The Foreign Service Journal - December 2017

32 DECEMBER 2017 | THE FOREIGN SERVICE JOURNAL domestic appliances. Her home, that shop and all the merchandise in it were now gone. Everywhere she had gone to seek help, she had been turned away. Bolivian government ministries, the central bank and other local institutions had been unre- sponsive. The Bolivian bank branch in the embassy chancery had just told her “sorry” for a second time. Harding peered inside the cook- ing pot and saw a pile of what looked like blackened ashes and smelled like burnt paper. It was several seconds before he realized what he was seeing and smelling: the remains of several clumps of U.S. one hundred dollar bills. The charred bills were all that was left of her family’s life savings, which included the money she had recently collected from neighbors to pay for merchandise. She claimed that $45,000 in cash had been hidden beneath her mattress at the time of the fire, and she sought help to convert the ashes back to viable legal tender. Señora Luna’s story rang a bell: Harding recalled having read about the devastating nighttime fire not long before in the local papers. And he knew it was plausible. The “informal” sector rep- resented two-thirds of Bolivia’s economy—the country’s growing cholo commercial class owned the street stands and lunch stalls, small bric-a-brac shops, hardware stores and food markets, and ran the thriving commerce in mostly contraband electrical goods and computer electronics. They administered this substantial informal economy almost exclusively in cash—often in U.S. dol- lars rather than the local currency. Whatever the case, Señora Luna needed help. She had no insurance. She had nothing left, owed money for all the merchan- dise destroyed in the fire and had intended to pay off her debt with the charred cash in the cooking pot. Harding asked her to wait in the lobby while he went inside to consult with embassy colleagues about whether there was any way he could help. He returned an hour later to tell her he would do what he could. From his professional point of view, helping a woman of Señora Luna’s background would have precisely the kind of political impact we were seeking. More importantly, however, it was the right thing to do. (He could not stop asking himself: What if it were my own mother in this situation?) They transferred the contents of her cooking pot into several thick, industrial-style plastic bags. Back in his office, Hard- ing placed these bags into a cardboard box, secure-wrapped it and mailed it to the U.S. Treasury Department’s Bureau of Engraving and Printing in Washington, D.C. During the months that fol- lowed, Harding made multiple calls to Washington to seek updates and press for progress. Señora Luna’s box had arrived just as the Bureau was responding to a surge stemming from forest fires in California, and the office’s expert currency examin- ers were working at full throttle, unable to give their immediate attention to the case from distant Bolivia. When the distraught Señora Luna called him pleading for news, Harding assured her it was just a matter of time. He explained the bureaucratic process; that complex currency examination cases were time-consuming; that accurate calcula- tions were critical; and that the workload of currency examiners was heavy. In short, he performed the diplomat’s quintessential task, mediating between two otherwise separate worlds. He was the bridge, the interpreter, the sole point of intersection between those worlds—doing his best to bring them together to solve a problem. The solution came in early June, more than six months after he had mailed the box of burnt bills to Washington. It was a U.S. Treasury check in the amount of $17,100. When Harding called with the good news, Señora Luna was overcome with emotion. He was happy for her, pleased that their persistence had paid off and relieved he had not oversold his ability to come through on his implied promised, after all. To commemorate the event, the embassy’s public affairs office organized a special ceremony in the chancery lobby. Harding and U.S. Ambassador to Bolivia David Greenlee formally presented the check to Señora Luna. Amb. Greenlee received a grateful kiss on the cheek from the tearful woman, a gesture that was broadcast on national TV that same night. It also appeared on the front pages of Bolivian papers the following day, above feature-length accounts of her travails and their successful resolution—with the help of U.S. Embassy La Paz. Alexis Ludwig has been a Foreign Service officer since January 1994. He is currently a career development officer for senior-level officers. He has been political counselor in Brazil, Argentina and Peru, among other postings in Latin America and East Asia. He was the bridge, the interpreter, the sole point of intersection between those worlds—doing his best to bring them together to solve a problem. –Alexis Ludwig “ ”