“It’s always better to leave a party when you’re enjoying it,” says British ambassador Georgina Butler, and, with that, the veteran diplomat will take leave of her post June 16.
Costa Rica has been the first and only ambassadorship for Butler, 60, who began a long, but frequently interrupted, career in Britain’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) in 1968.
“In those days, it was not possible to be a married woman diplomat,” remembers the ambassador, whose first husband was posted to the British Embassy in Paris.
Butler devoted many years to unpaid work as a diplomatic spouse and periodically leaving for positions in the United Nations Secretariat and European Commission, but always battling the arcane rules that impeded women’s service.
A period as the Foreign Office’s Deputy Head of Latin America and Caribbean Department put Butler in the running for the vacancy in San José. She arrived in April 2002.
The ambassador’s tenure saw the closing of the British Embassy in Nicaragua and the consolidation of operations into offices here. Butler has served as ambassador to Costa Rica’s northern neighbor since March 2004.
Butler has arguably been the most visible member of the diplomatic corps here, spotted climbing the Southern Zone’s Mount Chirripó (the highest peak in the country), diving off the Pacific Ocean’s far-flung Isla de Coco, reenacting the landing of explorer Sir Francis Drake at his namesake bay in southern Costa Rica in period costume, and demonstrating her horsewomanship in topes and rodeos.
The ambassador was also married here. Her husband, Robert Kelly, a one-time Canadian foreign-service officer, whom Butler says she “dragged back into diplomatic life,” has served as unpaid project manager in construction of several embassy-funded community medical clinics around the country.
During a going-away gala for Butler Wednesday at the elegant Costa Rican Country Club in Escazú, west of San José, the ambassador was surrounded by 300 friends and associates who gathered to wish her farewell. Citizen Action Party (PAC) former presidential candidate Otton Solís, fellow Citizen Action legislator Epsy Campbell, Ombudswoman Lisbeth Quesada and German Ambassador Volkner Fink are among those who attended.
Butler and her husband graciously greeted guests as they arrived and later inaugurated the dance floor, gliding to a backdrop of jazzy Latin tunes. Later, the Phil Jones Band took over the stage, and Butler even joined the band to sing Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Proud Mary” to the delight of her guests.
Butler and Kelly will leave for London later this month, taking the long way home via China, Mongolia and central Asia, partly by camel. She has not yet decided what she will do upon her return, but is looking for a position outside the Foreign Office.
The ambassador spoke with The Tico Times recently about her tenure, the role of women, and relations between the United Kingdom and Central America in an interview whose start was (understandably) delayed by the need to tend to the matter of a British citizen injured in a bus accident in northern Nicaragua. Excerpts follow:
TT: This being Latin America, does a woman experience difficulties in such a high-profile position that a man wouldn’t encounter?
GB: On the contrary, I think one is noticed more easily than a man. From the word go, people knew who I was. The problem is in trying to ensure that they take you seriously, rather than looking at your ankles. But once you’ve persuaded your interlocutors that you have something serious to say, they listen to you.
Within the Foreign Office, I’ve always had to fight a bit. I was always pushing the barriers back for women diplomats. For women it really was not very easy. I went back to the Ambassador’s Conference in London [in March]. I put the question to the ministers: They talk a lot about diversity, but have they looked at themselves? On the platform were five white males, all from very similar backgrounds. [Laughs.] I got quite a lot of cheers from women in the audience.
How would you describe the state of relations between the United Kingdom and Costa Rica and Nicaragua as you prepare to leave your post?
I think relations between Great Britain and Costa Rica are excellent and I hope have never been better. It’s also important that our relations as part of the European Union have been given a higher profile. That’s important to the U.K. that other countries see us as a key player in Europe as well.
The summit of E.U. and Latin American and Caribbean heads of state (took place last week) in Vienna. We are expecting the launching of negotiations of an E.U.-Central American association agreement, more than just CAFTA (the Central American Free-Trade Agreement with the United States), but a development cooperation package. It will bring a new dimension to our relations.
Obviously, the Nicaraguan government was disappointed when we closed our embassy there. We too. Resources are finite.
Can we do this on a hub-and-spoke basis? Can we do this with alternative forms of representation? We have an excellent honorary consul. We go five or six times a year and with a detailed program to see ministers. It hasn’t been as dramatic a break as one might as imagine. We’re still around and we’re very interested in maintaining contact.
How does Britain view its role and profile in Latin America?
It views the region as an important and stable area now. These are middle-income countries. This is the way it differs from Africa. More attention is paid toward Africa.
I know some of the ministers here say that we seem to have suffered to some extent, that we haven’t benefited as much as countries who’ve behaved much worse than us. They get all the help and we don’t get as much attention.
We’ve seen the developments in Latin America as being positive ones in the last 20-30 years. Development has been in the right direction in terms of governability, human rights and sustainable development. We view the region as important allies in areas that matter to us, particularly in the fight against terrorism and drugs, and the need to improve the way the democratic system operates.
We are concerned that there is great inequality in this region. We realize it is to some extent that this is the reason there is perhaps apathy and disappointment in the fruits of democracy that citizens have seen in this part of the world.
How easy is it for an ambassador to get out and see the country to which she is posted and meet its people?
It couldn’t have been easier. People are welcoming and friendly in both countries. We have an amount of money, not very much, but for that, we fund small projects. You’ve got to find ways to add value to the small amounts of money you’ve got. Since they’re small projects, I find that some of the better things we’ve done have been helping outside San José. This is a perfect excuse to go traveling. We have found little ways to make quite a bit of difference.