Jeroen Roodenburg (55) has been our ambassador in Colombia for the past three years. In an interview with VU Magazine conducted at the Dutch embassy in Bogotá, he reflects on his career, the kidnapping of Dutch TV presenter Derk Bolt and his own law studies at the VU.
What is your average work day like?
„As a diplomat, I represent the Kingdom of the Netherlands’ interests in Colombia. I endeavour to increase political, economic and academic cooperation between our two countries. Specifically that means supporting Dutch companies and civil-society organisations in Colombia. For instance, last year my embassy team and I organised a major trade mission from the Netherlands, Curaçao and Aruba, led by Prime Minister Mark Rutte. Obviously it’s also my job to help Dutch nationals visiting Colombia. In addition, the Netherlands is an important partner in the peace process.”
„The situation in some conflict zones isn’t very encouraging.”
„I also travel a lot so that I can get to know Colombia better. It’s a wonderful, multi-faceted country. The situation in some conflict zones isn’t very encouraging and life is hard for the local population. I travel to those places too. That way, we can make sure the voices of the village leaders are heard and take their messages back with us.”
What do you enjoy most about your work?
„Every day I have the feeling that I’m contributing to a better world and I get so much back in return. It’s extremely enriching to be constantly immersed in a different culture and to come into contact with people from all walks of life. If you’re curious, interested and a good listener, then ambassador is the perfect job for you.”
Are there also downsides to your job?
„One of the few downsides is that my family and friends are so far away. Now that my children live in the Netherlands, I don’t see them very often. We’ve got a family WhatsApp group of course, so I keep up to date on what’s happening, but there’s no substitute for personal contact.”
„The kidnapping was pretty nail-biting because you can never predict how a hostage situation will end.”
„A couple of years ago I was ambassador in Bagdad, Iraq. A challenging role in a remarkable country. It was a non-family posting because it was simply too dangerous to live there with my family. Living conditions were pretty spartan. It wasn’t always easy. Unlike here, I couldn’t simply jump on my bike to get me from A to B. Fortunately my children can visit me at my current posting and I also travel home once a year.”
Jeroen Roodenburg in Bogotá
Has any subject given you sleepless nights?
„Yes, the kidnapping of Derk Bolt and his cameraman in June 2017. They were abducted by the Colombian guerrilla movement ELN. That subject occupied us at the embassy day and night. It was helpful that I’d been in the area recently, so I had contact with the local church and the UN. Fortunately the pair were freed unharmed after a week. It was pretty nail-biting because you can never predict how a hostage situation will end.”
Why did you choose to study law at VU Amsterdam?
„I was doubting whether to choose medicine or law and thought that the latter would give me more options. My father – also a VU alumnus – made clear that he’d be delighted if I also chose to study at the VU. I granted him his wish, and it went very well. During my studies I got more and more interested in international issues. In my final year, I first noticed adverts for the diplomatic course. The rest is history.”
„I was one of the many students who would spend a few days before exams locked up indoors cramming to absorb as much information as possible.”
What kind of student were you?
„I was one of the many students who would spend a few days before exams locked up indoors cramming to absorb as much information as possible. Usually I got away with it,” he laughs. Then he adds: “It was partly because I was a member of the VU student association. I also lived in a student club house. After two years without any privacy, I’d had enough. It was the 1980s. When I wanted to visit my parents in The Hague, I would hitchhike there. Those were good times.”
But the VU hasn’t completed vanished from your life. Tell me more!
„That’s right. There are lots of academic exchanges between the Netherlands and Colombia. I regularly organise dinners at my residence for Colombians who have studied at the VU or at other Dutch universities. These graduates [T1] have found jobs in Colombia and that makes them an interesting network that I can rely on to pursue Dutch interests.”
„Graduates are full of praise for the quality of education and social mobility that make the Netherlands so unique.”
„I always enjoy asking graduates about their experiences in the Netherlands. They’re full of praise for the quality of education and social mobility that make the Netherlands so unique. Obviously, the bluntness of Dutch people takes some getting used to. What you see is what you get. They also think it’s strange that you have to plan meet-ups with Dutch people so far in advance. In Colombia, people are more spontaneous about these things. And without exception, during their first week in the Netherlands they all bought a bike.”