Friday, February 25, 2011

Dark Heart of Belgium

In 1885, a large amount of territory at the heart of Africa along the Congo River, heavily populated and featuring a wealth of natural resources but little explored by Westerners, was granted to the king of the small, neutral European nation of Belgium. The idea was allow free trade and not upset the balance of European power in Africa between Britain, France and Germany. King Leopold II would also "civilize" the inhabitants of the territory. Leopold brutally exploited the Congo Free State, leading to the death of millions. In 1908, international outcry about human rights violations caused Belgium's government to take away the personal possession of its king and administer what became known as the Belgian Congo directly. Leopold died in 1909 after 44 years in power. I hear Adam Hochschild's King Leopold's Ghost is a good account of the history of the Congo Free State, and it's on my to-read list.

Like 15 other African countries, the Congo became independent in 1960. King Baudouin visited Leopoldville to celebrate independence, but it wasn't an entirely friendly affair. His ceremonial sword was snatched upon his arrival. And the new prime minister Patrice Lumumba's speech was not exactly diplomatic: "For this independence of the Congo, even as it is celebrated today with Belgium, a friendly country with whom we deal as equal to equal, no Congolese worthy of the name will ever be able to forget that it was by fighting that it has been won, a day-to-day fight, an ardent and idealistic fight, a fight in which we were spared neither privation nor suffering, and for which we gave our strength and our blood. We are proud of this struggle, of tears, of fire, and of blood, to the depths of our being, for it was a noble and just struggle, and indispensable to put an end to the humiliating slavery which was imposed upon us by force." Western press was outraged, as this contemporary piece from The Guardian attests. Lumumba lasted in office for less than three months in independent Congo, deposed in a coup and murdered several months later, by Congolese opponents but with the complicity of the CIA and and Belgium.

Congo's history of tragedy has continued. Belgium has been less involved, though it gives more foreign aid to its former colony than anywhere else, and there is a fair-sized Congolese population in Brussels. I often walk through the neighborhood of Matonge, named after a part of Kinshasa and lined with African restaurants and shops, on my walk home from work.

Last week, I took the tram from Brussels to the nearby town of Tervuren, where the Royal Museum of Central Africa is housed on an extensive campus near the woods. A series of wooden elephants greet you as you walk up to the doors of the massive building.
Inside a domed foyer featuring several golden statues, my eyes were drawn first to the one on my left. A bearded figure who seemed to be Leopold comforted a Congolese child. "Belgium brings civilization to the Congo," the inscription read. In another, a golden woman "brought charity to the Congo." In another, a turbaned Arab mistreated a naked Congolese woman, representing slavery, which Belgium "ended."

The museum is one of the most interesting I've ever visited in many ways. It is a treasure trove of ethnographic artifacts like masks and statues and preserved specimens of central Africa's rich biodiversity, mammals, giant birds, giant insects. But the historical element is most fascinating, and troubling. Famous for being slow to change from a proud moment to colonial adventure of particular infamy, the RMCA now does confront the dark side of Belgians in the Congo. But barely. In the least revised room, a tall statue of Leopold stands in one corner, a leopard murder cult figure stands over a sleeping man he is about to kill, and all of the Belgians killed in service in the Congo are listed in two large placards on the wall. Henry Morton Stanley, the famous explorer of "Dr. Livingstone, I presume?" fame who helped Leopold open the Congo for business, gets a mostly valedictory treatment. Leopold does not come out looking good from an exhibit on the history of the colony, I believe based on a "history-confronting" exhibition from several years ago (Hochschild, for one, was not impressed), but details of atrocities are largely left out. The independence moment is well-covered, in a fairly neutral tone, noting Lumumba's dissonance in the otherwise friendly handover of power. You can listen to a recording of the catchy "Independence Cha Cha." It doesn't say what happened to Lumumba, or the Congo, next.

A young woman grabbed us on our way out to poll us about what we thought about the museum. I like this initiative, which I've never seen before from a museum. The animals and masks are great for kids - that is what would have really fascinated a 12-year-old me. But the history exhibit needs some work. There's something unique at the RMCA - I would not tear down the statues, it presents the way things were in a way that is quite illuminating. Just do a much better job of truly delving into Belgium's heart of darkness.

Friday, February 18, 2011

This Joke Isn't Funny Anymore

The shockwaves continue to reverberate through world politics after the resignation of Hosni Mubarak. I'm spending much of my time reading about the Middle East, news, blogs and live feeds - al Jazeera, The Arabist, the Guardian's live feed, Nicholas Kristof in Bahrain, and of course the young Netizens of the Middle East have all done great reporting, and I've found plenty of good commentary too.

There are far more brutal and evil men holding on to office in Iran and Libya - and surprisingly Bahrain - but one of the recently shaken leaders I'm most hoping to see thrown into the dustbin of history is unconnected to the uprisings and the Middle East for that matter, except that he claims he thought that 17-year-old Karima el-Mahroug aka "Ruby Heartstealer" was the granddaughter of his friend Mubarak.

Silvio Berlusconi has always been bad news for Italy, unfit to lead because of retention of his media holdings, more concerned about protecting himself from prosecution than leading Europe's fourth greatest power (sic). But it has never been quite as blatantly, shamelessly obvious to the entire world that this emperor has no clothes as in recent months. Tried by a jury of three women, representing the half of humanity which he has consistently debased as well as the spirit and letter of the law, I hope he is convicted and gets what he deserves.

In fact, I'm not sure Berlusconi hasn't damaged his country more than Mubarak or Ben Ali his. They were garden-variety secular dictators running repressive authoritarian systems in a part of the world that has seen little else in the past half-century. If they had never been born, similar men would most likely have played a similar role, taking off the uniform, never relinquishing power, letting their countries stagnate as the modern world passes them by. Globalization and a youth bulge have helped bring the Middle East to where it is now, awakening from false stability to a time of turbulence driven by the demands of a frustrated and young population.

Italy has the opposite of a youth bulge, it is one of the world's oldest countries per capita because contraception caught on a few decades ago. And its politicians have rarely been particularly virtuous - Bettino Craxi fled to Tunisia to avoid being jailed for corruption. But two decades ago, its political system was turned upside down by that wide ranging corruption scandal, Tangentopoli. The dominant party for 40 years vanished. There was an opportunity for Italy to move forward. And since Berlusconi lasted less than a year in his first term as prime minister in 1994, Italy did move forward, improving public finances, meeting the requirements for entry into the EU's new common currency through hard work.

But then Berlusconi was elected again. He is a unique political figure with really no discernable virtues, unless you define him negatively - if you disagree with the Italian left, Berlusconi keeps them out of power. The man certainly does not lead. He clowns, and he protects himself from prosecution for his crimes. There are able figures in the Italian government, and the country has not fallen apart, it has performed surprisingly well in the economic crisis over the past three years, while sovereign debt crises have smote Greece and threatened Portugal and Spain. But the fish rots from the head, and the head is rotting.

There is a saying that people get the government they deserve. And Berlusconi does retain popular legitimacy. But his actions and his character outweigh his popular support. Italy is a beautiful country with many wonderful people. And they deserve far better than Berlusconi for their prime minister.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

The Revolution Will Be Tweeted / Belgium Does It!

So I finally set up a Twitter account this morning, grabbing my actual name before somebody else did. Drop by and leave a message to welcome me to the Twitterverse.

In other news, Belgium has now gone 249 days without a government, officially tying Iraq for the world record (the link is a news story explains why the elected parties have not been able to form a government, despite the best efforts of King Albert and a series of mediators, for a more basic summary of why Belgium doesn't function like a normal country, check out this video). Actually there is a caretaker government, as well as local administration, so there is hardly anarchy, but people are not happy about the lack of a government. We heard street protests from our rooftop at the office this afternoon. We'll see if they get a government by the time I leave the country.