Is Roberto Alvarez a devoted maker of dreams or a magical manager of whims?
The diplomat, lawyer and human rights worker shifted gears in 1990 to become an avant-garde businessman. But after 15 years as owner and co-owner of Caribbean, Spanish and Mediterranean eateries about town, he has leapt back into diplomacy. At least for a while.
On Tuesday night, Alvarez threw his first bash since being named the Dominican Republic's ambassador to the Organization of American States in June. The event, set around a gurgling fountain in the foyer of the ornate OAS building, helped promote one of his favorite causes: artisans from Latin American and other countries who are trying to place their products in U.S. markets.
Alvarez's grand schemes start small. An infusion of creativity, goodwill, calculated risk-taking and self-interest have helped his ideas blossom and grow. Borders and identity hardly matter. In fact, his knack for fusing identities has permeated his career. And so it was with his first diplomatic reception.
"With a longtime commitment to human rights, Roberto is equally serious about helping ATA," said Susan Ginsburg, referring to Aid to Artisans, the nonprofit organization that benefited from the event. "He is a special person, generous, thoughtful, kind, serious." Ginsburg, an Aid to Artisans board member, has known Alvarez since 1976.
Alvarez, 61, gave up his U.S. residency to present his credentials to the OAS on June 22. "I turned it in with feelings of great gratitude toward this country and the tremendous opportunity it has given me," he said.
"Identity and belonging are composed of all one has experienced beyond home, school and religion. Each of us is unique, with this myriad of influences that shape us. You can give up a paper, but it would be murder to reject any part of yourself, the American part," he said. "I am proud to say that as a businessman here for 15 years, I created 497 jobs, 360 of them to residents of Latin origins."
On July 1, the Dominican Republic assumed the rotating three-month chairmanship of the permanent council of the OAS and is preparing to host its general assembly meeting in Santo Domingo in June 2006.
"The reason for taking this on is that the country is going through this special moment," Alvarez said. After three intense months, he said he was adapting to the challenges of bureaucracy, with its slowness and tardiness.
Alvarez said he would focus on the forgotten tragedy of Haiti, the country that shares the island of Hispaniola with the Dominican Republic. Haiti's political misfortunes have driven hundreds of thousands of refugees across the border, causing tension and violence that are putting Haitians and Dominicans at risk.
The son of a lawyer and official at the Foreign Ministry who also served as a U.N. ambassador, Alvarez thought he would always work in public service.
"It comes in the blood. That's how I started, and now I am closing a cycle," he said about accepting the offer to take back his diplomatic mantle.
Fresh from law school at 24, Alvarez arrived in Washington in 1968 to serve at the Dominican Embassy. The ambassador, Hector Garcia Godoy, returned to Santo Domingo to run for president in 1970, and Alvarez went with him. Garcia Godoy died three months before the election.
A vacancy for a staff attorney at the OAS lured Alvarez back to Washington. He was a civil servant for eight years, spending the last three in the secretariat's human rights commission evaluating petitions about violations in Argentina, Chile and El Salvador. He unsuccessfully ran for the top job of commissioner. In 1980, he returned to school and went on to complete a master's degree in political science at Georgetown University. He later worked toward a doctorate at Johns Hopkins University's Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies.
During the summers, he worked for Amnesty International in Nicaragua and Sri Lanka and for other nongovernmental organizations.
In 1985, he coaxed his younger brother to turn their family home in Santo Domingo into a restaurant, which they named Cafe Atlantico, with the idea of doing the same in Washington if the formula worked.
"I thought the restaurant business would be an easy and quick way to becoming financially independent," he said.
In January 1990, Alvarez returned to Washington with $50,000 and a plan to establish the local Cafe Atlantico, which started out on Columbia Road and later moved to Eighth Street.
"I had good friends who bought into my vision," Alvarez said. He and his partners now own six restaurants in the Washington area.
Alvarez, who also serves on the advisory board of Human Rights Watch, said that in two years he plans to shift his focus again. He would like to write a book, he said, and perhaps start a family.