Living On

Armen is heavily missed. His absence left a hole in independent observation of the political and economic risk situation in Latin America. Beyond the merely analytical though his work was wide-ranging from Armenian philanthropy and social observation of Latin and European lifestyles through to being a "fly on the wall" at the Cannes Film Festival every year and reporting back on the more exotic foibles of the international jet-set.

We miss his wit, his sense of history and his bon mots (in French, Armenian and, even, Turkish). Armen was very much a product of the Levant but then, like so many other Levantines, converted to an international stage where they offer insight into all around them. This record tries to humbly accumulate his collected writings for public consumption so they can be preserved and appreciated for the urgency of the moment in which they were written to the timelessness of the observations.

How best to categorise the uncategorisable? Maybe Armen could be described as an Armenian/Anglo/Franco Samuel Pepys for our times.....

It is ironic that ultimately it was the very mediocrity and self-satisfaction of the Chilean "system", which he documented so thoroughly, that brought about his tragic end.

Wednesday, June 16, 2004

IS TERRORISM RETURNING TO CHILE ? In fact, did it ever go away ?

A number of violent incidents over a short period of time have shattered the placid tranquillity of the Chilean scene. They have made both local and expatriate observers wonder if the problem-free security reputation enjoyed by the country was to prove as artificial as its totally unjustified claim of having little or no corruption. A lot of discussion and soul-searching is taking place. What is really the situation ?


Within a couple of weeks, we have had attacks on the premises of Scotiabank, McDonalds, the state-owned Banco del Estado, and an oil pipeline. The targets were in Santiago and in the South, and with the exception of the hamburger joint which was fire-bombed, the rest was carried out with explosive (which appears to be common dynamite though contradictory versions have been given). Material damage was variable, but there were no human victims. The McDonald incident was part of a wider protest to free "political prisoners" in a particular conflictive part of Santiago, and the Banco del Estado bombing was claimed for the same purpose by a hitherto unknown group.

In fact, incidents of this nature (admittedly with lower explosive charges) have been common in Chile for years, particularly to commemorate certain "revolutionary" anniversaries linked to episodes from the struggle against the Pinochet regime. The novelty on this occasion was the concentration of the instances over a short period, and their being considered at a time of international hysteria about "terrorism", real or imagined. Political declarations and media attention on the subject have abounded.

Chile has had another festering security problem, concentrated in the
central-southern region historically the homeland of the indigenous Mapuche
groups. Protesting against what they consider unfair exploitation of their
tribal lands (mainly forestry and hydro-electric power), against a long
background of neglect and discrimination, indigenous extremists have been
attacking installations equipment of forestry companies.

COUNTER MEASURES Wary of the need to maintain a middle course between
reassuring the population and business community, as well as not creating
unnecessary concern nor worsen the situation, the authorities have been in
a quandary as to what to do. Some years ago, they had quite a bit of egg on
their face when someone invented the story of "dozens" of Iranians who had
entered the country with a view of creating terrorist unrest. They turned
out to be as real as GWB's weapons of mass destruction, and the local
security services were embarrassed (privately- the matter did not get much
public coverage). More recently, some expulsions f Arab residents from
Northern Chile were based on very tenuous evidence, if any. On this
occasion. although they have nominated a special magistrate to investigate
the Banco del Estado bombing, they have also tried to play down the whole

On the Mapuche trouble font, the government has been accused of going soft
in "not imposing the rule of law by every means", as called for by the
business community. They have indeed not sent masses of police and troops
to the area, and have kept legal sanctions to those caught at a rather low
level. They certainly do not want another Chiapas on their hands, nor the
sort of indigenous unrest that is causing havoc in the countryside of
Bolivia and Ecuador. For those who think that Chile has no indigenous
population, it might be worthwhile to note that over a million Chileans
described themselves as such in the 2002 census, in a country where it does
your work or social prospects little good.

Some think that the creation of the National Intelligence Agency (ANI)
which is winding itself through the congressional procedure, would improve
the ability to counter any unsavoury movements. The impression one gets is
that Chile is creating something which did not exist before. In fact, the
law will only enhance and restructure the efficient existing but
understaffed civilian service DISPI, increasing (moderately) its personnel
and resources. The task is made more difficult by the replacement of
traditional structured extremist movements by loser, even spontaneous
groups which are numerous, with little formal structure and therefore
harder to penetrate. This does not mean they are not trying. Years ago,
military intelligence had an expert on such movements (well at least one I
met personally) who grew his hair and beard and lived in marginal
"poblaciones" studying trends and subversive graffiti. I have also
previously written (April 2001) on the threats from student power. Military
intelligence is involved in such matters though how much they share with
the civilians remains to be seen (another theoretical aim for the ANI).

With October municipal elections just 4 months away, and the
pre-campaigning for the December 2005 presidential elections at the crucial
stage of determining the ruling coalition candidates among up to 8
potential contenders, it is also easy to make political capital out of the
situation. Chile has a long tradition of bombings, including some by "agent
provocateurs" from Right-wing groups to throw an anguished population in
the arms of the "law and order" candidates and parties. This does not mean
that the Alianza por Chile opposition would condone such acts (though
current judicial enquiries appear to show they have been condoning under
unsavoury practices), but there are always extremists who think it helps
the cause.

seriously worried about Chile and terrorism if the sort of thing not seen
since the early 1990's starts taking place: political assassinations, the
kidnapping of major local and foreign businessmen, attacks on industrial
and touristic installations or a major gas pipe-line, or the disruption of
a high-profile international event such as the November APEC meeting.

In the meantime, if the real worry is the risk to residents and visitors.
Let it be known that the national approach to security is such as to make
the place already very dangerous. Whereas the non-wearing of seat belts
(such as killed the governor of a northern province just the other day) may
be a voluntary act (though seeing military and police personnel driving
around without seat belts raises a strong question mark about their
approach to other risks, such as properly maintaining the Hercules which
was carrying troops to Haiti but had to turn back because of mechanical
trouble), other examples of neglect have killed or wounded several people
recently. This included the death of a young boy in a Santiago building
whose gas supply as declared faulty but not repaired, the injury of a
father and daughter on a badly maintained ride at a fun fair in the poshest
part of Santiago, the escape of a lion from an unauthorised circus in a
poor part of town (you see how democratic is carelessness in Chilean
society). There are plenty of land mines around Torres del Paine, one of
the country's main tourist attractions. Last but not least, a report on
major Latin American towns just published by the American Medical
Association singles out Santiago as the capital where non-smoking
restrictions are the least enforced. So, without any help from Karl Marx or
Che Guevara, living in or visiting Chile can be dangerous indeed.


As a closing anecdote, I recently made a direct approach to civilian and military authorities in order to get details of a system which is designed to add "transparency" to a certain procedure related to defence. Though I finally managed to get the information though other means, none of the authorities directly involved approached even acknowledged the request.

Saturday, June 5, 2004

IMPRESSIONS FROM ARMENIA Comments on a May 2004 visit

I went to Armenia last May for the sixth time since 1998. I was there for a week, and contrary to previous trips which had been consecutive, this one took place after a gap of nearly two years. Statistics and press reports, even with the added speed of internet, are one thing. Seeing and feeling for yourself is another.

I was lucky to the extent that I extended this time the scope of my contacts, meeting up with think tanks and academic groups involved in activities close to what is my real profession, but that hitherto had been absent from my usual activities in Armenia. This continue to be centered around the Avemaria girls' choir, which I have been sponsoring since 1997, and a few other people met separately and with whom I have kept up contact. I even gave a talk about the methodology of Country Risk Analysis to the Caucasus Resource Research Centre (financed by the Eurasia foundation).

The first impression of arriving somewhere is always the airport. Yerevan's Zvartnots airport was concessioned out to Mr. Eurnekian, an Argentine-Armenian, who also runs Argentina's terminals. His stated idea was to make it a regional air freight platform. Some two years into the new management, it is hard to see any change, apart from a few overpriced Duty Free boutiques and coffee shops, in the visible aspects of the terminal. Immigration procedures were quicker, but that is a government matter (and the system whereby you can obtain an Armenian visa on the Foreign Ministry's website worked perfectly). Luggage delivery was quicker, though the swarm of (also overpriced) porters accosting you on the belt-side was a nuisance. The public address system is mostly unintelligible.

It was interesting that my usual hotel (the highly recommended Hy-Business
Suites) had reduced its rates by some 20 % since my last visit (U$ 75 a
night for a comfortable fully equipped apartment, including breakfast, and
more importantly, a constant water supply. The shortage of water, about
which more later, is a permanent problem in Yerevan, and not even the
refurbished Marriott Armenia, at twice the price, is immune from it). There
is now an oversupply of hotels in Armenia, particularly at the top end.
Unfortunately, and despite laudable isolated efforts, this is not the case
outside the capital, though the main problem for tourism continues to be
the limited air services from the West, and their high cost (it costs twice
as much to fly from London to Yerevan than to New York). The national flag
carrier, Armenian Airlines, passed away after a long illness, giving birth
to two newcomers, the health of which is unclear (Armenian International
Airways and Armavia). Another handicap is the shortage of English-language
tourist material.

A glossy publication called Tour-Info is full of interesting information,
but strangely most of it is in Armenian. This being said, it was reassuring
to see on a Sunday morning, in the lobby of the same Marriott Armenia
hotel, a group of elderly Japanese tourists preparing for an excursion.
They were obviously not part of the Armenian Diaspora.

The question everyone asks or will ask is : is Armenia doing better ? As my
stated profession is that of Country Analyst, I have a very precise
criteria for answering that question, irrespective of statistics, rating
agencies or comments from Wall St. Analysts or multilateral organisations.
This consists of finding out if the majority of people are, and more
importantly feel, better off, materially and morally, than before.

Arriving in the middle of the night, one can only notice that there is much
more street lighting and illuminated buildings and monuments. Daytime
impressions are that of more and better cars in the street, a wider variety
of shops and new restaurants and cafés. More people have cell phones in
their hands and computers at home. New apartment buildings and office
blocks are also clearly visible. Another noticeable change is the repaired
streets in Central Yerevan (unfortunately, only in Central Yerevan), as
well as the refurbished public buildings.

The latter is the result of a generous programme financed by the Lincy
Foundation, the charitable arm of Las Vegas multi-millionaire (and MGM
shareholder) Kirk Kerkorian. A selfless donor for years, the foundation's
refurbishment programme, at a cost of some two hundred million dollars, not
only had a noticeable impact on GDP and employment, but contributed to give
back to the citizens the pride of enjoying in their full glory buildings
they were proud of, but which had fallen in a sad state of disrepair. I can
quite believe, as would happen in any country, that such a major public
works programme may have included corruption, but in any case the results
are there to be seen. Unfortunately, it is nearing its end, and though
private construction (mainly of apartments for Diaspora members and the
minority of locals who has made good) may continue, it is bound to reflect
on future growth and employment.

Another source for growth is remittances from the Diaspora and those
working abroad. This was officially estimated at some U$ 550 million last
year, and makes a big difference to the recipient families whose members
would be unable to survive on pensions of U$ 15 dollars a month (if that)
or salaries ranging from U$ 25 to 80 dollars, when they are paid. The
apparent affluence has had a negative corollary, that of pushing up prices,
from housing to food, for all the population. The 51 % of the population
classified as poor therefore suffer even more. Statistics for GDP make
China appear to be in recession (I saw a figure quoting 22 % growth in the
first quarter of 2004), but the reality is that of a two-speed economy,
with a small minority (albeit increasing, particularly if they have foreign
help, have found a useful business niche or have worked abroad and saved
money), doing better, but the great majority feeling as helpless and
despondent as ever.

There is a substantial increase in the number of banks, many with
impressive buildings and banking halls. It is not obvious what sort of
business they are catering for, with such a narrow deposit base, and lack
of quality lending opportunities. Up to a year or so ago, high interest
rates on government paper with low inflation, meant that you could make a
good spread at little risk. With interest rates falling sharply, this is no
more an attractive business proposal. Much of the new banking presence is
said to have Russian money behind it. Some Armenians regard this as a sign
of quality and security, ignoring what happened to the Russian private
banking system just a few years ago. The market leader continues to be HSBC
Bank Armenia, the only "Western" affiliated banking group present on the
local market. It is however abusing its dominating position, and not just
by offering the lowest interest rates to depositors (Citibank also does
that in Chile).
It provides an inefficient and arrogant service. I closed my own account
there less than three years after opening it, because they were unable to
carry out a simple local remittance instruction from my current account to
a local beneficiary without long delays and constant chasers. As I
commented my decision around Yerevan, I was overwhelmed by the negative
stories I heard about the bank's services and reputation, including from
several of their local clients. Apart from the inefficiency and arrogance
in refusing to accept mistakes, which I myself had experienced (not
forgetting the 2 % above market rate I was charged when reconverting my
local currency into Sterling), I heard horror stories about "disappearing
deposits" , "missing bank notes" in the hands of the cashiers, and
"surprise" charges and commissions applied without warning or notice to
clients. The local currency has been solid as a rock, slightly appreciating
against the dollar though not as much as the Euro.

It is no accident that shortly before my arrival, there were a series of
anti-government demonstrations, some repressed with a heavy hand. Though
these were called for by opposition groups, the impression was that behind
the movement was a "fed-up" attitude. Fed-up with poverty, fed-up with bad
and expensive public services, fed-up with the lack of jobs for the
unemployed and the lack of job security for the nominally unemployed,
fed-up with the corruption at high level (and low level), and fed up with
the lack of proper legal redress. Students of Latin America, like myself,
are in familiar ground. But there is a difference. Whereas most of Latin
America's poor (the impoverished Argentine middle classes excepted) have
been so for generations, the inhabitants of Armenia who now find it
difficult to pay U$ 500 a year in university fees could afford two holidays
a year on the Black Sea less than a generation ago, whilst living in decent
accommodation with affordable heating, electricity and water.

One immediately noticeable illustration of the current situation is the
exponential increase in the number of beggars. In a single day in Yerevan I
was accosted by more beggars than in all my previous trips put together.
Whereas this may be impressionistic, talking to people one knows reveals a
dire situation. Jobs continue to be hard to come by, however badly paid.
People are so desperate that they hang-on to jobs even without contracts,
sometimes going unpaid for months and not even knowing how much they are
supposed to be receiving. Ringing-in to say you are ill is often met with
the reply that you need not come to work, today or ever. Even in the
better-run foreign organisations, people are afraid to take their holiday
entitlement just in case their job disappears in their absence.

The privatised utilities were sold to unscrupulous operators who have
increased rates but invested little. The water distribution system,
irrespective of how much rainfall there has been, is a mess and the
availability of water throughout the day in most households is a constant
lottery. The network is in a terrible state, and nobody is ready to spend
what is needed to put it right. The Greek-operated phone system is also a
mess, the subject of a legal dispute with the authorities. This has one big
development consequence. The lack of a quality telecommunications network
rules out until further notice any hopes for Armenia to play, as it could,
a role in IT activities for export. This is causing the best brains to be
drained abroad. Admittedly the brain drain is affecting all sorts of other
professions too. With continuing international pressure to do away with
the Medzamor nuclear power station, it is not clear who will be ready to
invest in exploiting the vast untapped potential for hydroelectric or other
alternative power sources.

I have always maintained that Armenia's full potential cannot be realised
without a solution to the Karabagh question, itself leading to the formal
opening of the border with Turkey. I say "formal", because despite a
theoretically closed border, there are regular air and bus services between
Turkey and Armenia. However, this falls short of a close access to a sea
outlet, which is even more urgent as recent events in two of Georgia's
separatist regions (which control much of the Black Sea coastline) have
stressed the vulnerability of the existing main trade route. Of course,
this is a necessary but not a sufficient condition, as the availability of
infrastructure, marketing skills and distribution networks is also
essential, for instance if Armenia were to export its quality fruit and
vegetable surpluses to European or Middle Eastern markets.

I continue to believe that in the pursuit of its probably vain attempt to
join the EU, Turkey will try to make some sort of amend on its denial
policy about the Armenian Genocide, accompanied by an opening of the
border. In the meantime, Turkey is also continuing on its propaganda
exercises, which consist of "encouraging" pliant academics and writers to
support their cause. Their latest recruit is Louis de Berniéres, the
author of the book "Captain Corelli's Mandoline" on which the famous film
was based. He is working on a book about the Armenian Genocide (I am sure
he does not call it that) from a "Turkish viewpoint".

Unfortunately, Armenia's civil service, and particularly its diplomatic
corps, is not up to the task of properly upholding either the Karabagh
question or the Genocide denial . They have no historical perspective nor
conflict resolution experts. Generally speaking, whenever foreign training
seminars are offered, these are grabbed by the bosses (and not just in the
Foreign Ministry) rather than the right young things. One anecdote heard
was that of a diplomat at the Armenian embassy in Washington, addressing a
number of scholarship students having just finished their term and eager to
get back home and put their newly acquired skills to the service of the
country : "Why don't you try to find a job and stay in the USA" ? he told

An even worse example of callousness was the total lack of reaction by the
Armenian authorities when the British Ambassador to Armenia, at a press
conference last January to commemorate the first anniversary of her arrival
in Yerevan, declared that the events of 1915 could not be described as
"Genocide". She tried to justify her remarks on the legalistic basis that
the United Nations definition of Genocide did not exist at the time. As
they say in French ; "Elle n'a rien compris". One has to rely on the
efficient private lobbies of the Diaspora (such as ANCA), now inspired and
backed with enthusiastic graduate organisations in Armenia itself (such as
the Club of Young Diplomats, based at Yerevan State University) .

Anyway, these were my impressions and thoughts, but the best thing is to go
and find out for yourselves.

Friday, April 16, 2004

MEMORIES OF EARLY FELLUJA - By those who owned the place.....

Up to a year or so ago, few people outside Iraq had heard of the town of Felluja, except, that is, the Kouyoumdjian family. Even though none of us has lived in Iraq for several decades (and some of us, never), most of the land around what was nothing more than a large village, belonged to us for the best part of three generations, from the late XIXth century to the late 1950's, when it was nationalised (without compensation) following the 1958 revolution against the monarchy. In 1988, my late father Jirair (Jerry) Kouyoumdjian wrote a family history to keep the memory alive among the younger generations. Here are some extracts (with comments in capital letters from me) which might put current events in a geographical perspective.

A History and Reminiscences compiled and written by J. Kouyoumdjian
London, October 1988

"Early in the 1920's, it was gradually becoming obvious that Kaloust's (MY PATERNAL GRANDFATHER) business was on the decline..There was only one solution to the crisis, and that was for the entire family to move to Felluja, a village on the Euphrates, forty miles to the west of Baghdad, where in addition to vast agricultural properties which Kerop Agha (MY GREAT GRAND FATHER) had bought jointly with his brother Hagop, there were properties in the village itself.

At the time, Felluja was a fairly large village (TODAY IT HAS 300,000 INHABITANTS), as villages in Iraq went. It was on the East bank of the river and connected with the West bank by a pontoon bridge. The West bank was Kouyoumdjian property running parallel to the river for several miles on either side of the bridge.

Felluja had only a small Arab school which, aside from being completely unsuitable for the sophisticated Kouyoumdjians, also happened to be on the other side of the river, and the pontoon bridge was often disconnected when the water of the river rose too high. Consequently, Siranoush (WIFE OF ONE OF THE UNCLES) ..took it upon herself to give the children the sort of education befitting the "standing" of the family. Therefore, a room in the house was allocated for that purpose and completely equipped with desks, blackboard and all the other necessities.

The land belonged to the Kouyoumdjians, and the best way to exploit all these assets was to go into farming. Unfortunately, they chose the wrong crop. They decided to grow cotton, hoping that they would become rich, like the cotton planters in the USA. It turned out, however, that the climate was unsuitable, with insufficient rainfall and unbeatable pests (SO THERE WERE ALREADY U.S. TROOPS THERE AT THE TIME ?). Another problem was that the land was inhabited by previously nomadic tribes who had settled down and thus by law (ANCIENT ARAB CUSTOM SIMILAR TO SQUATTERS' RIGHTS) had the right of abode. They did not, and could not supply the labour needed, nor would they allow outsiders to do so.

The sophisticated life led by "The People across the River" was in complete contrast to the general surroundings. Their life was not unlike ...the rich planters in the American South. Whereas in America, however, there were many such families, in Felluja there was only the Kouyoumdjians, to whom the locals referred to as "The Landlords".

While the women of the village-all illiterate as there was no school for girls- baked their bread and cooked their meals, the Kouyoumdjian ladies played the piano, discussed the latest Paris fashions and talked about recent Hollywood films (GONE WITH THE WIND, PERHAPS ? MY GRAND MOTHER's DOWRY INCLUDED TWO SLAVES, BY THE WAY).

At the time when both branches of the Kouyoumdjian family lived there, Felluja was a very backward place, both physically and socially. Most of the houses were built with sun-dried mud bricks, none of the streets were paved, and there was no running water, electricity or sewage system (JUST LIKE IN APRIL 2004 AFTER US INTERVENTION). A small generating set was eventually installed, and all those who could afford the cost of wiring their homes were connected to the overhead lines in the streets...About 90% of the people were illiterate, and even those who could read and write had very little general knowledge. It is not surprising, therefore, that Kaloust (MY GRAND FATHER) was regarded as the squire of the village and treated with much respect. Every afternoon, at 4 PM, one of the massive double doors (OF THE FAMILY HOUSE COMPOUND) would be opened and left ajar. One by one, the village dignitaries such as the governor, the judge, the Inspector of Police, et al would begin to drop in to have a coffee and a chat.

No one among the current generation of Kouyoumdjians seems to know the origin of the amity between the Kouyoumdjians and the royal family of Iraq in the 1920's. The reputation of Kerop Agha and Hagop Agha (MY GREAT GRAND FATHER AND HIS BROTHER, ORIGINAL OWNERS OF FELLUJA AND OWNERS OF IRAQ'S FIRST INDUSTRIAL FLOUR MILL), during the Ottoman occupation of Iraq could have something to do with it (THEY WERE GENEROUS CHARITY DONORS IT SEEMS). However, that such an amity did exist and is not in doubt is clearly apparent from the visits paid by King Faisal I to the Palace (NAME OF ONE OF THE FAMILY HOUSES) in Felluja.

On the day of the visits, everybody woke up early. The children were washed and dressed in their Sunday best and told to remain clean. The mothers pressed their husbands' morning suits and their own most fashionable dresses ready to be put on at the last moment. The men-servants collected all the Persian carpets and laid them end to end from the roadway all the way to the drawing room. One of the bedrooms was prepared for the king to have his afternoon siesta in. One other problem, which needed careful diplomatic handling, was the attitude of the Governor of Felluja and his staff, who felt offended that the king had chosen to have his rest at the house of "those Armenians" instead of the Government House..However, the Governor must have realised that in no way could he have matched them.

In the early 1930's, the radio was only a name. No one in Felluja had either seen or heard one. It is therefore not difficult to imagine the great excitement when Kerop (MY FATHER's ELDEST BROTHER, SUBSEQUENTLY HEAD OF THE IRAQI ELECTRICITY COMPANY, AND STILL LIVING IN HIS LATE NINETIES, NEAR VERSAILLES) came from Baghdad, bringing a radio with him. The radio he brought was made by himself..but one had to wait until evening, for reception during the day was impossible. Suddenly music was heard. It came from Bucharest in Rumania. Levon (MY OTHER PATERNAL UNCLE) who was technically minded, was fascinated and sometimes he would stay awake all night trying to get America (NOWADAYS FELLUJA RESIDENTS STAY AWAKE ALL

In 1941, the ruling government in Baghdad, prompted by the Germans, had the crazy idea of declaring war on Great Britain. So they sent the Iraqi army to occupy a British RAF base not very far from the property of the Kouyoumdjian family. As expected, the attempt failed in a few weeks, during which time the family fled to Baghdad for safety. The house was occupied by the army who not only destroyed the entire library, but also plundered and looted the place. The entire family silver, china, glass and a roomful of Persian carpets of all sizes were thus lost. (IF IT IS NOT ONE ARMY, IT IS THE OTHER).

Members of the Kouyoumdjian family are now scattered all over the world. Felluja has grown to twice its original size and a second bridge has been built across the river. There are therefore no Kouyoumdjians living in Iraq now, but the name is still respected by the remaining Armenian community in Baghdad, and some of the old men in Felluja still remember the "great landowners".


FINAL NOTE BY ARMEN KOUYOUMDJIAN : Even before the post-1958 nationalisation, the passing of the generations meant that the family land was divided and sub-divided again. However, the starting point was so vast, that just my sister and I are still technically heirs to 137 hectares of Felluja land. Remember that Mr Bremer, in the process of establishing "democracy" in Iraq, and in the meantime, please note that I have not allowed anybody from outside to walk or dive on it. 

Friday, February 27, 2004

QUALITY OF SERVICE IN CHILE - The Role of Foreign Companies

Over the past three weeks, a debate about the quality (or lack thereof) of service provided by Chilean corporations has taken a substantial amount of
space in the letters section of El Mercurio ("the only newspaper which
matters in Chile"). The debate was sparked by a February 6 letter from a
foreign lawyer resident in the country, and attracted many responses,
nearly all of them in agreement. For once, though it is a subject that
readers know is close to my heart, I have hitherto played the role of
bemused observer. It is time to enter the fray.

THE LETTER To put the subject into perspective, here is my translation of
the February 6 letter signed by Felipe Velasquez Fernandez, describing
himself as a "Corporate consulting Lawyer". I apologise for those resident
in Chile who have already read it.


I am a foreigner who has been living in Chile for over a year. Following
various months of actively visiting shops, cinemas, restaurants and
department stores, I have arrived at the conclusion that what I initially
thought was the exception is unfortunately the rule : we are talking about
the dismal quality of customer service in Santiago.

Whether it is a clothes chop, a bookshop, a department store chain, an ice
cream parlour or a restaurant : for the service staff, the entrance of a
client in their establishment looks more like a declaration of war than an
attempt at buying or selling.. Sales staff look aggrieved when an
impertinent intruder comes in to interrupt their calm. Without
exaggerating, I can say that only in a very few shops, in the time I have
been here, those who worked there took the trouble to answer my greetings.
The "good morning" or "good afternoon" are not acknowledged by those
supposedly there to serve the customer. Some react by a sort of angry
grunt. Others simply prefer not to strain their vocal chords answering
those they do not know.

It looks as if sales staff assume that they are doing the customer a favour
by serving him. They think their business grows by inertia, and not through
satisfied customers . Mistreating customers is alarming in this city. It
looks as if many of those people come to work as if to a torture camp.
Their boredom is visible on their faces, and in their general attitude.

Chile is admirable in many ways. Its economic development is fantastic. But
the real business of the future is for those companies who come to Chile
and teach what is customer service. In that, this beautiful country is in
deficit. "

POINTS RAISED AND NOT RAISED IN THE LETTER On the basis of my own widely
commented analysis, observations and experiences, and the public reactions
to the letter in the paper, there are several points to note. There is
neither character or culture of service in Chile. The staff interfacing
with the public poorly trained, poorly paid, poorly treated, poorly
motivated and kept uninformed of corporate matters. Contrary to what the
writer says, customer satisfaction is not the motor of corporate growth,
but greed, secret charges and illegal usury interest rates which both the
Central Bank and the Ministry of Finance refuse to punish.

It is also strange that Mr. Velasquez does not mention the appalling levels
of customer service by banks and utilities. I would suspect that he has
many minions who take care of his formalities for him, and he lives in some
sort of serviced apartment where he does not need to worry about paying
bills. Some readers of El Mercurio have suggested that he is probably
Spanish, which appears very likely.

If he is Spanish, he should think twice before throwing the first stone, as
we should remember that the largest chunk of banking, electricity, water,
telecommunications and toll roads is in the hands of Spanish firms. We are
talking (just citing my own recent experiences in February) about Banco
Santander sending you a letter profusely advising you of the new increased
limit on your credit card, but forgetting to advise of it the authorisation
agency, which means that your wife gets her expense refused in the middle
of Argentine Patagonia. We are talking (again) of Telefonica, who managed
to unilaterally change our main phone line to a card-operated one "because
a girl in Santiago put in the wrong area code", and then refusing to talk
to me at their main Viña office ("you have to handle all business on the

FOREIGN EXAMPLES Just being a foreign company does not guarantee good
service. Similarly, some purely Chilean owned corporations (such as Lan
Chile) can provide good service if they put their minds to it. Shops and
department stores may indeed serve you as Mr. Velasquez says, but
supermarket groups, all Chilean owned, as well as the same-ownership
do-it-yourself stores, are rather good. There is also a part of Chile which
works rather well : the government. Procedures and service at most
government offices (identity papers, tax matters, judicial procedures) have
been speeded up beyond recognition, and the staff are more helpful than in
the private sector.

Anyway, if you do not provide good service at home (as is the case of
Spanish companies), there is no reason why you should do so in your foreign
holdings. If you run the place from a regional office in Miami staffed by
Cubans more interested in getting their former homeland back to the dark
ages of Batista rather than answer your complaints, it is not going to work
either. If you pass-on your operation to a franchise, or in any case run it
with Chilean staff trained the Chilean way (a 2 week training seminar in
Milwaukee is not going to deprogram them from three generations of genetic
exploitation of the customer), do not expect miracles. Let us not limit the
criticism to the Spaniards (though they have a huge can to carry). Let us
mention the (now departed) British company who provided us with water
services in Viña after the company was 2privatised". An absentee Chilean
manager in Santiago and a new regional executive changing each three months
and sitting in the English countryside did not help. The Dutch-owned ING
group whose offices in Viña and Valparaiso never have any of the forms
required to pay-in the pension contributions of your maid ("head office
does not send us any"). Italian-owned ENTEL has a fully staffed office at
the airport. but neither it nor the three newspaper stands in various parts
of the building ever stock any prepayment cards for mobile phones ("head
office does not send us any").

I agree with Mr Velasquez. There is a need for foreign expertise in
customer service, but it is an uphill struggle against a counter-culture,
and you have to have the expertise in the first case. We Levantines come
from a part of the world where personal service is an art, but bad
behaviour is very frowned upon and has to be washed in blood. It is not for
nothing that the Hamurrabi code comes from these parts. Full marks for the
grieving father and husband from the Urals, who apparently did-in the
Danish air traffic controller working for a private company in Switzerland
in July 2002, whose mistake caused the crash of an airliner full of
children going on holiday. You cannot wait eternally for judges, who
finally end-up white washing the culprits of many deaths (such as the fire
in the Alps tunnel), or who put journalists and other whistle-blowers in
jail for revealing that public figures took part in raping and murdering
eight-year old girls...