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Guatemalan Envoy Talks About Challenges He’s Encountered in His Career

By Isabella Rolz

On June 3, the day before the 2018 General Assembly of the Organization of American States (OAS), Guatemalan Ambassador Gabriel Aguilera Peralta walked into his office to discuss how his delegation was going to participate in the most crucial event of the international organization, which gathers foreign ministers and diplomats from all over the Western Hemisphere. However, he found out later that day that Volcán de Fuego, the biggest volcano in Guatemala, had just erupted, killing over 100 people and affecting thousands of lives.

Amid the OAS General Assembly, various countries expressed their solidarity to Guatemala and worked in the following weeks to assist and make financial contributions to the country. “Unfortunately, Guatemala suffers from several types of natural disasters and one of these are volcanic eruptions,” said Aguilera in an interview in Spanish at the Permanent Mission of Guatemala to OAS. “I felt happy with the cooperation and support my country received,” he added.

The change in plans was par for the course for the seasoned diplomat. With 20 years of service under his belt, Aguilera has represented Guatemala as an ambassador in Germany, the Netherlands, Peru and, most recently, as permanent representative to the OAS, in Washington, D.C., since 2016. Additionally, he worked in high-ranking positions at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Guatemala, where he assisted the government on matters of conflict resolution to re-establish peace after the Guatemalan Civil War that raged for nearly 40 years until 1996.

“Diplomacy is like being part of a gigantic chess game because an ambassador has to work hard to demonstrate a lot of skill to defend national interests,” says Guatemalan Ambassador to the Organization of American States Gabriel Aguilera Peralta. (Photo: Isabella Rolz)

This August, Aguilera is set to return to Guatemala after 10 years of representing the country internationally. He reflected on his career with the Diplomatic Pouch during an interview in his OAS office. Aguilera was wearing his signature casual yet classic light-blue vest, which he combines with a dark tie of the same color and black pants. As he put on his reading glasses, he pointed out at an old picture from 2008, when the photographer captured the moment German Chancellor Angela Merkel greeted him in Berlin, where he served as ambassador.

“I was very happy in Germany because the embassy there is highly demanding and competitive, and Guatemala has to work hard to strengthen diplomatic relations with one of the most powerful nations of Europe,” he said while he smiled, still looking at the picture.

Even though Aguilera said he prefers working in a bilateral setting because “it lets me elaborate a more developed and straight-forward plan,” he said he feels gratified to work with a multilateral agenda at the OAS because he gets to interact with other countries on subjects that concern not only Guatemala, but also the rest of the Latin America and the Caribbean. “For the OAS, cooperation and outside support is very important. Italy and Spain, two observer countries in the organization, gave two of the biggest contributions for Volcán de Fuego, through their programs of cooperation,” he noted.

Aguilera also finds bilateral agendas more challenging than multilateral ones because “a smaller country like Guatemala has less international influence, and in larger countries like the Netherlands or Germany, you have to compete to get a space and attention,” he said, adding that “diplomacy is like being part of a gigantic chess game because an ambassador has to work hard to demonstrate a lot of skill to defend national interests.”

Permanent Representative of Guatemala to the Organization of American States Gabriel Aguilera Peralta presents his credentials to OAS Secretary-General Luis Almagro on Aug. 11, 2016. (Photo: Juan Manuel Herrera / OAS)

Aguilera said being proactive and clever is essential for any diplomat, and he told us that his biggest aspiration while at the OAS has been to “explain and defend the interests of Guatemala and to keep the American community informed on Central American issues.”

Although the OAS has given more priority to topics like the economic meltdown in Venezuela and the political clashes Nicaragua, it has also worked to make progress on more local issues, such as mending the frosty relationship between Belize and Guatemala.

Going back to the early 1800s, Belize and Guatemala have been engaged in a fierce territorial dispute that has erupted into sporadic clashes and exacerbated tensions in the region for decades, as Guatemala pressed its claim that parts of Belize belonged to it. In fact, Guatemala only recognized Belize’s independence in 1991.

But this past April, Guatemala held a referendum to determine if its people wanted the International Court of Justice to intervene to solve the territorial dispute. Almost 96 percent of voters agreed that there should be intervention according to the Guatemalan Supreme Electoral Tribunal. “I’m happy to know that the OAS has participated as the mediator entity to help Guatemala hold the referendum this year and encouraged Belize to set a date for a referendum as well,” said Aguilera.

“Since I was young, I’ve been interested in international topics, like the Belize and Guatemala dispute,” Aguilera said as he finished his cup of tea. “During my time at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Guatemala, I worked for years on the Belize topic, assisting experts on how to find a definite solution to the problem. Knowing that there is finally hope for the two countries to reconcile satisfies me.”

Aguilera stood up to show a collection of pictures he has in his office that captured his most memorable moments as an ambassador. Next to Merkel’s photograph, he has others with former Guatemalan presidents and world diplomats. “Being an ambassador is a position with a lot of responsibility because you are not representing yourself, but your country,” Aguilera said as he recalled how much of a challenge it was to start his diplomatic career during a time when oppressive military governments controlled the country. “Guatemala had a very difficult time during our Civil War…. We didn’t have a well-seen diplomatic image internationally and it was our job as diplomats to restore it,” he said.

“I’m deeply sad to leave Washington and the OAS, after learning so much these two years,” he said. “But in the world of diplomacy, things constantly change and it is time for me to serve my country in a different way,” he added, noting that he will be working at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Guatemala City. “I’ve grown as a diplomat and I will keep doing so, but this time in a different way.”

Isabella Rolz is a freelance writer studying at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.




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