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, April 21, 2011

A BASKET FULL OF CHILEAN EASTER EGGS - Otherwise known as Huevadas

“It was the first thing that shocked me about Chile: people only work
because they have to, for the money. Nobody really sought success, or was
passionate about what they were doing. If they find elsewhere a job that
pays the same money for less work, they leave.”

Yoel Gutierrez, Cuban-born trainer of Chile’s Olympic athletes

The unworthy and ungrateful readership of my deceased Chilean weeklies
supposedly enjoyed the Huevada de la Semana, which has also stopped.
However, as we are leading up to the Crucifixion of Our Lord later this
week, I thought I would crucify a few Chileans (though I fear it will not
save the world), and include some foreigners in the process too.

ECONOMIC HUEVADAS Because Chile is the only country in the world where
every aspect of life is ordered by economists (or the Church), what they
say is always headline news, and God knows they talk a lot, both in and
out of government. Among very fierce competition, the winner of the Golden
Egg competition is unanimously named as Central Bank president José de
Gregorio. Of course, he did not comment about the OECD report pointing out
Chile as having the most unequal education system among members, nor that
Chilean adolescents were the region’s second highest cosumers of cocaine,
but 90 % of them does not have even a basic working knowledge of English,
hardly surprising when in a voluntary testing of 11,000 public sector
teachers, 36 % were found as incompetent. There is no explanation as to
why the sale of cigarettes was up 13.3 % in the first quarter of 2011

Here is a non-comprehensive selection of declarations made by the laureate
since the beginning of the year:

-“We shall not submit monetary policy to exchange rate considerations”
-“ We are surprised by the high level of consumer interest rates”. This is
a perennial discovery, as if all astronomers died every few years and
their successors “rediscover” Halley’s Comet. Finance ministers and
Central bank presidents beat their breasts from time to time as to why
with inflation and Central Bank intervention rates at around 5 %, stores
charge from 30 to 150 % to customers. In a country where they cannot even
calculate compound interest !
-“The intervention of the dollar was not meant to push it up, only to
relieve (sic) tensions”. Have you tried masturbation instead?

A very poor second comes Finance Minister Felipe Larrain in the
competition, though his single entry was of high quality: “ The cut in
expenditure for 2011 is to help the poor and needy”. This reduction is in
fact the most stupid economic measure taken by any Chilean government in
years. In a year where the budget will be balanced, cutting U$ 750 million
is pointless. He was also “economical with the truth” , by initially
saying that it would apply only to current expenditure, such as
travelling, paper clips, entertainment and new cars, but when he presented
the details (much later) it turned out to include a postponement of the
recruitment of new Carabineros (supposedly a government priority),
freezing defence procurement and kicking forward the already behind
schedule new army headquarters. There are probably more such surprises if
and when we see the full documents). How does all this helps the poor? It
is all in the Codex Chicageum, which replaces the Bible in Chile. If you
lower expenditure, you lower inflation so people have more money to spend,
goes to theory. Tell that to the unemployed who were going to join the
Carabineros or the building workers at army headquarters. Read the whole
book next time you are at a US university. It DOES NOT apply if the budget
is in balance.

Private sector economists also took part, and I shall single out as
consolation prize the pronunciation of Chicago Boy Francisco Rosende, who
said that “extending maternity leave was a tax on employment”.

NON-ECONOMIC DECLARATIONS Of course, as I said that all aspects of life
in the country were in the hands of a small coterie, there were other
themes too. One current hot debate is a government initiative to improve
health of young people and fight obesity ( which has become catastrophic,
particularly among women, most of whom now have bums the size of the
Hindenburg..a few spoonfuls of beans and they might fly). A law was
prepared banning the sale of junk food in and around educational
establishments. The business community, in typical Chilean fashion, the
business community objected and started lning up its congressional pet
dogs in defence of “free entreprise”. Forgotten were the “role models” of
Scandinavia which had taken the bull by the horns on such matter, with
very positive results.

That is what produced a declaration by senator “Spotted Dick” (imagine
that for years this guy was a heartbeat away from becoming president of
Chile. He described the uathorities as “Talibans who thought they knew
better as to what people should do”. Considering the senator’s own past
baggage, if I were him I would refrain on commenting. On anything.

THE HUEVADA THAT NEVER WAS The self-promoting crook (she should have
married Segovia of the SEK) and former Prefect Jacqueline Van Rysselberghe
was finally cornered into resigning, but she had barely left her office
with the cardboard boxes containing the witch’s brew, that some wise guy
started mentioning her as a possible replacement for her UDI congressman
colleague Mr Lobos who died in a car accident. In Chile, parties replace
any resigning or dying congress member at will without going through a
by-election or a pre-appointed stand-in. However, common sense seems to
have prevailed, and the idea abandoned. Talking of Mr Lobos, can someone
explain to me why the first reports said he was not wearing his seat belt
(his daughter riding next to him did, and survived), and then this was
“corrected” by the police who declared that both occupants were wearing

DIVINE JUSTICE ON EARTH As some veteran readers know, in the early 90’s,
soon after my arrival in Chile, I was the victim of a theft, in fact a
scam, committed by one Fernando Hurtado Lambert. He is the nephew of
Carlos Hurtado, who at the time was minister of Public Works in the Aylwin
government, and his nephew carried out his scams (there were other
victims) from the offices of a construction design company owned by his
minister uncle.

I lost over U$ 20,000 in the episode, with no possibility of redress as no
press, lawyer, business organisation or consular authority would touch
such an “honourable” family. In fact, one of them, a lawyer by the name of
Sven Herlin Kaiser, brother in law of Fernando, rang and threatened me
with unspecified dire consequences if I even told the story about town.

Why am I bringing this up again? Because the Lord moves in mysterious
ways. The other day, Carlos Hurtado’s household was the subject of a
telephone scam ending up in around U$ 50,000 being stolen. I am genuinely
sorry to say I did not organise it, though I would have been pleased to do
so given half an opportunity.

NO CANNES, THANKS TO CHILEAN INDOLENCE In the past 14 years, at this
time, I would be starting making my bags to go to the Cannes Film
Festival. I did it as a serious hobby, to the extent that quite a few
people at the event started respecting me sufficiently to interview me
about films etc..One year, I was even co-presenter of a Chile day, at the
request of the festivalk organisers.

This was made possible because my sister and I had inherited a penthouse
there, and it reduced the cost (which I entirely covered) of the trip. I
reported for a number of Chilean media, which paid not a penny towards the
benefit of having their own correspondent at what is, after the Olympics
and World Cup, the world’s third largest mediatic event. It allowed me to
be there, so each side benefitted, though I think the Chilean media got
the better deal. Not that they were grateful. La Nacion, when it existed
in printed form, basically ignored all material sent over the week-end,
when all the interesting stuff takes place in Cannes. So exclusive
interviews that had taken days to set up would be wasted. El Mostrador
last year decided to cover Cannes on its online video system frm Santiago,
and did not even bother to tell me. I arrived in Cannes without anybody to
report to. Only Chileans can be so pendejos, though I also have to mention
that as one of only two or three people from Chile covering Cannes, I was
never invited at the pre-festival gathering for the Chilean delegation
(the rest all being paid by the taxpayer) given by the French Embassy (nor
to nay other event at the said embassy, soit-dit en passant). .

Alas, financial needs forced us to sell the apartment, but I did not lose
hope. By now, as I said, I was respected by the organisers, who already
paid all expenses for El Mercurio to be there. I heard that La Tercera was
not using its Paris stringer any more, so I hinted to the festival press
office that if they could treat La Tercera with an invitation as they did
El Mercurio, I could represent them. Though they did not give a firm
commitment, they were pretty positive in their reponse, and asked me to
get a letter frm the paper appointing me as their correspondent. I passed
it on to the power that be at La Tercera and waited, and waited, and
waited. I sent four chasers. Nothing, until 5 days before the process
closed, I was told that they had been “too busy”. My guess is that they
decided to send osmeone else and did not consider it was the minimum
courtesy to let me know. Adios Cannes!

LINGUISTIC AND FACTUAL EGGS The website of the newly created and
already under its second incumbent, the Joint Chief of Staff, has, like
all government departments, a list of staff, contract and consultancy
employees. They are an excellent osurce of information about perosnnel
movements and related matters. Currently, the list of consultants includes
one Ricardo Ibarra, whose job description is put as “labores de
extención(sic) docente”. He is thus involved in extra mural training
activities, which I hope do not include spelling.

I am not sure who owns the Citroen dealership in Chile, but they are also
in dire need of syntax advice, as their publicity describes their products
as “Créative Technologie”, supposedly in French and I am sure inspired by
the 1980’s Audi slogan “Vorsprung Durch Technik”. The problem is that in
French, you should write Technologie Créative in that order.

In one of the few occasions in my nearly 41 year career when I was
actually “dismissed”, the Stockholm Peace Research Institute SIPRI,
considered the standard reference work on military expenditure, took
umbrage at something I had written in one of my Chile weeklies (nothing to
do with them, or Defence), and declared that they “could not be associated
with me any more”. To the extent that I was not making any money out of
it, and they did not even allow me to say publicly I worked for them, It
was no big loss. A couple of weeks ago, they published their yearly
analysis, and the person responsible for working out Latin America, even
thought she should give an interview, widely reported by the international
press. This Argentine woman was obviously an expert. Citing the reasons
for the fact that Brazil and Chile had the highes procurement expenditure,
she referred to Chile as “wishing to project its power regionally”, and
for good measure that “the Copper law has been abrogated”.

The morale of all this, coming on top of the super huevadas written by the
IISS in London some years ago, again on Chilean procurement, is that you
should never take a declaration, statement or analysis at face value
however supposedly prestigious the source is. And I am not just talking on
military affairs.