- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 16, 2002

Texan from Congo

Serge Mombouli got a Texas-sized welcome from President Bush when he presented his diplomatic credentials as the ambassador from Congo.

"Take this picture," Mr. Bush said to the White House photographer as he grasped Mr. Mombouli in a warm handshake. "We're both from Texas."

Actually Mr. Mombouli was born 42 years ago in Pointe Noire, Congo, but that geographical detail did not matter to Mr. Bush. The president knew Mr. Mombouli had worked for many years in executive positions at some of Texas' biggest corporations, and that made the African diplomat a Texan as far as Mr. Bush was concerned.

"We'll keep in touch," the president said after the White House visit in July 2001.

Mr. Mombouli has seen Mr. Bush on other occasions since then, and the president has always acknowledged him with a wave or a handshake.

Having established a special relationship with the president, Mr. Mombouli is trying to establish a special relationship with the American people, to whom he looks for investment, trade and tourism. He believes Congo's recent democratic election will help him promote his country in the United States.

The first point he makes about his country is that it is not his Congo that is currently ravished by civil war.

That one at war is the former nation of Zaire, now officially known as the Democratic Republic of Congo.

His nation is the Republic of Congo, sometimes known as Congo-Brazzaville, a reference to the country's capital.

The second point he makes is that Congo is a democracy. The March 10 presidential election was declared free and fair by international observers, even though President Denis Sasso Nguesso was re-elected with 89 percent of the vote.

"The reason the Congolese people elected him so widely is that he is bringing stability, peace, security and reconciliation," Mr. Mombouli told Embassy Row.

"Congo is a success story," he insisted. "This is a country that had three civil wars in 10 years. But this is a country today where there is no sign of war. Democracy is back."

The United States takes a more critical view of the situation. The State Department says the country's human rights conditions remain poor. While the Bush administration accepted the results of the election, officials wanted to see the participation of Pascal Lissouba, the former president defeated by Mr. Nguesso in the 1997 civil wars, and Bernard Kolelas, Mr. Lissouba's prime minister. Both men have been in exile for five years.

Mr. Mombouli said his country will welcome election observers at May 26 parliamentary elections.

"We want the support of the United States the government and the people to do business in Congo, to see new investment," he said.

Hong Kong democracy

Szeto Wah, a veteran democracy activist and labor organizer, is worried about the future of democracy in Hong Kong, five years after China gained control of the former British colony and pledged to respect its democratic and capitalist institutions.

Mr. Wah, a member of the Hong Kong legislature, shared his concerns with members of the Albert Shanker Institute on a visit to Washington this week.

"Throughout my career, I have been guided by the understanding that democracy and freedom of association must be fiercely protected," he said, as he delivered the annual Albert Shanker Lecture. "Only in a democratic political system can human rights, freedom and the rule of law thrive.

"Democracy that rests, not on the strength of representative institutions, but on the grace of rules is always in danger of being diminished or removed."

Mr. Wah, founder of the Hong Kong Professional Teachers Union, said he was always inspired by Mr. Shanker, the late president of the American Federation of Teachers.

"Al was my mentor," he said. "From Al, I learned to combine professionalism and labor rights to organize a trade union and to employ trade unionism to promote democracy."

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