Ishtiaq Andrabi describes his experiences from his last two years as Pakistani ambassador in Buenos Aires. He talks to us about work, food and politics as well as where he plans to travel before his return to Pakistan.
What other countries had you been posted to, prior to coming to Argentina in 2006?
I have been virtually all over the world. Most of my time has been spent in the Middle East: I was in Egypt then I was in Manchester, then Beirut, then New York, Sri Lanka and Argentina. My only experience of Latin America before coming on the posting to Argentina was Brazil which was in 1991. I was a member of the Pakistani delegation to the Earth Summit. Of course Latin America is a very attractive place but I think that Brazil is not all Latin America. It has its own very peculiar, very unique identity as far as culture goes.
How would you say your work here is different from where you have been before?
I would not say that it is a different ball game all together. There are some differences. For example our missions in the Middle East are community intensive missions. We have large Pakistani communities, running from thousands to even half a million like in UAE.
Argentina is in a way different, because we do not have a large Pakistani community. Although we have had diplomatic relations between Buenos Aires and Islamabad dating back to 1950 these were more symbolic representations without much substance.
It was only in 2004 when President Musharraf visited Latin America that he wanted to leave the beaten track a bit. When I came I was told ‘we have great political relations with Argentina, we want to put some meat on it’. So that was my priority. When I came, the trade was US$22m of our exports and about US$40m of Argentina’s exports to Pakistan. And I worked a lot on promoting our trade and within two years the exports have now doubled and the trade volume which US$60m at that time has crossed US$100m now.
What I have been trying to do, when I look back on the last two years, is build the institutions. What was happening was that the ambassador would arrive, and all the ambassadors would make very good friends but when the ambassador went back the next one would come and do the same thing but without really adding to the relationship. I look back at my two years achievements, if I may say so, and I feel much satisfaction and pride that I have been able to make more of a contribution.
What are your views on the latest election results?
I think that elections are just a normal milestone in a nation’s history. What is very important is that for many years Pakistan was being dubbed as a country with religious extremism and I think that the elections have been very important in that they have sent a very strong message that in Pakistani politics, religious extremism has no place. You will see that the religious parties that had 50 seats in a parliament of 350 were only able to win three seats this year. This is a very strong message and should assure the world that number one, Pakistan has a very strong democratic foundation, and two that are nuclear weapons are as safe as they are in Britain or the US.
Do you enjoy living in Buenos Aires and what do you think of the food?
Do I enjoy it? Of course I do. The people here are lovely. Another thing that makes me happy is that a lot of the traditions are similar to our traditions, like strong family, even the cooking here is like us in the way they cook the beef. As far as Pakistani food is concerned I know where the best is in BA and that is in the residence of the Pakistani ambassador so I do not miss Pakistani food. I do enjoy the local food as well, the empanadas and milanesas.
Have you travelled much in Argentina?
Yes I have, although not as much as I would have liked. I did go to Tierra del Fuego for a few days and Córdoba and Mar del Plata. I am yet to go to Bariloche and I am going to Mendoza for the wine festival. I feel that there are not a lot of rapid changes in culture or habits so it is like you are looking at one colourful canvass, where just the shade changes but the beauty remains the same. I would like to see Patagonia more before I go back. I would also like to go to Macchu Pichu and Bolivia. Bolivia has a place in the hearts of people my age because we were young when Che Guevarra was moving around so it brings around a lot of nostalgic feeling.