Friday, September 04, 2015

Pausing for pity

Otto looked utterly exhausted as he left the court today, his voice strained. He claims he could easily have escaped into exile, but has chosen to face the music.

It's hard not to feel sorry for him — and his abandoned dog in spite of everything. The spectacle of the mighty fallen is always somewhat disturbing.

I don't think I could ever muster the same kind of compassion for that gangster and clown Manuel Baldizón. 

I think Otto more or less believes the self-image he has consistently projected - as a man of honour. He must have thrown all the bad stuff into a little box at the back of his psyche.

Whatever happens now he's royally screwed. Even if he can convince a judge that the conspiracy was going on all around him and he really had no active part in it, they will get him for 1982 now. He'll be the surrogate Rios Montt in no time at all. 

And then there's Gerardi, and any other skeletons they find in his cupboard now that he has been deprived of immunity.

He's fully stretched out on the public altar of sacrifice and it really doesn't matter what he did or didn't do, because he has become a living symbol of the past 60 years that has to be ritually purified from the body politic.

The media have started to address him as 'General' once again...

What's next?

The levels of contagion to the north and south will be fascinating to observe.

Mexico had a convoluted revolution which began before WWI and ultimately resulted in a long-lasting one party system that in its latter phases paid lip-service to democratic values and practices, but was widely referred to elsewhere as 'the perfect dictatorship'. 

It is almost twice as wealthy as Guatemala with a well-resourced state and the levels of public-sector larceny perpetrated by the outgoing regime here might not cause such an unsightly dent up there. 

Yet Peña Nieto's public persona has something of the Baldetti about it...

To the south El Salvador and Honduras have many of the same problems, often in an even more pronounced state, but they appear to have already missed the boat in terms of confronting them as a united pueblo. There is now an entrenched polarity in their political discourse between populists and those in favour of more transparent system, as in Venezuela.

The same could happen here if Baldizón 'cause' is allowed to prosper. And yet, worryingly, all kinds of unpleasantness could also yet tarnish Guatemala's spring if the strict letter of the law is observed and his Líder party debarred from the election with just three days to go.

The protest movement clearly has great momentum and is unlikely to be thinking in terms of this kind of practical compromise right now.

Thank you Roxana!

Guatemala was fortunate in its ex-President's choice of running mate. Her obvious doltishness and blatant disregard for even the most basic of veneers, turned what would otherwise have seemed like those all-too-familiar and disregarded grievances about corruption into something that diverse sectors of Guatemala could really get their teeth into  and more importantly generate further awareness through a combination of youthful outrage and mordant satire on social media. 

Linea 1 y Linea 2

With all this talk of corruptos and corruptores we need to be keep an eye on some important distinctions. 

If I am head of state and a businessman pays me a backhander in return for an important contract, the private sector side of this deal could be characterised as the corrupter. But if as head of state, I establish a system whereby businessmen of all sorts can get a discount on duties, I become the primary corrupter.

In the first instance the businessman pays a premium to secure a contract and the politician pockets the premium. Only in certain hybrid cases - such as lake Amatitlán - is there a significant social cost to this sort of graft. 

But when the government itself is set up as a scam, the social cost operates on a multiplier as schools want for books, hospitals lack medicines etc.

Of course there are all sorts of criminals in Guatemala, some very well organised and deeply entrenched in the commercial sector. But there is a very significant category distinction between theft and treason, which is reflected in the criminal penalties which apply. 

Otto acted as a traitor. His actions subverted the rule of law, plundered public resources from the state and led, not-so-indirectly, to actual deaths. 

He was not just the hapless mayordomo of the real capos who have now sacrificed him. He was the head of state. To suggest otherwise is to pander to his own self-serving rhetoric about the corruptores around government. 

What hope can anyone have for improving this society if the chief executive is not on board with the project in both thought and action?

Table Talk

Prince Phillip once famously observed that the Chinese will eat anything that has four legs as long as it isn't a table. This little witticism sprung to mind this morning when a Japanese friend messaged me with the seemingly innocuous question 'Is there anything you don't eat?'

However, given that the last time we shared a table together (no, not that way...) was when he led me into Shinjuku's 'Piss Alley' for some horse sashimi  surely at least in part a bate the Brit exercise  I might have to prepare a shortlist of non-comestible quadrupeds for all such enquiries in future...

Don't dismiss the consensus narrative

Perceptions and narratives are very important to the course of history. If one simply complains that the beliefs of historical actors are a poor facsimile of reality, one is missing the chance to fully understand their impact on events in real time. They inform the discourse, and in doing so, shape the landscape of possible actions.

Right now a narrative has formed around the meaning of this week's events in Guatemala. It goes a bit like this...

The country has come full circle since 1954. Back in the early 50s it was a beacon of political possibility for the whole of Latin America, with newly-established systems of public health and education. But then the US intervened to remove the democratically-elected, reform-minded government and a protracted civil conflict ensued in which perceptions of possibility were often violently constrained.

Now Guatemalans have made it back, after 60 difficult years, to roughly where they were before. Once more a beacon of hope for the region, this nation remains a far from a completed project, but its citizens are once again free to pursue a better future.