ECUADOR ELECTION – Video Report from London

In the first round of Ecuador’s presidential election no one candidate won outright with more than 40% of the vote. The country is looking for a successor to Rafael Correa and will hold a run-off in April. Here’s my preview video:

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.

Un shock ao sistema

From Brazilian hip-hop to the social commentary of a Chilean MC, the London Latin Music Festival served up a strong variety to thrilled crowds

London has a vigorous Latin American side to the capital, especially south of the river. But venues in Shoreditch and the Barbican were the hotspots for the 15th London Latin Music Festival. The talent ranged from the Equatoguinean singer Buika, to Uruguay’s Academy Award-winning songwriter Jorge Drexler to the Mexican flautist Alejandro Escuer and guitarist Morgan Szymanski.

 Source: Emicida

On 24 April the Brazilian MC Emicida played at Rich Mix, in Shoreditch, to a sweaty crowd of buoyant Brazilians. He wore sunglasses for most of the performance and the only adornment to his baggy grey t-shirt was a green, yellow and blue national flag, grabbed from someone in the front row. He sauntered on stage to a roar from the floor and plunged straight into his repertoire, aided in some of the rap sections by his band members. There was a good feeling in the crowd, as punters paused between numbers to refresh themselves with lager in plastic glasses.
Source: Author's own

Source: Author’s own

The sunny morning beats of ‘Levanta e Anda’ stretched through the jumping pack, with its laid-back under-rhythms and old-school R&B-tinged chords. The rapper from São Paulo played ‘Zica, Vai Lá’ (see below for video) in full early on, gearing the hordes up for what would become a staple throughout the show. The song tumbles straight into its chorus from the off, its steady accumulation giving the audience ample opportunity to shout along.
Source: Author's own

Source: Author’s own

He returned to ‘Zica..’ – which is one of his most well-known songs – later on, giving the baying, dancing crowd the chance to belt out one of their favourites themselves, as he stood off, acting up. At the end, quick queues formed as the hip-hop artist agreed to sign copies of his latest CD at a table set up at the back of the hall.
Source: Emicida
A sold-out Rich Mix went wild again on 30 April for French-Chilean MC Ana Tijoux. From the moment she jumped up to join her ensemble the hall was captivated, with her borderless rap-rock reverberating around the joyous bunch.
Source: Author's own

Source: Author’s own

Wearing black cycling shorts under a lace bodycon dress, she bounced happily in her white trainers, rapping out her numbers thick and fast, and crooning slowly where choruses demanded.
 Source: Nacional Records
Her well-known ‘1977’ was accompanied by a mad echo from the packed mass in front of the stage and the galleries above. Those sweaty bodies were moved to ska-jive in the pit by the funk notes of ‘Los Peces Gordos No Pueden Volar’.
Source: Author's own

Source: Author’s own

She paused for a notable interlude early on to explain her politics; how she sang for the masses as she saw them: an interconnected world free from national boundaries and patriotic sabre-rattling. She stood up for the lowly and denounced capitalist colonisers.

‘Shock’ was adopted by students in her homeland in 2012 as part of their demonstrations for education reforms since promised by the new socialist government in Santiago. Although the video is focused on the protests and dozens of the student activists, Ana makes a brief appearance, holding a sign showing her support for the demonstrations.

In her London show, the vibrancy of her beliefs coming through her music resulted in a firm message underlining the dancing and mirth.

 Source: Nacional Records

The political drive reached its zenith in the mad ‘Somos Sur’, a punchy concoction of international support for the “quietened, omitted, invisible”. The Dominican Republic, Algeria and Tanzania are all among a selection of Latin American, North African and sub-Saharan African countries celebrated with Tijoux’s power Spanish overlaying stylised Arab wails.

This leads into the Arabic attack rap section of the song from Shadia Mansour, introduced as a ‘sister’ to Tijoux. The British-Palestinian MC lays down her message enthusiastically, rapping in a colourful full-length gown.

A mesmerising gig.

 Source: Nacional Records

Moving against Maduro – Report from anti-government protest in London

On Saturday 21 April there was a large pro-opposition demonstration outside the Venezuelan Embassy in London

To the chants of “fraude, fraude” and “se ve, se siente, Capriles presidente” (You can see it, you can feel it, Capriles is the president), supporters of defeated opposition candidate Henrique Capriles massed outside in the warm afternoon on the sunny side of the street. In West London’s museum quarter, the Saturday afternoon locals and tourists wandering past the brimming cafes and delicatessens of the neighbourhood were met by two lively sides of Latin political passion: the mostly yellow, blue and red pro-Capriles fans and the colourful rainbow coalition of pro-Maduro demonstrators.

The police kept the two sides apart and they only came to vocal blows. The main points of contention for the opposition were over the administration of the results – such as the apparent ratification of the election outcome before all the votes had been counted – and the resulting calls for an election audit, and for the pro-Maduro supporters it was the alleged undemocratic capitalist-etched attempts to overthrow a popularly and fairly elected government. Here are some of the protesters in their own words:

1. Marisol Mantilla, 32, IT consultant, Venezuelan, pro-Capriles

“The supposed support the chavistas give to the poor is a lie…the real poverty in Venezuela should be exposed…I would like to go back one day but there is security in London…80% of the Venezuelan population is ignorant.”

2. Paul Barbara, 70, human rights campaigner, British, pro-Maduro

“I have solidarity with the poor people of the world and with legitimately elected governments…the Venezuelan voting system is celebrated as a better system than the British one.”

3. Jenny, 31, human resources manager, Venezuelan, pro-Capriles

“I’m flabbergasted. I question how there can already have been an inauguration…it’s a slap in the face and a joke.”

4. Teresa, no age given, artist, no nationality given, pro-Maduro

“The Venezuelans are being oppressed by multi-national companies…we have conviction and the Capriles supporters are scared…you have to tell both sides of the story to be truthful.”



This was undoubtedly a major opposition protest and something that the pro-Maduro men and women lamented was the short notice they were given to try to organise a counter-protest. And the global make-up of the chavista demonstration was notable, with Peruvian, Argentinian, Bolivian, Cuban, rainbow and many more flags strung on the shady side of the embassy building.

The pro-opposition supporters never stopped loud-hailing their anti-Maduro chants and they swayed and seethed against the election results together. The cacerolazo, the classic Latin American pot- and pan-banging protest, was brought to the South Kensington streets. When it was added to the yellow tops, red-and-blue caps, and deep lines confronting the Maduro bloc, it made for a heady effervescence. It was quietly challenged by Morning Star British socialists and other Latin Americans showing their broad spectrum of solidarity that they placed opposite what they labelled as a privileged elite rich enough to be able to leave the homeland and thus be immediately disconnected from the travails on the ground. They defended the scarcity of Venezuelans in their ranks by saying that the true Venezuelans eking out a living at home cannot afford fancy flights to European capitals. When questioned about wealth, many opposition activists were more than willing to defend their expatriate status – “I had nothing when I arrived, I knew no English, I’ve worked hard all my life”, “I married a Briton and return to Venezuela for Christmas” and “how can you question someone’s patriotism just because they are not in their homeland at one particular moment” were some of the responses I received.

If you take the course of the Comandante’s 13 years in power as a whole, then whilst there certainly was positioning and jostling behind him, his throne was never in real danger from either a) rivals from his own side or b) the opposition. He was knocked off briefly during the short coup in 2002, but all that revealed was an unsteady opposition with an unsure plan and a reinforced military standing full-square in league with Chavez’s Bolivarian revolution.

But now, with the mercurial man gone, the opposition senses, perhaps more convincingly then in recent memory, that they have a true chance of derailing the fledgling Maduro administration. Henrique Capriles was defeated by Chavez in October 2012 – the last election that the late ‘son of Bolivar’ fought before his death in March – but this time around, having gone in again for the presidency, Capriles and his supporters are certainly not taking his apparent second election loss lightly. In October he accepted the defeat, despite the energetic campaign he led. But this time around, he seems to be going nowhere against a juvenile cabinet full of uncertain positions and policy and one that is reeling from the death of its brother comrade, the man who answered all previous queries, who filled all previous vacuums and whose exit from the stage has exposed more than ever a country in need of a sure footing. It does not seem to have that at the moment.

An island life for me

Tempers have flared up again between Russia and Japan over the disputed Kuril Islands. Islands remain at the centre of many international territorial conflicts.

On Thursday 10 February Japan’s foreign minister, Seiji Maehara, restated his country’s commitment to the belief that the four southernmost islands of the Kuril group remain under Japanese jurisdiction. His call comes after Russian President Dmitry Medvedev visited the contested archipelago in November last year. During his trip Medvedev promised greater development and outlined an increase in military presence on the islands, clearly not a move that has been welcomed in Tokyo. Remarkably, the fractious nature of the two countries’ relationship over the Kurils means that they still have not got round to signing a joint peace agreement to end World War Two hostilities between them.

Islands are at the centre of an ongoing dispute between Nicaragua and Colombia. The San Andres and Providencia group in the Caribbean has been part of Colombia since the 1920s but Nicaragua took the issue to the International Court of Justice in 2001, which ruled in favour of Bogota. Managua’s main argument is over location, and the islands are much closer to Nicaragua, but it would not be surprising if the tourist factor also plays a part in their disquiet: the islands are beautiful Caribbean hotposts, an English creole is widely spoken and visitor numbers are growing.

Hugo Chavez, President of Venezuela. Source: marcellogentile1, YouTube, 11/02/11

At the other end of the Americas, there are The Falklands, or Las Malvinas, as they are known in Buenos Aires. A well-known island disupte which provoked a war between the two claimants in 1982. The UK posititon is clear: the islands were, are, and will remain British, for as long as the Falklanders themselves wish to remain under British jurisdiction (which at the moment they do). The Argentine outlook takes a similar line: the islands were, are, and ought to be part of Argentina. One only needs to look at an Argentine national map to understand the geographical stubbornness. But there has been a change of dynamic since 1982. Back then, Chile and the US both openly backed the UK, and Spain supported Argentina. But now many of Latin America’s leaders have openly urged the devolution of the islands back to Argentina, and idea rejected by London. Hugo Chavez famously railed against what he views as another example of ‘Western imperialism’.

The Kurils are next to Japan and form part of a territorial island link chain that goes north to Kamchatka. The Falklands are nearly 8,000 miles away from the UK. But the issue of island disputes is extremely old, complicated and is prevalent across the world (the examples above are just three of the more prominent disputes). It is not an argument that can be simply resolved by stating history, distance from home country or ‘proper ownership’.

The fine line between defence and politics

On Monday 18 October the Chinese vice-president, Xi Jinping, was promoted to second-in-command of his country’s Central Military Commission, the government body which controls the 2.2 million-strong army. It is a posting which is undoubtedly seen as a stepping-stone to the presidency in 2013 in a nation where the military and political promotions go hand-in-hand.

The next day, 5000 miles away in London, the coalition government led by the Conservatives announced wide-ranging defence budget cuts. The run-up to the publication of the ‘Strategic Defence Review’ was dominated by criticism from the opposition Labour party, the public, soldiers, sailors and airmen alike. Even the Defence Secretary himself was found to have been railing against the cuts he was asked to find by George Osborne, the British Chancellor. The outcome of the report has been a source of contention and paradoxy: the Royal Navy’s flagship, HMS Ark Royal, is to be retired four years earlier than planned but two new aircraft carriers will be built. However, there will be no British planes for use on the ships for 9 years. In addition to the naval cuts, the number of tanks and artillery pieces will be slashed by 40% and up to 20,000 service jobs will be at risk.

The government has stressed that a streamlining of a mismanaged and economically wasteful budget was imperative but there is no doubt that the British military standing in the world will be severely reduced, and any future conflicts will probably be impossible without allies’ aid.

But this notion does not apply to the UK alone. The Falklands War in 1982 was a purely British-Argentine affair, although each combatant did receive oral backing, Argentina from some fellow South Americans and Spain, and the UK from the US and Chile. Times have advanced though and if tensions rise once more in the South Atlantic, then Argentina would be able to call on direct military support from friends on the continent, notably Hugo Chavez’ Venezuela. Britain would be unable to respond as it did in 1982 and would have to seek out allies of its own.

The current Argentine president, Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, reshone the spotlight on Las Malvinas last weekend through Twitter when she labelled British soldiers carrying out exercises on East Falkland island ‘pirates’. Chavez also joined in online, recalling for the return of the archipelago to Argentina.

Looking further north, there is a different type of military deployment occurring in Colombia and Mexico. Both countries have large-scale deployment internally, as presidents Santos and Calderon look to conquer the drugs gangs. Mexico has sent the greatest number of soldiers to the frontline, and has also increased the remit of the navy and its marines, who are regularly involved in operations inland, not just in coastal areas. The gangsters are ingenious, and only the armed forces have the firepower to engage with the gangs, and the know-how to intercept seaborne missions and underwater deliveries via miniature submarines, although these conflicts have led to a massive death toll over the last four years, with more than 28,000 killed.

Somalia and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) are the two African countries which are consistently in the current military news regarding Africa. Somalia hits the headlines for the ongoing unrest and firefights between the Al-Shabab militia and government forces, with the armed piracy situation adding to the problem. And the DRC is in the news for the gross abuses of villagers carried out by the army. The African Union (AU) provides peacekeeping elements to both these nations, among others, and it is in Africa where we see this type of military sanctioning and control the most in the current climate.

Looking back across the Indian Ocean, Burma has been under the control of a military regime for the past 22 years, and any attempts to promote democracy are dealt a fierce rebuke. Upcoming elections will be closed to outside observers, disallowing direct comment on the campaigns and results. Indeed, as Indian Nobel economics laureate Amartya Sen remarked on Thursday 21 October, only Burma’s closest allies, (which he cited as India, China and Thailand), have enough sway within the governing junta to be able to argue for democracy or promote greater transparency regarding human rights. Burma has an omnipotent role for the military in daily life in the country, but it is not the only Asian country to place such great value on the standing of the armed forces.

Last week, North Korea’s rulers named the present leader Kim Jong-il’s son Kim Jong-un as a general, and the foreign media (which was allowed within the borders, albeit under tight monitoring) was quick to point out the proximity of military high-command to political office. It certainly seems that Kim Jong-un, the dictator’s youngest son, will replace his father as the head of the country, but such a transition would have been extremely difficult without first giving him a prominent military role.

South Korea has US backing but has been keen to extend the diplomatic arm in recent months, refusing heavy-handed retaliative action after its neighbours sunk a warship in May. With Australia and New Zealand playing minor roles in Afghanistan, there remains the possibility that they could find themselves getting more and more involved with the nations to their north in the future.