Reviewed by Jim Skelton (Ethiopia 1970–72)
Leo Cecchini’s memoir, Face to Face with the Global Economy, provides more than just an insight into the very interesting and oftentimes exciting life he has lived, it also reveals the vast resourcefulness of a man who was destined to see the world, have an impact on it and make a difference. Beginning with his years as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Ethiopia in the early 1960s, Leo recalls that he, as one of the Peace Corps trainees in the first group to serve in Ethiopia, attended a “party” thrown by none other than President John F. Kennedy on the White House lawn. Such an event might have seemed like business as usual back in those early days of the Peace Corps, but such an event seems extremely unlikely in today’s world given the current occupant of the White House.
Leo taught geography at Haile Selassie Secondary School in Asmara, Eritrea while serving as a PCV, and claims that his students “were literally the cream of the crop of youngsters in the country.” He also writes with pride that he coached the school’s soccer team and led them to the city secondary school championship two years in a row. Leo declares that accomplishment was “a feat that had never happened before nor since.” In reference to a newspaper story that implied his team would be tough to beat in the championship game because he was the coach, he asserts, “There it was, no matter who was playing and coaching, I was the magician coaching my school’s team.” It was at this early stage in the book that I began to realize Leo had a tendency to exaggerate.
At the end of the introductory material, he sets out what appear to be four fundamental questions about the components of the global economy, i.e., what makes up the global economy, what are its parts, what are its mechanisms and how does it function? I wondered whether those questions would form the basis for a somewhat scholarly approach to addressing the answers that would explain Leo’s view of the workings of the global economy. Instead, to the extent there are answers to those questions, they’re hidden between the lines of what constitutes a series of highly personal narratives. To his credit, however, Leo admits that he has “collected a very diverse and descriptive set of tales, often whimsical, that listeners always find entertaining and instructive.”
In so doing, however, he rarely includes references to the time frame during which he was engaged in a specific project. In turn, the reader must try to associate the activity described with the location, surroundings and circumstances in order to guess when it occurred. I found it to be even more difficult to follow when it became clear that the accounts being presented were not arranged in chronological order. Leo eventually warns the reader, “Rather than discuss these [global economy experiences] in a country by country account, I will talk about them under subject classes and refer to the country in which they occurred.” Therein lies the key to the random ordering of the stories and the difficulty in attributing a time frame to each of them.
To make matters a bit more perplexing, Leo employs a uniquely minimalist approach to the design and formatting of his self-published memoir. For example, he doesn’t employ such handy devices as page numbers and chapters. Instead, he simply uses sections and subsections with headings and subheadings, some of which are separated by a page or a few extra line spaces.
Given those challenges, it’s difficult to keep track of the places through which Leo’s journey meandered during the many years that are covered by his extraordinary yarns. For starters, he was hired by the State Department after his two years with the Peace Corps and found himself in Panama for his first diplomatic post. This must have taken place around 1965 since he served in Ethiopia from 1962-64. He recounts a variety of projects in which he was involved while in Panama, such as searching the records of a bank involved in the money hiding scheme of the so-called Panama Papers caper to his role in avoiding a war between two Indian tribes on an island off the Panamanian coast.
Under the section heading of “Trade” and the subheading of “Trade Gone Wrong,” Leo introduces his service as the U.S. Embassy’s Commercial Attache in Turkey when Prime Minister Bucent Ecevit was in office. The time period for this assignment must have been in the late 1970s because Ecevit served as the PM four times, in 1974, 1977, 1978–79, and 1999–2002. Much later in the book, he describes his role in figuring out the basis of some Turkish/USSR trade deals, and reveals that he was often called a “maverick, loner or non-team player” with whom you might not always agree, “but never bet against him.”
Under the subheading of “Bad Cop,” he turns to his job of handling trade disputes in Madrid, Spain, concluding that by working with trade agreements, “I became a recognized expert in the use of tariffs, how to implement them and how to enforce them.” While still in Madrid, Leo is asked to renegotiate the U.S.’s nuclear agreements with Spain. Inexplicably, he claims that the agreement he wrote was a winner because “I wrote it and didn’t understand it,” and he “was certain no one else would ever understand what it meant.” Further, he writes, “I had done the impossible,” and “I was the only person who had managed to construct an acceptable agreement,” as though he did it all by himself.
From Spain, he’s called back to Washington, DC and then sent to the U.S. embassy in Helsinki, Finland where, among other things, he worked on matters related to the airline industry. Leo was instrumental in brokering a deal for the sale of McDonnell Douglas DC10 airplanes to FinnAir on a discounted basis, which served to prove his “export smarts.” Leo also became involved in an attempt to open a new market in financial services in Finland, and summarizes his success by stating, “I literally opened the door for American banking in Finland.”
Under the heading “Insurance,” Leo recalls his involvement in assisting American insurance companies in their initial entry into the insurance market in Spain, which resulted in the development of “billions of dollars worth of business in the Spanish insurance market.” For that accomplishment, he returns to his magician identity, writing, “Again, I had done the impossible, brought a whole new American industry to Spain.”
While writing about “Wall Street,” Leo allows himself to digress “a bit” to explain that all the job offers he received upon graduating from the University of Maryland were based on his test scores, not his grades. He claims that’s the case because “I do very well on entrance exams and such. No surprise here, I am a member of Mensa.” Hence, the reader is given an insight into the source of Leo’s genius self-image.
This type of theme continues in the section on “Communications” where Leo reveals that he made a speech in 1982 in which he predicted that communications would replace transportation as the main force behind the dynamic growth of the global economy in the 20th century. He claims to keep a copy of that speech locked up “for even I am amazed at how accurate my prediction proved to be.”
Under the section “Wine, Women and Song,” Leo reports that he retired from the State Department after 25 years, which must have been around 1990, and then started his own private business enterprises. He provides a lot of detail about his wine business in a few countries on the European continent, and then relates his surprising attempt to become involved in making women’s clothing in England. Leo even tried his hand at becoming a singer, and still sings in Broadway shows, the most recent of which being “Godspell in 2019. This is proof that Leo is also a bit of a Renaissance man.
After getting a look into his experiences as an entrepreneur, the stories jump back and forth in time and place again and one loses track of when and where some of it is happening. It makes me wish Leo had employed an editor to assist him in his quest to celebrate his successes.
Reviewer Jim Skelton served in the Peace Corps in Ethiopia from 1970-72, and worked in the Smallpox Eradication Program there. He is the lead editor and a coauthor of the book entitled Eradicating Smallpox in Ethiopia: Peace Corps Volunteers’ Accounts of Their Adventures, Challenges and Achievements, which was published by Peace Corps Writers in November 2019. He has also published a memoir about his life as a PCV in Ethiopia, Volunteering In Ethiopia: A Peace Corps Odyssey,
Jim has practiced law for more than 44 years, specializing in upstream international petroleum transactions in emerging markets. His work has taken him to over 35 countries in Europe, the Former Soviet Union, the Middle East, Africa, Southeast Asia, and North and South America. He served as an Adjunct Professor at the University of Houston Law Center from 2008 to 2016, teaching the course in “Energy Law: Doing Business in Emerging Markets,” and is a coauthor of the second edition of the textbook Doing Business in Emerging Markets: A Transactional Course. He has published 25 articles for legal periodicals and books, and has made 18 presentations at international conferences in Houston, Dallas, London and Moscow.