‘As an ambassador you witness history as it unfolds’
Carmen Gonsalves has been the Dutch ambassador to Chile since this autumn. She studied history in Leiden. How useful has her degree been and what’s it like to be an ambassador? ‘Diplomacy is fascinating.’ We spoke to her just before the presidential elections.
You’ve been the ambassador to Chile for a few months now. What’s going on in the country?
‘It’s a thrilling time. Chile now has a right-wing conservative president, Sebastian Piñera, and there are presidential elections with a left-wing candidate and a right-wing conservative candidate (the elections on 19 December have since been won by the left leader Gabriel Boric, ed.). Gay marriage was recently approved by parliament. A fantastic moment: we raised the rainbow flag on the residency the day and held a reception with the first openly lesbian mayor in the country.
‘Since the fall of the dictator Pinochet in 1989, Chile has developed into a stable democracy. There are still major challenges such as poverty and inequality, which have led to lots of protests. A new constitution is needed because the old one is from Pinochet’s time. By chance, the new constitution convention is being presided over by another alumna, Elisa Loncon Antileo. She is an anthropologist who did her PhD in Leiden and belongs to the Mapuche nation, one of the indigenous groups from before Chile was colonised. She gave the Cleveringa lecture here in November on the position of indigenous peoples and the importance of language.’
‘It’s an honour to be the face of the Netherlands in Chile.’
You have worked as a diplomat in various posts abroad and this is you first posting as an ambassador. How does it feel?
‘It’s an honour to be the face of the Netherlands in Chile. But I’m not doing it alone of course. How effective you are depends on the whole team. With my colleagues I analyse the developments in the country, and write reports about these for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and other ministries in The Hague. There’s an extra emphasis on circular economy and climate policy because these are areas on which the Netherlands is working with Chile. Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine I’d be ambassador to Chile, particularly because my husband originally comes from Chile. His parents fled the country with him in the 1970s and ended up in the Netherlands. I met him in Leiden, where he was also studying, and was my Spanish teacher. That makes it special to be here together. When we arrived here this autumn, the hard lockdown had just been eased. Children hadn’t been to school for a year and a half. Fortunately, the vaccination programme began early and the booster campaign is also well underway.’
You previously worked as a diplomat in Madrid, Sofia, Lisbon and London. What have been memorable moments?
‘Bulgaria, where I worked from 2003 to 2007, was a complex post. The country was in negotiations about joining the EU and was struggling to transform the political system after communism and with organised crime to contend with. If you live in the country yourself, you see not only political life but also daily life and how normal Bulgarians are working so hard to move their country forward. Bulgaria finally joined the EU in 2007, under certain conditions. Another special posting was to London at the time of the Brexit referendum. As a European I was upset by the result, but it shows you how dynamic history can be. Emotion won over reason; that feeling was palpable there. But it is exciting to be in the political centre. What is fascinating about diplomacy is that you see history unfurl before your eyes. You’re a witness.’
Why did you decided to study history in Leiden?
‘It was my favourite subject at secondary school because of the wonderful stories. And the idea that we can learn from history really appealed to me. Obviously that’s a positivist viewpoint that doesn’t always hold true. But history does at least provide knowledge that helps you understand and interpret the world around you. ’
In London during the Brexit referendum: ‘As a European I was upset by the result, but it shows you how dynamic history can be.’
Is your degree of any use now?
‘Alongside a lot of knowledge, I also acquired many skills, such as analytical thinking and writing in a precise and structured fashion. As a diplomat, I have to write lots of reports and policy despatches, so this still comes in use. I’m still grateful for that to my lecturers, such as professors Henk Versnel and George Winius. During my studies I became interested in Latin America and followed courses in Latin America studies.’
Did you want to go into diplomacy at that point?
‘No, I wanted to go into journalism, so I did an internship at the current affairs programme Televizier. After I graduated I did voluntary work at the European Commission representation in West Berlin. It was there that I became really interested in international relations, and that’s how I came up with the idea of applying for a job at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, for a place on the diplomat programme. I started in 1989 at an iconic moment. The Wall fell, and changed history.’
What would you advise students who want to become a diplomat?
‘You have to feel comfortable in an environment with other cultures. Diplomats are by no longer only law graduates. Many different academics are needed, such as linguists, sociologists, historians and agriculture experts. The work enriches your life, but you do live a long way away from your family and friends in the Netherlands, so you also have to be very flexible – for me that also applied to my husband and two sons. The boys have done really well, but did find it hard when they once again had to leave friends behind. They have become very international. One is studying in the Netherlands and the other in England. Luckily it’s really easy for us to FaceTime nowadays.’
Text: Linda van Putten