On leaving the OAS and CICAD

After 15 years, my services at the Organization of American States (OAS) and the Inter-American Drug Abuse Control Commission (CICAD) in Washington, DC, have ended.  I leave with lots of questions since this change is a milestone in my life.  After all, this job was where I lasted the longest, and it has served as the scaffolding for my self-identity.

Each day working in an international organization is both a privilege and a blessing, in part because the job comes with excellent pay, benefits, colleagues and other perks, as well as  a challenging mission. The OAS was really the bridge that allowed me to make the transition back to the United States from living abroad for 18 years. When I started working there in 1998 as a temporary hire in the information technology division, I could feel the shift in my mindset because I felt at home:  it had an institutional framework that combined Latin American culture  and social relations. In 2005, I joined CICAD (actually the Executive Secretariat of CICAD since the Commission is made up of member states), which is a front-line catalyst for drug policy at a dynamic time. Technically, I was  the bilingual writer-editor for the web site, reports, proposals and other documents, but I was really a kind of information asset manager and institutional memory.

Photo: portrait of Michael Smith, taken by Javier Sagredo
On my last day at the OAS. My friend Javier Sagredo snapped a shot of me.

Pros and cons

Fifteen years at one employer can have their downside. To put it politely, I became an international bureaucrat.  After getting a Master of Science Informational Technology (partially financed by the OAS), I have not used it for the past eight years. As a writer-editor, the real test was to avoid the traps of Spanglish and jargon. Sometimes, the contorted prose grew out of  the need to avoid offending our stakeholders (the 34 member states) while touting our achievements. Passive voice was a kind of safe zone. Most of the writing was for a small, specialized audience, mainly CICAD’s donors. So I can claim international experience, but don’t know if it can transfer to real-life work requirements here in the States.

A person in my position (63 years old) does not willingly leave his cushy job. The OAS has been undergoing some significant changes. The current administration under Chilean Jose Miguel Insulza has failed to get the member states to trust it so the countries have refused to increase the OAS operating budget through quota increases. Management has periodically shed staff, especially senior staff, to apply the funds to other purposes (some legitimate, others not so appropriate). Each year makes an employee more expensive, with pay increases, higher health insurance costs, pension fund contributions and other costs. For the past 18 months, I was courted to accept early retirement. I turned down several offers.

International organization are strange beasts that are hard to describe to the outside world, having their own rules and politics. I could bore you with thousands of words describing the circumstances that led to my exit. They would not be comprehensible to outsiders. I could simplify the script into workplace clichés, but it would sound as if I was dumping  on the Organization or specific people in it. I am just going to leave it simple.

In brief

Over the past five months, the institutional circumstances shifted, and I decided that the healthiest option was to negotiate my exit from the OAS. As of April 30 (Friday was actually my last day on the job since I saved some vacation time for a trip with my wife this week), I am unemployed —or self-employed (I have to stop paying myself starvation wages). I am looking for income-generating opportunities, both part- and full-time. I am weighing several ideas that I put on a slow simmer (or in the deep freeze) for years, as well as the long arch of my life and where it might lead. Optimally, I would like to take this watershed and turn it into a career path that could serve me for years to come.

At this point, my mind is cycling through all these ideas and options like a dynamo so I will refrain from making rushed decisions. I still need to unpack the boxes that I brought home from my OAS cubicle.

Where does yoga/prana/meditation come into this story?

Good question.  I started practicing yoga, pranayama and meditation in 2004 and probably could not have dealt with all the challenges and pitfalls of a professional career in an organization without them.  Certainly, since the death of my parents two years ago, these practices have helped me get through the pain. Indeed, my experience have convinced me that I have to make them a more intrinsic part of my life.

Antonio Lomba and Marya Hines view his latest baby pictures
Antonio Lomba and Marya Hines view his latest baby pictures

My best application of mindfulness came last Friday when I woke up and tried to find the courage to deal with this fact that it was my last day on the job: I decided to embrace the moment and witness what was taking place so I packed my camera with me. I didn’t get to take as many pictures as I wanted, but they all remind me of what good colleagues I’ve had. I had not advertised my leaving and the office was caught by surprise. My friends threw together a farewell toast and gave me a card filled with best wishes. I will be posting a photo gallery of more shots soon.

Other Info

Some might be interested in a recent decision of a bipartisan Senate group’s decision to  push Revitalization Legislation for the OAS.

3 thoughts on “On leaving the OAS and CICAD

  1. Read every letter of your post…All my solidarity and support! Hope to see you soon.

  2. Querido Mike: que pena que nadie me aviso que era tu ultimo dia. Me hubiera gustado venir a la CICAD para desearte, en persona, todo lo mejor en esta nueva etapa de tu vida. Que Dios guie tu camino y que encuentres facil la transición. Felicidades y muchos cariños. Espero que podamos comunicarnos por facebook como lo hacemos todos los amigos que compartimos momentos especiales en la OEA.

    Un abrazo

    Ligia O. Guillen

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