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, November 10, 2008


From March 2 to 6, 2010, coinciding with Chile's bicentennial, and
just before the end of the Bachelet administration, the Vth
International Congress of the Spanish Language (known by its Spanish
acronym CILE) will be held in Valparaiso, next door to my adopted
Chilean abode. The King of Spain himself will be attending, to jointly
inaugurate the proceedings together with president Bachelet. I do not
know if there is a call for papers, but in any case I want to bring my
modest contribution to the debates at an early stage. This paper aims
at pointing out some inconsistencies in Spanish pronunciation, both in
Chile and elsewhere. Let me make it very clear that it is not about
accent, intonation, dialects or "modismos". It is about the utter
confusion in how to pronounce given letters. It is a fact that Spanish
is not the only language with alternative pronunciations. English for
one is notorious as to the various ways that the combination "gh" is
pronounced. However, the various options each relate to specific words
and once you have a certain proficiency in English, you should know
what is pronounced how, because the word is always pronounced that
same way. In Spanish, it has often become a lottery.

AB UOVO The supervisory and standard-setting body related to the use
and abuse of the Spanish language is Spain's Real Academia Española,
(RAE) founded in 1713, with the remit of "fixing the sounds and words
of the Spanish language in its utmost customs, elegance and purity".
Since then, it has had to open up to Spanish usage in the rest of the
Hispanic world, and is now at the head of a federation of 23 national
academies, including the USA and the Philippines.

Each academy has of course its own local membership (the Chilean one
alone has 33, and for the anecdote, elected as an honorary member,
during the military government, Pope John Paul II, proving once again
that in Chile, even in such matters, who you are is the only important
criteria), and the Real Academia also has 38 non-Hispanic
correspondent individual members from as far away as Japan, Russia and
Finland. Its main activity is to keep up to date its Spanish
dictionary, a flagship publication which is now in its twenty-second
edition. It is also available online ( The academy also
issues ad hoc rulings on specific expressions and words.

At some stage during its 295-year history, the RAE took a number of
decisions which have seriously affected both the ability of
Spanish-speaking people to pronounce and spell their own language, as
well as properly speaking foreign ones.

One of those decisions is that foreign words would be pronounced as if
they were Spanish ones. Once you get that habit into your system, and
have it constantly rammed down your throat by the media, it is very
difficult to revert to the proper pronunciation once you try to learn
a foreign language.

The other extraordinary move was to declare that three combinations of
letters, namely "ch", "ll" and "rr" were letters in their own right.
To the rest of us, they are not a letter but TWO letters, whose
combination makes something we know as a "sound".

Why restrict themselves to those three? What about other combinations:
sh, ts, nn, mm, cr etc? No obvious reason. Having spent over 36 years
as an analyst, first of Spain, and subsequently of Latin America, I
know that Cartesian behavioural questions in that part of the world
only generate frustration.

To be fair, some years ago the RAE did backtrack on that decision, and
decided that they were not independent letters any more, and that
words starting with "ch" would figure after those starting with "cg"
and before those starting with "ci", rather than at the very end. This
was not an easy task. The Guatemalans opposed the move, blocking the
whole procedure for a long time. The end result is that directories,
lists and classifications in the Hispanic world are now a free for all
without any set rule as to precedence. Some have the "ch" where it
should be. Others still have it at the end, including the phone
directories issued by TELEFONICA, a company once the property of the
Kingdom of Spain. Therefore, when a foreigner wishes to look up a name
in a Spanish directory, it is not at all obvious where they should be

Last but not least, though I am not sure if the RAE bears the
responsibility for it, the Hispanic world is unable to differentiate
between the "b" and the "v", concluding that they were two variations
of the same letter, and almost interchangeable. More about this
"barbaridad" (or should I say "varvaridad", later.

THE PROBLEM OF "CH" (and "SH") In Arabic, there are for instance
three different letters with variations of the sound "s" , from weak
to strong. In Russian, there are different letters for the sounds ch,
sh, shch & ts. In the Hispanic world, there is utter confusion.

Let us start with the "sh". If, as in the case in my half-Spanish
household, you are an habitué of Spanish TV by cable, you often hear
that president "Buss" has gone from "Wassington" to "SSangai", but he
had stopped smoking "hassiss". Why cannot their news readers,
together with most of the Iberian population, notice that there is an
"h" after the "s", so just possibly, it is not pronounced as if it was
just an "s". Answers on a postcard please.

Back in Chile, many people pretend the country they live in is
"Tsile". It would be consistent, even if wrong, should they always
pronounce "ch" as "ts", but when they refer to the cook in the
restaurant, he is a "tcheff", possibly preparing a meal of "sutchi".
Admittedly, the "ch" combination is a stronger sound than the "sh"
one, but in no way does it have a silent "t" before it, nor is the "c"
pronounced as an "s".

THE "B" & THE "V", THE "J" AND OTHER LETTERS I have no statistics as
to how many native Hispanics speak Chinese so well as to be unable to
distinguish their not being Chinese on the phone (my sister is thus
fluent in Japanese, by the way). If the rara avis exists, it must be
in minute quantities, because if they cannot differentiate between the
"b" and "v" sounds, then chances that they can master the three or
four different intonations of Chinese sounds are as good as nil. Qué
carajo does it mean to say "b grande" and "v chica". Grande tu
estupidez y chica tu mente, pues!!

The consequences are to be seen everywhere. Badly spelt words on
public signs and in the media, incorrect identity documents, and wrong
transliteration of foreign words. I am afraid that this is now a
congenital ailment about which nothing can be done.

The fate of the "j" is another headache, particularly in Chile.
Strictly speaking, its correct Spanish pronunciation is "kh", but when
"adapting" it to local taste, the Chileans think it is in German. You
thus have people called "Yonatan" and "Yenifer .

The worst aspect of it is that civil registry officers accept such
mistakes, whereas they should be the last line of defence against
them, telling the father "o lo deletrea correctamente o su hijo queda
sin registro, en calidad de "vastardo" (como su padre, pues).

Then we have the problem of the "h", and not only in Chile. In strict
ruling, the "h" in Spanish is in general silent. However, when
pronouncing foreign words starting with "h", instead of the weak "he"
that should come out, most Hispanics decide that it is a "j",
pronounced correctly. You thus have a "khappening" when Manchester
City beats West "Kham" at football. You may have noticed that they do
not even follow their own stupid rule to pronounce foreign words as if
they were written in Spanish.

Let us end this non-exhaustive sample with the end letters, "x" and
"z". In Spain, they tend to pronounce the "x" also as if it were an
"s", though the rule book says it should be pronounced "ks". Thus you
cannot differentiate in conversation between "sexo" (sex) and "seso"
(brains), a situation which must have some moral tale in it.

In Chile, the same fate awaits the "z", whether single or double, and
makes Italy's famous dish as revised by American cooks, "Pis"a or

PHANTOM LETTERS I have a lot of problems with my name in Chile. No
wonder, I hear you say. Funnily enough, I have more problems with
"Armen" than with "Kouyoumdjian". There are people who think it is a
spelling mistake and write back to me as "Carmen" (that included
Joaquin Lavin's presidential campaign team in 1999, a waste of time as
I am not registered to vote). They are not the worst offenders.

When I give my name on the phone in Chile, I try the method you use
with small children or mentally impaired people. I tell them it is
spelt like "Carmen", but minus the "C". No use. They answer back
calling me "Harmen" or "Kharmen". Excuse me!! Did I mention an "h"? Do
you see an "h" written before the "a" in invisible ink, which only the
NSA can detect? Why can't you just say plain and simple, "Armen"?
(Porque somos unos Guebones, pues !).

The mystery of why Spaniards refer to the capital of Iraq as "Bagdag"
is another example of confused pronunciation. Is there also a problem
of vocal similarity between the "g" and the "d"?

time to cite all the mis-spelt foreign words in menus, whether written
up in the poshest Santiago hotel (the one offering "amouse bouche",
and I found out subsequently that the guy in charge of its restaurants
is a native Frenchman!), or described in the gastronomic reviews of
its main newspapers.

Getting back to the rule about pronouncing foreign words as if they
were written in Spanish, it obviously does not apply to Chilean
football clubs. They are two such clubs in Chile, among several with
an English name, that are the subject of pronunciation vandalism. One
is "Rangers" and the other "Wanderers".

Now, if you pronounced "Rangers" in the English way, it would be
"randjers", and if you pronounce it as a Spanish word, it would be
"rankhers or ranghers". However, despite superhuman efforts I made
among my Chilean media friends, most of them still continue to refer
to it with a strong "g" as in "banger".

Wanderers is a word with three syllables, but the Chilean media
decided that it only had two, so it is pronounced "Wanders". It means
something completely different in English.

OUR FRIEND "GUISHERMO" FROM CNN I shall not attempt a thorough
analysis of Argentine pronunciation. My cultural battle in that
country is much more profound, and consists in trying to have Astor
Piazzolla's grave transformed into a public toilet. How could a
passionate and restless people like the Argentines stay silent, and
let that man destroy one of the pillars of their culture, the
classical sung tango, and transform it into some kind of techno tune
revised by Moby? He should be declared a traitor to the nation, have
all his inheritance confiscated, and his family expelled from the
country, whilst banning any public or private performance of his

Anyway, back to pronunciation. I did say that this report was not
about accents, but about inconsistencies in pronunciation that broke
self-imposed rules. We know that the combination "ll" in Argentina is
pronounced "sh". Well, that is their problem, but it is not right to
export it.
There is an Argentine weatherman on CNN's international channel, whose
name is Guillermo. I do not mind that 40 million Argentines call him
"Guishermo", and a few million Uruguayans as well, but I certainly did
mind and told them so, when his Anglo-Saxon colleagues on the network
also started introducing him as "Guishermo", so making hundreds of
millions of non-Spanish speakers round the world who watch CNN, to
think that "ll" was always supposed to be pronounced "sh".

For many years, Spain has been extending the presence and range of
activities of its official cultural institute, the Instituto
Cervantes, which will be jointly organising the Valparaiso congress
with the RAE. Though it was not called that at the time, I myself
started learning Spanish at its London branch in 1971.

There is currently no on-site Spanish diplomatic or cultural presence
in the Caucasus republics. There was a firm promise to kick off with
Armenia, after all a nation of cultured linguists with a long
tradition. Nevertheless, political pressure from NATO & the EU, in the
wake of the Georgian conflict, led to a switch in priorities and the
announcement that such an embassy would be set up instead in uncouth
Tblisi, Georgia. Today, the British, French, Italian, German and
American embassies in Yerevan all have cultural centres attached to
them, with language classes, libraries and scholarships to travel
abroad. The absence of any Spanish-speaking embassy means that if you
wish to study the language in Armenia, you either have to go to an
expensive private institute, or do it at university level. I modestly
helped earlier this year to set up a small Spanish-language library,
on the premises of an Italian NGO. As for traveling, forget it except
by faking to be a tourist and becoming an illegal immigrant in
Valencia. And to think that our last Armenian king, Leon V, once ruled
over all of Madrid!

Saturday, July 12, 2008

MEMORIES OF CANNES 2008 Not a vintage edition…

The 61st Cannes film festival ended some 7 weeks ago, and I would be the first to acknowledge that it is not exactly hot news. However, several readers had requested a personal report of this year's edition, and I had promised to do so. The unexpected interruption of my papers during June meant that it has taken longer than expected, but here it is.

THE SAME OLD STUFF Covering film festivals is not my prime activity, as most of you know, and after 12 editions of Cannes, I am getting a bit weary. The quality of films on offer obviously varies from year to year. Otherwise, you meet the stars, have exchanges at press conferences and go to parties (most of which are over-rated anyway). You put on your black tie disguise and go up the red carpet a few times. You have interesting or boring conversations with fellow journalists. What does not change or improve is the petty bureaucracy of the organisation, the silly regulations that make your job more difficult, the dictatorship of the press representatives with whom you lose plenty of time in order to organise meetings and interviews, which are then changed or cancelled at short notice, throwing all your schedules overboard. Once you have met and spoken with Pelé and Paul McCartney, what else is left to excite you?

If on top of that you hit with a rainy spell of Spring weather, as was the case this year, it does not make for a fun experience.

LET DOWN BY LA NACION In most of my earlier years in Cannes, I reported for the English-language News Review, until it came to pass despite several attempts to revive it. I then switched to the web-based El Mostrador, which is the easiest way to report an ongoing event. Here I met with one example of festival bureaucracy, namely that they do not like to give accreditations to online publications. I therefore also offered my services to La Nacion, Chile's State-owned daily. They have let me down very badly, despite the favour I was doing them.

The Cannes festival lasts for exactly 11 days, a period which includes
two week-ends. Furthermore, the Chilean holiday of May 21 also happens
to fall in the midst of the festival. This makes a total of 5
non-working days for the bureaucrats of La Nacion (almost half the
duration of the festival). Unfortunately, the week-ends are when the
most newsy events take place in Cannes, but at the paper's offices in
Santiago there are only junior sub-editors obviously unable to cope
with contributions, and therefore contenting themselves with using
agency reports even though they have their own correspondent on the

As if this was not bad enough, they do not even respect their own
requirements. On several occasions they asked me for specific articles
which I made a particular effort to provide, including queuing for two
hours at the offices of press representatives to get interviews, only
to see them ignored by the paper.
They could not even get organised to publish an interview of the
director and principal actor of the only Chilean film taking part
(Pablo Larrain's impressive "Tony Manero"). Before the event started,
I thought they might like an "atmosphere" piece on a first hand basis.
The editor wrote back saying my own experiences "were not news",
because "I was not Truman Capote". Strangely, several people who read
my contributions in El Mostrador told me on my return how much they
appreciated the personal angle of my reporting. There obviously is no
unanimity on the issue, because on a totally different occasion,
someone wrote to complain on my weeklies that "they were too
egocentrical". Folks, I have turned 60, and I have been writing for
publication for some 45 years. My style and views are established and
you are not going to change them. You get these papers because you are
on a list at your request. If you do not like them, just say so
instead of suffering in silence.

At least I am luckier than a Colombian colleague at the festival,
whose editor rung her in the middle of the night to ask her to find
out if it was true that Naomi Campbell was to have artificial
insemination..As for me, half-way through the Festival, I stopped
filing for La Nacion.

CHILEAN AND LATIN PRESENCE Once again, Chile had an official stand
at the parallel film market which takes place in the Palais des
Festivals, and a delegation from various areas of the industry. The
stand was equipped with good material on Chilean films. A reception
was given on a beach venue in the Croisette, which was well organised
and well attended. In general, Latin America, and in particular Brazil
and Argentina, was well represented in the various festival
categories, and I like many others am surprised and disappointed that
Pablo Trapero's Argentine movie "Leonera" did not get a prize for the
outstanding performance of its female lead, Martina Gusman. La Mujer
sin Cabeza of his compatriot Lucrecia Martel, on the other hand, is an
eminently forgettable movie. Still, a female Brazilian actress acting
for the first time at the age of 45 did get the female acting prize,
which thus became a clean sweep for the latinos. The problem with many
Latin Directors, particularly Brazilians and Mexicans, is that once
they get a home success, many think they have to "graduate" to
Holllywood and make "international films", as if the region did not
provide sufficient cinematographic inspiration. Hence Meirelles´movie
"Blindness" based on Saramago' novel is a sterile waste of time.

Though it was not directed by a Latin American, Steven Soderbergh's
CHE deserves a mention, and not just because the lead actor Benicio
del Toro got the male interpretation prize. It is in fact two films,
totalling nearly 4h30m combined. The first is the entry of Ernesto
Guevara into the Cuban revolution movement, following his awakening to
the region's social problems as described in the Motorcycle Diaries.
In a way, it is a sequel of that film. The second part is the
ill-fated mission to Bolivia, which the CHE thought would be a fertile
ground for the next revolution, and turned out to have been as wrong
as Karl Marx's hopes for a Communist Britain.

It is very difficult to get independent views on anything concerning
Ernesto CHE Guevara because people tend to look at it from their
political perspectives. The film´s approach is obviously sympathetic
to the character without being sycophantic. The director was fairly
cynical when asked why he had chosen the character as a subject and
why he still held a fascination on the public. "He is one of the few
acceptable figures coming out of the Cold War era. You do not see the
picture of Honnecker on T-shirts".

It was mainly shot in Spain, which you couldn't tell would be able to
pass as the Bolivian jungle. The premiere was shown simultaneously in
two different screening venues, with only a short break in between
(during which we were helpfully given a snack). It is significant that
despite the nearly 5 hours involved, very few people actually left the
room before the end. How such a monster of a movie will be exploited
commercially is a question mark. Two different films launched within a
few months of each other? That seemed to be the initial wish of the
director. Scaled-down version combining the two? A TV mini-series?
One can only wait and see.

Also a Latin theme by a non-Latin, Emir Kusturica's "Maradona" is a
very entertaining documentary, even for non-football fans. Both the
Argentine and the Yugoslav are egocentrical clowns and the chemistry
between them is quite successful.

ARMENIANS I have been regretting the absence of films from Armenia
at Cannes in all the years I have been there. This year, we managed to
fly the Armenian flag in Cannes, literally. Two Armenian short film
directors (one from Moscow and another from Gyumri, in Armenia) had
features in respective sections. Apart from that, Canadian-Armenian
Atom Egoyan, a Cannes veteran, was presenting his intense new feature,
"Adoration". The director of Yerevan's dynamic Golden Apricot film
festival, which takes place this coming week, was also in town. All
this crowd and other Armenians and sympathisers met for a stupendous
oriental buffet on the Croisette-overlooking terrace of an apartment
owned by a French-Armenian. We had an Armenian flag flying high. Among
the guests was the film critic of Milliyet, one of Turkey's leading
newspapers. What was she doing there? Well in fact she is Armenian…

The screening of the Armenian directors' films, as well as Atom
Egoyan's press conference, all coincidentally took place the same day.
This clashed with not one but two events involving Madonna, but la
patria viene primero, and I gladly sacrificed the opportunities to
meet her, at
the great surprise of the press agents.

Among the other highlights of my stay in Cannes was a meeting with
Omar Sharif (I can hear many younger readers say "who?", but I despise
your ignorance). I mention this in the "Armenians" section, because
apart from his well known roles in Lawrence of Arabia and Doctor
Zhivago, the Egyptian star also played in the two parts of Mayrig, the
autobiographical films on a refugee Armenian family in Marseilles
directed by the late Henri Verneuil (born Ashot Malakian). I heard by
chance about his Cannes presence (supporting the market launch of an
Egyptian film that was refused an incorporation in the official
programme), and tracked him through a very helpful press agent, who
invited me to the gala screening. Very sprightly in his 77th year, he
was most charming and I have a nice picture with him.

I CHALLENGE CLINT EASTWOOD Even if it is not my main professional
activity, I take my work as a film critic seriously (as I do with
everything I undertake). I nearly always ask a question at the press
conferences I take part in, as well as the group interviews. I pay
attention to what is going on, and find interesting angles.
Unfailingly, each year, I am approached by total strangers in the
Palais des Festivals congratulating me on my remarks (the press room
only sits just above 200 people but the proceedings are broadcast
throughout the Palais on closed-circuit screens, and subsequently
repeated on a special cable TV channel).

When that unspeakably bad adaptation of an incredibly bad book, The da
Vinci Code, was premiered some years back, I did point out to the
director that there was a spelling mistake on a poster in one of the
shots (and got congratulated by Tom Hanks for my perceptiveness). This
time, I had a go at director Clint Eastwood with his latest offering,
The Changeling (I understand it will be screened in Chile soon). It is
a thriller involving a kidnapped child, based on a real case that took
place in Los Angeles in 1928. Such a period movie involves a
tremendous effort and expense in order to appear genuine. It was
therefore surprising that in the opening sequence, lead actress
Angelina Jolie gets up and switches on a radio, the sound of which
comes on immediately. So where's the problem?

The older ones among you will remember that well into the 1950's,
radios were based on valves that needed some time to warm up after
being switched on, so the sound NEVER came on immediately. I did
mention this to Eastwood, earning an applause from a heavily pregnant
Angelina Jolie sitting next to him (I mention this for the sake of
completeness. I do not like Angelina Jolie, and therefore being
applauded by her does nothing to me).

Still, our friend Clint admitted that the scene was technically
incorrect, but that he had to adopt some literary licence, rather than
make the spectator wait minutes for the radio sound to come on.

AND THE WINNER IS I did not see the French winning film, Laurent
Cantet's "The Class". By all accounts it was a deserving choice. The
subject matter is fairly topical in many countries, and concerns the
problems of coping with problem pupils in a hard-up urban area. The
author of the book on which the film is based, a teacher himself,
plays his own role in the film. The school chosen for the filming
happened to be one near where one of the production assistants lived.
The most interesting aspect is how the pupils were chosen. The
director started an acting workshop in the school, through which many
pupils passed, and 24 were finally chosen. Much of the situations and
dialogues were improvised. It is not sure if the film will be
commercially screened in Chile, so you may have to be contented with a
"gala" organised by the Cultural Counsellor of the French embassy. To
be invited to that, you either have to be a francophone diplomat, or
an expatriate French businessmen who will attend with his Chilean
girlfriend, and both will be seen chain-smoking in the lobby of the
Cine Hoyts La Reina. Cinéphiles s'abstenir.

BRAZILIANS REMAIN PENDEJOS Readers will hopefully remember my paper of
October 1st, 2007 (Why I am not in Copacabana Today), where I
described how the organizers of the Rio Film Festival invited me to
attend the 2007 edition, then systematically refused to confirm any
arrangements, and when I insisted to know were I stood, abruptly
cancelled the invitation without so much an explanation or excuse.

As in previous years, Brazil had a stand in the Film Market adjoining
the Festival, so I went there several times to try to meet the
representatives of the Rio Festival and have it out with them. They
were never available. Finally, I left them a written message pointing
out how rude their behaviour had been, as well as disruptive, leaving
me looking like an idiot in front of many people.

I can only repeat that I cannot take anything Brazilian seriously any
more. I do not believe their oil discoveries or their fiscal results.
For me, it is a non-entity.

HUEVADA OF THE WEEK I am afraid that the subject is still Chile's campaign to ensure that its citizens will never speak English properly (the latest estimate is that only 8 % of Chileans speak English, which is probably an inflated figure). Anyway, I am indebted to an expatriate American reader who pointed out to me the website of the Mampato children's amusement park in La Dehesa. They have a logo which says: "Let's Fun" (sic.). In fact, they have the logo actually registered. The aim is to catch the buggers when they are small, and ensure that they absorb a totally idiotic pseudo-English expression.

Monday, June 2, 2008


Por primera vez desde la independencia de Armenia, el Festival Internacional de Cine de Cannes en su 61 edición estableció una fuerte presencia de Armenia y armenios, más allá de una u otras personas que se habían acercado en años anteriores a nivel individual.

La Selección Oficial, comprende películas que forman parte del nucleo central del festival y había incluído no solamente a nuestro compatriota Atom Egoyan, con su último trabajo, Adoración, sino también a la armenia residente en Moscú, Diana Mkrtchyan, , con un corto de 33 minutos titulado “Gata”. Este último se proyectó dentro del esquema de la Cinefondation, al cual se postulan alumnos del último año de escuelas de cine de todo el mundo con su trabajo de diplomado. Para 2008, se postularon nada menos que 1200 candidatos de los cuáles fueron escogidos unos quince para participar.

Diana, de unos 30 años, es periodista de radio y televisión en Moscú. Su familia es originaria de Akherxalaki, la provincia de Georgia de mayoría armenia. Vivió en Yerevan hasta los 14 años cuando su familia se mudó a Rusia. Ha producido varios otros cortos tanto a título personal o relacionados con su trabajo periodistico. “Gata”, que presentó en Cannes, trata de los refugiados armenios de Baku que viven hacinados en Moscú, añorando los viejos tiempos en Azerbaijan. Tardó 2 años en llevar a cabo el proyecto, sufriendo de escasez de recursos y aporte. Los fondos estatales, en un país donde no hay mucho cinéfilos, son escasos, y cuando se acercó a los empresarios armenios del rumbo, que son muy poderosos en el mundo cinematográfico de Rusia, la respuesta fue :”no somos una obra de caridad”. Finalmente, gracias a un par de mecenas y esfuerzos personales, consiguió su meta y presentó su trabajo en Cannes el 22 de mayo (por coincidencia, el mismo día de la premiere de Egoyan). Salvo un actor profesional, Karen, que forma parte del repertorio del teatro armenio de Moscú, los demás participantes eran todos verdaderos refugiados actuando su propia vida. Karen estuvo tambien en Cannes con su esposa, asi como una de las productoras de “Gata”.

El artista plástico y cineasta Arman Tadevosyan es un simpático jóven de Gyumri, quien participó como pintor en la bienal artística de esa ciudad en 2006, y lo hará de nuevo este año. Mientras tanto, estaba en Cannes en la sección Short Films Corner, que es un evento paralelo que junta directores de cortos de todo el mundo. Su viaje fue patrocinado por la embajada de Francia en Ereván, y se alojó con una familia armenia de Niza. Su trabajo, Kars, es una joya que fue filmada en la ciudad fronteriza de Kars de Turquía, en donde una vieja iglesia armenia se está transformando en mezquita.

Quizás la presencia armenia más sorpresiva fue la de Alin Tashdjian, crítico de cine de nada menos que Milliyet, unos de los principales diarios de Turquia! El 23 de mayo, en su departamento con vista a la Croisette, la famosa costanera de Cannes, y bajo la bandera tricolor flameando en la terraza, el franco-armenio Raymond Yezeguelian, cuyas actividades incluyen la representación de Artsakh en Paris y la del festival de cine de Ereván (Golden Apricot o Damasco ,Julio 13-20, 2008) nos reunió a todos para celebrar nuestra presencia colectiva en Cannes, y en particular el quinto aniversario del festival de Ereván, cuyo director, Harutyun Khachatryan, también estuvo en Cannes. Alrededor de un delicioso buffet de comida armenia proporcionada por un restorán situado en Grasse, a 10 kms de Cannes, unas 40 personas disfrutamos de la presencia de Atom Egoyan, que vino junto a su asistente y las dos productoras de “Adoración”. Dos días más tardes, la cinta se ganó el premio del Jurado Eucuménico, que se da a una pelicula que refleja altos valores humanos.

Si se quieren comunicar con alguno de los dos jóvenes compatriotas que participaron en Cannes (hablan inglés, aparte de armenio y ruso), sus datos son:

Diana Mkrtchyan
Arman Tadevosyan

Con un abrazo desde Chile

Armen Kouyoumdjian
Asesor de asuntos culturales e internacionales
Colectividad Armenia de Chile

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

RETROSPECTIVE Further Thoughts, Comments & Reactions to Papers

From time to time, it is good to look back at what one has said and written, the context in which it developed, reactions, comments and consequences. Here are a number of selected highlights.

SANTO TOMAS I have to open this paper with the by now well-publicised case of Gerardo Rocha, founder and president of the Santo Tomas educational institutions, who last week suffered severe burns after organising and taking part in the premeditated murder of an old man who supposedly was involved with his current partner.

In my over 37 years working career as an analyst, few things if any have given me as much pleasure for shouting: "I TOLD YOU SO" about the demise of that fake psychopath. We Levantines have a special flair to weed out such characters, and in my case I also learned about crooks and psychopaths in Chile the hard way since my arrival. Having been conned by nephews of ministers and various associations of retired government and military circles, and living opposite a psychopath who for some reason is untouchable to justice, I have the exact temperature of the place.

About Rocha and Santo Tomas, I had other sources too, and for the past
decade have been warning in writing and orally about staying away from
him and all his works. Vox Clamanti in Deserto. Mr Rocha was the
plague everyone loved to be infected by. The educational authorities
gave him permission to open a university when he himself does not have
a proper high education degree (as far as I know, that is illegal). He
was called as witness to congressional committees, was a co-founder of
the Chilean chapter of Transparency (that figures…), a director of
chambers of commerce. He made a point of cornering visiting
personalities for ceremonies at his university, with the active
complicity of most of the diplomatic corps (who hide away their
visiting ministers and admirals from others who give them free weekly
advice, but are ready to involve them with crooks and
murderers..bravo!!). The only person with whom he was correctly
photographed was his fellow "desgraciado" Mr Jose Maria Aznar. Nothing
was sacred. Though his institution is named after a father of the
Church whose achievements included insulting Islam, he negotiated an
agreement with Morocco to open a seat of learning there (Morocco's
king, in case you did not know, is called Mohammed).

The Mercurio of last Saturday made a point of adding salt to the wound
by showing him photographed in company of the heads of Investigaciones
& Carabineros, the two highest law-enforcement officers in the land,
and with senate president Eduardo Frei on a trip to Asia. I am sure
there must be a photograph of him with Mrs. Bachelet somewhere.
Peripatetic (pathetic?) senator Nelson Avila has risen in his defence,
also involving fellow senator Fernando Flores in his support.

He hedged his bets on the Right too, getting close to the Opus Dei
(despite his dissolute private life), got involved with Joaquim Lavin
in his populist Banigualdad project, and got both CORFO and La Tercera
owner Alvaro Saieh to invest in his ventures (among other

There is hardly a Chilean or foreign institution based here not
affected by what is certainly the biggest scandal I have witnessed
since I arrived in Chile. It is interesting to see that several people
are using negation (most of them falsely), to claim they had nothing
to do with him. Others are in psychological denial, still insisting
that he is a "good man" and that he could never have done such a
thing. La Nacion referred to him as the former "tsar of education". I
think he was in fact the Raspoutine.

Already, some crucial evidence the investigators were about to seize
has been "stolen" from the car of Rocha's brother (what the hell it
was doing there, nobody bothered to ask). With so many powerful people
in his circles, two things can happen. Either he will die in hospital
with some help (a la Eduardo Frei senior), or he will survive and be
acquitted by the country's corrupt legal system under the excuse of
"temporary mental disorder". Hell, they might even organise a
"rehabilitation dinner" (desagravio) for him at Casapiedra (other
Chilean crooks and murderers have been so honoured).

There is another bent educational institution based in Chile, the SEK
Internacional, which runs schools and universities both here and
abroad. Its style and approach is different, but the character is the
same. You have been warned (again).

TOURISM Just after I sent out my update on travel and tourism in
Chile, someone wrote to El Mercurio telling of his experiences in
accompanying foreigners to board a cruise ship in Valparaiso. I had
singled my local harbour as the only one decently equipped for that
purpose, but it seems that I was uncharacteristically optimistic. You
have to check-in at the terminal on one end of the harbour and then
join your ship at the other end. Another reader of my papers reminded
me of a blatant omission. Though I have referred to the matter before,
I should have mentioned again the scarcity and minute size of paper
napkins in many Chilean restaurants. You have to decide in advance
which knee or breast you wish to protect against the Bolognese sauce,
because there just ain't the surface for both. Lastly, an insider
source in the Swiss secret service (you see how well connected this
newsletter is) picked up on my mention of Lichtenstein tourists in
Chile. Apparently, some years ago, a group of tourists from
Lichtenstein came over to climb some mountains (as if they were a
scarcity where they come from). They left their hire car with all
their belongings, passports etc.. at the bottom of the mountain (how
do you say "schmuck" in Lichtenstein patois? Not an easy question to
answer because even though it has only 25,000 inhabitants, they
actually have two ethnic groups there. Most are from a Germanic tribe
called "Alemanni"- how original- and speak their dialect, but they
also have immigrants from the Swiss Valais, who speak another variety)

Anyway, whether Alemanni or Walser, our alpinists had their car stolen
with all its contents, and the Swiss embassy (which looks after the
diplomatic affairs of its small neighbour) issued them with new
passports (after searching around the office to see where they had put

SARKOZY AND SPAIN My twin assault of the present state of France and
Spain produced some interesting results. Nobody protested on my
cynicism about the sham value of Sarkozy. Events since then have
proved me 1000 % right, and my scepticism is now shared by a majority
of the French population as, in February alone, his popularity dropped
by 9 points to 38 %. The latest incident in which he gratuitously
insulted a citizen at a fair shows him like the small time "caid" from
the "bas-fonds" of Salonika that he is.

The criticism of Spain's "government by folklore" produced wider
comments, particularly as it was reproduced on a pan-European
multilingual website. There was the Catalan who really shone by
claiming his "country" was beyond criticism, because the very name
meant "country of God". I also found a blog about it among Spaniards
on a local website, which was fairly balanced between the pros and
cons (in fact the cons main criticism were some factual mistakes which
they claimed were in the text, such as which were exactly the Basque
provinces). I also received additional comments from people living or
having lived in Spain recently, who added even bigger horror stories
in terms of their experiences of the aspects I mentioned. Anyway, it
is something I had wanted to get off my chest for a long time, and now
it is done.

TRANSANTIAGO On January 19, 2007 over three weeks before the start of
Transantiago, I wrote in my paper "Civil Society & Empowerment": "The
forthcoming Transantiago coordinated public transport scheme is going
to be a disaster too". You cannot be more prescient than that. The
rest, as they say, is history. I knew that, because they were trying
to solve the wrong problem (there was nothing wrong with the routes),
were using a corrupt company (Sonda) for the computerised system, and
the whole thing was too sophisticatedly complicated for a developing
country whose population is not exactly a mass Mensa candidate.

PENSIONS My paper on the flaws of the Chilean pension system was a
great success. It was translated in Spanish and Armenian, and is on
websites on three continents. Once the dust had settled, I opened
another front by seeking out the names of the senior World Bank
officials responsible for hiring a Chilean team of consultants to
advise Armenia. I sent them a copy of my paper, also copying it to all
the various OECD officials who visited the country profusely in the
past 6 months. One World Bank official answered with a feeble defence
as to the consultant being "very experimented". He copied his own
message to other bank staff. This gave me a wider list of
destinataries when I answered with details about the real background
and value of the consultant. There was no reaction this time, but I am
sure it shook them. A somewhat sanitised version is also being
published today in a major international fortnightly insurance
newsletter based in London, of whose editorial panel I am a member.

THE EXCHANGE RATE In my constant criticism of the handling of the
peso exchange rate, I had missed out two important aspects. One I
subsequently amended, not least in a published letter in El Mercurio.
It refers to the loss in peso value of the budgetary "savings", of
which over 90 % is invested abroad in foreign currency. Calculated in
real pesos, each dollar saved abroad as of December 2006 is now worth
some 19 % less. If you had been "clever" and gotten into Euros, you
would still have lost 9 %. In Pounds sterling the loss would have been
over 18 %. I am therefore flabbergasted that the committee in charge
of managing these funds recently congratulated itself for having
obtained "a return of 10 %" in 2007. I wonder how they measure that,
or do they use the same New Age arithmetic textbook than ministerial
macroeconomic adviser Luis Felipe Cespedes (the guy who tried to
convince me that + 8.7 was a negative number)?

In a blog discussion of my letter on the Mercurio's website, someone
added the other dimension I overlooked. Those who live on remittances
sent by relatives abroad are also suffering, because in most cases the
sender cannot increase the amount remitted, to compensate for the
lower exchange rate.

ENERGY I cannot remember how many times I warned not just about
energy shortages, but the fact that the LNG plants being built (now up
to two different projects) will provide gas at a much higher price,
none of which is being disclosed to the public. It seems I was once
again erring on the side of caution. Chile is currently paying some U$
4 to 5 per million BTU to Argentina. The price of LNG is at least in
the U$ 9 to 10 range. However, due to the world supply and demand
situation, the situation could be much worse. In a late February press
interview, the chairman of the Centre for Liquified Natural Gas, which
is a producers' association, estimated that the price could be as high
as U$ 19.

As if this were not bad enough, public opinion is also being misled on
the supposed "improvement" in Argentine gas supplies this year. There
is nothing of the sort.

On the contrary. The supply situation in Argentina is getting more
critical by the day. According to Chile's minister of Agriculture, the
country is said to be experiencing the worst drought in a century, and
no rain is expected for the next 3 months (according to her at least),
and 144 municipalities have been declared in agricultural emergency.

GAGGING THE MEDIA Though the radio is still pretty open, every
single printed press organ of any importance (bar some struggling
marginal publications) have either disappeared or been gagged by
takeover in the past decade.

The government has now moved to the web-based critical press. I
mentioned sometime ago the virtual death of the website There are moves afoot to lean on the two other
remaining internet media. I suppose once they achieve that goal, Armen
Kouyoumdjian will be next. To the extent that virtually nobody backs
their support for me with concrete reciprocity (beyond the occasional
lunch or cocktail invitation, none of which pay my bills), you would
have participated in the cull.

THE VILLEGAS BOOK I bought the book "Muerte a los latinos" by
columnist and broadcaster Fernando Villegas thinking it was a
light-hearted novel on the tribulations of a Chilean post-graduate
student in Miami. It turned out to be a seminal work on the Latin
character and the psychological pillars of regional underdevelopment.
Villegas, who graduated in sociology, has written a readable textbook
worthy of being a compulsory read for many university courses. I
reproduce below (in my translation) part of a paragraph which I think
is fundamental in understanding how Latin America works (in fact, why
it does not). Published October 2007 by Random House Mondadori.

"In Latin America, speeches, words and talk in all its expressions
tend to replace action, any action. Words are not the preamble, or the
verbal agreement necessary to carry out with others any concrete task,
but in fact substitute that same goal. Words replace action. Whispered
insults replace vengeance. Promises which will never be accomplished
replace commitments. Verses of passionate poetry replace loyalty.
Complaints about what the world is doing to us take the place of moves
to change it or change ourselves.

Programmes to end poverty replace measures to overcome it. Fiery
speeches denouncing injustice take the place of whatever action is
needed to achieve justice. Calls and meetings replace real agreements
and joint action. And paradoxically, as words replace action and
reality, they end up acquiring some sort of reality."

How true. Just to give one example among thousands, and return to
something I mentioned before. On two occasions (end 2006 and 2007),
the Chilean government announced with great panache the granting of
discounts on electricity bills and the distribution of energy-saving
light bulbs to low-income families. On both occasions, as far as I can
make out from my enquiries, neither discounts nor light bulbs were
ever given. Chile used to be run by Pinochet. It is now run by

FOR FILM BUFFS It is difficult to catch quality classical films in
their original versions in Chile, but there is an unsuspected source
worth exploiting. The Chamber of Deputies' cable TV channel often
broadcasts such films to fill-in time in-between repeats of sterile
committee meetings. Last week alone I caught two classics of Soviet
cinema : Serguei Bondarchuk's The Fate of Man, and Grigori Chukhrai's
Ballad of a Soldier, both released in 1959. There are Spanish

HUEVADA DE LA SEMANA Did you know that 2008 was the International
Year of Languages? The Chilean Association of Greenhouses (actually it
has an official English name, the ANDES NURSERY ASSOCIATION or ANA)
decided to give a French flavour to a new variety of nectarines they
were launching. To start with, they formally gave the fruit a registered French name: "Magique". That was not all, they held a launch event in Paine last February 20, which they advertised with a half-page insert in El Mercurio's agricultural supplement published on February 18. In it, they described in French (well, sort of) what the fruit was like. The phrase said: "Magique, Une fruits exceptionnelle". I know that the punch line is lost on non-French speakers, but there it is. I wrote to the organisation behind the advertisement. In good Chilean fashion, they did not even bother to acknowledge.

One yearns for a campaign similar to that just started in Venezuela,
to discourage the use of foreign words and expressions in commercials
and business circles.