Battle Corps

They arrived as professionals, 30 or so men and women fashionably attired in finely tailored business clothes and exchanging cordial welcomes. Speaking in low, cultured tones, often in accented English, they entered the boardroom of the Greater Houston Partnership.

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.

"I kept saying to Maria that if she wanted to make changes, it could be done," Daugbjerg says. But those rules require a member to propose amendments. Brasil could not do it, and Daugbjerg would not do it.

Brasil herself summoned the heads-of-post to the crucial February 7 meeting that drew about half the corps. She announced that she wanted to change the name of the Consular Corps group right then and there. Consuls asked to speak -- the dean refused to recognize them.

Told that she wasn't following parliamentary procedure, Brasil fired back that it was not necessary for her to follow those rules. The meeting broke up amid shouts and angry exchanges.

"What happened didn't sit well," says Icelandic honorary consul Olafur Asgeirsson.

Brasil, in a later letter to the Danish consul, vowed to remain a rebel with a cause, saying the organization's name and titles "more appropriately belong to the legitimate Consular Corps of the jurisdiction."

Brasil insisted that she'd put considerable effort "into trying to resolve the disputed issues diplomatically." She accused Daugbjerg of "intransigence" and dismissed the notion that the problem should be subjected to established rules and even votes.

Eventually, the turmoil spread to her husband, Bill Robinson, a former Canadian trade official who runs the ASTEC company in Houston, which works with businesses, particularly those in the energy sector, to move machinery and personnel through Brazilian customs. Delays and duty fees can cost firms millions of dollars. Rumors swirled in the international community here that the government/ business relationships of Robinson and Brasil were being exploited to profit his company.

He explained that his knowledge of Brazilian ways and the Portuguese language is what makes him effective for clients. "I can also assure you that everything is on the up-and-up," he says.

Regardless of the rumors, Brasil's conduct at the February meeting drew a flurry of protest letters. Daugbjerg dispatched a vitriolic message to the Brazilian ambassador. The ambassador seemed satisfied enough with Brasil's explanation, although it appears plans already were being put in place to remove her ASAP.

On April 30, she was relieved of her Houston position. In an unusually fast move, Carlos Augusto R. Santos-Neves, a powerhouse diplomat with ambassador experience in Canada and Mexico, arrived to take over the next day.

So the leader of the coup d'état had been exiled, but the rebellion is far from over.

Next in line to become dean is Jorge Salas. As a member of the dissidents who withdrew from the consular group, Salas had said repeatedly that he would not follow Brasil into the position.

But with consular corps activity slowing in the summer months, tempers have cooled. Salas told a consular delegation in June that he would consider becoming dean if the group bylaws were changed.

If the scenario plays out, next month the organization will convene and likely will accept a request from Salas to simply alter the name to "Association of the Consular Corps of Houston." Those two seemingly innocuous words should signal a final peace.

Brasil remains in Houston for now but will be headed to the land of more traditional uprisings, as ambassador to El Salvador. Husband Robinson will split his time between El Salvador and the house and business in Houston, in part to enable their teenage daughter to finish high school here.

As for the past, "All of us commit errors," Salas says. "Maria didn't proceed the best way, so let's just forget what happened before."

Daugbjerg, who recently resigned as the group's treasurer, reflected some of the lingering resentment. "When a professional is irritated, the point is to not let it show," he says. "That's especially true of diplomats, but Maria didn't do that."

Some of the greatest diplomacy was shown by the youngest head-of-post, 34-year-old Bolivian honorary consul Diana Galindo. Throughout the chaos, she participated in both the Consular Corps meetings and the events exclusively for Latin consular offices. "Jorge will be an outstanding dean," Galindo predicts. "I believe in happy endings."

It's a pity that neither Brasil nor Daugbjerg shared that sentiment.

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Nancy A. Dean