Interview by: Sandra P. Bernstein, BA, MA
Known for its silver, mate, beef, the Argentine Vaquero and the Tango, South America’s southernmost country, Argentina, has diplomatic offices in major cities throughout the U.S. The Honorable Gabriel Volpi, Consul General of Argentina in Houston, graciously met me in his office on the South Loop in the Galleria area. On entering, the visitor can not help noticing the photos of landscapes and architecture of Argentina. Mr. Volpi, with his soft Argentine accent, explained that they display a different photographer every month. The artist this month is Vanessa Gato, a young photographer who was born in Chivilcoy. Her work has been displayed in exhibitions, digitally, and in print. Miss Gato wants to shine a spotlight on the ordinary life in Argentina. The pride that Mr. Volpi feels for the art of Argentina is apparent and well-deserved.
For our interview, we went into his private office. Two walls of glass reveal views of the Galleria area. After we were settled into two leather wing-back chairs, I began the conversation with a couple of general questions.
Sandy: How long have you been in Houston?
Volpi: I arrived in March last year.
Sandy: Is this your first assignment, or have you had several?
Volpi: No, no. I have been a diplomat for 32 years, since August, 1986.
Sandy: That was the year I came to Houston/ Have you always wanted to be a diplomat? Did you enter a course of studies to be in the diplomatic corps?
Volpi: In our system, you have to have a degree. Then you take an exam to enter the diplomatic school for two years. When you finish the diplomatic school, you enter the foreign service. It is a lifetime career.
Sandy: What was your first assignment after diplomatic school?
Volpi: My first assignment was Miami.
Sandy: Miami, a very good first assignment. It is beautiful there.
Volpi: My youngest son was born there. Now he is living in Austin. He is American.
Sandy: When your kids go to Austin, they almost always stay there. It is a relatively young population
Volpi: He’s a musician.
Sandy: That explains it.
Volpi: That explains it, and now he is studying Musical Production.
Sandy: Did you get a chance to go to SXSW?
Volpi: Yes. Really wonderful. The first year I arrived in March. The end of March was SXSW. It was wonderful! I had never heard about it. But my eldest son, who is a cinema director, told me that it is one of the most important festivals in the world. You see IT, cinema, music, and it is wonderful. Now I have had the opportunity twice.
Sandy: Both my stepsons studied broadcasting. The youngest is a sound and light engineer.
Volpi: The problem is it is different working here. In Argentina, working in cinema or television is not easy.
Sandy: It is not easy anywhere.
Volpi: But here you have a lot of opportunities. Argentina is working toward bringing the economy back.
Sandy: That can be tough for any government leader. As a consul, what do you consider your primary duties in Houston?
Volpi: First of all, you need to know that the area covered by the Consulate General in Houston is six states, Texas, Louisiana, Oklahoma, Arkansas, New Mexico, and Colorado. Our first responsibility is to our citizens living and working here. In the area we have approximately 20,000 Argentines, most of them here in Houston because of the oil and gas industry. In Texas, we have Argentine citizens who have been living here for a very long time. Some of the citizens living here are in the higher levels of medicine, and we have Argentine citizens in the universities.
Sandy: Our magazine reaches leaders and business people with interests in international business. If a company or individual wants to do business with Argentina, they need to go through a consulate, right?
Volti: Yes. Here there are citizens from all over the world. It is a huge diversity. If some country wants oil and gas, they must make a request. We handle the requests. Of course, if someone wants to go to Argentina to work, they need a special visa. We are working on the economy. You know that the economy is trying to get back on track. The new government is working hard. It is not an easy task. We are working hard to avoid any tragedy. Right now, there is a representative meeting in New York about the economy.
Sandy: Speaking of the economy, what is your primary export?
Volpi: Grains. We used to be in the top three countries for grain. Last year we were number one in maiz.
Volpi: Corn. We export a lot of food stuff. We are number one in lemons, the yellow ones. Now they are coming here. And we export a lot of fruit. In November, our beef will again be exported to the U.S. For several years, we avoided sending beef. Now everything is okay. We will again have beef in the U. S.
Sandy: That is great. Argentinian restaurants are very popular here. In fact, we had one of our mixers at the Gaucho Chama.
Volpi: Yes. Yes. You know that is one of our traditions. Because of the previous government, we closed a lot of our markets. We lost Australia and Canada. Now we are past those policies that were supposed to protect, but hindered exports. And we are working, working, working.
Sandy: What about oil and gas? I have done translations for YPF here in Houston.
Volti: The Vaca Muerta formation has the second largest unconventional (shale oil) reserve in the world. Exxon Mobil believes that once Vaca Muerta is exploited, Argentina and the U. S. will produce one-third of the world’s natural gas. Chevron and Shell have also invested with YPF, our principal national partner. YPF has a lot of business here.
Sandy: What are your future plans for the Argentines living here in Texas? What are your goals for future Argentine-Texas relations?
Volpi: Since my arrival, I have tried to bring my culture from Argentina to Houston. It was being forgotten. We are using a specialty visa for musicians, dancers, and other performers and teachers to bring Argentine culture to the U. S. to preserve it.
Sandy: Argentina is known for the Argentine Tango. Do you have a lot of dance teachers and performers in Texas?
Volpi: Yes. Here, in San Antonio, Dallas, and Austin. Everywhere you go you will find performers who dance and teach the tango. You know, I have studied with my wife when we started dancing. One of my first goals is to keep the Argentines living more Argentine by bringing the culture here. There are Argentine citizens who have children and grandchildren here, and they are still living their Argentine lifestyle.
Sandy: I wanted to ask you about a historical rivalry between you and your neighbor, Brazil. How do you see the relationship between Brazil and Argentina?
Volpi: Yes. There is a competition, and it is not only in soccer. But, they are our number one partner in food products and mechanical production. We have a competition in some areas. But when we have free days in Argentina, we go to Brazil to go to the beach. Brazil has a lot of beaches and warm water. We have beaches but our beaches are too cold.
Sandy: Brazil’s beaches are famous, true. How is your tourist industry?
Volpi: Right now, it is an excellent business for tourists. The currency exchange is very good for the dollar. The value is so high that goods and services are cheap to the tourists. This is an excellent time to visit. There are hotels, transportation and communication, all connected. And we have a low cost airline. Now visits to the interior are easier.
Sandy: Argentina has been called the “Land of Silver.” In fact the name comes from Latin for silver. Do you export silver and any other precious metals? Gems?
Volpi: Yes. We do somewhat. But mining is something we are still developing. There is not a clear policy on protection. We have a silver reserve that we are not exploiting. Our country is very rich, not only for grain, but also for soy. We have not done a lot of mineral exploitation. The oil and gas is black gold for us.
Sandy: Our publication does not get into politics, but I would like to ask what kind of government does Argentina have?
Volpi: Right now, we have the radical side and the moderates. We are working very hard to get the economy back on track. There isn’t much money. Three years ago, we needed to make a change.
Sandy: Does a change in the government affect your position?
Volpi: No, I am in a career position. It is a lifetime appointment. We can serve until our final days. We are not political, we are an instrument of the government. Every assignment brings new challenges and experiences, so we have to be adaptable. The last station I had before coming here was Peru. My wife is from Peru.
Sandy: I did some graduate work in Lima, a very interesting city with its history going back to Simon Bolivar. With Peru, you have had assignments in four countries. Do you get to go back to Argentina?
Volpi: Yes. It is part of the protocol to go back to Argentina between stations. So it was Miami, Argentina, Tunisia, Argentina, Peru, Argentina, and Houston. You have to be able to adapt. My son who lives in Austin went to Argentina to see his roots, but he came back here. He tells his brothers they must come here. He doesn’t know how, but he says they need to come here. He is American now.
Sandy: Well, it is our hope that you have found a lot to like and enjoy in Houston and that Houston and Argentina continue to enjoy a mutually beneficial relationship. It will be great for the Argentines and the Texans if your assignment should be a long-term one.