Muzungus in the Mist, Part II

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The first part of Robert H. Miller’s personal account of Rwanda appeared in Liberty on May 5. Here is the second and final part.

Part II: The Lone Cyclists

Our last day with Slow Cyclist began with a ride on a moto-taxi, something I’d been dreading. It was an innovative way to return us to the point on our route — a junction with an unmarked dirt road — from which we’d detoured for the gorilla trekking. For me it was a novel experience; I’d never been on a motorcycle before, considering them a needless risk. The Slow Cyclist support vehicle delivered our bicycles to the turn-off. Our destination was Gisenyi, 82 kilometers away, on the shores of Lake Kivu — and the border with the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).

I’d sooner walk naked through the South Side of Chicago with a toy gun than go anywhere near the Congo. Even worse, next door to Gisenyi, across the border, lay Goma, a hotbed of rebel activity and Ebola outbreaks — a combination that has caused many international relief and health agencies to leave. Yet it’s seen worse.

The horror of the refugee camps and the safety of the four million Hutus who’d remained in Rwanda inspired a number of refugees to consider returning.

Back in 1994, when the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) captured Kigali and Butare on the 4th of July, putting an end to the war and genocide, a million Hutus fled for Goma. The human wave was composed of Hutu Power extremists, remnants of the Rwandan army (FAR), and the Interahamwe — all in full retreat — herding ordinary Hutus whom they’d either coerced or convinced that the RPF would kill them. The génocidaires escaped fully armed, yet they were able to convince the international community that they were the victims, refugees from the Rwandan genocide. The génocidaires quickly established firm control of the nascent refugee camps that sprang up on the inhospitable lava fields of the Nyaragongo volcano on the outskirts of Goma.

By July 20 the FAR and Interahamwe in the camps, now — unwittingly or mistakenly — classified as refugees, were raiding emergency shipments of food relief meant for the real refugees: the Hutu civilians they’d forced out of Rwanda. That same day cholera broke out. More than 30,000 died in the three to four weeks before the epidemic was contained.

Nearly a third of Rwanda’s Hutu population had escaped into Congo (then Zaire), Tanzania, and Burundi and was camped close to Rwanda’s border, in contravention of UN guidelines. The horror of the refugee camps and the safety of the four million Hutus who’d remained in Rwanda inspired a number of refugees to consider returning. The Hutu Power hierarchy denounced them as RPF accomplices; some had their Achilles’ tendons cut so they couldn’t walk, and some were even killed by the militias. As Philip Gourevitch, in his book We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families concludes, “After all, if all the innocent refugees left, only the guilty would remain, and Hutu Power’s monopoly on international pity might be shaken.”

More ominously, occasional black luxury SUVs, sinister with tinted windows and DRC license plates passed by — rich and powerful corrupt Congolese, according to our guides.

Raids by Hutu militants into Rwanda and retaliatory counter-raids by the RPF, by then become the Rwandan army, continued at least until 2012. In the interim, Kagame forced the closing of the camps, repatriated most of the real refugees, and eliminated many of the Hutu extremists. Today, President Kagame has extended an olive branch and invitation to the remaining expatriate Hutus to return to Rwanda. He avers that only the organizers of the genocide will be tried.

Yet the troubles persist. The March 9, 2019 Economist reports that the previous collaborative relationship between Presidents Museveni of Uganda and Kagame of Rwanda has soured. Rwanda has taken retaliatory action against Uganda for supporting Hutu rebel forces in eastern Congo that are intent on overthrowing President Kagame.

* * *

We enjoyed a beautiful and varied bike ride to Paradis Kivu Lodge overlooking Lake Kivu. Along the way throngs of colorfully dressed women carrying impossible loads of tomatoes, potatoes, cassava, bananas, and other goods on their heads — some with small children tucked into shawls slung across their backs — headed for markets in Rubavu and Gisenyi, where many Goma residents often came to shop. More ominously, occasional black luxury SUVs, sinister with tinted windows and DRC license plates passed by — rich and powerful corrupt Congolese, according to our guides.

Adding to the brooding specter of Goma, the hyperactive Nyaragongo volcano sits just 20 kilometers north of the city. It erupted in 2002, destroying two-thirds of Goma. Its superfluid lava can reach speeds of up to 60 miles per hour, so it’s a miracle only 45 died. There was enough warning that 400,000 residents were evacuated to Gisenyi in Rwanda. The last eruption occurred in 2016.

The Congo-Nile Trail is one of the world’s premier mountain bike trails, with long stretches of single- and double-track that are, at times, confusing to follow.

That evening while we were supping on beef, chicken, and fish brochettes at lakeside, the overcast skies glowed pink in one distant spot due north. It was the reflection of Nyaragongo’s molten crater on the cloud ceiling: Mordor on the equator — a sight I’ll never forget.

November 24 broke under heavy rain coming in from the Congo. Today we’d bidden farewell to our Slow Cyclist team and come under the guidance of Rwandan Adventures, an almost totally Rwandan enterprise. When the rain stopped, Roger, our Rwandan Adventures guide, showed up at Paradis Kivu Lodge to lead us to their headquarters in Rubavu and the lodging they’d arranged for us.

We’d hired Rwandan Adventures to book our lodging and provide a trail guide and translator. From the Gisenyi-Rubavu area, our route would follow the Congo-Nile Trail along the length of Lake Kivu down to Nyungwe National Park, after which we’d be on our own. The Congo-Nile Trail is one of the world’s premier mountain bike trails, with long stretches of single- and double-track that are, at times, confusing to follow. With lodging options few and far between, and varying considerably in price and quality, Rwandan Adventures’ services were indispensable. The trail is very rural and takes about five days to traverse.

The route follows the precipitous divide that separates the Nile and Congo Rivers — in some ways the very center of Africa — hence the name. Steep, lakeside jungle and terraced land with banana trees, coffee plots, truck gardens, and small fishing communities line the route. Countless islets and peninsulas with dwellings and small-holdings give the shore a look-twice jigsaw puzzle appearance.

The lake itself was devoid of motorized traffic, except for the occasional African Queen-style utility steamer. We saw only dugouts and elegant, clinker-built paddle boats with upturned ends and long net poles for fishing. Lake Kivu is one of those not-so-rare lakes with dissolved gas at its bottom, about 1,000 feet down. It contains an estimated 256 cubic kilometers of carbon dioxide (CO2) and 65 cubic kilometers of methane. Much of the CO2 enters the lake from the volcanic rock beneath it. Bacteria in the lake then convert some of the CO2 into methane. If a seismic or other event were to upturn the lake layers, the methane could poison lakeside inhabitants or even ignite and explode. To mitigate the danger, the Rwandan government is piping the gas up and using it for power generation.

The Congo-Nile Trail started off with a bang — literally. Backcountry bridges in Rwanda are built from logs, with the logs constituting the road surface and placed parallel to the direction of travel. Sometimes the log surfaces are planed with an adze, sometimes rounded. Just before lunch, after logging in a difficult and challenging 25 kilometers — with lots of uphill bike-pushing — we encountered one of these bridges. My skill abandoned me: my front wheel plunged between the logs, stopped only when the handlebars hit the adjoining logs. My face hit the road hard. I dented my helmet and glasses; rasped my forehead and nose; scraped a large area of skin on the inside of my thigh. My right shoulder pounded the ground so hard, three months later I still have yet to fully recover. Subsequent X-rays back in the US indicated no fractures. Roger and Tina ran up, helped me to my feet, and pulled the bike out of its slot. The bike was fine — only a broken rear-view mirror. My shoulder hurt like hell, but it was OK when extended in a riding position. Anyway, there was only one option out here: ride on. For the remainder of the ride I popped Ibuprofen like they were M&Ms (with the occasional painkiller to allow for sleep).

If a seismic or other event were to upturn the lake layers, the methane could poison lakeside inhabitants or even ignite and explode.

It was a Sunday. The road thronged with women in strikingly colorful dresses with matching turban headdresses; men in white shirts, ties, and slacks, and kids in their Sunday finery, all headed for churches. For such a rural area the mass of worshipers was astounding — all walking. Passing by the churches, we heard entire congregations with voices in perfect unison pealing out of chests bursting with vigor, raising high the rafters with glorious a capella singing reminiscent of the old Missa Luba — sacred music sung in Congolese style. I wanted to forget my discomfort, and that helped.

Contrary to the perception (especially on the sidewalks of New York) that in crowded places people mind their own business and avoid eye or physical contact, in Rwanda everyone greets everyone, makes contact, talks, shakes hands, smiles — and we were included. Women don’t mind being looked at, stared at; they usually smile back.

Everyone in Rwanda, no matter how poor, seems to have a cellphone. Roger had called ahead for our lunch, a break I desperately needed. We stopped at a small mud-walled building in a tiny, nondescript hamlet. This was Mama Nelly’s, our sign-free lunch stop. There was no door, but laid out on a rough bench in the narrow foyer was a typical Rwandan meal: rice, beans, spinach, chips (French fries), fried plantains, stewed potatoes, and fried fingerling fish — heads and all — with Akabanga: Rwandan chili oil. All we could eat.

We soon realized that while the trail along Lake Kivu traverses commanding heights, lodging favored lakeside settings. The Kivu Rushel Lodge, a fancy tent establishment, was located three kilometers off-route down a hellish four-wheel drive “road” that sorely shook my shoulders. The welcoming attendant greeted us, helped carry our panniers to our “tent,” and showed us where to stow our bikes. He then asked where we were from. USA, I answered.

His eyes sparkled and he asked, “What do you think of Donald Trump?”

I caught his half-mischievous drift and responded, “I’ll trade you Trump for Kagame.”

He thought about it for a minute and, with a now fully mischievous glint in his eye said “No”. We all laughed.

My skill abandoned me: my front wheel plunged between the logs. My face hit the road hard.

Paul Kagame grew up in Uganda. His family fled to Uganda — with a Hutu mob right on their tail — during one of the periodic pogroms against the Tutsi. Paul was four years old. He would later become a military man through and through. A top student in high school, he opposed the Idi Amin dictatorship, while his best friend Fred Rwigyema joined the Ugandan rebels under Yoweri Museveni to overthrow Amin. When Amin fled into exile, Kagame joined the Museveni faction in the Ugandan army. In 1981, when former dictator Milton Obote again seized power, Museveni returned to the bush to fight some more. At the time, his army consisted of 27 men, including Rwigyema and Kagame. But it would soon grow.

Museveni overthrew Obote in 1986 with the help of Uganda’s Rwandan refugees. By then, his army consisted of 20% Rwandans, with Rwigyema as commanding general and Kagame as director of military intelligence. He went on to receive formal training at the Command and General Staff College in Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. The Rwandans had joined Museveni with the tacit understanding that once Museveni was in power, he’d help the Rwandans free Rwanda of the Hutu dictatorship.

Kagame is a caricature Tutsi: over six-feet tall, with a long face, and so skinny that his bodily features are completely hidden by his clothes, which are always spotless and well-pressed. He’s been described as an intensely private public man, but a man of action with an acute human and political intelligence. Married, with four children, he likes dinner parties, dancing, shooting pool, and tennis. One informant told me that Kagame is known to appear unannounced at public events such as soccer games and join in, without security or with minimal security. He likes to mingle with Rwandans as just another citizen. Though he lacks any sign of haughtiness, his mere presence is commanding. He is very intense and focused, seemingly lacking in any sense of humor. His men adored him and composed many chants and songs honoring him. Today, Rwandans don’t just respect him, they revere him.

* * *

The following morning we awoke to solitary male plainsong accompanied by much birdsong — an enchanting combination and unique wakeup call. We were slated for a 60-kilometer day all the way to Kibuye — an actual city — where the tarmac road joins the Congo-Nile Trail. But it didn’t start well and only got worse.

By now I was showing plenty of wear and tear; kids were referring to me as "mzee," old man.

The first three kilometers back to the main trail consisted of uphill loaded-bike pushing with a throbbing shoulder. Roger was indispensable. Then came 20 kilometers of very tough single trail, and then five kilometers of 20% uphill grade on a dirt road strewn with gravel marbles. There was no way we were going to make it to Kibuye by sundown. Roger called a rescue taxi, which was able to get to us — for the trail was no longer a four-wheel drive track — and drive us into Kibuye.

Over dinner at the Rwiza Village Hotel, A-frame chalets overlooking Lake Kivu, we watched the fishermen’s trimarans paddle out to fish as they sang paddling chanties to keep time.

The next day, another 3-kilometer uphill push into Kibuye proper followed by 27 kilometers of roller coaster tarmac with reasonable grades, on a road so perfect, it would shame many of our roads. By now I was showing plenty of wear and tear; kids were referring to me as mzee, old man, as often as muzungu.

The day ended in by now typical fashion: an eight-kilometer downhill detour on an infernal four-wheel drive track to a luxury hotel on an island on Lake Kivu accessed by a causeway that may or may not have been manmade. We were the only guests.

At the airport, we overheard a Ugandan entrepreneur talking on his phone to a colleague, saying that Rwanda was open for business and the opportunities were boundless.

Kivu Lodge is emblematic of Rwanda. Like many hotels in the country, it grows its own produce. Unconnected to the electricity grid, its generator runs at set hours or upon request by the guests. The lawns surrounding its helicopter pad were being mowed by a man squatting and clipping with hedge shears. I asked our host if the helicopter pad was for President Kagame. He smiled and declined to answer.

Rwanda is a third-world country with a first-world perspective. On our month-long, 700-kilometer ride we were never assaulted by any foul odors, hordes of flies, roadside dead animals, traffic accidents, or unsettling sights (other than frequent, local genocide memorials). President Kagame has concentrated the country’s development, Vision 2020, on infrastructure: potable water, sewage disposal, roads, 5G connectivity, electrification, the rule of law, an effective and honest police force and judiciary, health and education, agricultural production, and private sector development fostering a favorable business environment. The plan, developed in the late 1990s, has achieved phenomenal results. At one restaurant in Kigali we met a Taiwanese executive representing a consortium of companies exploring investment opportunities in the country. His enthusiasm was so infectious that both our dinners got cold while we discussed free market philosophy. Later on, at the airport, we overheard a Ugandan entrepreneur talking on his phone to a colleague, saying that Rwanda was open for business and the opportunities were boundless. On the last day of our ride, going into Kigali, one informant pointed to an industrial park up on a hill and said that Volkswagen would break ground there for a factory in 2019.

But Kagame’s greatest success has been his insistence on eradicating the Hutu-Tutsi distinction, while at the same time bringing back — sometimes forcibly — disaffected Hutu expatriates who feared repression; and then successfully integrating them into the national bosom. Article 54 of the new Rwandan constitution states that "political organizations are prohibited from basing themselves on race, ethnic group, tribe, clan, region, sex, religion or any other division which may give rise to discrimination.”

To add a veneer of objectivity to the classifications, the Belgians resorted to measuring nose widths with calipers.

Not that the Hutu-Tutsi thing is any of those specified above. The two groups shared the same national — not tribal — identity since before colonization, spoke the same language, shared the same faiths, lived intermingled throughout the country, intermarried, and in general look so much alike that the Belgian colonial administration issued identity cards so they could tell them apart. To add a veneer of objectivity to the classifications, they resorted to measuring nose widths with calipers: a long, narrow nose indicated a Tutsi; a wide, pug nose . . . a Hutu. The Belgians were partial to the Tutsi, for their supposed aquiline features and traditional positions of power. Before the issuance of ID cards, people were able to switch identities by acquiring wealth or becoming poor, making a unilateral declaration (subject to acceptance by their neighbors), or any number of other expediencies. Traditionally, clan affiliations overrode the Hutu-Tutsi divide; by the time of the genocide, economic class and entrenched political power were the greatest defining factors between the two.

In one of the strangest ironies ever (one that illustrates the flexibility of Rwandan identities), Jerry Robert Kajuga, national president and leader of the genocidal Interahamwe, came from a Tutsi family. While Jerry was still young, his father obtained Hutu identity papers for the family. During the genocide, while the Interahamwe were out decapitating Tutsis, Kajuga hid his brother (who presumably was still a Tutsi) in a hotel to prevent the family from being targeted as Tutsis.

The origins of the distinction are lost in the mists of prehistory, but the inference goes something like this: the aboriginal inhabitants of the densely forested Rwandan mountains were the Twa, or forest pygmies. Later Bantu agriculturalists moved in from the south and west, followed by — or coming at the same time as — cattle herders from the north and east. The herders were generally tall and lanky; the farmers, of normal girth and stature. With time they became one people, but the more warlike herders organized the land into a kingdom and came to rule over the farmers. Oddly enough, the Tutsi herders favored Twa (only 1% of the population) officers in their armies. By the time of German colonization, the Rwandan king ruled over not only today’s Rwanda, but also parts of Uganda and Congo. As the population densed up, conflicts for land between the farmers and herders intensified, creating the frictions that led to the troubles. These reached a boiling point when, first, the ruling Tutsis imposed onerous taxes on the farmers; second, the German and Belgian colonial governments promoted and favored Tutsis in administration; and finally, status was frozen by the imposition of identity cards.

* * *

Another Sisyphean push eight kilometers back up out of Kivu Lodge to rejoin pavement, followed by 52 pleasant kilometers that landed us at a $40-a-night motel in Kibogura. It was not our ideal choice — it was our only choice. Still, there was cold beer and the mattress was firm.

Until 1999, Nyungwe was home to a subspecies of smallish elephant, the mountain elephant. Poachers killed the last one.

On the day after, the 25 kilometers — all uphill (on tarmac) — to Gisakura and the entrance to Nyungwe National Park, went by fast and sweaty. We arrived at the $200-a-day Top View Hotel pushing our bikes up an extreme incline. It was over the top — individual bungalows with living rooms and porches overlooking the mountains of the park. Roger, our guide, left us here. We no longer needed him: all the way back to Kigali we’d be on main highways, with little chance of getting lost. That afternoon we were scheduled to do a canopy walk in the park and, the following day, chimpanzee tracking. Roger ensured that our permits and fees for both activities, the ranger escorts, four-wheel drive vehicle, and driver for the chimp tracking were organized, and rode off into the mists bearing a generous tip.

On the ride into the park, we spotted many Oyster and Blue monkeys — and one royal Colobus. Until 1999, Nyungwe was home to a subspecies of smallish elephant, the mountain elephant. Poachers killed the last one. Its strange-looking skull sits in the doorway of the visitor center. The 90-meter sky walk allowed us to rise out of the rainforest track and emerge over the canopy for a birds’ eye view down into the treetops and across to the distant mountains, thick with impenetrable green. It was good to be off the bikes.

Unlike many third-world or tropical countries where punctuality is not a value, Rwandans are promptly punctual — in appointments, opening times, and event schedules. Our 3 AM wakeup call (accurate to the second on satellite time) for the chimp excursion was barely effective. We dragged our reluctant bodies to the hotel lobby. There, a group of agitated Chinese mainlanders were loudly assaulting the concierge, who meekly tried to correct whatever wrongs the Chinese had perceived. They’d been our only companions at dinner — loud, uncouth, and with an assortment of Chinese comestibles they’d brought with them. It never occurred to us that they’d go chimp tracking. Some were past any prime they might have ever have had; others were comfortably overweight. Luckily, we weren’t sharing a ride with them. Outside, an old rattle-trap Toyota four-door pickup awaited us. Shadrack, our guide and ranger, and the driver told us we were about to enjoy the unique experience of “African massage”: a two-hour ride in a shock-deficient truck on rutted and rocky four-wheel drive roads that would bring us to a distant corner of the park where a troop of chimps lived.

The driver told us we were about to enjoy the unique experience of “African massage”: a two-hour ride in a shock-deficient truck on rutted and rocky four-wheel drive roads.

At the park’s far, subsidiary entrance, Shadrack set out the ground rules, and we set off hiking, at 6 AM — with the Chinese and two UAE tourists in tow. Shadrack set a good pace. Within 15 minutes half the Chinese, cigarette stubs hanging out of their mouths, dropped behind and returned to the secondary park headquarters. A mile or so later Shadrack warned of a dense column of fire ants crossing the trail, saying that their sting was intense and their ability to climb up shoes and inside pants cuffs impressive. While the rest of us ran over the column, one Chinese walked. After doing a spirited two-step, with his comrades swatting at his calves, he, too, turned back. By the time we spotted our first chimp, only two mainlanders remained in the group.

Chimps congregate in large, dispersed groups, on the ground and up in the trees. They react to the presence of humans by putting a respectable distance between themselves and us, mostly by disappearing into the canopy. The big males can be aggressive and mostly stay on the ground. Their hoots and hollers are endearing. We had to keep moving in order to prolong the encounters (which the chimps disdained). After a few middle-distance sightings, the remaining Chinese left. Shadrack appointed a tracker to escort them back.

Tina asked Shadrack how he dealt with the arrogance of his mainland Chinese visitors. He smiled and said, “We have our ways,” referring to his passive, polite strategies that day. But he said that a few days previously, a man from China had jumped on his back and demanded to be carried the rest of the way. That was too much for Shadrack. He unloaded the man at a fire ant crossing.

A few days later on the ride we ran into our Slow Cyclist driver, Emi, escorting two Americans to the canopy walk. We told him about our chimp tracking experience and the Chinese. Emi, who always sees a half-full glass as three-quarters full, responded that there are good and bad people in all countries. True! But I advised him that a lasting casualty of the Cultural Revolution was manners. Courtesy and politeness were declared bourgeois values in conflict with proletarian egalitarianism. We were reaping what Mao had sown.

Back at the park entry after the tracking we were greeted by a display of traditional Intore dancing and drumming by a group of about 20 local residents. They pulled us in to participate. Tina, the Arabs, and the one youngish Chinese female interpreter joined in. Not much of a dancer, I took photos and kept rhythm with a foot. The rest of the Chinese couldn’t wait to get back to the hotel and proffered no tips. Our — and the locals’ — enthusiasm, on the other hand, was so contagious that the revelry continued for half an hour.

Gisakura, where the Top View is located, is at the western end of Nyungwe Park. Between Gisakura and Kitabi, at the far eastern border — and our next destination on the bikes — only the main park headquarters, about halfway through, has any services: a campground, toilets, permit issuance, and a snack bar. The 61-kilometer distance across the park was devoid of traffic, people, or downhill stretches — except at the very end.

On the outskirts of Kitabi we experienced a “lumber mill.” Multiple sets of individual scaffold frameworks — each about nine feet tall — built out of skinny branches and topped with gapped planks stood off the road about 50 feet away. Atop each one, a shirtless man held the upper end of a giant rip saw. Below, another man held the opposite end. On the scaffold, between the planks, a big log extended all the way across the top. The men were ripping logs to create dimensional lumber by hand, with an up-and-down sawing motion. The finished boards, not varying in depth or width by more than half an inch, were stacked right next to the road, in bundles separated by lath for drying — boards we might label 2x4s, 2x6s and 2x8s.

Our Kitabi lodging, at $30 the cheapest yet, was delightful. The KCCEM Guesthouse is an outlying university research center specializing in nature and biological studies. It consisted of small, semi-detached brick bungalows interspersed by lawns. A resident troop of baboons, attractive but for their ischial callosities — and indifferent to humans — roamed the grounds.

The section of road between Kitabi and Butare, our next destination, was the only part of Rwanda’s main arterial highways that hadn’t yet been paved. Giant Komatsu and Caterpillar excavators and graders, along with asphalt pavers, were hard at work. Fortunately, the 60 kilometers to Butare trended generally down. By noon, we’d arrived at the Bonnie Consile Convent, our evening’s lodging.

Butare, home to Rwanda’s National University and many other institutions of higher learning, is Rwanda’s intellectual center. Many thought that at independence it would become Rwanda’s capital, but Kigali’s central location and its role as the colonial administrative capital won out. At the beginning of the genocide, Butare was the only province with a Tutsi governor. During the first two weeks of the genocide Butare became a haven for fleeing Tutsis from other parts of the country. But on April 18, 1994 the government dismissed the governor, later arresting and shooting him. On the 19th he was replaced by a Hutu Power loyalist, and the killings immediately began: 220,000 people were massacred, most within three to four weeks.

Our — and the locals’ — enthusiasm, on the other hand, was so contagious that the revelry continued for half an hour.

We were now in the heart of historic Rwanda. Butare’s cobbled streets were made no softer by the shocks on our bikes. The National Ethnographic Museum, a few blocks away, conserved many precolonial artifacts and offered insights into traditional Rwandan culture — without getting too controversial: no colonial history or Hutu-Tutsi history. Oddly, it showcased Rwanda’s presidents but not its kings. That night was Tina’s birthday. We overcelebrated and slept in the following morning . . . without consequences. An easy 47 kilometers brought us to Nyanza, the seat of Rwanda’s kings. We checked in at a bustling hotel full of business people, families, and school groups, and then headed out to the Royal Palace Museum complex.

Before it became Rwanda the country was known as the Nyiginya Kingdom. Oral tradition traces Nyiginya kings back to the 14th century, but it isn’t until the 15th century, with the accession of Bwimba, Ruganzu I, of the first dynasty, that the dynasties, chronologies, and historical narratives become more reliable. Sixteen kings later, Rwabugiri, Kigeri IV, succeeded to the throne in 1867 (some sources say 1853).

Rwabugiri was the first king in Rwanda's history to come into contact with Europeans. He established an army equipped with guns he obtained from Germans and prohibited most foreigners, especially Arabs, from entering his kingdom.

The kingdom’s armies were composed of special warriors who’d taken an oath of celibacy while in service. Homosexual liaisons among the troops were not uncommon and if not widely accepted, at least widely tolerated. In contrast to Ugandan homophobia today — the legal consequences for being caught in flagrante delicto with a member of the same sex are stiff — being gay (or polygamous, for that matter) in Rwanda is no crime. Sex is considered a private matter — a view consistent with the conservative deportment and liberal attitude characteristic of the country.

By the end of Rwabugiri’s rule, Rwanda was a unified state with a centralized military structure divided into provinces, districts, hills, and neighborhoods administered by a hierarchy of chiefs, predominantly Tutsi at the higher levels, but with a substantial degree of participation by Hutus. But as population density increased, a Tutsi elite besotted with its unique Inyambo cattle faced a shortage of pastureland. Rwabugiri imposed more taxes and more corvee labor — both already onerous — on the mostly Hutu farmers. Additionally, Rwabugiri’s wars of conquest exacted a terrible price on the farming communities wherever his armies billeted. By the time of his death in 1895, the Hutu-Tutsi polarization had become entrenched.

In contrast to Ugandan homophobia today, being gay (or polygamous, for that matter) in Rwanda is no crime.

Rutarindwa, Mibambwe IV, Rwabugiri’s son, succeeded to the throne but was assassinated by his stepmother, who in 1896 put her own son, Musinga, on the throne as Yuhi V. Three months later the first German colonial officer arrived. The German administration was mostly content to let the kingdom’s hierarchy continue ruling. After World War I, the League of Nations turned Rwanda over to the Belgians. In 1931 Musinga was deposed by the Belgian administration for his resistance to conversion to Catholicism. He was succeeded by Rudahigwa, Mutara III, who converted in 1943 and dedicated the country to Christ.

After a visit to Europe, Rudahigwa decided to move out of his thatched-roof royal residence and build himself more European digs, buy a Volkswagen, and learn to drive. But he was so tall that he had to remove the driver’s seat and become a literal back-seat driver. In the late 1950s, Rudahigwa, wanting to keep up with the times, began construction on a real palace, which by the time of his death in 1959 — in Bujumbura, Burundi under mysterious circumstances — was still not completed.

Rudahigwa was followed by his brother, Ndahindurwa, Kigeri V, who only lasted until 1961, when Rwanda declared independence and abolished the monarchy. Ndahindurwa moved to Washington DC and died in 2016 at the age of 83.

* * *

The royal compound, atop the highest point in Nyanza, is a poignant evocation of an aspect of Rwandan culture and history that for most is not even a memory. The thatched-roof royal dwelling, with its satellite structures and subquarters for queen mother, high priest, and other officials (including a beer and a milk minister) is a careful and perfect reconstruction open to the public only with a tour guide. The best part is the remnants of the surviving Inyambo royal cattle herd and their quintessential Tutsi herder armed with a fly whisk for their comfort. Their horns are huge (forget Texas Longhorns), exquisitely and slightly oddly shaped. All are a rich brown hue with doe eyes. In Rwanda one of the sweetest compliments a man can give a woman is, “You’ve got Inyambo eyes.” They are tame — we didn’t tire of petting them — and pampered: one previous king forced a Hutu vassal to spread honey on their pasture.

Next door is the 1930s royal residence — in meticulous upkeep. One employee was busy on her haunches cleaning the brick grout joints of its semi-enclosed patio. Across the valley, the 1959 palace dominated the view. Not yet open to the public, it is slated to become an art museum.

We left Nyanza for Gitarama, only 47 paved kilometers away, late in the morning. Our destination was Jangwe Lodge, an off-the-beaten-path (by seven kilometers) guest house located just before one reaches the city and run by Georges Kamanayo-Gengoux, a Rwandan-Belgian documentary film maker and his Belgian wife.

Much later Bill Clinton admitted that his lack of response to the Rwandan genocide had been a “personal failure.”

As we neared Gitarama we expected to see a sign for the lodge at one of two right-hand branching dirt roads, but at both likely prospects there was no indication of a lodge anywhere down the side roads. However, the usual troupe of moto- and bicycle taxis hawked fares at the intersections. At the last turnoff before Gitarama we stopped and looked lost. Everyone offered us rides, but without the ability to communicate — “Jangwe” didn’t ring any bells — we felt truly lost. But one taxi biker whose English was structurally sound but nearly unintelligible, said he lived next door to Jangwe. Emmanuel offered to guide us the seven kilometers for 300 Rf, about 25 cents.

Again — tiresomely — Jangwe was “in the middle of nowhere,” off the grid and at the end of a spur track linked to a dirt road that braided and split unpredictably. Georges and his wife welcomed us warmly. The handsome, open brick compound with manicured lawns and an Olympic-size pool was completely isolated. I asked why the absence of signs. Georges shrugged his shoulders and said they didn’t want any “drop-ins,” that guests came by invitation only (they only wanted interesting people, not boring ones). Jangwes only had five guest rooms; today there were no other guests.

Over cold Virunga beers we discussed Georges’ projects. He’d met Bill Clinton and wanted to interview him further about America’s reluctant response during the genocide, but was given the cold shoulder when he followed up on Clinton’s initial invitation. A Belgian VTM channel colleague later asked Clinton why the US was missing in action during the genocide. The former president responded that “Rwanda wasn’t on my radar and CNN wasn’t there” — this in the context of American intelligence having advance knowledge of the genocide plans. Much later Clinton admitted that his lack of response had been a “personal failure.”

But the hale 70-year-old Georges had a more ambitious project in the works: a documentary of the RPF’s advance and liberation of Rwanda during the genocide. He’s already gotten a commitment from Paul Kagame to be interviewed.

Not only did the 600 RPF men, facing daunting odds and multiple assaults, hold their positions, they created a safe zone around the parliament grounds for refugees, and even rescued many more.

The RPF, numbering about 18,000 men at the time of the genocide, faced a well-armed Rwandan army twice its size, backed by militias and a great mass of civilians mobilized for “self-defense” — over 45,000 combatants. The “stopping the genocide” invasion (as it’s been dubbed) is an amazing enough story, but the real cliffhanger was the siege of parliament during the 100-day RPF offensive. The Rwandan Civil War, which had been simmering since 1990, was supposedly “settled” with the signing of the Arusha Peace Accords in August 1993. The Accords called for a power sharing structure between the extremist Hutu government and the moderate Hutu and Tutsi RPF. As a confidence-building measure — and to protect RPF politicians — a 600-man RPF contingent was to be based in the capital until the Accords’ implementation, along with a 2,500 UN “peacekeeping” mission.

But as soon as President Habyarimana’s plane went down and the genocide began on April 6, 1994, Kagame ordered the Kigali contingent to muster at the defensive positions they’d established at parliament atop the highest hill in Kigali. At 8:30 pm that night, FAR forces stormed the parliament. But by then the RPF was ready and soon drove off the attackers, holding their positions until relieved three months later. On April 8, the main RPF forces began their pincer advances into central Rwanda from bases in Uganda and northern Rwanda.

Not only did the 600 RPF men, facing daunting odds and multiple assaults, hold their positions, they created a safe zone around the parliament grounds for refugees, and even rescued many more — all the while allowing access for both RPF and moderate Hutu parliamentarians to continue their jobs.

Passing by the parliament, Olivier pointed out the shell holes on the side of the building, left there as a stark memorial.

A few blocks away, the UN peacekeepers billeted at the Amahoro sports stadium complex had been instructed not to interfere in the killing, but to engage only if attacked. Thousands of Tutsis and fearful Hutus, figuring they’d be protected by the UN, had sought refuge there. When the Rwandan Army forces and Interahamwe began forcibly extracting refugees from the stadium occupied by the unresponsive UN forces, the 600-man RPF battalion began, on April 7, a series of counterattacks to protect the Amahoro refugees. They conducted even more daring raids, in the dead of night, to more distant hideouts, saving many more people. By the fall of Kigali on July 4, nearly the entire battalion had survived.

* * *

Our last day’s ride into Kigali, a mostly flat and downhill coast of 62 kilometers, ended in a long, uphill, traffic-avoiding struggle into the capital under a heavy rain. We were accompanied by Olivier, our Slow Cyclist guide, now under contract to Rwandan Adventures, to ensure successful navigation through Kigali and arrival at our hotel without getting lost. Passing by the parliament, Olivier pointed out the shell holes on the side of the building, left there as a stark memorial to the war against genocide.

After showering and introducing Tina — now that she was an “old Africa hand” — to gin-and-tonics, that favorite colonial tipple, we headed out to a nearby restaurant. Oddly, there was no traffic. At the corner, armed soldiers had stopped all vehicles at the intersections in both directions. And then, coming from the direction of the Hotel des Mille Collines — site of the real Hotel Rwanda, where many had sought refuge during the genocide — a phalanx of black SUVs with red and blue flashing lights turned the corner and headed our way. As they turned into the presidential residence’s driveway, I realized that Paul Kagame was coming home after a day’s work. I focused my eyes and tried to spot him through the tinted windows.

Envoi

It was a fitting end to a phenomenal adventure, but one that was constantly overshadowed by a nagging question: how could an atrocity such as the Rwandan genocide have occurred in a country with such wonderful people? I am no Hannah Arendt (no banality of evil in Rwanda, just full-on evil); much less am I Rwandan. But here is my attempt to identify the factors that led to this holocaust.

1. History. The historical trajectory already mentioned played a prominent part: German and Belgian favoritism towards the Tutsis, culminating in the issuance of identity cards. The Belgians came to Rwanda with an a priori premise, based on their own experience with Walloons and Flemings, that this was a multiethnic country. What ambiguous differences existed were exacerbated by colonial policies.

2. Obedience. The Rwandan people were accustomed to following government orders, having always lived under authoritarian — though not particularly oppressive — regimes, both colonial and post-independence. This obedient tendency was taken advantage of by the Hutu Power clique when it took control and ordered everyone to kill the “snakes” and “cockroaches,” as they called the Tutsis.

There was no banality of evil in Rwanda, just full-on evil.

3. Propaganda. Rwandans — mostly illiterate — lived by radio. Both the government radio station, Radio Rwanda, and the immensely popular RTLM, privately owned by President Habyarimana and his wife (as a lively alternative to staid government radio), spewed hatred of Tutsis through talk, pop music, and harangues long before the genocide and, later, to incite the population to the killings.

4. Terror. Using threats and intimidation, the Interahamwe, army, and Hutu Power extremists forced the population to kill friends, neighbors, strangers, and family — both Tutsis and moderate Hutus. The killers themselves were always drunk, and they often made unwilling potential accomplices get drunk too. If they didn’t kill their assigned victims — identified by identity cards at roadblocks and by lists previously drawn up — they or their loved ones would be tortured and killed as accomplices of the RPF.

5. France. In a misguided attempt to salvage what was left of Francophone Africa, France provided military and diplomatic support to the Habyarimana regime before and during the genocide, and continued to provide aid and succor to its remnants in defeat. On the other hand, the Tutsi and moderate Hutu expats — numbering about 350,000 — who had lived in Uganda for so long, spoke English. If the RPF won the Rwandan Civil War, English would become Rwanda’s second official language. (In fact, French and English both now enjoy official status. Still, Rwanda joined the British Commonwealth of Nations in 2009, one of only two countries to have done so that were never British colonies. Queen Elizabeth II is due to visit in 2019.)

The killers themselves were always drunk, and they often made unwilling potential accomplices get drunk too.

As early as 1990, when the RPF began the Rwandan Civil War — provoked by a variety of reasons — France intervened on the side of the Hutu government. Not only did the French supply the Rwandan army with weapons throughout the ensuing four years, they provided asylum to Agathe Habyarimana just a few days after the beginning of the genocide. Agathe was the wife of the murdered president and considered not only the power behind the throne but also, after the death of her husband, the head of le clan de madame, a powerful clique of northern Hutu extremists who were instrumental in organizing and carrying out the genocide. The French also gave asylum to 30 other members of le clan. (Madame was finally arrested in France, by French authorities, on March 2, 2010, but in September 2011, a French court denied her extradition to Rwanda.)

After the RPF’s victory in Kigali on July 4, the French — ever helpful — established Opération Turquoise, a safe zone in southwest Rwanda for the fleeing génocidaires and their wards, delaying the RPF’s total victory and helping to set the stage for the post-genocide East African wars.

6. The United Nations. The UN’s 2,500-man peacekeeping mission was undermanned, underfunded, undersupplied, underequipped, and constrained by rules of engagement that allowed lethal force only if fired upon — no intervention to save lives. In his book Shake Hands with the Devil, Lt. Gen. Roméo Dallaire, commander of the mission, characterized the UN as, “an organization swamped and sinking under the dead weight of useless political sinecures, indifference and procrastination.”

Worse yet — in its role as mediator between the genocidal Hutu government and the RPF — the UN had to be neutral and treat both sides equally, inadvertently providing a fig leaf of respectability to the génocidaires.

The UN’s peacekeeping mission was undermanned, underfunded, undersupplied, underequipped, and constrained by rules of engagement that allowed no intervention to save lives.

But the worst abomination in the UN’s operation was its structure. By the unluckiest of coincidences, one of the rotating seats in the Security Council fell to Rwanda. Its Hutu Power sympathizer passed every communique Dallaire sent to the UN on to Theonéste Bagosora — the head of the Crisis Committee, Rwanda’s interim government during the genocide, who was sentenced to life imprisonment in 2008 by the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda for his key role in the genocide — impeding any effective action by Dallaire through continuous foot-dragging and objections.

Today, Rwanda agrees to send troops on UN peacekeeping missions only if they can intervene to save lives.




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In Hong Kong, Carrying Signs

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The news from Hong Kong reminds me of lyrics of a song from my youth — “a thousand people in the street, singing songs and carrying signs.” Except it wasn’t a thousand on June 9, 2019. It was a million. Repeat: a million. One-seventh of Hong Kong’s population.

Imagine one-seventh of the population in the city closest to you, out on the street demanding that legislators not pass a law concerning extradition of criminal suspects.

Years ago, I lived in Hong Kong. I was among the Hong Kong Chinese for three years. They were hard-working, versatile, street-smart. Proud, too. They regarded the British as weakened by the welfare state, the Singaporeans as rigid, and the Middle Easterners as religious fanatics. The Hong Kong people were not hotheads. They did not yell and shake their fists at one another in public, like the Italians. They did not go on strike for inscrutable reasons, like the French. They were not like the Indonesians, who celebrated the heroes who had fought for their independence and won, or the Filipinos, who celebrated the heroes who had fought for their independence and lost. The Hong Kong people did not grow up singing the national anthem, saluting the flag, and praising the military, like the Americans. They didn’t have a flag that was really theirs or a real military, either. When I got there in 1989, they had no political parties, though they were about to create one.

It was a million. Repeat: a million. One-seventh of Hong Kong’s population.

The first piece I ever wrote for Liberty (as R.K. Lamb, in the March 1990 issue) was about Hong Kong, where I was living along with 40,000 or so American expatriates. (More than double that, now.) The territory was governed by the British. They had cut a deal with China to turn it over in 1997. They hadn’t asked the Hong Kong people about that deal, and China hadn’t asked, either. On its face, the deal seemed all right. Under Deng Xiaoping’s formula of “one country, two systems,” China had agreed to let Hong Kong retain its legal system for 50 years, until 2047.

In those days 2047 was an unimaginably long time away, and 1997 was coming up. The question was, how was “one country, two systems” going to work? The Hong Kong press — one of Asia’s freest — was reassuring. Things would be fine. China has promised to let us be! Outside the spotlight, Hong Kong professionals were quietly “voting with their feet,” emigrating to Australia, Canada, the United States, and several countries in Southeast Asia.

I didn’t think “one country, two systems” was going to work. In 2006, I wrote a piece for Liberty admitting that I had been too pessimistic: China had done better by Hong Kong than I thought it would.

Overall it still has — so far. I have to give China credit for that.

The Hong Kong people did not grow up singing the national anthem, saluting the flag, and praising the military, like the Americans.

Milton Friedman had proclaimed in his Free to Choose TV series that Hong Kong had more economic freedom than any place on earth. The Fraser Institute and the Heritage Foundation, both of which annually survey economic freedom, verify that it still is. But an economy requires a foundation of politics and law, which Friedman well knew. Hong Kong’s legal foundation was, and is, British law, which is a product of centuries of the politics and history of the people of England. When I’d ask a Hongkonger why Hong Kong was rich, the answer was, “hard work.” Nobody ever said, “British law.” The Hong Kong people had worked hard to build their prosperity, but they hadn’t built the system of law that supported their personal and business freedom. They had inherited it. If they wanted to keep it after 1997 they were going to have to fight for it, and I wasn’t sure whether they would.

Well, they have. Whether they will prevail is another matter.

The British never gave the Hong Kong people political freedom, meaning the right to vote out their government and institute a new one. The handover in 1997 gave the people only a limited vote. They formed a number of “pro-Beijing” and “pro-democracy” political parties. In the 2016 elections, the pro-democracy parties got 36% of the public vote and the pro-Beijing parties (a weird mixture of pro-communist and “patriotic” business conservatives) 40% of the public vote, so the pro-democracy parties do not have a claim to rule. Hong Kong’s political system makes that nearly impossible anyway. Of 70 seats in the unicameral legislature, half are elected by public vote and half by the union federations, the chambers of commerce, the lawyers, the teachers, the social workers, and other “functional constituencies.”

When I’d ask a Hongkonger why Hong Kong was rich, the answer was, “hard work.” Nobody ever said, “British law.”

For more background, take a look at the Council on Foreign Relations report “Democracy in Hong Kong.” Under this hybrid system the pro-Beijing parties have held on to their majority for 22 years. Hong Kong’s chief executive has never been elected by the people; the current executive, Carrie Lam, was chosen by a select group of 1,200 Hongkongers acceptable to Beijing. The pro-democracy forces have been pushing for more than a decade to have the executive be elected by the people, but China will not allow it.

On to the current matter. I am no expert; I haven’t lived in Hong Kong since 1993, and I haven’t followed the story as it has been building these past four months. I have done my catching up on the Internet.

According to a report in the Irish Times, the matter began in 2018 with a 19-year-old Hong Kong man who went to Taiwan with his 20-year-old girlfriend, who was four months pregnant. The man returned alone and admitted to police he had strangled her, stuffed her body in a suitcase, and dumped it near a subway station. Under an extradition treaty, the man would have been extradited to Taiwan for trial for murder. Hong Kong has extradition treaties with some 20 jurisdictions, including the United States, but not Taiwan and not China, the sovereign power over Hong Kong.

In February 2019 the Hong Kong government said it needed to remedy this problem by amending its Fugitive Offenders Ordinance. The changes would allow the Hong Kong government to extradite a person to a non-treaty jurisdiction. This proposal is what a million people are in the street about. They are worried that the new law will allow innocent people to be extradited to China.

The pro-democracy forces have been pushing for more than a decade to have the executive be elected by the people, but China will not allow it.

The Hong Kong government says not to worry. The proposed law stipulates that no person can be extradited for the expression of political views, for a political crime, or for a political motive; that no person can be extradited in a case of double jeopardy or any crime for which the sentence is less than seven years; and that if there is a possibility of a capital sentence the destination country must promise not to impose it. (Hong Kong does not have the death penalty. China does.) The law says that any person extradited has the right to appeal to Hong Kong courts, and can be extradited only if the chief executive agrees.

I’m no lawyer, but on its face the proposal seems all right. The law is strong in Hong Kong. The courts have been good. And yet a million people are in the street. The story, I think, is not about what the proposed law says. It is about the fear of how such a law might be used, and the political consequences of its passage. The people of Hong Kong remember what China’s government did in 1989 to the protesters at Tiananmen Square, and they still do not trust the Chinese state.

One group that has come out against the law is the American Chamber of Commerce in Hong Kong. This is notable. The AmCham is not Human Rights Watch. It represents US corporations, which are primarily interested in commerce. But commerce and human rights are connected in ways AmCham is quite aware of. In its public statement, AmCham expresses the worry that “the new arrangements could be used for rendition from Hong Kong to a number of jurisdictions with criminal procedure systems very different from those of Hong Kong — which provides strong protections for the legitimate rights of defendants — without the opportunity for public and legislative scrutiny of the fairness of those systems and the specific safeguards that should be sought in cases originating from them.”

This proposal is what a million people are in the street about. They are worried that the new law will allow innocent people to be extradited to China.

What recent reasons are there to worry? Martin Lee, the Hong Kong lawyer who founded the territory’s first political party, wrote a piece for the Washington Post, naming some of the reasons. In 2017, mainland agents abducted Chinese Canadian billionaire Xiao Jianhua, who has not been seen since. In 2015, five Hong Kong publishers were taken; one of them, Lam Wing-kee, was forced to make a televised confession.

“Why were these people abducted?” Lee wrote. “Because there is no extradition law between Hong Kong and China. There is no extradition law because there is no rule of law in China, where the Chinese Communist Party dictates who is innocent and who is guilty. For the same reason, the United States has no extradition arrangements with China (though it does with Hong Kong).”

Lee wrote, “The Hong Kong government is poised to pass an extradition law that will legalize such kidnappings and threatens to destroy Hong Kong’s free society . . . Beijing could extradite Americans in Hong Kong on trumped-up charges . . .”

I remember Martin Lee from my time in Hong Kong, and later, when he came through Seattle and I interviewed him. Lee is an old-time liberal, dogged to the point of ouch. He sometimes cries wolf when the wolf doesn’t come — that is, he imagines things that don’t happen — but a smart lawyer may imagine various futures in order to protect his client. And that would be the Hong Kong people. They are worried about what might happen.

What to do, if you're China? You inhibit Hong Kong’s democratic institutions now.

And think about what the world looks like from their shoes. They have 28 years left of “one country, two systems.” After that comes one system — China’s. In 2047, Hong Kong’s British law goes away.

Poof.

Put yourself in the shoes of the Communist Party of China. You really didn’t like Deng Xiaoping having to grant that pushy Englishwoman, Margaret Thatcher, “one country, two systems.” Hong Kong’s system is alien, bourgeois-liberal, British. You want it to go away. You want Hong Kong to be Chinese — fully. But if Hong Kong’s British-derived law survives intact up to 2047, millions of Hong Kong people will demand that you extend their system for another 50 years. You don’t want that. You want to make sure that never happens.

What to do? You inhibit Hong Kong’s democratic institutions now. You stop any expansion of the number of publicly elected seats in Hong Kong’s legislature, and you do not allow Hong Kong’s chief executive to be publicly elected — ever. You don’t have to say “ever”; you just have to drag your feet, wave your arms, declare emergencies, make excuses, whatever it takes, to make sure full elections don’t happen by 2047.

For the Hong Kong people, accepting Deng Xiaoping’s “one country, two systems” was always a bet that China would change politically.

You also want to cut holes in the Hong Kong legal system — with a public security law, or a law requiring political content in public education, a law that allows you to extradite criminals to China, etc. The extradition law can promise not to grab anyone for political offenses, but some person decides what those are. And if people like you get to choose that person, then you’re fine.

As a Communist, you want to chisel away at Hong Kong’s British law until by 2047 it’s not worth anyone fighting for.

Defenders of China will say I am making things up, and they will be right. I am imagining things. I believe that’s what the Hong Kong people are doing — imagining their future.

For the Hong Kong people, accepting Deng Xiaoping’s “one country, two systems” was always a bet that China would change politically — that after 50 years, China would be enough like Hong Kong that the people living then could work things out. Economically and socially China has already changed a lot. Politically not so much — and the years tick by.

Margaret Thatcher and Deng Xiaoping cut the “one country, two systems” deal 13 years before Britain’s lease on Hong Kong was set to expire in 1997. They needed to do it then because Hong Kong people, and foreigners also, had to have some assurance about life after 1997 so they could make business investments, take out mortgages, start careers, and decide where to live their lives.

Thirteen years before 2047 is 2034. That’s a milepost to think about. And it’s coming up.

Unable to secure their future at the ballot box, they are attempting to do it, peacefully but urgently, in the street.

Most readers of Liberty live in jurisdictions in which the great political questions are settled. We argue over the remaining issues, and occasionally work ourselves into a lather about them — imagining that the next election is the most important in our lives, that Barack Obama is going to usher in socialism, that Donald Trump is going to suspend the Constitution, or that Bernie Sanders is going to hoist the red flag. It’s fun, you know, and some of the issues are important, but it all pales before the political questions faced by the people of Hong Kong.

Almost 30 years ago I wrote in Liberty that I thought the Hong Kong people had failed to take charge of their political future, being “too busy in Mr. Friedman’s capitalist paradise, making money.”

Not anymore. The Hong Kong people don’t have the British to protect them or anyone, really. Unable to secure their future at the ballot box, they are attempting to do it, peacefully but urgently, in the street.

How did the song go? “A thousand people in the street, singing songs and carrying signs, mostly saying ‘hooray for our side’.”

Damn right, hooray for their side.




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Notes from the Islamic Republic

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Walking down the street in Tehran, if you’re from the Great Satan, is like starring in a triumphal procession, you attract so much attention. I was there last week and it’s the oddest feeling, nothing like what you expect, especially not those of us whose strongest images of Iranians involve mobs tearing into the American Embassy. People come up to you, not by ones and twos, but by the scores and hundreds and snap selfies and tell you how much they like Americans. If you happen to pass by a picnic, whole families will wave you over to join them. If it’s close to a mealtime, and it’s always close to a mealtime, strangers will invite you into their homes to eat.

Sometimes Iranians will elaborate a bit and tell you that, although they really do like Americans, they don’t approve of our government . . . which struck me as profoundly sensible, since I feel exactly the same way. Every now and then I’d wax especially geopolitical and opine that, all over the world . . . Canada, South Africa, India, you name it . . . nobody likes their own government. To which they’d reply, “Yes, but we don’t like our government a lot more than they don’t like theirs.”

It’s hard to figure where all this goodwill comes from. Back in the day, a lot of Iranians studied abroad and plenty of them must have brought home warm memories of their time in America. Part, I suspect, has to do with the fact that they don’t see that many of us anymore. I’ve had that theory for a long time that there’s an inverse relationship between how well-liked Americans are in any given place and the number of us who travel to that place. Some of the good thoughts may spring from the very public alternative we provide to the society they’re forced to live in. Whatever, two or three even told me they liked President Trump because “his sanctions force our government to pay attention to the people.”

It's nothing like what you expect, especially not those of us whose strongest images of Iranians involve mobs tearing into the American Embassy.

For a government trying its damnedest to turn the Islamic Republic into a police state, the mullahs aren’t getting a lot of buy-in at the interpersonal level, at least when the other person is a foreigner. Iranians will tell you right up front, “We like talking to foreigners because we can discuss politics with them.” The unspoken . . . and, sometimes, spoken . . . corollary is that they’re afraid to talk politics with their own countrymen, at least if they don’t know those countrymen well enough to share a drink with. In a society where the strictures of Islam are jammed down everybody’s throats, sharing a drink with a friend is the ultimate act of trust. In fact, drinking itself is an act of trust because, with the borders shut tight and the vineyards at Shiraz long since uprooted, most of the available alcohol is brewed up from raisins.

Public defiance happens in small ways, but small rebellions are the hardest to control. Women — every woman, foreigner and local alike, even female SCUBA divers — have to hide themselves under layers of cloth. Some of that cloth can be astonishingly form-fitting, and the head coverings that go with it pushed so far back on the skull that they become more of a tease, like a very low-cut gown in the West, than anything exemplifying feminine virtue. Once, in a mosque of all places, I saw a woman remove hers entirely. It was early morning and she stood in the light streaming through a curtainwall of stained glass, the colors dancing off her face and clothes, to have her picture taken. Then pulled off her scarf so her hair could be in the picture, too. A guard, who’d been posted in the shadows to protect the mosque from just such an outrage, marched over and ordered her to cover back up.

“Now.”

With the time-honored gesture imperious women everywhere give to dismiss bothersome males, she flicked her fingers at him, he retreated to the dark recesses he’d risen up from of, and she went back to the serious business of having her picture taken.

I’ve had that theory for a long time that there’s an inverse relationship between how well-liked Americans are in any given place and the number of us who travel to that place.

Iranians have rebelled in more substantial ways, too. After the Revolution, when a particularly crazed mullah ordered Persepolis bulldozed, townspeople lay down in front of the Gate of All Nations, the gorgeous bas reliefs, and the remnants of Darius’s palace and treasury, and stayed laid down until the mullah gave up and the bulldozers lumbered away.

Whatever religious feelings individual Iranians have, or don’t have, they pretty much keep to themselves. Or, at least, they don’t make a show of to foreigners. Aside from a lady in the Grand Bazaar in Isfahan who wanted to sell me a tile painted with lovely Farsi script, then commanded not to use it as a trivet because the script spelled out “In the name of God,” religion only came up one time. That was in a park in Tehran when a claque of schoolgirls presented me with a scrap of paper, also lettered in Farsi. It took some asking, but the paper turned out to be a prayer for the return of the Mahdi. It was his birthday and the girls were celebrating by passing out prayers to park-goers.

The Mahdi, for those not versed in the intricacies of the Shia brand of Islam, is the Occulted Imam who, in the fullness of time, will reveal himself and reign over the Latter Days before the Resurrection. Oddly, given the echoes of Christianity in the story, or fittingly, or eerily, or because of rotating calendars, or for reasons known only to the common God our more ecumenical theologians claim we all share, his birthday fell on Easter Sunday this year.

Townspeople lay down in front of the Gate of All Nations, the gorgeous bas reliefs, and the remnants of Darius’s palace and treasury, and stayed laid down until the bulldozers lumbered away.

To believers of a certain ilk, the Mahdi has already taken a stab at revealing himself. This happened in the 1880s when he led an uprising in Sudan. But it didn’t stick. He won a spectacular series of battles, then died and became occulted all over again. His movement fell apart a few years later when his successor in Mahdiship attracted the notice of a British army equipped with Maxim guns and Martini-Henry rifles. Whether he’s planning on re-revealing himself anytime soon has not been communicated to me but, whatever he has in mind, there’s not much doubt what those girls were thinking. Their faces were ablaze with the joy and light of the true believer.

All of which is to say that, whatever tensions exist between America and the Islamic Republic, they’re not on the personal level, or even the religious. Government-to-government is a different story. Citizens of almost any place in the world can pick up a visa to Iran upon arrival at Imam Khomeini International Airport City in Tehran. Those of us who live in Britain, Canada, or the Great Satan, though, can’t even APPLY for a visa. We have to apply for permission to apply for a visa . . . which means sending in a form four months in advance setting out, among other things, the complete itinerary of our hoped-for visit along with a curriculum vitae for the past 15 years . . . where we worked, what we did, what our employers did . . . and then waiting three of the four months while they check our bona fides. The people who aren’t bona fide, the ones they don’t want in their country, are employees of “certain” US government agencies, and those of us with a history of practicing journalism. That practicing journalism business gave me pause until I realized that scribbling the occasional screed for Liberty is about as removed from journalism as an honest writer can get.

If you pass muster in the government-employee and journalism departments, they’ll favor you with a document granting permission to apply for a visa. This lets you fill out a visa application, slip the document, the application, your passport, a couple of photos, and a money order into an envelope and . . . Iran not having an embassy in the US . . . send the envelope to the Islamic Republic of Iran Interest Section at the Embassy of Pakistan. Which leaves you with the uncomfortable thought that I just sent my passport to Pakistan.

Those of us who live in Britain, Canada, or the Great Satan, though, can’t even apply for a visa. We have to apply for permission to apply for a visa

Our government isn’t all that gung-ho about Americans travelling to Iran, either. Here’s what the State Department posts on its website for those of us who might be tempted:

“Do not travel to Iran due to the risk of kidnapping, arrest, detention of U.S. citizens. There is a very high risk of kidnapping, arrest, and detention of U.S. citizens in Iran . . . .” (Bolds copied directly from the original, State Department font.)

After warning you about kidnapping, arrest and detention, the site highly encourages you to register with the American embassy so that our folks in Tehran will know you’re in town and can help you get back out if things go awry. Since we don’t actually have an embassy in Tehran, it’s hard to see how this would work, and my wife and I didn’t bother registering. One of the ladies who traveled with us did, though, and got a note back instructing her to appoint a hostage negotiator before setting out. She submitted the name of her 14-month-old granddaughter on the ground of, “that girl always knows what she wants.”

In Iran, traveling with a group is pretty much de rigueur on account of you aren’t allowed go anywhere without a guide. (“Guide” is Farsi for “minder.”) After you leave the country, your guide goes down to the Internal Security Police and reports on you. One of our guides told me he hated doing that, not because he felt that he was betraying his clients, but because he never knew what to say. “They ask me where the tourists went and what they took pictures of and what they talked about. I tell them they went to Persepolis and took pictures of the Gate of All Nations, and talked about Alexander the Great, and the Security Police get mad and threaten to pull my license.”

Since we don’t actually have an embassy in Tehran, it’s hard to see how this would work, and my wife and I didn’t bother registering.

At the end of our trip we had to fly from Shiraz to Tehran to catch our flight home. Tehran has two airports. The old airport, for domestic flights, and the new Khomeini Airport for international travel. On a good day, meaning at midnight when traffic is lightest, these airports are an hour and a half apart. Our tour arranged for a cab to take us.

The driver was more than accommodating, even by the standards of an Iranian dealing with Americans. When we arrived at Khomeini, he insisted on carrying our bags into the terminal . . . even though all we had was carry-ons, and the carry-ons had wheels.

Then he insisted on waiting in line with us.

And accompanying us to the ticket counter, and on through to emigration . . . at which point he couldn’t insist any more, so, pulling out his phone, he took a selfie of the three of us with the emigration booth in the background. “To remember you by.”

To REMEMBER us by? This guy was a cab driver.

Or, when I thought about it, something more than a cab driver. The selfie documented the fact that he’d gotten us onto the plane.

Apparently, when you join Iran’s fighting forces nobody issues you a uniform. Instead, you go to a tailor and get fitted for one.

The mullahs weren’t as queasy about what we were allowed to see while we were in Iran as they were about making sure we didn’t overstay our welcome, and one of the first places we went was the Nest of Spies. Also known as the Den of Espionage or, more poetically, the Museum-Garden of Anti-Arrogance, where we were invited to inspect all of America’s latest (à la 1970s) high-tech computer gadgetry, Faraday cages, and shredding equipment left over from when the place really did harbor spies. So it’s not exactly true that we don’t have an embassy in Tehran, it’s just that we don’t currently have diplomatic personnel serving in the embassy.

A few days later we drove past, but weren’t invited to examine, the uranium processing facility at Natanz with, presumably, stuxnet still whirling away at the centrifuges.

Something else the mullahs seemed a bit lax about was military couture. Apparently, when you join Iran’s fighting forces nobody issues you a uniform. Instead, you go to a tailor and get fitted for one, which makes Iranian soldiers a lot spiffier in the personal appearance department than baggy fatigues make our guys look.

I find it very difficult to believe that anybody in the entire country has any stomach for war with America, or any other place for that matter.

The tailors have a full line of insignia to complete the look and, like merchants all over the Middle East, don’t seem to care whom they sell to. So, if you want, you can walk into one shop and get fitted out in the regalia of a full colonel in the Iranian air force. Or, as I did, come away more modestly accoutered with a black Revolutionary Guard shoulder patch embroidered in gold thread with a hand clutching an automatic rifle. I heard there were Hamas shoulder patches on offer, but didn’t get one.

Despite this military stuff I find it very difficult to believe that anybody in the entire country has any stomach for war with America, or any other place for that matter. In the been-there-done-that department, Iran is top of the line. Back in the Eighties . . . almost the whole of the Eighties . . . it got in a dispute with Iraq and refought World War I. Trenches. Machine guns. Gas. Shells. Barbed wire, and a lot of Iranians died. Two-hundred-thousand. Six-hundred-thousand. Eight-hundred-thousand, you can take your choice because nobody believes the official stats. Reminders are everywhere.

On bridges. On lampposts. On sides of buildings. And, especially, down the center lanes of highways leading into towns.

Unlike the men whose names are chiseled beneath the words “We shall never forget” on obelisks and the bases of statues in Britain and America, these dead really are hard to forget. Their faces are on big black-and-white portraits hanging, two at a time, every 20 meters or so along the center strips of highways as you drive into town. Every town, and back out on the other side. Kilometers of young men. Miles of young men leading into Tehran and Qom and Kashan and Isfahan and Yazd and Shiraz and every little village and berg in between, and into the countryside beyond. Hometown kids. Thousands of them. Tens of thousands. Hundreds of thousands.

The very fact that you’re looking at their pictures tells you all you need to know, all you want to know, about what became of them.

As with people in photographs everywhere, you feel you can look them in the eye, that you can sense who they were, and who they could have been. Skinny, scared boys. Smirking cads. Athletes. Sad sacks. You make up stories in your mind. That one was proud to serve. Or a scholar. Or wishing he were home. Or back in school. Or in his uncle’s shop, or working the farm, or hanging out on a street corner. All . . . because you know what trench warfare is like, because you know what machine guns and gas and shells and barbed wire do to human flesh . . . destined for horrible, filthy deaths. The very fact that you’re looking at their pictures tells you all you need to know, all you want to know, about what became of them.

I don’t have any better idea than any other friend of Liberty what really happened to those four tankers that are said to have been sabotaged in the Persian Gulf in mid-May but, to a person of my generation, the news can’t help bring up memories of what we were told happened, but didn’t, in the Gulf of Tonkin. This time feels different, though, and I sure hope it is. Under Johnson we had a president who not only was looking for a fight but was willing to manufacture an incident to create one. Blunderbuss that some people will tell you our current president is, he’s said from the beginning he doesn’t want to get us involved in wars. So, maybe, he won’t.

Whatever is really going on between us and Iran and those tankers, Iranians are not people we want to fight. They are people who, in a different world, would be our closest friends. They are funny and spontaneous and laughing and much more like us than anybody else I know about in the Middle East, than many Europeans, for that matter, but I’m not sanguine about what’s going to happen. Not that I think we’ll get into a shooting war with them, I just can’t see how we can ever get out of each other’s faces.

Two presidents ago we elected a fool who broke that balance, and now we don’t have any choice but to maintain it ourselves.

Nobody who isn’t Iranian wants the Islamic Republic to control the Persian Gulf, and nobody who isn’t Saudi wants Arabia to control the Persian Gulf. The problem from the point of view of those of us who aren’t Iranian or Saudi is that Iran has the best army in the region, is a major industrial power, has a thriving agriculture sector, and is just short of world-class in high tech. Arabia can’t so much as make a ballpoint pen. Heck, Arabia can’t even feed itself. Wheat that sells for five dollars on the world market costs ten dollars worth of water to grow in Arabia. All of which puts America in a classic geopolitical bind.

Unless we want to send our own young people to the Persian Gulf to keep Iran from taking over the whole show, we don’t have any choice but to play balance-of-power, which means sanctions, and scaring away tourists, and pushing every country we have any sway with to keep cranking the screws down tighter.

It didn’t have to be this way. It used to be there was a built-in balance of power, with Iraq sitting on Iran’s western flank, tying up its army and its resources and generally putting the brakes on the Mullahs getting too frisky. But two presidents ago we elected a fool who broke that balance, and now we don’t have any choice but to maintain it ourselves. As one of the ayatollahs, or imams, or mullahs or somebody said at the time, “Allah has blinded the Great Satan into doing our work for us.” Or something along those lines.




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Vietnam Revisited

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I never fought in Vietnam. By the time I was old enough to go, I held a high draft-lottery number and a student deferment, and was never called up. I do remember the war, though. Early on, when Kennedy sent in the advisers, I was in elementary school, and saw the pictures on TV and in Life magazine. When Johnson sent in half a million men, I was in junior high, and we argued about the war in class. When Nixon came to power I was in high school, and we debated it more. When the four protesters were killed at Kent State University, I was finishing my first year at the University of Washington in Seattle. My instructor in German cancelled classes and gave us all A’s so we could go protest. I stood aside, watching the protesters flood onto Interstate 5 and block traffic until the cops pushed them off the exit to what are now the offices of Amazon.

My sentiments on the Vietnam War, like those of most Americans, evolved. In 1975, when South Vietnam collapsed, its government appealing for help and the US Congress and President Ford offering none, I was as coldhearted as anyone. I thought, “To hell with Vietnam.” I had been reading about it, thinking about it, arguing about it since I was a kid. During that time 58,000 Americans, of whom nearly 18,000 were draftees, had been killed there, along with maybe a million Vietnamese, and for what? In economists’ terms, the mountain of corpses was a “sunk cost” — and I was ready to watch the whole damn thing sink into the South China Sea.

I was living in Berkeley, California, when the South fell. I remember standing outside my apartment on May 1, 1975, taking photographs of a parade down Telegraph Avenue welcoming the Communist victory. “All Indochina Must Go Communist,” one banner said. Well, I hadn’t evolved that much. For me the fall of South Vietnam was a day for quiet sadness.

By 1975, 58,000 Americans, of whom nearly 18,000 were draftees, had been killed there, along with maybe a million Vietnamese, and for what?

As a kid in junior high, I had supported the war. Recall the geopolitical situation: Communists had eaten up a third of the world, with big bites in Eastern Europe in 1945–48, China in 1949, North Vietnam in 1954 and Cuba in 1959. They had been stopped in a few places — in Malaya, by the Brits — but once firmly established they had never been pushed back.The Cold War’s rules of engagement were that the Communists could contest our ground — what we called the Free World — but we dared not contest theirs. And the end of that road did not look good.

When I used that argument — and “domino theory” is not a good name for it — no one knew the Communist system was facing extinction. People knew it was a poor system for satisfying private wants, but as a foundation for political power, it did seem to pass the Darwin test: it had survived and spread.

All the old arguments came back as I was reading Max Hastings’ new book,Vietnam: An Epic Tragedy, 1945–1975. Hastings, an Englishman, is my favorite military historian; for years I have had his 1987 book, The Korean War, on my shelf, and I breezed through his 752-page Vietnam in a few days. In this book Hastings has undertaken to write the narrative of the war, and not all from the American side, but also in the voices of South and North Vietnam. Hastings reveals that there were arguments and worries on their side as well as ours. Many in the North hated the draft and did not want to trek down the Ho Chi Minh Trail to fight. Over the years, 200,000 Northerners deserted while in the South. The Northern soldiers also underwent far more privations than the Americans or their Southern allies, living on rice and water spinach (sold in Asian markets here as on choy) and often starving. On one occasion, Hastings says, they killed and ate an orangutan.

People knew communism was a poor system for satisfying private wants, but as a foundation for political power, it did seem to pass the Darwin test: it had survived and spread

Hastings analyzes the assumptions and the strategies of both sides. To the low-level Vietcong, the war was mostly about getting rid of Americans who looked and acted like the “long-nose” French, Vietnam’s late imperial overlords. The cadres tried to indoctrinate the VC in Marxism, but identity politics had the stronger pull.

Strength of belief and feeling makes a difference in war, and in Vietnam the advantage went to the other side. For a military historian, Hastings makes a key admission when he says that fighting was less important than “the social and cultural contest between Hanoi and Saigon.”

In that contest, the North’s standard-bearer was “Uncle Ho,” the Gandhi-like figure of Ho Chi Minh, who had kicked out the imperialist French. In the South, a society that included landowners, merchants, and bureaucrats who had worked for the French and prayed in the same church as the French, one of the icons was Vice President Nguyen Cao Ky. One observer said that Ky, an air force pilot with slick black hair and a pencil-thin moustache, looked like a saxophone player in a cheap Manila nightclub. Writes Hastings of Ky, “He was publicly affable, fluent, enthusiastic about all things American but the taste of Coca-Cola — and as remote as a Martian from the Vietnamese people.”

Strength of belief and feeling makes a difference in war, and in Vietnam the advantage went to the other side.

South Vietnam was a society rotten with corruption and ill-gotten wealth. “Again and again,” writes Hastings, “peasants were heard to say that whatever else was wrong with the communists, they were not getting rich.” History shows, though, that life is easier in a society in which some are wrongly rich than in one in which the rich are rounded up and shot, leaving everyone else poor. Hastings writes that when the North Vietnamese army rolled into Saigon, the soldiers were amazed at how much stuff the people had.

The Vietcong were terrorists. They beheaded the village chieftains who opposed them, and sometimes buried them alive. The Americans were told to behave better than that, but with their B-52s, high explosives, and napalm they dispensed death wholesale. American soldiers, Hastings writes, went to war “wearing sunglasses, helmets, and body armor to give them the appearance of robots empowered to kill.” Back at base, “Army enlisted men took it for granted that Vietnamese would clean their boots and police their huts.” And also use the bar girls for sexual entertainment.

Hundreds of thousands of South Vietnamese still fought and died for their state, and also worked with the Americans. First-generation Vietnamese in my home state are fiercely loyal to the old Republic of Vietnam, and still fly the yellow flag with the three stripes. Apparently they were not a majority of their countrymen, else the conflict would have come out differently.

With their B-52s, high explosives, and napalm the Americans dispensed death wholesale.

As the Pentagon Papers showed, smart people in the US government saw early on that South Vietnam was ultimately not a viable cause. President Kennedy expressed his doubts, but he also believed deeply that his mission was to stop the Communists. “Nothing that came later was inevitable,” Hastings writes, “but everything derived from the fact that sixteen thousand men were in country because John F. Kennedy had put them there.”

Hastings doesn’t buy the theory propagated in Oliver Stone’s movie JFK that Kennedy was on the verge of backtracking when he was shot.

Kennedy’s successor, Lyndon Johnson, sent half a million men to Vietnam because he didn’t want to be blamed for losing it, as Truman had been blamed for losing China. Johnson’s successor, Richard Nixon, saw that the war was lost, but he took four years to pull the troops out — an indecent interval in which thousands of Americans and Vietnamese died — because he didn’t want his name on an American defeat. For each of these US leaders, the concern was his country’s prestige (a Sixties word) and his own political standing. “An extraordinary fact about the decision making in Washington between 1961 and 1975,” Hastings observes, “was that Vietnamese were seldom, if ever, allowed to intrude upon it.”

Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon were focused on the Chinese and the Russians, and assumed they were in charge in Hanoi as much as the Americans were in Saigon. Hastings says it was not so. The Russians and the Chinese were frustrated at the North Vietnamese aggressiveness, and repeatedly advised them to cool it. Within the North Vietnamese leadership, Ho often agreed with his foreign advisors, but Hastings says that policy was set not by Ho but by Communist Party General Secretary Le Duan, “though the world would not know this.”

Nixon saw that the war was lost, but he took four years to pull the troops out — an indecent interval in which thousands of Americans and Vietnamese died — because he didn’t want his name on an American defeat.

By Hastings’ account the Americans were not the only ones who made big mistakes on the battlefield. Militarily, the biggest Communist mistake was the Tet (Lunar New Year) offensive of 1968. Le Duan’s idea was to show the flag in all the Southern cities, spark an uprising among the people, and swamp the Southern government in one big wave. In the event, the South Vietnamese didn’t rise. In Saigon, the Vietcong breached the wall of the US embassy, and in Hue, North Vietnamese regulars occupied the town north of the Perfume River for several weeks and methodically executed all their enemies. But everywhere the Communists were driven back.

The Vietcong lost 50,000 dead in Tet and follow-on attacks, five times the combined US and South Vietnamese military deaths. Largely cleansed of Vietcong, the countryside was quieter in the following year, as the North Vietnamese Army built up forces to fill the void left by the defeated Southern guerrillas. Though Tet was a military defeat for the North, the US press played it as a Communist show of strength, thereby tipping the balance of opinion in America against the war. For the Communists, a military defeat became a political victory.

The journalists had played it the way it looked, and it hadn’t looked like a South Vietnamese victory. American journalists had learned to distrust their government’s statements about the war. They should have begun four years earlier by distrusting the Tonkin Gulf Incident, which was used in 1964 to justify the de facto US declaration of war. Of the two supposed attacks on the destroyer USS Maddox, Hastings writes, one wasn’t real and the other was “a brush at sea that could easily and should rightfully have been dismissed as trivial.”

For the Communists, the military defeat of the Tet Offensive became a political victory.

In the case of Tet, US journalists inadvertently helped the enemy, but generally the press gave Americans a more accurate picture of the war in South Vietnam than the government did. The press did a poor job of reporting the shortcomings of the North, but it wasn’t allowed to go there. In 1966, when I was arguing with my schoolmates for the war, I repeatedly heard them say that communism would be a bad system for us, but it was a better one for the Vietnamese. If Americans had good reporting from North Vietnam, I don’t think my schoolmates would have said things like that. We anti-communists were right about one thing: communism turned out to be just as bad as we said it was.

The question remains as to what, if anything, America should have done to stop the Communists in Vietnam. Hastings quotes CIA officer Rufus Phillips describing what America did: “We decided that we were going to win the war and then give the country back to the Vietnamese. That was the coup de grace to Vietnamese nationalism.” But if it was wrong to do that in Vietnam, it should have been wrong in Korea, and it worked there, at least well enough to preserve the Republic of Korea. It can be no surprise that Kennedy and Johnson would try a military solution again.

What was the difference? Hastings touches on this question only briefly, mentioning the obvious: Korea is a peninsula with a border just 160 miles long, while South Vietnam had a border with Cambodia, Laos, and North Vietnam more than 1,000 miles long, perforated in many spots by the Ho Chi Minh Trail, the complex of corridors through which the Communists infiltrated the South with fighters and supplies. The warfare on the Korean peninsula was conventional, with front lines; in Vietnam it was a guerrilla contest while the Americans were there, becoming conventional only after they had decided to go. The physical climate was different, too. The Koreas were divided on the 38thparallel, about the latitude of San Francisco; the Vietnams were divided on the 17th parallel, about the latitude of Belize City. All of Vietnam is in the tropics, with attendant cloudbursts, humidity, bacteria, and bugs.

American journalists had learned to distrust their government’s statements about the war. They should have begun four years earlier by distrusting the Tonkin Gulf Incident.

And there were political differences. Ho Chi Minh was a hero of national independence; Kim Il Sung pretended to be one, but had a less inspiring story. Also, in Korea the old imperial masters were not long-nosed Caucasians but Japanese.

A penultimate thought. Hastings quotes without comment Lee Kuan Yew, the patriarch of capitalist Singapore, to the effect that if the Americans had not resisted the Communists in Vietnam, “We would have been gone.” Call this the “domino theory” if you like. It was a view I encountered in the early ’90s, when I worked in Hong Kong for Asiaweek magazine. Our founder and publisher, a Kiwi named Michael O’Neill, maintained that the American effort in Vietnam had stopped the Communists from pushing on to Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, and the Philippines. Meanwhile, China had junked communist economics, and Vietnam, unless it wanted to remain poor, would have to do the same. And that, O’Neill argued, meant that the Americans had really won the Vietnam War, even if they didn’t know it.

Or maybe, I thought, we had lost the war but in the long run it didn’t matter — because the war wasn’t the decisive contest.

Twenty-one years after the war ended, I traveled to Vietnam with my wife and six-year-old son. In Danang I met a group of men who had fought for the South and suffered persecution from the victors. They weren’t bitter at the Americans, nor were the tour guys who drove us to Khe Sanh and were too young to remember. In the North, at Ha Long, I chatted up the proprietor of a tiny restaurant who said that during the war, when he had been a truck driver for a state-owned coalmine, he had lost his house to American bombing. I told him I was very sorry my countrymen destroyed his house.

He shrugged. “I have a better one now.”


Editor's Note: Review of "Vietnam: An Epic Tragedy, 1945–1975," by Max Hastings. Harper, 2018, 857 pages.



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The Return of Malthusian Equilibrium

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After the departure of Europeans from their colonies following the end of World War II, the Third World rapidly became tyrannical, and their economies began a long decline. The institutional collapse of the Third World has continued over all these years, except that in the past two decades, from an extremely low base, its economies have improved. This economic growth did not happen because the Third World liberalized its economies or adopted any fundamental cultural change in its societies. What enabled synchronous economic progress over the past two decades in the Third World was the internet and the emergence of China.

Cheap telephony and the internet came into existence in the late ’80s. The internet provided pipelines for the transfer of technology and enabled wage-arbitrage to be exploited. Also, many countries — particularly in Latin America and sub-Saharan Arica — benefited from the export of resources to gluttonous-for-resources China, the only emerging market I know of, and to the developed world, which contrary to propaganda is economically still by far the fastest growing part of the world.

Cherry-picking countries of subsistence farmers and cattle-herders for propaganda purposes tells you nothing about the sustainability of their growth.

It is hard to believe, but many countries in the Middle East and North Africa peaked economically in the 1970s. Their competitive advantage was oil, not human resources. The per capita real GDPs of Saudi Arabia and the UAE, despite the fact that they have had a relatively peaceful existence, are about half as large as they were in the ’70s. The situation is similar in Venezuela and to a large extent in Nigeria. Except for the personal use of cellphones, the information technology revolution has simply bypassed these and many other countries.

According to the propaganda — steeped in political correctness — of the international organizations, all the fastest growing economies are in the Third World. But simple primary school mathematics helps cut through this propaganda. Ethiopia is claimed to be among the fastest growing large economies. This is quite a lie. An 8.5% growth rate of Ethiopia on GDP per capita of US$846 translates into growth of a mere US$72 per capita per year. The US economy, with GDP per capita of US$62,152, is 73 times larger, and despite its growth at a seemingly low rate of 2.2%, it currently adds US$1,367 to its per capita GDP — 19 times more than Ethiopia. The situation looks even more unfavorable for Ethiopia if its population explosion of 2.5% per year is considered.

Cherry-picking countries of subsistence farmers and cattle-herders for propaganda purposes tells you nothing about the sustainability of their growth, and certainly does not in any way enable comparison with the developed world.

The developed world is growing much, much faster than the Third World. The only exception is China.

Over the past two decades, the low hanging fruit of economic growth has been plucked in the Third World. South Asia, Southeast Asia, West Asia, Africa, and Latin America are now starting to stagnate. As the tide of the economic growth rate recedes, institutional collapse will become more visible. It will be seen on the streets as civic strife. What is happening in Venezuela, Syria, Turkey, Nicaragua, Honduras, Pakistan, Congo, and South Africa — where institutions are collapsing, social fabric is falling apart, and tyranny is raising its ugly head — are not isolated events but part of the evolving Third World pattern. Once its institutions have been destroyed, there will be no going back. They simply cannot be rebuilt.

When one looks at the world map, one realizes that all colonized countries were created in European boardrooms.

On a simplistic organizational chart, institutions in the Third World may look the same as they looked when European colonizers departed, but without reliance on the rule of law, respect for individual rights, and a rational approach to problem solving — all foundational concepts propagated by the West. They have been swamped by tribalism, magical thinking, and arbitrary dogmas and rituals.

Without the foundation of rational, critical thinking, formal education merely burdens the mind. The result is that stress among the so-called educated people in the Third World is growing, and no wonder: formal education, unassimilated, can work only in narrow areas, where all you want is cogs that can do repetitive jobs in corner cubicles, without encouragement or reward for creativity. This is not a future-oriented environment; it is a merely pleasure-centric one, in which people become easy victims of cultural Marxism. Democratic politics devolved into the politics of anti-meritocratic mass rule, destroying any institutions of true self-government.

During my recent visit to Port Moresby in Papua New Guinea, a young Western girl working for a Western embassy told me that she once went out without her security force. The police stopped her car, and she was fortunate that her security arrived before the police could take her away. The negotiation between police and security was about how much it would take not to rape her. Rape is common in Papua New Guinea, as it is in the rest of the Third World; but because this was a girl working for the embassy, rapists would have had their bones broken the day after. But their bones would have been broken the day after, “too far in the future” to be of much concern.

Without institutions of liberty and protection of private property, financial and intellectual capital does not accumulate.

When one looks at the world map, one realizes that all colonized countries were created in European boardrooms. There was no country of South Africa, Zimbabwe, Congo, or even India before the arrival of Europeans. The people who now run these countries simply do not have the ability or impetus to manage such large societies. They have tribal mentalities, unable to process information outside the visible space. The rulers of modern tribes continuously increase the size of their bureaucracies, but this merely creates overcentralization, the ossification of institutions, and massive, though unseen, systemic risks. Of course, tribalism is irrational, and internecine rivalry a fact of existence that is experienced only on a moment-to-moment basis.

Before the arrival of the Europeans, most of sub-Saharan Africa had no written language and few tools, contrary to popular perception of a pre-colonial utopia. Warfare was the order of the day. Eating flesh and brains of an enemy killed in conflict was practiced from Papua New Guinea, to Africa, to the Americas. Cannibalism is not unknown even today. Contrary to politically correct versions of history, 19th-century colonization was a massive, sudden improvement for many colonized peoples, and a paradigm shifting event for the Third World.

Europeans of the 1940s clearly knew that if they left the Third World, entropy would rapidly ensue, the locals would fail to run their countries, and those countries would implode into tribal units. These wouldn’t be self-managed societies that libertarians dream of, but tribal ones afflicted with internecine warfare. That is indeed where the Third World is heading, and much of it has arrived.

Africa’s population is growing at a faster rate now than it was in 1950.

Without institutions of liberty and protection of private property, financial and intellectual capital does not accumulate. Indeed, the Third World actively destroys or dissipates any material benefit that accrue to it. This happens through war, overconsumption, expansion of the exploiting (ordinarily the governing) class, and the active destruction of capital that one sees in the crime, vandalism, riot, and other means of destroying property that characterize the Third World. Despite their extreme possessiveness, people who destroy the capital of other people fail to maintain their own. In many Third World cities, when there is a day of celebration it is easy to assume that it is the day when employees got their salaries — which disappear by the next morning, drunk away. Capital fails to be protected or accumulated; the rational structure of a productive, thrifty, and prudent culture is not there.

While people in the West are blamed for being materialistic, Third World people are often much more focused on their possessions. The great fleet of servants in India, who are destined to forever remain servants, may earn a mere $100 dollars or less a month, but must have the latest smartphone. For me it is impossible to comprehend how they pay their rent, buy food, and still have some money left to buy a phone; but I remind myself that actually they take loans to buy smartphones and are forever in debt.

And now — the population problem is becoming worse.

Consider Africa alone. Africa’s population in 1950 represented a mere 10% of the world population. By the end of this century Africa, the poorest continent, is predicted to have at least 40% of the world’s people. Africa’s population is growing at a faster rate now than it was in 1950. Given that this rate begins from a much higher base, Africa adds six times more people today than it did in 1950.

More important: in the Third World countries, population control has mostly happened within the relatively more educated, intellectually sophisticated part of society. In Northern India, to cite another example, the unstable, uneducated, chaotic, and backward part of the population is exploding in size. Southern India, which is relatively stable and better off, is falling in population.

With ease of mobility, segregation is picking up its pace. The economically best people of the Third World find it much easier to emigrate than to stay home and fight to make society better, or maintain it in its current state. In 2017 alone, 12% of Turkish millionaires and 16% of Venezuelan millionaires emigrated. So great has been the emigration from India that it is virtually impossible to find a decent plumber or electrician. Forget about finding a good doctor. In a survey, only 30% of Indian doctors could diagnose a simple ailment. Everywhere educated people move to cities, while the rest stay on in rural places. Segregation is real, leaving the underclass with a huge deficit in leaders.

There is also segregation by sector of the economy. As the private sector has evolved in the Third World, government institutions have increasingly become brain-dead, for the best brains now want to work for high salaries in the private sector, leaving state power in the hands of the worst brains. Naturally, people have become very stressed and unsure. As an emotional escape, superstitious rituals and religious-nationalism are increasing exponentially, contributing to the elevation of exploitive, sociopathic elements to positions of power.

Perhaps, payments made to people for having children must stop; instead people should get money not to have children.

It is possible that some parts of the Third World simply cannot be “governed.” A couple of years back I undertook what I consider the most dangerous trip of my life. I went to Goma in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) on my own. Even for DRC, Goma is a lawless part. The Swedish police I was staying with told me one day that a pregnant woman had been raped, her fetus removed, cooked, and fed to other women of the tribe, who had all been raped. Listening to the stories of celebration of such brutalities in the Congo and elsewhere in Africa, I couldn’t but imagine what I would do if I were forced to run the DRC. I couldn’t imagine ever being able to bring it back to relative sanity without imposing the tyranny — for fear is the only restraint available in the absence of reason — for which Leopold II of Belgium is infamous.

This brings us to the terrible predicament of the Third World. Except for China, the countries of the Third World have failed to develop inner competencies and hence internal reasons to accumulate financial and intellectual capital. They have failed to maintain their institutions, which have continued to decay after the departure of European colonizers. The crumbs of economic benefits — the gifts of western technology — have been dissipated. What can be done? How would you deal with the predicament?

There is no hope unless the vast size of the underclass, who are statistically unable to participate economically, particularly in the age of AI, is reduced. Perhaps, payments made to people for having children must stop; instead people should get money not to have children. Even this first step can only happen if the Third World institutions are changed and rational leaders are imposed. But who will impose them?

The end result is obvious. With time — slowly and then rapidly — the Third World will continue to fall apart institutionally. The Third World will implode. This two-thirds of the world population will fall into tribes that, being irrational, will have no way to resolve disputes. They will enter a phase of neverending warfare, with other tribes and within their own tribes. If there is any surplus left, it will be dissipated through population growth and overconsumption. Ahead there is only entropy and a Malthusian future, mimicking the sad Malthusian equilibrium that existed before the colonizers came.




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Trump: Right on Iran?

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On May 8 President Trump withdrew the United States from the 2015 nuclear accord between Iran and the P5+1 nations (the US, Britain, France, Russia, China, and Germany). By doing so he isolated the US diplomatically (only Israel, Saudi Arabia, and some small states in the Persian Gulf support US abrogation of the agreement), and drew the ire of globalists, liberals, and the establishment media. But was Trump in fact right to pull out of the agreement?

I should mention that I have advocated détente with Iran since the 1990s. I even published an essay on the subject in Liberty back in March 2007 (“Engage Iran: A Way out of Iraq"). I still look upon the Iranian people as potentially our best friends in the Middle East. Iranians in general are more pro-Western than any of the Arab peoples. Sadly, we derailed Iran’s progress toward a western-style democracy when in 1953 we and the British overthrew the first and only democratic government in the country’s history. The Islamist tyranny that took over Iran in 1979 and still rules there today is the result of the coup d’état staged by the CIA and MI6.

The Iranian people are still potentially our best friends in the Middle East.

Obviously, we can’t turn back the clock. But if there exists a reasonable chance of Iran’s Islamic dictatorship crumbling from within, then perhaps we should do what we can to facilitate that outcome. We did something like this with the Soviet Union in the 1980s, by denying it credits and technology transfers, and by luring it into an arms race it could never win. Trump, by abrogating the 2015 nuclear accord, has begun to take Iran policy in a similar direction.

Despite Trump’s fulminations against the 2015 accord, the agreement negotiated by the Obama administration wasn’t really a bad deal. It ended Iran’s covert program to develop a nuclear weapon. Some 97% of Iran’s nuclear material was removed from the country. The inspection regime was adequate, even robust in some respects. The main weakness of the agreement was that it allowed Iran to resume enriching uranium for peaceful purposes after a 15-year hiatus. Objectively speaking, however, this was not a sufficient reason for us to withdraw from the agreement only three years after it was signed — and particularly so since the other signatories had no intention of leaving with us.

But if there exists a reasonable chance of Iran’s Islamic dictatorship crumbling from within, then perhaps we should do what we can to facilitate that outcome.

A secondary purpose behind the agreement, as the Obama administration saw it, was to promote a thaw in US-Iranian relations, with the hope that before 15 years had passed we would witness the end of the Islamic Republic and the evolution of a moderate, pro-Western regime. It has to be said, however, that the current leadership of Iran has shown no signs of softening its anti-American views. At the same time, the lifting of most sanctions on Iran after the agreement was made provided the regime with some economic relief (the Iranian economy and financial system were definitely hurt by sanctions) — and political relief, too, in that the people felt that their lives would improve once sanctions were removed. The nuclear agreement was, arguably, a lifeline thrown to a regime that was already in the process of sinking.

Moreover, Iran has continued to expand its influence in the region — in Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon, and as supporter of the Houthi insurgents in Yemen. Iran’s activities threaten to destabilize the Middle East generally, and are particularly worrisome when it comes to Saudi Arabia, its rival across the Persian Gulf and our most important ally in the Arab world. Although the US no longer needs to import Middle East oil, a crisis in the Gulf or, worse, the collapse of the pro-American regime in the world’s largest oil producer would roil energy markets and indeed the world economy.

Equally important is the fact that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has initiated a program of reform in the kingdom that holds out the prospects of, first, bringing Saudi Arabia into the 21st century and, second, ending the plague of Sunni jihadism that has infected Saudi society and large swathes of the Muslim world. If Prince Mohammed is successful in this, he will have rendered a service not only to his country and the region, but to humanity as a whole. The West has a big stake in his ultimate success.

The nuclear agreement was, arguably, a lifeline thrown to a regime that was already in the process of sinking.

Containing Iran is good for almost everybody – including, ultimately, the Iranian people. The only loser would be the Iranian regime itself. Supporting a reformist Saudi regime against Iranian mischief may help damp down Islamic radicalism and terrorism worldwide. And re-imposing sanctions on Iran, as Trump has done, may be the final straw that breaks the back of a regime beset by enormous economic problems.

I could never be a Trump supporter. His personality, behavior, and many of his policies are anathema to me. He has shown no real understanding of the nuclear agreement that he decided to tear up. That said, abrogating the agreement and reimposing sanctions on Iran seems to me a legitimate geostrategic play which, if it succeeds, will have enormous benefits for the US, the world, and, it is to be hoped, the Iranian people. With his dramatic move on May 8 Trump may very well have stumbled into the right policy.




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Caracas Dispatches

 | 

Mercedes Flanagan — I’ll call her that — a Venezuelan lawyer, television executive, and jurist, and most important, this author’s first cousin, arrived in Miami on December 15, 2017.

Flanagan. A good Latin American name, like O’Higgins or De Valera.

Mercedes was able to get here after acquiring a six-month US visa (months in the making and a miracle) and flying a convoluted route that included Trinidad and Panama City. Direct flights — or flights of any sort — have become increasingly difficult to book because of Venezuela’s paucity of convertible currency. Five days after her arrival we met at her sister’s house in Boca Raton to celebrate the holidays together. Two of her granddaughters were there, having left Venezuela three months before. They too were seeking political asylum. Mercedes had lost a lot of weight but looked good, a result she attributed to the “Maduro diet,” as Venezuela’s food shortage is nicknamed, after Nicolás Maduro, the current president. She dreads returning.

Please forgive me for that absurd phrase: “mismanaged socialist economy,” as if a well-managed socialist economy could be a reality.

“Behind the scenes,” she said, “Cubans run everything.” A surprising revelation for what was once one of South America’s richest, most sophisticated, and modern countries — and a dark irony. During the 1960s, Cuban military and guerrilla leaders funded and aided leftist insurgents. Though thoroughly defeated, they’ve made a latter-day comeback.

I asked Mercedes about the state of her finances. She answered that she was still receiving her government pension but that one-third of it had been converted into nonconvertible “economic war bonds,” useless savings certificates.

In 2017, the mismanagement of Venezuela’s socialist economy — please forgive me for that absurd phrase: “mismanaged socialist economy,” as if a well-managed socialist economy could be a reality (a socialist economy is, by definition, a mismanaged economy; to actually mismanage a socialist economy would be to insert market mechanisms into it) — drove the inflation rate of the Bolivar (Venezuela’s currency) to somewhere above 4,000%. Mercedes reported a black-market exchange rate of 102,000 Bolivares to the dollar, circa December 1. CNN now (mid-January) reports 191,000 Bolivares to the dollar.

In order to conserve cash, banks are sticklers at enforcing check cashing procedures and creating on-the-spot, arbitrary rules to deny a check.

Let’s take a closer look at this money thing. Each day, Venezuelan banks are given a fixed budget dictating how much cash they’re allowed to disburse to clients. Electronic transactions are allowed, but forget ATMs, they’re all out of cash. Outside the banks, the lines of customers waiting to cash checks in order to acquire cash are already long by opening time — translating to about an hour’s wait. In order to conserve cash, banks are sticklers at enforcing check cashing procedures and creating on-the-spot, arbitrary rules to deny a check. But here’s the kicker: the daily per client check-cashing allotment set by the government is the equivalent of between 6 and 18 US cents — often not even enough to buy a “tit’s” worth of groceries.

Yes, a “tit” or teta, as it is called, because it resembles a droopy breast. Officially, they are CLAP bags. They hold a month’s worth of groceries and toiletries that cost the equivalent of 18 US cents. The government makes them available to the poorest Venezuelans at heavily subsidized prices. But, as CNN reports, “Recently, CLAP bags have gotten smaller or been delayed as more Venezuelans slip into poverty and as the government runs out of money to import essential goods.” How ironic: a shortage of worthless cash.

Salaries are unpredictable, even for government employees. So garbage is collected perhaps once a month, according to Mercedes. One enterprising “Chávista collective” in Caracas representing about 4,000 families has issued its own, parallel currency, the panal, and its own bank, El Banco Panalero, to ease the shortage of cash. The pudgy face of the demagogue former President Hugo Chávez graces one side.

Speaking of iconic faces, renditions of Simón Bolívar’s face have been subtly altered to make him look more creole than European white by pugging his nose and darkening his skin — in other words, to have him resemble Chávez and Maduro.

Salaries are unpredictable, even for government employees. So garbage is collected perhaps once a month.

On the plus side, gasoline runs at about 60 cents a gallon — up from 4 cents a gallon not very long ago — a price that has allowed a lucrative smuggling market to thrive at the Colombian border. And Venezuelan day workers — mostly prostitutes — are now allowed into Colombia to earn some real money.

N.B.: Mercedes requested that her true identity not be revealed, writing: “The situation in Venezuela is now much worse with the cold-blooded assassination of the soldier officer for ‘desertion’ for disagreeing with the dictatorship of ‘twenty-first century socialism’ along with three civilians, one of them a pregnant woman . . . and they're not allowing family to see, identify the cadavers, or bury them. We're awaiting Maduro's announcement of the suspension of all civil rights. . . There the raids by armed ‘collectives’ controlled by the government continue with orders to spread panic so that the real, suffering population won't continue to demand their rights to food, medicine, security and free elections."




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Alas, Zimbabwe!

 | 

I had visited several African countries, but my 2009 flight to Harare turned out to be the most stomach churning. The ongoing expropriation of farms owned by people of European descent and the associated violence in Zimbabwe was international news in those days. On the plane, I watched two movies, Blood Diamond and The Last King of Scotland. Aided by a couple of glasses of wine, the two movies and the news from Zimbabwe got mixed up in my mind. I was expecting to encounter a violent society, general chaos, and militants with AK-47s. I was craving for my plane to somehow turn around.

But Harare proved safer than many other places I had been to in Africa. When we arrived, the airport was in complete darkness because of a shortage of electricity. The officials looked bored and sleepy. Yet interesting events awaited me. I was to get arrested in Harare. I was to spend time with Morgan Richard Tsvangirai, who was at that time an international star, a hero of human-rights activists for his opposition to President Robert Mugabe, and soon to be prime minister (a position without much power) under him. I was to be befriended by a relative of Mugabe, with whom I spent two days. I was also soon to become, to use a word that is yet to find a place in the dictionary, a multitrillionaire.

When I asked for it, someone soon brought me a bundle of 100-trillion dollar bills, all for free.

Zimbabwe had recently lost control of its currency. Inflation was so rapid — reaching as much as one million percent at one point — that the nation’s money was left with no value. A few months before I arrived, people had stopped using the local currency. The only medium of transactions was the US dollar, the South African rand, or the euro. When I asked for it, someone soon brought me a bundle of 100-trillion dollar bills, all for free. By this time, you couldn’t even buy a local bus ticket with those notes.

Nothing was cheap. Even for simple food and fruit, the prices were much higher than I would have paid in Canada. A kilo of onions was US $1.60, sugar was $0.85, and potatoes were a dollar. I could have bought a cheap table fan for something between $50 and $110. A 300-gram packet of Kellogg’s cornflakes was $2.10. A 400 ml of Pantene shampoo was $7.

In Zimbabwe, labor is dirt cheap — a couple of dollars or less a day — and land amply fertile. Development economists struggle to explain why even basic foodstuffs are so expensive in such countries. Why does manufacturing from China or at least from Europe not flood into places like Zimbabwe?

The explanation is very easy, but very incorrect, politically. I will zero in on it at the end.

Despite the high price of goods that should have provided huge incentives for people to work, the roads of Harare were full of thousands and thousands of unemployed men. Those trying to do something were selling produce — exactly the same produce — from small roadside shops. Prepaid vouchers for cellular phones were being sold everywhere, partly as currency or a hedge against inflation.

In Zimbabwe, labor is dirt cheap. Why does manufacturing from China or at least from Europe not flood into the country?

But what I was exploring was the economy that represented the higher tail-end of the national GDP, which was then $606 per capita. Harare, not the hinterland, was my principal location.

Despite extreme poverty and unemployment, Harare was a safe city. I tried striking up conversations in fast-food joints with those of European descent, and contrary to what I expected, they told me about the lack of ethnic conflicts in Zimbabwe. Most of the land expropriation and violence that had been happening was the responsibility of a minority of the populace, mostly connected with the ruling party. I got the impression that it wasn’t necessarily the violent aspects of Zimbabwean culture but its relative sheepishness that allowed violent people to rule the country’s institutions and not get challenged. If a significant minority doesn’t get fired up about liberty and proper institutions, the society must fall into political tyranny and chaos. I soon lost my fear and walked around freely, but bad things managed to happen, evidence of the tyranny beneath the calm.

At one point, a policeman came out of nowhere, started shouting at me, and held my wrist while I was midway crossing a road. He was shouting at me and pulling me in the other direction. I declined to go with him unless he let go of my wrist. We agreed that I would walk with him to his small post at the corner of the road. He had seen me photographing the parliament building, which is illegal. For him not knowing that law was the ultimate crime. He was obviously looking for a bribe, but not knowing how much to give, I could have easily fallen into a never-ending negotiation. My only other option was to look important and name-drop. So that’s what I did. In a tribal society, it is pecking-order and might-is-right that rule. The rule of law is not just unimportant, it isn’t worth the paper it is written on — it is incomprehensible to anyone, including the judges.

Most of the land expropriation and violence that had been happening was the responsibility of a minority of the populace, mostly connected with the ruling party.

One evening, Morgan Tsvangirai visited the hotel bar, where I managed to have a private conversation with him. Before becoming a politician, he was a trade union leader and had worked in a nickel mine. He told me bluntly that if he came to power he would be “fair” but would expropriate whatever he needed for the good of Zimbabwe. When I told him that international investors would not put money into Zimbabwe unless they saw profits and safety for their capital, the idea made no sense to him. He seemed to have absolutely no understanding of the concepts of private property and profit. Lack of ideas was in him so palpable that I doubt he could even be labeled a Marxist.

The truth was staring nakedly at my face: Zimbabwe after Mugabe would be much worse. Ironically, that understanding had completely escaped the international media and other international organizations that were lobbying to have Mugabe replaced by Tsvangirai.

I had met a lot of well-educated Zimbabweans who were living in London and New York. They expressed their patriotism and their craving to return. But they made it amply clear that they weren’t going to do so except as expatriates with hardship allowances added to their Western salaries. In the economic structure of Zimbabwe this would simply not add up. So they did not return.

He was obviously looking for a bribe, but not knowing how much to give, I could have easily fallen into a never-ending negotiation.

For whatever reason, I had come to be seen in Harare as a man wielding huge money power. A relative of Mugabe befriended me and decided to show me around during the last two days of my visit. He showed me his fleet of cars and his several palatial houses. He also showed me expropriated properties and farms of ethnically European farmers. Genteel readers may find my happily “enjoying” a trip to such farms a bit repulsive. But revulsion would simply have meant that I wouldn’t have had the experience, or have been able to write about it. We drove around Harare and surrounding areas like royalty, with the police now extremely servile. Our vehicle always picked up pace when we drove closer to police blockades.

So what does the future hold for Zimbabwe?

Zimbabweans are extremely unskilled and have a very high time preference. The moderately skilled Zimbabweans have moved on to greener pastures. Brain-drain is real, in Zimbabwe as in the rest of the Third World. None of this augurs well.

I reflected on what the “liberation” movement of Zimbabwe must have been like. I had good laughs with a lot of Zimbabweans and found them very friendly, but I found no ingredient in them that would make them fight for liberty and freedom, if they had any concept of what those words meant. The nationalist movements of the colonized countries are too sugarcoated in history books. Those movements were mainly about local goons fighting for power when Europeans were getting tired and colonization had started to become less profitable.

The truth was staring nakedly at my face: Zimbabwe after Mugabe would be much worse.

As I write this, Robert Mugabe has been removed in a coup. He had been in power since the foundation of the republic in 1980. He was, in effect, installed by a relatively rational entity: the British. No such entity exists in the extremely irrational and tribal Zimbabwe. The concepts of liberty, planning, reason, and the rule of law do not exist there. Zimbabwean democracy is incapable of finding another Mugabe. It will by definition find a significantly worse “leader.”

The world today is celebrating the end of Mugabe and the rise of new light in Zimbabwe. Zimbabweans danced and celebrated the removal of Mugabe and the appearance of their new-found “freedoms.” But behind the facade they are happy for something completely different. When they use the word “freedom” they are expecting the end of Mugabe to produce an era of free-stuff, goodies that flow without having to put in any effort. In their worldview, free-stuff should come to them without obligation to plan, invest, or strive for something more than momentary pleasure, including the pleasure of political “liberation.”

Let us zero in.

Zimbabwe was once the breadbasket of Africa. Gleaning out the key factors that made it a comparatively prosperous society is fairly easy, but hard to utter. In the old days its institutional spine was British rule and farmers of European heritage. Without their return in some form, Zimbabwe has no hope.

A year or two from now, the World Bank, the UN, and the media will again be complaining about Zimbabwe not turning out to be what they thought it would.

Of course, the milieu of Western society and international organizations is such that anyone who holds a politically incorrect view is immediately thrown out. So these organizations simply do not have the capacity to prescribe corrective action for Zimbabwe. They recite “democracy” as a treatment for all ills. But a “democratic” society that lacks the concepts of practical reason, limited government, and the rule of law does not have the ability to find a good leader. It will merely feel attraction toward the person who offers the most goodies.

A year or two from now, the World Bank, the UN, and the media will again be complaining about Zimbabwe not turning out to be what they thought it would. They will be expecting fresh elections to do the job. This demand for elections and democracy has been the never-ending, simplistic prescription of international organizations in the postcolonial world. But the prescription does not work. Zimbabwe will, unfortunately, get worse, much worse.




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Alas, Zimbabwe!

 | 

I had visited several African countries, but my 2009 flight to Harare turned out to be the most stomach churning. The ongoing expropriation of farms owned by people of European descent and the associated violence in Zimbabwe was international news in those days. On the plane, I watched two movies, Blood Diamond and The Last King of Scotland. Aided by a couple of glasses of wine, the two movies and the news from Zimbabwe got mixed up in my mind. I was expecting to encounter a violent society, general chaos, and militants with AK-47s. I was craving for my plane to somehow turn around.

But Harare proved safer than many other places I had been to in Africa. When we arrived, the airport was in complete darkness because of a shortage of electricity. The officials looked bored and sleepy. Yet interesting events awaited me. I was to get arrested in Harare. I was to spend time with Morgan Richard Tsvangirai, who was at that time an international star, a hero of human-rights activists for his opposition to President Robert Mugabe, and soon to be prime minister (a position without much power) under him. I was to be befriended by a relative of Mugabe, with whom I spent two days. I was also soon to become, to use a word that is yet to find a place in the dictionary, a multitrillionaire.

When I asked for it, someone soon brought me a bundle of 100-trillion dollar bills, all for free.

Zimbabwe had recently lost control of its currency. Inflation was so rapid — reaching as much as one million percent at one point — that the nation’s money was left with no value. A few months before I arrived, people had stopped using the local currency. The only medium of transactions was the US dollar, the South African rand, or the euro. When I asked for it, someone soon brought me a bundle of 100-trillion dollar bills, all for free. By this time, you couldn’t even buy a local bus ticket with those notes.

Nothing was cheap. Even for simple food and fruit, the prices were much higher than I would have paid in Canada. A kilo of onions was US $1.60, sugar was $0.85, and potatoes were a dollar. I could have bought a cheap table fan for something between $50 and $110. A 300-gram packet of Kellogg’s cornflakes was $2.10. A 400 ml of Pantene shampoo was $7.

In Zimbabwe, labor is dirt cheap — a couple of dollars or less a day — and land amply fertile. Development economists struggle to explain why even basic foodstuffs are so expensive in such countries. Why does manufacturing from China or at least from Europe not flood into places like Zimbabwe?

The explanation is very easy, but very incorrect, politically. I will zero in on it at the end.

Despite the high price of goods that should have provided huge incentives for people to work, the roads of Harare were full of thousands and thousands of unemployed men. Those trying to do something were selling produce — exactly the same produce — from small roadside shops. Prepaid vouchers for cellular phones were being sold everywhere, partly as currency or a hedge against inflation.

In Zimbabwe, labor is dirt cheap. Why does manufacturing from China or at least from Europe not flood into the country?

But what I was exploring was the economy that represented the higher tail-end of the national GDP, which was then $606 per capita. Harare, not the hinterland, was my principal location.

Despite extreme poverty and unemployment, Harare was a safe city. I tried striking up conversations in fast-food joints with those of European descent, and contrary to what I expected, they told me about the lack of ethnic conflicts in Zimbabwe. Most of the land expropriation and violence that had been happening was the responsibility of a minority of the populace, mostly connected with the ruling party. I got the impression that it wasn’t necessarily the violent aspects of Zimbabwean culture but its relative sheepishness that allowed violent people to rule the country’s institutions and not get challenged. If a significant minority doesn’t get fired up about liberty and proper institutions, the society must fall into political tyranny and chaos. I soon lost my fear and walked around freely, but bad things managed to happen, evidence of the tyranny beneath the calm.

At one point, a policeman came out of nowhere, started shouting at me, and held my wrist while I was midway crossing a road. He was shouting at me and pulling me in the other direction. I declined to go with him unless he let go of my wrist. We agreed that I would walk with him to his small post at the corner of the road. He had seen me photographing the parliament building, which is illegal. For him not knowing that law was the ultimate crime. He was obviously looking for a bribe, but not knowing how much to give, I could have easily fallen into a never-ending negotiation. My only other option was to look important and name-drop. So that’s what I did. In a tribal society, it is pecking-order and might-is-right that rule. The rule of law is not just unimportant, it isn’t worth the paper it is written on — it is incomprehensible to anyone, including the judges.

Most of the land expropriation and violence that had been happening was the responsibility of a minority of the populace, mostly connected with the ruling party.

One evening, Morgan Tsvangirai visited the hotel bar, where I managed to have a private conversation with him. Before becoming a politician, he was a trade union leader and had worked in a nickel mine. He told me bluntly that if he came to power he would be “fair” but would expropriate whatever he needed for the good of Zimbabwe. When I told him that international investors would not put money into Zimbabwe unless they saw profits and safety for their capital, the idea made no sense to him. He seemed to have absolutely no understanding of the concepts of private property and profit. Lack of ideas was in him so palpable that I doubt he could even be labeled a Marxist.

The truth was staring nakedly at my face: Zimbabwe after Mugabe would be much worse. Ironically, that understanding had completely escaped the international media and other international organizations that were lobbying to have Mugabe replaced by Tsvangirai.

I had met a lot of well-educated Zimbabweans who were living in London and New York. They expressed their patriotism and their craving to return. But they made it amply clear that they weren’t going to do so except as expatriates with hardship allowances added to their Western salaries. In the economic structure of Zimbabwe this would simply not add up. So they did not return.

He was obviously looking for a bribe, but not knowing how much to give, I could have easily fallen into a never-ending negotiation.

For whatever reason, I had come to be seen in Harare as a man wielding huge money power. A relative of Mugabe befriended me and decided to show me around during the last two days of my visit. He showed me his fleet of cars and his several palatial houses. He also showed me expropriated properties and farms of ethnically European farmers. Genteel readers may find my happily “enjoying” a trip to such farms a bit repulsive. But revulsion would simply have meant that I wouldn’t have had the experience, or have been able to write about it. We drove around Harare and surrounding areas like royalty, with the police now extremely servile. Our vehicle always picked up pace when we drove closer to police blockades.

So what does the future hold for Zimbabwe?

Zimbabweans are extremely unskilled and have a very high time preference. The moderately skilled Zimbabweans have moved on to greener pastures. Brain-drain is real, in Zimbabwe as in the rest of the Third World. None of this augurs well.

I reflected on what the “liberation” movement of Zimbabwe must have been like. I had good laughs with a lot of Zimbabweans and found them very friendly, but I found no ingredient in them that would make them fight for liberty and freedom, if they had any concept of what those words meant. The nationalist movements of the colonized countries are too sugarcoated in history books. Those movements were mainly about local goons fighting for power when Europeans were getting tired and colonization had started to become less profitable.

The truth was staring nakedly at my face: Zimbabwe after Mugabe would be much worse.

As I write this, Robert Mugabe has been removed in a coup. He had been in power since the foundation of the republic in 1980. He was, in effect, installed by a relatively rational entity: the British. No such entity exists in the extremely irrational and tribal Zimbabwe. The concepts of liberty, planning, reason, and the rule of law do not exist there. Zimbabwean democracy is incapable of finding another Mugabe. It will by definition find a significantly worse “leader.”

The world today is celebrating the end of Mugabe and the rise of new light in Zimbabwe. Zimbabweans danced and celebrated the removal of Mugabe and the appearance of their new-found “freedoms.” But behind the facade they are happy for something completely different. When they use the word “freedom” they are expecting the end of Mugabe to produce an era of free-stuff, goodies that flow without having to put in any effort. In their worldview, free-stuff should come to them without obligation to plan, invest, or strive for something more than momentary pleasure, including the pleasure of political “liberation.”

Let us zero in.

Zimbabwe was once the breadbasket of Africa. Gleaning out the key factors that made it a comparatively prosperous society is fairly easy, but hard to utter. In the old days its institutional spine was British rule and farmers of European heritage. Without their return in some form, Zimbabwe has no hope.

A year or two from now, the World Bank, the UN, and the media will again be complaining about Zimbabwe not turning out to be what they thought it would.

Of course, the milieu of Western society and international organizations is such that anyone who holds a politically incorrect view is immediately thrown out. So these organizations simply do not have the capacity to prescribe corrective action for Zimbabwe. They recite “democracy” as a treatment for all ills. But a “democratic” society that lacks the concepts of practical reason, limited government, and the rule of law does not have the ability to find a good leader. It will merely feel attraction toward the person who offers the most goodies.

A year or two from now, the World Bank, the UN, and the media will again be complaining about Zimbabwe not turning out to be what they thought it would. They will be expecting fresh elections to do the job. This demand for elections and democracy has been the never-ending, simplistic prescription of international organizations in the postcolonial world. But the prescription does not work. Zimbabwe will, unfortunately, get worse, much worse.




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Temporization Fugit

 | 

As speculated in a June 7 feature here, President Trump today (June 16) announced, before a packed Miami crowd, a big change in US-Cuba policy. Though tourism to the island by American-based visitors has been technically banned by the embargo for quite some time, the 2014 Obama thaw fudged the issue in a variety of ways. President Trump has just dumped the fudge.

Pre-Obama’s thaw, regulations allowed Americans to visit Cuba under a variety of categories, including a people-to-people category — once their itinerary had been vetted by the Treasury Department. Under that category, only organized tour groups with a detailed itinerary were allowed to visit, with the intent of American folks and Cuban folks getting to know each other.

Compliance with the travel regulations in all categories will be strictly enforced.

On December 2014, President Obama eliminated the vetting process and allowed visitors to vet themselves on an honor system. At the same time, visitors returning from the island weren’t scrutinized, only questioned perfunctorily or not at all, about their compliance with US government regulations.

According to CNBC, “President Trump's policy restricts this form of travel to Cuba for individuals. Americans pursuing this type of travel would have to go in groups.” And their compliance with the travel regulations in all categories will be strictly enforced.

But the ultimate aim of the new policy is to restrict American tourist dollars going to businesses owned by the Cuban military's holding company, GAESA. "The profits from investment and tourism flow directly to the military. The regime takes the money and owns the industry. The outcome of the last administration's executive action has only been more repression and a move to crush the peaceful, democratic movement," Trump said in Miami on Friday.

The ultimate aim of the new policy is to restrict American tourist dollars going to businesses owned by the Cuban military's holding company.

According to Fox News, The policy calls on Americans traveling to Cuba to use "private businesses and services provided by the Cuban people, rather than businesses and services provided by GAESA." In effect, government hotels and resorts are out. US-based visitors must use private B&Bs and restaurants otherwise known as casas particulares and paladares.

The new policy does not go into effect until the new regulations are issued. We await the Cuban government’s reaction . . .




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