Minnesota's 'co-ambassadors' in Morocco

  • Article by: CHUCK SLOCUM
  • Updated: January 9, 2011 - 3:00 PM

Minneapolis attorney Sam Kaplan and his wife, Sylvia Chessen Kaplan, are a diplomatic duo for the state and U.S. in this Muslim nation with a history of religious tolerance.


Sylvia and Sam Kaplan

Photo: Richard Sennott, Star Tribune

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RABAT, MOROCCO - International diplomacy and business moxie go hand-in-hand for two of Minnesota's own who serve in this northern African nation of 34 million.

When President Obama tapped Minneapolis attorney Sam Kaplan as U.S. Ambassador to Morocco, it came as no surprise to those who know Kaplan and his wife, Sylvia Chessen Kaplan, that the president got two ambassadors for the price of one. The charmingly direct Sylvia takes second place to no one, including her partner of 35 years.

The Kaplans had played pivotal roles in Obama's 2008 campaign for the presidency. One of the reasons for the nomination was that the new ambassador's personal relationship with the U.S. president was important to the Moroccan government.

Official duties of an ambassador sometimes call for an expertise in economic development. The fact that Kaplan and his longtime law partner, Ralph Strangis, own apartments, nursing homes and senior housing businesses in the Midwest no doubt contributed to his qualifications. Sylvia, too, has owned and operated businesses and has a hands-on perspective that is rarely unspoken when the duo is working to shape a business deal that is consistent with U.S. interests.

Sam Kaplan's background as a business attorney with extensive involvement as counsel on the boards of several private and public companies provides useful insights, as it did at a recent oceanside luncheon in Casablanca hosted by entrepreneur-physicist Abdallah Alaoui. Alaoui talked of the work of his highly regarded MIFA group, including a public-private saltwater desalination project involving at least one Minnesota start-up firm in development of new technology.

Contributions and honors

The Minnesota connection is part of the message that the Kaplans share. Sylvia has Depression-era artwork, on loan from various Minnesota galleries, displayed in their official residence. She has even grown tasty Minnesota sweet corn, rarely available in Morocco, on the embassy's grounds.

A reception, hosted by the Kaplans with Aicha Ech-Channa, honored the Moroccan woman who received the $1 million Opus Prize. The award, made in 2009 by selection committee at the University of St. Thomas, honors "unsung heroes who demonstrate an entrepreneurial spirit and a strong faith commitment while addressing critical world issues." The Opus founder is Minnesotan Jerry Rauenhorst, whose creative charitable giving over the years has earned widespread respect.

Ech-Channa is the first president of the Casablanca-based nonprofit group "Women's Solidarity," an organization that offers professional legal counseling, job training and medical and psychological support to unwed mothers and their children. In helping unwed mothers to keep and raise their own children, the solidarity program also works to assure lifelong economic self-sufficiency.

Ambassador Kaplan provided background on the Minnesota connections while proudly reminding Ech-Channa and others that "good things come from Minnesota."

Morocco enjoys an unusual political alignment with a kind of constitutional monarchy that includes a bicameral Parliament and independent judiciary. However the ultimate authority on most matters rests with King Mohammed VI, whose framed picture with the Kaplans is displayed prominently in the reception area of the ambassador's residence.

A bulletproof SUV

Unique among the ambassadors serving in Morocco, the Kaplans have 10 armed bodyguards, courtesy of the king, and travel to public functions often in a black, bulletproof SUV. The reality of this is that, on their personal time, the couple does not often go out in public because it disrupts the lives of too many other people.

When Sam Kaplan testified before the U.S. Senate Foreign Affairs Committee on his nomination in 2009 he said: "I want to express how humbled I am to be nominated to serve in a Muslim country with a history of tolerance toward people of other faiths. As a Jewish American, I understand the importance of President Obama's initiative to seek a new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world, and I believe Morocco is an ideal country to continue to further the effort of finding common ground."

What lies ahead

While Morocco remains on a positive path, the U.S. diplomatic core understands that the country also faces significant challenges.

In a country where the average annual income is less than $5,000 a year, the divide between the rich and the poor remains wide.

Though the government has been successful in closing down terrorist cells, the specter of transnational terrorism is increasing. American diplomats believe that Morocco must continue to address the problems that cause too many young people to lose faith in their system.

The solution, Kaplan believes, lies in better education and employment opportunities and through an environment where Moroccans feel they are real stakeholders in their government and their society.

Minnesotans are fortunate to have the Kaplan connection in this too-often-overlooked, pro-American nation on the northernmost tip of Africa.


    Chuck Slocum, a Twin Cities management consultant, and his wife, Francelle, visited the Kaplans in Rabat, Morocco, in October. He can be reached at chuck@williston group.com

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