Tuesday, February 06, 2007


Poor bicycles. It seems our increasingly unlivable metropolis has an ingrained hatred of all things non-motorised. Regardless of efforts to open spaces for bicycles, city folk have a seemingly low tolerance for them. Just try riding on a congested street and you'll immediately know what I mean. If people don't honk or hurl things at you from their car windows, you will be in imminent danger of getting run over.

You will often decide to ride on sidewalks instead. This is illegal. Everyone does this. (I even got pestered by a policeman in Japan once to get off the street and ride on the sidewalk. That, however, is another story).

Yet the possibility of running someone over is high, and maneouvring between disgruntled pedestrians can be dangerous for the biker. Hence someone came up with the brilliant idea of building bicycle lanes. Separating cars, bikes and joggers, all neatly contained in their own domains: cars on the road, bikes on the lanes and joggers in the park. What a great idea.

Santiago has a good handful of bicycle lanes, variable in quality and usability, mostly in Providencia, one of the largest and wealthiest buroughs. This is also the burough with the largest quantity of parks and green areas in the city. For almost 5km the bicycle lane runs parallel to a park. Nothing breathtaking, just a little sand path with lawns and a few haphazard trees, smack in the middle of a large avenue. Enough, you would think, for cars, bicycles, cars and pedestrians to get along peachily. Yet here is where theory crashes headlong onto messy reality.

Today I almost ran over a little kid, who was playing smack in the middle of the bicycle lane. His mother walked a few steps ahead, and instead of telling him to get out of the way, she just called him over. This after I firmly (though politely) said "coming through, please be careful." Perhaps I could have voiced my opinion on how retarded it is to walk on lanes indented for vehicles moving at higher speeds than nature intended us for in the first place. Opting for peace instead, I didn't. But the thought stayed in my mind.

Poor bicycles. It seems as though they are not only scorned by cars -the unquestioned owners of the concrete mess that is Santiago-, but also by pedestrians reclaiming walking rights on would-be sidewalks. Is walking on bicycle-only lanes their way of getting back at us for appropriating their pedestiran-only sidewalks in the past?

Later in the evening, riding back on the same lane, a middle-aged couple strolled happily, hand in hand, slowly, again smack in the middle of the road. This time, however, I did not have to say anything. Riding from behind, a young man on a bicycle whooshed past them shouting "this is intended for biycles!" The reaction from the older man was a typical Chilean rooster ruffle - "come back and say it to my face!" Of course, by then, the younger man was way ahead.

Again, my ill-celebrated necessity of looking for confrontation tapped me on the shoulder. Sitting by the side of the road, I thought of saying something along the lines of "he's right, you know." After all, there was a whole park to walk on. The clear sky and beautiful dusk, however, saw to it I remained tonguetied.

For the universe is as wise as it is ruthless. Let the man show off his feathers for his woman. Let the bicycle dude keep having a bad day. Reverse their roles and you will probably get the same reactions; such is the folly of our irrational humanity. And sadly, though it could have been prevented, neither tantrums nor tousled feathers will stop the coming of the day when someone gets run over.

The underdog strikes back. The oppressed becomes the oppressor. Maybe on that day, bicycles will finally get some Respect.

Thursday, April 27, 2006

Las Payas Elegantes

El lujo añejo del rojo mantel
a cuartel del desdeño del reojo
el cerrojo de los bienes ilusorios
sin crin ni jolgorios de aves
sin sus mares y sin mortuorios

El oro vive solo ese momento
un esperpento sin voz ni coro
que se olvida en un segundo
y el fin del mundo es el vacío
con solo hastío del más profundo

Y el cristal frío no se compara
con la fresca agua de río
y me rio como un crío.

Alcuza, ensaladera, plato 'e fondo
espejo redondo y pimentera
La que entera no cunde ni salpica
lluvia rica, olmo y pino
ni el dulce trino de la golondrina
con su canción, más fina que lo fino

Sólo naturaleza, verde desbordante
que me desplante en mi entereza
que me cueza y que me abrase
que me case en frac de hoja
y nube roja, atardecer monumental
calzando el estival que del frío me despoja.

Y el cristal frío no se compara
con la fresca agua de río
y me rio como un crío.

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Airport Angst
It must come as a result of my unholy familiarity with travel, but I’ve always disliked flying. If the beauty of travel lies not in the destination but in the deed itself, then I desire my travels to be ugly and dirty. Give me a bicycle any day.
It’s not really airplanes which I hate. They’re nothing but bigger, noisier buses with better service, a worse environmental record and more sophisticated ways of peddling goods to passengers. The in-flight films can be fun, and the food these days is not nearly as bad as their vomitive reputation says. Though the main course is all right, it’s really the entrée and dessert that I dread.
For all my frequent nomadic impulses I am a sedentary minded man (a trait that seems to get stronger as I grow older). Airports rub me the wrong way. More and more often I find myself dreading the airport experience, like a child paying a visit to the dentist. I deem them as non-places; soulless fibreglass stopovers, a midpoint but never a destination. I dislike their sterile insipidity, their fluorescent lighting, their criminal prices.
It is people who make this world, and it’s usually people who make it unpleasant. Airports tend to be packed with people –busy, disgruntled people, brought together by a single common wish: to leave as soon as possible.
Strangely enough, the larger part of airport angst does not flow directly from the travellers. One has to speculate about the friendliness of underslept people rushing from gate to gate over several terminals in a panicked frenzy (especially when you yourself are also underslept, rushing and in a panicked frenzy). But experience has shown me that, for better or worse, there will always be a talkative character on the neighbouring seat, ready to spill his life into a warm ear. There is also the amiable lady who will be willing to look after your bag while you find a rubbish bin. It's perhaps the feeling of camaraderie that spawns off mutual frustration.
Misery emanates mostly from the staff. Starting with unfriendly immigration officers to irritable security personnel to the road-raged midnight janitor who will chase you around on an electric cart, it is a rarity to find an airport worker who is not so jaded with his job that he fails to treat passengers like mildly retarded sheep.
Despite the dreadful uniformity of airports everywhere, they all have numerous ways of dealing with their universal fed-upness. Most of the time they will take on the less obvious cultural traits of the place, making a transit through an international airport seem like a field trip for sociologically-inspired psychologists.
Take what I call the Napoleon complex (Animal Farm, not Waterloo). Think of being downtrodden all your life and then suddenly given absolute power over your oppressor (and his look-alikes). Oh the possibilities!
O’Hare airport in Chicago is mostly operated by runts who use the opportunity to give their society a taste of their own medicine. People are shoved into security checks like Jews into cattle trains, and officers will not hesitate to scream like gulag masters at anyone who fails to follow instructions. Overworked staff will dodge any queries, which usually ricochet from one person to the next until it returns to the passenger unanswered. The lady at the information desk ignores a queue to comment to her friend on her lucky sister’s tax break due to her terminal illness (I wish I was making this up). The same road-raged janitors come close to shoving mop sticks up the ribs of napping travellers. Contempt doesn’t even begin to describe their attitude.
Japanese airports, on the other hand, are dubbed with the asinine courtesy and anally-retentive passion for order of their people. The bureaucrats are just as surly, but at least they pretend to be nice, fanfaring their misanthropic ways with a flurry of honorifics and bows aplenty. (I still haven’t made up my mind whether I prefer blatant hypocrisy over barefaced rudeness, but shifting from one to the other is always a satisfyingly shocking experience).
Discrimination toward passengers here is exercised through the characteristic Japanese talent for passive aggression. Thus, a traveller (usually a young male foreigner) may be gently ushered into a side room for a full cavity check and kept aside for several dozen minutes, all the while being offered an unending stream of apologies. Authority is bestowed in a strict but benevolent manner (Japan’s time-honoured answer to political repression). Nanny will spank you if you’ve been bad, but it’s all for your own sake. Nanny cares. And she particularly cares about who walks her immaculate halls.
Immigration at Heathrow airport in London is not known for its leniency toward non-EU visitors, and their preferred method of abuse is somewhere in between the US and Japan: not overtly rude, but stern and hopelessly mistrustful. A typo in an official document might be enough for them to deny you entry. They will smile, all the while someone else checks your baggage for hidden bombs.
But if the English will suspect you behind your back, the people at Frankfurt airport will not go to any lengths to mask their suspicion of anyone born below the equator. They are prone to checking and rechecking a passport, sometimes in groups and for a considerable amount of time, even when everything is in order. In a hurry you say? Ve vill ask ze questions.
Airports in Poland, Hungary and Indonesia like to scare off their passengers with military personnel walking around with machine guns. Miami International likes to greet visitors with the double chill of sarcasm over air-conditioning at full blast. Provincial Chilean airports like to douse passengers with toxic pesticide sprays.
Not all is bad, of course. I’m almost sure most of the Scottish immigration authorities I’ve met were high. The Irish, never prone to self-inflicted bother, have an even better way of dealing with their herds of tourists: they are seldom there at all.
If hell is a state of mind, airports are the products of a hellish state’s mind. Tougher immigration policies make up for stress, which is often taken out on visitors by overworked airport staff. And who can blame them? They have to spend a considerable amount of their lives in there. At least the passengers know they’re leaving soon.

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

To my One reader

Yes, you, the deranged loon with too much time on his/her hands. I haven't updated for donkey's years. I know. I've been distracted, and probably too drunk and stoned to write anything coherent. Not that my usual stuff is any better, but at the moment my thinking skills are little better than that of a cactus.

So go do something useful with your time. Go to www.answers.com and educate yourself in random trivia knowledge. Play the Wikipedia game (choose an obscure subject, click on random article and see how many clicks it takes you to get to your subject of choice). Surf for some more porn. Alternatively, call somoene up and have a real human conversation. Then, when you get bored and cranky and remember why it is you log on to the internet so much, come back here. Hopefully I will have updated by then.

Friday, January 27, 2006

Thirty-three Years of Vengeance
*He's the most highly honoured military officer in the whole southern cone - every medal symbolises a bank account in Switzerland.

Many years later, in front of the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendia would remember that distant afternoon when his father had taken him to see ice.”
Garcia Marquez’s famous opening lines from his acclaimed novel, One Hundred Years of Solitude, set the score for an unending cycle of violence spread out between irregular bouts of past, present and future in a rural Latin American fantasyland.
Sixteen years after the cycle of violence that consumed Chile between 1973 and 1990, the past has also come back to haunt Chile’s ex-dictator Augusto Pinochet. This time, however, the memories are far less nostalgic. As criminal courts find increasing evidence for the arrest of one of South America's bloodiest ex-leaders and his family, questions arise about the mood of the procedures. Can the downfall of the Pinochet clan be regarded as a case of divine retribution? Could it be that justice is being served as a side dish to vengeance, or is it the other way round?
To understand this situation we must look back at the history of the procedures from the beginning.
After a brief detention in England back in 1998, the aged General was for the first time charged for the atrocities committed during his regime. It was a shocking event for the “Pinochetistas” of the Chilean right wing and the General himself. The tired cold war arguments and self-made legitimacy of their illegal government had successfully blinded people at home (“by reason or force,” like the suspiciously authoritarian motto in the national coat of arms), but failed to convince the rest of the world, who still looked askance on the dictatorship’s history of torture, censorship and human rights abuses.

The General had thought himself untouchable, but proof of the contrary seemed to sprout everywhere. Glimpsing a window of opportunity during a routine medical visit by Pinochet to the UK, it was Spanish judge Baltazar Garzon who cast the first stone. He ordered the immediate arrest and detention of the ex-dictator in the hopes of making him stand trial in Spain. Before anyone could say “bloody coup”, Pinochet was under house arrest in a lavish northwest London mansion, facing prompt extradition into Garzon’s hands.

The Chilean right wing was quick to respond. Shifty rhetoric about national sovereignty flooded the local press. “No one can try Pinochet but Chileans themselves,” cried the powerful allies of the General, as if to say “this has nothing to do with you.” Populist images of past European imperialism were conjured, while Congress reactionaries and powerful industrialist groups bullied the government to back up the petition for Pinochet’s release.

A few lost souls even flew to England to protest with gaudy handmade banners in front of the Houses of Parliament, about twenty odd people shivering in the cold of winter, chanting in thick Chilean Spanish dialect. It was a preposterous sight. Busy Londoners, in their typically English manner, pretended not to notice the quaint protesters, swiftly quickening their pace as they strode by.

After much lobbying by Tory ex-Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher –herself a good friend of the General, dating back from the Reagan days- and shady medical excuses concocted by sympathetic doctors (what would later become a staple of the defense in the Pinochet trials), the British government gave in to external pressure and, not without a canned sigh of relief, sent Pinochet back on the first plane home.

Old and sickly, Pinochet left the UK sporting a drop-dead complexion, hunched on a wheelchair pushed by grieving relatives. As soon as he stepped off the plane, however, he seemed to recover his youthful vitality almost instantaneously. He sprang up to greet the crowd of suits at the airport, beaming with cocky pride on what he thought was literally a safe return home.

Photos of Pinochet’s miraculously regained health circled the globe to the shock of the liberal media. It was an outrage –the defense had blatantly lied about the General’s condition. Meanwhile, the right wing’s fiery nationalist oratory began to slowly shift from “let the Chilean courts handle this” to a conveniently Christian “forgive and forget” sermon.

Voices of dissent had previously predicted that a proper trial in Chilean territory would be impossible. The democratic institutions were still coming to terms with remaining pockets of military authority, and the right wing lobbies were too powerful. Most importantly, however, is that most Chileans –terrorised for decades under the dictatorship’s bloody rule- found it hard to believe that Pinochet could ever stand trial. Even almost ten years after the end of the dictatorship, fear of reprisals lingered and belief in the judicial power, so abused by the military in the past, was scant.

Nevertheless, the General’s detention in London had set a historical precedent, enough to start the snowball of events that would ultimately lead to his downfall. Although human rights trials against military officers had been set in motion since the return to democracy in 1990, it was the first time anyone had frontally attacked the ex-leader. Judge Garzon had shown the Chilean public that Pinochet was not impervious to international law. He was urged to continue the procedure on the General and the large Chilean exile community called for more international pressure.

At home, as the fear accumulated for two decades gradually disappeared, more and more voices started calling for justice and the due criminal processing of Pinochet. Soon, the government reacted and, after much battling with the conservative elements in Congress, managed to finally strip the General off his self-appointed senator-for-life status. This meant he could now stand trial like any other citizen.

In the light of this sudden social outburst, the General’s lawyers were faced with ever more predicaments. A mass grave with the remnants of several political detainees was found, and ex-officers started testifying against him during their own trials. As increasing evidence suggested Pinochet’s direct involvement in several campaigns of planned genocide, things started turning –as a picturesque Chilean expression goes- ant-coloured for the old General. Their best bet was to press on the claims of Pinochet’s illness, making him default from criminal procedures and therefore putting the trials on hold indefinitely.

Repeated medical exams showed vague evidence of real illness, but thanks to Pinochet’s advanced age his doctors managed to find a loophole in abstract mental diagnoses. Thus, in 1999, the General was officially charged with senile dementia. The once feared leader of the formidable Military Junta, the man who had once claimed that in Chile not a leaf moved without him knowing, had been reduced to the status of a ranting old coot. Unfortunately, this also gave the defense leeway for protecting their client on medical grounds.

The few liberal publications available at the time welcomed this turn of events with marked irreverence. Popular newspapers ran headlines such as “Esta Loco!” (he’s insane!) and “Loco Por Ti” (crazy for you). Soon, jokes about the incontinent, rambling General had become a staple in universities and left-wing circles. National catharsis had never felt so good.

Still, the human rights trials had yet to bear fruit. Pinochet’s lawyers managed to maintain a game of hide-and-seek with the justice system for several years, where the General would always suspiciously suffer from mild strokes or health complications before a court hearing. Given the cunningness of his lawyers and Pinochet’s old age, it was feared that he would die before ever facing trial.

Talk of the general’s imminent demise swamped the media. The soon-to-be presidential candidate for the Socialist party, Michelle Bachellet (famous for losing her father to the dictatorship), was even asked at an interview if she would go to Pinochet’s funeral were she elected president. Such talk shocked the right wing, who considered “of bad taste” to refer to the ex-dictator’s death while he was still alive. No one else seemed to mind.

But with presidential elections just around the corner, the liberal agenda had to be delivered. The families of the victims claimed for justice, and the Pinochet trial represented a cornerstone in bringing back legitimacy to democratic institutions, especially the Supreme Court; they would not rest until Pinochet could be done for something –anything.

As soon as his impunity started becoming less and less evident, old friends started turning his back on the General. He was now a dangerous man and any personal implications with the dictatorship and its former leaders meant trouble. The biggest shock came when in 2003 the Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces aired a public apology for the events of 1973 under the historical words: “never again”. But it was more than a mere apology, for behind the “never again” lay the insinuation of a sullen “no more” to Pinochet.

The final blow was delivered in 2004. Pinochet, still thinking he was immune to court procedures (some would say, a product of his alleged dementia) decided to attend a talk show in Miami. Acting meek and convalescent in Chile, he appeared lucid and healthy on American TV. Most of all, he talked with particular venom about the courts, who in his mind had not taken into consideration his role as a national saviour. This last act of foolish arrogance delivered a coup-de-grace to his already shady mental illness allegations, and the court finally had enough evidence to strip him off his medical immunity.

Around the same time, an investigation led to a series of hidden accounts in the US-based Riggs bank, belonging to Pinochet and his family, each one containing several million dollars. The Untouchable one had perversely fulfilled his own prophecy: just like Al Capone decades before, Pinochet was now accountable for fraud and tax evasion.

The repercussions in Chile were momentous. Until then, supporters of the dictatorship had grounded its legitimacy on economic arguments and the transparency of the neo-liberal economic model impulsed by Pinochet’s cronies. Unlike other South American dictators, Pinochet had been thought by many of his supporters as incorruptible. Yet here was evidence of what the opposition had suspected all along: the General, his family and friends had systematically ransacked the public treasury, altering official documents and bending the laws to their own benefit.

The scandal reached colossal proportions, not without certain skepticism from the liberal media. It had taken almost six years to try Pinochet for genocide charges, but the courts had been swift in tackling him for his financial misdeeds. Many writers and journalists lamented this gloomy edge of Chilean democracy, where apparently money was given more importance than human rights.

The right wing, on the other hand, accused a campaign of smears against Pinochet and questioned the lawfulness of the trials. By that time, however, the General’s reputation was at an all time low, and the proof of his crimes was too solid to dismiss as mere vengeance. There was, however, a quiet feeling of accomplishment in seeing the ex-leader finally go down. Dusty tax books and balance sheets were doing what muddy ribcages and cracked skulls couldn’t do for years.

Pinochet’s eldest son was swiftly put in prison for massive tax abuse, while his wife Lucia was charged with fraud and forgery of legal documents. The plot kept thickening to the delight of the General’s enemies. At the time this article was written the Pinochet family had been ordered to pay 3500 million pesos (about 8 million dollars) as temporary bail, and Pinochet’s eldest daughter was on the run from the law, seeking asylum in the US. She was stopped by Interpol, who reportedly impeded her entry into the North American country.

"Families condemned to One Hundred Years of Solitude do not have a second chance on this earth." Thus are the final words of Garcia Marquez’s novel. The cycle of destruction has winded down, ready to cease forever and dissolve into oblivion along with the fantasyland where the story takes place.
Many years later, people will still look back at the time when the sole mention of General Pinochet inspired bone-chilling terror in their hearts. While the firing squad has been all but replaced by financial auditors armed with calculators, the memories –good for some, bad for most- will never go away completely.

Violence and social unrest – they stand at the heart of Latin America’s curse. But the cycle has to stop somewhere, or at least pause before its course reverses. Divine retribution might sound rightful in the ears of what is a largely Catholic country, but there is nothing supernatural about the state of law. Vengeance alone cannot explain the Pinochet trials; the delay of the investigations and the legal battles are perhaps cumbersome effects of their legitimacy. They demonstrate that the days of the firing squad and show trials are finally over.
Yet vengeance still remains in the hearts of many, for it would be irresponsible to forgive and forget the crimes of the dictatorship. Coming to terms with the past is paving the way for a hopeful future. The trials may go on forever. It is, however, in everyone's interest that they do so, because families who condemn their fellow man to twenty years of crime and murder do not have a second chance on this earth.

Thursday, December 29, 2005

This is not a Happy Place

(As published in http://www.theforeigner-japan.com/archives/200601/denyingshame.htm).

During the winter Tokyo becomes a single mass of grey upon grey. Cold weather sets in, the scant greenery subsides, and the few large parks seem unable to contain the invasion of concrete all around. Far away from the neon-glitz of downtown Shibuya, suburbs and mid-points remain quiet in their anonymity. Some less anonymous places have other reasons for silence.

Straight from the sixth exit of Kudanshita station lies the infamous Yasukuni shrine. A huge promenade and two looming Torii gates lead the way into this, the resting place of the souls of the Japanese Imperial Army. On every side, blackened cherry blossom trees sprout leafless like menacing tentacles, exacerbating the dark colours of the main shrine. A pristine white cloth with artful patterns hangs on the front, giving the place striking contrasts of imperial grandeur. Outside, neo-fascists bow reverentially while sombre temple girls carry on with their duties. The tone is grave and the execution martial. This is not a happy place.

Once the hub of religious imperial frenzy, Yasukuni is both the lovechild and the lover of Japan's extreme right. Its name literally means "peaceful country," but it would be wrong to assume Yasukuni is a monument to pacifism. Quite the opposite, Yasukuni is a place of reverence to the heroic feats of Japan during every war since the Meiji restoration, when the shrine was founded. This includes Japan's invasion of several Asian countries and World War II. Not only are the names of over 2.5 million soldiers revered here, but also the souls of Japan's biggest war criminals are supposed to rest within its dark halls. These include 14 Class A criminals, such as former Prime Minister Hideki Tojo and general Iwane Matsui, one of the people formally responsible for the Nanjing massacre (aka the "Rape of Nanking") in 1937. The concept of peace impulsed by Yasukuni, in short, is the kind exercised through a gun barrel.

On one of the sides of the main building there is a large box with a number of leaflets about the shrine and the many organisations that support it. In one of them, a peace dove explains how the War was necessary to maintain Japan's independence, to make it a truly peaceful country and spread its peace through Asia. Another leaflet tells how only by fighting in Asia could the continent be rid of the "white menace." Yet another leaflet advertises a documentary which tells the "true" story of the war, from Japan's altruistic pan-Asian intentions to the unfairness of the Tokyo War Trials. "Show this to your children and grandchildren," says the advert, "to raise their awareness and patriotsm." Near the dark Torii gate, a girl no more than 10 years old bowed at almost 90 degrees to the altar in the shrine.

Yet, for all its conspicuous propaganda, Yasukuni itself is not the blatant monument to imperialism one wishes it to be (as it would be much easier to ignore that way). It is not a shrine built on revisionism, but rather the latter follows as a consequence of the nature of the place. Yasukuni is a memorial which caters to feelings, not history. The feelings in question are those of "patriots" and their families. And because this is ultimately a religious site, propaganda is shrouded under the guise of morality, a mixture of culture, piety and pride, based on honour, heroism and suffering.

The suffering of the soldiers' families - pointed out repeatedly in several inscriptions around the shrine - is the kind of moral detergent used to review history from the point of view of the aggressor as a victim. It is not unlike the constant references to Hiroshima and Nagasaki one finds in Japanese history books, to show that neither side is ever free of guilt. Albeit a sound argument, it is one that requires objectivity and a large degree of introspection, too. The lack of either in Japanese post-war rhetoric is enough to write off Yasukuni's imperialist arguments of Japan's "just" war.

And yet, the fact remains that human lives were lost, and suffering - though far less brutal than in the colonies - was as much a reality in Japan as it was elsewhere. This is the stepping stone that the Yasukuni establishment uses and exploits, by justifying the war through vicarious suffering. Their mission is not to give an objective account of history, but to describe it in moral/religious terms. Thus, sending millions of children to their deaths was not only necessary: it was heroic, pure and borne out of duty. In the Yasukuni mindset, the soldiers are innocent because their intentions were pure, laying their lives for their country trying to create a utopic world. Nazism was not too different. Yet we do not find memorials to fallen SS officers in Germany these days.

Culturally conditioned pride -"face"- plays a big role in this. Denying the souls the purity of their ideals would bring shame upon the suffering of the families who have already paid the price of defeat. It's a particularly diabolical argument: that of sustaining the sanctitude of human life by showing complete disregard for it at the same time. And yet reason might not be enough to deal with pride. For what good are arguments to assuage the pain of an aching mother who has just lost her son?

On emotional grounds, then, Yasukuni could be justified at an individual level. The problems happen when these cases are brought into the political arena. When the Prime Minister visits the shrine in his capacity as such, he is representing an individual emotional matter as a collective national issue. It is not the suffering of a family anymore, but the suffering of the Japanese nation as a family. The great lie of nationalism is fed through individual pain. This, at the same time, gives itself to further political machinations where purity of action through following orders becomes an excuse for bloody deeds, putting ideological principles on top of life and civility. When history is explored in religious terms it makes way for political agendas. In Yasukuni's case, the agenda is to legitimise a particularly ruthless and self-righteous -but more to the case, outdated- brand of authoritarianism.

As the tourists around me took pictures of the shrine, I overheard a conversation between an American woman, an expat living in Japan, and her visiting friends. She was explaining the controversial history of Yasukuni to her guests, when she said something that caught my attention: "Many war criminals are honoured in here, yet I feel we might not be too different in the US. After all, our war criminals are still alive and in office." Here was the introspection needed to understand places like Yasukuni, the same argument that the shrine in all its monumental pomposity lacked. It was, ironically, brought forth by the blatant attempts all around us to obscure history. Inadvertently, Yasukuni had become an advert for values opposite to those it exalted.

The cold winter sun shone through the leafless branches, but from where I stood the black Torii gates suddenly didn't look so big and menacing anymore.

Sunday, December 18, 2005

...Y Mostraron la Hilacha

“Hilacha” is a quirky Spanish word to describe a loose thread in a piece of clothing and “mostrar la hilacha” (lit. “to show the loose thread”) is a widely used colloquialism. In the same way a loose thread on an expensive shirt undermines its quality, “mostrar la hilacha” is to find a blemish on an otherwise flawless image. Its meaning is close to the English “to show one’s true colours,” and its use is not uncommon in the political arena.

As predicted, Michelle Bachelet won nearly 46% of the votes (4% under the 50+1 needed for election) on last Sunday’s election. Both right-wing contenders, Sebastián Piñera and Joaquín Lavín, followed with 25% and 23% respectively and Tomas Hirsch with 5%. A run-off has been set for January 15th between Bachelet and Piñera, and as the final countdown begins both coalitions have already started showing their teeth.

The first incident happened soon after the election, when members of Bachelet’s team accused Piñera of receiving phone calls from his party offering bribes. Bachelet, standing by her constituents, accused Piñera of using an (sic) “age old tactic of the right wing, which is to offer money and presents in exchange for political support.” She was, of course, referring to the well-known practice of cohecho, punishable by law. Piñera swiftly denied the accusations and in turn accused Bachelet’s coalition of spreading false rumours for electoral purposes. Bachelet proceeded to clarify it was not members of her party who were offered bribes, but a number of citizens in poorer sectors. In the light of this sudden change of rhetoric, Piñera questioned Bachelet’s honour and credibility in public.

Soon after, Piñera’s own moral authority was challenged when dirty episodes of his political career were brought to light, such as a telephone-tapping scandal with UDI senator Evelyn Matthei in the early 1990s and the dubious selling of stock for the then newly privatised electricity company, Endesa.
On the side of the losers, former UDI candidate Joaquín Lavín announced his “intimate friendship” with Piñera –even after months of gritty confrontation with the RN candidate-, and Tomas Hirsch urged his supporters to annul their votes on the upcoming run-off. While Hirsch’s original candidature was received coldly by most left-wing parties because it fragmented the bloc, his comments alienated the left even further. The communists, in a turn of events, decided not to back Hirsch and offered their support to Bachelet if she complied with a set of five demands, one of them issuing the abolishment of the binomial electoral system established during the dictatorship. Bachelet’s team, wary of a sudden upsurge in right-wing votes, agreed to these demands and urged Piñera to establish his position on the subject through a televised debate.

Piñera is now faced with the dilemma of the binomial issue. While his own party (RN) is not in favour of the system, half of his voters (the 23% who supported Lavín) and the authoritarian UDI do not want it to change. Mario Puccio, spokesperson for the current government, has referred to Piñera as “a victim of the extreme right,” while Piñera himself claims the debate on the binomial system is just another “political manoeuvre.”

The debate is scheduled soon after New Year, and teams on either side are busy trying to complicate matters further in search for additional votes. Power politics are never silky, and right now there seem to be enough hilachas to reel a few spools.