The Expat: David Smith

After a two-year break, The Expat interview returns. David Smith is almost over qualified for the title, after a 30-year career as a foreign correspondent for Reuters and Channel 4. Raised in north London, he moved to Buenos Aires in August 2010 to take up the post of director of the United Nations Information Centre, following an appointment in Washington DC by the organization’s then director Kofi Annan.

When did you first come to Argentina?
I started life after graduating from Oxford with Reuters and was a correspondent for five years with them. So my first time was when I was sent here as a journalist in 1977. I then worked for ITN and the old News at Ten in London until the UK’s Channel 4 was founded in 1982.

What’s your recollection of 1977?
It’s not very clear. I have much longer memories of the 1980s and of Carlos Menem coming to power. I did a memorable interview with him in which he said he wanted to meet “La Thatcher” as he kept calling her.

I had a good working relationship with Menem. I’d come down from Washington and see him at critical moments and once spent a wonderful day with him in New York when he was at the height of his powers and the darling of Wall Street and the World Bank. That period is much more vivid to me — and it’s also the period in which I met my wife (the former CNN International anchorwoman Sonia Ruseler).

She’s from Quilmes and went to school at St. George’s. She left Argentina in 1981 to go to Cambridge and we met working in London. We actually got married in Quilmes.

When did you move to Argentina?
In August 2010. I’d spend six and a half years working for the United Nations (UN) in Washington DC for the Information Centre which represents the Secretary-General. I work for the UN because after 30 years in journalism, the last Secretary-General, Kofi Annan, asked me to work for him. In my world you don’t say “no” to the Secretary-General of the UN as it is a privilege, particularly after 30 years in Africa, Asia, the Middle East, the old Soviet Union when it collapsed, and the Americas. I was in Washington for 14 years as Channel 4’s only correspondent in the Americas so I’d come to Argentina or Brazil. It was my territory.

How did you feel about coming to Buenos Aires?
After so many postings — Madrid, Rome, Jerusalem, Johannesburg, Moscow, Washington — there was one I’d always dreamed of, and it was Buenos Aires. This is a global city. It has everything — whether it’s culture, art, cinema, walking or working out — this is not a provincial Latin American city.

The UN had spoken to me about whether I’d like to go to Baghdad, but that wasn’t for me at my stage of life. So when Buenos Aires was mentioned, I remember thinking: “There’s no such thing as a bad day.”

The UN office is located next to the cultural centre in Recoleta. It’s an 1860s convent and I feel responsible in a small way for part of the national heritage, being right next to the cemetery. I love the story that the Alfonsín government, by decree, gave the UN this office in 1983, and I imagine the idea was to show the Argentines that the country would return to the world — how much clearer can you be, by putting the UN flag over Recoleta? I think it sent out a positive message via my organization to the world.

Why do you have a Spanish accent?
I was in Spain when Franco died. I was eight months out of Oxford and had been already been there for six. Reuters, at the time, tended to drop you into places to see what happened. I had three months learning in a cheap Spanish lab in London, then suddenly I was covering the biggest story in Spain for the past 40 years since the civil war. I always felt that was the biggest story I ever did — because I was 22 and it was exciting to watch a country move from dictatorship to democracy quite painlessly.

But I speak Spanish without grammar, and avoid verbs as best I can.

What do you do at the weekend?
My wife and two younger children arrived in January (I have two sons in their 20s from my first marriage) and we enjoy going out for walks, for dinner, the movies, and I go to football matches with my youngest son. I grew up in north London watching my beloved Arsenal and here we are fans of Godoy Cruz.

We have also “explored Mummy‘s wonderful country” as my youngest two children were brought up in the US. Several years ago my wife bought a piece of land in Mendoza and we have a small vineyard which is a dream come true. I love the cooler air, the mountains and we both love the challenge of working with people at all levels.

Sonia and I also put together an art exhibition at the Centro Cultural Borges in Galería Pacífico called “Blanco y negro” which includes works by Ansel Adams, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Robert Doisneau, as well as the Argentines Horacio Coppola and Diego Ortiz Mugica.

It’s a collection Sonia and I have built up over 20 years. Every birthday or anniversary, we’d buy each other images, and it grew. It’s been such a thrill to bring it to a city that appreciates such art.

Do your younger children consider themselves Argentine?
No, they were both born in Washington DC. But obviously they are Argentine in the sense that they are also British. It’s taken a few months, but I think the two of them realize this is an opportunity to experience not only their mother’s country but also the country I love, the country of my heart in many ways.

I went to Salta last week for work, and quite rightly it’s called Salta la linda. It was an interesting slice of Argentina I’d never seen before with regard to its history, its development, its culture. It’s very distinct to anything in Buenos Aires. Drive down to Cafayate and you know you’re in God’s own acre. I may think Mendoza is beautiful but the wine country in Salta is spectacular as well.

As a family, we feel there’s so much to explore but also acquire some understanding that goes beyond being the visitor. My wife has been home in the 30 years that separate her from leaving for Cambridge, but in another sense she hasn’t — she’s been away for 30 years. Wisely, she says to herself every day, “I haven’t come back but I’ve come to a new country and a new environment”. I think that’s a wise way to look at it.

How have you adapted from DC?
Big change. My old job was a pressure cooker. I was dealing with a US Congress that could not only be skeptical but also downright critical of the UN. I had the second term of George W. Bush when relations with the UN became rather more complicated because of Iraq and Kofi Annan’s clear opposition to that war. I also had to deal at times with the White House, where I’d been a correspondent. It was a serious challenge and the period we went through was a difficult one.

Would you return to live in the UK?
Although I have a very strong sense of where I’m from, I haven’t lived in Britain for 30 years.It’s funny because somewhere in the 1990s, I left and I realized I would never go back. The future is in the New World. I’m still a Brit but I love the energy of the New World. In the US, they say “wake up and smell the coffee” but I prefer to say what I already told you, which is “there’s no such thing as a bad day.” Because there isn’t.

Argentines put a priority on living well, on being with friends and family. It’s that Italian zest for life and “how lucky we are.” Brits quietly admire that in Argentines while just as quietly I think they like what they think is the sense of discipline and order that go with British life. There’s a curious mutual attachment that binds us.

I still giggle when I see things like Newell’s Old Boys or Rosario Central. I think it’s wonderful. Even Arsenal, for God’s sake. Of course, I think of the one in Highbury.

Who does ‘end up’ in Argentina?
The Expat interview today returns to the Buenos Aires Herald’s On Sunday supplement after a prolific break.

With the aim of allowing expatriates who “end up” in Argentina for so many diverse reasons to share some of their key moments with Herald readers, previous expat interviewees include a sommelier who now supplies Francis Ford Coppola with wine after the film director read his Herald interview; a bikram yoga teacher who runs her own studio from home; an organic food restaurateur who continues with his expansion in Buenos Aires city; and the owner of an Irish bar in Recoleta which still stands strong after almost 20 years despite the current economic climate.

And then there’s the Frommers’ editor who pops up every two years to update his guide book, the guitarist from Los Alamos who has spawned a series of other popular folk bands, the three Brits who tackled Aconcagua, and even a twist on the series about Argentines living in the UK. Socialite Hannibal Reitano was one of those four adopted Brits, and you can read his take on this year’s Chelsea Flower Show on page 11.

Kicking off the The Expat’s resurrection is David Smith, a British broadcast journalist whose career has seen him reside in Madrid, Rome, Jerusalem, Johannesburg, Moscow and Washington DC as a foreign correspondent for Reuters and Channel 4.

Talking about his first postings, Smith says: “I always feel I lived, as a young man, in the two countries that represent the main blood lines of Argentina: Spain, during that period, and Italy during the murder and kidnapping of former Prime Minister Aldo Moro by the Red Brigades in 1978, which was the first watershed of modern-day terrorism.”

But it’s the affinity he has with Argentina which is strongest. Married to an Argentine, the former CNN anchorwoman Sonia Ruseler, Smith was first sent to Argentina in 1977 by Reuters, and developed a relationship with the country. That story has now come full circle following his latest posting to Buenos Aires as director of the United Nations Information Centre in 2010, an appointment made by current UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon.

Coming most recently from Washington DC, Smith has taught journalism as a guest professor at the Universities of Michigan and Maryland, with an emphasis on the role of the foreign correspondent as an influencing factor in the political exterior.

Smith is author of Mugabe, A Biography and Prisoners of God — A study of Arab-Israeli Conflict.

First published in the Buenos Aires Herald‘s On Sunday supplement, May 29, 2011.

Photo by Mariano Fuchila.

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