The word diplomat always invokes a promise of success and adventure, at least among many IR/IO students. Checks&Balances interviewed Jan Willem Bertens, who was not only a diplomat in Uruguay, Costa Rica and Sudan, but also the party leader of D66 in the European Parliament. Above all, Bertens is a passionate story-teller, with plenty to talk about: he built a bridge over the Nile, went undercover in El Salvador and survived an assassination attempt in Sudan. This is the first part of our series about Jan Willem Bertens.
We meet Jan-Willem Bertens in the attic of his large house in Maastricht. Actually, ‘library’ would be a more fitting description of the room in which we interview this former diplomat and Member of European Parliament. The walls are covered with books and photographs of Bertens in foreign places. Holding a pipe in hand, he almost immediately asks us if we smoke. Two-and-a-half hours later, at least one thing has become clear to us: Jan Willem Bertens has seen a lot and loves talking about it. After we ask our first question, it is almost impossible to interrupt him, except for the moments when he suddenly gets up to look for book or a map. All that said, Bertens is 78 years old, and probably still works longer hours than you or me. Although Bertens had a career many IR/IO students dream about, unlike many of us, he never aspired to be a diplomat.
“Originally, I wanted to become an actor,” he fires away when we ask him about his motivation to become a diplomat. “When I told my parents I wanted to go the theatre academy they nearly got a heart attack. My father told me: ‘if you go to that theatre school, your mother will die.’ So I reconsidered and decided that I wanted to become a teacher. But as a teacher you have to be an actor, otherwise you are lost. I later became a diplomat, and as a diplomat you have to be an actor as well, otherwise you’re completely lost! Eventually, I became a politician and, well, you understand what I am trying to say. So effectively, I spend most of my life as an actor after all. Instead of going to the theatre academy in Maastricht, I went on to study at Nijmegen University. I studied social economic history and followed courses in international law and labour law. During my student years, I spend a lot of time organizing all sorts of things, but not for my study. I wanted to become a businessman. At one time, I even owned a café; ‘Bertens’ Betere Ballentent’”
As a diplomat you have to be an actor, otherwise you are completely lost.
While it’s slowly getting dark outside, Bertens takes us through his life. “Why did I do that? Become a diplomat? I had never thought about it! Not even for a split second. When I was young, some parts of the world had not yet been discovered. As a boy, I had a huge map of the world in my room. I would dream about places I had discovered and in all my modesty gave names such as Bertenshill, Bertensbay, and Jan-Willem Mountain. You think I’m completely crazy but I kept myself busy. I was just curious.”
“After I finished my studies, I read an advertisement in the newspaper for a traineeship program for aspiring diplomats of the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs, ‘Het Klasje’. With me, more than 400 others applied while they only needed 15 people. To my great surprise, and that of everyone else, I was accepted. It was the first time that Het Klasje was open not only to the elite. There were no dukes, counts or people with excessively long names in my year.”
“When we graduated from Het Klasje, we were all wondering where in the world they would send us to. My first post was in Uruguay, Montevideo. I was the third secretary of the ambassador. Uruguay is a special country. Already in the 1920s, they had an obligatory elderly pension and homosexual marriages were legal. Uruguay is small enough to do these things without being a threat to other countries in the region- when I lived there, Uruguay had 1,5 million inhabitants and 30 million sheep and cows. And, of course, they have a fantastic hobby: playing football! The sport was very popular there, Uruguay had won the Olympic Championships twice, in ’34 and ’38, and were the World champions in ’30 and ’50 when they beat Brazil, in Brazil! That was unbelievable. I know everything about sports, and this proved to be very useful as a diplomat.”
“At my first official reception, me and my wife did not know anyone, we were in a completely strange world. Someone asked me where we were from and soon we found ourselves talking about football. I had memorized the Uruagayan players including their nicknames. There was the guy with one arm El Brazo, and the goalkeeper El Pulpo, the Octopus. Within no-time there were four or five shocked people standing around me: “How do you know this?” My ambassador even came up to me and asked if I had made some dirty joke. The first ambassador had never seen a football match in his life, not even once in his five years in Uruguay. He could have been declared persona non grata! Within a month, even though I could hardly speak Spanish, I had my own monthly column in the newspaper El Diario about football in Uruguay.”
While Bertens’ time in Uruguay was quite peaceful, his adventures in Sudan were of a completely different caliber. Stay updated and read about how Bertens built a bridge over the Nile without the approval of the Dutch government next week.