The Instituto Cervantes and Cultural Diplomacy

A Conversation with Ignacio Olmos and Romy Brühwiler

October 18th, 2022
Maria Asklund & Emily Ball, News from Berlin
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ICD Interns Maria Asklund and Emily Ball were invited to the Instituto Cervantes in Berlin to learn more about the role of the institute and language courses, how this interacts with cultural diplomacy and the interactions between the Spanish and German cultures.

. The interview took place with Ignacio Olmos, who is currently the executive director of Instituto Cervantes Berlin, and who has dedicated his career to the launching and management of large cultural and academic projects. The interview also took place with Romy Brühwiler, who is the cultural consultant at the Instituto Cervantes and has many years of experience in organising readings, panel discussions, film series, concerts, and festivals, as well as in communicating and collaborating with artists, experts, cultural agents, and various international institutions.

Maria Asklund: First of all, we’d love to know more about the Institute and its history, so our first question would be, how long has the Instituto Cervantes existed in Berlin, and how did it come to be established?

Ignacio Olmos: Well, I would first like to say that Ms Brühwiler and I can both answer, as she is also the cultural consultant and has been here at the Institute since its founding.

Romy Brühwiler: Almost!

IO: Almost, so the Institute has existed generally for 30 years, and here in Berlin for 20 years. It was opened in 2003 by the Spanish Prince and Klaus Wowereit, the Mayor of Berlin at the time. So why Berlin? As we already had an institute in Munich, as well as one in Bremen, but not in the capital, which was also the case with the Spanish language, and therefore we opened it, followed by Frankfurt, and then Hamburg. So now, there are 5 in Germany. 

MA: Interesting!

Emily Ball: So, the next question is how has the Instituto Cervantes changed since then? Are there various elements which are now different from the beginning compared to now?

IO: Well, there are things which haven’t changed, for instance a lot surrounding the nature of the German public, and then things which have changed, for example following the pandemic, we have come to focus heavily on the Spanish language school and language courses online, together with other Cervantes Institutes in Germany, namely offering programmes online for people, wherever they are based in Germany, alongside Austria and Switzerland, and we are… it is one of our primary concerns at the moment, which we had never had to consider before, and that therefore has a lot to do with digitalisation and the pandemic.

MA: With accessibility, for instance?

IO: Yes, exactly. We have seen that of the 83 million residents in Germany, only 7 million live in the 5 places where we have a Cervantes Institute, meaning that the other 75 or 76 million, who may have a question or an interest concerning Spanish language and culture, though do not have access to an institute nearby.

MA: Interesting. So, which role does the Institute play today, would you say? Both in Berlin and Germany?

IO: Well, I would like to think, that [the Cervantes Institute] is a German institution, not only Spanish, but rather an integrated German institution, which is understood in Germany, which works in one institute better than in others, as well as being better in other cities or in other years, but the idea is not only to engage with Culture Politics, where we just say what we want to say, but rather facilitating a dialogue with German writers and intellectuals, alongside seeking to bridge connections between Spanish and Latin-American intellectuals surrounding the themes which are relevant also here in Germany. And in this sense, Cervantes is an institute which is very similar to the Goethe Institut, yet not so comparable with other institutes, which are under the control of the respective governments or foreign offices, such as in multiple countries in Eastern Europe.

EB: So, we are undertaking our internships at the Institute for Cultural Diplomacy, which leads us to ask what the term ‘Cultural Diplomacy’ means for the Instituto Cervantes in Berlin?

IO: Now, I could give a whole lecture about the difference between Cultural Politics, Cultural Diplomacy and Cultural Relations. Culture Politics is what the government does, which has nothing to do with us, but rather what the ministers do and what the culture ministers do inland. Cultural Diplomacy is also connected in some ways to the government and what we usually deem the beautiful Cultural Diplomacy. But it is actually the Culture Politics of the country abroad, which is determined by the respective government and that governs. And, then there are the cultural relations, which are what the Cervantes Institute does, or the Goethe Institute, and that refers to how we seek to really establish a concrete contact with people, one-to-one, and we try to create a relevant dialogue which is beyond a political agenda. And that is the strength of the Goethe Institut or the Cervantes Institute, because everything is naturally connected with credibility.

MA: We’ve looked at your homepage and we saw that you work with Spanish, but also Latin-American culture, and it would intrigue us to learn how it is to work with such a large area, as well as which advantages and disadvantages there are with such work?

IO: With regard to your question, it is a strength of the Spanish language and culture that it is not only spoken in Spain, with only 7% of the Spanish-speaking world actually living in Spain, so there is a clear idea that they are actually in the minority, that means what that is idea of the vanity or the arrogance of the Spanish over their own language has been the way for a long time, fortunately. The good thing is that Spanish is not only spoken in Spain, and this Spanish culture or the Spanish area have the same weight as Greece or maybe Italy or Portugal. More specifically, there are over 500 million Spanish speakers in the world, and Spanish as a language is relatively homogenous. In other words, people from Mexico, Argentina, Peru, Colombia, the Basque Country, Andalucía, and Catalonia can understand each other well, which isn’t the case, for instance, with Chinese and English. But that is of course the wealth of such an enormous set of cultures, as seen in literature also. The literature cannot, for example, be compared with that of France. French literature is not so homogenous, acting as an establishment, holding true as a resistance, surrounded by a whole world of its own. It is hard to define the borders, but Latin-American literature is much more difficult, because of how diverse and creative it is, with varying forms. When the language is homogenous, the way in which people can express themselves, with various worldviews between Argentina to the Basque country for example. Or between Mexico and Andalucía. 

MA: And about these differences, are there difficulties there or is it something positive for your work? 

RB: They are definitely something that can be shown very well. You always have to engage in dialogue between languages, and within the same language. So, the disadvantage in the practical work I would say is that with such an immense richness and these immense opportunities in presenting arts, artists and cultures, and expression that we can only do a small part of it. Every day, I receive 30 cultural proposals and unfortunately, we often have to decline because we only have so much capacity. One could also say that this is one of the disadvantages with this richness of cultures, because one could really look at every single country and find so much there and create relations. But our hands are not enough to give all of this enough time. 

EB: What aspects of Spanish and Latin-American culture do you underline especially in your work? Are they for example historical perspectives or rather literature and civil society? 

RB: Everything. But it does depend on time. Like I mentioned before, since Spain is the guest country at the Frankfurter Book Mass, the focus is very regional and only on Spain, which is very rare, and the focus is on literature as well. Simultaneously, Spain’s appearance in Frankfurt and in all of Germany is not limited to literature but is used to display all other arts. So, on this occasion, we are doing a film-series and a contemporary dance show, but the emphasis is on books and Spain. Earlier this year we had a highly current topic, politically and societal, the rising dangers of populism. In addition, digitalisation, sustainability and how we will work more environmentally friendly in the future, for example in how artists travel. So there are focuses and themes that come towards you and that you pick out at a certain point in time due to a happening or theme of the year. Next year, Spain will hold the presidency for the EU-council for the second half of the year. During that time, European themes will definitely be focused on strongly. 

MA: Continuing, what cooperation is there between politicians, activists, artists and writers in the work of cultural diplomacy? 

IO: Not only is there such work with Spanish and Latin-American writers and artists, but also with German ones, since we want to create a dialogue between the German and the Hispanic world. And this is a very intense work, also with politicians, since we do not understand politics as a fight between different ideas, but as a sociological reality that interests all citizens. In this sense, we also host events with political themes, not from a political perspective or pro and contra, but to touch the themes that are everywhere. Therefore, we also have close contact with German and Spanish politicians. For example, last year we organised a talk with Mario Vargos Llosa and the German Federal President Frank-Walter Steinmeier about cultural politics after the pandemic. 

EB: What role would you say that Spanish and Latin-American culture plays in Germany?

RB: I think it plays a great role. Firstly, there’s a great interest on the German part in the Spanish language, and they are also travel destinations, there’s no question. There are also numerous links on the academic level, on the cultural level, as well as economic ties. Erasmus is surely a program with which many German students go to Spain, it’s a very popular destination. Erasmus is one of the most successful programs for international peace relations. Spain is an important country within Europe and Germany too. Spain also makes an important bridge to Latin America, so that we can be an important meeting point to bring together different actors. Yes, we perceive a great interest. Spanish is strongly developing to be the second modern language in German schools after English. It has long replaced French in this regard. 

MA: We often hear Berlin being described as “multi-culti”. Do you think that Spanish culture is closer to German culture than other cultures?

RB: At least they understand each other well, I think. We have so many Spanish-speaking people in Berlin from different countries that came to Berlin at such different times and that now undeniably affect Berlin's city image. You can see that in all areas, you meet people with Spanish-speaking backgrounds everywhere. I don’t know what you say, Ignacio, if the German and Spanish are closer than the French… historically, probably not. 

IO: I would say that it’s about similarities. In many ways, you call Spain the Prussia of the South, because of the work-ethic and because of the ambitious projects that are made. And the Germans, on their part, are an open people that are really very interested in other cultures and there’s a special love for Spain, not only for the climate-related conditions, but also for the way of life. Also, for the way of managing important relations and the sense of humour and the simplicity of life, that is a big wish. 


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