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Interview with Dr. María-Fernanda Ugalde (Cultural Attaché, Embassy of Ecuador in Germany)

ecWhen considering the landscape, the language, the fruits, the weather or even the political structure and ideology of Ecuador, it always produces a picture of diversity. This picture corresponded exactly to the young, interesting, and prepared woman who met us, in order to guide us to an Ecuadorian sitting room stamped with cultural diversity. In the corridor our view of the coloured oil pictures was directed over different water colours up to the abstract black-and-white designs of recent time. The small exhibition showed us in a very impressive way the great variations of style directions, epochs and artists that Ecuador has to offer. If you get to know Dr. Maria Maria-Fernanda Ugalde, then you will quickly understand that the co-exhibition of these works reveals a lot about her personality. Her incredibly diversified knowledge is displayed in the areas of archaeology and history, in the spheres of politics and economics, as well as in the zones of culture and art. This knowledge, combined with her intuitive intelligence and a remarkable openness made an extraordinary discussion possible, which illuminated the diverse aspects of Ecuador.

What were the best, and what were most turbulent experiences that you have had so far as Cultural Attache to the Ecuadorian Embassy in Berlin?
It was difficult for me to discover how little the Germans in general know about Ecuadorian culture. Artists that have a great significance in South America are not well known in Germany. Oswaldo Guayasamín for example, an Ecuadorian painter, enjoys in Latin America a reputation almost as high as the internationally acclaimed Mexican artists Frida Kahlo or Diego Rivera. Also in Spain Guayasamín is very well known; there is a large mural of his in the Barajas airport in Madrid. Although compared with Mexico, Ecuador is a small country. This is a possible reason for the obscurity of her art and culture. The recently curtailed culture budget of the Ecuadorian government is partly responsible for this condition. Until now, there was only one state Institution that was responsible for the cultural, technical education, and sporting aspects of Ecuador. The current government lays great importance on culture and accordingly secures their finances better. As a result, a culture ministry emerged, which enlarged the possibilities for making our culture internationally well known.

Although the knowledge is still quite marginal, the interest of the Germans in our culture is very large. The realisation of this is one of the best experiences which I had as Cultural attaché. At the beginning of March, the Instituto Cervantes and the Filmstadt Munich e.V. organised an Ecuadorian film series in Munich with our support. About 20 films of our country were shown. The first film had such a great interest that about 50 visitors couldn’t be let in as the performance was sold out. The Instituto Cervantes has in addition shown over 30 works of an Ecuadorian artist in an exhibition. For me it was wonderful to see the interest with which this unknown art was taken up by the Germans and motivated me to contribute to spreading Ecuadorian arts. We have also been organising since the end of last year a corresponding film series in Berlin. 

Could you give us as well as our readers an insight into your background, as well as your most exciting moment?
I was born and grew up in Quito. The international schools are very respected in Ecuador, therefore I went to a German school. Since international relations had always interested me, I completed training with a tri-lingual trading woman after school. I quickly realised though that this activity did not suit me. Archaeology had always been a passion of mine. Since I already spoke German, it was possible to study Ancient American culture in Berlin. This study is very broadly varied and covers a lot of information about Latin America. As well as Ethnology, Archaeology, History, Politics and Sociology, regional specific knowledge is also taught. In addition, for example, it included learning two indigenous American languages. I learnt the Inca language, Quechua, as well as Guaraní. Both languages are still spoken today by a large part of the population. Studying the structure of the languages allowed me to get an insight into their culture. After my promotion, I began my current duties. For my position and accordingly for the Ecuadorian embassy it is certainly positive that I already know around Berlin, that I know the cultural scene and that I speak the German language.

What do you still want to achieve during your time in Berlin in the area of cultural diplomatic relations?
Above all I would like to make the variety and diversity of Ecuadorian culture more well-known. If you speak of our culture, many people think primarily of the folklore side of our country. There are however many modern artists in Ecuador. One always tries to cover the whole cultural range, but everyone has nevertheless their focus points, not least by means of the contacts that they have. My predecessor was a musician and therefore there exists today a number of contacts to the music industry. I have more of a background in art and archaeology and accordingly attach more emphasis to these areas. At the moment we are able, thanks to the loan of a private collector, to display the diversity of Ecuadorian artists in the embassy with works from different styles and ages. In this year I would like to bring an artist to Germany, whose theatrical pieces have already travelled through several countries and who concerns himself with the theme of migration. And on the 22nd May we will open an exhibition here in Berlin with works of the young Ecuadorian artist Alegría Pólit. For the 200th anniversary of the independence movement of Ecuador we are planning a big archaeology exhibition. I’m putting a further focus on education and the academic area. For that, the close cooperation between different universities is important. At the moment we are in cooperation with the University of Rostock for the organisation of a symposium about migration. Our ambassador is also very interested in culture. His support is of course an advantage for my work. It is also important for me to expose Ecuadorians to the possibility of studying in Germany. There are many grants in Germany, but there still lacks sufficient information about them on the ground. I would like to develop a platform, over which such information can easily flow so that in the future more applications come from Ecuador.

In March this year, there was an active dispute between Ecuador and Columbia due to a military deployment of the Columbian army against the FARC on Ecuadorian soil. However, a few days ago the heads of state reconciled themselves, among other things, with the help of Venezuelan president. How would you assess this event and its solution? To what extent are the recent events a result of different political cultures between Columbia and Ecuador?
This question doesn’t really belong in my professional area and I can only give you my personal opinion as a citizen of Ecuador. The recent conflict and its solution must be considered in a broader context. Ecuador is a small country and has not got sufficient strength and money to fully protect its border with Columbia against the incursions of the FARC. The Columbian government on their side failed to provide sufficient protection. Although this problem is only being made known now for the first time in the international press, it has strained and concerned our common border for many years. Unfortunately it was not reported in the European press that the Ecuadorian government has already invested a lot of money to prevent the assaults of the FARC and has already discovered and removed several camps. With the military deployment at the beginning of March, the Columbian government has definitely injured the sovereignty of Ecuador. Accordingly, the reaction of the Ecuadorian government was justified. But like everyone I’m happy that all the governments involved, together with the heads of state of other Latin American countries met in the Dominican Republic, and the conflict could be resolved peacefully. It is important for Ecuador that the attack was condemned by all Latin American countries. Unfortunately the USA did not take the same position. It should also be emphasised that the contact that Ecuador had with the FARC developed exclusively in order to support Columbia in the freeing of the hostages. I don’t think that there were other forms of contact. It disturbs me that in the European press, Ecuador is often regarded as Chávez’s appendage. It is nevertheless not amazing that Chávez, after the past events was anxious about his own borders. It is true that the government of Ecuador lies in ideological terms closer to Chávez than the Uribe, but we are still our own country, which makes its own decisions.

I would not directly characterise this conflict as a result of varying political cultures. Ecuador has several years of political instability behind her; a political culture in the sense of a clear ideological tendency – seems to first be developing. In this, the FARC does not play a role. It is completely clear that the FARC are Columbian and not Ecuadorian rebels. They concern us only to the extent that they penetrate without permission into Ecuadorian territory. The problem has not existed, as has been said, for a few years and has nothing to do with the political culture. Rather it concerns a person liberality agreement between Ecuador and Columbia, similar to that within the European Union. Since the FARC Members don’t identify themselves as such when they travel in, but rather as Columbian citizens, it is partly impossible to identify them.

In your opinion, how does the anti-neoliberal oriented politics of the Ecuadorian President Rafael Correra and Evo Morales as well as that of Hugo Chávez influence the relationship of Ecuador with the USA and with the EU and especially with Germany?
The ideology of the politicians mentioned can be characterised as anti-neoliberalism, which is often falsely understood as anti-market economics. I do not believe that the current Ecuadorian government will cause significant changes in the different bilateral relations. It is only the commercial relationship with the US which is being revised at the current time by our government. This is because Ecuador can not accept the free trade agreement in the form that the US suggested. Ecuador would not like to break under any circumstances however the commercial relationship with the US. What we are aiming for are fairer trading terms. Our government wants fairer conditions for Ecuadorian agriculture. Accordingly Ecuador tries to hinder the cheap US imports that are only possible through high subsidies and which ruin our farmers. In the relationship with Europe, hardly anything will change. The problems that we already had before will probably continue in the short term. It is not the free market economy per se, but rather its neoliberal development that our government distances itself from. But as I have said, this is actually not a question that is within my professional scope.

The relationship with Germany is very positive on many levels. In Ecuador, Germany symbolises technical progress, success and punctuality. Economic relations are formed in the German-Ecuadorian Industry and Trade Board. Many German tourists come to us and we export, among other things, flowers and fruit to Germany. In addition many German scientists and historians have been interested in Ecuador. Humboldt is probably the most important one among them. He came to Ecuador when the independence movement was under way and enriched its key people with his contacts and experience. In a traditional way, many German archaeologists excavated important finds from Ecuador. We are trying now to make an exhibition in Germany with these finds, in order to display the German tradition of research. Unfortunately we do not have a Goethe Institut in Ecuador. There is however an “Asociación Humboldt“, where cultural events regarding Germany take place. For example, the German theatre actor Christoph Baumann, who has lived in Ecuador for many years, is well known in the cultural life of our country.

To what extent have foreign cultures, for example, the European or the North American cultures influenced the development of the Ecuadorian culture and mentality? To what extent do they still do so today?
Many different influences have made their mark on our country. The Spanish culture did not influence our culture, but rather it can be considered as a component that co-founded Ecuador culturally. The Lebanese influence on Ecuador is also important. At the beginning of the 20th Century many Maronite Lebanese travelled to Ecuador. They mixed with the native population and their descendents have often had important functions in politics. In the second half of the 20th century, primarily for economic reasons, people from Asia, mainly from Korea, travelled to Ecuador. These people have however, in contrast to the Lebanese, neither engaged themselves in politics nor mixed with the existing population to a great extent. They mainly operate today smaller shops in the big cities and are also very prominent in cuisine, which is also enriching for us.

In the 70s and 80s there was a massive emigration of Ecuadorians to the US. Due to the tightened immigration policy of the US and probably because of the language, the immigration of the last five to six years has concentrated on Spain. At the moment you talk of approximately a million Ecuadorians in Spain. Recently Spain has intensified its immigration policy and in the population isolated racist voices have become louder. But it has also developed an increasing interest in Ecuadorian culture. The Ecuadorian film „Qué Tan Lejos“ by Tania Hermida was, for example a giant success. In summer 2007 in Madrid there was an exhibition about Ecuadorian art and archaeology. This was also visited with curiosity and interest by the Spanish population. The contemporary North American culture influences us as well of course, as it does for almost everyone else. Hollywood films, pop music and fashion are however not considered as a significant influence any more, though they are with us, as in all Latin America, very well-known.

The Humboldt Society and the Goethe Centre in Quito are the principal elements of cultural exchange between Ecuador and Germany. How do you see their work and importance for the exchange between the two countries? Are there concrete exchange programmes?
The Goethe Centre is not the same as the Goethe Institut, for it is only responsible for the language and also has less financial means for cultural projects than a Goethe Institut. The Humboldt Society does a few, but to spread German culture in Ecuador a Goethe Institut would be ideal.

Ecuador is well known for its diversity, whether it’s geographical or cultural. In comparison with your neighbour states, it was mainly Spaniards who immigrated to Ecuador though the proportion of the indigenous population is still very high. How is the relationship between the different ethnic groups within Ecuador? How successful are you in presenting this cultural diversity in Germany as one country?
It is a question of perspective and for me it is very difficult to define the indigenous population. What is indigenous? Who determines this definition? After detailed observation, I have decided that indigenous is those who refer to themselves as such. Within Ecuador this is a complicated theme because almost everyone is of mixed race. There is however a layer of society that would like to prove that it comes only from European descent. For this reason, they try to place themselves above the remaining ‘indigenous’ population. Such racist tendencies still exist but there has lately been large progress towards more tolerance. The ‘indigenous’ movement on a political level has grown strongly. We have parliamentarians, who came from indigenous communities and who speak Quechua. They appear in the traditional costume and are not only voted for by the population who characterise themselves as indigenous. A few cities in the meantime have indigenous mayors and there are also indigenous political parties. Our country is very mixed and the people learn to mutually accept this and to get along with the diversity. The idea is growing that everyone should keep their cultural elements and present them accordingly. Our President speaks Quechua fluently, which is not always self-evident. He also translates his speeches into Quechua. This shows that Spanish isn’t the only language in Ecuador. In the meantime, this diversity and its importance is being observed. In total our society today is much more integrated and united than before.

As has been said, presenting the cultural diversity in Germany is a goal of the Ecuadorian embassy. This was done successfully, for example in 2006. Ecuador initiated a whole number of cultural activities during the football World Cup in Germany. The group ‘Jacchigua’ was presented, who perform folk dances with traditional costumes, and also the Music Band, ‘Cruks en Karnak’, one of the best known rock bands of Ecuador. Also in painting the cultural diversity is recognised, which can be seen in a collective exhibition that we have planned for the end of 2008 in a Berlin gallery.

The Ibero-American Institute (IAI) is an interdisciplinary oriented establishment of the scientific and cultural exchanges with Latin America. It forms a connection of Information Centre, Research Centre and Culture Centre and is therefore an important platform for cooperation as well as for inter-cultural and trans-cultural dialogue. Does there exist cooperation with the Ecuadorian Embassy in Berlin? If so, to what extent?
This cooperation has always existed and is intensive. The IAI strives through the embassy to maintain and foster the contacts with the countries. We have for example the possibility in the premises of the Institute to present our projects, and to organise lectures, exhibitions or concerts. Recently an Ecuadorian guitarist gave a concert in IAI with our support. Through my studies I personally have a very good contact to the IAI. Since I accessed over years the enormously large data base of the library of the IAI, I find it very important to enrich this with Ecuadorian literature. If we receive books from our Foreign Office to pass on, we give them primarily to IAI. But also other cultural institutes, like the Instituto Cervantes are very important partners for us. With both cultural institutions as well as together with the other Latin American embassies we are organising a collective programme of cultural events to celebrate the anniversary of 200 years of independence.

To read the German version, please click here.

Interview conducted by Melanie Blanc and Michaela Reimann

Center for Cultural Diplomacy Studies Publication
Institute for Cultural Diplomacy

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