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, October 10, 2007


I took my 9th trip to Armenia in 10 years from September 12 to 28, 2007. It was the second year running that I chose to go in what is usually a pleasant month, climate-wise, with the double advantage of still agreeable weather without the intense heat, and the presence of people in town rather than on holidays, which is what you increasingly face if you go in the summer.

Contrary to other years, I took very few notes during my stay, so much will have to come from memory, or be completely forgotten. I shall divide this note in two parts, the first of which will be the overall review of “good news / bad news” about the evolution of the country, backed by a statistical summary appendix at the end. The second part will be specific cameos and reminiscences from my stay, non-comprehensive as already mentioned, but which in many instances illustrate the general analysis.

This year’s journey marked some important milestones. It was the first time that I travelled from Western Europe to Yerevan by Air France, rather than the usual British Airways franchise BMA. It was a mixed experience, as the Air France short and medium-term routes are not as deserving of praise as its long-term product. Still, they are cost-efficient and allow you to go to and from Armenia with a single stopover.

The other novelty, besides the commemoration of the 10th anniversary of my sponsorship of the Avemaria choir, was that I was accompanied by long-standing Armenian friends from Chile and Argentina during the first third of my 15-day stay, which was a very rewarding experience, about which more later.

Yerevan One Year On   It was exactly a year ago since my previous visit, when I took part in the Diaspora Conference. The first impression one gets from Armenia’s capital is that of a gigantic building site. Though specific construction activity was visible in earlier years, but on this occasion, everyone seems to be having a go at it with a vengeance.

Private housing and commercial premises, new or refurbished hotels, public buildings, underpasses, it is all happening. This does cause problems not just to the increasingly impossible traffic, but even for pedestrians with many streets and payments dug up for repaving or underpasses. There is also embellishment activity to public squares, gardens and park. On the other hand, it does provide investment and is labour intensive, none of which can be bad for the economy. The work is not exactly quick, which appears to be due to a mixture of cash flow, inefficient use of labour and bad overall planning. It is to be hoped that once it is finished, the city will be more citizen-friendly.

Accompanying this boom is a continuing exponential growth in the number of cafés, restaurants and upper crust shops, including the first real supermarkets which are larger than mini-marts but not quite as large as the premises we know in our countries.

High speed internet, which I experienced at my hotel, is not mega-speed but it did not get interrupted once during my stay, which is more than I can say for any other location I have used it (which means each country I have travelled to since I became cybernetic).

The multiplication of mobile phones, including very sophisticated models, has continued apace (admittedly a phenomenon seen in other “poor” countries), and there are many taxis on the street. Nevertheless, the more reliable (mechanically rather than in terms of safety) radio taxis can be scarce during peak hours. Another sign of relative prosperity is the fact that many people are able to take holidays, albeit short ones, with the better off going abroad (Antalya in Turkey being a popular destination).

Artistic activity, both home-grown and with visiting foreign performers, continues to be overwhelming. As I mentioned last year, it would put many Western cities to shame and is even more remarkable considering we are talking of a crisis recovery town of only around 1.4 million inhabitants.

Where is the bad news? Firstly, much of the above applies to the capital, Yerevan, whereas those (unlike me) who go to the second largest city, Gyumri, report unpaved streets just a few blocks from the city centre, and people still living in containers some two decades after the earthquake that devastated the city. The situation in rural areas is even more critical, and this has now become a priority, particularly for foreign NGOs. The water shortage in rural areas is a serious problem (and even parts of Yerevan still get just two hours of daily supply in summer months). Being close to nicely dressed and made-up girls with body odour could be due to that water shortage, as well as the lack of proper bathroom facilities in some older accommodation, and the unaffordability of dedodorant.

Though wages have gone up (according to the Central Bank, they averaged a gross U$ 240 per month in August), so has the cost of living. The official inflation index of below 5 % does not reflect two of the fundamental problems: the high cost of buying or renting property, and the fall in the dollar against the Armenian DRAM. The property boom in the first instance allowed those sitting on well located apartments or houses to sell and trade down, freeing capital for anything from setting a business to just finance current expenses. When I first started going to Armenia, U$ 20 to 25 thousand would buy you a more than respectable flat, which would now be in the 100-150 thousand range, depending on condition and location.

However, the new generations looking for housing (if unable or unwilling to doss at the in-laws, as is the tradition), find it almost impossible to afford. There is pressure on housing at both ends of the market, from Diaspora-led purchases at the top to internal rural migration at the cheaper end.

The DRAM, having peaked at 590 per U$ in March 2003, is now at around 330, and unless friends, relatives and aid organisations from abroad were able to increase the dollar value of their remittances by 80 % in just over 4 years, the recipients find themselves poorer, at a time when weather problems has affected fresh produce supplies. Armenia is not as cheap as it used to be for a tourist destination, particularly if you factor-in the level of facilities and service.
It would also make any export activity, already suffering from the land transportation problems, that much less competitive. As in many things, the locals have conspiration theories about the management of the exchange rate.

Prices, as I could check both in supermarkets and street markets, are by no means cheap, taking Chile as a basis for comparison. Fuels, which used to be more expensive, are now marginally cheaper thanks to the refusal of Chilean authorities to mitigate the increases by tax reductions they could easily afford. Decent hotels are in the U$ 120-250 range and meals at good restaurants can set you back U$ 15 to 40 a head. Taxis are still a bargain with U$ 2 to 3 taking you virtually anywhere in town, and the 100 DRAM (around 30 cents) public transport fare remains unchanged. Sure, it is not New York or Geneva, but in U$ terms, it is 40 % more than just a few years ago.

Decent education and health cover continues to be a financial challenge, and for many people, that is probably the main deterioration from Soviet times. Less visible immediately to the naked eye, but increasingly mentioned by the locals and sensed on closer contact, is another phenomenon common to savage capitalist countries. In my early visits I was impressed by the solidarity and mutual help attitudes of family and friends. This is steadily being reduced in exchange for selfish uncaring attitudes, which is a great pity.

Going to work abroad continues to be an aim, if only to provide a decent income for the family left behinds. This is very stressful on separated couples and children growing up without a father around. This may be the reason why some people want Armenia to get closer to NATO and the EU, and away from Russia. There is generally no political bias in such wishers, but the thinking that it would mean instant prosperity and visas. One sweet story to show how desperate people are to calling to any hope, is the rumour that went out during the pregnancy of Spain’s princess Letizia. It was said that if she gave birth to a male heir, there would be an amnesty for illegal immigrants in Spain (including the thousands of Armenians who have gone there in recent years).

The truth is that the West has historically done nothing for Armenia or Armenians, selling us down to river whenever it was convenient to them, from the time of the Genocide and through the Baku Soviet, to the present day attitude to the congressional resolution by president Bush (who according to one non-Armenian columnist in the Los Angeles Times, “had to choose between Turkey and truth, and he chose the former”.) Remaining close to Russia is still Armenia’s best bet, politically and strategically, which does not rule out trade and cultural links with the West.

Despite all efforts, 13 years after the cease-fire, there does not seem to be any short-term solution in sight for the Karabagh conflict. Things are not made any easier by forthcoming legislative lections this year and presidential next year, though most people appear to be cynical about their significance.

Crime has increased but Yerevan continues to be the safest city I know where to walk alone at night. The number of beggars has also increased, but they remain fewer than in almost any (prosperous) European city.


Yerevan airport has been run for years under a concession given by Argentine Armenian Eduardo Eurnekian. The first few years showed little in return, but in September 2006, a brand new arrival terminal was inaugurated (a few days after my own arrival so I could not experience it). This year, I managed to experience it in full, and it is indeed very impressive. There are even “greeters” to direct people on like in Japanese department stores, and though my own suitcase was among the last off the belt (so much for my Gold membership of the Air France frequent traveller scheme), the actual flow started as soon as we arrived in the hall, which was previously unheard of.

One hopes that a new car park will ease the traffic chaos outside the terminal and that a departure facility will similarly improve on the current lugubrious check-in area.

Our Air France flight from Paris is only slightly late, and I am accompanied on board by Buenos Aires friends Peter and Marie-Flor Couyoumdjian who were already in Paris. I am ahead of them deplaning, and as soon as I arrive in the immigration area, a security man asks me if my name is Kouyoumdjian (how we guessed from my face I still ignore). He asks me my first name, and when I say “Armen”, he appears to lose interest. Peter is less lucky as he is held back and interrogated a bit longer before being waived on. Obviously they are looking for a Kouyoumdjian who has been up to no good, but it is not us. Otherwise, the immigration check is swift and courteous, as is the customs control where the inspector is understandably curious about why I am bringing 50 small alarm clocks in my luggage (they are 10th anniversary presents for the choir). Still, he accepts the explanation without problem.

On the return journey, I notice that the special booths where you pay your U$ 30 departure tax have disappeared, and the sum (which has to be settled in DRAM) is now paid at the offices of Converse Bank. As it happens, Converse Bank is also now owned by Eduardo Eurnekian. Choirmaster Artashes Baburyan, together with his two car-driving  brothers-in-law, is waiting to take us to the hotel. Normally, one car would do but because many cars in Armenia run on LPG, stored in a tank in the boot, there is little room left for luggage. We head for the hotel.


Last year, I stayed elsewhere, as my usual hotel in Yerevan, the HyBusiness Suites, was being extended and refurbished, after it was bequeathed by its American Armenian owner to the American University of Armenia (AUA). Though the manager and staff are unchanged, and as warm and welcoming as always, the facilities are smaller and less well equipped than in the past. Still, from U$ 130 per night including breakfast, you have a comfortable spacious suite, in an excellent location, and without the crowds that fill other lobbies. All amenities and services are controlled by the new owners, which leads to some idiosyncrasies that are not the end of the world, but more tending on the ridiculous. Living in a country where academic economists call the shots of government, one can only come to the conclusion that such people should stay in their classrooms and not try to interfere with real life.

Peter Couyoumdjian’s Chilean-based brother, vice-admiral ® Hernan Couyoumdjian and his wife Luz Maria have already landed the same morning, having travelled from London with British Airways/BMA. It is the first visit to Armenia for all of them.

There are two other Armenians from Latin America also staying at the hotel. One is also from Argentina, and the other, Mr Iskenderian, originally from Lebanon, has been living in Venezuela for half a century, though he has taken a side bet with Chavez by also having a foot in Boston where one of his daughter lives. In his early 70’s, and very active despite a quadruple bypass, he specialises in selling caiman skins from the jungles of Venezuela to the fashion industry in Italy. Another daughter is based in Yerevan, where she coordinates an NGO which brings young Diaspora Armenians to Armenia for a reencounter with roots and voluntary work. Two other couples from Argentina are also in town, staying at the Europe Hotel down the road.


An urgent investment in Armenia is in a good training facility for catering staff. I mused that it was contradictory that people were so hospitable in their homes, but so disorganised and even sultry when it came to restaurant service. One answer was because in the latter case, they are paid for it and you are neither their friend, nor in their homes. I am not sure it is so simple.

The matter is even more dramatic considering the amazing amount of eateries, including luxurious ones, which have sprung up in recent years. Some, like the Middle-Eastern Phoenicia, live on an unwarranted reputation (at U$ 40 a head), and for a third of that price, you get better food in the unpretentious Lagonid (opposite the KGB building). A good discovery was the terrace of the Sayat Nova restaurant, which is very popular and serves delicious food despite the slow service.

To be avoided are the plethora of places that have sprung out in the gardens around the Opera House (where all customers have to share a couple of single cubicle toilets at both ends of the garden). This may be a good place to mention that the level and equipment of public toilets is rather good, always a sign reflecting a civilised society.

The shortcomings of the Opera garden facilities, which circumstances made me use up to half a dozen times, are best illustrated with a single example. We sit down for a light lunch with a friend. From past experience, service is slow, so my friend suggests we also order the dessert from the outset.

After a certain time, the dessert arrives, together with my friend’s drink, before the main courses. The desserts are cakes, and it is hot, so my friend suggests that he takes them back and serves them after the hot dishes. “I can’t”, says the waiter, “they have already been checked out”. He goes away, and sometime later comes back with the main courses, but not the Fanta I ordered. “Where is my Fanta?”, I ask. “We have no Fanta” (he never mentioned the fact when I first ordered), “only Mirinda”. “OK, so bring me an orange Mirinda”. He goes away and eventually comes back with an apple Mirinda. Yerevan is the only place in the world where you start missing Chilean waiters, and that is saying something.

I had two other “park” experiences in other public gardens, unrelated to catering but still worth a mention. On one occasion, taking a late night constitutional walk not far from the hotel, a guy sitting on a bench mumbles something to me. I do not catch it so ask him to repeat it. “I have papyrus” he is saying. I did not for a moment think that he was a dealer in stolen Egyptian antiquities, but concluded he was selling jointgs. I politely refused, and he did not insist.
On another occasion, in broad daylight, I am walking back from a choir rehearsal with Artashes, and a TV crew approaches us. Artashes is not very voluble by nature, so he excuses himself. I on the contrary always like to give my opinion, even when not requested, so I cannot pass on the chance. The question is an interesting one: “What do you think of the authorities efforts to mother the population by media campaigns about not smoking, healthy eating, road safety, etc..”?. My answer “ In some societies, such attitudes are taken for granted, though from childhood at school and in the home, so no belated campaigning is required. In others, where people are by nature individualistic, you have to bang the drum”. I never knew if it was broadcast.


After 9 trips, I have yet to suffer an attempt at taking advantage from me in Armenia, and I am not a lucky man by nature, so there must be a natural goodness in the people. This is reflected when one of our party left valuable objects on three occasions in various places and the people in charge went to great length to trace her and return the objects.


Though I had done most of the tourist destinations around Yerevan on my earlier trips, I had never made it to Khor Virab, the site of the well where Armenia’s evangelist, Saint Gregory, was imprisoned for many years before being released due to his curing the king from madness, and converting the country as the first Christian nation, by tradition in 301 AD.

On the way there, we stop at a beautiful covered market in Yerevan, selling fresh produce, spices, dried fruit and dairy products. It is so spotless and well presented that it is closer to the Harrods food hall than a market in a developing country. That is the sort of thing which makes Armenia different and GDP per capita one of the stupidest measurements invented by economic science. Reminds me that I once told off a former Polish prime minister giving a talk at the UN’s regional seat in Santiago, with tables that “proved” that Armenia was behind several African countries.

The monastery is close to Mt Ararat and the Turkish border. We make jokes about staging a raid into Turkey, just a stone’s throw away. From the location, you can get the clearest view of Ararat, and it is a good photographic spot. The well itself is a popular destination for foreign and local visitors alike. You can go into the well, but between vertigo and claustrophobia, I do not volunteer. As we are chatting, mainly in Spanish, among ourselves, a group of rather attractive young ladies come into the monastery. We start to comment among themselves about their charms. NOT A GOOD IDEA!  It turns out they are students of Spanish from the Bruzof Institute, the foreign languages faculty of Yerevan University. They are out on a field trip, and cannot believe their luck when they see a group of native speakers with whom they can practice, and they readily offer themselves as impromptu guides. Contrary to their companions studying other European languages, they have no possibility to travel abroad to Spanish-speaking countries as there is no Spanish embassy in Yerevan to offer bursaries. I take down the teacher’s details, for reasons that shall be explained later.

On the way out, we come across other Spanish speaking tourists. “Are you Spanish? “No, we are Basque, from San Sebastian”. Another product of the Spanish state’s decision to structure the country on the basis of folklore. Before we board the bus, we have a chat with a young diocesan priest who works in the region. One of our party uses the toilets, which she finds spotlessly clean. It turns out the monastery is being refurbished by an Argentine Armenian family know to our friends. They make a note to congratulate him on their return home.

After Khor Virab, we have an important engagement. We are going to the Genocide Museum on Tsitsernagaberd hill in Yerevan, to deliver to its director a copy of the June 5 unanimous resolution by the Chilean senate, recognising the Armenian Genocide.

The handover is made by vice-admiral ® Hernan Couyoumdjian, in his capacity as chairman of Chile’s Armenian community. It is received by the museum director, an impressive young historian called Hayk Demoyan. As we arrive early, we take a short tour of the museum prior to meeting Demoyan. There is an additional bonus to the visit. In fact two. Their accountant is also called Kouyoumdjian (spelt differently but that is irrelevant), and Demoyan himself is working on a magnum opus about Armenians in the armed forces of various countries through history. He is very interested to meet Hernan Couyoumdjian and asks him to send his photograph and details for incorporation into the book.

He tells us about Turkish visitors breaking down in shame after seeing the exhibits. I wonder if the three Yiddish-speakers I came across on a subsequent solitary meditation visit to the museum grounds are similarly ashamed of Israel’s unspeakable cooperation with Turkey in the matter of Genocide denial.

I put together a press release in English and Spanish about our handover ceremony, and am pleased to hear in following days that it received mentions in the media in both Armenia and abroad.


Though we have had several recitals by “my” Avemaria choir during some of my previous visits, this year, there is going to be something special to commemorate 10 years of my sponsorship, including a small reception after the concert. For various reasons, we decide on Sunday September 16. This is the eve of the day when most of the Latin American friends return home, and of course I want them to be there. The venue is to be the Armenia choirs’ union headquarters, which has an auditorium seating 300, though we are not planning to have so many.

In fact, it turns out to be an unfortunate day, as it coincides with Holy Cross, the day they honour the deceased in Armenia (like November 1 in Catholic countries), and furthermore, a famous choir from Russia is on its first post-Soviet visit to Yerevan, and many people, including the Minister of culture who had expressed interest in attending our concert, have been “diverted” towards that even in the Opera House. Still, it cannot be helped.

On the Friday before, the choir rehearsal is being held in the concert auditorium with which they are not familiar. Also present are two young ladies who run a catering business which is in charge of the post-concert reception. I fret a bit at this because I have no experience of contracted catering in Armenia, and the experience at restaurants is not reassuring.
One of the partners is a friend of one of the choir members, and they seem to be rather professional. We were planning to have the drinks in the foyer adjoining the auditorium, but it is cluttered with a sculpture exhibition which is both space-consuming and potentially dangerous in case something gets broken. We settle on having it in the rehearsal room instead. I take advantage to distribute the remaining alarm clocks to those girls who did not come to the previous rehearsal.

The day of the concert, we gather the “Latinos” by various means and get to the hall with plenty of time. The auditorium is nearly half full, which is not too bad under the circumstances (in fact, previous concerts, all of which are by invitation) were held in smaller venues which were rarely full

The concert, which includes two female solo performances (one of which by a former choir member now embarked on a solo career but who comes in as guest singer) and a novelty in the form of a male singer solo, goes well and appears to be liked by all. We then move on (my personal guests from Latin America and selected friends from Yerevan, and the girls) to the reception.

I am pleasantly surprised and relieved by the very nice layout of delicious food, a small but smart drinks buffet with two smartly dressed waiters, and a jolly atmosphere. What a relief. If you ever need catering in Armenia, ask me for the reference.

Over the period of my stay, I tried to spend as much time as possible with the members of the Avemaria choir, which after all is my “raison d’être” with Armenia. Of the original 30 odd we started with 10 years ago (the choir itself was created in 1994), only about half a dozen are still members. About half the current singers are now married, and most of those have children. Some are better off than others, but artistic careers are not a way of making a decent living. Two are already separated. The conversations, particularly those singly and in small groups, are very interesting and rewarding, because it is a good way to get to know the people and the country.

Attitudes to security remain mind-boggling. One of the girls’ husband is a gymnast/personal trainer. They came to see me with their one year-old son. The father threw the child in the air and caught him several times (itself a pretty dangerous thing with such a small person). That was not all. The father also picked him up high in the air, holding him by just one tiny arm. I dare not say anything, but another girl also visiting me ventured .”Isn’t that dangerous”? “Not at all, answered the father”.


A group of young expats is going to see a new Armenian movie, and asks me to join them. Not only have I never been to the movies in Yerevan, but I have yet to see a single post-Soviet Armenian feature film.

In fact, I set the cat among the pigeons in Cannes this year, in front of most of today’s leading directors gathered in a single room, by complaining why in the Year of Armenia, not a single Armenian movie was included in the festival programme. (I was reprimanded afterwards for my outburst, but let us consider it my private cocktail Molotov, and if my accreditation is downgraded next year as a result, it was worth the sacrifice).

The movie house itself is an interesting art deco building, which has been refurbished. The film is called The Priestess, and is a recent release which tells a story around the fate of Saint Gregory of KhorVirab fame. It is lavishly produced in terms of locations, costumes and extras, but it is heavy going. The dialogue is mainly in the classical solemn declamation style which is a bit passé, if it ever was fashionable. The story is somewhat dishevelled, and the whole thing is slow (about par for the course for Armenian movies). Maybe the Cannes selection committee had a good excuse, though I do not think they even tried.

The best part of the evening was the comment by our good friend Nareg, who burst out as the credits (in Armenian) were finally rolling in the screen: “You know when you always look out for Armenian names in the credits at the end of a film? Well, you do not need to do that now. They are all Armenian names!


September 21 is the 16th anniversary of Armenian’s independence. Last year, I attended the military parade, standing among the crowds, and I was getting ready to repeat the experience. However, I find out that they only have parades every 5 years, so there ain’t one this year. Nevertheless, I am invited to something more original. A former choir member who is a music teacher at a state school tells me that her pupils are taking part in an independence day show at another arts school, and would I like to come. I accept readily, as I like events that are close to the people, and this is definitely not on the tourist circuit.

The show is taking place at a specialist school where all the arts are taught at an intensive level. Aimed at the talented children during Soviet times, it is now more geared to those who can pay, as the notionally free education demands an extra payment of around U$ 15 per month to pay the specialist teacher, an amount not everyone can afford. You can see that the school, like all of Armenia, has seen better times. I counted three grand pianos (find that in a public school anywhere in the Western world). It also has a large auditorium, which quickly fills up.

We have to wait for the local mayor to turn up, and he arrives late with a bunch of cronies who look like younger versions of the types at the Godfather scene, where the capos gather in order to declare a truce. He makes a speech about the glories of independence, which gets only mild applause. Then the show starts. It is a varied programme of folklore, ballad, modern song and dance, solo and ensemble. My friend’s pupils, who are teenagers, perform a wonderful collage of Disney extracts, in both song and dance. The final act, which brings the house down, is performed by very young children in military uniform singing a song in praise of the army. Pure Soviet-style nostalgia, and you can feel from the thunderous applause how nostalgic the audience are.


Towards the end of my stay, I contact Lusine, the teacher of Spanish who accompanied the group of young students we met at Khor Virab. I offer her to give a talk to her students before I leave. She does not answer for a few days, so I think she is not interested. However, it was only because she was out of town, and as soon as she sees my message, she is very keen to accept. We agree for the morning of my last day.

I rapidly concot a talk in Spanish about the varieties of language and culture up and down Latin America, the various influences from both within and outside the continent, and such phenomena of interest including the Latin soap operas (which are very popular in Eastern Europe). Luckily, I have a close friend in mexico who is a sopa opera actress and I have visited her on the st and spent the whole day at the studios, so I know something about the subject behind the scenes. I spend nearly two hours with the students, talking to 24 girls and a single male student (one did not know if to envy or pity him). The Bruzof institute is known for attracting pretty young things (their Spanish is not bad either). On my return, I put up a note on the Armenian-Hispanic website inviting Spanish-speaking Armenians visiting Yerevan to volunteer a couple of hours to talk to them, and if their luggage allowance permits, take some magazines to use as reading material.


Buenos Aires-based Armenia ambassador to Chile, Vladimir Karmirshalyan, is in town to attend a yearly gathering of Armenian diplomats abroad. At the last minute, he kindly offers to take me to meet Arman Guiragossian, the deputy foreign minister under whose jurisdiction comes Latin America. Very relaxed atmosphere (though I feel a bit awkward being in casual clothes as I did not bring a suit with me to Armenia). We have a friendly chat about the Chilean Senate resolution, as well as another idea I am working on to foster Chilean-Armenian relations.

I am leaving first thing next morning, a 36 hour door to door journey to include a stopover of nearly 12 hours in Paris, which will give me the opportunity to see my sister, who lives in France,  and my eldest son  (who flew in for the day from London). Has this been a good trip? Yes, but probably too long. The problem is that time-management is not very efficient in Armenia. Things take longer to happen and there is a lot of “down” time waiting for people to respond or turn up.


Real GDP (January-August 2007)   + 10.1 %   Inflation  (12 months to September) 2.7 %

Sector Performance:   GDP was helped by a 44.8 % advance in financial services and 20.5 % in Construction. Transportation grew by 11.6 % and Commerce by 6.6 %. Industrial production was  flat (-0.9 %) and Agriculture declined by 3 %.

Trade Exports in the first 8 months grew by 23.2 % to U$ 734 million, whereas imports rose by 46.7 % to U$ 1,926 million. The trade deficit grew by 66.2 % to U$ 1.19bn.  External reserves as of end September were U$ 1.3 bn.


Monday, October 1, 2007

WHY I AM NOT IN COPACABANA TODAY And what happened to Brazil, past and present

These papers are resuming a bit sooner than expected, because instead of being in Brazil, as I was scheduled to be, I find myself back in Viña del Mar. The reasons for the change of plans will be explained later in this paper, but I thought it was a good opportunity to also write about Brazil. I am after all a consultant covering most of the region, and there are some lucky readers who also get a Latin American monthly I prepare regularly. I also want to show (not that I am obliged to), that I can dissect and describe the contents of other corpuses besides Chile. I hasten to add that this is not a full country risk assessment of Brazil, but an impressionistic analysis putting my own recent experience in context.

ME AND BRAZIL I cannot claim to be a specialist on Brazil, though my coverage extends to the whole region, and that obviously includes the biggest country therein. I have travelled there many times for over 25 years, but my longest stay has been less than a week, and all my visits have been confined to the Rio do Janeiro-Sao Paulo-Brasilia triangle, if I except a landing in Camboriu as part of a cruise. I can decipher written Portuguese quite well, though I cannot really carry out a proper conversation in the language.

WHAT MADE BRAZIL EXCITING I had always liked, particularly in Rio (which is our subject matter today) the upbeat and carefree attitude, the tactile secretaries who took you by the arm to visit their bosses, the food served straight from the pot in the Bozano Simonsen executive restaurant, the good humour and disposition to solve problems or take care of complaints to your satisfaction. The vibrancy of Rio itself needs no introduction, and it has some smart hotels and a hard-to-beat beach. Service efficiency was never a strong point (and in Brasilia could be very dreadful indeed), but they aimed to please, particularly the Cariocas. The food is tasty, the football is great and played with panache. The women sure know how to move (interpret that as you wish).

On the macro aspect, it is the only country in Latin American which got anywhere near to being what is called a N.I.C. (Newly Industrialised Country), but actually never managed to get its act completely together. It is more India than China. A redeeming factor is that, despite the imperial splendours of some of its embassies, it has not thrown its diplomatic weight around too blatantly. It has some military "folie des grandeurs", like a nuclear submarine which is taking longer to build than a medieval cathedral, at the same time as
the commander of its navy reveals that half his ship and aircraft are immobilised for lack of maintenance. Even its dictatorships have been mild by regional standards, with no major civil conflict, guerrilla group or such strife in modern history. It got early empowerment when the colonial Portuguese government had to seek refuge on its territory during the Napoleonic wars. Together with Mexico, it is the only country in Latin America to have had an emperor (whom they eventually sent off to exile, and then begged in vain to return).

Its military equipment was utilised in the Iran-Iraq war, and
Embraer's commuter jets are to be found on most continents. Its civil
engineering companies construct worldwide, and its exportable offer
has long passed the stage of "there's an awful lot of coffee in
Brazil". In fact, coffee now represents an infinitesimal proportion of
sales abroad.

For the anecdote, the country's navy (which contrary to Bolivia's, has
a sea to operate into), holds the unique record of actually having had
a ship sink itself during WWII. A badly lined deck machine gun was
being tested on a destroyer. Normally it should have been so
positioned as to fire only over the deck. It was not. The bullets shot
onto the deck, which also stored ammunition for the big guns, and the
whole thing exploded. It took weeks to find out what had happened when
a few lone survivors were found in a lifeboat. Lack of precision is a
problem, as I found out at the otherwise most pleasant Rio Sheraton
when the Club lounge supposed to open for breakfast at 7.00 (the time
we actually needed to have breakfast because of a plane to catch), was
still closed at 7.15.

HOW THINGS STARTED GOING WRONG Brazil has had some bad hits, not all
of which have been from external causes. It was badly hit by the 1973
and 1979 oil crises, just as it was taking off, and though it has
since developed self-sufficiency in crude production and been a
pioneer in alcohol powered vehicles, the latter is now much questioned
on both economic and environmental considerations.

The death of president-elect Tancredo Neves in 1985, from a botched-up
diverticulis emergency operation (another lack of "precision" by the
week-end duty surgeon in Brasilia) probably deprived the country of
the chance of a new approach to politics. His stand-in, Jose Sarney,
sticking to Machivellian precepts, was only interested in holding on
to a power he was never supposed to have in the first place. Fernando
Collor was a drug addict whose shifty body language immediately caught
my attention at a London reception for him when he was
president-elect. Fernando Henrique Cardoso, an academic, tried to
solve the problems by issuing debt, which now makes Brazil a country
with a DAILY interest bill of some U$ 230 million on its U$ 870 bn
internal and external public debt. Despite some gimmicky programmes
such as "Fome Zero" and "Bolsa Familia" Lula betrayed his origins,
principles and electorate pretty much like his Polish Solidarity
counterpart Lech Walensa. As a former local politician once said, when
asked if he was a conservative., "in a country where millions of
children go to bed hungry, there is nothing to conserve. Over 51 % of
Brazilian households are not even connected to a sewerage network.

I do not know if any of this helps explain the story I am about to tell.

WHY I AM NOT IN COPACABANA I do not really know why I am not in
Copacabana today. Well, maybe because I am unlucky with freebies. In
fact, over the decade and a half of providing free services to
hundreds of institutions, I have only ever had one invitation to go on
an expenses-paid trip abroad unrelated to providing consultancy
services, but just for the sake of it. The same embassies, think
thanks and universities that spend zillions on flying out every
two-penny journalist, uniformed personnel, civil servant and "opinion
leader", have ignored me royally, even though I was often the first
one to tell them what was happening. Maybe because I am neither Jewish
nor Opus Dei, which seem to be the main criteria even for getting
quoted by foreign journalists. So be it. Luckily, I can afford to
travel on my own, so I do not have to beg the generosity of a bunch of
ungrateful sods who cannot even organise their caterers to serve real
food at their parties until most of the guests have gone home (yes,
that is you, the Santiago diplomatic corps, in case you have not
recognised yourselves).

This year, I was supposed to go on freebies to Rio not once, but
twice. The first instance was in late April, to attend LAAD, the local
version of FIDAE. I have been friendly (and generous) for years with
the owner/editor of a Brazilian defence publication, who were
co-sponsoring the fair. He said he would recommend the organisers that
they invite me. Some weeks later, he said I was not being invited.
Subsequent to that he stopped contacting me altogether.

I did not worry too much, as it had not disturbed any other
arrangements I had. However, when the second invitation came on August
9, it was a different proposal altogether. A prestigious international
public relations firm, with whom I have a long and excellent
relationship at the Cannes film festival, wrote to tell me that I was
invited, all expenses paid, to the Rio film festival that would be
taking place from September 20 to October 4. Over that period, I could
choose any 5 days I wanted, and they would take care of the rest.

Great! I emailed my enthusiastic acceptance by return, happy that my
11-year Cannes coverage (which I can immodestly say has been rather
good) was having a wider recognition. I was scheduled to be in Armenia
until September 28, so I asked if I could come for the last 5 days of
the event, which is the largest of its kind in Latin America. I also
requested that, as I would only have 48 hours between the two trips
and would need to organise myself, furthermore over a week-end, where
what you can do is more limited. I asked if possible to travel by LAN
as they have the only through flights between Santiago and Rio.

I advised the editors of the two publications for whom I cover Cannes,
refused other social and professional commitments for the first week
in October, and even paid some bills in advance (something most of the
Chilean financial system finds difficult to cope with, as I am the
only person in the country who does not wait until banks shut on the
last due date to settle his accounts). I advised friends and contacts
in the film industry, in case we would coincide there.

Two weeks after the initial invitation, I received an email from one
Tessa Maia of the festival staff. Copied to several of her colleagues,
it was accompanied by a draft reservation on LAN, going out at
lunchtime on Sunday 30, returning at 2 AM on October 5 (a dreadful
hour but that is the schedule the planners at LAN have for their
flight back). The message said that I should respond quickly so that
they could firm up the booking, and once that was done, any changes
would be my financial responsibility. I answered immediately, saying
it was fine, adding that I hoped the timing of the return flight would
still allow me to be present at the award closing ceremony on the
night of the 4th. It took a few days to get an answer, which said that
there would be no problem, and furthermore I would get assistance with
airport transfers etc..

There followed two weeks of silence, and my other trip was getting
closer, so I asked for confirmation that the flights as proposed (and
accepted) were firm. It took some time and effort to get an answer,
and when it came, the outgoing flight had been changed to 7.30 AM.
This would mean having to spend the previous night in Santiago in
order to catch it, which was most impractical as I was just returning
the day before from Armenia. I expressed my surprise and
disappointment, particularly as I had accepted the previous
arrangements. I was told that "this was the best available" but "they
would try to revert to the initial booking".

Another period of silence followed, during which time I chased four
times for an answer. With just two working days left for my departure
to Armenia, I started to get really worried and upset. I decided to
ring the person who had been writing to me (Tessa Maia). After some
effort, she came on the line and was very apologetic.
She said that "her coordinator" (Marcos Silva) was told several times
to write to me with the final arrangements, but had not done so. She
absolutely promised that I would get the full details of the trip and
local arrangements that same night. I also rang LAN Chile who
confirmed that there were four (!) bookings in my name going out to
Rio on the 30th of September, on the original noon flight, but none
had as yet been confirmed and paid.

Nothing came that night, and I waited until lunchtime the next day,
with still no news. I tried to ring Tessa again, but was told "she was
in a meeting". So I sent her another mail. Two hours later,
coordinator Marcos Silva finally contacted me. In a short and curt
mail, he said that "as I seem to be having scheduling problems" (sic),
it was better if I did not some.

I immediately wrote back saying this was outrageous. I had not sought
an invitation, but when it came accepted it enthusiastically. I had
answered all communications by return, and made no request beyond that
of having my arrangements finalised prior to leaving for Armenia (that
gave them 5 weeks from the time the invitation came). I had refused
other commitments, advised people I know in Rio I was coming, and of
course offered my coverage to La Nacion and El Mostrador.

Last but not least, in my Levantine culture, not returning hospitality
or withdrawing an invitation after it is made, is the worst possible
social affront. I copied the mail to all those to whom previous
communications had been circulated. Nobody came back with an
explanation or an apology, save the public relations contact who had
passed-on the invitation in the first place, who was as baffled as I
was. In case anyone tries to deny my version of the facts, I have kept
copies of all the correspondence.

POST-MORTEM There is an old regional joke whereby a Brazilian politician is making fun of Bolivia because they have a navy but no sea, to which the Bolivians retort that it is no stranger than Brazil having a ministry of Culture, and a ministry of Justice…

In my nearly 31 years of Latin American experience, over half of which based in the region itself, this is the strangest behaviour I have ever come across from any person or organization. To the extent that it was so upsetting and disruptive, I decided that it would not stop there. If the idea of the invitation was to promote Brazil, Rio or its festival, it is a rather curious way of going about it.

I looked up the various festival authorities, and I copied my last mail of protest to them. I did the same with the main sponsoring cultural organization. I also looked up the website of the ministry of Culture (yes, they have one), and mailed every single senior official in the audiovisual arts department. Lastly, I copied the message to the cultural attaché at the Brazilian embassy in Santiago.

Three weeks have passed since I was kicked out of a festival I never asked to go to in the first place, but not a single authority of the festival, organizers, ministry or embassy has even acknowledged receipt of my messages.

I understand that this sort of thing is called a Bosta in vulgar Brazilian. The perpetrators are Babacas.