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.

Friday, September 8, 2006

THE LEBANESE CRISIS ON CHILEAN SOIL Experiences, Observations & Perspectives


Chile is a middle-sized country, far away from the Arab world, and with little commercial, diplomatic or political links with it. This may be due to the fact that, uniquely, the majority of its Arab-descended population is Palestinian in origin, rather than the usual Lebanese-Syrian variety found everywhere else. Their numbers range into several hundred thousands, but their presence in political life is low profile. In recent decades, public office holders of Arab descent have been mainly from the much smaller Lebanese and Syrian communities.

The fact that there was no functioning state of Palestine may have accounted for the low profile of trade and diplomatic links with the Arab world. In my over 15 years in Chile, only one Arab head of state (the King of Morocco), paid a short visit, and he was pretty much kept under wraps during his sojourn. There is a bit more action with North Africa, but it remains modest. You would be hard pushed to remember an Arab trade mission or high profile cultural event in recent memory. There is not a single decent Middle-Eastern restaurant in the whole country (no protests, there just is not).

Most Arabs in Chile are Christian, originally Orthodox but having since deserted towards Catholicism, probably for the sake of social climbing. Only 5,895 inhabitants of Chile declared themselves Muslims in the 2002 census, and a good many of those would have been Pakistani or from SE Asia, rather than Arabs. On the Jewish side, the 2002 census turned out 19,561 inhabitants (0.3 % of the total) who declared Judaism as their faith.

The communities used to get on quite well, with numerous cases of business
partnerships and even the odd mixed-marriage. The deterioration of the
situation in the Middle East, and the increasing consciousness of the
younger generation, has recently led to more polarisation. For a while, the
Palestinian community used to publish each day in El Mercurio, Chile's
leading newspaper, death notices for each and every Palestinian civilian
killed by Israeli action. They funded a good if not perfect film on the
conflict's roots, directed by Chile's veteran director Miguel Littin. Its
local course was sabotaged by the other side, though it went on to win
prizes abroad.

Into this panorama suddenly sprung the Israeli operation in the Lebanon
last July.

THE GOVERNMENT Much media mileage has been made out of the fact that
there were more Jewish ministers in the Chilean government than in any
other government except Israel. I think this is neither very relevant nor
very original, as there have been ministers of Jewish & Arab descent in
many Chilean governments, of all colours. What was more unusual, was the
total cull of all Arabs from the top echelons of government in the Bachelet

Still, with guarded language publicly, and more forceful language in
private discussions, many top government officials, from the president
downwards, made their position very clear in condemning Israel. The
language of public pronunciations had to be in tune with this amazing
current trend of being afraid to call things by their name in case one is
accused of anti-Semitism. Criticism of Israel, however justified, has
become nearly taboo. Such reaction is that of the coward. It is a rape by a
eunuch, an insult by a mute and a spear thrown by the armless. You have
nothing to fear but Fear itself

CONGRESS Within a few days, moves happened to call a special session of
congress' lower house to look at the Lebanese situation. The original
purpose of this event was to express support for the Lebanon, but the
better-organised pro-Israeli lobby got into action in order to transform it
into a "neutral" session. The Israeli ambassador virtually moved to
Valparaiso and for a week, lobbied congress unashamedly, offering trips and
scholarships to congress members and their staff, whereas Jewish
businessmen reminded other honourables as to who had contributed to their
campaigns (in fairness, Palestinian businessmen probably did the same). The
consequence of this is that the public galleries were divided into two
equal sections (though there are 15 to 20 times more Arabs in Chile),
between the two sides.

Though the casus belli concerned the Lebanon, the session was somewhat
dominated, not to say hijacked, by the Palestinian "claque", and ended up
looking more like a conflictive football match, than a parliamentary
debate. The Arab side was better equipped, both on and off the field,
including Hezbollah flags flown-in from the Lebanon just before the airport
was obliterated. It also appeared divided, even among the Palestinians
themselves (just like back home). Among the registered speakers were all
the deputies of Arab descent, plus a couple of sympathisers. The other side
could only field a couple of parliamentary prostitutes, from conservative
parties who are ready to ride their Catholic High horses on contraception,
but otherwise appear to have no qualms in accepting Judas' silver pieces.
They both read a script so similar as to have obviously been supplied by
the Israeli embassy. The centre point of it was the great Hezbollah crime
of having "kidnapped" two soldiers, one of whom (poor baby) "was only
nineteen" (just like tens of thousands killed in the Somme during WWI, by
the way).

In fact, the Israeli lobby had more cleverly managed to cause many
absentees, which thus prevented any of the resolutions (which included such
strong calls as to recall the ambassador to Israel, or stop buying any
military equipment from them), to be passed with a sufficient quorum.
Outside, there was the usual exchange of insults, and the authorities had
taken no chances, with a strong police presence. In the end, nothing
dramatic happened.

THE MILITARY From the days of the military government, when Israel and
South Africa, also pariah states, stepping-in to fill procurement gaps left
by other countries' bans, a strong bond has emerged and remained between
the armed forces and the Israeli military-industrial complex. This is a
situation which the Arab side obviously cannot match. The Israelis are very
good at the game. They send simpatico Spanish-speaking defence attachés to
their Santiago embassy, and organise freebies to Israel for Chilean
officers. They are wined and dined and demonstrated all the wonderful
gadgets produced locally. Israel is always a strong presence at the FIDAE
fair in Santiago and after September 11 organised a bit security conference
here promoting their anti-terrorist wares.

The bottom line has been a mixed success. Despite commercial victories,
they are yet to win the hearts and minds of the Chilean military, where
there are few Jews (and admittedly not many Arabs either). It is a bit like
the relationship of medieval kings with their Jewish bankers. A
relationship of necessity rather than love.

Just last week, a senior officer still on the active list told me "I have
to deal with them, but I do not really like them". As mentioned in my last
defence report, their marketing tactics are often in bad taste. Even those
who work as their commercial agents often raise their hands in despair.
Many Israeli companies refuse exclusivity, giving the same deal to
different agents to see which one can clinch it. This is often
counterproductive as it infuriates the buyers who do not know who to deal

Oh yes, there is still total silence about this strange report that an
Israeli diplomat was arrested at Buenos Aires airport on August 9, carrying
explosives, just before boarding a flight to Chile.

I have already covered at length the civilian and military arguments that
led to Chile not taking part in the enhanced UNIFIL force to the Lebanon.
There is not much to add. Though I hope this paper may help understand
better the delicate situation.

THE MEDIA The better organised Israeli lobby scored the initial points.
They had the advantage of a single voice, a good network, and the
facilities of their head office propaganda machine. The Arabs had no
governmental support (one of the most extraordinary aspects of this whole
crisis is the indifference of other Arab states- just a threat to cut off
their 9 million barrels from the market by the Saudis would have had the US
selling Israel down the river in 9 hours). However, the problem sorted
itself out alone. Even a neutral media realised that they could not defend
the indefensible, as the graphic evidence of bombing refugee convoys and
houses full of children, was all over the place, though parity was
maintained in terms of having both sides represented on panels or
interviewed for programmes.

CIVIL SOCIETY The Internet played a major role in the war of words, as is
the case in almost any matter these days. The fragmentation of the Arab
side turned out to be an advantage, as each faction sent out not just press
releases, but the circulation copies of articles, declarations, news and
pictures gleaned from other sources all around the world. A number of
academic debates were also organised in several universities (in the case
of the Valparaiso area, an invited rabbi dropped out on two occasions).

The Lebanese Circle of Viña del Mar organised two silent protest marches.
In the first one, there were 100 people. The second one, on a rainy Sunday
morning, gathered only 50, but the route was changed to pass through some
busy streets of Viña, and the result was overwhelming support from
passers-by and motorists. A tourist coming out of his hotel decided to
join-in (okay, so he was German, but everything helps). Similar events in
Santiago did not attract more people.

In private conversations with third parties, it was difficult to find
anybody with a word of support for Israel. In fact, some of the comments
are unrepeatable, even by me.

MY REPORT OF JULY 24 I mentioned earlier that my paper of July 24 had an
amazing fate. It was circulated in (at least) hundreds of copies, and ended
up on 10 websites (most of which totally unrelated to the Arab world).
Through it, I was in touch with some wonderful people, several of whom
admitted that they had changed their stance after reading it (the
intellectual orgasm of engagé writing). I got in touch again with Beirut
classmates I had not contacted for over 40 years. An excellent Arabic
translation was published in Beirut's leading newspaper.

Out of my standing circulation list, one (Jewish) reader of many years'
asked to be crossed off my list. He did not give the reason but it was
clear enough. The only other person ever resigning from my list has been
the German embassy, which only proves how even-handed my writings are. I am
sure several others wanted to do the same, but could not face being
deprived from all my papers, so they just clinched their teeth hard. It was
even harder for them, as I refused to accept any debate or criticism of its
contents. I just wished to make the point that subjects other than the
Holocaust should also be on the "do not discuss" list.

Though I wish that my 15 minutes of fame had been due to more joyous
circumstances, I have absolutely nothing to withdraw from the contents of
my paper. On the contrary. At the time, I was not aware of the destruction
of an oil terminal causing one of the biggest oil slicks in history off the
Lebanese coast, which would take years to clear even if the money was
available. I was not aware of health facilities and powdered milk plants
being wilfully destroyed. I can only repeat that Israel is a vandal state,
inserted by outside forces among a reluctant recipient territory, where it
chose to behave with increasing lawlessness for nearly 6 decades. People
who do not behave in public places or private clubs are asked to leave the
premises. I am even mulling the fact that the right of abode in Israel
should be restricted to those who can prove at least two generations in
Palestine prior to the Balfour declaration.

Before I hear again (as I have already heard once) that I am advocating
another Final Solution, this is nothing of the kind. Those who would lose
their residence in Israel would be divided between one half to Russia and
Eastern Europe (whose declining populations would benefit from the influx,
and after all it would just be a return home for most of them), and the
other half to Brooklyn and Miami Beach, whose inhabitants express so much
love for them that I am sure they can accommodate them with open arms. They
can take all their belongings with them, minus a deduction for paying the
damage to Lebanon. Any attempt to destroy infrastructure before departure,
as was done to the few token illegal settlements which were evacuated,
would be similarly deducted from the joint assets. Property will not be
compensated if it previously belonged to exiled Palestinian families,
unless it was purchased from them at a market price and without coercion.
Any property damaged or destroyed by missile attacks from the Arab side
would be deemed as undamaged for compensation purposes. You cannot be
fairer than that.

According to the Mishnah Hebraic oral custom codes, as subsequently
codified in the Talmud (in both its Jerusalem and Babylon versions),
compensation for damage to a neighbour's property shall include an increase
of one-fifth over the actual value. The Arabs would then go back to their
evacuated ancestral homes and kill each other? Possibly, but then they
cannot blame anyone else for it any more.


All the above is very well, but we still have a country to reconstruct. One has to express doubts, based on previous similar cases, as to whether the promised U$ 1 bn in aid pledged at the August 31st Stockholm meeting will actually be paid. Countries who do not wish to contribute troops could maybe offer to repair damaged infrastructure (come to think of it, Chile should stay out of that as well. Any bridge or building put up by Chileans does not need Israeli intervention to fall apart). Saudi Arabia and Kuwait have apparently offered U$ 2.3 bn for rebuilding purposes. Hezbollah was quick off the mark, offering cash immediately to Southern villagers whose houses were destroyed. Then people wonder why they have such strong support, and cannot be extirpated like a wart.

Last week's Economist magazine finally caught up with the country's U$ 35 bn public debt. The ideal thing would be do declare a default until the rest of the world came to its senses. Unfortunately, much of the debt is held by Lebanese banks, and it would cause a domestic banking crisis. It would be cutting their nose to spite their faces. Apparently, the country only lost 10 % of its currency reserves during the conflict and still has U$ 10 bn in the till. Physical damage and loss of revenue is officially estimated at U$ 6.5 bn. The loss of confidence, and the exodus of the expatriate community (for the second time in 25 years), are harder to assess and even harder to cure.

No comments:

Post a Comment