Mayor Sam Caruso of Slidell, La., population 30,000, was expecting a nice little greeting, and maybe a key to the city, when he arrived at Slidell's sister city of Panama City for his initial visit last year.
Instead, he and Councilwoman Pearl Williams got off the plane in Panama to find a red carpet, extravagant receptions and political pandemonium. The country's chief of defense, Gen. Manuel Noriega, was being accused of drug trafficking, money laundering, corruption and political assassinations. Yet, in the midst of the turmoil, municipal officials managed to welcome the visiting dignitaries.
"We were greeted as if we were heads of state," Caruso said.
Councilwoman Williams nudged him as they walked down the red carpet.
"What do you want, Pearl?" he asked.
"Mayor," she said quietly, "we're going to have to rent New Orleans if they come to Slidell for our centennial next year."
Treated Like Head of State
Throughout his visit, Caruso said, politicos kept taking him aside to explain their factions' positions as if he were himself a head of state. Caruso, who has never had to cope with even one political assassination in Slidell, simply listened and passed the messages on to his congressman.
Such are the travails of modern-day sister cityhood, which often goes far beyond the cultural exchanges of students, choirs and pandas commonly associated with the program.
Launched 31 years ago by President Dwight D. Eisenhower, Sister Cities International was nothing less than a bid by a general to take citizens busy building bomb shelters and turn them into personal emissaries of peace.
"Leap governments . . . evade governments if necessary," to pursue peace, Ike told Americans when he set up his "People-to-People" programs in 1956.
The best-known vestiges of that initiative are the municipal links overseen by Sister Cities International, based in a Washington suburb, which has brought together 800 U.S. cities with 1,200 foreign cities in 88 countries. Los Angeles, with 15 official sister cities from Athens to Auckland, leads the pack.
The program provides a small window on the world for Americans, who are geographically isolated and traditionally loathe to learn foreign languages. Thousands of students, many from small towns, have traveled abroad to sister cities in places they might otherwise have never seen.
Today, more American cities than ever before are wooing foreign mates in arrangements that enthusiasts often liken to marriages, despite the "sister" city label.
Many are heeding Eisenhower's words and leaping governments in the process. Some, ironically, are even leaping the quasi-official Sister Cities International.
In recent years, for example, dozens of cities have created their own sororal links with Nicaraguan towns in spite of--and in some cases because of--the fact that the Reagan Administration is financing rebel armies intent upon toppling its leftist government. A thousand U.S. cities and towns have unilaterally offered sisterhood to Soviet cities.
Five U.S. cities working through a Bay-Area group called New El Salvador Today have linked up with Salvadoran hamlets in war zones in an 8-year-old civil war between leftist guerrillas and the U.S.-backed government. In some cases, the sister towns don't even exist any more and the goal of the relationship for the American city is to help repopulate them.
Other cities are declaring sisterhood for economic reasons Eisenhower may not have foreseen.
In July, for example, Pittsburg, Calif., and Pohang, Korea, linked up because Pohang Iron & Steel Co. is a partner in a steel plant in Pittsburg. During the official Sister City inauguration ceremony in the Bay-Area city, however, the Koreans were booed by hundreds of striking steel workers outraged by a non-union contract at the plant.
'Lot of Trends'
"A lot of trends are occurring here at once," said Michael Shuman, president of the Center for Innovative Diplomacy, a rapidly growing Berkeley- and Irvine-based nonprofit organization that encourages cities to become involved in international issues.
"Cities are increasingly influenced by international affairs. No city can escape, say, Japanese economic policies, or Russian Chernobyls. The cost of international travel and communication has declined. At the same time, many people are dissatisfied with federal policies, so municipal governments empower themselves to act," he said.
But politicization of sister cities programs remains the exception. And, even in those cities where programs have been established for political reasons, the programs themselves almost always involve strictly cultural, medical and trade exchanges in the tradition of Sister Cities International.
'They Have Caused Confusion'
"We are aware of the other efforts and we are not necessarily opposed to them, but they have caused confusion for us," said Thomas W. Gittens, executive vice president of Sister Cities International. "We are apolitical and we are determined to remain apolitical."