Although I never served in his country, Mr Mugabe’s passing brings back some significant memories.

We had just arrived for my first overseas diplomatic duties in Ethiopia, in the summer  (or rather the rainy season) of 1979, when the independence process of the former Rhodesia was concluded with the elections. The then Ethiopian leader, col. Mengistu Haile Mariam, had been a staunch ally of Mr Mugabe during the liberation struggle.

Due to some hiccup, the Ethiopian state media believed at first that his rival, Joshua NKomo, had won the elections. Disappointed, Mengistu’s people (in this case the East German STASI agents who wrote for the English-language Ethiopian Herald) announced ZIMBABWE ELECTIONS RIGGED.  Not that we attached much credence to the paper even when it had the facts right, but of course we sniggered about this political gaffe when the truth came out and Mengistu’s man was the winner after all.

A few years later, when we settled in Jamaica, Bob Marley’s concert during the independence celebrations in Harare in April of 1980 was seen as the reggae-star’s highest moment. It was a leap forward for reggae and its greatest ambassador, to be accepted as a legitimate political force worldwide.

Fast forward. As with so many things in Africa after independence, the high hopes turned increasingly sour. In 2011, I was involved in the proceedings when the European Union imposed sanctions on Mugabe and his colleagues in government in reaction to his increasingly dictatorial rule. I saw Mugabe a few times at the UN, but never up close till…

Fast forward again. September 2012: the Belgian diplomacy in New York is hosting princess Astrid, the sister of king Philip, who is UN goodwill-ambassador for the fight against malaria. Who turns up, uninvited, at the celebration in a major midtown Manhattan hotel? Mr Mugabe… The clever old man was provocative as ever. He tried to inch close enough to the princess to be in a picture with her, so as to embarrass the countries sanctioning him…. A curious little choreography developed, with Mr Mugabe’s security pushing one way, and we, Belgian diplomats, countering the moves with, of course, diplomatic subtlety.

That’s when I saw the man for real. He looked remarkably durable for his then 88 years. And although he was transpiring profusely, his eyes were alert and his mouth set harshly. He was a bit of a living monument, like it or not- and in spite of the narrow, Hitlerian mustache.

Due to the long-lasting unrepentant racism in Southern Africa, Zimbabwe came twenty years late to her independence. But the cycles the country have gone through are not different from what has passed and is still ongoing in other places on the continent. Mr Mugabe’s legacy is politely called ‘mixed’. So is our own, of all the former colonial powers, in Africa. It was one of Mr Mugabe’s greatest mistakes to make powerful enemies, most notably in London and the BBC, who responded in kind to his hatred.

Maybe his last true friend was Col. Mengistu, who is still hiding out in Zimbabwe where he found refuge after his fall in 1992. Mr Mugabe may have been a dictator, but he had his loyalties.





As a particularly hot summer is winding down, what’s on my mind?

I’m long past indignation for Mr Trump’s antics of all kinds on whatever subject. The recent heat has done him no good. He’s more erratic by the day, and it should become clearer than ever that he’s a mentally unstable person. But have no illusions: his supporters may still stand firm, and sunstroke is but the least of his ills.

There is a long laundry list of other issues to be worried about: the burning Amazon, Boris Johnson’s assault on centuries of democracy in the United Kingdom (and dragging the Queen down into the arena with him), to name only two.

From my observation post near Gibraltar, I felt close to one of the battlefields when the Iranian oil tanker was to be liberated from the Straits.

But a more troubling and very personal connection came all the way from Colombia, when one of the FARC commanders, Ivan Marquez, denounced the peace accord with the government and called for renewed armed combat.

I had been involved in all the stages of the peace agreement concluded in Havana, and very early in the process I met Sr. Marquez several times in my own house, when the European Union was exploring how to help forwarding the process. Sr. Marquez was then based in Havana, and clearly enjoyed much support from the Cuban side. The other FARC negotiators had to travel to the Cuban capital under complicated and secret arrangements because the FARC were still listed as a terrorist organization, and the emissaries risked capture and extradition. Marquez moved around discreetly in Havana, with the unmistakable aura that surrounds a character of violence and intrigue.

But because he was at hand, he became our most convenient counterpart.

His announcement is also a slap in the face of his long-time Cuban supporters. Cuban diplomacy worked hard and well to achieve the agreement. The main Cuban go-between, Rodolfo Benitez, was a good colleague and friend of mine. I don’t know how he feels about the situation now.

It would have been naive to think that more than half a century of civil war intermingled with cocaine production and trade from all sides, could be brought to an easy conclusion. There would unavoidably be bumps in the road. But the resumption of armed struggle is more than that. 

The EU representative for the Colombia peace process, Mr Eamon Gilmore, was a veteran of the Irish reconciliation. We often talked about the similarities and the differences between the two cases; but he always warned of exactly what is happening now with Sr. Marquez: that dissenting commanders may at any time derail or subvert the process.

It’s sad to think that, due to Sr. Marquez in Colombia and to Boris and the Brexiteers in London,  both those peace deals have now become shaky.


Brexit, wanted by about half of the voters in the UK, to me feels like the last return to British imperial insularity. Is there any reason to rejoice over it?

When looking at PM Boris Johnson’s maiden speech in the Commons, who but those who wanted to be fooled could believe any of his simplistic rhetoric? As one of his colleagues said, he has built a career on lies and self-promotion. 

Does it work?

Not really.

Mr Johnson was put in office by 95.000 members of his own party, out of millions of UK citizens, and even within the Conservative Party, one third of voting members rejected him. So his real constituency equals the size of the population of a provincial town. The rules of the game are what they are in a democracy, and one has to respect them. But within his own party, obviously Mr Johnson is preaching to the choir, and outside the party it’s doubtful that he will gain any conversions.

In US politics, I still believe in the possibility of new beginnings, every four or eight years. The reason is simple: compared to our European democracies, with so much history on our shoulders, the US is still a very young country that can go down several different paths.

That’s a luxury we don’t have in Europe anymore: we have to assume what we are, warts and all.  Be it about immigration, cultural diversity, geopolitical balance…. the only decision-makers to be trusted are the ones who comprehend that we are dealing with tectonic shifts that will affect generations, and that we need subtle and patient governance…..

But then, the simplistic rhetoric of making great again is absurd and dangerous.The last thing that will work is to retreat behind the walls of the castle.

When politicians become caricatures, it points to an evolution. States as we still have them are in many respects things of the past, when even absurd beliefs could be imposed by repression and fear. This culminated with the Hitlers, the Stalins and the Mussolini’s of the Twentieth Century.

Can’t we begin to emancipate ourselves from that kind of politics and politicians? They seem to be riding high right now, be it the provincial fascists in Hungary and Poland, even in Italy, and Mr Trump haranguing his endlessly manipulated storm troops.

And yet, maybe the very buffoonery comes just before the loss of credibility, when it becomes all too obvious that there are none but dead ends to populism and fascism.

Every time a politician becomes a buffoon, I hope that we will reach the difficult,  tortuous but ultimately hopeful transition from states to societies, to form a human species that is more and more self-governing.


Here comes Boris!

Boris Johnson
Well, at least the hair looks real

Mr Boris Johnson seems slated to become the next occupant of 10 Downing Street after Mrs. May moves out, probably the most pathetically incompetent ever inhabitant of the famous address.

But Boris? Between continuous bad hair days in Washington and London, the world should hold its breath.

Or should it?

There is a theory in British parliamentarianism that the very buffoonery in the House of Commons plays a political rôle, reminding solemn kings that the real power rests with, well, the common man, who has no need to hide his opinions behind the moth-balled gravitas of the monarchy.

There was another Boris in world politics, who made the point that democracy is, among other things, the Muppet show of power: Mr Yeltsin, the only democratic president ever of Russia, drunk and jolly while his country discovered the challenges of freedom, soon to be relieved of them by the imperial Mr Putin, napoleonic both in stature and in ambitions.

Interesting sequences of characters in both cases.

I’m curious to see how the new Boris will handle the mess left by Mrs. Dismay. The Moscow Boris also left a terrible mess, cleaned up by Vladimir I at rather a high price to his people’s freedoms.

London Boris may have an even more difficult task with a parliament behaving ever more like the pub at closing time, while sinister scenario’s are unfolding in many places on the planet.

What are we all doing to ourselves?

It seems often to me that the political class, worldwide, is making a point of proving their own growing irrelevance, by their behavior and even their appearance. Our so-called leaders, alas, can still inflict much harm ( and quite a few of them are trying hard), but we as individuals and societies will be left more and more to our own devices when it comes to finding solutions to our very real problems.






Next year will see the ten-year nationwide census in the United States. I have very precise memories of the previous one in 2010, when we were living in New York City and duly participated, filling out our forms.

I had been honored to be received by mayor Bloomberg at Gracie Mansion when he launched the New York census there. It was one of those occasions that endeared the mayor to me forever, with his no-nonsense approach, his always direct but never disrespectful sayings (where did that skill go, among so many others?) and his embodiment of a welcoming and all-embracing New York City.

The complex questionnaire of the census had me musing about identity. By US standards, should I declare myself Latino based on ancestry? –as Americans routinely say, after many generations, my folks were Swedish e.g. when questioned about a non-Anglo-Saxon family name.

The form wisely stated that Hispanic origins are not races. Indeed, they are not, and even the general term ‘Latino’ fails to diversify between so many shades and accents of American Hispanidad. But the one question a New York resident of whatever plumage, status or ascendency did not have to answer was: are you a US citizen? For once, it felt, a federal procedure followed New York rules.

 It was probably unavoidable in the present climate that Mr Trump should want to add that question for the 2020 census. The Supreme Court disagreed in spite of its infusion with Trumpian minions. Bravo, honorable judges, this once. But that doesn’t settle the question.

With his initiative, Mr Trump has probably sown enough suspicion among non-citizens and especially among the undocumented, to have them sidestep the census.

If they miss the great headcount, large portions of de facto residents in cities like New York and San Francisco will go unrecorded. And in turn, this underreporting may affect federal subsidies and other grants to, you get it, the sanctuary cities where the undocumented were traditionally welcome.

For his anti-immigration demagoguery, Mr Trump is willing to sacrifice one of the great moments of the true spirit of the US, the all-inclusiveness.




A good story to prove that the rock of Gibraltar, which I’m surveying from a distance while writing this, is the center of the world: a Panama-registered but Iran-owned mega- tanker, purportedly smuggling oil to Syria via a circumnavigation of Africa, is detained by the British navy under pressure from the United States and under the nose of the Spanish, through whose territorial waters the ship was probably passing.

At the same time, in the next-door Spanish port of Algeciras, the best smugglers’ haven in Europe, the head of the narcotics brigade was arrested for being in league with the local cocaine-king, Emilio el Moro. If the captain of the detained Iranian ship had steered a few miles further to the east, he would probably have made it through, as customs and police were otherwise engaged.

Never a boring day at the Straits!

The Gibraltar authorities love the global attention, as it offers them a golden opportunity fully to display their eternal micro-colonial allegiance to London. Gibraltar British Forever!

Never mind the question if after Brexit, EU imposed sanctions against Syria will still be part of the deal for the UK. Like Gibraltar’s own future status, such questions are best left as vague as possible. Is Gibraltar to be the Hong Kong of the Mediterranean? With Madrid playing the role of another Evil Beijing, chipping away at a special status?

In the present-day absurdities of politics in London, Madrid and elsewhere, no scenario is crazy enough. Whipped-up British nationalism in the numerous English colony of the Costa del Sol often rants and raves against incomprehensible Spanish laws- incomprehensible because the vast majority of the British residents speak not more than three words of Spanish, even after living here for decennia.

But here’s another point. I have no clue what it costs to sail a fully loaded large oil-tanker more than twenty thousand kilometers around Africa for three months, to smuggle its cargo to a forbidden destination. But I do know from long professional experience, monitoring sanctions-running at the United Nations, how lucrative it is. The Iraq Oil-for-Food program became a vast scheme of global corruption, with high-placed UN functionaries gladly participating.

So the entire botched operation was either lucrative enough to undertake, or someone was willing to invest in it at a loss.

Either way, the situation is another step in a dangerous and perfectly avoidable confrontation between the US and Iran.

Dragging a confused and rudderless London deeper into it, and encouraging loyalist flag-waving in ‘Gib’, while at the same time driving a wedge in the EU policy towards Teheran, neatly fits the agenda of the hawks in DC.

And leaves us all in dire straits.








Here we go again, with a – uh- colorful line-up of Democratic presidential hopefuls. I always find the early starts and the long election campaigns somewhat exhausting, but they give ample opportunity to observe US politics as a mixture of real debate and sometimes unintended slapstick.

Republican commentators are delighted that the Democrats seem to engage in a struggle to prove each candidate more to the Left than the next. A sure bet for four more years of Mr Trump, as they see it.

Or is it?

Is there a real demand for ‘socialism’ in the United States?

Let’s first agree on the term. In spite of Mr Sanders’ revolutionary rhetoric, the questions of more social and fiscal justice, viable and affordable health care and better access to quality education are not radical slogans but should be seen as matters of intelligent governance in the long run.

In that sense, yes, an American socialism is needed.

But after spending most of my life as a ‘transatlantic’ professional, a European with long experience of, and deep love for, the United States, I feel that this is the limit of ‘socialism’ for the US. European political and social systems are grounded too much in control of the citizenry, in cumbersome bureaucracy and, ultimately, in discouraging private initiative, for the US to imitate them beyond the basics.

A more private reflection. When my mother visited us in New York in the 1980s, she was retired in Belgium after a difficult life with many struggles. She came out well; but after a week in New York, at the age of 66, she said that she would move there immediately if she was younger. ‘Yes, it’s fascinating but it’s also a very harsh place,’ I argued. ‘Things have been harsh for me too’, she replied, ‘but here I would have had opportunities I never had back home.’

That’s the spirit. To undermine it with more ‘socialism’ than is called for, would simply be wrong. My mother wanted to be a winner, not someone the State had to take care of.

Yes, many social situations in the US do require reforms, precisely to spread opportunities more evenly. But Democrats should keep in mind the delicate balance between that and a much more invasive ‘socialism’. Which, by the way, they would be unable to deliver, at any rate.