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."