Sunday, December 29, 2013

First Lady of the United States Visits Pakistan and Tours Peshawar, the Khyber Pass, and Lahore

This visit happened in March, 1962. Does anyone want to speculate when we might next send FLOTUS on a goodwill tour of Pakistan?

The film is interesting in a 'wow, how the world has changed!' sort of way. Jacqueline Kennedy's itinerary included places where the USG does not dare to have a presence today, or if it does, it does so only in the most minimal way and with the utmost security countermeasures.

At the Khyber Pass, where NATO convoys now fear to go

Riding a camel on Clifton beach in Karachi

Arriving in Peshawar

That last photo is rather stunning to me. An open car? When was the last time the USG let anyone travel down a street in Peshawar outside of a convoy of heavily armored vehicles? It's as if 1962 was not just a different century, but a whole different world.

The visit was the subject of a 15-minute film produced by the U.S. Information Service (Invitation to Pakistan, March 1962), something unremarkable at the time, but which itself now has the feeling of a vanished era.

Given that USIS was folded into the State Department back in 1999, I expect there are few active members of the U.S. Foreign Service today who have any memory of when there was an independent government agency that did public diplomacy and broadcasting. If you don't remember it, or would like to refresh your memory, see this swan song commemorative booklet USIS published before it closed up shop.

In its last year of operation, USIS had 190 posts in 142 countries, an annual budget of $1 billion and change, and employed - even after a staffing reduction in 1997 - 6,352 employees, of whom 904 were Foreign Service personnel, 2,521 were locally engaged staff overseas, and 2,927 were Civil Service employees in the United States. How does that compare to the resources of the R Bureau today? Badly, I know.

In the film, Jacqueline Kennedy, accompanied by her sister, Princess Lee Radziwill [I recall seeing the Princess in the news way back when I was a kid, although I never did understand exactly what Kingdom she was the Princess of] visits Pakistani President Mohammad Ayub Khan and United States Ambassador to Pakistan Walter P. McConaughy, attends a horse and cattle show in Lahore, delivers gifts to children's hospitals, does fun stuff in Karachi, drives to the Khyber Pass, delivers remarks, and even provides a little voice-over.

The film is narrated by the Canadian-American actor Raymond Massey (1896 – 1983), a distinguished sort of guy who was then at the peak of a long film career. That's another indicator of how high a bar USIS set. Do we get actors of similar stature to do the voice work on our PD products today?

Friday, December 27, 2013

Most Eyebrow-Raising Headline Of The Week

"Python kills Bali security guard outside five-star hotel" (UK Guardian)

Monday, December 23, 2013

The Devyani Khobragade Case, Domestic Workers, And India's Feudal Tradtion

The Devyani Khobragade arrest is bringing attention to the problem of exploited domestic workers, both in the United States and in India.

The BBC had this report over the weekend, New York maids protest at Indian consulate:

Domestic workers who were exploited and abused in the US by foreign diplomats have held a rally outside the Indian consulate in New York.

-- snip --

The protestors outside the Indian consulate said they wanted to highlight the plight of the maid in the case. They are calling for all countries to agree minimum legal standards of work.

The Hindustani Times also covered the New York protest (here), and had more quotes than the BBC did from domestic employee labor unions and victim assistance groups.

For how this matter is perceived within India, see this most interesting Agence France-Presse story that explains why India's government and society seem to think that it is Devyani Khobragade who is the victim here, and not her domestic employee: plight of Indian maid in U.S. brings little concern back home.

That AFP story quotes a report that describes India as the world's largest exploiter of bonded domestic labor:  
According to the Global Slavery Index report released in October: "an estimated 13.95 million people in India are victims of forced labor — almost half of the world’s slave population. Domestic service is a key area of concern."

“The central government has completely ignored the conditions of domestic workers,” said Anannya Bhattacharjee, executive council member of the New Trade Union Initiative, who is based in northern Haryana state.

“It’s part of Indian feudal tradition. There’s always talk of domestic workers being ‘part of the family,’ but they want to be treated as workers,” she said.

-- snip --

Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director at Human Rights Watch, points out that millions of mostly women and girls perform crucial jobs around the world as domestic helpers, often enabling employers to pursue careers.

But she said that in India and elsewhere, they remain “among the most exploited” despite a new international treaty adopted in 2011 to improve their rights.

“India should sign the Domestic Workers Convention, encourage domestic workers to organize, and ensure that their complaints of abuse, including sexual abuse, are promptly addressed,” Ganguly said.

The Global Slavery Index is a product of the Walk Free Foundation. Its 2013 country report on India was summarized as follows:
The country with the largest estimated number of people in modern slavery is India, which is estimated to have between 13,300,000 and 14,700,000 people enslaved. The India country study suggests that while this involves the exploitation of some foreign nationals, by far the largest proportion of this problem is the exploitation of Indians citizens within India itself, particularly through debt bondage and bonded labour.

The entire India country report is here.

The term "modern slavery" shouldn't be used without real cause, but the exploitation of domestic workers in India is so severe, and so immune from legal consequence, that it may legitimately be described as slavery.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Indian Consul's Arrest Controversy Keeps Escalating

Is orange still the new black?

-- UPDATE at 10:30 PM --

The U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York issued a statement today after I had already published the post below. He rebutted various assertions made by the Indian press and politicians about the treatment of Dr. Khobragade by the U.S. legal system, and noted the general lack of concern that they have shown for the victim in this case, who of course is also an Indian.

Most importantly to me, he stated that the DSS agents arrested Dr. Khobragade "in the most discreet way possible, and unlike most defendants, she was not then handcuffed or restrained." Not then handcuffed, but presumably was later. Anyway, if his description of the arrest is accurate, then it was done with discretion and intelligence. I'd still like to see DSS make a statement about that itself, but so far so good.


I've been panning for gold nuggets in the stream of Indian news media updates on the arrest of India's NYC Deputy Consul-General Devyani Khobragade, and found a couple good ones.

First, there is the interesting counter allegation that U.S. Government agencies are facilitating the real visa fraud in this case, which was committed by Dr. Khobragade's maid when she absconded from her employer and ran to an immigration lawyer. A timeline helps to understand that allegation:

  • Dr. Khobragade obtained a U.S. visa for her maid in November, 2012, and the maid arrived in NYC the same month.
  • According to the Indian press, the maid “absconded” from the Khobragade household in June, 2013, and sometime afterwards Dr. Khobragade's husband reported to New York police that she has stolen some valuables.
  • In July, the Indian Embassy in the U.S. notified the State Department of the missing maid and requested assistance in locating her.
  • Around this point, according to Indian news media, the maid contacted an immigration lawyer in an attempt to stay in the United States. Around the same time, the State Department began to investigate how Dr. Khobragade obtained the maid's visa.
  • In September, the State Department notified the government of India of the visa fraud allegations against Dr. Khobragade, according to the State Department spokesperson yesterday.
  • Also in September, a court in India issued an injunction to the maid ordering her not to institute any legal proceedings outside of India against her employer.
  • December 10, two days before Dr. Khobragade was arrested in NYC, the maid’s husband and son departed India for NYC, presumably to join her.

  • The India news media is spinning this as a case of the USG facilitating immigration fraud, i.e., of helping the maid (former maid, now the USG’s witness in a criminal case) to legalize her presence in the U.S., and to bring her family over as well.

    In a second interesting development, the Indian government is considering a proposal to make the domestic household help of its diplomatic employees direct-hire employees of the Indian government “in order not to fall foul of minimum wages laws in developed countries.”

    Third, the Indian government may be trying to shift Dr. Khobragade's assignment from its New York Consulate to its Mission to the United Nations, in a ploy to obtain for her full diplomatic immunity versus the more limited consular immunity she currently holds. (See this handy pamphlet for an explanation of the difference.) As the Indian press noted, the only problem with this genius scheme is that the U.S. State Department would have to agree to recognize her new status.

    Fourth, the U.S. Marshal’s Service spokesperson confirmed that Dr. Khobragade was indeed strip-searched during prisoner intake at a U.S. Courthouse. She helpfully noted that the U.S. Marshal's Service was not the arresting agency – the State Department’s Diplomatic Security Service was – and the USMS merely kept Dr. Khobragade in custody until she was released on bail. The search, like the DNA collection swab and the “available and suitable holding cell,” was a matter of standard procedure. The State Department Spokesperson likewise said yesterday that the DSS agents were following standard procedure by handcuffing Dr. Khobragade before transporting her to the custody of the Marshals Service. With everything done so impeccably in accordance with standard procedures, what could the Indians possibly complain about?

    The appeal to “standard procedures” reveals the cultural difference in play here. When Indians look at how Dr. Khobragade was arrested, they see an unnecessary, even outrageous, use of force and violation of her personal dignity. Why arrest her by surprise while she was taking her young children to school, and why handcuff her? Since there was no good reason to do that, they assume we intended to inflict abuse upon her for some hidden purpose, maybe one connected to her status as a Dalit, or untouchable (not that any of the Americans involved – with the possible exception of the Indian-born U.S. Attorney – would have known or cared about her caste identification).

    But to the Americans involved, the arrest was an impersonal matter. Just mindless, mechanical, process. Individuals have no need, or even opportunity, to exercise judgment when they simply follow procedure. The fact that Dr. Khobragade was treated exactly like everyone else who was under arrest and being processed at the U.S. Courthouse that day is assumed to be a solid defense against any charge of mistreatment, because standard procedure absolves the individuals who implement it of personal responsibility. “I’m not paid to think,” as some people say. If the arrestee and her home country infer any actual motive from our treatment of her, well, that’s their problem. They give us too much credit for independence.

    Fifth, the Indian press is reporting details of an e-mail Dr. Khobragade sent to collegues in which she describes the prisoner intake procedures and says that she broke down in tears many times. The strip-searching part of her arrest has now overwhelmed all other considerations, including the main one of her alleged visa fraud, in the Indian mind.

    This business is escalating from a diplomatic incident into a Mexican soap opera.

    Tuesday, December 17, 2013

    There's Diplomatic Immunity, Consular Immunity, And A Couple Other Kinds, Too, I Think

    An obstacle to U.S.-Indian relations

    So many unintended consequences have flowed from that simple arrest in New York City five days ago.

    The criminal allegation made by the United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York (here) and its supporting statement by a Diplomatic Security agent (here) are clear enough: The Indian Deputy Vice Consul in New York, a nice looking lady named Dr. Devyani Khobrange, committed visa fraud and made false statements, felonies that could put her in prison for up to 15 years.

    The circumstances of Dr. Devyani Khobrange's arrest are not so clear. She wasn't fleeing, she wasn't accused of a violent crime, and she is a foreign diplomat. So why pull her out of her car when she was taking her kids to school and do the whole handcuffs-strip search-holding cell routine before cutting her loose on bail? Is that normal treatment for a white collar criminal in New York (I doubt it), or was the U.S. Attorney trying to make a point?

    The Indian Embassy in Washington "immediately conveyed its strong concerns to the U.S. Government" (here) over our treatment of their Deputy Vice Consul, and made counter allegations about the Indian domestic servant who was the object of Dr. Khobrange's alleged visa fraud and is now our witness in the criminal case against her. They even asked the U.S. government to extradite our witness back to India. Good luck!

    Some commenters in India pointed out that the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, Preet Bharara, was born in India to a Sikh father and a Hindu mother, and hinted at some mysterious ethnic feud between him and Dr. Khobrange, who is from the Dalit caste. I can't even guess whether that motive is at all plausible; the question wouldn't have come up if the U.S. Attorney were named John Smith, however.

    Meanwhile, the Indian government has gone completely over the top, calling in the U.S. Ambassador, harassing U.S. diplomats in India by yanking some airport access and import privileges and threatening to withdraw their diplomatic identity cards, going on a witch hunt for any of our locally engaged staff in India who might be underpaid, and finally, removing concrete vehicle barriers that they had previously allowed us to place on a public street outside our embassy compound in the diplomatic quarter of New Delhi.

    And, of course, the biggest question of all is, what kind of legal immunity does Dr. Khobrange enjoy? Is it full diplomatic, or the more limited type of consular immunity, and how does that affect her prosecution for visa fraud?

    This is a puzzling situation about a delicate matter of diplomatic relations. So you can imagine how anxious I was to hear State Department Deputy Spokesperson Marie Harf explain everything during the daily press briefing this afternoon. She did not disappoint.

    QUESTION: India.

    MS. HARF: Okay. Mm-hmm.

    QUESTION: Do you have anything to say on the steps announced by Indian Government today on the – withdrawing some of the consular facilities provided to Indian diplomats inside – U.S. diplomats in India and withdrawing the security parameters [surely "perimeters" not parameters] outside the embassy in opposition to the steps – arrest of Indian diplomats in New York?

    MS. HARF: Well, a couple points on this. I think you probably saw the statement that I put out just before coming out here, that the U.S. and India enjoy a broad and deep friendship, and this isolated episode is not in any way indicative of the close and respectful ties that we share and will continue to share. We have conveyed at high levels to the Government of India our expectations that India will continue to fulfill all of its obligations under the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations, and Vienna Convention – on Consular Relations, excuse me.

    Obviously, the safety and security of our diplomats and consular officers in the field is a top priority. We’ll continue to work with India to ensure that all of our diplomats and consular officers are being afforded full rights and protections. Also, of course, safety and security of our facilities as well is something we take very seriously, and we’ll keep working with the Indians on that.

    QUESTION: Why wasn’t that in the statement?

    MS. HARF: Because it was a short statement and I knew I’d get lots of questions on it in the briefing. I mean, there’s – I have a lot of information on this we can talk about in the briefing.

    -- snip --

    QUESTION: Your comment about how you have conveyed to the Indian Government at the highest levels or --

    MS. HARF: At high levels, I said.

    QUESTION: -- at high levels --

    MS. HARF: Mm-hmm.

    QUESTION: -- that you expect them to uphold the Vienna Convention – is that a reference to the fact that Indian police today removed security barriers around the Embassy?

    MS. HARF: Certainly part of it.

    QUESTION: Okay.

    MS. HARF: Certainly part of it.

    QUESTION: So did you see the Indian police removing those security barriers as a reflection of their unhappiness at the treatment of their diplomat in New York?

    MS. HARF: I’d let them speak for what the reasoning was behind it, certainly.

    -- snip --

    QUESTION: Marie, have you actually asked for them to rescind these measures that they took today, particularly the ones about the security barriers?

    MS. HARF: I can double-check and see if we have more details about the diplomatic conversations. We’ve been very clear that they need to uphold all of their obligations under the Vienna Convention, and in terms of security, we’ll keep working with them on that as well. Again, our focus here is on moving the bilateral relationship forward, that this one isolated episode not impact the bilateral relationship.

    QUESTION: Do you feel that measures that were taken were actually proportionate to what happened to the deputy general consul in New York last week?

    [TSB note: Ms. Harf strayed off the topic a bit here, talking about measures the State Department had taken.]

    QUESTION: But I think my question was more – are the measures, were the measures taken by the Indian – Indians’ government proportionate to what --

    MS. HARF: Oh, I see. Measures by the Indian Government.

    QUESTION: Indian Government, yes.

    MS. HARF: Proportionate to what?

    QUESTION: To the arrest in New York of a deputy consul general.

    -- snip --

    QUESTION: So just to put a fine point on it, if you’re saying that [the arrest in New York and the measures the Indian government has taken against U.S. Embassy personnel in India] shouldn’t be linked and then you’re saying that they shouldn’t take actions against your diplomats in a response to one of their diplomats being arrested, even if it was handled possibly in an improper way?

    MS. HARF: Well, again, at this point there are no indications that it was, as I said just a second ago. Let me go back to this --

    QUESTION: Even if they have concerns with the way she was treated, it sounds like you’re saying, just to put a fine point on it, that the Indian Government should not take punitive measures against your diplomats in response to an incident that they feel one of their diplomats was (inaudible).

    MS. HARF: Certainly, we have called on them to uphold all of their obligations under the Vienna Convention, everything that they are obligated to do and according our diplomats rights and all of the things that go under the Vienna Convention.

    -- snip --

    QUESTION: Now could you talk – you talked a little bit about it, but you said you would get us some more answers on this diplomat’s – this deputy consul general’s diplomatic status. Could you expand on that a little bit?

    MS. HARF: Well, I don’t think I said I’d get on theirs specifically. I said there are different kinds of immunity – diplomatic immunity, consular immunity, I think there are a couple of other kinds. I have asked our folks to sort of lay out very explicitly, hopefully to be released as a TQ, exactly what all of those mean. But generally speaking, right, diplomatic immunity applies sort of across the board – again, this is a very general and the lawyers are probably going to be mad at me – but consular immunity only applies to things done in the actual functions of one’s job. And this just isn’t for diplomats in the U.S., of course; it’s for our diplomats overseas as well.

    QUESTION: Now, even if a diplomat doesn’t have diplomatic immunity or consular immunity --

    QUESTION: What’s the difference, by the way, between diplomatic immunity and consular immunity. I don’t understand that.

    MS. HARF: Well, diplomatic immunity applies to everything. Consular immunity only applies to official functions in – that one performs in the duty of their job.

    QUESTION: So is this person – does this person enjoy diplomatic immunity?

    MS. HARF: Consular immunity.

    QUESTION: Only consular?

    MS. HARF: Mm-hmm.

    QUESTION: Why don’t they enjoy diplomatic immunity, given that they are a diplomat?

    MS. HARF: Well, she’s the consul general at a consulate.

    QUESTION: Yeah.

    MS. HARF: I can double-check the exact specifics for who falls under what. I know it’s different everywhere. And again, this applies to our folks overseas as well.

    QUESTION: So – but that would be good to get clear.

    -- snip --

    QUESTION: One of the allegations that clearly has the Indian Government most angered --

    MS. HARF: Yes.

    QUESTION: -- is that she has said to have been strip searched. The question is whether you know – I mean, I can understand it would be embarrassing to admit it, but it’s also just a factual matter. And if --

    MS. HARF: I don’t speak for other government agencies, actually. I speak for the State Department, and that allegation --

    QUESTION: And the State Department is not aware of whether or not she was strip-searched? Because the State Department presumably wants to know whether or not she was strip-searched so that it can deal --

    MS. HARF: Again, we’re looking --

    QUESTION: Can I finish? So it can deal with the Indian Government.

    MS. HARF: Let me finish.

    QUESTION: Go right ahead. So you don’t want to know whether she was strip searched?

    MS. HARF: That’s why we’re looking into what transpired right now.

    QUESTION: So you don’t know?

    MS. HARF: That’s why we’re looking to get – I don’t have all the facts. No. I wasn’t there.

    QUESTION: Do you know that fact?

    MS. HARF: I don’t know what – I do not know the facts about exactly what happened and I’m not going to stand up here and say what I’ve heard or what I haven’t heard or what allegations are out there.

    QUESTION: But if you don’t know, I’m willing to accept that. That was my question.

    MS. HARF: I’m not telling you I haven’t heard anything – I’ve heard about the allegations.

    QUESTION: Right.

    -- snip --

    MS. HARF: Yep. On this still?

    QUESTION: Can we change topics?

    QUESTION: No, I’ve got one more. Sorry. It was mentioned by my colleague that one of the issues was the withdrawal of all ID cards issued by the Ministry of External Affairs. How is that going to affect the work that your diplomats do on the ground in India?

    MS. HARF: Well, we certainly don’t want any of the measures that he outlined to affect our work on the ground in India because it’s such an important relationship. We work together on so many important issues. And that’s why we’ll keep talking to the government about how to move forward.

    QUESTION: What are they actually used for on a day-to-day basis?

    MS. HARF: I can double-check. I can double-check.

    QUESTION: Have they actually taken those measures that he described, or you don’t know?

    MS. HARF: I’m not sure. I’ll double-check. I’ll double-check with --

    QUESTION: Is it true that if the diplomat doesn’t have that ID the diplomat can be arrested by the local police or --

    MS. HARF: I’ll check. I’ll check. I don’t know.

    Given a political matter this sensitive, a legal situation this complicated, and with so many facts still so elusive, I look forward to many more daily press conferences just like this one.

    Here's my question for Marie Harf: "Who do you want to play you in the inevitable Law and Order episode based on this incident, which is no doubt even now being written?"  

    Saturday, December 14, 2013

    Malabo's Nice New Fortress Embassy, And Its Bad Old Days Of Mayhem

    Image from KCCT website

    The Bureau of Overseas Buildings Operations (OBO) has cut the ribbon on another new Fortress Embassy, this one in Malabo, and for the low, low, price of only $71 million. That's bargain basement.

    I'm not being the least bit sarcastic about the cost. That has got to be the cheapest new embassy complex OBO has built in the last 10 years or more, especially considering that it includes staff housing, recreational facilities, and nearly self-sufficient site utilities, in addition to the chancery office building.

    From the press release:
    In an important symbol of our friendship and bilateral relationship with the Republic of Equatorial Guinea, Under Secretary for Management Patrick F. Kennedy, and U.S. Ambassador to the Republic of Equatorial Guinea Mark L. Asquino presided over the dedication of the new U.S. Embassy complex in Malabo today.

    The new multi-building complex provides embassy employees with a safe, secure, and modern workplace. Situated on a 12.5-acre site in the Malabo Dos section of the capital, the complex includes a chancery building, a service/utility building, an access pavilion, Chief of Mission residence, Deputy Chief of Mission residence, staff housing, and a recreational facility.

    The $71 million project incorporates numerous sustainable features to conserve resources and reduce operating costs, including an energy recovery unit that reduces the need for heating and cooling, water-conserving plumbing fixtures, and the use of regional and recycled materials. The new Embassy is registered with the U.S. Green Building Certification Institute as a Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED®) facility.

    The facility was designed by Karn Charuhas Chapman and Twohey (KCCT) of Washington, DC, and constructed by Caddell Construction Co. of Montgomery, Alabama.

    I'm delighted to read that the new embassy has an "access pavilion." A pavilion ... the very word makes me think of some pleasant little structure, maybe a nice shady place where the embassy staff can gather after work and have gin and tonics while they enjoy the spectacular equatorial sunset. But it's really just OBO's design excellence jargon for what is normally called a "compound access control" facility, i.e., a building for TSA-style screening of visitors.

    Hey, OBO, people can see through that architectural happy talk. What's the point of trying to soften the reality of metal detectors and x-ray machines? Just call it a Compound Access Control facility, which is the official term. Even KCCT, your design firm on the Malabo project, uses that term in its own press releases for other embassy work.

    KCCT, by the way, has made a specialty of overseas work for OBO and some other U.S. government agencies. That business model has been recession-proof, as described in a profile in a business journal last year:
    D.C. architecture firm KCCT stays under the radar thanks to work on overseas embassies, consulates

    The firm is now working on the Foreign Affairs Security Training Center for a possible 2,000-acre site near Fort Pickett in Blackstone, Va., where future diplomats will learn about terrorist tactics to help them prepare for working in dangerous locations abroad.

    Over the past two decades, KCCT has come to specialize in designing overseas diplomatic facilities, creating 151 of those projects in 114 nations. Those commissions include 18 new embassy and consulate compounds in countries as varied as Angola, Kyrgyzstan, Pakistan and Vietnam.

    No post about Equatorial Guinea would be complete without noting how completely bat guano crazy the country once was. The place has settled down nicely since oil was discovered and business interests took over, but in the 1960s and '70s Malabo was very likely the worst place in Africa. More horrendous than even Idi Amin's Uganda.

    Globetrotting With Uncle Sam has a fine blog post from last February about the recent history of Murder and Violence in Malabo:

    Since 1968 when the country became independent, Equatorial Guineans have lived under two repressive dictators, both stemming from the same family. The current president, Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo, is the nephew of the first president, Francisco, Marchias Nguema, who many considered insane and who on Christmas Day in 1975, has 150 coup plotters killed in the national stadium while a band played "Those Were the Days."

    Shortly after independence, the State Department opened an embassy in Malabo and assigned two officers -- a charge' d'affairs and an administrative officer. The stress of opening an embassy on Fernando Po must have gotten to the Charge' as in 1971 he radioed the Embassy in nearby Yaounde, Cameroon to report that the Administrative Officer was involved in a communist plot. The embassy directed that the consul from Douala immediately charter a plane to Malabo and to take control of the embassy. Upon arrival he found that the charge' had killed the administrative officer in the embassy under very mysterious circumstances.

    -- snip --

    Equatorial Guinea has been the target for at least two coup attempts. The first, against former President Marchia, is said to be the setting for Fredrick Forseyth's book "The Dogs of War" which was made into a movie by the same name. The second, the so-called Wonga Coup, took place after oil was discovered. It was led by Simon Mann, an Englishman living in South Africa and the son of former British Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, is said to have helped finance this attempt.

    Here's a first-person account of the 1971 incident by the FSO who was sent to Malabo in response to the chargé's bizarre radio calls and discovered the murder. The chargé' was convicted of murder in a U.S. court despite being irrational and possibly insane, and it has never been made clear what exactly happened and why. His son later attributed the murder to a mental breakdown brought on by the terrorizing conditions of Malabo in 1971, however, the son was far too young at the time to be in a position to really know that. 

    Forseyth's novel, "The Dogs of War," was extremely well-informed about the first coup attempt, and its plot anticipated the discovery of oil in Malabo, which discovery provided the motive for the later Wonga coup. The movie version of Dogs is worth watching - I found it on Netflix - for Christopher Walken's portrayal of the mercenary who goes a little crazy in a Malabo prison and then goes rogue on his London businessmen employers.

    Malabo inspired murder in the movies, too

    The movie had a happy ending. I mean, as happy as anything could get in Malabo in the days before the oil boom.

    Tuesday, December 10, 2013

    Art, Mm-Hmm, In Embassies

    Sean Scully's 'Wall of Light Cubed 2'

    As you may have read, the Art in Embassies program of the U.S. State Department shelled out one million dollars for the artwork depicted above, which will be displayed at the future new U.S. Embassy in London. The new embassy office building will be a work of art in its own right, so I guess we needed exactly the right sculpture to compliment the new building. Why the sculpture costs more than some entire buildings do, I just can't say.

    The artwork of Sean Scully, which you can browse on his website, is not something I am qualified to judge, so here is an expert description:

    Sean Scully is known for rich, painterly abstractions in which stripes or blocks of layered color are a prevailing motif. The delineated geometry of his work provides structure for an expressive, physical rendering of color, light, and texture. Scully’s simplification of his compositions and use of repetitive forms—squares, rectangles, bands—echoes architectural motifs (doors, windows, walls) and in this way appeals to a universal understanding and temporal navigation of the picture plane. However, the intimacy of Scully’s process, in which he layers and manipulates paint with varying brushstrokes and sensibilities, results in a highly sensual and tactile materiality. His colors and their interactions, often subtly harmonized, elicit profound emotional associations. Scully does not shy away from Romantic ideals and the potential for personal revelation. He strives to combine, as he has said, “intimacy with monumentality.”

    I think I'm starting to see it ... yes ... intimacy combined with monumentality ... abstract, geometric, repetitive, and it echoes architectural motifs (the motif part sounds good to me). Plus, it is universal, sensual in a tactile way (do we get to touch this art?), and it elicits emotional responses.   

    I can easily believe the part about eliciting emotional responses. With no disrespect for Sean Scully's artistry, any time the U.S. government spends a million dollars to buy a sculpture for display at an embassy you can be certain that there will be profound emotional responses, particularly from members of Congress. 

    The incomparable State Department Deputy Spokesperson Marie Harf displayed some performance art of her own at last Friday's daily press briefing when she tried to explain why she thinks this purchase is "a good use of our limited resources" (yes, she does):

    Okay, on the artwork, we have an Art in Embassies program run through the Office of Art in Embassies which curates permanent and temporary exhibitions for U.S. embassy and consulate facilities. It’s a public-private partnership engaging over 20,000 participants globally, including artists, museums, galleries, universities, and private collectors. For the past five decades, Art in Embassies has played a leading role in U.S. public diplomacy with a focused mission of cross-cultural dialogue and understanding through the visual arts and the artist exchange.

    In terms of the London piece, like much of the art purchased by this program, this piece was purchased under the market price after considerable negotiation with both the artist and the gallery. This is an important part of our diplomatic presence overseas. We maintain facilities that serve as the face of the U.S. Government all throughout the world, and where we can promote cross-cultural understanding, and in this case do so for under market value, we think that’s a good use of our limited resources. Yes, we do.

    -- snip --

    QUESTION: -- to give you the critics’ point of view. I don’t think any of the critics, even the more harshest ones, are saying that people should go to receptions at U.S. embassies abroad and drink Ripple or Natty Boh or something like that. And I’m not – and I don’t think that they’re saying that people --

    MS. HARF: (Off-mike.) Yes, go ahead.

    QUESTION: -- people at – people who are waiting in line or go to embassies should be looking at velvet Elvises and dogs playing poker either on the walls. (Laughter.) But do you acknowledge at least that the amount that was spent and the timing of – that the optics are not particularly good ... particularly going into the government shutdown?

    -- snip --

    QUESTION: You mentioned that you purchased the art at below market prices.

    MS. HARF: Sometimes. Sometimes.

    QUESTION: Sometimes.

    MS. HARF: I don’t know about --

    QUESTION: Is that not sort of stiffing the artist? I mean, why not – now, I understand you want to be good stewards of the public’s money. But on the other hand, why not pay them what their stuff is actually worth?

    MS. HARF: Well, it’s a negotiation between the artist and the gallery, and having their art displayed in a U.S. embassy and especially a prominent one in a place like London, I think is probably something that, if artists choose to sell us their pieces, is an important thing for them as well.

    QUESTION: And it is displayed prominently if anyone could actually get into the embassy to take a look at it, right?

    MS. HARF: Is that really a question?

    QUESTION: Well, it’s not exactly like it’s a public – it’s going to be – unless it is. I don’t know. Is it going to be outside?

    MS. HARF: I have no idea.

    "Is that really a question?" Yes, it really was a question, and a pretty basic one. Does the public get to see the art on display in our embassies, or not? Is a sculpture such as Wall of Light Cubed 2 going to be displayed inside or outside the walls of the new London embassy? That's the sort of question a Deputy Spokesperson might reasonably be expected to answer. Alas, Deputy Spokesperson Marie Harf had no idea.

    I can't be the only one who gets the impression that Deputy Spokesperson Marie Harf doesn't actually know all that much about the operations and activities of U.S. Embassies. She always comes off second-best in her frequent bantering with AP's Matt Lee, for example. Why doesn't she have a couple subject matter experts around to prompt her when questions arise that she can't answer?

    And don't even get me started on that annoying "Mm-hmm' sound she makes as a sly way to suggest agreement without saying anything. That sound was amusing when it came from Yoda - here's Yoda as Deputy Spokesperson: "A question you have? Mm-hmm" - and creepy when it came from the guy in Sling Blade. When it comes from someone conducting the State Department's daily press briefing it just makes me think she's a lightweight poser.


    P.S. - On the subject of art in embassies, let me put in a good word for Velvet Elvises and paintings of dogs playing poker. What's so wrong about those? Personally, I think American artists have only begun to explore the possibilities of the vernacular working-class theme of anthropormorphized dogs playing poker. It is art for the masses and therefore impeccably democratic, so why shouldn't it be displayed in a cross-cultural dialog thingee? At the very least, it ought to get us points for irony.

    And who is to say that sort of art doesn't have real cultural value? In a recent post I used a photo of a Proto-Elamite sculpture, a bull in a human pose, which is on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. According to the Met's museum label, bulls in human poses were a common theme in Proto-Elamite art. Is that sculpture on display today merely because it was created around 3,000 BC in southwestern Iran, or because it has genuine artistic interest?

    I say to the fancy-pants curators of the Art in Embassies program, don't rule out paintings of dogs playing poker just because it's a modern theme favored exclusively by guys who drink domestic beer. Let's promote that cross-cultural dialog and understanding through the visual arts of the low-brow and the popular, as well as through the rarefied and expensive.

    Sunday, December 1, 2013

    Mess With The Bull And You Get The Horn

    Proto-Elamite bull sculpture, Southwestern Iran 

    This is a little weird, but the U.K. Daily Mail has an exposé of sorts about the bull market that exists in American bovine semen exports to Iran. That's right, we don't sell the Iranians the entire bull, we just bludgeon the beefsteak a bit and then sell the Iranians the resulting seed stock. It's an agricultural development thing, so that makes it okay.

    Despite most trade with Iran being illegal, the U.S. sent nearly $2 million dollars worth of bull semen to the Persian nation in 2012. In April 2013 alone, the U.S. sent $820,000 according to U.S. Census information gathered by Quartz.

    -- snip --

    Altogether the U.S. sent $45.7 million in humanitarian aid to Iran last April. While the number seems like a lot, it's nothing compared to the $26.2 billion sent to our biggest trading partner - Canada.

    Bovine sperm side-steps the usual rules against trade between the two nations since it qualifies as humanitarian aid.

    It's humanitarian aid to Iran, and therefore legal. I haven't googled the extraction techniques involved in rendering this aid, but I wonder whether the bulls would agree that that aspect of the business is also humanitarian. Maybe they would; really, I don't want to know.

    Humane considerations aside, bovine semen is a big business. Who says Americans don't make anything anymore? Our bulls are evidently some of the highest-T producers who ever swaggered around a barnyard.

    In fact, American cattle ranchers sell so very much bovine semen each year that sales to Iran amount to just a drop in the bucket.

    After following the links in the Daily Mail's article I learned that the U.S. is the world's second largest exporter of bovine semen. So robust are our bulls that the only foreign encroachment into our calf batter business comes from our neighbor to the north, Canada. Between us, we North Americans dominate the world's bovine semen market.

    Take that, Iran and the rest of OPEC! The next time you drink a glass of milk or grille a beef kabob, you'll know what cartel to thank.