By Doug Gray, Senior Contributing Reporter
RIO DE JANEIRO – This week marks the arrival of Paula Walsh to head up the UK’s Rio office as Tim Flear, the outgoing Consul General, leaves after four years in the post. After a handover week which began under testing circumstances with the events at the Intercontinental Hotel in Sao Conrado on the Saturday, she formally assumed the post on Monday.
A student of Biochemistry, Walsh previously worked at British Gas before joining the Foreign Office in 1998, since when her posts have included that of Commercial Officer in Argentina, involving several visits to Brazil for the Rio Oil and Gas Expo.
Her experience will prove crucial at a time of huge interest in that industry here, and as part of a busy Spring calendar she will receive no fewer than 75 British companies for this year’s edition taking place later this month.
From a wider perspective however, the position comes with enormous challenges and responsibilities with the burgeoning political and commercial relationships between Brazil and the UK, links made more explicit with the handing over of the Olympic Games from London to Rio.
“It is a real opportunity to strengthen the links between the two countries and the benefits that (they) can get from each other,” she said in her first interview since arriving. “We tick two of the boxes for the new government; one is the emerging economies, and the other is trade and investment, which is obviously key to our relationship here in Rio and in São Paulo.”
As a statement of the new coalition government in London’s intent in Brazil, the Secretary of State for Business, Vince Cable, has made Brazil his first independent port of call since coming to power, and as Tim Flear noted, that in itself is certainly significant;
“He’s not going to China, he’s not going to Russia and he’s not going to the United States, he’s coming to Brazil,” he said. “What we are arguing for is the new Foreign Secretary William Hague to visit Brazil, which could act as a precursor to Prime Minister David Cameron coming.”
That the forthcoming elections here will see a new President by the end of the year also means that the two countries have new leaders going forward, both with four year mandates and a clear chance to create a strong relationship.
And with Brazil hosting the two biggest events in world sport either side of the UK (with England currently favorites to host the 2018 World Cup), the potential to exploit the unique opportunities that accompany such events are clearly a priority for the new coalition government.
An accord has already been signed to formalize the sharing of ideas and experiences of hosting The Games, but the ties will also run from business opportunities, environmental impact planning, and even the possibility of London 2012 selling the ‘removable’ basketball arena being built in East London to Rio 2016 as is currently being discussed.
The Brazilian market has become an attractive one to British business, while more and more Brazilian companies also seek to establish themselves in Europe. “One of the statistics that really struck me before I came was that the increase in British companies’ interest here in Brazil has gone up 500 percent over the last three years”, said the new Consul General.
Asked how she found arriving in her new home city with the news carrying images of a morning shootout between police and gang members in the streets of São Conrado, Walsh was matter of fact. Rather than shocked, she was impressed by the consulate’s swift work to confirm the absence of any British people held hostage, and the successful implementation of the all important network of advisers that made the information quickly available.
Tim Flear was also keen not to go overboard on the subject, saying; “We need to observe this situation in a pretty objective manner and from the accounts we have seen and our knowledge of what occurred it was a pretty random, non-targeted incident of violence, and what it wasn’t was an attack on a tourist hotel.”
“I think anyone who knows anything about Rio will realize that what it doesn’t represent is a signal of a downturn towards wider violence in the city. That’s just not a realistic assessment.”
Flear returns to England for three months leave and then, clearly a lover of Rio, hopes to continue to be involved in the links between the two countries in the lead up to The Games.
His replacement, meanwhile, takes over at a truly important time for both countries, and she looks to be relishing the responsibility. The four-year position should take her right up to the World Cup, by which time, all being well the presence of British companies in Brazil will have increased even further.