At Home with THe Pastranas
Ambassador of Colombia Andrés Pastrana and his wife Nohra Pastrana settle into diplomatic life as well as their historic home
Photographed by Gary Landsman Styled by Barbara Mc Conaghy | Text by Christina Wilkie
Since October of 2005, the historic Thomas F. Gaff House on 20th Street N.W., has been the residence of an historic "first" couple in the Washington diplomatic corps: the former president and first lady of Colombia, now Ambassador and Mrs. Andrés Pastrana. The architects, Bruce Price and Jules Henri de Sibour, set out to create an American rendition of an early 17th century manor house, and the finished product marries grand Victorian proportions with an abundance of light and open spaces. Recently, the ambassador and his wife invited WL into their exceptional home, and spoke candidly about public service, life in Washington, and the future of the U.S.-Latin American relationship. Nohra and Andrés Pastrana were both born into powerful Colombian families with long traditions of public service. The Ambassador's father, Misael Pastrana, was president of Colombia from 1970-1974, and his son recalls that, "From the time I was a child, I loved to travel with him, because it was my way of getting to know the real people and the country." By the age of twenty-six, Andrés had been elected to the city council of Bogota, marking the beginning of a career that would encompass sixteen years in elected office and five elections to four different positions, culminating in the presidency, which he held from 1998-2002.
Nohra's childhood was characterized by her hands-on approach. "When I was about ten, I started a little escuela (school) on our farm," she says, "and I would teach the farmers' children whatever I had learned at school that day. I loved it, and that is probably when I really began caring about the social condition." Together, the Pastranas have devoted their lives to ending the cycle of narcotics, corruption, and civil strife that have ravaged Colombia since the 1950's. In a country where public officials have lived in fear of assassination by the drug cartels, the Pastranas have not only survived, but have played a critical role in leading their country toward peace and prosperity.
Andrés and Nohra met in 1980, in Cartagena. "Nohra was good friends with my brother, the youngest one," recalls Pastrana, "and I was a very good friend of the famous bullfighter Pablo Molinarez, so we all went to one of his bullfights…We had our first date in a bullfighting stadium." The couple, who will celebrate their twenty-fifth anniversary this month, have three children, Santiago, 23, a law student in Madrid; Laura, 21, a student at Babson College outside of Boston; and Valentina, 9, who attends the Sidwell Friends School in Washington. On the morning of January 19, 1988, Andrés Pastrana, then the leading candidate for mayor of Bogota, was kidnapped at gunpoint by drug lords and held for eight days before being released. Later, he won the election by a landslide. When asked how he found the inner strength to continue to struggle against the cartels, Pastrana says, "If we don't fight them they're going to be the ones who run our country. This has been my commitment, after all the threats, after the kidnapping: it is to show Colombians and the rest of the world that we are committed in this war against the cartels."
This extraordinary commitment takes on new meaning as the couple describes their daily life at the height of Andrés' political career. "When I was mayor of Bogota I would receive four or five death threats every day, and during my presidential campaign I remember having to wear a bulletproof vest the entire time. And during my presidency, I believe we uncovered ninety-seven plots to kill me," he says, at which point his wife reaches across the sofa to pat him on the hand. "Ninety-eight, dear," she says gently. He nods, adding, "We're going to win this war. We, the honest people, will win it. That's where you find the strength."
The Pastranas approach their mission with appropriate seriousness, given Colombia's status as the third largest recipient of U.S. foreign aid in the world. The bulk of this aid is used to fund a long-term anti-narcotics effort called Plan Colombia, and one of Pastrana's most important tasks as ambassador will be to maintain bipartisan Congressional support. If anyone can negotiate a win-win deal, it is Andrés Pastrana. "We're working side by side with the U.S., and we will find bipartisan support in Congress because we share the same goals."
This is not the case in a large portion of Latin America, where diplomatic relations with the United States have been deteriorating steadily over the past four years, mainly as a result of the dramatic shift in U.S. foreign policy after 9/11. The recent elections of populist leaders like Hugo Chavez in Venezuela and Evo Morales in Bolivia have exacerbated this rift, leading some scholars to go so far as to suggest that free market capitalism may have failed across much of the continent. Ambassador Pastrana openly disagrees with this assessment. "What a lot of people don't realize is that although many countries in the region may not have grown as much as we wanted last thirty years, the specific reasons for this are unique to each country. Unfortunately, populism is winning in the region, which is why we need even more investment in the social welfare of the people–I think that's going to be the long-term solution for South America." If the Ambassador's prediction proves correct, his wife is already ahead of the game. Investment in social welfare has long been one of Nohra Pastrana's highest priorities, and to this day, millions of Colombian citizens continue to benefit from her humanitarian work. As first lady, she was an early proponent of the concept of corporate social responsibility, and in 2000 she orchestrated an unprecedented collaboration between Colombia's largest companies and its federal and local governments to found a national Children's Day, which continues to be celebrated every year on the last Saturday in April (This year it is on April 25). Nohra Pastrana's most rewarding accomplishments include founding a mobile system of "ludotecas" (toy libraries)–vans which travel the Colombian countryside sharing donated games and toys with rural children who might otherwise never encounter modern pastimes. "This program is very important to me," she explains, "and it has spread to other countries, so it's vital that I continue to work on it, and that I find a way in Washington to promote it and to share it with others."
Señora Pastrana is also looking forward to expanding her philanthropic hor izons. "It's crucial that we continue to find new programs for our country, for example, one that we call "Computadores para Educacion" (Computers for Education) that came from Canada has been a great success. It's very important for me to find programs like that in the United States to take back to Colombia." True to her word, dur ing the past five months Nohra has become involved in a number of local philanthropies, serving on the committees of the Phillips Collection and CARE Foundation galas while also maintaining the Colombian Embassy's long-standing relationship with the Washington National Opera. Reflecting upon the positive aspects of public life, she says, "What I have really loved is to be able to work with people who need help," adding, "Andrés and I complement each other in that we really do like to work for the same thing."
The Pastranas agree that their most important job has been raising their three children. As Nohra explains, "No matter how important your job, work is a fleeting thing in life, whereas your children are your eternal legacy." The entry hall of the residence filled with beautiful candid family photographs clearly reflects their priorities.
After four years in Madrid, the Pastranas are enjoying becoming part of the Washington community. The Ambassador says, "Conversations here are always so interesting and, thanks to our former positions, when we go to restaurants now we often run into old friends, and that's really nice." If you'd like to run into them check out ex-pat favorites like Café Milano, Citronelle, and Maestro…
Unlocking Colombia's scenic wealth
One of Ambassador Pastrana's goals is to strengthen Colombia's tourism industry, which has been growing steadily over the past ten years. Bogota, the nation's capital, is a cosmopolitan city to rival any on the continent, filled with skyscrapers, luxury hotels, and beautifully dressed residents.Stay at the Hotel Morrison, in the city's upscale Zona Rosa, and dine at La Fragata, one of the city's best restaurants, situated atop the Bogota World Trade Center.
A short, inexpensive flight northeast of the capital lies the stunning Caribbean coast, where cobblestoned Spanish Colonial ports give way to white sand beaches. Fifty minutes by speedboat from the main coastal city of Cartagena lay the Islas Rosario, a tropical island atoll surrounded by virtually untouched coral reefs. The Hotel San Pedro de Majagua, on Isla Grande is a first rate ecoluxury resort, where guests enjoy individual bungalows, scuba diving, and day-trips to tiny paradise islands. Security precautions while in Colombia resemble those required of travelers in any Latin American country–travelers should practice common sense, and stay out of the deep jungle.
Getting there: The Colombian national airline, Avianca, offers numerous daily flights from Miami to all four of the country's largest cities, and the cost is approximately $350 for a roundtrip ticket, which varies according to the city and the season. High season in Colombia is November to January, and it is recommended you use a travel agent to plan travel within the country.