A Brave New World

November 9, 2008

From Stettin in the Baltic to to Trieste in the Adriatic, an iron curtain has descended across the Continent
~Winston Churchill, Westminster College, March 5, 1946

On Saturday, October 25, I saw a bunch of kids protesting in front of the Royal Ontario Museum, in Toronto; they were against dinosaurs bones being exhibited, they wanted to bury back the bones. “Dinos are people too”, they were yelling. I wanted to kick their asses.

Such waste of organization, such abuse of the right of expression, such misuse of the privilege of being free. Only a few years ago, people would die for such a privilege.

Today is the 19th anniversary of the Fall of the Berlin Wall. We may not remember, or may not know, the series of events that lead to this fall. Some people would remember Reagan’s words, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall” and think that his speech was a definitive hit to the Iron Curtain. These people piss me off.

The heroes here, the people with the real balls of steel, were not the manifestants in safe Western Europe and USA. There were not the neo hippies of late 90s; they were the East Germans, Hungarians, Poles, Czechs, all the people from the Warsaw’s Pact who actually risked their lives for Freedom.

The Berlin Wall did not “fell” 19 years today; it was chipped away for the brave men and women behind the Iron Curtain.

In 1989, the Stasi was still eliminating anti-communist and jailing people, when in May 2nd, the Hungarians made the first hole in the Iron Curtain. They cut the barrier between Magyar and Austria. Thousands of East Germans flocked down to Hungary, one of the few places they could travel. The West German embassies in Budapest and Prague were invaded by thousands of refugees.

The GDR’s government stopped the visas to travel to Hungary in August, which led the East German population to flood the streets of Dresden and Leipzig, manifesting against the measure. They were risking their lives: The GDR’s General Secretariat, Erich Honecker, was one of the last hard liners and wanted to eradicate the manifestations. People like Günter Schabowski, Berlin’s communist party leader, were trying desperately to hold him.

September 25, 1989: The Stasi arrested hundreds of manifestants in Leipzig. At the same time, the embassy’s Minister of Foreign Affairs in Prague gave authorization to the East Germans camping in the Embassy to go to the FRG by train, but they should go through East Germany. When those trains arrived to Dresden, thousand of Germans tried to board them, while the police tried to stop them; the trains could not stop in Dresden, but they arrived in the FRG. That was a major hit to the GDR.

A few days later, in Oct 6th, Gorbachev arrived in Berlin to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the GDR. Unlike Honeken, the Soviet leader knew that the repression could not go on. He stated that History will testify against those who act too late.

Alexanderplatz, East Berlin: Gorbachev is back in Moscow and the 40th anniversary is over. The people of Berlin flooded the plaza, and the Stasi started acting fast, arresting everybody. People like Andreas Gutzeit, journalist, are taken to jail and interrogated. Meanwhile, the army is bieng trained to fight a war against the German People. In October 23rd, more cities joined the manifestations against the dictatorial regime, and Honeken is planning a bloody repression, then, Guenther Schabowski and other moderates realise that a confrontation against their own people will have disastrous consequences and they demand Honeken’s resignation. Surprisly, he accepts, but some hard-line leaders in the Stasi and the Army refuse to soft down.

In November 6th, Leipzig is witness of a huge manifestation, where half million people go to the street. The army receives instructions to stand on guard and is provided with two and a half times the ammunitions they would receive in case of Armed Conflict. They could level Berlin.

In November the 9th, only nineteen years ago, Schabowski and his allies are trying to negotiate a moderated solution to the conflict, while the East German Army marchs towards Berlin; then, in the Parliament, an agreement is reached: They will allow the travel abroad, in organised manner. A reported asked “when this measure will be in effect?” to what Schabowski answered “As far as I know effective immediately, without delay”.

Schabowski made the announcement too soon, the army does not know anything about the agreement; what the East German Politburo thought was a measure to buy time, opened the Wall doors. At 19:45 the world heard Schabowski: Everybody but the East German Army. One hour later, the East Germans started to line in Checkpoint Charlie, while the army was still in red alert. The orders are to protect the German Democratic Republic and its borders. The army is deployed in the checkpoints only to find thousands of East Germans demanding entry into West Berlin. Two hours after Schabowski announcement, the army has orders to shoot to kill anybody trying to cross the border. The world is nevertheless alert of the new agreement, and from West Berlin thousands of people started heading to the Wall. The soldiers tried to confirm orders to their superiors but all the lines are jammed, overwhelmed by all the officers trying to clarify the situation. The West Germans are climbing the Wall. The East German Army is crunched between East and West Germans, then, some newspapers started to circulate. DDR: Ab sofort alle grenzan offen: GDR: From now on, all the borders are open. The army officials decided not to resist the people’s power; 22:30, East German officers opened the checkpoint controls.

The Berlin Wall has ceased to exist.


In Memoriam

September 4, 2008

All my friends say, ‘Oh, you lucky. Anybody can animate that roundheaded kid, he’s just a round head
~Bill Melendez

Charlie Brown

José Cuauhtémoc “Bill” Meléndez
November 15 1916 – September 2 2008

Gracias Paisano, for the memories.

Absolut Campaign

April 9, 2008

Corruption and hypocrisy ought not to be inevitable products of democracy, as they undoubtedly are today
~Mahatma Gandhi

Absolut Vodka has a series of marketing posters portraying what they call an “Absolut World”, and in a particular case, they show a map of Mexico (Inaccurate in its southern border with Central America) from 1840. The map includes all the territories that were then occupied and annexed by USA during the Texas Independence, The Mexican-American War, and the Gadsden Purchase. The ad was “based upon historical perspectives and was created with a Mexican sensibility. In no way was this meant to offend or disparage, nor does it advocate an altering of borders, nor does it lend support to any anti-American sentiment, nor does it reflect immigration issues. Instead, it hearkens to a time which the population of Mexico may feel was more ideal” (http://www.absolut.com/iaaw/blog/in-an-absolut-world-according-to-mexico)

Mexico US Absolut Ads

The ad stirred angry in USA, but it was well received in Mexico. It is a fact that Mexico encompassed a territory of 5 million KM2 previous to the USA Invasion, that the USA occupied the country several times, that they took the territory while Mexico City was under occupation by the foreign army, and that they paid a symbolic sum of USD $15,000,000 for the 3 million KM2 they decided were theirs.

I keep wondering, why people in the USA are so mad about? The United States of America did take the territory, it did declare war to Mexico, it did occupy and slaughter Mexican population in a similar way it did with the Indians (Native Americans in hypocritical Political Correct Language) from the Appalachians to the Pacific Ocean. Why then the US People are so upset when somebody exploits these facts? It is just hypocrite to feel offended when Mexicans remember the war. The ad is not intended to stir Anti-USA feelings within Mexico, and there is not documented case on the contrary. In any case, any USA citizen should be compelled to review their history and to understand the role his nation has played in the World Stage, for better and for worse.

The paradox of democracy

May 28, 2007

Democracy is a process by which the people are free to choose the man who will get the blame. 

~Laurence J. Peter

Countries with a democracy system are somehow similar to companies in the stock exchange; The latest think on a quarterly basis, and try to give quarterly reports that raise the stock price. The former think on a election basis, and try to give results that will gain votes for the next election. A lot of the decisions taken have more to do with the short term implications that with the long term welfare.

This is why undeveloped countries with a democrat government have it so hard. The necessary measures to improve the over all economy usually hurt the poor, who in turn will vote against those measures, and, being majority, will reverse those measures.

The system works somehow like this:

1) A democratic, undeveloped country sets new reforms to improve their economy: reduce fiscal imbalance, increase expenditures in education, and raises new taxes.

2) The country, being undeveloped, has got the majority of population living in harsh conditions, and the new measures hurt them. Market-based policies meant to increase the efficiency of the aggregate economy frequently generate short-term dislocations and resentment.

3) The majority may understand the long-term benefits of the measures, but feel the short-term pain, so they vote against the government on the next elections, and elect a populist government which is going to cut taxes and increase spending.

4) All the populist measures increase deficit and inflation. The people understand how bad is the populist government and in the new election vote against it for a conservative government, which sets new reforms to improve their economy: reduce fiscal imbalance, increase expenditures in education, and raises new taxes. GO TO STEP 2

This is deadlock. Liberalizing the economy within an established democratic order are not inherently contradictory terms, but there are tensions between them that the country’s leaders will have to manage carefully. Ashutosh Varshney found that, in western society, three factors helped to avoid this situation:

1) Universal suffrage came to most Western democracies only after the Industrial Revolution, which meant that the poor got the right to vote only after those societies had become relatively rich

2) A welfare state has attended to the needs of low-income segments of the population

3) The educated and the wealthy have tended to vote more than the poor

While we can consider the democratic value a long-term asset, the need of be voted each four or six years places important constraints in the maneuver margin of present developing and under developing democracies. These factors will be very important when studying development and policy in the third world.

Protection Barriers; The Canadian Experience

May 15, 2007

You cannot protect something by building a fence around it and thinking that this will help it survive.
~Wim Wenders

People advocate for trade barriers when they feel that:

1) Local industry needs protection from abroad

2) Industry from abroad is playing dirty tricks (i.e. dumping, protecting their own industry, sending lower quality products)

3) The industry is of strategic importance (i.e. banking, communications, farming)

What are the cost of proteccionism? Let’s analise the Canadian Experience. In 1878, Sir John A. MacDonald’s conservative government introduced the National Policy. The idea was to encourage investment and economic growth within Canada, as well as build an east-west flow of goods to tie the country economically. The policy had two simple components: high tariff on manufactured goods and open market for foreign investment.

The tariff were imposed to encourage the growth of central Canada’s manufacturing industries, hoping that they would reach a scale to compete internationally. Some machinery was exempt, like those needed by the natural-resource industries. The Canadian companies will sell more to other Canadians, increasing the east-west commerce and hence helping to build the very needed TransCanada Railway.

The open-investment policy was intended to attract foreign capital, since locals had not got enough resources. The first invertors were British lending money first to other British, then to Canadians. During the 1900s however, Americans replaced British as the main capital source, and this was not in the form of debt, but equity. The reason is clear in retrospect, the Americans couldn’t sell in Canada due to the tariff, but they were able to open Canadian subsidiaries, which, being Canadian, could benefit from the protection.

The consequences are still affecting us, 130 years after. The Canadian manufacturing sector became a branch plants with no incentive to compete internationally, since they will compete against their parent companies.

A second legacy of the National Policy was the concentration of the wealth on very few hands. the National Policy make Canada a very comfortable place to compete; once established, they were protected by the tariff, and the incentive to be productive was limited. For the Canadian Companies, the profits were huge and resulted in very concentrated industries for each sector: Beer is dominated by Molson and Labatt, retail was dominated first by Eaton’s and Simpsons, then by The Bay and Sears. We only have five banks. You can count one or two large companies concentrating the national production for each sector.

Foreign ownership is not a matter of national pride, but economic sense: The typical organization have a profit of 10% of the revenue, but the lion’s share of the expenses is that 90% used on research, salaries, production, marketing campaigns… and, being branch plants, all those process take place on the main headquarters, outside Canada, so Canada is not only losing the 10% of the revenue, but an important component both of economic and strategic value. While there are exceptions, like companies doing an entire process in their Canadian branch (Pratt and Whitney, ICI explosives), this rule applies to the oil producers, the automotive manufacturers and so on.

The three final consequences of the National Policy enacted in 1878 are, that in 2007:

1) Canada has a very concentrated industry, so the free market rules, where supply and demand set the price, are not valid here, because when one or two companies dominate the market, they are price setters, no price takers. That is why is cheaper driving to Buffalo and buying your stuff there, that going to Eaton Centre or Yorkville and being fleeced up.

2) Canada’s wealth is concentrated within a handful, where 100 individuals or families have got a collective net worth of $141.6 billion

3) Canadian companies are not producing the world’s leading technology. We haven’t got any Microsoft, Hewlett Packard, or Intel. I don’t really now how much Research in Motion is licensing technology or really creating new one, so I cannot comment in this one, but the general rule is new technology being developed somewhere else and then being copy or license here.

So, protectionism has resulted harmful in the long way for Canada. We will measure some other trade barriers soon.

The Destruction of Memory

April 12, 2007

Where power belongs to the aggressor, the destruction of one family’s home might be taken as the first embodiment of a genocide
~David Simpson London Review of Books

Every day, quite against my will, I have to drive at work (I know I should bike, but let’s say that I have a 23 months reason to drive). I always park at the same spot at Victoria University and stay a minute regarding three magnificent houses. They are quite beautiful; the details of the balcony, the sparrow that lives in a little hole, the brick work. Surrounded by construction sites of what it will be a nasty new, expensive building, the three houses are part of the architectural oasis in downtown Toronto that is the U of T.

The houses are condemned; a new, nasty, cheap material/expensive-housing upper class condo will be built here. I cannot help but feel sad for these three sisters that are going to be torn apart. If we think of buildings as quasi-living entities, then these triplets will face Capital Punishment. Their crime: Be prime location.

Who lived there? What did they do? How was the city when these magnificent houses were built? How many passions, loves, hate happened there? Did they dress up on Sunday and walked around a very different city?

I was reading some chapters of Robert Bevan‘s The Destruction of Memory: Architecture at War. It is interesting to see how many countries are lamenting now the destruction of their heritage buildings during Europe’s wars, while here in America we are willingly and wantonly destroying our own heritage. The pattern repeats and repeats all over the continent.

I just learned that there is a way to protect heritage buildings in Ontario; it is a shame I didn’t know anything before. If there is a group that lobbies to keep our memories alive, please contact me for volunteer work.

You can visit spacing, Illegal Signs, and Toronto Heritage for more information.

Talking with Perspective

February 28, 2007

The only way to make sure people you agree with can speak is to support the rights of people you don’t agree with.
Eleanor Holmes Norton

One thing that prevents me to join some organizations such as Greenpeace, J4MW, et cetera, is the radicalization of a great number of its members. In the other hand, the organizations perceived as all the evil that exist on Earth, are usually opened to its critics’ positions. Shell, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund always welcome its most critics’ point of view.

Let’s take an example, In Davos, Switzerland, the World Economic Forum is regarded as a rendezvous of the rich and powerful, but the voices opposed to globalization are always heard; they even have got special events, like the Open Forum. In contrast, the World Social Forum, the anti-globalization counterpart of Davos, is completely close to anybody who wants to speak in favour of globalization.

When in the small village of Atenco, in Mexico, riots and violent anti-governments manifestation turned into criminal acts, J4MW supported unconditionally the criminals that led the demonstration, closing the doors to any voice that support the legal status and the government position. In similar ways, radicals at Greenpeace make even grassroots activist to draw themselves out of this organization.

In the sustainable movement, David Suzuki once declared that ‘anyone who owns a SUV can’t care about the environment’; but he has being more moderate since then, and he is regarded as one of the greatest authorities concerning the environment. In the Fair Trade movement, any research that indicates that fair trade is not sustainable in the long term, because it keeps people in poverty, is usually received with a lynch spirit by the grassroots activist.

The left is plagued by people who likes the social ideas, but don’t have the willing to research how well these ideas apply or how realistic they are. In many cases, people joining social movements do so in order to oppose globalization, pollution, free trade, but just for the sake of oppose them. How somebody can seriously support Chiapas’s egomaniac Marcos? After 12 years of ‘war’ the area he controls is even poorer than before, his solutions are completely unviable, his openness to dialogue inexistent, but a lot of leftist still support him. I for once abandoned his line after two years of policy inconsistency and bad poetry that characterize the Sub-Commandant.

The ideas that these organizations embrace are usually the ones that I will support: anti poverty movements, global warming awareness, justice for migrant workers, and human treatment to animals. Is the lack of pluralism and self-critic what drives me and, I am sure, most moderate leftist away from them. Some organizations are no more that umbrellas for all kind of socialist movements, that oppose in general all what comes from the capital’s owners, the multinationals, and the USA, but can’t come up to particular solutions. Compare such organizations full of wannabe hippies against real, humanitarian movements like Medecins Sans Frontiers, the World Wide Foundation, and Amnesty International. These are real, grassroots activists, really busy trying to make this a better world, with little time to criticise everything they are against to.

In the meantime, this is an organization that can count with my absolute support and blessing:

Running of the Nudes