Monday, August 26, 2019

Riad Salameh’s Ponzi

Every now and then I try to put my finance degree to use, but never for my own financial benefit for some reason. It caught my attention that Lebanese state-issued Eurobonds, which are bonds issued by a state (Lebanon in this case) in a foreign currency (USD in this case) to raise cash for state spending (let your imagination run wild in this case), are trading well below their face value, which means that if you buy these bonds on the market now you will get higher returns than initially promised by the issuing entity. The return on your investment right now would be over 20% per year, unless of course that issuing government defaults.

The fact that they are trading so low means that market speculators foresee a high risk of default, which means the government won’t settle the bond when it’s due, won’t pay the full amount due, or even won’t pay at all. To put this in perspective, many Ponzi schemers won’t dare to promise returns of over 20% for they might push their potential investors/victims to start questioning their methods. Heck, many Ponzi schemers here are probably shitting their pants that their fools might ask to cash out their money so that they can throw it into the Lebanese Eurobond fire.

There’s an investment theory that is taught at Business Schools called “The Biggest Fool Theory”, which basically says it’s ok to be a fool and pay for something a lot more than it’s worth as long as there is a bigger fool out there who is willing to pay you more than what you paid for it.

Years ago a Lebanese restauranteur, who illegally occupies seafront public properties and was getting some $30 a meal from the Lebanese state to deliver Taouk sandwiches to the displaced in Sanayeh park during the 2006 war, spent hundreds of thousands of dollars in an auction for “premium cellphone numbers”. He was then quoted saying: “We are running out of real estate in Lebanon, and phone numbers are the next investment frontier.” Needless to say, he was the biggest fool in the premium cellphone number market.

Soon after that incidents, many of this wiz’s restaurants shut down, save for a rent-free spot courtesy of Solidere, which is another example of Lebanese genius business acumen at work. This company, Rafiq Hariri’s second biggest heist after his public debt scheme, is losing at Monopoly while playing alone. It keeps drawing the “Go to Jail, Do not Pass Go, Do not collect $200” card, which could be seen as just bad luck, except they also print the cards. It takes a special kind of inept to lose at a game where you’re playing alone and you tweak the rules in your favor whenever you feel like it. The tax-exempted Solidere was supposed to be the shining jewel of the neoliberal economic project implemented in postwar Lebanon.

Nothing embodies the Lebanese economy going up in smoke like the recently levied tax on Argilehs. The Lebanese government's Cheech and Chong solution is to tax a bong served in a restaurant that doesn’t pay rent to a landlord that doesn’t pay taxes. Talk about putting out an Amazonian wildfire by blowing at it as if it were birthday candles.

Speaking of, Lebanon’s central bank chief Riad Salameh earlier this month completed his 26th year on the job. He says there’s nothing to worry about; your money is safe with him. 

Sunday, August 04, 2019

Cancel Byblos

Lost in all the Church vs Middle-Upper class liberties’ bubble fight last week was the fact that the Byblos Festival (and all other regional -read sectarian quotas- festivals) and all of its concerts are subsidized by the bankrupt Lebanese state. At a time where the President of this failed Republic is calling for sacrifices, people from all over Lebanon are contributing to fund a Yo Yo Ma concert, whose tickets cost between $65 and $125, or 14%-28% of Lebanese minimum wage, per ticket. 

I would share the sums of  how much exactly does the Ministry of Tourism pump into the festivals’ coffers  every year, but that information is not on the Ministry’s website. Actually, the latest news about Festivals on the Ministry’s website are from 2015.  

Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for subsidizing the arts and making them more accessible to the people. But as it stands the Ministry of Tourism subsidies are nothing but slush funds distributed among the ruling elite that fund instagrammable moments for those who can afford to dish out a few hundred dollars to attend a concert. 

So no matter which abstract concept won, the Church’s “Jesus” or the Rights Bubble’s “Freedom of Speech”, there are only absolute losers when it comes to the net tangible costs of this battle, unless your name is Yo-Yo Ma of course.

Wednesday, July 10, 2019

Bags of Money

I’ve missed many money making opportunities over the years. When I was a recent MBA graduate in Miami I had a brief stint working in the Florida mortgage market. This was circa 2004 and none of what was going on made sense. Already risky mortgages were encouraged to refinance at a lower interest rate increasing exposure in the process. I felt something was amiss, but how could everyone be wrong. I was in my 20s, so I wasn’t arrogant enough at the time to bet against the market. Betting on the entire US real estate market to fail is not something they’re allowed to hint at in US business schools, which adhere to the Buy! Buy! Buy! credo. There was a movie made about someone who was smarter and more arrogant than me at that time: The Big Short. He made millions. I, on the other hand, have had a million lousy jobs. 

Almost a decade later, in my 30s, I was freelancing in the nascent gig economy and a client offered to pay me in Bitcoin instead of going through the bank transfer hassle. My choice was to take 100 Bitcoin(s) (can a computer code be plural?)  or just under 3,000 USD. I opted for the Benjamins, Baby!

I’m in my 40s now and I will not miss another opportunity to make millions. Lebanon is on the verge of collapse and there’s no way to reverse that path. Since I’m not friends with Riad Salameh in order for him cut me in on one of his schemes, I have to earn my millions through Lebanese business ingenuity and I have the idea that will make it happen: Sandbags and more.

The economic collapse is imminent and some type of war (or a bunch of mini individualized wars to cover all tastes) will surely ensue, unless you really believe the dolts who just spent six months trying to hash up a budget are going to lead the country to safety. For those who missed the last war, sandbags are stacked in front of windows and storefronts to shield against stray bullets and shrapnel. Snipers also love to operate from behind stacks of sandbags. Militiamen, militiawomen, and militiagenderfluidpeople at checkpoints cower behind sandbags to avoid sniper fire, and so on. Sandbags sell fast during war, so you better get your hands on a stack early. Now if you fail to act fast or sandbags are just not your thing, don’t worry, Sandbags and More will have something that fits you: a body bag. Of course, all our bags are biodegradable. Militias might be bloodthirsty, but they are definitely more rational than environmilitants. 

So who wants to invest*?

*We accept every kind of currency, cryptocurrency,  and even (one might say especially) crypt currency as long as it doesn't have Riad Salameh's signature on it.

Monday, September 07, 2015

Einmal ist Keinmal

There's no denying that there is a high that comes from the street. It's a natural high, unlike what the pee-sniffing authorities would like you to believe. But there is also a tendency to romanticize street protests and to give the illusion that people spontaneously mobilize in a response to a stimulus. While the garbage pile up in the city is both visually and olfactory stimulating, street protests are organized events with multiple mobilizing groups. As the Beirut protests continue, the make up and size of the groups behind the mobilization are becoming clearer. 

The leftist groups on the ground make up a good chunk of the mobilization and they are probably the majority if you count in the entire spectrum of left from Trotskyites to the Saudi-loyal "Left." Many of the leftist "coordinators" (apparently leader has a become a taboo word) claim to be aware that many of the other main groups on the ground and the ones being pushed to "coordinate above the rest" by establishment mass media are not going to deliver the change that is sought by them. But their argument is that word is now to the street and you have to be on the street to steer the mobilization your way. Incorruptible figures like Hanna Ghareeb and Charbel Nahas are invoked as insurance against the movement being taken in the "wrong" direction of globalized neoliberalism–or "depoliticization"–that promotes self-interest and individualism. It's not an Ego problem with some of the organizers; it's a political one. 

That's not to mention the possibility of whole movement being co-opted by the ruling feudal oligarchy, which remains the most likely outcome. Yes they are corrupt, but they have offered the people something to gain their loyalties. They are people and not sheep as many in the protests keep referring to them, and the fact that the feudal and sectarian party is more appealing to them than the alternatives is a more of a condemnation of their foes than it is of them. 

The continued failure to erode the sectarian divisions by leftist secular forces is because their activity over the past couple of decades has been largely limited to attempts at seizing opportunities created by circumstances. The abysmal performance of the ruling parties–like in today's garbage crisis–is an example of such an opportunity. Rarely, if ever, is this opportunity of their own making though, and there is always a sense of now-or-never-opportunism. The famous German saying "Einmal ist Keinmal" basically means that if something happens only once then it might as well not happen at all. Jumping on an opportunity created by your foes might lead to accidental gains, but only when you're making these opportunities you are in control and you can celebrate accumulated gains. Revolution is not a shout, it's a way of life.


Saturday, August 22, 2015

Weekend Activism

Tropical storms and hurricanes are given names for easier tracking. The names also serve an accounting purpose as insurance companies treat named storms differently. They have higher deductibles as some can be very costly in this line of business. A lot of money exchanges hands at hurricane wind speeds during natural disasters, which means the accounting audits are "temporarily" overlooked and we end up with instances where half a billion dollars slated for Haiti earthquake relief end up building 6 flimsy houses. In the case of hurricanes, names are recycled every so many years. In some cases where the storm's damage crosses a certain threshold the name is retired. The same name technique is used in other fields where financial auditing may be needed.

Some NGO projects may in themselves be more damaging than many a natural disaster. Now if we want to rate NGO storms on the same scale that tropical storms are rated on (the Saffir-Simpson scale), then what has hit Lebanon in the last couple of decades is definitely a Category 5 hurricane.  Recent years have seen a rise in NGO named campaigns. Blame El Niño. Also the convenience of the hashtag makes the campaign names easily trackable. The CVs of NGO campaigners applying for funding include such hashtags to boost their donation worthy credentials. Trainings provided by civil society advocates teach a step-by-step guide on how to act in the case of a "cause." The 2015 summer garbage crisis was gold for seasoned scavengers… It's a textbook case for an opportunistic cause.

Today's international-funder-preferred activists are against the ideological -isms. But this form of activism is the worst of the -isms. They fulfill their -ism solely by being active. Maintaining a status quo works in favor of those with accumulated experiences and techniques on how to be apolitically active. You can recycle a campaign every so often as is. Shockingly, the non-results are always the same too. Tracking the success of campaigns is essential to accumulate experience and gains with political aims. Any half-serious political movement cannot overlook that. However, "politics are bad" and "all politicians are equally shit" are repeated by the depoliticized NGO activists. Empty slogans of unity are invoked. The cycle has been repeated many times over the past decade and it always ends with no gains; except if you measure gains by the NGO grants to some individuals. Some old campaign names are retired because they cross a certain threshold of notoriety (see the campaign against sectarianism of the Spring 2011 collection). But it's 2015, and NGO-bred depoliticization has more of a foothold today and thus the stakes are much lower. Visibility is always prioritized in NGO-friendly movements because they need to be tracked and audited. In these depoliticized campaigns, street protest becomes a goal rather than a means to achieve a goal. Despite the demands being minimal, today's movement like all previous hashtaggable ones will fail at achieving anything substantial. They will create real disillusion for a new generation of enthusiastic youth, and this is likely by design.

This is not to advocate inaction, but inaction is always better than action that is doomed to fail. Political action is a must, but serious political action tends to be invisible...except when necessary. Results should be more visible than activity: Resultivism over Activism. It should be more earthquake than a stinky wind.

Friday, August 07, 2015

Good riddance to his excellence

There’s nothing wrong for someone in a position of authority to be humble. As rare as that might sound, there are actually numerous examples of humility in power. However, there is a not so fine line between genuinely humble and outright hypocrite. Tom Fletcher, who goes by the title of her majesty’s ambassador, is unmistakably the latter. This diplomat was deployed to Beirut in 2011. His predecessor, Frances Guy, might have been genuinely humble… or at least as genuinely humble as a representative of a Crown may be. Genuineness actually may have ended her career, but more on that later.

In all fairness to humble Tom, the word humble is being redefined by generation selfie. A “look at me” era is upon us, and the empire and its Ambassadors have to adapt. The new crop of the Queen’s servants is all equipped with the look-at-me plugin. Look at her majesty’s ambassador in Cairo for example. Beirut might get him next, or any of his douchey clown clones. Basically, someone at the Foreign Office in London decided the new faces of the ever-shrinking empire have to sound like an insecure teenager. Tom Fletcher excelled at doing just that; tweeting his way to a like-minded audience and keeping it simple and dumb. But adolescent hormones play with your ego and sometimes push you to pop out of your twitter bubble exposing your ignorance and hypocrisy. Tweeting your love for hummus is one thing, but making political statements is another.

In an inane video exchange with satirist Karl Sharro, Fletcher quipped that her majesty’s constables would pick up Sharro. Fletcher of course was bragging that his country is superior when it comes to freedom of expression and that shit countries like Lebanon should follow their example. Oh how we'd love to be like thee…   

Of course, Fletcher chose to conveniently ignore that her majesty’s constables are constantly silencing journalists. While Fletcher was yapping in Beirut, UK authorities raided the offices of the Guardian and shredded hard drives. Heathrow authorities used anti-terrorism excuses to hold David Miranda. Oh, and do you remember Fletcher’s predecessor? She was silenced by her majesty’s censors when she expressed genuine human sentiment after a man she met while doing her job died. Frances Guy is no longer an Ambassador by the way.

Also, her majesty’s constable have had a street in London under siege as part of their war on WikiLeaks. Speaking of WikiLeaks, Look-at-me Fletcher seems to have wanted to be noticed from a young age. Look at young Tom passing petty information to the US embassy in Paris. But hey, petty informers grow up and become big...ambassadors.

Well, he wanted to be naked.

What else did Tom Fletcher preach about?

In one publicity stunt he wanted to show the natives how not to be racist. He did so by “trading places” in front of TV cameras with Ethiopian Kalkiden, or is it Kalkedan, or is it Kalkidan. She has no last name. I’m sure if she applied for a visa to visit her majesty’s kingdom her misspelled first name would suffice.

Fletcher cares about the borders his openly colonialist predecessors drew. The closeted colonialist loves Scotland, but loves Lebanese consumption a lot more. At the end of the day he’s a servant of an empire of monarchs and oligarchs.

Tom Fletcher, your empire is a relic. Its decaying components should replace the looted artifacts that sit as trophies in London museums. From Palestine to Egypt, Iraq, Syria and beyond. Stop loving us so much. You snooty colonizers have brought the world nothing but blood and pain.  

Your silly protocol states that you bow to your masters with class.

Well, with all the crass of a commoner I say:

Fuck their Majesty!

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Guerrier du Clavier

A Magic School in Palermo Viejo, Buenos Aires 

I want to pull a rabbit out of a hat.

How cool would that be?

It's almost magical. 

You have this slick thing where you just want to stick your head, and then just like that you pull out a living creature out of its hole. 

I don't want to suit up, though. It seems like too much of a hassle. The getting dressed part is already too much, as you have a shirt with a trillion buttons, then a vest, and these pants that have two buttons on the inside and a hook on the outside. But even before getting there you have to make sure all the pieces of the suit are pressed and starched. If you go further back you have to carry all of these from the dry cleaners while making sure it all hangs above the ground.For some reason clothes coming out of the dry cleaner are longer than they actually are and always end up being dragged on the floor which forces you to U-turn right back to the cleaners to fix the damage. That cycle could go on for a while. Now, if you go even further back, you have to actually try the suit on and get all these measurements done so its hemmed properly. You stand there spread eagle while a man with pins in his mouth crouches down in the vicinity of your crotch. Pins hovering around in that area make me feel a bit uneasy.

Ok I'm not an idiot, I know the rabbit isn't born right there in the spotlight, Mr. Bean-style. I know it lives long before it is pulled out of the hat. Like any living thing it eats and drinks and needs a space to live in. It also shits. Maybe it's not the most high maintenance of pets but it does require some care. I'm not great at providing care. I once killed a pet cactus. It's too much of a responsibility to assume just so I can pull it out of the hat. Actually, you might need multiple rabbits because one rabbit might outgrow the hat and in that case you'd need a smaller rabbit. Rabbits are known to multiply quickly, so that shouldn't be a problem. Alternatively, you could starve the rabbit so it shrinks back to a proper size, but that would be too cruel. Well the whole ethics of raising rabbits in a cage in order to pull them out of a hat seem questionable because rabbits never consent to it. Although you might argue that these ears are by design begging to be yanked on. 

I'm guessing the suit and raising rabbits cost money. I can save on food if I eat the rabbits once their gig is up. Again, ethically questionable, but millions of rabbits end up in Paellas yearly, self-righteousness isn't going to change that one bit. What if I end up making a mean rabbit à-la-royale and gain weight? Suit adjustment means pins around crotch again. 

Fuck this, magic is hard work.

Friday, March 14, 2014

Buenos Aires' Two Hughs of Blues

One of the great perks about pretending to be a writer is that you can do any type of shit and call it research for a story.

Oh, sure I have a pathetic profile on a dating website, but it's only because I want to see how people react to creepy declarations of love. It's for a love novella I'm writing. 

"Stumbling home drunk at sunrise in a city where I don't speak the language" is the title of a travel series I plan to publish in 2065 – you should all be dead by then so none of you will hold me to that. 

I'm not stalking a celebrity, I just want to understand how the blues fans of Buenos Aires behave in the presence of their god – god with a small g, because God with the capital G is reserved for some dude coaching football in Dubai. 

So my stalking advisor told me that this blues musician is doing a radio show very close to where I was – just 39 blocks away to be exact.     

Bus drivers are on strike in Buenos Aires today, but that's irrelevant because I was practically in the same building as the radio station. 

At the entrance of the theater were the radio studio is there was a group of about 40 people of die-hard fans of this music genre that was popular a century ago in the southern united states. 

"T-Bone Walker or Deadric Malone?" I asked a young woman. 

"Como?!?!?!" was her answer. Perhaps, she was more of a purist and preferred the pre-war blues.

A woman with a Venezuelan flag said she didn't know what the blues were or who the dude was, but she wanted to take a picture for Venezuela!

I asked here, "Which Venezuela are you for, because there is a bit of a divide there?"

She said, "Look at me!" At that moment she used here right hand to highlight her silhouette. "Do I look like a Chavista?"

I faked confusion and asked, "I don't know. What does a Chavista look like?"

"Sucio! (Dirty!)" she said with a laugh. 

"What a #$%^!" I thought to myself. By the look on the face of the Argentinian woman standing next to me, whose lower jaw had dropped just below her ribcage, she was thinking the same thing. 

A group of three women was pleading with the bouncers to let them through the barricade. "Queremos casarnos!" (We want to get married!) was their plea. I guess this blues musician belongs to one of these cults that promote polygamy. Mormon? Muslim? 

I was intrigued, so I googled his name. It turns out the dude is British!! So, definitely a Muslim. 

Hugh Laurie without a limp. (Photo Credit: ME!!!)

But what is a Brit with a sarcasm-filled career doing singing the blues? He couldn't possibly be taking a piss at America. Could he?

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Whose Rock is it anyway...

I spent last ten years of my life calling Beirut home. 
They were very eventful years and the archive of this blog can attest to that. While it is a personal blog, my person was mostly just present in the point of view.

But let me share something very personal. Of course, I will use it to get to a public issue, but of course I would do just that.

One of the most amazing experiences in my Beiruti decadent decade was one morning when I decided to go swim through the Rawshe rock. It was nothing like I imagined it though. 

Here's how I imagined it would go: 

I would walk down to the Daliyeh, where Beirutis have swam for generations. Park my towel, shirt and flipflops on the smooth rock shelfs that mark the border between Beirut and the Mediterranean sea. Dive gracefully over that border. Showcase my flawless butterfly stroke as I glide over the water towards The Beautiful Rock. Stop right in the middle of the hole in the rock, lie on my back and take in this majestic setting in a state of aquatic nirvana. An hour later, I would glide back triumphantly. Nod at the daliyeh divers with that smirk of accomplishment. Jog back up the hill and re-enter the concrete jungle atmosphere that is Beirut having cheated on its man-made cityness with its most natural landmark.

Here's how it actually went: 

I walked down to the Daliyeh, where Beiruti men have swam for generations. I parked my towel, shirt and flipflops on the ragged and slippery rock shelfs that mark the border between Beirut and the Mediterranean. I slipped and fell painfully on my butt ripping my swimming trunks in the process. I got up and pretended I'm fine, held on to a rope and used a makeshift ladder to slowly immerse myself in the waters of one of the most polluted bodies of water on earth. I showcased my flawless butterfly stroke as I glided over the water for about 5 meters then switched over to whatever stroke would move me forward in the choppy sea. A wave threw me against The Beautiful Rock, which –as rocks tend to be– is full of pointy and sharp edges. I climbed onto a little shelf on the side of the rock and assess the damage my skin and flesh has suffered. I held on for dear life as waves try to knock me around. A few minutes later I decided to make a run for it. I huffed and puffed my way back against the current as blood streamed from my arms and legs, and I guess my back too judging by the burning feeling I had there. I didn't even see the daliyeh divers as my eyesight was getting blurry by the time I reached them. My flip flops broke as I struggled back up the hill.  I was so grateful the city had taxis that would drive a shoeless, muddied, and bloodied person home. 

Would I do it again…. abso-fucking-lutely!  Except, I wouldn't be able to. 

The Daliyeh – waterfront public property since life on earth started – is now a property of the Hariris. The fishermen and their families who lived there for generations were evicted and land will be "developed" into an exclusive resort. 

The people at Mashaa have done a great job documenting how Lebanese mafiosos have stolen the "Phoenician" sea...if you care to know more.

*Photo of demolished homes by Marwan Bou Haidar. 

Thursday, March 06, 2014

Oh My God! Look at the Poor People!

How do you parody poverty? I believe it's offensive to poor people not to make jokes about them because they're poor. Poverty deprives you of many material things but it shouldn't deprive you of a sense of humor. That's still free, even if comedy has been largely commercialized. Judging by some Hollywood "comedy" films I've seen lately, the comedy writing process has been pretty much robotized. 

In Rio's slums, poverty has been commercialized too. They call them Poverty Safaris. They are as disgusting as they sound. 

They are basically safari cars flanked by police escorts with sun-burnt tourists wearing carnival hats snapping photos of poor people with their instaphones. 

But those are not nearly as bad as the EuroAmerican-NGO activists who "volunteer" in Favelas. These have the audacity to brag that they are "fighting poverty."

I spent hours in the hilly alleys of Complexo do Alemão. I also rode the cable car that gives you an invasive bird-eye view of poor people's houses. 

When the 2016 Olympiad take place in Rio, the cameras focused on the Olympic stadium will not zoom out enough to show you this heavily populated area of the city. 

Three out of four people I told my name to had the same reaction: "Jamal?!  Millionaire!!!" I was puzzled at first, but then I realized it was a movie reference. Mumbai is 13,400 kilometers away from Rio.

People are conditioned to be afraid of the poor. "They steal!" I say if they were any good at stealing they wouldn't be poor. There you go, a cheap joke at poor people's expense. Of course, they can only afford cheap…. ok ok I'll stop.

Judging by the fortifications and barbwire they hide behind, the people who run the Igreja Catolica are the most scared of their poor neighbors. There are a lot of Igrejas around the favelas. Igreja Bautista, Igreja Evangelica, Igreja Adventista….They are the original NGOs after all. Two thousand years of exploiting and pacifying people in exchange for tax exemptions. It's God's will that 85 individuals control half the world's wealth. Coincidentally, these generous 85 tend to fund NGOs that fight poverty.

Speaking of Brainwashing, I too could not get over my own childhood legends. Sure, FIFA and the Brazilian government are destroying homes and displacing people to build parking lots for the World Cup, but I had to visit the Maracanã.

Now you would expect futebol fans to be energetic. But this kind of energy fills every corner of Rio from the shirtless alleys Complexo do Alemão to the shirtless shopping boulevard of Ipanema – shirts just aren't a thing in Rio –  and I think I figured out Brazil's secret.

While the rest of the world is splitting atoms over energy options, there is a clean, renewable, and potent energy source in Brazil…it's called Samba.

I'm convinced Samba originated as someone was trying to walk on the Hot sand of one of Rio's beaches. The rapid foot motion makes you hover over the ground and thus avoiding third-degree burns. It's a survival skill really.

Brazilians love to dance, and they're pretty damn good at it. Sure there is Samba, but I also witnessed something called Forró. Samba is pretty simple.. just let every muscle and bone in your body shake at warp speed. I said simple, not easy. Forró is more structured. Your feet move front and back, hips oscillate right and left, shoulders stay still, head slightly bobs up and down, and arms alternate between squeezing your partner hard enough that your spleens fuse into one and twirling your partner around with that centrifugal force seen in olympic hammer toss, but without letting them go.  Oh, and this is done on a dance floor packed with dozens of other couples doing the same thing. I stayed away from this because the only thing I could picture if I got in the middle was a tour-de-france peloton tumbling down the alps. 

I felt inadequate and thought I might challenge Brazilians to a Dabke-off, but I have no doubt that if they decide to Dabke it would take them about 30 seconds to out-jump and out-kick Abdel-Halim Caracalla in his prime.

May be continued...

Wednesday, March 05, 2014

Go South, Young Man

In the mid-1990s, a Guatemalan songwriter released a song called Si el Norte Fuera El Sur. Ricardo Arjona takes a few jabs at North American mono-chromic – or money-chromic – culture and war-loving politics and plays with how things would be different if North was South. In the last line, Arjona concludes that if North was South, it would be the same shit. "Si el Norte fuera el Sur, sería la misma porquería."

I've been traveling in El Sur for the past 2+ months. I started in a country that is currently fighting off El Norte's imperial influence (Venezuela), and then moved on to countries that overthrew US-sponsored military dictatorships in the 1980's (Argentina and Brazil). It's quite amazing what people "left" to decide to their fates are capable of.

But the US learned a lesson in the 1980's and made sure that the alternatives to the dictatorships it sponsors in the oil-rich Middle East are created by them and scary enough to make people hang on to military tools – or bring them back to power in a "popular-coup".  That term sounded as a joke at first, but it's starting to sound like a popular joke.

The progress South American countries have made over the past 30 years puts them on track to bypass El Norte at some point in the future. At the pace the US keeps droning itself in its military-booted-foot, that future might be soon.

While the US war freak is juicing up on economic steroids, countries to its south are being built around self-sufficiency and sustainability.

When was the last time you heard the word sufficient in english? According to the google ngram tool, it's becoming extinct.

I know I'm oversimplifying and not really getting into the details and the problems of these countries. But in reality it's even much more basic than that. It's the societal mindset on which countries are built. Some countries decided to harvest human energy, while others are obsessed with fossils. 

Guess, who I'm betting on to have a better future? 

That's why I disagree with Arjona. It will not be la misma porquería.

Saturday, March 01, 2014

Carnaval Propaganda (Part 1)

Rio along with the rest of the continent and other pockets around the world celebrate Carnaval this weekend.

Wednesday marks the start of lent, but at some point in history the revelry surpassed the piety involved with this event.

I must admit I left Rio before Carnaval, but you're going to have a hard time convincing me that the 2 weeks I spent there weren't Carnaval. But we'll get to Samba later. 

There's more to Rio de Janeiro than dancing, and that's saying a lot because dancing in Rio is HUGE.

Rio is the second biggest city in Brazil, and the 3rd biggest in South America and Southern hemisphere for that matter.

According to travel guides, the most advisable thing to do in Rio is to lock yourself in your room. Actually, it's not even advisable to leave the airport because the evil taxi drivers will rip you off. So by paranoid travel publishers standards, I cheated death about a million times during my stay.

I did feel unsafe a few times, but that was only because the drivers of city's buses are all aspiring to be the next Ayrton Senna – not Formula 1 champions, but rather just someone who dies for ramming a speeding vehicles into a wall. I don't blame them though, their buses do sound like they have jet engines installed on them.

Another problem with the bus system is that there really is no way to know which bus to take. Rio, a city of 7 or 8 million people, has 830 bus lines. In comparison, the more populous Buenos Aires has 190. So I guess there is some redundancy in the routes. In any case I have a personal issue with buses. I can never request a stop right. I either pull the chord way too prematurely, or way too late. If the bus ends up stopping within 3 kilometers of where I wanted it to stop I consider it a success. Even with that, my success rate is under 50%.

So I prefer the metro. In Rio I had an extra incentive to ride the metro. I fell in love with the female voice that makes the announcements. I know all she's saying is, "Next stop, Botafogo. Exit on the Right side of the Train." But damn it sounds so musical when she says it. Actually, all Brazilians sound like they're singing when they speak. The heavy enunciation of the vowels is what does it, but you need strong vocal chords and jaw muscles to pull it off. 

Not only do they sound nice, the Cariocas are genuinely nice people. Too nice. Annoyingly nice. 

They are so nice, that even when they kick you in the face they purposefully miss it. They call it Capoeira. 

I do speak Spanish, which I thought was close enough to Portuguese for me to survive. It's not enough. I couldn't have proper conversations with people. I even had trouble ordering food in some instances. Thankfully, Brazilians have a solution for that. 

Before getting into that, let me tell you one thing.

I hate the Bento Box. Food should not be compartmentalized. Foods of all kinds and colors should mix creating what in Arabic we call a Khabsa. The Bento Box is Culinary Apartheid. It's basically the Israel of food serving vessels.

The opposite of the Bento Box would be the Food by the Kilo, or Quilo, buffets. They are quite popular in Brazil. Pile it all on one Plate and weigh it. All food is equal in the eyes of the Cashier. 

To be continued…

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Real Propaganda from Venezuela

I guess it's time to talk Venezuela.

Everybody else is pretending to be an expert on the country, so I guess having been born there 35 years ago and having spent 5 weeks there in 2 trips over the last year makes me a Super Duper Senior Expert. 

Here's something that might surprise you. The problem with Venezuela is that it's too far to the right.

I know all you've seen over the past 15 years are images of this crazy commie Chavez and his comrade Castro posing together in red guayaberas.  (You see dropping a long spanish word enhances my credentials as an expert.) But out of the Mercosur countries I've visited (Argentina, Brazil, and Uruguay), Venezuela is by far the least "Leftist." 

What Chavismo has done is take a country that was practically a US colony hemorrhaging its wealth into the pockets of a few capitalist extremists and build some sort of a structure to stop that.  This "socialist" structure took some of the money that was ending up in Private Banks in Miami (and to a smaller extent in abandoned Million dollar mansions in remote Lebanese villages) and spent it in areas that fall outside Caracas' business center. 

It's quite ironic that they're calling the protesters in Venezuela "Students," because Venezuelans of all ages are now "students" thanks to aggressive Chavismo investments in education for all. You see the CIA sponsored rulers of Venezuela in the and 1980's and 1990's saw that Venezuelan money is better spent in building skyscrapers in a US city to boost its economy than to build hospitals and provide the basic needs to a very impoverished native population. 

I wonder where else in the world the native wealth is being used to boost the colonizers' economies (and football rosters). Hmmm.

In order to break with the US, Hugo Chavez struck deals with many "enemies of socialism" (even absorbed some of them into his party) because frankly gaining political independence from the US required to have big business on his side. This truce with the Venezuelan capital and the fact that US buys a shit load of Venezuelan oil meant that Venezuela was not economically independent from the US, and that has been the ongoing battle over the past 15 years.

Over the years, Chavez was making gains on that front, and the US was trying everything to disrupt his progress including a failed coup attempt. 

Last year, Chavez died. 

Some of the capitalist old guard whom Chavez had domesticated smelled blood and saw an opportunity to pounce on a "raw" Maduro. The opposition naturally saw it as now or never, and of course Washington had an Oboner.

Over the past year, the Chavistas with Maduro at the helm came under attack from every front possible. I will skip boring details and jump to this week's events.  Before that, let me just point out one tactic that was used as it was used in Lebanon before and it might be used again in the future if anyone attempts to liberate the Lebanese economy. 

When Rafiq Hariri rollsed royced into Beirut as a savior in the early 1990's, bankers' speculation pushed the black market exchange rate for the Lebanese Lira to 3000LL for 1USD. Rafiq Hariri's solution, after street protests forced Omar Karami's cabinet to resign, was to peg the Lira to the USD.  To put it simply, the Lebanese Lira today is under foreign occupation. 

Black market speculation–along with high inflation rates–over the past year has pushed the exchange rate for the Venezuelan Bolivar  from around 8 Bolivars for 1USD to to over 80 today. Venezuela needs a Harvard-educated savior.

15 years of Chavismo failed at creating a self-sufficient economy that would be immune from US banks. It is still a heavily consumerist society that produces very little. It has also failed at combatting crime that has plagued Venezuela forever.  The Venezuelan government has also always been very corrupt. It's hard to tell if corruption increased or decreased over the Chavez years, because for some reason these numbers aren't tracked by government.  

But today's protests aren't about any of that. 

Ciudad Guayana in the east of Venezuela best illustrates what's going on. It is a city that's divided into 2 parts: The slums of San Felix, and the malls and gated communities of Puerto Ordaz. For a whole week, tens of protesters (at night the number goes down to a handful) blocked a main road in Puerto Ordaz that houses a Wendy's and a TGI Friday's. A few other protesters tweeted rebellious selfies with signs inside the Orinokia Mall which is two blocks away. They want the "Dictator" out. 

Yesterday, ruling party thugs cleared the street. The pictures filled the media. Venezuelans sitting on their computers in Miami retweeted them.

In San Felix, people go about their daily life. They patiently stand in breadlines…and butterlines…and cooking oil lines. No one protested. No roads were blocked by "students". No retweets. They know very well how 15 years ago they only dreamt of being "students" and having a main road reach them so they can one day block it. But it won't be today, because unlike on twitter: Life here is real.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Propaganda from the Beach: Rio Edition

Change of scenery, and language.

Rio de Janeiro, Brazil!

I did have a stop along the way between Buenos Aires and Rio. But for some reason, the little country that is wedged between the 2 biggest South American Countries is often overlooked. Who am I to change that? I shall overlook Uruguay too. 

But I have my reasons for doing so.

The Uruguayan capital Montevideo is just too eerily similar to Beirut. 

The City's waterfront has a "Corniche" that looks like this on one end….

...and has a public beach on another (sort of… technically it isn't the end of the Corniche but the end of a  section of it.)

People hangout there around sunset and can pretty much be divided into 2 categories: the runners (and boy do they take the running seriously) and let's call the other group the Arguileh puffers.  

Ok, they aren't puffing on their Arguilehs but this is what half the population of Montevideo looks like (Half might sound like one of these exaggerations that are often used and I hate, but I did some random sampling at different points in the city and at different times of day and and it's pretty damn close to half):

They have legs. Two of them. They have a left arm and all of its regular attachments. Pretty much standard human physiology so far. However, the right side of their torso is where they differ from other human beings. Where most people have their right arm, half of Montevideoans possess a cyborg limb whose function is to generate fuel to run the rest of the body. 

Clutched in the armpit area is a massive thermos-like reservoir of hot water. Judging by their sizes they could fit anywhere between 2 and 10 Liters of boiling water. The bicep area of the arm is used to secure that tank in place with an unescapable professional wrestling headlock. The hand part clamps a dried-squash at mouth height.  Out of that squash, which is filled with Yerba Mate, comes a metal straw/spoon/sifter thingie into what I presume is a human mouth, but I can't confirm that as it's always hiding behind the squash. This cyborg limb/production line is an engineering marvel as the whole transfer of boiling water into the the mug to brew the waiting Mate buds takes place swiftly while people walk on busy streets, tend to kids or pets, and make out with lovers. 

So basically what I'm trying to say is that the Mate kit reminded me of the stupid Arguileh kit.

Some sidewalks along Montevideo's hilly roads could also resemble Beirut's irregular sidewalks. 

It also has ugly buildings like this one.

It's a lot more expensive than its bigger neighbor Argentina.

Every part of the world has this joke:

Do you know what the easiest way to make money is? Buy a (insert nationality) for what they're worth and sell them for what they think they are worth? 

In the Arab world the joke is on the Lebanese. In this part of the world it's always been the Argentinians, and I must say the Argentinian Peso isn't helping to dispel the stereotype.

By the way, I lied. Montevideo is nothing like Beirut. 

The political scene is dominated by left vs left battles. The right is quite marginalized. They probably sit in cafes like this one and pretend they matter. 

The president in Uruguay was a revolutionary fighter who donates 90% of his official salary to charity.

The idiot of Lebanon destroyed a refugee camp to become president, and makes 90% of his income from bribes and corrupt dealings.  

Uruguay will be a major player in the upcoming World Cup. Lebanon sold their World Cup chance for an iPhone.

Uruguay has cows. Lebanon has rotten meat scandals.

Uruguay is Green. Lebanon is only green in songs and with envy.

I guess Rio will have to wait.