Mauricio Belmonte at the Embassy of Bolivia in Beijing COURTESY PHOTO
In one of the diplomatic complexes facing the Liangma River in Beijing is the Embassy of Bolivia, where Mauricio Belmonte welcomed me with a warm smile and the soft and slow cadence so typical of the highland nation.
Belmonte's three periods in China—first as a student and then as a diplomat—add up to almost 10 years, but beyond the seconds, minutes and hours are the experiences he has had in the country. They have been an invaluable source of learning. One of these lessons has to do with the idea of "working not only with discipline, but with conviction," he said. "The Chinese have that way of feeling committed to what they do and loving themselves because they are aware of their people, what they have and what they can do."
Right from the start, living in China had not been part of Belmonte's plans, however, the diplomat admitted that the new direction his life has taken has completely captivated him. "Like many people, I had initially focused my interest on visiting other countries, especially in Europe," he said. An avid reader, Belmonte had the desire to learn more about Spain, and also Italy, due to his family ties, since his great-grandparents came from Italy's Piedmont region. His interest in his Italian heritage led to him writing a book titled Polenta: familias italianas en Bolivia (Polenta: Italian Families in Bolivia), which tells part of this story of immigration to Bolivia. However, life had another path prepared for him.
His father, who was also part of the Bolivian foreign service, met a Chinese official who urged him to have one of his sons go to study in China through a scholarship. "At that time, China was just a very interesting geographical expression to me," Belmonte recalled. "If I had decided to visit China, it would have been for tourist reasons." However, in no case had he considered the possibility of living, much less working or spending part of his career there. The insistence of the Chinese diplomat, however, had its effect and Belmonte finally ended up accepting the proposal.
Since 2007, when he set foot in Beijing for the first time, his journey in China has been marked by endless experiences and learnings. The city was close to hosting the 2008 Olympic Summer Games, so there was a very festive atmosphere and a desire on the part of local people to get closer to foreigners. Thus, during that first period, from 2007 to 2009, Belmonte had the opportunity to gain close experience of the daily lives of Chinese people, while taking a program to learn standard Chinese at a Beijing university. In that process, and despite his initial shyness, he realized that Chinese society was quite friendly, beyond the difficulties of not mastering the language or communicating fluently.
The China-built Parapeti Bridge in Santa Cruz, Bolivia, on February 7, 2020
A new direction of life
His experience as a student in China served as an impetus for Belmonte to enter the world of diplomacy. Having worked briefly as a journalist in La Paz, administrative capital of Bolivia, before arriving in Beijing, Belmonte was determined to make the most of this new path. He completed a master's degree in political science and international relations in order to join the ranks of the foreign service.
During his formative years, Belmonte had the opportunity to live in Chile, Argentina, Colombia and Peru due to his father's overseas assignments as a diplomat. Although they were all destinations in South America and close to Bolivia, this lifestyle was not always easy. "It's difficult to arrive at a new place and then have to withdraw from that environment when you were already starting to make friends," he admitted. But he then pointed out that it was at that moment, when he began to approach the diplomatic world, that he began to see what his country looks like from the outside.
After China left its indelible mark during his first visit, Belmonte settled in Beijing for the second time from 2012 to 2013, a period during which he served as consul at the Embassy of Bolivia. "My experience was mostly limited to consular work," he explained. "But I could also see and get to know China through the experience of my colleagues."
Currently, the Bolivian diplomat is minister counselor at the embassy and has been its chargé d'affaires since 2017. His main role is promoting bilateral trade and introducing more agricultural products of Bolivian origin into the Chinese market. So far, he explained, there have been several products that have been well received by Chinese consumers, including beef, quinoa and coffee. In addition, the necessary steps are already being taken to introduce chia, an Andean grain marketed internationally as a superfood.
Bolivia joined the Belt and Road Initiative, which was proposed by Chinese President Xi Jinping in 2013 to boost connectivity along and beyond the ancient Silk Road routes, in 2018. Since then, a new window of opportunity has opened for Bolivia not only to promote its exports, but also to elevate ties with China in other areas, according to Belmonte. Still, there is a long journey ahead. "China is such a demanding and large market, we must continue to strive to further expand the relationship," he said.
On the other hand, Belmonte believes that the rural areas of China have many similarities with the Bolivian highlands, presenting opportunities for exploring new points of cooperation in culture and tourism. "When I see an aymara loom, or an aguayo, as we call it, it brings to mind similar forms of production that take place, for example, in Tibet Autonomous Region," he said. He also mentioned Bolivia's Uyuni Salt Flats, which is known as the Mirror of the Sky in China, and said the tourist destination needs more promotion to attract Chinese tourists.
Belmonte hopes to record his experiences as another chapter in the successful exchange between the peoples of Bolivia and China. "I talk about it with the friends I have: All of us who have lived here in China during this stage have the obligation to write down everything we have experienced and everything we have been able to know," he concluded.