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Pomp, Pageantry Reign at Washington Ceremony for Foreign Diplomats


Cape Verde, a small island nation off of the coast of Africa, is hardly a global power.

But last week, its ambassador, José Luis Rocha, found himself in the Oval Office, exchanging views with President Barack Obama on relations between the countries.

What brought Rocha to the White House was a formal routine that is part of the pomp and pageantry of being an accredited diplomat. He came to see Obama to formally present his ambassadorial credentials to the U.S. head of state.

“For sure, Monday the 14th of July was one of the most interesting and important days in my diplomatic life,” Rocha said in an interview.

While the event was closed to the press and the public, Rocha and the State Department, which organizes the credentialing ceremony, offered a glimpse into the process.

Accreditation maze

The tradition of accrediting ambassadors is hardly unique to Washington. It is repeated in many countries around the world when a new ambassador takes office. Diplomats need to be accredited to the host country to fully conduct their affairs as ambassador.

Rocha has seen both sides of the desk as a career diplomat who also has served as Cape Verde’s Secretary of State for External Relations.

“Basically, it’s all the same,” Rocha said, of the steps for accreditation. "What can be different is how the ceremonies are organized.”

Rocha’s presentation was a diplomatic exercise joined by ambassadors from four other countries as the White House likes to bunch a number of ceremonies into one day.

By tradition, the diplomats brought families to the formal occasion. Rocha chatted with a group of representatives from Sri Lanka, Armenia, Guinea and Somalia, as the soon-to-be credentialed ambassadors waited for their own minutes of time and individual pictures with the president.

The diplomats were ranked in the order in which they would be formally received by Obama based on when they arrived in the United States. That ranking is actually mandated by the 1961 Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations, which regulates the ambassadorial relations.

A military cordon greeted Rocha and the other ambassadors as each arrived in the White House driveway. Rocha was formally introduced to the president by the Chief of Protocol, Peter Selfridge, Obama’s liaison to Washington’s diplomatic community.

“It was a short moment,” with Obama, Rocha said, noting the other ceremonies scheduled. “We had five, one right after the other.”

Presidential meet-and-greet

The official White House photo of the ceremonial event shows a broadly smiling Obama with his arm on Rocha's back.

Rccha came to the White House clutching the original letter of his appointment from Cape Verde’s president that needed to be delivered to the U.S. leader. Diplomatic niceties require that the letter “must be well presented in a folder, not from inside my pocket,” he said.

"It’s given directly to the president “so he received the letter from my hand as being transmitted from my country,” Rocha said. “It’s a special moment when you are officially accredited."

Yet the most substantial policy part of the event was actually left unsaid. Rocha handed written remarks from his government to Obama, who also handed him back U.S. comments.

“In the letters, you frame historical ties, and the way you want to go to improve these relations,” Rocha said.

Obama accredits 30 to 40 ambassadors a year, according to the State Department.

About an hour and half from the time he left for the White House, Rocha was back in his office. Copies of the credential request, formally known as a “letter of credence,” already had been provided to State Department officials, allowing him to begin working before being formally accredited at the White House.

But he returned from the Oval Office with a new title: “Ambassador Extraordinary Plenipotentiary,” and a designation as the highest ranking official of Cape Verde in the United States.

Building partnerships

After the ceremony, Rocha followed another formality as a new ambassador. The next day, he sent a diplomatic note informing other ambassadors in Washington that he presented his credentials to the president and giving his new colleagues “assurances of my highest consideration.”

The Washington diplomatic corps is an elite group representing their nations.

“Washington tends to be a very coveted posting,” said U.S. Assistant Chief of Protocol for Diplomatic Affairs Gladys Boluda, which brings the “best of the best” as national representatives.

“Many ambassadors are at the height of their careers and may go on to serve as Foreign Ministers, Prime Ministers or Presidents, if they haven’t already served in that capacity,” said Boluda.

Rocha is preparing for the upcoming U.S. -Africa summit, maintaining contact with a vibrant Cape Verdean expatriate community, and promoting business ties.

A 21st century ambassador, even one accredited by a treaty that is more than 50-years-old, leads a different life than the public perception, said Rocha.

“People see the ambassador as being in the salon drinking wine,” he said. “That is the old role view of an ambassador. The role of the ambassador now is to build partnerships.”

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    Lee Michael Katz

    Lee Michael Katz is an award-winning journalist, analyst and author.

    Currently a prominent freelance writer, Katz is the former Senior Diplomatic Correspondent of USA Today and International Editor of UPI News Service.He has reported from more than 60 countries.  Katz’s expertise includes foreign policy and diplomacy, peace talks, national security, terrorism, weapons of mass destruction policy, foundation grants, business and financial topics.

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