Sunday, August 23, 2009


Panama City feels like a cross between Havana and Hong Kong. Like Havana, its downtown "Casco Viejo" displays the faded elegance of dilapidated balconied buildings alongside ruined colonial churches. Though gentrification is driving out the working class families who lounge in living rooms that open right on to the street, for the time being the area is still edgy and cheap enough to be a backpacker's dream. Like Hong Kong, on the other hand, on the other side of the bay the Panamanian capital is a city of high rises and unabated construction. Soon it is due to be home of nine of the ten tallest buildings in Latin America, and the speed at which the towers go up seems hardly to have been affected by the global financial crisis which elsewhere has hit property especially hard.

Panama spans the various epochs of colonialism that shaped first Havana, as one of the fortified cities shepherding silver and gold bullion from South American mines to Spanish ports, and then Hong Kong, as a vital node in a global network of free trade. Even now, Panama is shaped mostly by the wealth the flows through it, whether that be thanks to its new-found prominence at the end of the Central American gringo trail, or the combination of speculation and money-laundering that have fuelled its real estate boom.

Above all, Panama is still shaped by the canal without which it would never have existed as an independent country. You can sit and watch the container ships pass through the locks at either Miraflores (at the Pacific end of the transit) or Gatún (at the Caribbean). Each is carrying perhaps millions of dollars' worth of merchandise, and paying hundreds of thousands for the privilege of taking its goods through the isthmus rather than the long way around South America, via Cape Horn. In turn, the size of the canal locks has long determined the breadth and length of the majority of the world's ocean-going container fleet. Only now, with a new breed of "post-Panamax" ships, is the canal to be widened and deepened, at a cost of up to $5 billion.

Panama has always flourished by siphoning off some of the capital that flows through its borders. In turn, however, it has always been vulnerable to those who wish to prey on its own parasitism. In the sixteenth and seventeenth century, these were pirates, most notably the Welsh privateer Henry Morgan who destroyed the first incarnation of Panama City and repeatedly attacked the fortresses (such as San Lorenzo and Portobelo) that guarded its Caribbean flanks. Today the profiteers are the more anonymous and decidedly less romantic figures of the bankers, real estate agents, and construction interests, as well of course as the usual litany of corrupt official in the public sector.

For the spoils of Panama's fortune have hardly been divided equally, and indeed have been the ruin of many. The canal itself, and the railway that preceded it, was only built at the cost of tens of thousands of lives from among the labor force that flocked from around the Caribbean and across the world. Some of the survivors' descendants now live in cities such as Colón, which is essentially one large (and rather dangerous) slum, avoided by backpackers and speculators alike.

When I was in Colón, in a city-center mall with plenty of vacant store lots that had rather over-optimistically been built to attract cruise passengers, hundreds of senior citizens were patiently sitting in line. They were there to register with a scheme promulgated by the new president, Ricardo Martinelli, whose government has pledged them a pension of $100 a month. This handout is no doubt a populist gesture, but for those who aren't in a position to start sailing under a black flag or Jolly Roger, such gestures are welcome.

Thursday, August 20, 2009


Guyane, I was told, makes Europeans go crazy. Or maybe it just attracts the ones who are crazy already. It's like a mental asylum for white people.

Officially an integral part of France (the only place on the South American mainland where the currency is the Euro), Guyane attracts legions of fonctionnaires--civil servants and public sector workers--from Europe. They work in administration and in the schools, in customs and in the police; there is also a sizeable contingent from the armed forces, plus the Guiana Space Center in Kourou draws technicians and scientists.

French workers in Guyane are paid a premium--i.e., more than they would be earning back home--both, again I was told, to compensate for the discomfort and sacrifice of life in the tropics, and in recognition of the fact that the cost of living in Guyane is (perhaps surprisingly) higher than that in Paris.

But still the métropolitains complain. They are bored and easily distracted; they lament their distance from the metropolis, their confinement in this "enfer vert" or green hell; they turn to drink, to drugs, to sex. They go a little bit crazy.

Same as it ever was. Guyane is a reminder that colonialism, at least as experienced by the colonizer, was always as much about boredom and minor debauchery as it was about the exercise of power. It involved a few too many gin and tonics at the club in the afternoon, perhaps followed by a drunken trip to the local brothel. Or as Carolyn Fick puts it of eighteenth-century Haiti, "for the colonial planter, life was generally one of monotony and isolation, compensated by sheer dissipation and indulgence" (The Making of Haiti 16).

Of course, Guyane is not an exact incarnation of traditional colonialism, but then it never was: it was above all a penal colony, rather than the site of agricultural production and exploitation; indeed, even now, compared to Suriname and Guyana there is for instance very little sugar processed or rum distilled. Its economy is dependent upon subsidies, and the people draw welfare from the French state. Unemployment is a particular problem.

If anything, Guyane is an instance of colonialism inverted: where the plantation system depended on black slaves who were forced to work without pay, contemporary welfare colonialism involves paying people to compensate for the fact that they can't work. And yet, strangely, everything else remains the same.

Thursday, August 13, 2009


Journey to Nowhere coverAbout halfway through Shiva Naipaul's Journey to Nowhere, the author finds himself at a "New Earth Exposition" in San Francisco, confronted with a panoply of hippies and New Agers as well as people he describes as "shaggy feminists, liberated homosexuals" and "earnest, mustachioed teachers worried about Energy" (188). He falls into conversation with a succession of representatives of the "World Hunger Project," one of whom remarks "I can see you're a pretty negative type, Shiva. [. . .] You're hung up on logic and all that kind of bullshit" (198). For Naipaul, this is one of those moments when the deluded proponents of alternative lifestyles condemn themselves, leaving little more to be said. But there's no doubt that the hippy was right about one thing: Shiva is certainly a "pretty negative type."

Journey to Nowhere is an account of the Jonestown disaster (about which I've written before). Naipaul's book, published in 1980, is written almost in the immediate aftermath of the disaster, and indeed he visits Guyana just a couple of weeks after this "revolutionary suicide" of almost a thousand Americans, at a time when there is still much press interest in the events.

What makes Naipaul's approach different is that he believes that hitherto the blame has not been spread widely enough. "No one," he argues, "accepted any measure of personal responsibility for what had happened" (228). For instance, he quotes numerous survivors and defectors from the People's Temple but notes that not a single one "has ever admitted any culpability for the carnage that occurred at Jonestown. Not one has ever conceded that past complicities may have contributed to the Guyana tragedy" (157). This was no case of simple brainwashing on the part of a devious would-be messiah, Naipaul tells us; they were in fact all in it together. What's more, even the so-called "Concerned Relatives" are almost as much to blame as the people they ultimately failed to save: "by their words and action, they helped create the conditions" for the mass suicide; "their hysteria goaded [the People's Temple] toward extinction" (156).

But the blame is ultimately spread much further still. Naipaul has little truck for the notion that Jonestown is a case of utopian idealism that somewhere went wrong. He finds fault with the idealism in the first place, which "had already gone wrong [. . .] eaten up with inner decay" (297). Hence the seeds of Jonestown's destruction are already found in San Francisco's "New Age Exposition," Los Angeles hedonism, Berkeley's student radicalism, and Oakland's Black Panthers. California, that glittering, sun-drenched mirage, turns out to be the setting for wholesale "intellectual and spiritual collapse" (208), a place where "the intellect was dead and its place taken by a set of shared pathological obsessions" (211). Moreover, Naipaul wants us to take the metaphor of sickness seriously: "ideas had indeed become viruses" (211); "they were a disease you caught; a contamination of the intellect" (196).

California, however, is simply the concentration of a set of obsessions and pathologies that are distinctively American, a "laboratory" (199) in which all that is wrong with the country comes to the surface: "America's wilder dreams have always rolled to the Far West. Fantasies flourish best in a warm, sensual climate" (202). And so it was with Jim Jones and his followers. It was not just that they had been infected by some Californian contagion; they had brought the madness with them in their trek (which Naipaul repeatedly calls a "hegira") from Indiana and the Middle West. For everything "was already in place when Jones left Indianapolis for the Redwood Valley. Those who were received into its inner circles knowingly recruited themselves into corruption" (249).

It gets worse. There's a reason why Naipaul subtitles his book "A New World Tragedy": he sees Jonestown as an indictment of the Americas as a whole. This is no simple anti-Americanism in which the vices of the dominant are mocked or denounced. If anything, it is the dominated, and particularly the blacks who figured so strongly in Jones's multiracial vision, who are to blame. Was it not Huey Newton who came up with the notion of "revolutionary suicide"? Had not "the basic groundwork [for Jones's fatal paranoia] been done by his black radical precursors" (288)? What the People's Temple suffered from, in the end, was "an intolerably aggravated racial consciousness. [. . .] The Temple was the disease it claimed to be fighting. In that lay its most hopeless corruption" (249).

Hence the appropriateness of the Guyanese setting for the final denouement. Naipaul portrays Guyana as a sort of Jonestown in macrocosm, ruled over by a paranoid leader (Forbes Burnham), in thrall to ideologies of black consciousness and socialist cooperation (a "Cooperative Socialist Republic"), suspicious of visitors who are subjected to surveillance and vacuous propaganda. Guyana, like the People's Temple, is a place of "degeneracy," of "moral decay" (105), of "a kind of universal mental retardation" (31). Or perhaps not quite universal: Naipaul describes going to a party in Georgetown where his host's enervated young English wife dances with him and whispers in his ear "Take me away with you! You must take me way from here! [. . .] Every night I dream it's my turn to drink the poison" (111). Coming from Trinidad, it is as though Naipaul is a "concerned relative" aghast at what he repeatedly terms the "cultural and intellectual regression" born of "the vocabulary of resentment and racial self-assertion" (26).

The figure to whom Naipaul ultimately resorts to understand Guyana (and so by extension Jonestown) is, perhaps unsurprisingly, that of the first black post-independence leader in the Americas: "In the Caribbean, only Haiti could furnish parallels to this almost complete subversion of government: King Christophe had been reborn" (39).

Finally, however, it would be worth putting to Naipaul the same question that he implicitly puts to the concerned relatives of Jonestown. Is not his own description of the postcolonial Americas, with the "riffraff" (27) like "animals" (17) in the grip of nefarious ideologies of racial and cultural empowerment amidst a "jungly nightmare" (13) . . . is all this not a little hysterical? Indeed, has not Naipaul rather lost touch of his much-prized "logic and all that bullshit" in his total negativity towards the Americas and any possible dream of liberation or social justice?

Wednesday, August 05, 2009


The Guianas don't fit well within our conception of Latin America. For instance, at the last Latin American Studies Association congress (in Rio de Janeiro earlier this summer), there wasn't a single paper on this part of the world among 1,270 panels. Guyana, Suriname, and Guyane are a geographical oddity: in South America but not of it.

In fact, it's surprisingly difficult even to travel to the Guianas from elsewhere in Latin America: there are no road links between Guyana and its neighbor Venezuela, for instance, while from Brazil the only overland links are to Guyana connecting with the difficult road from Lethem, and to Guyane via a boat across the Oyapock river to the rather lonely outpost of Saint-Georges de l'Oyapock. Meanwhile, air services are limited to a fairly intermittent schedule by small plane between the northern Brazilian cities of Boa Vista and Belém to Georgetown and Paramaribo. The Guianas are much better connected to North America and Europe (with direct flights for instance to Toronto and Amsterdam), and to the Caribbean via Trinidad and Tobago.

Guyana, or its populated coastal strip at least, is Caribbean in culture and outlook even though in fact it borders the Atlantic Ocean directly. Guyane has probably a fair amount in common with other French overseas departments such as Martinique and Réunion. Suriname, however, appears to be a case apart.

Compared to Guyana, the first thing to strike you is how orderly and even tidy Suriname is. In part, this is a consequence of the fact that the population is much smaller (less than half a million compared to Guyana's 750,000) and that more than half live in the capital, Paramaribo. Here, there is not the same profusion of people strung out along the coastal road. But even in Paramaribo itself, especially the historic core near the Suriname river, there is a marked absence of litter along the narrow streets that are flanked by often impressively-restored colonial-era wooden buildings. It's all very... well, Dutch. There are even blond-haired youths dashing around on bicycles (though to be fair these seem to be tourists).

On the riverfront there is a delightful open-air food market with stalls selling creole and Javanese dishes, music playing, and people hanging out, drinking beer, taking a stroll, or (while I was there at least, during the Confederations Cup) watching football on television. Nearby are some fairly fancy bars and restaurants, as well as all the major public buildings: the national palace, the Treasury and other ministries, and the impressively huge wooden Cathedral.

Not far away, also by the river, is Fort Zeelandia, well preserved and immaculately restored with permanent and temporary exhibitions devoted to the former colony's history. Everything's beautifully and professionally arrayed. By contrast, in Georgetown, Guyana, when I went looking for the former fort nobody knew where it was and I found myself straying through a decidedly ramshackle area full of weeds and rusted old vehicles.

Yet there's a darker underside to Suriname, too, for all its polished and cultivated sheen. For Fort Zeelandia was, not all that long ago, the site of the so-called "December murders" in which on December 8, 1982, fifteen opponents of the military government then in power were killed in circumstances that have still to be fully clarified. Suriname is not so far distant from the rest of Latin America in that in the 1980s it, like much of the rest of the continent, was also subject to a succession of coups and military leaders. And though these regimes were not particularly bloody, the transition from dictatorship was messy to say the least, with a rebellion by former maroons from the interior and east of the country, and a short but fairly brutal civil war.

As so often, a country that is apparently set apart from the region in fact has more in common with the rest of Latin America than its inhabitants (and its tourist office) might want to acknowledge. There are few, if any, real exceptions in the history of the Americas.

Link: OAS Report on the Human Rights Situation in Suriname (1983), including discussion of the "December murders."

Tuesday, August 04, 2009


There is the interior of Guyana, explored by Evelyn Waugh, and then there is the coastal strip that stretches from the capital, Georgetown, to the Suriname border. The former is, even now, a vast swathe of jungle and savannah thinly populated by indigenous groups and the occasional ranch. There is some logging, some mineral and gold extraction, and increasing amounts of ecotourism, but essentially it is wilderness with just the one unmade road leading to Lethem and the Brazilian border.

The coast, however, has a reasonably well-made road to Corriverton and Moleson Creek in the East, and even a brand-new bridge spanning the Berbice river that means that you can now drive the whole way without taking a ferry. Moreover, strung out along the road are an endless succession of small settlements; indeed, it might be better to say that the entire road is one long, thin, ribbony settlement that stretches for well over a hundred miles.

Taxis and minibuses zip along the road at surprising speed, though drivers have always to be alert to avoid potholes, stray dogs, cows, or other livestock. Guyana is an untidy country (the contrast with neighbouring Suriname is noticeable) and nothing quite stays in its place. The route is also marked, especially in the straggling suburbs of Georgetown, by a profusion of mosques and temples, a reminder that up to two thirds of the population (the highest proportion in the Caribbean) is of East Indian descent.

Indeed, the country's politics (and to some extent also its culture) are inflected by a simmering tension between black and East Indian that has to be almost unique (though perhaps nearby Trinidad is somewhat similar). Political parties are organized on racial lines and, during election periods at least, exacerbate the differences between the two communities to the point of encouraging sporadic intercommunal violence. At other times the tension is much more muted, though apparently when the Indian cricket team comes to town they are not without supporters among the local South Asian population even though some of the most prominent current West Indies players (such as Shivnarine Chanderpaul and Ramnaresh Sarwan) are also of East Indian origin.

It is unique because I can't think of another example (though I'm willing to be corrected) of a postcolonial society so structured by a tension not between colonizer and colonized but between two groups imported into the colonial situation by the colonizers--the blacks as slaves, and the East Indians as indentured labor. Of course, colonialism and more generally capital has often thrived on playing off the differences between immigrant groups, such as between the Italians and Irish in the Northeastern United States. But here, with the indigenous a tiny minority in the interior and the whites effectively absent, this has now become the primary political and social difference.

Guyana wants to present itself as a model multicultural postcolonial society. Its capital features an "Umana Yana," a huge indigenous hut built for the 1972 Non-Aligned Foreign Ministers Conference, as well as a monument to the Non-Aligned Movement itself, with busts of its founders Nasser, Nkrumah, Nehru, and Tito. No doubt for the most part the messy, sprawling community that stretches along the coastal road is a good instance of everyday cooperation and exuberant hybridization between the various communities that make up the country. But there are plenty of reminders that colonialism's "divide and rule" policies run deep, even once the rulers have packed up and gone home.

Sunday, August 02, 2009


Evelyn Waugh's 92 Days is an account of a trip, in 1933, through what was then British Guiana (now Guyana) and the far north of Brazil. Last month I covered some of the same territory, traveling from Boa Vista via Lethem to Georgetown overland, and then on to New Amsterdam. Our means of transportation, however, were rather different: I felt that the sixteen-hour bone-shaking ride in a minibus to the Caribbean coast was bad enough; but for Waugh it was a question of several weeks on horseback, on foot, and in a succession of riverboats. Each stage of the journey in the 1930s involved organizing a small expedition, taking in supplies, hiring horses and porters, or waiting days for the uncertain arrival of mailboats.

Waugh goes out of his way to underline the discomforts of travel, from the sheer physical exertion (not least when he is half-lame thanks to an inflamed foot) to the hordes of biting insects, or from the poor food to the often even poorer company. As he says, "There are a hundred excellent reasons for rough travelling, but good living is not one of them" (135). The book is a catalogue of frustration, delay, deprivation, and discomfort to which Waugh only gradually becomes inured.

It is the fact that Waugh becomes (at least relatively) inured to these daily discomforts that prevents the book from ever becoming a tale of high adventure. And after all, the author is seldom in great danger; the one point at which his expedition is truly at risk of disaster, when he becomes totally lost, he is supremely unaware of the fact until fortuitously meeting the man who will set him back on the right track. Hence there is little in the way of tension or drama in Waugh's rather stately progress through jungle and savannah. Indeed, the atmosphere is rather one of some tedium in which obstacles are rendered merely disagreeable inconveniences.

We might even begin to wonder what are the "hundred excellent reasons" for such a trip. To the extent that his voyage is not completely aimless, Waugh fails in its ostensible goal: he hopes to go to Manaus, but after a fruitless week or two hanging around in Boa Vista, he turns tail and goes back the way he came.

Boa Vista itself, which by default then becomes his ultimate destination, proves a vast disappointment. He had heard mainly tales of the town's magnificence: "I had come to regard it as Middle Western Americans look on Paris, as Chekhov peasants on St Petersburg. In the discomforts of the journey there, I had looked forward to the soft living of Boa Vista" (99). And yet when he finally arrives, Waugh soon finds the place miserable and squalid and that "all that extravagant and highly improbable expectation had been obliterated like a sandcastle beneath the encroaching tide" (103). Even the place's one distinguishing feature, its remarkably high rate of homicide, turns out to be shabby and unremarkable: "It was the first time in my life that I found myself in contact with a society in which murder was regarded as being as common and mildly regrettable as divorce in England; there was no glamour in it; I found it neither heroic nor horrifying" (107).

Throughout, indeed, Waugh deflates any sense of cultural difference, however much he also indicates that the Europeans stranded in this vast landscape are all slightly insane while the indigenous and the blacks are invariably sullen and ugly. They are no more so than his compatriots back home: "In fact the more I saw of Indians the greater I was struck by their similarity to the English. The like living with their families at great distances from their neighbours; they regard strangers with suspicion and despair; they are unprogressive and unambitious, fond of pets, hunting, and fishing" (41) and so on.

Obviously, Waugh does also seek to exploit the comic value in these determinedly unexotic comparisons. And yet the book rather falls between two stools, as it is not on the whole a comic memoir. Enough sense of discomfort and frustration comes through that cannot quite be laughed ironically away. Nor is the voyage ever quite redeemed by any soul-searching or other forms of enlightenment, however much so many of the people he meets are in one way or another obsessed with religion and metaphysics.

As Pauline Melville points out in her thoughtful afterword, the key is no doubt in "what the author chose not to reveal":
Waugh states that the journey was undertaken for reasons of adventure and to collect material for a book. This is not the whole truth. He was in despair. His marriage had broken down after the bitter discovery that he had been betrayed and cuckolded. Humiliation drove Waugh to seek solace in what he describes as the "most far-flung and wild region of the British Empire." (211)
In this light, the apparently trivializing comparison of murder in northern Brazil to divorce in the home counties takes on new significance. Perhaps, in fact, for Waugh the emphasis was the other way around: that as far as he was concerned, divorce was like murder, however unglamorous it may also have been.

Link: Nicholas Lezard's review of the book for The Guardian.