Words MAXMILIAN WECHSLER
His Excellency Félix Ricardo Americo Antonio Denegri Boza – he shortens his name card to Félix Denegri – is the Republic of Peru’s ambassador to Thailand. His residence is located in a quiet sub-soi off Sukhumvit 49, and as a setting for a candid interview it couldn’t be more ideal.
The Peruvian theme of the spacious guest area includes large paintings and small statues of native animals like the Peruvian Caballo de Paso, a prized horse breed, and the llama, another truly beautiful herbivore that has become an iconic symbol of Peru and adorns the national flag. Mr Denegri brought most of the decorative effects from his own home in Lima to make him feel more at home on the other side of the world in Bangkok.
This is Mr Denegri’s first posting in Asia, and when he was told by his country’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs [MFA] in 2013 that he was coming to Thailand his reaction was, in a word, ‘wonderful.’ The opportunity to get to know a new country and a different part of the world far outweighed any reservations about the move.
He also sees similarities between Thailand and Peru. “We are both emerging economies, so in many ways the social and economic dynamics are comparable. Of course our climate is more diversified. There are glaciers in the high Andes and the cold Pacific current has a cooling effect on coastal cities like Lima, even though we are as close to the equator as Bangkok. However, in the Amazon basin which comprises at least two thirds of the country the climate is similar to Thailand.
“Like Thai people, Peruvians are by nature very polite and friendly, and like Bangkok, Lima is quite a large city. I was born in Lima in 1956, and at that time the population was about 1.2 million people. Now it is about nine million. It has similar dynamics as Bangkok. For instance, a large percentage of the country’s population lives in Lima, which is also the case for Bangkok. In Lima this trend is even more pronounced because it’s home to almost a third of Peru’s 30 million inhabitants, which is a bit excessive.”
Mr Denegri grew up and studied in Lima before going to Ontario, Canada to study at Trent University, where he earned a Bachelor of Arts in 1980. He then returned to Peru, enrolled at the Diplomatic Academy in 1981 and finished in 1983. The following year was eventful as he began his diplomatic career and got married. “My first post was in Bolivia, which borders Peru. Next I was assigned to the United Nations in New York. My other foreign postings have been in Argentina, Rome and now Bangkok. After my assignment is complete here I will go back to the MFA in Peru for three years.”
Mr Denegri said there are many facets to diplomacy, but at a fundamental level there are basically two kinds: bilateral and multilateral. “The UN obviously is multilateral. I prefer bilateral because you can see concrete results much more quickly. There are 192 UN member states, and reaching an agreement among so many parties from different regions can be very difficult and time-consuming. It takes a great deal of negotiation and compromise. When you are only dealing with one other country the way forward is much clearer.
“However, I really enjoyed my time in New York and it was very good experience taking part in negotiations and committees and defending the positions of my nation and region,” said the ambassador, adding that Latin America at that time didn’t have a regional organization comparable to the European Union or even ASEAN.
He noted that the Thai MFA has a department focusing on the Americas and the South Pacific. “I am well acquainted with many of the diplomats in this department. Some have worked in South America and others in North America or Australia.”
All Peruvian diplomats serve a term of five years in a foreign country and are then required to spend three years at MFA headquarters in Lima. Mr Denegri, who is 59, has two and a half more years in Bangkok. As the retirement age for Peruvian diplomats is 70, he expects to have another ambassadorial assignment but has no idea where it might be.
Ambassador to three countries
“The first time I came to Thailand was when I took up my post in 2013, and in fact this was my first time in Asia. I was very happy to come here. Bangkok is a very cosmopolitan city so it is easy to feel comfortable here. People in general tend to be very nice, and there are so many people here from all over the world always coming and going so that you don’t feel out of place.
“I am also ambassador to Laos and the Philippines. Cambodia is under our embassy in Malaysia and my government is still evaluating which embassy will take care of Myanmar. It may well be mine since we are so close,” said Mr Denegri.
“I just presented my credentials in Vientiane in January and I visit the Philippines quite often. Last year I went five times for different reasons including the APEC Summit in November. Peruvian President Olanta Humala was also there.
When I am in the Philippines I feel very comfortable and at home, almost as if I am not in Southeast Asia. The Filipino people and culture are very close to Latin America and they have an attitude towards life that is similar to ours. They are Catholics and there is a very noticeable Spanish influence. Many people still speak Spanish today. Some Filipinos look like Spaniards and their names are Spanish even if they don’t speak the language.
“However, for us Southeast Asia is a new frontier. In general the region is not very well known in Latin America, and vice-versa. So we have to work very hard to build a flourishing and mutually beneficial relationship. A big part of my job is introducing Peru to Thailand by reaching out to people in government, the private sector, institutions and universities. I also meet with ordinary citizens and I welcome opportunities like this interview to spread the word about Peru through the media. Another major goal of mine is to increase trade between our two countries.
“Peru is basically a producer of commodities and our main exports are minerals. We are essentially a mining country and we have been mining since the arrival of the Spaniards. We export minerals to Thailand, chiefly copper, zinc and gold. We also export agricultural and fishery products.
“From Thailand we import computer components, washing machines, refrigerators and so on, but the main product we import is Toyota Hilux pickup trucks that are built here. Thailand specializes in these trucks and they are very popular in Peru and so are other models.
“We used to have a car manufacturing industry in Peru in the 1970s. It was orientated to the national market but it never developed. At that time cars were very expensive to import and you had to wait a long time for delivery. Now cars produced in a number of countries including Thailand are plentiful and much cheaper.”
Mr Denegri said that around 4,000 Peruvians visited Thailand in 2015 and about the same number of Thais went to Peru. “That’s not much, so tourism is another area I’d like to see expanded. Thai travelers to Peru don’t need a visa for stays up to 90 days.
“Most Thais think of Peru as being too far away, and those who do make the trip are mostly people who travel a lot and want to discover new places. Many young people may want to go there, but more often Thai visitors are older, wealthier tourists. The plane fare to Peru is not cheap,” said the ambassador.
Besides ancient architectural wonders like Machu Picchu and the Incan Citadel, the country boasts magnificent mountains, beaches and other natural attractions, historical sites, gastronomy and attractive cities apart from Lima. The geography is diverse and there is something for everyone. Peru is divided into four main regions: Coastal, desert, mountains and jungle in the Amazon basin. Lima is in both the coastal and desert regions.
“Last year we celebrated the 50th anniversary of the initiation of diplomatic relations between Thailand and Peru. We opened the embassy in 1992 on the 16th floor of the Glas Haus Building on Sukhumvit. The Argentinean Embassy is on the same floor and it is nice to have them as neighbours. The embassy has two other diplomats from Peru besides me, and there are six Thai staff members. They all speak Spanish. My secretary has been with the embassy for 20 years and knows Peruvian diplomats very well, what is our style and how we are. Two more Thais are employed at my residence,” Mr Denegri said.
“Bilateral relations are very good. President Olanta Humala visited Thailand in 2013 and during the APEC Summit in Manila he met with Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha. I was present during the meeting and gave some input from the Peruvian perspective.”
“As I have said, our countries are both emerging economies and income per capita is about the same. Our two peoples also have a similar attitude towards life. However, there is one thing distinguishes America - I mean Canada to Argentina and Chile - from the rest of the world: In America you don’t identify yourself by race but by history, language, values, attitudes and culture. I always like to say that in Peru nobody is a stranger.
Anybody you see on the street could be a native Peruvian, whether their ethnic roots are African, Arab, Japanese, Chinese, European, indigenous or a mixture of all of the above.
“If any of your readers go to Peru to live they won’t be looked upon as a stranger or outsider. There are many people from all over the world living in Peru. If someone comes from Germany or an African country and behaves differently from Peruvians and cannot speak Spanish, Peruvians will know this person is not a local. But they will still be able to assimilate easily if they wish. In the beginning they may feel like an outsider but before long they will become a part of the mix. Of course, they should try to learn Spanish.”
Ambassador Denegri said another big difference between the two countries is geographical, in that Thailand is situated between the two great and populous nations of China and India. This means that in some ways it’s between two great cultures.
he diversity of the Peruvian people has resulted in a unique culinary fusion, he said. Given that its people have roots that stretch around the world, it’s not surprising that there are restaurants specializing in Chinese, Japanese, Italian, French and many other cuisines, as well as traditional Peruvian dishes. “Some restaurants try to stay ‘pure’ and stick to the original recipes, but there’s also a lot of combination. For example, in Peru the fried rice we call chaufa came from Chinese chow fan. It is similar to the Chinese dish but has a distinct local flavor. No Peruvian says fried rice, it’s always called chaufa.
“Peruvians are a little obsessed with gastronomy and we are proud of our cuisine, similar to Thais. One of the first things visitors are asked is, ‘Do you like Peruvian food?’ just as the automatic question here is ‘Do you like Thai food?’
“We eat a lot of rice but we cook it a bit differently than here, with salt, garlic and oil. This gives it a very good flavor. Also, as my Thai cook pointed out to me Peruvians prefer rice to be cooked ‘al dente,’ meaning it’s still a little firm and not too soft. For us rice is best when you can pick apart each and every grain with your fork. It must not be sticky. We eat rice every day for lunch and dinner and often mix it with corn or vegetables.
“You can find a wide variety of foods in Bangkok also and there are some very good restaurants serving international cuisines, and now including Peruvian. The new Above Eleven serves what they call Peruvian-Japanese food, but it is basically Peruvian. Of course, dishes cooked outside your native country are never quite the same, but this is as close as possible. And there is also a new Peruvian restaurant called Blu36.”
“The thing I like best by far is reading. I try to read a book per week. I also like to go to the cinema. For exercise I usually like to walk. So these are my three main activities in my spare time. I also like to watch international football like the Spanish and English leagues if it doesn’t come on too late. I don’t watch after midnight.
“My wife is Maria Isabel Vargas Caballero. She likes it here very much but she spends some time in Peru so she can be with our family. Her mother will be 95 years old in June and my mother turns 93 this month, and naturally we worry about them. We also have two sons, 24 and 26, who are in Peru. My wife tries to spend most of her time in Thailand with me but when we go back to Peru she sometimes stays longer than me.
“I travel to Peru once a year in December for Christmas. It is a very long flight and it teaches you to be patient. The time difference between Bangkok and Lima is 12 hours, so when I make a call to the MFA I usually do it around 9pm Bangkok time.”
The ambassador said he now feels very comfortable in Thailand, but in the beginning there were a couple of things that were a little hard to take. “Besides being so far from home, the other thing was the hot weather here. I was perspiring a lot, especially when wearing a suit and necktie. When I don’t have appointments I wear something more informal. I plan to have a traditional Thai-style jacket made and take it back to Lima.
“Now I am pretty much used to the weather and I don’t sweat as much. Actually temperatures are rising in Lima due to global warming. Before, the average temperature in winter was about 13C and 28C in summer. Now we average 15C in winter and about 29 degrees in summer. For us this is too much.”
Mr Denegri speaks English, Spanish and Italian, but he isn’t trying to learn Thai. “Why? There’s a saying in English that goes ‘You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.’ Thai is a very hard language to learn and after I go back home I won’t use it again. Thai officials almost always speak good English, and English is the official language of ASEAN.”
At the end of the interview the ambassador gave some advice to would-be diplomats. “I have made it a point in my career to observe other diplomats, especially when I was young the older ones, to see how they react to different situations. You can learn a lot that way. But the way you really learn is by doing. I believe there is one essential quality a diplomat must have, and that is adaptability. It also helps to have a sense of adventure.”
• Bachelor of Arts, Trent University, Canada, 1980
• B.A. in International Relations, Diplomatic Academy of Peru, 1983.
• Cycle of Improvement XXXII, Diplomatic Academy of Peru, 1993
• Master in Geopolitics of the New World, Italian Society for International Organizations, Italy, 2009
• Registered with Peruvian
Foreign Service at the rank of Third Secretary of Chancellery, January 1984
• Promotions: Third Secretary, January 1986; Second Secretary, January 1989; First Secretary, January 1992; Counselor, January 1997; Minister Counselor, January 2001; Minister, January 2005; Ambassador,t January 2010
Positions in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs
1984: Third Secretary of Chancellery of the Undersecretariat of Foreign Policy
1984: Third Secretary of Chancellery of the Department of Chile and Bolivia, Directorate of political and Diplomatic Affairs
1984: Third Secretary of Chancellery, Cabinet of the Minister
1986: Third Secretary, Cabinet of the Minister
1989: Second Secretary of the Directorate General for Coordination of the General Secretariat
1993: First Secretary of the Department of Bolivia, South America Division.
2000: Minister Counselor of the Directorate of Planning and Program Evaluation
2001: Minister Counselor of the Directorate General for Research and ituation Analysis
2002: Minister Counselor of the Directorate General for Security and Defense Affairs
2010: Ambassador; Director of Border Integration and Development; Responsible for the organization of the II Meeting of Peruvian Ambassadors
2012: Responsible for organization of the III Meeting of Peruvian Ambassadors
1986: Third Secretary of the Embassy of Peru in Bolivia
1987: Second Secretary of the Embassy of Peru in Bolivia
1990: Second Secretary of the Permanent Mission of Peru to the United Nations in New York
1992: First Secretary of the Permanent Mission of Peru to the UN
1995: First Secretary of the Embassy of Peru in Argentina
1997: Counselor of the Embassy of Peru in Argentina
2004: Minister Counselor, Consul General to the General Consulate of Peru in Milan, Italy
2007: Minister of the Embassy of Peru in the Republic of Italy and Permanent Representative of Peru to the International Organizations in Rome, Italy
2013: Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of the Republic of Peru to the Kingdom of Thailand and Ambassador to the Republic of the Philippines and the Lao People’s Democratic Republic
Participated as delegate and representative of Peru in numerous meetings and international conferences.
Professor at the University of Lima, Peru
1985: Lecturer in Contemporary Ideologies
1986: Lecturer in National Reality