I was selling rum in Venezuela in the '60s," says John Norton, "when I met some girls from the Swedish Embassy. One finally became vice consul in L.A. She suggested me for the job of honorary consul down here. That's how I came to be the Swedish Consul." There was more to it than that, of course, but Norton's appointment somehow symbolizes the never-never land quality of diplomatic presence in San Diego. The city has an oddball clutch of countries - 21 in all - that have chosen to appoint consuls to represent them here. Almost as odd are those who have chosen not to. Bahrain, Germany, El Salvador, Malawi, and Sweden are here. Great Britain, China, Spain, and Russia are not.
Now look at the names of some of these exotic consuls: The Bahrainian consul is Dr. Charles W. Hostler; the envoy of El Salvador, David Porter; Sweden, John Norton. What's going on here?
"We're all honorary consuls," says Norton, who at least has a wife who's Swedish, "or, as I prefer to be called, noncareer consuls. I beat out a bunch of Swedes for the job, and I think that's because their people thought that, as an American, I would have easier access to U.S. authorities like the sheriffs and immigration."
The job, of course, carries prestige, but no pay packet. That doesn't stop volunteers coming forward, even to represent countries they may hardly know.
The Salvadoran consul knows the country through his business but owes his position to a chamber of commerce trip to Japan. "I was paired off with the director of the international department of the chamber of commerce, a guy named Bob Hale," says David Porter. "Bob was a former career consul in the U.S. Consulate in Tijuana. And privately we would speak in Spanish when we needed to."
Porter, now 74, had learned Spanish with the South American service of the Grace shipping line during World War II. Twenty years later, in the '60s, he'd become an importer-exporter at a time when El Salvador was emerging from a banana economy to cotton and industry and exotic fruit, which could be exported in newly introduced refrigerated containers. A lot of these exports were traded through Porter's San DiegoPbased company. On top of that, Porter was involved with El Salvador's Central American industrial trade fair. In the mid-'60s, the country's economy felt like it was taking off, and the nearest Salvadoran outpost in Los Angeles was overwhelmed. The consulate asked Bob Hale to suggest names for a San Diego representative. "Bob said, 'Hey, I know somebody who could fit this bill!' I never even went up and talked to the lady consul. I was too darned busy in those days. She just took Bob's word for it," says Porter.
So on June 10, 1965, his exequatur - his appointment - was signed by the president of El Salvador and the President of the United States, LBJ himself. "The social implications were great," says Porter. "Especially for me, building up my business. I could get to Navy Changes of Command, people invited me to parties. You got a profile pretty fast."
Except soon El Salvador's civil war came, business dropped off, and instead of dispatches, Porter was sending back piles of dumped passports from illegal Salvadoran refugees fleeing the war who had thrown all identification away before crossing the line at San Ysidro.
That's the way his posting's been ever since. Isolated. For three decades. "If it takes an hour a month of my time, that's more than normal," Porter says. Yes, he does feel a bit like Our Man in Havana. "I have only been down [to El Salvador] twice, and I haven't visited the Salvadoran consulate [in Los Angeles] in years."
Early in 1993, Charles W. Hostler, recipient of countless exotic honors, including Knight Grand Cross, Order of St. John, Knights of Malta, Honorary Citizen of the Cyclades Islands of Greece, Order of Cloud and Banner, with Cravat, Taiwan, Republic of China, Hereditary Count of Paros, Officer of the Order of the Cedars, Lebanon, U.S. Legion of Merit, and at that point the U.S. Ambassador to Bahrain - an island state in the Persian Gulf -received a message from the State Department. "Thank you very much for your services...and feel free to resign...not later than 1st of March." "It wasn't unexpected. I was a Bush appointee. Clinton had taken over. Thirty-five or forty ambassadors got the same message," says Hostler, 77, relaxing in his bayside Coronado condo.
The Bahrainis were not happy. They liked Hostler. Unlike many political appointees, this man spoke their language, understood their problems of maintaining one foot in the romantic Arab culture, the other foot in the brash world of Western business. Hostler had spent his working life in the Middle East and had helped guide Bahrain through the difficult Desert Storm days. Sheik Isa bin-Sulman al-Khalifa, the Amir (prince) of Bahrain, sent a message to Washington: "Please don't send Hostler away. He is very valuable to us."
Washington politely refused the request.
"The Bahrainis and I both wanted to continue our relationship, so the Sheik had the idea to appoint me his Honorary Consul-General for the United States. I'm the only Consul-General they have - in the world. But we decided to limit my jurisdiction to the Western United States," says Hostler. "I have made my chosen duties to promote investment in Bahrain, along with other trade and tourism. I sometimes go with groups to the region to help them make connections and understand the people and their ways. And every December 16 I hold a party here - at my expense, of course - for senators, mayors, consuls, to celebrate Bahrain's National Day." He runs his hand over a 160-year-old flintlock musket, a gift from Yemen. "I'm very attached to the region, you see."
Germany has the honor of being the first consulate to open in San Diego, back in 1857. Sweden was the second, says consul Norton, in 1888. "Shipping, trade was what brought the Swedes here. We still have a left-over responsibility from those days. One of a Swedish consul's duties has always been to safeguard the rights of the crew of any ship. We have to go to each ship and hear from the crew's mouths: 'We have no complaints against the captain.' An old custom. But in the 12 years I've been consul, there hasn't been one single Swedish ship come into port here. So I haven't been able to carry out that duty."
Still, Norton's consulate seems to be thriving. He has two assistants - students doing fieldwork for their degrees - sent out and paid for by the Swedish government to work for Norton full-time. "It never stops. We have three to five thousand Swedes - residents, students, au-pair girls, Navy personnel, and tourists - passing through San Diego at any one time. We have lost passports, folks stuck at the border, people collecting pensions from the Swedish government who need to come in annually to sign documents proving they're still alive. We have a large numbers of Chaldeans, Christian Iraqis living here who have relatives who sought refuge in Sweden. Many of them travel to Sweden to reunite. I could easily make this honorary job my sole occupation, believe me. Then there's the party I throw - out of my own pocket - for about 150 people, honoring all the Nobel laureates - about four or five of them - who live in the county." But Norton says the number one reason he - and many other consulates - have set up here is San Diego's burgeoning high-tech industry. "San Diego is one of the four or five hotbeds of technology in the U.S.," he says. "One of the key policies of the Swedish government is to prosper by always having the latest technology in its industry. So we spend 50 percent of our time on this. One of my two assistants does nothing but build high-tech business alliances between such companies as Maxim in San Diego and Saab Aerospace. The importance of San Diego as an incubator for high-tech companies is recognized worldwide. That's bottom line why we're here."
And what does the other intern do? "Oh, passports, body bags, cultural exchange. Exhibitions. Art. There's no end to it."
But what if the government you represent turns bad? David Porter's biggest crisis came as the Salvadoran government he represented became linked to death squads. "We lost one million people in a 12-year period," he says. "The insurgents were Marxist, no question. The Catholic nuns and priests got too involved. But I always support the underdog. The death squads, I didn't like that. I got the feeling: can I represent this government?"
Ultimately he decided he could. He resisted appeals by Californian aid groups to help illegal Salvadoran refugees crossing the border. "I represented the government they were fleeing. I wasn't supposed to take sides."
Now that the war's over and a lot of hacienda land redistributed, Porter is eager to help market the specialized fruits and vegetables peasant cooperatives are producing and to encourage the re-establishment of that long-lost industrial trade fair. But the stresses of the war have left him a little beaten down. "There has been such a brain-drain from El Salvador," he says. "I think there are 350,000 Salvadorans in L.A. County right now."
Clearly he still feels left outside the loop. I ask him how many Salvadorans live here in San Diego County. "I really don't know. I imagine 35 to 55 thousand, but that's grabbing a figure out of the air because," he laughs, "they don't report to me. They don't say anything to me."