His Excellency Rubén Pérez Valdés is a man who has witnessed the changes of the world first-hand. The Cuban Ambassador to Malaysia has been in the business for over 40 years, spending much of his lengthy career in Asia.
“All my life I have been in the Asia-Pacific region. I guess you could call it destiny!” the affable Valdés says. Born and raised in Havana, Valdés attributes his fluency in languages – in particular Chinese and Russian – as his stepping stone into the Foreign Service. “I studied Political Science at university but because I could speak Chinese and Russian fluently, I was recommended for a position in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.”
A mere four months after getting the job, Valdés was posted to Mongolia. “It’s a country that is between China and Russia, so I guess I was the right man for the job,” he quips. Although he is now used to the comforts of modern travel, Valdés hasn’t forgotten his first journey to the continent that would be his home for more than four decades: “Flights in the 1970s were very different. I went from Havana to Toronto. Then I flew to Dublin and on to Prague. That was followed by a flight to Moscow and another one to Omsk in Siberia. After an internal flight to Irkutsk, I finally landed in Ulaanbaatar.”
Guaranteed jetlag is a price to pay for living so far away from home, but Valdés takes it all in stride. “I have been very lucky to have been able to experience and live in so many Asian countries,” says the ambassador, who is also Cuba’s consul to the Philippines and Brunei. Starting out in Mongolia, Valdés’s career has taken him to Sri Lanka, Hong Kong (then still an independent nation), China, Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, Myanmar, and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea before touching down on Malaysian soil close to two years ago now.
“I had never visited Malaysia before arriving here,” he admits. “I had read a lot about the development of the country, but it was only when I got here that I was able to fully appreciate the beauty of it all. Kuala Lumpur is definitely a city of the future.”
Having lived in the region for so long, Valdés naturally had no problem adapting to the way of life here. “There are a lot of similarities between Cuba and Malaysia,” he explains. “The weather here is quite similar to back home. Cuban food also features a lot of rice, which is part of the staple diet here – although some Malaysian dishes can be quite spicy!”
Valdés is equally excited by the warm response both him and the Cuban community have received in Malaysia. “The locals have been great and are always keen on learning more about Cuba. The environment here is very conducive for me to carry out my duties and tasks. We also enjoy a great relationship with Malaysia both politically and economically, and even have a Casa De Cuba in Melaka, which is a permanent art expo by Cuban artists,” he states.
Coming from a country of musicians, it is not by chance that some of the most popular forms of Cuban culture around the world exist as music and dance forms. “Cuban music has transcended boundaries. A lot of dance forms popular in KL now like salsa, meringue, chacha, rumba, and mambo all come from Cuba,” he states proudly. “Of course we are most famous for Cuban cigars, mojitos, cuba libres, and Cuban rum, which is the best sort around, I think. It’s also great for this climate!”
An avid admirer of the multicultural aspects of Malaysia, Valdés is quick to point out Cuba’s own varied ethnic makeup. “We were colonised by Spain, so we have many people of European ancestry. We also have people of African descent from the slaves that were brought to work on the plantations. And most intriguing of all, we also have a large Chinese population, most of whom immigrated there in the 1800s,” he says. In fact, Valdés attributes his own interest in Chinese cuisine and language to genealogy. “My father was a huge lover of Chinese culture, and I also have a keen interest in it. I even cook a lot of Chinese food at home – perhaps I’ve got Chinese blood in my lineage somewhere!” he laughs.
Although privileged enough to have had experienced such a vast and colourful career, Valdés is looking forward to his retirement after his posting in Malaysia ends. “I love my job, but I am 70 years old now, so I think it’s time I slowed things down a little,” he says. “I’ve been lucky enough to have met some of the world’s most famous and inspirational people, many of whom have played an important part in history, but I do miss my family back home.”
Wherever Valdés ends up after this, you can be sure he will be taking a sizeable chunk of Asia back with him.
Source: The Expat October 2013
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