From Iceland — The Good, The Bad And The Ugly

The Good, The Bad And The Ugly

Published February 7, 2011

The Good, The Bad And The Ugly

By now, probably many of our readers have at least perused the diplomatic cables made available on WikiLeaks. We read with great interest the ones that came from the US embassy here in Reykjavík, and overall there are few surprises. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t some hilarious, heartbreaking, and fascinating material to be found. The following are some of the snippets that made us drop our jaws, provoking either laughter or sober pause.
How to win friends and influence Icelanders: get them drunk and talk about sports, apparently
“Cultural programming is a key element of Embassy Reykjavik’s public outreach, which aims to foster a positive image of the U.S. among Icelandic citizens and, especially, elites. … Even sophisticated, worldly Icelanders act immensely flattered by an invitation to be the Chief of Mission’s guests, and by all appearances they leave such events in a haze of warm feelings about transatlantic relations. […] What we tend to end up doing most often is in effect to stretch our budget by providing duty-free alcohol for receptions at exhibit openings and art festivals. Because alcohol is highly taxed in Iceland, our gifts of wine for receptions strike Icelanders as far more generous than they actually are. In return for these gifts we get thanked on invitations and publicity materials prepared by the event sponsors, and we get invitations for our staff to attend events along with high society. Then we use the events to hobnob, make connections, and talk up U.S. policy. […] We spend a lot of time trying to explain U.S. policies, for example, in the war on terror. But with many audiences—especially an Icelandic audience that has no personal experience of terrorism or war—these days, no amount of explaining is going to win support or even sympathy for these policies Sometimes it seems like the best we can do is distract people from policies they find repugnant with marvellous cultural and sports programming that focuses them on America’s ongoing spectacular contribution to world heritage.”

-December 2005.

The embassy was also surprisingly frank on the plight of many foreign women in Iceland
“Social service providers report regular contacts with a population of foreign women who have immigrated to Iceland to marry Icelandic citizens whom they have met on-line or through friends and relatives already married to Icelanders. Some of these women live in circumstances akin to slavery. A lawyer for the capital’s Intercultural Center offered an example of one Icelandic husband who quit work and insisted that his Chinese wife work three jobs to support him. Only able to sleep for four hours a night, she eventually suffered a breakdown. Some Icelanders at one of her workplaces found her pro bono legal assistance, thanks to which she obtained a divorce and permits to remain and work in Iceland. The Intercultural Center lawyer learns of several such cases a year, most often involving “extremely beautiful” Russian and Baltic women in their twenties brought to Iceland as “trophies” by men in their fifties. The women work long hours, and their husbands take their salaries; some of the men reportedly also sell sexual access to their wives. […] While there may be isolated cases of trafficking of women, in particular those of Eastern European and Baltic origin, for sexual work in Iceland, as post has previously reported the tide appeared to turn with 2003 and subsequent changes in local regulations to outlaw lap dances. The police report that they regularly monitor strip clubs in order to ensure that they comply with applicable regulations, particularly those outlawing private dances. Police say they have not seen any signs of prostitution at, or in connection with, the clubs. The owner of the country’s best-known remaining strip joint, Goldfinger in Kopavogur, denies illegal activity. An Embassy employee who visited the establishment was, however, offered sexual services—suggesting that business owners and police at a minimum turn a blind eye to illicit activity that puts women at risk. He also noted that one of the dancers appeared to have a black eye, which could suggest—albeit anecdotally – abuse related to her employment. ”

March 2006.

On the subject of Iceland coming to terms with the base closing, the embassy offered this metaphor
“If the universal stages of mourning are denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance, then some members of the Icelandic intelligentsia have now entered the anger stage. Arguably Reykjavik had been in denial from 2003 (or even earlier) until March 15. Post still anticipates eager Icelandic entry into bargaining as soon as a U.S. negotiating team can come to Reykjavik.”

-March 2006

Oh the irony
“There is no question that certain imbalances have emerged in the Icelandic economy, including a high current account deficit, high inflation and high private sector debt levels. It remains an open question, however, whether these imbalances render Iceland particularly vulnerable to an economic crisis. Financial analysts have articulately argued both sides of the case.”

-April 2006.

Iceland and America – BFFs 4 LYFE
“Iceland is reaching out with increasing desperation to any available source of help as it confronts one of the most trying crises in its history. Assistance from the U.S. at this crucial time would be a prudent investment in our own national security and economic well being. The Icelanders take fierce pride in their flawless history of paying back their debt. Whatever the financial turmoil and uncertainty of the moment, it’s a good bet that this economy of highly-educated, imaginative, and sophisticated people will take off again. And when it does, and when the competition in the High North really gets underway, it may be more important than we can yet suppose to have the Icelanders remember us as the kind of friend who stands by in fair weather and foul. ”

-September 2008.
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