On The Road: Chile Can’t Decide

 

Punta Arenas, Chile

Charles Darwin was just shy of 24 years old, his eyes open in wonder as the HMS Beagle slid along the shore of the largest island in the archipelago of Tierra del Fuego. His eyes grew wider as bonfires flared along the water’s edge. “They must have lighted the fires immediately upon observing the vessel, but whether for the purpose of communicating the news or attracting our attention, we do not know,” he wrote. 

These shore people called themselves Ona and Yaghan. Canoeists and fishermen adept at navigating the labyrinth of channels in these straits, in wintertime they kept fires constantly stoked for warmth. The Yaghan wore only the scantest clothing despite the cold. To fend off wind and the rain, they smeared seal fat over their bodies.

The Ona lived across the strait, on an island just visible through the spray and mist. History calls them fierce warriors who adorned themselves with necklaces of bone, shell and tendon, and who, wearing heavy furs and leather shoes, intimidated the bare-skinned Yaghan. Darwin gave them their backhanded due, calling them “wretched lords of this wretched land.” An acerbic settler once described life hereabouts as 65 unpleasant days per year complimented by 300 days of rain and storms.

The main town at Chile’s southern tip is Punta Arenas, with 145,000 people a proper town with a proper town park, which is home to a statue of Magellan and its smooth, often-rubbed toe. If you rub the toe they say you’ll be sure to come back. Twenty two hundred kilometers south of Santiago, you take what entertainment you get. So we rubbed the toe.

A band of cold rain swept over the Hotel Cabo de Hornos, churning the Strait of Magellan dirty gray. Punta Arenas’s “oldest and grandest” hotel was, well, it was just a hotel, all of its walls painted a determined shade of mustard. We and the staff watched sleety squalls spray over the strait.

By the time you reach the town of Puerto Montt in Chile’s Lakes District, the Pan American highway has long since made its point, 816 miles of Chile to the north and no fancy roads heading south. The farther you go, the more determined you’ll need to be to get all the way down to Punta Arenas, and you’ll have to be plenty determined, for there are still over 800 miles to go.

I walked to the water, stepping lightly around potentially threatening mongrels holding a Purina warehouse at siege, and I put my hand in the chilly Strait of Magellan – right there amid floating plastic bags and candy wrappers.

One passenger ship was calling just now. Across the strait, looking just about west to east, low hills rose around a town called Porvenir. It wasn’t very far but I couldn’t make out much. We’d come down to the southern tip of Chile to have a look around, to see what makes it unique.

Punta Arenas is a place where your rental Nissan Saloon sedan comes equipped with a wire screen to prevent gravel cracking its windshield, because blacktop roads end where towns do. We looked ridiculous, we thought, motoring off toward the hills. A quarter inch mesh of expanded metal surrounded the glass all around, far enough away for the wipers to operate underneath.

A foot-square hole was cut in front of both the driver and the passenger with more mesh hinged over it so that the normal position was open for ‘city’ driving, but for your serious gravel roads you could pull a string that reached inside your side window and roll the window up really fast to catch the string and bring the protective panel down. That sealed the windshield against rocks and provided you with a good, oh, thirty percent view of the world in front of you.

The bottom of the continent is a place where beyond the city blacktop there are virtually no houses and there is virtually no traffic. Except for there being roads between towns, things looked a little like summer in coastal Greenland. There were tiny white wildflowers and there were no trees.

Northbound at a place called Reubens, where stood a settlement of a few buildings, trees began to appear. The Nire, or Notofagus antarctica, a native species, grows to ten crooked and branched meters, compacted and dominated by the winds. Fields of tree trunks stood twisted and contorted by the wind. The forest presented in two shades of green – the needles and lighter clinging lichen. Rolling hills replaced the horizon-to-horizon flat. You could watch sheets of rain approach from miles away and wash overhead on their march to the other horizon. Snow topped a few low peaks.

A thousand sheep blocked the road. Gauchos and a squad of dogs marched them forward. The dogs ran and darted, responding to the mens’ whistles, and moved the sheep off the road for us. You wouldn’t need to play with these dogs at night. They’d be worn out.

Guanacos lived everywhere, grazing on cliffs like mountain goats. Maybe four feet tall at the shoulders, llama-like, brown and white, from the camel family, they may weigh 200 pounds. They live in family groups, and do this funky juke with their long necks when they run.

One other thing about far southern Chile – Punta Arenas is the home of Chile’s new president, Gabriel Boric, a descendant of South Slavs. Maybe 20,000 of Punta Arenas’s 145,000 people are of Croatian descent, and there are around 200,000 Croatians in Chile. Boric’s family, among many others, emigrated in 1897 from Ugljan, an island of vineyards and olive groves opposite the coastal city of Zadar.

By the end of the nineteenth century descendants of the Ona and Yaghan still lived in the fjords and all across the rocky outcrops of Tierra del Fuego, but once Chile and Argentina agreed on their border in 1881, the call went out for settlers. As it happened, just then the catastrophic accidental import of an insect pest to the Rhône Valley was destroying vineyards from France all the way to Dalmatia. Boric’s ancestors fled the plague, abandoning Croatia en masse for a new home in the wild, wild south.

•••••

Gabriel Boric

In March, the bearded young Boric joined the historic line of left wing Latin American leaders when he assumed Chile’s presidency at age 36 years and one month; at the time he was the world’s youngest leader. His administration came to office with a rare gift: the chance to draft a new constitution.

Three years before and innocently enough, then-president Sebastián Piñera allowed a fare hike on Santiago’s metro system. A 30 peso hike, about four cents, wouldn’t be a casus belli most places, but in Santiago, protests led to 29 deaths, looting, the torching of metro stations and a state of emergency. The uprising, led by students, wasn’t about the pesos. It was about decades of neoliberalism and remnants of the Pinochet dictatorship they couldn’t shake loose.

Piñera rescinded the fare increases but birthed a new hashtag, #ChileDespertoAs the protesters said, Chile woke up. The movement gained a name, the “Estallido Social,” social explosion, leading to the drafting of the new constitution and a referendum on its adoption.

The proposed constitution was anything but conventional. It called for a national single payer health system, free education including college, the right to abortion with few restrictions in a two-thirds Catholic country and the guarantee of Indigenous rights on a continent where, as Carlos Barón has written, “the equivalency of the ‘N’ words is still the word ‘Indio.’”

To understand just how radical the proposed constitution was, a brief step back:

Salvador Allende, a lifelong Chilean politician, ran for president in 1958, 1964 and finally won in 1970. First a member of the Chamber of Deputies in 1937 and subsequently a Senator, cabinet member and party secretary, he was about as known a quantity as you’ll find.

Nevertheless, in a place as far from the daily heartbeat of the Cold War as you could be, Allende’s socialist vibes unnerved the Nixon administration. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger once briefed newspapermen that Chile could be a “contagious example” that would “infect” U.S. allies in Europe. Ponder that. Chile might infect European allies.

On September 11th, 1973 at high noon, British made Hawker jets bombed the presidential palace in Santiago. Allende’s rallying cries on radio failed to summon support, military police abandoned the presidential palace and Allende was killed. General Augusto Pinochet, head of the armed forces, assumed control.

A young lawyer and right-wing ideologue named Jaime Guzmán, wrote a new constitution for the new regime. Guzmán supported free markets and authoritarianism, idolizing Frederik Hayek and Fransisco Franco. During Allende’s administration he had joined a fascist terror group.

His constitution left the government in a “subsidiary state,” subordinate to private business, reducing it to subsidizing the private sector’s efforts in basic areas like education, health and pensions. The government was unable to intervene in the economy unless explicitly allowed.

Notably, the Pinochet constitution granted the “rights of private citizens over waters,” codifying corporate confiscation of rivers for, for example, the mining industry, and rendering the government helpless to stop it. Aside from small bore reforms in 2005 under the presidency of Ricardo Lagos, this constitution, with its state subsidiarity, still stands.

By the election of Gabriel Boric the Pinochet constitution was 42 years old and showing its age. It was written to secure Pinochet’s military regime and hold the market, not the government, responsible for social services. Where the government was responsible was to ensure that mining, and natural resources, not be regulated.

Back to the present.

Since the Pinochet constitution was largely the product of one man, Guzmán, Chile determined that a new constitution would come from delegates chosen in open, democratic national elections held in 2021 that chose 155 delegates to a constitutional convention – with seventeen seats reserved for indigenous groups and gender equality. The result? The largest bloc was made up of independents, many with limited political experience. Only some 13% had held political office before; it showed.

About twenty percent of the delegates came from the right. This may or may not have been a fair snapshot of the electorate, but those numbers allowed left and center-left delegates a comfortable enough majority to ally and return an overfull document containing 388 articles, including vague and exotic declarations like “nature has rights” and animals are “subjects of special protection.”

Chile would be declared an “ecological nation” and a “plurinational country,” with at least eleven Indigenous groups given autonomy as “nations” within the country. The draft also contained the reasonable enough notion that there should be some limits on corporate confiscation of water for mining.

For all its good intentions, the convention had produced a vague and aspirational document giving entrenched interests a surfeit of targetsThe draft included, for example, restitution for historically Indigenous lands.

There was another problem: a steady stream of questionable behavior by convention delegates themselves. Some tried to shout down the national anthem on opening day. One was forced to resign after falsely claiming to have cancer. Another tried to cast a vote while taking a shower.

Still and with all that, I’m mystified by all this What’s the Matter with Kansas stuff, in which working-class and poorer people vote counter to their interests. A popularly elected body offered up free education, gender parity (married couples couldn’t get divorced in Chile until 2004) and the right to decent housing. Yet this was rejected in every one of Chile’s 16 regions and 338 of 346 municipalities. What happened?

Part of the answer is the predictable, aggressive TV ad campaign run by vested interests. Anyone who has seen a television in the United States this election season will sympathize. To turn on the television on was to be implored to reject this scary, demonic document. 

Opponents took to morning talk shows and the evening news to repeatedly denounce  the document as “extremist” and “poorly written,” while conservative think tanks produced opinion polls of doubtful accuracy showing that most people would vote down the new draft. Social media spread disinformation, and fake copies of the draft constitution circulated, with doctored articles. A senator named Felipe Kast charged on conservative radio that the draft constitution “allowed for abortion until the ninth month of pregnancy.”

No surprise that exit polls suggested people were confused. Rechazo (Reject) partisans, it’s said, spread rumors that the new constitution would abolish home ownership and allow Indigenous communities to summarily secede. A Rechazo spokesperson, a university law student a year younger than Gabriel Boric named Fransisco Orrego, claimed the document would abolish people’s rights to own their homes if they had bought using social subsidies, a common circumstance.

For the first time ever, non-felon prisoners were allowed to vote. Here is a measure of the effectiveness of Rechazo’s campaign to muddy the waters:  of fourteen prisons, only one voted to approve the draft constitution. The Tocopilla prison in Conceptión, the only one to approve the draft, was also the only prison where “physical copies of the draft constitution were actually distributed.” The other prisoners had only media to inform their vote, and they all voted no.

The defeat and consequent retention of the current constitution is an unattractive option, as meanwhile private sector actors will continue to use “state subsidiarity” to block reform. Further, the whole process led Chileans to a low opinion of the country’s new leader.

It’s a real shame to waste all that promise. After a fast start, that the draft constitution was roundly rejected has dealt a tough and possibly fatal blow to the young reformer just six months into the job. Gabriel Boric hit his all-time low approval rating in October, at 27 percent. He may already be consigned by a skeptical public to sitting out a few elections and attempting to return one day not as a firebrand from the left, but as a more properly aged traditional pol.

On the Road: Back Home

Here’s my most recent column as published last week at 3QuarksDaily.com. I do a column there every fourth Monday. Here are my past columns.

On The Road: Back Home

by Bill Murray

In spring the pandemic lurked. Boris Johnson was Ukraine’s new best friend, Russia’s domination of Ukraine appeared imminent and the UK basked in the queen’s platinum jubilee. I’ve been away since spring. Have I missed anything?

Andriyivska Church (St. Andrew’s Cathedral), Kyiv, Ukraine.

The war continues. Many who caution they can’t get inside Vladimir Putin’s head proclaim from in there that his scheme is to split and outlast a freezing western alliance this winter. We operate from that premise this fall, while minding an added pinch of Kremlin nuclear horseplay.

Putin must now fulminate over his mobilization. Timothy Snyder thinks this war was meant to be played out as a Russian TV event  “about a faraway place.” But as the birches fade in Moscow, the fight creeps ever farther into the Motherland.

A month ago I was convinced mobilization wasn’t in the cards, because by the time call-ups got even the most basic training it would be that muddy time of year when the weather constrains fighting vehicles to the roads and the great European plain becomes a great big mess.

So to hell with basic training.

Novaya Gazeta Europe, now operating from Riga, reports that a “hidden article of Russia’s mobilisation order allows the Defence Ministry to draft up to one million reservists into the army,” which may or may not be Putin’s intent. But finer legal points have a distinctly irrelevant feel now, as Commander Putin appears to be personally running the war these days.

Surely he will do whatever he thinks he can get away with while eyeing the discontented stirrings of his domestic population. Which is one more thing to wait out. While waiting for the Europeans to fall to squabbling this winter he now has to placate the home folks. Pesky, that. Alexei Venediktov, the longtime editor of Ekho Moskvy, which Putin censored off the air in March, wrote in the Financial Times that “It’s unclear what collapses first — Putin, or everyone else.” Let’s watch.

Europeans surely will howl over energy prices this winter, but we’ve learned by now that the EU thrives only in crisis. Only around a threat does it cohere. The view from October suggests a fraught winter when anything might happen.

One safe bet: The shifty, on-paper-only Russian land grab in four of Ukraine’s regions won’t lead to a renaissance on either side of the purported new border. Novaya Gazeta Europe published the obvious: “The country’s economy will fail to reconstruct the facilities in the occupied territories due to the sanctions and general economic isolation.”

Despite aid from an impressive list of countries, Albania to Vietnam (the US’s contribution as of early October surpassing seventeen billion dollars), prewar Ukrainian territory on either side of Russia’s occupation lies in ruin.

“The Ukraine Rapid Damage and Needs Assessment – August 2022”, a report from the World Bank, the Government of Ukraine, and the European Commission, shows catastrophic damage. Here’s a summary: 

World Bank chart

Then there are human needs. The UN counts 7.6 million Ukrainians displaced, some seventeen percent of the country, with a quarter million uprooted Ukrainians living in Warsaw alone. Most are women and children, a percentage of whom are destined never to return to the domestic circumstance they enjoyed before the war because either their husband or their home will be gone. A further percentage of those who do will resume their relationship with a husband suffering from post traumatic stress disorder.

At the very beginning of this war the atrocities at Bucha chased away all the Ukrainian doves. Whether or not Putin ordered war crimes, he has condoned them and he is evermore complicit in their shame. Ukrainians know this viscerally and will offer him no way out. So we get quotes from advisers to President Zelenskiy like Mykhailo Podolyak, who told Reuters Ukraine will not be deterred even by a nuclear attack.

The fight goes on.

Coda: What about the strange case of the missing Russian air force? “(O)ne of many unanswered questions is why Russia has launched a military campaign at huge cost with maximalist objectives, and then declined to use the vast majority of its fixed wing combat aircraft.” This quote, from Britain’s Royal United Services Institute, came on the fifth day of the Russian invasion, and remains true 231 days later. Surely it’s the strangest element of how this war has developed. Is the Russian military holding back in case of having to fight NATO? Has it already raided every microchip from all those imported dishwashers?

•••••

 

Moscow, USSR, 1986

On August 30th Mikhail Gorbachev died. His legacy depends on whom you ask. Margaret Thatcher? Gorbachev was a Soviet leader she could do business with. A Berliner? Gorbachev acquiesed to reunification of their city. But ask a 1990s supporter of Lithuanian independence. Gorbachev’s armored personnel carriers seized the TV tower in Vilnius, killing 13.

(If you can hunt one down, buy the still-thrilling book of contemporaneous accounts of the Soviet collapse, the New York Times’s The Collapse of Communism.)

Ironically, Gorbachev’s halting moves toward easing repression in the 1980s led to disdain from the people of the Soviet empire (an early anti-alcohol campaign didn’t help). Newly granted freedoms allowed the Soviet fringes to beg for, then demand more, turning the Soviet ship toward Putin’s “greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century.”

Twenty-five years out of office Gorbachev used the 20th anniversary of the Chernobyl disaster to finger it as a turning point in the Soviet collapse, claiming he came to think about time in pre-Chernobyl and post-Chernobyl terms. “The Chernobyl disaster,” he wrote, “opened the possibility of much greater freedom of expression, to the point that the system as we knew it could no longer continue.” 

Having first visited Moscow three months after the Chernobyl catastrophe, I became interested, studied the disaster closely and subsequently visited Chernobyl. It may serve the former General Secretary to see the collapse of the USSR on his watch as brought on by cataclysm, by an event with effects far beyond the control of a mortal leader, but the truth is, Gorbachev didn’t grant the “much greater freedom of expression” Chernobyl set in train. It rode in on the shock tide of the government’s dismal opacity with vital health information. Soviet citizens were appalled and disgusted.

Radiation was mysterious, menacing, personal and permanent. Before, most people were good Soviet citizens in the same way you might be a good American, Brazilian or Filipino. Only dissidents were dissidents, there weren’t many of them, and nobody thought they were very important.

Chernobyl’s fateful reactor four

But Chernobyl made things personal. Now there was radiation in your little girl’s milk. They said the government mixed irradiated cow meat with uncontaminated beef and sold it across the land, to dilute all the contaminated meat, and people believed it. Now your government was trying to poison you.

Behind the monolith lurked only mortals, panicked and mendacious. Chernobyl punched holes through the Soviet ramparts and facts poured out. Like Nixon in Watergate, Gorbachev changed the subject. He took his road show to Havana in April 1988. Fidel Castro stroked his beard and declared, “Perestroika is another man’s wife. I don’t want to get involved.”

The empire reeled, and at every extremity. In February 1989 Lt. General Boris Gromov’s fortieth army, untold columns of troops, tanks and armored personnel carriers slunk back across the Friendship Bridge into the Soviet Socialist Republic of Uzbekistan, bringing to a close a nine year occupation of Afghanistan that cost 15,000 lives.

The Soviet Union’s Eastern European satellites were wobbling out of orbit and by autumn they fell from the Soviet sky. Gorbachev the traveling salesman visited Helsinki. His spokesman Gannadi Gerasimov made weak light of the situation. “You know the Frank Sinatra song, ‘I Did It My Way’?” he asked reporters. “Hungary and Poland are doing it their way.”

Two weeks later the Berlin Wall was down and now the Soviet republics themselves were afray. Soviet fighting vehicles dispersed a demonstration, killing 20 in Tbilisi. Azerbaijani villagers beat Armenians and Armenians ejected Azeris, igniting the Nagorno-Karabakh War that lasted six years and killed some 30,000. And by then it was too late. Political prisoners were out of the gulag, the cat was out of the bag and the whole shabby thing fell down.

While Gorbachev failed in the end to reform his own system, as Mark Galeotti says, he was “a failure for all the right reasons,” and his troubles did begin the Cold War’s demise. Last Wednesday, just a month and a half after his death, the Biden administration’s new National Security Strategy, bookended the Gorbachev era by declaring “the post-Cold War era is definitively over.”

•••••

Vladimir Putin’s accomplishments, so far.

In spring both Finland and Sweden were in a froth about NATO and in a great frenzied hurry to get in there. I only have first hand knowledge from Finland, but there at least, they’re still in a hurry. Polls reflect historic support for NATO, and although everybody is pretty sure Russia has its hands full in Ukraine, online Finnish groups this summer urged visitors to bring a radio, in case cyberattacks took the utterly wired Nordic countries off the grid, and during our yearly visit in July, potassium iodide pills commanded a bounty in eastern Finland, when they could be found at all.

Finnish President Sauli Niinistö has declined to rule out allowing nuclear weapons on Finnish territory. Speaking at the inaugural Helsinki Security Forum three weeks ago, he said “We don’t have any particular requests or reservations that we would be setting as preconditions for our membership.”

Coming from the taciturn Finns, this is astonishing, because it sets up the possibility of nuclear weapons 600 miles from Moscow and 250 miles from St. Petersburg. On the other hand, Russian nukes have long been scarcely a hundred miles away from Finland and Norway, in and around Russia’s Arctic submarine bases near Murmansk. Mainly right now, first things first. Finland just wants in.

Hungary and Türkiye were always expected to be the biggest obstacles and they still are. All the other NATO countries have approved Finland and Sweden’s membership. As to Hungary, Finnish Foreign Minister Pekka Haavisto says “this will take a while. But (Haavisto’s counterpart, Hungarian Foreign Minister Péter Szijjártó) said that they are dealing with Finland and Sweden together, and that they don’t foresee any obstacles.”

The public reason for Türkiye’s objection is the Nordics’ refugee policies, through which some pro-Kurdish agitators have been granted asylum and even citizenship. Ironically, Sweden was the first Scandinavian state to recognize the Turkish Republic in 1923, and Stockholm has always supported Türkiye’s EU bid.

Both countries are straining to accommodate the Turkish President. In June both countries agreed to “address Turkey’s pending deportation or extradition requests of terror suspects expeditiously.” Last month Sweden’s Inspectorate of Strategic Products reversed a ban against exporting military equipment to Türkiye (though it hasn’t said what equipment is moving), and a flurry of meetings continues.

President Erdoğan’s objections are plausible enough, as far as they go. But behind the refugee issue lie a couple of less public considerations, namely the perilous state of the Turkish economy, and Erdoğan’s poll ratings, both of which beg Erdoğan to puff out the Presidential chest and play to anti-western nationalism.

Erdoğan’s Shaky Prospects

Emmanuel Macron’s new talking shop, the European Political Community, afforded an opportunity for a flurry of face to face meetings in Prague early this month. There, Erdoğan tried to pry the Nordics apart: “As long as the terrorist organizations are demonstrating on the streets of Sweden, and as long as the terrorists are inside the Swedish parliament, there is not going to be a positive approach from Turkey towards Sweden,” he said.

On the other hand, “The relations with Finland are quite different in nature than those between Sweden and Turkey,” Erdoğan said. “Finland is not a country where terrorists are roaming freely.”

The Finns weren’t having it, the Finnish Prime Minister emphasizing Finland and Sweden would stand together or the NATO bid would fall apart. “I think it’s important for Finland and Sweden to join NATO at the same time because it’s a matter of security in northern Europe,” Sanna Marin said. Her Foreign Minister Pekka Haavisto reinforced that idea last week, telling the Finnish national broadcaster YLE, “This is bad news, because it is very important that Finland and Sweden join NATO at the same time, including with regard to NATO’s defence planning.”

And that is where we are at the end of summer: Türkiye remains unsatisfied with Sweden’s amnesty policies and continues to push for extradition of people it calls terror suspects. As to Hungary, “[Putin] loves the idea that he has a buddy inside NATO who is his spoiler, who makes things difficult,”” says “András Simonyi, Hungary’s first ambassador to NATO.

Sweden held a general election last month which has resulted in a change in government. Parliament is scheduled to vote today on the Prime Ministership of Moderate Party leader Ulf Kristersson, who, for the sake of getting this done, will leave the outgoing government’s NATO negotiator in place. I wonder whether in the end Erdoğan’s aim is to emerge from his Levantine negotiating bazaar with US F-35 aircraft.

Should the Nordics eventually accede to NATO, non-aligned European countries will comprise a dwindling European club. Austria, for one, is feeling a little lonely. Its Defense Minister looks on the bright side, hoping maybe someday Cypress, Ireland, Malta and Austria can use their good offices as mediators. “At some point, not at the present time — but at some point, this day will come,” she says.

•••••

Four weeks ago we participated in a world moment we will never see again, the pageantry and spectacle of laying the Queen of England in the ground. Paul Kingsnorth called it “a rolling, dense mat of symbolism,” and only the hardest-hearted thought it anything but moving and flawlessly done.

In the distant political past of last month, most of us who view monarchy as anachronism found it appropriate for the moment to praise the queen rather than criticize the institution, withholding tacit rights to criticize the monarchy later. As the royal death set a fleeting moment of magnanimity swelling in the breasts of us all, I felt it fair to give Liz Truss a break. Her agenda having been entirely derailed right out of the gate was none of her fault. (I’d have counseled, girl, it gives you an extra ten days to polish up all the stuff you’re going to do.) I mean, Elizabeth II died just two days after Truss took office, for goodness sakes.

Now that we’ve seen her agenda, to hell with magnanimity. Time has left the ruling Thatcherite rump of the Tory party behind and everyone can see it but the ruling Thatcherite rump of the Tory party, and even they are looking over their shoulders. Forty-one days on there are no shortages of eulogies for Truss’s Prime Ministership.

Side question: Who wrote Truss’s Downing Street eulogy? “The rock on which modern Britain was built?” Really? Eh. All the eloquence of seventh grade.

•••••

One last thing: Mickey Dolenz, Monkees drummer and singer of (I’m not your) Steppin’ Stone, sued the FBI last month, seeking release of a dossier it kept on the Monkees. A previously released excerpt reads “During a Monkees concert, subliminal messages were depicted on the screen which, in the opinion of” an agent whose name is redacted “constituted ‘left-wing innovations of a political nature’ including video footage of ‘anti-US messages on the war in Vietnam.’”

Also last month the FBI declassified its file on Aretha Franklin. It is a 270-page document, noting “Franklin’s performances for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, of which (Martin Luther) King was president. The FBI labeled these shows, held in Memphis and Atlanta in 1967 and 1968, as ‘communist infiltration’ events.”

Sea Change

This article was originally published at 3QuarksDaily.com.

The Finnish Capital

I

Russia’s war on Ukraine is realigning geopolitics everywhere you look. The Germans and French want the conflict to end immediately. Others won’t be heartbroken to see fighting continue to degrade Russian capabilities. The UK, Poles and Balts come to mind here. An idea is settling in that the US, too, doesn’t entirely mind fighting Russia to the last Ukrainian. There’s no denying the war is less painful from forty five hundred miles away.

Look north and if Finland and Sweden join NATO, overnight the Baltic Sea becomes the beating heart of European security. The shallow, enclosed Baltic hasn’t played such a heady role since the days of Napoleon. Vilnius and Riga never dreamed of such proximity to power.

In 2019 Mikhail Saakashvili, a previous victim of Russian aggression, predicted Russia’s next attack would come against Finland or Sweden. He was wrong, but he might not be wrong forever. That’s the fear that fuels an astonishing rush toward strategic realignment around the Baltic Sea.

Finnish President Sauli Niinistö is two years shy of wrapping up his second six year term. The 73 year old son of a newspaperman and a nurse from Finland’s southwest coast, Niinistö consistently polls as the country’s most revered figure.

He was in Washington a week and a day after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, already working to insure the American administration’s blessing for Finland’s accession to NATO. The Finns hold their president in such regard that his backing of Finland’s coming NATO application should insure the peoples’ approval.

Niinistö put it this way: “Sufficient security is where Finns can feel that there is no emergency and there won’t be one.” Joining NATO, he said, would be “most sufficient.” 

Finland comprises a small, homogenous, linguistically unique space of five and a half million people. Its ethnicity is only recently beginning to be diluted, and not without incident, by the humanitarian welcome of mostly Arab and Somali refugees. Finns have a healthy self regard, a certain satisfaction with the place in the world they’ve staked out for themselves and how they’ve done it. A local word, sisu, sums up their perceived self-sufficiency, perseverance and grit.

Opinion there has taken a remarkable, historic and loudly proclaimed turn during the war on Ukraine. Support for joining the NATO alliance stood at a historically consistent 24 percent as recently as four months ago. After the period of “Finlandization,” a pejorative term for Finns, at the end of the Cold War they reckoned they’d worked out a modus vivendi with Russia and saw no need to upset the balance by joining a military alliance. Until now. Two months after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, support for joining NATO polls at a historic 68 percent.

Neither Russia’s 2008 invasion of Georgia, which caused the fall of Saakashvili, nor Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea moved Finnish public support for Nato membership out of the twenties. In the 2015 Finnish parliamentary elections, 91% of Social Democrat candidates were opposed to Nato membership.

In January this year, before the invasion of Ukraine, Finnish Prime Minister Sanna Marin, age 36, former city councilwoman, bakery worker and cashier in Finland’s second city of Tampere, judged it “very unlikely” that Finland would apply for a NATO membership during her current term. As it turns out, when she and her Social Democrats defend their coalition government in parliamentary elections next April, they all hope Finland will already be a NATO member. She explains the switch by declaring, “Russia is not the neighbor we thought it was.”

“All of a sudden, it seems the Finnish population have decided: there is only one option. It’s a radical change, a huge shift in momentum,” said Charly Salonius-Pasternak, lead researcher at the Finnish Institute of International Affairs. It now appears the Finns have convinced themselves that some version of their 1939 Winter War against Russia could happen again.

The Swedish Capital

It is a fateful decision, and not just for the Finns. Finland and its Swedish neighbor have historically made a show of binding their policies about NATO. The Swedes proclaim it explicitly on their government website: “Sweden’s most far-reaching defence cooperation is its cooperation with Finland. The two countries have similar security policies, and they both wish to expand their already extensive defence cooperation.”

Finland is carrying Sweden’s water here. It has always been understood any decision about NATO would be taken together. While Swedish public support for NATO has always run ahead of  the level in Finland, the Swedish Social Democrats have traditionally been opposed, and they head the current governing coalition.

In a statement Swedish Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson said “Sweden has not witnessed the same spike in public support, despite traditionally having more public support for NATO than Finland.”

“I do not rule out NATO membership in any way, but I want to make a well-founded analysis of the possibilities open to us and the threats and risks… involved, to be able to take the decision that is best for Sweden.”

Her party held a six-hour meeting in Stockholm on Friday to begin deliberations on whether to change its position. A poll conducted last week by the newspaper Aftonbladet, which is close to the party, showed Swedish support for NATO at 57 percent. Most importantly, parliamentary elections are less than five months away.

Sweden hasn’t been openly at war with another country since the days of Napoleon, and today’s map is straightforward. Since Sweden has no Russian border, joining NATO ought to be easier for the Swedes than for the Finns. Because the Finns have jumped out front, Elizabeth Braw says Sweden has won the NATO lottery.

II

Americans are pretty proud of our opinions, and being Americans, we expect them to matter a whole lot. Trouble is, U.S. opinion reflects very little of the lived experience of the 65 million people living in the seven countries around the Baltic excluding Germany and Russia.

Here in the United States our idea of freedom, our brashness and swagger and gun culture and concealed carry laws and disdain for those who would protect us with masks, they’re not quite the same idea of freedom our frontline European allies have in this war. Here, freedom comes with standing with a gun and proclaiming it. There, freedom comes from standing with a gun and meaning it.

Where we make noise with fireworks on July 4th, to celebrate Finland’s freedom from Russia every December 6th Finns light candles in their windows. In December it’s dark by 3:30.

In contrast to the rambunctious American version of freedom, Matt Dinan describes a northern view, a view that also prevails in Nordic winter: “In Canada or the snowier parts of New England and the Midwest, winter travel always bears an implied asterisk. This small but meaningful restriction of freedom puts the lie to the dream of unbounded freedom or autonomy.”

Well meaning Americans like that “dream of unbounded freedom,” sort of an unlimited, abstract, all-you-can-eat freedom, but that’s not quite the type of freedom the Baltic nations are after. They want freedom from the very real threat of invasion.

The Finnish Capital

And so in the coming days Finnish Prime Minister Marin will set Finland’s formal NATO application process in motion. On April 15th Foreign Minister Pekka Haavisto (Green) told state broadcaster YLE that if Finland is going to submit an application for membership, it will happen in the next six weeks.” That means by the end of May.  

The Finnish constitution endows the presidency with the foreign affairs portfolio. In President Niinistö’s shuttling between NATO capitals he will be asking for swift accession, hoping to forestall Russian belligerence in the interregnum between acceptance of Finland’s application and attainment of Article 5 protection.

How fast can they get it done? There’s no exact precedent, but Montenegro took about 18 months in 2017/2018, North Macedonia took 14 months in 2020 and Croatia and Albania, who joined together in 2009, took twelve.

None of these cases are entirely analogous to Finland’s prospective membership; Finland boasts a higher degree of interoperability with NATO allies and a longer track record of partnership. Given the current exceptional situation, the process could be remarkably quick.”

Until it is done, Finnish political leadership is trying to inoculate the public against inevitable Russian sabre rattling. Dmitri Medvedev declared that “There can be no more talk of any nuclear–free status for the Baltic – the balance must be restored.”

Finnish Foreign Minister Haavisto was dismissive. “Russia’s position on Finland and Sweden joining NATO has been common knowledge for a long time, and the reaction is therefore predictable and expected,” he said.

Besides, that really is all just so much bluster inasmuch as nuclear weapons have resided in Kaliningrad for at least several years. And Finland’s Santa Claus village near the Arctic Circle at Rovaniemi, which welcomes around half a million tourists each year, is something like 250 air miles away from the Gadzhiyevo naval base on the Kola Peninsula, “likely Russia’s most important location for naval strategic nuclear forces.”

The Foreign Minister’s “nothing to see here folks” stance doesn’t entirely calm the conspiracy-minded Nordic heart, though. Unsettling things do happen. Stories abound in communities in Finnish Karelia and Savo, near Russia, about suspicious Russian land purchases and general perfidy. The Carnegie Endowment has a list: “Mock attacks by Russian bombers in the middle of the night. Mysterious mini-submarines appearing in the waters outside Stockholm. A small private island in the southern Gulf of Bothnia bristling with satellite antennae and a heliport.”

III

Finland punches above its weight in part because it’s a small country with a largely homogenous population (like Sweden), that can act with more solidarity that a fractious, larger US or, say, France. This plays to its advantage in times of stress. It also has a certain national pride. It thinks it’s done pretty well as a small country unavoidably adjacent to a stifling giant. 

Finland will be unique from other Russia-facing NATO forces. It has demonstrated performance as a cohesive defensive force, it has no legacy of aging former Warsaw Bloc equipment and no legacy of former Soviet training.

The three Baltic NATO members and the former Warsaw Pact NATO countries are all undermilitarized for a real conflict and rely on symbolic US forces as tripwires. For example, through a rotating NATO group called Atlantic Resolvebefore the Russian invasion of Ukraine there were 1867 American troops in Poland, 1134 in Romania, 77 in Hungary, 55 in Estonia, 22 in Bulgaria, 18 in Lithuania, 15 in Czechia, 14 in Latvia and 12 in Slovakia.

Compare that to “The Warsaw Pact’s more than 3 million troops — most of them Soviet — [who] never fought their Cold War NATO adversaries, and the chief action they saw was in crushing popular anti-Communist movements inside member countries” as the Washington Post put it in a 1990 article marking the Warsaw Pact’s dissolution.    

We came to see the state of those Soviet troops as underfunded and desperate. As Warsaw pact troops pulled out, M. E. Sarotte writes that “Soviet forces smashed barracks, ripped out telephone lines, set off unannounced explosions, and left an environmental ‘mess’ including leaking oil barrels. They also started selling their weaponry, ‘including tanks,’ on the black market.” Such was the state of play from which Hungary, Poland,  Czechoslovakia and Romania were left to build their own sovereign defenses.

In the soon to be Baltic republics of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania the task was more grim. I remember personally the head-shaking disgust with which newly sovereign Estonians described how retreating Russian soldiers pulled out and ran off with all the wiring in their barracks, to sell the copper at home.

From those desperate beginnings these impoverished newly independent states had to stand up their own armies, none of which have ever had to defend their countries against an assault, in contrast to the state of high readiness in Finland today.

For all that, there still comes the military question whether all NATO member governments would be keen to introduce 833 miles of new Russian border to the alliance. One argument is that “Unlike many NATO allies … Finland did not significantly reduce its emphasis on territorial defense in favor of expeditionary capabilities abroad.” Finland says it’s ready.

Viewed from some remove, it’s a bold and admirable thing that Finnish politicians are doing, audacious given their unique place in history, casting their lot loudly and publicly with democracy at no small physical risk to themselves and their people. That it is courageous there is no doubt. Whether it’s a profound mistake has yet to be seen.

Let us reflect on what Vladimir Putin has done with his invasion of Ukraine. With a future accession of Finland and Sweden to NATO, he will have caused an expansion of the alliance by 300,000 square miles (an area almost twice the size of California) on 833 miles of his borderNATO will add 280,000 Finnish soldiers, Finnish artillery (the biggest artillery force in Europe), 200 Swedish jet fighters, 65 from Finland, and the Baltic Sea will become NATO’s inland sea. Says the Guardian, “by Nato’s Madrid summit in June, Nato will be on course to expand its population by 16 million, its GDP by €800bn and its land mass by 780,000 sq km.”

Putin’s actions have motivated interested parties he can’t control, whose own actions are already busy reshaping European security. Without solving the question of whether NATO is part to blame or whether Russia has brought all this on itself, we can be sure that the resulting sanctions, boycotts and the European decision to wean itself from Russian energy will wound Russia deeply. Here may be a more critical long term worry, peril from the wounded and howling giant. In time, who created a paranoid nuclear state may become less important than what to do about it.

New 3QD Column about Ukraine and Eastern Europe

Here’s my most recent monthly column at 3QD, as it ran on January 31, 2022. Please read it through and let me know what you think.

On the Road: Crunch Time

Kyiv, Ukraine

Ukraine is surrounded by 100,000-plus miserable, freezing, foot-stamping Russian soldiers who are Chekov’s gun on the table in Act One of our new post-Cold War epic. We’ve moved from “surely he wouldn’t?” to “he’s really going to, isn’t he?” It’s the moment when Wile E. Coyote has run off the cliff but not yet begun to fall. 

Two years ago Covid crowded out every thing but the most immediate, every body but family. Shocked by the viral invader’s audacity, we scrambled around in a new, unfamiliar world. Everything was frightening. We had precious little time to reflect. 

Now comes the malign intent of a real-life invader. Unlike Covid, Ukraine isn’t exactly appearing out of nowhere. Russia has been moving toward military aggression for months. The US president has had time to commit high profile gaffes about any U.S. response. Russian landing craft have moved clear around Europe from the Baltic Sea to threaten Ukraine in the Black Sea. We’ve had ample opportunity to reflect.

So far the west has performed a pretty nifty feat – defying physics. Specifically Newton’s third law, the one about for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. Only now, at last, comes a grudging rumble from the big American reaction machine.

If a Quisling-in-waiting sleeps in Russkiy Mir tonight, if Russia installs a Minsk-style puppet in Kyiv, if Russian military hardware further enters and remains in Ukraine, it will be the design of a violent nationalist leader. Threatening sanctions is the response of a technocrat, but at least it’s a response.

Everybody is playing the Vladimir Putin ‘will he or won’t he’ parlor game and opinion is genuinely divided. Those who think this is all elaborate Russian respect-seeking may be right, but I’m skeptical, and here’s why. Watching battle gear arriving from as far away as Khabarovsk (on the Amur River border with China), Ulan Ude (east of Lake Baikal) and Primorski Krai (which is eight time zones from Kyiv and borders North Korea), and then a perfectly timed and well scripted further deployment across Belarus for ‘exercises’ involving 200 trains moving hardware day and night,persuades me that going to all this trouble is more than just saber rattlingIf all this is just standing shaking a fist and shouting stay off of my lawn, what’s at stake could turn out to be one mighty costly lawn.

Russia has been moving hardware for weeks. Those hoping this is all a great feint say what’s lacking, if they really mean t0 do it, is field hospitals. During a pandemic, even an autocrat may find it hard to pull medical personnel from civilian hospitals for a training exercise, they say. But over the weekend it was widely reported that the military buildup now includes “supplies of blood along with other medical materials that would allow it to treat casualties.” That sounds real.

After weighing Talleyrand’s advice to Napolean that “My Lord, you can do anything you like with bayonets, except sit on them,” the U.S. president, who has plenty of bayonets, having taken his precious time surveying his options, has begun to fulfill the basic Leader of the West job description, maintaining dialogue, mustering allies, bolstering defenses, polishing strategies.

(And oh lordy don’t you know Jens Stoltenberg is the most relieved man in the house. The NATO chief’s number one mission has to be, don’t be the hapless Nordic fellow who lost Europe. And the most relieved woman must be Ursula von der Layen, the face of the thoroughly sidelined E.U., who as German Defense Minister never met a crisis she couldn’t evade.)

Germany’s new coalition has yet to declare quite how much of a Putinversteher it wants to be, but the answer looks like pretty much. Sympathy is due to new Prime Minister Olaf Scholz, whose government is only fifty days old. His SDP party’s greatest hit is ‘Ostpolitik,’ working with Russia, after all.

Signs are not good. Last week von der Layen’s successor, the new German Defense Minister Christine Lambrecht, declared that Germany “will deliver 5,000 helmets to Ukraine, as a very clear signal, we stand by your side.” As full of élan and camaraderie as it may have looked on the minister’s keyboard, Ms. Lambrecht’s tweet hasn’t exactly been taken as a token of undying solidarity. Yet even that was too much for some German politicians: 

Translated, that’s roughly “Delivering 5,000 safety helmets to Ukraine is a bad sign. Germany must play the role of mediator and must not side with one another in a biased manner. The federal government is wandering around aimlessly in terms of foreign policy – stop this saber-rattling!”

With chalk poised above a blank slate, Scholz’s government has so far squandered the opportunity to set the table for its leadership role in a 2020s Europe. The UK disdainfully shook its metaphorical head and simply flew around Germany to deliver anti-tank weapons to Kyiv rather than be held up by paperwork.

•••••

Memories of the Soviet Union are aging but they’re not gone yet. Americans of a certain age will remember civil defense markings on the AM radios in their cars. In the event of, say, a Cuban missile crisis, children would duck and cover and drivers would tune to the triangle on their car radio for guidance. When my wife and I spend summers in Finland, we still hear the civil defense test sirens, sounded at noon on the first Monday of every month.

Civil preparedness is mostly a memory for many of us. But consider lived experience in the new NATO Baltic states. Because Estonia, Latvia and Lithuana were Soviet republics into the 1990s, much of the population speaks Russian and watches Russian TV.

Latvian journalist Kristaps Andrejsonssays while “clowns such as Vladimir Zhirinovsky—the leader of the Liberal Democratic Party and a well-known figure in Russia’s ‘controlled opposition’ who has called for the immediate bombing of Kyiv—might be ignored in the Western media, in the Baltics, he and people like him are watched closely.” In the same way that even Donald Trump finds supporters, Russia finds support in the Baltics, because if you live in the Baltics, the threat of war is already in your house.

Kyiv, Ukraine

Consider lived experience in Ukraine right now. American former soldier and Kyiv resident Nolan Petersonwrites:

“If an attack is imminent, Kyiv’s air raid sirens will alert residents to tune in to emergency service announcements. Cars equipped with loudspeakers will also patrol the streets to announce important information.

“The Kyiv City Council has posted an interactive online map, which shows the locations of the roughly 5,000 official locations where residents can shelter from a military attack.

“(For example) From ground level, a nondescript metal door opens into a staircase that descends multiple stories underground. The shelter has a special air ventilation room (originally intended to protect against radioactive fallout) and is connected to the city’s water main…. Daily deliveries of food and medical supplies would sustain occupants in the event of a drawn-out Russian bombardment or siege.

“Known as dual-use facilities, the remaining 4,500 shelters include basements, underground parking lots and passageways, as well as Kyiv’s 47 metro stations.

“Should Russian forces target Kyiv … city officials will order a mass evacuation. To that end, a citywide evacuation commission has already been established, as well as regional evacuation commissions in each of Kyiv’s administrative districts.

“Each citizen should prepare an “emergency suitcase” ahead of time…. This should be a backpack with a capacity of at least 25 liters, a little more than 6.5 gallons, containing ‘clothing, hygiene items, medicines, tools, personal protective equipment, and food.’ The service also recommends carrying important documents and cash in the backpack.”

•••••

Kyiv, Ukraine

Russia is forcing a conversation the US doesn’t want to have, at least not right now and not on Russia’s terms. If Russia strikes further into Ukraine, one way or another, as with Covid, the world will change. The first day of renewed conflict will be a fateful, life-changing day for entire nations. Its effects will last the rest of many peoples’ lives. When we look back here from two years on, today may look less complicated, even quaint. I invite you to pause and enjoy the good old days.

Should conflict come, Poland, Slovakia, Hungary and Romania could, like Norway, Finland, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, become frontline border states. Russian malign intent will have to be be assumed.

Russian troops already occupy Moldova’s border with Ukraine in a region called Transnistria. Depending on Russian intent, Moldova may face existential questions, but in any case it will acquire a newly threatening neighbor. Any military move in Transnistria will be meant to intimidate not only Moldova but neighboring NATO member Romania as well.

A fundamental geopolitical realignment is hurtling our way that won’t simmer down for years. By spring, tens of thousands of Ukrainian refugees – or more – could be storming the borders of Poland, Slovakia, Hungary and Romania, and how can those countries, how could they hold them back? Across those borders Russia, or it’s newly installed Ukrainian puppet, will try to stare down four new NATO neighbors. 

Current NATO borders in Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Norway will be reinforced, and depending on the depth of the next couple of months’ ill will, Finland’s Russian border may be too. With sudden new face-to-face NATO/Russia exposure, all sides will want substantial, fortified borders. Each country will surely want its own sovereign border backed by its own conventional forces. Here come concrete barriers, anti-vehicle trenches, mesh fencing, electronics, guard towers, barbed wire, electronic and other defenses. Suddenly, it’s a good bet that Schengen’s best days are behind it.

Once we’ve had time enough to consider the longer term, we may find ourselves in a new, raw standoff across conflict-embittered battlefields. Russia v NATO eye-to-eye across borders bristling with weapons and evil intent will be a sight to see. Once again.

Doomsday warnings are cheap for hand-wringing punditry, that’s true. But if some of this stuff does come to pass, world changing ramifications follow. As Sweden’s FM Ann Linde says, “it can still go completely to hell.”

As Covid darkness drew across the world in the early weeks of 2020, I thought, ‘remember this, hold on to this moment, the way things are right now, how good you have it, in case this thing gets out of hand.’ 

The last two years haven’t been years to love. But now I wonder if we might stop to appreciate even early 2022 the same way. Here we may be, in the twilight moments just before the great mid-twenty-twenties European realignment. Remember these fleeting good old days, while our grasping at the remnants of democracy is not quite yet a wry memory.

•••••

[Radio dial image from Auto Universum, used with permission]

New 3QD Column

Here is my most recent column as published at 3QuarksDaily a few days ago with the title Happy New Year. What Could Go Wrong?

2022 is alive, a babe come hale and hollering to join its sisters 2020 and 2021, siblings bound by pandemic. Everybody stood to see off 2022’s older sister 2021, like we all did 2020 before her. Out with the old. Quickly, please.

2022 debuts with a striking resemblance to her sisters, just more evolved. So that by now some Americans signal their freedom by avoiding vaccination while others seek freedom by staying indoors. Meanwhile Europeans ban each other, for a moment there the whole world tried to put southern Africans out of mind entirely, and every country tortures its airlines. Hi ho the derry-o a quarantining we will go.

The Die Welt UK correspondent lamented that should she visit her homeland this holiday, she couldn’t even test her way free. Test your way free.

Consider the world in which 2022 will make her mark. Look east from Kyiv and please find Russia issuing un-agree-to-able demands and backing them with the rattling of 100,000 human sabres. It would be utterly incredible if Putin were to start a land war in Europe. But those who claim knowledge of his inner thoughts cite a deep, consistent grievance. Indeed they find it in the public record, in his 5000 word ‘Ukraine is not a real country’ article back last summer.

As far back as 2008, at a NATO-Russia Council meeting in Bucharest, Putin declared to W. Bush, “George, do you realize that Ukraine is not even a state? What is Ukraine? Part of its territory is Eastern Europe but the greater part is a gift from us!”

That spring of 2008 Putin indicated that if Ukraine were to join NATO Russia “would then tear off Crimea and eastern Ukraine from the rest of the country. Six years later it appeared Russia was doing precisely this” without waiting for that detail about NATO membership.

The Russian president has run all that firepower up to the border to declare it is Russia under the gun. A week and a half ago Putin declared “They should understand that we have nowhere further to retreat to. Do they think we’ll just watch idly?” He has run the temperature up to ‘blast furnace’ in eastern Ukraine, a neat trick in the snows of Luhansk and Donetsk.

The neatest scenario has a fiendish audacity: the Russian army advances from the Donbass to the Dnieper River, splitting Ukraine in half, and occupies it’s left bank south to the Black Sea, bypassing and isolating towns along the way that might offer resistance. Consolidating those gains would give the Russians a new, defensible border, the ports of Mariupol and Kherson, contiguity with Crimea, and secure the Sea of Azov.

Could something so audacious be in the cards? Russia occupied Crimea at the conclusion of the 2014 Olympic Games. The 2022 Olympics begin in one month’s time. Welcome to 2022.

Chile dodged a Pinochet-shaped bullet two weeks ago. Defying a last minute show of ill grace by the outgoing president, who shut down big city buses on election day, Chileans definitively declined to elect a baby Bolsanaro in José Antonio Kast.

Kast, son of a lieutenant in the German Nazi army, wasn’t sure if human activity had anything to do with climate change, reckoned he would only comply with international law if he felt like it, and promised to expel immigrants in Chile without judicial review. Toward that end he supported a ditch along the Bolivian border. He (and presumably his wife and nine children) opposed abortion.

He was defeated by 35 year old Gabriel Boric, a former student leader from a Croatian clan in Chile’s far southern Magallanes province whose forebears left Croatia in the late 1800s, at a time when both Chile and Argentina appealed for settlers in sparsely populated Patagonia.

Challenges lie ahead. As unsavory as is Kast, Boric’s coalition’s inclusion of Communists invites bitter criticism from those rump Pinochetties who are still alive and well. But there is opportunity. The election represents a culmination by non-violent political means of a left-inspired 2019 uprising. And to his credit (low bar these days), Kast accepted defeat.

The territorial integrity of Ethiopia, the lynchpin of East Africa, Africa’s second most populous country, has hung in the balance for a year now amid utter distrust, atrocities, cinematic battlefield reversals and the recent involvement of an entirely new cadre of foreign actors, the Turks and Emiratis, come to call with drones that pulverized the supply lines of the Tigray Peoples’ Liberation Front (TPLF), the main opposition group.

At the new year wounds are being licked all around and councils of war convened, as for the moment Ethiopia’s factions appear to be near exhausted battlefield equipoise. But a peace overture from the central government, yearned for by the international community, looks far-fetched.

Addis’s Amhara allies, who have taken the toughest losses, may be unwilling. The central government may itself be unwilling, as things appear to be personal for Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed. Meanwhile factions with competing interests lie in every direction. A military faction within the largest ethnic group, the Oromo Liberation Front, has acquitted itself pooly in an ineffectual alliance with the breakaway TPLF. Add the all around malevolence of Elyas Afewerki’s Eritrea on Ethiopia’s northern border, and the whole situation calls out for a Nobel Prize-winning peacemaker. Oh, wait.

Hong Kongers voted two weeks ago, as China’s flouting of its 1997 treaty with the United Kingdom continued without a peep from London, or much of anyone else. Government critics could not stand on account of an edict called “Patriots administering Hong Kong.” No one is even bothering to ask who lost Hong Kong.

The U.S. Secretary of State said his country “can’t accept a situation in which Iran accelerates its nuclear program and slow-walks its nuclear diplomacy.” That, of course, is exactly what Iran has been doing.

Governments used pandemic restrictions to silence critics and suppress protests in 2021. China shut down Hong Kong protests; Russia cracked heads at opposition rallies. In Serbia, refugees and asylum-seekers have been “put under strict 24-hour quarantine, controlled by the military.” Slovenia was added to “a watchlist of countries experiencing a rapid decline in civil liberties.” And Poland continued to copy illiberal tactics” following ‘the Hungary Model.’ Freedom House counts democratic backsliding in 73 countries.

But wait, we’re here to ring in the new. What have we to look forward to?

Australia, Colombia, France, Hungary, the Philippines and South Korea hold elections this spring, Brazil and Kenya in the autumn, and there are the US midterms in November. Five U.S. states will hold Senate primaries in May. What could go wrong there?

Northern Ireland, where DUP loyalists are already near full post-Brexit froth, will elect its assembly that same month, deftly overlaid on marching season, the annual extravaganza of goodwill put on by cheerful organizations with paramilitary pasts. What could go wrong there?

It may be there will always be an England. But a United Kingdom?

And then there is the pandemic. It may also be there will always be a Covid. I’ve had a look back at things we wrote when Covid first wedged its grasping little crampons into the lungs of the world. We were certain big change was coming.

And yet as we enter year three, look at us: here we are making like just around the corner we’ll have that whole supply chain toothpaste tube tidied up, real quick we’ll get things back like they were, good as new. Don’t believe your lying eyes, inflation isn’t inflation, it’s transitory. Soon it’ll be just like the good old days.

thought in March 2020, before the Zoom boom, that when it became apparent how many more functions could be carried out remotely, companies would wonder why they needed all those buildings. Half right. The virtues of remote work may be apparent to everybody else, but companies are still invested (123) in all that real estate and dying trying to bring workers back.

Here too a rear guard aims to put things back the way they were. But the masters of the universe may have more to grapple with than merely keeping the entire commercial real estate market afloat. They’ll also need a workforce.

A 2018 survey found almost 40 percent of 25-54 year olds not living with a romantic partner. As they put it here, “That does not bode well for life events like marriage, buying a first home, or having a child, which correlate closely with progress up the career ladder.”

Our pre-pandemic memories, much as we’d like to restore them, are nothing more than that – memories. The world has kept turning, things have changed and the pandemic is the agent of that change. Surely distant historians will tie the 2020 George Floyd violence in America to the pandemic, and it will be contributory, but only contributory. For there is a larger attitudinal shift afoot.

Two weeks ago 6700 conventioneers in Arizona raptured to greet, amid WWF-style pyrotechnics, an eighteen year old man found not guilty after killing people. The same day a Donald Trump supporting TV personality urged attendees to accost Dr. Anthony Fauci in (rhetorical) “ambush,” with “kill shot” questions about Wuhan. “Boom. He is dead. He is dead.” His network shrugged it off as rhetoric.

The convention organizers are a group called “Turning Point USA.” A group of people in the United States is in the mood for violence. It’s as if the arsenals in their Winchester gun safes are hankering for some aggressive self defense.

•••••

As the pandemic began Branko Milanovic thought “The longer the crisis lasts, and the longer obstacles to the free flow of people, goods, and capital are in place, the more that state of affairs will come to seem normal. Special interests will form to sustain it….”

He may not have been addressing the travel industry specifically, but it’s a place where that state of affairs prevails, as a failure to coordinate policy across governments makes chaos normal for leisure travelers. And so finally, a word on travel.

History rhymes. Twenty years ago Richard Reid, the shoe bomber, changed airport security at a stroke, as suddenly we all were ordered to tug on and off our shoes for “security.”

Twenty years on, the rhyme: on December 20, 2021 the Washington Post ran the headline

Hey, I know, in the spirit of casting out the old and ringing in the new, in 2022 let’s revisit the security theatre debate.

You can gawk at the travel wasteland wherever you look. Try for one, Southeast Asia. The UN reckons regional GDP may have declined by 8.4% in 2020 as a result of reduced tourism.

So Thailand has developed a concept they call the “sandbox,” in which vaccinated tourists may visit certain resorts where residents are well vaccinated. The Thai concept is contagious, as Indonesia means to try its own version in Bali and Vietnam on Phu Quoc island. Now that they mention it, that’s what the beach vacation is, isn’t it, sending adults to play in their own grown-up sandboxes.

On Christmas weekend US airlines cancelled 6,000 flights and German airline Lufthansa has cancelled 33,000 further winter flights for lack of demand. For two years now the international airline lobby IATA has stood incoherent and mostly mute as the entire formerly bottomless air travel maw chokes into insolvency.

For every selfie stick I’ve ever yearned to seize and crack over my knee, for every cruise ship that ever debased Venice’s lagoon, for every Ibiza hen party embarrassment, for all the perils of mass tourism, for all the evils of the dilettante horde, as Henry Wismayer describes them, surely the pandemic is a more insidious danger.

Covid’s most pervasive, longest lasting effect may be this comprehensive, ongoing, panic-induced constriction of cultural exchange. Our lingering inability to mix across cultures, to enjoy what’s unique about distant ethnicities, to discover and rediscover that people everywhere are just people after all, can only stiffen prejudice and steepen the slope to intolerance.

So it takes some effort to be optimistic about the year ahead. I’m almost sure it requires averting one’s gaze from politics. But there are always things to look forward to. Here are three, all of them as far from politics as can be:

Separating meat production from animal harvesting. A recent paper explains it this way: “Lab meat, not to be confused with plant-based meat substitutes, is grown in huge steel bioreactors using a small number of stem cells taken from a real living animal—a cow, fish, chicken, pig, etc. The result is honest-to-goodness meat, … albeit grown without the animal itself involved….” By one estimate, 65 percent of all terrestrial vertebrate biomass is made up of animals grown to feed humans. That leaves 35 percent to cover humans and all the rest of the world’s vertebrate wildlife. That is incredible to me. Lab meat ought to help.

The Christmas launch of the James Webb telescope. When I looked yesterday the Webb telescope was 507,000 miles from earth, cruising another mile every two point six seconds on an entirely uplifting, humanity affirming mission. Recall your quiet pride when the Mars rover Perseverance bounced onto Mars. With a worthy successor to Hubble parked beyond the far side of the moon, who knows what wonders await? Picture are due in the summer. And no matter what, the day with the least sunlight for a year is thirteen days behind us. The northern hemisphere climbs day by day out of darkness as days get longer for the next six months. And they can’t take that away from us. Before you know it you’ll be yearning for your sandbox.

And no matter what, the day with the least sunlight for a year is thirteen days behind us. The northern hemisphere climbs day by day out of darkness as days get longer for the next six months. And they can’t take that away from us. Before you know it you’ll be yearning for your sandbox.

Happy New Year.