Who Can Master Central Asia?

Tasked by Voice of America with looking into newly independent Central Asia after the collapse of the Soviet Union, I wanted to get an idea of the civil war roiling the small but spectacularly beautiful nation of Kyrgyzstan, called by its admirers the “Switzerland of Central Asia.”

My driver for the occasion said he had a master’s degree in political science, but that did not improve his driving skills. Unaware, he sped from the government side across the battlefield into the Islamist opposition camp whose defenders, rifles at the ready, didn’t seem happy to see us. “This is interesting,” said my unflappable ex-KGB guide with no escape in mind. Then, providentially, a tank appeared – Russia to the rescue. The Islamists switched their attention to the appraching enemy, and we were spared from whatever they had in store for us.

Central Asia

This is the irony: a decade earlier, we – the U.S. – had been championing the Islamists in neighboring Afghanistan against the Russian occupiers. Now it was the reverse. We counted on Russia to help contain the Islamist threat. Such a turnabout, to be sure, is familiar to Central Asia, where contending forces, internal and external, are always disturbing the peace and seeking control. But who can master an area that accepts no master?

The five off-beat nations are sometimes hard to keep straight: Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan along with Kyrgyzstan, a series of “stans” with makeshift borders designed by Stalin to sow confusion. They are are often considered a global backwater but nonetheless prized for their prime location, major resources and vigorous people.

The “Stans”

After gaining independence from Communist Russia, they were expected to take a democratic turn. They didn’t and continued autocratic rule, though Kygyzstan has some democratic trimmings – elections, a robust parliament, a press that is less fettered than that of the other stans. Still politics is rough and tumble – three revolutions and assorted uprisings. A year and a half ago, a president was forced into hiding by rock-throwing protestors over a questionable election. A convicted kidnapper was let out of jail to take his place. This was not unusual since each successive government is in the habit of jailing members of the previous one.

Russian President Putin would like the stans to be calm as he goes about trying to reconstitute a Soviet Union whose collapse he considers a “catastrophe.” He doesn’t employ lethal Stalinist measures but more subtle pressures as in the case of the U.S. military base in Kyrgyzstan. First, he constructed a competing Russian base, then made his desires clear to the Krygyz who depend in many ways on Moscow’s generosity and forbearance. The U.S base is gone.

Not quite as entrenched in Central Asia, China is investing heavily in the region, including high tech apparatus to monitor the activities of the suppressed Uighur population on the border with the stans. More dramatically and long term, it is engaged with Russia on an ambitious modernized land route that will cross the stans and unite east and west in a Greater Eurasia with geopolitical as well as economic implications. It is current U.S. policy to denounce and sanction both of the powers in contrast to the successful Cold War policy of dividing them. Time to think again.

What If the U.S. and Mexico Were One?

Visiting the town of McAllen in southern Texas, you may think you’re in Mexico. Everyone speaks Spanish in a town considered to be 90 per cent Hispanic, and that may underestimate. There’s no sign of fear of any kind as people contentedly go about their business in a bustling community.

That’s the north side of the U.S.-Mexican border. To the south it’s a different matter. Even by Mexican standards, the city of of Reynosa is violent, reflecting near total drug cartel control. No racial divide – a crime divide. Migrants are now piling up in the city, waiting their turn to cross the border under the supervision of the cartels who charge heavily for the privilege of entering the U.S. Cartel approval is the passport.

The cartel chiefs are as careful about people coming as going. Look-outs are posted on top of buildings to monitor everyone who enters. Any possible trouble makers are going to have trouble. A manager of the Fairfield Inn in McAllen has a grandmother in Reynosa who pays a lawyer with cartel contacts to remain safe, a cartel tax. The manger would like to visit her but doesn’t dare. She says she would be trapped in a cartel financial web from which there’s no escape.

Genuine solutions for this impasse are in short supply – two utterly contrasting nations with governments that couldn’t be farther apart. That said, a startling cure was once proposed during the U.S. war against Mexico in the 1840’s. Ambitious imperialists urged taking all of Mexico instead of just half, as it turned out. This would be best for both countries, they said, a greater U.S., a better governed Mexico.

Other Americans were aghast, abolitionists and slaveholders alike. Popular U.S. Senator Henry Clay asked: “Does any considerate man believe it possible that two such immense countries with populations so incongruous, so different in race, in languages, in religion and in laws could be blended together in one harmonious mass and happily governed by one common authority?”

But with U.S. troops in Mexico City, some prominent Mexicans asked them to stay and offered $1.2 million to victorious general Winfield Scott to assume the presidency of Mexico along with its annexation to the U.S. Observers at the time said many Mexicans agreed. But war weary Americans weren’t buying it. They wanted to go home and forget an unpopular war.

What if the improbable had occurred and Mexico joined the U.S.? There would be no border today and no cartels since U.S. law enforcement would extend to Mexico. A more genuine Mexico could emerge from cartel rule. It’s true the U.S. would have become more culturally diverse with attendant problems, but including more gradations between black and white might have softened extremes and, as in other countries, led to the abolition of slavery without the vastly destructive Civil War which still reverberates today.

Drugs and Migrants on the March

A surge is when Grant took Richmond. It doesn’t describe the more refined tactics of the Mexican drug cartels in their effort to outwit the outmanned U.S. Border Patrol as they push drugs and migrants across the border. Seizing on President Biden’s more lenient immigration policies, they have sent clusters of desperate Mexicans and others into strategic openings along the 2,000 mile border, popping up here and there, day and night to the consternation of frustrated guards.

More than in the Trump era, migrants are piling up in overcrowded facilities which the Biden Administration has tried to conceal from prying media eyes in an information crackdown that is new to the border. One exception is Catholic Charities whose shelter in McAllen, Texas, houses hundreds of migrants in reasonably comfortable conditions. What’s that long line? I asked. They’re going to breakfast.

Catholic Charities immigrant center, McAllen, TX

Vice President Kamala Harris has been in contact with Central American leaders to determine the “root cause” of the enhanced migration. She doesn’t have to look very far. When questioned, migrants say they are fleeing the violence for the safety of the U.S. The drug cartels who are threatening their lives are also encouraging them to leave. It’s very profitable. They charge as much as $25 thousand per migrant, and they control the whole border on the Mexican side. You don’t pay, you don’t cross, and maybe you don’t continue to live.

As usual, the American media has little to say about the role of the cartels in the current “crisis” or “challenge.” That’s because American drug consumers, abetted by American money launderers, keep the cartels in business. Stop the drug traffic, and the border would clear up. But too many are making too much money for that to happen.

The U.S doesn’t have to be quite so tolerant of the cartels. They are more aggressive than ever. A group of U.S. senators boating on the Rio Grande that divides the two countries were startled by cartels taunting them from the other side. Goodness me! The cartels knew what they were doing. Nothing to fear from U.S. officialdom.

It does seem strange that the U.S. sends its military to obscure places all over the world to preserve borders, but won’t put troops on its own border in defense of the country against a genuine threat. When traffickers toss a couple of small children over the fence on to U.S. soil, we simply watch them do it. Then off they scamper. If U.S. soldiers went over the fence in pursuit and apprehended them even if it meant venturing into the interior, long suffering Mexicans under cartel rule would only applaud. We need a clear view of what is in the national interest on the border.

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.”