The Venezuelan ambassador, His Excellency Manuel Guzman, may be a long way from his birthplace of Caracas, but he feels right at home in Kuala Lumpur. “I’ve been here for eight years now and I absolutely love it,” he says. “I’ll probably be finishing my term next year, but will try to come back – perhaps via the Malaysia My Second Home programme!”
Guzman first arrived Malaysia in 2006, after being convinced to take on the Charge d’Affairs position in Kuala Lumpur. “I was actually working as a journalist before, much like you,” he tells me. “I was also an advisor to the Communications Minister, and after some changes in the Cabinet, the then-Minister of Foreign Affairs asked if I would help out at the embassy in Malaysia. I initially thought it was a Communications role, but when I found out it was a diplomatic one, I said no!”
Luckily for Guzman, the Minister of Foreign Affairs was of the persuasive nature: “He kept asking me about it and one day I sat down and looked up Malaysia on the internet. I was blown away, so I spoke to my wife, who initially didn’t even believe that I was offered this role,” he quips. “I was running a newspaper then, so we decided to give that up and come over for a year or two, just to experience life in Asia.”
Seven years on, the Guzmans now call Kuala Lumpur home. “Malaysia and Venezuela are really quite similar. The people are always smiling, they’re warm and welcoming, the weather is the same, and the food selection is varied and delicious,” says Guzman, who has been a vegetarian for the past 40 years. With one child in high school and another in university here, the Guzmans welcomed another addition to the family five years ago – a daughter. “She was born in Malaysia and has lived here the entire time, so really she’s more Malaysian than Venezuelan,” he laughs.
Being so far away from the motherland has come with its fair share of setbacks. “It’s difficult to prioritise our work here over developments in the South American region. Sometimes we need to make a concerted effort to put Malaysia on top of the pile at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs,” explains Guzman. “We have had the opportunity to sign agreements, but the precedence is usually for those in the ‘neighbourhood’. Trying to get diplomats to visit is also a little tricky because we’re so far away.”
Despite the distance, Malaysia has gained more recognition in Venezuela thanks to a visit by former President Hugo Chavez. “Chavez visited Malaysia for the third time in 2006, so that was a huge moment for me. He was only here for a few days but it was great to have my leader here,” he says with pride. “When he went back, he spoke about Malaysia on local television and that raised the country’s profile in Venezuela.”
It is this exchange of cultures that brought about the idea of the annual Venezuelan Week. This year, as a preamble to the Venezuelan Week in October, the Embassy has lined up the Venezuela Cultural Activities event. Held from 21-27 April, the celebrations are the embassy’s way of bringing the best of the South American nation to Kuala Lumpur. “We eschewed the idea of a national day celebration simply because we wanted to do something different. We thought we could use the money allocated to organise a series of events that will allow people to appreciate the country,” explains Guzman. “This way we bring different aspects of the Venezuelan culture to Malaysia – via the Gastronomic Festival, Venezuela Vive Food Festival and the cuatro and harp concert by the Venezuelan Strings Duo as this year’s highlight.”
Most of the events have no fees attached to them, and allow members of the public to soak up the essence of the country. Besides concerts featuring esteemed musicians, the celebration also sees musical workshops and master-classes on the agenda, as well as photography exhibitions and cultural activities. “We know food is big over here so we’ve got a gastronomy festival planned, where we will bring chefs from Venezuela to showcase the different foods available. We also organise talks with local universities, covering topics related to Latin American history and culture,” he explains.
Now reaching the tail end of his service here, Guzman is keen on continuing the improvement of bilateral relationships: “Right now we’re focusing on creating commercial exchange and increasing trade relations. We’re also trying to organise a visit from Venezuela’s new president, Nicolas Maduro.”
And where will he go after this? “I’m not sure where I’ll be posted yet but I hope it’s Asia,” he says, smiling. “I have fallen in love with so many countries here. Rest assured, wherever I go after this, I will bring Malaysia with me in my heart.”
For more festival and cultural information visit www.facebook.com/embavenezmalasia
Source: The Expat Magazine April 2014
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