lot of time there and in Paraguay. I was working regional Uruguay-Paraguay, and I visited Argentina and Brazil. Then I came back to the department as a staff assistant for the bureau of African Affairs. I was the staff assistant for Dr. Chester Crocker, who was the Assistant Secretary [of State for African Affairs] at that time. It was an interesting time because just before I got there — this was in 1986 — South Africa went into a state of emergency, so it was a very interesting time during the history of apartheid. I worked there for a year and then said, “Listen it’s time for me to go to Africa.”
I got my next assignment in Sierra Leone. I was Administrative Counsel for Administrative Affairs. I worked there for two years and had a marvelous time because it was West Africa again. It borders Liberia. Then I came back and did kind of a sabbatical at the University of Texas at El Paso. Eventually I ended up in Ecuador as the Deputy Chief of Mission. Now, Deputy Chief of Mission is the number two in an embassy. My ambassador was Ambassador Gwen Clare. It was my very first time in Ecuador and I am telling you it was a dream.
Quito was where we lived. It is a beautiful city at about 9,800 feet. I called it a city of white buildings at the top of the world because you fly in and see these beautiful buildings and mountains and volcanoes all around. I supervised the Principal Officer at one of our consulates. I had the best of both worlds. I lived in Quito but had responsibilities at the consulate. And Ecuador was such a diverse and wonderful country. It had beautiful rainforests, mountains, volcanoes, and on the coast it had marvelous beaches. It had the Galapagos Islands — I had the chance to visit the Galapagos a couple of times. It had indigenous culture; it had Old Spanish culture. It was a good assignment that both my wife and I enjoyed very much. It is hard to say what the favorite was. I enjoyed my assignment in Korea, for instance, because it is so different with the Asian culture. But certainly one of my favorite assignments was Ecuador. It is one of the most diverse places on earth. In about two or three hectares of land you probably have more species of trees, animals, insects, birds, than probably 90 percent of the world. It is just a tremendously diverse place.
Another of my favorite assignments was Honduras. In 2002 I was nominated ambassador to Honduras and served there from 2002 to 2005. I had an excellent USAID portfolio; we maybe had 40 to 50 million dollars in USAID assistance. I was there to help the Hondurans negotiate their first Millennium Challenge grant, which was another $213 million for them. I was there during the beginning of the Iraq War when President Bush wanted countries to come along and join the “Coalition of the Willing” and help in the reconstruction of Iraq. I had a multi-day discussion with the president there at the time, President [Nicolas] Maduro, to persuade him to send those soldiers because he was not on board. We talked for most of the day and he was still not on board, the second day we talked more and he was still not on board, and then he finally said, “Will you get me an appointment with the Secretary of State [Colin Powell]?” I brought him up, he discussed it with the Secretary of State, and eventually they sent 370 soldiers to Iraq reconstruction. So I had a marvelous tour in Honduras.
When I left there, I went on as president of the Inter-American Foundation. I intended to stay about two years but ended up staying five years as the President of the Inter-American Foundation from 2005 to 2010. And that was a wonderful experience. It is a government agency that specializes in financing projects to poor and marginalized communities throughout Latin America. So we would fund each year approximately $20 million to projects anywhere from $180,000 for two years to $400,000 for three years to help small communities in economic development. The major focuses were on women, youth at risk, and persons with disabilities. And it was so marvelous to have money to fund these poor and marginalized groups and to help strengthen friendships between the United States and these groups from Mexico all the way down to Argentina.
We had projects in the Caribbean. We had projects in Venezuela. We had 18 projects in Venezuela. It was an example of really good cooperation between the United States and Venezuela. We had projects in Bolivia. The foundation is still in existence. I am no longer the president, but sure they still have these projects using government money. We do not go through the governments of the countries. We fund directly to the NGOs or directly to the communities. It is a marvelous agency and I was so blessed to work five years there as president.
The Politic: Moving on from your personal history to your work in Barbados and the Eastern Caribbean, what kinds of programs is the Embassy working on?
We have a very varied portfolio here. Our largest portfolio is what we call the Caribbean Basin Security Initiative (CBSI), in which we are working with all seven countries in the Eastern Caribbean to improve citizen safety through projects to staunch the flow of illegal drugs, guns, and the illegal trafficking of persons throughout the region. We equipped the police force with modern day equipment. We work with the Coast Guard — we donated about two million dollars of packages of “safe boats,” which are interceptors with huge engines capable of tremendous speed, including radar and with maintenance packages. Since we have donated these boats to countries, we have seen the seizures of narcotics increase tremendously. We provide training to justices and the police force. We have a program with the youth called “No Witness, No Justice,” where we are teaching youth that if you see a crime and report it, you will not be a snitch; in essence, you are making your neighborhood better and safer for you. That is our biggest expenditure. The CBSI was the brainchild of President Obama during the 2009 Summit of the Americas where he talked with leaders in the region telling them we are coming up with this to help increase citizen safety in the region. The Caribbean is our backyard and it is important to us to have a safe Caribbean.
Another big-ticket item is PEPFAR, the President’s Emergency Program for AIDS Relief. This was a program that works with persons with HIV and AIDS. A great percentage of it we spend on programs trying to reduce the stigma and discrimination associated with HIV. A good percentage of it we try to use for testing. We get persons tested and treated, and we do other various things. PEPFAR is a significant program.
USAID works with other programs in terms of empowerment. We do a lot with a division in the department called GWI — gender and women’s issues. Domestic violence is a big problem throughout the Caribbean. The incident of domestic violence in this region is far, far more prevalent than in the United States and in other places. I do not know why, but it is really a problem. We are working with the United Nations. We are working with various governments. We are working with the police force to try to develop training programs and come up with financing to reduce this scourge, because it is taking its toll. In one of our countries in the last two months we have had three spouses killed as a result of domestic violence.
In addition, we have a tremendously successful and large law enforcement group. In that law enforcement working group we have members of NCIS, FBI, Customs and Border Patrol, IRS, and more. We have a huge group of persons and all these regencies are working under the Embassy to help support this Caribbean Basin Security Initiative Program. We also work very closely with United States Southern Command. We have in that law enforcement working group a gentleman who works with the Coast Guard and is a military liaison officer. He is my defense attaché. He also reports to SOUTHCOM. We work with them in military exercises and ship visits. We just did something called Operation Trade Winds in which SOUTHCOM sent experts out to work with the Coast Guards of all seven of our countries in order to help them with procedures, best practices, and tradecraft in terms of drug interdiction. So we work very closely with SOUTHCOM. We just had a visit about two weeks ago with their four-star general, General Kelly. He visited the head of our defense force here. He visited our Embassy and we gave him a briefing and we hope to get him back here sometime in October in Grenada when there is going to be a special remembrance because it is the thirtieth anniversary of our military intervention in Grenada during the crisis in 1983.
And then, of course, we have a big consular station as you know. Our consul is located here in Barbados so persons have to come from all of the six islands — St. Kitts, St. Vincent, St. Lucia, Dominica, Antigua, and Grenada — for their visas. In Grenada, we have what we call a consulate. We used to have an embassy there, but after the Marine intervention in the 1980s we no longer have an ambassador there. We have a facility there, but Grenada is an extension of our embassy here. They do a lot of American citizen services there because they have literally thousands — probably over three thousand — of American students attending medical school, veterinary school, and other academic institutions.
The Politic: What is the relationship like between the Government of the United States and the governments of Barbados and the other Easter Caribbean countries?
When I was going to consultations and getting ready to come here, they said, “Well, it is not going to be easy. You are used to one country; here it is going to be seven different countries, seven groups of good guys, seven groups of bad guys.” I said, “Oh, not a problem.” Well, let me tell you. I feel like we are dealing with it… I think we are doing a good job, but it is anything but easy. Anything we have to do is times seven. There are certain required reports, human rights reports, trafficking in persons reports, religious freedoms reports; all these reports where normally we have to do one, now our political economy section has to do seven of these. When you talk about the relationship between the US and Barbados, we have seven different prime ministers so basically my team and I have to cultivate relationships with each country because each country wants to feel as if the United States and that country has a sovereign and personal relationship. I am very fortunate to have a good team here. Military works with the military; law enforcement works with law enforcement; our development people work in development; and I, of course, work with the prime ministers, the foreign ministers, and the cabinet ministers.
I can tell you that we have a long history of excellent relationships here in Barbados, also throughout the Eastern Caribbean. The relationship with each country is very, very separate and distinct and different. You might have one problem area in Antigua and a different problem area in St. Lucia and have yet another problem area in St. Kitts. It is interesting, it is challenging, but we have a good team and we love it. But the relationships right now — we have an excellent relationship with all of them. Let me tell you one thing, though. One of the most difficult issues in U.S.-Caribbean relationships today is this: formerly, in the good old days, we had lots of foreign assistance — our foreign assistance budgets were good. AID had money, the military had money, DEA had money, and we worked very closely with these countries and we financed them. However, the budget crunch and cutbacks hurt everyone. It is making these countries worry that we do not love them anymore. Nothing has changed, it is just we do not have the money.
Some of the countries — not all, but some — are beginning to look for non-traditional partners where we were always their partner before. Now they are beginning to look to China, now they are beginning to look to Venezuela, and so what we try to do is keep our relationships as solid as we can so that we can continue the marvelous relationships that we have had and have these countries vote with us on multilateral issues in the United Nations and the Organization of American States.
The Politic: Would it be better for the U.S. Foreign Service to have independent embassies/ missions in each of the seven countries?
In a perfect world, absolutely! Take just the visa question for example. Say someone lives in Antigua. Antigua’s a long way away from here. So they have to make an appointment to come to Barbados for the visa. For transportation between the islands, there is one little airline we fly, and they have pretty much a monopoly on the islands so the fares are very expensive. Sometimes it is less expensive to go from Barbados to Miami than it is to go from Barbados to St. Kitts for example. Hopefully they get here early enough to come to the embassy, apply for the visa, and catch a flight back home that same day. Usually that does not happen with the flight schedules so they have to stay overnight. You pay $160 for your visa appointment, then you pay $350 round trip for your ticket, and say another $150 for your hotel, and say you are unsuccessful getting your visa. You are out of a lot of money and you do not feel really warm toward the United States.
There has been a congressman or two who have been champions of having an embassy in each of the islands. China has an embassy in each of the islands; as does Venezuela. But, of course, they do not have the start-up costs that we do. We have very strict regulations about classified materials and personnel. It would just be tremendously costly to have an embassy in each one. But in a perfect world if you could just go presto change-o just like that, yes, we would.
The Politic: What would you say is the biggest danger of losing our sphere of influence to China or Venezuela in the area?
I wouldn’t really say there is a danger. It is just, you know, friends are important. For example, in CariCom — the Caribbean Community — there are sixteen nations, which is important when it comes to multilateral votes in the UN for example. Say we are voting on a resolution trying to condemn the practices going on in Syria. It is good to have friends to say, “Listen, this is what we have made of what is happening in Syria. We think it is a gross abomination for XYZ reasons, and we need your support to get this resolution passed.” And if indeed some countries may not have assets in Syria and may not see they have a dog in that fight, the fact that we have a dog in the fight and they are our friends makes a big difference to us, and especially on things like human rights issues. When we have resolutions condemning XYZ countries for violating human rights, it pays to have sixteen friends to say, “Yes we are going to vote with you.” In the old days we had 16 of 16. Now it is different. We have to work harder to maintain those friendships; we have to work harder to get those votes. Where 25 years ago on big issues that we were interested in they provided their full support, now you see some abstentions. We are seeing sometimes they are absent on issues. It is difficult. If we did have a permanent presence in each country that could certainly help out.
The Politic: How well is America represented abroad?
I think Americans are represented very well abroad. I tend to use this embassy as a microcosm. For example, we have Peace Corps volunteers here — we do not have them in all of our countries. We used to have them in six out of seven but now we only have them in four. They are working with people at the grassroots level. I am thinking in terms of when I was in Honduras. We had people living on banana plantations working with youth at risk, working with mayors and municipal development programs, and helping with forestry projects. Living there in the houses with families, I think our Peace Corps volunteers are our best ambassadors. For some in many countries throughout Africa, Asia, and Latin America, Peace Corps volunteers will be the only American faces that many people see. They work and they help to identify challenges. For example, I had a meeting once with the former President of Peru, President [Alejandro] Toledo, who was a graduate of Stanford in economics. He always talks about his experience as a young student when a Peace Corps volunteer identified him as a potential excellent student and leader and pushed him and gave him the courage that he needed to move on, further his education, and of course he ended up as President of Peru.
Now that is just the Peace Corps. There are also USAID programs, for example, like PEPFAR, which are working with the poorest of the poor, people with HIV/AIDS who are being shunned by many in their own societies. We have people out there working to support LGBT. In many countries, especially in the Caribbean, that is very unpopular. In many countries there are still laws on the books where people go to jail for certain kinds of alternative lifestyles. We have people out there saying that LGBT rights are human rights and we support human rights.
We have our militaries abroad working with the defense units in countries. And just using this as a microcosm, for instance, we have a lot more military assistance in Honduras and El Salvador. I understand they are working shoulder to shoulder with other militaries on jungle operations. We send medics and doctors to Honduras, for example, who perform operations on persons for no charge at all. And these are persons who would never receive medical attention at all but for the United States.
The official reputation is with the prime ministers and presidents. But what a lot of people do not see sometimes is Americans on the ground. In countries where drugs are grown and transported, we have DEA agents risking their lives trying to figure out where the drugs are coming from and staunch that flow. And a lot of times, recently even, we lose those DEA agents. So yes, our people are represented very well abroad.
Embassy of the United States to Barbados: http://barbados.usembassy.gov/