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Category: International 03 Oct 10

A conversation with Spanish ambassador to Trinidad and Tobago Joaquín de Arístegui Laborde on commemorating Spanish Day (Fiesta Nacional de España) on October 12--the day in 1492 when Christopher Columbus first set foot in America--is akin to dipping into a novel of magical realism, a knot of vines stretching back and forth across time, vast landscapes, from Spain to the new world of the Americas. “Not many countries,” explains the raven haired, personable envoy in fluent English, “celebrate outside their own borders. “Ever since Columbus discovered the new world, Spain and the Americas shared a collective and equal identity. In any political approach to current affairs we never consider the Americas apart from us. “Spain joins all countries commemorating this day. (The US, Costa Rica, Bahamas, and Uruguay). We have a shared language, customs, tradition, academic curricular and history. This is our common patrimony.


“For several hundred years there has been a dual flow of populations between Spain and the Americas, of companies, businessmen, families, artists, writers which enriches both shores. “This doesn’t mean there haven’t been difficulties. We may disagree, fight, even... but we make up, remain a family and support one another.”


Ambassador Joaquín de Arístegui Laborde says Spain has been absent for too long from the English speaking Caribbean. Now, as concurrent ambassador to St Vincent and the Grenadines, Barbados and Guyana, he can confidently say that this is all changing. “We would like to revive other dormant aspects of Spanish heritage to enrich this melting pot. Trinidad remained a part of Spain until the early 19th century. We know there are many Spanish descendents here, that parang was brought by Spanish priests is alive at Christmas, and Spanish is taught in schools. “We also want Spanish citizens to rediscover Trinidad. Few Spaniards know that this was the first place from which Columbus was able to sail to the Americas, or that a Spanish Admiral established one of the first observatories in the Americas in Trinidad. “Even fewer people remember that the last Spanish governor, Don José Maria Chacón (after whom the national flower is named) wanted Trinidad to be more than just a look-out for Venezuela. He moved the capital from San Fernando to Port-of-Spain, and proposed a law allowing French settlers to create agricultural estates here.


Chacón’s decendents stayed in Trinidad

“He was ill-treated and Court marshalled in Spain, sent into exile and died an unhappy death. We would like to bring him back from oblivion, starting with naming our official residence after Chacon.” The relatively young ambassador (he is 45) wears diplomacy like a second skin. Illustrated coffee table books of spectacular Spanish architecture, the art on the Embassy walls, and the ambassadors’ lucidity weaves many strands of history, art, the personal and the political into a single multi textured narrative. Hitting an exact note of humility and pride, he speaks of Spain’s emergence as a unified country in the 15th century, the marriage of the Catholic monarchs, and the empire that became the strongest kingdom in Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries. His Excellency refers unflinchingly to the Muslim invaders, French invasion of Spain in the early 18th century, General Franco’s right wing authoritarian regime (1936- 75), civil war, and even the current trade union unrest perhaps because his country has so much to be proud of today.


Despite soaring unemployment (19 per cent), Spain remains the ninth largest economy in the world, with very high standards of living (the 15th highest on the Human Development Index), is a world leader in solar power and gender equality in Government.
One is left with a sense of having partaken of an epic tale of loss, grandeur, resilience, leaving its lasting legacy of over 500 million Spanish speakers today making it the world’s second most spoken first language. “There are over 20 countries in the UN that officially speak Spanish. Emerging powers like Brazil strategically promote the language for economic reasons China has increased its presence in America as a key player. There are Spanish connections in the Pacific. “This explains why the language is growing so fast, popularised even further by international pop figures like Shakira and Julio and Enrique Iglesias.” With characteristic reticence, he adds that “Spain does not lay overarching claim to the language. Each country comes with its own nuances and style.”


Ambassador Joaquín de Arístegui Laborde’s previous postings include El Salvador, Bangkok, Japan, and Switzerland and tell of a meteoric rise in the Spanish Foreign Service. (He is already decorated with numerous honours by his government). The ambassador remains unconvinced when I suggest he has lived a magical life, but admits (as do most diplomatic families and expatriates) to the ‘strangeness’ of belonging nowhere and everywhere simultaneously.

When Joaquín was born in Madrid in January 21, 1966 into an aristocratic Spanish family, his father (also Joaquín de Arístegui), a diplomat under Franco’s regime, mother Esperanza, and grandfather, the retired diplomat Juan Manuel de Arístegui, must have sensed that Joaquíns’ tryst with diplomacy and destiny was sealed. How much, even they may not have guessed. His parents were friendly with another diplomat and his wife, who had a baby girl named China, 15 months after Joaquín’s birth. When Joaquín was old enough, his nanny was sent to take care of China.


The toddlers parted ways then and met sporadically over the years. He remembers her being shy. China went to Panama with her parents and Joaquín to Honduras and Mexico with his. Call it serendipity, but Joaquín’s childhood and adulthood mirrored a renaissance in his country of birth. “My first memories as a child were contradictory. I was Spaniard who lived in Mexico. Spain and Franco’s regime was under fire from international community. There was turmoil and instability. “My father and grandfather said that as diplomats they represented Spain, and our countrymen, and not Franco at a time when many counties considered us the pariahs in Europe. We were posted to Greece, Nigeria, and France. I saw my parents dealing with risky and difficult situations in Mexico before coming back to a new and shiny Spain. “When we visited Spain we encountered a place which was far more rigid than I was used to in Mexico.”


By the time Joaquín was 12, democracy was restored to Spain in the form of a parliamentary constitutional monarchy. “Between 1972-78, Spain opened up its economy. But our liberties were still curtailed. After Franco’s death in 1975, Spain made a real effort to overcome the devastation left by civil war, the scramble in Africa, and the terrible consequences of misguided religious and nationalistic dictatorship. “In four years we had a new constitution, redefined relations with the Americas and Europe, renegotiated American military presence, dealt with terrorists, communists, separatists, radical groups, and tackled sections of society who were unhappy to move from a right wing regime where they had total control to a full democracy. It required sacrifices from everyone.” By the late 70s Spain was seen as a miracle country, the rage of Europe. In 1986, around the time young Joaquín strolled into Autónoma University, Madrid as a law student, Spain joined the European Union and the country began experiencing a “cultural renaissance” steady economic growth.


He says, “Joining the EU was crucial to us to become fully modernised and competitive. We needed to walk that extra mile to become a frontline partner in the world. “In turn, Spain enriched EU policy with privileged interlocution and market access with Americas. We became an investors country, overcame the isolation of war.” Those were heady times for the young. “Those were lively, crazy wonderful years for students in cities across Spain who no longer needed to look outwards. The renaissance was taking place at home in an open Mediterranean society. “Spain was liberating itself from taboos established during the authoritarian Franco regime, shaking off a profound Catholicism to join a mosaic of tolerance along with Islam and Judaism. “Madrid became a cult city. The medieval district, the Royal palace, the Prince Charles 3rd Park, the Opera house, the Moorish, Jewish Castilian accented architecture, the 18th century districts built by the Bourbon kings, belonged fully to his generation. As did to the tallest skyscrapers in Europe.”


Pubs, clubs and night life mushroomed in cities everywhere. Barcelona beat out London and Paris as the “it” city, a hub for artists, poets, writers, filmmakers, musicians, architects, and dramatists.” The new democratic surge helped to move Spain from among the most conservative countries to among the most progressive, with gender rights for women and homosexuals. It was also the time when he was reunited with China Crespo Lasso de la Vega, the diplomats’ daughter with whom he had shared a nanny many years back. They married in 1992, the year of the Barcelona Olympics, in a “very different world to the one they had been born into.” The couple have three children, Miguel, Alonso and Berta, already world travellers inheritors of the “new and shiny Spain.”

On October 12, on the occasion Fiesta Nacional de España), his Excellency, Spanish Ambassador Joaquín de Arístegui Laborde says to them, and us. “For us all, in Europe and in the Americas it’s an important day to pay tribute to our past, come to terms with it, assume it, claim it, even our shadows, and also proudly celebrate our resilience and glory.”


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All Articles Copyright Ira Mathur