ONE fateful day while in Brazil, Argentina’s then-Minister of Trade Roberto Bosch received a surprising offer from his home office: Be an ambassador to the Philippines.
“That proved to be quite a challenge because I’ve never been involved in Asian affairs,” an amused Bosch reminisced of his very first assignment as one of his country’s diplomats.
He shared the news with his family that he will be saying a resounding “Si!” to the assignment. To all of them, the archipelagic nation in Southeast Asia is so far away from home, it seemed like an alien land. And since they have a limited idea where their pater familia is headed, they were apprehensive on what awaited for them in Asia.
Although they are South Americans, majority of Argentine citizens like the Bosch family are of European descent. The good ambassador said his ancestors were from Catalonia in northern Spain. As could be expected, they were all molded in European habits, behavior, fashion, mores and customs. There was some degree of anxiety as these were all about to change.
Bosch put his wife and two children—then 5 and 10 years old—at ease: “Don’t worry, we’ll stay there for two or three years, and then we’ll go back,” as he surmised their relocation could be “a good experience, and a chance to know Asia.”
“This is an exciting region that we have limited knowledge of,” he went on and assured his household that living a few years in a far-off land might also broaden their horizons.
“I eventually convinced them to come with me. After three years, my family adapted very quickly and now, the kids don’t want to go back,” he retorted with a grin.
Nearing the end of his self-imposed deadline, he caved in to his brood’s wishes: “We’ve decided to stay and instead of three years, we’ll [be here for a few more].”
AFTER the pleasantries and a quick backgrounder, the BusinessMirror proceeded with the meat of the interview by asking him to rate the Philippine economy and what he sees it holds for the future.
“You have a robust business environment with constant growth. All sectors are very relevant, like manufacturing, which is important for a country like the Philippines, with a large population to keep it growing.”
Because of this positive trend, he insisted that his compatriots in business and investments should take a close look at the Philippines with an economy that he observed is “now growing an average 6 percent over past few years.”
“You have 100 million people and a growing middle class—ideal for our export market which is mainly food, [because] as people improve their income, they consume a lot. This is good opportunity for Argentinian business,” the amiable envoy noted.
Among the imports of the Philippines from his country are soya cake, corn and other agriculture products. Argentina exports about 70 percent of soya cakes to the Philippines for animal feeds.
The expansive country in the South American continent excels in agriculture production, which comprises 54 percent of its exports. It is also the world’s fifth-largest wheat exporter. Other main agricultural produce includes soybeans, maize, barley, rice, flax seed, sugarcane, cotton, citrus fruits and grapes.
On the other hand, Buenos Aires buys from the Philippines manufactured goods, many automobile parts, gearboxes, vehicle-cabling systems and associated computer parts.
From January to September in 2017, Bosch estimates that total trade between the two countries is around $250 million to $270 million, “about the same figure last year , although the variety of products being traded is changing.”
He intimated that 2017’s exports were “not as good because of the high cost of production,” he intimated, although robust bilateral trade continues as the Philippines increases its import of corn, peanuts and also extracts from soya beans.
The exciting news is the resumption of beef imports, amounting initially to $2.5 million.
“We halted the exportation of beef worldwide but eventually revived it,” Bosch volunteered.
He said he is in close coordination with the Department of Agriculture to try to convince the country to adopt Argentina’s successful methods of raising cattle for milk, since it is a major producer of dairy by-products.
Contrasts in agriculture
OUR interview with Bosch coincided with the visit to Buenos Aires of Agriculture Secretary Emmanuel F. Piñol as well as his Trade and Industry counterpart Ramon M. Lopez.
“There’s a meeting going on regarding agriculture,” he claimed. “[It would be] a tough conversation, and we will wait for the results.”
He remembers that when he first arrived in the country, he was greeted with a verdant countryside and expected the Philippines to be a major agriculture producer, only to find out that farmers are usually dirt poor who labor behind animal power in tilling the fields.
“In Argentina, you relate agriculture with the activity of rich people. They farm extensive lands and drove fancy cars. Here, agriculture is seen as activity of poor people; you see guys behind their carabaos,” the Argentine ambassador noticed.
Despite this, Bosch sees a huge potential in agriculture. He envisions Argentina’s farming technique transferred to the Philippine setting and aided by the latest technologies. One area he is pushing to develop is local dairy production.
The envoy emphasized the importance of increasing milk production through commercial ventures. In this respect, he said any kind of help Argentina could extend in dairy production will be a positive development for the Philippines, “and of course, [coupled with] our bilateral trade.”
“If you are able to duplicate our capacity for dairy production, importation will decline. And with more value added, it would help our relations to become more significant.”
Straddling geographic separation
THE emissary said he wishes his embassy could do something more as he would love to transfer some knowledge of dairy husbandry. However, the distance between his country and the Philippines is a hindrance and to bring over some Argentine experts could be very costly.
“If you look at a map, we’re opposites of the antipode,” he explained, meaning both places are located exactly opposite sides of the globe.
Ambassador Bosch does not see the possibility of direct flights from the Ninoy Aquino International Airport (Naia) to Argentina as of now, even by current long-haul aircraft. He had gone back twice to his homeland since getting assigned here, and it took him 32 hours by plane.
From the Naia, he would fly to Doha or Dubai, then stop over in Rio de Janiero, Brazil. The next and final leg is the Pistarini International Airport, known in Argentina as Ezeiza, some 22 kilometers south-southwest of the Autonomous City of Buenos Aires. (The longest a modern Airbus 350-900ULR or ultra-long range could stay aloft is 20 hours.)
Going to his country via the United States is also possible, but said it takes longer because passengers had to change planes twice or thrice.
“You spend more time waiting at airports,” he lamented, although Auckland, New Zealand, once had a direct flight to Buenos Aires, which took only 12 hours. There used to be flights from Sydney, Australia, to Buenos Aires but they were discontinued.
THE envoy told the BusinessMirror that one of his highly memorable experiences shortly after his posting here was meeting fellow Argentine Pope Francis. His Holiness visited the country in January 2015. He was the third pontiff to come to the Philippines after Paul VI and Saint Pope John Paul II, and the first in the 21st century (the last was by the latter in 1995).
The Filipinos nicknamed the current Pope Kiko (Grandpa Francis) as a term of endearment, which he commended.
Although the Vatican handled mostly the preparation for the pontiff’s visit, Bosch was able to come close to the vicar of Christ as he was about to leave the country.
“At least I had the time to receive him and when he was leaving, I had the chance to ask him for special blessing,” he proudly stated.
“He gave me [one] after I said I am from Argentina. It was very nice and I saw some photographs of the event later on,” he related.
He also shares nationalities with Lionel Messi and Diego Maradona, who are legends in the global stage of football. Thus, it would not come as a surprise that Bosch plays the game as well and is a passionate promoter.
Having met some local enthusiasts of the sport, he said his embassy is trying to help develop the game in the Philippines. He happens to be friends with Philippine Football Federation President Mariano “Nonong” V. Araneta Jr. and economist Bernardo Villegas.
“They teach football to young kids and help the development of the sport. The embassy is sponsoring this initiative,” Bosch disclosed.
He explained that football development is a resource-intensive endeavor because one had to source experts of the game, “so little by little, we’ll see what we can do.”
Connections from way back
BY way of his academic career, Bosch said he obtained his college degree in political science. He enrolled in Argentina’s Diplomatic Academy to be able to join the Foreign Service.
One of his first assignments was with their Department of Agriculture, followed by a stint at a huge conglomerate as he delved in international relations.
“But I got bored, and went back to my original plan of becoming a diplomat,” and thereafter was appointed trade minister.
Curiosity had us ask about his family name, which is widespread in Europe. He heard some people say their roots were originally from Germany, “but my family came from Spain, in Catalonia, which originated in Germany or France.”
He said the Boschs are scattered in different parts of Europe and his surname traces its roots in Spain since more than 500 years ago.
The Argentine rep recalled the Philippines started its diplomatic linkages with Argentina between 1948 and 1949 when the late Ambassador Narciso Ramos, father of former President Fidel V. Ramos, was appointed top envoy to Buenos Aires.
“He discovered that our hero, José de San Martin, had a brother who died here in the Philippines. He told that to our president [Juan] Peron, who sent a statue of our patron saint, which is now in Rizal Park.”
Ambassador Bosch said he finds it easy to live in the Philippines because, although initially mistaken as a “Latino” country, the majority of its citizens are Catholics and English is its second language.
He noticed, “Other countries in the region are better known in Argentina, but when you go [there, their people] are not as welcoming as the Filipinos.”
The main difference, he noted, is that practically everyone here speaks English, but others in the region have difficulty communicating in the said tongue.
A peripatetic diplomat, Bosch had gone around the country, visiting tourist spots in Davao, Cebu, Naga, Iloilo, Dumaguete and Bacolod, “but not yet to the North, [like] Baguio City, which should be next.”
He concluded, “I hope the Philippines can sustain its path of growth and make it more inclusive, egalitarian [and] distributive so more people can enjoy [it].”
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