San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

New ambassadors: A foreign-service love story

Sharon and Chris Campbell ride in the same car to work, share an elevator up to the 11th floor of the Centro Colón building in western San José, and enter the office of the British Embassy together. 

Once through the doors, they split. Sharon heads left, Chris right. In a corner office on one end of the building, Sharon presides as the British Ambassador to Costa Rica. On other end, Chris, her husband, serves as the British Ambassador to Nicaragua.  

“There have been U.K. ambassadors before that were married and served as ambassadors in neighboring countries,” Sharon said. “But we are probably the first in terms of both of us living in the same country. It’s quite exciting for us. We have different roles and models, but in a way we are sort of splitting both roles.”

The Campbells, who assumed their posts on Aug. 1, are a foreign-service love story. They first worked together in the Foreign Office in London in the early 1980s. Chris said he often wandered into Sharon’s department to take advantage of the free chocolate cookies offered. Years later, on leave in London away from their first foreign assignments – Chris in Sudan and Sharon in Poland – they began dating. After maintaining a long-distance relationship, they were sent to the foreign office in Bangladesh in 1988. Six months later, they married. 

Twenty-three years and four countries later, they are in Costa Rica as ambassadors for the first time. Prior to arriving, the Campbells served in Bangladesh, Indonesia, Venezuela and Belgium. They speak varying levels of Spanish, French, Indonesian and Arabic.

The years spent together are apparent. When Chris responds to questions, Sharon softly chimes in with an occasional “mmhmm” while nodding her head. Chris does the same.

“Our careers have required a lot of give and take,” Chris said. “We sometimes haven’t been able to go for foreign postings in Washington, D.C. or Paris because there aren’t two jobs available. We’ve wanted to work together so we have to look for places where there are two jobs on our level, rather than choosing country X or Y. When Costa Rica and Nicaragua came available, we jumped at the chance to get back to Latin America.”

Now that they’re here, the Campbells are in the process of educating themselves on their new countries, readjusting to Spanish and implementing the three-pillared “prosperity model” of the British foreign offices. The model, which prioritizes commercial prosperity, security and consular resources, is used globally in British embassies to improve bilateral trade and investment, environmental and sustainability initiatives, citizen security, and to ensure that the needs of British citizens around the world are met.

In Costa Rica, a primary British objective is to support and assist sustainability and carbon neutrality efforts. To do so, members of the British Embassy motor around the streets of San José in a pint-sized red Reva electric car and actively promote the 2012 Olympic Games in London, which are billed as the first “sustainable” Olympics. In preparation for the games, several London venues have been built over decrepit industrial sites, and stadiums are equipped with detachable pieces to limit their long-term environmental impact.

“Britain has always been a leader on climate change,” Sharon said. “Something that we can export around the world is the expertise about green construction and how to make future construction more sustainable.”

The Campbells also spoke to public security and the British government’s travel advisory issued in May to their citizens traveling in Costa Rica. The advisory warned that eight foreign nationals, including British journalist Michael Dixon, have gone missing in Costa Rica in the last two years.

“Current travel advice puts the facts out there, it doesn’t warn against travel to Costa Rica,” Chris said. “Costa Rica is still a safe destination. There are a very small percentage of tourists that get into trouble. It can happen in any country in the world. Certainly in terms of security, there is no major threat to any tourist visiting Costa Rica.”

Chris said the objectives for the British Embassy in Nicaragua are similar to those in Costa Rica. He said he plans to travel to Nicaragua every six weeks and, though he observes Nicaragua mostly from afar, working in Costa Rica gives him a perspective of the issues in both countries. 

As for bilateral issues, the unavoidable question for the two new ambassadors was about the Isla Calero, the disputed parcel of swampland that remains a topic of controversy and was taken to the International Court of Justice earlier this year (TT, April 8, April 4, March 8). 

“It’s funny that we get that question. How would the border dispute affect the way we work together, as if we were going to solve it over breakfast or something,” Chris said with a laugh. “The two countries are going through the ICJ process. … We continue to monitor the situation. We hope that both sides keep tensions as low as possible and that they will both respect the ICJ process and follow it through to resolution.”

 “I promise you, there is no arguing about the Isla Calero dispute and no attempt at resolving it within our household,” Chris said, smiling.

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