Take physic, pomp

Chile: The Viña del Mar Progressive Summit: A Special Report

Ever wondered what happens behind the scenes at these fancy Summit Conferences? Well here’s your chance to find out. Below follows a special report written by renowned LatAm economics and politics analyst Armen Kouyoumdjian on the so-called “Progessive Summit” that has just happened in Viña del Mar, Chile.

I have asked for and received permission from Kouyoumdjian to reprint this essay which went out today on his mailing list (I’m one of the fortunate names). As LatAm analysts and commentators go, he’s as good as they get (yeah, all creepy I know, but it’s also true) and his take on what went on in Chile these last few days is both educational and highly entertaining.

For those suitably interested, he’s contactable at the e-mail address .

More like a Regressive Hole

By Armen Kouyoumdjian: kouyvina (AT) cmet.net

March 30 , 2009

There was not supposed to be any more papers from me until after Easter, but I cannot rest until I pass on my experiences and observations related to the gathering described as “the progressive summit”, which took place in my adoptive home town of Viña del Mar over March 27 & 28. I would strongly urge the journalists on my list to spread its contents, translating them if necessary, so that the whole world knows how such things are handled in Chile. They might ponder twice on any future occasion before agreeing to take part in such a gathering again on Chilean soil, until the natives come to their senses and grow up. Those who expected (and I had been asked to report beforehand) an analytical view of the proceedings will be disappointed, but as you shall see, the fault was not mine.

THE GENESIS The events of March 27 & 28 were divided in two parts. The first day was dedicated to a seminar on “Progressive Governance” (full name: Responses to the Global Crisis: charting a progressive path). It was organized, under the auspices of the Chilean Government, by a UK-based international think tank, Policy Network . This was set up in 2000 during the Blair years, and its chairman is Labour Peer Lord Radice, with the colourful cabinet minister Peter Mandelson as president. Its stated aim is “promoting progressive policies and the renewal of social democracy”. The Chilean partner was the Socialist party’s think tank, Instituto Igualdad, dating from 2005 and chaired by Sen. Ricardo Nuñez, who will be retiring at the next election. Its stated aim is to “develop and project democratic, socialist and progressive values and ideas within Chilean society”.

You may have noticed the “nuance” between the two definitions. Whereas Policy Network does not utter the word “socialism” (at best, its literature refers to Centre-Left), Igualdad makes no qualms about its allegiances (though those of us who follow Chilean politics are aware that even within the Socialist party, there are several often violently opposed trends).

The conference “merged” on the evening of the 27th with the next day’s real summit, as the last plenary session involved president Bachelet and some of the heads of state and government attending. The 28th in the morning was devoted first to ad hoc bilateral meetings between some of the senior guests, followed by two round tables of leaders. Those included US vice-president Biden (who was not initially considered-quite frankly as any psychiatrist will tell you, “America” and “Progressive” do not automatically come up in word association exercises). UK PM Gordon brown, who preceded his arrival in Chile with a gruelling tour of several other countries, Spanish leader Rodriguez Zapatero (who had to be dragged to Chile kicking and screaming and needed two persuasive phone calls from Bachelet to finally turn up), the prime minister of Norway, and the regional backing group made up of the presidents of Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay (the latter being the only real “progressive” of the whole lot). Calls as to why the other “real” progressives of the region had not been invited were dismissed with the lame excuse that “they had not attended the previous ones” (such as the April 2008 London meeting at which Ms. Bachelet extended an invitation to hold it on the shores of our little Pacific resort town). She let the act out of the bag in her closing remarks at the press conference where she defined being “progressive” as synonymous to “economic freedom”. Say no more. We know where that freedom got us.

TAKING PART So much for the background, and on to my personal experiences and observations. We do not get important conferences or summits every day in Viña del Mar, and considering that I am the only international analyst, City of London veteran, Latin American expert, etcetera, etcetera, I thought that it may be natural for me to take part in the conference.

Rightly guessing that the real movers and shakers in the organization were Policy Network, I contacted them by phone and email, explaining who I was, even offering my friendly practical services on the spot (which it seems were sorely needed as it was reported to me that their staff manning the information desk in the hotel “knew nothing”), and obviously sent in samples of my writings (which are as “progressive” as you can get. The single response I had was a semi-polite dismissal. I then turned to the Chilean side, hoping for more luck, because I happened to know some people linked to Igualdad. It took no less than three attempts to exact a reaction, even then, which was that they were “full up” (closed circuit TV images of the meeting rooms subsequently indicated that there were always plenty of spare seats). In fact, the real reason was that the invitations depended not on your intrinsic qualities or professional activities, but the fact that you were, or had been, a “figure”. Chileans oh so love to fill-in rooms with “faces” that can be recognized.

Thanks to a mole at the conference, I was able to obtain a copy of the list of attendees (which Policy Network specifically refused to let me have when asked). Predictably, it included sitting ministers, ex ministers and undersecretaries, high profile researchers and the economist. You were supposed to be “recognisable”. The Chilean audience laughed dismissively when one of the (non-Chilean) panel chairs asked OAS secretary-general Insulza to “identify himself”, obviously for the benefit of all those who were not Chileans. Obviously, attendees such as the spokesperson for the Bucharest social Democratic Party was expected to know who the man was without him having to humiliate himself by a self-presentation.

Not being one to give up easily, I decided to use my plan “C” and register as a journalist. Though I do contribute to several publications round the world, I am not a journalist per se on a full time basis, but there was no other option. I shall spare you the tribulations of the accreditation process, whose ministry-in-charge changed 3 times over a two-month period, but on the eve of the first day of festivities, I had my credentials.

SECURITY SYSTEMS AND FAILURES To this day I do not know which is the institution or person (s) directly responsible for organizing press and security arrangements for this summit, but may all the plagues of Egypt fall upon them for eternity.

At some stage, it was decided that the only potential danger that the delegates were exposed to was the press corps, so all the security concentrated on keeping journalists as far away from the proceedings as possible. This belies a total lack of understanding of what these gatherings were all about, and why many members of the international press travelled for 24 hours to be here. A badly written 5-page set of instructions, if you read it carefully several times, brought you to the conclusion that unless you were a still or TV cameraman, you had no business being anywhere near the event. The fact that whatever is said in public could be watched online from a bed in Oslo or Timbuktu and would be common knowledge the next day, and that the real journalistic work at these events was to be able to informally address delegates, private or officials, in the corridors and at coffee breaks, soak-in some atmosphere, etc. was totally alien to the organisers.

The Carabineros in charge of security, when they saw your badge a mile away, would direct you straight to the fenced-in corral. Mind you, if you had a good story, and in typical local fashion, you could talk your way past them. A shabbily dressed young couple said they were going to use the hotel’s gym and were let through without even beingasked for ID. Conference and summit delegates had a badge which said “Policy Network” (easily forgeable, I thought) and at no time was any attempt made to check that they were the rightful owners of that badge. Some journalists, obviously more “progressive” than others, had managed to be invited to the proceedings.

Some journalists who had made the trip with government leaders could not get anywhere near them inside the hotel. From time to time, some second division personality or official spokesman would deign to come over to the fence and say a few words to those hacks lucky enough to be waiting patiently under a freezing foggy Viña del Mar autumn day. Because it was in the open air, and windy, not to mention six feet away from a busy road nobody had though of closing off, the only way you could hear the speaker was to be so close to him as to run the risk of being arrested for sexual assault. Some of those spokespeople for some reason refused to be photographed.

Occasionally, some journalists managed to arrange an interview inside the hotel by telephone, but when they tried to actually go in to record it, they were not let through. I witnessed the episode when the press secretary of British minister and Policy Network president Peter Mandelson went to fetch from the press corral a team from Sky News. The carabineros said that only some “liaison” ladies from the organisers (they were only two of them) had the right to escort them in, and none of them could be found. Strangely, as the (authorised) Economist correspondent was walking by, the cops told her to take them in (obviously a senior ministerial servant has less clout than a weekly magazine, as long as they are both British, of course). I saw many other cases of totally arbitrary decisions as to who gets in, but then as readers know, I am fully conversant with the partiality of police and legal institutions here, even towards psychopaths.

After several hours of playing the paparazzo, I suddenly realised that notwithstanding the harassment of the press, the navy commandos patrolling the sea opposite the Sheraton Miramar, and the helicopter patrol which made listening to the impromptu press conferences-in-the-street even more difficult, there was a major open flank in the security of the summit and all those inside. It is very difficult to describe precisely where the weakness lay, unless you know that particular spot of Viña. Basically, if you drove up Avda Marina from the centre towards the hotel, in a solid vehicle laden with explosives, you could easily rev up the engine and through the driveway between the plastic cones and without bollards or metal barriers to stop you, smash the glass entrance doors bang into the lobby. There were not even foot carabineros on that side of the hotel’s flank (they were too busy keeping those murderous journalists away). I am surprised that the two plane loads of Biden’s entourage did not realise that (next week the same location hosts the regional meeting of Interpol- say no more). As I mused my surprise aloud, two Chilean TV crews nearby asked who I was and I put my security and defence analyst hat on, giving a scathingly critical interview of the vulnerability of the venue (well folks, yours truly is a guy you should have inside pissing out, because if you keep him outside, he shall piss-in, and it was your decision this time).

Another ridiculous security lapse was the delegate accreditation office which was under a tent within the press concentration camp. As even ministers had to go through there before being allowed-in, it exposed them to all sort of risks. The last ignominy was the closing press conference of the leaders at lunchtime on Saturday March 28. By now, I was quite prepared to hear that the press conference would take place without the press being present. No, we were assured that we could finally go in. Hallelujah! Nearly an hour after the scheduled time, and after both Ms. Kirchner and Lula had departed, we were escorted to the hotel, in a manner of speaking. The fact that we were third-class citizens was not forgotten, and we were directed to a staircase from the street to the underground car park. We started being submitted to a search vaguely based on that of us airports but without having to take our shoes off and no body searches by big black mamas. This was soon interrupted because Lula had decided to drive off at that same moment, and the two flows were in opposite directions. We also walked past Biden’s armoured SUV (so much for security), up the stairs again and straight into the conference room (which had three doors, and though it was an event FOR THE PRESS, we were clearly told that “journalists through the third door”.

Six questions were to be drawn by lot, and as I was not present at the draw, would not wish to speculate on whether this was carried out fairly or not (some local hacks expressed surprise that El Mercurio always seems to draw a question). In fact, in the event, only four were asked, if I counted well (by that time I was so hungry that, sitting in the front row, I made eye contact with Zapatero, who appeared as fed-up with the whole show as I was ). On the way out, a local friend kindly gave me a lift home up my hill.

FACILITIES A word about how the press corps were treated in terms of physical facilities. A prefab dome had been set up on the hotel car park, at least one hundred yards away and could not even be seen from the hotel due to a tree line. Inside, there were a lot of computers, though the signal often broke off, many screens froze and the keyboards were in bad conditions.

There was supposed to be an image and sound feed from the conference, but that was not on until lunch time (and of course no facilities available to distribute copies of the speeches). If there were toilet facilities, I did not see them.

From time to time, in good concentration camp fashion, a food and drink trolley arrived from the hotel, with a couple of coffee mugs (tea was not an available option to non-coffee drinkers, though some overthick orange juice appeared on the last day). The first of these deliveries was not until 2 PM on the first day, by which time the press corps was getting frantic and those who had Chilean currency were relying on a private kiosk in the corner which did a roaring business. Sometimes it was accompanied by something to eat (small sandwiches, and at lunchtime the second day, Madeleine cookies, arguably a strange choice for lunchtime fare), but far less than our accumulated hunger needed. Journalists assaulted the few trays like refugees at a Dharfur camp and they were quickly cleared. The area where the venue is situated has no other cafés or restaurants nearby, another detail which was overlooked by the organisers. Those with delegate batches were meanwhile eating for free in the Sheraton.

The local press, generally docile and resigned, know that it cannot complain because they will not be accredited next time, and might even lose their jobs. The foreign press were livid. I hope they write about it, as I am tired to be the only one denouncing such abuse. As one international news chain’s correspondent remarked when we were being herded back through the car park under orders of “periodistas abajo” by the kapos, “what they really mean to say is ‘abajo los periodistas’). Shame on you Chileans, and shame on you foreigners who were accomplices to such behaviour.

As for me, I still managed to pick up quite a lot of information despite all the restrictions, because I have nearly 39 years’ experienced of conferences in positions ranging from chairing them to being a lowly journalist, and I know all the tricks and some. I pity the jet-lagged foreign journalists who made the long journey, after much pondering from their bosses in these times of budgetary austerity, only to be treated like this.

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