Gregorio Belaunde

Gregorio Belaunde: French-Peruvian and a Little Bit Armenian

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YEREVAN — Gregorio Belaunde, a French and Peruvian national born in 1961 in Paris, is an Independent International Risk Management Consultant. He graduated with a degree in law in France (1979-1982) at Université Paris 2. He holds a master’s degree in international and European law from Université Paris 2 (1983), and an additional Post-Graduate degree (DEA) in Private International Law and International Trade and Finance Law, from Université Paris 1 (1984). Then he also graduated in law in Peru. He has had more than 20 years of experience in banking with the Credit Lyonnais Group in Hong Kong. Returning to Peru end 2005 he first was the Head of the Credit Risk Supervision Department in the SBS, the Peruvian financial and insurance regulator. Between 2012 and 2016, he was the director of the Risk Management Directorate in the Ministry of Economy and Finance of Peru. In early 2017, he began a new career as international consultant, moving first to Switzerland, and then in February 2022, he established his base in Yerevan, where he continues the same work.

Gregorio, in this conversation I would like to discuss on your Armenian heritage and your activities in Armenia.

While I was based in Geneva, I was working for around five institutions including one part of the UN. But I was mainly working for two multilateral development banks, and my contracts rapidly started to concern mainly Armenia on one hand (what is funny: when it began my Armenian background was not even known, I just applied for an opportunity and I was chosen due to my overall professional background), and then the work continued.

Whether in Armenia, where more of my activity takes place (and also more recently in Georgia), or in West Africa, I work mainly providing technical assistance in a rather little-known field of public financial management, managing risks which can derail the state budgets. I had already done this in Peru. I had a consulting contract under a system first created with the help of the United Nations Development Project and aimed at attracting more talent into the State, which became part of the recruiting system for high level cadres. So, I continued in the same fields when my wife and I had to return to Europe for family reasons, and we just moved to Armenia, when I continue with the same activities for the two same multilateral development banks, including trips to West Africa.

What interests do Latin American states have in Armenia?

Two countries in Latin America have a sizeable Armenian community compared to their overall population: Argentina, from where a well-known ethnic Armenian hails (Karas Wines is a brand developed by his group) and Uruguay, the first country in the World to explicitly recognize the Armenian Genocide. Those two countries have a special bond with Armenia, even if the Armenians there, are mainly heirs to the survivors of the Genocide, so they come mainly from regions from the former Western Armenia and from what is now Syria. Brazil also has a sizeable ethnic Armenian minority for the same reasons. The interest Latin American countries have, or can have, more than trade per se, is reciprocal tourism, together with exchanges in the culinary field, Armenia being a fantastic place in terms of cuisine, like several countries in Latin America, notably Peru and Mexico. And you may know that Argentina, Uruguay and Brazil have excellent beef. Latin American countries are essentially Christian and for them to discover the first Christian nation in history can be extremely interesting, apart from visiting Jerusalem and nearby places. Another factor is that other countries of Latin America also have, like Armenia, very old civilizations, and peoples who continue to keep alive those old traditions: it is notably the case of Peru, Bolivia and Mexico. There is this increasing sense that having indigenous peoples who have survived in spite of very disruptive invasions is something we have in common.

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For example, I had the opportunity to meet there a famous football coach called Sergio Markarian, quite popular in Peru, and his family who had come from Uruguay to visit him; his son was like me very fond of history. The funny thing is that sometimes I used the case of this coach to explain to Peruvian people, what Armenia is and who Armenians are, because the ignorance in Peru about the subject is almost absolute. I know there are also are Armenians in Venezuela, the country of this military adventurer De Nogales, who fought in the Ottoman side, but was shocked by the treatment of the Armenians by the Turks and it is in his memoirs, where he quotes a famous Ottoman official saying that all Armenians had to be annihilated. I noticed that many Venezuelan journalists mention the Genocide as an obvious thing. And in Chile there are also some. And of course, in Mexico, even if not as much as in the US and Canada. In Bolivia and in Paraguay there certainly are some, because those 2 countries have recognized the Genocide.

 Your second surname is Matossian. For many Diaspora Armenians their ancestors’ history is lost. What can you tell us about the Armenian side of your family?

Exactly, in Peru, as in all Spanish-speaking countries we keep by law the maternal surname, so in Peru, there are eight Belaunde Matossians (four boys, four girls), of whom I am the eldest. In our case, our sense of Armenian inheritance was not lost at all. Our Armenian maternal grandfather, Nichan Matossian, came to visit us in Peru with our French grandmother when I was 4 years old, and I began asking lots of questions from my mother about Papik, who spoke excellent French with a slight accent. And my mother told me her father’s family history. That my grandfather came from a city called Aleppo, that he lived in a country called Turkey with another religion which had kings like France before, but called Sultans, who were also emperors (like the Incas) because they had conquered many lands and their empire was called Ottoman. That long ago there were good Sultans who were friendly to Christians, but after some time they became very bad, and one day they decided to kill all the Armenians. His father, Ohanes, had been killed in front of all the family with other Armenians, and the rest of the family survived because after that, the “bon Gouverneur” (the good Vali) who was furious about those killings told the Armenians of the city, you must escape or go in hiding because those who now rule the Empire want to kill all the Armenians. Later on, I discovered that the name of that Vali was Mehmet Celal Bey, that he had saved many Armenians in two cities. It was the first time that I also heard the word “million.” My Papik, born in 1897 came back to Peru again for another long stay when I was a teenager, and he passed away in 1978; he didn’t like to speak about the Genocide, so it was always my mother, Hélène, who did the talking on the subject. He used to say that “we Armenians are the smartest people of the world but we are always divided by politics.” I also learnt that one of his brothers, Mihran, had died of typhus in a concentration camp where we tried to give food to Armenians, and that another one, Stepan, survived by a miracle after an almost deadly beating, and escaped execution thanks to a legal trick used by that Vali. I have seen photos of his mother Takouhi, and of his brother Levon, and of three of his sisters, one of them was named Arshaluys.

I also learnt a few years ago a well-guarded family secret, that even her daughters (my mother, who died young in 1984, had two younger sisters, Astrig and Anik, whom I continue to see frequently in France) learned from his Armenian friends and an Armenian priest sometime after his passing, that he actually survived by miracle a mass-shooting, because one night he was captured when he was with friends he was trying to help evade certain death in Aleppo concentration camps. He was fully covered by corpses and by their blood and he didn’t move an inch. The priest told my aunties that he could not talk about that without tears. I know that people with such experiences often have survivor’s guilt.

My Papik had an uncle in Diyarbakir, Sarkis (Ohanes’ brother), but nobody knew what that happened to him and his family.

In France, as a student, I discovered thanks to one of my aunties other Armenians, more about Armenian culture (my mother had some dishes unknown in Peru, a beautiful icon with the Virgin and the Child, and always wanted incense in her room), the Armenian mass which I found much more beautiful than Western mass. Auntie Anik had even learnt some Western Armenian in University in France. The language was not transmitted in the family because my grandfather who had survived the Genocide, but only went to France around 1930 due to a fatwa (he was member of a group defending Christian rights in Syria and he was friendly to the French authorities), had to travel a lot while working in Guadeloupe (French Caribbean), where he married my grandmother (who was never able to learn another language) and he spoke excellent French himself. He actually was also fluent in Ottoman Turkish, Arabic and German; and he also spoke English while young, he was preparing to study International Relations in Europe when the War broke out.

I also discovered members of another branch of the family who had migrated to Egypt in the 1880s, and then left because of Nasser. They all fondly remembered my mother. One of them was an old lady married to a Swiss diplomat, who told me a lot about the family history (hailing from Tokat, originally). A daughter of one of her brothers who lived in Spain, who is my age, also ended up marrying a Peruvian, like my mother. Kind of a funny coincidence.

The first Armenians were established in Peru already in 1699. Do you know other Peruvians with Armenian roots?

Incredibly enough, I would like to know more about them! In Peru, there are very few people of Armenian extraction. A Peruvian diplomat, when I asked him why Peru did not recognize the Genocide like other countries of the region, told me half-joking, that the Belaunde Matossian brothers and sisters like me were certainly half of the whole community and that Turkey’s soap operas were too popular in the country. But actually, in the French-Peruvian school, I had a classmate whose father was Armenian, a very old man (who set up a reputed clothing business in Lima, and had also married a younger French lady), had escaped as an infant with his father, Gomidas, and the family, of being killed in Smyrna, thanks to the help of Greek friends. He had lived in France where he had a similar business, for a number of years and left for Peru, following the advice of a Peruvian diplomat he had as a customer in Paris. My friend has never come to Armenia yet, we remain in close contact, and he remembers some Armenian words from his father. He has an older sister whom I know as well. We were both interviewed by a Peruvian magazine for the 100th anniversary of the Genocide; I managed to get that magazine editor-in-chief interested in the subject, that he did not know at all about. My son also has a Peruvian friend and former classmate, with a French-Armenian mother; but her mother didn’t like to speak about that subject.

I easily say, either in France or in Peru, that I’m fully both, and that I also have my Armenian identity that I am proud of. And this love for Armenia came through my French-Armenian mother. And my three children have come to visit Armenia already and I have transmitted our Armenian family memory to them. They know that my name, Gregorio, comes from my mother wanting to have her first son named after Gregory the Illuminator, so that’s why my children have all visited Khor Virap as a priority.

Was it your choice to begin to work at your mother’s ancestor’s country?

Totally. Actually, what happened was that one of the multilateral development entities wanted me to come more often to Armenia (I had come many times since November 2017), and for longer stays, and I jumped on the chance to offer to do better than that: to come to live here, and that I could do my other work from Armenia as well.

I had already been thinking for some time of coming to Armenia when that opportunity appeared, especially after the shock caused by the defeat in the 44-Day War. I felt the country was more in danger than ever, and that it was time to do something and come. You know, even small things like making my small contribution to Armenia’s economy through taxes and spending is important to me. I also hope that other people will follow that example. It took some time to materialize, to organize the contract, but also to complete the residence formalities here in Armenia, first for me and then for my wife, who agreed to come with me here (she is French, with no Armenian roots, but she knew mine well, including having known my mother when she was still my fiancée, and knowing my aunties, as well as my friend in Lima when we lived there) and also the exit formalities in Switzerland, where it is better to settle everything straight before leaving. And well, my wife is used to living in other countries as well. She has enjoyed living in Hong Kong, Peru and Switzerland.

How do you describe living in 2020s in Armenia?

When I was coming often here before Covid, the atmosphere was different, as the first large war had been won, there was no sense of danger. Now you feel that sense of danger, but also outrage, every time there is something happening at the border, and it was especially strong during the September 2022 aggression. I was seeing the sadness in the faces of many women and asking myself: how many of them have fathers, boyfriends, brothers, husbands at the dangerous borders? And being an ethnic Armenian while being here, knowing what your own family went through, makes one feel that danger very strongly. While feeling the outrage at the almost universal cynical “both-sideism” even more strongly.

At the same time, at least here in Yerevan, one feels the need to live intensely when it is possible. People go out as much as in Latino countries. And what is amazing is the kindness of the people, I have travelled to many countries, you feel it more than in any other places. The sense of personal safety is also impressive for one used to dangerous cities like Lima or Paris; even Geneva is not that safe, actually; I had not felt that since my times of travelling often to Singapore for work.

The new thing is that since February 2022, one sees much more Russians, but also more Americans. And also, more people from India which reminds me of Hong Kong. I have seen places where you can find plenty of tables with Russians, others with Americans, and all this coexists without problems. That leaves me wondering what a fantastic role Armenia could play in the international arena if only there were not two countries bent on annihilating Armenia and Armenians.

Well of course, since February 2022, rents and many prices have skyrocketed, and we feel the difference. But at least for prices this is happening in most countries. Trouble is that this can increase poverty, as what I have seen sometimes in the countryside. I already know cases of people who could not keep the places they were living in. At least when we arrived it was a flat rented by no one for quite some time; I wouldn’t have liked to be the cause of someone Armenian losing his place.

And there are so many small things that remind us of our life in Peru that one could write a full article about that.

The difference is not speaking the language but some weeks ago, we at last found a teacher who can adapt to our rather chaotic timetable, so there are now things that we can say, understand and read (and even write): “hima, sovorum enk Hayeren” (now we are learning Armenian), and we are very happy about that!

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