January 23, 2008

Positivity: Canada’s unsung hero

Filed under: Positivity — Tom @ 5:58 am

From Ottawa, Canada:

Sunday, January 13, 2008

An Ottawa author chronicles how our ambassador to Peru risked his life for months to try to end a hostage-taking

Canadian ambassador Anthony Vincent is a hero in Peru and Japan but to most people in his own country he’s Tony Who.

That should change soon, thanks to an engrossing new book by Ottawa native David Goldfield. The Ambassador’s Word is the true story of a hostage-taking at a lavish Christmas reception in 1996 in the home of the Japanese ambassador in Lima, Peru. The incursion was staged by Movimiento Revolucionario Tupac Amaru (MRTA), a ragtag guerrilla outfit who demanded the release of hundreds of political prisoners in exchange for the hostages.

The book centres on the role of Vincent, who was one of the main intermediaries in negotiations between Peru’s then president Alberto Fujimori and the guerrillas.

Vincent died in 1999 after suffering a series of heart attacks. He was 59. It was discovered after his death that he was suffering from advanced cancer. Vincent is survived by his wife Lucie and their daughter Alexandra.

Goldfield became intrigued by Vincent’s story because the ambassador’s name kept popping up at business meetings in Peru. At the time, Goldfield was a regional director for Latin America at Export Development Canada (EDC).

“Everybody would preface discussions with ‘Did you know Tony Vincent, he was such a hero for us.’ He’s much better known in Peru than in Canada. Same thing in Japan — you mention his name, people remember him. Mention Tony Vincent to any Canadian, and eyes glaze over,” says Goldfield.

Vincent worked under ‘incredible tension’

“What motivated me in great part, the more I learned about the inside story, especially from his wife, was how little most Canadians appreciated what he did. Part of it is Canadians don’t really think much about what we do in heroic roles. And we belittle it to a degree, ‘Oh, anyone could have done that. It’s his job.’”

Initially, Vincent and his wife Lucie as well as three other Canadians were among the more than 600 VIPs captured at the reception. The Vincents were released within hours; the other Canadians were freed after five days when the 14 rebels released all the captives except the Japanese and those with direct links to the Peruvian government.

The standoff dragged on for four months, from mid-December 1996 to the spring of 1997. Vincent returned to the armed residence many times in an attempt to broker a peaceful solution. He did far more than the Canadian government expected him to do, putting his life at risk again and again. Most of all, he brought hope to the hostages, who had told him about some alarming incidents.

“They described some of the guerrillas as psychopaths,” writes Goldfield. “One of the worst was ‘el 22′ — named from the number 22 on his bandana — who they thought was mentally unstable. He would brag to them about how many policemen’s throats he had slit. The hostages became even frightened when the MRTA ‘rehearsed’ their response to an attack from outside. ‘They showed us how they would kill us,’ said one hostage.”

Vincent also worried about the mood swings he saw in Nestor Cerpa, the guerrilla leader. At times Cerpa seemed glum and depressed, at other times agitated. The sudden changes added to the already tense atmosphere in the residence, which the guerrillas had rigged with explosives and booby traps.

Vincent did his utmost to find some face-saving solution to the demands and counter-demands that emerged during the negotiations. At times, some of the elements for a peaceful resolution seemed to be coming together: safe passage for the guerrillas to Cuba, the promise of prison reform in Peru, and orderly release of the hostages. But despite Vincent’s efforts, Fujimori refused to budge on the rebels’ main objective — the release of large numbers of MRTA prisoners, including Cerpa’s American wife.

“Although the Canadian government did back him up,” says Goldfield, Vincent “was very much personally motivated to get involved, over and above what was expected of him by his own department.

“He went through four months of incredible tension and stress. He was up almost 20 hours a day, going back and forth. He got so involved in it that it was a disappointment that it ended the way it did. These things can’t always be rational, the way you deal with them.”

The hostage drama ended with a daring military raid in which all the rebels were killed. Only one of the 72 hostages died, an astonishing result. Military planners had predicted that at least half the hostages would die in the attempt to free them.

Go here for the rest of the story.

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