Pariah States Stick Together

Today, Panama has announced that it stopped a North Korean cargo ship passing through the Panama canal from Cuba which contained materials used in the construction of missiles under the guise of trading sugar.  The ship was suspected to have been carrying drugs when the much more sinister reality was discovered.  The need for secrecy was so imperative that apparently the crew resisted the search and the captain even attempted suicide.  Panamanian President Ricardo Martinelli has said that this violates United Nations resolutions on arms trafficking.

This kind of lucrative cooperation between pariah states, hostile to many of their neighbours, is not unusual – particularly not between Communist countries (at least, the few countries which remain Communist in name; in reality all have abandoned the essential principles of Socialism and North Korea no longer even refers to Communism as its official doctrine).  To see similarities between the countries, simply look at their flags!  Both exist in a world which increasingly rejects their economic and political models and face threats from the USA.   I’ve read similar stories in the past regarding Iran and North Korea.  Of course, once you start looking at the Middle East these kinds of secret deals are everywhere: Iran and Russia to Syria; Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Libya to the Syrian opposition; Iran to Hezbollah; probably most of the countries mentioned to Hamas; etc.

Secret agreements between countries has always been a feature of international relations.  In the wake of the Napoleonic Wars there were various understandings that some great powers, most commonly Austria, would step in to prevent revolutionary uprisings and prop up Monarchies in any way possible.  Before the First World War a complex web of alliances spanned the globe.  During the Cold War the tap really opened and weapons flowed to Africa, Asia, South America – everywhere, really – in the many proxy wars between Capitalism and Communism.

However, since the collapse of Communism this business really has begun to dry up.  The fact that an Arms Trade Treaty can pass through the UN is proof of this.  The last 20 or so years has seen this business occur largely between the small number of authoritarian, isolated countries that still remain opposed to the international consensus – usually countries particularly opposed to the USA.  Even during this period the number of such ‘rogue states’ has dwindled – 2003 saw the collapse of Hussein’s Iraq and 2011 saw Gaddafi’s Libya fall, for instance.

I’m sure the vision of many – a vision that I share – is that one day we’ll see a world of democratic, friendly countries working in harmony with one another.  This is unlikely to happen for many reasons – tensions between the mostly democratic South America and the USA is proof of this – but I do believe we can get to a stage where the more ‘rogue’ states are integrated enough with the international consensus that the need for such illicit arms transfers might become a thing of the past.  At the moment, all we can do is work towards preventing these illegal transfers of weapons (and continue cracking down upon those which are are still legal, though that’s a different issue) and edge slowly closer to this dream.

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Edward Snowden: Around The World in 80 Headlines

Life must be rather dramatic right now for the former CIA contractor Edward Snowden.  Accused of breaking one of the biggest intelligent breaches in history after making public the USA’s National Security Agency (NSA)’s methods of surveillance, he’s spent the last few weeks hiding in Hong Kong.  Through some complex legal matter which I don’t fully understand – it seems China might have wanted to avoid a drawn-out legal battle – he yesterday boarded a plane to Moscow.  My first thought was “Oh no, you’re not running to Putin too?” but it seems he’s merely using Russia as a stepping stone for his next destination.  Which could be Iceland but is more probably a South American state like Venezuela or Ecuador.  It’s speculated he would go through Cuba to get to these countries.  Few of these places have a particularly decent reputation for press freedom but, you know…

This is an immensely complicated issue and I find it really hard to decide where I stand on it all.  I do find the concept of governments having the capability to monitor almost all communications we make as being completely abhorrent, yet this revelation didn’t really shock or surprise me.  Part of me wants to say, “No, nothing to do with me – not my place to pass judgement,” but, when you realise the central issue of this drama is the relationship between the state and its citizens, it is absolutely our place to pass judgement.  Our leaders rule with our consent and by our invitation; we have a right to judge their actions.  Therefore, we have a right to know their actions.  Of course, there’s the counter argument which states we have the right to security as well.  The government would claim that we should willingly accept monitoring in such a way to guarantee our security, but I’m not convinced.  It’s endlessly quoted these days, but I think Benjamin Franklin had it precisely correct when he wrote:

“They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.”

It’s probably the wrong priority, but what I’m finding much more interesting (and easy to follow) is the resultant spy thriller headlines we’re seeing.  “Is he on this plane?” “Is the ambassador here to meet him?” “No, it’s a ruse!” “He’s off to Ecuador!” “No, it’s Venezuela!”  Imagine having a life like that.  I don’t envy the fear he must be living under bit its certainly more drama than most of us could expect to see in our entire lives.  And he’s doing a better job of creating headlines than Julian Assange; “Still holed up in embassy” doesn’t quite sell papers.  Also, it’s quite revealing just how many countries are willing to take in and protect this man the US government is hunting.  It’s times like this the USA must realise just how many countries and governments they’ve alienated over the years.

To clarify, while I most definitely oppose the almost worldwide spying that the NSA has been conducting, I don’t really know enough to say I either support or oppose Snowden’s actions.  I almost feel that if I were to publicly or privately support Snowden, or Assange, or Wikileaks (all of whom I’m glad exist to challenge authority even if I might disapprove of their actions) I may find police knocking down my door at 3am.  No, that’s ridiculous.  But that’s the thing – after these revelations, I’m beginning to wonder how ridiculous that idea actually is.

Hugo Chavez Dies of Cancer

I’ve just come off the stage after a relatively successful but terrifying performance to be greeted with the huge news that Hugo Chavez, President of Venezuela, has died.  At the age of 58, Venezuela’s very controversial leader (first elected in 1999) has been announced to have succumbed to the cancer he has been battling for many years.  He has seen strikes, coups, referendums to be removed, yet his socialist ‘Bolivarian Revolution’ has seemed to surmount the insurmountable, and with it vastly dividing opinion.

I don’t know how I react to this.  On one hand, his socialist policy really do seem to have helped reduce poverty in Venezuela.  I have no figures to hand (just rushing this) but I do remember reading impressive statistics.  He’s acted as an antithesis to US imperialism across the world, providing a necessary balance to worldwide opinion.  However, this has come at the downside of cozying up to dictators like Gaddafi, Ahmadinejad and Castro.  His human rights record is shady at best – I don’t think this article by Human Rights Watch would be his preferred obituary – and Venezuela currently lies at the bottom end of ‘Partly Free’ in Freedom House’s 2013 report (the same grade as Egypt, for comparison).

The loss of a beloved leader for the people, or the passing of a power-crazed dictator in the making?  I’ve long been unsure myself over how to classify Chavez; it seems now I won’t have to.  Whatever his legacy, there is no doubt that he has profoundly shaped the course of Venezuela’s history.

A History of Communism: From Idealism to Tyranny

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The idea of Communism means many things to many people, and has evolved considerably since it was first developed by Karl Marx in his Communist Manifesto of 1848.  Marx saw Communism as a solution to the mass poverty and class structure which the capitalist system had created.  Most significantly, and this is where he parted from various socialist and liberal ideas, Marx believed the implementation of Communism had to be revolutionary.

I’m not an expert on his beliefs, and I’ll confess I’ve never read The Communist Manifesto – though it’s definitely high on my list of books to read.  However, I believe he advocated a state which would possess supreme power over the people in order to liberate the workers from extreme poverty and their ‘bourgeoisie’, upper class rulers.  To do this it would be necessary, if not desirable, to create a ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’, which would, in essence, follow the idea of a ‘benign dictator’.  Communism would not follow immediately, but this dictatorship would work towards the world revolution and eventually develop a stateless, classless world.  This is what Marx perceived to be true Communism.

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A depiction of revolutionary chaos in Berlin.

However, despite being formed in the euphoric hope of the doomed 1848 Revolutions, Marx’s ideas gained little traction during his lifetime.  He died in 1883 with the cause making little headway, though Marx maintained his belief that socialism was an inevitable stage in human development.  As the Europeans carved up Africa and created alliances, the ideas of Communism must have seemed fanatical.

Then, in the worldwide chaos caused by the First World War, everything changed.  In February 1917 the Russian monarchy collapsed after centuries of power in a complex series of events which, I will again admit, I have not deeply studied.  As German and Austrian soldiers advanced further and further into Russian territory, the people and soldiers protested and mutinied in what became a mass uprising against Tsar Nicholas II, who was forced to abdicate.  This was not a Communist revolution; Vladimir Lenin, the leader of the Communist party, lived in exile and returned upon hearing the news.  It was in a second revolution during October 1917 when the Communists took advantage of the power vacuum which followed Tsar rule and seized power in a coup.  Not, as future Russian propaganda would have you believe, in a united empowerment of the proletariat demanding Communist rule.

Lenin worked to introduce Marx’s ideas and established a Dictatorship of the Proletariat – with himself as chairman, of course.  A bloody civil war ensued, as the Communists (‘reds’) fought European-backed reactionary forces (‘whites’), resulting in a red victory.  The formation of the Soviet Union was complete, and the world’s first Communist State entered the world stage.  Half of Europe had been set ablaze during the First World War – in addition to the Russian Empire, the war saw the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the Ottoman Empire and the German Empire.  Dozens of new states were created and in this revolutionary chaos thrived many short-lived Communist governments, but as the dust settled Russia stood the only country in which Communists had managed to keep their grip on power.  (There was also a Communist government in Mongolia, which achieved independence with the help of the ‘Reds’ during the Russian Civil War, though this had very little influence).

So the Soviet Union stood alone.  Lenin died in 1924 and, after a struggle for power, Joseph Stalin became leader.  This struggle fractured a split in the Communist Party, as two sides formed led by Stalin and a man called Leon Trotsky.  Trotsky believed that socialist policies could not work alone in Russia, that Marx’s doctrine clearly stated a worldwide revolutionary was necessary to create Communism.  Stalin, in contrast, was throughout his life an extreme paranoiac and believed the Soviet Union vulnerable against its capitalist enemies, so felt the focus should be on building defences.  Stalin won and Trotsky was sent into exile, eventually to be assassinated on Stalin’s command in 1940.

Stalin’s Soviet Union saw unprecedented industrial, technological and demographic development.  The Soviet Union became the first state to lead an organised Industrial Revolution, in which the country worked by ‘Five Year Plans’ to determine the focus of development.  This led to a much faster development than the random and uncontrolled forces of capitalism which had driven development elsewhere in the world.

More significantly, in my opinion, Stalin’s rule marked the transition between idealism and tyranny in Communist belief.  This need not have happened.  Stalin’s paranoia led to the creation of a totalitarian state and a cult of personality, in which human rights were non-existent and a level of devotion close to worship was expected for the Communist Party and for Stalin himself.

The rise of Communism coincided with the rise of Fascism in Europe during the 1920s and 30s.  Italy, Germany, Portugal, Spain, and many other countries fell to the sway of Fascist leaders such as Hitler and Mussolini, imposing vast military rule upon their people and creating similar cults of personalities for the leaders.  It is said that if you could get Hitler and Stalin, bitter enemies, in a room together and avoid talk of economics, they would find much in common.  The creation of such brutal Fascist regimes created parallels with Stalin’s rule in the Soviet Union, with many critics labeling the Soviet Union as a Fascist regime itself.  There is certainly a strong argument for this claim.  Though not on the scale of The Holocaust, Stalin’s purges of anyone he perceived a threat led to the executions of millions of people.

This was how Communism would be defined during the second half of the century.  Once again it took a world war to make Communism a reality in many countries.  After the fall of Nazi Germany, Europe was carved up between the Allies and the Soviet Union.  The Soviet Union set up a series of puppet states making up the Eastern block, comprised of East Germany, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, Yugoslavia and Albania.  To the east, Communists in China had won a bloody civil war after Japanese defeat in the Second World War, and the Korean War split Korea into two states, the north of which became ruled by a Communist government.  Communist also began spreading to the French colonies of southeast Asia, which would lead to the famous Vietnam War.

This spread of Communism led to a ‘Cold War’ forming between the liberal, capitalist forces of ‘The West’ headed by the USA, and the tyrannical, Communist forces of ‘The East’ headed by the Soviet Union.

Communism at its greatest extent in 1983.

The middle classes and landowners in capitalist countries were terrified of a Communist takeover, fearing land repossessions and reprisals, perhaps even threats to their lives.  And so a global war of power spheres, espionage, technological advancement and fear would define the 20th century; a war in every aspect besides the fighting.

And then, suddenly, Communism collapsed.  There are too many reasons for this collapse to go into in this blog, particularly as my understanding will be very limited.  I think the most significant factor was an economic crisis which brought the entire fragile system crashing down.  The Eastern block crumbled, ironically, during mass revolutions, and the Soviet Union split into a series of successor states not long afterwards.  Other than a handful of Communist States which survived in Asia, mostly reliant on China’s growing influence, and also Cuba, Communism has died a swift death.  Even these countries are increasingly accepting capitalism as a road to success.  Occasionally a Communist party will join a coalition government in some small country somewhere in the world, but as a major political force it is utterly spent.

So what are my thoughts on Communism?  If I had lived during the turmoil of the 20s following the First World War, in a period marked by extreme poverty, I would undoubtedly have been a Communist.  However as the totalitarian nature of Communist states became clearer, the Liberal within me must reject Communism.  It is an incredible idea, but human history has shown that whenever an individual is given power, however benevolent the reason, they will become corrupted.  Very often Communist states have exacerbated the poverty they were created to solve, while well-fed dictators think only of war and power.  Left-leaning institutions such as the welfare state have proven an effective means of lifting the majority out of poverty without imposing the extremes of Communism and this, I believe, is the path we ought to continue to follow.  Think of it as a diluted, safer form of Communism, achieving the same goals without the idealistic insanity.