Sunday, December 7, 2014

The Heart of Darkness: The Sequel


The Heart of Darkness is the title of a short novel written by Joseph Conrad in 1899. The novel was written upon Conrad’s return from an assignment as a riverboat captain in Belgian Congo. The novel is about abuse, greed, and moral corruption to the point of madness. Conrad’s story exemplified the most evil and brutal aspects of imperialism and colonialism. In 2014, this dismal scenario remains unchanged. Slavery, child soldiers, (neo) colonialism, resource-led imperialism and conflicts are wrecking the life of the Congolese people. The recently released investigative documentary Virunga shot in 2013 in the eastern part of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), also known as Congo makes the chaos of the movie Apocalypse Now look bland. As a matter of fact, Apocalypse’s director, Francis Ford Coppola, used The Heart of Darkness as an inspiration for his 1979 film.

Congo is too rich for its own good. The country suffers from the so called “resource curse”, the paradox of plenty. Plunder started early: in the 15th century, when Portuguese explorers and traders discovered the Kingdom of Kongo with its impressive natural wealth. Soon the Europeans embarked on lucrative human trade which, for nearly four centuries, supplied some 4 million slaves to the New World. Chaos ruled until 1885 when colonial law and order was forcefully imposed by the King of Belgium. Through proxies, King Leopold ruthlessly ruled a country the size of Western Europe as his personal farm. The transatlantic slave trade had stopped but slavery became a domestic institution to provide expandable and inexhaustive human labor for the ever increasing pillage of natural resources. Rubber, ivory, exotic wood, and precious minerals had advantageously replaced human cargo.

Independence came in 1960, chaotic and bloody. The tenets of the resource curse, imperialism and greed, were here to stay but under a new guise. Tyranny was home grown and imperialism was led by the western mining industry which enriched the ruling elite and impoverished the masses. The dictator left the scene nearly two decades ago but DRC has not overcome its past trauma. Very much to the contrary, the country is increasingly sliding towards being a failed state, corrupt, violent, lawless and disease-prone. Congo has the dubious privilege of being the cradle of both HIV/AIDs and Ebola.

The resource curse has become a catch phrase for bad governance. The mix of resource abundance and poor governance is a lethal combination in resource-rich Congo. This land of plenty enriches its greedy leaders and armed rebellion, covetous neighbors and the rapacious foreign industry. It causes never-ending conflicts and human suffering. It is very much a Catch 22 situation. Bad governance and conflicts destroy the domestic economic fabric therefore for financial and political survival the government increasingly depends on the growth of resources extraction, legal or illegal. The export-led extraction industry can operate in an offshore mode, unaffected by the surrounding unrest. On the other side, the warlords follow the same strategy. They boost wildcat mining and market its output to finance and prolong ethnic conflicts predominantly in the eastern part of the country. If natural resources were not so plentiful and easily mined, DRC would certainly be more peaceful and developed.



                                 Mineral Occurrences in DRC

Mining revenues are hard to assess as the government’s book keeping is notoriously opaque and sloppy, to the point that millions of dollars often go missing. In 2013, $US 88 million disappeared somewhere between the tax agency and the treasury. In 2012, mining and oil made about twenty percent of the country gross domestic product and ninety five percent of its exports (eitii data[1]). To make matters worse, natural resources, except for diamonds are mostly occurring near Congo’s eastern and south-eastern borders with less than friendly neighbors. In the aftermath of the Rwanda genocide (1994), the fleeing Hutu militias the “génocidaires”, spilled over the border and created havoc on the local communities. Since then, Congo’s eastern part, the state of Kivu has been particularly volatile and lawless. To carry on fighting, the intruders press-ganged child soldiers and took to mining.

           socially responsible coltan

                         Socially Responsible Mining: Kivu Style.

The province of North Kivu is well endowed with gold, tin and coltan (short for columbo-tantalite) a valuable mineral used in cell phones, laptops and other electronic devices.. All three are extracted with pick and shovel by wild-cat miners. Coltan is very much in demand. The conflicts are clearly mineral resources-fed. From a tribal-based origin, the armed groups morphed into rag tag gangs similar to the South American drug gangs. They control the mines, market their loot, protect their commercial networks and sell the proceeds in neighboring Rwanda, Burundi and Uganda which overnight became exporters of minerals they never produced! To achieve their commercial goals, the warlords commonly resort to forced labor: children are used as mine laborers, women are exploited as sexual slaves and indiscriminately raped.

The most nefarious warlords are wanted at the International Criminal Court (ICC) to face charges of crime against humanity. One is actually on trial in The Hague and two others are in jail in Uganda and Rwanda. The fighting has abated lately, but North Kivu remains a very unsafe region. As long as valuable minerals can be mined with pick and shovel benefitting both the armed groups and the senior leaders of Uganda and Rwanda, these partners in crime will have little incentive to foster peace in the region. In spite of the current precarious peace agreement, conflicts can resume anytime.

Before becoming infamous for the proliferation of criminal armed groups, 25 so far and still counting, North Kivu was renowned for the natural beauty of the lush Albertine Rift Valley, its active volcanoes, lakes with bountiful fish and rich fauna. With a view to preserving this natural wonderland, in 1925, King Albert I of Belgium established the 7800 square kilometers (3000 sq. miles) Virunga National Park, the oldest park in Africa. In 1979, it was the first African park to be granted UNESCO World Heritage site status[2]. The park’s most celebrated denizens are the endangered mountain gorillas. The gorillas, which were only discovered in 1902 have seen their numbers dramatically decline during the past three decades through indiscriminate hunting, poaching, disease, habitat destruction and as collateral victims of the local conflicts. During this troubled period, some areas of the park even fell under the control of militias who organized game tours for their own financial benefit. The World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) estimates that the population has rebounded to 880 individuals in the Virunga mountain range which also includes the Uganda and Rwanda national parks. Some 480 gorillas live in the Congolese park.


                                                 Baby Gorilla

For the Congolese people Virunga National Park (VNP) is very much a colonial relic of little value. Since very few tourists visit the park, its land could be put to a more productive use[3]. VNR and its rangers survive thanks to meager funding from the government and grants from foreign organizations, including WWF. It is telling that Emmanuel de Mérode, its current administrator nominated by the DRC government is a Belgian prince but not related to the infamous Leopold. He was probably selected because he was perceived as less accessible to bribery. De Mérode has a long list of enemies and on April 15, 2015 he was ambushed by gunmen and nearly killed. He is now back at work. In the past twenty years, 140 park rangers were slain.


                                       Virunga National Park Resident.

With financial support from rich and committed donors, de Mérode plans to make Virunga self-sustaining by developing economic projects able to benefit the local community, as well as to raise its sense of ownership to buy into the park’s long term development. Time is running out as powerful interests want to open the park to oil exploration, activities totally anathema to foreign conservationists but attractive to the destitute locals. For reasons probably too questionable to outline here, the president of DRC is offering contracts to the oil and mining industry like candies. A “buccaneer” British Company, SOCO International, was granted a sizeable exploration claim within the Virunga National Park. It caused a well-publicized uproar in Europe and the United States of America. The actor Leonardo DiCaprio and Netflix joined forces to produce the documentary Virunga which was released in November 2014.[4] This moving and eye-opening nature documentary aims at publicizing the park’s struggle to survive and to shame SOCO. On November 16, 2014 The New York Times took the opportunity to release a two-page long article titled “Oil Dispute Takes a Page from Congo’s Bloody Past”[5]. SOCO seems to have understood the message and indicated that it was pulling out (ethical decision or falling oil price?).

The DRC government might have wanted to emulate Uganda which has let Total, the French oil company explore in the Murchinson Park. In this blogger’s opinion, the government broke its own rules and underestimated the unparalleled prestige of Virunga; in addition it made two business blunders. Instead of choosing a British firm, it should have selected a Chinese company as less sensitive to western opprobrium (it still can do that!). The central government’s control over the area seems nominal at best. If oil were to be found, it would certainly benefit the scattered armed groups further energizing their warring power. For its part, faced with adversaries like the British Prince William and his friend the former soccer star David Beckham, SOCO might have overestimated its business clout. Its partner, Total has indicated that it will not operate in Virunga. Security of tenure is a flexibly respected concept in corrupt DRC. The president may have to step down in 2016 as required by the constitution. In a country with a reputation of denouncing contracts signed by past governments, it is not a very secure situation for any company.

                 murchison falls

                                         Drilling in the Park 

        Uganda Murchinson National Park: Oil Development Stakeholder

This blogger’s recommendations:  The president of SOCO should be advised to read or re-read Conrad’s The Heart of Darkness. David Beckham should invite an African soccer player to join him to defend the pristine beauty of the Virunga National Park and its residents.

PS: All pics were “snitched” from the web.


[1] Extractive Industries Transparency International Initiative.


[3] Even the iconic Yellowstone National Park in the USA has its detractors. They think that tapping its geothermal energy will be a more lucrative undertaking than tourism!



Sunday, November 9, 2014

The Amazon of the Planalto.


The Amazon is a mythical race of fierce female warriors famous for their bravery and male-like strength. Sixteenth century explorers gave the name Amazonas to a vast South American region after they claimed to have met women warriors.



The Palácio do Planalto is the heart of Brasilia the capital of Brazil, and where the president works. Dilma Vana Rousseff (age 66), the current president, is a woman who displayed Amazon-like attributes to win her re-election on October 26, 2014. She had a bumpy road to victory; she was reelected by only three percent, the slimmest margin ever in a Brazilian election.

Brazilians are known by their first names or nicknames, presidents included, so for both her admirers and opponents she is Dilma. Dilma is the first female President of Brazil. Before being elected president in 2010, she had never held an elected position. She was a party bureaucrat when Lula (a nickname), the president at the time plucked her from his cabinet to run as his successor. Hugely popular, Lula was barred by the Constitution from running a third time. With Lula’s endorsement Dilma was comfortably elected in spite of her lack of political savvy. For many Brazilians, Dilma was just a “seat warmer” until Lula could run again. Lula was frequently portrayed as a Svengali rather than a benevolent mentor. Whether or not she was a “straw man” or figurehead, Lula let her run for a second term. Now, rumor has it that Lula is scheming to run again in four years when Dilma steps down.

The seat warmer ploy is a time-honored tradition in Latin America. In this patriarchal society, it usually involves wives, daughters, and even mistresses. Thank God political foes have never hinted that Dilma was Lula’s mistress! Argentina has de facto institutionalized the tactic: its populist Peronist party spearheaded the spousal reelection movement, starting with Isabel Perón, President Juan Perón’s second wife. Sometimes the wife achieved greater popularity than the husband. In Nicaragua, Violetta Chamorro’s legacy is far more impressive than that of her assassinated husband. In this area, Guatemala outdid its neighbor: to be able to run, a former president’s wife tried to get around constitutional obstacles by divorcing her loving husband.

Dilma’s Worker’s Party (PT in Portuguese) had anticipated a smooth re-election campaign. But when her poll ratings started to fall, PT circled the wagons and ad nauseum hurled mudslinging campaign ads. Lula got into action too, and delivered countless toxic stump speeches to demonize Dilma’s center-right opponent Aécio (surname Neves da Cunha). During their several grueling television debates, Dilma was cut down to size by the younger and more telegenic Aécio, who proved to be a tough and articulate political animal. To her credit, Dilma survived the punishing marathon campaign and won. Her narrow victory owes as much to the social achievements of PT government as to the high rate of rejection of Aécio’s party. Dilma won because, on the one hand the majority of Brazilians were afraid of losing their social benefits, and on the other the desire for change expressed by the million protestors in June 2013 was not sufficiently politically articulated.



                                             Dilma and Aecio

Dilma is twice a survivor. In the 1970s, she survived the military dictatorship’s jails where she was reportedly tortured and she had lymphoma cancer in 2009 which was cured in 2010. While a student she was part of an urban Marxist guerrilla group and spent many years as a fugitive in the underground. Her guerrilla experience has left a lasting mark on her personality. She admits to keeping wads of cash in the Palácio da Alvorada, the official residence of the president, and it was reported that she sleeps with her shoes on!

Like many Brazilian officials with higher political ambitions, she went through a public and drastic image makeover. It involved plastic surgery, dental treatment, a new hairstyle allegedly inspired from that of New York City designer Caroline Herrera, and a power-woman’s wardrobe. Too bad for her, Michelle Bachelet of Chile and Angela Merkel of Germany all seem to be sharing the same uninspired tailor. The makeover was intended to soften her persona born out of her years as a Marxist guerrillera. It did not quite work out: the leopard cannot change its spots so easily.

  dilmabefore     dilma after

                      Before                                                         After

For many, Dilma is Brazilian version of the Iron Lady of the United Kingdom. For this blogger she is more Iron than Lady. She comes across as stiff, authoritarian, uncharismatic, controlling, rude, and uncaring. She is said to run her cabinet like a boot camp. She does not loosen up even when surrounded by her adoring fans. In a country renowned for its congeniality, she is seen as a loner. Dilma leaves no one indifferent. For PT sympathizers and the impoverished northerners she is an icon, the Madonna of the poor, uniquely gifted to make Brazil advance toward social justice. However, for the 51 million who did not vote for her, she is like the cartoon character Cruella de Vil, a hypocrite who protects a criminal organization.

Early in 2014, it became known that PT and its political associates had set up a juicy kickback scheme and siphoned millions of dollars out of Petrobras, the state-own energy company. Although at the beginning of Dilma’s mandate she fired several ministers for corruption, she was unable or unwilling to clean the PT’s Augean stables. Brazilian politicians are notoriously known for their political conviction deficit and rent-seeking ingenuity. Dilma became hostage of an institutionalized sleaze system. She lacks Lula’s trademark jogo de cintura, (flexibility), networking and deft political footwork, all critical attributes necessary to deal with the unruly political class. She became isolated; the Congress routinely obstructed policies sponsored by her government, and legislative gridlock ensued.

After 12 years in government, Dilma’s PT party is rotten to the core. During the campaign, she asserted being unaware of the creative bribery schemes embroiling the party and its allies. As a woman, has she been systematically marginalized by PT grandees? Kept outside the loop? Dumbness or passive corruption, either options, are damning for Dilma.

Brazil politics is a man’s world, a macho preserve, and even with Lula’s endorsement Dilma was regarded as an anomaly. There were very few women in Congress to back her up. As a matter of fact, in the course of one year, Brazil fell from the 62nd position to 71st out of 142 nations in the 2014 World Economic Forum Global Gender Gap Report, (GGG). GGG “benchmarks national gender gaps on economic, political, educational and health based criteria”. At the beginning of her first term Dilma genuinely recruited several women to join her government. At the end, most of them were let go as they were regarded as too light weight for confront the bigwigs in Congress. Brazil will continue to fall in the GGG ranking. In 2014, Dilma has even fewer women politicians to choose from. She promised political reforms but cannot get things moving unless she mollifies the many politicians who backed her up during the campaign. The horse trading game has not yet started: her 39 ministerial posts may not be enough to satisfy the yapping politicos.

In her acceptance speech, fist raised, she promised to change her ways and be a better president. One can doubt this, unless she goes through a complete managerial makeover. During the last four years she grossly mismanaged and micromanaged the economy, and now the country is in much worse shape than when Lula handed it to her. Many blame her political shortcomings on her guerrilla past. Her underground experience certainly left a mark on her personality, however this blogger believes that there are additional reasons. One is that she did not have to go through the grueling process of climbing the election ladder from local elections to the top job, which is a steep learning curve. She was handpicked to run for president, leap-frogging the intermediary steps. Furthermore, Dilma’s politics reflect that she remains a Marxist at heart. She has been unable to actualize her convictions to meet the 21st century challenges. Her role models may still be Lenin and Stalin who were not paragons of flexibility and conciliation. Both lacked jogo de cintura.

Last but not least, jogo de cintura and jeitinho politico (the political knack) do not come naturally to a woman born outside the patriarchal families who sit on top of the political heap. So far, she has displayed little skill to navigate socially and out maneuver the pack of political patres familias who make up half of the Brazilian Congress.

Her next cabinet will be made up of 39 ministers all picked up from the alpha politicians. Because she cannot run again, this blogger expects a permanent power struggle between these people as they jockey for poll position. Since Dilma lacks both female wile and Abraham Lincoln’s political genius to make a team of rivals collaborate, she will have to freshen up her guerrilla skills, and even get that old Kalashnikov out of the closet.

Friday, October 24, 2014

Sleepwalking in Calvisson


No, I am not Lady Macbeth, who, guilt-ridden walked in her sleep. Unlike this wretched lady, I don’t have blood on my hands (“out, damned spot!”), although I have entertained murderous feeling towards my invading neighbors. We will get back to this matter in the next blog. The truth is that I spent August and September in Calvisson in the south of France engrossed in reading the 667 page book The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914. The book stands out because its author, Christopher Clark, offers the readers a clear and readable account of the July 1914 events, a bellicose and tangled period which led to the First World War bloodbath (some 15 million lives were lost). Apparently, more than 25,000 books or articles have been written on WWI. The Sleepwalkers makes a fascinating reading and has already been translated into two dozen languages. Not book club material, The Sleepwalkers was nonetheless the book that many of my friends read this summer. Our exchange of views made the reading even more stimulating.

Clark’s objective was to comprehend how Europe was led into war rather than who was responsible for the conflict. The spark was the assassination of the unpopular Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria and his wife Sophie in Sarajevo on 28 June 1914 by a Serbian-sponsored young hotheaded nationalist. Franz Ferdinand was the heir to the Austrian-Hungarian Empire. One month later, to punish uncooperative Serbia, Austria-Hungary declared war on this small Balkan country. It was a “preventive” war because delay in attacking would have involved greater risk. However, the domino effect resulting from the regional alliances unleashed a global conflict, the extent of which the warmongers, or sleepwalkers, had not anticipated.


                                   Franz Ferdinand of Austria.

The sleepwalkers were an improbable bunch of diplomats, aristocrats and army brass, many past their prime. They all knew one another well and except for the French, they were serving monarchs who knew each other even better since they were closely related. Three of them were cousins, and two were Queen Victoria’s grandchildren. Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany, called Willy by his cousins, was the most colorful of the three and the least liked. What the trio lacked in grey cells it made up in extravagantly waxed facial hair. King George V of Great Britain and Tsar Nicholas II of Russia looked so much alike that they could have been clones; they wrote to each other as Georgie and Nicky. Willy, Nicky and Georgie were known to have a pathological aversion to social progress; the first two were conservative autocrats and WWI wiped them out. Fortunately, Georgie was content to be a powerless constitutional monarch: he kept his job. In the meantime he had changed his surname Saxe-Coburg-Gotha to the more British-sounding Windsor.

                 georgie nicky 

                                             Nicky & Georgie

It would be wrong to think that WWI was a family feud; the kinship was all façade. The defensive alliance network overrode the biology in spite of the many telegrams exchanged between the cousins in a desperate attempt to cool tempers.

So during the month of July 1914, the sleepwalkers played with fire, got burned and put their European house on fire. Clark gives a detailed portrait of the dozen or so key players in Russia, France, Germany, Serbia, Great Britain and Austria-Hungary. It was obviously a male world, a world where the elaborately waxed beards and mustaches were the visible front for asserted manliness. According to Clark, these men were caught in “a crisis of masculinity”. This statement does not shock me. By easing social, gender and racial mobility, the Industrial Revolution in Europe had created a crisis of masculinity and entitlement in the male elite. For many men, war was regarded as a way to regain lost ground and honor. Plenty of this swagger was showcased in the second season of the British television series Downton Abbey.

French men were particularly tormented. After their humiliating defeat in the Franco-Prussian War and the subsequent loss of Alsace-Lorraine (1870), the government resorted to resurrecting the duel, the ultimate art of manliness, and a confirmation that bravery was the exclusive attribute of the elite. Europe was returning to the time of chivalry and the cult of masculinity was plainly evident in the days leading up to the armed forces mobilization.

Clark reveals that many governments were not fully focusing on the seriousness of the situation particularly in France and Great Britain, the two countries which had a modicum of democracy. The later was in the process of granting Home Rule to Ireland and the former was captivated by one of its trademark politico-sexual scandals. The murder trial of Mrs. Henriette Caillaux ex-mistress and new wife of former minister Joseph Caillaux, opened on 20 July. Coincidently, the conservative and nationalist President Raymond Poincaré was visiting his ally Tsar Nicholas II in Saint Petersburg. Apparently, the trial so much worried Poincaré that he was distracted from his diplomatic duties. Mrs. Caillaux had shot dead Gaston Calmette, the editor of le Figaro, a right wing “yellow” newspaper. Mrs. Caillaux was acquitted of murder on the ground of crime passionnel on July 28, the day Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia.

The story is worth telling because it epitomizes the socio-political shenanigans of the Third Republic. In a nutshell, the plot went like this: Caillaux, a left-wing politician, twice cabinet minister was routinely harassed by Calmette. In addition to threatening to publish Caillaux’ s love letters to Henriette, the editor wanted to disclose official wires confirming Caillaux’ sympathy for Germany. In a pathologically Germanophobe country, Caillaux was no poster-boy for übermensch! In case Poincaré did not officially deny the existence of these cables, Caillaux would release the president’s compromising secret correspondence with the pope. The blackmail paid off, and for good measure, Poincaré told the judges that leniency was in the French government’s interest. Political interference in the justice system apart, the verdict confirmed that women were not rational human beings and could not control their emotions. Manliness was spared.

                                 raymond poincare

                            French President Raymond Poincaré  

The English saying: “too many cooks spoil the broth” neatly applies to the meddlesome parties in July 1914. The convergence of exacerbated and fanatic nationalism, racism, state disintegration, imperialistic ambition and conquests, military expansion and upgrading, and testosterone led to a situation whereby war was a likely outcome. Ensnared in the vise of rival alliances, the parties were duty-bound to fight; there was no way out. The double assassination in Sarajevo was “the straw that broke the camel’s back” to use another idiom. Contrary to many writers and historians, Clark brings new elements to debunk accepted myths (the Kaiser’s fault) but refuses to join the “blame game”. His book is even more stimulating as readers can come up with their own ranking of culprits.

                          kaiser Wilhelm

                                             Kaiser Wilheim II

First on my guilty list is Russia for propping up its stooge, pan-Slavic-obsessed Serbia. To this end, the Tsar’s cabinet and ambassadors resorted to emotional manipulation and to faking documents. Russia rushed mobilization although it did not have the means to fulfill its ambition. For me it is the capital sin.

Second comes Serbia, a rogue state even by 20th century standards. Its reckless racial (ethnic cleansing) and nationalist pursuit destabilized the Balkans, exacerbating the disintegration of the Ottoman Empire. The country got away with it until pay-back period came when Kosovo, regarded as the cradle of pan Slavism by Serbia and Russia, declared its independence from Serbia in 2008.

France comes third. France, led by Poincaré, was viscerally anti-German and longing for revenge. Hatred blinded many politicians as well as the media. France understood that it was too small to confront alone its more populous neighbor and joined Russia and Great Britain (The Triple Entente) to rebalance the forces. France may have been demographically disadvantaged, but in compensation it had become the financer of the military splurge of both Serbia and Russia.

  Then come Germany and Austria-Hungary. I am no apologist for Germany. I lump them together because without German support, Austria-Hungary may have not launched its offensive on Serbia. After all, Austria-Hungary was the wounded party. It was fin de regne, empire decadence in Vienna, but Berlin was on the ascent, growing economically, militarily and politically. According to Clark, Germany has been wrongly blamed for starting WWI. The Kaiser’s paranoid and erratic behavior gave wrong signals. In order to stop the German expansion binge, the war became unavoidable. Nonetheless, Germany regarded France as its traditional enemy not Russia.

Finally, Great Britain became drawn into the Entente by default principally fearing Germany’s naval expansion. By gobbling up pieces of the Ottoman Empire, Italy inspired other countries to do the same. Last come the Young Turks for speeding up the fragmentation of the Ottoman Empire in the Balkans.

Obviously this ranking is the work of the author of this article, an emotional amateur. The 100 year anniversary of WWI coincided with the Russian land grab in Eastern Ukraine. The Ukraine crisis is no repeat of the July 1914 events mainly because the involved parties so far seem to understand that posturing and taking actions should not be combined. Today’s power brokers also know that the weaponry at their disposal may be Armageddon. This was not understood in 1914.


Post criptum:

Fortunately, I did not sleepwalk like Shakespeare’s superwoman but crime was often on my mind. Tossing in bed, I mulled over elaborate plans to stop my neighbor’s cats from trespassing on my property days and nights. She has four fearless, bad-mannered and unfriendly cats which lounge on my deck chairs, dig my plants and take the garden for an oversize litter box. In spite having invested in all sort of cat repellents from motion detecting ultrasound, lemon spray, to pigeon spikes I am constantly one upped by the feline hordes.

Calvisson cats have no useful purpose; neither pets nor feral beasts, they roam endlessly the village and only come home for feeding. They are becoming very unpopular with the inhabitants. Sometimes I feel like adopting a dog, this beats everything for a cat lover like me! I rather remind myself that after horses, cats were the most “commissioned” animals during WWI. Some 500,000 cats were in active duty in the trenches on both sides, and many more served on navy ships. On the other hand, only 60,000 dogs were drafted. Since Egyptian time, cats have been a common fixture as shipmates. In the trenches, they were drafted as mousers to hunt rats which infested the ditches. They also acted as mascots and soul mates for the downhearted soldiers. The three royal cousins had their official yachts, Nicholas II was even photographed with a pampered cat mascot on his laps.


                                In the trenches with the guys.


Sunday, August 3, 2014



Why does one of the most decorated WWII women lack celebrity status in France? Rose Valland (1898-1980) is still little known to her fellow citizens in spite of having been recently portrayed by Cate Blanchett in George Clooney’s film The Monuments Men (2014). Clooney produced this action movie to publicize the activities of a group of Allied men and women, known as the Monuments Men[1], who were enlisted to protect cultural landmarks and artifacts from destruction during combat in 1944 and 1945.

During the four year-long Nazi occupation of Paris, Valland recorded surreptitiously the occupiers’ extensive looting of private art works. After France was liberated, she was given a military rank and dispatched for 8 years to Allied-occupied Germany as part of a team of French Monuments Men. After spying on the Nazis in France, in Germany it seems she was peeping on the Soviets who were busy doing their own looting. Her goal remained always the same: tracking and recovering artworks looted from France. She returned to France in 1953 where she wrote a memoir recording her activities during the Nazi occupation. For some reason which is not clear, she decided against writing about her activities in Germany, a decision which makes this period puzzling, exciting one’s curiosity.



One question is why Rose Valland was sidelined from the French Pantheon? This blogger sees many reasons for the oversight. First and foremost, she was a woman in a country where Illustriousness is seen as a male attribute. The French Panthéon of all-time greats is a male-only club[2]. To achieve celebrity status in France, women must be either queens or courtesans like Marie Antoinette and Madame de Pompadour. Few have heard of Olympe de Gouge who was an 18th century playwright and political activist. She was guillotined during the revolution and famously said that if women have the right to be executed they should also have the right to speak. Indeed, French women had to wait until 1944 to get the right to vote. This was not a reward for wartime sacrifice and courage such as exemplified by Rose Valland. Rather, General de Gaulle bet on the more conservative female vote to keep the communists from winning the elections! His bet paid off.



             Hermann Goering shopping at Jeu de Paume Museum

Rose’s second serious handicap was her modest and rural background. She was not born into a Parisian family and therefore lacked the right connections to get ahead. During the 20th century, Paris was the center of the artistic and intellectual life, all creative energy was concentrated there. Even with an art degree, a provincial girl like Rose Valland could not succeed in the Parisian art world. During the Nazi occupation, she worked as a paid volunteer in the Jeu de Paume museum where the Nazis hoarded and processed their loot. In spite of her accomplishments, Valland did not become a full fledged museum curator until late in her life at 57 (1955).

Her other hurdle was her height and most especially her strong personality. She was very tall for a woman, 1.75 meter (5’8) when the average height of the French paterfamilias was 1.65 meters (5’5). In this period, men disliked women towering over them. During the war, a tall French women was certainly resented by her countrymen who felt both emasculated by their military defeat and belittled by the taller German occupiers. She was also a very determined professional, a no-nonsense operator, and headstrong in her search for looted art and its return to legitimate owners. She was an independent woman at a time when women depended on men for their welfare and place in society. When she was posted in Germany, her almost obsessional quest and operational independence were disliked by her male colleagues who expected women to be docile and dutiful. Not only did she receive little support from them but she made many powerful enemies who tried unsuccessfully to have her sacked.

Rose’s last handicap was the early recognition of her achievements by the Americans. After the liberation of Paris, she was very much sought after by the American Monuments Men. They valued her work both in Paris and in Germany. For the French often envious and leery of the American swagger, the American interest in Rose was suspicious and brought disapproval from her superiors. Rose developed a lasting friendship with Monuments Officer Lt James Rorimer, a museum curator who became the director of New York City Metropolitan Museum of Art.  After the war, the Americans awarded Rose the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

In 1964, the famous Hollywood director John Frankenheimer shot the black-and-white war film The Train based on Rose’s non-fiction 1962 book Le Front de l’art. He and his lead actor Burt Lancaster befriended Rose. The movie was a box office hit and a critic’s favorite. The story takes place in August 1944 outside Paris. Loaded with looted art, a train heading for Germany is stopped thanks to a mixture of bureaucratic hurdles and attacks by Free French forces. Incidentally, these forces were under the command of the son of a famous Jewish art dealer. Paris was liberated soon afterwards. Sadly, about the same time, a train carrying the last Jewish deportees left for Germany and was not stopped by the Resistance forces.


             Commemorative plaque Jeu de Paume Museum (2005)

During the 90s, some best seller books particularly those written by Hector Feliciano and Lynn H. Nicholas ensured that Rose Valland’s deeds did not fall into total oblivion. Recently, Robert M. Edsel gave Rose recognition in his 2009 book The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History. This book was an instant best seller and was translated into 25 languages, French included.

Robert M. Edsel has also written an appreciative foreword to the book Resistance at the Museum, the 2013 English translation of a book written by Mrs. Corinne Bouchoux in 2006. He writes: “Rose Valland is one of the greatest and yet unknown heroines of World War II. After risking her life spying on the Nazis,…Rose lived to fulfill her destiny: locating and returning tens of thousands of works of art stolen by the Nazis during their occupation of France. Yet her remarkable story, like much of her personal life, has remained unknown to the broad public…until now.”

Indeed, it seems that many of Rose Valland’s activities remain unknown, particularly those which took place during her 8 year-long stay in Allied-occupied Germany. Bouchoux’s book provides limited information on this period. She writes that Valland was tightlipped about her activities in Germany. Were they too sensitive to disclose? Rose was an effective spy because she was driven and enigmatic, individualistic and secretive. She was seen as a lone operator by her French colleagues. In passing, Bouchoux mentions Rose’s quarrels with famous French art dealers who consistently vilified her; many of them were shady characters.

Rose travelled surreptitiously to Soviet-occupied Germany in her search for looted French art, but what did she achieve there?  Stalin’s army was busy loading into trucks bound for the USSR everything of value they could grab, German or not. It is estimated that some 100,000 works of art were looted by the Germans from France; an estimated 60,000 were located and returned; possibly half of the missing 40,000 were destroyed during combat.  Where are the remaining 20,000? Rose would certainly have known where many of these works were to be found. She died with such secrets in 1980.  Apparently, many boxes of Rose’s documents are kept by her heirs. These manuscripts and notes could shed light on this mysterious period, revealing the whereabouts of the missing art and activities of the key players in the art world during and after WWII.  But after reading Bouchoux’ book, the reader is left with more questions than answers on this post-war period.

Today, stolen art is still being found and returned to its rightful owners, making news headlines. The recent uncovering of Cornelius Gurlitt’s[3] treasure trove and the international exposure it received suggests that the subject is not exhausted, very much to the contrary.

In light of the continued fascination with the whereabouts and restitution of Nazi and Soviet looted art, an investigative biography of Rose Valland is timely.

What did she really do during 8 years in Germany and why did she not publish anything? What prevented C. Bouchoux from reviewing the hidden manuscripts?

Who really was Rose Valland?



Bouchoux, Corinne. Rose Valland, La Résistance au musée. Geste Editions, 2006.

Edsel, Robert M., The Monument Men: Allied heroes, Nazi Thieves and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History. 2009.

Feliciano, Hector. The Lost Museum: The Nazi Conspiring to Steal the World’s Greatest Works of Art. 1996.

Nicholas, Lynn H., The Rape of Europa, 1994.

Monument Men, 2014 film by George Clooney loosely based on the book of the same name by Robert M. Edsel. Columbia Pictures, Fox 2000 Pictures.

The Train, 1962 directed by John Frankenheimer. Distributed by United Artists.

[1] “The Monuments Men were a group of men and women from thirteen nations, most of whom volunteered for service in the newly created Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives section, or MFAA. Most had expertise as museum directors, curators, art scholars and educators, artists, architects, and archivists. Their job description was simple: to save as much of the culture of Europe as they could during combat”.

[2] Originally a church, the Panthéon is the place where exceptional Frenchmen are buried. The only woman is Marie Curie who shared the Nobel Prize with her husband. Located in the 5th district of Paris.

[3] Cornelius’ father, Hildebrand Gurlitt was a German art dealer who dealt in so called “degenerated art” at the request of the Nazi government.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Emerging in an Emerging Economy: Brazil’s Gone Shopping


The Brazilian upper crust regards itself as more socially conscious than race conscious. This statement carries a measure of hypocrisy: less affluent people usually have darker skin notably in the urban environment which is shared by both group.

Unlike other Latin American countries, Brazil was a slave-based economy and a monarchy after independence. In the 19th century the two emperors, father and son produced a sizeable landed gentry by dishing out nobility titles like candy. The descendants of the royal family still live in Brazil, but titles are no longer paraded. Politicians and their offspring regard themselves as the new aristocracy. What these dynasties lack in polish, they make up in assets, too often illicitly acquired. In the posh suburbs of Rio de Janeiro, Brasilia and Sâo Paulo, class distinction continues to be nurtured, a tropical version of Jane Austin’s novel Pride and Prejudice.

Although several soya and cattle farmers live like absolute kings in their remote region, land has largely lost its status symbol. The entitlements of the urban elite, are shopping trips to the United States (895.000 Brazilians visited New York City in 2013; still counting in Florida!), condos in Miami, British SUVs and a new trend of electric bikes. SUVs are driven like Humvees and double parking in busy streets is a birthright of their drivers. Electric bikes are becoming a nuisance too as they increasingly invade sidewalks competing with hapless pedestrians.

In 2014, the over-the-top and unrestrained consumerism of the AAA class (notably the political class, often at tax payer expense!) is being outpaced by that of the emerging new middle class. This class now makes up over half the population of Brazil which is estimated at 200 million. The emerging group, known in Brazil by the popular name of clase C (the privileged class is referred by letters A & B) is urban, albeit suburban. Its monthly income is estimated below US$ 1,200.00. The A&B classes make more than US$ 4,000.00 monthly; this being an indicative figure, this blogger saves you the details.



First and foremost, the C class is regarded as a market to be tapped. In 2013, it spent R$ 1 trillion! (US$ 0.5 trillion) Thanks to easy credit, installment payments, Internet shopping and promotional sales, 80 million Brazilians have become enthusiastic borrowers; sadly but predictably this shopping stampede led many to bankruptcy. These eager shoppers still do not carry passports, otherwise they would also travel to Miami to buy the same goods at 50% of the Brazilian prices.

Because goods are purchased in installments, retail stores double as financial houses by lending money with interest. Consumer financing is probably the most profitable operation for these stores. The emerging urban middle class does not yet travel abroad, but it flies within Brazil to visit relatives still living in the rural regions.

The C Class has leap frogged from talking in street corner phone booths to emailing on smart phones, many purchased from dubious sources. They are increasingly connected to the Internet. For the younger generation, flaunting IT gadgets has reached a cult dimension with Facebook the new gospel, and air-conditioned shopping malls the new churches. Everything goes on Facebook, which maximizes the herd behavior with often out-of-control outcomes.

The Facebook-shopping mall mix has created a unique Brazilian feature known as rolezinho. It is the gathering of tens, hundreds and even thousands of teenagers in upper class shopping malls. Invitations are sent through social networks. The invasion of AAA class playgrounds by suburban kids has irked many. Muggings and minor depredations have been reported but are exceptions. Finally these “flash mobs” are more entertainment than social protests. Youngsters are born shoppers and traders, and since the coveted fashionable items have a very short shelf life they are quickly sold to poorer less fashion-conscious acquaintances. The C class has its own underclass.



                                     Rolezinho Selfie

Class divide is also evidenced in the movies. Many multiplexes have been built in the suburbs to exhibit American blockbusters and cartoons as well as domestic comedies. Foreign films are always dubbed; on the other hand they have subtitles in the upper class neighborhoods. The commercial push into the emerging class exacerbates class stereotypes and widens the existing cultural divide. Ditto television. The British television soap opera Downton Abbey is a case in point.

Downtown Abbey is a British “upstairs downstairs” period drama which depicts the lives of the aristocratic Crawley family and its servants. The show is hugely popular with the privileged class. To further increase its audience, the distributers wanted to promote it to the emerging middle class. Therefore to make it more accessible, they planned to release a dubbed version instead of the original subtitled one. The AAA class was so outraged that it threatened to switch it off. On cable TV, Downton Abbey has remained with subtitles, the staple entertainment of the well-heeled.  At the opposite of the spectrum, Fox News’ programs are all dubbed.

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Rio Wild


News coming from Rio has been a little disheartening lately, particularly since the soccer World Cup kicks off in two months. The city is seething with discontent and in some under-privileged areas, social unrest is close to the boiling point. In its renewed efforts to flush out drug gangs from the slums (favelas), the heavy-handed police raids have caused civil casualties. Anger is growing among many of the favela’s inhabitants.

Collateral damage has occurred in spite of the police new modus operandi. To limit shootouts with the gangs, before moving in, the army and the police give them advance warning. By allowing the gangs to move out, bloody head-on confrontations are avoided. However, the weapon and drug issues remain. Drug gangs take temporary shelter in another favela and wait for the army to leave and then re-occupy their former territories. Lately, many gangs have crept back into the so-called pacified favelas overlooking the suburbs of Copacabana and Ipanema in Rio.  The gangs must stay close to their market.

Brazil has the privilege of ranking first in the world for crack-cocaine use and is the second-largest consumer of cocaine after the United States. The task of the police is daunting.  Removing the drug lords from the favelas is like shooting at a moving target. It is a lost cause.

To protest the violent tactics of the police forces, slum dwellers caught in the crossfire (often prodded by gangs) have taken to car and bus torching and road blocks. Daily confrontations are reported in peripheral areas. This new form of protest is rapidly spreading; the airport road is one of the favored target for blockade. Brazil is under intense scrutiny from the international media, an opportunity that the self-appointed protest leaders don’t want to miss. The misguided police offensive gives them plenty of visibility.

Last week among these bombastic news, some cheerful pieces of information went nearly unnoticed. We learned that Tarcisâo and Bela (not her real name) had been rescued from a brutal death. The first was going to be fried in a pan and the second barbecued. Rest assured, Brazil is not going back to its anthropophagic heydays, although the two are city residents they are not people. Tarcisâo is a guaiamum crab and Bela, a young female capybara, and both have settled around the Lagoa Rodrigo de Freitas in the upmarket southern part of Rio.


The wildlife living around the lagoa (lagoon) is diverse and plentiful and generally goes undisturbed in spite of the surrounding human activity.

Tarcisâo had been caught by hungry homeless people who also happen to live in the area, however illegally. The 60 centimeter-long crab carries a chip and lives with his long-term partner Gloria. They are both monitored by a wildlife NGO. The faithful couple is at the center of an environmental research project which seeks to establish the life expectancy of the breed. Tarcisâo is probably 5 year old and if it can escape another frying pan, could reach the venerable age of 15. It was freed when its identity was disclosed and an alternative meal was offered to its famished captors. Guaiamum crab is not an endangered species in Brazil, because they are a delicacy, few reach Tarcisâo’s respected old age.


                                           Tarcisao with friend



                                           Less lucky guaiamums

Bela’s fate was even more dramatic. It had been grabbed by drug dealers and taken to a near-by slum for barbecue. The scientists travelled to the dangerous favela of Rocinha to plea for Bela’s life. After some convincing, Bela was returned to the lagoa. Apparently ransom was not paid. For once, drug gangs received a little bit of positive publicity. Capybara is the world largest rodent and is commonly seen grazing in the wet lands around Rio de Janeiro. They are social, gregarious and gentle. Because they have a semi-aquatic lifestyle, the Portuguese colonizers had the habit of eating them like fish during Lent when other meats were forbidden. May be the drug gang was keeping this tradition alive.


                                             Capybara and lagoa

Meanwhile across the Guanabara Bay, in Rio’s sister city of Niteroi, dramatic events were taking place. A one-month old, three kilograms baby capybara was spotted wandering alone near the busy bridge which links Rio to Niteroi. It was subsequently rescued by the environmental police. Too young to survive by itself, the officers spent part of the night walking around the near-by beaches looking for the baby’s family. Unable to find the family, the baby was taken to an animal shelter where it can be properly looked after.

At the same time, the local police were confronted by drug gangs. During the gun battle, one bystander was shot dead. The slum dwellers reacted by torching more cars and blocking more roads.

Rio is a city of wild contrasts.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Enjoying Rio de Janeiro at Half-Price!


This title may sound surreal in a city where an ice cream cone costs about $ 6.00 (R$ 14 at the current exchange rate) and a caipirinha, the national drink, $10[1]. For residents and tourists alike, Rio prices are over the top. People complain because the cost of living has far exceeded the 6% annual inflation. They also make jokes about it and the real, the Brazilian currency, has been fittingly renamed the surreal with Salvatore Dali portrait printed on the mock notes.


This being said, some Cariocas, as the Rio residents are known, can still enjoy a perk undreamed of in many other parts of the world. This perk is called meia, short for meia entrada, or half-priced admission. In Rio, nearly 70% of the population pays half-price for admission to theatres, concerts, shows, museums, sport events, stadiums, landmarks like Sugar Loaf and Corcovado, and so forth. The half-price benefit is a state-wide law (lei da meia) dating from 1930. Brazilians take this half-price benefit very seriously, too seriously for the entertainment industry which regularly lobbies the government to have the law curbed or repealed. To compensate for lost income, organizers double admission prices. As a result, the 30% “demographic middle” has to pay outrageous prices for popular concerts. Rock bands and pop stars do not get out of bed for less than a million dollars a show. The full price admission can easily reach $ 400, a record price even by BRICS’s standard[2].

Who are the lucky beneficiaries? First and foremost, students, rich and poor. For decades students have abused the system. It is estimated that there are twice as many student cards out there than genuine students! This number exasperates the entertainment distributors. Students are avid consumers of rock concerts which are shockingly expensive to organize.

The second group of beneficiaries is made of senior citizens and disable people who are habitually law abiding. A reason might be that Brazilian ID cards are not easily forged. For seniors, the meia is one perk among many others. After 65, senior citizens travel free in public transports like buses and subways. They can also visit state-run museums for free. Supermarkets, banks, movie theaters, and so forth provide special counters for seniors.

Unable to compete with the fast moving photocopying and printing technology, the government has decided to limit to 40% the number of admissions for students to any show. The new regulation has not yet been implemented but it will raise all sorts of disputes. Seniors will not be affected by this decision, true they are not great fans of rock festivals.

During the organization of the 2014 Football World Cup in Brazil, the meia policy has led to a tug of war between the government and FIFA, the international football association. FIFA did not win on this front: half-price tickets will be available but only in the cheapest seating category. In addition to those mentioned above, two extra groups will benefit from the half price policy: people receiving low-income grants (Bolsa familia) and obese fans. The later will get extra pampering and enjoy extra-wide seats. This is the Brazilian way to fight obesity.


             Extra-wide seat at half-price: Two seats for 1/4 of the price!

According to 2011 statistics, half of the Brazilian population is overweight and 16% is obese. If this trend continues it seems that 100% of the audience to any entertainment, including games, movies, theaters or concerts will be entitled to meia entrada!

The population of Rio is aging fast, the city will soon become the geriatric capital of Brazil. Copacabana is already the suburb with the oldest population in the whole country. As a result, standing in a senior line is rarely a good idea. The “demographic middle” line goes much faster.

Thanks to these perks, Rio seniors spend little time at home watching telenovelas. They are enthusiastic movie-goers. Afternoon shows attract mostly seniors; forged student-card holders go to night performance to avoid detection. This blogger has not researched the cultural habit of obese people, but one may suspect that they watch plenty of telenovelas.

In a country of surreal prices, the meia entrada is a bit of an illusion but it nonetheless stimulates people to seek entertainment. Last week, four senior ladies went about town and had a drink in a café in the hip Dias Ferreira Street in Leblon. In Rio, the chic suburbs of Leblon and Ipanema are the epicenters of price surreality! One lady ordered a $ 10 caipirinha, the standard price in Leblon. The other three requested red wine by the glass. The waiter poured so little of the liquid in the glass (at $12 a shot) that they complained. With aplomb, he rebutted them by saying this was the way wine was served in the best cafes of the world. He had picked the wrong customers, one was German, the second from Belgium, the third French and the forth a well-traveled Brazilian. The absurdity of the situation escaped him too. Finally the ladies settled for the cheapest (drinkable) Argentine wine bottle at a thrifty $50.

                        idosos rio

The gregarious Cariocas are becoming “un-gregarious”, changing their ways. Now at the end of a lunch or dinner in a restaurant, the bill is no longer equally divided, many patrons “go Dutch” paying one’s own expenses. The locals complain about surreal prices and rising inflation but they still have meia to cheer themselves. Very few Cariocas will trade Rio for any other city by the sea.

[1] Taxes hit hard too: 83% on cachaça (the local rum) and another 76% on the caipirinha. Beer can: 55.6%, soft drinks 46.47%.

[2] An economic grouping of emerging economies: Brazil, Russia, India, South Africa and China.

Saturday, March 8, 2014



        Somewhere in a Posh Suburb of a Mythical Brazilian Metropolis


Grand Hotel Fofoca is as exotic as Grand Hotel Budapest but will never be as famous. Nor does it compare with Hotel des Bains in Venice which inspired Thomas Mann’s novel Death in Venice.  F. Scott Fitzgerald uses the Seelbach Hotel in Louisville, Kentucky, as a model for the venue of Daisy and Tom Buchanan’s wedding in his The Great Gatsby novel. The Savoy of London still serves its famous fluffy Omelet Arnold Bennett named after the novelist who wrote Imperial Palace in the hotel. Hotels have always motivated story telling by great and not so great novelists. I evidently place myself in a third category, that of amateur writers.

My source of inspiration is Anita Brookner’s novel Hotel du Lac, the 1984 Booker prize winner. Her heroine is a mild-mannered English spinster who observes the visitors and boarders of a hotel on the shore of Lake Geneva. Another spinster, neither English nor mild-mannered, surveyed the coming and going of the guests and staff of Grand Hotel Fofoca (GHF).



                 Archive picture of Grand Hotel Fofoca, circa 1980

Fofoca is gossip in Portuguese, and GHF is a gossip mill, more the setting of a telenovela as soap opera is known in Latin America than of a novel. Brazil is seen as a happy and hassle-free country and Grand Hotel Fofoca is a microcosm of Brazil. GHF offers both anonymity and friendliness. For infrastructure and services the hotel is worth three stars, but in matter of gossip it deserves five. Its mix of long-term residents and passing guests makes the hotel fascinating.

People tend to wrongly believe that hotels are only inhabited by short-term guests. Very much to the contrary, it is their long-term residents who make hotels legendary. Who would remember the decrepit Chelsea hotel in New York City, except for its colorful long-term residents? Bob Dylan, Janis Joplin, and Leonard Cohen to name a few. The Claridge hotel in London is best remembered for the many European kings who took refuge there during WWII and for Hollywood legend Spencer Tracy who claimed that he would rather go to the Claridge than to heaven when he dies.

There are many hotels named Claridge in Brazil, but I doubt that any of them match Grand Hotel Fofoca’s vibrancy and melodrama. Like many Brazilian telenovelas, GHF is effectively a miniature of the social mix of Brazil, a Carioca version of the British television dramas Upstairs Downstairs and Downton Abbey, guests and residents upstairs and staff downstairs. In spite of its apparent easygoingness and casualness, Brazil is still a notably unequal society very much like that of the 1920s and 1930s in England.

About thirty percent of the GHF apartments are occupied by long-term residents who have known each other for years and enjoy exchanging news and gossip. GHF also takes pride on its low staff turnover; thus, old timers are found on both sides of the social divide. Like Downton Abbey, this situation creates bonds. In GHF, some residents are more equal than others, and comparison between GHF and Downton Abbey stops here. The patriarch of Downton Abbey is benevolent and hands-off, on the contrary GHF is run like an absolute monarchy by a nouveau riche autocrat more Putin than Sun King. GHF is his Sochi, both his personal preserve and playground. No one dares questioning his decisions. Not only are the “downstairs”, i.e. the staff terrified but the “upstairs” are passively accepting his diktats.

Brazil is experiencing a fast upward social mobility and the GHF boss perfectly illustrates this change. This foul-mouthed and ill-mannered fellow moved from a suburban environment to the most expensive and elitist corner of the city. Now he lives and runs an elegant hotel, and success went to his head. A perfect case of social climbing syndrome. Literature has not been kind to this sort, epitomized by Gatsby. If they move up, they can fall back down again.  On the other hand, Brazilian telenovelas are quite tolerant towards the crass and power hungry, they are called cafajeste. A Brazilian parvenu rarely loses his money, unless his name is Eike Batista who happened to lose US$ 33 billion in 2013. His piggy bank is full enough to protect him from the disgrace of moving back to the suburbs.

In GHF, the “upstairs” are mostly single, female and past a certain age. These ladies know how to flatter the despot’s ego and machismo, an additional attribute to his personality. He dotes on them with small favors but they are no fools and giggle behind his back.

As expected, businessmen make a sizeable portion of the “upstairs”. Many of them are in the oil business. They live alone, leave early, come home late and go back to their families for the week-end. “Putin” never misses a chance to ingratiate himself with these alpha males. They are the oligarchs of the GHF. Not all male residents work; one is notoriously idle, supported by a wealthy woman. Gigolos are expected to have good manners and social skills but he is the exception to the profession. Well past his prime and known for his big mouth and constant complaining, rumor has it that his lady protector has parted with him.  His days in the hotel may be numbered.  Yet he refuses to leave the apartment she provided him with. Brazilian legislation is on his side, so he may stay longer than common sense would allow.

And then there is Sujismundo, an inoffensive looking fellow with an offensive body odor. Sujismundo is the cartoon character of a government campaign to motivate Rio inhabitants to literally clean their act. The hotel’s Sujismundo is a long-term resident, originally from a southern European country who in spite of many years spent in Brazil has still not grasped that personal hygiene deficit is a capital sin. His foul body odor precedes him on the treadmill and lingers for hours after he steps off. As soon as he arrives people clear off, one wonders if it is not a ploy to work out solo. Surprisingly, the boss has failed to put an end to this smelly matter.

As expected, the hotel fills up with tourists during holidays like Carnival, mostly from Sâo Paulo and the south of Brazil. They want to have a good time and take advantage of Rio’s attractions. For these revelers the fun starts in the GHF, and the resulting cohabitation with the long-term residents is, to put it mildly uneasy. The swimming pool area and work-out room are battle grounds. The residents would prefer their hotel without any guests. Many old-timers leave during the holidays to avoid the confusion and rowdiness of the holiday partygoers.

Tourists come and go and are usually faceless except for two young ladies who recently spent a week in GHF. Their physical attributes and their inexplicable presence were the talk of the hotel. Every morning they would climb on the stair master and take hundreds of selfies. Coincidently, the workout room would become very crowded with people who never lifted weights in their whole life! The girls became known as Valesca Popozuda’s clones. Ms Popozuda (pictured below) is famous or infamous depending on one’s view, she epitomizes Brazilian celebrity trash. She makes a living as a showgirl, samba and funk music dancer cum singer. She is a silicone doll, having implanted one liter of the stuff in her breast and the same amount in her buttocks to impressive results. Like Ms Popozuda, the two guests displayed enormous boobs, huge buttocks and strong thighs, the result of strenuous workout. A glass could easily balance on their hard buttocks.


                                          Valesca at work

Brazil is probably the world’s largest consumer of silicone, and it comes second to the United States for plastic surgery. Silicone implants have become epidemic to the point that in the samba business it is mission impossible to find silicon-free dancers. Recently one of the leading samba schools advertised dancing position for girls with “beautiful and natural breasts”. Twenty were needed for the 2014 carnival parade. Only sixteen showed up and were selected!

GHF’s staff are not as well groomed as those of Downton Abbey but they compensate their training deficit by good mood, dependability and eagerness to please. “Downstairs” turnover is limited and in-house promotion has continued under Putin’s imperious micro-management. Most of the staff live in favelas, the slums of Rio, not too distant from the hotel. It is somehow ironical that the “downstairs” spend less time in traffic than the wealthy “upstairs”. Traffic in Brazil is chaotic and hellish in the large cities.  Being able to avoid a long commute is a privilege, many favelas dwellers enjoy this perk from their vantage point.

The majority of Rio’s favelas are no longer the war zones showed on television, rival drug gangs have been flushed out and no longer keep the residents in terror. Before the “pacification” of favelas, to use the local term, GHF’s staff would claim that gang activity was preventing them coming to work on time. Now this excuse is no longer believable. Hillside favelas with spectacular views of Rio are getting gentrified and it is now fashionable to visit their local bars and restaurants. In some favelas hostels have opened for business. Too bad GHF’s boss is not interested in their management.


                                     In the process of gentrification

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents either are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events or locales or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014



Following the recent soap opera at the Elysée Palace in Paris, I dug from the Internet an article titled First Ladies: A Vanishing Species, which I wrote in 2007. At that time, I was hinting that president’s partners were using their first lady function as a launching pad for more prestigious pursuits.  The article needs only marginal updating.

Act one: During two weeks in January 2014, the world was entertained by revelations of the sexual escapades of the French president, François Hollande, and the fate of the cuckooed first lady, Valerie Trieweiler, the president‘s concubine.

Act two: In the ancien regime during the French monarchy, unwanted wives were repudiated and the lucky ones dispatched to a convent. This philandering president just followed the royal tradition and discarded his de facto first lady. Exit the first lady function. According to a recent poll, 54 percent of the French people appreciate the resulting budget savings. The president will remain, so he claims, celibate in the Elysée Palace.

Act three: Ms. Trierweiler seems to have nicely negotiated her departure from the president’s life. After her 17 month stint as the Elysée first dominatrix, Ms. Trieweiler certainly pocketed a first lady severance package. If Hollande had been president of Brazil, he would not have escaped so lightly and would have paid even more. In Brazil, when you dump your significant other, the price is steep. Recently enacted legislation provides the dumped one 50 percent of the joint asset as long as she or he can prove a stable relationship for over six months. When Dilma, the president of Brazil, was spotted cruising in Brasilia on the back of motorbike, she claimed that she needed fresh air. She will seek a second term at the end of this year. She may not afford a boyfriend!

Act four: Valerie is reincarnating herself as Mother Theresa in India.  Is she proving me right? Is the fiery tempered Rottweiler in the dog house?

Well, many first ladies did not make the leap. Cecilia ex-Sarkozy lives in New York City with her former lover and new husband.

Cristina is a widow and in her second term as president of Argentina. Her government has grossly mismanaged the economy. Inflation is reported at 26 percent and the currency continues to slide downwards; its black market value is twice the official bank rate.

There is a new president in Kenya, and Lucy Kibaki is no longer first lady.

Laura Bush is a housewife in Texas.

As far as Hillary Clinton is concerned, will she run in 2016? She keeps silent but charges $ 200,000 per speech.




It is about time, too! 

What do Cecilia Sarkozy of France and Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner of Argentina have in common? Both stylish women wear Prada!  Both are also former first ladies who discarded their first lady title for other pursuits. Cristina will certainly be elected president of the republic of Argentina to succeed her husband.  After a decade spent in grooming Nicolas for the top job, enigmatic Cecilia divorced him to go into private life. 

The first lady is an American invention. Legend has it that the first “first lady” was James Madison’s wife Dolley. Actually, when living in the White House, she was unaware of the privilege; the prestigious title was posthumously bestowed on her in 1849 when resting in her coffin.  Nowadays, the wife of a male head of state, whether dictator or democratically elected qualifies as a first lady.  In all the countries which are nominal republics, first ladies are sitting on top of the prestige heap.  American first ladies are still a breed apart. Only in America has the position retained its ceremonial and full regalia as well as its somewhat obsolete sense of purpose.  

With a few exceptions, 19 and 20th centuries American first ladies have been outstanding women in their own rights.  Many wives were unenthusiastic first ladies, resenting public exposure as well as their loss of freedom. They nonetheless established strong role models for American women.  First lady Jackie Kennedy even attained iconic status worldwide.  The president and his wife commonly worked as a team, with a caveat: the first lady is an unpaid position.  Lady Bird Johnson expressed her view on this matter: “The first lady is, and always has been, an unpaid public servant elected by one person her husband”.   

Subsequently, the freshly elected Bill Clinton famously announced that the American people got two for the price of one! A dutiful first lady is someone exclusively dedicated to promote the fame and grandeur of her husband the president.  To meet their goals, first ladies commonly conscript the other dwellers of the presidential palace such as first daughter, first cat, or first dog.   

It is worth pointing out that many US presidents owe their position to the relentless campaigning of their wives.  These women achieved first lady status by propping hubby to the top job! The first lady is de facto an elected official!  One usually acknowledges that there is always a strong woman behind a powerful man; this saying rings particularly true for American presidential couples. Florence Harding made this point very plain: “I know what’s best for the president. I put him in the White house. He does well when he listens to me and poorly when he doesn’t.”  She was more outspoken than most.  The current campaigning for the US presidential primaries shows that there are many potential svengalis among the candidates wives, most of whom had high-powered jobs before giving them up to boost up their husband’s presidential bid. 

In the rest of the world, first ladies carry less visibility and prestige; they go quietly about their business.  Some have careers; others are home buddies; others stay in the shadow of their husbands.  A trade unionist by marriage, Marisa Leticia the first lady of Brazil is just happy to log miles on AeroLula the presidential jet.  She does not get her script from “Desperate Housewives”!  If loose cannons are the exception they have nonetheless made headlines.  Danielle Mitterrand of France was a noteworthy example.  She pushed her independence to the limit by publicly endorsing political causes contrary to her husband’s policies. Lucy Kibaki, the official wife of the current president of Kenya is the poster girl for dysfunctional first families.  She commonly berates diplomats, slaps the face of journalists, and consistently bullies her husband. 

If Jackie Kennedy attained iconic status, Eva Peron of Argentina reached divine standing! Part Cinderella, part Cruella, her political legacy remains controversial at best.  She became the spiritual leader of the Peronist movement, the Mother Teresa of politics.  Her bid for vice president was nonetheless thwarted.  Several factors came into play, including the dithering of her envious husband, and the misogynous mindset of the military brass.  Her early death at 33 left her followers with an unfathomable grief.  Her funeral was a state affair, and her coffin was kissed by half a million people.  She became a saint and a legend.  

Some 50 years later, the funeral of the “People’s Princess” produced a comparable emotional outpouring.   During her short life, Princess Diana another popular cultural icon, indulged in a celebrity cult.  Gossip has it that she fantasized about becoming an American first lady and to go about redecorating the White House.  She planned to achieve this status by marrying an American billionaire who would subsequently buy his way into the White House!  It is the Jackie Kennedy Onassis saga in reverse! 

Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner strongly rejects the Evita parallel.  She does admit to a certain resemblance with the career path of Hillary Rodham Clinton.  Anointed by her husband, Cristina will succeed where Evita failed.  Hillary Clinton’s presidential quest is far thornier and success is still very uncertain. 

Is the first lady sinecure losing its appeal?  Not really, the function is evolving.  Laura Bush claims “The role of first lady is whatever the first lady wants it to be.” Therefore ambitious first women increasingly regard the job as a launching pad for more hands-on and executive duties.  In this Eleanor Roosevelt showed the way.  President Truman called her the first lady of the world.  After the death of her husband she increased her civil rights advocacy and became a U.S. delegate at the recently created United Nations. She is known to have given some 350 press conferences!   

Many first ladies are more popular that their husband.  Laura Bush who has been enjoying an approval rating twice as high as that of George should join the Republican candidate’s fray. This is a nightmarish proposal, America deserves better than George as first gentleman! To watch George adoringly gaze at Laura will be unbearable.  

B. L., October 26, 2007.