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Q&A: UCLA alumnus Nathalie Rayes discusses appointment to US ambassador to Croatia

Pictured is Nathalie Rayes, United States ambassador to Croatia. (Photo courtesy of U.S. Embassy in Croatia)

By Christopher Buchanan

Feb. 19, 2024 7:43 p.m.

This post was updated Feb. 19 at 11:00 p.m.

Double Bruin alumnus Nathalie Rayes sat down with the Daily Bruin’s Christopher Buchanan to discuss her newly appointed role as United States ambassador to Croatia.

Rayes has had a lengthy public service career, establishing initiatives and offices in Los Angeles local government before becoming an influential Latina activist through her leadership of Latino Victory – an organization dedicated to developing political power for the Latino community. Rayes also served on multiple boards for former President Barack Obama and President Joseph Biden before she was sworn in as the ambassador to Croatia in January.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Daily Bruin: How do you remember your time at UCLA?

Nathalie Rayes: I enjoyed every class. I enjoyed meeting people, enjoyed getting out of my comfort zone and being curious about sociology and public policy and international relations. Being able to meet the best and the brightest professors and being able to explore the interests that I care for – it was an enjoyable time that I remember very fondly.

DB: What initially sparked your interest in international relations and public policy?

NR: I am an immigrant to the United States that was born in Venezuela. I came to the United States when I was nine. International relations has always been part of my DNA. I’ve always wanted to learn more about the world and geopolitics. That’s something that’s always interested me.

When I was at UCLA for my undergrad, I did focus on the history of the Middle East. I did my undergrad in sociology and minored in history, then I took a year off for a sabbatical, thinking I was going to be a lawyer. But instead, I realized that with public policy, I could really change the world and make it a better place, as cliche as that might sound. That’s really always been my driving force – making sure I leave things better than when I got in.

I went to UCLA for my master’s, and I applied for a prestigious fellowship with the State Department to be a fellow in the embassy in Cairo, and that really was transformational. Eventually, I wanted to be an ambassador at some point in my life. I worked diligently in the government, worked in the private sector, then worked in the nonprofit world and then eventually became an ambassador.

DB: Is there anything you learned from a professor or personal experience at UCLA that you apply to your profession?

NR: In sociology, I used to write everything down. He (Professor Jerome Rabow) said to me at one time, “If it’s important, you’ll remember it,” and it’s so true. He would always challenge us to make sure that we were persevering and always getting to a yes instead of a no. Professor Rabow was a great sociologist. He really instilled in me the idea of perseverance, the idea of connecting with people and the importance of networking and having partnerships. He was a great force in everything that I’ve worked on.

I really got into government thanks to former Governor of Massachusetts Michael Dukakis. I actually had a few job offers, and he said to me, “I think out of all those offers, going back to the city of Los Angeles and working there is probably the best idea, because you really get to see day-to-day impact that you make in the lives of your constituencies.” Government work at the local level was also very transformational for me, because I saw firsthand how governments affect daily lives – from simple things such as fixing a pothole to collecting trash and making sure the streets and the parks are safe for kids. … Dukakis was a great governor of the state of Massachusetts, a great professor at UCLA. He really taught me the importance of government and government service and giving back to the community.

DB: A lot of your prior experiences revolve around Middle Eastern politics and activism or education in the Latino community. What led you to your current position as a diplomat in the Balkans?

NR: I grew up in Los Angeles and was deputy chief of staff to the mayor of Los Angeles – which has had one of the largest Croatian diasporas since the 1800’s. I got to interface with them then. But my life is a life of service and international relations. You can translate it in any part of the world. Although I was born in Venezuela – I understand the hemisphere very well – and my studies are in the Middle East, Europe is an area that I’ve also studied. The importance of service is something that is part of my DNA. And so when the president calls you and says, “You know, I have a job for you: Would you like to be ambassador to Croatia?” you say, “Yes.” And the most important thing is understanding that the issues that you learn in different regions can really be translated anywhere and in any people-to-people network. At the end of the day, I think that the Balkans is a very interesting area. It is a very dynamic area, and (with) Croatia being such a great NATO ally, EU member, part of the Eurozone and integral U.S. ally, I am prepared to do really great work here.

DB: What duties will you be performing in your new role as ambassador to Croatia?

NR: The most important thing is ensuring that the United States and Croatia are working well together. My responsibilities and my goals are obviously based on the safety and security of Americans in Croatia. That’s my No. 1 responsibility to the embassy: making sure that Americans are safe.

Obviously, we have a war here in Europe against a malign influence and aggression toward Ukraine by Russia, so we have to make sure that our NATO allies stay close and work diligently to fight the Russian aggression in Ukraine. That’s something that’s top of my agenda.

Making sure that Croatia’s neighbors in (the) Balkans are part of the European Union, making sure there’s democratic values, rule of law and economic prosperity in the region is also critically important.

The fourth goal of mine is to ensure that we’re also fighting the Russian aggression on energy. Croatia has been leading by example: They’ve actually created a liquefied natural gas terminal on Krk Island, and they are now producing enough energy for Croatia, so they’re looking to double that in size. Liquefied natural gas can export energy to the rest of the region. That’s something that is a top priority of ours as well.

Lastly are the people-to-people relations and investments, making sure that the United States knows that Croatia is open for U.S. business and that we are continuing to engage at that, people to people.

DB: What do you believe is the most important diplomatic action the U.S. can take in Croatia currently?

NR: We’ve accomplished a great deal in the past years. There’s always obviously more that we can do together. I’m looking forward to working with Croatian counterparts to continue to ensure regional security and support for its neighbors in the Euro-Atlantic path as we talked about, making sure that they become part of the EU. We are collaborating on bringing additional energy alternatives to the market, including geothermal, and strengthening the traditional sector efficiency to improve the investment climate here in Croatia.

Lastly, we also look to further spur Croatia’s successful modernization and make strong and capable NATO allies, which they really are working hard to make sure that they divest from Yugoslav equipment and make sure that they have the NATO capabilities that we need.

DB: How would you describe the diplomatic relationship between the U.S. and Croatia?

NR: I don’t think it’s ever been stronger. The relationship has been strong the past few years, and we’ve accomplished amazing things on bilateral milestones. We welcome Croatia as citizens into the Visa Waiver Program for visa free trial of the United States. We also welcome Croatia into the Global Entry Program. We are negotiating and signing an avoidance of the double taxation treaty. That’s what we’re working on now.

We’re supporting portions of first modernization through the procurement of fighting vehicles and Blackhawk helicopters, and we’re supporting Croatia’s successful entry into the Schengen area in the Eurozone in 2023. In fact, we’re supporting Croatia’s ongoing efforts to help share the lessons that it learned on its successful path to the European Union and NATO with the aspiring countries and its neighbors in the region – so places like Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia, and Kosovo – making sure that they give their share of what they know.

With their neighbors, Croatia is absolutely a model and success story in regard. We kind of ramble on and say, “They did all these incredible things.” But they did these incredible things in record time – 30 years. If we look back not too long ago in Croatia, Slovenia and Yugoslavia, the Homeland War happened and atrocities happened. They (Croatia) really serve as an incredible example.

As it related to Ukraine’s, they (Croatia) also have been leading and punching above their weight. They’ve taken in Ukrainian refugees – there’s 24,000 Ukraine refugees here in Croatia – and they’ve really helped in investing in making sure that Ukraine has any military needs that they could. They’re there to help Ukraine.

DB: You’ve already mentioned a need for energy in the region, but as the 2024 parliamentary and presidential elections in Croatia approach, what are the chief concerns of its citizens?

NR: I’ve been here three weeks, but what I can tell so far is most elections are won or lost by the economy. I think that the economy is the most important issue that Croatians are looking at, how governments can improve the center of living for communities. In Croatia, polling shows that this is also on the minds of voters. According to polls, they want to elect a leader that they can trust to take care of these communities.

Other things that come to mind that are as important are transparency and governance in government, anti-corruption mechanisms to make sure that the government is working efficiently for the people. Those are often cited as leading concerns as well. The economy and making sure that there is a healthy workforce that’s ready to be used are probably the most important issues that the electorate will take a look at.

DB: What advice would you give students, especially ones at UCLA who are interested in following your professional footsteps?

NR: My advice is to try new things and not to be scared and to take risks. I think at times, we think, “We don’t just want to do this,” and build challenges or set ourselves to do other things. I probably have the most atypical career. I started off in local government, and then I went to the private sector, and then I went to the nonprofit world. Most people just stay in one field and never venture out of that field. But I think that trying new things, getting yourself out of a comfort zone, is important, and taking risks in your careers is important. Being open to different opportunities is really important. That’s my advice.

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Christopher Buchanan
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