From Watergate to Wan Chai – 40 years of diplomatic samba

Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on linkedin
Share on whatsapp

Mr. José Antônio de Castello Branco de Macedo Soares. Consul General of the Consulate General of Brazil in Hong Kong and Macau Interview.

Diplomat expected to have a fun little Mardi Gras style sit-down with the Brazilian Consul General, Mr. José Antônio de Castello Branco de Macedo Soares. It was not to be as a serious, storied professional revealed himself. Sitting under the watchful eye of the patron saint of Brazilian diplomacy, Baron de Rio Branco, the Consul General revealed insights gathered over a 40 year career.

Our preliminary research had revealed some unexpected surprises: An ancient Portuguese aristocratic title: Marquis of Belas. A backstory so long he remembers when his name cost Brazil extra because diplomats communicated through cables paid for by the letter. And some secrets better left untold.

His family history is one replete with tradition. Like a surprising number of national emissaries Diplomat interviews, he comes from a long line of diplomats. He tried to evade this path through a study of economics, but was drawn to his destiny: career diplomat.

Political tornado to killer tornadoes

At the height of the Cold War, a young Brazilian walked into a maelstrom in the centre of western hemisphere politics: Washington DC of the mid-1970s. The optimism of the 1960’s had given way to the cynicism of political scandal when Deep Throat became a household name. He was coding reports into giant telegraph machines that ‘looked like a refrigerator’ keeping the capital up to date on the emerging political scandal of Watergate. “One week after though, there was a big wind, the light went out. But you know coming from Brazil, this feels pretty normal in the 1970s. So I just lit the candles, had my dinner and went to sleep. The next day, I found this was the real crisis.” The outage had been caused by the Super Outbreak of tornadoes of 3-4 April 1974, one of the most severe disasters on record in the US. It caused a death toll of over 300, and more than 5000 were injured.

“So in one week I went through two crises without recognizing they were crises!”

All the President’s Men: The Crisis Cabinet

A globe spanning career saw him later assigned to work three presidential terms in the Cabinet of the Presidency, Institutional Security Section, a.k.a. The Crisis Cabinet. When disaster strikes, a range of government departments must come together to make lightning fast decisions and coordinate actions.

“When you have a problem that is handled by several ministries…like the bird flu, which is part of agriculture, part of health, part of budget…it is very hard to coordinate…Our job was to get them work together, quickly…It was great fun! Going to crisis after crisis day to day…you never know what is going to happen.” He stayed in the  position for 13 long years, and absolutely loved his job wholeheartedly – incredible pressure and challenges notwithstanding.

His most intense experience was the Haiti earthquake in 2010. “Suddenly the entire country went to ‘stopped existing’. The president disappeared for 3 days. The UN…everybody died, literary. It was horrible. Congress disappeared. So we found ourselves with only one authority still standing, which was the [chief of the] Brazilian UN troops. So we used them to send help. We ended up losing 18 soldiers…”

Paris, City of …AWOL soldiers?

You don’t even have to be in that position to experience crisis management. Even in a normal consulate, odd things happen. For example, during his short stint in Paris.

“Everyday the consulate opens at 9:00am, there’s already a long line, on one side 100 foreigners, on the other 100 Brazilians. I come down callng ‘who is in an emergency?’ and I will get 4 or 5 immediately…”

This included some tough customers. Many Brazilians served in the French Foreign Legion and their passports were destroyed the moment they joined. “…which is wrong, because the passport belongs to the nation, not to the individual…And I don’t know why so many Brazilians joined the Foreign Legion. They probably watched too many old movies…” Regardless, these soldiers get 2 weeks’ vacation after one year, so they quickly run to the consulate or a passport or a travel document to go back home. “…they get out of our office and then go immediately to the airport.”

How do Brazilians fare? Vanity Fair’s recent spotlight on the French Foreign Legion (The Expendables, December 2012) quotes an officer listing off the best and worst nationalities of recruits. After disparaging a number of nationalities, he finishes by saying “the Serbs are tough, the Koreans are the best of the Asians, and the Brazilians are the best of all.” One Legionnaire’s opinion, maybe, but intriguing.

Wikileaks: turning point in Diplomacy

Macedo Soares had strong opinions about the fate of diplomacy after the Assange tsunami was released onto the world.

“From that point on the world of the diplomacy changed…we now spend much longer time [to] deliberate what to write.”

With the idea that sooner or later any correspondence will be leaked or made public in mind, Diplomat wondered whether these officials will become so careful that one day reading diplomatic email reports will be like reading tarot cards, deliberately made obscure to avoid potential embarrassment and even liability later.

Ironically he was the one pushing for technology when he was the Deputy Director of the Diplomatic Academy. Perhaps if he had known the internet would cause his profession so much trouble later, he might have had second thoughts. But apparently, Wikileaks is not the only turning point nd his love for technology is still growing.

“Skype is the best invention in the diplomatic world!…Otherwise how can I talk to my 4 year old grandson!” It seems that diplomat, as a career, has one of the highest divorce rates among professions. Perhaps they will finally gain some assistance in maintaining family ties and love relationships from technology.

People with passion for life

The Consul General had a rather proud face when he mentioned the vibrant Brazilian community he was serving here. “We have airplane pilots, soccer players, and even a magician and other artists in the casinos in Macao!…The members of banking institutions get together to have lunch every Friday…and the dragon boat team did very well this year!”

As for himself, he is a master chef, though has not yet dared to start challenging the Cantonese cuisine. “I love cooking and reading cooking books! When you come home, worried about 10,000 things, then you read cooking books, you go to sleep worrying about your cream or your vinegar…that clears your mind perfectly.” He is also a big fan of collecting maps, swimming and hiking, and reading military histories. In short, he has all the passion for life and Hong Kong seems to have all the options.

“It took me 3 seconds to say yes!…Put this on record, I’m absolutely loving this place! Well it’s very easy to love Hong Kong. Coming from Rio, another city between the sea and mountain, this feels very familiar. It’s just like home!”

Former Postings

  • Under Secretary-General for Institutional Security, Cabinet of the Presidency, 1999-2013
  • Deputy Director of the Diplomatic Academy (IRBr), 1994-1996
  • Embassy in London, 1987-1990
  • Ministry for External Relations, 1983-1987
  • Embassy in Vienna, 1979 -1983
  • Embassy in Panama, 1977-1979
  • Embassy in Washington, 1973-1976 Education and Background
  • University Degree in Economy, Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, 1969
  • Diplomatic Academy CPCD (IRBr), 1968