Brazilian Ambassador to Azerbaijan, Mr. Manuel Montenegro, tells Azeri Observer about the bilateral agreements on the horizon, the opportunities they open and how the pandemic brought the two countries closer. He gives details of the prospects of cooperation in agriculture, oil and gas, renewables, tourism, education and culture and explains why he sees Azerbaijan as a country with a prosperous future.
BY ELENA KOSOLAPOVA
AZERI OBSERVER STAFF WRITER
Question: How do you assess the current level of cooperation between Azerbaijan and Brazil? At what stage of this process are we now?
Answer: I am delighted to say that our bilateral relations are excellent. They started right after Azerbaijan claimed their independence and greatly strengthened when Brazil opened an Embassy in Baku in 2009, and Azerbaijan opened its Embassy in Brasilia in 2012. In 2017, the Brazilian foreign minister paid a historic visit to Azerbaijan, opening a new chapter in the bilateral relations. We already have two important signed agreements – on political consultations and on economic and investment cooperation – and more than 10 bilateral agreements at different stages of the negotiations. We have conducted several rounds of political consultations, and we plan to summon the first session of a mixed commission-working group meeting, on trade and investment. Since last year, we have concluded negotiations for a framework agreement on educational cooperation, and a memorandum of understanding on agricultural cooperation, and we hope that the circumstances will allow us to sign them soon. I would also like to highlight the interparliamentary cooperation, which really helps to take things forward. Soon after I arrived, we had a visit of the chairman of our Chamber of Deputies, Rodrigo Maia, at the invitation of the Milli Majlis (Ed. note: Azerbaijan’s Parliament). He and his delegation were received by President Ilham Aliyev and held conversations with the leadership of the Milli Majlis, and the ministers of Energy and Agriculture. In early 2020, Brazilian Senator Antonio Anastasia and Deputy Claudio Cajado, who chair the Brazil-Azerbaijan friendship committees in our Senate and Chamber of Deputies respectively, came to Baku as electoral observers and held high-level talks with Azerbaijani parliamentarians. Even the pandemic could not hold us back. In some ways we became even closer; before it was easy to say that Azerbaijan and Brazil were very far away from each other, and now the distance doesn’t matter. Together with the Azerbaijani Ambassador to Brazil, the Chairman of the Milli Majlis Working Group for Interparliamentary Relations with Brazil, Mushfiq Mammadli, and the chairs of both our parliamentary Brazil-Azerbaijan friendship committees, we organized the first-ever online interparliamentary meeting and had a very substantial and encouraging discussion on a number of issues. I look forward to the implementation of the discussed initiatives as soon as the pandemic eases. Before that, we plan some webinars and online activities on culture, investment and agriculture. In the old days we wouldn’t have had such kinds of events, but now as the popularity of remote meetings is increasing, Azerbaijan suddenly becomes closer. The main goal now is to increase the knowledge that we have of each other, and that is where people to people contacts are very important. Brazil is not limited to football and carnival; we have lots of other things, like culture, cinematography, music, etc. I am very happy that people in Baku listen to bossa nova, for example. However, there is a lot more we could share.
Q.: Both Azerbaijan and Brazil have a well-developed oil industry. What are the prospects of cooperation in this area?
A.: There is an enormous potential, because both Brazil and Azerbaijan have depleting onshore fields and rich offshore fields, which means we have similar problems and solutions. Brazil has moved very slowly in this area for the last 10 years, but in 2018, we changed the legislation to make it more attractive for investors. Now we are opening our new fields to international bids and start going back to market. I see that Azerbaijan is developing its oil and gas industry at an amazing pace, and has clear strategic guidelines established by the President and the Government, and there are lessons that we could learn from you. We are just starting the dialogue, and our Energy and Mines Minister, Bento Albuquerque was invited to address the participants of the Caspian Oil & Gas2020. Unfortunately, the pandemic got in the way, and the conference was postponed, but I trust that another opportunity for high-level exchanges will present itself soon. I am convinced that the dialogue on oil and gas will lead us into all kinds of partnership proposals and ideas, involving both our governments and private sectors. It is an advantage that we are not in competition, so we can talk freely about different issues. I hope that visits will happen next year, but for this year we have an idea for a “digital oil and gas mission”, and we are working on it. I also see that major Azerbaijani and Brazilian technology universities may profit from collaboration, and there have been signs of mutual interest already. We offer advanced trainings in many spheres, and many students from South America, Africa, and even from Europe and the US already benefit from them. So, the agreement in education will work for many areas.
Q.: Brazil is one of the biggest producers of the renewable energy in the world. Do you think that the experience of your country could be applied in Azerbaijan?
A.: The transition to the post oil and gas economy is an enormously important strategic goal set by the Government of President Aliyev. Azerbaijan has enormous potential in wind and photovoltaic energy, and these are the sectors where Brazil excels. The photovoltaic and wind sector in Brazil has been growing much faster than oil, thanks to the deregulation of the private sector, which, for example, allows ordinary citizens to produce photovoltaic energy on their own. Renewables are no longer laboratory experiments, now they can compete very well. So, we have these technologies, and we can bring them here. This issue was discussed with your Energy Minister and he said that he would be interested in seeing Brazilian companies bidding for projects in Azerbaijan.
Q.: Could you say a couple of words about our bilateral trade. What do we trade? Do you think that there is a chance to increase the volumes despite the long distance?
A.: In the past decade, Azerbaijan acquired several Brazilian airplanes for Buta Airways. I am sure that once the pandemic’s effect on air travel wears away, we will be able to get back to negotiations about airplanes. I was a little afraid what would happen with our trade without planes, but I am delighted to say it exceeded $115 million in 2019. In particular, there was a 10-fold increase in Azerbaijani exports, due to the start of sales of fertilizers to our agricultural sector. Our second export product to Azerbaijan after airplanes is sugar, with over $50 million in sales last year, and about $300 million over the last three years. This year, we also have seen exports of aluminum and semi-finished gold products for your jewelry industry, and steel pipes for the oil and gas industry. There is a lot of potential there.
Q.: Your country is quite a successful agricultural producer. Do we have any joint projects in this sphere?
A.: Indeed, Brazil stands out as one of the world’s largest producers of food, and we are one of the top exporters in every major category of foodstuffs. Despite the pandemic, Brazilian agricultural production continues apace. We contribute to the food security of over one billion people, using just 27 percent of our territory for animal husbandry and agriculture. We have greatly increased the agricultural production over the last 20 years, using just a little bit more of land. The key to the productivity revolution is the technology developed at Embrapa, our major agricultural research and development organization, and at our many universities. I very much look forward to discussing further with Azerbaijani officials how we may share this experience. It would be great to have a joint venture in agriculture here, because Azerbaijan has a very good environment and produces many good organic products. This is a platform where we can bring management skills and technologies, and help Azerbaijani farmers to increase productivity. Agricultural startups are growing by leaps and bounds in Brazil and they would be very interested to come to a new country, which is ideally located, has a variety of soils, climates, a strong historical tradition in agriculture and access to markets. Therefore, I am looking forward to an early signing of the memorandum of understanding on agriculture that has already been negotiated.
Q.: What about the tourist exchange? How many visas does the Brazilian consulate in Baku issue? Do we have many Brazilian tourists in Azerbaijan? What measures could increase the tourist flow?
A.: Last year we had about 140 Azerbaijani tourists, and I was delighted to learn that a tourist group of 40 people visited Brazil at the beginning of the year. And then the coronavirus hit. I am confident that we will be back on track after the pandemic. However, we haven’t stopped issuing visas and Brazil has already opened its major airports to tourism again. There are available flights via Istanbul and Dubai to Sao Paulo. I also expect that the number of Brazilian tourists here will increase, because many Brazilians travel to Turkey, and it is pretty easy to motivate them to extend their trip to Azerbaijan. We can also have technical cooperation in tourism. For example, our private educational institution, Senac, organizes distance-learning hotelier coursers, where people can learn about hotel service, quality standards, client expectations, etc. This may be of interest for Azerbaijan.
Q.: Brazil is one of the worst-hit countries by the coronavirus, as the number of cases reached several million. How has it affected the country’s economy? What is the action plan to overcome this crisis?
A.: From the beginning, President Bolsonaro’s Administration has sought to balance the health crisis and the economy, because we are a developing country, where many people cannot afford to simply wait it out at home. People cannot stop working because they have to feed their children and we have to consider this. An emergency relief fund, totaling approximately $1,000 per person, was granted to 65 million people, already the largest assistance program for the poor in Brazil, and perhaps one of the largest in the world. Brazil’s government allocated more than $100 billion for health actions, aid to small and micro companies, as well as offsetting the loss of revenue of states and municipalities. More than $400 million were allocated to the research, development, and production of the Oxford vaccine in Brazil, in association with Brazil’s largest health research and development organization. It is true that we had a large number of deaths, and every death is a tragedy. However, our public health system has held up and this crisis has proved that it is very robust and we have very good doctors and nurses. Hospitals are not overfilled and do not lack the means to treat COVID patients. We will prevail over the virus, as numbers have already started to plateau and fall.
Q.: Tell us about cultural cooperation. What projects and initiatives do you implement in this sphere?
A.: A few weeks ago, I had a meeting with the Acting Minister of Culture, Anar Karimov, and we discussed several proposals for both the pandemic and the post-pandemic periods. Last year, a concert by the Azerbaijani Philharmonic Chamber Orchestra honored Brazilian composer, Claudio Santoro, on the 100th anniversary of his birth. It was a thrilling event, which I hope to repeat by introducing other major Brazilian composers to the Azerbaijani public as soon as this is feasible. We intended to organize 7 concerts of Brazilian music in Baku this year, but unfortunately these plans were foiled, due to the pandemic. I hope next year they can be performed and that Brazilians musicians will again take part in the Jazz Festival in Baku. For the pandemic period, we are talking with the Philharmonic to have some online concerts of Brazilian music. Another promising way to draw our countries closer together is through literature. Late last year, collaboration between Brazil’s National Library Foundation and TEAS Press resulted in the publication of the Brazilian classic novel, Don Kasmurro, by Machado de Assis. It was the first ever, direct translation from the Portuguese to Azerbaijani done by Mrs. Nigar Sultanova, the spouse of the first Ambassador of Azerbaijan to Brazil, Elnur Sultanov. Another thing that I want to do is an online film festival and I have discussed this issue with Brazilian producers and distributors. We also want to twin sister cities in Brazil and Azerbaijan. We are looking for a twin for Sumgayit already. I also think our Paraty and your Sheki, which were inducted into the UNESCO World Heritage List last year, would be good candidates. It is worth mentioning that Paraty hosts the most important literature festival in Brazil and it would be great if next year we could have Azerbaijani participants presenting Azerbaijani books. Last but not least, I would like to commend ADA University for offering Portuguese language courses to its students over the last few years. I think there can be more Portuguese language students via the internet. I talked to the University of Brasilia, which organizes such kind of coursers, and they are ready to offer them to Azerbaijani universities. Actually, one of my local co-workers at the Embassy graduated from this course and then he was able to pass a strict language proficiency test in Brazil! Another one, who’s fluent in our language, is taking advanced distance lessons at the University of Brasilia. It took the pandemic to show that people can effectively learn a lot of things over the internet, and language is one of these things.
Q.: You started your work in Azerbaijan almost 2 years ago. What did you know about our country before coming here? Has your impression about the country changed since then?
A.: In my previous job at our MFA, I was responsible for Europe and Asia, so I had information about Azerbaijan, and about possibilities of cooperation. Back in 2017, as Deputy Chief of Staff to Brazil’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, I was involved in organizing his visit to Azerbaijan – a historical first. This visit confirmed the potential we sensed to develop a strong partnership in many areas. Thus, I was delighted to be appointed ambassador to Baku, where I arrived in December 2018. Ever since then, I have felt most welcome by Azerbaijani government officials, parliamentarians, scholars, businesspeople, artists, musicians, capoeiristas – indeed, everywhere I go, I see great interest in developing friendly ties with Brazil. I have found the Azerbaijani people to be kind, friendly, hardworking and generous, and to cherish values that we Brazilians deeply share, such as love of family and respect for diversity. You have many qualified young people, who are ready to take over new responsibilities. It is amazing that many Azerbaijanis speak several languages – Azerbaijani, Russian, Turkish, English and maybe even more. It is a developing country but has developed people. The people are the riches of the country. It is wonderful to see that the country is growing and preparing itself for the future. This is really interesting for me to witness.