Meet the Ambassador: Guatemala's Mario Bucaro

Bucaro is his country’s 21st ambassador to Israel, but the first to serve in Jerusalem in the second millennium.

Mario Bucaro (photo credit: COURTESY EMBASSY OF GUATEMALA)
Mario Bucaro
While most heads of diplomatic missions in Israel have cordial and even personally friendly relations with each other, there is such a thing as diplomatic brinkmanship. US Ambassador David Friedman continues to receive a lot of publicity as America’s first envoy to head the embassy in Jerusalem. Even before the establishment of the state, America had a consulate in Jerusalem but never an embassy until the present administration.
However, when it comes to diplomatic brinkmanship vis-à-vis Jerusalem, Guatemala tops every other country, even though its embassy in Israel’s capital was opened a couple of days after that of the US.
However, Guatemalan Ambassador Mario Bucaro, who has among the many framed documents on the embassy’s walls a letter of greeting from Jerusalem Mayor Moshe Lion, proudly points out a sentence that states that Guatemala was the first country to open an embassy in Jerusalem following the declaration of the establishment of the state, and the first country to return to Jerusalem.
In fact, there are a lot of firsts attached to Guatemala in its relationship with Israel.
Bucaro is his country’s 21st ambassador to Israel, but the first to serve in Jerusalem in the second millennium. He is also a first -time ambassador, having come from careers in academia, law, social welfare, commerce and international mediation and reconciliation.
The soft-spoken Bucaro, who is an Evangelical, grew up hearing about Jerusalem, and always wanted to come to Jerusalem. When that opportunity presented itself, “it was like a dream come true. I feel privileged to show it can be done.”
From the 11th floor of his office in the Malka Technology Park, Bucaro has a magnificent, broad panoramic view of Jerusalem. Although he lives in Herzliya Pituah together with most of the other heads of diplomatic missions and senior diplomatic personnel, he loves coming to Jerusalem every day, although his work often takes him to many other parts of the country.
He delights in the fact that since the embassy’s return to Jerusalem, 45 Guatemalan municipalities have signed friendship agreements with 16 Israeli cities, and more such agreements are on the way. Up until the embassy’s return to Jerusalem, there were no such agreements. Agreements have also been signed with the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and with voluntary organizations such as ZAKA, Israel’s premier rescue and recovery organization that has achieved an enviable reputation around the globe.
Bucaro strongly believes in the mutual benefits of bilateral voluntary exchange groups so that people in both countries can learn from each other, and he is working toward signing up many volunteers in different spheres. There are already 2,000 volunteers in Guatemala who are waiting to come to Israel, he says.
In addition, Guatemala has also signed a tourism agreement with Israel that includes Guatemalans working in their country’s hospitality industry to come to Israel to teach Israelis working in small hotels how to give good service. This is one of Guatemala’s specialties, says Bucaro.
ANOTHER AGREEMENT that will go into effect in January is for the teaching of Spanish in Israeli schools by certified teachers of Spanish. Several Israeli schools already have Spanish as an optional subject, says Bucaro, but now Guatemala is going to help in upgrading Spanish lessons by testing Israeli teachers and certifying them if they pass the grade.
Guatemala is very much an agriculture-oriented country which owes much of its progress to farmers being trained by Israel’s MASHAV Agency for International Development.
Now, what they learned is about to be returned during Israel’s shmita year, when Israeli fields are supposed to lie fallow.
The ultra-Orthodox Jewish community in Israel is strictly observant when it comes to shmita and is wary of eating Israeli produce in a shmita year in case the fruit and vegetables came from a Jewish-owned farm, and not one owned by non-Jews.
Bucaro became fascinated with shmita soon after his arrival in Israel, and after learning what he could from religious authorities and people at the Agriculture Ministry, has arranged for Guatemala to export fruit and vegetables to Israel to meet shmita needs in 2022-2023
Guatemala, which is one of the world’s largest exporters of fruits and vegetables, has a huge variety of each, so people who observe shmita can be well-supplied, he says.
Meanwhile, since the embassy’s return to Jerusalem, cardamom, which is one of Guatemala’s major exports, has shown a remarkable increase throughout the whole of the Middle East. Cardamom exports to the region have grown by 43%, which Bucaro says proves that moving to Jerusalem has not had a negative effect on trade relations.
Guatemala is currently in the process of finalizing a free-trade agreement with Israel. This will be the first such agreement between the two countries. Israel and Guatemala have strong historic ties that go back to Guatemala being a leading advocate in the United Nations for a resolution on the partition of Palestine that led to the establishment of the State of Israel. However, for some odd reason, these did not extend to twin-city or free-trade agreements until the embassy returned to Jerusalem.
Among the various items displayed in Bucaro’s office is a thick volume in an antique, well-worn cover, which might well be regarded as Guatemala’s diplomatic bible insofar as its relations with Israel are concerned.
The book contains the handwritten reports of all of Bucaro’s predecessors. The handwriting is beautifully legible, and the reports detail achievements, challenges and visions for the future. Among the most optimistic of these is the report of Francisca Fernandez Hall Zuniga who was the first woman to graduate from the University de San Carlos de Guatemala, the first woman in all of Central America to earn an engineering degree, the first woman to be accepted into the Instituto Militar de Engenharia of Brazil, and the first woman to serve as an ambassador for Guatemala. She came to Israel in 1956 as a charge d’affaires, but was upgraded to ambassador while serving here.
Bucaro regularly reads this book to gain inspiration for his future activities.
IN VIEW of his experience in mediation and conflict resolution throughout Central America, which has experienced long and often brutal civil wars, Bucaro was asked whether he could offer any guidance to Israel and the Palestinians. He can, and is most willing to help. One of the most important things he says, is for negotiations to take place outside the region in neutral territory acceptable to both sides. The mediator who must also be neutral, should draw up a contract which is to be discussed but not imposed. Sometimes an external, neutral person can see things that are either beneficial or detrimental to both sides in the negotiations that neither might be able to see for themselves. He would try to help both sides to find a solution, but underscores that the solution to be reached must be one that the two sides decide on by themselves.
He is convinced that taking the case outside the region would be a good starting point for the resumption of peace negotiations.
Prior to coming to Israel, Bucaro was deeply involved in projects for the care and protection of vulnerable children – orphans, refugees and excluded people.
The best way to help them he says, is to give them education. It is a tool that they can always use to move forward.
He also loves to teach, and in fact has been invited by one of Israel’s colleges to teach a class.
Education within the embassy is also related to his love of teaching. Among other things, diplomacy requires familiarity with foreign languages. As various members of the embassy have served in other countries, they have picked up different languages along the way, and a certain period of daily group meetings within the embassy is devoted to a different language each day, with each person present doing the best they can in Spanish, Hebrew, English, French and Mandarin. In what Bucaro calls the situation room, they also discuss issues such as family, religion, economy, communications, art and government on the basis of information, recommendation and execution.
“It’s all about who we are and who we want to be,” says Bucaro.
Whenever he has free time, which is rare, Bucaro loves to read and is especially interested in reading about Jewish roots in Guatemala from the period of Christopher Columbus onward. There are a lot of people descended from Converso families in Guatemala, he states, and suspects that he too may have Jewish roots on his mother’s side of the family, because of her surname Flores, which is a common Spanish-Jewish surname.
In fact, the Jewish surnames that emanated from Spain hint of a person’s Jewish ancestry.
Bucaro is also ambassador to Cyprus and Bulgaria, and travels to one of these countries every month, alternating between them each month.
When he is in Israel, he and his wife, Carina, enjoy being invited to Shabbat and other Jewish holy day meals, where they not only partake of traditional Jewish foods but also learn about Jewish religious customs.
At home, his favorite food is shakshuka, a local pan-fried egg and tomato delicacy, which he likes to eat for breakfast.
If he is so enamored with Jerusalem, why is he living in Herzliya?
The answer is simple. That’s where his children Devora, 15, and Mario Jr., 7, go to school along with other children from Spanish-speaking countries.
Other than that, he would be more than happy to have his residence in the capital along with his embassy.
Speaking of the embassy he declares: “If we can do it, anyone can do it.”