August 5, 2011: My summer reading this year kicked off with Cambodia’s Curse: the Modern History of a Troubled Land by former New York Times reporter Joel Brinkley. Brinkley won a Pulitzer in 1980 for his coverage (at the Louisville Courier Journal) of the fall of the Khmer Rouge.
The title Cambodia’s Curse bugs me. Though cultures resistant to change create illusions of inevitability, and a genocidal past casts long shadows, no nation or people are truly cursed. Nor do I buy Brinkley’s attempt to place partial blame for Cambodian acceptance of the Khmer Rouge on passivity engendered by the influence of Theravada Buddhism and Hinduism. First, it’s a simplistic take on the two religions, both of which are practiced in numerous countries that never exterminated a quarter of their own people in an effort to create a communist utopia. Second, countries with far different religious heritages have also had totalitarian holocausts. Germany and the Soviet Union most notably, respectively representing the right and the left.
As for Cambodian passivity, it must come and go– judging by the perpetual political turmoil of Cambodia in the 20th Century, and by the recent grass roots resistance to the land grabbing, population displacing, development policies of Prime Minister Hun Sen.
Caveats aside, Curse author Joel Brinkley does a swell job nailing the crony-rich corruption of Cambodia’s current government as headed by Hun Sen. Whose honorary title of “Samdech” (akin to “your excellency”) was awarded him in 1993 by Cambodia’s amazingly tenacious King Norodom Sihanouk. Easy to imagine the retired (sort of) Sihanouk doing Karaoke of I Will Survive. Dubbed the world’s most versatile pol by the Guinness Book of Records, Sihanouk has surfed wave after wave of political change since 1941. Sometimes wearing his crown, sometimes not. Using his royal influence to legitimize the Khmer Rouge in one decade and deep-six them in another. Dancing with ideologies of all stripes, telling foreigners bearing aid and investment whatever they want to hear.
Prime Minister Hun Sen is also a marvel of tenacity. In 1975, as a Khmer Rouge battalion commander, Hun Sen took part in the campaign in the eastern zone of Democratic Kampuchea (Cambodia’s name under the Khmer Rouge) that included the invasion of the capital city of Phnom Penh and the forced evacuation– aka death march– of its entire population to a rural paradise of forced labor. By the late 70′s, Pol Pot and his pals in the upper echelons of the Khmer Rouge were imploding with paranoia. Hun Sen sensed the reaper was turning his way. When Vietnam, after a series of border disputes, invaded Cambodia in 1979 and overthrew the Khmer Rouge, Hun Sen rode in with them and was given a top spot in the government installed by the Vietnamese.
Years of civil war followed. The Cold War shaped the conflict. The Soviet Union backed the repressive Vietnamese government; the USA and China supported the rebel remains of the murderous Khmer Rouge. Arms flowed from all sides. In the early 1990′s, as the Soviet Union waned, the Vietnamese departed. The Khmer Rouge dwindled. Little dictator (compared to Pol Pot) Hun Sen remained in place as prime minister. To placate international good government types bearing financial aid, he was eventually forced to accept a toothless coalition government representing parties other than his own. Dissidents are still persecuted. An independent judiciary? Freedom of speech? Who needs the lies and distortions?
Meanwhile, the handful of elderly Khmer Rouge leaders charged with crimes against humanity will probably keel over before their trials are allowed to conclude and the bureaucrats, speculators, and family members favored by Hun Sen continue to help themselves to Cambodia.
As for Cambodia’s established reformers, the go-to guys when foreign policy players from other countries require an anti-Hun Sen, they seem almost as seasoned, agenda-wise, as Sihanouk and his Samdech.
An aside about my being a mental tourist in flailing states. Yeah, there’s the appeal of the morbidly exotic. But there’s also the illuminating shock of recognition. What past or present resident of a flailing post-industrial city in say, New Jersey or New York, hasn’t seen similar political stasis? With old boys and hoary reformers as the fixed poles of political expression? Old boys rule; reformers wax profitably pious. Both sides (if the two ends of a continuum can be called “sides”) claim revitalization is just around the next public-funded corner. They may squabble over who gets paid but always agree on the need for more more more.
OK. Hun Sen and his cronies in Cambodia make our crowd seem like pikers. But to paraphrase George Bernard Shaw, we’re just haggling over degree. For folks interested in U.S. urban policy (or in improving their looting skills) Cambodia’s Curse is an instructive read.
Now Reading: Mexico
I recently started reading Manana Forever? Mexico and the Mexicans by Jorge Castaneda, Mexico’s former foreign minister. Only a few chapters in, so I can’t say much about it. But I have been brushing up on Mexico via other sources. My hitherto casual interest was amped last year by the flap over Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s comparison of Mexico to Columbia during that country’s narco insurgency days. Hillary’s take was testily denounced by President Obama– and by the Mexican government. As an example of difference in the two situations, Mexico’s national security advisor pointed out that Mexico has never “elected a drug lord such as Pablo Escobar to congress”.
Wags might reply why buy the cow when milk is so cheap.
InSight, a think tank site focused on research, analysis and investigation of organized crime in Latin America and the Caribbean, recently ran an article (Mayor Goes Free, Mexico Fails Again to Prosecute ‘Corrupt’ Politicians) about the growing number of Mexican pols whose arrests on cartel-related charges have dissolved into non-prosecution. Including Gregorio Sanchez, the former mayor of Cancun, Jorge Hank Rhon, the former mayor of Tijuana, and dozens of state and local officials in the state of Michoacan.
Mexico has 31 states (14 of which are on the U.S. State Department’s travel warning list) and a federal district. In late July, roughly 21 state prosecutors (a job akin to being a United States Attorney) resigned. Leaving the states and Mexico’s federal district temporarily without top cops. No reason given.
Zones of Silence
In June, Mexican reporter Ricardo Chavez Aldana (a native of Ciudad Juarez) spoke at the National Association of Hispanic Journalists’ annual meeting in Florida. Chavez was among several reporters who told of being threatened and of having relatives and/or colleagues murdered by drug cartels. June was a “particularly grim month” for journalists all over Mexico. On June 20th well-known crime reporter Miguel Angel Lopez Velasco and his wife and son were murdered in Veracruz. Another Veracruz journalist had been found in a shallow grave three weeks earlier. On June 7th, armed men abducted an editor of an Acapulco newspaper from a bar and on June 13th, a reporter for two dailies in the state of Sonora (bordering Arizona) was shot to death in an abduction attempt.
Also in June: a report titled Corruption, Impunity, Silence: The War on Mexico's Journalists, by PEN Canada and the International Human Rights Program (IHRP) at the University of Toronto blasted “the Mexican government's repeated failure to protect the human rights of journalists, its complicity in a number of rights violations against them, and the web of Mexican laws that limit freedom of expression and effectively gag journalists who seek to expose government corruption”.
During the same month the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) upped Mexico to #8 (among the top 10 countries) on its Impunity Index; the index calculates unsolved journalist murders as a percentage of a country's population. According to CPI “deadly anti-press violence continued to climb in Mexico, where authorities appear powerless in bringing killers to justice.”
In 2010, Mexico’s own National Human Rights Commission reported that at least 66 journalists had been killed since 2005 and 12 others had disappeared. Mexican officials claim not all murdered or kidnapped reporters are targeted because of journalism activities. Most recently in the case of police reporter Yolanda Ordaz de la Cruz. On July 26th, her decapitated corpse was found on a street in Veracruz. Colleagues say she was investigating the murder of fellow reporter Miguel Angel Lopez Velasco and his family and had received anonymous death threats. The top prosecutor for the state of Veracruz denies her murder was linked to her work.
Boosters for tourism in Mexico often imply only people involved in drugs or those who don’t mind their own business are in danger. But in a country where drug cartel terrorism has created news blackouts in journalistic zones of silence, government corruption is supported by laws that limit speech, and where 70% of all federal arrests dissolve into dropped charges and the overall rate of impunity for criminal activity is eye popping, the true number and nature of victims, be they reporters, average citizens, or foreign tourists and workers, may be difficult to ascertain.
In the meantime, the Mexico Tourism Board, under the leadership of newly appointed Chief Marketing Officer Gerardo Llanes is seeking to tidy up Mexico’s image. Llanes, who in his prior position helped launch Diet Coke in Mexico, is reaching out to U.S. media outlets like Bloomberg, Newsweek, and CNN in order to help them “get the facts straight”. Llanes and the Tourism Board will cite “swimming with whale sharks and camping” as a few of Mexico’s attractions in an upbeat publicity campaign tagged "The Place You Thought You Knew".
Twinge of recognition: in flailing post-industrial cities stateside, political boosters always claim that the crime afflicting their bailiwick is merely a matter of perception. They also revile and/or try to work the messengers who deliver the perception. And true crime stats are always elusive.
A word about Jorge Castaneda’s Manana Forever. In it Castaneda references (negatively) the Mexican proverb: "El que no transa no avanza". Whoever doesn’t trick or cheat gets nowhere.
The Last Book of Summer
I’m on a waiting list at my local library (I don’t do tablets– too much like Etch A Sketch) for Reckless Endangerment by Gretchen Morgenson and Joshua Rosner. A nice cozy read about all the folks in the Washington Wall Street nexus who pumped the real estate bubble that distorted our economy and then picked the public pocket when the Ponzi collapsed. I don’t expect Reckless to be a shocker, more like the kind of mystery where you know who-done-it right from the beginning but enjoy seeing how the perp is brought to justice. Oh. Wait. None of the major housing bubble perps were brought to justice. In fact, most are doing better than ever.
El que no transa no avanza!
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