Line between right and wrong in T&T BLURRED


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Category: International 30 Oct 11


As ambassador to T&T and nine other Caricom countries, and consul general for three British overseas territories, with five languages and over 30 years in the Foreign Service under his belt, German Ambassador Stefan Schlüter is surprisingly free-spirited and self-effacing. In this refreshingly candid interview with Ambassador Schlüter and his outspoken Brazilian wife Ana, I discovered that he still marvels over J’Ouvert and the mango tree in their garden, and she has a wicked laugh and loves to read. When it comes to this couple, stereotypes don’t apply.

Q:  Germany has a reputation of being organised, disciplined, a stickler for proper procedures. Brazil has the opposite—chaotic, creative, fun-loving. Does that describe you two?

A: It is the other way around. Ana Luisa is the Prussian in our marriage and I am the Latino. I grew up in Hamburg, studied political science, wanted to be a foreign correspondent, photographer or diplomat and eventually chose diplomacy as a great way to explore the world with a wide lens. We met at my first posting in Buenos Aires in 1981 to 1984, after which she agreed to marry me. Partners have a far harder role. I work for eight, ten hours in German embassies—be it in Algiers, Tel Aviv or Trinidad—in a familiar structure, language, and with my fellow nationals. I know just what is expected. Our families live 100 per cent in the host country and have to adapt every three years to a new language and country and make it home.

Ana Schlüter says: Yes, you break your heart every two or three years and have to put it together and open up again to new people. I grew up in Sao Paolo in an Italian Roman Catholic family among strong working women, professionals who also did the mothering, cleaning and cooking. I was an independent working woman in Argentina when Stefan asked me to share his life. Suddenly, I was the wife with the diplomatic visa, which generally doesn’t allow you to work, representing Germany. It’s strange working for another flag. Often you fall in love with the countries where you live.

Trinidad and Brazil share a similar history, the warmth and Carnival and problems of drugs, crime, HIV/Aids, youth pregnancy. Brazil is chaotic, big, and warm, people laugh first and worry later. Our main Carnival is highly organised and spectator-oriented but up north we have street parties that are more like the T&T Carnival with drink, dance revelry, everything to excess.

 What do you think of our society?

It is an open, warm society but the state of emergency, based on soaring crime, shows you are battling hard in the war on ethics. The line between right and wrong has become negotiable, blurred. If you follow the Clico or Calder Hart stories you see the top echelons skimming millions but someone stealing two bags of plums is sentenced to two months hard labour. Ordinary people are seeing the big ones getting away. This makes it difficult for Government to fight crime.

We had a project in Grenada to support teenage mothers who dropped out of school. Perhaps the stereotype of what it is to be manly in the region needs to change among young girls. Instead of admiring macho, unfaithful men who have many children, the real role model should be a man who is serious, has an education, a job and supports his family. My first week here I visited UWI and there were students presenting their theses on subjects I was familiar with through my job and I was astounded by the wonderful quality. What I find deplorable is the high rate of brain drain in the whole region of highly educated graduates, doctors, engineers, nurses who go abroad because they can’t get jobs here.

Ana Schlüter: As a teacher’s daughter from Brazil I can see where the crime is coming from. The basic rules of right and wrong start with the home. Young girls have babies without being able to support them. Most boys who turn to crime don’t get a proper education, live without a support system, work ethic, ambition or direction. Fathers are not around. People expect everything from the Government. Teachers need to be respected and paid better. I would like to see a strong sex education programme similar to ours in Brazil in every school, spelling out the risks of unprotected sex (including Aids and unwanted pregnancies) that also gives out condoms.

Finally, you have to get over your past. Brazil, too, was a colony. We are a country of immigrants like you—black, white, indigenous. But different groups can’t go their own way. We now have to move forward together in one direction which is education, education, education.

You are the fifth largest economy in the world, the strongest in the EU. Do you see yourself as the EU’s big brother, especially in the face of the debt and euro crisis in the EU?

We are not Europe’s big brother. We are a potent, well managed economy. When our economy did better than expected two years ago, Government asked the people: “What should we do with the surplus? Lower taxes or repay public debt?” The Germans said: “Pay off the public debt.” Our population is mature. Twenty years ago we began to shrink our civil service simply by not replacing people. No one was fired. Over the years, all civil servants had their Christmas bonus of a 13th salary being cut to ten per cent.

Then a German taxpayer reads that the Greece public servant still has a 14th salary. And while we were pruning they kept hiring. Now after our careful saving we are called rich and powerful, and in a position where we have to transfer our money to countries that did not have the same discipline. Many Germans ask why. The EU is going through a severe test. In the 90s when Chancellor Kohl was being criticised for paying more German funds into the EU than it was getting out of it he said: “I am sorry but I am not an accountant. I do know that political and economic integration in the long run is benefiting us all.” He was right. We need more, not less regional integration. 

Chancellor Angela Merkel remains as committed to the EU institutions. Still, we can’t just transfer money to the weaker states. Some countries definitely lived beyond their means. A key weakness of the Lisbon treaty was to create a common currency without having a common finance and budgetary policy. It must be a common imperative now to instil budgetary discipline in all members.  

Germany is known for its world-class medium-sized companies—the

Mittelstand. Was this a conscious decision?

We know that it is the “Mittelstand” who creates the majority of jobs. And I would also like to mention another German success story—the vocational training for our young people. We have exported that scheme all over the world, including T&T.

Your career took you to Israel. What sort of reception does a German diplomat get there?

I was in Israel as press attaché. Contrary to what you might expect, I was not ostracised for being German. When our daughter was born in Israel, survivors of the holocaust became her godparents. I was born in 1952, seven years after the war. My generation grew up with the knowledge of the holocaust. Years later, I went to Auschwitz, the German Nazi Concentration and Extermination Camp with my daughter. The most eerie thing about it was it looked so normal. It’s another world, it happened then, unimaginable now. We were not personally ashamed as we were not responsible for it but we feel special responsibility to ensure that nothing like that would happen again.

As a diplomat I feel pride over how we organise our economy and state and how we are dealing with our past. But you will never see me singing the national anthem or taking pride in national symbols, the anthem, the flag. I don’t feel proud to be a German. At a meeting of a German/Jewish group in LA in the early 90s, the facilitator gave little flags to Germans, Americans, and Israelis. A German actress was asked to share her feelings on our flag. She said the thought of a young German waving the flag gave her goose pimples. With the new generation this has changed. Just remember the World Cup in 2006 with its sea of German flags, young Germans displaying national feelings in a positive way.

One of my most memorable days ever was as deputy consul general in New York, when I had to interview people eligible for a pension in Germany. I visited the home of an elderly holocaust survivor for what was supposed to be a 20-minute interview and stayed for three hours listening to her talk about concentration camps. She said: “It’s crazy. I am sitting with a German diplomat telling him things I don’t tell my children.”


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All Articles Copyright Ira Mathur