Few people in Thailand know much about Colombia and although the reverse is also true, this may be about to change with the re-opening of the Colombian embassy at the Athenee Tower on Wireless Road. “We closed our embassy here in 1998 due to budgetary reasons,” said His Excellency Andelfo Garcia, Ambassador of the Republic of Colombia to the Kingdom of Thailand, at start of our recent interview at the impressive new embassy quarters.
“Colombia first opened an embassy in Thailand in 1992. When the financial crisis ravaged Asia starting in 1997, we in Latin America also faced a financial crisis. Therefore, my government closed many embassies around the world, including in Thailand. Hopefully, this embassy will remain open without interruption.”
Soon the empty space at Athenee Tower was transformed into a well-designed and tastefully furnished embassy with daylight streaming through the 18th floor windows. In my opinion it is one of the nicest diplomatic missions in Thailand.
“This tower is very convenient, well administered and maintained, and the location is perfect as well,” said Mr Garcia. “In fact, it was very easy for us to open the embassy and to find my residence, which is not far away. It was also easy to bring and process everything from Colombia, to make decorations, furnish it and so on. Now everything is in place and the embassy is functioning very well.”
Asked why Colombia decided to re-open the embassy, Ambassador Garcia answered: “Colombia is in the middle of a very important integration process with Chile, Mexico and Peru – what we call the Pacific Alliance, a Latin American trade bloc. At the same time, Thailand is a very strategic country in Southeast Asia, as it lies in the middle of the whole region, surrounded by Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore in the south, and Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam on the other sides.
“If you want to travel from South America, for example, to Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia, you have to go through Bangkok. If you go to Hanoi, you have to go through Bangkok as well, and so on. So Thailand is the key to a fruitful relationship between the Pacific Alliance and ASEAN,” Mr Garcia said.
“Our embassy has three diplomats, two attaches as administrative staff, and five Thai staffers. We don’t have a police liaison at the embassy. Our law enforcement people communicate and coordinate directly with Interpol in Thailand,” Mr Garcia said.
The opening of the embassy was celebrated last August with a visit by the “ARC Gloria,” the historic official flagship of the Colombian Navy, to Klong Toey Port. There was a big party aboard attended by many Thais, foreigners and Colombian nationals invited by Ambassador Garcia.
He announced a flurry of activities to bring the peoples of Colombia and Thailand closer together, among them a visit from senior Colombian Army officers in August. They will hold meetings with their counterparts and other government officials. The delegation will also visit other countries in the region.
“In October, we will participate in the international film festival in Bangkok and we will also take part in the international cultural festival here in November. On this occasion, we will bring a salsa dance troupe from Colombia. It will be one of the most interesting and artistic events of the year in Southeast Asia.”
Mr Garcia said Thailand does not have an embassy in Colombia as yet but one should be opened within two or three years.
Grounded in diplomacy
One of Columbia’s most experienced diplomats, Mr Garcia, 62, is also a lawyer and a professor of international law and international relations. He was born into a middle-class family in the capital of Columbia, Bogota. He has been married for 40 years to Astrid Amaya, who was born in the United States, as were their three children, all sons.
Mr Garcia was educated at the National University of Colombia (Doctor of Law, Social and political Science, September 1977) and at New York University (MA in Latin American and Caribbean Studies, January 1981). His impressive career at the Colombian MFA in Bogota began in 1992 with a position as the Deputy Foreign Minister, a position he held until 1994.
He explained how he was able to land such a high position immediately after joining the MFA: “I was at that time a professor at university teaching international law and I was also an advisor to the ministry. Later on the Minister of Foreign Affairs appointed me to be his deputy.
“Now my position is in fact lower,” said Mr Garcia with a smile, adding that every few years a new president appoints a new Minister of Foreign Affairs, so the deputy ministers also change. But Mr Garcia has held a number of other prestigious positions over the years, including chairman of the United Nations Disarmament Commission in 1997, and member of the Advisory Board of the UN Secretary General on Disarmament Matters (1997-1998).
He was Ambassador and Deputy Permanent Representative of Colombia to the UN from 1994 to 1998, stationed in New York, and was also responsible for the Coordinating Bureau of the Non-Aligned Movement during the three-year chairmanship of Colombia, from 1995 to 1998.
Additionally, Mr Garcia was a member of Colombia’s legal team in two cases before the International Court of Justice: Nicaragua v. Colombia (2001-2012) and Ecuador v. Colombia (2008-2012). He has served as Deputy Chief of Mission to Spain (2006-2007) and the United Kingdom (2007-2008).
“This is my second ambassadorial assignment, the first as ambassador to the UN in New York from 1994 to 1998. Currently, I am also ambassador to Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam. To represent Colombia in five countries keeps me quite busy, which is good. It also means that I have a chance to travel.”
“Diplomatic relations between Colombia and Thailand were established on January 20, 1979, so recently we commemorated the 35th anniversary of our friendship,” Mr Garcia said. He described his duties as the strengthening of ties between Colombia and Thailand in all fields – trade, economy, science, culture, education, diplomacy and politics.
“This is achieved not only by agreements and contacts between our governments, but mainly through building friendship between our peoples. In these times people to people diplomacy has become a key in the international system, and no doubt that is the best way to ensure a long-term, strong alliance.
“Thailand and Colombia share many characteristics, values and interests,’’ he continued. “They are joined by the love for freedom and independence and the firm commitment to international peace and security. Thailand takes pride in never having been colonized by any foreign power, while Colombia has the credentials of being one of the oldest democracies in Latin America.
“The two countries also share the status of global and regional leaders. ASEAN was established in Thailand in 1967, and Thailand is also a founding member of APEC. The Organization of American States was founded in Colombia in 1948, during the IX Inter-American Conference held at Bogota. Colombia was a founding member of the United Nations in 1945, the global organization which Thailand also joined a year later in 1946.
“Also within the multilateral context, Colombia and Thailand share membership in the Non-Aligned Movement and the two countries were original members of the Group of 77 in 1964 [now the G77 and China].
“Both economies are dynamic and have attractive growth prospects. Thailand is included in the group NICs (New Industrialized Countries), while Colombia is also part of a group of emerging countries called CIVETS, which is an acronym of the member countries and also refers to an agile Asian feline.
“Our two countries also enjoy considerable wealth in biodiversity. In terms of the number of species of amphibians, birds, mammals, reptiles and vascular plants, Colombia and Thailand are among the most pristine places in the world.
“The two countries occupy a privileged place in terms of water resources as well. Both are also rich in cultural and ethnic diversity, and therefore the potential for exchange and cooperation in these areas is immense.
“The bilateral agenda we have the intention of developing is also quite rich, vast and diverse, as is the desire of our governments and our peoples to achieve human and economic development. The shared values and a strong economic and political relationship provide an enormous potential to further develop and enhance the ties of cooperation and friendship between our two nations.”
Ambassador Garcia said that Thailand imports from Colombia emeralds, leather and some coffee, while Thailand exports to Colombia mainly electronics and auto parts. As for official visits, the Foreign Minister of Colombia came to Thailand in July 2013 to preside over the meeting of all the Ambassadors of Colombia in Asian countries.
During Mr Garcia’s appointment ceremony as ambassador to Thailand, the president of Colombia, Juan Manuel Santos, mentioned his interest in carrying out the first visit of a chief of state of Colombia to Thailand, which, hopefully, will take place in the near future.
Invitation to Colombia
Mr Garcia was keen to extend an invitation to Thais to visit his country. “Colombia is now very prosperous. We are experiencing good momentum both in terms of economic performance and in the peace process with the guerrilla group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia People’s Army (FARC - EP). This is very important for Colombia. They have been there for 50 years and for the first time we are very close to signing an agreement with them so that they will participate in the political process and end the armed struggle.
“People in Thailand maybe aren’t aware that Colombia is situated almost at the same latitude but on the other side of the planet. For that reason the climate in Colombia is much the same as Thailand’s and so is the vegetation. If you go to the countryside, you will find bananas, papaya, mangoes and other fruits common to Thailand.
“The interchange of people between our two countries is growing. I want to stress that Colombia is now an attractive tourist destination, mainly based on its huge biological and cultural diversity, the kindness of its people, and its variety of climates and landscapes. These include the Andes Mountains, the Caribbean Sea, the Amazon rainforest, and many, many different ecosystems and habitats.
“Colombia is ranked as the 11th most diverse country culturally, with more than 100 ethnic groups living inside its borders, and it is rated second in terms of biodiversity.
“Many Colombians already know that Thailand is an interesting place and have an image of it as an exotic vacation land in the East. Of course it is very far from Colombia, about a 30-hour flight. As yet there are no direct flights. You usually fly via Europe, mainly through Paris, Frankfurt or Amsterdam.
Our people travel to Thailand mainly in groups.
“We signed an agreement with the Thai MFA for visa exceptions for official and diplomatic passport holders. As for regular citizens, we’d like to eliminate visa requirements for them as well. We are working on this with the Thai authorities. Thai citizens still need a visa to visit Colombia but it takes only few hours to issue it from the embassy here.
“As for Colombians who want to visit Thailand, there’s a Thai Honorary Consulate in the capital of Bogota. They are very efficient and it is easy and fast – maybe one or two days to issue a visa for Thailand.”
“We don’t have a big community of Colombian nationals in Thailand, but those who are living here are admirable and hard-working people. Some Colombian nationals work for international companies established in Thailand, and others are spouses of Thai citizens and international executives. We don’t have any Colombian companies here.
“The ‘dean’ of the Colombian community here is a missionary Catholic nun, Sister Margarita, who has been living in Thailand for more than 40 years, serving and supporting vulnerable communities and people in need. There is also a Colombian who fights in the Muay Thai league, and is promoting the practice of this sport in our country.”
The ambassador has been very active since his arrival in Thailand a year ago, and attends many functions, governmental and other, often with his wife by his side. The couple makes an impression wherever they go. Mr Garcia is an engaging person and with his experience and knowledge he has quickly become popular within the diplomatic circle and pretty much everyone who meets him.
In March Mr Garcia was welcomed at the Asian Institute of Technology by AIT’s interim President Professor Worsak Kanok-Nukulchai. The ambassador expressed his wish to work with AIT and said that there are many opportunities for cooperation between Colombian and Thai universities and researchers.
He has been especially well received by ambassadors from other Latin American countries, particularly Chile, Mexico and Peru, all members of the recently formed Pacific Alliance. During a meeting in Bangkok in April of the four alliance ambassadors assigned to Thailand, Mr Garcia said: “The Pacific Alliance is an ambitious initiative aimed at deepening the integration of the four South American countries, involving the free movement of not only people but capital, goods and services as well as investment.”
The alliance is considering a free trade agreement with Thailand and other ASEAN countries.
Sold on Siam
Mr Garcia began his official term as ambassador to Thailand on May 14, 2013. In Colombia, the appointment and term of an ambassador are decided by the president and the minister of foreign affairs. “For me, it is the greatest honor and privilege to have been appointed by my government to serve in the Kingdom of Thailand, a great nation, highly regarded by the government and the people of Colombia. My term could be two or three years. The retirement age for public servants in Colombia is 65.”
Before this current posting, Mr Garcia came to Thailand as a tourist with his wife and children in 2008. “I am amazed at how the country has changed and developed rapidly in a very short period. This is a great achievement of the leaders of Thailand, His Majesty the King and the rest of the Royal Family, the Thai authorities and all Thai people.
“Unfortunately, I haven’t travelled outside Bangkok as much as I would like. Thailand is a beautiful and amazing country that deserves to be visited thoroughly. However, with 74 accredited embassies in Bangkok, the diplomatic agenda is very active and of course we have been busy opening our new embassy and enriching the bilateral agenda for Colombia and Thailand,” Mr Garcia said.
“What I like most about Thailand is the kind and happy people. I have no complaints about Thailand. This is a place to enjoy the politeness of the Thai people, the delicious Thai food, and the warm hospitality; to notice and corroborate every day, personally, that ‘Amazing Thailand’ and ‘The Land of Smiles’ are not only mottos or promotional slogans, but factual and evident.
“I love jogging in the beautiful parks of Bangkok, eating fried bananas on the street, taking a boat on the Chao Phraya River, sharing experiences with my fellow ambassadors and their families and getting to know more and more good and unforgettable Thai friends.
“The biggest disappointment of my term here will be for sure that day in the future when I will have to depart from Thailand. But my family and I will always be tied to Thailand and its people in a deep and profound manner.”