José Moreira da Cunha has two golden rules for diplomacy, and life in general. The first: always make an effort to be happy where you are, and embrace the differences in culture when you’re away from home. The second is to never underestimate the people around you, and what you can learn from them and offer in return.
These two guidelines have allowed Portugal’s new ambassador to Canada to successfully navigate postings in Argentina, Peru, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Venezuela, Iran and Algeria.
His successes prompted his foreign minister to reward him with a “very interesting post,” he said with a smile on Sept. 20, sitting in his sun-filled office on Island Park Drive.
“It’s a great honour to be ambassador in Canada,” said Mr. Moreira da Cunha, who arrived in Ottawa in March.
He told Embassy he is thrilled with the relatively small population of Ottawa, and the lack of traffic headaches.
He’s come to know Canadians to be relaxed, he said, as well as resilient and pragmatic.
He especially noticed these characteristics during the flooding in southern Alberta in June, which was just named the costliest natural disaster in Canadian history. The damage to insured property is now estimated to be above $1.7 billion. Flooding forced more than 100,000 people from their homes, as well as leaving four people dead, according to the Canadian Press.
“When the [media] was there, the people said, ‘Look, we are still alive, tomorrow is another day, we have to get to work.’ I saw very positive attitudes,” said Mr. Moreira da Cunha, adding that people in some other cultures would throw their hands in the air, declare that they have nothing and dwell on their misfortune.
Mr. Moreira da Cunha has jetted to Calgary, as well as heading east to Prince Edward Island to learn more about Canadian agriculture and fisheries.
Change from politically-tense posting
Helping to bolster trade between his country and Canada is a “huge change” from the work he did in postings such as Iran and Algeria.
“When I was in Iran…the political situation was tense,” he said, calling it a challenge to navigate the strained relations between the Iranian regime and the European Union.
“Even though the situation was tough…Iranian people are a fantastic people,” he said, adding that he appreciated the experience.
Mr. Moreira da Cunha was posted in Iran from 2005 to 2009.
Canada cut all diplomatic ties with Iran in September 2012, citing increasing risk to Canadian diplomats in the country, as well as Iran’s support for Syria’s Assad regime, among other issues.
Mr. Moreira da Cunha said it is “absolutely” important for Portugal to maintain diplomatic ties with Iran, despite the challenges.
“Even though it’s very tough, I believe our countries should keep the relations…keep connected,” he said. “All countries around the world should have relations, but I admit that you can have specific situations where it’s not possible.”
In terms of his goals in Canada, he said he is focusing largely on boosting economic and trade relations between the two countries, and is anxiously awaiting the completion of the Canada-EU free trade agreement.
Mr. Moreira da Cunha said he invited Conservative MP Rob Merrifield, who chairs the House committee on international trade, to speak with the new EU ambassador, Marie-Anne Coninsx, at the Portuguese residence about progress on the EU deal.
Talks have moved slowly for months, but media reports indicate Prime Minister Stephen Harper is looking to break the impasse by taking the reins himself in dealing with European Commission President José Manuel Barroso’s office.
“This is a very tough political issue,” said Mr. Moreira da Cunha, but added that the discussions between Mr. Merrifield and Ms. Coninsx went very well.
He said he expects the deal to be finalized soon.
Mr. Moreira da Cunha added that the deal would help Portugal in some of its economic plans for Canada, for instance by lowering tariffs for the export of Portuguese wines, as well as attracting the business of more Canadian mining companies.
The Portuguese government is currently forming contacts within Canadian mining companies and is working on organizing trade missions, he said.
Companies listed on the Toronto Stock Exchange with interests in Portugal include Colt Resources and Lundin Mining Corp.
Mr. Moreira said he is looking forward to travelling in Canada.
The lifelong swimmer is taking advantage of a what he says is a great pool on Preston Street, where he is once again completing laps after recovering from an injury.
Although his wife and son have joined him in Ottawa, he also has children and grandkids at home in Portugal. But said he is continually amazed at how technology like Skype allows him to feel so close to them.
“I don’t feel that my country and my home [here] are all that far,” he said.
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