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.

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CHILEAN REACTIONS TO WORLD EVENTS - Strange Analysis & Unpublished Letters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

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