RASTA RELEVANCE

It´s the blessing and the curse of the traveler, and the diplomat, to remain concerned about places they have loved during their wanderings. There isn´t a day I´m not thinking about Ethiopia, the setting of our most adventurous young years, or about Jamaica and about Cuba.

When things don´t go well in any of those places, one takes it, well, personally.

Ethiopia is going through very difficult times. We knew the country, in the late 1970s and early 1980s, as relatively stabilized—under a Marxist military dictatorship. Change came with the well-known pitfalls of African politics: the quasi-unavoidable identification of multiparty politics with ethnic and religious groups, and the differences and tensions between regions that have never fully embraced any central authority.

The late emperor Haile Selassie´s title King of Kings is often seen as just a very arrogant affirmation. In fact, it was also the recognition that there were still many regional rulers under the empire, and that The Conquering Lion of the Tribe of Judah had to acknowledge them, and often needed their support.

Traveling far and wide through the harsh beauty of the country, we became well aware how fragile its apparent stability was. Still, after the recent conflict in Tigray, it came as a shock to me that one of the most fascinating places in all of Africa, the ancient city of Axum, is now under threat of armed conflict. In the mindlessness of today´s semi-private wars, destruction of cultural heritage of immense value occurs all too often. I hope and pray that whoever attacks or takes control of Axum, doesn´t destroy the obelisks and the other monuments of the first Ethiopian Empire, dating back to the days of the pharaoh´s.

 Cuba, another place even closer to our hearts, isn´t doing well either, and not just because the pandemic has killed tourism, the island´s only real moneymaker since the late 1990s. On top of that comes the long-delayed conclusion that certain social experiments have run their course, and simply don´t work. But that´s easy to say, when the fundamentals to introduce and to absorb swift and necessary changes don´t exist, neither in the administration nor with the public.

Of Jamaica, I think with growing fondness. Not just because of many dear friendships there, but also because in the present state of the world, the self-sufficiency and the righteous lifestyle of the Rastafarian culture becomes increasingly attractive. That this was a mysterious and totally coincidental link between two phases of our travels, straight from Ethiopia to Rastaland, adds to the fascination.

The longtime traveler and the diplomat may claim a composite personality, made up of good things picked up on the way. In normal times that was a fantasy, even a luxury. Today, with all of us forced to find strength in ourselves, it feels like a necessity.

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CUBA’S ECONOMY: I TOLD YOU SO….

NO DOLLAR, NO SOAP

All of us who have worked for extended periods of time in Cuba have unavoidable I told you so moments. Leaving aside politics, where Havana will take no lessons from anyone anyhow, at least since 1995 for many diplomats it has been a near full-time job to plead for common sense in the economy.

The fall of European communism devastated the island’s economy, but clever tactical moves by Fidel made possible a relatively quick recovery.

The reforms went on till the bromance with Venezuela created the illusion that more radical changes were not necessary, after all.

What a sad mistake.

The blind faith in salvation from Caracas obscured all the other options: taking full advantage of the possibilities of investment from Brazil under Lula, hearing the pleas of the European Union to go on with deeper reforms to save, in the long run, the very social achievements the Revolution was justifiably proud of.

It was not to be.

The changes introduced in the late 1990s stranded in petty bureaucracy, controls and controls of the controllers, and envy and fear at the timid emergence of a new middle class.

Granted that COVID undermined the tourism which had become the new economy. But the remedies applied were worse than the illness. Incompetent currency manipulations shifted many necessary products to a reintroduced dollar market, but one set up with such complications as to make it inaccessible for the majority; and the prices in the new dollar market are ridiculously overblown.

As a remedy, salaries in the public sector were raised. But those salaries are so poor as to be largely symbolic. For the purchasing power of the majority of Cubans, this measure is the proverbial plaster on a wooden leg. At any rate, what you really need in your kitchen and your bathroom is no longer available in national currency. And whoever is taking the decisions seems not to be aware of what every freshman student in real-world economics knows: that even well prepared currency reforms drive up inflation. How much more so abrupt ones, out of the blue.

The decision just announced, to open up most sectors of the economy to private activity, is an admission that none of the above can work. It’s also the clearest I told you so moment. I can’t even begin to remember how often we pleaded to reverse the logic, to abandon the microscopically managed lists of tolerated private activities ( including such vital sectors as piano tuning and house painting), and replace it with a limited series of sectors rightfully to remain under public control. I often counted them on one hand: security and defense, energy, water supply, medical care, education. The European model after all, slightly adapted to Cuban history and experiences.

Will it work? The seas are rough and the ship is in bad shape. I hope and wish for success, from the bottom of my heart, for all my Cuban friends who are fed up with always being sacrificed to the stubborn dogma’s of a few at the top.

BREXIT: small print, small minds.

An amicable divorce is just as unlikely to happen in politics as between people. There may now be a Brexit deal with the European Union, but much of the small print remains to be written.

This is where ever smaller minds take over—not to imply that any superior intelligences were involved in the initiative in the first place. But now the pettiness will start.

One of the saddest aspects of Brexit is the loss of access by UK students to the vast network of exchanges between EU universities under the Erasmus program. What makes this even sadder, is that most young people in the UK were against Brexit. They may now miss out on the experiences that are creating EU citizens and citizens  of the world with minds without borders.

There is another point being discussed for the small print that bothers me deeply as a former EU diplomat.

Apparently the UK is thinking about downgrading the future EU Delegation in London from a full-fledged embassy, to the status of the country office of an ‘international organization’.

This is real backstabbing pettiness; and legally unsound.

The European Union is not an international organization like the UN and its related bodies. The reason is quite simple. The UN and all its related agencies are intergovernmental entities, where governments cooperate on the basis of sovereign equality. But the EU is unique in that it has taken over part of the member states’ sovereignty and exercises that part autonomously. Boris and the Brexiters should be all too well aware of this, as it was precisely their main claim to become fully independent again; that, in a campaign replete with as many lies as a Trump press briefing.

The EU is unique also in terms of diplomatic law. London might set a very welcome precedent for those states where EU policies voiced by full-fledged ambassadors are resented. Many a government would gladly send my colleagues to the back of the line in terms of attention, access and visibility when they try to promote Human Rights, a free press or honest elections.

More Brexit pettiness will certainly follow, on many levels.

What a bright idea for the future it is to reinvent borders, to put new power in the hands of customs officers and of the faceless bureaucrats who make up the extraterrestrial language of administrative forms, and run websites that are digital labyrinths leading you nowhere.  

And, that, precisely, may be where Brexit is heading with small print by small minds.

WELCOME BACK, AMERICA!

Four lost years are not exactly a biblical wandering through the desert, but they felt awfully tiresome. Plus, the desert is clean. Instead, the Trump years were more like walking endless and pointless circles in a wasteland.

As Europeans who have spent most, and the best, of our lives in the Americas, my family and myself have been infected with the greatest of American virtues: the belief in a new start and a brighter tomorrow.  This goes against the more cynical feelings we carry, unavoidably, as children of much bad history in European politics. President Biden’s inauguration brought back that America.

Rationally, I was thinking: you have two years, Mr Biden, to achieve a turnaround. Age and the burdens of the presidency will be working against you. Slim margins in Congress may or may not survive the midterm elections. A real Republican Party may re-emerge from the painful and embarrassing worship of the worst leader in the recent history of democracy.

But all those reflections fall away for a moment when hope is reborn, and when belief in the best in ourselves takes over. The magic of US politics is that this still works, even when we know that disappointments are unavoidable.

So welcome back, America! President Biden’s inaugural speech confirmed his determination but also his stamina. I almost felt his real impatience to roll up his sleeves and to start working. The great expectations also rest on the shoulders of vice-president Harris, who seems more than ready to assume them.

This was a very unusual inauguration without the crowds, and under a state of siege, left behind as only one of the many poisoned gifts of Mr Trump.  But strangely, the high content of the moment made up for the emptiness of the Mall.

Mr Trump’s absence was a last proof of his cowardice and lack of elegance; but in a way, his absence was welcome too, the clearest sign that his reign is over. He may yet come back as a political zombie, but one may hope that at least part of his following will now have seen him as just a sore loser and a coward, and as such very un-American.

Oh yes, a footnote I can’t forgo. Of the two great achievements of populist politics- Mr Trump’s election and Brexit, both built on lies and misinformation- only one is standing now, painfully revealed as yesterday’s novelty bought at a high cost.   It feels so stupidly irrelevant now, when America is back with the rest of the world.

A SILENT END TO SOUND AND FURY

Completely unnoticed by the world, on Dec. 12 died the former Ethiopian revolutionary politician Fikre Selassie Wogderess. I met him a few times when I was serving in Ethiopia as a young diplomat in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Fikre was then the Number 2 of the ruling military junta, the Derg in Amharic.

Mengistu copied from other autocrats in uniform, the lack of elementary courtesy towards foreign ambassadors by never receiving their credentials in person. That admittedly tedious honor fell to Fikre.

The ceremonies took place in the Jubilee Palace in Addis Ababa, the one built for emperor Haile Selassie´s 25th coronation anniversary in 1955. It is a kind of museum now, with the ghost of the emperor a useful tool to attract international tourism.

When I walked through it for a credentials ceremony in 1981, I was struck by the unlikely, indiscriminate collection of kitsch and valuables assembled in the rooms. The emperor, apparently, had made a point of keeping every present given or sent to him, be it by another crowned head or by a barefoot child during a foreign tour. There was something revealing and moving about that sentimental assemblage. And there was the other remarkable fact that none of this had been looted.

Fikre and his minions used the throne room for the credentials handover; but of course, to mark the difference with the fallen imperial régime, the throne was kept empty under the dais of the deceased Lion of Judah, and we sat a few feet away from it, in the typical vaguely neo-napoleonic chairs common to such interiors. I was amused to observe that the fabric of the throne had been covered in transparent plastic wrapping, such as wise housewives do in Africa and Latin America to shield their sofa´s from the ravages caused by feisty and sloppy kids.

Fikre, who had actively participated in the shootouts during Derg meetings that led to Mengistu´s emerging as the strongman, was so soft-spoken as to be almost inaudible. I was struck by his face as a series of squares. His forehead looked like a box and he wore glasses with large, square rims.

In spite of the menacing-sounding surname Wogderess, he was not the most sinister of the Mengistu crew. The party ideologue Legesse Asfaw had a more menacing and dogmatic aura, reinforced by the well-known fact that he had called his youngest daughter Abyiot, meaning ´revolution´in Amharic.

Fikre would eventually fall out of grace with Mengistu, but he was nevertheless sentenced to death by the courts judging the 15 or so years of military-Marxist rule of the country. The court case dragged on for a long time. It started in 1996, he was sentenced in 2008, the sentence was commuted in 2010, and he was freed in 2011. He lived long enough to write a book with his own version of the Ethiopian revolution and its deeds: the coup against the emperor, the mass execution of officials and imperial family members, the bloody purges against the civilian socialists, the wars and civil wars, the displacement of entire populations, tens of thousands driven into exile, the handling of the great famine of the mid-1980s…..

I could not help but musing about the anonymous exit of this insignificant looking man, who had risen to some prominence in a sinister context, and afterwards looked like just one more illustration of the ordinariness of evil. So much sound and fury imploding silently.

His former boss, Mengistu, still survives in exile in Zimbabwe.

Even more remarkably, two of Fikre´s former colleagues are still sheltered (since 1991) by the Italian Embassy in Addis. Italy always refused to extradite them because of the threat of the death penalty. Fikre and Mengistu´s other minions never had such qualms when they were riding high.

THE GIULIANI MELTDOWN

There is one good thing to say about Mr Rudy Giuliani these days. Obviously he doesn’t spent the same exorbitant amounts as his boss, Donald Trump, on his hair grooming. Hence a certain disaster with cheap dye.

But this literal meltdown was only the most recent episode in what has become a sad and embarrassing tale.

How can Mr Giuliani go on with his antics for so long, and still be considered a member of the New York bar in acceptable standing?

I started my professional life as a very young member of the bar in Antwerp, Belgium. Soon enough I found out that successful lawyers have political connections. They belong to political parties that nominate magistrates, and exchanges of courtesies and favors are a normal part of the system. This doesn’t systematically undermine the independence of either profession; but the result is, of course, that some lawyers are more equal tan others.

Mr Giuliani has thrived way too long on such connections. It would be even in the interest of what remains of his image to have him disbarred now, and sent off to retirement.

I always disliked Mr Giuliani. Like many New Yorkers who lived through his years as mayor, I was at best prepared reluctantly to accept him as a necessary evil for the city’s cleanup after the 1970’s-1980s chaos ( although, truth be told, those were also in their own ways very vibrant years in the city for my family and me…). And then there was his honorable and brave performance during the 9/11 tragedy.

If only not to spoil his better moments, a man once respected can only be allowed to make a fool of himself over and again in public for so long.

Disbar him already, New York.

BURNING THE PALACE

When I was working in Paris as a very young diplomat, a much senior colleague who had already been ambassador several times, reminded me that quite a few of the presidents he had presented his credentials to in the 1970s, had been killed in the coups d’état that were a routine, almost a political fashion in several parts of the world.

My colleague was a man of literary tastes. He called these circumstances his personal Ballade des Pendus, Ballad of the Hanging Men, after the medieval French poet Francois Villon.

I was reminded of it when we witnessed the ignominious end of Muammar Gaddafi, shortly after I had seen his last moments of glory at the United Nations, in 2009.

Mr Trump hanging on to his presidency beyond reason is not really in the same league, but it reminds us of another truth.

Democracy is not so much a system to elect leaders, as it is the best way to get rid of them when they misbehave, without resorting to the violence of other times. Not to forget that the beheading of kings and queens, mostly blamed on the French, was in fact an English invention in relatively recent history.

Hanging on indefinitely to power corrupts even those who started out well or at least well intentioned.

Power clearly went to Mr Trump’s head, after only four years. We don’t know what his exit will look like. Let’s just hope that his last follies don’t leave behind more devastation than he has caused already.

For burning the palace is also a temptation of a desperate fallen king.

NAGORNO-KARA…WHAT??

For centuries and even millenia, the region between the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea has been a hotbed of ethnic and religious confrontations. Even on a map, the narrow stretch of land looks claustrophobic, and maybe for that very reason tempted or condemned to be inward-looking, while at the same time being strategically important to ambitious neighbors.

All of this never comes out worse than in the cult of micro-nationalisms. This is an old sore in the wider Caucasus region. Historically even the Roman empire failed here at long-term pacification. Later on, it took a warrior Czar or an ruthless Stalin to keep the lid on. For a while, at least.

The end of the Cold War brought about the fluid world we’re currently living in, and with it the resurgence of nationalisms most of us have to look for with a magnifying glass.

Such is the case of the ongoing war between Armenia and Azerbaijan about the Nagorno-Karabach enclave. Add a dose of conflicting religions to the ethnicity, of course. The formula has never failed to work to stir up the next absurd war with real victims. Just look at the Balkans in the 1990s.

However hard one tries, what is respectable or humanly understandable about such conflicts? Frankly, to me: nothing. Not a bullet, not a drop of blood spilled.

Like other such conflicts, the Nagorno-Karabach wars are tragic miniatures of what Europe inflicted on the itself in 1914 when it started the First World War– which was strictly about nothing, cost millions of lives, devastated countries and societies and set the Twentieth Century on its fatal course.

The whipped-up nationalisms of the summer of 1914 sent millions of young men marching enthusiastically to their miserable and anonymous deaths in the gore, the mud and the shit of the trenches a few months later.

Was it really about nothing? Oh no, there was an underlying reason: arms manufacturers had to sell their wares, and have them used and destroyed so as to keep their factories going and their cash coming in. That same logic has applied ever since: it explains the protracted war in Vietnam, the equally unwinnable ones in Afghanistan and Iraq. This is what what happens when vast economies are controlled by arms manufacturing and its countless derivatives.

Local conflicts are useful in that logic to dump yesterday’s technology and ammunition close to expiry date on greedy little men in complicated places, where the logic of 1914 still applies.

Real young men are dying, real mothers, wives and girlfriends and sisters are mourning them. Too few see through the manipulations. And all of us, by our addiction to the news cycles, help to lend such conflicts an air of real and respectable history, instead of treating them like the irrelevancies they really are.

Both Armenia and Azerbaijan are ancient places with deep and fascinating cultures. Their people deserve better than to be dragged into these backward situations. No one these days will defend the way in which empires of the past dealt with nationalism. It falls to the people themselves, on all sides, to see the evil and to reject the manipulations.

THE ERRORS OF RACE

In the ongoing discussions and uproar about race, it created a stir here in Spain when the New York Times, in a recent article, seemed to subscribe to the notion that ‘Latin’ or ‘Hispanic’ is a separate and non-White ‘racial’ category.

To Trump supporters, it’s obvious that ‘White’ in the United States is back to its narrowest definition: Anglo-Saxon and Protestant, with maybe a little tolerance for Nordics….

Since names become labels, the definition of Latin or Hispanic depends on the two words that define a person for all practical and administrative purposes.

The Spanish press ridiculed the notion that well-known Spanish actors, with a career in the US like Antonio Banderas, should be considered Latino and hence non-White.

Banderas is a native of Malaga in Andalucía, certainly the region of Spain where over seven centuries or so, an unavoidable mixture occurred between Christians, Muslims (originally both from Syria and North Africa), and Jews.

The NYT article may have touched a nerve of some people in Spain, where ‘pureza de raza’ was an issue all the way from the 15th Century to Franco and where, not to forget, ethnic cleansing was invented with the mass expulsions of Muslims and Jews around 1500.

But as far as the present debate in the US is concerned, the notion of Latino as a racial category is a blatant absurdity. Anyone who has lived and worked in the Spanish-speaking Caribbean, will immediately see it as such. Spanish speakers in the Americas as a whole may be pure Caucasian (inasmuch as any ‘purity of blood’ ever existed), or pure Black, any shade of brown, Asian etc.

While ‘Hispanic’ may work as a linguistic category ( anyone who speaks Spanish or even Portuguese…), even that is hardly a convincing cultural argument, because of the great variety of accents, vocabulary etc within the Spanish speaking world. But of course, in the present climate, such nuanced truths are getting completely lost.

Short of generalized DNA testing, names define us. Being born with a Latin name and ancestry in Belgium, I have some experience.

In Antwerp where I was raised, hardly anyone could pronounce our name. And when as a young lawyer I took the oath to join the bar, the solemn magistrate who introduced me to the bench whispered under his breath: ‘Portocarero? My boy, with that name why don’t you enter the cigar trade instead?

I took it as a harmless joke back then ( that was in the mid-1970s…). It would be a scandalous insult and stereotyping today, I guess. The cynicism of the red-robed magistrate was curiously prophetic, though, because twenty years later I ended up living in Havana, one of the greatest crossroads of humanity and where my family name sounded reassuringly familiar.

Just in between, ten years after the cigar joke, when we first moved to New York, I ran into trouble with the board of the coop in the West Village where we were renting an apartment. I was notified, based on our name on the application, that the board was against admitting minorities in the building. Seriously? In 1985? And in Manhattan?

The issue was resolved but these days I often reflect on it. Do racial labels have to become more inescapable again, under the merest of pretexts? Hasn’t this error lasted long enough and caused enough harm?

I have to laugh about the mild and ultimately trivial forms of discrimination I experienced myself. But the issues are far more serious for many today, especially in the United States.

Already in the 1930s, the great Cuban anthropologist Fernando Ortiz called ‘race’ a ‘fraud’ ( El Engaño de las Razas) when he pleaded convincingly for the universal recognition of a shared humanity.

It seems, unfortunately, that this wisdom is getting lost these days.