On Tuesday, 11 March 2008, we had the opportunity to meet Mr. Jorge Schindler for a very interesting and enriching discussion in the embassy of the Republic of Chile in Berlin. To our surprise, Mr. Schindler admitted at the beginning of the interview that he is of Swiss origin. Thus the beginning of the discussion centred around the canton Glarus and the history of his great-grandfather who emigrated to Chile to teach the children of Swiss emigrants over there. Mr Schindler visited Switzerland for the first time in 1993 and remained there until 1996 to study in Fribourg. He speaks German, French and Italian fluently, and would also like to learn the fourth national language of Switzerland, Rätoromanisch. It was clear from an early stage that he is very interested in diplomatic work, as he was inspired by history and politics as a young person. His large knowledge of history was clear from the beginning of our discussion, and we would look forward to a day when he would write a novel about Chile and its history. Since May 2007 he has been the Kulturattachée of the Chilean embassy in Berlin.
What were the best, and what were the most turbulent experiences that you have had as Cultural attaché to the Chilean embassy in Berlin?
Most of my experiences that I have had so far in Berlin have been pleasant, though also turbulent. It’s not easy to leave your homeland to start a new life somewhere else and devote yourself to it. It usually takes about three months to settle in. I’m trying at the moment as a cultural representative to make Germany aware of the fact that in 2010 Chile, as well as Ecuador, Columbia, Argentina and Mexico will celebrate 200 years of independence. As Chileans, we would like to make people aware that there are many German emigrants in Chile. Germans have been present in our country for 150 years, which explains why there are 26 German schools in Chile. Unfortunately, there is only one Swiss school in Chile, which for a long time was the best school in the country.
Could you give us an insight into your background, and the most exciting moments in it?
For my first assignment abroad for the Foreign Office of Chile I was active in Russia. Afterwards, I was sent to Colombia and then on to Berlin. When I still worked in Chile in the Foreign Office, I was responsible for the Chilean “blue helmets” in Haiti. Chile stationed around 600 UN soldiers in the Caribbean state, and is also actively involved in the reconstruction of the country. For me, my first visit to Haiti was a trailblazing experience, and after that I was there approximately six times more. On my first journey I was shocked by the poverty. The poverty and suffering of humans was difficult to bear. It was however beautiful to see how my country and other countries of South America help these people. In Moscow, as here in Berlin, I was mainly responsible for the cultural area and partly for international policy. Since our embassies are very small in the respective countries, everyone often has several different areas of responsibility. It was not easy to settle in to Russia, but I learnt a lot from Russian culture and history. Being alone in the long winter was a challenge. St. Petersburg was a highlight for me and is the most beautiful and interesting city I know. There are so many magnificent buildings and glorious museums. The Russian landscape is also very beautiful, particularly in the summer. When the Chilean president visited Russia, I was allowed to be there when he met Putin. You could feel in the moment how historical the meeting was, as for a long time no Chilean president visited Russia. In Colombia I was the consul in Bogotá. My experience in Colombia was very positive. Columbians are unbelievably happy people, despite the violence that was in their country. They are very friendly and communicative. The only thing that I didn’t like in Bogotá was the weather. The seasons don’t exist like we know in Chile, instead, it rains constantly. It was interesting for me to meet Chileans living in Columbia. Once a month, we organised a collective dinner and, with the support of the Chilean government, we published a small newspaper. I also had the opportunity to get to know many actors and writers from the Columbian cultural scene.
During your time in Berlin, what would you like to achieve with regards to the cultural diplomatic relationship?
As I mentioned, we are going to prepare for the 200-year independence anniversary. This is an important event. In addition, I would very much like to restore the Bismarck Memorial, perhaps with support from Germany, which is located in my hometown Valparaiso, and which was sent from traders at the 100-year anniversary of the independence of Chile. A further goal that I’d still like to achieve is the translation and publication of a Chilean novel about the first German emigrants to Chile. The novel is called ‘Ully’, and was written by Mariano Latorre. It’s actually a love story, a unique book which describes the German-Chilean encounter.
There are several German schools in Chile. One of the oldest, the German school Valparaiso, celebrated their 150th Birthday last year. How would you describe the relationship between Germany and Chile in regards to cultural exchange? Are there academic exchange programmes?
Yes, within the academic area there are already quite a lot of exchange programmes. Many Chilean students can, thanks to scholarships from the DAAD (or the KAS), write their doctoral theses in Germany. The students are financially supported in the meantime not only by Germany, but also by Chile. Traditionally, the German schools of Chile send students from the 11th or 12th class to Germany. This exchange programme has existed almost since the foundation of the German schools in Chile. But of course we want to strengthen the exchange between the two countries. For example, next semester we want to work closer together with the Universität der Künste and especially encourage the exchange of young musicians. The “Julius Stern Institut” had between 1907-1941 Claudio Arrau, a student, later lecturer and famous pianist. We would like to promote this contact through exchange and eventually combine it with a stay of Chilean musicians in German families. Along with the Chilean embassy in Washington DC, we are the only one which is equipped with an exhibition room. We organise private viewings there every two or three months, where we present work from Chilean and German artists. It is important to us not only to build new relationships and instigate new programmes, but also to strengthen existing relationships. In the federal state museum of Augsburg, an exhibition of Johann Moritz Rugendas is being shown. In the 19th century, he travelled through South America and painted many Chilean landscapes.
Chile and Germany have something in common that is still quite rare in World Politics: both countries are ruled by female leaders. Did the assumption of office of Mrs. Micelle Bachelet, and the election of Ms. Angela Merkel have an influence on the current political attitude of Chile and the relationship with Germany? What unites and/or differentiates the two women?
For the first time in Chile’s history, a woman is President, and this is great. Mrs. Bachelet has a close relationship with Germany. She was here with her mother in Exile, studied medicine in Leipzig, in the former GDR, and speaks very good German. One of the first countries that she visited after her election as president was Germany. I would say that the relationship between the two countries has strengthened and intensified since the assumption of office by Ms. Bachelet. It is of course a coincidence that Ms. Merkel was elected at almost exactly the same time. The women have different ideological outlooks, for Michelle Bachelet is a Social Democrat and Angela Merkel represents the Christian Democrat party. But in regard to prosperity and peace they have the same goals. I think these things improve the relationship with Germany, even though it was already very good in the past 17 years.
Many German foundations, like for example the Friedrich Ebert -, Konrad Adenauer -, Hanns Seidel -, and Heinrich Böll foundations are represented in Chile. Can you describe to us how the co-operation with Germany in Chile is regarded and taken up?
The work of these German foundations is well known from all sides and is received very positively. The Friedrich Ebert foundation and Konrad Adenauer foundation are the two best known. In the 80s for instance, they helped Chile return to Democracy. Both foundations were important for the meeting of different politicians. They engaged themselves further, in order to improve and strengthen our system and our scientific work. Institutions such as the foundations named, but also the Goethe Institut have contributed a great deal to the preservation and development of the cultural life of Chile. During the rule of Pinochet, people with critical viewpoints could meet in the Goethe Institut and exchange their opinions. There were rooms, where professors and scientists from Germany came to Chile and delivered lectures about their country in a free manner. As a student there, you could ask questions and discuss things freely. These were really places that symbolised Freedom and Democracy.
Many Chilean artists and creative people, like the world famous Pablo Neruda have engaged themselves politically against the earlier strict regime of the country and for the rights of the population. How would you describe the history and the understanding of democracy in Chile? How has it experienced the leadership of Pinochet and the change back to a democratic state?
In the 19th and 20th Centuries, Chile was a stable democracy, but in 1973, this broke down and an undemocratic system emerged that actually had little to do with Chile’s tradition and history. Since democracy had been historically coined onto the national conscience, it could be rebuilt on a solid basis after the end of Pinochet’s government. It is often said that Chile’s politics is boring, as the country is so stable. We are not in the news so often and have considerably less unrest and problems as in other countries. The Chilean people like peace and stability. Pablo Neruda unfortunately died just a few days after Pinochet’s putsch. But his name, as a former senator and politician, has had a great hand in the redemocratisation of Chile. I was 18 years old when a referendum took place and it was decided whether Pinochet should stay in power or not. I involved myself, as did many other young people back then, for the reinstitution of democracy. There were lots of celebrations when the change came and this decision was understood as a door to freedom. I have certain memories from my childhood of Pinochet’s reign. The most enduring event was, without question, when my father was arrested, as he was an adherent to Salvador Allende. People from the government came to our house, searched for weapons, and even though they didn’t find any, they arrested my father. He was imprisoned for about two months and we found out only with the help of the Red Cross, where he’d actually been taken to. Apart from this experience and the obligation to sing national songs in school, I don’t have many concrete memories of the time of Pinochet’s government. I was interested in politics since the end of the 80s. At university it was usual for students to assert their opinions, even during Pinochet’s reign. The free expression of opinion was more possible at the University as elsewhere in the country. And eventually Pinochet couldn’t prevent that the Chilean people wanted more freedom of expression. The re-establishment of democracy couldn’t be held back. I have the impression that these days students are less interested in politics. Today it’s rather the artists, who want to express themselves in total liberty and do this. In the meantime they can exercise their work in Chile again freely. It surprises me that it’s often claimed that Chile is a conservative country. I don’t completely agree with that. In Chile you can do what you want. It’s also not true that Chile is strictly Catholic, for religious freedom has existed, with intervals, since the 19th century.
Since the end of 1999, Chile has been active in several UN peace missions, including in the Middle East, Congo, Kosovo and in Haiti. In addition, Chilean efforts for a seat in the UN Human Rights Council are under way. How do you see Chile’s future in the diplomatic arena, and in the bi and multi-lateral cooperation with other countries?
Chile engages itself for peace and cooperation. The deployment in Haiti shows this clearly. In Chile, it was asked why we sent so many ‘Bluehelmets’ to Haiti. The reason for it is that we want to see peace. We sent not only peace-keepers, but also specialists, and are involving ourselves in the reconstruction. This was viewed in Chile as a contribution towards peace for all of South America. We are however not only active in Haiti, but rather in several countries, like for example in East Timor or in Kosovo. Chile is a South American country that is interested in, and engages in the peace of the world. We don’t just want to give our wine to the world, but also our ideals. Chile is sometimes characterised as the Switzerland of South America. For us, the relationships with other South American countries are of course important. The Academy for the training of young diplomats in Chile, where I also studied gives grants to students from all South American countries. In my class, there was a young man from Ecuador and many students from Central America. I am still in contact with my former students. It is a network that still exists. We also had people from other parts of the world, for instance from Egypt, Tunisia or Malaysia. These people work today all over the world, in the most diverse countries. Such a network is of course very valuable, because relationships with people are very important. It means a lot to me that also young prospective diplomats from Peru, Argentina or Columbia can study in Chile and in doing so, have the possibility to get to know our Foreign Office from within. This also shows that the cooperation between the Latin American countries is very close and positive.
To read the German version please click here.
07.04.2008 – Interview conducted by Melanie Blanc & Michaela Reimann