Arturo Fermandois knows the United States. As a Fulbright Scholar he received a Masters from Harvard University in 1994, taught at Harvard Law School, and travelled to New York regularly to meet with clients of his law firm, Fermandois, Evans & Compañia. But when President Piñera asked the constitutional law expert to become Chile’s new Ambassador to the U.S., he was taken by surprise. Heading up the Embassy of one of Chile’s main trading partners is no small challenge, which is why he has spent the last few months preparing for the job. He formally assumed his new duties in Washington DC in June, but before boarding the plane he spoke with bUSiness CHILE about the challenges ahead.
What areas of Chile’s relationship with the U.S. will you focus on?
The President believes that our relationship with the United States should benefit normal Chileans. And by that I mean Chileans living in any part of the country that don’t have the means to travel to the United States on their own. Our bilateral relationship is very good in areas like free trade, education and research and development, but the relationship should also benefit underprivileged Chileans. The aim of our relationship is a better standard of living for both our peoples, but we have to stop seeing the U.S. as a country that only benefits big business and the elite. These advantages should be extended to all Chileans regardless of their location, education or financial resources.
And how will you achieve this?
There are many existing programs and others we want to start. For example, in the free trade area we want to build bridges to help small and mid-size companies (SMEs) sell their products in the United States, which includes English language training, cultural awareness and market studies. AmCham has made important progress in these areas and my role as Ambassador is to duplicate these programs in the public sector.
We are planning 160 trade promotion activities in the U.S. this year including food fairs and other events. We will put SMEs in touch with our Chambers of Commerce in the U.S. and work with ProChile and Corfo to coordinate support.
Of course, we will also support large companies which generate income and create thousands of jobs but, in general, these companies have the tools and resources to sell their products without our help. SMEs don’t have these tools, starting with English.
Why is English so important?
Only 5% of Chilean high school graduates can speak English, which is a huge problem in our globalized world. A new program I am working on with the Education Minister, Joaquín Lavín, is called English Traceability, which will track each Chilean’s progress from pre-school through graduate school. We will begin, for example, by bringing U.S. teachers to work in Chilean primary schools, sending Chilean high-school students to English language summer camps, and helping the most talented students pursue a postgraduate degree in an American university.
The U.S. has many of the top universities in the world so it is very important for us to take advantage with programs like Becas Chile and the Fulbright Commission. My role will be to increase the number of Chilean students who study in the U.S. and also open our doors to American students in Chile. It will take years for English language programs to show results, but the benefits for Chile will be huge.
And four years is not long…
Yes, but we can lay the foundation of these programs, building on the good progress made by my predecessors. On the one hand this means more money, but also more coordination. Becas Chile, for example, has resources of US$6 billion, but it can be better organized. And we always need more money for education, which is the most profitable investment in the long-term.
What other areas will you focus on in Washington?
President Piñera is very interested in developing clean energies and protecting the environment. We hope he will travel to California in September under the framework of the Plan Chile-California, which is a good example of public-private sector cooperation. Since California is a leader in renewable energies, we will emphasize the potential benefits for Chile in terms of the exchange of scientific personnel and know-how. Chile urgently needs to diversify its energy mix and improve its environmental protection, and we have much to learn from the U.S. in this regard.
And it’s not just California that can help Chile with its scientific expertise. The U.S. is a huge country and each State has something different to offer Chile. There’s no reason we couldn’t sign similar agreements with other States like Utah or Idaho.
Do you expect Obama to visit Chile?
President Piñera has extended the invitation but the date is not confirmed. We want to help make this happen because it would be a clear sign of our excellent bilateral relationship and a meeting of two partners united by the same ideals: democracy, freedom, entrepreneurship, human rights and free trade as a tool to defeat poverty.
Will you ask for U.S. support in the reconstruction?
Chile has received a lot of help from the U.S. including emergency supplies and donations, but we know the earthquake was so massive that it will take a long time to rebuild. Many of our universities suffered damage to their infrastructure and one of my duties will be to seek donations to rebuild science labs and research centers in areas hit by the earthquake. The best way the U.S. can help Chile in the long-term is through the exchange of scientific knowledge.
Intellectual property has been a thorn in the side of Chile-U.S. relations, how will you address this issue?
As Ambassador, I would like to remove all obstacles that have created a difference between our countries in intellectual property. One clear goal is to remove Chile from the USTR Priority Watch List.
Chile has made significant progress in intellectual property since the signing of our free trade agreement. We have a new law with tougher sanctions and a special police unit created in 2008 to fight piracy. But we need the pharmaceutical, entertainment and software industries in the U.S. to understand these reforms and, as a lawyer, I hope to explain them more clearly.
Chilean police recently arrested a Pakistani citizen who entered the U.S. Embassy with traces of explosives. How important is security in bilateral relations?
Chile and the U.S. have an excellent level of cooperation in international and human security including non-proliferation agreements and our common fight against terrorism. Chile is a good partner for the U.S. in security issues and vice versa. My job as Ambassador is to not take our foot off the accelerator and maintain this level of cooperation. We believe the case of the Pakistani citizen is an isolated incident.
What about immigration?
My job is to facilitate the immigration process for as many Chileans as possible to go to the U.S. and allow the 100,000 Chileans who live in the U.S. to conduct their affairs normally, but at the same time respecting U.S. immigration regulations.
On a personal note, I understand you play guitar in a rock band. Will you continue to play in Washington?
One of the highest personal costs of my appointment is that I’ll have to leave my band, the Rockasaurios. But I’ll try and find some other Ambassadors who like classic rock to form a new band.
Julian Dowling is the Editor of bUSiness CHILE