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.

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.

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