Journey From Quito to Moscow

When we realize that we are the same, that we want the same things, then it is easy to reach agreement." This is the lesson that Patricio Chavez Zavala learned as a student in Russia in the late 1980s and now takes into his position as the Republic of Ecuador's ambassador to Russia.

When Chavez won a scholarship to the Mechanical Engineering Faculty of the Moscow Automobile and Road Institute in 1986, Ecuadorians' view of Russia was heavily influenced by Cold War bias. "People in Ecuador said no one in Russia smiled, that it was a closed country. I wanted to come and take a look for myself."

This curiosity was rewarded with experiences that continue to be relevant to Chavez's work as ambassador today. "I learned that you get to know countries not through maps but through people."

Through meeting many people of different nationalities, he realized that "people are the same everywhere. No matter where you are, they want the same things: to be happy, to learn, to have a family."

One experience in particular sticks in Chavez's mind. When he arrived in Moscow, he was accommodated in a room with a Peruvian. Ecuador and Peru are neighboring countries on the western coast of South America with a long history of border conflicts and wars.

"I thought Peruvians were our enemies, and at first I was frightened," he said. "But when I got to know my roommate, I saw that our cultures were actually very similar." The two men became friends and still maintain a close relationship.

Russian student life also provided Chavez with his first taste of business. The lack of products in the Soviet Union at the time meant that "the question was not how much a beer would cost, but how to get hold of it at all."

Although Chavez did not know that he wanted to be a diplomat, a meeting with Ecuador's then-ambassador to Russia proved remarkably prescient. "He asked me where I studied, and it turned out that I was studying at the same institute that he had and was living in the same dormitory."

When the ambassador visited his old digs, he said nothing had changed -- neither the rooms nor the mice. After the visit, Chavez often helped out at the embassy, and his friends started to call him "the ambassador."

But he didn't immediately go into diplomacy. Having worked as the technical manager of an armored-car plant and served as head of the National Administration of Steelwork Production, Chavez founded the company Svetlan Ross Export of Quality Flowers in 1996.

Vladimir Filonov / MT
Chavez says you get to know countries not through maps, but through people.
This experience in the business world has proved important to his work as ambassador. "I have already worked with Russia for more than 10 years. I know what business is -- it's important to have practical as well as theoretical knowledge." This knowledge allows Chavez to advise Russian businesses seeking to invest in Ecuador. "Investments are increasing, and we want to help and direct them."

Chavez named the improvement of trade, alongside cultural and political relations, as the main aim of his work here.

Ecuador already punches above its weight in terms of exports to Russia -- booming trade in bananas, flowers and seafood makes this nation of 12 million people the third-largest South American exporter to Russia after Brazil and Argentina. And Russian businesses are beginning to invest in these big three industries in Ecuador.

Chavez sees an affinity between the two nations, despite the obvious differences.

"Russians and Ecuadorians have both suffered much, but suffering brings wisdom." And their similar character makes Russians feel like "fish in water" when in Ecuador: "When we buy a TV, we just turn it on. This is like the Russians, not Americans or Europeans, who read the instructions."

It was while seeking to build on his knowledge of business by getting an MBA at the University of San Francisco in Ecuador's capital, Quito, that Chavez's career took a turn toward diplomacy. One professor at the university was Rafael Correa, now the country's president. Chavez became a colleague of his after graduating in 2004.

Correa, a leftist economist who has just celebrated the first anniversary of his presidency, enjoys, according to Chavez, an approval rating of over 70 percent.

In August 2007, Chavez and his wife came to Moscow after being appointed by his former colleague as ambassador to the Russian Federation.

Almost immediately after his arrival, Chavez was awarded the Pushkin Medal by Putin in recognition of his work spreading Russian language and culture in Ecuador. One of his projects is the Russia-Ecuador Center, which he founded in 2003. "I want Ecuadorians to see Russian culture and understand it," he said. "If cultural relations develop, then trade also develops more easily."

The notion of adapting to local conditions is important for business as well as personal life. "It was tough getting used to life in Russia," Chavez said. "The winter of 1986 was very cold -- I remember temperatures plunging to minus 42 degrees [Celsius], which is very cold for someone from a country on the equator."

"But we have a saying in Ecuador -- 'After the storm comes calm,'" he said.