Lukningen af DANIDAS enorme bistandsprogram i Tanzania er en oplagt anledning til at diskutere hvad der egentlig kommer ud af udviklingsbistanden.

Den forestående lukning af Danmarks ambassade i Tanzania og det gigantiske bistandsprogram (Ialt DKK 17 mia. gennem årene, tror jeg) kalder minder frem:

Pudsigt nok sluttede min journalistiske karriere i 1994 med denne artikel om DANIDAS bogstaveligt talt livsfarlige projekt med Tanzanias statsbaner. Kilden til historien var Danidas egen dybt bekymrede miljø-ekspert, der så blev sparet bort i den følgende nedskæringsrunde, men bistanden til Tanzania fik lov at fortsætte i yderligere 30 år.

Tanzania er om noget især socialdemoratisk arvegods i dansk ulandsbistand, understøttet af Mellemfolkeligt Samvirke, en af Danmarks mest magtfulde ngo’er, og det går helt tilbage til salig præsident og frihedshelt Nyrere’s regeringstid. Det siger meget om inertien i Ulands-tankeren Danida, at det har taget så mange år at justere kursen.

At det sker, skyldes i høj grad ‘hjælp’ ude fra i den forstand, at det er blevet helt umuligt at forsvare udviklingsbistand under Tanzania’s nuværende autokratiske præsident Hassan og såmænd også dennes forgænger Magufuli. Når alt kommer til alt, bør diskussionen om hvad der skal med dansk ulandsbistand handle om mere end blot enkelt korrupt og udemokratisk land som Tanzania. Det kunne være nyttigt med en gennemgribende diskusssion af, hvad der egentlig er opnået med Danmarks storstilede ‘programsamarbejds-koncept’ med nogle få udvalgte udviklingslande.

Ideen var fantastisk: At vi ved at fokusere bistanden, kunne opnå reelle og bæredygtige resultater – ikke bare bekæmpelse af fattigdom, men også fremme af demokrati og menneskerettigheder, herunder kvinders rolle i udviklingsprocessen, bedre miljø m.m.

Som tidligere embedsmand i Udenrigsministeriet skal jeg ikke skjule mit personlige medansvar: I Bangladesh baksede jeg med et transportsektorprogram til DKK 1,2 milliarder og i Vietnam et tilsvarende program til et par hundrede millioner. Jeg vovede aldrig pelsen og sendte en kritisk rapport hjem.

Hvem tør holde de flotte mål op mod den faktiske virkelighed hos Danmarks samarbejdspartnere i: Tanzani, Kenya, Eritrea, Mozambique, Sydafrika, Niger, Burkina Faso, Bangladesh, Vietnam, Nicaragua, Bolivia – det var dem jeg lige kunne huske. En fordomsfri og grundig analyse heraf skylder man de skatteydere, der betaler gildet.


Flash backs to the collapse of the Soviet Union 30 years ago and how I tried to find out, what a victory looks like, when you are on the losing side. In this essay, meet the KGB-general with no regrets, and the communist party officials, seeing their world collapsing. 

“You are lucky to catch me here. In an hour or two, I will be gone. Fired after serving the people for more than 30 years. I will not give them the satisfaction to see my sadness when I walk out. I accept my fate. No matter what they say about me, I have done nothing wrong. I have done my best to protect our country and its citizens from the criminals, I have caught over the years.”

So, this is what a monster looks like”, I thought, while the general paused and lighted up a cigarette.

Here I was with Latvia’s KGB top general Edmunds Johansons, possibly the most feared, the most hated man in the entire Latvia, the tiny Baltic country and the first republic to declare its independence from the Soviet Union the week before. Less than five feet tall, smoke-stained uneven teeth, balding, dressed in a cheap looking suit and tie. I wondered if the general would have looked more impressive in his uniform.  

Get the losers to talk

It was the great idea of a unique angle, which had brought me to the KGB general’s office that morning. Admittedly the great idea belonged to my mentor and chief editor, the late Jørgen Flindt Pedersen, who once told me:

“Anybody can find the winners, getting the losers to talk is true journalism.” 

This morning in August 1991, Jørgen’s advice proved to work surprisingly well in the turmoil of Latvia’s capital Riga. I presented myself to the guard at the entrance of the KGB headquarters at the corner of Friedrich Engel Street and the Lenin Boulevard. My interpreter had refused to enter the building with me. Fortunately, the guard knew enough English to understand that here was a foreign journalist wanting to speak to the general himself. Less than 10 minutes later, I was led from the gate to the general’s office, a big darkish room with heavy curtains and the air stale from cigarette smoke and human sweat.

A group of officials are busy emptying the cabinets of files, stacking them on a big conference table. Some of the documents are put on the general’s work desk for scrutiny, piling up next to an impressive array of telephones in different colors of black, green and red. The general himself is standing at a window, looking at his lost city, a foul-smelling Russian cigarette in his hand. He greets me with a handshake and an attempt of a smile.

“I love Riga. I spent my life here. This is where I met wife and my children grew up. Can you imagine how it feels to see it all fall apart in over just a few days.”

The general points at the streets below us. 

“The other morning, I was standing here and looked on, while some criminals burned our flags down there. I never imagined this would happen. They should have been arrested and punished severely for this insult to the symbol of our nation.”

The city has become quiet now, after two weeks of violent chaos. The barricades, built by the civilians to protect the government buildings from the Russian black berets, are still in place. But the shootings, mostly in the air, and the savage beatings of civilian demonstrators stopped. The black berets have retreated to their base outside Riga.

The only loud noise this morning had come from the huge Lenin statue crashing down on the main square in front of my hotel. The demolition workers were cheered like heroes of a war when they chopped off pieces of the statue and handed them to the on-lookers. 

A failed coup

The showdown in Riga had been a direct result of a failed coup attempt in Moscow, more than 800 km away from Latvia.  A group of hardcore communist leaders and generals had staged a coup attempt to stop the dramatic reforms, spearheaded by general secretary and president Mikhail Gorbachev. The coup not only failed but also unleashed a chaos, ultimately leading to the collapse of the Soviet Union. 

In the aftermath of the coup the general secretary of Latvia’s communist party, Alfreds Rubiks, was arrested a few days before by forces, loyal to Latvia’s new government. Rubiks, also known as a hawkish member of the politbureau, was accused of participating in the attempt to overthrow Gorbachev.

“I have not in any way been involved with the coup in Moscow, and I think I would have known, if Rubiks has had any role. We worked together very closely for years. In the present situation I would not be surprised if I am the next one to be arrested. But I am not worried. A fair trial will prove my innocence,” the general said, lighting up another cigarette with the butt of the one he just finished.

A black beret throwing a smoke grenade to cover the retreat of the Russian elite soldiers from the street fighting in Riga.

General, why did you agree to see me?

“You told my staff, that you come here as an impartial observer, offering me an opportunity to tell my side of the story. I am happy to share the truth with your readers. I want to stand up against this anti-communist witch-hunt, instigated by the enemies of our Soviet Union. I have done nothing but my duty to our fatherland.” 

A call from the president

The general is interrupted by his assistant, whispering in his ear.

“Excuse me for a minute, I have a call from the president of Latvia.”

The general picks up one of his phones. For the next 10 minutes or so a lively exchange takes place, with me becoming increasing frustrated that I did not manage to persuade my interpreter to accompany me to the interview. She could have filled me in later, what this was all about.

For whatever reason, general Johansons decides to share a little from his conversation with Latvia’s president, after he put down the phone.

“President Gurbonovs would like to meet me to discuss with me if we can work together to ensure peace and stability in Latvia. He is worried that common criminals, not least the Mafia, will exploit the situation. Even though we are on opposite sides now, we have known each other for many years. The president knows I am not an enemy.”

The general might have been right in his assessment of the president. Latvia’s new president at the time had a long past as a chief ideologist in the communist party before he joined the popular movement against the party.

“If our security organization is dissolved, it will be very easy for the Mafia to operate in our country.” 

Knowing the risk that ‘impolite questions’ might lead the interview to an abrupt end, I decide to take my chances and confront the general with the public reputation of his organization. 

I understand that a special investigation committee of the Latvian parliament is expected to soon publish a report, which documents close ties between the KGB and the Mafia. The chairman of the committee, Linards Mutinsh, told me yesterday, the committee will present evidence that security agency staff has been involved in smuggling and selling illegal narcotics and prostitution racketeering.  I also understand that the Hotel Latvija, the biggest in Riga where I am staying myself, is a kind of joint venture between KGB and the Leningrad mafia. Hidden cameras and listening devices have been found there. According to rumors, the equipment was used to blackmail guests after their encounters with prostitutes.

“Nonsense and lies. You have seen too many bad movies. We are here to protect the nation and the people, and that is what we have been doing all these years. As a matter of fact, I myself, have been a supporter of the reform process. I have served with loyalty, even to him,” the general says pointing to a portrait on his wall, framed in gold, of Mikhail Gorbachev.

You have been the head of Latvia’s KGB for 20 years now. You do not have any regrets? You never made a mistake?

“In hindsight, you can always find something, that should have been done differently.  But my personal mistakes are really nothing compared to the ultimate and catastrophic mistake when our party leader and president Gorbachev got his way and forced through the abolishment of paragraph 6 in our constitution. After that the Party lost its leading role in our society.”

You told me this is your last day in your office. What future do you imagine for yourself?

“With the call this morning from the president, I have some confidence that I will be allowed to hand over this organization to my successor in an orderly fashion. At present, I do not have any specific ideas what to do next.  And now, you will have to excuse me.  I do have some important things to deal with before I leave.”

My interpreter is waiting for me outside on street.

“I am so relieved to see you again. You know what we say about this building. If you go inside, you will never be seen again. You have no idea of what the KGB have done to us over the years. Thousands of people have been imprisoned and tortured by them. Many have simply disappeared. We believe they were sent to Gulag, the prison camps in Siberia.”

A presidential denial

Later the same afternoon, I take the floor at a press conference with Latvia’s president Anatolisj Gurbonovs. The entire press corps, including journalists who have flown in from all over the world, have been invited to a presidential presentation of the future plans of independent Latvia.

I understand that your government is trying to establish agreement with the KGB on maintaining security in your country.  Do you think this will be accepted by your people with all the sufferings that the KGB has inflicted on them over the years?

“Where on earth did you get that idea, that we would have any collaboration with the KGB,” the president shoots back.

Because you called the head of the KGB this morning in his office. I know because I was there interviewing him.

The president sends an irritated look in my direction and does not respond to any further questions on the topic. 

“A victory no one celebrates” – one my original reports from Latvia.

A party in distress

I decided to follow my mentor’s advice further. Next was a visit to the headquarters of Latvia’s Communist Party to see if anyone there would be willing to talk to me.

As I arrive at the enormous building, I just walk in. In the courtyard a couple of soldiers are arguing with a handful of civilians, pressing their IDs on them.

“They are party officials trying to get in. They say they want to collect their personal belongings, but the soldiers refuse to let them in,” my interpreter explains. She is not scared this time, entering the party headquarters with me.

“The communists are all gone. I want to see what it looks like inside.”

No one seems to pay any attention to us, as we enter the grandiose lobby, including a pompous spiral staircase.

“Look at all the marble on the wall and these beautiful carpets. I had no idea Latvia is such a rich country,” my interpreter observes. Next, she approaches a soldier sitting at the lobby desk, explaining our desire to have a closer look at the party headquarters.

“Sure, and welcome. I am sergeant Starasts Aivars. You want to see the general secretary’s office.”

The friendly sergeant motions us to follow him up the stairs to office 602 on the top floor.

“The general secretary was sitting in his office when we first got here. We informed his security detail that we were here on orders from the government to arrest him. They just nodded, and we went inside and announced his arrest. Rubiks did not say a word nor resisted us, when we took him downstairs and put him in an army truck, taking him to the prison, where he is held now.”

The sergeant let us peep through the door into the general secretary’s impressive office. 

“The office has been sealed now by the court, but you can go inside for a quick look, as long as you don’t touch anything.”

Former party chief Alfreds Rubriks.

Stench of destroyed documents

A strong smell of smoke is coming from the back of the office, as we look around. I push a half-open door leading to the private bathroom of the general secretary and proceed inside to locate the light switch. Once the light is on, I find myself standing on half burned documents. The staff were obviously interrupted before they had a chance to finish the job.

The sergeant moves forward to stop me, as I pick up some of the half-destroyed documents to take a closer look.

“You need to leave now. You are not really allowed to be in here. You can have this little souvenir.” 

The sergeant hands over one of the general secretary’s business cards. On our way out, we stumble on a cart, just standing there with a messy pile of red membership books, intended for newly approved party members.

“Here are a couple more souvenirs for you.” Sergeant Aivars hands over a membership book to both of us with a friendly grin, waving goodbye. 

In the courtyard the small group of former party officials are still pleading with the soldiers.

“You might as well go home. Everything in here is now the property of the government.”

“I have an official ID-card and even keys to the building. You have to let me in.”

The elderly, well-dressed man put his hand on the soldier’s arm, only to be pushed away with disgust. 

“You might as well hand over your keys, all of you.”

“You call this democracy. It looks to me that fascist bandits have occupied our country.”

“You better watch it old man,” the soldier pushes him so hard that he almost falls down. 

A woman in the group is crying now.

“How can they do this to us. We have served the country and the people all over lives. We have done nothing wrong. How will we survive? Are they going to arrest all of us?”

This morning she has no chance of knowing that only the general secretary himself will be convicted for his involvement in the coup attempt. Almost four years later, on 28 July 1995, Latvia’s supreme court hands out an eight-year jail sentence to Alfred Rubiks.

“This is not a verdict. This is the beginning of a new repression,” Rubiks shouted as security guards escorted him out of the court room, as he reportedly muttered: “I will take power in Latvia again, shortly.”

Rubiks did not get his way. Latvian law prohibits him to this day running for public office, but he found new ways to engage in politics. After being released in 1997 for good behavior, he became chairman of The Socialist Party of Latvia, which had been founded on the ruins of the communist party.  In 2009, Rubiks succeeded to become elected to the European Parliament. 

He is now retired. His two sons are members of the Latvian parliament for The Harmony Party, known to represent the Russian-speaking minority in Latvia.

During these extraordinary days in Latvia, I made a third and successful attempt to implement the advice of my mentor and get one more important losing group to talk: The Russian elite troops, known as Black Berets, who had terrorized the citizens of Riga during these tumultuous events.

However, this essay is already too long. So, I will keep that part for my memoirs if I ever get around to writing them. I have tried in vain to trace KGB general Johansons. He would be 85 years old now, if still alive. 

Hanoi, August 2021


President Obama: Ted Osius and his family is a walking Benetton add.

Former US Ambassador Ted Osius has an extraordinary story to tell in his new book ‘Nothing Is Impossible´.

After dealing with Vietnam for the better part of four decades, I tend to think that I have seen it all, read it all too. When students ask my advice what to read to understand the complex relations between Vietnam and America, I suggest Stanley Karnow’s ‘Vietnam’, Neil Sheehan’s ‘A bright shining lie’, Richard Butler’s ‘The fall of Saigon’, Robert McNamara’s ‘In Retrospect’, and of course Larry Berman’s entire works on Vietnam. 

From now on I will certainly add former US Ambassador Ted Osius’ new book ‘Nothing is impossible’ to that eminent list. If a student complains to have too little time for all these favorites of mine, I might say: “Start with Ted Osius then, and you will be motivated to read on.

Osius has some important, objective advantages to other foreign writers on Vietnam:

  •  For the past 25 years (on and off) he has been actively involved as a professional career diplomat in the uphill struggles to turn two bitter enemies into friends.
  • He is fluent in Vietnamese and has a deep understanding of Vietnamese culture, history, and the very complicated politics. 
  • He has more mileage in Vietnam on his bicycle than in his ambassador’s armored limo. He has shaken hands with anyone who matters in Dang Cong San’s Politburo, but he has spoken with even more farmers, fishermen, workers, Buddhist monks, Catholic priests, and students. 
Ted Osius is seen on the right during Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright’s visit to Vietnam in 1997. At center is the first US Ambassador to Vietnam, Pete Peterson, former pilot and prisoner of war in Hanoi.

Behind closed doors

Karnow, Sheehan, Berman, and many others have written great accounts on the US-Vietnam showdowns from their positions outside the closed doors, always depending on whatever their sources might be willing to share. On the contrary, Ted Osius is reporting from the inside (and as eloquent as any professional writer).

The take-away is a book of fascinating authenticity. As a reader you are there with Obama’s team, when it dawns on Osius that the Vietnamese government is not going to deliver on their commitment not to interfere, when Obama is to informally meet with ‘civil society members’, i.e. critics of the regime, during his official state visit in 2016.

With some difficulty Osius had negotiated a quiet deal in advance that Obama would be free to speak with regime critics, provided they had not broken Vietnamese law. As the visit unfolds the critical voices start to disappear before Obama has a chance to meet them. Some of them calls the US Embassy in panic, because they are threatened by police.  

Secretary of State John Kerry gives Osius the quiet advice not to burn any bridges and try to reason with the Vietnamese leaders that a US president cannot consider the visit successful without access to whomever he would like to have a dialogue with. 

After Osius makes some tense phone calls with top Vietnamese leaders, four of the critics manage to make the meeting with Obama, among them Vietnam’s ‘Lady Gaga’, singer Mai Khoi, originally a darling with the Ministry of Culture but now a fierce critic of the Vietnamese government.

Obama takes the incident nicely with the remark that things should always be seen as a process, but Osius is not happy with himself: “Still, I thought the president had been too generous to me. I had been naïve in believing that my deal with the senior leader would hold. I followed Kerry’s advice and let the Vietnamese know I would not forget the betrayal. I did not slap the Vietnamese on the back after the president’s visit, nor did I burn bridges. Too much was at stake in the area of human rights in Vietnam, including reconciliation.”

Encounter with Trump

Similar candor of the surprising kind is found in one of the last chapters, when Osius shares his astonishing encounter with President Trump in the oval office before a meeting with Vietnam’s Prime Minister.

“So who are we meeting,” the president asked.

“The Prime Minister of Vietnam,” McMaster (chief of staff, tbp) replied.

 “Whats his name?”

“Ngyuen Xuan Phuc…rhymes with book.”

“You mean like Fook You,” President Trump asked. “I knew a guy named Fook You. I rented him a restaurant. When he picked up the phone, he answered ‘Fook You’. His business went badly. People didn’t like that. He lost the restaurant.”

Moments later Osius goes on to brief Trump and his staff on important issues, among them the US plans to build a new embassy in Hanoi. The president’s son-in-law Jared Kushner apparently thinks that this would be some kind of gift to the Vietnamese and says: “If they are going to get that embassy, we need something in return. Tell them we’ll built it, if they bring our trade deficit to zero.”

The exchange demonstrates the utter ignorance of Kushner. Co-incidentally, some 15 years go, I asked one of Osius’ predecessors, ambassador Michael Marine during a dinner what his biggest headache was in dealing with the Vietnamese.

“The same as my predecessor. Getting permission to expand the embassy. They keep telling me that there are enough American diplomats in Hanoi. They seem to think that we just want to bring in more CIA.”

Until this day, the US embassy is still stuck on the narrow and overcrowded Lang Ha Street, too small and very much exposed, should any terrorist group target it. Luckily, the ambassador and his staff can continue to count on the fact that the very efficient Vietnamese security agencies would never let any foes near the US embassy.

Vietnam’s best friend

As fascinating as they are, the above anecdotes are insignificant, compared to the real important substance of this book. Osius has a very serious objective to explain why ‘nothing is impossible’ in terms of reconciliation between the US and Vietnam. 

Only a generation ago, American planes threw three times more bombs on Vietnam than they did on the Nazi Germany during WW II. Millions died in Vietnam. Nevertheless, recent surveys indicate that 92% of the Vietnamese today consider the US as Vietnam’s best friend. Obviously, China’s increasingly aggressive regional policies have added another important reason for the present day warm and friendly relations between the US and Vietnam. 

Osius has taken it upon himself to document how this amazing development has come about, including sharing his personal encounters with the men and women on both sides, who made it happen. There are many, many factors in this painstaking process. To mention a few:

  • Laborious confidence-building on both sides as a very difficult precondition, not least in the relations between Vietnam and the overseas refugee communities in the US and elsewhere.
  • Dealing with the legacies of war, including the lingering and devastating consequences of Agent Orange exposure and unexploded bombs and mines, making millions of hectares hazardous in Vietnam (and Laos and Cambodia) for generations to come. 
  • Development of the framework for international cooperation, including investment and trade.
  • Large scale cooperation within regional security, health, education, and culture. 

The US-Vietnam to-do list is much, much longer, and it is eloquently elaborated by Osius in his book. Admirably, he has managed to get it all down in less than 300 pages. 

Ted Osius at a ceremony to celebrate the completion of the clean-up project at the former Da Nang Airbase.

Dealing with Agent Orange 

On a personal level, I am happy to note that Osius gave top priority to the Agent Orange issue during his tenure as ambassador with ever increasing US financial support for the clean-up, possibly amounting to USD 500 million at the time of writing. Though still not sufficient, it is dramatically different from Osius’ first tenure as a junior diplomat in Vietnam.

In those days the US vehemently denied any responsibility for the devastating consequences on human beings and the environment in Vietnam and among the American soldiers who served in the contaminated areas. Osius notes that he and his fellow diplomats were told never to comment on Agent Orange. I may add my personal experience that American diplomats went further than just denials, remembering how the US Embassy in Copenhagen worked very actively to damage my credibility with my editors, when I reported in the early 1980’ies in Danish media about the Agent Orange tragedy in Vietnam.  

I do not believe, readers will find a single boring paragraph in this complex and fact-filled book. Osius has succeeded in making the many people involved come very much alive in his book. 

In this multitude of personalities, the first US Ambassador to Vietnam, Pete Peterson, stands out, a former prisoner of war in Vietnam, and Osius’ boss during his first tenure in Vietnam. In the words of Peterson himself, when receiving the Presidential Citizens Medal for his services: 

“I bombed Vietnam during the war. Then, I had the opportunity to come back and do good things. Few people have that opportunity.”

The walking Benetton add

During Osius later tenure as ambassador, he also stood out in a different way, paving the way for a much broader public acceptance of the LGBT community in Vietnam, traditionally frowned upon in Vietnamese culture.

As one of USA’s first openly gay ambassadors, Osius and his husband Clayton Bond, used every opportunity to promote the core issues of the LGBT movement claiming their rightful place in modern society, making the ambassador and his family all the more admired among the Vietnamese. As noted by President Obama when he first met Osius, Bond and their two adopted children of Mexican origin: “You are a walking Benetton add.”

After more than 30 years serving his country, Ted Osius has resigned from the Foreign Service in frustration, maybe even in disgust. The reason was President Trump’s decision to forcibly repatriate Vietnamese (and other nationalities), even for the slightest criminal offenses committed at any time. Osius refused to carry out his instructions to take this matter to the Vietnamese authorities, explaining his reasons live on CNN.

Osius’ own legacy in Vietnam is lauded by former Secretary of State, John Kerry in his foreword: “Ted won over not only Vietnam’s leaders but also its citizens. He made full use of his moment in history when it was possible to create meaningful friendships for the United States.”

John Kerry has personal reasons to be grateful. Osius and his staff helped Kerry to locate, decades later, one of the surviving Viet Cong guerillas, who confirmed Kerry’s testimony from an incident during the war. Kerry had shot and killed a guerilla, who was aiming his rocket launcher at Kerry’s swift boat on patrol in the Mekong delta. Years later, some of Kerry’s political enemies at home had successfully circulated the story that Kerry had shot an unarmed teenager on the run, leading to the demand that Kerry should be stripped off his wartime medals. The story became very harmful to Kerry’s presidential campaign in 2004.  Even though Kerry did not become president, he got his name cleared eventually with the assistance of Osius.

After three years working as a vicepresident for Google in Singapore, Osius recently moved back to D.C. with his family. I wonder in what capacity we shall hear from him next.

Ted Osius: Nothing Is Impossible. Rutgers University Press. 2021.