Óscar Martínez: A History of Violence

Many years ago, in 1993 I visited the bombed out ruins of the town of Aguacayo,  the former ‘capital’ of the FMLN-held liberated zone in Guazapa Province during much of  El Salvador’s 12-year civil war.  It was just only one year after the guerrillas had disarmed in  the town  as a result of the implementation of the Chapultepec Peace Accords that brought the war to an end.  Even in peacetime, El Salvador was a rough place.   The country was plagued with criminal violence and awash with weaponry left over from the war, some of which were used to rob banks in commando-style raids.   There were bands of former guerrillas and members of the armed forces operating in parts of rural El Salvador.

The National Guard, the Treasury Police and the government-sponsored death squads were gone, and the army had been put on a leash, but violent death was still alarmingly common.  As I was walking through the countrysdie towards Aguacayo, I met a campesino who told me that a schoolteacher had just been shot on the same path a few days beforehand.  When I asked him why, he simply replied ‘porque sí’ – for the hell of it.

There were a lot of people being killed ‘porque sí’ in post-war El Salvador, and their numbers have continued to soar in the ensuing years.  Today an average of twenty-three people are murdered in El Salvador every day – 80 out of every 100,000 inhabitants in a tiny country with a population of 6.34 million.  Much of this staggering epidemic of violence is due to the prevalence of El Salvador’s huge gangs, such as the Mara Salvatrucha, Barrio 18 and Mirada Lokotes 13, some of which were established in the United States during the war.

The interventions of Mexican drug gangs like Los Zetas, has added to the lethal mix, generating levels of violence and insecurity that make Europe’s ongoing terrorist emergency seem like a sideshow by comparison.  A similar cocktail of poverty, institutionalised corruption, gangs or ‘maras’ and the savage ‘primitive accumulation’ of the narcotrafficantes has ravaged other Central American countries, particularly Guatemala and Honduras.  These are societies supposedly at peace, with a per capita murder rate that blurs the distinctions between peace and war.

No one has described Central America’s tragic predicament more eloquently than the brilliant young Salvadoran journalist Óscar Martínez.   A contributor to the El Faro website, Martínez is a gifted storyteller and a remarkably courageous and intrepid investigative reporter.  His first book The Beast (Verso 2013) was a blistering masterpiece of investigative journalism which chronicled the desperate journeys undertaken by Central American migrants to reach the United States, using the Mexican train that migrants rightly call ‘ La Bestia‘ – the beast.

To tell the stories of these men and women, Martínez rode the trains with them, and walked with them through remote country backroads where migrants are routinely raped and murdered.  He visited country brothels and migrant safe houses and spoke to trafficked women and former migrant slaves.  Martínez described this bleak and terrifying world with skill, grace and humanity.

Now he has brought his formidable talents to bear in a new book which looks at the societies these migrants have tried to escape from.   A History of Violence:  Living and Dying in Central America (Verso 2016) is not an easy or comfortable book to read, and it is not intended to be give comfort.   With his customary forensic rigor, Martínez shines a light on the ongoing calamity unfolding in the region the United States likes to think of as its ‘backyard.’

Martínez ignores nothing and noone.  He speaks to bent and decent cops, to lawyers and soldiers, to narcos, gangsters and contract killers, to male and female gang members, to migrants and the  ‘coyotes’ or guides who help them reach their destinations.  He visits El Salvador’s brutal dystopian prisons, narcotowns in Guatemala’s remote Petén jungle, and the scenes of crimes and massacres.

None of this is macho danger zone posturing.  It is not intended to be salacious, sensational or entertaining.    Martínez has not gone to these places to brag or talk about himself, but to tell the stories of the men and women he meets.   His writing reminds me of Jason Stearns’s superb account of the wars in the Congo Dancing in the Glory of Monsters, in its ability to connect even the most horrendous individual stories with the wider political and socioeconomic context that makes them possible, and even logical.

This doesn’t mean that Martínez is a detached observer.   In his introduction he asks the question ‘ What can I propose to bring an end to these terrifying stories? ‘ before answering that ‘ Journalism only has one method of boring into reality, and it is the same method that the sea uses against the coast: the constant lapping of the waves, whether they are gentle or turbulent.’

Martínez suggests that his readers are an essential part of this process:

‘My proposal is that you know what is going on.  Because I believe that knowing, especially with people like yours, who know how to wield politics, is the beginning of a solution.   I believe, sticking with the metaphor of the sea and the rock, that knowing is what moves the waves.  You can be the waves. ‘

And to North American readers in particular, he has this reminder:

This book isn’t about Martians.  It doesn’t chronicle the tragic life stories of distant, faraway people living in the wilderness, without the Internet, eating nothing but millet.  It doesn’t discuss people you will never see up close or see only on the television.  This book is about the lives of people who cut your lawn and serve you coffee every morning.  It tells the stories of the people who cut your lawn and fix your plumbing.  These lives are very similar to the lives of about 6 million people living in your midst.  It tells the story of the more than 1,000 human beings who every day leave the three northern Central American countries to try to enter, without permission, the United States and other countries of the North.’

Last but not least, Martínez points out that ‘the broken puppet that we are as a region was mostly armed by American politicians’.  As a consequence:

‘ Our society is a cauldron of oppressive military governance, the result of a failed peace process.  We’re living with government corruption and incompetent politicians.  We are living with violence, with death always close at hand: in a traffic accident, a soccer brawl, or in defense of our families.  We are ignorant of peace.  We haven’t had the chance to get to know it.’

No one who reads this terrifying book can remain ignorant of these consequences, and the conclusions that Martínez has drawn from it are not only relevant to Central America.   Martínez takes as an epigraph a quotation from the martyrd Archbishop Óscar Romero, that ‘ Violence will keep changing in name, but violence will always remain as long as there’s no change at the root, from where all these horrible things are sprouting.’

That observation applies to many parts of the world, and the search for solutions begins with a willingness to acknowledge the kind of world we have, rather than the one we think we have.   All of which is one more reason to read this tragic but essential book from one of the most courageous and brilliant reporters working in the world today.

Boris Johnson’s Big Day Out

Politically speaking, schadenfreude tends to be a consolatory emotion, whose pleasures are generally ephemeral and often sharpened by defeat.   Even so the humiliation of Boris John last week was worth the price of admission.     I’m referring, of course, to the car crash press conference in which Johnson appeared alongside John Kerry and found himself subject to some very sharp and hostile questioning that he clearly didn’t anticipate.


The questions included gems like the following:

‘You’ve accused the current U.S. president, Barack Obama, of harboring a part-Kenyan’s ‘ancestral dislike for the British empire’ while claiming, I think, untruthfully at the time that he didn’t want a Churchill bust in the White House. You’ve described a possible future U.S. president, Hillary Clinton, as someone with “dyed-blonde hair and pouty lips, and steely blue stare, like a sadistic nurse in a mental hospital.’ You’ve also likened her to Lady Macbeth. Do you take these comments back or do you want to take them with you to your new job as some sort of indicator of the type of diplomacy you will practice?’

And this:

‘You have an unusually long history of wild exaggerations and, frankly, outright lies that, I think, few foreign secretaries have prior to this job. And, I’m wondering, how Mr. Kerry and others should believe what you say considering this very, very long history? ‘     

Such interrogations don’t appear to be common amongst the US press corps when referring to their own politicians, let alone representatives of Her Majesty’s government, and Johnson hasn’t experienced many of them from British journalists either.   For some mysterious  reason, most journalists who interview Johnson seem to break out into smiles and giggles in his presence, as though some quaint and endlessly amusing and endearing toddler had just come bouncing into the room wearing a ‘where the wild things are’ playsuit.

It’s weird and – to me at least – inexplicable how often this has happened, and how rarely Johnson has ever been called out for anything he’s ever said or done.  Admittedly it’s not easy dealing with a politician like this, who doesn’t seem to care what he actually says beyond its immediate usefulness to him.  When Alex Salmond called him out for drawing dishonest and inaccurate conclusions from a paper that he’d never read, Johnson just tossed his blonde tousled locks and grinned sheepishly.

Because after all, why should Johnson have to actually read something that he’s inaccurately quoting, and  it was awfully unfair and perhaps a little celtic and presbyterian of Sammers to come on all truthy and facty in what was just a bit of knockabout fun – using false arguments to advance his career whilst pretending to stand up to the European ‘dictatorship.’

Johnson clearly feels entitled to do things like this.  He sees himself as a national treasure and expects the nation to think the same, and too often -unfortunately for us – he’s been right..  The single exception was Eddie Maier’s velvety ‘ you’re a nasty piece of work, aren’t you’ interrogation, but even then, accused of lying and trying to get someone beaten up, Johnson just grinned it out

Perhaps this cheekie chappie thing only works in England, because it clearly didn’t work for Johnson last week.  He looked and sounded shifty.  He exuded incompetence, self-regard, dishonesty, pretentiousness and bluster in equal measure.  One minute he was telling his audience:

“We can spend an awfully long time going over lots of stuff that I’ve written over the last 30 years … All of which, in my view, have been taken out of context, through what alchemy I do not know – somehow misconstrued that it would really take me too long to engage in a full global itinerary of apology to all concerned. “

Yep, it’s weird that suggesting that Barack Obama’s opposition to Brexit was due to some ancestral racial resentment of the British Empire can be ‘misconstrued’, isn’t it?  I don’t understand it at all.  But Johnson stuck with this line, declaring

“There is a rich thesaurus of things that I have said that have, one way or the other, I don’t know how, that has been misconstrued. Most people, when they read these things in their proper context, can see what was intended, and indeed virtually everyone I have met in this job understands that very well, particularly on the international scene.’

I suspect a lot of people on the ‘international scene’ are still struggling to understand how the hell someone like Johnson ever got appointed to his position.   Because that ‘rich thesaurus’ of lies, exaggerations and distortions does go back quite a way, to his stint in Brussels back in the early 90s, when his former colleague Martin Fletcher accused him of making up stories to pander to Tory Party xenophobes.

Even more pathetic than Johnson’s attempts to convince the assembled journalists that his remarks had been ‘misconstrued’ was his painfully inept stumbling towards the gravitas normally associated with the position of foreign secretary.   Even Philip Hammond managed to look the part – sort of. But Johnson doesn’t and can’t.   After all,   you probably don’t want a man who has accused the current president of Turkey of having sex with goats to be giving the British position on the Turkish coup and its aftermath, and the fact that Johnson confused Turkey with Egypt on two occasions during the press conference didn’t make it any better.

As he sternly reminded his audience:

‘We have very serious issues before us today we have an unfolding humanitarian crisis in Syria that is getting worse. We have a crisis in Yemen that is intractable and a burgeoning crisis on Egypt, and those are to my mind far more important than any obiter dicta you may have disinterred from 30 years of journalism.

Johnson is right about one thing: the world does have some very serious issues before it. But his press conference only revealed why he is so utterly and unforgiveably the wrong man to deal with them.   It’s not only that he’s a ‘post-truth’ politician for whom words are only ever ‘obiter dicta’ – remarks in passing, designed – in his mind at least – to be said and then forgotten.   It isn’t only that he’s a self-aggrandising clown with no moral compass, who will say anything to anyone in order to rise higher.

The problem with Johnson is this: removed from the protective embrace of a British audience that sees him as some kind of real person as opposed to robotic politicians we are used to, he is painfully and glaringly inadequate, incompetent and out of his depth.

That’s what Johnson looked like last week, and you can’t help feeling that a part of him knew it.   That’s why his public humiliation was much more than schadenfreude – it was the moment when one of the most disreputable frauds in British politics was revealed to the world to be… a disreputable fraud.   As Johnson might say ‘Mendacem memorem esse oportet’ – A liar needs a good memory.

He clearly doesn’t have one – or thinks he needs one. But last week, perhaps for the first time, he has discovered that other people do.  Let’s hope that it isn’t the last time.





Hillary Clinton: Your Feminist Solutions

There’s a certain kind of feminism that gives feminism a bad name.  Like Jess Phillips’s ludicrous but headline-grabbing allegation that Jeremy Corbyn was guilty of ‘low-level misogyny’.  Or the way the media rallied round Laura Kuenssberg to depict those who accused her of an anti-Corbyn and pro-Tory bias of sexism.

In the first case, an ambitious MP and an opponent of Corbyn used a phony feminist argument in order to a) attack Jeremy Corbyn and the ‘misogynist’ left and b) get her name in the papers – in the knowledge that there are sections of the media that will always respond eagerly to anyone who suggests that a leftist leader of the Labour Party is guilty of discriminatory practices.

In the second case, accusations of sexism were used to discredit legitimate criticism of Kuenssberg’s snide editorialising.  We can expect to hear a great deal more of this kind of feminism over the next few months, now that the Democratic Party machine has completed its work and elected Hillary Rodham Clinton as the presidential nominee.

It goes without saying that Clinton’s critics on the right will be accused of sexism.  In the case of many Donald Trump’s supporters, such accusations may well be correct – some of the time.   But criticize Clinton from the left- or even refuse to get behind her – and you are likely to find yourself painted with the same brush by Clinton’s supporters.

Yesterday The Guardian‘s Polly Toynbee served up a taste of things to come, in a piece calling on the left to ‘ put aside its sneers and pray that this strong woman will get to rule the world.’

Toynbee might find this odd, but there are some of us who don’t actually want anyone to ‘rule the world’,  regardless of whether it’s a ‘strong woman’ or a strong man. Toynbee has looked closely into our hearts however, and seen real darkness.   She knows that in an era where ‘insurgency and novelty trumps experience’, left-of-centre opposition to a woman who ‘ all her life…has fought the feminist cause, for abortion and for equal rights, fearlessly’ can only be motivated by sexism.

‘ If you are naturally left of centre, especially if you are a woman, yet you find you instinctively dislike her, ask yourself why, ‘ she writes.   The answer, she insists,  lies in the fact that a ‘wall of noise from hostile men warps many women’s perceptions too’, to the point when ‘ if women of the left do break into the bastions of power, the sisters often view them as sell-outs to the establishment, as if permanent outsiderdom and victimhood is the only true mark of feminism.’

Yeah, the sisters will do that, won’t they?  As in thrall as they are to that ‘wall of noise.’ And naturally, being Toynbee, she can’t help following up this patronizing dismissal by noticing that this disorder  is ‘ a wider disease of the left among Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn supporters too. To win is to lose.’

Meanwhile, beyond that nihilistic sexist fantasyland:

‘Outside, the world looks on aghast at any possibility America could choose a racist, sexist brute over a feminist with a long track record of standing up for the right causes. For the young, she’s been around all their lives, not new enough to be exciting. Yet the prospect of a strong woman leading the world should be a beacon of hope to women everywhere.’

Call me a sexist if you will, but I don’t like Clinton at all, and it has nothing to do with her gender. I don’t like her because I regard her as the worst kind of machine politician, who advances by networking with the rich and powerful whilst pretending to represent the poor and the powerless.   I don’t like her because she is a Wall Street shill, like her slick husband,  who rakes in millions giving speeches to the likes of Goldman Sachs while promising to take on bankers, and doesn’t even have the guts to publish transcripts of her speeches in case their damage her progressive credentials.

I don’t like her because she has been one of the most recklessly hawkish and warmongering politicians in a country that already abounds with them, who has promised to pursue an aggressive and militarist strategy as president.  Clinton’s feminist supporters are entitled to think differently, but I don’t see a woman who laughingly says ‘we came, we saw, he died’ in response to Gadaffi’s sodomisation with a knife as a ‘beacon of hope’ the most inspirational role model for young girls.

I don’t like Clinton because she lies consistently,  about big things and small things, whether misremembering a sniper attack in Bosnia or lying about her emails.  Of course male politicians do the same thing, but I don’t like them either.  I don’t like Clinton’s belligerent and uncritical support of Israel.   As Shania Twain once sang, that don’t impress me much.   And despite the endless talk of her ‘experience’ and ‘competence’, I find her track record of supporting strategically incoherent and criminally destructive wars and regime changes without any regard for the consequences either before or after them just a little bit alarming.

And those who ask what might happen if Donald Trump had his ‘ finger on the nuclear button’ should remember that  Clinton once boasted that America could ‘totally obliterate Iran‘ and has promised to take military action if Iran develops nuclear weapons.    Some may see this kind of talk as an expression of female empowerment,  but I would have been no less appalled if a man had said the same thing.  .

I could go on, but I might bore you.   So I’ll conclude with this.   In the end my hostility to Clinton isn’t about Clinton.  I just think it’s a testament of massive political failure that the US presidential race should be fought between the two most hated contenders in American history at such a critical political moment.  I think its a grotesque travesty that millions of Americans are now forced to choose between Trump and Clinton, because the Democratic Party machine chose to support the Clinton dynasty and ignore one of the most inspirational grassroots campaign in recent memory.

And I resent the fact that feminism is being instrumentalised to silence criticism of a corrupt and self-serving status quo and glorify a candidate who doesn’t deserve glorification, and who, as far as foreign policy is concerned, is no less dangerous than Trump himself.

And contrary to what Toynbee and others say, there are many other people – both men and women – who feel the same.   And we are not sitting in caves chewing on mammoth bones and looking for new ways to express our hatred of women – we are simply tired of lesser evilism in a world that is crying out for something better, and will not get it, either from Donald Trump or Hillary Rodham Clinton.

Donald Trump: American Fascist?

Just so you know, I’m not a fan of  Donald Trump.  I despise his racism and xenophobia, his brutal sexism, his shallowness, vacuousness, and egomania, his cultish ‘I can fix everything because I am Trump’ policy prescriptions.  I’m repelled by his sociopathic encouragement of the violence that so often accompanies his rallies, and the more I see of him the more repelled I feel.

That said, I don’t regard a Trump victory as the end of civilization as we know it, and I can’t help feeling feeling that some of Trump’s critics are somewhat overdoing it in their attempts to present him as the harbinger of some new American fascism.

These critics cover a wide spectrum, from Clintonite liberals to neocon supporters of the Bush wars and members of the same Washington elite that Trump has attacked with such cunning and ferocity. In the first category there is Bill Clinton’s former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich, who described Trump, in March as a ’21st century American fascist’ and ‘ a profound danger to America and the world.’  Now Robert Kagan, co-founder of the Project for the  New American Century (PNAC), who wrote an article for the Washington Post that has been getting a lot of traction entitled ‘ This is how fascism comes to America,’ which warns:

‘ This is is how fascism comes to America, not with jackboots and salutes (although there have been salutes, and a whiff of violence) but with a television huckster, a phony billionaire, a textbook egomaniac “tapping into” popular resentments and insecurities, and with an entire national political party — out of ambition or blind party loyalty, or simply out of fear — falling into line behind him.’

And Hillary Clinton has suggested that Trump is a laughable and incompetent clown whose ideas are ‘dangerously incoherent’ and a threat to American security.  I find a lot of this overblown.  I agree that Trump is a danger to America and the world, but  I also thought Reagan was a danger to the world, when he unleashed a series of vicious covert wars, financed the Contras and brutal fanatics like Gulbuddin Hekmatyar.

I thought the Bush/Cheney gang were a danger to the world when they took advantage of the 9/11 atrocities to declare a new era of total war against the ‘axis of evil’ and unleashed a swathe of destruction that the Middle East has yet to emerge from.   Kagan was an outspoken and influential supporter of these wars, and still is, like his mate Bill Kristol, who has also become one of Trump’s critics.

And as for  ‘Crooked Hillary’ – as Trump rightly calls her, well she is not one to give lectures on the dangers of incoherence in foreign policy, having leapt gleefully on board every single war that the US has fought since the end of the Cold War, with barely a thought for their consequences.

This record does not suggest that Clinton would be any more competent, or any less reckless, than Trump would be.   She has never reflected, never repented, never wavered from her shrill and blinkered hawkishness, and that is why people like Kristol and Kagan now see her as their preferred candidate.

As for fascism, ok, Trump has some elements that we have historically associated with fascism.  There is the cult of the strong leader, the racism and xenophobia, the violence that accompanies his meetings.  But frankly folks, fascism is a little bit more than that, and some of the qualities that Reich, Kagan and others see as defining features of Trump fascism have also been part of movements, trends and politicians that have not been fascist.

According to Reich:

‘ Fascists glorified national power and greatness, fanning xenophobia and war. Trump’s entire foreign policy consists of asserting American power against other nations….In pursuit of their nationalistic aims, the fascists disregarded international law. Trump is the same. He recently proposed using torture against terrorists, and punishing their families, both in clear violation of international law.’

Reich shouldn’t have to look far back in history to find American governments that have glorified national power and greatness, asserted American power against other nations in pursuit of nationalistic aims, disregarded international law or proposed using torture against terrorists.

All these things were part and parcel of the wars carried out by the Bush administration, and to a lesser extent by Obama, in the name of post- 9/11 American ‘exceptionalism’. According to Robert Kagan, ‘ What he [Trump] offers is an attitude, an aura of crude strength and machismo, a boasting disrespect for the niceties of the democratic culture that he claims, and his followers believe, has produced national weakness and incompetence.’

The restoration of this ‘aura of crude and machismo’ was precisely the point of the Bush administration’s unhinged militarism, and it received the full support of Kagan and others who hailed the Bush/Cheney wars as a return to Reaganite ‘moral clarity.’   Those critics who condemn Trump’s hollow obsession with  American ‘greatness’ as a mark of incipient fascism forget how deeply ingrained this notion has been in American politics for many years.

Where the British political establishment can’t let go of the idea that it has not been great for some time, the American elite – and to some extent the American population itself – cannot stand to see its ‘greatness’ evaporating, and continues to see American military might as the guarantor of American ‘greatness.’  In this, Trump is no different from his predecessors.   Consider these extracts from Trump’s ‘America first’ speech:

‘The world is most peaceful and most prosperous when America is strongest.’


‘ And always – always, always, we must make, and we have to look at it from every angle, and we have no choice, we must make America respected again.  We must make America truly wealthy again.  And we must – we have to and we will make America great again.’

And finally:

‘ We will develop, build and purchase the best equipment known to mankind.  Our military dominance must be unquestioned, and I mean unquestioned, by anybody and everybody.’ 

These goals would fit perfectly well within the Project for the New American Century’s vainglorious and maniacal vision of American ‘preeminence’ and ‘preponderance’ in Rebuilding America’s Defenses.  In her speech this week attacking Trump, Clinton painted the election as a choice between “two very different visions.”

‘One that’s angry, afraid and based on the idea that America is fundamentally weak and in decline. The other is hopeful, generous and confident in the knowledge that America is great, just like we always have been.’

So Trump thinks America is weak and wants to make it great again.  And ‘Crooked Hillary’ just thinks America is already great and wants to keep it that way.  Where Trump differs from Clinton, and from the PNAC militarists like Kristol and Kagan, is in his rejection of the ‘false song of globalisation’, and the neoimperial regime change experiments that Bush and his supporters embarked on with exactly the same arrogance and insouciance that they now condemn in Trump.

That arrogance brutally unraveled in Iraq, and this is worth bearing in mind when we are invited to see Trump as a unique danger to America and the world.   Trump has said a lot of things on his campaign, in the course of his slick and ruthless destruction of his really quite pathetic opponents.  He has said a lot of things because it isn’t clear what he actually thinks, or what he would actually do if he was elected, once he works out what he actually thinks.

But whatever he wants to do, he will be subject to constraints that will prevent him from enacting some of his wilder schemes.   The main constraint is reality itself – and the limitations that the world imposes on American power.   Despite Trump’s vainglorious posturing,  he would be no more able to escape reality than his predecessors.   And the reality is that America is no longer ‘great’ in the sense that it once believed, and its military power cannot change that.

That doesn’t mean I don’t think that Trump is dangerous.  On the contrary, I think he would be a disaster, but I also think that Hillary Clinton would be disastrous.  Presenting Trump as an ‘American fascist’ tends to obscure the dangers that are already present in a country with too much military power, and which takes its ‘exceptionalism’ for granted, and which has drifted over to the dark side for a long time now.

So let’s condemn and oppose Trump by all means,  but let’s not present him as a freakish aberration that sprang from nowhere, or as some inexplicably nihilistic antithesis of respectable, common sense ‘normal’ politics. And let’s not call him a fascist just to circle the wagons around the lesser evil, because his conception of American power is not very different from many politicians before him, and he has more in common with many of his critics than he does with Hitler or Mussolini.