If you’ve been following the news lately, you may know that the Falkland Islands held a referendum from March 10 – 11, 2013, to decide if the Islands should remain a British territory.
What you may not know is that a GW alumnus was on hand during the referendum, as part of an international observation team.
Juan Manuel Henao, ESIA BA ’01, served as Deputy Mission Director for the Referendum International Observation Mission (RIOM) in the Falkland Islands. He helped prepare the Islands for an observation team that included representatives from Canada, the U.S., Mexico, Brazil, Uruguay, Chile and New Zealand.
The Falkland Islands, an archipelago near the tip of South America, are internally self-governing, with the United Kingdom being responsible only for matters including defense and foreign affairs.
During the referendum, Falkland Islanders were asked if they wanted to continue their status as an Overseas Territory of the United Kingdom, in response to Argentina’s call for negotiations on the islands’ sovereignty.
How is such a process monitored? Enter Henao and the RIOM team.
“This mission was important because it opened the referendum process to the world,” explains Henao. “Having impartial external observers in referendums and electoral processes helps the international community understand what takes place, and more importantly, if the process is free and fair.”
Henao was tapped for the position of Deputy Mission Director by Canada in December 2012. A few weeks later, he was in Port Stanley, the capital of the Islands, to meet local referendum officials, Members of the Legislative Assembly and other key decision-makers.
Ottawa-based non-profit CANADEM managed the referendum. CANADEM advances international peace and security through the rostering, rapid mobilization, and mission management of experts committed to international service.
Henao and his team worked to ensure that everything was in place for the international observers.
“The Islands have one bank, one internet/cable company, one printing company, two small hotels, and one flight per week from Chile to its capital,” says Henao. “These limit your ability to pay for services and arrange for travel to/from the islands. We really had to be on the ball to get things just right, especially with Delegates arriving from New Zealand.”
If you’re wondering how Henao found his way to the Falklands, among other places, he credits GW for starting his career.
“I was very fortunate to join the executive branch as a political appointee in 2001,” says Henao. “Had I not attended GW, I would not have developed the contacts that got me there. It was my first real break.”
Since that first job, Henao has gotten a law degree and joined an international non-govermental organization (NGO), IRI, where he managed democracy and governance programs throughout Latin America.
Henao lived in Mexico and Venezuela for IRI, and he traveled to Central and South America often.
“It was there that I truly began to understand the inner workings of developing democracies and the complicated issues communities face when organized crime, poverty, inequality and weak rule of law systems collide,” he explains.
Henao continues to learn from his work. During the referendum, he was moved by efforts of officials to ensure everyone got to vote. “Land Rovers and airplanes took static and mobile polling stations to the most remote areas of the Islands, some to places where only three people live,” he says.
But these experiences are all part of Henao’s GW story. “As an alum, I’m part of an international community of experts that work hard every day to innovate and improve people’s health, living standards and political processes,” Henao says.
Henao also gets to see some amazing sites along the way, including Volunteer Point in the Falklands Islands, “where visitors walk among thousands of penguins,” he says. “My favorite, the King Penguin, is one beautiful dude.”
For those who want to pursue a similar career path, Henao’s advice is to work for a development NGO. “The experience will help broaden your views on international issues,” he says.