June 30, 1980 12:00 PM

It was a mild spring afternoon, and the streets of the District of Columbia were crowded with homeward-bound government employees. Among them, apparently unnoticed, a bearded, portly figure emerged from the State Department in Northwest Washington. Ignoring a red light, he forged through the traffic. Instantly a driver leaned on his horn, but it was a salute, not a warning. “Hey, Diego,” the driver shouted. “Bravo!”

After a career of 23 largely anonymous years in the Foreign Service, Diego Asencio is getting used to greetings like that from strangers. They single him out because at a time when American diplomacy was sadly in need of a triumph, he supplied one. As U.S. ambassador to Colombia, Asencio was held prisoner for 61 days (along with other diplomats) by a motley band of political terrorists. Though his plight was somewhat eclipsed by the hostage crisis in Iran, Asencio set an unforgettable example of grace under extreme pressure. The 48-year-old diplomat came through the ordeal with his health, his spirit and his country’s honor intact.

Inevitably, Asencio thought of his American colleagues in Iran. “We had a different type of captivity,” he now says. “In my situation there was communication among people of my own background, civilization and culture. Latins tend to be humane, whether they’re revolutionaries or not.” Falling back on his Spanish heritage and fluency in the language, Asencio labored to create a sense of rapport with his captors. “If we were friendly,” he reasoned simply, “it would make it more difficult for them to kill us.”

Asencio’s levelheaded courage came as no surprise to those who had worked with him. “He is a strong and steady person, the kind you want with you if you ever get in trouble,” says Ron Palmer, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for personnel. Adds Elizabeth Swope, a Foreign Service officer who once served with Asencio in Portugal: “When we heard that Diego was the leader of the hostages, we knew things were under control.” Asencio is flattered by such professions of faith, but also a little uneasy. “I really didn’t want to be a dead hero,’ he says.

For Asencio, the occasion for heroism came without warning. Just before noon last February 27, he was leaving a reception at the Dominican embassy. “I was on my way to the door with the Venezuelan ambassador when a couple of people in street clothes came in and started shooting up the ceiling,” he remembers. “I made a dive for the floor.” During the next half hour guerrillas inside the embassy and police outside engaged in a withering crossfire while Asencio, a Roman Catholic, prayed. “I produced the most sincere Act of Contrition of my career,” he says, “and found to my surprise that it helped.”

The attackers, members of a Marxist-oriented group known by the code name M-19, immediately identified the U.S. ambassador as their prize catch. “I was forced over to the door and made to stand up and shout for a cease-fire,” Asencio says, adding laconically, “That was sort of exciting.” Though one guerrilla was killed in the fighting, 15 others survived inside the embassy, armed with automatic weapons and grenades. For three days sporadic shooting continued, and Asencio frequently found himself used as a human shield. “I figured I was a dead man,” he recalls, “and I would try to go with as much dignity as possible, certainly not with a whimper.” Then the shooting ceased, and the terrorists ordered their captives to organize a committee to represent themselves in negotiations with the Colombian government. At one point the guerrilla commander even sought the American ambassador’s advice on the wording of a revolutionary manifesto. Asencio tactfully suggested rewriting it.

Though his life hung in the balance for two months, Asencio never lost his capacity for being amused. “I am a happy man,” he explains. “In a choice between laughter and tears, I always pick laughter.” He realized there was something ludicrous about a collection of high-ranking diplomats from 13 countries—men accustomed to silk sheets and servants—sleeping 10 to a room on foam-rubber pads. “Several of us made a conscious effort to keep our spirits up,” Asencio recalls. “The Papal Nuncio said Mass. The Venezuelan ambassador sang. The Mexican ambassador cooked breakfast. And I told stories.” (Asencio is known as the best story-teller in the State Department—in two languages.) Each of the captives was assigned housekeeping chores. “We cleaned rooms, washed Johns and scrubbed dishes,” says Asencio. “Fortunately the Israeli ambassador was an old military man with a lot of experience in duty lists. He would inspect, and if the cleaning job was not up to his high standards, he’d send the person back to do it again.”

Though lulled by the dreary routine, the hostages never forgot their precarious position. As the stand-off between guerrillas and government continued, the hostage committee spent endless hours haggling over the terms of their own release. “It was hard work, not just b.s.,” says Asencio. “We worked up papers. We talked to our embassy staffs by phone. We were lobbying for specific positions.”

The lonely nights, he remembers, were harder to bear than the days. “You are sort of locked into your skull,” he explains. “There is little external stimulus except the ever-present danger. I worried about my family and how they were taking it. I wondered whether I had been a good husband and father. If anything happened, I didn’t want the kids to think less of their old man for the way I behaved.” Often there was gunfire outside. “Every once in a while some of the local citizenry would make a wrong turn and come by the embassy,” says Asencio. “The police riddled them; they killed about six people during that period. If you were asleep when the shooting started, it scared the hell out of you.”

Throughout his captivity Asencio was permitted to receive clean clothes, books and crossword puzzles from home, plus a morale-boosting three-minute daily phone conversation with his wife, Nancy. “She was stalwart,” the ambassador says admiringly. “She never broke down, and every day she had an amusing story.” (“I’d beg, borrow or steal new jokes to call in to him,” says Nancy.) Bored by the tedium of confinement themselves, the guerrillas treated the calls as a welcome diversion and would rush to extension phones to listen in. Meanwhile, they periodically released groups of hostages until, after nearly two months, only 16 remained. “Some became thoroughly passive and vegetated,” says Asencio. “Probably a number of them required professional help after they left.”

Asencio spent his time in long debates with his captors. “Some of them were young, intelligent students,” he recalls. “The tragedy is that they are getting involved in one of those ready-made, jerry-built intellectual philosophies that is going to lead them to disaster. I might have planted a few doubts among them here and there.” The other guerrillas, he says, were either hardened professional revolutionaries or reckless adventurers “who would be holding up a bank if they didn’t belong to a political group.” The stalemate was eventually broken by an agreement to let the guerrillas fly to Cuba with 11 hostages, including the U.S. ambassador. When Asencio returned to Washington, State Department doctors found that he had lost about 20 of his 220 pounds (mostly regained since) but none of his natural ebullience. Psychiatrists were startled to discover how little psychological wear and tear he had suffered. The ambassador dismissed their concern matter-of-factly. “What is there to complain about?” he asked the doctors. “There are really no ghosts.”

A naturalized American, Diego Cortes Asencio was born in Spain, emigrated to the U.S. as an infant and grew up bilingual in Newark, N.J. “We were poor, but I don’t think I lacked for anything,” he remembers. “It was a very protective atmosphere.” His background astonished his leftist captors in Bogotá. “My father was a house painter, my mother a seamstress,” he told them. “You are the bourgeoisie, and I am the worker’s son.”

His Newark neighborhood was a classic American melting pot, kindling his boyhood desire to be an ambassador. “I am a Hispanic raised in an Irish-Catholic atmosphere with a taste for kosher and Italian cuisine and speaking an Anglo-Saxon language,” he says. “I attended a Spanish church, went to Lithuanian beer busts and played football with Poles and Hungarians. Foreign Service officers do tend to be cultural relativists, and being from that Newark neighborhood helped me.”

Though his father died in 1948, Diego was able to enter Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service the following year. “Mama took care of the tuition—there was an insurance policy,” he says. In his junior year Asencio met a 17-year-old Cuban immigrant, Nancy Rodriguez, then a high school senior. “What attracted me was his quietness and his being different from the other Latin boys I knew,” she recalls. “He was more of an American and so was I.” They married when he was 22 and she was 19—”young but precocious,” says the ambassador mischievously.

After graduation Asencio spent two years in the Army before joining the Foreign Service in 1957. At the time the diplomatic corps was struggling to shed its striped-pants image and open itself up to new talent, including more women, blacks and Hispanics. After his first foreign posting, to Mexico City in 1959, Asencio went on to assignments in Panama, Portugal, Brazil and Venezuela, punctuated by tours of deskbound duty in Washington. He received his first ambassadorial appointment, to Bogotá, in 1977. There he worked to halt the illicit drug trade between Colombia and the U.S., and spent considerable time seeking the release of kidnapped Peace Corpsman Richard Starr, who was freed by guerrillas just two weeks before Asencio’s capture. Ironically, Starr’s mother has criticized Asencio for refusing to deal with the terrorists, thus prolonging her son’s confinement. “The suggestion is preposterous,” says one official. “Asencio worked on it night and day. There were a number of things he proposed that were not acceptable to Washington as a matter of policy.”

Has the ambassador been changed by his time in captivity? “I just don’t know,” says his old friend Abelardo Valdez, the State Department’s chief of protocol. “He is a positive person of wit and humor, but he is also very private. There is a part of him that he does not reveal to anyone.” Asencio brushes the question aside, but concedes that the 61 days were instructive. “It was a clinical opportunity to see terrorists close up and observe men under stress,” he notes dryly. He kept a diary, and he hopes to write a book. “My basic feeling,” he says, “is that I wouldn’t want to repeat the experience.”

Otherwise, the Asencio family’s sense of adventure seems undiminished by it. The five children are scattered: Manuel, 25, is a Baltimore executive recruiter; Diego Carlos, 24, a Notre Dame Law School sophomore; Ann, 23, a dress designer in New York; Maria, 22, a bank employee in Miami; and Francis, 20, a West Point cadet. “We never had money, but diplomats live like kings,” jokes Nancy, and Asencio admits he has become accustomed to the rhythmic cycle of Foreign Service assignments. “You have to be a gypsy—new place, new people, new house, new job,” he says. “It’s something you come to look forward to.” Though the State Department has not yet announced Asencio’s next post, his colleagues believe it will be commensurate with his flawless performance under fire. “No one deserves it more,” Valdez observes. “Diego has paid his dues.”

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