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.

Saturday, November 11, 2006

OF CRITICS AND CRITICISM How others did it too

Both in Chile and abroad, I am often asked how people take the style of my papers, a matter which seems to be of more concern than the substance. I can only answer with the fact that my mailing list, to which I add people parsimoniously, and only at their own request (and take them out at my own will, something I am about to do soon to some people whose recent behaviour has been unacceptable), has been growing all the time. The "secondary circulation", which are the remailings to friends and colleagues of the recipient, cannot even be counted.

"DON'T BE PERSONAL" One hang-up Chileans have (and they have many), well
apart from their aversion to calling things by their name, is calling
people by their name. Using "descalificación personal" is a great crime.
Well, folks, institutions are staffed and run by people, and it is they who
do things badly. From the head of a company to the lowly person who serves
you (generally badly), and from the minister to his or her subordinates and
further down the line, they are the ones who make the bad decisions, say
the silly things and have the wrong attitudes. There is no point in
criticising their desks, their briefcases or computers. Their actions have
a name and surname (in the case of Chile, two of each).

Even the most liberal-minded venue cannot escape from this curse. In the
daily debate programme El Termometro on Chilevision, there is one frigid
tart (I know it may be a contradictory expression but I wished to insult
her twice) whose task is to read messages from viewers commenting from
home. She often criticises the comment (though she is not a member of the
panel) as "a personal attack", a definition which she uses generously. On
the debate about the morning-after pill, one spectator rightly commented
that the conservative religious organisations like Opus Dei were behind
much of the opposition to its availability. "Do not use disqualify", he was
told. There was more debate in Beijing's Great Hall of the People in the
1960's, than in Chile.

ONE DAY STANDS At the end, the locals cannot take it. As mentioned on a
previous occasion, I am very rarely invited to public speaking engagements
in Chile, and normally I am only invited once. More often, never at all. If
all the universities, business organisations and military or civilian think
tanks who at one or other stage promised that they would ask me to give a
lecture/course/seminar had delivered on their promise, my diary would be
busier than Placido Domingo's.

Outside the more technical aspects of the defence sector, and the lengthy
no-holds-barred interview of mine in the business magazine CAPITAL in late
September, when was the last time you saw my name in print in the local
media? The foreign opinion formers aren't that enthusiastic either. Despite
being the only resident foreign analyst covering most of the spectrum of
Chilean sectors, my last appearance in the Financial Times was over six
years ago, and not once in 16 years have I made even the letter pages of
The Economist. The latter's correspondent in Santiago, Ruth Bradley, had
the cheek to complain to me that I had cut her off my mailing list. "Why
would you like to read my views, Ruthie, if you never considered them
worthy of reproducing"?.

IF YOU THINK I'M BAD A recent article in the Bulletin of Latin America
Research, the journal of Britain's Society of Latin American Studies (of
which I am a long- standing member), enlightened me about historical
foreign commentators on the region. Compared to them, I am full of
compliments. Here are some quotations.

Richard Spruce, a botanist who spent 15 years in the Amazon collecting
plant species in the mid 1800's wrote: " thank god that we Englishmen are
not as other men are, especially as those Brazilians".

William Banks, a British surgeon, was on his way in 1864 to take up a post
of assistant surgeon with the Paraguayan army. On his way, he visited Bahia
and Rio de Janeiro, recording in his journal "The Portuguese and the
Brazilians I thoroughly detest as a nationŠ..a most unmoral race who
perpetrate excess of a nature and an extent that would horrify an
Englishman. They are worse even than the French, who are only a trifle
removed from the monkeys."

Montevideo, which he visited next, "presented a melancholy and stagnant
aspect" (still does, Ed.). When he finally got to Paraguay, he described
the Paraguayans as "monkeys on barrel-organsŠ.such a pack of demons I never
beheld: yelling, screaming, laughing, chattering like huge gorillas let
loose for a morning's fun in a timber merchant's yard". He soon resigned
his new post , declaring "if only this country belonged to Britain, what
strikes in civilisation it would make ("yeah, like the former colonies in
Africa, I presume, Ed.).

Such attitudes persisted until modern times. The head of the Foreign
Office's South American Department wrote the following in an internal memo
dated 1945, referring to the people of Latin America as "inconvenient and
rather ridiculous dagoes living at the world's end". I have to admit I had
to look up the word "dago" myself. Apparently it refers to any Latin
American descendant from Spanish, Portuguese or Italian ancestors. So relax
Foxleys, Covacevichs and Abumohors, you are not dagoes.

Some criticism was less sanguine, more to the point and still very
relevant. Sir Clements Markham, a geographer travelling in the Andes during
the 1950's, repeatedly criticised the Lima elite for travelling to London,
Paris or Berlin rather than Cuzco.

This is a short paper dictated by the fact that I have been away playing
soldier with the Chilean army most of this week (about which more later in
my December defence review), not to mention the fact that I have not been
feeling very generous towards my readers recently.

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