Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Mr. Gorbachev Goes To Mexico

Like many children of the Cold War, I grew up anxious about Nuclear Armageddon, so when Gorbachev eased relations between the USSR and the West I was grateful. For many years I viewed him as a hero, pure and simple. It was not until I moved to Russia that I realized his reforms had been intended to strengthen the USSR, not destroy it.


Gorbachev had a rough ride in his homeland in the 1990s, where he was almost universally despised. These days he appears to have settled into the role of Russia’s Jimmy Carter: well- meaning, not quite forgiven, but no threat. He may criticize the government, but that won’t stop future president Putin from inviting him to the Kremlin for tea. And like many former heads of state, Gorbachev roams the globe, talking to groups of strangers for ca$h.

Everybody needs to make a living, and at least Gorbachev is sincere. I think he is anyway. I don’t know anyone who’s heard him talk, although in the late 90s my brother bumped into him in the men’s room in the student bar at King’s College, Cambridge. “He’s a little guy,” my brother reported.

This Monday, Gorbachev was in Juarez, Mexico, as one of the keynote speakers at “Juárez Competitiva,” a two-week event intended to stress the work of international manufacturers based in the city and not the torture, kidnapping, beheading and copious killing that occurs on a daily basis.

Of course, Russia went through a period of extreme lawlessness in the 90s, and like Mexico, suffers from rampant corruption. Nor are Russians any strangers to terrorist atrocities, thanks to the unstable situation in the Caucasus. On the surface then, Gorbachev was a good choice: he could draw interesting parallels and perhaps offer some advice.

Except… well, according to the El Paso Times he spoke mostly about his own achievements as head of the USSR, and said little about Mexico. However the Times also reports that:

“…Gorbachev offered words of encouragement that resonated with the audience. ‘I wish you optimism because your goals are so big that they will require an enormous effort,’ he said. ‘The role of young people will be decisive in the national struggle to destroy the challenges you face. Do not despair or panic.’"

After that, an audience member asked how to deal with corruption. Truth be told, Gorbachev probably isn’t the guy to ask. He completely fumbled his own anti-corruption drive in the USSR. He fired Dinmukhamed Konayev, head of the Kazakh Communist Party and replaced him with an ethnic Russian who had never worked in Kazakhstan. Riots ensued. In Turkmenistan, he replaced Mukhamednazar Gapurov with Saparmurat Niyazov, who subsequently mutated into Turkmenbashi, one of the most demented dictators in recent history. Not much of a judge of character, our Gorbachev.

But I digress.

Anyway, Gorbachev’s solution to the corruption problem was startlingly simple:

"I think everything will depend on the type of leader we elect and on replacing a lot of people."

True, true, except that it isn’t. In Mexico, if the wrong guy gets elected, the cartels will kill him, his family and set fire to his Chihuahua, just for good measure. In Russia, people have been complaining about corruption for centuries and holding elections has done nothing to solve the problem. And thus I wonder: did Gorbachev really believe what he said, or did he just feel obliged to say something upbeat?

Well, I’ve been to Russia and I’ve been to Juarez. And I can tell you that during the single day I spent in Juarez, I experienced more fear than I ever did in ten years in Russia. When you’re up against an army that kidnaps civilians, a dysfunctional government riddled with crooks and butchers, and criminals who execute school kids and clergymen for kicks, well, your vote isn’t worth a damn.

On the other hand, if, like Putin in Chechnya you “waste them in the outhouse,” and then co-opt one side to fight as your proxy against the other, well you might get somewhere. Corruption and violence will continue, but at more manageable levels. The Mexican government is not capable of this, so the drug war will continue until one side triumphs over the other, or the cartels grow tired of fighting and settle on a truce of some sort. The government will either collude with them or stand helpless on the sidelines. Innocent people will continue to die.

Can you imagine Gorbachev saying something like that? Me neither. Never mind, his audience went home satisfied. Here’s the El Paso Times again:

Alberto Becerra, president of Juárez's Rotary Club, said that it was inspiring to meet a world leader who helped bring positive changes to the global landscape. "Despite the fact that he doesn't know many things about our country, he knows that what we need is optimism and a strong desire to change things," he said. "It is timely to come and inject us with optimism."

Some people dig drink, others love heroin. Still others choose optimism: whatever helps you make it through the night, my friend.