Monday, October 30, 2023
Friday, October 27, 2023
"History will be kind to me for I intend to write it." > Winston Churchill
There's a delicious pyscho-narcissism in those words, which one can take as either rather admirable or the opposite, depending on one's position in the culture wars.
History, of course, is as much about readers as writers.
It's a cultural construct we are told, and so too, to some extent is the very notion of linear time.
As ever, we should not take this to signify that its meanings are wholly subjective.
I do worry when people start talking about things which happened before their grandparents’ time in an overtly emotional register. This seems to be an affectation which has more to do with contemporary mores than any willingness to engage with the past on its own terms.
Historians tend to prefer a more dispassionate approach to things which occurred beyond the living memory of one’s own immediate ‘tribe’.
I also think it is important not to get distracted by apparent linearity in such a way that we go on to assume that something which occurred say 150 years ago is more important than something which occurred 500 years ago.
There are cumulative effects to discuss, but again, once we venture into the void beyond the 'solar system' of grandparents' time, the environment is 'smooth', and all moments of what we think of subjectively as elapsed time, should be treated as equals, on the same level.
Thursday, October 26, 2023
UNICEF has lately described the situation in Sudan as “one of the worst humanitarian nightmares in recent history”.
Over 5.6m people have been displaced as a result of the ongoing spat between the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) and the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) paramilitary group. But the eyes of the performatively-caring world are apparently glued elsewhere.
That situation has a concentrated cluster of antecedents. During the course of the twentieth century millions of people were displaced by wars, famine, revolutions and so on. The two global wars and the conclusion of European colonial adventures resulted in multiple border changes which left vast multitudes standing without a seat, so to speak.
Of all of these, the one that continues to haunt the conscience of the world is ‘Palestine’. There are very specific reasons for this and Israelis certainly cannot be blamed for all of them.
Over in Florida there are thousands of Cubans and their descendants who wish for nothing else than to turn the clock back, for a glorious ‘homecoming’ in which they are restored to their ancestral lands, Havana mansions etc. The Global Left has no interest whatsoever in their pipe dream, because they persist in their obstinate support for the island’s repressive, calamity-inducing dictatorship.
At the end of WWII there were many native German-speakers living to the east of what is now Germany. They had been there for generations, but the end of the Third Reich meant that they had to up sticks and shift to the west where they were reabsorbed into the Germany of today. This process is precisely what has not happened with the Palestinians.
Remember, historically there were few Arabs in the Levant. They came en masse as conquerors behind their Caliph and with a truly fanatical belief in their own worldview. They built their prestige religious centre smack on top of the ruins of the temple where the indigenous people has worshiped in Jerusalem, in a move that the Spanish would soon after imitate in the New World. Now they are effectively trying to guilt trip the West into thinking that the state of Israel is one of its own colonial impositions, and that any Jews demanding access to the Temple Mount are guilty of causing abominable offence.
Queen Rania berates us for our leaders’ attitude towards the inhabitants of Gaza, but the dirty secret of the Arab world is how they shut the door back in the 1940s and have kept it shut, and the Kingdom Jordan has been one of the worst offenders in this respect, even though Egypt's position has crept into the international consciousness during the past week or so. The Arab states have allowed this situation to fester and one might conclude that this was the plan all along.
The Global Left has always supported the cause of the Palestinians and this is not a bad thing per se as long as recognition is given to the fundamental constraints which operate on the situation, beyond any supposed Israeli malice, and as long as this support is not consciously or even unconsciously feeding the cycle of reciprocal violence.
The acute problem today is that a significant sub-set of this ideological movement are moving very blithely into “be careful what you wish for" territory. Do the fellow travellers of rampant political, expansionist Islam really understand the implications of that “from the river to the sea” chant?
Israel is a broadly prosperous, peaceful and liberal state that provides a national identity for 7m Jews and 2m Arabs. If this were somehow swept aside in a genocidal orgy, giving rise to an fundamentalist state backed by Iran right on the shores of the Med, there is nobody living today in a pluralist European society that could genuinely feel safe.
Gaza is not Palestine and Hamas is not Gaza, but each time it is Hamas that opens up the wound with its rockets and then cynically hides beneath the citizens above who once voted them in, but have been denied the opportunity to vote them out. The people of Gaza very specifically lack the right to protest that many outside Gaza have been exercising since the Hamas pogrom on October 7.
Some of the nonsense I've been hearing recently reminds me of stern lectures I used to receive from bleeding-heart lefties in the eighties who were in complete denial about those 'resistance' fighters of the Republican movement in Ulster. Women and children were being slaughtered indiscriminately, but this did not fit the narrative. Nor did the fact that the IRA explicitly functioned as a terrorist organisation set up like a thuggish criminal gang which preyed on vulnerable members of the wider community even as it supposedly took on the British.
"Free Ulster" they said, as if that would result in anything other than a bloodbath until some of the fundamentals were resolved.
As elements of the Global Left shifts from wishful thinking in the Middle East to frankly genocidal thinking, they have to know that there can be no peaceful solution whilst the likes of Hamas remain as a force in the region.
Peaceful coexistence is not, by definition, what the protagonists of Jihad are after.
Sunday, October 22, 2023
During the course of their most well-remembered battle for self-preservation, western liberal societies committed acts which I have always considered to be atrocities, even though the question of whether they were avoidable or excusable is surely more nuanced...Dresden, Hiroshima etc.
It always used to bother me that my parents and many of their generation took a rather absolute line on this. The enemy was evil, representing a clear existential threat and compassion for their citizen victims was to be muted at best.
Cross-generational family arguments ensued.
And now that generation has largely passed, I still think it is wrong to withhold one's empathy for the civilian victims of conflict, no matter how fundamental it seems, yet I remain very wary of the "both sides" equivocation, which was used to very ill effect here in Central America during the era of civil wars.
In the case of the Japanese empire one can detect clear precursors of the fallacious notion that it's not brutal imperialist conquest if it is not Europeans doing it.
This has been adopted very successfully by the Arabs, in particular because the Europeans themselves have been encouraged to internalise this myopic historical perspective.
A new existential threat faces generations of westerners with no direct household memory of amoral totalitarianism. Like my parents and their friends they are, sadly, going to have to learn to calibrate their sympathies for those caught up behind the aegis of the wicked, unholy holiness of demented ideology.
The expansionist intolerance of political Islam is infiltrating the conscience of our pluralistic yet increasingly self-doubting societies in a truly alarming fashion.
Even in cities like London and New York, which have had direct experiences of the most indiscriminate forms of the violence perpetrated by this toxic ideology, many citizens are now permitting it to piggyback on a combination of their sometimes dilated and distorted sense of compassion, a dangerously unacknowledged antisemitic drift, and occasionally just rudimentary moral and cultural cowardice.
"Free Palestine" was a banner that murderous Marxist extremists could freely operate behind in the 1970s, and it could prove even handier now for inverted "anti-colonial" Arab colonisers and their co-religionists.
The useful idiots of the Metropolitan Police have now removed their supine apology for Jihadism on the streets of London.
Saturday, October 21, 2023
Guatemalans have lately taken to the streets, not to perpetrate a new revolution but to defend the gains they are still owed from that original one in 1944.
At stake, their sovereign right to pick their leaders via suffrage, seemingly threatened imminently by a cabal of public officials and their faciliators.
In demonstrating their resistance to perceived abuses of power, chapines have had to traverse a narrow path, eschewing violence, and even though they are protecting a democratic decision already ‘banked’, there’s a need to avoid overtly partisan politics in this protest.
Such is the history of this country that many disadvantaged sectors have only a restricted range of options for resistance, and the favoured tactic thus far has been the roadblock.
Yesterday, a report was rapidly replicating online of the foreign-born owner of a micro-brewery at the edge of town — Cervecería 14 — who had purportedly confronted demonstrators aggressively, referring to them as “imbeciles”.
One can chuckle at this archetypal PR kamikaze attack, but it’s illustrative of some wider points. In the free world, of which this nation aspires to be a part, complete with a transparent, mature democracy, everyone is entitled to an opinion. I have friends here who oppose the blockades, largely because of the economic stranglehold they impose, and they should feel free to voice such views.
Yet the situation is both delicate and historically complex, and thus related interventions probably need to be shorn of all malice and fallacy, even if such speech is implicitly permitted up in el Norte.
Having experienced the Estallido Social in Chile up close, I can point to how there was some frenetic violence “on both sides” (there's that newly-modish term again) and extensive damage to private property, along with an us-n-them vibe which informed a gathering radicalisation of the revolt and expanding social confrontation.
This is NOT what most reasonable people wish to see happen here, and individuals with rather narrow vested interests, especially foreigners, would be best advised to respect the struggle undertaken by a majority of the people of this country and to share some of the sacrifices apparently required.
It's hard to pinpoint a contemporary example from around Latin America suggesting that tyranny is good for business in the long term anyway.
Thursday, October 19, 2023
Our extraordinarily sharp new lawyer shares a surname, probably coincidentally, with one of our longest-term neighbours, Claudia.
It sounds unswervingly French, but a claim could be made for its Englishness; Norman-Englishness at least.
It is very similar in sound and formulation to the surname of a consistently high-achieving Canadian-British family whose notable members include Marcel, Louis, Paul and Justin.
It might be translated as meaning ‘compost’, but I have suggested a more appropriate alternative as the title of this post.
Anyway, at the end of last week we ran into Claudia close to the nearby parque and she showed us some recent pics of one of her offspring, now residing full time in St Albans, England.
To do this she made use of a recent model Samsung smartphone and this sent me into a bit of a revery about how the world has changed so much in just a pair of generations, really.
My father visited both North and South America as a young man, but by BOAT.
When I first came to Central America in the 80s, communications with the outside world were hard to come by. Guatel…enough said.
When the Loma Prieto earthquake occurred in California in 1989 (yesterday was the 34th anniversary), we all gathered in the one bar in town that had a TV with cable: Mistral.
Sometimes when I remember this it is a flat-screen telly, but of course it cannot have been.
All the gringos then in Antigua (like, all six of them) were gathered there, eyes glued.
A couple of years later, although I was starting to make a few tentative steps online with a WWW-less Internet and CompuServe, in my professional life in London I was tied to the dreaded fax machine and even Telex.
As a kid I was privileged enough to have had family holidays around Europe and then as a teen I undertook a series of railway odysseys around the same continent, repeatedly dipping behind the Iron Curtain, but so-called long haul travel remained expensive and still open only to a relatively affluent elite.
Some months before I first came here a friend sent me a postcard from Honduras and this seemed to have reached my pigeonhole at Girton from one of the most remote and exotic locations (!), and at the time I was sitting several afternoons a week in one of the isolated upper levels of the Cambridge University Library, reading up on the Russian imperial expansion into Central Asia and dreaming of unlikely expeditions to places like Tashkent, today altogether more readily accessible.
And so to Claudia and her smartphone. She belongs to the generation of V's oldest brother Felipe. They grew up together as children, and she still lives right on the edge of what was V's father's substantial original plot in El Panorama.
She seemingly hasn't moved much in her life, at least not permanently, for she has travelled in way her own grandparents might have marveled at, but the world around her has changed significantly and her real time access to those changes and ability to navigate them with ease is very apparent.
One more sign of change over a comparatively short period of time. When V and I were first 'dating' I was under orders to return her to the family home by around 8pm at the latest every evening.
This mostly involved a last ditch taxi dash from what is now 'La Calzada', then a mostly deserted avenue after dusk, but sometimes we would have enough spare time to walk. And between her finger-tapping father and the Ramada hotel (now the Soleil) at the edge of the Calle Sucia, there was absolutely NOTHING, not a single structure, street lamp etc, just unnerving darkness and a road edged by dirt or mud right the way through.
Taxis sometimes seemed genuinely reluctant to do the journey. Rather like the Isle of Dogs in the period just before we set up home there.
Wednesday, October 18, 2023
As I prepare the early drafts of my little book on four decades of life and experiences in Central America, I realised this week that there's going to have to be a stand-alone chapter on some of the strange, often counter-intuitive notions one often comes across around here.
Even supposedly erudite, educated people occasionally give voice to them.
The most recent example — we can dub it The Snowball Effect — is the conviction that when someone is recorded doing something overtly anti-social or otherwise reprehensible in public — be it racist, homophobic or gender abuse or perhaps even cruelty to innocents or animals — it is the person who does the recording and makes it available to the media, old or new, who is thereafter morally responsible for any viral re-transmission of the content, plus all of the consequences thereof, and not in fact the subject of the media or report.
The good citizen is thus a bad citizen, a snowball-pusher worthy of censure, loss of reputation, employment opportunities and so on, regardless how deplorable the originating words or actions of the person who had stepped out of line in the open air.
There are plenty of other examples of such arrevesado thinking, but these will probably have to await publication, to see if they in turn might be bolas of the aforementioned sort.
Today marks the 150th anniversary of the foundation of Girton, the first institution in the United Kingdom to offer university-level education for women.
The first five students arrived at Benslow House in Hitchin for the Michaelmas Term of 1869, but in 1872 a new permanent site for up to 50 was acquired. "That infidel place" was soon being lampooned by Punch magazine and sent up in music hall ditties.
Men were first admitted in 1976.
All the toilets, baths and showers are gender-neutral, at least they were in my day.
An often irreverent, fictionalised account of the stalled friendship between the two Nobel-winning contributors to the 💥 era.
It begins (and ends, though I am not quite there yet) with the most famous morongazo in the history of Latin American literature.
This pair of ‘genios’ had been drawing apart prior to the terminal incident, largely because Gabo refused to sign up to a complaint against Castro’s persecution of a Cuban poet, which the likes of Rulfo, Cortázar, Fuentes, and Sontag had been happy to put their names to. (Even those notoriously slippery characters, Jean Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, had scribbled their signatures at the base of the letter.)
V has read Jaime Bayly's first novel, No Se Lo Digas A Nadie. Not really my cup of 🫖 I then determined.
The Peruvian writer and commentator is one of those people who seems to do the opposite of growing on one over time. His increasingly whingey, monotonous monologues are the audio component to the mediocre public intellectual persona that this region may or may not deserve. And when he starts off about 'Shaky', he very quickly descends to performative self-parody.
Westminster school seemed to produce his like almost on a production line. One would run into them out in London and one's first thought would be "oh, here we go..."
Occasionally, passages of this prose adhere to the pattern of Bayly’s public persona: unnecessary repetition and too many words overall to drive the narrative forward.
That said, this is fun in spite of a core inbalance. With Vargas Llosa his observations have more of a fly on the wall quality. When it comes to Gabo there’s a lot many probably already knew, if not me specifically.
For instance, that Gabo used to don the blue overalls of a mechanic before sitting down to write El Otoño del Patriarca in his Barcelona study on the calle Osio número 50, where he had set up a high end hi-fi-system and his ‘fabulosa’ collection of records.
For me it was fascinating that the jovial tropical author was producing serious novels at this time, and that the rather more ‘square’ writer from gloomy Lima was dedicating himself wholeheartedly to rumbunctious comedy.
Tuesday, October 17, 2023
The pro-democracy protests in Guatemala have arrived at what one might characterise as a critical juncture.
This morning a reduced total of 14 bloqueos were reported in the national press. Yesterday we saw how these attempts to force the removal of key figures in the MP and wider justice system have resulted in the first concrete examples of lethal force being used against peaceful demonstrators.
With just under 90 days remaining until the handover of executive power, those who fear for their fundamental constitutional rights can probably perceive that they need to adapt their package of tactics.
It is becoming increasingly obvious that, in the absence of any change of heart from the Fiscal General that the economic stranglehold approach will start to deliver rather mixed results. And possibly even more lethal force.
Right now, what is required is a flexible shift to a more variegated range of pressures, whilst at the same time maintaining broadly an identical perceived extent of popular engagement and mobilisation.
History can provide numerous instructive examples of how this might be achieved.
It will also warn, especially here, how an undesirable descent into civil war could also occur.
Sunday, October 15, 2023
I listened to an influencer this morning somewhat ironically pronouncing that Miguelito is a "cero a la izquierda", a sugar baby, one of a multitude of Miguelitos and Miguelitas around the country, all of whom are nobodies and thus a distraction from the 'real problem' and its rather less amarillismo-adapted protagonists.
This argument makes very little sense, historically.
Individuals entrenched on the sidelines of great authoritarian power, be they Marie Antoinette or Rasputin, have always tended to be significant influencers.
And sugar babies are not all alike, some are facilitators as well as mere receivers. Pablo Escobar made use of a plethora of younger lovers, many of them basically children who ultimately had no national impact, but his girlfriend in the Colombian media was a different matter.
It is not delusional at all for the masses to focus their ire on these figures. The dynamic of both the French and Russian revolutions was profoundly affected by how people felt about the Queen and the Mad Monk.
And it is very hard to focus one's energies in resistance on faceless actors.
The key caras in this current popular uprising have been those of Porras and Curruchiche, and I have mentioned before how this creates a rather helpful narrow focus, preventing the movement from being hijacked by radical social and political propositions. The flipside of this is that if Porras were gone tomorrow, nothing essential would have changed.
Anyway, the underlying dynamic of the protests in Guatemala may not be the same after yesterday's ruckus, and in that alone we can say Miguelito's arrogance in showing up in the middle of Antigua on a Saturday, will have its due significance over the course of this 'interregnum'.
Wednesday, October 11, 2023
This afternoon I ran into one of our friends in the aldea as she returned from an exploratory expedition into La Antigua, not long after I had done. She duly reported that she had decided to head into town in order to discover if it was Antigua that was encerrada...or herself!
It's all a bit like the pandemic, but without the sense of dread.
Tuesday, October 10, 2023
Tonight’s televised huffing and puffing by the President has done little to demystify one of the key enigmas of this induced crisis — is Giammattei pursuing a set of concrete, achievable, anti-democratic goals through surrogates in the MP i.e. is his hand on the rudder of the pirate ship, or is he himself the surrogate, a flailing figurehead with a cutlass to his throat?
He can ask whether it’s possible to stage a golpe against a man with only a mandate and a nail-biting 96 day wait ahead of him, and we can respond “how can it be reasonable for a man with almost no skin left in the democratic game, even the simulated democratic game, to undermine the peaceful transition?”
Donald Trump did at least seem to have a political future worth fighting dirty for.
The suspected coup attempt is anyway not against a single individual or party, but against the sovereignty of the people.
These will be a long three months indeed if the outgoing President continues to avoid mention of the theft of the electoral actas. Blaming the people and foreigners for this literal impasse is not going to unblock the country.
As civic resistance to the implied procedural threat to democracy here reaches a new and disturbing phase — the airport has run out of fuel, I have run out of red wine — I’d like to share a few observations on how this so far compares to my experience of the #EstallidoSocial in Chile back in 2019.
By the time I arrived in Santiago a fair number of demonstrators had died. What had started as a protest against a hike of public transport fares in the capital had turned into a full-blown constitutional crisis and the government had deployed the carabineros — a paramilitary police force with an essentially fascist ethos and a plethora of heavily armoured vehicles.
Any businesses not openly supporting the revolt were being ransacked as enraged crowds periodically flowed through the downtown areas.
These were not peaceful demonstrations. An Uber I was travelling in was hit by a brick. Aside from the people killed by real bullets, the rubber projectiles were causing horrific ocular injuries.
And yet there was a fairly well-demarcated war zone centred on Baquedano metro station, which along with its immediate neighbours was shut. One could pass beneath the mayhem, almost as if a small area of central London had been designated as a permanent yet limited theatre of riot and repression, beyond which life was carrying on broadly as usual.
Valparaiso, on the other hand, had turned almost wholly post-apocalyptic. Aside from all the visible damage to property, the streets were sticky with the residue from gas canisters and I was genuinely shocked to observe how elderly residents just trying to stock up with basic provisions were coughing and spluttering.
The popular movement appeared to stand its ground and achieve its immediate goal, a constituent assembly tasked with devising a new constitution, but then the cracks appeared.
Narrow objectives had mutated into an unfocused and ultimately incompatible multitude, and after a left-wing drafted constitution was rejected in a referendum, a similar fate now seems to await a right-wing devised alternative.
Meanwhile, here in Guatemala 2023, after just six days of Paro Nacional Indefinido the country is already on the brink of an economic crisis and the Constitutional Court has greenlighted a more aggressive response to the blockades — but so far only an Opus Dei priest with a crib in Cayalá has taken up the invitation.
Consuelo Porras seemingly lacks the resources and budget to suppress more than 80 choke points nationally (or overcome a case of 70% paralysis, as someone put it today), but some sort of incremental use of violence is surely to be expected.
How will chapines respond to this?
So far the protests have keep up their narrow focus on Porras and her FECI clique. I would suggest that this is important, as wider support for the blockades, both domestically and abroad, depends on this remaining a preemptive counter-strike against a technical coup and not an umbrella movement attracting all sorts of radical nutjobs, which is essentially what happened in Chile.
Yet it has its inherent limitations too, because Porras could go and the fundamental problem would remain. Indeed right now the ‘Pacto’ may be considering throwing grandma under a bus, as this might temporarily take the sting out of the situation, but would not necessarily clear the path for an uninterrupted transition.
Dr G was back on all channels this evening, just like the good old days…except all attempts to appear folksy and reassuring have been abandoned.
What a bizarre rant that was; rather stressful to watch, all told.
Giammattei was like one of those older, isolated residents in the block who’s been drooling into his pillow all week as he imagines how he’s going to address the building committee about that light bulb problem on the sixth floor, but when the moment finally comes, finds himself on the crest of a breathless verbal tsunami.
“You cannot carry out a coup against someone who’s not in power”, was the stand-out executive soundbite.
Did we get any sense that he understands that he has a moral duty as President to prevent the Attorney General from acting like a rogue fourth branch within the state?
No, we did not.
Now he can stand back and watch things get markedly worse.
Sunday, October 01, 2023
Until the 20th century revolutions were never the direct result of action by revolutionaries. Ancien Regimes just ceased to function as advertised and then bled out in terms of legitimacy.
Even later there remained underlying triggers, usually a combination of severe economic crises with foreign policy pressure, which provided radicals with their moment.
I suspect that future historians of the genre will have reason to be extremely intrigued by what has happened, by what is about to happen, in Guatemala in 2023.
The people have elected a President whose proposed plan for government would be difficult to describe as radical. There is certainly no call for a significant redistribution of wealth and power.
Movimiento Semilla’s previous candidate for the top job, Thelma Aldana, was long considered conservative, but like Arévalo, her central political goal became one of restricting the impact of corrupt actors in and around government.
Yet the response of the mafias that prey on the state here to the popular choice of administration has been so shameless that it now threatens to undermine the very fabric of constitutional order in this country.
Since the first round results it has been clear that the Ministerio Público was inclined to discredit itself beyond hope of repair. But as of today, the Constitutional Court seems to have embarked on a parallel course.
We are reaching a point where the everyday credibility of the existing structure of law and governance might completely evaporate, and under the most minimal of pressure from unusual agitation.
Arévalo’s father began a process of reform which came unstuck under his successor, because it chose to cross a line that social democratic Costa Rica stopped just shy of — stepping on the toes of Eisenhower’s government, specifically the Dulles brothers with their interest in bananas.
Arbenz’s not especially radical proposal to repurpose fallow land then held by United Fruit led to his downfall and that of Guatemala’s first stab at a democratic state run broadly in the interests of the majority.
The second stab is at a crucial juncture. This Arévalo is making his stand on the hill of clean politics. The mafias know that uncorrupted government is possibly the most radical threat they could face, and that once they are squeezed out, it will be so much harder to force their way back in.
One might dream up all kinds of radical, populist nonsense and head to the polls, but it is the simple, easy-to-comprehend platform of Movimiento Semilla that appears most threatening to the forces of indecency.
The worrying thing is that they seem intent on bringing down the house around them as they fall.