|Excerpt / Summary|
What we know: Back in 2008, U.S. President Barack Obama received an unexpected congratulation on his inauguration from the reclusive president of Eritrea. After years of demonizing the United States (which is allied with Eritrea's arch enemy, Ethiopia), President Isaias Afwerki seemed to have a change of heart. As he said in a speech in May, "putting behind previous injustices, Eritrea [is] ready for constructive engagement with the Obama Administration, in consideration of the experience we had acquired over the past 20 years and the promise of 'change' by the new administration in Washington." What we learn: A February 9, 2009, cable from the U.S. embassy in Asmara elaborates on Eritrea's charm offensive to win the new American administration over: "Senior Eritrean officials in recent weeks have signaled their interest in re-engaging with the United States in areas of mutual interest. They have done so by loosening restrictions on Embassy Asmara (REF), by engaging in more diplomatic interaction with embassy personnel, by ending the daily anti-American diatribes in state-owned media, by sending congratulatory letters to President Obama and Secretary Clinton, and by authorizing over $100,000 to support ongoing U.S. medical volunteer programs such as Physicians for Peace." According to the cable, the impetus for the rapprochement comes from "Eritrea's 'American Mafia,' senior party and government officials who speak fluent English and have lived in the United States." The efforts even involved an invitation from Afwerki to the U.S. ambassador to join senior officials at one of the president's country homes. The meal was apparently memorable: "Lunch was served in a rocky gulch beneath a thorny acacia tree. The ambassador and his wife were treated to grilled sheep innards served with honey and chili sauce (but no silverware), washed down with a sour, semi-fermented traditional drink called, aptly, 'sewa.'" Unfortunately for Eritrea, the United States regarded the overture as a bit ridiculous and replied that Asmara would see normalized relations only after it stopped providing arms to Somali insurgent groups. "'Based on recent history, how do you think we would react to a major al-Shabaab terrorist attack against the United States?' the ambassador asked. This seems to have driven home the point to our Eritrean interlocutors." The curveball: Eritrea's famously reclusive and paranoid dictatorship is portrayed on numerous occasions in the cables. President Afwerki is described as "unhinged" and his country as a virtual Leninist state. On another occasion, the Ethiopian chief of intelligence describes the Eritrean president this way: "Isaias was a recluse who spent his days painting and tinkering with gadgets and carpentry work. Isaias appeared to make decisions in isolation with no discussion with his advisors. It was difficult to tell how Isaias would react each day and his moods changed constantly."