Tuesday, December 20, 2016

2017: Fasten Your Seat Belt

This is my last blog of 2016, the 14th of the year. My blogs are written to entertain my friends and stimulate my intellect. Conveniently, inspiration comes a little more than once a month. I like to share attention-grabbing tidbits, and endeavor to give a new spin to better known facts and information. My blog’s topics are eclectic at best, but Brazil, my primary residence is a bottomless source of inspiration. Blogging is an unpretentious therapeutic exercise started six years ago out of boredom and curiosity. Sadly, my blog mentor has passed away, but I like to think that I continue blogging as a tribute to his memory. Blogging is first and foremost a vehicle to stay in touch with my friends.
My blogs are dispatched to some 30 friends and acquaintances. I have no way of knowing if they are read and clip_image001 . I obviously appreciate receiving comments. Most are posted anonymously, and keep me guessing. At the same time, I understand that the innocuousness of some of the blogs doesn’t deserve any reaction from my busy friends.
In Brazil, 2016 is ending the way it started, enmeshed in the jumbo Lava Jato (car wash) corruption scandal. Car Wash is the most stimulating and probably the longest Brazilian telenovela (soap opera). But contrary to soap operas, Car Wash gets better as it progresses. Since I wrote the Tropical Marie Antoinette blog in November, two Marie Antoinette reincarnations are now in jail: Sergio Cabral, the former governor of Rio de Janeiro and his jewel-obsessed wife. For good measure, another ex-governor of Rio de Janeiro was also dispatched to jail: he stands accused of vote buying.
Brazilian male prostitutes are world famous. The highest concentration of them is found in Brasilia, Brazil’s capital where congressmen and senators have been falling over themselves to trade their favors to the highest bidder, mainly construction companies. Odebretch, Latin America largest construction conglomerate not only bribed politicians to win contracts but it paid lawmakers from all sides of the aisle to pass legislations favoring the company’s interests. The kick-back money (US$ 599 million according to the investigation) was mainly used to illicitly finance their election campaigns and occasionally line their pockets. Michel Temer, Brazil unpopular substitute president (after Dilma Rousseff’s impeachment), is also on Odebretch’s beneficiary list.
All the juicy tidbits came out in the wash, namely through the hundreds of testimonies for plea bargains tycoons and executives have signed. Bribing was so institutionalized that Odebretch set up a special division to handle it. It is estimated that during the last decade, the company paid US$ 30 million in bribes to Petrobras executives, the state-owned oil company at the center of the Lava Jato probe. Lawmakers received even more. For expediency sake, Odebretch purchased a bank in a fiscal heaven solely dedicated to its money laundering activities. Brazilian conglomerates exported their bribery expertise to Latin America and Africa. This business extension was allegedly orchestrated by former president Lula da Silva.
Schell shocked by the result of the American presidential election, I wrote a short blog titled The Fox In The Chicken Coop. As I suggested, Donald Trump has selected men (mostly rich men) to head departments they wanted to dismantle in their previous lives. The president-elect could just as well have selected thieves as bank tellers! I also hinted that Trump will run the White House like a casino. He regards himself as deal-maker-in-chief; his cabinet picks have a combined wealth of US$ 14.5 billion (WSJ), more a Fortune 500 club than a cabinet. A Trump administration will certainly expose clashes of egos, expect some rough and tumble like his real estate business. For a start, autocrat Putin who openly bet on Trump and helped him win may soon ask for a pay back. As the bloodshed in Syria indicates, Putin takes no prisoner and the bromance may end before it starts. I have no crystal ball, and your guess is as good as mine, so fasten your seat belts. The world is probably in for a rough ride.
I don’t mean to be a party pooper, so enjoy the holidays, and start the New Year with optimism. I plan to keep blogging and promise to write shorter blogs. Last but not least, I would like to thank my friend Caryl who, during all these years, has had the patience to edit my writing, even when the subject was of no interest to her or she did not agree with my comments. The red pencil has been replaced by computer track change: however new editing technology does not make the exercise less time-consuming.
Merry Xmas and Happy New Year to all.
P.S. Cartoon freely copied from O Globo newspaper.

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

A yellow hair fox in the chicken coop


America has done the unthinkable, electing a man who may run the White House like a casino. Hillary Clinton was the common sense candidate, but democracy is not a logical game. Shell shocked, the media carried out an exhaustive soul searching to explain the cause of this unexpected and against nature election and figure out why their projections were so wrong. Let bygones be bygones. At 70, Donald Trump will become the 45th and oldest president of the United States[1]. He is also the strangest and most oddball of the lot, even by US presidents’ standards.

Trump was elected because a sizeable segment of the American people, mostly living in the flyover states is fed up with the Washington establishment, which is regarded as out of touch, uncaring, and doing nothing for them. In other words, being a political novice was Trump’s comparative advantage. Ironically, to compensate for his lack of political savoir-faire, Trump is now busy recruiting a team of Washington insiders.

If Trump is not the first oddball to move into the White House, he is first real estate tycoon and billionaire to do so. As a brash, ostentatious and tasteless billionaire, one wonders whether he and his extended family will enjoy the quaint coziness of their new abode.

At this stage, only a fortune teller with a crystal ball can tell what the future holds for America and the world. For clues, one can look at some former unconventional American presidents and consider experiences from other countries which were once run by billionaires.

The Trump election brings to mind the case of John Tyler, the 10th American president better known as His Accidency. Unaligned with any political party, his moving into the White House was an accident of sort due to the death of the incumbent, William Harrison after only one month. Lawmakers wanted a new election. Historians consider him in low esteem and his legacy insignificant. He is mainly remembered for escaping an impeachment and having a veto overridden; the first overridden veto of any American president. His claims to fame are his 15 children and the annexation of Texas in 1845. Ironically, His Accidency is responsible for the first Latino migration into America.

Warren Harding is also seen as one of the worse US presidents. Before entering politics at his wife’s urging, the 29th US president was a wealthy newspaper publisher. The Republican candidate won the election in a landslide promising to roll back the progressive legislations of his predecessor; he favored pro-business policies and a limit to immigration. He launched a tax cut program which benefitted the richest segment of the population, and imposed protective tariffs on imports. His presidency was tainted by corruption in his cabinet and by his extramarital affairs. He was a consummate poker player and in one night lost the White House china set. His presidency (1921-23) was cut short by a fatal heart attack.

Chile, Italy and Ukraine have experience in billionaire leaders.

Chile elected Sebastián Piñera (net worth US$ 2.5bn, 2016) in 2010 for a four year term. Piñera comes from a patrician family and Huayna Capac, the last Inca emperor, is one of his ancestors. The soccer club, airline and television tycoon made his fortune in the credit card business. Before taking office he sold his stocks and placed the rest of his business in a blind trust. His term started inauspiciously with a 6.9 earthquake shaking his inauguration ceremony. In 2012, the Economist, the British weekly labeled him an “inept president.” He was famous for his lapses and gaffes. In the United States, he is remembered as the guy who sat down at Barack Obama’s desk in the Oval Office. Apparently the first person to do so. Actually, Piñera could offer Trump his unique expertise in mine rescue. Trump wants to revive the West Virginia run-down coal industry and coal mining is notoriously accident-prone. Piñera is the man who stood on the spotlight while 33 miners were pulled alive to the surface after spending 70 days trapped underground in October 2010.

In 2014, Ukraine elected Petro Poroshenko, the Chocolate King (net worth US$ 1.3bn, 2014) as its president. Pro-western Poroshenko promised to resist further Russian aggression after Putin snatched Crimea and supported the separatist rebels in eastern Ukraine. Putin closed Roshen confectionery factory in Russia and seized its assets. Trump’s bromance with Putin doesn’t augur well for the Ukrainian leader who will certainly be persona non grata in Washington. To aggravate his case, Poroshenco visited Hillary during the campaign. To break the ice, Poroshenco phoned Trump and invited him to visit Ukraine, a greenfield country for luxury hotels.

The third billionaire is Silvio Berlusconi (80 and asset valued at US$ 5.9bn, Forbes, 2016), the on and off Italian prime minister during the period 1994-2011. After Trump’s surprise election, the disgraced former prime minister claimed that they are both cut from the same cloth. There is some truth is this statement as both are consummate salesmen, narcissists with oversized egos, bullies, gaffe prone misogynists and have tacky tastes in everything from women to buildings. Finally, both used their wealth to force the doors of politics without having any formed ideology. The media plaid a critical role in both men’s ascent to power. Berlusconi depended on the support of his media conglomerate, while Trump’s victory stems from the relentless and counter-productive bashing from the media establishment. Under Berlusconi’s leadership Italy became a reality television show. Forza Italia, Berlusconi’s anti Establishment party was more a vehicle for political permanence than political ideology. At the end, Berlusconi lost popular support because he could not deliver on his job creation promises, and Italians got tired of his scandalous lifestyle (remember the infamous bunga parties) and the corruption surrounding his business. There was no fire wall between public goods and Berlusconi’s business interest.

A Berlusconi clone has become the president of a respected democracy relishing its own Brexit moment.

Trump may have outfoxed Hillary, but the chicken usually come home to roost.

P.S. These fellows do not deserve any additional promotion, no pictures.

[1] Actually there are only 44 presidents, as Grover Cleveland was twice elected for nonconsecutive terms.

Sunday, November 6, 2016

Tropical Marie Antoinette

In the confined and shameless world of Brazilian politico-corporate corruption, it is more Versailles than Greenwich, Connecticut! With more trips to Rue Montaigne than to Wall Street, the loot is spent ostentatiously rather than invested with discretion. Last week a Brazilian newspaper ran an article entitled Fashion Week in Curitiba. Curitiba is the small capital of the small state of Paraná in southern Brazil. Since March 2014, the city’s claim to fame is not fashion, but Lava-jato, the Car Wash police investigation of the billion dollar corruption probe at state oil company Petrobras. It is the biggest graft and money laundering investigation ever held in Brazil. Curitiba is the seat of the investigation, and the city jails have become a social hub for jailed construction tycoons, crooked politicians and their respective lawyers and families.
Claudia Cruz, the 48 year old wife of Eduardo Cunha[1] the former speaker of the lower house, visited her jailed husband dressed in Chanel. What else could she wear? There is only couture in her closets. Cunha is an Evangelical Christian and a leader among his peers. He is also the most reviled and wicked Brazilian politician, the poster boy of greed and hypocrisy. The family’s life style is more Kardashian than evangelical austerity. Cunha is accused of pocketing millions of dollars in bribes from contractors involved in Petrobras operations and squirreling his loot in offshore bank accounts. The police believes that he has between US$ 13 and 20 million hidden away in several foreign bank accounts. The Swiss government has already identified US$ 5 million.
Between 2008 and 2014, Claudia Cruz is suspected of having spent over US$ 1 million in clothing, hotels and restaurants in Paris, New York City and Miami. She spent US$ 60,000 on tennis lessons in Miami. A day in Paris does not come cheap either: US$ 10.000 is an average. These figures came to light after the police tallied her credit cards charges. Her splurging in couture fashion did not pay off, as she never made it to the best dressed list. Because many bank accounts are under her name, she may soon have to leave her couture in her closet and switch to a prison uniform.
                                                         Seen on the Curitiba catwalk
The Marie Antoinette’s lifestyle of the Cunhas is not uncommon among Brazilian political families. The former governor of the State of Rio de Janeiro, Sergio Cabral, who coincidentally is from the same party as Cunha, also made headlines with his extravagant lifestyle. If his spending pattern was similar, his paying methods were different. He did not charge on his own credit cards but that of his corporate friend Fernando Cavendish. Alternatively, he charged the state. In 2014, Cabral resigned as governor to run for the Senate, but dropped his bid when it was disclosed, among other failings, that he had used a state helicopter to commute to his beach house, carry his kids and nanny to school and dogs to the vet.

                                                           Happy Times in 2012. 
Governor Cabral (left), Elke Batista (the guy who lost US$ 35 billion in less than 365 days) and president Dilma Rousseff (impeached) 
Now, the anti-corruption judges are catching up with him. Cavendish, his former friend is in jail, and has agreed to a plea bargain. Cabral and his wife, Adriana Ancelmo loved luxury junkets to Paris and Monaco, all expenses paid for by Cavendish’s construction firm. The firm, which is appropriately named DELTA became the governor’s private travel agency. In return, Cavendish received juicy state contracts at inflated costs. During the “friendship”, the Cabrals indulged in luxury hotels, such as Hotel de Paris in Monaco (standard room rate €500.00), restaurants like the Louis XV (three Michelin stars) and gifts. One particular gift attracted the investigators’ attention: In 2009, Cavendish gave Adriana Ancelmo a Van Cleef & Arpels diamond ring as a birthday present. The price tag was €220,000.00! When Cavendish was investigated, the friendship ended and the gift was returned. Cabral claims that he never knew the value of the ring.
Fortunately, for Cunha and Cabral there is no guillotine in Brazil.

[1] Rio de Janeiro is his political base. He has been given many derogatory nicknames; my favorite is Xicun Cunha, pronounced like chikungunya.

Sunday, October 9, 2016

Olympe and Mary, 18th Century Feminist Trailblazers

“So you have found love in Paris”, Olympe de Gouges greeted English war correspondent  Mary Wollstonecraft in her apartment in early 1793. Mary blushed, did not respond instead asking if Olympe was afraid of the guillotine.
Olympe did not answer the question but told Mary that she was happy to welcome her. She added that “France is at war with itself. The reign of Terror is destroying our new-found equality and the dictatorship of radical Jacobins is wiping out the freedom given to women by the revolution. Mary, beware, everybody can be reported as an enemy of Robespierre and his clique of blood thirty fanatics. Mobs are murdering people without trial and others are sent to the guillotine”.
Mary replied “I am concerned but not afraid. Do you know how is Théroigne de Méricourt doing? I heard that she had been seriously beaten by a mob of revolutionary women.”
Olympe answered “She is in the hospital with a bad head injury. Can you imagine that she was stripped naked by a gang of brainless, illiterate and vulgar women! They didn’t even understood that Théroigne was encouraging them to fight for their rights and be able to bear arms like the sans-culottes, their men folks. No, they didn’t understand. Equal rights for women are inconceivable and irrelevant to them! Mary, how right you are to encourage women’s education. Educated women can be independent and play a meaningful role in society.”
Mary replied “I am only able to do this because my book A Vindication of the Rights of Women has just been published. It has made me famous in England; now I am able to support myself and my two sisters.”
“Mary, you are a role model. I understand that in England, wives have even less rights than in France! Are they not at their husband’s mercy, their property? I also heard that their children are regarded as the father’s property. I wish you luck in your mission.” Returning to the fate of Théroigne, Olympe asked Mary when she had met her.
“Some time ago,” replied Mary. “I am very impressed by her dashing allure: she was dressed in a man’s riding habit with a large feathered hat. I listened to her haranguing a group of women patriots trying to convince them to form revolutionary clubs. She is a former actress and knows how to speak.”
Olympe arose and voiced her anger at the Jacobins who had started the bloody Terror. Louis XVI, the French king, has been guillotined at the end of January 1792, a mistake according to her. France was now at war with neighboring nations, and their rulers were trying to stop the trans-border spreading of revolutionary propaganda. On the defensive, the Jacobins were now targeting women, stripping them of their previous social gains; divorce and inherence had in particular been rescinded. A gag rule has been imposed, and women like her were prevented from involving themselves in politics.
“What are you planning to do?” asked Mary.
“I will sharpen my pen, and fight to the bitter end for the right to free speech,” replied Olympe. She looked at Mary and again asked her about her Parisian romance. This time Mary could not escape. At 33, she qualified as a spinster. She had nonetheless attracted the attention of Gilbert Imlay, an American in Paris who used his American Revolution credentials to launch a business in revolutionary France. His involvement in the American Revolution fascinated Mary, and she had fallen madly in love to the point of irrationality.
“We are soul mates”, said Mary. She did not want to admit that she was emotionally hooked on her American lover. “We are free to love each other without getting into a marriage contract. It is a match of equals.”
Olympe wished her happiness, but warned that “love goes hand in hand with pregnancies; this is our lot, and babies are our responsibility. Beware of men, many are weak and won’t feel guilty in abandoning an independent woman if she does not need their financial protection.”
They parted, promising to meet again to exchange views on the evolution of the revolution.
 maryw       olympe
This is a fictional meeting, the fruit of this blogger’s imagination. In topsy-turvy Paris, during the Terror, Mary Wollstonecraft knew of Olympe de Gouges but never had the opportunity to meet her.
In 1791, Olympe de Gouges, the abolitionist, feminist playwright and political activist wrote the famous declaration of the Rights of Woman and the Female Citizen. She had famously declared that “if woman has the right to mount the scaffold; she must equally have the right to mount the rostrum.”
Unrepentant and true to her ideas, she wrote pamphlets against the Terror until the guillotine chopped her head off on November 3, 1793. She was 45 year old. Portrayed as a virago by her executioners, she was the only woman executed for sedition (her political writings) during the revolution. Because of her gender, her avant garde views were either dismissed or received with hostility. She qualifies as the first feminist martyr.
If de Gouges were a man, she would have been buried in the pantheon of national heroes, but as a woman she remained shunned by 19th century male historians. They could not accept that such progressive and equalitarian ideas sprouted from the head of a petite bourgeoise from a small town in France. De Gouges’ body of work was overlooked during the 19th and early 20th centuries. Finally, she is getting the recognition she deserves.
The same can be said about Wollstonecraft’s legacy. Her journalistic and philosophical works were discredited by the Victorian elite. In a way, she had her bad judgment to blame for the onslaught against her ideas and writings. The disclosure of her foolish, hysterical behavior and lack of self-esteem, during her liaison with Imlay damaged her reputation for a long period. Mary spent three years in revolutionary France, and wrote An Historical and Moral View of the Origin and Progress of the French Revolution (published in 1794). To protect her from the reach of the blood-thirsty Terror, Imlay had registered her as his wife. In 18th century, sex meant pregnancy, and Mary had an illegitimate daughter with Imlay. Mary, who had promoted women independence in peaceful England, discovered maternal bliss and longed for domesticity in troubled France. Back in England, Imlay, always in search of adventures both sexual and commercial, abandoned nagging “wife” Mary, leaving her emotionally devastated, suicidal and her freethinker reputation in tatters. Her craving for domestic dependency brought her intellectual downfall and she was branded as a hypocrite by her peers.
Finally, Wollstonecraft married William Godwin, a freethinker like her. She died in 1797 at the age of 38 soon after having delivered her second daughter Mary Shelley who made a name for herself as the author of Frankenstein. Mary Wollstonecraft lacked Olympe de Gouges’ emotional strength and strong judgement; however her psychological shortcomings do not diminish her contribution to women’s empowerment.
References: Gordon, Charlotte. Romantic Outlaws. Random House, 2015. A biography of Mary Wollstonecraft and her daughter Mary Shelley.

Monday, September 5, 2016

My home-made burkini

Since August 15, 2016 the New York Times and many other English-speaking newspapers have been fascinated with the burkini, a swimsuit worn by some conservative Muslim women which covers the whole body. Some French cities had banned the burkini from their beaches. Soon, the burkini story was all over the international news which condemned the ban as bigoted. The Times was the most persistent of the lot in pursuing the burkini issue; it carried daily articles, editorials, op-eds or letters on the subject. Furthermore, the Times encouraged the French to be more tolerant towards conservative Muslim women’s religious beachwear.

On August 26, the Council of State, a French top administrative court, reversed the ban taken by one city on the grounds that a burkini was not a risk to public order and infringed on personal freedom. To heed the Times’ call for tolerance, I decided to try wearing a burkini. I checked the burkini website to choose a model. It is essentially a wetsuit with a tunic to cover the crotch area and a hood. The Burkini is actually a registered trade mark from an Australian firm and was designed by a Lebanese-born woman there. The range of models is large. Each size comes in two styles: slim or modest fit. To me, the slim fit seems like to follow Islamic modesty guidelines to a lesser degree. They are colorful and made of synthetic fiber. Prices range between US$ 60 (for sale items) and US$ 90. A bargain compared with the price of a bikini, which needs much less material. As I couldn’t get one before the end of summer, I decided to make my own burkini (see photo below). 

DSC_0559 (1)
Actually, I was outfitted like many Muslim women in France who swim fully dressed. Since I had a choice, I quickly reverted to western type swimwear as my burkini dragged me under the water. I have tried wet suits and hated them, so I suppose it was not a surprise that I did not like wet burkinis either.

The recent deadly terrorist attacks committed by radical Islamists, many of them French-born, have shaken French self-esteem. People are increasingly concerned and irked by the overt dressing of conservative Muslims which is viewed as both ostentatious and culturally provocative. French people are realistic and know that it is illegal, unfeasible and ridiculous to fine women because they want to swim in the sea fully dressed. However, a majority of people are of the view that the burkini is another sign of goading from a religious and activist community which takes advantage of the freedom provided by a democratic state. After the hijab, the burkini is the new Trojan horse of political Islam to erode the liberal social system of western society. The majority of French people fear a fifth column ready to Islamize secular France.

Since 1905, after having defanged the lay power of the Catholic Church, France has been strictly secular or “laïc”. Twenty first century politicians are not ready to compromise with provocation from an imported religion which compels its faithful to occupy both private and public sphere. The state offensive against Islamic behavior and clothing can be seen as a repeat of the 19th century crusade against the modus operandi of the Catholic Church. French presidents do not swear on the bible, and “in God we trust” is not written on banknotes. Although, during the 20th century France integrated hundreds of thousands of destitute European migrants, the country does not qualify as a country of immigrants. The French now find frustrating that people who choose to live in France, and are often regarded as milking the social security system[1], show little desire to melt in.

It is estimated that 7.7 million Muslims live in metropolitan France, about 11 percent of the population. This is only a rough estimate because, as indicated above the French government does not collect ethnically-based statistics. If a large proportion has blended in, many are living in ethnic ghettos under the influence of conservative imams dispatched from the Gulf countries and Saudi Arabia. Recently, the Times[2] quoted a Norwegian terrorist expert, Thomas Hegghammer, who said that the most important effect of Saudi proselytizing might have been to slow the evolution of Islam, blocking its natural accommodation to a diverse and globalized world. “If there was going to be an Islamic reformation in the 20th century, the Saudis probably prevented it by pumping out literalism,” he said. Over the last twenty years In France, the dominant Catholic faith has become more liberal, but Islam has become much more conservative and intolerant, and as a result the cultural gulf between communities just got wider.

The burkini controversy led to lively debates in the French media, political circles and among friends. If the majority agree that the ban is illegal, unfeasible and counterproductive (why to ban the burkini when the hijab is authorized in public places?) the pro and con of the use of the burkini and its explicit religious undertone brought arguments which cut across the left-right ideological division. Two groups were notably disagreeing among themselves: the imams and the feminists! The more open-minded imams support the use of the burkini, for example, to allow mothers to looks after their children on the beach. Others argue that Islamic dressing should be more discreet and conform to the national fashion norms. Conversely, conservative imams condemned the burkini as indecent, stating that both pious men and women should stay away from the perversion of the beach, where people cavort nearly naked.

The divergence of view among French feminists was more subtle. All agree that women should be free to wear whatever they wish, but for left-leaning feminists, the ban is a humiliation and the burkini, albeit an obvious religious garment, give Muslim women a new freedom and empowerment. Other feminists, and I am in this group, regard Muslim societies as blatantly patriarchal, medieval and misogynist, whereby women are second-class citizens and as such, have to conform to male diktats. Muslim men should also dress modestly, but they do not and get away with it. They control women’s bodies, and as a result, women are de facto instrument of a male-dominated religious activism. Western women have fought hard to gain their equality status and are still battling machismo which also aims at “instrumentalizing” women’s bodies. State institutions should help newcomers to attain the same level of social freedom. Muslim women should be taught to decide for themselves. In Iran, dress codes are enforced by the religious police, but it is not the role of the French police.                                                                                                                                                                                   

Autumn will empty French beaches, but the burkini controversy will not die down. The presidential election is taking place in 2017, the concept of laïcité is central to the French state; tempering with it will be political suicide for any candidate. The government is working with the French Council of the Muslim Faith in order to work out solutions and calm the tempers on both sides. Women should be free to choose their wardrobe without having to conform to anyone.

The media’s attention span is notoriously short, and the burkini controversy will fade away. Always in search of stimulating topics, the media in general, and the Times in particular could expose the media bias against female politicians and its negative impact on their empowerment.

[1] May be a perception. Many anti-immigration parties have peddled this information. Hard to know, as racial and ethnic censuses and statistics have been banned by the French government since 1978. For egalitarian sake, it is forbidden to collect data on racial and ethnic groups. [2] Saudis and Extremism: “Both the Arsonists and the Firefighters” by Scott Shane, August 26, 2016.

Sunday, August 7, 2016


I hate the Olympic Games, all of them. Intended to bring friendship, they instead arouse infantile and, or, toxic nationalistic instincts. For me, this nationalistic fervor wipes out the sports and performance values. Not coincidentally, the most recent games, with the exception of London, have been organized by the dictatorships of China and Russia. The Olympic Games are state-sponsored vanity projects aimed at masking the host nation’s failings on the world stage. Not surprisingly, most Olympic Games end up as economic failures with few concrete benefits. Many host countries have exploited the games to advance their nationalistic agenda, making sport competition an instrument of their imperialist political goals. Conversely, some participating countries’ heads of state exploit the prowess and medals of their athletes to either boost their standing or mask their failures.

Potential host countries sell the games to their skeptical citizens by promising livelihood improvements (one may ask why these needed improvements are not made in the first place!). Fortunes are spent on grand sports venues and infrastructures, many of which become white elephants. The local population has little say in decision-making but often advocates that education, health, housing and infrastructure are better investments than a stadium.

Last but not least, because the games are both exploited and manipulated for nationalistic purposes, they have led to institutionalized cheating through out-of-control doping schemes. True, enhanced performance drugs are as old as the games themselves and drug-free sport is an oxymoron. Fighting doping has become a hypocritical pursuit. Athletes routinely take enhancing or comfort drugs; however some are afforded smarter and harder to detect drugs and, as a result they may outperform their competitors. In other words, records and medals depend on drug improvement; athletes become guinea pigs of the underground doping industry and pawns of their government’s disillusions of grandeur. These athletes are expandable, willing or forced to take dangerous life-shortening drugs to achieve their governments’ sports goals. Too many countries are doping complacent, but in Russia, doping is state-sponsored. The International Olympic Committee (IOC) has nonetheless allowed more than two-thirds of Russian athletes to compete, despite a blanket ban request from the anti-doping agency. IOC is as usual playing politics.
I hate the Olympic Games, notably the Rio games. In selecting Rio de Janeiro as the venue for the 2016 games, IOC made a bold political decision. Back in 2009, Brazil was basking in glory, a fast growing country led by a charismatic leader universally known as Lula (real name: Luis Inácio Lula da Silva). Brazil was awash in Chinese money thanks to its raw material exports and oil royalties were transforming Rio from a downtrodden former capital into a self-confident megapolis. The games were Lula’s personal achievement. He was the toast of the world, praised for his mix of economic orthodoxy and progressive social policies instrumental in pulling millions of people out of poverty. Everybody was thrilled: construction companies anticipated juicy contracts and politicians hefty kickbacks.                                                                     

                                                                                                      The two faces of Brazil

Now the party is over. Brazil is going through its worst economic recession in decades, compounded with a whacky political crisis. The low price of oil and the billions of dollars-corruption scandal affecting Petrobras, the state-owned oil giant, left the state of Rio de Janeiro bankrupt. Frustrated people wonder why the money is spent on a party rather than on public service improvements and job creation. Ironically, neither Lula nor his successor, Dilma Rousseff, will be in attendance at the opening ceremony. Expecting her impeachment trial, Dilma has been suspended from office. Lula will keep a low profile having been indicted on charges of obstruction of justice. Hopefully, the games will run without too many glitches, something positive in the current doom and gloom.

                                                                                                 Brazilians love a good party

The unpopular, lame duck French president, François Hollande, was the first head of state to visit Rio, officially to lobby for Paris to be awarded the 2024 Games. This is Paris’ fourth bid since 1924. Hollande was probably looking for a break from France’s gloomy situation. In its bid, Paris is proposing Seine-Saint-Denis as the Olympic co-venue, a region famous for its violent ghetto-type banlieues. Is Hollande hoping that sport become an alternative to Islamic State enrollment for banlieus’ disenfranchised kids? Knowing that many athletes are shunning Rio, fearful of the Zica virus, one may wonder whether they will welcome banlieue hospitality!

By keeping the media distracted from unpleasant topics like IS, the Zica virus and Trump, among topics, the Rio Olympic Games will provide a three-week escape from current miseries.
Panem et circenses.

Thursday, July 14, 2016

Brexit and I


Early in June I placed two bets. On June 23rd, I lost the first one, as did David. I will have to wait until November 8th to know if my second bet is luckier. I lost my bet and David Cameron, Britain’s Prime Minister (PM) his reckless political gamble. Brexit, or the exit from the European Union (EU) was chosen by 52% of 33.6 million voters[1]. I had bet that the British people, in their wisdom would decide to stay within the EU family. My optimism was influenced by that of my many British friends, whose opinion was squarely in the “remain” camp.

For me, Brexit was much more than a shock, it was an emotional letdown, a betrayal. In the darkest hours of the 20th century, Britain had twice courageously stood by France, but in 2016, for trivial and inward-looking reasons, it decided to cut these old links. So to speak, the referendum was a dog’s breakfast, a mess to vent a zillion grievances, legitimate or not, but mostly unrelated to the EU. The “leave” camp used the referendum to protest against a political system it regards as culturally or socially destabilizing and that no longer represents its interests. Anger was the rallying cry of people who felt abandoned, left by the wayside.


Brexit was a boon to editorialists and politicians on both sides of the Channel and the Atlantic Ocean. They have scrutinized and cherry picked Brexit to prove the relevance of their respective opinions. Among pundits, conservative, nationalists, nativist and protectionists had a field day. Brexit was the triumph of their prediction, evidence that their goals could be achieved somewhere else. For Marine le Pen, the president of the Eurosceptic far right National Front party, Brexit was the first crack in the EU monster’s shield. Smelling the opportunity to pounce, she pledged to squash the face-less monster to free France from the evil of globalization, immigration, loss of sovereignty and liberal social policies.

Brexit carries a double paradox: It was a rebellion against the British elite, however led by prominent members of the same elite, the so called Notting Hill set. I guess that old school Robert Crawley, Lord Grantham of British series Downton Abbey, would have been a keen Brexiteer! Brexit was also the rejection of liberal economic policies, notably free trade and the freedom of movement for EU workers. Coincidentally these policies had been spearheaded by the British government and reluctantly adopted by other EU members. In the end, Britons were angry at the way their own government was taking care of them.

The EU is a convenient scapegoat for EU member governments who routinely blame the union for their own failures; not surprisingly, people get brainwashed. They casually enjoy EU benefits while rejecting its constraints. Think of the hordes of British on holiday in southern Spain! They may have to change the venue of their next cheap vacations. Apart from being ill-conceived, the referendum was hypocritical and cynical. Referenda are best left to the Swiss who have mastered the process. From now on, the British government will have to take full responsibility for its shortcomings and mistakes.


                                        Courtesy of ChappatteI

In my view France, as well as the majority of EU countries, greatly benefitted from being part of the EU. A member has to adhere to club rules for its own good and that of the community; as a member, France had to repeatedly discipline its finances which tend to be mismanaged by the profligate practices of party politics. Parties resent this scrutiny; they portray it as a loss of sovereignty. In addition, the stragglers blamed the good performers for their failings. Am I being sarcastic?

The EU bureaucrats may be carried away by their frenzy for rules and regulations. In our competitive world, systems have to be harmonized to achieve both critical mass and economy of scale. Sometimes the EU steps on cherished cultural traditions angering citizens. It is a trial and error process to move forward. Reassuring inward-looking policies may preserve the traditional way of life but they are hardy adequate to meet the challenges of our fast-moving global world.

Readers must wonder why I take Brexit so much to heart and why I pass such a harsh judgment on Brexit peddlers. I am a born believer in internationalism, with a first passport at age 14 and an overseas job at 26. I may qualify as an utopist for having worked 25 years in the much maligned United Nations. Being incremental in nature, UN’s achievements are rarely publicized, and successes rarely make headlines. Founded in 1945, the UN has been relentlessly criticized for irrelevance, waste, mismanagement and inefficiency (among other things) by its member states[2]. Had the UN been subjected to reckless national referenda, the organization would no longer exist! Cynically, the UN’s raison d’étre is probably its scapegoat and punching ball usefulness. If the UN did not exist, member states would have created it in order to have a bully pulpit; a talk fest; a forum where they can grandstand, bicker and vent their anger and frustration; and last but not least, a place to safely park their redundant or cast-off politicians. The UN is frequently blamed for being an instrument of the foreign policy of powerful members. This is true, and often UN troops are called to clean up the mess left by these same powers. The EU faces similar criticisms. The UN Secretariat was used as a blue print for the EU Commission.

Europe will see more bickering and hardships, but hopefully the Union will make its case to the citizens. I don’t see much alternative to a strong and united continent. To move forwards, its restless member states must come to consensus politics.

Home Secretary Theresa May has been appointed British PM with the task to clean the Brexit mess. The Guardian newspaper noted that “there is an increasingly widespread sense that strong female leaders are needed to clean the mess created by men”.

Hopefully on November 8, I will win my second bet, Hillary be elected president of the United States. The alternative to her election is too frightening to consider.


[1] The turnout was 71.8%, high by UK elections standards. Brexit was therefore backed by 36 % of the voting age population.

[2] 193 in 2016.

Thursday, June 30, 2016

The art of seduction à la française


French male politicians are known for their ostentatious courtesy towards women, and some of them are exclusively renowned for their trade mark galanterie. These well-mannered attentions often mask an entrenched superiority complex and deep-rooted sexism. Sexism is an established badge of honor among French lawmakers. Women are still under-represented in both parliament chambers: they make up 25% in the senate and 27% of the lower house. Interestingly, the pervasive French-type machismo is ideologically neutral and consistently transcends the political spectrum. French politicians may not be worse offenders than their peers in other industrialized countries, but the Gallic media culture allows them to get away with it.

Until recently, the tabloid tell-all culture was alien to French media. French journalists are notoriously left-leaning and many enjoy quasi incestuous links to the Socialist party, for this raison they have been reluctant to unmask the shoddy behavior of lovey-dovey-lefty lawmakers who hypocritically break the strict harassment laws they have contributed to write (think of the infamous Dominique Strauss Kahn and his alleged sexual assault in a Manhattan hotel). On the other hand, right wing creeps are handled with less care.

I did not spend my professional life in France, and when visiting always found frustrating women’s acceptance of machisme ordinaire, such as routine flirtatious remarks on their looks and condescending comments on their professional achievements. Pity that too many French women believe that their enfranchisement requires a seal of approval delivered by an all-male jury.

In France, male chauvinism is institutionalized, enshrined in the law, from the Medieval Salic law which barred women from sitting on the French throne, to the Napoleonic code which subordinated them to fathers or husbands, a setback from the equality principles of the revolution. During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the de facto unholy alliance between two historic foes, the church and the anticlerical parties, prevented the advancement of women’s rights: the former through its patriarchal oppression and the second because of its political prejudice. Women were considered too intellectually and politically immature to become full citizens.

Before the end of the Nazi occupation of France in the Spring of 1944, General de Gaulle’s government in exile, with the support of representatives of Communist resistance organizations, granted women the vote. It was regarded as a reward for their courageous resistance activities during the war. In fact, it was a political quid pro quo. The Communists expected them to massively vote for their party. De Gaulle was less altruistic, and rightly estimated that the newly empowered women would bring post-war stability to an ideologically divided France. Women made up more than 60% of the electorate. They voted for De Gaulle’s conservative government and the Communist party lost the elections.

If sexual shenanigans are still rarely exposed on the front page of reputable French newspapers, the online media is becoming more intrusive. In May 2016, a media website broke an open secret that Denis Baupin a Green party politician and deputy speaker of the lower house of parliament had for years sexually harassed several female party colleagues. Although he denied wrongdoing, arguing that a compliment is not harassment, he was forced to resign his position. An investigation has formally been opened.

Subsequently, 17 women, either serving or former ministers from the right and the left, came forward to say enough is enough with sexual arrogance and abuses in French politics. Even Christine Lagarde, the current head of the International Monetary Fund and France’s former finance minister, joined the signatories. As expected, with their trade-mark male chauvinism, the political alpha males ridiculed the protest as girly stuff. Some even implied a more somber plot: the women’s accusations were politically motivated to weaken the Green party. To make the case more attention-grabbing, the allegedly lecherous lawmaker is married to a government minister.

The 17 ministers’ column attracted world-wide attention and soul-searching in France. For many observers, the code of silence had been broken and recommendations were made to finally make the predatory males pay. Everyone had a view on the matter. This being France, philosophers joined the fray. They like to pass judgement on everything and everybody and can debate on any subject; sexism is certainly a tempting one for a good left versus right-wing argument. France probably has more self-proclaimed philosophers than cheeses! Some 300 and still counting.

Last year, 40 female political reporters wrote an open letter complaining that lawmakers treated them as sex objects, and that they were tired of their lewd remarks and roving hands. Some reporters hinted that information for sex was routinely suggested: info for an apéro! As indicated above, French journalists and politicians always had a close rapport. Many reporters have been romantically involved with politicians, some with disastrous consequences: remember President Hollande’s scène de ménage with his former live-in mistress Valerie Trierweiler. Dominique Strauss-Kahn was married to Anne Sinclair, a famous journalist, who stood by him during the Manhattan scandal (they have later divorced).


            dsk                       gtron

                                Three alleged sexual molesters.                                                               May have been spotted lurking along the corridors of the French parliament.

Le Figaro Magazine (May 20), a conservative week-end magazine, carried an interview of middle-aged philosopher Pierre-Andre Taguieff. The provocative title attracted my attention: The new abhorrent person is the middle-aged heterosexual white male (free translation)[1]. Not having lived in France for decades, I had never heard of PAT, but he is known in right-wing circles. He made his name crusading against political correctness he regards as a left-wing diktat. In the article, PAT argues that the Baupin scandal was a witch hunt, and that the investigative journalists who disclosed it were acting like morality police. PAT comes across as a very opinionated and conservative ideologue with patriarchal views on the men and women relationship: Baupin’s female accusers were running a gender war for political gains. By portraying themselves as victims of male political dominance, these vixen were acting out of jealousy, resentment, vengeance, mean-mindedness and were prejudiced against men (coined neo-sexism). According to PAT, it is open season on the middle-aged white man, who the neo-feminists regard as a threat for the human race. For me, his ranting against the so-called neo-sexism of aggressive neo-feminists is a text book case of an ingrained patronizing view of women. French philosophers take no prisoners as this anecdote will prove.

Outraged, I emailed PAT a mocking rebuke, arguing that I was very sorry to hear that middle-aged men like him were feeling threatened by neo-feminist attacks but at the same time I was extremely gratified to learn that I was a member of the neo-feminist tribe. To make my case, I quoted Roger-Pol Droit, another French academic and thinker, who had also commented on the Baupin story. Droit occasionally contributes to Les Echos, a French financial newspaper. Unlike PAT, he is not in denial, and expressed empathy with victims of sexual abuse. His editorial underlined the toxic effects of the coercive social and cultural domination men had over women for centuries. To my surprise, PAT replied with a condescending five-line email. As expected, his reply disparaged my female intellect, but also that of Mr. Droit! For PAT, Droit is as just a nice vacuous journalist. In addition, PAT took the opportunity to include links to his articles and made reference to a recent book which he had “dedicated to free, intelligent and beautiful women from all walks of life.” PAT could not resist adding beautiful women, evidence of his paleo-sexism. I dropped the matter and never replied.

     rogerpoldroit                taguieff

                    Roger-Pol Droit                                                  Pierre-Andre Taguieff

It is ironical that PAT and I are largely in agreement on another woman-related matter. I am referring to the reaction of the German left-wing feminists to the sexual assaults perpetrated by Muslim males in Cologne on New Year’s Eve. Their lack of condemnation came as a shock to me. In my January 24, 2016 blog Winterreise, I wrote that “oddly, on the subject of Arab migration, the feminists’ support for women’s rights takes a back seat to their politically correct rhetoric.” For me, these feminists were in denial, condoning violence against women because of their reluctance to tackle the dark side of the ethnic and cultural traditions of the perpetrators. There are laws which carry punishment for violating our Western social norms; to ultimately protect social peace, they must be applied independently of race, gender and religion. PAT goes much further and argues that neo-feminists are quick to denounce the chauvinistic attitude of White males but fail to condemn culture-related violence because of their anti-racist obsession. In other words, violence perpetrated by oppressed minorities, I.e. migrants is regarded as more morally acceptable than that of the dominant class. PAT calls it the totalitarianism of political correctness.

I will not shout aux armes citoyennes to validate PAT’s theory. I am no philosopher but believe that women can fight ingrained male chauvinism without starting a gender war.

[1] “La nouvelle figure répulsive est l’homme blanc hétérosexual de plus de 50 ans.”

Saturday, May 7, 2016

Dilma the Amazon of the Planalto Part II: The Fall.


On November 9, 2014 this blogger posted an article entitled The Amazon of the Planalto (http://wikibea-carioca.blogspot.com.br/2014/11/the-amazon-of-planalto.html) to introduce Dilma Rousseff and explain why she had been re-elected president of Brazil. In 2016, Dilma has become a household name even outside Brazil, and for many Brazilians, the Planalto looks more like a den of crooks than a presidential palace. The president’s falling from grace has been swift and spectacular. Why have things gone so wrong for Dilma?

Dilma is the most unpopular president since the restoration of democracy in 1985. In order to be re-elected, she painted a rosy picture of the economy and spent public money outrageously. In order to hide the abysmal budget deficit, she cooked the books. Re-elected, she had to renege on her campaign promises to fix the runaway deficit. She is squarely responsible for the worse economic recession in 80 years. Now, she is being impeached for falsifying government accounts. In addition, a majority of Brazilians believe that she condoned political corruption mainly the leviathan-size embezzlement of the state oil company Petrobras to protect members of her party and its coalition. This blogger believes that the impeachment is a constitutional trick aimed at a weary president whose government’s survival depends on unconstitutional budget tricks. In fact, the impeachment is a referendum on her helpless, hopeless and incompetent government.

In my previous blog, I portrayed Dilma as a very un-Brazilian person for being rude, bossy and aloof. This is what I wrote: “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 her leftist Workers’ Party 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”.

Thanks to its efficient propaganda, the Worker Party (PT in Portuguese) has proclaimed itself the only champion of democracy and social justice. According to PT, attacking Dilma equates to a coup attempt against democracy and the poor. The coup mongers are the right wing elite, and the media who want to take their revenge over the PT’s loathed progressive social agenda. In April 2016, Dilma’s backers, mainly trade unionists, intellectuals, public servants and artists made a show of support. However, her confrontational style has antagonized many allied politicians and PT members. Party’s big wigs and left leaning political allies are less supportive of her, therefore they denounced the impeachment as a coup d’état against the institutions. This rhetoric is someway validated by the fact that a large number of the lower-house politicians who voted Dilma down, have a very tarnished reputation. Some sixty of them are under investigation for corruption or more serious crimes!

The last paragraph of my 2014 blog was prophetic, I implied that Dilma will have to update her guerrilla skills to keep the alpha males of her cabinet in line. Her relationship with her vice-president Michel Temer (75) was notoriously strained, and she hardly consulted him about state matters. He complained of being a “decorative vice-president” and being treated with mistrust and contempt. In 2016, the veep and most of her ministers have either abandoned or confronted her. Temer has been instrumental in Dilma’s downfall, acting quietly to undermine her in the wings: “Revenge is a dish best eaten cold” according to the saying,


                                       Dilma and Michel in happier times

Currently, the impeachment process follows its long-winded course in the Senate. Very probably, Dilma will have to step aside for 180 days, and the all-boy-club of the old guard will take over.

This blogger never liked Dilma’s unorthodox economic maneuvers, but she was a bulwark against the conservative and patriarchal social agenda of the boys of the old guard. With Dilma in the dog house, the vice-president will take charge of an interim government. Under investigation for bribe taking, Temer is also very unpopular. He will eject PT members, nominate his own cronies and reward pro-impeachment political parties. He hopes to revive the economy by going back to orthodoxy. However, worryingly for this blogger, he is under the influence of the old patriarchal elite and the Evangelical Christians whose political clout is growing in Brazil. Their dream is to make Brazil an Iran-styled theocracy. Now, Temer is assembling his all-male, all-white cabinet under the blessing of leading Evangelical politicians. His task is nearly impossible as Brazil has no less than 32 registered political parties whose only goal is seeking patronage.

Dilma’s social views are very liberal and in line with the tolerant social mores of the majority of Brazilians. She never hid her atheist belief, resisted the moral agenda of the conservative political parties backed by Catholic and Evangelical Christians, and was an advocate of the laicity of the state. Dilma was committed to advancing women’s rights and in a country where abortion is highly restricted she was publicly pro-choice. She took a stand for the criminalization of homophobia and her party blocked several attempts to pass laws to allow psychiatrists to treat homosexuality as a disease or a mental disorder (cura gay in Portuguese).

In a patronage-ridden political system, Temer’s selection of potential ministers is already under fire. Particularly worrying is Temer’s choice for minister of science and technology; it may go to a bishop from the Evangelical Universal Church who is promoting creationist theories.

Even the supporters of economic orthodoxy may miss Dilma’s wretched government.

Sunday, April 10, 2016

The Many Assassinations of Leon Trotsky


According to Google, some 160 books have been written on Trotsky’s assassination in Mexico on August 21, 1940. Assassins receive much less scholarly attention; very few books are dedicated to them. A recent exception is the investigative cum historic novel The Man Who Loved Dogs written in 2009 by Cuban novelist Leonardo Padura. The dog lover is Ramón Mercader del Rio[1] (1913-1978), Leon Trotsky’s icepick holding assassin.

ramonm             trotskyfrida

                         Hunter                                                   Prey: Portrait by Frida Kahlo

Friends had encouraged me to read the book, but it took me a while to open this brick of a book. I do not particularly like dogs, and with the demise of the Soviet Union, Trotsky’s wandering and assassination did not titillate my interest. My curiosity got piqued after seeing an exhibition on the life and art of Mexican surrealist artist Frida Kahlo. In 1936, Frida and her muralist husband, Diego Rivera welcomed Trotsky to their home in Coyoacán and eventually to her bed. My Spanish is small talk level and reading in the original Cuban-Spanish was unachievable. I spent the month of March reading the 700 plus-pages French translation. The English translation is only 576 pages long!

Padura’s novel reads like a multilayered thriller organized around the two main characters, Trotsky and Mercader. Trotsky, a modern wandering Jew forced into exile by his nemesis Stalin, had been Lenin’s comrade and founder of the Red Army. Mercader, a young Catalan Republican and Communism aficionado was recruited and trained by Stalin’s NKVD/GPU[2] goons. Prey and hunter were Communist reincarnations of Faust, whose lives no longer belonged to them, they were the living dead.

There is a third person, the fictitious Iván Cárdenas, a failed and despondent Cuban novelist whose inspiration was cut short by Fidel Castro’s censorship. Cárdenas’ fortuitous beach encounter with Mercader (under an alias) makes him the unwilling depository of the unfolding drama. His miserable life is particularly poignant and Padura sheds a fascinating light on Cuba’s tortuous and dehumanized brand of Communism. It is their love of dogs that connects Mercader to Cárdenas. Actually, the book’s title is misleading: According to Padura, all three main characters were dog lovers! Dogs have very often been the accessories of tyrants and blood thirsty dictators.

For me, the book’s main interest lies in its focus on the emotional and psychological traits rather than the historic dimension of both hunter and prey. However, Padura’s comprehensive research and access to previously secret files give a historical appeal to the storytelling. To remain politically relevant during his exile, Trotsky obsessively promoted his brand of international Marxism and tried to demonize Stalin’s ideological deviation. With the dwindling number of followers, his political legacy became his fundamental concern. His love of dogs apart, Trotsky comes across as a vain, self-centered and callous individual.

Trotsky received political asylum from several countries, France included. My curiosity was piqued when I found out that I might have walked by his former house in Saint Palais-sur-Mer near the seaside town of Royan. My mother who lived in Saint Palais for decades never mentioned its accidental but illustrious guest. Recently, a friend informed me that the Villa les Embruns (Sea Spray) had been demolished in 1945, possibly as a collateral damage of the Allies’ air raids against the Nazis’ stronghold of Royan.

trotskylyova        arrivalmexico

  Villa Sea Spray, father & son                    Ménage à trois: Natalia, Frida & Leon

On the other hand, when in Mexico City, I visited Diego and Frida’s Casa Azul, (Blue House). Leon Trotsky and his wife Natalia were rent-free guests for nearly two years until Trotsky’s affair with Frida forced the couple to move out and set up their own home. I find the episode quietly ironical, for Frida extramarital sex was a liberation from bourgeois values, but for a true Marxist like Trotsky, adultery was a bourgeois sin. As a result, cuckooed Diego Rivera decided that he was no longer a Trotskyite. He nonetheless continued in his macho ways, enjoying extramarital flings, in particular with Frida’s sister. On the sly, Frida did the same with men and women. Mercader was once invited for dinner in her house.

Little is known about Mercader and his many aliases, he is a personage de l’ombre, (a shadow person). In the book, he is more a fictional than historical character. After the assassination, he was jailed for 20 years. In 1961, he was shipped to Moscow, where he spent another 20 years in Soviet comfort but without much freedom. The last two years of his life were spent in Cuba. Mercader comes across as a puppet driven by hate and fear, a willing and cynical executioner who sometimes looks almost robotic. It is amazing that he survived the convolutions and palace coups of the Soviet Union until 1978. His rapport with the other characters of the plot makes him psychologically interesting. Mercader displays a filial devotion to his wily NKVD handler, the operative Nahum Eitington (1899-1981), who cunningly morphed into the father figure he missed in his youth. In the book, and possibly in life, Mercader is surrounded by strong-willed women, and his rapport with them is complex, unfulfilled and strained. A fanatic Stalinist, his Spanish mother Caridad[3] del Rio was both Eitington’s mistress and partner in crime. Fully aware of the risk to her son’s life, she nonetheless convinced him to kill Trotsky. Mercader’s love hate relationship with his mother could have been Oedipal.

According to Padura, África de las Heras (1909-1988) was Mercader’s great and frustrated love. She was ideologically close to Caridad who recruited her on behalf of the NKVD. Caridad and África were involved in Trotsky’s murder. During WW II, África started a successful international career as a spy for the KGB.

And there is the unfortunate Sylvia Ageloff (1910-1995) a devoted American Trotskyist who accidentally provided Mercader access to her hero’s home. She had been selected by Eitington as the perfect cats’paw. Lonesome, plain looking with thick glasses, she was easily seduced by Mercader who treated her with derision and contempt. Unfairly, Paduro makes an unflattering portrait of Sylvia Ageloff. Is it for the sake of fiction or evidence of Cuban machismo?

Trotsky was assassinated again in 1972 by bad boy actor Alain Delon who impersonated Mercader in Joseph Losey’s odd ball film The Assassination of Trotsky. Richard Burton played Trotsky and Romy Schneider was Ageloff under the pseudonym of Gita, as the genuine one was still alive in New York City. The film bombed at the box office and can be seen on YouTube. Trotsky will be assassinated again in 2016, in a Mexican film still in production. Retrospectively, Trotsky achieved his goal of not being forgotten.

burtontrotsky            delonburton

     Richard Burton as Trotsky                          Delon and Burton: Murder scene

Mercader died in Havana, seemingly of cancer after a long illness. Padura hints that his own people may “have released radioactivity in his blood” to kill him slowly. A dry run for many more Soviet-styled executions. The Soviet Union no longer exists, but the signature executions go on.


[1] Also known as Jacques Monard, Frank Jacson & Ramon Ivanovich Lopez.

[2] NKVD: People’s Commissariat for Internal affairs. GPU: State Political Directorate.

[3] A misnomer as Caridad is Spanish for charity.

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

The lifestyle of a rich and famous populist: Lula’s case study.


Under this heading, two men are top stories these days, The Donald (Trump) in the USA and Lula (also known as Luis Inácio Lula da Silva) in Brazil. They share some personal attributes, both are rabble rousers and enjoy a tacky lifestyle. The first one is a right wing populist who lives off his personal fortune while the second is a left wing former president who lives off his rich friends’ kindness.

Next year, the USA may swear in its first populist president; on the other hand, Latin America has perfected the formula. In 2016, the majority of its leaders are dye in-the-wool leftwing populists. Among them, Lula who was president for eight years has reached mythical status, primus inter pares. Like his clone, the late president Chávez of Venezuela, Lula is a very divisive figure: he is the most loved and the most hated man in Brazil. Now, he is certainly first among equals in matters of political trickeries and obstruction of justice. Although an early admirer, this blogger is no longer a total fan. His fall from grace was faster than his spectacular rise in national politics.

In 2016, Lula stands accused of money laundering in the context of the Petrobras mega- embezzlement scandal investigated by operation Car Wash, influence peddling with construction companies, illicit self-enrichment, concealing property ownership and possibly obstruction of justice. His wealth is estimated at US$ 8 million, and one of his sons is amongst the richest man of Brazil. To add insult to injury, the current president Dilma Rousseff named him Chief-of-staff, a job which shields him from possible prosecution.


                                                      Lula before

Lula comes from an under-privileged background from the poverty-stricken North East of Brazil. He worked as a metal worker in São Paulo, and has been a political fixture since the 1970s when as a trade unionist, he stood up to the military regime. After two attempts, he was finally elected president in 2003, and left the office after two terms at the end of 2010. As president, he put aside his left-wing rhetoric. Benefitting from the commodity boom, Lula led Brazil through years of mega investments. He was a successful president albeit a lucky one. He used the windfall to pull millions of people out of poverty through steady economic growth and money transfers to the most marginalized ones in his native Northeast. However, he failed to reform Brazil’s outdated institutions which would have allowed the country to weather leaner years like now.

When Lula left the presidency, he was legitimately a man with a high middle class standard of living; he had substantial savings and enjoyed many generous retirement pensions. When in office, a president hardly spends anything; Lula had no lawyers to pay like Bill Clinton, another rags-to-rich president, nor gave 90 percent of his salary to charity like José Mujica, the former president of Uruguay who qualifies as the world’s “humblest” of president.

However upon leaving Brasilia, Lula told his adoring supporters that “I am leaving government to live life on the streets where I always was, I will be more of the people than ever before”. Instead of enjoying his new status of a respected self-made man, Lula was longing for his previous life of hardship. He wanted people to believe that in spite of eight years in the presidential palace and a successful career, he had not changed and remained true to his poor man’s values. He even bragged that he had never opened a book in his life. On the other hand, the millions of people who had benefitted from the economic growth where unabashedly busy improving their lots and sending their kids to better schools. For this blogger, through the above statement, Lula planted the seeds of trouble to come.

Emulating many of his peers, the former president started a lucrative career of international lecturer. Charging speaking fees in the order of US$ 100,000.00, Lula delivered hundreds of lectures, mostly in Latin America and Africa. Nothing illegal at this stage. However, these lectures were overwhelmingly paid by business corporations, and many are implicated in the Car Wash Operation. Construction companies not only funded Lula’s conference trips and lectures but also made hefty donation to his foundation in São Paulo (Instituto Lula). Interestingly, the Lula Institute does not post these lectures on line; recently a famous judge wondered whether they actually existed. For a period, Lula was under contract with the New York Times to write opinion columns. During his international trips, Lula has been portrayed as a lobbyist or middle man for Brazilian construction firms. According to the Brazilian media, in 2015 these companies had about US$ 5 billion worth of contracts with the Federal Government. Lula’s close ties with these firms have tarnished his former statesman aura.

                             lula after

                                                        Lula now

With so much money coming his way, Lula faced an existential dilemma. True to his word as a poor man, he could not exhibit a flashy lifestyle. Even the Car Wash sleuths have a hard time following Lula’s money trail; they nonetheless claim that there is evidence that the former president received real estate and money gifts from firms implicated in Petrobras bribery scheme. Lula is linked to a beach front three-story penthouse and to a sprawling country estate with swimming pool and lake. The police believes they were given to him in a “scratch-my-back” type of scheme because Lula’s personal items were found in these places.


                                 Country estate in a shitty location..

The ex-president claims that he owns nothing, and that, he and his family only visited these residences as guests. One knows that Lula lives with his wife in his former apartment in suburban São Paulo, where he owes three apartments. The apartment next to his is empty and someone pays the rent, but who? Facts remain fuzzy regarding Lula’s investments.


                                        Lula: A poor man’s soul.

By Brazilian standards, these are far from being prime location real estates. It is hilarious to hear a released taped phone call whereby the mayor of Rio de Janeiro, an otherwise devoted fan of Lula tells him that “his farm house and penthouse are in shitty places, that Lula’s has never lost his poor man’s soul, and that it is the biggest fucking disgrace”. Lula seems to agree.


                                       Lula and Dilma: Team Work.

Lula’s chief of staff nomination has been suspended by a Supreme Court judge. It is ironical to remember that in 1988, Lula allegedly said that when a poor man steals he goes to jail; but when a rich guy does the same, he get a ministerial job! At this stage of the game, the political crisis has reached such an unparalleled level of pandemonium and crassness that apparently the writers of the political series House of Cards are keenly following the plot’s twists and turns.