The Putin Problem

In an interview President Biden called Russian leader Vladimir Putin a “killer.” What does that mean exactly? Does Putin randomly kill people the way, say, the Mexican cartels do south of the U.S. border? Has he killed more people abroad than the U.S. has in its numerous wars since 9/11? Or is Biden speaking in a more metaphorical way about killing hopes amd dreams? In that case the President is rather imprecise, a risky behavior among heads of state with control of nuclear weapons that can end the world.

Putin laughed it off by challenging Biden to a debate. The American media was more serious and seemed to back the President. This contrasts with the media of the Stalinist years which tended to lavish praise on one of the world’s worst mass murderers during the 1930’s and wartime ’40’s. Acclaimed leftwing writer Max Eastman couldn’t get published anywhere because he supported Communist leader Leon Trotsky over Stalin – the cancel culture of the time.

In comparison to Stalin Putin is a minor impediment to U.S. and indeed global interests. Shorn of Stalin’s acquisitions in Eastern Europe and elsewhere, he seems intent on preserving what’s left in a reinvigorated Russia. That means he is a familiar figure, a nationalist leader both autocratic and skillful. U. S. policy can be tailored to that situation. Unlike Stalin, and some would say the U.S. today, he has not embarked on expansion, just holding his own.

He has some grounds for complaint. As the Soviet Union dissolved in 1989, then U.S. Secretary of State James Baker made a trade with Russian leader Mikhail Gorbachev: Russia would surrender control of East Gernany to a reunited Germany in exchange for a U.S pledge not to extend the NATO alliance eastward toward Russia. That was violated during the Clinton Presidency, and ever since NATO has been expanding and contemplates adding still more small countries on Russia’s border.

At the height of the Cold War the fervently anticommunist Reagan Administration made sure economic sanctions affecting the Soviet Uinion were limited and carefully targeted because of international opposition. In today’s more permissive environment, the U.S. has freely resorted to their routine use. President Trump, in particular, made them a substitute for an outright war he pledged not to start. In fact, by crippling an economy, they are injurious to the people, not to the leadership who rarely change their policies. It’s really a feel-good effort on the part of the sanctioners.

There’s no doubt the other two great nuclear powers – China and Russia – will continue to compete with the U.S. and look for advantages where they can. For this the U.S. must stay geopolitically alert with minds up to the job, but military action should be a last resort and threats issued with care. There has been one helpful change. Today the U.S rivals are rational exercisers of power with their own interests clearly in view, not the feverish unpredictable ideologues that wrecked the world in the last century.

Artist of Murder

Understandably, most Mexicans do their best to avoid the violent drug cartels that have turned their country into the most murderous on earth. Not artist Teresa Margolles who is steeped in their misdoings. Her inspiration is not the artist studio or the scenic countryside but the morgue. There she finds the ingredients of her art in the victims of violent crime of which there is never a shortage in Mexico. She says they are a mirror of the living with their disdain for lfe. While still born foetuses are routinely discarded in Mexico, she has embodied one in stone.

The dead almost seem to be her companions. Trained in forensic medicine, she is as attentive to the dead as to the living. Little escapes her scrutiny. “Every murder leaves a mark,” she says. “Even after months, years, the first drop – the moment the family is told – will always be there.” Femicide in particular overwhelms her, the murder of a dozen women in Mexico each day. “Women are seen as disposable,” she says “I research loss and pain so that people can understand it. My intention is to be a filter so audiences can feel the pain.”

Margolles, Teresa. Pista de baile de la discoteca “Tlaquepaque” (Dance Floor of the Club “Tlaquepaque”), 2016.

Yet all this anguish is embodied in work that is mostly abstract and minimal. Death is there – parts of corpses and the fluid used in cleaning them – but the viewer has to fill in the blanks. A plain looking concrete bench seems to invite people to rest. Once seated, the visitor reads an inscription that notes the ingredients of the morgue that have gone into its construction. Is it a bench or a tombstone?

How do the cartels respond to this artistic assault on their work? If it were in writing, the answer would be simple and direct – death. More journalists are killed in Mexico than in any other country. Since art is silent, it can be ignored. And what about the American drug consumers who finance the cartels while poisoning themselves? Since little is reported about Mexican violence in the American media, could art somehow fill the void and awaken people to this disaster next door? That would be Teresa Margolles’ triumph.

Trotsky in Mexico

What’s another murder amid the carnage of today’s Mexican drug cartels? But the 1940 assassination of Leon Trotsky in Mexico City still stands out. It occurred at the apex of Communist influence around the world following Stalin’s great victory over the Nazis and the consequent expansion of Soviet power. Indeed power talks and converts, and that was true of Mexico as elsewhere. Mexico City was crawling with Stalinists who were awaiting his every command.

In this environment Trotsky sought refuge. The arts were embroiled. Famed artist Diego Rivera welcomed the exile, while equally famed David Siquieros staged an unsuccessful raid on him. Trotskyites, as they were called, visited him and offered homage. As it was becoming apparent, even to loyal intellectuals, that Stalin was a boundless tyrant, Trotsky would replace him in communist affections. This was partly illusory in that Trotsky was a fierce dogmatist who believed in “permanent revolution” of a violent sort largely conducted by superior minds like his own.

Leon Trotsky

And that was his failing. He thought that Stalin had a “third rate provincial mind,” when in fact the canny strongman outmaneuvered him throughout. Trotsky dropped from being the star of the Bolshevik revolution, esteemed for his oratory and organization of the Red army, to a hapless outcast with his life in danger wherever he went. He defended himself with reams of writings denouncing Stalinism, but as Stalin noted: “Paper will put up with anything on it.”

Still, compared to Stalin Trotsky was almost humanitarian, and there was always a certain glamour to him as biographer Isaac Deutscher notes in a touching description of his last days in The Prophet Outcast. Knowing full well the end was near, he was kind to those around him and acknowledged his shortcomings while remaining steadfast to his Communist vision. “Life is beautiful,” he writes his wife Natalya. “Let the future generations cleanse it of all evil, oppression and violence and enjoy it to the full.”

Today’s drug cartels would not have botched his assassination, just a quick bullet to the head. Instead a Stalinist spent months courting a woman who gave him access to Trotsky and then smashed his skull with an ice axe. The blow was fatal but not instantaneous. Trotsky lingered in pain for close to a day. So Stalin got his revenge and then some. When the assassin was released from prison twenty years later, he returned to a hero’s welcome in Russia.

Trotsky’s legacy in today’s Mexico? Not permanent revolution but what about permanent drug warfare? Communist brutality is no longer with us, but it set a precedent for unceasing violence. If the communists can do this, the drug lords might say, why not us? It’s in the best intellectual tradition. The Stalin-Trotsky duel remains fixed in history.

Let’s Remember Stalin

Adolph Hitler has got his just deserts over and over and over. Hardly a day goes by when his evil is not recalled one way or another. Any autocrat who comes to power, however limited his domain, is dubbed “another Hitler.” Meanwhile Joseph Stalin remains a rather sinister figure lurking in the shadows as if long after his death he is still to be feared. Let’s not talk about him more than we have to.

Lies matter. Hitler, in fact, told the ugly truth. From the outset he made clear that he wanted to establish a tightly controlled racist regime from which “undesirables” like Jews would be excluded and persecuted.  He said he would reclaim German lands lost in the First World War and would push militarily eastward until he confronted his great antagonist Stalin. He was as good as his word though ultimately unsuccessful.

Stalin preferred to lie, and it served him well. People were prepared to believe him or perhaps were afraid not to. All through the massive starvation of his collectivization program and the vast purges of friends and enemies alike, he offered a benign explanation that was accepted and even applauded. The dishonesty was colossal, writes Adam Ulam in his biography Stalin. “One day, when nearly every family had yielded a victim to his terror, Stalin would address the nation:  ‘Brothers, sisters… I speak to you my friends.'”

Joseph Stalin

Yet Stalin was powerfully assisted by the doctrine he espoused; namely communism. At the time it had a global following, often fanatical. It held out the promise of a better world to be achieved almost overnight by revolutionary thought and action. Turn the tables on the predators currently in charge and all would be well. Stalin saw an opening and lunged.

Like other true believers, fun loving New York editor Max Eastman was thoroughly taken in by the foment over revolution as he describes in his book Love and Revolution. which eloquently captures the atmosphere of the time. He equated love of revolution with his passion for the woman of his life, Russian born Eliena Krylenko. With the Bolshevik takeover of Russia in 1917, “we had unbounded hopes of a new world coming to birth.” Visiting Moscow on this joyous occasion, he became a close friend of Bolshevik mastermind Leon Trotsky, later assassinated by Stalin. Indeed he missed seeing Stalin who was operating as usual behind the scenes and would not have been interested in Eastman, though he later called him a “gangster of the pen” when he renounced the dictator.

Eastman recalls that “all his thoughts then took place in a rather opaque cloud of optimistic emotion. I was unaware of the beastlike struggle for power that was in progress behind the scenes. I was unaware of the existence of Stalin,” who turned out to have a long reach. After Eastman disavowed communism, its adherents in New York joined Stalin in denouncing him as a traitor. They made sure he and others sharing his views didn’t get printed or published in “an astute and unremitting infiltration of centers of communications.”

When he was later able to publish a book, he titled a chapter “Stalin Beats Hitler Twenty Ways.” But such was the climate of opinion that nobody in high office in Washington paid any attention, thus helping Stalin make his territorial grabs at the end of the Second World War. His lies had paid off handsomely. So today he  deserves to have at least one local tyrant dubbed “another Stalin.”

The Media Discovers the Drug Cartels, Sort Of

In the absence of any genuine reporting or analysis of the Mexican drug cartels, Fox News has now filled the void in part. Reporter Lara Logan went to the area in Mexico where nine Mormons were slaughtered by the cartels and interviewed survivors of the attack in a gripping presentation but had little to say about the cartels or how they operate – a media tendency.

If there is any significant area of the world which the Americana media fails to cover, it is right next door, Mexico. Yet it is one of the most dangerous places on earth, where the cartels murder with impunity as they send their poisonous drugs to the U.S with earnings approaching 100 billion dollars a year.

Maria Ronita Miller and four of her children, including 7-month-old twins, killed in cartel attack.

Even so, the media slumbers with far more coverage of lesser violence in such far away places as Syria, Somalia, Afghanistan. Fox news has now broken the pattern with an hour long feature on the killing in November 2019 of nine Mormons – three mothers, six children, including baby twins – that is truly heart-wrenching. Yet as the program fails to make clear, this is an every day affair in Mexico with one of the highest murder rates in the world and still climbing.

Don’t Mexican lives matter? Racism might be a conventional response, but it’s rather a vast, inexplicable indifference to the suffering south of us. Ignored by the media and the government, it doesn’t exist for Americans. Out of sight, out of mind. The Mormons interviewed by Logan tell compelling stories, but it has to be said that they are American citizens living in Mexico. They get attention because of that while Mexicans keep getting murdered in the shadows.

At a break in the Fox program, someone is caught saying the Mexican situation is a U.S. national security issue. Indeed. Along with enormous quantities of drugs, cartel bosses are crossing the U.S. border and even took over an Arizona border town until an aroused citizenry threw them out. Enthusiasts like to compare today’s expansive U.S. with the long lived Roman empire. But it’s as if Rome treated neighboring Gaul – about the same size as Mexico – with similar indifference. Do as you like, we don’t care. Julius Caesar would be dumbfounded and the Roman empire would not have lasted.

The U. S. deserves a better fate. The Fox program is a step in the right direction. Much more is needed.

Traveling Safely in Mexico

The Wall Street Journal devotes a full page to the delights of Tulum, a Mexican resort town on the Caribbean. The accompanying pictures help tell the story: bicycling on the road, relaxing on the beach. We’re informed there’s cultural and culinary abundance.

The beach, Tulum, Mexico

There is, to be sure, the danger of Covid which afflicts Mexico along with the rest of the world. Having too much fun may hide the danger, the article notes. Visitors should make sure masks are worn throughout. Even so, while fewer Americans are visiting Mexico these days, they are staying longer. Paul Safarti, an international tour operator, says a small hotel he owns in Tulum is nearly full. “They’re partying like there’s no Covid.”

The streets of Tulum

But something far worse than Covid is overlooked by these enthusiasts – a rising, high violent crime rate in Tulum as in the rest of Mexico. Ana Pereira, a local resident and author of The Tulum Safety Guide, writes that she is getting increasing reports of serious crimes against tourists.

Last December visitors from Sweden, Martin Graham and his wife, were walking along a main street at nine in the evening when they were accosted by a small kid with a gun who demanded money. Graham refused and the boy pulled the trigger. Fortunately, the gun didn’t fire, and the pair managed to escape to their hotel where they called the police. Three hours later the cops arrived but wouldn’t take a report because it would be bad for business. For the Grahams it was back to Sweden in a hurry.

This incident illustrates a recruitment ritual of the cartels. An aspiring member of the criminal organization must prove his worth by randomly killing someone, a Mexican usually, but a foreign tourist will do. “Cartel violence is now part of Tulum,” says Lilly who lives there. Executions occur in broad daylight, she says, and armed muggings are common. She concedes that tourists are not likely to be hit by stray bullets, but they can easily witness some gruesome act during their stay.

While urging visitors to come to Tulum, author Pereira nevertheless offers a long list of warnings. Among them: Don’t wander too far in the daytime and don’t walk anywhere at night. Keep emergency money hidden, and when you pay for something, keep larger bills out of sight. Don’t keep your phone out all the time. If someone tries to take your stuff, let him. Safety first. These could be usefully included in the Journal’s next story on bountiful Tulum.

Armed woman in Michoacan

Coincidentally, the same day – January 16 – of the Journal story the Associated Press reported on women who are organizing against the Jalisco cartel in the crime ridden state of Michoacan. They had little choice since the cartel had killed or kidnapped most of the men in the community – husbands, sons, fathers, brothers. Carrying assault rifles and posting road blocks, the women are taking the fight to the enemy much to the applause of long suffering Mexicans. This story rings true.

Assange Invited to Mexico

A British judge has prevented Julian Assange’s deportation to the U.S. which has been doggedly pursuing him for disclosing reams of secret and embarrassing government documents. For Assange, currently imprisoned in Britain, Mexico beckons perhaps. “Assange is a journalist and deserves a chance,” says Mexican President Lopez Obrador. “I am in favor of pardoning him.”

Julian Assange

In a breathtaking irony, the country where more journalists are murdered than anywhere else on earth has now offered asylum to one of of the world’s most famous journalists. Revenge is at hand. The drug cartels which basically control Mexico resent U.S. efforts against them like the wall and legalizing marijuana, their chief product. Assange is a handy cudgel to bat the threatening northern neighbor.

How would Assange live in Mexico presuming he could somehow get there? No doubt quite well. The cartels’ word is law and if they can readily condemn Mexican journalists, they can just as easily save an American one. “Assange’s harsh imprisonment is the equivalent of torture,” says President Lopez Obrador who should know. Torture is a specialty of cartel rule. Considering his value, Assange might be the only person in Mexico exempt from torture.

Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador

How would the U.S react? The American media which basically ignores Mexico or misreports it (crime? what crime?) might be spurred to action since the U.S. is involved. The cartels might then let Assange respond in a battle of the headlines. To silence these the U.S could launch a covert action to recover the errant newsman and end its humiliation by a lesser country.

In the meantime, the cartels could bask in their new found glory, enjoying fame as civil libertarians while chalking up record profits from drug sales – a win-win situation.

Whoever thought the case against Assange would lead to this?