Monday, 19 June 2017

CALL OF DUTY: Ambassador Richard Bernal on roots, service and writing things down

NATIVE SON: "In serving the public, it's important to document the experiencs," says Bernal, pictured below with Opposition Leader, Dr. Peter Phillips.

FOR Ambassador Richard Bernal, few things matter as deeply as serving one’s country and making a difference. It’s a principle that was instilled in him from boyhood. “Growing up, one of the first major lessons I learned was to have a sense of purpose and try to make a difference wherever possible. One’s life must be about contributing to national development,” shares the esteemed diplomat, who grew up in the Mona Heights area of St. Andrew and went on to attend the neighbouring University of the West Indies (UWI) in the late ’60s. 

“It was a privilege to go to university, and I felt an obligation to give back," he notes. "Growing up in Mona, it was the logical thing to go to [UWI]. It was a wonderful experience. Now I’m back there, trying to help the university go global.”

As you should be aware, Richard Bernal, whose work in the Foreign Service is legendary, now serves as the university’s Pro-Vice Chancellor for Global Affairs, a post that draws on his love of academia and international relations.

Currently in his “young 60s,” his life and work seem to have come full circle yet continue to flourish. Like compatriot Prof. Stephen Vasciannie, not only is he one of the most accomplished and renowned ambassadors to ever represent Jamaica, his work has had profound impact regionally and in certain international circles.

Apart from serving as our main man in Washington and spending time with the Organization of American States (OAS), he’s done groundbreaking work with the Regional Negotiating Machinery (RNM), among other bodies with ties to the Caribbean. He has fond memories of embarking on his “first formal engagement in diplomacy” in 1991, as Ambassador to the OAS, before “the mission broadened, because once you’re working for Jamaica the mission broadens.”

Best of all, he’s written extensively about his work and his experiences, becoming a sort of accidental author. “When I became Ambassador I knew about Washington, but there was next to nothing on the relations with Jamaica. I didn’t have any information on what my predecessors had done,” he remembers.

He didn’t want his successors to fall into a similar trap. “I didn’t set out to write. I wrote mainly for my own clarification. I would write about the issues of my job. To understand a subject better, I would write myself a little note. Then that note would become a paper and then that paper might mutate into a journal article or a book,” explains Ambassador Bernal, whose civil servant father encouraged his childhood love of disappearing into a juicy read. “I read enormously as a child. Anything I could get my hands on. It’s the ultimate way of learning.” 
Bernal’s most recent book, Dragon in the Caribbean: China's Global Re-Dimensioning - Challenges and Opportunities for the Caribbean (Ian Randle Publishers), his third full-length publication (now in its second edition), grew out of his desire to learn about the history of the Chinese in the Caribbean. “I was reading about China and wanted to clarify some of the views. And I realized that nothing had been written about the Chinese and the Caribbean,” recalls the diplomat/author, whose previous publications have explored US foreign policy and trade and economic development. “So I wrote myself a little note, all in an attempt to better understand the subject.” 

For Bernal, it cannot be emphasized enough the need for today’s leading public servants to write things down. “The business of people in policy documenting what is happening is important,” he says. “So I urge policy-makers and public servants to write for the benefit of future generations. In serving the public, it’s important to document the experiences and let the editors bring the work to a higher level.” 

Meanwhile, what Ambassador Bernal is intrigued to tackle for his next book is a no-brainer. “Brexit. I’ve been following it up very closely,” he says, “and it could be the next thing I write about.”

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