Multiculture, Our People

Fidel Narváez: from activism to the Consulate of Ecuador in the United Kingdom

“I conceive of my work as like a public service that also seeks the defence of human rights”

“Immigration reforms will improve or worsen the current situation for immigrants today but the system will inevitably keep producing new immigrants”. “In this country discrimination is essentially not racial, but economic”. Fidel Narváez.

 

Mónica del Pilar Uribe Marín  Photos: Eddie-Lee Lawrence

 

He was sixteen years old when he was appointed president of the Student Council and when he appeared for the first time in the press. It was a February day in 1986 dedicated to the traditional swearing of an oath of allegiance to the national flag. Without thinking twice and in front of a large audience, Fidel burned a figure that personified the then President of Ecuador, León Febres Cordero. His gesture was not against the academic world, but against corruption and a power that was devastating human rights. It was an irrepressible gesture then, as on the one hand, his father was a left-wing union leader and on the other hand, he was studying at college in a highly politicized environment.

In fact, his years of political education and training coincided with a period of much repression and violations of human rights, on the part of an ultra right-wing government. Later, after receiving a grant (or scholarship), he went on to travel to the Czech Republic to further his studies on International Business, in the faculty of International Relations at the University of Economics, in Prague. In time, many of his classmates went on to become part of the Czech diplomatic service.

He returned to his country in 1994. There he took up the post of commercial manager at a Czech company and two years later he became Managing Director of the Together with the Children Foundation, Juconi. Subsequently, he was Technical Secretary in Ecuador of the Inter-American Platform on Human Rights, Development and Democracy and a Member of the Executive Committee of the Permanent Assembly on Human Rights in Ecuador.

His work and commitment continued to gain recognition and for that reason, in June 2007, he was selected from among 250 activists from across the world, to participate in the International Centre for Tolerance Education in New York. Days before leaving, a well-known radio station dedicated an entire program to him as a tribute to his public commitment to the people’s revolution.

In October 2007 he decided to settle in the United Kingdom, where he lives today with his wife and his children; Amaru, 12 and Amiaz, 9.

It was a decision he had weighed up, having been here several times before and travelled around other countries on business or as a student, such as when he was at the University of Havana or at the General Foundation of the Polytechnic University of Madrid. His life was, and now is, here.

For that reason, shortly after having arrived, he joined the Ecuadorean Movement in the United Kingdom, as he was interested in connecting with the community. That was one of the first outlets he found and with which he discovered many things in common in terms of identifying with the Ecuadorian political situation. In addition, MERU (El Movimiento Ecuatoriano en el Reino Unido) had wanted to make contact with him because they knew that Fidel had made a formal complaint against the BBC in London for an inaccurate news story concerning their government.

What is certain is Fidel the translator, occasional writer, rebel student, lecturer and activist is now Consul of Ecuador in the United Kingdom and is maybe the first to be so without having followed a diplomatic career in Ecuador and having come from a contemplative but critical, proactive and belligerent sector of immigrants.

Fidel speaks with restraint, thinking carefully about his words, smiling only a little but with a calm and warm expression throughout his interview during which his revolutionary, belligerent spirit remains intact, in spite of his new position and being in the spotlight.

‘Young people are rebellious by nature. I am not so young any more but I hope that the rebellious spirit never runs dry in me’, explains Fidel.

 

 

When Rafael Correa visited the UK in October 2009, the rumour was already circulating that you were going to be appointed consul. Did you know anything about it?

Above and beyond the rumours I feel proud of having a good relationship with many ‘leading figures’, as we say in activist slang, in the current Ecuadorian government. Ever since I arrived in this country, as far as possible, I have devoted myself to promoting awareness of the political process which is ongoing in Ecuador. It is a process about which little is known outside of the country, in spite of the cutting-edge proposals for reform that characterize it.

 

But were you aware of that possibility?

I do not have any reason to deny it. It is something that was always under consideration

 

Why did the government look at you?

Before our first meeting in London, the president already knew of my works and in fact had had the deference to engage in a brief exchange with me about some theses that I have made public concerning his government. Contrary to what many people think, that the president does not accept criticism, I believe he was able to value the criticism that I normally allow myself to make public. To the surprise of many, he has still put his trust in me to lead the Consulate.

 

Was he already  aware of your work as an activist ?

I do not know. But I have been an activist practically all my life and on one occasion, before he became president, I had the opportunity to interview him and even facilitate one of his conferences overseas.

 

How does an activist, generally thought to be reluctant to take up official positions, end up becoming consul?

In effect, many of us had always thought of activism as the struggle against constitutional power, represented much of the time by civil servants. In the Ecuadorian political process a dilemma exists for many activists of the social movement of what to do when a government is trying to make reality many of the demands we had always strived for. There are those that who have not felt inclined to accept being part of the structures within government and there are many others of us who have done so. It has not been an easy decision because from a personal point of view it involves establishing clear political stances which do not always concur with those of colleagues, who look very suspiciously upon the Ecuadorian political process.

However, it is evident that to push forward a change in structure requires an enormous human presence in all governmental bodies. There are not enough leading figures that combine the political vision and the academic and technical qualities required for management positions. Our own President Correa usually sums it up by saying that he is playing the biggest leagues with a second division team.

Evidently, this poses a dilemma and one can choose to remain on the outside and constructively criticise the process from academia or from other critical circles or get involved and try to influence the process from within. I have opted for the latter. That is an option I would not have taken with any other government. I would not have accepted it.

 

Can you take part in the struggle in the same way from the consulate, as you could as an activist?

Maybe not in the same fashion, but it is possible to take action from any position. There are many other activists who will be able to fill the hole extremely well that is temporarily left in the community. The important thing now is to take full advantage of all the possibilities that a position of this level of responsibility offers in terms of more negotiation and more cordial relations with your own State in terms of communicating at an official level with representatives of the receiving State. For example, as a simple activist I would be able to do very little for my compatriots in prison. As consul, I feel I not only have the opportunity to help them, but also the obligation.

 

Is the freedom to be critical not lost slightly, being consul?

Yes, and honestly, I do not know how I still handle the constraints that come with being an official representative of the Government. We activists do not have any qualms about getting involved in ‘domestic’ affairs in other countries. Diplomats do not have this luxury. That is in terms of my constraints in Britain. However, with respect to my announcements over what is happening in my own country, I hope and believe that I will be able to continue delivering those.

Are you still attached to MERU in any way?

The main duty of a consul is to offer protection to your fellow citizens and this has to be independent of any political leaning or opinion, and for that reason I have told my MERU colleagues as such. They, as well as I, have sent a message to the community explaining that in my new role I am leaving to one side my MERU allegiances, but that I will still be relying on their support to move forward with initiatives that benefit the whole community.

MERU promotes immigrants’ human rights and the process of democratization in your nation. What is your opinion of it?

It is a group that continues to grow in every way; organizationally and in the number of supporters. I do not know if it is a radical group but the group is very clear that community work is work founded on human rights and work on rights of any kind I imagine as liberating work. In that way there was identification with the group. Not all MERU supporters agree 100% with their rhetoric or political vision of the Ecuadorian situation, but deep down the agenda is the same.

 

What has been the reaction of activist colleagues in terms of how your struggles have opened the way for them here in the United Kingdom?

Expectations are very high and therefore the responsibility is much greater. It is the first time that an Ecuadorian consul in London has not come from the diplomatic service, but from their own community.

 

Latin American reality is complex and divided. Some of our countries have right-wing governments which have openly opposed the revolutionary change in the current Ecuadorian government. How do you handle this, in your role as consul, up against the diplomatic entities (of the Right) in the United Kingdom?

At the moment my consular role is devoted towards my compatriots. That is the responsibility I have within the diplomatic mission. Relationships with other members or diplomatic representatives of other countries are held by civil servants of the Ecuadorian embassy. But, in any case, I understand that constraints in my official position refer to public announcements. I do not believe that I can quash political opinions at a personal and private level.

 

You did work related to human rights. What is your approach to this: That they should be respected as much in Ecuador as in the rest of Latin America?

If we think of human rights as a whole, (that is to say political, social, economic and more recently environmental rights), then they are not respected in full anywhere in the world. Latin America has a sad and shameful record of violations against the rights of citizens. However, the historic moment which has touched us now opens up hope.

 

By saying that do you mean that the violation of human rights which was going on in Ecuador has lessened?

Without any doubt. There is a very significant effort to avoid the reprehensible practices carried out by different branches of the police force and the army in times past, and above all, for the first time there is a serious intention to combat impunity. Under this government an exhaustive investigation carried out by the Truth Commission has been possible, which has documented and revealed in detail what the defenders of human rights knew all along; that the forces of order, the Police and military groups committed many acts of abuse to the point that we could talk about practices tantamount to the systematic violation of human rights. From the point of view of economic and social rights, the social investment being made does not have any precedent in all of the history of Ecuador. Without doubt, that is being reflected more and more in access of the most vulnerable sectors in society to fundamental rights, health, education and housing.

 

How do you perceive the reality of immigrant life in the United Kingdom? Can there be any change? And if so, how?

The United Kingdom is a very telling example of the drama of migration. I always say that in this country there are upper, middle and lower class citizens and that essentially the discrimination is not racial, but economic. If you have the requisite documentation, you are in a privileged position and if you do not have it you are exposed to them disrespecting your rights. The person that exploits you may not necessarily be white, blue-eyed and English; it could be another Latin American, an Asian or an African who has the advantage of another immigration status.

What is that principally economic discrimination due to?

It is that the United Kingdom is an example of what happens in other countries that receive immigrants from what we know as countries in development. In New York I know for a fact that that situation is very similar and I am certain that in Paris or in Rome the phenomenon is the same. It is a relationship that is scarred by the imperialist economic system.

I had the experience of being an immigrant worker in those jobs which are most common in my community; the cleaning sector, hotels, washing dishes in a restaurant and I feel that that gives me a lot of respect and admiration for those that have no other alternative than to survive doing these types of jobs.

 

Can you change this reality?

This reality is a product of the system and while the system does not change, unfortunately, upper and lower class citizens will continue to exist. Immigration reforms will improve or worsen the current situation for immigrants today but the system will inevitably keep producing new emigrants. This will happen in such a way that the reality of exploitation will always be there whilst the current economic system remains in place.

 

Will the new Ecuadorian policy put the brakes on that migration a little bit?

Yes, I can proudly say that the Ecuadorian migration policy is a cutting-edge, pioneering policy. Our Constitution recognises migration as a human right, raises the concept of universal citizenship and establishes that nobody can be considered as an illegal immigrant. Ecuador is the first country in the world with this kind of open-door policy. No citizen, wherever they are from, needs a visa to visit Ecuador.

 

And on the other hand, how do you intend to keep Ecuadorians in the country?

If you have that immigration policy, evidently you have to do something for your emigrant citizens, even more so in a country that has suffered a migratory exodus almost without precedent in history: approximately 20% of the population, in a period of 10 years. It is like thinking of between 10 and 12 million British people leaving the United Kingdom in less than 10 years. There is a very big push to encourage Ecuadorians to return home. We say we are ‘tidying the house’ ready for their return and this is supported by different incentives for Ecuadorian emigrants: tax exemption, preferential loans, psychological, technical and economic support and assistance for all those wishing to go back home. For those that do not wish to return, in the same way the government is putting representatives in migrant destination countries to offer them protection of their rights, legal aid and psychological help etc.

 

But that is something every consulate should do…

This should have always been a job for consulates. Historically for various reasons it was not done in the way that a migratory phenomenon of this magnitude demands. For that reason the Government created the National Ministry of Migration, which carries out the main programs of support for Ecuadorian migrants and has a presence in all the places with a large Ecuadorian population. Alongside the Consulate, a representative presence will open very soon in London, to lend support to our community.

What plans are being drawn up by the consulate in favour of the wellbeing of Ecuadorian immigrants?

It is fundamental to give back to the community confidence in their government and its diplomatic representatives. For that reason it is necessary to engage more with them and encourage their participation and integration into the various initiatives in the interest of the community. That is on the one hand. Secondly, they should feel that their consulate is a piece of their country, a body of which they can demand support and a guide through their different problems.

What is required is the creation of a network of authorities allied to civil London society and English and Latin American groups that already offer services of legal aid, training, psychological help etc in such a way that the consulate can refer and trust in the fact that our fellow citizens will receive replies to their needs making use of these authorities. This is one of the plans: the creation of that network.

 

The problem of immigrants…

The biggest problem that our migrants have is abuse on the part of unscrupulous lawyers who take advantage of the ignorance and good will of those that want to normalise their migratory situation. Very often the language barrier alone makes them much more vulnerable and liable to trust in people who, when it comes down to it, are not going to help them. That network should make possible the creation of a legal, trustworthy and honest support mechanism that helps them.

When is the introduction of the network envisaged?

We are working on it. It will take some time, but the ‘Casa Ecuatoriana’ (Ecuador House), which will be run by the National Ministry of Migration, will benefit from a physical space where Ecuadorians can come and it will have its own qualified staff on hand to lend assistance.

Anti-immigration laws are becoming ever more ruthless. How does the team of officials work with this aspect of migration, in conjunction with the British government? Or is it a lost cause?

One should never give up anything up as a lost cause and one should try and make a difference from any position. In my opinion the authorities that take the decisions will listen more to their own English citizens or to those in the upper class, whether they are English or not.

In terms of Ecuadorians in UK jails, what is the approach of the consulate? What is being done or what is there to do?

It concerns me that we do not have any official data of our fellow citizens that are in jail, whether it be for sentences, for common crimes or those that are awaiting deportation. For that reason we want to proactively obtain all the pertinent information and offer them the greatest support possible. To this end, one must constantly challenge any legal restrictions that there could be.

 

Is this task of rapprochement to prisoners limited just to the consulate?

It is an obligation of the consulate, but I understand that it is something that official authorities in civil society can do. Something that I am finding difficult to manage is making the distinction between the activist that challenges legal regulations to achieve objectives and the diplomat obliged to respect the legislation of the receiving country and the regulations established in international agreements and those that govern international diplomacy.

 

What is the former activist Fidel Narváez doing at the moment?

Apart from learning a lot, learning to swim in the sea of public service and bureaucracy, I am also trying to change every consular service so that users feel greater warmth from their consulate. Today there are three of us in the consulate. Previously, there were two. Today it is easier to go out and work directly with the community out in the real world.

 

Does your activist background help you?

It has its advantages of course, because I understand much more clearly the common problems of a community with which I have lived and shared similar difficulties. However, that is not enough. I need to acquaint myself with the responses that have to be offered from the State as such and I am in that learning process at the moment; it is worth mentioning, with the very professional support of the consulate team.

 

Do you have an official daily routine?

To some extent there are unavoidable activities that must be carried out very strictly, but above and beyond the formality of the obligatory dress-code and of having to keep to certain formalities in correspondence and the communication with the State bureaucracy, I conceive the work of a consul as like a public service that also seeks the defence of human rights. This is my goal and as a result, there is no schedule. Maybe now I am missing more from life at home and the family and maybe they notice the change much more. I regret having less time for reading, research and writing.

 

Writing?

I absolutely do not believe I am a creator of any genre of writing. In fact, I normally write on pressing issues when I feel the need to throw out into the public debate issues that others are not touching.

 

I suppose that now as consul you cannot make public announcements, this type of writing will slow down?

It will be inevitable. This is more as a result of restrictions that stem from my official position, which in effect obliges me to keep a certain amount of counsel, than for any lack of time. In general I like to research what I write. I would hope that, in time, once I have a greater degree of control over this new job, I can take up writing again and when this period of public service is complete, I can take up activism again.

Would you like to be President of Ecuador one day?

(laughter) No, no I would not like to be in the Ecuadorian President’s shoes.

(Translated by Matthew Dunford. matt_dunford@hotmail.com)

 

 

 

 

 

 

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