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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Muzungus in the Mist

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Part I: The Slow Cyclists

“Run!”

“Run where, Papa?”

“Into the bush! Now!

Little seven-year old D’Artagnan had no idea what was going on. Was he supposed to run “into the bush” alone? Why? Rwanda had very little “bush”; it was all agricultural small holdings.

As soon as the plane went down, the Rwandan genocide began. It had been well planned for a long time.

That was the evening of April 6, 1994. That afternoon Rwandan Hutu dictator and president, Juvénal Habyarimana, along with Burundian President Cyprien Ntaryamira, also a Hutu, were shot down by missiles fired at close range as their plane was landing at the Kigali airport. Officially, the attackers remain unidentified. Though Hutu extremists blame the Rwandan Patriotic Forces (RPF) — Tutsi and moderate Hutu rebels opposed to Habyarimana’s dictatorship — RPF forces were nowhere near the area. Only the elite presidential guard was nearby, stationed at the Kigali airport, next door to the president’s compound — and they were armed with missiles.

Habyarimana was just returning from Tanzania after a regional summit. Three months prior he’d signed the Arusha Peace Accords, a power-sharing deal with the RPF that was supposed to put an end to the long-running civil war between the National Revolutionary Movement (MRND) and the RPF. A cabal of Hutu extremists in high government posts, reluctant to cede any power or spoils, opposed the deal. Habyarimana himself was no fan of it; the international community and the RPF’s military might forced it on him.

As soon as the plane went down, the Rwandan genocide began. It had been well planned for a long time. Machetes imported from China, grenades from France (military support of several kinds had been provided by the French government), and masus, clubs with protruding nails on their heads, had been stockpiled for this moment. Extremist Hutu militias, known as the interahamwe (those who attack together), had trained for this moment since 1990. Within hours of the downing of the plane the interahamwe went house-to-house killing Tutsis, set up road blocks demanding identity cards and chopping down Tutsis on the spot, and murdering moderate Hutu politicians — including the Prime Minister, Agathe Uwilingiyimana.

We’d gone to Rwanda to bike around the small country, our favorite way of discovering new places. With an undergraduate minor in primatology, I wanted to see gorillas up close. What better venue than the Virunga volcanoes where Dian Fossey had done her studies? And my wife Tina had never been to Africa. It was a bucket list thing.

Within hours the militias went house-to-house killing Tutsis, set up road blocks demanding identity cards and chopping down Tutsis on the spot, and murdering moderate Hutu politicians.

We signed up for an 8-day tour with Slow Cyclist, an outfit out of Britain. Having been an outdoor guide all my life, hiring a guide rankled. But the gorilla permits are difficult to acquire, there are no adequate maps of Rwanda’s back roads, my Kinyarwandan is non-existent, and Slow Cyclist promised a first-class mountain bike tour with a guaranteed gorilla trek at the end. So I held my nose and signed up for their Kigali to Virunga ride along the steepest, roughest backroads in East Africa (I was skeptical of their advertised nearly 5,000-foot altitude gain on a bike the first day, but wrote it off as a typo), with custom lodging at tea plantations, private homes, and reservation-only boutique inns.

After the Slow Cyclist tour, Tina and I would traverse the Congo-Nile Trail, a moderately hard world-class mountain bike trail along giant Lake Kivu on the Congo border. Because much of the single-track is difficult to follow and lodging scarce and variable, we planned on hiring a guide from Rwandan Adventures, a custom guide outfit. After that we’d be on our own across the southern half of the country and back up to Kigali. Our full route traced a circle around the western half of Rwanda, starting and ending in Kigali, which is approximately in the center of the country.

Even though we brought our bikes with us, entry formalities were search- and customs-free. The immigration official greeted us with a big smile and declared that we were VIPs. He asked my profession. I said I was a retired teacher. He responded, “My son says that teachers never retire.”

I was skeptical of their advertised nearly 5,000-foot altitude gain on a bike the first day, but wrote it off as a typo.

On the first day Slow Cyclist took us to the Kigali Genocide Memorial. Two hundred and fifty thousand people are buried there. Our guide around the small museum was D’Artagnan. Something about our small custom group — seven participants from the US, Switzerland and Germany — seemed to affect D’Artagnan’s stock presentation. When he recounted the events of that April 6 evening he couldn’t hold back his tears. Neither could we.

“How did you survive?” we hesitantly but anxiously asked.

Little D’Artagnan had wandered lost for days until a kind old woman hid him. His entire family was annihilated. He added that the interahamwe grabbed small children by the feet and swung them against masonry walls to smash their heads; larger ones were decapitated by machete. No one left that museum tour without physically touching D’Artagnan, who nonetheless left us without ceremony.

In some ways the Rwandan genocide was much worse than the Nazi Holocaust. Patrick Mazimpaka, a minister in the 1997 RPF-led government reflected, “In Germany, the Jews were . . . moved to . . . distant locations, and killed there, almost anonymously. In Rwanda . . . your neighbors killed you. In Germany, if the population participated in the killing, it was not directly but indirectly.”

Little D’Artagnan had wandered lost for days until a kind old woman hid him. His entire family was annihilated.

Mahmood Mandami, in his scholarly analysis When Victims Become Killers: Colonialism, Nativism, and the Genocide in Rwanda, says:

The technology of the Holocaust allowed a few to kill many, but [in Rwanda] the machete had to be wielded by a single pair of hands. It required not one but many hacks to kill even one person. With a machete, killing was hard work; that is why there were often several killers for every single victim . . . The Rwandan genocide was very much an intimate affair. It was carried out by hundreds of thousands, perhaps even more, and witnessed by millions.

Then there are the raw numbers. Rwanda had seven million inhabitants before the genocide. Nearly one million were Tutsis. During the 100 days the genocide proper lasted, 800,000 to one million Tutsis and moderate Hutus were killed. That’s at least 333 1/3 murders per hour — or 5 1/2 lives terminated every minute. That the entire Tutsi population wasn’t annihilated is due to the many waves of Tutsi refugees that found asylum in Uganda, Zaire, Burundi, and Tanzania before and during the killing.

The disaster didn’t begin there. The Hutu-Tutsi rivalry became deadly in 1897 when the ruling class — mostly Tutsis — imposed heavy duties on the peasants — mostly Hutus. Then it took another turn in1933 when the Belgian authorities decided to issue mandatory identity cards to all Ruandan-Urundis (as residents of the colony were then called), thereby freezing ethnic and class identity. It was then that infrequent pogroms — by both sides — began taking place. Before then, the Hutu-Tutsi classes were not fixed: a Hutu could become a Tutsi and vice versa. Intermarriage was common, to such a degree that an observer could not visually distinguish an archetypal Hutu from a Tutsi. (Except for the king, who was 7’2” tall; height is a supposedly defining Tutsi trait.) Neither could we make such visual distinctions during our one-month sojourn and 700-kilometer bike ride around the country.

During the 100 days the genocide proper lasted, 800,000 to one million Tutsis and moderate Hutus were killed. That’s at least 333 1/3 murders per hour — or 5 1/2 lives terminated every minute.

Killings began in earnest in 1959, with subsequent waves in 1962, 1963, 1967, and continued periodically until 1994. In 1972 there was a 250,000 reverse massacre: of Hutus in neighboring Burundi by the Tutsi-dominated government (even though the Hutu-Tutsi proportion in Burundi was the same as in Rwanda: 85% to 15%).

The RPF started their advance south from Mulindi, headquarters next to the Ugandan border, on April 7. Though Kigali was only about 80 kilometers away, they began a three-pronged pincer movement targeting Byumba — the first big city on the road south — Kigali, and Butare, Rwanda’s number two city and intellectual capital, with the intent of breaking supply chains and laying siege to all three. They were well-disciplined, armed with both guns and morale, and were led by Paul Kagame, who has been described as the African Napoleon — a tactical and strategic genius. When government troops faced the RPF advance, they often ran away. The Interahamwe, armed only with machetes and masus, followed them, while the Hutu Power militias evaporated. The Presidential Guard, the best trained soldiers of the regime, put up the most resistance. As Lieutenant General Roméo Dallaire, head of the United Nations Assistance Mission for Rwanda, stated in his book Shake Hands with the Devil: The Failure of Humanity in Rwanda, “The RGF (Rwandan Government Forces) soldiers were killing for the sake of killing, not knowing or caring why. In this type of conflict, the men fighting for principles they believed in would inevitably win.”

Finally, after the RPF victory on the Fourth of July, 1994, the Hutu militias, Interahamwe, and remnants of the previous government’s army fled to Congo and regrouped there, with hopes of overthrowing the new RPF government in Rwanda. Kagame, the defense chief of the RPF (and later president of the country) would have none of that. He enlisted the aid of Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni, whom he’d helped to topple Ugandan dictator Milton Obote with the RPF forces, to neutralize the génocidaires.

The RPF were well-disciplined, armed with both guns and morale, and were led by Paul Kagame, who has been described as the African Napoleon — a tactical and strategic genius.

Counting the killings before the genocide, the genocide itself, and killings that continued in wars directly resultant from the genocide, the death toll topped six million.

* * *

In Kigali, Slow Cyclist ensconced us in the Heaven Chalet, next door but one to President Paul Kagame’s residence and about two blocks from the Hotel Mille des Collines, site of the events depicted in the movie Hotel Rwanda. If you think San Francisco is hilly, you haven’t been to Kigali, a city so much that way that it defies a grid system for roads. Each hill is overlaid with a paisley street pattern with connector avenues to the other hills.

Kigali is a spotlessly clean city. In fact, all of Rwanda is litter-free; plastic bags are even outlawed. Not only are the people proud of their country but on the last Saturday of every month all businesses shut down and a general cleanup ensues. Kigali is also a city without slums, beggars, homeless people, bare footedness, potholes, or animals — even dogs. Their curious absence drove home for us, more than anything, including the numbers of dead, how they died, and D’Artagnan’s tale, the enormity of the genocide.

If you think San Francisco is hilly, you haven’t been to Kigali, a city so much that way that it defies a grid system for roads.

When the genocide ended on July 4, 1994, a country of 10,000 square miles was peppered with one million dead. They lay both scattered and in clusters, many piled in churches where they’d sought refuge (although there were a few hastily dug mass graves). Rwanda’s neglected and hungry dogs dug into the corpses. As if carpets of corpses weren’t overwhelming enough, watching hungry dogs scavenging the dead was beyond anyone’s tolerance. All dogs were killed. Nearly 25 years later we encountered only two instances of dogs, both pets of foreigners.

The police, according to all accounts, are incorruptible. One informant told us that when offered a bribe, they are instructed to accept it and keep it — and then to write a citation for bribing. Emi, our driver and guide, said thieves and assaulters were lucky if caught by the police. Woe betide the miscreant who is set upon by witnessing passersby before the arrival of the cops.

Traffic laws are strictly enforced. One practice that wouldn’t pass muster in the US but makes the streets much safer for pedestrians and bikers is that any motorist who hits a pedestrian or biker is automatically incarcerated for six months before even facing a judge. Motorcycle taxis (moto-taxis), the most common mode of public transportation (along with buses and bicycles kitted up with a back seat), carry a spare helmet for fares. And they are scrupulously honest, with no price negotiation. Just flag one down, state your destination, and upon arrival hand over any denomination of Rwandan francs, and you’ll get the right change. How they figure the correct amount remains a mystery to me, but the fares for similar distances from different drivers remained consistent.

To avoid Kigali traffic — which isn’t particularly fast or outrageously dense — Slow Cyclist drove us to the outskirts of the city, and up the first thousand feet of our first day’s ride. With another 4,000 feet up to go, and 50 kilometers along impossibly steep and rugged dirt roads, we’d have been hard pressed to reach the Sorwathe Tea Plantation in Kinihira, our first night’s lodging, without that initial motorized boost.

Kinihira had been fought over in the civil war launched by the RPF in October 1990. It was here that much of the Arusha Peace Accords had been negotiated. It then became neutral ground and was the site of the official launch of the UNAMIR peace keeping force in October 1993. We slept on hallowed ground.

Any motorist who hits a pedestrian or biker is automatically incarcerated for six months before even facing a judge.

As avid bikers, Tina and I can hold our own in any group. But the four 26-year-old Swiss and one German, all experienced mountain bikers, made me feel my age; it was my birthday, and I’d turned 69 that day. Still, it was a tough day for us all: two flats, one lost biker, and a crash so bad it forced the German to ride in the four-wheel drive support vehicle for two days with a bandaged forearm. Was it going to be so difficult every day?

Pretty much. Fifty-five kilometers and 3,500 feet of altitude gain on the second day, all on rocky, rutted four-wheel drive back roads. We started, however, with a tour of the tea factory, with full-on hygienic suits. Observing the sophisticated operation, which was literally “in the middle of nowhere,”’ we were amazed that the entire factory was operated by four massive wood-burning boilers stoked round-the-clock.

During that day’s ride, Tim, one of the Swiss riders, and an economist by trade, with a take-no-prisoners approach to development economics, deigned to ride with this old fogy. He was open and friendly, with a confident arrogance that I found attractive. Since both of us were impatient with small talk, I told him I was an admirer of Hayek and Mises. He added Hernando de Soto, confirming that we shared some theoretical premises.

I then asked him what he thought of Jeffrey Sachs, the doyen of development economics. Tim found the man’s views deplorable and unrealistic, but had bought the main book that expounded his views. When he saw that the introduction was written by a rock star, Bono — Tim’s words were now dripping with sarcasm — he put off reading it.

On a roll, he moved on to a rant about “fair trade,” one of his favorite foils. Like the American economist Tyler Cowen, who observed that if you want to help the really poor, you don’t buy “fair trade,” Tim had his own beef with the concept, especially when thoughtlessly lumped in a basket of other trendy ideologies.

Was it going to be so difficult every day? Pretty much.

A friend back in Bern, an advocate of fair trade and sustainability, had been buying a “fair trade” avocado when Tim revealed to her that the inefficiencies behind that import did not fit a sustainable model — on any level. She sheepishly put the avocado back on the shelf. I sensed an opening to have fun by presenting a poser on economic inefficiencies, as follows.

Our biking guides, Olivier and Godfrey, came from Rwanda and Uganda respectively. Both were 23 years old, excellent competitive mountain bikers, personable and sensitive, with good English. Slow Cyclist also runs tours in Transylvania, Tuscany, and Greece that are manned by locals. Savannah, our Slow Cyclist head honcho on this tour, told me that Slow Cyclist was mulling over bringing Olivier and Godfrey to Transylvania as on-the-ground biking guides — initially on a training basis — and bringing Romanian guides to Rwanda. I told Tim about Savannah’s plans, drolly emphasizing how inefficient such a move would be.

Tim looked at me impishly and admitted that there were some things more important than economic efficiency. I could tell by his smile that a man who doesn’t suffer fools gladly, had found a new friend.

I elaborated: if you promise to stay together no matter what, there is a perverse incentive to become complacent and take each other for granted.

During the succeeding days we continued to enjoy various topics in economics. One evening after a couple of banana beers, I brought up a thought about incentives that I‘d been mulling over for a while when he asked me how long Tina and I had been married; a question, no doubt, precipitated by how well — and uninhibitedly — she and I got along.

I told him we weren’t married, but had been together for 30 years and had known each other for 40, adding that we thought marriage was premised on the wrong set of incentives. Tim was intrigued. I elaborated: if you promise to stay together no matter what, there is a perverse incentive to become complacent and take each other for granted. Better to promise to leave each other if not treated with love and respect; that way, you’re both always at your best and remain attractive to each other. Remember that love is a marketplace and that potential mates are everywhere and that we’re always comparing what we have to what we could have. So always be at your best so you remain your mate’s number one attraction.

Tim just stared at me, transfixed. There was little under the sun that he hadn’t thought about, but I could tell that what I had just said was new, really new, phrased in his economist’s language.

Tim’s fellow Swiss, all single and consisting of a lawyer, a tech whiz, and another economist — one whose work had been quoted in academic papers — were also of an intellectual bent. The following morning all four rode without their usual vigor; they’d stayed up most of the night drinking beer and discussing my views on marriage. Adrian, the other economist, thought me a bit cold, cynical, and outside the mainstream — hence the long discussion. But Tim was convinced of the soundness of my analysis and decided to approach relationships from a new perspective.

* * *

Our little group was mobbed by locals at every tiny village and water, rest, and regrouping stop. Rwanda is densely populated; there are people everywhere, though white people are very uncommon. As soon as they spotted us, kids would cry out, “Muzungus, muzungus!” in glee and run towards us, big smiles on their faces, palms or fists outstretched for high-fives or knuckle bumps. But when the cameras came out, so — often — did their shyness. Adults would also crowd around curiously, inspect our bikes, shake our hands, and try to engage us with smatterings of French or English, such as “Good morning” or “What is your name?”

Tina and I, with Kinyarwandan phrases taped to our handlebar packs, would respond in Kinyarwandan, a difficult and unintuitive language for us. Often, just for fun and to elicit laughs from the kids, I’d respond nonsensically and unexpectedly with some words I’d memorized, such as inkoko (chicken), umukondo (belly button), and ingrube (pig) — ordinary words, but out of the ordinary in introductory conversations. One of the words I memorized was umwirabura, black person, which I’d lob back at being called a muzungu.The pitch-black African faces would break into broad grins with teeth so uniform and white that we began to wonder how such perfect dental health resulted in this third world country. And it wasn’t just the nearly universal perfect dentition that was noteworthy. Like the inhabitants of Lake Wobegon, Rwandans — men, women, and children — are good-looking and of above average intelligence. In a month and 700 kilometers, we saw perhaps a handful of smokers and even fewer overweight people. At the risk of losing further credibility, I’ll add that — in our experience — they are all friendly, transparent, outgoing, honest, and helpful. When faced with a hill too steep, roadside Rwandans would pitch in to help us push our bikes. They are a people to fall in love with.

Muzungu: originally a Swahili word meaning “aimless wanderer,” but now generally used as a term for white people. However, it can also be used for any foreigner, including American black people. Emi, our driver, told us he’d driven many American actors, including Harrison Ford, Leonardo DiCaprio, Ben Affleck, and Isaiah Washington (an actor in Grey’s Anatomy)to and from the gorilla trekking. Though singling out Washington, Emi generalized to other American stars (mostly black, but including some whites), saying that they were all nice but had a propensity to use “jive” language that included terms such as “bad-ass,” “fucking amazing,” and other obscenities used as intensifying modifiers for compliments. Emi had to gently censure them. Rwandans are conservative in deportment though generally liberal in attitudes. They found jive language offensive and offputting.

As soon as they spotted us, kids would cry out, “Muzungus, muzungus!” in glee and run towards us, big smiles on their faces, palms or fists outstretched for high-fives or knuckle bumps.

On our third day out we approached the Rift Valley in northern Rwanda, with its lakes and volcanoes swaddled in mists that added an air of mystery to our anticipation. After a half-day of riding, which included a single-track section composed of an eight-inch ridge flanked by foot-and-a-half-deep ruts on each side that only Olivier and Godfrey could ride, we arrived at Lake Ruhondo. Two wooden boats with canopies, close relatives of the African Queen, awaited to take our bikes and us to the Foyer de Charité, a Catholic convent on a distant shore. Poor Godfrey and Olivier. They couldn’t swim and were terrified of the boat ride, snuggled in their Mae Wests and begging us not to move from our seats for fear of unbalancing the boats. After their display of expertise on the single-track, their worry was an endearing counterpoint.

The following day began with a walk down to the lake and another boat ride to an even farther shore, followed by a steep 2.5-mile uphill walk to the tony Virunga Lodge for a lunch of pea soup and tenderloin steak.

A mile before the lodge, we hit a newly-built public library, again in the middle of nowhere (yes, I know, it’s getting old . . . all of Rwanda seems to be in the middle of nowhere). It was a modest structure, but well-planned and executed. At least half a dozen people were using the new computers or perusing the stacks. One budding artist was drawing a charcoal portrait of a silverback. They were thrilled to have muzungu visitors. We got a tour. All of us made generous contributions to its upkeep and expansion.

Bicycling in Rwanda is a national sport and pastime, akin to baseball in the US, and, aside from walking, probably the primary form of transportation.

The Virunga Lodge sits atop a hill with stunning views of the Virunga volcanoes. We were welcomed by a drummer and two Intore (“warrior”) dancers. It’s only accessible by bike, helicopter, or very long four-wheel drive. You can’t get there by car unless you have a four-wheel drive. Inside, the Dian Fossey map room beckoned.

Louis Leakey was important in recommending primatologists to the National Geographic. He favored women: Dian Fossey for gorillas, Jane Goodall for chimps, and Birute Galdikas for orangutans. But I sought credit in that map room for George Schaller, the pioneer of mountain gorilla studies in the Virungas, and without whose groundbreaking research Fossey might not have gotten anywhere. And, taking pride of place . . . there he was, in a large framed article crediting him with initiating the gorilla studies.

In the afternoon we rode 26 kilometers, downhill, on perfect tarmac to Ruhengeri. On the outskirts we passed the headquarters of Team Rwanda, the national cycling team, and stopped for a short visit. It was a first-class operation, with some bike frames weighing as little as three pounds. Bicycling in Rwanda is a national sport and pastime, akin to baseball in the US, and, aside from walking, probably the primary form of transportation. The first set of high-end bikes was donated to the team by President Paul Kagame. When the team rides, either for practice or for competition during the Tour de Rwanda, people line the streets and cheer as they pass — behavior our group experienced often as we rode.

Bikes even played a part in the development of Rwandan coffee (heirloom bourbon of an Arabica strain), to my taste the best in the world, comparable to Jamaican Blue Mountain. In 2002, the world discovered Rwandan coffee. But there was a big problem for the small holders who grew the beans. The beans need to be processed within eight hours of being picked, or they begin fermenting, developing rotten flavors. Some farmers, after picking the coffee in the morning, would have to walk up to 15 miles in the sun, carrying hundreds of pounds of fast-fermenting cherries — the red fruit that contains the beans — on a home-made wooden bike or on their heads, balanced on woven baskets.

We ran across some of these old wooden bikes, more akin to scooters (see picture). They could carry over 100 pounds, but weighed nearly 100 pounds themselves and were impossible on even the slightest incline. In the “Land of a Thousand Hills” they weren’t much of a solution.

In 2005, Tom Ritchey, the developer of the mountain bike — in partnership with Gary Fisher — decided to help the Rwandan coffee farmers. He designed a cargo bike that could haul 330 pounds — two bags of coffee cherries, two goats, or three children. He launched it in 2007, named it the “Hope Bicycle,” and priced it at $110 (still a steep price for a coffee farmer), and sold at a subsidized price.

The bikes were a big success, saving farmers time and effort and allowing them to maximize their profits. However, as is the bane of many development schemes, a shortage of parts — brake pads, derailleurs, chains, etc. — in time made the bikes undependable. And as President Kagame’s emphasis on developing Rwanda’s infrastructure bore fruit, Ritchey’s Project Rwanda’s time came to its end. We were lucky to come across a couple of these Project Rwanda bikes, the Humvees of the bicycle world, still in use. Parts are more available today.

In Ruhengeri — hometown of our guide Olivier, and the past headquarters of Hutu Power, President Habyarimana’s organization that engineered the genocide, we stayed at The Garden House, a private home with five guest rooms, owned by a Brit-Rwandan couple with three pet dogs.

* * * *

We awoke at 5 a.m. to joyous singing and clapping — the cadets’ morning routine at the nearby police and military academies. Today was gorilla tracking day. At Volcanoes National Park we were broken up into small groups according to ability, were assigned a ranger, and underwent an orientation. The park was established in 1925, encompasses five volcanoes, and extends into Uganda and Congo (the Congo side was closed because of rebel activity in the area). Today in Rwanda there are about 600+ gorillas (up from 400 in 2016) in about 30 family groups of about 20 individuals each. Some groups are harder to access than others, hence the division of the tourists into groups by varying degrees of ability. This was about the only place in Rwanda where we saw other muzungus.

At this point our hearts were palpably beating in expectation while our vocalizations were reduced to low grunts, a sound our ranger told us to produce as a calming signal to the gorillas.

Our group consisted of four Slow Cyclists and one lady from New York. Our objective was the Hirwa or “Lucky” family group, up on “Old Man’s Teeth,” a volcano whose carapace had eroded and only its core, jagged and multi-summited, remained. We were escorted by an armed ranger, three trackers with walkie-talkies, and one porter who distributed hand-carved walking sticks, essential in the steep, muddy, and foliage-thick tracks that passed for “trails.”

A gorilla sighting is not guaranteed, even after one has paid $1,500 per person for the permit, and I resigned myself to our fate, whatever it turned out to be. Along the way the ranger explained that his gun was for protection against Cape buffalo, not gorillas. After about half an hour of uphill trudging, stumbling, machete hacking, losing shoes in the mud, and much walkie-talkie back-and-forth in Kinyarwandan, the ranger gathered us around a large tree and had us remove our backpacks and walking sticks and cache them there. One tracker had reported a member of the Lucky group up ahead. The removal of our extraneous gear made us more familiar to the primates and avoided their snatching our stuff, however playfully. At this point our hearts were palpably beating in expectation while our vocalizations were reduced to low grunts, a sound our ranger told us to produce as a calming signal to the gorillas.

Our first encounter was lightning fast — a young male surfaced above the undergrowth and gave three or four chest beats directed our way before quickly disappearing. Fiddling with my camera, I’d almost missed him. Nearby, an intermittent procession of gorillas wandered in one direction, a pattern I didn’t discern but which the trackers did. They directed us to a tiny clearing where females and youngsters were congregating. Finally the silverback male — papa — lumbered through, gave us a glance, and sat on his haunches about 30 feet from our little group, which was by now crouched on its haunches. The trackers and porter remained almost out of sight; I suppose to visually minimize the size of our group.

We remained in close proximity for over an hour, watching mothers and children interact, mothers and others groom each other, juveniles brachiate and chase each other around trees, and babies try to get papa to play (a hopeless task). At one point Tina put down her camera and phone in front of her, and lay down on the ground to just enjoy the show. That’s when a young juvenile gave her an impish glance and began approaching within two feet of her. “Take that phone away!” shouted the ranger in a muted voice.

Not a few minutes later, the same juvenile grabbed a stick and approached her again to play. “Do not engage!” came the ranger again. Contact is prohibited. Gorillas share about 97% of our DNA and so are susceptible to our pathogens. We were all vetted for coughs, sneezes, or any other visible signs of sickness before going.

Contact is prohibited. Gorillas share about 97% of our DNA and so are susceptible to our pathogens.

On the way back I felt the same way I had after listening to the Westminster Abbey choir performing their Christmas service — overwhelmed yet exalted, moist-eyed with respectful elation, quietly contemplative at the remarkable hour we’d just experienced with our closest primate relatives, our extraordinary and compelling creature cousins. Emi, our driver, broke our reverie, asking for our reaction. He’d visited the gorillas eight times, and each time he’d felt the same way we did.

“At $1,500 a pop each?” I exclaimed incredulously. He responded that each time, his clients had paid his way.

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Rwandans love their gorillas. At the base of Old Man’s Teeth volcano a beautiful outdoor ceremonial area has been built to hold “Gorilla Namings.” A three-story high silverback sculpted out of dry vines holds court over a promenade, a manicured courtyard, and other staging ornamentation. When a new gorilla is born, a naming ceremony is held at this arena — the newborn is not required to attend.

We brought up the disparity in gorilla trekking prices between Rwanda and Uganda, where a permit costs only $750. In 2017, Rwanda had doubled its price to $1,500. The price change has hit the Rwandan gorilla tourist industry hard. So the Rwandan Development Board has provided a 30% discount between November and May, the low season. Emi said that Rwanda wants to make its gorilla sanctuary fully sustainable and that the rangers and trackers are well paid. He added that each gorilla family in Rwanda is exposed to tourists for only one hour each day so as to minimize any possible stress. By contrast, in Uganda, even if permits are “sold out”, it is possible to approach “someone” and get a permit outside the normal channels. The result is that Uganda’s gorilla families are exposed to tourists all day, every day. Who knows where those last minute permit fees end up?

Rwanda is a fascinating place to visit — as I continued to find, in the second half of my journey.

...to be continued...




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A Visit to Noah’s Ark

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The tourist season is almost over, but I’m making plans. I’m also thinking about last year’s acts of tourism. I’m remembering the sunny day in September when I visited Noah’s Ark.

The Ark is the central feature of a sort-of-theme-park called Ark Encounter, in Grant County, Kentucky. It’s a wooden structure — possibly the largest wooden structure on earth — built to the dimensions prescribed in the sixth chapter of Genesis. There aren’t any live animals inside (at least I can’t remember any); they’re in the zoo next door. But there are full-scale models of animals in various kinds of enclosures. There are also models of Noah and his family, going about their lives on the Ark: caring for the animals, fixing meals for themselves, relaxing in their comfortable onboard cabins. Ramps lead from level to level, where one finds “scientific” exhibits, restrooms, and two theaters with continuous showings of movies. In the first theater, Noah is interviewed by a skeptical antediluvian reporter and explains how and why you would build an ark. In the second theater, a 21st-century ark advocate is interviewed by a reporter who is (I think) played by the same actress who played the ancient one. She also is skeptical and needs to be converted to the idea that the biblical account is literally true. I assume the conversion happens, although I left before the movie was over. Her snarky postmodern attitude was less congenial to me than the religious credulity of the rest of the Ark.

But “credulity” isn’t exactly the right word. For me, a charming aspect of the place was the scores of exhibits providing ingenious answers both to obvious questions and to questions that, I’m embarrassed to say, had never occurred to me.

  • How did all those animals fit into the Ark? Well, they didn’t represent species; they represented “kinds,” which are fewer and are capable of developing (not evolving) into more than one species.
  • How did all those really big animals fit inside? Well, Noah probably took the young, small ones. I hadn’t thought of that.
  • How could you carry food to all those animals? You could use lots of pulleys and dumbwaiters.
  • How could you remove all the dung from those animals? You could use lots of pulleys and dumbwaiters.
  • How could a family of eight take care of thousands of animals? It’s not too hard, when you figure how much work a normal man or woman can do in X number of hours . . . .

The continuous display of cleverness delighted me. It went a long way toward illustrating Chesterton’s observation that the last thing a crazy person has left is his logic. But the builders of the Ark aren’t crazy; their ideas are just naïve and innocuous, and the Ark lets you see how far naiveté and innocuousness can get you in America, and how much charm you can gather along the way.

The reporter's snarky postmodern attitude was less congenial to me than the religious credulity of the rest of the Ark.

The Arkists optimistically predicted that they would be visited by 2.4 million people during their first full season, which was 2017. When I visited, they’d gotten only about 1.5 million, maybe, and it was late in the season. I was concerned that their great enterprise might have a short life, despite a (to me) very regrettable but somewhat shaky subsidy from a neighboring town. But there’s a wall inside the Ark that shows the names of people who have contributed various amounts for its construction, and it’s a very long wall. The Ark came to rest within easy driving distance of Louisville, Lexington, Dayton, and Cincinnati, and that’s a church belt. Visitors to the Ark whom I saw were very “diverse” — whites, blacks, Asians, beards, bikers, families of nine. The only solo visitor was me. So the audience is large, and just when I was thinking that a lot more people could be packed into the Ark, I went to the restaurant outside, and there were hundreds more of them in there. More than in the Ark itself. They may not be museumgoers, but they are sure as hell good eaters.

I hope they eat their way to heaven. Their idea of Christianity isn’t mine, but their spirit of voluntarism enchants me. You want to build a giant ark? You want to make it pay? I’m with you — see if you can. And this is an American thing; you can’t imagine it happening in France. Maybe I’ll visit again this year.

The visitors may not be museumgoers, but they are sure as hell good eaters.

My pilgrimage to the Ark last year began with a visit to my ancestral homeland, a county in Southern Illinois where my family has lived since 1816. I myself have never lived there; my parents left before I was born. But I’m related to all the old families, and I like to see what’s going on. In the early 1890s my father’s father built a house on the main street of one of the county’s little towns. That house passed out of the family a few years ago, after the death of my beloved aunt, the last of my grandparents’ eight children. Next to her house are (going south on Main Street) two other big old houses and then the Methodist church, where my grandparents taught Sunday school. The church seems to be doing all right, despite its fluctuating congregation, but much of the rest of Main Street has been torn down, hideously altered, or left derelict. The town’s population has been declining since 1910, and the working population has been declining still more disastrously. The old families, who were poor, by the world’s standards (my grandparents never owned a car), are being replaced by people on welfare, many of whom have no standards. I’m sorry to say that, but it’s true. If you want to see used up sofas stashed in the yard, I can show you where to go.

Whenever I visit, I brace ourselves for some more sad social and architectural news, especially about those two houses next to my grandparents’ place. They’ve been empty for years, and before that they were subjected to destructive attempts to “modernize.” If you’re brave enough to step onto the sagging wooden porches and look in the windows, what you see is broken glass, naked lath, once-friendly rooms returning to a state of unfriendly nature.

Their idea of Christianity isn’t mine, but their spirit of voluntarism enchants me. You want to build a giant ark? You want to make it pay? I’m with you — see if you can.

But this time, I saw a truck out back, and a man walking toward me: “Can I help you?” I explained myself, we shook hands, and I learned that this man was there to help the houses. A 50ish gentleman from an even smaller town about ten miles up the road, he had purchased both properties from the bank (or some other entity on which possession had devolved), because he liked them and wanted to restore them. More important, he had the skills to restore them. He had learned those skills decades ago, when the local high school actually taught students how to do things. It offered courses — excellent courses — in all the construction trades. Every year, students built a house from scratch, and sold it. If anybody can do something for old family homes, a graduate of those courses can do it.

I don’t know whether this man will succeed. I don’t know whether the Ark Encounter will succeed. Both seem romantic and quixotic to me. Nothing could be more different from America’s Towers of Tech or its Mordor of urban “housing” than these vernacular architectural enterprises. They are the creations of individuals, not of the state or the lackeys of the state.

I live in coastal California, and I’m often surprised to discover that no one here ever goes to the Midwest, the real Midwest, or any portion of California that isn’t built of concrete and steel. I know I could say something similar about the travel habits of people from New York or Boston or Washington, or even Chicago. But the Midwest I’m thinking about has nothing to do with physical geography. It has to do with the geography of the mind. There are places in the mind where everything that is done has to be done by some enormous, statelike thing. And there are places in the mind where individual people still do things, because they want to. Those places I call America.




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Run for the (Sea)Wall

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Every Memorial Day for the past 30 years a now-grizzled convoy of Viet Nam vets astride choppers swarms the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, DC. Groups of two, ten, twenty and more, hailing from every corner of the continent, converge at minor and major crossroads into a host of hundreds of thousands. This grassroots commemoration is known as the Run for the Wall. It was started in 1989 by two vets on Harleys. By last count the run numbers 350,000.

At the nation’s capital, Army, Navy, Marines, and Air Force; enlistees and draftees; non-coms and warriors; enlisted men and officers, relatives and sympathizers; WWII, Korea, Vietnam, Granada, Afghanistan, Iraq, and, yes, Bay of Pigs vets (everyone is welcome) — all long in the tooth, mostly hirsute, amply girthed and outfitted in Harley Davidson garb — cry like spurned orphans as their fingers graze the black granite of remembrance searching for the names of long lost comrades. The tears are contagious. Onlookers mist up or avert their gaze in respect and abide the circumstance.

The men harbored much resentment and bad blood: against Castro for their inhumane treatment; against Kennedy for condemning the operation to defeat.

This past Christmas Eve, an entirely different group of vets commemorated its 55th anniversary of freedom. On Christmas Eve, 1962, the last of the 1,113 Bay of Pigs POWs of Brigade 2506 were released after nearly two years of incarceration in Fidel Castro’s prisons. My cousins Carlos “Cachorro” León Acosta and Armando “Armandito” Lastra Faget, both 19, were the first to taste liberty that day. For Carlos, that was the night he was born again.

The Brigade had signed up to liberate Cuba from Castro’s communist fist. For a variety of reasons, and in spite of inflicting nearly 5,000 casualties on the Castro troops and suffering only 67 combat deaths, the Brigade was unable to achieve its goal.

Contrary to the narrative Fidel Castro has popularized — that the Bay of Pigs operation was a US CIA invasion manned by mercenaries — the true nature of that debacle has seldom been put into words. This is mainly because the freed prisoners were sworn to press silence, to avoid offending either the Castro or the Kennedy government and imperiling nascent and fragile agreements between the two countries. The men harbored much resentment and bad blood: against Castro for their inhumane treatment; against Kennedy for condemning the operation to defeat.

Fidel knew this was a Cuban vs. Cuban affair, and that if his forces fired on the US, the behemoth would retaliate and taps would sound on his revolution.

In contrast to Castro’s narrative, the true version is that the Bay of Pigs invasion was part of a civil war in which one side was supplied with arms, money, and training by the USSR, East Germany, and Czechoslovakia, while the other side was supplied with the same kit by the US, Guatemala, and Nicaragua. If anyone doubts this version, let him examine the event’s rules of engagement, to which both sides scrupulously adhered: US forces never fired a shot at Castro’s combatants, and Castro’s forces never attacked offshore US support ships. Fidel knew this was a Cuban vs. Cuban affair, and that if his forces fired on the US, the behemoth would retaliate and taps would sound on his revolution.

The Bay of Pigs was the second climax in a Cuban civil war that began on March 10, 1952 when Fulgencio Batista wrested control of Cuba in a coup. Immediately, a variety of disparate groups declared resistance to the new regime, Fidel Castro’s 26th of July Movement being only one of many. The first climax in these civil wars was Castro’s triumph over Batista on December 31, 1958.

Within four days of Castro’s victory, a nascent resistance — reading the writing on the wall and unrelated to the Batista regime — declared against Castro. The Bay of Pigs invasion two and a half years later was the second climax in the ongoing civil war.

Whenever the next climax occurs and whatever it brings, it will be peaceful.

The Bay of Pigs veterans are dwindling in numbers, many having added their eternal energy toward Cuba’s liberation. Only 550 are left. My cousin Armandito died in 2010. The latest to pass away was Maximo “Ñato” Cruz just a short while ago, on November 26. Cruz was an exceptional hero, the leader of F Company, 2nd Battalion, who distinguished himself in combat during the Battle of the Rotonda to such a degree that he received the only battlefield promotion during the fight.

Whenever the next climax occurs and whatever it brings, it will be peaceful. All of the exile and resident anti-Castro groups have renounced violence in achieving their aim of a free and democratic Cuba.

To commemorate the 55th anniversary of the Bay of Pigs veterans’ release, a small group of vets and vets’ relatives — in sincere flattery and imitation of the Run for the Wall ride — participated in a real (pedal) bike ride from the Bay of Pigs Memorial in Little Havana to Key West — as close to Cuba as possible. We called this our Run for the (Sea)Wall. Here’s my account of the journey.

Forget Little Havana and Calle Ocho — they’re full of gringo and European tourists. All of south Florida has become Cubanized. Ubiquitous are Cuban coffee (espresso brewed with sugar), Cuban sandwiches (roast pork, ham, Swiss cheese, and pickles stacked between sliced French bread and ironed in a plancha, a waffle press-like flat grill), and black beans (as a standard side in nearly all restaurants). We heard Spanish more often than English, though everyone, except for the very recent arrivals (mostly Venezuelans), speaks both languages and uses them interchangeably. Unlike immigrant enclaves elsewhere, south Florida is no “enclave” of struggling refugees lacking in skills, knowledge, or financial nous and isolated from its native residents. On the contrary, the mélange is dynamic, inspiring, and surprisingly free of cross-cultural frictions.

My wife Tina and I left Boca Raton on fully loaded bikes in a drizzly dawn, aiming first for Miami. We’d been staying with my Venezuelan cousin, Marta, who’d finally gotten her green card two years ago. Our next destination was Key Biscayne, 72 miles away, where another cousin, MariCris — a Cuban this time — would put us up at her corporate condo.

Forget Little Havana and Calle Ocho — they’re full of gringo and European tourists. All of south Florida has become Cubanized.

We reached Key Biscayne in one day, and on the next met with the president of the Bay of Pigs Veterans Association, Humberto “Chino” Argüelles, and a handful of veterans and family members at the Casa, the museum and headquarters of Brigade 2506. I was presented with a Brigade 2506 emblem and flag. One 82-year-old vet, Emilio “Ernesto Guerra” Martinez Venegas, had not been a member of the invasion force. Instead, he’d been a key participant in the subsequent infiltration programs, had been captured, and had spent 15 years in Castro’s prisons.

After touring the Casa and meeting with some of the veterans, we proceeded to Calle Ocho’s Bay of Pigs Monument, where — over the noise of traffic and tourist passersby — I explained the purpose of our ride: “Today we don’t mourn [the fighters’] defeat; we celebrate their freedom.” Our ride was "in remembrance of the patriots who gave their life, fortunes, and honor for Cuba’s liberty. Today we are all Cubans. Viva Cuba Libre!”

Launch of the ride. L to R: Carlos "Cachorro" León; the author; Humberto "el Chino" Arguelles. At the eternal flame, Bay of Pigs Memorial, Little Havana, Miami.Launch of the ride. L to R: Carlos "Cachorro" León; the author; Humberto "el Chino" Arguelles. At the eternal flame, Bay of Pigs Memorial, Little Havana, Miami.

One passing Danish tourist, captivated by the event, offered to photograph our entire group in front of the monument. Carlos, a veteran paratrooper of the Bay of Pigs (and the cousin earlier mentioned) handed over his camera. Afterward, the Dane asked Carlos if he’d fought “on the Cuban side.” The query was symptomatic of how pervasively the Castro narrative has permeated the public. Carlos, momentarily baffled yet no stranger to such ignorance, just answered “Yes.”

He then offered to take his family members to lunch. I suggested Versailles, the iconic Cuban exile restaurant where the movers and shakers of the Cuban community had met for years to impress one another, argue politics, and concoct financial and insurrectional plans. He gave me the same look he’d given the Danish tourist, saying, “Versailles’ food is no longer what it used to be; Cubans no longer go there; it’s a tourist magnet with long lines. I know a better place.”

He led us to a Spanish restaurant full of old Cubans — all of whom he knew — taking advantage of the $12.95 set lunch, and introduced Tina and me to all of them. He flirted with the waitress — he was a regular — and she reparteed back. After she took our order, Carlos leaned over and said, “She’s Russian.” The fortyish blonde was the daughter of minor Russian functionaries once assigned to Cuba, where she’d grown up and learned Spanish.

The query was symptomatic of how pervasively the Castro narrative has permeated the public.

After a delicious meal of caldo gallego, merluza a la plancha and flan, we went to Books&Books in Coral Gables. It’s the flagship of south Florida’s best book store, and a microcosm of south Florida’s intellectual milieu. Books&Books is old fashioned: huge, rambling, encyclopedic — with books arranged thematically, irrespective of language, on the same dark oak shelves — liberal with easy chairs for tome dipping, and hosting a sophisticated coffee and snack bar. The staff is multilingual, knowledgeable, and very helpful. Apparently, the many customers in the aisles were unaware of the “death of the independent book store.” (And yes, they carried my book, Closing the Circle: A Memoir of Cuba, Exile, the Bay of Pigs and a Trans-Island Bike Journey. Whew!)

The next day we saddled up early and headed for the Florida Keys, along Miami’s M-path, a dedicated bike trail under the city’s elevated tramway. Carlos met us partway on his bike for a photo op along a defile of Royal Palms, the Cuban national tree. Because of injuries acquired at the butt end of a rifle from a sadistic guard in Castro’s Modelo Prison, Carlos has to lay down his bike, step into its triangular frame, lift it up, and step out of the frame to straddle the bike in order to mount it. Afterward we joined him for breakfast at the Rinconcito Cubano, an unassuming breakfast and lunch joint where, again, he knew all the patrons and waitresses and introduced us to them all.

Armandito had been an outsized character at the Battle of the Rotonda in the Bay of Pigs operation, muscling a .30 caliber tripod machine gun continuously during the 48-hour siege of Playa Larga.

By lunchtime we reached Homestead, home of the Air Force base that welcomed the freed Bay of Pigs prisoners back on that Christmas Eve in 1962. Alina Lastra, sister of my late cousin Armandito Lastra, met us along the dedicated, tarmacked bike path. Armandito had been an outsized character at the Battle of the Rotonda in the Bay of Pigs operation, muscling a .30 caliber tripod machine gun continuously during the 48-hour siege of Playa Larga. Again, we took pictures — this time with the Brigade 2506 flag and a rendition of the MAGA hat with “America” replaced by “Cuba.”

But now we faced the Everglades’ aptly named Overseas Highway, a single traffic lane each way, with a divider, over 20 miles long, connecting the tip of Florida to Key Largo over swampland and sea. But that is merely the first key in an improbable island chain that stretches 113 miles to Key West (Cayo Hueso). Luckily, the shoulder was six feet wide — wide enough to shield us from the impatient, albeit 55 MPH controlled, continuous traffic. Boring and stressful!

Key West was first connected to the road grid in 1928, with a couple of intermittent ferries. All the bridges along the way, including the famous seven-mile bridge, were completed and open to traffic in 1938, when FDR toured the finished highway. We did not enjoy the amenities of his tour, but after a 64-mile day, we were relieved to find a motel on Key Largo and indulge in a pricey blackened Yellowtail dinner.

An iguana, on the way. It would be hard to leave him out.

An iguana, on the way. It would be hard to leave him out.

Of course, winter’s cold seldom finds the Florida Keys. New Year’s Eve welcomed us with 70 degree temperatures under bright sunshine in the morning. Hurricane Irma debris lined Highway 1 and sometimes blocked the adjacent bike path, a dedicated trail that often included its own connecting bridges separate from the vehicular bridges. Fishermen, some with tents and BBQs, lined these long bike and pedestrian spans. At times we had to dodge colorful iguanas, which otherwise mostly sunbathe on abandoned abutments and supporting berms, scurrying away when troubled.

Fifty-two miles to Marathon Key. Our tiredness and the isolation of our motel shielded us from the New Year's celebrations — raucous in a population given to no-shirts, no-shoes, and lots of recreational boozing.

* * *

Over the years Key Largo and Marathon Key have played a little-publicized but outsized role in US-Cuba relations. After the serial imposition of progressively stricter US embargos on the island, the Castro nomenclatura found itself in want of both luxuries and specialty technical apparatus. Even when these items could be obtained through convoluted schemes involving passthrough countries or ingenious smuggling, little foreign exchange was available to pay for them. So Fidel — or someone close to him who provided plausible deniability to the Comandante en Jefe — came up with a two-part idea implemented by the De la Guardia twins, Tony and Patricio, heroes of the Angola war, with popular (second only to Fidel) General Arnaldo “Negro” Ochoa, also from the Angola (and Somalia) war playing a supporting role.

Some funds for the operation were generated by charging Colombian drug runners a safe passage fee when traversing Cuban territorial waters. These funds were laundered by Fidel’s criminal asylee, Robert Vesco, the fugitive financier. Another part of the scheme involved stealing luxury yachts from Florida marinas. Since these were heavily insured and were owned, after all, by rich capitalists, the insurance companies reimbursed the owners promptly, and little fuss ensued. As Nobel-nominated author Norberto Fuentes, best friend with Ochoa and Tony De la Guardia, relates in his book, Dulces Guerreros Cubanos, the yachts were then employed in the “Caribbean Express,” smuggling Marlboros, specialty arms, and technology obtained through the services of shady Florida arbitragers and go-betweens. The delivery, loading, payment, and shipping took place on Key Largo and Marathon Key. Everyone involved skimmed and squirreled away thousands of dollars (the principals, hundreds of thousands of dollars) — insurance policies, commissions and brokerage fees being frowned upon in socialist Cuba.

Since these stolen yachts were heavily insured and were owned, after all, by rich capitalists, the insurance companies reimbursed the owners promptly, and little fuss ensued.

In 1989, for reasons that I can’t — yet — quite understand, Ochoa, the De la Guardia twins, and author Fuentes, all intimates of the Castros, were purged in a series of show trials reminiscent of Stalin’s in the 1930s. The charges had to do with drugs; the ostensible reason was the Castros’ desire to improve their image before international opinion. But there were other, murkier reasons, all too complex to elaborate here.

Ochoa and Antonio De la Guardia went to the firing squad. When Raúl Castro announced the verdict to Cuba’s rubberstamp constituent assembly, he was drunk and tearful and wore a bullet-proof vest; Arnaldo Ochoa was one of his best friends. Norberto Fuentes was saved through the special pleading of Fidel’s friend, Nobel laureate Gabriel Garcia Marquez, the Colombian writer. Fuentes now lives in Miami surrounded by his Castro-era memorabilia, in the same building as my cousin Carlos’ son. Fuentes and Carlos were schoolmates before the Revolution.

And the stolen luxury yachts? These became part of the fleet that takes rich tourists out on exclusive fishing excursions around Cuba.

* * *

The run down to Key West, at 48 miles, was our shortest — and most expensive, with a basic Best Western room costing over $300, not untypical of Key West prices. Carlos tells a story of impetuously driving down to Key West 30 years ago on New Year’s Eve for his honeymoon. At the first likely lodging he encountered, he inquired about a room. The attendant asked if he had a reservation.

“No,” answered the newlyweds. The attendant immediately began laughing. Carlos avers that, to this day, the man is still laughing. He adds that every subsequent motel they tried — even as they then began driving back to Miami — was fully booked. Nevertheless, we had our Best Western room and at 5 p.m. headed for El Siboney, a popular Cuban restaurant only two blocks away, hoping to avoid the crowds that are given to much later, Latin eating habits. Still, Tina and I — by now our small group had been reduced to just the two of us, for a variety of reasons, most having to do with age, health and the holidays — had to wait in line.

End of the ride. Author and his wife unfurling the Brigade 2506 flag, Key West.End of the ride. Author and his wife unfurling the Brigade 2506 flag, Key West.

Then, on January 2, at dawn, we packed up and headed the three blocks to the monument that marks the southernmost point of the US and declares in bold print, “90 Miles to Cuba.” It was a blustery day with tourists already posing before the giant faux buoy for pictures. We waited our turn. Then we posed our bikes before the monument, unfurled the Brigade 2506 flag, and recited José Martí’s La Rosa Blanca:

Cultivo una rosa blanca                            I cultivate a white rose
en junio como en enero                              in June as in January
para el amigo sincero                                 for the sincere friend
que me da su mano franca.                        that proffers his open hand.
Pero para el cruel que me arranca             But for the knave that rips out
el corazón con que vivo,                             the heart that gives me life,
cardo ni ortiga cultivo,                              I cultivate neither thistle nor nettle,
cultivo la rosa blanca.                               I cultivate a white rose.

I then pivoted towards Cuba, saluted the Castros with a single finger, folded our flag, and headed back to Boca.

* * *

After enduring nearly two years in Castro’s prisons, 240 out of approximately 1,400 Bay of Pigs veterans enlisted in the US military. Most fought in Vietnam. Both operations ended in defeat. Both sets of vets were widely spurned upon their return to the United States. But that attitude is finally changing.




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Alas, Zimbabwe!

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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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Japan: A Love Song

 | 

For the past few decades, Japan has been known for its stagnant economy, falling stock market, and most importantly its terrible demographics.

For almost three decades, Japan’s GDP growth has mostly been less than 2%, has been negative for several of these years, and has often hovered close to zero. The net result is that its GDP is almost the same that it was 25 years ago.

The stock market index (Nikkei 225), which at the beginning of 1990 stood at 40,960, is now less than half that, despite a 27-year gap. Malinvestments in infrastructure and cross-holding of shares among companies, and the resulting crony capitalism, get a lot of the blame for draining away Japan’s competitiveness. Confucian culture is blamed for a lack of creativity and an environment in which wrongs done by senior officials go unchallenged.

You can pay money to lie on a bed with a girl who does no more than hold your hand. There are vending machines that dispense used panties.

But the real problem of Japan is supposed to be its demographic meltdown. The population is falling and the proportion of old people is increasing. The median age is 46.9 years and increasing, and the elderly dependency ratio is 42.7%. By 2050, Japan’s population is expected to fall to 109 million from the current 127 million, while the dependency ratio will continue to increase.

Major media publish regular reports about the Japanese refusing to have sex, and the large number of people in their forties who are still virgins. The “vagaries” of Japanese sexual life amuse outsiders. Manga (comics) and anime (animation) cater to fantasy by creating virtual worlds. People play pachinko (an arcade game like pinball, also used for gambling) for 18 hours a day. Girls in cute uniforms entice customers into maid-cafes, or perhaps to date joshi kosei (high school) girls. You can pay money to lie on a bed with a girl who does no more than hold your hand. There are vending machines that dispense used panties.

The unemployment rate is a mere 3%, and during my recent visit to Japan most companies told me how extremely difficult it has become for them to find recruits. Japan refuses to admit refugees or migrants, which in today’s world is seen as extremely close-minded, perhaps even bigoted.

In the early 1990s, people looked up to Japan. In retrospect we can see that the country’s economic growth and stock index were peaking.

All the above appear in the international media as something very unfavorable about Japan. International organizations beg Japan to listen to tearjerking stories about Syria and Libya, and to show compassion. The Japanese are constantly reminded that if they want their old and infirm people to be looked after, they must allow immigration. While the population of Canada is 21% first-generation immigrant, and Australia 26%, Japan is still 98.5% ethnically Japanese. The two largest ethnic minorities — Korean and Chinese — make up less than 1%. Japan simply does not want outsiders.

When I was doing my MBA in the early 1990s, people looked up to Japan. In retrospect we can see that the country’s economic growth and stock index were peaking. Opinion pieces on the outrageous price of real estate were common. At one point, the assessed value Tokyo’s Imperial Palace grounds was higher than that of the entire state of California.

In my MBA classes we heard lectures on Kaizen and other Japanese practices, terms that hardly find mention in the media these days. We were constantly reminded of how well the Japanese work in groups, and how this should be implemented in the West.

So which is true? The romanticized portrayal of the ’90s, when Japan was seen as the solution to the world’s problems, or today’s dismal caricature, in which Japan is part laughingstock and part rapidly declining society headed toward self-destruction?

From factory floors to homes, robots have made huge inroads into the Japanese society. They might even nullify the risk that the country may lack workers.

In both cases, in my view, the world has looked for mere rationalizations, rather than dissecting the underlying issues.

I am a huge fan of Japan. In Japan I see the future of humanity. Perhaps Korea and China should be included in that vision of the future. South Koreans and Chinese — who might superficially dislike Japan — have eagerly copied Japanese ways. Japanese products are sold in abundance in East and Southeast Asia. All the way to Malaysia and Singapore, people look for models to Japan and now increasingly to South Korea, which copied its economic miracle from Japan.

Blaming the Japanese for not being innovative is a distortion of reality. An American geologist with whom I recently spent a couple of days in Japan called the young Japanese “young Einsteins,” while showing me an innovative product that a large Japanese company has developed. From factory floors to homes, robots have made huge inroads into the Japanese society. They might even nullify the risk that the country may lack workers.

Japan has produced a mind-boggling array of international brands: Toyota, Sony, Citizen, Canon, Hitachi, Komatsu, Nikon, Panasonic, Toshiba, Honda, Seiko . . . the quality, perfection, passion, devotion, and mindfulness that these brands embody are hard to beat. And it’s not just the brands. Quality, cleanliness, and attention to detail is everywhere in Japan. Only a very few countries in Europe enjoy similar levels of devotion to excellence.

Politeness is one of the major pillars of any civilization. It shows respect for the other individuals, and it reflects how people live, work, and engage with others. And Japan is among the politest societies in the world. There are seven possible conjugations for most verbs, depending on how polite the speaker wants to be. I have traveled a lot on Japanese trains, and not once did the person sitting in front of me fail to ask my permission before reclining his seat. They ask, despite the ample leg space provided in these trains. When they arrive at their destinations, they always set their seats straight and organize the magazines as they were when they arrived.

Quality, cleanliness, and attention to detail is everywhere in Japan. Only a very few countries in Europe enjoy similar levels of devotion to excellence.

I cannot remember when my train was ever late, even by a minute. In Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Singapore, Hong Kong, and increasingly in China, even in crowded subways, people mostly do not use the seats at the entrance of the compartments, so that they are always available for pregnant women and the elderly. The seats remain empty because travelers don’t want to embarrass any pregnant women or old people who may arrive later, by vacating the seat in their presence. No one talks on his phone or plays music using a speakerphone. Mostly people don’t even talk. They are at peace even on the subways, their ears unviolated by the noise of others.

I try my best to be polite, but Japanese beat me every single time. One must try to understand the mind and heart that they put into their work, and how they respect their clients. By presenting this kind of model, Japan has exported for free its civilizing culture to any society that is prepared to learn it.

Japan was almost completely destroyed in World War II, and rose from the ashes through sheer willpower. It is a country whose heartfelt honesty, respect, and integrity I am in love with.

A few months after the Tsunami of 2011, I visited the area around the town of Sendai, which had been devastated. There had been no — zero — rioting or robbery. People hadn’t begged the government for help; within months they had fixed up the place themselves. Piles and piles of crushed cars stood in neat heaps. Where the houses once stood had been cleaned up. Roads had been constructed so that a new city could grow up around them. Only someone without a heart could have kept from crying to see what a group of proud people can achieve.

By presenting this kind of model, Japan has exported for free its civilizing culture to any society that is prepared to learn it.

Throughout the world, many groups complain about the historical injustices that “they” (actually their ancestors) faced. In 1945, Japan stood extremely humiliated and virtually destroyed. But ask Japanese about their sufferings of those days, and you will very likely get a blank stare. Proud people do not blame their past for their present.

Japan is still 98.5% Japanese. Is that inward-looking and racist? Maybe that is the wrong question. Multi-ethnic societies have worked virtually nowhere in the world. People who arrived in Europe as long as 1,400 years ago — Romani gypsies — are still a separate community. As a group, they are not only unassimilated; they haven’t integrated with the mainstream ways of life. People tend to get ghettoized on racial, religious, or linguistic lines. That has been the history of North America, Europe, and other parts of the world. Japan has avoided all of the associated social problems — including that of crime and terrorism — that today afflict the developed world.

Crime is virtually unknown in Japan. No one locks his bicycle, and people often leave their belongings — including purses — unattended. Late at night, young women can walk the streets alone, unaccosted, even in the areas controlled by Yakuza (Japanese mafia). Six-year-old kids can be seen crossing the road all alone.

Japanese bureaucracy is believed to be slow and an impediment to innovation. It is hard to measure how much more bureaucratic Japan is compared to other developed nations, but the Economist’s crony-capitalism index puts Japan — again quite contrary to popular beliefs — better than the USA and the UK.

Is it at all possible that a counterfactual narrative was constructed by the leftist social justice warriors who control the media, to pressure Japan into doing the bidding of pro-multicultural, pro-diversity international organizations?

Crime is virtually unknown in Japan. No one locks his bicycle, and people often leave their belongings — including purses — unattended.

An outsider does react with shock to some of the images of anime and manga, and the idea of buying used schoolgirls' panties in vending machines. But the reality is that sexual perversion is not unique to Japan. In the West the law is so strict that a lot of perversion remains hidden. But one does get a glimpse of what so many western men look for when they go to Thailand and surrounding countries, and to Latin America.

What I find impressive is that what Japan does is right in your face — Japan is like the Amsterdam of Asia.

Forty-two percent of men and 44.2% of women between the age of 18 and 34 years are said to be virgins, a statistic one often reads in the international media. But this statistic pools together a broad band of ages. There is nothing unusual — or even wrong — about 18-year-olds being virgins.

Another often quoted number is that one out of four Japanese over the age of 30 years is still a virgin. This is wrong, for the data applies only to unmarried people, yet the word “unmarried” is often left out. Eighty-six percent of men and 89% of women eventually marry. So the correct estimate of virgin Japanese over the age of 30 years is less than 4%, far less than the media would have you believe.

There is really not much about Japan’s demographics that is abnormal. The country's native birth rate compares well with that of other wealthy economies.

Are single mothers and promiscuity really the metric of a better society? Western media seem to suggest this is so. There is indeed a correlation between being conscientious and shyness in sexual matters. Only 2% of Japanese children are born outside marriage, compared with 40% in the UK and the US. This is to be celebrated, not ridiculed.

There is really not much about Japan’s demographics that is abnormal. The country's native birth rate compares well with that of other wealthy economies. There is indeed a problem in that Japanese live longer, surviving into their unproductive years farther than people elsewhere — hence the high and growing dependency ratio. This is a problem, but it is a problem of success, not of failure.

I cannot but wonder if Japan is demonized for refusing to promote immigration or promiscuity. In my view it is perhaps the best large country in the developed world — for exactly the reasons it is, ironically, demonized for. My Japanese friends tell me about the inhibitions that kids develop under a very strict social structure, but for me as an outsider — a gaijin, literally “not one of us” — it is hard to understand Japan’s social dynamics completely. Japan indeed has its problems, but they are far outweighed by the great goodness of the place. It is one of humanity’s finest accomplishments, which should be celebrated not just by Japanese but by everyone.




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Notes on the Extinctions at the Top of the World

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Between bouts of ducking and covering under my second-grade desk in case the Russians dropped an atom bomb on our classroom, I spent a lot of time studying geography. Not because my teacher emphasized matters geographical, but because she had a thing about homework. And not in a good way.

On the first day of class she handed out the first assignment and I did the obvious thing. I forgot about it. She didn’t forget, though, and the next morning, while the other kids were enjoying recess, I got invited to sit at my desk and complete the work. I passed the time staring at islands on the big world map next to the blackboard. On the third day I owed two homeworks, both of which would have to be turned in before I could head out to recess. Come April, I owed a hundred-and-some homeworks and all possibility of recess had forever receded below the horizon. If my family hadn’t moved to another city, I’d still be in second grade, puzzling over the Rorschach shapes of faraway islands.

Svalbard has the most polar bears of anywhere in the world — more even than Churchill, Manitoba, where bears sashay down Main Street eating people’s dogs.

There are a lot of islands in the world, and I came out of that experience with a geographical bucket list of almost bottomless capacity. It was, looking back, a list based on shape and remoteness instead of anything particular my seven-year-old self knew about any of the islands. Which is how my seven-year-old self wound up sending me to Svalbard more than half a century later, still thinking the place should be called Spitzbergen, the way it used to be.

The two things that I knew about Svalbard were that it is very far north, farther north, even, than Siberia, as far north as the northernmost reaches of Greenland; and that Svalbard had the most polar bears of anywhere in the world — more even than Churchill, Manitoba, where bears sashay down Main Street eating people’s dogs. Also, my seven-year-old self wanted to be there in the winter for the true Svalbard experience, and to see the Northern lights.

Longyearbyen, the capital of Svalbard, is the former silver medalist for the title of northernmost civilian place on the planet. In the ’90s it got defaulted up to northernmost when the model Soviet city 50 miles west and a dozen or so closer to the pole was disqualified on account of going out of business. My wife and I lodged in a room in Longyearbyen, in barracks that housed coal miners before the miners rioted over their poor living conditions. Longyearbyen seemed an apt enough name for somewhere to be stuck on a yearlong contract digging coal. No wonder the miners rioted. It took a while for me to find out that the town was named after John Munro Longyear, the Michigan timber baron who began the mining operations in 1906.

It looked like a rundown middle-school gym, if middle-school gyms came plastered with posters of heroic Red Army soldiers from the Great Patriotic War, tarted up with gold CCCP’s on red backgrounds.

People who didn’t riot were the inhabitants of the Soviet model city. According to the young Russian who showed us around, it had been a very desirable place to be, Soviet-Unionwise. It’s called Pyramiden and people waited years to be assigned there. Like Longyearbyen, Pyramiden was a coal-mining town. We boated over one day to check it out.

There was a big, brass, snow-blown bust of Lenin welcoming us to the Sports Palace. The Palace had a basketball court and a tawdry little music room and an even tawdrier niche fitted out with shelves that some wag had designated as a library. It looked like a rundown middle-school gym in a community that had experienced a property-tax revolt, if middle-school gyms came plastered with posters of heroic Red Army soldiers from the Great Patriotic War, tarted up with gold CCCP’s on red backgrounds. There was also a sinister sounding building called the Tulip Hotel, which, since we weren’t Soviet royalty off on a junket, we weren’t allowed inside of. “Everything here was free,” beamed the Russian who showed us around. He was too young to know better.

Free included a bleak apartment in the men’s building, if you were a guy. In the ladies’, if you weren’t. There were rumors of a secret tunnel connecting the two which were hard to credit since both buildings were constructed several feet off the ground because of permafrost. Still, if you could manage to hook up with a coal miner of the opposite sex you hit the jackpot because married people got upgraded to a couple’s apartment. There must have been a limited number of those apartments, though, or people would have been allowed to meet out in the open rather than having to sneak around in tunnels.

Free also, of course, included all the labor those miners put in. And the food, the food was free, too. Evidence about what kind of food you can get for free lurks in the abandoned institutional kitchen. Mostly it seemed to have been canned peas stirred in huge electric-powered tubs that reminded me of the first-generation washing machines you see in photographs from the Depression. Free industrial peas at the end of working all day in the mines — no wonder the vodka was free, too. The vodka is still there. You can purchase a shot at the northernmost bar in the world. One taste, and you realize why it hasn’t migrated to a more competitive locale. And why it had to be free.

“Everything here was free,” beamed the Russian who showed us around. He was too young to know better.

High class people. Doctors. Lawyers. Folks with political pull pulled strings to get sent to a place farther north than Siberia so they could work in mines all day and eat cafeteria peas at night and hook up in tunnels like horny junior-high kids and shoot down vodka that would have etched the chrome off the fancy ZiL limousines the nomenklatura were chauffeured around in back home. A few miles away, Norwegian miners were rioting because they didn’t like the rooms they were given, but these poor schnooks thought they were living in paradise. There may have been Northern lights somewhere, but I wouldn’t know. It turns out the Northern lights are easier to see when it isn’t snowing all the time.

Also, I should have given a bit more thought to that business about seeing polar bears. Even my seven-year-old brain could have put it together. Bears. Winter. Hibernation. But I wasn’t any more analytical when I planned the trip than I’d been about not turning in my homework.

Or the bear thing may have had something to do with the fact that polar bears are dying out. All the right people say so. The pack ice is melting and bears all over the Arctic are falling into the water and starving to death, so if you live in Churchill, keep a close eye on your pets. There are a lot of hungry bears wading ashore. But people in Svalbard didn’t seem to be worried about polar bears dying out. They were worried about being eaten by bears. On Svalbard, you’re required by law to carry a high-powered rifle when you step outside of town.

Longyearbyen has a university, the Harvard of the Arctic, according to the Toronto Star, where you can study oceanography, but I wouldn’t. Studying oceanography involves SCUBA diving, and there are plenty of fine programs at places more equatorial than the Barents Sea. They have a nice museum at the university, though, a museum that focuses on geology and, this being Svalbard, the glaciers that sit on top of the geology. It was while I was reading about those glaciers that I came across this:

For the past four to five thousand years the Earth has been subject to a marked cooling, which gradually has created better conditions for the growth of glaciers and permafrost. Five thousand years ago the average temperature in Svalbard was around 4 degrees warmer than today. Then, one would probably have had to climb 200-400m up in the mountains in order to find permafrost, and many of today’s glaciers would not then have existed. The largest glaciers would have existed in a much reduced size. Many of Svalbard’s glaciers, therefore, are less than three to four thousand years old.

They were worried about being eaten by bears. On Svalbard, you’re required by law to carry a high-powered rifle when you step outside of town.

Svalbard has gotten a lot of attention over the past few months for being the ground zero of global warming. Maybe, even, a bit above zero, sometimes. Degrees on Svalbard have shot up quicker than degrees anywhere else on earth, which got me to wondering about those polar bears. Polar bears have been floating around in the Arctic for something like 200,000 years. Even if Svalbard is warming up today, what were they floating on 5,000 years ago? The sign didn’t say, so I had to look it up on my own. And discovered that there are two schools of thought on the bear situation.

The first is the one you’ve already heard. The other is that the bear population has exploded in recent years, mainly because of an international ban on polar bear hunting. When I tried to look up the exact numbers, I found some in the articles that thought there were more bears than ever. Twenty-five thousand, and climbing. Thirty-thousand, with populations of bears well established in dozens of locations throughout the polar region. The articles that thought the bears were dying out talked about pack ice. Less pack ice than ever. You can drive to the North Pole in your bass boat, if you want to.

Now I’m not a polar bear scientist and I’m not qualified to judge the quality of those articles, but it did seem to me that one side was willing to commit to real numbers and the other, well, the other weaseled out of addressing the question.




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Temporization Fugit

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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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Talk Tough but Temporize

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During the 2016 presidential campaign Donald Trump criticized President Obama’s Cuba policy and promised to reverse it. However, after Trump’s win, during the transition, “he and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson privately expressed support for Obama’s Cuba policy,” according to a June 2 ABC News report.

In typical Trump fashion, the candidate talked tough but the president is keeping his options open as he educates himself on the issues. And in typical government fashion, a “policy review” under the auspices of the National Security Council was set up to study the issues. It was supposed to report its recommendations on May 20, the 115th anniversary of Cuban independence, but the issues turned out to be more complex than originally envisioned, and Saudi Arabia — President Trump’s location on that hallowed day — didn’t seem like an appropriate venue to berate Cuba on its human rights record.

Yes, that’s right: in a Wilsonian-Carterian flourish, Trump’s Cuba policy “will have important differences with respect to that of Barack Obama, especially with a ‘major emphasis’ on human rights,” according to Francisco Palmieri, Acting Assistant Secretary of State for Latin America.

Saudi Arabia — President Trump’s location on the appointed day — didn’t seem like an appropriate venue to berate Cuba on its human rights record.

It seems — to a cynic who might ignore the president’s ostensible, stated reason — that Trump’s thrust is based on two objectives. One is the aim, originating in a gut reaction, to reverse anything Obama did; the other is more nakedly political: according to the Associated Press, the Trump administration wants to maintain good relations with Marco Rubio, who sits on the Senate committee investigating Trump’s relations with Russia, and Mario Diaz-Balart, a member of the powerful House Appropriations Committee — both Cuban-Americans, and the latter a not-too-distant relative of the Castros.

Meanwhile, in a Trumpian flourish just before leaving office, Obama restricted Cuban immigration by rescinding the so-called “Wet foot, Dry foot” policy whereby a Cuban caught on the waters between Cuba and the United States ("wet feet") would summarily be sent home or to a third country. One who makes it to shore ("dry feet") can remain in the United States, and would later qualify for expedited legal permanent resident status in accordance with the 1966 Cuban Adjustment Act, and eventually US citizenship.

The Trump administration’s ambivalence toward Obama’s Cuba policy proceeds from the fact that its favorable aspects conflict with its unfavorable consequences. While the reduced restrictions on Americans traveling to Cuba that President Obama signed as an executive order in 2014 have tripled leisure travel to nearly 300,000 last year, much of the tourist money is spent at all-inclusive resorts run by Cuban military conglomerates that fuel the state security (repressive) apparatus. Organized tours, especially in the “people-to-people” and “educational” categories are little better, spending all their time under direct government control, visiting such exciting venues as printing workshops, organic farmers’ cooperative markets, and other government-organized venues, while traveling in government tour buses with government guides.

Those dollars strengthen the security organs. According to ABC News, arrests and detentions climbed from 8,899 in 2014 to 9,940 in 2016.

Much of the tourist money is spent at all-inclusive resorts run by Cuban military conglomerates that fuel the repressive state security apparatus.

On the other hand, continues the ABC report, a significant proportion of travelers eschewed organized tours, opting instead to explore Cuba on their own and thereby “injecting hundreds of millions in US spending into privately owned businesses on the island,” businesses made possible by the 201 private enterprises (especially B&Bs and restaurants) legalized by the regime since 2010, and “supercharging the growth of an entrepreneurial middle-class.”

Still, the hype has blinded what ought to be sober players into overreach. President Obama did not change the requirements for US travelers to Cuba; he only put compliance with them on the honor system, a system that still requires registering with the US Treasury Dept. The same ABC News report I quote here incorrectly states that “Obama eliminated that requirement.”

And it’s not just ABC News. Airlines such as JetBlue, American, Silver Airways, and Frontier, anticipating tens of thousands of travelers to book their own, independent trips to Cuba, have had to cut back considerably. Silver and Frontier have both canceled all their flights, citing "costs in Havana to turn an aircraft significantly exceeded our initial assumptions." In other words, the costs involved with unloading bags, cleaning the aircraft, customs procedures, etc. were higher than expected, doubtless because of the Cuban government milking the airlines. Earlier this year, JetBlue announced it would use smaller planes for its Cuba flights, and American Airlines cut its daily flights to Cuba by 25%.

The Obama changes did increase US travel to Cuba, just not as much as some expected. NBC News reports that “according to the state-run site CubaDebate, the number of Americans traveling to Cuba spiked in January of this year at 43,200. CubaDebate said that's a 125% increase from January of last year.” In addition, it reported 31,000 Cuban-Americans traveled to the island in January.

The costs involved with unloading bags, cleaning the aircraft, customs procedures, etc. were higher than expected, doubtless because of the Cuban government milking the airlines.

Those Cuban-Americans recently became a political football for cruise lines, which also dove into the liberalized US-Cuba travel market. The Cuban government does not recognize naturalized US citizenship by any Cuban-born individual: in their eyes such people are still Cuban citizens. Many of these expatriates, although allowed to visit relatives in Cuba under one of the allowed US categories of travelers, refused to set foot on the island for any prolonged length of time, declining to give even one dollar to the regime. But the promise of a cruise with all the amenities provided by a US ship and onshore visits a matter of only hours on terra firma suddenly attracted many.

But it was not to be.

The Cuban government declared that Cuban-born Cuban-Americans would not be allowed on shore from any visiting US cruise ship, referring to an earlier Cuban law that prohibited any Cuban-born person returning from to the island by sea. This was probably meant to place a fig leaf over the prosecution of any foreign-based infiltrators.

So, initially, Carnival Corporation refused to sell tickets to Cuban-born Americans. Two lawsuits put paid to that. They were filed in federal court in Miami: a class-action suit and a civil suit, by Cuban-born Americans who attempted to book and were denied tickets on Fathom Cruise Lines, a subsidiary of Carnival. According to the Miami Herald, “the lawsuits alleged that the cruise line was violating the Civil Rights Act of 1964 by following a policy that discriminates against a class of Americans on a place of public accommodation for transient guests — a cruise ship.”

Carnival then decided to sell tickets to Cuban-Americans but delayed its cruises until Cuba changed its policy — which it did, effective April 26, 2016. The first cruise sailed on May 1, 2016.

Cuba has not adapted well to the increase in visits. Forget booking a hotel room in Havana during the peak season of November-April on your own; rely instead on a package tour. And good luck finding a B&B, called in Cuba a casa particular. Under the Obama initiatives, both governments have struck agreements to cooperate on issues ranging from human trafficking to oil spills, and even increased internet access — a pledge extracted out of Raul Castro by President Obama. The Cuban government has “opened nearly 400 public Wi-Fi access points across the country,” according to the AP. But that reality is much less than meets expectations. The outlets are mostly in parks and plazas and only provide email connections. Full internet access, while more available than before, is beyond most Cubans’ budgets and remains frustratingly slow.

Cuba owes about $8 billion for confiscations and expropriations to US citizens. At that rate, repayment would take about 400 years.

The challenge for the Trump administration’s policy reset is to keep the good bits — full diplomatic relations, some relative freedom of travel, the benefits to Cuba’s private sector, etc. — while limiting Americans from doing business with the Cuban security organs, “according to a Trump administration official and a person involved in the ongoing policy review” (ABC report). Additionally, what with President Trump’s emphasis on jobs, Engage Cuba, a pro-détente group, released a study this May asserting “that a complete rollback of Obama’s Cuba policy would cost airlines and cruise lines $3.5 billion over the next four years and lead to the loss of 10,154 travel jobs.” (Wow, really? Such incredible specificity!)

One novel proposal that might be included in the Cuba policy reset — to ensure the support of the Cuban-Americans — is to impose a 2% export tax on US agricultural products sent to the island. “It is a politically creative, financially plausible measure and may possibly be a first step toward a comprehensive settlement of compensation to those who hold certified claims,” said Richard Feinberg, a former assistant to President Clinton and author of a Brookings Institution study on Cuban claims published in 2015. Of course, whether that 2%, factored into the price of the exports, would come out of the exporters’ profits or out of the Cuban government’s pockets is up for negotiation — if the proposal is implemented. Cuba owes about $8 billion for confiscations and expropriations to US citizens. At that rate, repayment would take about 400 years, though the majority of small claims could be settled with dispatch.

* * *

Oh, yes . . . and what about those extra 1,041 arrests and detentions in 2016? ABC News reports, “Cuban officials say many of those arrests are deliberately provoked by dissidents who are funded and backed by anti-Castro groups with the deliberate objective of driving up detention statistics.”

No doubt those officials saw the May issue of the Cuban American National Foundation’s Boletín Informativo, displaying a photograph of a protester racing in front of Havana’s May Day parade waving an American flag in the air and wearing a Cuban flag on his chest. Daniel Llorente Miranda’s action took the security organs by surprise. After a few seconds’ chase, they threw him to the tarmac and brutally beat him.




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