Story by Manta Klangboonkrong
Photos by Kaan Suchanin
The new Mexican ambassador to Thailand, Ambassador Bernardo Cordova Tello, sat down with Elite+ at his residence to talk about the cordial and prospering diplomatic relations between Thailand and Mexico, following hospitable welcome by his wife, Adriana Mendez.
This year celebrates 45 years of official diplomatic relations between Thailand and Mexico. How did it start? Did we have unofficial contact before this, and how have relations evolved over the years?
In a very broad sense, the first contacts between Mexico and Thailand occurred in the 16th century, during the Viceroyalty of former New Spain, now Mexico, enhanced by the Trade and Friendship Agreement between the Kingdoms of Siam and Spain established in 1598.
For a long time, links were scarce and focused on commercial affairs. A maritime route that lasted more than 250 years was quite brisk with trade ships known as Nao of China and Manila Galleons carrying goods between the ports of Manila in the Philippines and Acapulco in Mexico. Despite such intense exchanges, contact remained sporadic. It wasn’t until the 20th century, in August 1975, when diplomatic relations were formally established. Our bilateral relations are, therefore, young, but have grown very strong and positive over this rather short period of time, particularly in political and economic terms.
In the last decade, framed by four decades of bilateral diplomatic relations, trade and investment have been rapidly increasing.
Within the nature of Thai-Mexican relations, which sectors are the most prominent and successful?
Mexico and Thailand continue an enriching political dialogue. We share regular bilateral consultations that facilitate interchange in a flexible way with positive results. Furthermore, our countries are engaged in very active regional mechanisms such as the Association of South Eastern Asian Nations (ASEAN), the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Forum (APEC) and the Forum for East Asia-Latin America Cooperation (FEALAC).
I must underline the enriching interactions that our countries keep in the United Nations, where we share positions in many diverse agenda topics such as UN Reform, Disarmament, Human Rights, Gender, People with Disabilities, Indigenous Peoples, Fight Against Organized Crime, candidacies and so forth. In the global economy, the emerging relevance of our countries and our regional leadership, along with gained experience in diverse industrial fields, have set the foundation for increasing our trade and investment, with more exports and investments coming to Thailand as well as my country.
Trade is probably one of the most crucial aspects of our relations. Could you please elaborate on this?
As far as economics, despite our geographical distance, our links, particularly in trade have grown significantly. In the early 1980s, trade did not exceed USD20 million. By December 2018, our trade had taken a great leap and reached the figure of USD6,500 million. It is significant to note that the Mexican-Thai Chamber of Commerce is celebrating its fifth anniversary this year as it contributes to enhancing bilateral exchange.
Figures are important, but I must emphasize that the qualitative value of our commercial relations is more important. Thailand actually ranks thirteenth as a trade partner of Mexico. At the same time, Mexico is Thailand´s most important trading partner in Latin America.
An example of reciprocal investments and successful businesses in our bilateral ties are the presence of companies such as Metalsa, Kidzania and El Charro in Thailand. Mexican exports to Thailand include truck engines, electric transformers, cars and auto parts, steel pipe, smartphone parts, memory units and circuit boards for Thai computers assembly. Thailand exports truck engines, auto parts, computer and printer parts, control units, rice, rubber, cooked shrimp, integrated circuits and natural graphite to Mexico.
Our many similarities help us to upscale the strengths of our economies. Both countries are well known worldwide for the value of our tourism industries. The two countries have an ancient history with relevant cultural, historic and natural heritage, fabulous beaches, modern tourist infrastructure, outstanding gastronomy and leadership in specialized tourism sectors. Mexico is the seventh worldwide Tourism Power while Thailand is ninth. This is a sector in which we can cooperate, learn from each other’s successful policies and increase tourism in both directions.
What are some of the future economic plans between us?
At the end of 2019, Mexico had the eleventh largest export economy in the world and first in Latin America, with exports valued at USD450 billion, which accounted for 42% of Latin American exports.
México provides a wide range of services as well as products, from crude oil, energy, raw materials, food and agriculture products to auto parts, assembled cars, electronics, smartphone parts and aeronautical products.
We are certainly working hard to promote Mexican exports to Thailand, including the best quality agricultural products such as fresh fruit, our world-renowned avocados and honey, to increase our bilateral trade and improve our bilateral trade balance. We also would like to expand the variety of Mexican traditional spirits and beers available in Thailand.
Probably this year, Thailand will submit its application to join the CPTPP (Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership) trade agreement, which currently comprises 11 countries: Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore and Vietnam. After its full incorporation, Thailand should be able to also benefit from this the third largest free-trade bloc in the world, after the USMCA (US-Mexico-Canada Agreement) and the European Union.
Is there a lot of Thai investment in Mexico? What advice would you give Thai entrepreneurs looking for business opportunities in Mexico?
As I mentioned earlier, there are already some important Thai investments in Mexico. We have Banyan Tree hotels in Acapulco and Mayakoba near Cancun, Indorama ventures with factories in three of our states as well as auto parts factories and Thai food restaurants and spas. The most important Thai business in Mexico is PTTEP, which has been conducting two exploration projects in the Gulf of Mexico since 2018.
A group of Thai electronic companies have shown interest in establishing plants or branches in Mexico in order to expand their production and gain more markets inside and outside Mexico, reaching to the US, Canada, EU and the rest of Latin America.
What about cultural collaboration? What are the biggest cultural exchanges between Thailand and Mexico?
Thailand and Mexico have many similarities and much to learn from each other as unique and regional leading cultures.
When the Manila Galleons navigated between our continents, literature, art, people and their clothing, as well as ways of thinking, were shared between our nations. In fact, the galleons carried original crops from Mexico that, today, are a fundamental element of Thai food and Thai identity such as tomatoes, chili and papaya, to name a few. Could you imagine a som tum salad without these ingredients? Absolutely not.
During almost five decades of our official bilateral relations, both countries have made a strong effort to promote our cultures as widely as possible. Mexico has achieved many milestones in that area, by bringing to Thailand renowned Mexican artists in cinema, music, photography, painting and sculpture.
Our aim is to promote a cultural agenda with a calendar of multiple activities throughout the year so we can offer Thai audiences continuous access to the Mexican arts scene and most importantly, to develop a better understanding and appreciation of Mexican cultures and Mexican peoples.
How big is the Mexican community in Thailand? Who are most of them?
The Mexican community in Thailand is not so big but it is very talented. We account for around 300 people, most of them working for transnational companies in leadership positions, offering courses or working in the hospitality sector as managers or chefs, living mostly in Bangkok and other cities.
Do Mexicans have a lot of businesses here in Thailand? What are some of these businesses?
Metalsa, a truck chassis manufacturer located in Rayong, accounts for the most important Mexican investment in Thailand until now. The rest of the Mexican business in Thailand involves entrepreneurship initiatives in fields such as professional consultation and Mexican food restaurants, among others. One interesting project is El Charro Mex-Thai, a company that is well-positioned in the food processing market with Mexican food products such as tortillas, frozen food and other maize-based products. Also, Kidzania, an entertainment childhood centre, originally from Mexico, has a well-positioned branch in one of the main shopping malls in the country.
Thais are becoming more familiar with and fond of Mexican cuisine over the past couple of years. How do you think Thai and Mexican foods are similar or different?
Thai food, as culture, is rice-based, whereas Mexican food comes from the corn-based, western hemisphere, pre-Colombian cultures. Thai cuisine has been strongly influenced by Chinese and Indian food. Mexican food finds its influence in ancient crops and techniques with European, Arab and even African influence dating back through 500 years of Spanish occupation. Mexican food is one of the most popular cuisines in the world, with traditions, flavours and ingredients that have influenced other cuisines in the American region and around the world.
The similarities rely on the relationship our peoples have with food. Mexican and Thai dishes are abundant, diverse, aromatic, colourful and spicy, sometimes very spicy, which cheers-up people and unites families. This is, I believe, the reason why Thai people not only embrace, but adore Mexican food. But maybe the most important similarity is the use of Mexican ingredients. Most people don´t know that many Thai recipes use crops that originally came from Mexico, for example, cacao, vanilla, pumpkin and corn.
Besides food, what other Mexican culture do you wish to promote among Thais?
Mexico has a vast territory. It is one of the 17 Mega-(Bio) Diverse Countries, ranking twelfth in the world with 12% of the world’s diversity spread found in 118 national parks, reserves and sanctuaries.
A world cultural power, Mexico´s heritage registered by UNESCO comprises 27 cultural, six natural and two mixed heritage sites, plus 11 intangible cultural heritage items such as Michoacan Paradigm Traditional Cuisine, the Day of The Dead Indigenous Festivities, traditional music of Jalisco and pottery making of Puebla.
Mexico actively promotes the friendly character of the Mexican people, our history and traditions, cheerful music and colourful clothing, indigenous costumes, knowledge and languages beyond our official language, which is Spanish, as well as our over one thousand state-of-the-art museums.
From modern Mexico, we promote outstanding architecture and design, prime urban destinations, the quality of our higher education and the relevant talent in every existing field of contemporary art. We are proud of Mexico’s world-famous citizens such as the Literature Nobel-Laurate Octavio Paz as well as the writer Carlos Fuentes, visual artist and activist Francisco Toledo, global sports stars exceptional filmmakers, among which Alejandro Gonzalez Iñarritu, Guillermo del Toro and Alfonso Cuarón have honoured Mexico with eight Oscar Awards and dozens of film award nominations.
What about tourism? Please give us some numbers of Thais visiting Mexico, and vice versa.
Among the world´s top tourist destinations of 2019, Thailand welcomed 39 million tourists and Mexico 45 million. For both countries, the tourism sector is very important as one of our main sources of income.
In April last year, Mexicans were included in the selected list of nationalities that can apply for a Thailand Visa on Arrival, or VOA. This has encouraged more Mexican tourists to visit Thailand, the number now almost 30,000. On the other hand, the number of Thai visitors to Mexico in 2019 was under 4,000. For this reason, our embassy is working very hard to promote Mexican destinations among potential Thai visitors.
Although Thai citizens need to apply for a Mexican visa, I can assure you that this procedure is easy, fast and not expensive. Thais can access a 6-months Multiple Entry Visa. As an additional benefit, Thai nationals who hold a valid multiple-entry visa to either the US, Canada or Schengen Space, are exempt from needing a Mexican visa.
What do Mexicans like about Thailand? And from your knowledge, what do Thais do when in Mexico?
Mexicans find a friendly environment in Thailand, in which the everyday life provides them with a familiar-yet-exotic scenario. They find food diversity, a purchase parity that can be compared to that of Mexico, urban attractions and natural sites. In recent years, a wider young sector is coming from our country, seeking the Thai experience in higher education, temporary jobs or even long-stay tourism. Also, our visitors take Thailand as a platform to visit other countries in the region such as Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar.
Thai travellers who go to Mexico are attracted by all its dimensions. They are surprised by all the options that Mexico has to offer to its visitors with our prime services accessible to all budgets. Our gastronomic regions, wide climatic and landscape diversity, historical sites and the charm of our colonial cities where the cultural richness in traditions, architecture and heritage is impressive.
Looking to the future, what can we expect to see in Thai-Mexican relations?
Despite all the opportunities in trade, investment, tourism and education, knowledge of Mexico in Thailand and vice-versa needs to be improved. Our embassy will continue to focus on strengthening our bilateral relations in multiple dimensions by promoting Mexico so all can benefit from what Mexico has to offer and share.
You were previously posted in Turkey. How did you feel when you were to be moved to Bangkok? How familiar were you with Thailand then?
As a diplomat from Mexico performing various functions, mainly in the fields of bilateral and multilateral policy, Thailand is the eighth country where I have lived in 38 years of my professional career, while this is the first time I have lived in Asia. When I received the proposal to come to Bangkok, my response was positive because I know the value of Thailand in particular and that of Asia in general. The economic and political importance of Asia for Mexico is enormous, and it will continue to increase as all the countries of the Pacific basin are accelerating their presence in the international arena.
When I learned I would be posted to Thailand, I had conversations with the Thai ambassador in Turkey who offered me various Thai publications. I also spoke with friends, all of them Mexican diplomats, who gave me valuable comments and recommendations. Now, my knowledge of Thailand is enriched day by day because of my interactions with government representatives, businesspeople and people from the cultural environment. It is a permanent, every day task that motivates me to work towards bringing Mexico and Thailand closer.
How do you enjoy life in Bangkok so far? What do you like to do in this city?
My wife and I arrived in Bangkok a little over three months ago. It has been a short period of time, but very enriching. We feel very good because we have been very well received and the people are very friendly and warm.
We were surprised about the large metropolis that Bangkok has become, both modern and full of vitality. Its cuisine is fabulous and diverse. You can immediately feel it is a true reflection of the rapid growth and positive transformation of Thailand as a country.