WASHINGTON, D.C.– Ask His Excellency, Ambassador Constâncio Pinto about his credentials: He may quietly rattle off a few foreign languages, talk about his book or his degrees from Brown and Columbia Universities.
Ask him about opportunities to strengthen the bilateral relationship through people-to-people programs, and the tenured ambassador’s face lights up.
“My goal is to bring more students here,” he said. “I would like more students – especially those interested in community colleges – to study in the U.S. It is in our interest to bring Timorese students to the United States. The United States offers a high class education and this will benefit people in the long run.”
Few Timorese or Americans,for that matter, can speak about the bilateral relationship from as deeply a personal perspective as Pinto, a father of two and lifelong advocate of Timor-Leste, who spends his days advancing relations between the U.S. and Timor-Leste.
Even fewer are as well-qualified: Educated and trained in the U.S., Pinto is the first Ambassador of Timor-Leste to the United States to reside full-time in Washington, D.C. But, his current tour is not the first time that Pinto has lived in the U.S. or advocated on behalf to Timor-Leste to an American audience.
A self-described accidental diplomat, Pinto joined the struggle to free Timor-Leste as a young man and soldier.He fought alongside other Timorese against foreign invaders only to be captured during the fighting. He escaped prison,and during a trip to Portugal, he saw video footage of a massacre of Timorese that he credits for inspiring him to travel to the U.S. and speak about the atrocities committed against Timorese.
“From then on,I started my own work as an activist and diplomat, meeting with government leaders and pushing for the cause of Timor-Leste. That has not stopped even today.”
He started the movement from Brown as a student and focused his work on political science and development studies. Upon graduating, he intentionally chose the School of International and Public Affairs at Columbia University for its proximity to the United Nations. There, he laid the groundwork for an independent Timor-Leste as Secretary of the Executive Committee of the Timorese Resistance Movement in the Clandestine Movement from 1990-1991.
In 2001, he became Minister Counselor/Charge d’Affairs for the Embassy of Timor-Leste in Washington, D.C. He worked with dozens of students coming from Timor-Leste to the U.S.and held cultural gatherings from the embassy to promote understanding and friendship. He also co-authored the book, East Timor’s Unfinished Struggle: Inside the East Timorese Resistance.
“I want Americans to know Timor as they know theirowncountry,” Pinto said. “Timor-Leste is a country committed to democracy and human rights. We are a young country, and there are lots of opportunities. It’s a place Americans have to discover. Democracy doesn’t only exist in America. It also exists in Timor-Leste.”
He encourages Timorese youth to see life in America and then return to Timor-Leste to teach,start a business or join public service.
“As Timorese, we have a strong bond with the community where we belong. For the community, it is a point of pride to have someone studying in the United States.The students have a sense of responsibility to their communities. I say, “‘Study hard and go back!’”