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September 19th, 2011

Gabriel Valdés

With immense sadness, the IPS family mourns the death of Gabriel Valdés, Chilean lawyer, diplomat, academic and politician. IPS could not have grown and flourished without the support of Dr. Valdés.

IPS founder and president emeritus Roberto Savio’s own conmemorative words: Gabriel Valdés passed away in Santiago de Chile, at 92. A few months before, we paid homage to him in IPS while he was on his “goodbye visit” (as he called it) to Europe and Rome—a city where he studied as a teenager when his father was an ambassador in Italy.

Gabriel was as always: elegant, ironic, full of intellectual strength and idealistic commitments. In his response to the homage speeches, he remembered how the creation of IPS was an act of Utopia and that the main problem he saw today was the absolute lack of world governability. This made IPS’s work ever more necessary, particularly in civil society, in which he considered the most profound change in the 50 years of existence of the agency.

In 1964, Gabriel was the Chancellor of the government of Eduardo Frei Montalva. At that time, he took a considerable risk. He accepted to sign a contract with an association of journalists called Inter Press Service, which I had founded a few months before. The contract was to distribute a bulletin of the Chilean Chancellery to its embassies all over the world through IPS’s system of telecommunications.

The Senate immediately approved it, since it was very favorable economically. What the Senate did not know, but Gabriel did, was that IPS never before performed a similar service. Therefore there existed a serious risk. But Chancellor Valdés, beyond the embassy bulletins, saw that this contract would allow IPS to enter the world of major informative actors. And with this, there would be another voice dedicated to the issues he had profound commitment to: international justice, development and democratization processes in the Third World, Latin America’s integration and attention to the process of the European continent and the United States.

Without this political act of Gabriel, I am not sure if IPS would have overcome its initial phase since it was being maintained with what a bank had lent me to buy a house to marry Collette, which we had diverted for the creation of the agency. Colette and Gabriel were great friends; they boasted about how delicious it was to have the arbitrariness of the Cancer sign, and I hope that now they are laughing together.

Gabriel Valdés and Eduardo Frei Montalva.

Gabriel Valdés and Eduardo Frei Montalva.

Chancellor Valdés was a very important protagonist of the regional integration process, which started with the Bogotá agreements and was later completely structured during his mandate. He did his task with great strength and dignity. I remember an encounter with his counterpart Kissinger: in the peak of his glory, Kissinger told him with the brutality that characterized him, that even if Latin America would unite, it would always have little international weight. And Gabriel answered him: many would be those yelling “out loud” against the arbitrary decisions they didn’t share, and the more headaches they would give to those who ignore them. And that headaches are equally suffered by the very powerful, as everybody else.

Gabriel’s next step, in his long and incomparable international career, was being Sub Secretary General of the United Nations as Administrator for Latin America of the UNDP along with the mythical Brad Morse. It was the golden age of the program, particularly for Latin America. Never again would the UNDP have the same weight, the same dimension. Gabriel’s waiting room was full of all the relevant characters of the region since he financed all the projects of social change, participatory democracy and sustainable development, frequently in polemics with the economic vision of the Interamerican Bank and the World Bank. Hernán Santa Cruz, another great Chilean international character, once told me that Gabriel was the reincarnation of Lorenzo de Medici, since he managed to recreate the court of Renaissance Florence in New York, an unimaginable task until then.

But I do not want to write a biography of Gabriel here, of his posts, which go from President of the Senate to Ambassador, and of his many battles in the region for democracy and international social justice. What I want to do is remember an exceptional man, who offered me the privilege of being his and his family’s friend.

I keep unforgettable memories of when he was chancellor and was living in his colonial home, such as when Golda Mejer came to have tea and was very intimidated by Gabriel’s mother, by her personality, culture and spirituality. And when Silvia – who accompanied him with tenderness and devotion until his last minutes – would transform the house into an auditorium of medieval music rehearsals and center of artistic encounters.

In the Spartan Chile of those times, ministers had very old black Chevrolets. In order to give a break to the chauffeur of the Minister of Foreign Relations, I would take the kids to school, Maria Gracia, Juan Gabriel and Max. Always late, we would fly until leaving them at the school door and then I would come back to take Gabriel to the Ministry. One day, the chauffeur crashed the car because the steering wheel was not working. Gabriel told me: “Thankfully, you are always very lucky. He was driving at 50km per hour and you never go below 100”.

Gabriel had the courage of leaving his post at the United Nations, at the peak of his glory, in order to go back to Chile and face the military Junta to defend the return of democracy. He suffered a brutal discredit campaign from the Junta that even invented lovers and children. He was also arrested, in order to intimidate him. He came out more defiant than ever. I always considered him as a representative of how many times politics don’t always reward the best: after an immense effort in the fight against the Junta, Gabriel ended up as President of the Senate and not as candidate of his party for the presidential elections, despite having paid a very high price. (I want to clarify that I believe that Alwyn was a good president).

Now we have lost his intellectual honesty, his ironic and joyful humor, his intellectual strength and his continuous search of a compass for the birth of an international governability. Gabriel considered a barbarity that finance escaped from political control, and rather finance started to control politics. That a world where everyday there are more people in poverty, is not sustainable. And that it was a tragedy that the decline of the United States and Europe did not allow for an achievement of global agreements on the environment, human rights and the redistribution of the technological and scientific advances.

In him, we have lost the memory of almost a century of the world’s path toward a society that he wanted to be better, and where he had had unreplicable experiences. We have lost an original capacity of looking at the world and reading its events as part of an understandable and positive process. We have lost his capacity of getting angry and then laughing, especially when he realized that he was mistaken. And we have lost his capacity of being a friend, constant and consequent, critical and humane, sometimes irreverent, but a friend like no one.

Without him, part of my life is gone. And this, unfortunately, is the least serious. What is more preoccupying is that I cannot talk to him anymore and have an argument about the world, wine and lyricism.

Why does only death teach us to realize how exceptional and irreplaceable were our dear ones?

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