Sunday, 26 February 2012

Back to the future

We can all be wise after the event – most of us anyway. In an Irish context, we’ve had plenty of politicians and economists claiming that - after the wheels so dramatically and disastrously came off our false little boom – they knew the bust was coming well before it arrived. If so, the majority of them did a very good job of keeping this valuable information to themselves. Publicly making predictions or at least sharing your thoughts on the future direction of events is something many of our modern day politicians shirk from. 

'So, which part of Poland can we have?' - Molotov, left, with Hitler
The same however cannot be said for the former Soviet Union Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov. Below is a speech he made in Paris on October 10th 1946, on the policy of ‘equal opportunity’ or the ‘open world’ economy that was beginning to take shape in the ‘West’. 

Considering how things have panned out in the 60-plus years since he uttered these words, you would have to say he wasn’t that far off the mark on much of what he foresaw here. Of course, depending on where you’re coming from, this ‘equal opportunity’ that Molotov feared is either good or bad. 

Like most things, it’s probably a mixture of both. Right now many of the ‘liberated’ former Soviet states are probably quite happy to be ‘in bed with’, so to speak, the USA rather than Russia. There might come a time though when that stance will change. Whatever the case may be, you can make up your own mind on what ‘Prophet’ Molotov had to say:

“We know that the United States made a very great effort in this war, in defence of its own interests and of our common aims, for which we are all grateful to that country. But for all that, it cannot be said that the United States is one of those states which suffered grave material damage in the Second World War, which were ruined and weakened in this war. We are glad that this did not happen to our ally, although we ourselves have had to go through trying times, the consequences of which will take us long years to heal.

Now that you know the facts, place side-by-side Romania, enfeebled by the war, or Yugoslavia, ruined by the German and Italian fascists, and the United States of America, whose wealth has grown immensely during the war, and you will clearly see what the implementation of the principle of ‘equal opportunity’ would mean in practice. Imagine, under these circumstances, that in this same Romania or Yugoslavia or in some other war-weakened state, you have this so-called ‘equal opportunity’ for, let us say, American capital – that is, the opportunity for it to penetrate unhindered into Romanian industry or Yugoslav industry and so forth: what, then, will remain of Romania’s national industry, or of Yugoslavia’s national industry?

It is surely not so difficult to understand that if American capital were given a free hand in the small states ruined and enfeebled by the war, as the advocates of the principle of ‘equal opportunity’ desire, American capital would buy up the local industries, appropriate the more attractive Romanian, Yugoslav and all other enterprises and would become the master in these small states. Given such a situation, we would probably live to see the day when in your own country, on switching on the radio, you would be hearing not so much your own language as one American gramophone record after another or some piece or other of British propaganda. The time might come when in your own country, on going to the cinema, you would be seeing American films sold for foreign consumption – and not those of the better quality, but those manufactured in greater quantity and circulated and imposed abroad by the agents of powerful firms and cinema companies which have grown particularly rich during the war.

A shot of a typical day's offering at the cinema in Colombia - Hollywood top-heavy.
'Eh, Minister Molotov, let's give the cinema a miss today'
Can anyone really fail to see that if, as a result of the application of the principle of so-called ‘equal opportunity’ in small states, unrestricted competition begins between the home products and the products poured out by the factories of the United States or Great Britain, nothing will remain of the sovereignty and independence of these states, especially considering the post-war conditions? Is it not clear that such unrestricted application of the principal of ‘equal opportunity’ in the given conditions would in practice mean the veritable economic enslavement of the small states and their subjugation to the rule and arbitrary will of strong and enriched foreign firms, banks and industrial companies? Is it not clear that if such ‘principles of equality’ are applied in international economic life, the smaller states will be governed by the orders, injunctions and instructions of strong foreign trusts and monopolies? Was this what we fought for when we battled the fascist invaders, the Hitlerite and Japanese imperialists?”

Well there you go – a visionary or what, eh?

Speech taken from: McCauley, Martin, ‘Seminar Studies in History – The Origins of the Cold War’, PP 119-121, Longman, New York, 1990

Sunday, 19 February 2012

The 'bastard' child

For those of you familiar with Chile's geography, it won't surprise you to be told that this elongated stretch of land is a country of extremes. From the driest desert in the world in the north to the bitter coldness of the Antarctic south, boxing Chile's terrain into one category is impossible. So maybe we shouldn't be overly surprised that efforts to neatly sum up the culture and people of the country prove equally challenging. 

In our efforts to simplify the world we live in, one-word summations of countries have become the norm. Argentina-tango, Brazil-samba, Colombia-coc ... ... ahem, coffee, Ireland-drink (apologies to all us Irish - sure lets have a drink and forget about it), New Zealand-rugby. You get the drift. But Chile-what? It's difficult, eh? Thanks to the extraordinary survival story of the trapped miners in 2010, maybe we could throw in mining there, but that's just seasonal in a sense. Yes they’ve got some excellent wines of course, but there is much competition in that regard. 
A typical shot of Northern Chile - blue skies with snow-topped mountains interrupting expanses of desert.
Chile's barren yet spellbinding north.
For visitors - and indeed many locals - to this weird and wonderful land, 'getting Chile' has and still proves to be a difficult task. It's in Latin-America, but it's not quite 'Latino'. The pre-Spanish indigenous influence exists, but it's no Inca bastion à la its neighbours to the north, Peru and Bolivia. Can it match the style and swagger – or is that arrogance - of its counterpart over the Andes, Argentina? Well we won't go there, just to say that bumbags were big in the eighties, if indeed they were at all. 

When it comes to native cuisine, it seems that Chile was missing the day they were ‘serving up’ the national dishes in these parts. At best it’s a mix and match of the least attractive offerings from a host of countries, deep-fried. Although at this point we must mention the delightfully addictive street snack, sopaipilla. Cheap and cheerful, this pumpkin-based wonder is the perfect hunger-buster on a ‘chilly’ Chile evening. Heck it’s that good it makes up for the general lack of culinary quality on offer.

Wrong Way tucking into the delightful Chilean street snack, the sopaipilla - the perfect hunger-buster on a chilly Chile evening!
Sopaipillas - yummy!
Physically, Chile is a very isolated country. Alongside its aforementioned harsh northern and southern borders, it has the world’s largest ocean submerging its western frontiers while the biggest peaks of the imposing Andes Mountains saddle its eastern extremes. Such isolation alone ensured, over the country's fledgling years, that it was pretty immune to the influences of its more - dare we say - illustrious neighbours. Furthermore, for visitors from Europe and North America, Chile was - and still very much is - the last stop on any voyage to South America, considering one even made it that far. 

What's more, while the majority of Latin America venerates Simón Bolívar as its saviour from Spanish rule, the Chileans have a different, more controversial liberator to honour – Bernardo O’Higgins. It’s surely more than just a coincidence that this unacknowledged, ‘illegitimate’ son of an Irishman emerged to become the founding father of modern-day Chile. The correlations between the man and the country – comparing both to their apparent peers - could hardly be more salient. The atheist, ‘bastard’ child in a place - and a time - where religion mattered.

A portrait of Chile's founding father, Bernardo O Higgins in military rig-out
'The Bastard Child' - Bernardo O'Higgins.
On top of all this, the nation is still 'finding its feet' after the General Pinochet dictatorship - a past that is proving unsurprisingly difficult to move on from. Indeed when you put all these factors together, it is quite remarkable that the country is as stable and relatively successful - in a South American context - as it is at the moment. Part of the reason for this may be down to the fact that Chileans are possibly the least 'emotional' of the Spanish-speaking nations in Latin America. This may be explained by the strong German influence that exists there. Herr Steffan is more noted for his business acumen than his sensitive side. This is a characteristic that has helped Chile, arguably, make much more out of the natural resources at its disposal compared to some of its, lets say, more laid-back neighbours.
So putting all this together, what exactly ‘is’ Chile? A ‘western’ nation trapped in the craziness of South America? Well, outwardly speaking, perhaps. But scrape away at the surface and you’ll notice a much different beat than what you get in much of Europe or North America – thankfully so you might say. So maybe it’s an example of how the rest of the Latino world would operate if it acquired a bit more order? 

Whatever it is, this baffling land has plenty to offer – from the truly amazing to the utterly annoying and everything else in between. 

Sunday, 12 February 2012

Phantom freedom

It’s a free world. Nice concept, isn't it? Indeed some people would have us believe it's true. And depending on where you are coming from, perhaps, in relative terms, you do live in a ‘free’ world. But that’s just it – it is relative. For an individual, you would imagine, the ideal ‘free world’ is one where you can do anything you want, at any time, anywhere. 

Of course, such a world does not – nor could it – exist, unless you happened to be the only living creature in this utopia land, in total control of all other elements. Coming from that viewpoint, there are so many areas we could explore as to why we don’t live in a free world. For now, though, you’ll be glad to know, we’re just going to look at some of the more obvious, daily limitations on our freedom.

One of the few land crossings from Colombia into Panama - strangley enough at this border you don't need your passport.
'Tis my field'
There is a general consensus that we live in a freer world now than ever before in human history. In many respects – putting on our ‘relativity’ glasses once more (you’d be as well to leave them on throughout) – this is true. But for anyone engaging in even the slightest bit of travel, you soon realise just how restricted we are by ‘outside’ forces. Anything from restrictions on personal belongings to – depending on your destination – visa requirements, the limits imposed on us are quite strict.

Now cast your mind back to such European explorers such as Columbus, Magellan et al. and imagine the sense of freedom they must have felt when they set-off ‘discovering’ those ‘new worlds’ beyond the seas (of course we emphasise ‘discovering’ and ‘new’ here in the European context. Apologies to all indigenous descendants of said ‘new worlds’, we’re just using these terms to underscore a point).

For those adventurers, there were no immigration checks on arrival, no stringent visa requirements and the like – although in hindsight the native populations probably wished they had just given their ‘visitors’ the standard 90-day tourist visa with a bar on re-entry. The irony of course here is that no sooner had our tourists to the new world arrived, that they started marking out and dividing these free lands up. And where boundaries exist, freedom is curtailed.

When you look at it from a broader context over an extended period of time, isn't it silly for us to say we, as individuals or groups, ‘own’ parts of this planet? Every now and again Mother Nature gives us some very powerful reminders of who really is in control. The people of Japan, Christchurch in New Zealand and Haiti, to name but a few of recent vintage, can vouch for that. Now think of all the lives lost due to man’s desire to take ownership of land and resources – all usually to the detriment not just of his fellow man but nature in general. There are very few, if any, regions on this globe that have avoided such destruction. 

Yes, we all were born in specific areas of the planet, places we like to call home, places that have a special meaning for us. But whether you like it or not, you had very little control over that. Plus, considering the serious challenges we as a race face due to the rapid globalisation of the world in the last half-century or so – environmental issues, economic and such like – isn't it time we made a deliberate shift to think macro rather than micro? Aren't we all citizens of the globe first and foremost? 

Yet, reverting back to the travelling theme, the very instrument we require in these times to give us a modicum of freedom – our passports – can, in another light, offer us quite the opposite. They mark us out, categorise us into a certain group/nationality and depending on that labelling along with where in the world you want to go, they can be more of a hindrance than a help. For example, the freedom to travel you have on a Colombian passport is far more restricted than if you are lucky enough to have an EU one. 

A passport - a help or a hindrance to travel?
An instrument of freedom or repression?
So is it not time - if we truly live in a globalised world - that we started looking at issuing ‘global’ passports? Of course, the argument could be made do we need them at all, but the evidence would suggest that as a race we’re not quite ready for that move just yet. 

However, anything that promotes freer movement for the vast majority of people on this planet – within reason – should be enhanced. After all, they do say travel broadens the mind, right? Then again, ‘they’ do say we live in a free world, too. 

So why not pack your bags, prepare to broaden your mind and put that theory to the test.

Sunday, 5 February 2012

Lord of the Dance

One of the main problems when relocating to a new country can be getting to grips with the different cultural traits that exist. It depends, of course, where you go. A location that speaks the same language as your native land and is quite similar in terms of behaviour shouldn’t be much of a challenge. 

For an Irish man, Colombia might best be described as a half-way house in this regard. In terms of similarities, both countries are former colonies, predominantly Catholic – in name anyway – and have a significant but ailing threat from ‘leftish’ paramilitaries – it counts. On a lighter note, alcohol plays a pretty ‘healthy’ role in most celebratory occasions in the two nations – something you won’t find in many countries in the Orient for example. 

Of course there are big differences – the language being perhaps the most glaringly obvious. Also, as mentioned, while Colombia and Ireland might have a similar relaxed attitude to booze, how both populations ‘enjoy’ themselves with said alcohol in-hand is quite different.
'Wrong Way' taking Salsa lessons from somebody with years of experience behind her - learn from the best!
Smooth operator - practice makes perfect.

What we refer to here, first and foremost, is the dancing. For most Irish people – the men anyway – this is seen as an annoying, needless distraction while enjoying a few drinks. Nightclubs are a necessary evil in order to continue drinking after you get ‘turfed’ out of the pub. However for Colombians – and this holds true for the men just as much as the women – dancing is an essential part of any night out. Not to ‘get on the floor’ is criminal in their eyes. 

Now we’re not on about the ‘jumping around’ lunatic style dancing that we can all just about manage when we’re sufficiently ‘well-oiled’. Yes, that exists here too, but to ‘mix-it’ with the locals in these parts what you need are the skills of up-tempo salsa. For somebody from the western extremes of Europe, that can be quite difficult to acquire.
In terms of ‘picking-up’ women on a night-out though, it certainly helps to be a dab-hand at it. As a salsa-proficient, American friend mused, asking a girl to dance is a very inoffensive way of attempting to get with her. It can easily transcend the language barrier if your Spanish isn’t up-to-scratch. So without those sultry salsa skills, you can be at a major disadvantage when it comes to playing the dating game here.

Throw-in an ultra-conservative, reserved and impatient approach to the art of romance in a country where the native men are certainly not ‘backwards about being forward’ in this regard and you can find yourself on the back-foot very quickly. You’ve got to be far more aggressive here – a ‘player’ if you will. The women, as the evidence suggests, expect as much. It’s something we’re slowly learning. Only slowly though. 

We must point-out at this stage that the aforementioned standoffish romantic approach is far from an arrogant trait as some people think it is. In fact, it is quite the opposite. But developing a bit more of an offensive style, as much out of character as it may be, is a must in these parts – or perhaps anywhere. As a learned comrade put it, do you expect the ladies to jump on top of you? Well, it would be nice – in most cases.

Although the Bee Gees (or Boyzone for those of you from a later vintage) "words are all I have" method of getting with the opposite sex has worked relatively well for us thus far, it appears that much more is to be gained from even just a slight change in tactics. Or at the very least adopting just a bit of what we’ve discovered since moving here.
Michael Flatley and co giving it loads as part of 'Lord of the Dance'.
Why bother with salsa when you can do this?

Being more aggressive is something we can achieve – as long as we don’t go too over-the-top. We’re not ready to be deported from Colombia just yet. The salsa on the other hand, we’re not too sure about that one. 

We can improvise though. So how about bringing ‘Riverdance’*, Wrong Way Corrigan style to the Colombian masses? South America’s ‘Lord of the Dance’ if you will. The rewards will surely be endless, right?

*If you're unfamiliar with Irish dancing, or specifically Riverdance in this regard, check out