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Yankee Go Home

The Ugly American is alive and well and working for peace.

Aug 30, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 47 • By LAUREN WEINER
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Naturally enough, his hobby attracted FBI surveillance, and Egan does not hide the fact that he enjoyed the attention. He checked in with U.S. authorities regularly, and if they couldn’t stop him from taking his North Korean friends on hunting and fishing trips, or serving them free meals in his restaurant, they could at least debrief him about what these mysterious men were like. Once, one of the North Koreans posted to U.N. headquarters, a military man named Han, needed dental care. Egan, who had grown close to Han, found a good oral surgeon to treat him. Afterward, Egan delivered the extracted molar to FBI counterintelligence for DNA sampling. Han headed home when his tour of duty ended; it was awful, Egan writes, to have to say goodbye to “my best friend.”

He also liked his second FBI handler. This spelled trouble for the handler, of course: When the young agent, succumbing to the Egan charm, tried to advance one of the Egan schemes—to have the United States purchase North Korea’s nuclear program—the FBI demoted him. Any reader will pity those who cross the path of this “goombah” (his word) diplomat, from the National Security Council experts sent up from Washington to rein him in to the Pennsylvania state senator Egan took with him to Pyongyang to retrieve the rusting U.S.S. Pueblo. (The ship stayed firmly docked on the Taedong River. The North Koreans were only toying with Egan on that one. On most of the other stuff, too.)

Bobby Egan is an ingenuous man—perhaps not as ingenuous as he would like to seem—and his cockeyed-optimist act seems mostly intended to keep us off balance and wondering if he’s kidding. His fighting-Stalinism-with-steaks approach did enable him to talk Pyongyang into sending a women’s soccer team to a competition here. It was a mixed accomplishment, though: Try as he might, he was unable to land the players a commercial endorsement. Gatorade declined after mulling over Egan’s idea for a TV commercial, which would have had a North Korean woman kicking a soccer ball and—to suggest how empowered she is by drinking Gatorade—making the kick look like a nuclear explosion. 

As innocents abroad go, the author of Gringo Nightmare is, perhaps, less odd than Bobby Egan. Eric Volz is one of those Americans—our classic literature is full of them—who rub non-Americans the wrong way but don’t realize this until it’s too late. Being of partly Mexican ancestry and speaking excellent Spanish persuaded him that he was appealing to the villagers of San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua. To them, however, this Jeep-driving Californian was part of a growing foreign contingent that, amid the post-Sandinista development boom in Nicaragua, had intruded on their quiet life on the Pacific coast.

Volz had found San Juan del Sur in his student days, traveling the hemisphere in search of exotic places to go surfing. A Latin American studies major, he emerged from college with the pro-guerrilla biases one picks up in the academy. But he later came to believe that the best way to make a revolution in Central America was not through Marxism but the advancement of business. So he returned to San Juan del Sur in 2004, launching a bilingual magazine to promote “positive social change” while signing on with the local Century 21 office to sell real-estate to retirees from the United States. He had a romance with a local beauty named Doris Jiménez, a budding entrepreneur in her own right. Some in the town looked upon Volz “as too slick or ambitious,” but then again, he writes, “the kind of work ethic that many Americans tend to admire is seen as extreme in other cultures.”

Doris Jiménez was brutally raped and murdered in 2006. When tragedy struck, Volz prodded the police to get moving and track down her killer, but such treatment at the hands of an American surfer-turned-yuppie who had, until recently, been the victim’s lover did not go over well. Before the sun had set on her funeral, Eric Volz was in handcuffs. His alibi—witnesses and phone records proving that he was far away in Managua when the crime took place—was ignored, and during his arraignment, while being walked from the jail to the courthouse, Volz was chased by a crowd screaming “Asesino!” 

Anti-gringo sentiment in these parts of the world is nothing surprising, but putting a gringo in the dock came in especially handy for those arch anti-yanquis, the Sandinistas, who were just then staging a political comeback. Doris Jiménez’s mother, a Sandinista loyalist, had the party’s help in trucking in anti-Volz mobs to the various court proceedings, and from inside La Modelo, Nicaragua’s maximum security prison, Volz watched on television as President Daniel Ortega was inaugurated.

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