British High Commissioner Harriet Cross
By Prior Beharry
SHE was second-in-command of the British Embassy in Yemen in 2015 and had to flee the country in the midst of civil unrest.
This meant breaking into cupboards with a sledgehammer and smashing hard drives and ensuring that no confidential documents were left for the Houthis to find.
Today, Harriet Cross is the first female British High Commissioner to Trinidad and Tobago – a country, though with some ethnic undertones, is brought together by its culture and more so its Carnival.
Officially in the high commissioner post since September 1, Cross said, “One thing I really like about T&T is that it has a very rich heritage and real ethnic diversity…”
She added that people tell her that politics is divided by ethnicity with the two major races voting accordingly for the two major political parties. However, while she said there is “a certain amount of choosing” the different groups of people “get on so well in T&T.”
“I have read some of the history and I know that this hasn’t always been the case but you live with each other so well.”
She credits Carnival for this.
Cross said, “Carnival has a big role to play. I haven’t had the pleasure of being at Carnival yet.
“But I think that’s one of the ways that brings all different people together because it’s not exclusive, it’s inclusive that anybody who wants to take part in Carnival can do so and they are welcomed.
“I don’t think any other country in the Caribbean or frankly in the world has this same type of inclusive put your arms around everybody type of Carnival.
“Not only is it inclusive, it’s like explosively good at the same time.”
Cross sat down with AZPNews.com at her St Clair office recently for an interview.
Born in Yorkshire in the market town called Beverly she claims a link to T&T with the nearby town of Scarborough the city after which the capital of Tobago is named.
Her mother and father still lived in Beverly and she has a sister seven years her junior.
Cross met her husband Phil Saltonstall at the same school but with separate compounds for boys and girls.
She said, “In the sixth form we had joint classes. So you could imagine what happened there. It was very exciting for everybody concerned so that was when I first went out with Phil, then we went to separate universities and we split up and I didn’t see him again for five years.
“And then I joined the Foreign Office and he joined the Royal Navy as a helicopter pilot.
“We got back together again. And then we got married. We have been married for 21 years.”
Cross attended the University of Warrick near to Birmingham and matriculated with a degree in Politics and French.
She and Phil have no children but their parental love at home is dedicated to their cats. Two in fact, Claudius and Mavi – meaning blue in Turkish since he was adopted from a Turkish family and he has “big blue eyes.”
They are yet to join her in Trinidad. “They have to get their papers we don’t want them to be undocumented immigrants,” she said.
Cross fancies Hull City in English football and took a break from being a diplomat to start a brewery with Phil.
She said, “We started it in Yorkshire, literally started it from scratch from the basement of our house. And the house was on a street called Brass Castle, so we called the brewery Brass Castle.
“Originally, it was just me and Phil and to be fair, I wasn’t really doing the brewing. I wasn’t doing the brewing at all. I was doing like the marketing social media, I would go to beer festivals with Phil.
“Now there are 15 people who work there. There is a little tap room, like a little bar that I attached to the brewery.
“It is very satisfying to know that you are creating from scratch a product that people are enjoying.”
Cross said the brewery does 20 types of beer including lagers, that are comparable to the local brands of Carib and Stag, Indian pale ale, porters and Hefeweizens.
Its market is mainly in the UK, but Brass Castle is also exported to Italy.
Cross joined the Foreign Office after writing the civil service exam.
Her first year was on the Europe Desk and then she was second secretary in Morocco for four years.
Cross returned to London and was in the Human Rights Department for two years before she was seconded to National Crime Squad which has now merged into the National Crime Agency dealing with serious and organised crime.
She said, “Then I went to the UK mission to the UN in New York. It was fantastic, really enjoyed that job.
“I was already working on Yemen from London, and so I knew what a challenge it was going to be but I kind of wanted to push myself outside my comfort zone.
“So I applied for the job and I got it.
“I went there in January 2015 and this was just the time when the coup by the Houthis took place; the rebels from the North and they came into the capital city with tanks and guns and they set up their own check points throughout the city so we were having to drive through kind of hostile check points.
“But still at that time the Houthis had a political wing so we were still having a meeting like we have now with the Houthis with tea and biscuits, talking with them, ‘do you have to do it this way. We understand that there are challenges with the government and there are differences of opinion about how the country should be run but this can be done politically, it doesn’t have to be done militarily.’
“But in the end the military wing won over, the coup got more intense.
“At that point we had to evacuate.
“It was very surreal. It was very pressured…We had a longer time scale than most people had we had about three days.
“But we had to prioritise.”
She believes her training helped her survive this. She also credits good communication with her team so that everyone did their required tasks.
“We had cupboards that you never looked in… we had to break in to the cupboards as we did not have keys.
“Because what we were worried about was if the Houthis broke into the cupboards once we left if they found documents that showed that such and such person had a business or had applied for a visa, this is all very confidential documents.
“So we like find a sledgehammer… smash a cupboard. Yeah I think I did personally smash things up.”
It was a no-family post and her husband had to stay back in England looking after the brewery while she and the rest of the British embassy personnel were living in shipping containers in a heavily-armed compound.
And when her husband was asked how she was doing in Yemen, he would relate that she went there in January and by Christmas she was asking him to send a tourniquet for her to keep in her purse.
She said, he would tell people, “In case like she got her arm blown off so she will have a tourniquet in her handbag so that she could wrap up her own arm.”
Cross said, “That is an example of how tough and challenging it was.”
And leaving was no walk in the park either. “It was one of those things where we weren’t sure that we could leave until the wheels of the plane go up and you’re actually in the air.”
Then she went to Boston Massachusetts and was consul general to New England.
She did a lot of trade work trying to understand the regional politics to give the embassy in Washington the bigger picture of what politics looked like around the US.
Cross said, “It is such a big country that you have to have your separate eyes on the ground.”
She initially came to Trinidad in January and her predecessor Tim Stew introduced her to doubles which she had on Ariapita Avenue at 2 0’clock in the morning.
Cross is not unfamiliar with the Trinbago cuisine especially Indian food. She said there was hardly a town in the UK without two or three Indian restaurants.
Cross added, “So someone from the US may not have the same cultural background to appreciate and like spicy food.”
She noted that the T&T was very vibrant. “I like that fact that you are very transparent and you are always talking about the issues.”
Cross recognises the challenges of any government having to deal with the Covid-19 pandemic.
She said, “I feel for any government trying to manage the dual challenges of keeping its population safe – which has to be the overriding priority to stop people dying from Covid.
“But I do fully recognise, not least from somebody who owns a bar, that there is a balance to be struck that if people cannot earn a living they would not be able to pay for healthcare and food and the basic amenities.
“I recognise particularly for the poorer population in any country and I am talking about the UK as much as I am talking about Trinidad and Tobago they are going to be the hardest hit by Covid restrictions. So I do recognise that the government has got a very delicate balancing act.”
Cross said that science must be the first port of call in making decisions. “And you need to base it on information that is coming from scientists and medical doctors in terms of understanding what the virus is doing in your country.
“I think if you can put in place safe protocols and structures to allow a country to start to operate, to move back to normality once you got the virus under control then that’s the ideal process.
“But I don’t think that any country has got it right yet.”
Cross is pleased with the trading relationship between Trinidad and Tobago and Britain, noting that the High Commission has a three-member team that works exclusively on trade and focus on energy, healthcare and the security sector.
She said, “That’s where we would focus our energies in terms of the companies that we talk to and the trade we want to encourage.
“Having said that we never turn down an opportunity to promote a food and drink manufacturer for example.”
She said recently there has been a 21% increase in Britain of imports to T&T.
Cross said would like to see more trade in renewables in the clean energy sector.
“Because I feel that increasingly oil and gas is going to produce less profit and fewer jobs.
“So that’s why I think that it’s very important for T&T to start moving substantially into the renewable sector because it will create jobs.
“There is some good work already being done on solar power and on electric vehicles and I think it’s worth looking at other types of clean energy so whether it is wind-energy opportunities I think sometimes there is logistical challenges because the turbines are so large.”
The Caribbean Renewable Energy Forum (CREF) was scheduled for the end of October and the high commission is very involved in it.
Cross said that Brexit has definitely made T&T more important to the UK.
She said, “Partly because we are looking at the Commonwealth countries as a set of countries that we have always had good relationships with.
“But that is a forum for taking forward these sort of relationships to and Caricom.
“We still want good relationships with our EU colleagues and we will hopefully have that relationship, but necessarily we are going to put less energy into our relationship with the EU than we ever had before, which creates space and resources to put into our relationship with the Caribbean and the Caricom countries including T&T.”
And has the glass ceiling been broken for her or has she broken it?
“I think it is a bit of both. I think when we are thinking about people being allies whether you talking about gender or LGBT issues, I think that I have benefitted not only from women having broken the glass ceiling before me, but I have benefitted from men being allies.
“So when I think of my career there are a lot of men who have been doing important things for gender equality as well as women. So Tim Stew is a good example of that.
“This High Commission did a lot of work on domestic violence and looking to empower women in T&T.
“And actually you have got some great female leadership here already and in lots of different spheres and I think there are lots of challenges in terms of gender equality in some spheres and in terms of what I have done.
“I think of the example of me going to Yemen and doing a hard core security-type job in a dangerous place.
“I think nobody really questioned my ability to do it. I think once you have got the skills that gender is not important for the Foreign Office, it is increasingly trying to see beyond race and gender and sexuality.
“But there are still a bunch of challenges out there.”
However, Cross is seriously ready to take them on.