Sunday, October 28, 2012
Our Dinner With Mussolini
Prologue to the story: My Fogarty Center training grant for Uruguay and Argentina was designed to see the resources used to train graduate students to increase the talent pool for the local university faculties. They also wanted to see a regional impact on public health of the enhanced programs. Thus, as Director I spent a lot of my time trying to build collaborations across national borders among countries that historically did not tend to help one anther or co-operate easily on a regional scale. That led to a lot of failed initiatives along with a few spectacular successes.
Once upon a time, in a land long ago and far away, my colleagues from Uruguay were with me at a scientific meeting in Santiago, Chile. We arranged to meet separately with a local academician with ties to the salmon fish farming industry in the south of Chile who had a problem that I hoped the Uruguayan colleagues might be able to help solve for him. The problem was to be able to analyze the fish at an exquisite level of sensitivity to be able to certify that they were free of any residues of antibiotics, so as to allow their export to Japan and the European Union countries. My Uruguayan colleagues had the necessary methodology, while the Chileans had a need. Hence, the small meeting within the larger meeting made sense.
The scientists met over coffee to discuss whether this could indeed be a marriage made in heaven. The Chilean fish farming industry, via one of the local universities in Santiago, would get training and consultative expertise from the Uruguayan university that would allow them to analyze a lot of fish samples for antibiotic residues to allow certification for export. The Uruguayan university would get some much needed money to allow additional students to be trained for graduate level degrees. Everyone would win. The discussions went smoothly, it turned out that we had high enough level people involved that they could actually negotiate a contract on the spot, and a handshake agreement was reached. To celebrate, we were all invited to dinner at the home of the Chilean Dean.
Long story short----My wife and I, and several of my Uruguayan colleagues, were sitting at the Dean's house with him and his wife drinking Pisco sours before dinner when the conversation drifted into politics. The Chilean Dean turned out to be an ultra right wing conservative, appointed to his Deanship by the Pinochet regime many years ago. The Uruguayan Dean was an ultra left wing liberal who had been a Tupamaro Guerrilla during the military dictatorship years and was still the antithetical opposite of his Chilean counterpart in all things political and social. Several Pisco sours later we were hearing a violently racist rant from our host. The only one who spoke up to challenge his ideas was my wife Elaine, unburdened of any financial interests to inhibit her. She and our host had a quite stimulating argument, which he clearly had not expected. Dinner featured nice wine, good food, and more monologue by our host. Eventually we returned to the hotel, where I apologized to my Uruguayan friends for subjecting them to the evening. Two comments are forever enshrined in my memory. From the former Tupamaro Uruguayan communist, "It's OK, it was only business." From my friend and closest colleague, who, like most Uruguayans, was from Italian ancestry, "You know what? We just had dinner with Mussolini!"
Epilogue to the story: The contract was never signed and the collaboration never happened. I'm told it had nothing to do with the personalities or their politics. Rather the fish farming industry balked at putting up the money for the training and analysis, so they instead found other markets with fewer importation restrictions, especially in the western USA, for their farmed salmon (which is delicious and relatively inexpensive here in California).