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.

Friday, May 20, 2011

FRANCE’S SECRET DIPLOMATIC WEAPON …Is none other than the Cannes film festival

Fourteen consecutive years of attending the Cannes film festival as a fully accredited journalist is an eye opener, not just on the international film industry. As this was not my real professional activity (though I am satisfied that I performed it well), I would benefit from considering the wider picture as an international analyst.

A series of events over the years, some of which will be detailed below, caught my attention. Though there is no doubt that the festival is primarily a cinema showcase, it is used regularly by the French authorities to score diplomatic points, taking political postures, and bear influence on world opinion with the smokescreen of the film industry.

METHODOLOGY First of all (and it would require a separate paper to detail in full), the Cannes Festival has a rigid and bureaucratic protocole and structure which are a mix between Louis XIV’s court at Versailles and the Chinese Communist Party. The people who run it, from CEO down even to the security apparatus, remained unchanged throughout the years I was present. Decisions are taken by half a handful of people at the top. You are subjected to strict behaviour, and if you step out of line, depending on the gravity of the offence, you are either called-in for a severe talk, or just expelled in perpetuity. Each year, you have to prove that when you attended last year, you actually wrote about it rather than spend your time on the beach. Still, if you are interested in the movie world and what comes with it, it is a unique experience.

However, the festival is sponsored by the French foreign ministry, and
that is where the discreet diplomat posturing comes in. Sometimes, the
“facilities” are also lent to friendly foreign countries who have agendas
of their own. It is an ideal place for putting across political points
linked to international events. Over 4,000 journalists from all over the
world are present, and not only are they not international affairs
experts, but they are avid to be fed with anything original. This makes
Cannes the third most covered event in the world after the Olympics and
the World Cup, except the the latter take place every 4 years, whereas the
festival is annual.

The system is well known to intelligence services and government image
building departments. Plant a story in a place remote from the event, and
wait for it to be picked up by the mainstream media. Even papers with no
personal correspondens give high coverage to Cannes, so the potential is
unlimited. We have the recent example of the London International
Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), supposedly independent but stuffed
with personnel from British and US intelligence services, publishing
negative reports about Ecuador’s president Correa, and the Peruvian
candidate Ollanta Humala (it seems talking on the phone to Chávez is now
an international criminal offence). The IISS, and I can vouch personally,
has no historical expertise on Latin America. The method even has a French
name: “intox”, short for intoxication (of the mind).

The practical way the positioning is made on specific issues depends on
the circumstances. If it is a matter which started well before the
programming is finalised (around mid-April), it is incorporated into the
official programme. On the other hand, if it is, to quote CNN, a “breaking
story” , then schedules are modified to add it on. This causes problems
not just for the organisers, who may find that there are no screens
available, but particularly for the journalists who are already facing
16-hour working days, and even then unable to cover everything they want.

THE CASE OF VICTOR LITVINENKO Let us start with the most blatant case,
though it is one where Cannes lent its facilities to “friendly
governments”. In late 2006, a Russian journalist, apparently with links
to the FSB (ex-KGB), but who had fallen out with them, died from a
difficult to identify radiation poisoning in London. The British
authorities accused the FSB of having engineered his death. Whatever the
case may be, in the middle of the May 2007 festival, we are suddenly told
that a documentary on his demise would be projected as part of the
festival, followed by a press conference attended by Litvinenko’s widow.
The film was obviously one-sided, aiming to prove the British theory, as
was, predictably, the press conference. The event, was not heavily
attended, probably due to the fact that it was not a hot story any more,
and the difficulty of fitting it in if you had an interview with Brad Pitt
scheduled at the same time (such things, if you can get them at all, take
three days of formalities and pleading with press agents, the most
obnoxious and arrogant bunch of tarts I have ever come across, who torture
journalists during the day, party all night and as a result are
unreachable until lunch time). Connasses!

Back to the Litvinenko event, and the funniest part. As we went out of the
room, a number of journalists who had not been present were waiting to
interview those of us who had. I myself gave three interviews in French,
Arabic and English. The English TV crew caught my attention. They were
over-eager, with short-cut hair, and a camera on which there were three
letters that, after living 20 years in Britain, I did not recognise as
belonging to any known channel. They grabbed me first, and asked me what
was my opinion of the Litvinenko case after this. I told them that I had
an open mind, which did not please them very much. They were obviously an
intelligence service “channel” (MI6-TV?). Their presence could not have
been possible without official complicity, if you know how hard it is to
get a journalist badge for Cannes.

week, where as some readers will know, the controversial Danish director
Lars von Trier was declared “persona non grata” by the festival
organisers, though he had a film in competition. This unprecedented
situation was due to his ramblings at his film’s press conference, where
he tried to say that he had some sympathy for Hitler as a person, and
after thinking he himself was a Jew, found out that he was a German,
therefore a Nazi. The sayings, however rambling, were taken out of
context, as he never said he agreed with the Holocaust or denied it, nor
proferred anything anti-Semitic (contrary to the Dior designer John
Galliano some months ago).

We live now in a world where you can insult the Arabs burn Korans, carry
out extra-judicial assassinations, deny the Armenian Genocide (as did
the Swedish Prime Minister who was in Santiago this week, and who when his
parliament passed a resolution recognising the plight of the Armenians,
sent a letter of apology to the Turkish government). However, it is
forbidden to criticise the State of Israel, nor any Jewish person or
institution, or even upset them, without at least being branded an
anti-Semite, losing your job, or even ending up in jail.. Voltaire was
certainly absent from this year’s film festival.

Now Lars von Trier is a clown, not a very common trait in Scandinavia, but
to use an untranslatable Spanish expression, a “tonto grave”. He came to
fame by founding the Dogma school of film-making, and after acquiring a
number of followers, suddenly dropped it. He pretends to be a Communist,
but lives like a bourgeois. The first time one of his films was selected
for the festival, and contrary to protocole, he said he would not be
attending. The organisers pleaded with him to change his mind, and he
finally ceded, driving all the way from Copenhagen because he has a fear
of flying. However, he imposed one condition: when going up the red
carpet, the music (which normally is something related to the film),
should be the Internationale. I can imagine the ensuing discussions, but
he got his way, and from the balcony of the press room, seeing all those
beautiful people going up the steps with von Trier raising his fist and
the Communist anthem playing, was rather surreal.

Within 24 hours, the festival authorities published a communiqué declaring
him “non grata”, and all the media concentrated on the fact that he said
he sometimes sympathised with Hitler. His film is unlikely to get any
prize, whatever its qualities. Would it have happened if he had said
instead that Muslims are promiscuous because they can hav up to four
wives? I doubt it. After all, it was in his country that a cartoonist got
away insulting the Prophet Mohammad. Would it have happened if instead of
him, it had been Jean-Luc Godard? Well, some years ago, there was a social
conflict in France involving temporary workers at artistic events (such as
Cannes..). Godard had a film at the festival. He came into the press
conference and said he was ceding his time to one of these workers, who
was shown in and delivered a political diatribe totally unrelated to the
film. Godard was not expelled, nor is ever Catherine Deneuve, who smokes
like a chimney at each press conference she attends, though it is strictly
against French law. Opening a Chilean parenthesis here, the death this
week of two more Carabineros in a car accident, because they were not
wearing seat belts as the law demands (FOR EVERYONE), is a ridiculous
waste. The police are supposed to enforce a regulation they themselves
they do not obey (most Carabineros drive around without belts). Too busy
clobbering pregnant women at peaceful sit-ins? Or protecting my psychopath

Now we know which side of the Middle Eastern conflict the sympathies of
the Sarkozy adminstration are to be found. This being said, and after
being criticised for their dilly-dallying in the early days of the Arab
protests, they had to appear to show sympathy to the cause. An “Arab day”
was added on to the festival, with Egypt as special guest. Now Egyptian
cinema has a long and honourable reputation, although contrary to the more
recent Iranian phenomenon, it has not circulated much outside its own
region. From time to time, a bone is thrown to Palestinians with the
screening of a rare film made by a Palestinian director. When that
happens, be sure that there are one or two Israeli films in the programme

The Kurds have had their moments. Of course, it is only the Iraqi Kurdsh
community, not the much bigger and equally discriminated minority in
Turkey. Never mind that the Kurds have never had a country or national
structure at any time in history. There is an exiled Kurdish director
living in Paris who made the first Kurdish feature film. He was invited.

I shall not even dwell, for lack of detailed knowledge, on the African
aspect of French dilomacy, in a region with traditional links to its
former colonial power.

THE ARMENIAN GENOCIDE After Israel, one of the darlings of the French
authorities, under various governments, is Turkey. The festival is pleased
to oblige. In 2004, the film Ararat, one of the few ever made dealing with
the Armenian Genocide despite 96 years having passed, was premiered in
Cannes, under the direction of the respected Canadian-Armenian director,
Atom Egoyan.

The film was eventually screened in Cannes, but at what price. It did not
take part in the competition section in case it won something, and that
would have upset the Turks. An anti-Armenian demonstration was organised
next to the red carpet, an area normally under strict security. The
following year, “in compensation”, two Turkish films were selected to take
part in the festival, and the former personal yacht of Ataturk was moored
just off the Palais des Festivals with a Turkish flag nearly as big as the
boat itself. In 2007, Turkish Nobel Literature prize winner Orhan Pamuk
was a member of the festival jury, though I am not sure what they meant by
that considering that he is one of the few Turkish intellectuals to have
condemned the Armenian Genocide.

In my 14 years there, not a single movie from Armenia itself was selected
for the festival. Last year, there were two shorts, but they were from
Diaspora Armenians (Russia and Lebanon). On four occasions, I sponsored
the presence of journalists from Armenia (there were none otherwise). The
problems I had to get them an accreditation and a French visa were
tremendous. On two occasions, staff at the French consulate hinted that if
the girls accepted to be “friendly” or paid a bribe, it would make things

For the 60th anniversary of the festival, there was a get-together of
many famous directors to speak about the present state and future of
cinema. I rose and asked why was there so little Armenian presence at the
festival since independence ? Roman Polanski walked out saying “he was
wasting his time here with stupid questions” (sure man,. we do not want
any competition for the Pianist). Next day, I was called before the
headmistress (I mean the head of the press office), and told not to
misbehave again. However, lo comido y lo bailado..

PUNISHMENT “Punishing” misbehaving countries whose actions are not
appreciated by France is also a regular feature. Iran and China, if they
have jailed or put any restrictions on film makers, are publicly pilloried
by various manifestations of public support for them during press
conferences, etc..

Sometimes, the tables are turned and France, as represented by the
festival, is the subject of criticism and boycott, particularly from the
Americans if the government has failed to support or criticised any aspect
of US policy.

So as you can see, in France, cinema is politics by other means, not just
local “engagé” film-making, but a way of scoring international diplomatic

Saturday, May 7, 2011

CHILEAN REACTIONS TO WORLD EVENTS - Strange Analysis & Unpublished Letters

Long protected by a chain of high mountains and a difficult sea journey
away in pre-Panama Canal days, the flow of information and knowledge about
faraway places and events has not been a forte of Chilean society. Even
after air travel and telecommunications made instant exposure possible,
the threat of the “foreign” and the “different” is set with clichés and
prejudices. When the main national cable TV franchise was owned by
Argentines, you would get channels from most of South America and Mexico.
Now you can only get Argentine TV and a Mexican variety channel. Sure, you
can, as I do every morning, view the whole South American press on
internet, but how many people do, even if it is up their professional

The further and more different the events and culture behind it, the
bigger the ignorance. The sin is magnified with a compulsion to expose
that ignorance, feeling safe that as the rest of the population knows even
less, nobody will know better, and they will all praise the “expertos”
because they are famous or come from one or other institution.

From the various major events that have made the news in the past
fortnight, I have selected three examples whch I shall detail below.

THE CHILDREN OF THE ASHRAM Where have those who manage Chile’s economy
and finances studied? Chicago? Wrong! Harvard? Nope! MIT? No way!
Stanford? Cold! No dears, they have all been to a secret Ashram in India
specialised in Economic thought. They probably learned the words of
Kautilya “One should crush the sands forcibly and extract oil;a thirsty
person should drink water from a mirage; wandering ceaselessly, obtain a
hare's horn; but one should never try to reason with a fool who is
characterized by stubbornness." Ministers and undersecretaries, together
with their academic fan club, recite mantras. They could of course also
have gone to a Tibetan Buddhist monastery where prayers also have Sanskrit
roots, and it is less tiring because the Buddhists have the prayer wheel,
whose spinning is equivalent to reciting the mantras aloud. I have never
seen a Chilean official with a prayer wheel (I am sure their wives’ Opus
Dei confessors would not like it), but they certainly practice the oral

The main object of recent mantras has been the exchange rate, with the
constant reciting of two texts: “The dollar is falling abroad and there is
nothing we can do about it”, and the other is “The answer to the strong
peso is productivity”. I will suggest another one “Why did they transplant
your Lingam into your brain?”.

Strangely enough, though the dollar has fallen everywhere, other
neighbouring countries have managed to limit the fall to a fraction of the
Chilean one? Maybe they have better traders. I wonder how many public
servants managing the economy in Chile have spent even an hour on a
trading desk?

When things really get dramatic, and most of the damage is already done,
they organise an intervention. Can you imagine a military operation where
the commander announces in advance at what time and where he is going to
attack, for how long, and the maximum quantity of ammunition he plans to
use. This of course allows the enemy to take cover and wait the passing of
the small cloud. Thus, pre-announcing an intervention with a fixed daily
sum (equal to no more than 5 % of market turnover), for a limited time, is
the most ridiculous thing I have seen in financial markets over more than
40 years of career.

Interventions should be like intelligence and commando operations. They
should strike by surprise, at moments of vulnerability, with variable
means as befits the daily situation. No wonder they do not work in Chile.

Productivity. The suffering sectors are led by agriculture and tourism.
They are both labour intensive. What “productivity” are they expected to
introduce. Reduce staff and create an unemployment problem? Put up dollar
prices and price themselves out in a very competitive market? Make the
berries smaller? Use contraband fuel to counter the authorities disgusting
hydrocarbons pricing policy? Can we please get some details of the
“productivity” measures learnt in the hills of Darjeeling?

I sent a very short version of this analysis, concentrating on the lack of
expertise in intervention methods, to El Mercurio. It was not published.

LACKEY OR GENERAL? The Royal Wedding gave mental orgasms to all the
media which in any case spends its time and resources, in Chile and
elsewhere, following the antics of the famous. This was their apotheosis
and they fully lived up to it .

It could only happen in Chile, but someone decide to use the event to
score a military point, though the pages of El Mercurio. Unfortunately, he
got it wrong. A former commander in chief of the Navy, admiral Vergara,
wrote a letter saying how pleased he was to see “so many uniforms” at
Westminster Abbey, contrasting it with the fact that in Chile, “the
military appear to be like an embarassment” adding that even the
presidential AdC at ceremonies took a back seat.

Taking that last point first, presidential AdCs at ceremonies ARE supposed
to be unobtrusive unless needed, so a very bad example to complain about.
As for the uniforms at the wedding, maybe admiral Vergara did not know
that all the British royals, including female ones, and I am sure many of
the crowned heads and princes invited from abroad, hold honourary military
ranks. In the UK, various other officials also have military-looking
uniforms (as do staff at the Palace). The bridegroom being a military
officer, it would also be normal to think that his fellow officers were
invited, and as they do in Chile, came in uniform. I would be very
surprised if the whole high command of the armed forces had been invited
to the wedding . You may want to check the guest list with the British

I am the first one to think that the military in Chile have been badly
treated, having had to do the élite’s dirty work by protecting their
privileges threatened by Allende’s regime. They then were the only ones to
be tried and imprisoned for human rights abuses, whilst their civilian
puppet masters enriched themseves on privatisations, became senators and
deputies, sometimes ambassadors, without a single one of them spending a
night in jail.

The final coup de grace on the horizon is the plan to repeal the Copper
Law, completely handing over major procurement decisions to venal
bureaucrats and politicians, helped by “advisers” of very dubious quality
and hidden allegiances.

The problem with admiral Vergara’s complaint (as I explained in another
letter to El Mercurio which similarly went unpublished) is basically
incorrect. I studied for three years in France and worked for 20 years in
London. I have been interested in military affairs since I was 8 years old
, but in all these 23 yearsin Europe, I did not once meet or even see a
military officer at a social event, inauguration, conference or seminar
(except when they specifically dealt with military affairs). It is true
that the presence of uniformed representatives at diplomatic receptions in
Chile has fallen since I first arrived, though I am not sure which part is
due to their not being invited, or not going. In fact, spouses are
generally not invited either these days (not even to the Royal Wedding, as
we heard). Can you imagine my wife writing to El Mercurio complaining as
to why she was not invited to the national day of Uzbekistan, though David
Beckham’s wife was at Buckingham Palace?

AFTER LENIN DIED Though Marx was the theorist, Lenin was the practioner
of Communism. He died in January 1924. The Soviet Union went on for
another 66 years without him, even surviving the demise of Stalin for 37
years. The USSR and the Communist system in general were very centralised,
with orders coming from the top and having to be obeyed. Al Qaeda is a
loose franchise, so why is it going to fall apart because Usama bin Laden
is dead? Not a chance.

I have mentioned in my two previous notes on the Egyptian and Libyan
upheavals, about the poor state of knowledge and analysis of the Middle
East in Chile. Despite the presence of a large community of Palestinian
origin, even culture and language among them are a minority activity,
whereas the rest of the population knows nothing about it. The only Middle
Eastern studies centre at the Univeristy of Chile is non-descript. One has
to say that Arab embassies have done little to counter this situation,
even letting the government palace host annual Jewish celebrations as if
it was a Chilean holiday (how many Chilean ministers have been to the
Santiago Mosque?).

Ah, but we have the “expertos”. They surpassed their performance on the
Arab crisis by commenting on the killing of Bin Laden. Among the three
comments I picked up, the best one was the analyst who placed Pakistan in
North Africa on a TV debate, but the others were also notably off the

“A Great Victory for the USA”, a columnist wrote. Really? What is great
about it? The fact that it took you 10 years to locate a guy sitting with
a large part of his family in a house 40 km from your embassy in
Islamabad? And that with a U$ 40 bn annual security and intelligence
budget and airport procedures which transformed air travel into a hellish
experience? Was it the great performance of the Navy Seals (parasail down
from helicopters onto a house full of women and children where nobody shot
back, and the main target, unarmed, was killed in cold blood)? This is
back to the times of the Far West posses and lynching of Blacks in the
Deep South. The law West of the Pecos river. It is now politically
incorrect to lynch Blacks, particularly if your president is one, so there
are the Arabs, neigh, Muslims in general (never mind that your president
holds the second name of Imam Husain, the most venered Shia martyr).

Can you imagine the scandal if during Pinochet’s detention in London,
Spain had sent a commando unit to shoot him at the London Clinic? Remember
the complaints high in the sky about the Bulgarian secret service killing
a dissident in London with a poisoned umbrella- high marks for
originality- or the more technically sophisticated disposal by slow
radiation poisoning of a Russian dissident, also in London. Let us not
even mention the breach to Pakistani sovereignty, however well or badly
exercised by its government. The US of A, like its devilish offspring the
State of Israel, has never bothered about legal niceties in international
relations. Full marks to Ricardo Lagos as the only Chilean politician who
did not deem it necessary to lick arse in his reaction.

Another academic declared that the killing of Bin Laden was good for the
prospects of the US economy. Wow! So the budget deficit and the bankrupt
Social Security system were all due to the wicked Osama, huh? Like with a
magic wand, the deficit is going to disappear and the unemployed will all
find jobs.

Though it has nothing to do with the subject, except to signal the level
of competence of the security services in Anglo-Saxon countries, a
headless corpse was fished out of an English river recently. The press
gathered and asked the senior police officer about more details. Sorry, he
replied, he could not confirm the person was dead until he had been
examined by a doctor. Just shows that you do not nned a brain after all.

FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION Though it was unplanned, I am proud that the day
of my birthday was chosen as the yearly celebration of International Press
Freedom Day. I shall continue to live up to the honour whenever I feel
like it, and that despite of the fact that me and my family have been
under undescribable pressure to make our lives hell. It takes more than
that to stop Armenians, but if something happens to me, do suspect foul