Argentina Time Zone UTC-03:00
Capital City Buenos Aires
Currency Argentine peso ARS
National Day 25 May
LAST YEAR, ARGENTINA’S new Ambassador His Excellency Mr Javier Esteban Figueroa found himself responsible for around 2,000 Argentine tourists stranded in Cuba due to the health pandemic. “It was intense – hotels and airspace were closed, and our small team had to organise humanitarian flights and provide everything for these people. This was a challenging but rewarding time, when I felt more like a naval officer than Ambassador!” he remarks.
Mr Figueroa arrived in London on 1 September with his wife Alesandra – who is also a diplomat and now head of the cultural section at the Embassy – and their daughter. After a month of face-to-face meetings, everyone started working from home, and it’s been like that ever since. He’s observed that “Zoom meetings have helped, but sensitive questions and negotiations are difficult without meeting face-to-face.” Their second posting in London, he notes “We were here for our first posting abroad from 1998-2005. We so enjoyed London– no kids and no pandemic! But we are happy to be back.”
The Ambassador began his career as a criminal lawyer, but after a serious car accident, he had a change of heart, and joined the diplomatic academy. “I love this profession and have enjoyed every day of my job.” Much of his career has been spent focused on Malvinas affairs, rising to become Deputy Secretary for Affairs Relating to the Malvinas, South Georgias and South Sandwich Islands and Surrounding Maritime Areas in the South Atlantic in 2013.
Prior to Cuba, he was Argentina’s Ambassador to South Africa, (with concurrent accreditation to Namibia and Botswana). “South Africa is an important market for us, we sell varied goods from cars to grains and agro-technology.” There he also developed a bilateral agenda on oceanic affairs. “South Africa and Argentina are members of The Antarctic Treaty, so we tried to foster political and logistical cooperation.”
Now Argentina’s Ambassador in the UK, Mr Figueroa observes that his country has “strong, historical links with the UK. The UK was the first country that recognised Argentina as an independent state and was Argentina’s main economic and cultural partner during the first third of the twentieth century. Then the UK withdrew from Latin America, so these links are not as powerful as they were in the past, but still significant.”
So, he will be working on promoting commercial activities, in addition to traditional exports. He will promote the cultural industries, which “represent about 4 per cent of Argentina’s GDP. We will work hard on promoting Argentine culture. Although we are known for our grains, beef and polo, Argentina actually exports more fish than meat, and more software or cars than wine. We must challenge these stereotypes, and cultural activities are a good way of doing that.”
It’s no surprise given the Ambassador’s background that the Malvinas question is an important priority on the bilateral agenda. “Argentina wants to reengage with the UK government on this. We want to re-establish the serious negotiations we had with the UK in the 1970s and 1980s before the war. I have had good meetings with the FCDO, with frank discussions on these issues. In Argentina, this is a huge issue of foreign policy.” He acknowledges that this is “a complex issue” for an Ambassador to manage, but his experience means he’s aware “of the areas on which we can cooperate, and those which we can’t. I know the political constraints involved.”
He is proud to champion the close scientific links between the two countries. “Outside of Brazil, the Astra Zeneca vaccine will be produced in Argentina (and Mexico) for the rest of Latin America. We share the view with the UK that multilateralism and international cooperation is the only way we can overcome the pandemic.”
Mr Figueroa believes that “Brexit will be an incentive to strengthening bilateral relations. “We may possibly negotiate a Mercosur Agreement with the UK. It should not be too difficult, as Mercosur states (Argentina, Brazil Paraguay and Uruguay) have an existing agreement with the EU that was negotiated when the UK was a member.”
In the run up to COP 26 next November, climate change issues will be on the agenda. “One of Argentina’s strengths is its agro-industrial sector, which is vulnerable to climate change. We must try to find a way of mitigating that risk and financing those changes. It’s expensive to adapt the economy and requires international cooperation. Of course, this is not unique to Argentina, it’s a global challenge.”
Mr Figueroa admits that climate change has become an issue close to his heart. A keen scuba diver, he had a “dreadful experience” in Cuba last year. “I saw a coral reef die in the space of just a few days, which was so sad. Climate change is not only a pressing economic question and one of the most difficult political issues on the global agenda, but also a great moral responsibility.”
Back to COVID-19. “Argentina is not alone in facing the global challenge of the health pandemic,” he says. “Latin America has been badly hit. We hope we can get out of this mess without any serious lasting damage to the social, economic and political fabric of our societies. So this is a great priority. But we are lucky to live in a peaceful region with good integration and cooperation.”