Stories of an ambassador

Brasil Observer - Jun 23 2016
Alan Charlton (left) at launch of his memoirs 'Shaking My Briefcase', with Brazilian Ambassador Eduardo dos Santos

(Leia em Português)


Alan Charlton, who served in Brazil from 2008 to 2013, shares his memories in a recently launched book. What does he say about Brazil?


By Ana Toledo

4pm sharp on a Tuesday in April, I saw Alan Charlton, former British ambassador to Brazil, entering the Sainsbury Wing of the National Gallery in London. Wearing suit and backpack, he seemed unmistakable – I had never met him before, so I followed what I had seen in photos and videos on the internet. The assurance came when I noticed his tie, designed by Romero Britto. Charlton is a fan of his designs and makes it clear: that’s just one of the pieces of his collection of ties signed by the renowned Brazilian artist.

That was a small indication of Charlton’s admiration for Brazil – his last post before retiring after 35 years of diplomatic career. With four and a half years living in Brasilia and several trips across the country, Charlton sounds like a Brazilian that divides life experiences based on football matches. “I left just after Brazil had won the Confederation Cup against Spain, a year before the World Cup”. Who knows what could have happened against Germany if he had remained in post.

With Earl Grey’ tea on the table, we began the interview, talking firstly abut the recently launched book Shaking My Briefcase. The book provides an overview of Charlton’s career, gathering stories about his passages through the Middle East – where he learned Arabic and was in different conflict zones – Germany – where he witnessed important historical events as the fall of the Berlin Wall –, London, Washington, and finally Brazil.

“I saved up some ideas over the years, wrote down a few pieces not to forget. When I left Brazil in July 2013, after a little while I thought it was time to pool them together, do more hard thinking and researching to what I did before I forget everything.”

From there came the motivation to write a book. “I’d like to bring it all together in a way that is easy to ready. It isn’t a story from the beginning to end. It’s a number of separate stories written in a way that I hope can interest people who are interested in diplomacy, big issues of our time. People just like good stories. It’s made to be fairly general, not just for experts.”

The conversation about the book adhered to the last chapter, referring to Charlton’s period in Brazil between 2008 and 2013. As ambassador, Charlton was responsible for receiving illustrious British personalities in Brazil, such as former Prime Minister Gordon Brown and the current one, David Cameron, and members of the royal family, princes Charles and Harry. “I was fortunate because there was an effort by the British Government, both the labour government and the coalition government, to have a close relationship with Brazil.”

The first story in the book is about the visit of Prince Charles to Brazil in 2009. “When he [Prince Charles] arrived in Brasília, for some reason the airplane wasn’t allowed to land for a while, so he was late. The first thing on the program was going to Congress. When he arrived there were hundreds of people there and when we left we were even later. And the next event was a reception at the British Embassy, where there were a lot of people waiting. And the meeting after that was a meeting with President Lula and I was afraid because we were an hour late. Then I heard we had a phone call from Planalto [the president’s house] asking us not to come quite yet. We just understood why when we had another telephone call; they had no electricity in the Planalto. It was perfect because we had long enough at the reception. It is a funny story; our program was saved by the lights not going on.”

On that same trip, Prince Charles visited Manaus, which yielded other story for the book. At one point, the host of an event at the Amazonas Theatre said the prince was not bad for a 60 year old man. Charlton declined to translate the phrase for the prince.

I took the opportunity to question what had been the most difficult time of his service in Brazil, and Charlton highlighted two situations. One related to the Falklands: “It was hard because on one hand I needed to do what I could to influence the Brazilian Government and on other hand I had to try to influence the British government not to overreact. It wasn’t big, but it was difficult at that time.” And another on the extradition of Michael Eugene Misick, former Prime Minister of the Turks and Caicos Islands, British archipelago located in the Caribbean: “The decision was made to send him back. For me it was huge progress.”

As we entered the topic Argentina, I raised the question of the trade agreement between the European Union and Mercosur, whose negotiations have lasted for over 20 years. “Other countries wanted the agreement, the European Union was interested but Argentina didn’t want it. Brazil wasn’t ready that time to have an agreement itself. For the EU it would be fine just to have an agreement with Brazil, but of course Mercosur is a group and Brazil felt they have to stay in the group. Now we have a new Argentinean president [Mauricio Macri] but it doesn’t mean Argentina will be easy, but he is more internationalist and is going to be more open for that. But the problem now is also on the EU side, and I think sadly it is more difficult, five years ago was fine but now there is so much pressure on the EU for other reasons such as the refugee crises for example.”

Another point of discussion was the Olympics. Charlton was in Brazil in 2012, so he had direct contact with the exchange of experiences established between London and Rio de Janeiro. “The cooperation was tremendous. People who are responsible to deliver the Games have a lot of contact with the people responsible for London.” Charlton continued optimistically: “this is the first Olympic Games in South America and I think the Olympic Games in Brazil will be great and the world will watch. Of course there will be a lot of people writing in the media about the problem of the economy, about the political crisis. I don’t think this will affect the Olympic Games. There are some challenges still, particularly with transport in Rio. Maybe not everything will be 100% ready, but it will be mostly. Brazil is showing that they can organise these big events very well.”

Charlton also commented the current situation of Brazil. “I wrote my book last year, when it was becoming clear that Brazil was moving toward a deeper problem, both economic and political. But I am optimistic about the future. It can be a long process, may be several months or several years, may be a large and difficult problem. But in the long term, Brazil will be strong. I am very confident.”

Alan Charlton currently works with strategic advice on different areas of business, and as a consultant continues to believe in Brazil’s potential for investment. “Clearly people need to think about the risk at the moment, the difficult situation Brazil has, but they also need to think in a few years time things can start move up again. So basically I try to encourage them to keep looking to Brazil. And I do think companies do see in that way, those who are interested in a long term. The question is always when is the right moment to invest. Right now is difficult.”

After an hour of conversation and empty cups, we said goodbye, heading toward the still chilly breeze of London’s spring. Some nostalgia for Brazil returned after so many memories – if not for Alan Charlton, certainly for me.

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