Connecting Latvia and Galicia

  • 2010-03-18
  • Interview by Anna Kravcova

Bernardo Lopez is the Spanish consul and representative in Latvia, the second most important person after the ambassador. He began studying law in Madrid, but then decided to commit himself to a diplomatic career. He has been working in such places as Panama, Jamaica and Poland, before finally coming to the capital of Latvia. He has been living in Riga for four years already and is still very satisfied with his work. Not only has he achieved the highest level of professional development, but also fell in love with a Latvian girl. He draws a certain parallel between Latvia and Spain, saying, “I would rather identify myself with Latvians than with people from Panama.” He shares his thoughts and experience with TBT readers.

I know that you’ve been working in various places – Jamaica, Panama. Why have you chosen to come to Riga?
Actually, Riga is a very important place for working, from the diplomatic point of view. Working here gives you the highest diplomatic level - 30 - which is the maximum you can achieve in the administration in Spain. In contrast, by working in Panama, you receive the 28 level, which is also very high. Many people were interested in this place, including those who were much more senior than me, my colleague in St. Petersburg, for example, who was once ambassador in Kazakhstan. Besides, I have a fine relationship with Riga. I knew that Latvia is a very beautiful place, with marvelous nature, and is the most cosmopolitan of the three Baltic countries. In addition, I was aware that living standards here are also on a high level. All of my colleagues gave me very positive responses of Riga, saying that it is a very pleasant place to live, in general.

What were your first impressions of Riga?
The first impressions were very positive. Previously, I was working in Poland, which seems to have very much in common with Latvia. It is closely situated, and is relatively new to the European Union. In contrast to the Polish people, Latvians have a very high level of English language skills. However, when I arrived I realized the division which exists between native Latvians and other national minorities (Russians, Ukrainians, etc). We do have something similar in my home region, Galicia, where there is frequent tension between nationalistic groups. But the Spanish King, Juan Carlos when he was here last year, expressed his gratitude to the Latvian authorities for the work they were doing for integrating the minorities. And then, of course, the most pleasant thing which occurred to me here in Latvia was that I met the love of my life, my wife. Thus, Latvia is very important for me not only professionally, but also on a personal level.

What do you like about Latvia, the Latvian people, and why? Are Latvians similar to, or different from Spaniards?

Well, apart from getting married, I have also made many good friends in Latvia. Unfortunately, Latvian people usually have a lot of stereotypes connected with Spain. They associate it with passion, beaches, hot weather, and sometimes even salsa, which is actually a dance from Latin America and has nothing to do with Spain. In reality, Spain is a very complex country. There are 17 autonomous regions. Every region is a separate world, with its own culture, history and costumes. In some sense today’s Spain is rather similar to the former Soviet Union. It consists of many regions, but each of them is very different and special. I came from Galicia, and I have noticed that Latvians are rather similar to Gallegos. Both of us are accustomed to cold weather. Although it does not snow that much in Galicia, we also have difficult, sunless winters and huge snowfalls in the countryside. Besides, both Gallegos and Latvians are very introverted. We are men of stability and good friendship. We have a profound concept of friendship. We have few friends, but all of them are real. There are very many things that we have in common. I would rather identify myself with Latvians than, for instance, with people from Panama, though our countries are historically related and we speak the same language.

Are you speaking about authentic Latvians, or about all the people who live in Latvia, in general?
Of course, I refer to people who live in Latvia in general.

Is there anything that Spaniards can learn from Latvians, and vice versa?
I think that Spaniards can learn many things. For example, I adore the way Latvia is able to function in the periods of huge snowfall. When it snows in Spain, the work of much of the infrastructure (airports, roads) totally collapses. Latvians, in their turn, should learn more about Spanish culture, and the way it varies from one region to another.

So, you are saying that Galician weather is similar to Latvia’s.
That’s right. Latvia and Galicia are similar in that sense. However, the climate in my home region is still milder and warmer. Besides, spring comes there much earlier. By the end of March, we already have flowers.

How do you survive the coldness?
Well, I rather prefer snow to rain. Nature is much more beautiful that way. It gives you a possibility to enjoy winter sports, such as skiing.

What are the main functions of the Spanish Embassy in Riga?

First of all, similarly to all embassies, we are defending the interests of our country. We protect and provide help to our citizens. We also take care of visas for those foreigners who are residing here. Besides, we develop a cultural program and organize official visits, such as the visit of the King of Spain last year. This year we have very much work to do, as Spain has the Presidency of the European Union.

How could you describe the international relations between Spain and Latvia?
To my mind we have a very good relationship, from all angles. The King of Spain visited Riga last year, and Latvian politicians also regularly make diplomatic visits to Spain. We do not have any problems, or conflicts. Sometimes, I am joking that the friendship between Spain and Latvia exists due to the fact that there were no conquests or invasions between them in the past. Unfortunately, we cannot say the same about other European countries.

What problems are you solving at the moment?
As I said, we are very busy at the moment, as Spain has the EU chairmanship. For instance, last Wednesday we organized a meeting of all the ACC ambassadors with the governor of the Bank of Latvia. Organizing these kinds of activities always involves a great deal of work.

What can you say about the current economic situation in Latvia?

It is clear that Latvia now suffers the worst crisis in Europe. However, some signs of recovery already could be noticed. It shows its competitive ability, and good productivity. Latvian exports are also improving. It might sound strange, but crisis also has positive aspects. Before the crisis the Latvian economy was overheated. The inflation and other indicators would avoid Latvia to join Euro, the crisis can speed the process. On the other hand, the EU and IMF are often criticized for lending too much money to Latvia. To my mind, this criticism is totally unfair. Latvia would have experienced a much more difficult situation without this money.

Spain also suffers a deep crisis now. Do you think we have some problems in common?

The situation in Spain is still different. Firstly, one of the things which caused the crisis was a very high level of immigration. In the previous decade, Spain received 5 million newcomers, which was more than it could absorb. Thus, the first victims of the crisis were immigrants, who lost their workplaces. Secondly, on the global level the Latvian economy is small, and is incomparable to Spain’s economy, which would be among the top ten economies of the world.

What can you say about Spanish tourism in Latvia?
At the moment we do not have reliable statistics, but approximately 100,000 Spanish tourists visit Latvia every year. Usually people from Spain come to visit not only Latvia, but all three Baltic countries. Most of them are here to peacefully enjoy the Latvian sights, and they never cause any problems. However, sometimes there occur such things which may create an ill reputation for Spain. Two years ago we had the misfortune of two young Spanish guys who took a Latvian flag, which created the false impression that all Spanish tourists are hooligans and drunkards, when that case was exceptional.

Do you know of Latvian immigrants in Spain? Is Spain friendly to them?
In reality I know very little. This question should rather be asked to the Latvian consul in Madrid. I know that there are many Lithuanian immigrants in Spain, and Latvian people more often go to live in the Canary Islands. Perhaps it is the climate which attracts them.

Apart from a diplomatic career, you are also a writer. What are your books about?
My first work was an essay on the history of Galicia. I also have two novels. The first one is about philosophical issues, while the second one is a thriller. It tells about the events, starting in 1970, and continues to the present times. A writer comes to the house of a man, whose wife was murdered 40 years earlier, and starts feeling a strange dejavu, although he has never been in this place before.

Are your books translated into Latvian, Russian, and English?

They are not translated into Latvian and Russian yet. An English translation is in the works. You see, there are many things which are difficult to translate, as a non-Spaniard will barely understand the essence of the story if not aware of the cultural background.

What is your next destination?
I am still not really sure. I would like to return to Central or Latin America. Most probably it will be Panama or Costa Rica.

This is the last year of your work here. Would you like to return to Latvia some day?

Latvia is the best workplace I have had during my career, and I will really miss it. If I had an opportunity to stay here, I would do it gladly. But, we are allowed to stay in one place only for four years. I hope to return after some time. If it is not possible to get a workplace in Riga, I will try my fortune in Vilnius or Tallinn.