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Ecuador's petite envoy holds sway


IN THE LIMELIGHT: Puma Puma evades questions on WikiLeaks founder and rather talk about bilateral ties

KUALA LUMPUR: MOST Malaysians may remember Ecuador from Geography lessons where we learnt that the name is derived from the nation's unique position on the equator.

There is also the fact that it is the world's largest producer of cocoa, with what many acknowledge as the best grade in the market today.

Of late, Ecuador has come into prominence for another reason: the sudden international prominence gained by granting political asylum to Julian Assange.

There is no doubt that the WikiLeaks founder has placed the country on the "world map" as it were, giving it new-found prominence or notoriety, according to which direction one is coming from. The maelstrom of publicity from that single act, presaged by Assange holing up in the Ecuadorian embassy in London, saw Ecuador in the glare of global media coverage.

The 41-year-old Assange, who has made enemies in high places with leaks over his website, refuses to be repatriated to Sweden where he faces charges of sexual assault.

I am in the office of Lourdes Puma Puma, possibly the smallest envoy in Malaysia, to interview her on bilateral relations and other issues of interest.

She stands tall in the diplomatic community here for speaking her mind, in the most diplomatic manner of course, on most things. The warmth of the room temperature corresponds with the warmth that Puma Puma exudes as she talks of the 18-year-old relationship between the two countries.

"We are exploring areas of common interest like oil palm cultivation by Malaysian interests in Ecuador," she says, adding that Sime Darby is looking at investing in Ecuador.

In a discernible Spanish accent, she explains that the Ecuadorian government is impressed by Sime Darby's handling of investments abroad where it practices an inclusive policy with local communities.

"We want to produce palm oil in Ecuador using Malaysian expertise and export it to all parts of the world," she says, adding that Ecuador's deputy foreign trade minister, Francisco Rivadeneria, is expected to lead a government and private sector delegation to Malaysia later this month or next.

The 50-something Puma Puma, who has more than 30 years experience in diplomacy, says her deputy foreign affairs minister, Dr Marco Albuja Martinez, is expected here in November to explore trade opportunities. Talks have been held with Petronas on possible exploration in Ecuador "although they are interested in big projects while our's are still small".

Clearly, relations between Ecuador and Malaysia are on an upward trend, which may possibly see a change in the trade balance which is overwhelmingly in Malaysia's favour.

At some point, I try to slip in a question about Assange but Puma Puma does not bite. She is resolute in not wanting to answer the question, saying that Ecuadorian president Rafael Correa has said enough to justify his nation's stand on the matter.

"Are you asked about Assange by Malaysians? Are the people you meet in the diplomatic circle here interested in the issue which has also been played up by Malaysian newspapers?", I ask the intrepid envoy, who wanted to be a criminal lawyer but opted for the subtle cut and thrust of diplomacy.

No amount of coaxing or cajoling will make her shift her stand on "this very delicate issue". But that's Puma Puma for you; a strong-willed diplomat who will not compromise on anything concerning Ecuador.

A self-acknowledged "daddy's girl", she is certainly made of the same stuff as her 84-year-old father Raul, a retired general in the Ecuadorian army.

I ask her to explain her name, Puma Puma, which has charmed Malaysians.

"I get asked about it often. You see in Ecuador one carries both parents surnames. As my parents were first cousins and Puma's, I carry both their surnames," says the degree-holder in law and sociology.

And if you see a petite envoy burning up the dance floor at a diplomatic gathering, it's most probably Puma Puma who loves the salsa and its sway.

Ecuador’s envoy to Malaysia Lourdes Puma Puma says her country is eager to tap Malaysia’s expertise in oil palm cultivation

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