Wednesday, August 30, 2023

Sin Pelos En La Lengua

Fernando del Rincón, like many Guatemalans, seems to revel in enunciating the surname of Rafael Curruchiche. (It’s a skill that CNN’s automatic subtitling system still needs to get the hang of.)

It would seem that, sin pelos en la lengua, it is easier to pronounce ‘judicialización’, a Spanish word I have decided to abbreviate to ‘judi’ in everyday speech, for my own sanity.

I’m not sure that ‘judi’ entirely encapsulates the nature of the problem faced by chapines today, or indeed its peculiar local roots.

At first I wanted to throw out something along the lines that its all rather like the situation would be in the UK if Suella Braverman were acting as if she were the real PM and as if she could not be removed under any circumstances — and then I realised I might need a better counterfactual analogy. 
Perhaps, it’s as if the deep state has risen from the depths and is operating on the surface with its gun like a German U-boat.

Consuelo Porras does seem to have become the de facto ruler of Guatemala, albeit as the puppet of altogether shadier figures, and as Dr G shifts into lame duck transition mode, it’s a situation that can seemingly only deteriorate…if millions of Guatemalans allow it to.

I may be wrong about this, but I suspect the post-war settlement in this country may be playing an important role in the way this is all playing out. For most of Guatemala’s history after independence the real power in the land was always the army. (Bernardo Arévalo has literally written the book on this phenomenon.)

Back in the 90s we used to take delivery in London of a glossy current affairs magazine called Crónica. In those days it was clear that the state within the state was personified by the Defence Secretary, also the de facto generalissimo.

Given the limited resources at the disposal of the elected executive, this was often more like the inner state that provided an often smothering external wrapper for the constitutional institutions.

In that era I always had a clear idea of the name and physical appearance of each incumbent Defence Secretary. I can’t say I have kept this up lately, and this has to be partly a consequence of the manner in which the military and its influence was deliberately shrunk by the peace accords of 1996.

I would therefore argue that this may have permitted the potential monopoly of weaponised, repressive power to shift across to the office of state currently occupied by Consuelo Porras. Her anti-democratic actions need to be cloaked in the codified mechanisms of that aforementioned barely pronounceable word, but in effect owe their exuberant shamelessness to a longer tradition of autocratic distortions to the rule of law in Guatemala.
Not so insólito after all.
What the millennials who aspire to transform this nation need to remember (history or indeed noted national literature can help with this) is that they are comparatively fortunate compared to previous generations. Not long before I first came here those named on the attorney general’s abortive amparo would likely have simply disappeared.

Arbitrariness has taken significant steps backwards since those dark times and the contemporary pattern seems to involve discreet initial stages of
coaccion and coercion, with persecution less likely to involve blunt cruelty.

Wednesday, August 23, 2023

Spring is in the air...

Back in '88 I was supervised for a term on the subject of the history of revolutions at King's College by a long-haired post-grad whose name it really pains me to have since forgotten.

Decades later I understand that I am at least as interested in the apparently lesser phenomenon of the 'Spring", those moments of mass popular engagement with political change which, by and large, end up being smothered by an unstoppable reactionary wave.

If I were a young historian at Cambridge today, I'd practically kill to be taught by the current Regius Professor, Christopher Clark, whose most recent book charts the history of the pan-continental mass movements we tend to refer to as '1848'.

Clark asserts that the revolutionary springs of 1848 did not end in failure as many other historians have suggested, but then in Sleepwalkers, he said the Germans didn't start WWI. (In fairness, he pretty much convinced me on the latter point, though I might have been predisposed to suspect the French and the Russians before even starting that book.)

Mass popular protest usually commences after a single instance of perceived injustice. In Chile in 2019 it was a change to the pricing of public transport with respect to one demographic, in USA and its cultural clients it was the racist murder of George Floyd the following year.

The people on the street are never really 'the people'. The momentum in the crowd comes from an uneasy alliance between bourgeois liberals (such as myself) and radicals from the disenfranchised and marginalised groups. The connection between them most often a cadre of middle class poseurs.

In essence this is a heady mix of people with realistic and unrealistic objectives. There are those seeking redress for a specific set of grievances and those whose purview encompasses pretty much all available grievances; an aggressive completism that is often hard to distinguish from nihilism.

The movement starts to falter at the point that the realists get spooked by the often loopy and violent approach of their fellow travellers, and this then permits 'los mismos de siempre' to rapidly re-consolidate.

The Spring that Guatemala is experiencing right now is fascinating on many levels, not least because it seems to have arrived with some powerful antibodies which may help it to dodge the familiar pathological outcome.

Firstly, the primary goal, an eradication of corruption, is either realistic or unrealistic depending on which side of the bed one got out of. That ambiguity will remain unifying for a considerable time, I surmise.
And crucially, it does not propose any fundamental change to the constitutional order (as in Chile). The social order seems fairly safe in the short term as well.

Through the persona of Tio Bernie, this primavera is as much backwards-looking as forwards-looking, a deliberate re-staging of the mid twentieth century social democratic aspiration which was effectively stolen after ten years by the gringos. (No prizes for guessing why Izabal sided with Sandra.)

It's like The Return of the King, the concluding part of a trilogy which began in 1944, re-appeared with renewed fury in 2015 and has apparently now seen off the resurgence of its orky antagonists.

I use that term resurgence with caution because the action of the corrupt elite in Guatemala throughout this election year have, to an almost ludicrous extent, contributed to the outcome on August 20.



Sunday, August 20, 2023


In a matter of hours the Lionesses will be released into a Sydney arena where the poor Christians of Castile await.

And so let this be another one of those periodic opportunities to remind everyone of a few facts about this, the Royal Banner of England, aka the heraldic arms of the Plantagenet family, at least before they decided that the whole of France probably also belonged to them. 

Technically the felines doing their passing, guarding thing here are leopards not lions. (I know they do look much like lions, but this is one of those courtesy (courtly?) semantic impositions like referring to a person with a penis as a woman.

Also technically, only one of them is properly English. (I'm hoping it's the little girl at the bottom.)

The marque is property of King Charles III. The English FA use it only under special dispensation from the Crown. 

And it looks like the Crown can't be bovved to schlep to Australia on this occasion.



Saturday, August 19, 2023


La Ley Seca is upon us.

As part of Guatemala's supposedly benign twist on The Purge, we are all expected to be on the spinach smoothies for the next 42 hours.

And when the virtual sirens sound again on Monday morning, this land may feel like a very different place.

OK, Sandra Torres will have lost again, possibly by as much as 30%, and be crying foul, so in that sense, same old, same old. (One wonders if the hair dye will slither down her cheeks as it did with Giuliani.) 
But there will be palpable change in the air. A change that will nevertheless fall short of its full potential until Movimiento Semilla is more than a rickety raft in a sea of sharks. 

The potential margin of victory and widespread popular merriment may end up masking the extent of the challenge that will remain. 

This movement has demonstrated what a new kind of politics here might look like, but in the longer term there needs to be more than one exponent of it, more that one party committed to basic decency. 
There will be significant obstacles ahead, not least in the form of existing constitutional constraints.

Anyway, I've been on the wagon for over a month now, but my bunker is now nicely stocked up for the weekend...and beyond, into the brave new world.

Wednesday, August 16, 2023

Guatemala Untapped


"Ignorantes" is possibly a rather harsh way of referring to many of the people trapped in a localised rural economy with little immediate possibility for development.

Of these there are plenty in Guatemala, and ever since the system of adult suffrage was exported by the developed western world to countries where endemic economic and cultural conditions were less than ideal, there have been entirely predictable difficulties.

Arévalo sometimes talks as if corruption can be turned off like a tap, having pinpointed specific interested groups like organised crime and monopolised business as the root cause of it all.

Yet writing in March 1954 for the Sunday Times — as Vietnam's search for a lasting model of independence developed into a bigger war — Graham Greene suggested that any country with large numbers of illiterate peasants living at the edge of subsistence will not take well to a system based on voting, organised political parties and so on. 
"Any Government with a genuine programme of reform faces a blank wall, a time-limit, the knowledge that beyond a certain point lies the wilderness...In Europe, a strong Government is one with popular support: here a strong Government is a group of individuals with a common aim and determination, free from corruption and free from the necessity of clinging to office for the sake of the perquisites.

"Never before in Vietnam has there been a Government with a common aim; for every previous Govern­ment has included the sects, and there is little in common between the Caodaists, the Hoa Haas and the Catholics. One doubts, too, if there has ever before been a Government free from serious corruption, and certainly none where the chief Ministers were indifferent to the fruits of office."
Greene understood developmental issues as a chicken and egg conundrum. Change was needed before change could be imposed.

Vietnam lacked many of the conditions Guatemala currently blames for its corrupted state, and yet was still extremely corrupt.

Semilla's little shoot will only turn into a proper Spring if Arévalo is somehow able to kick start a developmental surge which outlasts a four year term and lays down conditions where institutions can offer an improved function, almost like they do in say Uruguay!

I suspect that "los mismos de siempre" in Guatemala feel threatened by him and his party not because he will get his hand firmly on the corruption tap (he won't), but because his programme portends a radical change in the way politics are done here relative to the disjointed conditions on the ground. A change that could be hard to reverse.

Monday, August 14, 2023

Mirage / Durante La Tormenta (2018)

Another enjoyable example of a genre that the Spanish seem to excel at — time travel or what I would tend to refer to as reality transfer.

In this treatment two cosmological storms over Catalunya, separated by thirty years, enable the transfer of information via an old TV which changes the course of events and relationships within a close-knit community.

Anyone who sat through all three seasons of Dark, also on Netflix, will either tut tut or marvel at the levity on display here.

Mirage is for that reason tonally interesting and generally rather successful. This is a movie which features a murder, by stabbing and followed by dismemberment, a suicide by jumping off a tall building and the brutal accidental death of a child, yet somehow retains the a mood close to that of romantic comedy / gentle childhood mystery story throughout.  

As in Dark the action is set in a suburban environment in which almost every character has been content to spend almost their entire lives. Indeed the German series flagged this up at one point as a possible loose end which would require tightening, but then didn't. 

Mirage features a protagonist in the contemporary stream who appears to have entered from outside and is the only character aware of the changes that have occurred, plus two timelines which are effectively shut down by the telly-messaging process, leaving one to ponder what actually happened subjectively to every other sentient being left behind in these realities.

In the German metaphysical mindbender answers to these sort of conundra gave me sleepless nights. I slept rather well after Mirage.

Sunday, August 13, 2023


As I may have mentioned before, widespread corruption represents the ascendancy of incompetence, because all the incentives start to point away from excellence.

Or to put it another way, as Bertrand Russell did in the 1930s, when several forms of autocratic government threatened to devour Europe's freedoms…

Talent, specifically of the kind which might lead to positive developments, is always stifled. "since it is the nature of bureaucrats to object to all change except increase in their own power," And note, corruption is not even a prerequisite for this to occur.


Russell added: "All serious innovation is only rendered possible by some accident enabling unpopular people to survive." And unpopular people inevitably struggle to survive in autocratic societies. 

The one positive we have in our own moment, is that the autocracies of the early twenty first century, at least in this part of the world, are not really putting in a full shift. Unlike the prepackaged despotisms which cast a shadow over Russell's generation, they are not expending the time and effort required to mould the population in line with their own preconceived patterns. 

They love power and simply assume that the rest of us will grow to love watching them hoard it and abuse it.*

Corruption has become such an end in itself that incompetence has swelled up from the bottom to the top and one is even less likely to come across a would-be dictator with any basic talent for administration or persuasion.



* So-called called plazas fantasmas could be said to represent incompetence in its purest, almost transcendent form.

Saturday, August 05, 2023


A non-Yank's perspective on the Trump indictments...

The first two tell us stuff about the man. Stuff we pretty much always knew. The porn-star payoff reminds us that he's a sleaze. The documents in the Mar-a-Lago loo accusation reminds us that he's a bit of an idiot, and probably corrupt.

But it's the case relating to his attempts to cling on to power — the only alleged crime he committed as a sitting POTUS — that tells us about the state of America and not just about the state of the Donald.

I think western leaders would find a way to work with Trump if he were somehow found guilty in the first two cases and then re-elected. But not the third. A very significant line would have been crossed in the community of western democracies. And I think we have at least one leg over that line now that Trump has been formally indicted. 

And it's hard to see how he could fail to be found guilty of conspiracy to deny every other American, no matter which candidate they had voted for, a peaceful transfer of power. Anyone even vaguely paying attention watched him do it. 

The whole world is a potential witness for the prosecution.



Thursday, August 03, 2023

Paradise (2023)

Recently released on Netflix: a German made piece of speculative science fiction about a society in which the human lifespan has been commodified, indeed whole chunks of unlived time can be left as collateral for a bank loan.

It's a thought provoking premise, and unlike the movies mentioned in the previous post, pretty much satisfactorily explored in the plot, though I did conclude that it perhaps could have done with the extra narrative space of a TV format. Maybe that's the plan for follow-up.

Inevitably there was a point where I started to consider how a Hollywood remake might turn out. The additions and omissions are not hard to imagine. Some of the darker themes and outcomes would likely be toned lighter. The action scenes would be spruced up. 

They would also find it hard, I imagine, to leave so much that is going on in the background of these dystopian near-future versions of Germany (and the Baltic states) without explicit explanation. Indeed, whole new roles would be introduced simply for the purpose of exposition. The central couple would have 'friends' etc.



Tuesday, August 01, 2023

Infiesto (2023)

Infiesto is a town in Asturias that V must have driven through in the early noughties, because we do indeed recall soon after arriving in the next large settlement on the N-634: Oviedo.


So, not perhaps a stop and soak up the atmosphere kind of place. Yet this film set within this old mining community as the pandemic takes a grip on northern Spain has plenty of atmosphere. 

That said, the plot is largely televisual and unremarkable, and the drama is only partially redeemed by the context of early-stage lockdown. 

Overall I'd have to say that the thematic connections between the end of days mood in the spring of 2019 and the apocalyptic cult under investigation are not exploited nearly as well as they might have been. 

Last night we watched a Belgian film on Netflix called Noise which is basically a cure for insomnia. If not deserving of its own entry here, it perhaps is worth flagging up as another example of a European movie with under-exploited thematic potential. It could so easily have been a proper exploration of how so-called influencers are themselves reverse victims of the influence of their follower base, led to do things they would otherwise have no need or desire to do, solely in order to generate narrative in their existence.