Two ambassadors live in the Peruvian Residence in D.C.: Ambassador Hugo de Zela, a distinguished 42-year career diplomat, and Ambassador María Eugenia Chiozza, a distinguished diplomat with a 38-year career.
Zela, a former permanent representative to the Organization of American States (OAS), became Peru’s ambassador to the U.S. in April, so for now Chiozza is playing the role of the ambassador’s wife.
“If there were the top post open at the OAS, that could have been a possibility for me but since I have the rank of ambassador, nothing else is appropriate,” she told us.
“Having two ambassadors in the same embassy, the same residence, makes things, I would say, run smoothly precisely because of each other’s experience in diplomacy,” said Chiozza. “It can sometimes be even fun planning events and embassy activities together.”
“I always see ‘the big picture’ and Hugo goes very deep into details,” she added. “If he asks me to take a look at his speech, his lecture, I always give him advice.”
Which makes sense because between the two of them, they have a multitude of experience. In addition to his two stints at the OAS, Zela was Peru’s ambassador to Brazil and Argentina, as well as its national coordinator in the Rio Group.
Unlike her husband, Chiozza has not formally served abroad as an ambassador. Rather, she holds the rank of an ambassador, having served in a number of top postings at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, where she spearheaded Peru’s relations with the European Union and North America, among other regions, throughout her career.
“I wanted to be a diplomat from the time I was little,” said Chiozza, who is still called by her childhood nickname, “Yoyo,” by family and close friends.
“A dear friend of my father’s was a fine ambassador and represented Peru in Austria, Canada and Mexico. I was always amazed at his stories and what he knew about other countries by living there,” she recalled. “I watched how diplomacy was being done and I became even more interested in foreign policy and international relations.”
During her first two years at the University of Lima, she majored in communication sciences but then decided to become a career diplomat and opted to get a bachelor’s degree in international relations at the Peruvian Diplomatic Academy. She then received her master’s in international relations from the London School of Economics and Political Science, along with a post-graduate degree in foreign commerce from Lima’s Academic Center for Exporters Association.
“At the academic center, I was the first woman in a man’s world. I received a lot of attention. Today, it is not rare any more to have women in diplomacy,” Chiozza said. “Now Peru has 20 female ambassadors out of 100 representing our country around the world and soon we will have more. We have a woman vice president and half of the minister’s cabinet are women…. These women are visible and create opportunities for other women. This is the sustainable objective of the United Nations,” she noted.
Chiozza is an example of the strides Peruvian women have made in the field of diplomacy. She was most recently director of Europe at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in charge of relations between Peru and European Union countries, before which she was director of investment promotion at the ministry.
From 2010 to 2013, she served as deputy consul general of Peru here in Washington and earlier held the same job in São Paulo, Brazil. She was also general director of North America at the ministry in charge of bilateral relations with the United States, Canada and Mexico. At the start of her career, she served as head of the Political Section at the Peruvian Embassy in the United Kingdom.
In addition, she has lectured over the years and participated in various international commissions, conferences and delegations. Not surprisingly, Chiozza is particularly focused on the issue of gender equality and was in charge of designing policies to reduce gender gaps in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. She’s been decorated by the governments of Spain and Argentina and besides English, she speaks Portuguese, French and Italian.
“My first posting abroad was to the United Kingdom. It was at the beginning of my career and I had the chance to meet Queen Elizabeth II,” Chiozza recalled. “I will never forget her deep blue eyes and how she looked straight at me. I bowed like they told me to and said, ‘your majesty.’ Then I was told to call her ‘ma’am.’ She asked me, ‘What did you do today?’ I told her I was head of Peru’s political section, which meant I was in charge of British politics and British foreign policy. She crossed her arms and said, ‘Is that interesting?’ I quickly answered, ‘Oh, definitely!’ I was so impressed.”
Chiozza — whose mother is Scottish — has had other interesting experiences with the Brits. Recently, as director of European affairs, she had two weeks’ notice to prepare for a visit from Boris Johnson, Britain’s colorful and unpredictable prime minister. “We had to plan every minute with security and worked very long hours. He wanted to fly over the Amazon Basin,” she said.
“I was only two days into another position when I found out that I was in charge of the first visit to Peru of a sitting American president, George W. Bush, with a huge White House delegation. He stayed only 24 hours but between the two countries, we had 1,000 security personnel on duty. I was talking to the White House nonstop,” she said.
The logistics of the visit were compounded by the fact that three nights before the president was to arrive, a car bomb exploded near the American Embassy in Lima. The 2002 bombing in Lima killed nine people and injured 32. While some pointed the finger for the attack at sympathizers of former Peruvian President Alberto Fujimori, who fled the country in 2000, or groups such as al-Qaeda or the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), suspicions largely fell on the Shining Path, a leftwing terrorist group that has waged a guerilla war in Peru since 1980 but whose influence has waned significantly in recent years.
“We had to evaluate what to do. We could have called the visit off but both governments decided it was important to show that our two countries do not negotiate with rebels,” Chiozza said.
Her husband has also dealt with thorny political issues throughout his career, including as a member of Peru’s delegation in the border negotiations with Ecuador from 1997 to 1998. (The two countries fought over the disputed territory since the early 19th century until a comprehensive peace accord was finally signed in 1998.)
While Peru has dealt with political turbulence and military governments in its past and modern-day problems such as corruption scandals linked to Brazil’s infamous Car Wash investigations that have rocked the region, the country of over 30 million is still one of the most stable and prosperous in Latin America.
After decades of military rule and the highly polarizing Fujimori presidency in the 1990s that saw both economic gains and authoritarian backsliding, Peruvians are doing better than many of their neighbors. Peru, dubbed the “Pacific Puma,” has seen four successful democratic elections since 2001, along with steady, robust economic growth driven by sound, market-oriented policies.
Home to ancient civilizations and majestic Inca ruins, Peru is a magnet for tourists.
“If you want to have a unique experience, I would encourage you to visit Peru,” Chiozza said, putting on her promotional hat. “Peru not only has an ancient history and culture which can be seen in archaeological sites and museums like Machu Picchu, the Nazca Lines, Kuélap and Sipán, among others, but it is a modern, cosmopolitan and vibrant country that has led economic growth in Latin America in the last two decades and offers world-class hotels and services to serve the most sophisticated tourists.
“It is one of the world’s 10 mega-diverse countries with countless natural wonders and breathtaking landscapes. Peru is great for adventure, bird watching and visiting magical places such as the Manú National Park, the Colca Canyon and Lake Titicaca. Of course, you should take home beautiful pieces of silver and colorful first-class handicrafts,” she added.
Peru is also home to a globally renown dining scene acclaimed for both its cutting-edge cuisine and traditional favorites such as ceviche.
“Peru has one of the most prestigious and delicious cuisines of the world,” Chiozza proudly told us. “It earned the distinction of ‘Cultural Heritage of the Americas for the World’ from the OAS in 2011. In 2018, it won, for the seventh consecutive year, the ‘Best Culinary Destination in the World’ by the World Travel Awards. Prestigious restaurants like Central and Maido are among the top 10 restaurants in ‘The World’s 50 Best Restaurants’ by Forbes magazine.”
Chiozza and her husband are obviously effective representatives for their homeland. This is in fact the second marriage for both ambassadors. Each has two grown children from their first marriage and Zela has two grandchildren, ages 4 and 7.
Their own children did not follow the diplomatic path of their parents. “My children are industrial engineers,” said Chiozza. “They were always very good in math.”
It’s been a whirlwind for the family since Chiozza and her husband moved into the D.C. residence this past May. Both her son and daughter announced that they were getting married four weeks apart. “I had two marriages to plan in a month and at the same time settle us into our new home,” she said.
After her daughter’s honeymoon and before her daughter started her new job, she came to visit her mother and father and brought her maternal grandmother, Chiozza’s 94-year-old mother, “so she could see where we would live.”
Before these two high-profile diplomats married, they knew each other from their work. When they began talking about marriage, Chiozza recalled that “the first thing he told me was that he would make me laugh every day — and he has.”
Zela is also his wife’s biggest cheerleader. “Sometimes he’ll be the main speaker and I’ll be in the audience or on the panel. When it’s all over, he takes great joy in surprising everyone by saying, ‘You want to know something? The ambassador is my wife’ — and then we all laugh.”
At home, the two diplomats are more relaxed. “At night, we watch Netflix but during the weekend, sometimes Hugo goes walking or biking but I practice yoga and I paint.”
In fact, Chiozza has become an expert at porcelain painting. She started back in 2009 during her husband’s posting in Brazil. “I wasn’t working and I didn’t want to get bored so I started a Ph.D. and began painting,” she said.
Today, she takes three-hour private lessons once or twice a week and studies European and Oriental styles of art. She’s also a member of the advisory board for the National Museum of Women in the Arts. During our interview, she showed me a set of 14 dinner plates she painted, each with a different exotic floral motif and a delicate 24-carat gold rim.
“I have a passion for detail in my painting and in my work. If I’m doing a party or a state dinner, I go over every detail,” she explained. “My husband teases me, saying, ‘Oh, you’re the perfect one.’ But I believe in doing things right. At the ministry, I believe in teamwork and I get the best people to help me. I have high expectations.”
That professional attitude carries over to her marriage.
“At home during dinner or on weekends, we joke a lot and always laugh. We discuss everything. But there is always a clear notion of authority. Together in private, we can be outspoken and say what we want. We can disagree, just not publicly. We are each other’s harshest critic and greatest admirer,” she said.
Their symbiotic relationship will enter a new phase shortly. “My husband is older than I am and is expected to retire in two years. Then our roles will change. He will be teaching, consulting.”
In the meantime, however, Chiozza says she is “always happy to support my husband. D.C. is one of the most important diplomatic posts for our country and we want to give the best image of Peru.”
About the Author
Gail Scott is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.