No-fly zone

Are the changing fortunes of the Gulf carriers a cause for concern?

On my most recent long-haul flight, in December last year, the route took my fellow passengers and me across five countries, three continents and one ocean. Out of the European Union, through the African Union and into the Union of South American Nations. Trans-Atlantic and trans-hemisphere. North to south, winter to summer, three hours backwards in time zones.

A Qatar Airways flight takes off (QR official)

This happened smoothly and the few hundred of us on board had no reason to spend time thinking about the intricacies of international aircraft and airspace agreements. The hundreds of thousands of people up in the sky as you read this will rather be watching films, snatching a few restless hours’ kip or nibbling at a tray of in-flight food.

But when diplomatic quarrels escalate to include no-entry signs for the maligned airlines of regional foes, things come more sharply into focus.

Qatar Airways is having a bumpy old time of it at the moment. On the bright side, it has just regained its title as best airline in the world. The consumer website Skytrax also awarded it best airline in the Gulf.

On the other hand, the Saudi Arabia-led isolation of Qatar by several countries – nations from as far and wide as Mauritania, Mauritius, and the Maldives – has forced the airline to shift some of its routes. It has been banned, for the moment, from passing over certain countries – frustratingly for Doha, they include its three closest neighbours: Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

An Etihad Airbus A380 plane (EY official)

This should be a red-letter day for its rival Gulf airlines, Etihad and Emirates, based out of the UAE cities of Abu Dhabi and Dubai respectively. It certainly offers some relief for the former, which has been enduring a torrid time relating to its investment in the Italian flag-carrier, Alitalia.

Last month, the struggling Rome-based airline filed for bankruptcy. Etihad pumped just shy of €2bn into Alitalia in 2014 but has seen its opportunity to make anything of the investment blow away in the wind.

Emirates is also on a bit of a come-down this year, recording profit before tax of $405m – an enormous drop from 2016’s figure of $2bn. The Dubai-based carrier explained the  challenges its margins faced as coming from “increased competition and overcapacity”.

An Emirates Boeing 777 (EH official)

It also complained that it had been hit by a drop in demand for flights to the US which it blamed on “the actions taken by the US government relating to the issuance of entry visas, heightened security vetting, and restrictions on electronic devices in aircraft cabins”.

 

So is the status of the Gulf as the world air hub in danger? It pounced on saturation in European airports such as Heathrow (UK), Schiphol (Netherlands) and Frankfurt (Germany) and promoted its geography. Racing economies in Qatar and the UAE boosted its position further, and with investment came expansion in routes, passenger numbers, aeroplane numbers and the size of their airports.

The dwindling price of oil certainly called this into question and the US ban mentioned above hit the area further. Now that the countries in the region have fallen out with each other it has derailed the upward curve the major Gulf airlines enjoyed. They are finding life a bit tougher at the top.

Their rise was cheered and this period of turbulence is useful in that it serves to remind them that it is always easier to be the challenger upstart, but pressure builds when you yourself turn into an established player in the world’s airspace.

A look at Fidel Castro’s legacy

An “astute political brain” who “inspired a generation of leaders”? Or a “figure from a different era” running a government of “sordid lawless killers”?

Heated discussions dominated the morning at this special event at Canning House, the UK-Iberia & Latin America foundation, looking backwards and forwards at the legacy of the former leader of Cuba.

Ken Livingstone paints a positive image of Castro’s global legacy

There were three sections to be debated: Castro’s domestic, regional and global legacies.

The first one saw Antoni Kapcia, a professor of Latin American history at the University of Nottingham, put forward the point of view that the Cuban revolutionary acted and made “decisions within the realm of the possible”, carefully calculating what was achievable and loth to outreach himself on domestic policy.

Helen Yaffe, author of Che Guevara: The Economics of Revolution, described the US embargo as “devastating and suffocating”. She also looked to the island’s Soviet sponsor giant, saying that “constraints were placed on Cuba’s room for manoeuvre from the collapse of the USSR”, not just through the American trade ban.

The final speaker in this section was Cuban-born Alina Garcia-Lapuerta. She argued that there was still a “sense of uncertainty” surrounding the future after Castro’s death. Having said that, she did try to look to what might be ahead: “there could be no political change while Castro was still alive…he was too big a figure in Cuban life and Cuban history.”

In the second part of the event, for the discussion on regional legacy, Paul Webster Hare, a former British ambassador to Cuba, called in on conference from the United States. He discussed how Latin nations’ friendships and ties with Cuba had come and gone. While at some point in recent history, most neighbour countries had “broken diplomatic relations with the US”, many states had gone on to thrive economically following different models than that espoused by Castro.

The former diplomat raised the issue of the “economic mismanagement and social turmoil” currently afflicting Venezuela, noting that Havana stands by Caracas due to their traditional links. Yet those regional links are weakening, according to Webster Hare, who said that young Latin Americans are today more distant in their political views from what is increasingly seen as the outdated outlook of Fidel Castro.

Steve Ludlam came to the regime’s defence.

The lecturer and member of the Cuba Research Forum drew a picture for the Britons in the audience of Fidel Castro as a mix of “Winston Churchill, Aneurin Bevan (the founder of the NHS) and the Queen Mother”. He went on to stand up for the “audacious revolutionary” whose radicalism had “strong anti-imperialist and anti-racist” elements to it. He also saw one of Castro’s legacies as the “success of social welfare programmes across Latin America”.

The final section was on the former leader of Cuba’s global legacy. For this, Canning House invited the Mail on Sunday journalist Peter Hitchens and the ex-Mayor of London, Ken Livingstone.

The politician put forward an appraisal of the revolutionary, calling him a “giant” and an “icon to those who want to live in a better country”.

Peter Hitchens delivered the opposite. He described the Castro regime as being treated in a “rock-star way” when it was really a “government of torture”. Hitchens saw Castro’s “boasts of social advances go unchecked” and argued that “people should grow up about Castro…this cult of Fidel should be dropped.”

Questions were taken after each section and there was a notable intervention during the regional legacy part of the morning. The “Ambassador from the British Empire” was lambasted for challenging the fading policies of the Castros by a book publisher and socialist apologist who offered a vehement defence the Cuban leftist model. There were other questions, too, from exiled Cubans, criticising divisions in society created by the lack of a free press and the fact that Castro never held an election.

Portraits of a Search – review

A woman traipses through scrubland, brushing aside dusty bushes with a stick, looking for a piece of clothing, a shoe; anything that may give her a clue as to her son’s whereabouts.

Retratos de una búsqueda (Portraits of a Search) follows three mothers whose children’s names have sadly been added to the growing list of ‘disappeared’ in Mexico. The documentary tells a familiar story but tries to do so differently from similar films.

The director, Alicia Calderón, explained at a screening this blog attended that she wanted to shy away from a simple portrayal of the women as listless and unorganised mothers. Instead, she preferred to focus on their resilience and resolve; the lengths they will go to exhaust every avenue that could aid them in their search.

One of the mothers enlists the help of the FBI in sourcing DNA tests on the alleged body of her daughter. Another cradles a notepad full of names and numbers as she tries yet another call to yet another unhelpful person in the authorities.

Towards the end, we see all three women endure a seven-day hunger strike outside the local government offices.

Some of the scenes are heart-breaking. One of the mothers plays hide-and-seek with her grandson, who is happy in his innocence as he runs outside to feed the chickens. His missing parents have “gone to the United States”, he tells us, but his grandma worries over how and when to tell him the truth: they have disappeared and are likely dead.

A documentary like this, with the subject matter as it is, will always have parts that are particularly harrowing.

One of the women shows remarkable strength to recount the story of extreme violence and depravity that her daughter suffered. Detail by disturbing detail, she documents the violations of her child while she was alive and then the violations of her body after she had been killed. It is uncomfortable to watch and creates a confusing human picture: that this barbarity continues to plague Mexico; how the simple design of family life has been ruptured in so many complex ways.

So what can be done – what policy changes are needed?

I wondered if there was any hope for answers from the highest level of government, with a presidential election due next year. Alicia Calderón replied that the “justice system has collapsed” and the only light at the end of the tunnel would come from the pressure groups established by members of the public.

Consecutive presidents have tried differing but unsuccessful methods to combat the kidnappings, extortions and killings.  The day before this film was screened, the attorney-general in the state of Guerrero admitted that his office did not have the “capacity to confront organised crime”.

What Portraits of a Search shows us is that these mothers certainly do have the capacity to confront the disappearance of a loved-one with dignity, determination and a drive for answers.

Presos – review

The renegade daughter erring on the side of danger.

So far, so familiar for the film staple of rebellious teenagers.

But when you add the fact that the adolescent in question is acting alongside real-life inmates in a working prison, it becomes a different kind of movie.

In Presos, from the Costa Rican director Esteban Ramírez, the fact that true cons play the roles of fictional prisoners is one of the major stand-out points. This is only revealed to us at the end, but it underlines what is a powerful culmination to the film. This strong finish is welcome to make up for the weaker beginnings of the movie.

The lead in Presos is a schoolgirl called Victoria. She has a needy but kind boyfriend, and we are never truly convinced that his dedication to her is reciprocated. Anyway, she wants to break free of restrictive family and romantic binds to find a job for herself.

It is clear from the outset that there is something fishy going on at the workplace where she lands a role as the chief executive’s assistant. The fact she’s answering calls on the important work phone from the San Rafael prison attests to this.

As she spends more and more time talking to the mysterious imprisoned voice on the other end, her character pushes back further and further from her boyfriend. She begins to make secret visits to the man, who is only ever called ‘Jason’ during the film. When the news breaks with her family that she’s been spending time at the jail, their anger only strengthens her resolve to continue meeting Jason.

Family is at the very heart of the film.

Mothers and wives queue at San Rafael prison to visit sons and husbands. Victoria and her sister row as their mother cooks and their adulterous father stands quietly in the shadows. Victoria’s wronged lover, Emanuel, even sees her family as his. And then there is the broken family of the prisoner: the mother of his child determined that he’ll never see his daughter; his own, cheerful mum breaking down as she opens up about her fears that her son will die inside.

The way that Victoria is developed in the first half could be enhanced and the clarity and choice of shots in this part could also be tightened.  The cinematography improves as the film goes on, with enriched light and depth.

In the closing scenes, we see Victoria transformed from the cute schoolgirl to a drugs mule standing in line outside the jail. As she walks briskly away she seems tormented: either the sad realisation of what she has just carried out – transporting internally-hidden drugs into a prison or the upsetting feeling of failing her inmate by pulling out of the drop-off at the last moment.

We are left to work out for ourselves which way Victoria would have gone as she moves sadly towards the camera.

This review also appeared on the Sounds and Colours website.

Mexican stand-off

 

Donald Trump and Enrique Pena Nieto arrive for a press conference in Mexico City (31 August 2016) REUTERS/Henry Romero

Donald Trump and Enrique Pena Nieto arrive for a press conference in Mexico City (31 August 2016) REUTERS/Henry Romero

Donald Trump and Enrique Peña Nieto were civil to begin with but their relationship has been breaking down slowly but surely over the possible border wall

Mexico has been unsure how to deal with both the wall and its proponent as Donald Trump has progressed from Republican Party primary candidate to president of the nation.

When Mr Trump first floated the idea of making Mexico pay for the construction of the wall, the former president, Vicente Fox, reacted furiously. After that, the current Mexican leader, Enrique Peña Nieto, thought that he might be able to apply some pressure to Mr Trump and the brash billionaire was invited down to Mexico City.

At first look, this seemed to be a smart move: to have Trump over for lunch to try to mollify his bombastic plans and force him to change them while he was in Mexico.

It could have been a major victory but the Mexican president was up against it from the start when it came to dealing with the swaggering reality TV star and all the meeting did was embarrass Peña Nieto.

Street protests erupted. The president’s approval ratings dropped still further. And Luis Videgaray, the then-finance secretary and close friend of Peña Nieto who suggested the meeting, was dismissed.

After his inauguration, Donald Trump reaffirmed his stance on the issue of the wall and his plan to claim back the cost for building it from Mexico, possibly through stopping the flow of remittances from Mexicans working in the United States.

Realising that his attempted soothing and smoothing of the relationship did not work, Peña Nieto tried to come out fighting with a firm statement that Mexico would not be paying for any such wall. The sentiment suggested that this was all incredible policy: why should Mexico pay for something that it neither wanted nor needed.

The Mexican leader had chosen confrontation and backed up his words by cancelling a meeting that was scheduled for today in Washington where he was due to meet President Trump on American soil for the first time.

These manoeuvres have given Peña Nieto’s terrible approval ratings some relief.

His figures had been forced down initially by an inability to deal with gang violence and a rise in consumer prices, especially an increase in petrol costs. His deference and ineffectiveness at the Mexico City meeting pushed the ratings even lower.

But a survey conducted by the polling firm BGC and the newspaper Excelsior showed a five per cent bump to 16 per cent as of yesterday, put down to the new direction of travel as regards the wall.

One curveball to this curious argument is – whisper it quietly – the thought that the wall could actually be good for Mexico. Mexican firms stand to benefit from possible construction deals and workers in the region might well be eyeing possible employment opportunities.
Will this division force Mexico into a pivot away from DC? Would that even be possible bearing in mind the (now-threatened) NAFTA links, the deep economic ties and the cultural and social bonds?
One thing is for sure: we cannot predict the next direction that the Peña Nieto-Trump relationship will take.
For now, Mexico City has chosen the path of defiance. And that decision is being matched north of the border.

 

La Confianza Ciega – a review

a1865402227_16-351x351

La Confianza Ciega is a kaleidoscopic record.

That was the overpowering feeling that I had listening to the new offering from Venezuelan artist Algodón Egipcio. It is an ever-moving artwork that is complex in its rhythms, surprising in its direction and adventurous in its outcome.

At times, it transports you to a relaxing place of late-summer sunshine; at others, you feel as though you are caught up in a stomping riot of colour. His songs consist of several distinct moving parts, with some sections that are structured and others that are more chaotic. You might have a choral refrain, echoes of electro, a shot of Latin hip hop, deeply layered instrumental sections, verse and chorus overlapping to the hints of African and Caribbean beats.

It is synthetic, it is psychedelic and it is a true musical patchwork. This sensory overload can jar but there is respite to be found, especially with the cooling spray of “El Aliento” and “La Estrella Irregular”. It is a most surreal mix of wandering reverberations from an experimental and creative young artist.

The album has a heightened sense of the interconnected and fluid notes of nature, seen in the song names alone: “El Calor Específico”, “El Ciclo del Agua” and “Las Dunas Cantoras”. Into this group we can also place “Las Islas Feroe’, which stands out as the only song named after a specific setting: the windswept and mountainous North Atlantic archipelago.

However, on the whole, La Confianza Ciega is not rooted in one particular place, although Algodón Egipcio himself has hinted at an evocation of a ‘lost’ Caracas in some of the lyrics. The album drifts between moods and feelings rather than clearly delineated locations and genres. It is a refreshing record in its variety of musical flavours and overall sense of brightness: a bouncing parade of experimentation and a twinkling rainbow of sound.

This review also appeared on the Sounds and Colours website.

Catchphrases and Top Trumps

The reliable power of a political phrase in recent elections

‘Make America Great Again’.

Emblazoned on caps, waved on placards, repeated again and again by Donald Trump, it was a message that was at the heart of the political earthquake that has shaken the United States. The president-elect skilfully used nicknames, pithy refrains and stadium chants to hammer home his mantras throughout the campaign. And when it comes to election day, these things tend to stick in people’s minds.

When Trump discussed his nearest Republican challenger in the primary process, he called him ‘Lyin’ Ted Cruz. It worked — the name caught on in the public consciousness and media space and Cruz’s campaign was dismissed and dismantled. Trump named the defeated Democratic presidential nominee ‘Crooked Hillary’ and on the campaign trail town halls rang to the deafening refrains of ‘Lock her up’ (on calls for Mrs Clinton to face trial over her use of a private email server when she was Secretary of State — the FBI’s most recent investigation found no case to answer on this).

Mr Trump had two other core chants with which he whipped up his supporters: ‘Build the wall’ (about his now-altered plan for a barrier on the border with Mexico) and ‘Drain the swamp’ (on his stated desire to sweep Washington clean of corruption).

Trump’s election victory compares to the Brexit vote in the UK in June. The similarities clearly exist in the punishment both votes dished out to the establishment candidates and the political elites.

The Trump and the Vote Leave campaigns promised an unclear future but one that would be undeniably different, fresh and changed from a picture they painted of a tired, entrenched system that was not working for the masses. And both campaigns enjoyed a willingness on the part of voters to see past questionable economic claims (in the Vote Leave case) and inflammatory and often racist comments (espoused by Mr Trump). The people overlooked issues like those because there was a greater dream at stake — the drive to rock the Westminster and Washington boats forever.

Furthermore, like the Trump campaign, in the UK, Vote Leave activists made successful use of the pithy remark. The phrases ‘Take back control’ and ‘We want our country back’ — whether these remain truthfully obtainable aims for the Brexiteers or not — carry a message of patriotic optimism with an undercurrent of achievable change. They embody the Vote Leave ambition of wresting the governance of the UK back from Brussels and they hark back to what they see as a golden era of how their country ‘used to be’.

This was a similar flavour to Trump’s ‘Make America great again’. The president-elect’s chant was denounced by opponents as a fallacy but for millions of his voters it was a positive message that could one day be realised. It painted a triumphant image of the superpower’s history but it was also a message where we saw the electorate willingly put on some rose-tinted spectacles to envisage that new ‘old’ America.

And the man that Donald Trump is replacing in the Oval Office knows the power of a good catchphrase.

‘Yes we can’ was the central message for Barack Obama and his team in 2008. An unquestionably positive phrase, it laid the basis for the hope that an African-American president could be elected, and that a new, more mindful politics could be introduced. The fact that the phrase was written and spoken regularly in several languages demonstrated its inclusiveness: any voter could take the phrase and apply it to their personal ambitions.

Slogans that are seen as optimistic and aspirational were also employed by the former British Chancellor, George Osborne, who regularly used the words ‘Long-term economic plan’ throughout his time in the Treasury.

The opposition Labour party would groan and jeer when he uttered it for the umpteenth time in a budget speech. But when it came to the general election in the UK last year, the idea of a ‘long-term economic plan’ struck a chord with the electorate and offered them the chance to be associated with what they saw as an aspirational message. Osborne also used the words ‘hard-working families’ and together the two refrains gave support to the desires and aims of millions of so-called ‘shy Tories’ who propelled Osborne’s party to a majority in May 2015.

Whether or not a phrase is entirely true or can actually be carried out is not of top importance. What matters is how readily the electorate take to the message. Hillary Clinton is unlikely to be ‘locked up’ but frequent hollering of this demand by Trump supporters re-affirmed the fear that millions of Americans had that there was something not wholly truthful about the former first lady’s conduct.

The negotiations to extract the UK from the European Union are going to be difficult and detailed and the terms of the exit are nowhere near set in stone. We do not know whether the country will ever ‘take back control’ but it was the power of what the message meant to voters during the referendum campaign that mattered.

What these phrases also do is convince the electorate that now is the one and only opportunity in history to effect the change behind the refrain.

The millions of Americans who voted Republican last week saw this election as their chance to ‘make America great again’. Those Britons opting to leave the EU saw the referendum as a unique opening to change the course of the country’s future. And those voting for Barack Obama in 2008 dreamt that this was the chosen hour; this was their time to effect the hopeful message of ‘Yes we can’.

Political slogans come and go in elections across the globe, but their iteration can become like a daily prayer for the believers.

What did the Tories say they’ll do in 2015? ‘Well they’ve got a long-term economic plan for hard-working families’. What was Obama’s main promise in 2008? ‘He says ‘Yes we can’ and we believe in him’. Can you name any of Donald Trump’s policies? ‘He’s the man who’s going to make America great again’.

Whether they are correct or not, once a certain rallying cry has been put out there, it is adopted by the faithful and repeated in discourse, online and in print. Catchphrases are useful methods to harden the resolve of your core voting constituency and they are an easy way to promote your policies, as voters take them up and repeat them for you out in the public sphere.

But is it art?

An insight into the world of street art – and a chance meeting with a major artist

Jay Kaes, Thierry Noir, Stik. Caravaggio, Hockney, Bosch. When it comes to artists, there are those that are world-famous and others who are less well-known. No doubt more people have heard of the second trio above – I certainly had before a recent walking tour of East London’s top street-art destinations.

A piece by Italian artist SOLO in East London

A piece by Italian artist SOLO in East London

There were two major distinctions within this branch of art that we had to understand: graffiti, which usually takes the form of hard-to-read tags carrying information of ownership, design and belonging; and street art, which offers more easily decipherable messages (at first glance) and may take the form of sculpture, installation or even painted chewing gum, rather than just simply a colourful mural.

There is another division between pieces: legal (and some of those are commissioned) or illegal. But here, as in other areas of street art and graffiti, you can find a blurring of the lines and varying interpretations. You may have an expansive piece painted on the side wall of a bar at the owner’s request (as we saw with a Jay Kaes work) that is legal and intricate. Then you see that it has been tagged with scribbly names by graffiti artists. At first glance, this is a legal work that has subsequently daubed with ruinous name-tags. An ‘illegal’ tag of a legal piece.

But what are the taggers saying? Hello? We don’t like this work? Or are they appreciating its quality and trying to cash in on the art-tourists, who, like us, will now also see the tag when we come to look at the original work? Are they suggesting that they would like to see something different in its place? The world of street art is transient and new pieces go up, are overhauled and challenged regularly. The fact that there were graffiti tags on this legal piece of wild-style street art shows that there are layers to the attitudes surrounding street art that cannot be easily categorised.

A piece by Colombian artist Stinkfish in East London

A piece by Colombian artist Stinkfish in East London

Of course, as in classic art, there are also layers to the lives of the artists themselves.

One of the major pieces we saw was near Old Street station by an artist called Tizer. He is an Australian who went through problems in his childhood and had found strength in his new family of fellow artists.

A riot of colour, his work often takes the form of his name creating another shape or design simply through the font and size of the letters. The Old Street work was the letters TIZER forming the chassis of a spacecraft that had a human inside, lending it an air of a self-portrait.

It was a fascinating lesson of learning to move through other streets in this area of London and see Conor Harrington’s blurred monochrome people, Invader’s pixellation-style video game creatures and Kai’s grey-framed political messages glued onto walls.

A piece by Thierry Noir

A piece by Thierry Noir

We did not meet any of the artists on that walkabout and we did not expect to do so.

The following day I travelled back to Wokingham, the town where my parents work, about 35 miles outside London. There is a long stretch of hoarding near a roundabout not far from the railway station that the council had put in place around a now-demolished building.

Over the last couple of years, at organised ‘Paint Jams’, the wooden boards have played host to a multitude of artworks by many local painters, with a mix of wild-style, graffiti and political cartoons.

Tiger working on a new design in Wokingham

Tizer working on a new design in Wokingham

I was walking past this hoarding the day after the street-art tour and came across two artists working on new designs. One of them was creating something very like the piece I had seen yesterday by Tizer. I wandered over and spoke to him. An Aussie accent purred back: “Yeah, that’s me. I’m Tizer.”

The finished Tizer piece in Wokingham

The finished Tizer piece in Wokingham

It was a ludicrous coincidence to learn about him and his work in London on one day and then the very next day see him spraying a new piece live in a little commuter town in middle-class Berkshire. He had never been to Wokingham before but had heard about the Paint Jam and had been shown the hoardings by his friend Bonzai, who was also there working that day. I listed all the names I could remember from yesterday, most of whom he knew and some of whom, like Spaniard Jay Kaes, were actually part of his crew.

What also struck me was that, for the most part, these artists are not angry teenagers trying to deface public buildings for no particular reason. These are grown women and men, like Bonzai and Tizer, working in the art world. They do not have the luxury backing of a commission from a gallery but theirs is a genre borne of the rain and the sunshine. It is here that they are engaging with people and the architecture that we create: designing intricate works of art; colourful, cryptic messages; and wild explosions of deep light. They are glueing, draping and tying and they are working for a meagre living.

These works of art breathe life into forgotten walls, alleys and corners. And while they may not always be legal pieces, they are always thought-through, and there is sizeable effort and creation behind them that cannot and ought not to be belittled and criticised as readily as others laud and salute those branches of the visual arts that are seen as historically as being more traditional.