Greg Grandin’s devious phrasing, supressio veri and baloney in his article on Venezuela (LRB, 29 June) should not be allowed to pass without comment, even in the intermittently Chavista pages of the London Review (see the predictably enamoured Richard Gott in the issue of 17 February 2000, and the reflections of Tariq Ali in the issue of 21 June 2007).
Grandin calls Chávez’s coup attempt of 1992 a ‘military revolt’, but refers to his fleeting removal from office in 2002, for which he and some of his followers were largely to blame, as a ‘Washington-blessed coup’. Washington had very little to do with it, and throughout the rule of Chávez and his successor the United States has taken the course of not responding to provocation.
To refer to the corruption of recent years with the sentence ‘bureaucrats and military officers were free to skim’ is a comic understatement. What’s more, Grandin makes no mention of the notorious involvement in the drug trade of the upper echelons of the regime, civil and military. ‘Colourful bombast’ is also an excessively benign description of Chávez’s truculent denigration of opponents, and Grandin makes no attempt to analyse the sort of guarantees the opposition can expect in elections. Perhaps he finds government manipulation colourful too.
The statement that ‘the private sector expanded during the Chávez years’ needs, to say the least, some substantiation and critical analysis. Who was investing in what? Good years for importing Humvees for the new elite, or speculating on exchange rates, but for productive investment? In agriculture? The economy is more dependent on its now sadly mismanaged oil sector than ever before. Grandin makes no mention at all of the country’s mountainous indebtedness to China and Russia.
Ignacio Ramonet, whose Chávez: My First Life is the subject of Grandin’s review, is an interviewer with a record of unsurpassable sycophancy, whose deference in a previous work seems to have surprised even Fidel Castro. The poll Grandin refers to at the end of the piece, according to which 79 per cent picked Chávez as ‘the best president the country has ever had’ (no indication is given of when or where or how it was taken), is simply ridiculous.
St Antony’s College, Oxford
Greg Grandin turns up some interesting tidbits about Hugo Chávez’s early life, and does well to concoct a relatively internally consistent defence of the ex-president’s political legacy. There are, however, a couple of points in his article where, as a longtime Venezuela observer, I depart from his view.
First, I must question Grandin’s sources for the total death count in the two most recent rounds of demonstrations. ‘In 2014, lethal street protests resulted in the deaths of around forty people, the majority Chavistas or government employees,’ he writes. He supplies no evidence, although a cursory Google search suggests the figure comes from official government sources. Similarly, he states that the current wave of anti-government protests has resulted ‘so far, in another sixty or so killings, of protesters on both sides’. That is far from the 103 deaths estimated at the time of writing by the Observatorio Venezolano de Conflictividad Social.
There are two main issues here: one is the extreme polarisation of media reporting on Venezuela, which is divided – much like the country’s politics – between the commie-bashers in international and private media outlets, and the propaganda of TeleSur. In choosing to take evidence only from one side of the divide, Grandin greatly undermines his argument. The other issue with political bodycounting is the eye-watering level of homicide in Venezuela (in 2014, it was estimated that someone was killed every 21 minutes). This can obscure the true scale of deaths as a result of the protests, since political assassination can be – and often is – dressed up as ‘common delinquency’, as in the case of the activist Sabino Romero. It is also one of the main catalysts of the successive waves of demonstrations.
I must also take issue with Grandin’s too convenient argument that Venezuela’s current crisis roughly coincides with Chávez’s death in 2013. I worked in Caracas as an English teacher in 2009 and 2010, and signs of the current crisis – a double exchange rate, where dollars were smuggled into the country inside socks and cigar boxes; a growing scarcity of household staples such as powdered milk, eggs, toilet paper, sugar etc; and general insecurity – were already plain to see.
Aside from seeing my first ever gun (flashed from a crackhead’s jeans as he robbed me at a bus stop one Saturday morning), my prevailing memory of Venezuela will perhaps surprise those who read of the country from afar and tend to ‘support’ its 21st-century socialism: Venezuela is saturated with consumerism. Venezuelans of all political persuasions and social classes unite in their undying love of malls, designer brands and handheld devices. When I first arrived, I lived in one of the hilltop barrios Grandin describes. I was originally advised not to wear flashy clothes for my own safety. But sitting in the Jeep as it bumped its way up the hill to the shack I shared with a low-ranking civil servant, I quickly realised that I would need to invest in a Nike T-shirt and a pair of Oakley sunglasses if I was to appear less conspicuous.
I lived in Algeria at roughly the same time as Elaine Mokhtefi, and I remember vividly the various exiles – Chileans and Palestinians in particular – hosted by the government (LRB, 1 June). I also remember the troupes sent by fraternal countries, such as North Korea, to stage events designed to promote cultural and ideological exchange. Almost invariably cultural difference won out over ideological sympathy. The North and South Americans tended to behave, as Mokhtefi reports, as if they were still back home; the Koreans, with shorter exposure, displayed incredulity towards their host society.
The reciprocal respect expected by the exiles’ Algerian hosts was often not shown. There seemed to be little understanding of the physical and mental devastation caused by colonisation and war, or of the magnitude of the tasks the regime faced. Expatriate teachers and oil workers mocked the Algerians. There was constant partying and open sexual promiscuity in what was a poor, conservative country. Another issue was the effect of exile on the exiles themselves; there can be a ‘creep’ in mindset. In Tunisia, after 1982, the PLO and its supporters were gradually drawn into patterns of consumption and individualism that destroyed their unity and lost them their hosts’ sympathy.
Mokhtefi’s article also illustrates the effects of a half-century of Western historiography. Who now would believe that the North Korea health service was ‘unsurpassed’, or credit the support the USSR gave to the Algerian independence movement, ‘in providing weapons, training and education’. Half a century later many young Tunisians, exposed to the Western media, tell me it was the US that freed Algeria.
‘Trump’s delegation of authority to the generals for deciding all particulars of hostile engagements in Syria and Iraq may mark the first time such a thing has been done in US history,’ David Bromwich writes (LRB, 13 July). ‘It is certainly the first time it has been admitted in public; and it goes against the spirit of constitutional checks and limitations.’ Bromwich provides no supporting evidence for this astonishing information. If it is true, when and where was it ‘admitted in public’?
On 6 April 2017 the US Navy launched 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles to attack the Syrian government airbase at Shayrat in retaliation for the alleged poison gas attack two days earlier on the rebel-held town of Khan Sheikhoun. The American (and British) media, having spent months pouring scorn on Trump’s inability to distinguish between what is true and what is false, now heaped praise on him for ordering the attack. Not one major media outlet paused to question whether President Assad and his Russian backers had indeed carried out the poison gas attack, as was claimed by the White House in declassified documents released during an anonymous briefing.
The White House version of events was demolished a few days later by Theodore Postol, emeritus professor of science, technology and international security at MIT. Postol is a specialist in rocket technology who at one time worked as a scientific adviser to the Pentagon. His analysis of the White House documents was that it contained ‘false and misleading conclusions’ and that there was ‘absolutely no evidence that this [poison gas] attack was the result of a munition being dropped from an aircraft’. Postol’s findings were published on the web but ignored by the mainstream media.
On 25 June Welt am Sonntag, a conservative German newspaper, published an article by Seymour Hersh in which, after recounting that the Russians had given US intelligence precise information about an intended attack on Khan Sheikhoun on 4 April using conventional explosives, he described what happened when Trump called in his national security officials to discuss how to respond to the poison gas allegations: ‘The meeting,’ Hersh wrote, ‘was not to decide what to do, but how best to do it – or, as some wanted, how to do the least and keep Trump happy.’ Hersh reported that the military and intelligence advisers offered Trump four options: do nothing; a slap on the wrist (but only after alerting the Russians); massive bombing of Syrian airfields; or ‘decapitation’ – assassinating President Assad by destroying his palace. Trump was persuaded to accept option two. ‘We gave him the goldilocks option,’ Hersh’s source said: ‘Not too hot, not too cold, but just right.’
Hersh’s account of the meeting at Mar-a-Lago on 6 April 2017 shows that the military men may have restrained Trump, but that is a long way from the assertion that the generals now have delegated authority ‘for deciding all particulars of hostile engagements’.
Reading Duncan Wheeler’s Diary, admittedly with interest but also distaste and even anger, it struck me that the LRB would never allocate space to a comparable meditation on foxhunting by a hunt supporter, this pursuit having none of the high-flown mystique of the bullfight that fascinates a certain kind of dissociative intellect (LRB, 13 July).
Of course I’m not arguing here for a platform for foxhunting, which has arcane justifications of its own anyway, or for any other bloodsport. I’m merely pointing out to my own satisfaction that Duncan Wheeler, though he writes well and coolly, seems, like others, to have ring-fenced a numb area in his sensibilities so as to avoid compromising the affectless integrity of his imaginative freedom.
Others correspondents rightly take issue with what they perceive as textual mistakes and misrepresentations and the like. I write picturing a dazed, crazed and bloodied bull facing certain death, while up in the stands a professor of Spanish, doubtless of fine mind and spotless character, enjoys the subtleties of the matador’s personality and performance, his nonchalance and disdain particularly appreciable by the connoisseur.
Stefan Collini’s essay on scholars displaced by the Second World War mentions that Eduard Fraenkel’s seminar on Aeschylus’ Agamemnon was described in one account as ‘a circle of rabbits addressed by a stoat’ (LRB, 13 July). I was one of Professor Fraenkel’s ‘rabbits’ from my first week in Oxford. Unusually for Oxford in the 1950s, Fraenkel treated young women as equals, and savaged us equally, which was refreshing at a time when lectures often started with ‘Good morning, gentlemen.’ We progressed at a rate of between ten and twenty lines in two hours. Each session was the responsibility of a single student, who would establish each word of text from a variety of manuscripts and then its meaning with the help of any and every tool known to literature, history, art and scholarship. The bit one ‘did’ was engraved on the brain for months. When I joined, Fraenkel had finished Agamemnon and was working on the Cena Trimalchionis.
Collini asks whether ‘the historical record will contain a comparably positive balance-sheet about our contemporary response to the plight of, for example, scholars displaced from Iraq and Syria.’ In my current role as chair of the Council for At-Risk Academics (Cara), the successor to the Academic Assistance Council/Society for the Protection of Science and Learning (active from 1933), I think it only fair to pay tribute to the very generous response of many universities, including Oxford, and that of many individual academics, to the plight of their colleagues from Iraq, Syria and elsewhere who have been forced into exile, or have tried to carry on at home despite the obvious dangers.
Working with our 117 partner universities in the UK and others abroad, Cara’s fellowship programme acts as a lifeline to academics globally, helping them to escape from immediate danger and to reach a place of sanctuary where they can continue their research and teaching. Most plan to return home when the situation allows, but they need support in the meantime to develop their skills and build the networks to help them when that day comes. Cara helps them to identify a host institution, agrees all the funding issues, and assists with immigration formalities and the many travel and arrival arrangements. As of July 2017, Cara is working with some 260 fellows, and has another 350 or so dependants; the host university waives any fees, and covers some or, increasingly, all of the other costs as well – a substantial commitment. From 2006 to 2012 Cara also ran an Iraq Programme, to help academics still in Iraq or the surrounding region, to which many universities and individual UK academics contributed pro bono. In 2016 Cara launched a regional programme for Syrian academics, again with the support of many universities and individual academics.
There is always much more we could do, given more resources. Anyone who would like to donate can visit our website at www.cara.ngo.
Will Self discusses the use of the drug ‘nozz’ by young people today (LRB, 29 June). This is the first time I have seen the colloquial term for nitrous oxide in print, but I’d always assumed it was ‘nos’ and not ‘nozz’. I incline to this view because the popularity of the drug among teenagers at the turn of the century coincided with the release of The Fast and the Furious, a terrible film in which cars were customised to go faster with the addition of NOS (Nitrous Oxide Systems). The not altogether reliable urbandictionary.com agrees, placing the slang for the drug as the fifth term in its entry for ‘nos’, while the entry for ‘nozz’ has only one definition: ‘A swag person that excels in social activities’.
Merton College, Oxford
‘Brexit as currently envisaged raises the dismal prospect of immigration and customs checks being carried out at a border that, for practical purposes, no longer exists,’ Colin Kidd and Malcolm Petrie write (LRB, 29 June). They repeat a common misunderstanding about Ireland: for some, there already is a border. Since the early 2000s, there have been spot immigration checks for those travelling between North and South. I often take the bus between Belfast and Dublin, and have witnessed the checks many times. All British and Irish citizens have the right to cross the border without documentation, but in practice only some of us can, knowing we carry it in our face and in our accents. For others, the modus operandi of the checks is racial profiling: if you do not ‘look Irish/British’ (the working notions of what this means are outdated) then you face being questioned, and potentially escorted off the bus.
Kidd and Petrie go on to state that the most likely post-Brexit outcome ‘is that the UK government will be forced to concede free movement between North and South, with immigration checks conducted in Britain for all arrivals from Ireland’. As with North-South travel, there already are immigration checks between Britain and Ireland, at the ferry ports for example. Here again, legal residents can be stopped and questioned. And at Northern Ireland’s only detention centre, in Larne, you will meet many people whose cases demonstrate that ‘free movement’ is already limited: asylum seekers, for instance, who have the right to travel around the UK, but can be detained at ferry ports as a result of local authorities’ racism or ignorance of the law. There are also people who live (legally) in the South and have travelled to the North, believing that ‘free movement’ applied equally to them. In accordance with the generally draconian and Kafkaesque approach of the Home Office, these people are not returned to the imaginary border, or even to Dublin (still less than a three-hour drive from Larne). Instead, they must spend a few nights in this detention centre before being moved to another in London, only then to be deported to Dublin by air. What explains this? Partly, no doubt, Theresa May’s injunction that a ‘hostile environment’ should be created for migrants. But there is also a profit motive: most aspects of the protracted route, including the detention centres, are contracted out to private companies.