From Angola to Macau: Witnessing the Evolution of an Empire

Q&A with Domingo Fezas Vital, Ambassador of Portugal

Name: Domingo Fezas Vital| Age: 58| Hometown: Lisbon, Portugal
Ambassador to the U.S. since: January 2016

Tell us a little bit about yourself. I am the oldest of 5 children. My parents were born and raised in Portugal and after they were married, my father got a job in Angola — three of us kids were born in Angola. In 1975, the whole family moved to Brazil. Living in three Portuguese-speaking but very distinct countries across three continents — Europe, Africa, and Latin America — was very important in my upbringing. I would say that we are a Portuguese-speaking family but with roots in many places and marked with an imprint that comes from the different places and countries we’ve lived in.

So do you consider Portugal or Angola home? Well, that’s difficult to say. I was born in Angola, but at three months old I was already back in Portugal. We went back and forth several times, but I would say that my youth was very much an Angolan youth. From ages 12 to 16, I lived in Angola…and those are important years. That’s when I first fell in love and all that (laughs). I have a big, big family in Portugal — hundreds — and every time I would go back to Portugal and talk with my cousins about my life in Angola, my impression was that their life in Europe was so boring and that what I was doing in Africa was much more exciting than their lives in Europe were. It was the old continent against the realities of something quite different…

Ambassador Fezas Vital as a child in Lisbon. (Pictured on the left in photo on the right.)

What were the main differences between your life in Angola and their life in Portugal? I was freer and much more independent. Their concept of distance was also totally different from mine. For them, going from Lisbon to Porto — a journey of 200 miles — was quite a trip. People would say “farewell” and they would cry! At that time, in the late 60s early 70s, the roads in Portugal were awful and it was really quite the distance. Angola was a big country — 14 times the size of Portugal. So for me, going from one city to another in Angola was just a normal thing.

You mentioned that you moved from Angola to Brazil in ’75. How did that impact you? I was 16 and it was a very, very important experience in my life that influenced my decision-making process and led me to become a diplomat. I have always been interested in international issues. I remember when I was a kid reading the papers and international news and having an understanding that the world was interdependent — that there were links between us all. In 1974, the year leading up to Angola’s independence in 1975, we had the Democratic Revolution in Portugal. That’s when it was decided that the colonial reality at that time didn’t make any sense any longer, and that these countries were entitled to become full sovereign countries.

That’s when the civil war started in Angola between the different political movements. I was a young guy, 15 or 16 years old, and I saw with my eyes for the first time the consequences — the tragic consequences — of conflict, of people fighting each other. With bombs exploding and people shooting at each other, I saw how easy it was to fall into a trap of conflict.

At that young age, I came to learn how important it was to make sure that we value what is positive and what brings us together, instead of the things that put us against each other, and have us fighting each other.

Realizing the awful consequences of people fighting each other at the age of 15 was crucial. After finishing up my studies in Brazil, I moved back to Portugal and joined the Foreign Ministry — I was 25 years old.

Ambassador Fezas Vital presented his credentials to President Obama at the White House in January 2016. Official White House photo.

You’ve had a lot of interesting posts in your career. You were in Macau during the Handover of Macau — tell us about that experience. Moving from Brussels to Macau was quite a change. I didn’t have any prior experience dealing with the Chinese, so I had to learn a lot. This is something I love about diplomacy: the learning process that you’re involved with every day. I learned a lot with the Chinese. They are very tough negotiators and you have to be very patient, which makes the success at the end of the day even more rewarding.

Macau was not a Portuguese colony, so what was handed over to China was the administration of Macau. The last day of the Portuguese administration of Macau was a very, very moving day for me.

It was the last time we saw the Portuguese flag coming down…in a Portuguese outpost. It was, in a way, the end of the Portuguese empire — the end of a period of our history.

It was a very special moment for us, a very special day. Things went remarkably well and the handover of Macau was a big success. The success of the handover has played an instrumental role in positive relations between Portugal and China, because we always have the memory of that process and how well it went. We were friends before and through it became better friends. It was a fantastic experience.

Thinking back on your career what would you say is the most difficult challenge you’ve faced? The last time I was posted in Brussels, I was permanent representative of Portugal to the European Union. The country was going through a very difficult economic and financial period. In 2011–2012, we were negotiating one of the most contentious issues in the European Union — the seven-year budgetary framework. The political agreement ended up being very positive for Portugal and we were extremely happy. One month after everything was signed (we were still celebrating), we were discussing the regulations that would put into practice what had been previously agreed upon by heads of state and government. All of a sudden, to my surprise, I saw that a part of one of those regulations would go against one of the most important things that we had managed to get from the negotiations.

Basically, I had 48 hours to talk to all my colleagues in European capitals, the office of the Prime Minister, and everyone that was involved. After everything erupted and I was trying to figure out what to do, my colleagues in Brussels invited me to a dinner. There are some coincidences that are absolutely amazing. I didn’t want to say no to this dinner…so I went. To my surprise, many of my colleagues whose vote was absolutely crucial for the success of the whole deal had been invited. I was able to talk to them before dinner — and not at the table — to explain why this issue was important for us and it would be tantamount to restarting a negotiation that we thought was absolutely finished and concluded. So in life there are these coincidences that sometimes are instrumental in making sure that things happen one way or another.

I was very happy at the end of that process — all but two Member States voted in favor of my argument. But it was a big, big fight.

This is a silly episode, but at the same time full of lessons: never take things for granted, never take something for absolutely finished and concluded, and never give up.

Having worked so closely with the EU in Brussels, what would you say are the most important things that people should know about the EU? I think that for Americans, they see Europe through their constitutional eyes. They look at us and see we have a Parliament, or Congress; they have states, we have states, they have supranational authorities, we have supranational authorities, so they think, “Why don’t they decide as we do? Why do they take so long to make decisions? Why is it so complicated there?” You tend to see someone else’s reality through your own experience. It’s a big challenge to explain to Americans what makes us different.

In Europe, we realized that we were much stronger if we played together.

Foreign policy starts at home. If we do not sort out all our differences at home (in Europe), we will never be convincing away from home and in our relations with third parties, including the United States.

What do you hope to see the EU accomplish during your time here as Ambassador?

The European Project is an amazing project and an extraordinary legacy for the future: a legacy of peace and prosperity. We are all much better than we were before — and we tend to forget that. What we have achieved in Europe together is just outstanding and we should be proud of that.

In a world that is so interdependent, the more we work together, the stronger we are. And the challenges we are facing these days require us to work together.

It’s absurd to think that any of us European countries would be taken as seriously as we are these days if we didn’t belong to the European Union.

Speaking for my country, it’s very clear that we are much stronger in our relations with other countries, including with Portuguese-speaking countries, because we are a member of the European Union. And this goes for all of us in the European Union. I hope that we do not lose sight of this when we face crises in Europe. It’s normal that you face crises when you are building a thing called “the European Union,” with more and more competences being transferred to that entity. But we should never lose sight of the advantages of being together, and continuing to face the crises together.

What would you say is the most important characteristic or trait that a diplomat needs to be successful? To be open to other realities and other views…because that’s the only way to make sure that you understand the other. For you to pursue your objectives you have to understand and you have to be open. I hate preconceived ideas about people.

What do you enjoy most about your job? You are always learning. I’m very curious…so for someone who is curious, this is a privilege, to be a diplomat.

What are some of your hobbies, passions, or interests? I love music. I love jazz — so this is the perfect place to be. I love classical music, pop music, and going to concerts. I like reading a lot and sometimes it’s difficult to find time to read a book…but these days you have so many good magazines, you know? I love having a drink and watching the sun set from a nice place and I love a good party. Life is not only things that you can anticipate — I love surprises as well. Talking to people and being with people is the best recipe for surprises!

Do you have any favorite magazines? You have many…but I would say Foreign Affairs and The Economist are the two that I read more regularly.

What has surprised you the most about living in the United States and D.C.? Although I had visited the United States several times before, this is my first time being stationed here as a diplomat.

What I love about the United States and the Americans is their curiosity and their openness to other peoples and other ideas.

They are extremely curious. They always want to know more about you and about your country. If you have new ideas, they are always open to listening to them. Washington itself is a very special place because you have this blend of a cosmopolitan place with a big international community and myriad of think tanks everywhere…and you have this capital of the most powerful country on earth! And at the same time, it manages to keep its human dimension. It is a very pleasant place to live, so I have many reasons to be happy.

Ambassador Fezas Vital at the entrance of the Portuguese Embassy in Washington, D.C.

What is something that most people don’t know about you? I love singing and I love theater. I think that this is something that not everybody knows about me. The other thing is that I love napkins. When I am at buffets and at dinners and things like that, I always end up with a napkin in my pocket and my wife has to call our hosts and say “I’m sorry, but Domingo has brought back a napkin again!”. I put them in my pocket and I always forget to give them back before I leave…so sometimes it can get a little bit embarrassing. So if you invite me to a buffet dinner — make sure that you empty my pockets before I leave!

A Tintin figurine adorns a table in Ambassador Fezas Vital’s office.

If you weren’t in the Foreign Service, what would you be? A bookseller. Not an actor, not a singer, but a bookseller. Selling books and having a bookstore is a dream. I would like to have a bookshop with space for travel books, art exhibitions, for people to get together and exchange views about their travel experiences…maybe with a shop as well, selling travel clothing and things like that. Everything to do with traveling — exchanging experiences and stories about traveling. When I think about retiring, this is what immediately comes to mind. I would want to open the bookstore in Lisbon, close to the sea.

You mentioned traveling — what is one place you really want to go that you haven’t been? At a dinner recently, I sat next to someone from Montana. She was very convincing, so after that I started dreaming about going to Montana. I’ve never been to Montana…but I hear it’s beautiful.

If you could only pick one thing to share with Americans about Portugal, what would it be? Our openness. Just after the Democratic Revolution in ’74, between 1974 and 1975, we had to absorb one million people returning from former Portuguese colonies — more than one-tenth of our population of around 9 million at the time. Imagine the United States absorbing 32 million people in one year! You have to be a very open country…and a country that is very quick to adjusting to new social realities. That’s something to be proud of.

Diversity is in our blood. The way we act, the way we react — we are natural bridge-builders.

It’s a very small country, but so diverse. In Lisbon you have the African community, Latin-American community, European community — from Ukraine, Russia — together with people from Cape Verde, Angola…it’s the world in a single country. In all possible senses. You have mountains with snow, you have landscapes that would remind you of places in the United States, you have a beautiful coast with long beaches. It’s a fantastic place and at the same time it’s not a very big country. And it’s so close to the United States! I used to say that we are neighbors across the ocean. The first country we see across the ocean is the United States, and the first country that the United States sees across the Atlantic is Portugal.

Everywhere you go in the world, you find a Portuguese. We’ve been everywhere — we are everywhere.

And we bring this back to Portugal. What we are today and how we’ve been shaped owes a lot to our historic background and the fact that we were the pioneers of globalization and the first global empire in the world. This is in our DNA, in the way we act.

At the same time, the fact that we were a superpower and are no longer a superpower gives us wisdom. In historic terms, that is a big advantage.

We are very proud, but I think that — with exception of this ambassador — we are very humble (laughs).

Ambassador Fezas Vital holds a framed photograph of Portugal taken from outer space, gifted to him by a Portugese astronaut.

Speaking of being proud…what are you most proud of in your life? Of not having given up when giving up was the easiest way. I had several moments in my life — very difficult moments — where giving up, renouncing my objectives, my dreams, was the easiest way. But I decided not to give up. That is what I’m most proud of.

Finally, what advice would you give to young people today?

Never forget that the way you react to people and to events shapes you and the person you will be in the future. It’s very important not to lose sight of that.

This story is part of the @EUintheUS “Ambassador Spotlight Series,” featuring in-depth, personal interviews with ambassadors from the European Union’s 28 member states. Follow our publication and stay tuned for the next story.