by Emily Landgraf
Warm, welcoming and excited were words that members of the Model UN team at Rider used to describe the Venezuelan ambassador to the United Nations.
The team had the chance to meet Ambassador Julio Escalona at the Permanent Mission of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela to the United States in New York on Friday, Feb. 12.
“We’re representing Venezuela this year at the conference,” said senior team leader Joe Gallant. “We wanted to hear straight from the horse’s mouth the positions of the ambassador.”
Venezuela may present a challenge for the team, as the country under socialist President Hugo Chavez does not have amiable relations with the United States. However, the Model UN students were surprised that they were met with such enthusiasm by the ambassador.
“I was surprised by how approachable he was,” said senior team leader Ally Watson. “He shook all of our hands. He took pictures with us. He gave us kisses on the cheek goodbye.”
Model UN is a three-credit, student-run course. The team will be competing at the National Model United Nations conference against other colleges from all over the world held at the United Nations in late March.
The Model UN team, consisting of 18 members, was able to communicate with the ambassador through an interpreter, as Escalona does not speak English.
Gallant said the purpose of the trip was to give the team a better understanding of the political positions of Venezuela in order for the team to write better position papers.
“There’s only so much information you can get from the Internet,” Gallant said. “Speaking to a representative of the country is awesome.”
Junior team member Barton Thompson said that Escalona explained that he was “a professor first and a diplomat second.”
“He was the head of the economics department at a university in Venezuela before he became an ambassador. It was like talking to a typical professor.”
Gallant enjoyed hearing Escalona talk about Venezuelan relations with the United States.
“It’s pretty interesting, especially talking to him because he was so blunt and frank about how he felt about America,” Gallant said.
One of the main things that Escalona stressed, according to the team, was the tight bond of Latin American countries.
“One perspective we got from the ambassador was this idea of brotherhood,” Gallant said. “It overflows into their ideology and how they do business. For example, Venezuela subsidizes oil to less fortunate Latin American countries to help their brothers.”
Gallant and Thompson both made it clear that while the ambassador does not see eye to eye with the American government, he was enthusiastic about answering their questions. Senior team member Michael Compton felt the same way.
“He seemed so happy to have a conversation with us,” Compton said. “You could see it in his face and hear it in his voice even though he wasn’t speaking English.”
Compton believes that the information from Escalona will be very helpful to the team.
“Getting a firsthand experience was great,” he said. “He was really able to help us get into character.”
Senior team leader Michelle Liebner agreed with Compton and believes it will help the team better represent Venezuela at the conference.
“It was interesting to hear an outside perspective about the way that they view America,” Liebner said. “It’s a whole new experience when you’re there and actually talking to someone about the issues. I guess, for me, I was a little star-struck because you don’t really get those experiences.”
Watson was surprised that they got to speak with the ambassador at all.
“I thought we’d get a secretary or an intern, but the ambassador ended up meeting with us,” Watson said. “We didn’t have this chance last year when we represented Lebanon. They [Venezuela] offered to review our papers and provide us with any resources or statistics we might need.”
Despite winning Outstanding Delegation and Outstanding Position Paper last year, Watson said that Model UN is not about winning.
“It’s about representing your country well and staying in character,” she said. “Meeting with the ambassador will help us in that respect.”
Dr. Barbara Franz, the academic adviser of the Model UN course, believes that this experience will greatly help the team.
“I think that the team needed to get a sense of how a typical representative would represent sometimes quite controversial positions in the international arena,” she said.
According to Compton, meeting the ambassador was a life-changing experience.
“From that day, I’ve felt like I can represent Venezuela,” Compton said.
Watson said that the team would like the ambassador to visit Rider in the future.
“I don’t know when, but we’ll definitely be extending him an invitation,” she said.