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Heads up – Embassy 23 – February 2010

Opening a new chapter

“Change is fashionable these days,” smiles Werner Romero, the new Ambassador of El Salvador, whose own country is undergoing a fundamental transition.

For the first time since the Central American peace accord was signed in 1992, a left-wing FMLN government has been elected in San Salvador. It’s a change that the Ambassador credits both to global events, such as the election of Barack Obama, but equally to the consolidation of the democratic process in El Salvador.

Since taking office, President Mauricio Funes has set out clear priorities. On the domestic front, the focus is on the social agenda, says Ambassador Romero: “There is a profound emphasis on protecting the vulnerable through anti-poverty measures, such as social inclusion, fiscal reform and investment in education and healthcare.”

Human rights have also taken centre stage under the new administration, adds  Romero. The President, though not a former guerrilla himself, has issued an apology on behalf of the state to the victims of the civil war and has introduced a number of initiatives to investigate abuses and disappearances. The government also plans to sign up to international human rights conventions to which it is not yet a party, including the International Criminal Court.

Due to the alarming increase in violent crime, the President has also pledged to improve public security by boosting the police presence, supported by the armed forces as an exceptional measure.

In the international arena, diversification of foreign policy is key, says the Ambassador, who, prior to this posting served as director general of foreign policy and managed the transition from a heavy US focus to a more multi-vectored approach.

“One of the things that the President did after his inauguration was to restore our diplomatic relationship with Cuba to send a message to the international community that El Salvador intends to be a non-ideological friend to all nations.”

In particular, the time is ripe to renew relations with Europe, says Romero. “Europe is starting to look outwards again. For a long time the Europeans neglected Latin America as it focused on institutional reform and enlargement to the east. Equally, we have been very focused, politically, commercially and culturally on the US.”

But stronger ties will benefit both, he adds: “Europe has to rediscover that Latin America is a natural ally. We have the same mentality, traditions and culture, and we can be helpful on a lot of international fronts. So it’s very timely to be here.”

But he admits there is one hurdle he faces in London: “The UK is very invisible to Central America and Central America is very invisible to the UK.”

The shutting of the British Embassy in San Salvador didn’t help, and part of the Ambassador’s mission will be to lobby the British government to re-establish a mission.

“Obviously there are budgetary restrictions but I haven’t lost hope,” smiles the Ambassador. “After all, there are a lot of commonalities that we share and the new Administration wants me to find those areas where we can deepen the relations.”

For one, Central America is fast becoming a very trading partner, explains Romero, a savvy trade negotiator who spent much of his time as counsellor for trade promotion in Washington negotiating the Central American Free Trade Area (CAFTA). El Salvador, along with its Central American neighbours, is now on the verge of signing an association agreement with the European Union, which includes a trade element.

Talks have been tough, he admits, mainly because some of Central America’s key agricultural exports compete directly with EU producers. Nevertheless, securing an agreement with the EU in May would make the region attractive to British investors, exporters and importers.

“We are very strategically located,” says Romero. “As a country that has access to the US market and soon may have access to the European market we can be a gateway to both markets.”

Climate change is another area where Britain and El Salvador share common concerns, he adds. “El Salvador has been the victim of extreme weather. But this is the new normality and we have to prepare for it. And this is where we will need help.”

In particular El Salvador needs assistance in institutional capacity building, says Romero: “We need British expertise on making sustainablility at the heart of all public policy – from the conservation of our biodiversity to changing our energy matrix from fossil fuels to renewable sources.”

The arts are also a powerful tool to capture the imagination of the British public. The Ambassador, who has a passion for theatre (especially Shakespeare), is keen to promote Salvadorean culture in the UK. A film festival is planned, and preparations are already underway for El Salvador’s bicentenary celebrations next year.

So whether he’s in British theatres or in backstage negotiations, Ambassador Romero is sure to have a posting full of drama.

HE Mr Werner Romero

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