US Embassy Guyana: Is this the consequence of midlevel staffing/experience gaps?

On Thursday, July 18, three persons were killed when police opened fire on protestors in Linden opposed to the increase in electricity rates. Linden is the second largest town in Guyana after Georgetown, and the capital of the Upper Demerara-Berbice region. According to local reports, police said they were forced to fire pellets into the crowd because many of them were robbing persons and burning vehicles.

Map extracted from 2008 OIG report of US Embassy Guyana

Also on Thursday, the following message was posted on US Embassy Guyana’s Facebook page:

Statement by Diplomatic Representatives of Canada, the United Kingdom, and the United States of America on the Deaths of Protesters in Linden

Georgetown, Guyana – The diplomatic representatives of Canada, the United Kingdom, and the United States of America wish to express their profound regret at the tragic loss of life that took place July 18th in Linden. We extend our heartfelt condolences to the families and friends of those who have lost their lives or suffered injury.

We appeal to all parties and stakeholders to work together in a spirit of national unity to prevent any further violence and to resolve current tensions through an open and inclusive dialogue.

The same local report says that “…. the United States embassy in an internal memo told staff to stay away from Linden, the scene of “violent protests,” and be careful when moving about in Georgetown where there are “ongoing protests.”

One of our readers named anon y mouse, noting the absence of a Warden Message on the Embassy website, or a Travel Alert on asked if there is a “double standard” here.

We will crib here from our old blog post on Bogota about the “no double standard policy:”

The State Department has what is called the “no double standard” policy  in its travel information program. 7 FAM dictates that if State shares important security threat information including criminal information with the official U.S. community, such information should also be made available to the non-official U.S. community.  Selective notification is against the law.  The regs also says that “If a post issues information to its employees about potentially dangerous situations, it should evaluate whether the potential danger could also affect private U.S. citizens/U.S. non-citizen nationals living in or traveling through the affected area.”

And actually 7 FAM 053.2-2 (e) below has very clear reminders which says:

“Remember that if you conclude you should warn your personnel or any U.S. Government employees, whether permanently stationed or on temporary duty abroad, about a security threat, your request for Department approval to warn post personnel should also include a request to share that same information with the non-official U.S. community under the “no double standard” policy (see 7 FAM 052). The policy applies whether the information is shared with U.S. Government employees in town meetings, in post newsletters, by e-mail, or on the telephone. The threat or warning information might include information about locations within the host country including hotels, restaurants, entertainment spots, places of worship, tourist sites, etc. Unless the threat is specific to a particular institution for reasons peculiar to that institution, you should not list names of specific locations, including names of hotels or restaurants, for which threat or warning information is available. You should also refrain from developing lists of “approved” hotels. In providing such lists to the community, you may actually increase the risk that perpetrators could change the target, thus increasing the risk to U.S. citizens/nationals who may be relying on such lists. (underlined for emphasis).

We checked the embassy’s website and social media presence.  There was that message on Facebook from the diplomatic reps, including the United States, and there is a tweet referencing it but there is no emergency or warden message on the embassy’s website or FB/Twitter or in the embassy blog, The Demerara Diaries.

Via FB

Via Twitter

Via US Embassy Guyana website, screen grab of July 21, 2012

But on July 19, the US Embassy actually issued an Emergency Message to US citizens. But you won’t know that from checking the embassy’s website or visiting its social media accounts.  Why? Because it’s not there.  We actually found it on the Diplomatic Security-run OSAC website here only because we knew what we were looking for.

Emergency Message for U.S. Citizens: Demonstrations in Linden (Guyana)
Political Violence
Western Hemisphere > Guyana > Georgetown
This message advises U.S. citizens in Guyana to exercise caution when in public due to violent protests in Linden and ongoing protests in Georgetown in response to a rise in electricity rates. The U.S. Embassy advises U.S. citizens in Guyana to limit your movement in and around Georgetown and Linden and to avoid unnecessary travel throughout the country.

The recent protests in Linden resulted in property damage and loss of life.  Protests are being held July 19 at Eve Leary Police Headquarters in response to the events in Linden.  Protests in Georgetown are ongoing and may extend to other locations.

The U.S. Embassy advises U.S. citizens to avoid large public gatherings. Be aware of traffic delays and increased pedestrian presence in the potential problem areas listed above. Note that this list of problem areas is not comprehensive, and you should exercise caution throughout Guyana.

Even demonstrations that are meant to be peaceful can become violent and unpredictable.  You should avoid them if at all possible.  Be alert and aware of your surroundings and pay attention to what the local news media has to say.

Really, how useful are those social media platforms?  To our last count, the embassy has two Facebook pages (one solely for the consular section). It has a separate photo gallery, streaming videos and is on Flickr, Twitter and Tumblr.  And not a single one of these outlets has the link to the emergency message, that it’s own consular section presumably put out on July 19.  Would a US citizen in Guyana know to look at the OSAC website for the embassy’s emergency message? (Note: As of July 22, 3:26 AM EST, no relevant update on the embassy’s website/social media fronts).

In addition to that, Guyanese Online published what it says is an internal memo to embassy employees, part of which says:

“Regional Security Officer (RSO) advises to limit your exposure in and around Georgetown to necessary travel. Travel to Linden is prohibited until further notice,” states the document.

There are a couple of things at issue here: 1) the Emergency Message published via OSAC and the internal memo from RSO are not anywhere on the embassy’s online presence; could be due to IT issues (like webmaster on leave, no back up) or internet availability (we’re stretching here but we don’t know how good or bad is the accessibility in country). The message after it’s cleared must go to the PA or IT section, or the social media ninjas and whoever is in charge of maintaining the website.  We won’t call this a double standard since the Emergency Message actually went out; the fact that it’s not on the embassy’s website or related outlets is more like somebody dropping the ball …. because it happens.

2) the Emergency Message did not include the fact that embassy employees were prohibited from traveling to Linden until further notice. This is the more troubling part, because the regs are darn clear. And it appears that in this case, the embassy told official Americans they are prohibited from traveling to Linden, but did not/not share this information with the non-official American community in its Emergency Message.  But then we saw this:

Via US Embassy Guyana website, screen capture of July 21, 2012

We can’t help but wonder if this is all a simple oversight/folks dropping the ball into the ocean or if this is an example of the consequences of the Foreign Service midlevel staffing and experience gaps reported by GSO  GAO recently?  (see Foreign Service Staffing Gaps, and Oh, Diplomacy 3.0 Hiring Initiative to Conclude in FY2023).

The last time the OIG visited the US Embassy Guyana was in 2008. It is one of those posts described as “previously neglected” as a “back water” post – among the last in line to receive support” according to the 2008 report.

At the time of that inspection, the report said that “it is regrettable the Department has not done a better job of ensuring that some experienced consular cone officers are regularly assigned to this hard-to-fill post. Its consular section was (maybe still is) staffed by “an assortment of Civil Service officers on excursion tours, out-of-cone and entry-level Foreign Service officers, and a consular associate.”

The 2008 inspection also reported the following details:

  • “the regional security office has had a rotation of 15 temporary duty regional security officers before the arrival of the incumbent.”
  • “Numerous temporary-duty employees have been sent from Wash­ington to fill gaps, at least partially, but this leads to a lack of continuity in positions where there is not a strong corps of LE staff to provide historical perspective.”
  • “28 LE staff was terminated in the past two years,” but the report points out that “none was terminated for malfeasance, notwithstanding a his­tory of such problems that included a previous consular officer.”

Staffing at the embassy was reportedly “chronically short,” despite being accorded a 25 percent hardship allowance and and official designation as a hard-to-fill post.

As of July 15, 2012, Guyana is a 25% hardship and 25% COLA assignment.

We’d like to think that something happened since 2008 to fix the problems pointed out in the 2008 report of US Embassy Guyana. But — Guyana remains one of the poorest countries in the Western Hemisphere, and unless we missed it, the country has not moved into a “front water” priority post for the State Department.

And seriously? — with AIP posts sucking out the oxygen from practically every part of the U.S. Foreign Service, who has a spare oxygen tank for a post like Georgetown?

But – despite all that we can’t give post an easy pass.  Given that the protection of US citizens is one of the embassy’s most important responsibility overseas or so they say, the American Citizen Services chief (or if there isn’t one, the Consular chief) should have been working hand in glove with the embassy’s Security Officer. And if neither the consular section nor the security office is well versed on the “no double standard” policy — surely somebody at the front office has this drummed into their heads?

We just hope that no US citizen becomes a victim at the next riots in Linden.

Update@ 11:55 AM PST
Peter Van Buren
, a Consular Officer before he was put on deep ice, points out another possible explanation:

Let’s imagine inside the Embassy the usual fight about saying anything bad about the host nation. RSO and/or CONs knows of the danger and wants to warn people, which will trigger the “no double standard” rule. POL and/or the Front Office are worried about bilateral relations. So, the “compromise” is to release the info publicly, sort of, in a way that gets it out there enough for CYA but not enough to create a stir.
I saw this more than once in my own career. RSO or CONs used the channel it controls (newsletter) to disseminate info and the Front Office blocked it from the channel it controls (web site).
Ah yes, that familiar bureaucratic battle.  Although more often than not, we think that battle occurs in relation to the issuance of the Consular Information Sheet or the Travel Warning.  Warden/emergency messages are not exempted from that battle, of course, but we don’t know if that’s what happened here.  If it is, then that’s when you need a Consular Officer, one with balls who will stand up to POL and/or the front office on the mat of 7 FAM 050.

Domani Spero