Chilean Musical Chairs

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Diplomat Takes Leave for New Role as Ambassador's Wife

This is an exciting time for Loreto Leyton, the brand new, vivacious wife of the equally brand new Chilean ambassador in town, José Goñi. Everything has happened so fast for Loreto that she’s suddenly found herself back in Washington.

As a career diplomat herself, she was here three years ago as the assistant to the secretary-general of the Organization of American States (OAS), José Miguel Insulza, with whom she had previously worked from 1997 to 1998 when he was Chile’s foreign minister. Loreto also spent nearly five years in New York from 1999 to 2004 as Chile’s first secretary to the United Nations.

Now, she has a new role as the ambassador’s wife, on a leave of absence from the Chilean Foreign Ministry and her most recent position as general coordinator of “Proyecto Chile — Imagen País,” the country’s new image campaign launched last year. “I may help with this project from here but that hasn’t been decided yet,” Loreto told us. “And I also may participate in some of the electoral missions of the OAS.”

In mid-March, a sudden game of diplomatic musical chairs began in Chile and ended with this charming diplomatic couple coming to Washington. Chilean President Michelle Bachelet had replaced her just-resigned foreign minister with Washington’s popular ambassador, Mariano Fernández. In fact, Fernández woke up in Washington on March 12 as ambassador, got Bachelet’s call, and left Washington that afternoon. Next up, Bachelet chose José Goñi, then the minister of defense, to become Chile’s top envoy here.

“It was one day like any other day,” Loreto recalled. “I was doing errands with a friend at Plaza de Armas when I got a call from José saying, ‘I have news for you. We’re going back to Washington.’ I couldn’t believe it! I never thought it would happen. But this is the way public serving is — you never know where you might be the next day,” the former diplomat mused.

“The first thing I did was to schedule my hip surgery,” said this pretty 45-year-old who also used to be a first-class tennis player. With little time to recover before coming here, I asked how she fared during the 12-hour trip. She laughed and pointed to the newest member of the family: Uki, a big, white, fluffy Persian Himalayan cat who has captivated this diplomatic couple.

“It was Uki’s first plane trip and I was so worried about him that I forgot everything else. We left at 9 p.m. on LanChile [airlines] and he wasn’t allowed to ride with us but had to be underneath with the luggage. When we arrived at 5 a.m. in Miami, not only was Uki OK, but we found out that on our Washington flight with American Airlines Uki could stay in the cabin with us. We were so relieved.”

Now Uki is very much at home in this jewel box of a residence just off Sheridan Circle. “He’s eight months old now and more like a dog than a cat,” Loreto said, pointing to him sitting on the window ledge, watching traffic go by on Massachusetts Avenue. “He follows us around. He’s like a kid who needs attention. He is so spoiled!”

Like Uki, Loreto is gradually settling into her new home. “I love being back in Washington and so close to New York. I’m looking into painting lessons and I already have a wonderful writing class, in Spanish, with Roberto Brodsky, a well-known Chilean writer who won the Jael Prize in 2007 for his novel ‘Random House,’” she noted.

It’s all familiar terrain for this low-profile diplomat who says she prides herself on doing her homework. But initially, Loreto explored vastly different terrain as her career choice.

She earned an undergraduate degree in geography from the Catholic University of Chile, and, “among other things, I studied these little round holes, like honeycombs, called ‘taffoni’ that could be found in only a certain kind of rock on the central coast,” said Loreto, who also holds master’s in business administration from the Institute of High Entrepreneurial Studies at Argentina’s Universidad Austral.

“I loved nature and anything outdoors,” she said. “I loved tennis, horseback riding and skiing. With geography, I studied outside, took field trips, and got to know my country very well.”

It was another diplomat — whom she met at the Chilean French Cultural Institute, where they were both studying French — who first suggested that this free-spirited woman might enjoy diplomacy. “What are you doing with geography?” he asked Loreto. “You can’t be anything other than a diplomat — it suits you perfectly.”

Apparently it did. “No one knows to this day how I passed the difficult Foreign Service exam and got in,” the humble diplomat said. “There were very few women then. Out of my class of 10, only two of us were women. Today, things have changed and there are even more women accepted than men.”

Loreto said her most challenging posting was at the United Nations. “It changed my life. I worked under three different ambassadors, and every day was a challenge for me to negotiate on behalf of Chile’s position in social and human rights issues. I was so attached to my job that I used to spend nights and even weekends at the U.N. To be able to succeed, at the beginning I had to put an enormous amount of time studying and preparing myself. After the first time I had to take the floor presenting Chile’s position, in English, to around 100 skilled diplomats from around the world, I finally proved to myself that I had what it takes to do a good job for my country,” Loreto proudly explained.

“All my life, I have been very close to my family but my work has always been very, very important to me too,” she continued. “Although my mother never worked outside our home, she taught me that independence is very important and that women should have the opportunity to choose what they want to do with their lives. From the time I was a young girl, I always wanted to be independent and free.

“But it was my maternal grandfather who had the most influence over me,” Loreto added. “Even though my grandfather was very ‘macho’ in his own life, he told me to ‘extend your wings and fly as high as you can.’ I loved to go to his house, and now I always remember him in my most difficult moments. I spent as much time as I could with him,” she said, recalling a particular memory that stands out.

“I had an awful, old brown car that was my treasure and which happened to become rusty due to all the sea salt from my wind surfer, which I used to carry on the roof. One day my grandfather asked, ‘Would you like to paint your car?’ We spent weeks and weeks working on that together. All the work had to be done by hand because it was so rusty. In the end, we didn’t finish it. I took it to the garage for the painting. They couldn’t believe that I did all that work and so they painted it for free.”

Today, she still credits her grandfather for her confident outlook on life. “He was wise and intelligent and always reinforced my independence. He’d say, ‘You can have anything you want.’ He knew I was free-spirited. That’s probably why I never felt like I had to get married before now.”

Loreto is so independent that she panicked last November when Uki, then a two-month-old kitty, was delivered. “I took off from work so I could be home that afternoon,” she said. “It was the day before my birthday and as I reached out to hold this little white, furry thing, I thought, ‘What am I going to do with this cat the next 14 years!’ I told José that immediately I went into a postpartum depression, which only lasted minutes. Now, I adore this cat.”

She also adores her new husband. There are 16 years between 45-year-old Loreto and her 61-year-old husband. “I never dated someone older before, but it is not an issue. José is very young, both in his attitude and in his heart, and he loves young people.”

The two originally met about 10 years ago but at the time he was getting married. “I thought, ‘Who is this charming man?’”

Fortunately they would meet later under different circumstances. “We met again when he was ambassador to Italy. I was on a 10-day sailing cruise and my friend told me that I had to call him when I got back to Rome. I put off calling him until the end of my vacation, my last night in Rome,” Loreto remembered. “When I called, he invited me to dinner. It was a perfect night, so romantic. The weather was balmy and we walked and talked until 2 a.m. We kept in touch after that. Only when he was ambassador to Mexico and I was at the OAS, about four years later, we started dating in a serious way.”

And then this independent-minded woman got really serious and finally decided to take the plunge. Today, the happily married couple are enjoying Washington life, whether at the recent Rammy restaurant awards gala, where only Chilean wine was served, or biking along the Crescent Trail. “The first thing we bought when we came here was new bikes. We are biking fanatics,” Loreto noted.

As much as she enjoys her diplomatic fairytale romance, Loreto said she will never forget how important her family, her best friends and many others have always been to her. “My friends, both men and women, have been one of the main pillars in my life; they are like family to me. Without them, I would not be here today.”

About the Author

Gail Scott is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat and lifestyle columnist for the Diplomatic Pouch.

Last Edited on July 7, 2014