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As the February meeting was called to order, they listened attentively. But within minutes, near-mayhem erupted among these elite representatives. There was shouting and, in some cases, utter contempt.
The unruly agitators were members of the Consular Corps of Houston. The diplomatic community was suddenly acting most undiplomatically. Forget tact and statesmanship -- this exclusive international crowd was in the midst of a long year of chaos. Ironically, the trigger for the explosion was nothing more than sharp differences over semantics and the role of a professional organization.
The woman in charge of the meeting was Maria Lucia Santos Pompeu Brasil, a firebrand Brazilian who had been dean of the Consular Corps of Houston since September. Brasil savaged the very group she had been selected to lead -- even instigating a multinational rebellion to strip the organization of its title.
Her green eyes flashing, she argues her case for the name blame adamantly. "Depict it correctly!" she says. "The group that meets monthly is a club, an association, a society. Call it whatever you want, but do not call it the Consular Corps of Houston."
Until the great uprising, the corps here had been considered genteel and businesslike, tending to matters such as trade promotion or visas and cultural programs linking their countries with the United States. Like its global counterparts, this influential international coalition that calls Houston home keeps a most civilized exterior.
There are 74 countries with consulates in this city, the same number as San Francisco and behind only New York and Los Angeles in the size of its corps. Smaller consulates are headed by unsalaried honorary consuls general and a few consuls, appointed because of their strong connections to the country they are representing.
In 34 of the larger Houston offices, the person in charge -- head-of-post -- is a career diplomat or high-ranking political appointee. They, their career diplomat staffers and honorary heads-of-post, about 200 in the Houston area, are accredited by the U.S. Department of State as official members of the consular corps here.
The heads-of-post traditionally participate in the organization known as the Consular Corps of Houston, which has monthly luncheons at The Briar Club on Westheimer and sponsors other formal events.
Each year, the title of dean of the corps goes automatically to the career diplomat who has been head-of-post in Houston the longest. When the Israeli consul general declined the title, Brasil was next in line, even though her disdain for the organization was already well known by many of her peers.
The Brazilian consul general says she made it obvious that she would reluctantly serve as head of the consular community here, but had no interest in what she called "the club." In her mind, what she viewed as a social group had no business using the name typically reserved for accredited officials.
At 50, the tall, slim and attractive Brasil had gained impressive credentials during 30 years in the Brazilian foreign service. Many consular officials agreed with her that some change was in order for the group and its name. But in a profession where tact is paramount, she barged ahead in an attempt to force the issue by fiat.
Among those appalled at the onslaught was Ray Daugbjerg, honorary consul of Denmark, who had been treasurer of the Consular Corps for 11 years.
"Where diplomacy is concerned," he says, "I have forgotten more than Maria knows."
As dean of the Consular Corps, Brasil automatically became chairwoman of the organization's 13-member executive committee. She showed up for only one event of the organization, and that was because high-ranking government officials were present and protocol demanded her presence.
In fact, the former member in good standing didn't even pay her country's annual membership dues of $75. Instead, Brasil amassed her army of the 15 other heads of Spanish-speaking Central and South American consulates. They also refused to pay dues or attend the monthly meetings of the organization. The boycott claimed the Consular Corps vice-dean in the process, because Peruvian consul general Jorge Salas joined his compatriots in the protest. That insurrection spread across the Atlantic when the Spanish consul general climbed aboard the war wagon.
By April, the strife showed itself openly. The Latin contingent of the corps -- no longer members in good standing -- was absent at a Petroleum Club gala hosted by the Consular Corps. A few weeks later, the Houston International Festival forgot to invite the consular community to the mayor's dinner dance honoring Ireland and its visiting president Mary McAleese. With the corps leaderless, there was no one to notify festival officials in time to rectify the oversight.
Earlier, in behavior worthy of foreign affairs intrigue, Brasil, Daugbjerg and Salas tried to hammer out a détente. They met surreptitiously on neutral turf -- a table at La Madeleine in Town and Country Mall. In Daugbjerg's attaché case was a copy of the Consular Corps of Houston bylaws, rules which might contain the code for a breakthrough.