Giancarlo Alberti Barrios, lovingly referred to as simply “Gian” by me and my friends, is not only one of my closest and dearest friends (and first-rate artist who designed the logo of this site), but also the deputy consul of the Consulate General of Chile in New York City (Consulado General de Chile en Nueva York). As second in command of Chile’s diplomatic outpost in the Big Apple, his mission is to promote the cultural arts (music, artistic performances, etc.) of his home country. I always found his work to be irrepressibly interesting, since he was always going off to concerts, art exhibitions, and other events that featured his Chilean people. This is a short interview I asked him to provide; his work is quite fascinating, and I wanted to share what he did with others here. Me in Bold, Gian in Blue.
Gian, we’ve shared many beers together, and yet I don’t know much of your story, your background (maybe you told me and I just had too many beers). What was life like growing up in Chile?
Well, Chile is a country at the “end of the world” as we usually say. We receive a standard education based on the European model at school, and on the other hand the economic system is pretty Americanized. Plus, back then when I was a child there was a long dictatorship, so some things were forbidden as for example, talking about or reading socialist texts and that kind of stuff, but I was 9 when that regime ended, things began to change very slowly.
But I can tell you, when I was 8 years old my family moved to Italy for 2 years, my father is from there you know, so only when we moved back to Santiago I could notice the huge difference between public education in Europe and in Chile. The Chilean was so bad that they had to change me to a private school, because in Chile you still have a public educational system that is supposed to be worse than the private (paid) one. But in my experience, the education of one of the “prestigious” private schools in Chile was worse than the public school in Italy.
When did you first decide you wanted to work in diplomacy/foreign relations?
I think that this is very connected with what I told you above. I grew up with the experience of having lived in a completely different country, and in some way I didn’t rest until I could get in touch with foreign cultures and countries and people again. This is what pushed me in that direction. The problem is that I didn’t have any idea of how to do it. I studied Philosophy at college in Chile and I guess that the obvious way was to continue studies abroad. Just by chance I learned about the Academy of Diplomacy in Chile, exactly when I had finished college, which was a must for entering diplomacy.
Here in the US, your Chilean embassy, of course, is in Washington DC, and there are satellite offices, the consulates, in other major cities. You’re posted at the Chilean consulate in New York City, what is this consulate’s role, as opposed to the main embassy in Washington?
In basic terms, the Embassy is in charge of the political bilateral relations between the country it represents and the receptor country. Everything, from high authorities’ official visits, to scientific agreements, cooperation, strategic negotiations and exchange of information is the job of the Ambassador and his/ her staff. Their counterpart is the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the receptor country, or the Department of State, in the case of Washington DC.
A consulate, on the other hand, is in charge of the nationals of the country it represents, in the receptor country. The consulate´s role is more like legal. It has to deal, for example, with the Immigration office of its country. The consulate is open to the public, on the contrary of the embassy.
You’re the consul adjunct for the Chilean consulate in New York City – what the hell does that mean? What are some of your daily duties?
Being Consul Adjunct as you say, or Deputy Consul as we say, means that I am the second on board at the Consulate, my boss being the Consul General of Chile in New York. We are the authorities that the Republic of Chile posts in New York as a “Ministers of Trust”. This means that we can sign any documents legalized by the Secretary of State of New York for example, or the County Clerk of the State, and this act will give them value for them being legal in Chile.
So my most common daily duties are signing documents as, for example, certificates of birth, of marriage, of death, college diplomas, visas of American citizens that go to Chile to study or work, powers of attorneys, some kind of passports, etc. But I also perform other duties at the Consulate.
You promote Chilean culture around the New York region, but in what ways?
Yes, the most important role that the Consul General gave me is to be in charge of the cultural affairs of Chile in New York. This is very interesting and fun at the same time. In simple words, every artist and cultural promoter of Chile coming to or living in New York, and every Chilean show, exhibition, concert, have the chance of using the Chilean consulate as a platform for diffusion, financing, networking, connection to the New York environment, etc.
I helped in developing a network that includes the Chilean artists who live in New York, galleries, museums and cultural administrators. We have a blog and send them weekly newsletters.
Then, the practical way of working the cultural area in the “bureaucratic way” is through projects. I create projects in co-work with the artists and send them to my MFA in Chile, where they enter a contest for obtaining the financing. Also, we try to get funds from private companies in NY, Chilean or international ones. I was lucky, 2 of my projects got funded the first year I applied: an exhibition of a Chilean painter and a tour of a classic pianist. Then, when we have the funds I have to do the rest: organizing the show, getting the gallery for example, taking care of the invitations, the press and everything that makes a good exhibition. The idea is to promote a Chilean artist who is unknown in New York.
I know you’re an artist at heart, and quite a good one, if I may say so. Which inspired the other? Did promotion of Chilean arts and culture get you interested in art, or did your love of art precede this position?
I always loved art and had some natural skills, but in this the whole credit goes for the city of New York. Here everything flowed and exploded. It was an amazing coincidence that I had to work the cultural area at the consulate. If I hadn’t, I would have taken art lessons the same. You know very well how NYC vibrates in the art world, and it´s so great that you have schools here as the Art Students League, where I can go and paint every single evening of the week and also weekends if I want, and it´s a place for the community that every pocket can pay, where you have the best teachers, models and everybody is so talented. I learned etching in one year and the next year I was doing quite good oil portraits. The school and the city revealed talents that I didn’t even know I had!
So, I remember when I first met you, and you told me you were a diplomat. “A diplomat?! That’s fucking awesome!” I exclaimed. For many people, or maybe just me, I had this romantic idea of what a diplomat was, as something akin to being a spy played by George Clooney. How far away am I from the truth?
Well, I feel like George Clooney every time I go to a cocktail reception haha! I cannot wait for my hair getting all gray. Look, I don’t think you need actual spies now with all the iPhones and the technologic stuff. But I would say that the romantic spirit of diplomacy is still there, especially in countries that are often catalogued as more “exotic”. My former destination, Poland, was a bit more like in the Cold War fashion of the international relations game. I mean, you know Poland better than me, it is a fully modern capitalistic economy now, but there is still a sense of traditional diplomacy in those embassy receptions, in the way in which diplomatic circles exchange or obtain exclusive information trying to precede the media, in the meetings or parties where people dress elegantly. Also, the diplomat has the duty of integrating in a foreign country, and it is still a very difficult experience: we should speak the local language. Luckily, English is so global that helps everybody everywhere.
I understand that as a diplomat, your first and most important duty is to promote and protect the interests of Chile and your fellow citizens here in the US. What services do you provide for them?
We are in touch with the other consulates of Latin American countries in New York. It is a sort of “coalition” that has an agenda and the consuls held meetings periodically with the authorities in the U.S. They go to Immigration offices, to JFK facilities, they meet the NYPD chief. We have advisers, politicians and lawyers who cooperate in helping the problems that our nationals may have in our jurisdiction. We provide the Chilean nationals with news, numbers and names of the institutions and people who work with legal cases in relation to immigration issues, citizenship, deportations, etc. We have a huge contact list and a FB page. We care for the Chileans in New York.
And for me, let’s say, as a non-Chilean someone who is interested in learning more about Chile, how can your office help me?
Well, we can give you some touristic booklets and give you advice about Chile. This will depend on what you are looking for. But honestly, there is nothing we can give you that you cannot find on internet. This is how the world works in 2014. However, if you plan to visit Chile there are different kinds of Visa that you can apply for, and this is specific information that you can only obtain at the consulate.
We once took an infamous road trip with our friends to Niagara Falls. On the way home, you decided that speed limits were simply suggestions, and we soon were pulled over. You received two tickets, and subsequently paid them. Why? I thought diplomatic immunity was primarily to get out of moving and parking violations – why didn’t you just rip them up?
Haha Chris, I´m not sure if this should go in the interview, but I want to make one thing clear: I had only been few months in the U.S. when we took that trip, and I had never driven here. So, for unbelievable it may seem, when I read the numbers on the speed panel I was thinking in km/h, therefore I speed as I used to do it in Europe. It didn’t cross my mind that I was exceeding the limit in miles.
And yes, I accepted to pay the tickets because I’m a good diplomat. Many diplomats don’t pay their tickets but I think that we should pay them if they are fairly given. Decades ago it was a common practice that diplomats didn´t pay tickets but many took advantage of this and made infractions or unnecessarily speed, so now many governments don´t give any prerogatives to diplomatic cars. Before, you could park your diplomatic licensed car anywhere in NYC for example. Now you just can’t.
What else does diplomatic immunity get you out of? What can you do that I can’t do?
Well, actually diplomatic immunity is different from consular immunity. When I was posted to Poland I was a diplomat at the Embassy and the Consul at the Consulate, so I had full diplomatic immunity. But in New York I am just Consul which means that I have a degree less of immunity than the people at Washington DC or at United Nations. Basically, I have immunity of jurisdiction while exercising my consular duties. Not at a private event, for example.
You have an identification card I envy, the ID with the header that says it was issued by the US Department of State. Does this mean you get special clearance, such as in an airport, perhaps?
Yes I have some prerogatives: this card states that I am protected, in some way, by the government of this country. At the airport, with this card or my diplomatic passport, I don’t need to stay in the long line, and I think that this is the best use I will ever give to it.
Got a funny and/or weird story about an experience you’ve had as a consul?
I have many. But I can’t tell any of them. It´s the diplomatic reserve, you understand.
That’s it :) But actually, I would also like to post some photos of Gian’s own artistic work. He recently had his first art exhibition in New York, and I believe that he’s supremely talented; I might be biased based on my friendship with him, but check it out for yourself on the next page.
Note: This interview took place as Gian was still located in New York City. He has since relocated back to his hometown and Chile’s capital city, Santiago, after finishing his two-year requirement in New York. He now holds a liaison position with Chile’s government, acting as the locally-based representative of Chile to a block of Southeast Asian countries.