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Obama appoints Indian-American as Ambassador to Belize

June 12, 2009 09:41 IST

President Barack Obama has nominated his friend and former room-mate and major campaign fund-raiser Vinai Thummalapally of Colorado Springs, Colorado, as the next US Ambassador to Belize, the only country in Central America where English is the official language.

If Thummalapally's nomination is confirmed by the Senate--and there is no reason as to why it won't because it's long been a tradition that usually a President rewards his friends and major fund-raisers with ambassadorship and such nominations to small countries of island hardly creates any ripples unless there is something untoward in the nominee's background—he would create history becoming the first Indian American ambassador in US history.

The first Indian American to be nominated was Vin Gupta, major Democratic Party fund-raiser and close friend of Bill and Hillary Clinton, to whose campaigns he contributed handsomely, particularly the presidential campaign of Bill Clinton, who was nominated by President Bill Clinton to be envoy to Bermuda, but the White House quietly withdrew the nomination when some questions began to arise over Gupta's purchase of stocks in his then young children's names which were being investigated by the Securities and Exchange Commission.

Subsequently, Clinton nominated Osman Siddique, a Bangladeshi American entrepreneur and major Clinton fund-raiser too, to Fiji, and Siddique who was confirmed by the Senate, became the first US South Asian American ambassador.

Obama said, "Americans will be fortunate to have these distinguished men and women as their representatives abroad.Their talent, experience, and dedication will be invaluable as we continue to strengthen America's partnerships around the world and confront the challenges of the 21st century. I am grateful for their service and look forward to working with each of them," while nominating Thummalapally and several others as ambassadors to counries like the Republic of Burundi,  The Sultanate of Oman, the Republican of the Marshall Islands and the Republic of Suriname.

Thummalapally, as he himself described it, was an old friends of Obama's college years, between 1979 and 1985 in Los Angeles at Occidental College and then in New York at Columbia University, was the focus of several stories during the presidential campaign.

Obama and his international friends, according to a report in the Associated Press last year, got together often to watch basketball games--they were fans of the Los Angeles Lakers--and would often enjoy South Indian cuisine that Thummalapally cooked with his cousin. During this time, there would also be much discussion about US foreign policy –including the failed hostage rescue mission in Iran under President Jimmy Carter and American support of the Contras in Nicaragua during the administration of President Ronald Reagan.

In the summer of 1980 Thummalapally roomed with Obama and they also jogged together daily, three miles daily, according to one report, often chatting about their dreams, including Thummalapally's dream of returning to Hyderabad after completing his studies and starting a business. Thummalapally, in an interview during the campaign said Obama would always talk about helping people and recalls Obama saying, "I want to get into public service. I want to write and help people who are disadvantaged."

Even after Obama transferred in 1981 from Occidental College to Columbia, Thummalapally kept in touch with Obama, often visiting him in New York and even attended his wedding in 1982, and then was on hand in Springfield, Illinois on February 10, 2007, when Obama declared his intent to run for President.

Thummalapally did not return to Hyderabad as he had hoped to do after college and as he had told Obama, but relocated to Colorado Springs to start a CD and DVD manufacturing company. During the campaign, Obama's website, listed Thummalapally as a top fundraiser—those who had raised over $100,000 to $200,000 for the campaign.

The White House in announcing Thummalapally's nomination by Obama to be envoy to Belize, said he is President of MAM-A Inc, a manufacturer and distributor of recordable optical discs. Prior to founding MAM-A Inc, he was the plant manager for Mitsui Advanced Media Inc, which also manufactures recordable optical  discs.

The White House said Thummalapally had also "served in several other similar roles in his 31-year career, including as General Manager for WEA Manufacturing, as a Managing Partner of Clines Office Products, and as Manufacturing Manager of Disc Manufacturing, Inc." It said he received his bachelor of science degree in mechanical engineering from California State University and had completed post graduate courses in business administration.

Aziz Haniffa in Washington, DC