“From Architect to Diplomat”
Ambassador of the Dominican Republic to Germany Gabriel Rafael Ant José Calventi Gaviño talks to Berlin GlobalAugust 29th, 2016
Your career as an ambassador has been very successful. Before, however, you pursued architecture as a profession, a career that also brought you satisfaction. What made you initially choose architecture, and what was the greatest challenge you faced as an architect?
This is the most difficult question I have ever been asked. I do believe that the concept of vocation exists, but I have never considered it as a single isolated concept: “I was born with this calling”. No, I don’t believe that. Calling comes in part as a result of one’s environment, but above all thanks to parents. If my father had been an architect, I would tell you that he passed on his love of architecture to me, but it was not. So my calling for architecture is to be found in different spheres. I can’t say it came from the perception of what architecture is by seeing it physically in a beautiful city, where I could actually perceive its meaning.
I say this because I spent the first years of my life in my hometown, a very small town in the Dominican Republic called La Vega, which couldn’t possibly influence anybody. It’s a small town with conventional, small-scale architecture and small buildings. Regarding the genesis of my desire to study architecture, I would say that it did not come from any traditional lines. The only thing I remember which could have led me to love and study architecture is the fact that in that small town, almost in front of where I lived until I was 12 or 13, they started constructing a building on a much bigger scale than was usual for a government building. I was interested in dropping by and observing their work, but I was much more interested in the constructive aspect, which ultimately is not architecture; however it led me to become interested in architecture. Thus it was perhaps because of that building. However I see it now and it’s very unattractive, so that I couldn’t even say it was because of the beauty of the place.
Afterwards I moved to the capital, the city of Santo Domingo, where I finally felt I was in an environment whose visual element could interested me, and that was decisive. What else? Movies, cinema…I was keen on the movies. There you can see huge buildings and great projects and that might have influenced my daily life. When it was the moment to choose a job I didn’t have to do what you usually do now - going to see a specialist to find out what your true calling is. I was lucky, because these specialists often result in you deviating from your interests and they send you to study things that ultimately are not your real calling. I enrolled directly in college, choosing to study architecture. There I discovered that my true vocation was architecture: maybe it was random, maybe it was not. Many factors contributed to shaping my life.
And ultimately architecture is my life, not diplomacy.
In the last decades, you have maintained an influential position in Dominican history. How would you define in a few words the evolution of your country?
I could talk to you in a practical manner about the evolution of my country, because I am not a youngster anymore. I lived in my country for many years, and this allowed me to see how the Dominican Republic has evolved and transformed over the years.
First and foremost, politically speaking, I was born into a dictatorship; a regime that limited all freedoms and which didn’t allow one to truly observe the world in an intellectual way.
Because living within a dictatorship means living within a lie.
Everything we were told was a lie. Everything that the dictatorship defined as something supposedly positive, extraordinary for the country, could be typically extraordinary for a specific sector of the country or for the political sector surrounding the dictator, but it did not accurately depict the truth of how things were evolving inside the country socially, economically speaking, or in any aspect that could define progress or openness to the world. The first thing that dictatorships do is to isolate the country for their own convenience. Still, I was not blind or deaf and in one way or another, and with my friends, we could realise that there was something in the country that was forbidden, that could not be enjoyed.
Yet even if the dictatorship itself is a negative factor, it always leaves something positive, and one can see that. It was such a poor country that the peasants walked barefoot. They were coming to the city barefoot. They had no money to buy shoes; there in fact was no shoe industry. The shoe industry developed afterwards, for the dictator’s convenience. He saw that it was a big market. If almost everyone was barefoot and he made a shoe factory, he could force people to buy shoes by simply forbidding them to enter the city barefoot. This had the potential to become a lucrative business. There you have the proof of how a fact that occurs because of personal convenience can also become a country’s convenience. Because living barefoot in the countryside, in the middle of an unhygienic environment, it was easy to pick up a number of diseases. What I am trying to do with this example is to give you a portrait of the social and economic level in our country.
When people have to walk barefoot in a country, because there is no alternative, it is because the country is really backward. However, evolution is inevitable; nobody can prevent it, not even the most terrible dictatorships. There was only one national bank, which also belonged to the state. Today there are dozens of private banks, in addition to the original state-owned bank. Those banks are drivers of development: they lend money and that money is then invested. They helped development so much that the barefoot became people wearing shoes manufactured in their country and dressed less poorly. Now a peasant girl dresses in the same fashion as a city girl, because fashion reaches them at the same time. They somehow manage to dress well and that is naturally a symptom of what progress is – the fashion progress.
There is no fashion where there is no progress.
Poverty slows the progress of many features that are characteristic of developing or rich countries. Well, my country was isolated from the world, but the dictatorship fell, like everything else and was followed by a transitional regime, which allowed more freedom. For example, at the end of the dictatorship I was able achieve something very difficult – I left the country and studied abroad. That’s how I went to Italy to study architecture, and many others left afterwards, just as I had done. Those architects, and when I graduated we were only a few, inspired and influenced others to study. The result is that today there are hundreds of architects who create magnificent architecture, who build beautiful cities or at least are trying to make them beautiful. Today we have a city, Santo Domingo that instead of being made out of small, poor houses, is a city of well-designed towers, very beautiful. The middle class now lives here: a constructive class, a class that brings many things to the country intellectually, culturally, politically and in terms of development.
That can be seen. The relationship between the material country and the intellectual country can be perceived, and today we are a metropolis, at least the capital and some other cities are. They began to develop with the influence that came from outside the country. We had neither the judgment nor the desire to take part in local culture that came from Spain and from the colonisation, instead we took what came from outside. However, today the heritage the Spaniards left behind is a source of inspiration for material progress.
I think I should not prolong this issue any longer, but I feel I must conclude your question. I have seen my country emerge from extreme poverty in an already advanced country, which sometimes has contradictions inside its walls – a poor country, yet also a highly developed country in all aspects of life. For example, when I was a child there were very few doctors and many children died. Today Dominican medicine is very advanced, to the point that in our country a person who formerly could have died from a simple respiratory complication might today undergo open-heart surgery. What I mean is that we have also made progress in several aspects, and these aspects are the ones which are going to make the country grow. Today I think our country has grown a lot.
Which were the reasons that led you to become a diplomat?
Another hard question, because moving from practicing a profession such as architecture, which has noting to do with diplomacy, you cannot really see a logical reason. As far as I’m concerned I think it is easier to move from a profession such as law to the diplomatic service, or many other professions that can be linked to diplomacy, but not architecture.
Probably a change of attitude is the reason that come to mind now, for wanting to fly more. In my childhood I used to live in a limited environment. I wanted to live in a larger environment and also help the world to get to know my country, and that my country as well - through a career that nowadays is very wide – knew the world to the extent that each one individually or collectively can. I think it was a subjective and almost romantic reason, and here I am.
Your Excellency was Ambassador of the Dominican Republic in Italy, Mexico, Argentina, and currently in Germany. Did you find it challenging to adapt to so many different cultures?
It hasn’t been difficult, although I know generally it’s difficult for everybody to adapt to living in and absorbing other cultures. It was not that difficult because I left my country and moved to Italy when I was very young, and when you are very young you absorb new cultures, which almost seep into your pores. It’s different from learning through reasoning, reading or studying, but this didn’t happen to me. Adapting to living in Italy and studying there, when still young, put me in touch with a new culture. Then you get used to the idea of your culture not being the only culture, and so you start feeding on other cultures, and then it makes everything simpler to you. Like in Mexico for example – after Italy I was ambassador in Mexico. In my youth, when I was dedicated to the political struggle and the fight for democracy, I was deported and exiled to Mexico. I was still young; I still had absorption capacity – aside from the fact that Mexican culture is very close to ours, as it has the same roots.
The only country whose culture I found difficult to adapt to was Germany, and that’s logical. Germany is not a country with Latin roots, which belong to the Spanish-speaking countries, and I cannot apply my culture to Germany. It was difficult mainly because of the language. Linguistic differences are a hard barrier. It stops you from communicating in every aspect. But fortunately I speak other languages and Germans speak other languages too. This allowed me to communicate more, not just at work but also with people, making friends. As I was saying, everything is interconnected. I learned Italian, I learned French because I’ve lived in France too, I learned English because I’ve lived in the USA. Well, if you can’t communicate with anybody even speaking three languages, you’re an idiot! But I’m adjusting little by little.
Which is the most relevant duty you have as the Dominican Republic’s Ambassador in Germany?
In my opinion, the most relevant duty even for traditional diplomacy, the most relevant roles an ambassador can play, are those of bringing countries together, promoting friendship, promoting common values. If you cannot achieve promoting those common values, at least you can make them understand your values. That is what I think has been my basic duty in the diplomatic career, wherever that has been. But nowadays diplomacy is very diverse. For example in the cultural, economic and political fields. In these fields an ambassador has to act using many instruments, and amongst those instruments one of the most important ones is to try and bring the countries’ cultures closer together.
After all, my diplomatic career has been in the Occident. Perhaps it would have been impossible or harder to achieve those bridge-building aspects in another environment. For example if I had been ambassador in China, because it is clear that the cultures are completely different, which is not the case with the Occidental culture. After all we are part of the Western world, with cultures that, even with their differences, are very close. And I think in that regard, I tried to do my best.
I want to point out something. Nowadays international tourism is a huge cross-cultural factor. When I was a child I used to live in a world controlled by a dictatorship that isolated us from the rest of the world. Nowadays it is different. We are an open country, as well as the rest of the world. That openness must be applied in one way or another, with different instruments. For example in Germanys case, apart from the deliberate work done in bringing the two countries together in the cultural, economic and political field, there is one field, which is spontaneous, and that is tourism. My country receives around 250.000 German tourists annually. Maybe they like it, maybe they don’t, but maybe they appreciate the Dominican nature. They fall in love, they get married, they bring their wives, have children. It's all part of cross-culture. So it’s not only my job, it’s a job that generally speaking, the development of the world makes. Globalisation is a cross-cultural factor.
How would you evaluate the relations between Dominican Republic and Germany, and which were the most remarkable changes that arose in the last few years?
I think I have to resort to comparison again. Some forty years ago, after the fall of the dictatorship, we had a period when we wanted to open up but were unable to. We accomplished economic cooperation with other countries, but Germany wanted to contribute especially in terms of industrialisation. Yet after the fall of the dictatorship and the subsequent regime, we were left with many debts, because no county gives away anything for free.
Cooperation is a generous area, but generally speaking what other countries actually do is minimal - lending money and selling. When something happens in the political area, such as an economic crisis for example, the payment of external debts is prevented. We were in huge debt with Germany and Germany broke off relations with us as a result. It didn’t break diplomatic ties, but it did break the investment and cooperation field. Germany demanded we demonstrate first that we were a country which knew how to pay, that we took what they were lending or giving us seriously. Then we had to take life seriously, as we say. We had to pay the debts and we paid them. From then on, relations with Germany specifically, were more fluid.
The relations already began to be seen from a different perspective. We were countries with different levels of development, very different, but we could have relations. Germany could sell many things to us, especially because of our underdevelopment. Nowadays the things Germany sells us are important things, such as underground parts for transportation; a large number of cars and so on. That is commercial trade, important for both countries as well as the friendly relations which are closely linked to ones interest. Therefore friendly relations have developed.
The diplomatic relations are very good. The political relations are better than ever and therefore this is how I see the evolution of the relations between Dominican Republic and Germany.
Through what means does the Dominican Republic Embassy promote its culture in Germany?
We have many ways to promote and to show the German people aspects of our culture. We will never be able to show them everything, but we are able to showcase are those things we consider most relevant and positive. Culture is one of those factors.
How are we accomplishing it? For example, we are twinning universities, which sign agreements with one another. For example, two or three years ago we made agreements with the University of Trier. Our Embassy and the German Embassy in the Dominican Republic collaborated a lot to strengthen these ties. We have done programs with University of Trier, I personally held conferences there, and they are traveling to the Dominican Republic frequently to develop programs of comprehension on what and how our country is, and have written a book called ‘’The Dominicanidad: perspectives of a concept’’. They are planning to publish a book which is the result of the studies they have made there, to which we have contributed here in Germany.
I think that the cultural factor is a very important contributor for rapprochement between Germany and Dominican Republic. In addition we have the elements of cultural folklore. We have shown it here in important fairs, such as ITB, the tourism fair. We have brought folkloric groups that come and make beautiful shows almost annually. Inn one of these fairs dedicated to the Dominican Republic we brought a group of actors who are celebrated worldwide.
I don’t know if you have heard, for example, of a songwriter called Juan Luis Guerra. He came here for one of the ITB fairs. Like him, we bring others. We bring the folklore, but also we bring our culture, our high level culture, a more intellectual level. For example, important conferences held by our cultural attaché, Mr. Miguel Mena. The last one was a conference with a high level of interest for Germany, about the life and work of a German poet who lived in the Dominican Republic for several years – Hilde Domin. She was married with another German who also enjoyed great influence. He dedicated himself to a very extensive study of the colonial architecture in the Dominican Republic. He holds conferences in the Latin-American Institute about the work and the influence of our country in Hilde Domin’s work.
I think in many other aspects we bring the culture, the visual arts, through painting and sculpture exhibitions. In this way we are bringing things, and Germany, in return, also takes things in the Dominican Republic. Although it seems incredible, we also bring a high level of culture nowadays, which we might call the educated part of our luggage. For example, we brought classical violinists here who held beautiful concerts in Frankfurt and whom we will also bring to Berlin, such as a young female violinist who is an extraordinary classical musician. Therefore, we have tried to cover the whole range of cultural aspects, in order to be well known in Germany.
Last but not least, we would like to know how you would define Cultural Diplomacy and how you think it can be used to strengthen relations between countries?
Cultural diplomacy has a definition, which is not mine. It's the diplomacy that is used by different countries and states in the world to achieve specific objectives in the country where the culture is supposed to be expanded. One simple interest, years ago, could be the simple approach in friendship and knowledge between countries, but nowadays cultural diplomacy goes further and we are seeing new challenges arise, which after all, are the interest of those who bring their culture to another country. That is cultural diplomacy. The diplomacy that introduces new targets and goals that a country wants to achieve in a neighbour state. How do you achieve this? You can do it in many ways. I believe that it has always existed, but we have now given it a name, cultural diplomacy. Another example could be climatic diplomacy. The phenomena of climatic change did not exist before, but today has become a central element of our lives and has a number of negative effects upon all countries around the world. We named this interaction between states climatic diplomacy, in order to help to mitigate this problem. The same way as it happens with cultural diplomacy.