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.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

UPS & DOWNS OF HANDLING CATASTROPHES - Are the Japanese the Chileans of Asia ?

“The world rightly seen is a burning house, and it is that because it's a
fragile world, it's made the more fragile because of human greed and
avarice and desire, and a way to deal with it is to curb desire if not to
suppress it entirely.”

The Lotus Sutra (Classical Sanskrit text)

STILL THE MEDIA In recent days I ran a mental competition as to who
would make the most asinine remark between the two current headline
grabbing stories, the Japanese nuclear situation and the attack on Lybia.
I have to say that in a very hotly competitive field, the Japanese
situation won, in the words of Eugenio Guzman, Dean of the School of
Government at the ultra-neo liberal Universidad del Desarrollo. His
argument in favour of nuclear energy was that in the past 10 years, 70,000
Japanese had died as a result of road accidents, as compared to a maximum
toll of 4,000, including indirect deaths, from Chernobyl. The numbers were
strongly in favour of radiation. From 2004 to 2005, Guzman was a member of
the Presidential Commition* on Public Ethic. Pouquoi riez vous?, dirait le
Canard Enchaíné. *The few literate readers I have may have noticed that
“Commition” is wrongly spelt. In fact, I took the sentence directly from
an OECD document. As the OECD is made up of developed countries (Chile,
after all, is a member), they must be right. Otherwise the OECD may wish
to employ me as a proof reader, as my other talents are obviously of no
interest to them.

On the Lybian crisis, and its wider Arab context, there is no real Chilean
angle but suddenly out of the woodwork came out a plethora of local
“expertos”, who, when they did not confuse “Lybia” with “Lebanon”, were
eagerly sought for their learned thoughts. On March 24, the Universidad
Mayor held a seminar on the subject. Main speaker was Vittorio Corbo, that
great gift to Arabic studies and Orientalism, as he is to exchange rate

JAPANESE HANDLING OF RESCUE When the earthquake first happened, Chilean
and other media organs were in awe about the speed of the deployment of
100,000 rescuers in the disaster zone. They expected, no, they were sure,
that such an advanced, developed and disciplined country would set an
example of how to conduct a rescue operation. It already led the field in
educating its citizens in prevention measures against earthquakes.

Nearly two weeks after the quake, the mounting evidence points exactly the
opposite way. Far from being a model of efficiency, and just concentrating
on the humanitarian aspects, besides the nuclear consequences, the relief
operation has been shamefully inefficient. Yes, it was a big quake. Yes,
it was in difficult terrain. Yes, it was very cold. However, the handling
was closer to a show by ONEMI and its supporting cast, than from a
state-of-the-art exercise.

It just could be that however smart they may have been in inventing the
cassette player, the Walkman, the VCR, and Nintendo, they might just not
be very good at rescue operations. I remember that on August 12, 1985, a
Japan Airlines 747 jet crashed into a mountain near Tokyo. It took two
days for the authorities to pinpoint the location, after which they sent
the rescue teams..up the wrong mountain! There was little they could do
anyway. 520 out of the 524 people on board were dead by the time they were

On the March 11 quake and tsunami, the authorities have now admitted that
their preparations were inadequate with no plans to handle a disaster of
that magnitude. They did not have adequate equipment. The military had
idle capacity which was not put to use. Funnily, the head of the Japanese
Defense Academy decided to visit Chile recently. The sea walls that were
to protect the coast against the tsunamis were of insufficient height. The
foreign rescue teams were not taken advantage of, and there were long
bureaucratic delays to allow the rescue dogs in, on the grounds of health
safety (with millions of people crying out for help and risking radiation,
the authorities worried about importing fleas and distemper!) Funnily,
exactly the same happened on the Argentine border with Chile after last
year’s quake in Chile.

When action was taken, it looked about as efficient as Piñera’s house
rebuilding programme. Those helicopters throwing buckets of water over the
reactor were as ridiculously useless as the CONAF Polish-made fire
fighting converted crop sprayers that try to douse forest fires in Central
and Southern Chile. Have the Japanese not heard either of the
purpose-built Canadair or Beriev-200 aircraft?

The most criminal example of inefficiency came out of the interview at a
hospital in the disaster zone, where many refugees had huddled. The chief
doctor said he was running low on food and medical supplies. People were
getting a ball (not a bowl, but a ball) of rice as food for a single day.
What? Don’t tell me that the same helicopters spitting on the reactors
could not be better used for an air bridge to these hospitals, round the
clock, carrying food and medical supplies. Helicopters do not need a
landing strip. After all, the TV crew could get there.

Shameful. I think not just the government, but the Emperor should
abdicate. Pity Seppuku is out of fashion, as the disciplined young
Japanese have turned, like their Western counterparts, into Information
Technology addicts for the purpose of games and entertainment, and are
fast losing all what made the nation powerful (as it has no natural
resources, if it loses its people quality, Japan will end up like Greece
or Britain, a museum of past glories). People forgot too soon how badly
the Kobe quake was handled in 1995. Mishima was the last great Japanese.

NEGATION SYNDROME There are important socio-cultural aspects to take into
account. Japan is a corrupt society, and we know that not just nuclear
incidents but defects on other products such as motor cars, were hidden
from the public for long periods. Only after US lawyers start putting
their nose into the matter than they suddenly start recalling zillions of
vehicles. The contradictory remarks on how much radiation risk there was
are part and parcel of the same syndrome. One day the population is told
there is no risk, and the other day they advise not to give Tokyo tap
water to babies, hundreds of kms. away from Fukushima.

The Japanese character is hostile to spreading bad news, because it
implies criticism of someone’s acts. When I was working in the City of
London, it was well known that Japanese brokers never issued “sell”
recommendation on Japanese companies, even if they were in an ENRON
situation, because it did not look very gentlemanly. People who deal or
negotiate in that part of the world also know that they hear “yes” more
often than “no” from their interlocutors, though it never means that they
are in agreement and even less that a deal is done.

HOW OTHER COUNTRIES DO IT Major natural catastrophes are overwhelmingly
located in the developing world, with Japan being a rare exception. Other
countries do have disasters, small, big and medium, and they have
different ways of coping with it.

Starting with the region, China is also prone to major earthquakes with
death and destruction. There is less first hand information compared to
the live coverage of the latest events in Japan, but we know for a fact
that compared to the 10,000 houses that Piñera and his team of academics
from the sort of university Eugenio Guzman teaches at, managed to put up
in a year, the Chinese, headed by military construction group, rebuilt a
large town that was almost totally destroyed in 6 months. The Chinese also
showed long-range efficiency by evacuating in a few days, 30,000 of their
national from Lybia in a textbook operation involving a navy vessel, air
force transports and privately chartered planes.

Russia has a full ministry for handling disasters, and even though their
record may be patchy, at least there is a structure and their heart is in
the right place. France has a really integrated plan called PLAN ORSEC for
complete coordination of all institutions in case of an large
emergency (though I suppose they have not been tested after a force 9

Thank heavens that the UK rarely faces natural or man-made emergencies,
because it is an utter disaster. A recent public inquiry on bombings in
London’s public transport some years back reflected an amazing number of
shortcomings in the rescue services. Even their famed crack military units
are fast becoming a joke. Because, like many countries round the world,
the RAF preferred to buy expensive combat planes that are only used to
kill babies in Moslem countries, rather than logistical equipment, the
Foreign Office could not gather official transport to evacuate British
civilians from Benghazi (that is what the town is called and pronounced,
ignorant Chilean journalists, not Bengasi). Instead, they chartered from
someone like Air Uzbekistan a plane that broke down at Gatwick airport
before leaving, and delayed the operation by 24 hours. Those to be
evacuated by ship did not fare better. The frigate HMS Cumberland, which
was on its way back to the UK for cashiering off, was diverted to pick up
evacuees at Benghazi. They duly came on board, and than sat there like the
troops on the even of D-day because the ponzis that commanded the vessel
decided that the sea was “too rough”. These are from the same source as
half the frigates Chile has acquired. It is to be hoped that the Peruvians
rather than the Argentines will attack the Chilean high seas fleet,
because obviously they cannot tackle the Magellan straights, if they
cannot sail in the Mediterranean. Is it necessary to also mention the
“crack” (is that what they were on?) SAS unit which, accompanied by an MI6
agent, landed in the rebel zone without being invited and instead of being
welcomed as liberators were duly jailed for trespassing?

As Aristotle once said: “Excellence is not an act, it is a habit”. Sadly,
a habit that is fast disappearing.

NOTE In answer to several queries, my weekly papers have NOT resumed. I
only write some thoughts from time to time (it may be twice a month,
followed by nothing in two months), and I try to keep them as general as
possible so as not to provide free homework help for the readership. I
already know that my last paper on the Shortightedness of Defence Salesmen
was not taken seriously by anyone among those it was particularly destined
to. Lastly, the behaviour of some embassies, international organisations
and corporate readers is getting beyond the acceptable, and one of these
mornings when I get up on the wrong foot, I will say “Unchi” to all of