MADURO

 

Nicolas-Maduro-Venezuela
EVEN BOLIVAR HAS HIS MISGIVINGS

Venezuela is sinking with Maduro standing stiffly on deck.

I was privileged to observe the president up close while attending the summit of Latin-American heads of state in Havana in January of 2014. It was an eventful and successful year for Cuban diplomacy. It opened with the entire continent coming together in Havana and the presidents subscribing to Cuba’s vision of its identity. The year closed with the reconciliation with the United States in mid-December. It’s hard to believe that both events are only five years behind us, so much have Latin America and the world changed.

Being invited to the inner cenacles where the presidents interacted personally was fascinating. I really felt like the fly on the wall. The days were long, extending late into the night: Fidel had retired but he was watching discreetly– and his nocturnal habits were still observed. So there was ample time to observe the presidents. What kind of figure did Maduro cut among his assembled colleagues?

It was an interesting crowd. There were leftist old-timers like Nicaragua’s Ortega, trying rather unsuccessfully to play the elder statesman; stars like Argentina’s Cristina Kirchner and Ecuador’s Correa; the telenovela-like first couple of Mexico, the plastic Peña Nieto’s. The very authentic Evo Morales of Bolivia. But there was the real star, a shabby old man, president Mujica of Uruguay who had survived torture and ten years of solitary confinement at the hands of his enemies of the Right. He came out an undaunted humanist, ending his short intervention in the formal debate with the unforgettable sentence La vida humana es un milagro en el inmenso silencio mineral del universo — ‘Human life is a miracle in the immense mineral silence of the universe’.

Oh yes- let’s not forget Maduro… In the informal gatherings he was as stiff as when he spoke in the debate, working himself up to a forced rhetorical climax. At their best moments, the presidents came together like a real family, friendships and rivalries and all. But Maduro did not fit in well. Both in words and body language, between shyness and grandstanding, he missed the timing and the talent of Hugo Chavez. Strong leaders seldom choose substantial deputies.

Granted, Maduro was new to the job. Chavez had passed in 2013, after shuttling back and forth between Caracas and Havana for his cancer treatment. He had been a ghostly presence– we saw his motorcade speeding up and down Quinta Avenida between meetings with Raúl Castro and the discreet clinics in Siboney. The Cuban hosts obviously treated Maduro as the rightful heir to Chavez their great benefactor, but became aware of his erratic personality. He created difficulties for his security detail, including when he kicked the driver out of his limousine and sped off driving himself, much to the horror of the ever stylish Cuban protocol officials.Trying to play a character, he only managed to be reckless. An omen of things to come, perhaps?

When most of Venezuela was plunged in the dark last week, I was of course reminded of the epic power cuts we lived in Havana in the mid-1990s. But Cuba, embattled and embargoed for half a century, had good reasons to explain its crumbling infrastructure. Venezuela has not. Invoking US intervention with an’ electricity war’ is unnecessary: homegrown incompetence and neglect did the job. The tragedy of Venezuela at present is that Maduro, stiff as ever, is unable to let go– but his opponent Juan Guaidó is young and inexperienced. Can he be a figure of national reconciliation? His making common cause with Trump and Pence, even seeming to invite US intervention at times, deeply troubles me, as it should anyone who remembers past US policy in the region– and I was a close witness to the invasion of Grenada, interventions in Haiti and the civil war in Nicaragua.

When Latin America came together in Havana in 2014, the common vision was on Maduro’s- or rather the late Chavez’– side. The tide has turned dramatically. Without ignoring the faults of the Left, I very much doubt that fascisto-populists like Brazil’s Bolsonaro ( whose middle name is Messias…) are the solution for the continent.

Maduro may want to go down with the ship. But he himself has scuttled it. Cuba, a very poor country next to Venezuela, has learned the hard way that one does not manage a society with slogans alone. Cuban survival skills have been and are admirable. They are sorely lacking in Caracas, as the wooden figure of a sinking Maduro all too well illustrates.

 

 

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JIHADI WOMEN & CHILDREN

Now that ISIS is breathing its last– on the battlefield, that is– the painful question what to do with the European and American jihadi widows and orphans is full on in the spotlight. Is it a humanitarian issue first and foremost? Unfortunately not.

I try to think about it as a lawyer, a diplomat and a human being. But, mind you: in that order.

First, we should agree on a number of definitions. Jihadi children? Not over the age of twelve, I would say- as the onset of adolescence does away with a presumption of total innocence. Second: is there a right to return for the mothers to their countries of citizenship? Depends. In many cases, their behavior– voluntarily joining a murderous and suicidal militia– could be enough reason to be stripped of that citizenship in the first place. But let’s presume they return. Then, the lawyer in me says without a moment of doubt, they should be brought to justice.

Are existing laws in Europe and the United States adequate to this? Not sure. Plus the burden of proof before a decent court can be difficult in these cases. Can/ should legislation then be adapted to the circumstances? Retroactive criminal law is against one of the basic principles of penal justice– but it’s certainly not unheard of. In Belgium, e.g. the special courts set up to judge Nazi collaborators after World War II were such an instance of retroactivity ( they were created after the deeds committed by the indicted).

The example may be interesting. Certainly a case can be made for special courts to be set up and, yes, to do so on a multicultural basis, adjoining Muslim judges. After all, ISIS stood/stands for a perverted interpretation of a religion many of the jihadi widows probably don’t have any more than the most superficial understanding of, anyway. They can be enlightened by more thorough knowledge of what they claimed to stand for. In many countries, the UK included, Islamic law has entered financial institutions through the backdoor; I can see valid reasons to make the returnees understand what they did or associated themselves with under proper Islamic law, too.

There is another angle to look at. In civilized countries, there are very precise standards to judge a person to be fit/unfit for parenthood. How many children are placed in foster care every year in the US by applying those standards? Well, if a junkie mother is unfit to raise her children, certainly a jihadi widow must be held, till solidly proven otherwise, to be much more so.

We all make good and bad choices when we are in our twenties. Joining ISIS from Paris, Brussels, Minneapolis or Chicago as a young woman as an ideal to be pursued, was not just a youthful mistake to be tearfully regretted (let alone cockily defended). It demands retribution and a road to redemption. Speaking as a human being, I also mean as a man with some experience of human nature and how it operates. The morally clueless are often a danger to themselves and all others. ISIS was not so much a caliphate as a death cult– as was the SS, yes. One of the first female suicide bombers in Iraq was such a lost soul from Charleroi, Belgium– a gloomy post-industrial city, yes, but aren’t there other ways out?

Then there is a social argument. I fear that bringing back the jihadi widows and children as if nothing has happened, would deepen suspicion and hatred of Muslims in general, the very last thing we need to happen in our already so fractured societies. Electorally, it would be a huge gift to the new fascists in Europe. Please, no.

The unforgiving ancient Bible has a much more radical solution. The sins of the fathers will be visited upon the children. That’s a terrible text from tribal ages. Are we or are we not becoming equally tribal again?

SLOW TRAIN COMING

amtrak lego
LIVING WITH TOY TRAINS

 

It seems that, in retribution of California’s lawsuits against Mr Trump’s border wall, he is now trying hard to kill that state’s high-speed train project linking Los Angeles with San Francisco. This holds personal aspects for me.

Used to the comfort and speed of European trains, in 2010-2011 when working in New York, I tried hard to bring European rail experience and technology to the US. It was not just the pride of promoting better EU technology. It was based on personal frustration. From New York I regularly had to travel to Boston on business. I took the ‘best’ of American trains, the AMTRAK/ACELA. The trip takes around four hours, to cover the same distance as the Eurostar does between Paris and Brussels, in one hour and fifteen minutes. While the AMTRAK trains are trying to imitate the design of the European fast locomotives, their progress is often painfully slow. Their sleek fronts are, alas, little more than camouflage.

eurostar-1200x800_c
THE REAL THING

The experience gained by lobbying in New York, DC and later in Texas confirmed the late-19th century state the entire US rail network was lingering in, and the powerful interests working against a better system. In Texas, the state authorities had a theoretical interest in a triangular high-speed rail link Houston-Austin-San Antonio, if only to alleviate the commuter traffic jams on the highways. But even the Texas Secretary of State confided to us that ‘most Texans see trains as fit for cattle only’. And the strongest opponents were politically well-connected regional airlines. We were somewhat flabbergasted when we had to explain that high-speed trains run on electricity, not on diesel fuel. That alone spoke to the state of reflection or (un)preparedness for the future of mass transit in the US.

Like is the case for all public infrastructures in the country, entering the future will require massive investments. President Obama had plans for three high-speed rail corridors. Maybe the most important one was DC-Boston via New York, linking the nation’s capital with the economic and financial hubs of the East Coast. But nearly all of the projects are dead and buried. When talking to the ACELA managers, what we sensed was simply a surrender against impossible odds. The existing train corridors were way too narrow and too twisted to accommodate high-speed. Tunnels were invariably from the 1890s. The money wasn’t there to attack all this, and the political will evaporated as the extent of the backwardness became clear.

We left it at that. The California project is the lone survivor of the fast-train dreams of the Obama years. The most politically and socially backward of US presidents ever, now wants to bury that one too, by reclaiming the federal grants invested in it. True, the project has had massive cost-overruns– but aren’t those unavoidable when one waits too long to take up public works, and much of your infrastructure is, literally, close to collapsing?

For meanwhile nothing is done to renovate other public infrastructures either. Southern Spain, where we are living, puts the entire US to shame with an elaborate and up-to-date highway and rail network, a pleasure to navigate, in dramatic landscapes requiring numerous spectacular bridges and tunnels.

Mr Trump has chosen to ride a slow train to nowhere, and to take America and even the world on board. How much longer?

 

Thank you, Mr Netanyahu !

Netanyahu
Shouldn’t I have said that?

I allowed myself a moment of cynical fun yesterday, when a planned summit of East European countries with Israel had to be cancelled over anti-Polish remarks of Mr Netanyahu. Ironically, the Israeli prime minister had just been the star at a conference in Warsaw pretending to form a new US-East European front against Iran, but was in fact part of the Trump-Pence-Pompeo strategy to divide the European Union further and deeper, to eliminate us as a player on the international scene.

Mr Netanyahu, used as he is to all the poison of Middle Eastern politics, still shot himself in the foot by referring to the Polish anti-Semitic past.

And damn right he was.

The present right-wing Polish government has been trying for years to rewrite the country’s history of virulent anti-Semitism around 1900 and again in the 1920’s and of course during the Second World War  That’s not a remote and abstract theme to me. The large Jewish community in the city of Antwerp where I grew up, consists almost exclusively of descendants of refugees from the successive waves of Polish pogroms.

The cancelled summit was to bring together Israel and the so-called Visegrad group of EU members, a lobby consisting of Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovakia. It’s an interesting group. All of them are adolescent democracies, became prosperous after the fall of communism thanks to EU funding — and next proceeded to work hard against the values the EU stands for. Many of their politicians were the sad trail-blazers of the racism and xenophobia that is now infecting other EU members. To stay on the theme of anti-Semitism– after all the most painful blemish of their past– even the Yellow Vest movement in France is now badly afflicted by it. Thank you.

The Trump-Pence-Pompeo trinity encouraging growing discord in the European Union is not just irresponsible. It’s close to criminal. The Visegrad countries as independent states were all created with great difficulty in 1919, in the midst of vicious ethnic and religious hatreds against each other. Their coming together under communist rule was enforced. Their integration in the democratic and enlightened community of the EU was a little miracle, a moment of grace in their contorted history. If now they can only plot mischief under US pressure and against the gains the EU has brought them, that’s sad, but also immensely stupid.

Mr Netanyahu, unwittingly, did the EU a great favor by reminding our East European friends of their history, while they are busy repeating the darkest pages of it.

HAITI, AGAIN

Haiti rioting
COME TOGETHER! BUT NOT LIKE THIS, PLEASE.

 

Poor Haiti is once again in the news for all the wrong reasons: rioting, looting, blood in the streets. In a country so desperately poor and unable to recover from its catastrophes, adding to the misery by destroying what little there is, seems stupid and absurd,

Who is to blame for Haiti’s unending plight? The country’s situation is so peculiar that the potential list is long. Have your pick: colonialism; slavery; racism; Napoleon; US interventionism; white missionaries; the Catholic church; the Duvalier family (Papa & Baby Doc); president Aristide (defrocked Catholic priest, false populist prophet if ever there was one); thugs and militias (Papa Doc’s ‘Tonton Macoutes’ and Aristide’s ‘Chimères); drug cartels; clueless NGO do-gooders; UN peacekeepers; bad neighbors (the Dominican Republic); US economic policies; hurricanes; earthquakes; God.

I love Haiti: the spirit and energy against all odds, the creativity, the great style and présence of her intellectuals, the fight of her few courageous entrepreneurs to create and to maintain jobs. I know some of them personally, and have often admired their resolve in choosing to remain on the front lines rather than to go into comfortable exile. My own experiences with Haitian politicians confirm how inept and corrupt they were and probably are.

Of the above list, obviously they are prime suspects. But that’s not even the point. It’s the society that has to heal itself. Looting is not the best formula for the redistribution of wealth, but looking down from the heights of Pétionville to the slums of Cité Soleil, one understands it. I ventured into Cité Soleil only once myself, but the place is easy to decipher. Ghetto life is the same everywhere, because the ghetto is not made in the first place of shacks and zinc fences and the absence of plumbing: it’s a state of mind, a mental slavery indeed, as Bob Marley had it. Rioting and looting are the ghetto’s shopping spree.

France, the colonial power, ironically, is going through her own street riots at the same time. The small shopkeeper with the broken windows and the looted shelves shares a plight across History and the ocean. Recovery will be easier in Paris than in Port-au-Prince. But in France, too, society is unreconciled with itself. And where is that not the case today? Haiti is just a painful paradigm of extremes.

This list above raises the question how far back one should go to assign blame for seemingly intractable situations. But there is a very simple, if politically very incorrect answer. Maybe today’s Haitians should blame themselves collectively for not coming together, for never since independence– in 1804 !– producing even a half-decent politician, for falling for one corrupt and inept leader after the other. I don’t know where to start to do something about it. Maybe completely erasing the list of ancient culprits would be a first step.

M. Pompeo’s weight- of History

 

Hungary US Diplomacy
They would be funny if the script weren’t so sinister

US Secretary of State, Mr Mike Pompeo is on a European tour with a mission from his boss to sow more discord. That’s not too difficult these days in our European Union, with its growing divides and neofascist politicians. Please stop referring to them– in Hungary and Italy especially– as populists. That’s just a euphemism. Fascism, the real thing, being on the rise all over Europe, is illustrated by the wave of anti-Semitism in France: the ever more frequent desecration of graves, and swastika’s painted over portraits of the late Mrs Simone Veil, one of the greatest politicians of recent French history.

Fat and jovial-looking Mr Pompeo is under orders to carry out a sinister task ill-fitted with his appearance and maybe even with his own convictions and experiences. But he’s a good soldier, of course, and his part is scripted by the White House and by National Security Advisor Bolton, one of the worst caricatures of diplomacy ever to walk the corridors of the United Nations ( where he, an occasional proponent of dismantling the organization, briefly served as ambassador).

In Budapest, Mr Pompeo was hosted by Hungarian Foreign Minster Peter Szijjarto, a young man with a dubious haircut ( was he a punk before they bought him a suit?) and even more dubious rhetoric. Hungary, we were told, shares the US priorities to stop immigration, to encourage nationalism– and to save christianity. His words.

Indeed?

I’m trying to be fair. Hungary’s history in the 20th Century was a very troubled one. The country, created on the ruins of the Habsburg monarchy in 1919, hardly survived invasions by its neighbors who grabbed much Hungarian ethnic territory. The redrawing of the map of central Europe was a mess everywhere, leaving minorities stranded under the wrong government all over the place. But Hungary’s delegates at the peace conference in Paris in 1919 did not serve their cause when they stated that Hungarians could not live under the rule of inferior races- meaning Rumanians and Czechs. Ouch!

Mr Pompeo went on to Poland, another country with a deeply troubled history and identity, there once more to divide Europeans, this time about Iran.

All this meddling is simply evil. The more one knows about the past of central Europe, the more one has to see what a noble endeavor of reconciliation the European Union brought- or tried to bring- to these lands of bad history writ large. But there is more. Mr Pompeo’s mission is the equivalent of the EU sending an emissary to the US South to proclaim that segregation wasn’t so bad after all.  How would that feel, M Pompeo?

We’re having elections for the European parliament this coming May. The results may be more or less catastrophic for Europe’s future, with the Far Right progressing, and anti-EU delegates cheerfully enjoying the perks and privileges of an organization they want to fail, like Mr Bolton at the UN.

Mr Trump can inflict serious damage on the United States as a country and a society, and he is indeed trying hard. But the US will bounce back. Salvation and the return of common sense are probably just a few elections away. But Mr Trump’s minions exporting his non-vision to this side of the Atlantic are tinkering with far more fragile situations in Europe, where damage will be much more difficult to heal, given the weight of history. We may also recall how Mr Bush Jr. managed to divide Old and New Europe about the Iraq war, a glorious achievement no doubt looking at the region today.

How ill-thought, how pathetically incompetent the discourse about nationalism is, can best be judged by the Brexit tragicomedy. Please go home, Mr Pompeo, and let us handle our own shit.

 

 

 

GREAT DIVIDES

Chasm

 

To a recently retired diplomat, today’s world offers a daily spectacle that is at the same time exhilarating, frightening, frustrating and more than once, hilariously absurd.

I became a diplomat in 1978… and it was not just a different age, it was also a different profession. The recent ‘diplomatic’ row between Italy’s neofascist politicians and French president Macron is, most of all, embarrassing to any educated person in Italy, apart from being stupid and sad. Italy accusing France of enduring colonialism in Africa? Please, people in Rome and elsewhere, sweep a bit in front of your own historical doorstep. It’s not that long ago that your families went hysterical about Mussolini when he invaded Ethiopia- blessed by the pope, too, as bringing civilization to savages- whereas Ethiopia was christian even before many parts of Europe. But who cared? The Duce had spoken. Want to to go back there?

That type of ignorance has only become worse. Today, to me it’s one of the most frightening aspects of many societies. It makes it ever easier for the Trumps of this world, and their counterparts in Italy, Hungary, Poland and elsewhere, to sell sanitized or entirely rewritten versions of the past as guides to the future…

The lack – or the presence- of real education is the first Great Divide defining the world today. Cynical elites in the past, well into the 20th Century, have always benefitted from this.

When I was growing up in Belgium, life in the countryside was still described as a plot between the village priest and the local mayor. When having dinner together every saturday, the mayor would tell the priest: as long as you keep ’em stupid, I’ll keep ’em poor. It had worked for centuries, and sometimes it feels as if we’re on the way back there.

The other divide is narrowly related to education too. These days, it’s not just US society that’s deeply split between Mr Trump’s Know-Nothings and the other half struggling to maintain some kind of civility and informed citizenship. Everywhere you look the same kind of 50/50 divide occurs: in the UK regarding Brexit, in Barcelona regarding Catalonian independence, in France for or against the Yellow Vests, in Turkey between islamists and secular citizens…  How come?

It may be that representative democracy as a system of government has been stretched to the limits. Encouraged by the immediacy of the social networks, everybody wants to be heard all the time, and the world is a much fuller place with far more people to satisfy that when most constitutions were written. 50/50 rules in democracy always risk leaving half of the voters disappointed. There are ways out of this: becoming a national reconciler on the day after an electoral victory; turning the fifty-fifty rule into a consensus system ( Belgium has survived many a political storm by this method, requiring infinite patience and flexibility); or evolving to a more direct democracy, by way of referenda on any important issue.

A referendum is a dangerous instrument, though. Look at Brexit again. It’s now abundantly clear that no one in Britain had any clue what leaving the EU would entail– the politicians least of all, shameful to say. But even worse: when the referendum was set up, it should have been obvious to any experienced politician that the voters were going to judge the question by their own criteria, and they were, simply enough: stay in the EU if it was good for your job, leave the EU if you were upset about the Pakistani shopkeeper, the Afghan refugee and the Polish plumber in your country. The risk is that any referendum will be used for diverted purposes. My humble advice to president Macron is, for now, to stay away from referenda to counter the Yellow Vests.

While I was working with the United Nations, for many years I spent part of the summer in Geneva. I saw direct democracy at work. The Swiss voted very frequently on any issue of national interest. It went, and goes, together, with an absence of political stardom. I defy myself to name any Swiss politician since the days of William Tell, he who shot the apple on his son’s head at some time in the 14th Century…. Try and name one yourself. Yes, this looks like a directly self-governing society– but isn’t Swiss history all to peculiar to make such a system viable elsewhere? Then again– repeated referenda will probably just consolidate another form of the fifty-fifty rule, and the inevitable divide. And beware: discrediting representative democracy in the name of myths of national unity, would undermine the very essence of democracy. Been there, done that- see the 1930s in Germany and, yes, Italy. In the end- better still a divided society than one where 1% pretends to be thinking and speaking for 99%.

Worldwide, it’s possible that the social media platforms evolve into a kind of global direct democracy– that is, if they get rid of the loads of ignorance, bad grammar and abysmal spelling they now all too often convey in any language. However many European politicians loathe Mr Trump, his twittering has long infected their voters as well, and they will ignore this digital populism at their own risk.

I feel that at this point of their development, social media are contributing to lowering standards of education and discourse, by making any opinion seemingly relevant– whereas many, frankly are not. But this is again a slippery slope. Linking levels of education to political rights is a dangerously reactionary argument of course, used for centuries against universal suffrage. Not a road to travel. It’s well possible that Hillary Clinton’s scorn for Trump voters as a basket of deplorables cost her the White House. Many of us did and do think so, of course. But you don’t say it when every vote counts, as it has to.

The Trump presidency did hurl us into a tornado of deplorable language. Maybe, after all, the greatest divide is one of speech, between those who try to maintain a civilization of words and sentences, and those who will settle for ### !!! ***.

I’ve always been fascinated by the Latin language: how it evolved with its complicated and nuanced grammar while spoken by a humble people of goatherds and olive growers. Was their rich language the compensation for material poverty?

Poverty, in the end, is still the deepest divide, simply between the Have’s and the Have Not’s anywhere. Hence the globally growing migrant crisis. I have studied enough statistics to know that poverty and inequality, worldwide, are supposedly receding. But what happens next? People brought out of poverty by good policies are often the ones to turn against their political benefactors. Brazil going fascist after the Lula years of vast social improvement- not without corruption, of course- is only the most striking example. In Europe, social democrats, heirs to epic struggles between the 1890s and the 1930s, either joined the middle class vote or, if they are still disgruntled about whatever, now vote populist. Does this make better social policies more difficult? Probably. Once you’ve jumped a social divide, you may prefer not to look back at where you started.

How will all of this play out? Within borders, in ever more acrimony between classes, regions, groups? On a global scale, in a new World War, in a new Cold War ( if we haven’t that already)? No idea. Diplomats have failed throughout last century to prevent the worst. They stood by, or served the wrong interests, while inept or evil politicians and ignorant or slavish generals prepared for two World Wars, and for decennia of religious and ethnic intolerance all the way from 1890 till the Balkan wars in the 1990s, blessed by churches and mosques, as the case might be.

I still want to be hopeful that my profession can do something here or there against a specific divide. I was a small participant in the peace process in Colombia; it’s still on, not without hitches, of course. I hope that the UN may bring about some kind of result in Yemen. But where are the true diplomats in Syria, in Afghanistan? Do they even stand a chance? Can they heal Venezuela?

I admit that, personally, I’m observing all this from the good side of many divides, socially and even physically: looking at Africa from the vey edge of Europe, over the desk where I’m writing this. Are societies and the world as a whole more divided now than in the lifetime of the two previous generations? Maybe it just feels that way, because there is so much more immediacy to all struggles anywhere.