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The New European: A pop-up publishing project as messy as its Brexit shitstormspiration

12 Jul

A newspaper for annoyed Remain voters that is only intended to run for four issues met with a yawn from the media, looks like an A-Level In-Design project and has no clear editorial agenda. What’s the point?

Strong feelings have been aroused in me by a new newspaper launched last Friday, called The New European. I was made aware of it on the day of its launch when I came across a photo of its cover on Twitter; I then had a read of the press release about it from Archant, a publisher of local newspapers across the United Kingdom, and a look at the media coverage of the launch. I’ve had a stab at reviewing the media coverage, then the design and content – which makes for a long and possibly quite disorganised read. But what are blogs for?

The launch issue cover of The New European

The New European is a weekly newspaper being published under a ‘pop-up’ model, with Archant committing to just four issues and then letting sales figures decide if it continues. Its intended audience is those living in the UK who voted to remain in the European Union: it has been rushed out, from concept to news-stand, in nine days to capture the post-Brexit mood while it lasts. Its first print run was 200,000 copies selling at £2 apiece (or all four issues for six pounds if you subscribe) and editor Matt Kelly, also Archant’s chief content officer, has said that he would be “delighted” if they shifted 50,000 of those.

First, what is a New European? Who knows. No one’s saying. 

Having re-launched two magazines as their editor, and being a journalist, I take a serious interest in these things. So I’m disappointed with the lack of interest in the launch from the media itself. I have only come across one in any way substantive article about it – at – otherwise there has been no thoughtful analysis. Merely, depressingly, cut-and-pasted quotes from Archant’s press release in workmanlike, disinterested news pieces, even from The Guardian‘s Roy Greenslade, whose only job at the paper is to talk about media happenings. Nobody appears to have contacted Archant or Kelly for any insight or comment that goes beyond repeating what is in the press release. Twitter hasn’t lit up about it either. Steve Hewlett, editor and presenter of BBC Radio 4’s The Media Show, broadcast every Wednesday, didn’t see fit to mention The New European in its launch week, though it got a name-check in The World This Weekend two days after it came out – but no mention of the content or response. The Daily Politics gave Kelly a spot, but Andrew Neil’s opening question missed the point, and he seemed to forget that Archant has only committed to four weeks: “So, what do you think are its chances?” Neil’s other guest, Miranda Green, a seasoned hack, editor and founder of a newspaper herself, basically gave a ¯\_()_/¯ when asked what she thought.

The shrugging text emoji, for the uninitiated, is used in social media contexts to convey feelings of meh-ness, of “nihilism, bemused resignation, and is a Zen-like tool to accept the chaos of universe”. These are sentiments the British voting public know well and that I think plague world-weary media workers too, to the point where too many of them think cutting and pasting from a press release counts as a publishable story. Shrugging text emoji man actually seems to sum up the media response to this launch. The problem is that if the media doesn’t care about the project, it won’t support it, and the newspaper will struggle to keep attracting attention. I’m sure the editor would say that A) its first crop of celebrity columnists is itself media support and B) the paper doesn’t need or desire media support. But that is the world we live in. Actually, Kelly knows that: he’s made sure that the Miranda Sawyers and James Browns are in there, saying anything at all, so they have a reason to tweet about this launch and tell their readers to go and buy a copy (though Sawyer seems to only have managed a re-tweet about it, not commenting herself). On Sunday night, after I tweeted Kelly enquiring as to why he ran a topless photo of one of his contributors, lads mags-era publishing guru James Brown, on the cover, Kelly tweeted back: “because I liked it. it’s a personal indulgence. I’ll pass on your wishes when I see him for breakfast tomorrow”. I’m quite po-faced about that response because it’s defensive and bitchy, not to mention being horribly “famous person A is my mate and that’s why he’s on the cover”, which I find grubby, but predictably media. My boyfriend thinks he was just being sarcastic – he also says I’m picking on the village idiot (the paper, not the editor) and that’s why much of the media has ignored it – but such flippancy would be even less palatable to me than sleb name-dropping.

Armchair experts

The New European presents its crop of media commentators as its ‘experts’ (challenging head on Michael Gove’s infamous comment that “people in this country have had enough of experts”, and right at the top of the cover), but they’re not. They’re hacks. I guess there are different grades of expert. For example, the government has been talking with the ‘Big Four’ consulting firms, mostly known by Average Joe for their skill in helping rich folk and big companies avoid taxes, about helping it navigate the way from Brexit vote to actual EU exit and beyond. Four days before The New European launched, KPMG appointed a head of Brexit, regulatory specialist Karen Briggs, bringing together various colleagues to form a crack team to help worried businesses ready for doomsday. Given that none of us have ever exited the EU before, these firms cannot claim any specific expertise in this area, but that is not an impediment. They are viewed as go-tos by government and business, so view them as your Brexit-makers. It is people like Briggs who The New European should get to contribute, so that readers can hear from the individuals who will really inform the political decisions that will shape our lives and those of our children. I don’t mind Louise Chunn‘s slim piece on women in leadership roles, but there are any number of people who can write on why women are suited to lead in tough times. We’ll find out in the coming months, I guess, whether – as Chunn postulates – “women, especially middle-aged women, have more empathy for others than men”. Her assertions come across as total cod science and are in very dangerous waters well contested by a range of informed commentators. Kelly is right to stick something about women leaders in the paper, given that’s the way it was going while the newspaper was in gestation; and we’re going to endure a lot more of that from the media as May’s premiership gets under way. But it doesn’t strike me as ‘expert comment’ to talk about women in the way someone working at, say, Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce in 1963 might. 

Kelly writes in his first editorial that Archant went with the newspaper format over other mediums because “print is committing” – a comment clearly at odds with the pop-up model – then added that, after its four week-long print run, it could turn instead into “a digital platform, or a social media community, or an event.

“Or it may just pass, like the summer wind; no more than a fleeting curiosity in a season of madness”.

Summer wind is a workable cliché here. The editorial approach inside The New European is consciously light-hearted (I wonder if a portion of that is down to its team being drawn entirely from existing Archant staff who are still probably doing their day jobs while contributing). The cover is just bizarre, dominated by a large cartoon of a dog’s thought bubble about stupid voters, and middle-aged publishing eye candy from a topless James Brown – there’s other stuff crammed on there, but it can’t divert my attention from a half-naked man looking like he’s about to start crying because it’s Sunday, he’s run out of croissants and it’s too damp to go on a Sainsbury’s run. I enjoyed his piece on his formative experiences holidaying in Germany and how it formed his European world-view, and I think it’s good that it’s in there. But that cover photo is actually the opposite of what he’s saying: that it’s good to go and explore Europe, not stay back for the comforts of home. It’s a great piece to introduce the more wiffy-waffy cultural half of the newspaper but it’s not right for the cover, and I don’t need to see him de-robed and starved of breakfast breads by the British climate to be compelled to read him. It really undermines the paper’s raison d’etre, which, even if delivered in a light-hearted way, is still very serious – discussing how we’re to shape a future relationship with the EU when we’re outside it and what we’ll lose in so doing, culturally, economically and in formative backpacking trips.

Setting the ‘agenda’

Guardian columnist Jonathan Freedland has the first ‘spread’, of sorts, with a note on the emerging ‘Left Behind’ – Brexiteers who reside in poorer parts of the UK, who allegedly voted to leave as a protest at being left behind by politics and society. His two-column piece is jemmied between three very large images of street demonstrations in the past year or so. The stand-first devotes most of itself to bowing to Freedland’s profile instead of telling me what I’ll gain from reading the piece, and there are no cross-heads in the article, which makes the reading experience a little breathless. The top of each page that carries the name of the sections, called the folio, introduces the 12-page section this piece is in as ‘Agenda’, a well-trodden, safe-as-houses name for a front-of-book section that you don’t really know how to name, but need to make sound vital, ‘newsy’ and authoritative. It means bugger all and can’t really help persuade me that the copy is worth a look, since a weekly newspaper can’t easily deliver ‘newsy’. It cannot set the agenda, or any agenda worth setting, when the main columnist in its launch issue has opened his editorial by writing that the government is without a prime minister, and then six days later, we have Prime Minster May by default. Such is the velocity of things at the moment. So The New European literally carries yesterday’s news. That said, Archant says that each issue should be treated as a collectors’ item. But I can’t see why anyone would look back at this paper versus another well-established one for a set-in-aspic record of such astonishing times as these.

The “What’s on in Europe” spread. Photo @UnitedKingdomEU

The second big editorial spread in Agenda is simply comprised of large-font, space filling quotes from around Twitter, with big screen grabs of a selection of Brexit-themed internet memes: the Teresa May/Game of Thrones one, the shadow cabinet resignation bingo one, the MEP face-palming at Nigel Farage being rude one. The kind of editorial fluff that unpaid, overqualified interns are employed to compile from an easy hour online for the ‘and finally’ or ‘from the web’ corners of a newspaper – one that actually has to earn its keep every day or week – takes a starring role in the launch issue of The New European. Pages 8 through 11 carry what those in publishing usually call ‘nibs’ – 50-word articles – in a column all the way down the left and right hand sides of each spread, the purpose of which is not explained, but seems to be a roll call of interesting things that have happened around the EU. Some are genuinely interesting nuggets for post-work drinking banter. I now know that in The Netherlands, national carrier KLM has developed a trolley that can dispense draught beer at high altitude, but has not yet received the necessary permission to use it. Then there are irrelevant factoids such as German band Beginner launching its international tour.

Towards the back half, after its slew of superstar columnists where most editors think their readers are starting to get weary, is much of the ‘celebrating Europe’ stuff you can flick through half-asleep on the Tube. It’s much more magaziney than newspapery. There’s a page devoted to a photography competition seeking images of Europe; a spread devoted to “What’s on in Europe”’; a piece by young journalist Josh Barrie – he has no byline and I’d never heard of him, but Twitter says he’s online editor for Town & Country House – about his jaunt around some of Europe’s more quaint backpacking attractions way back in 2011; a spread of smart-phone photos taken last week in Glasgow; a piece about watching the footy in Prague and a listicle of the ten best cafes in Paris. A sort of Metro newspaper for the metropolitan, Eurostar and EasyJet generation (that’s me), but not just the social media generation, suddenly giving-a-shit 48 percent, then? Yes, but then a map of The New European‘s subscriber base tweeted by Kelly suggests that subscriptions have been taken out in very many non-metropolitan areas of Britain, including Plymouth, Norwich, Chester, the Kent coast and south Wales.

The New European’s subscriber map. Photo @mk1969 (Editor Mark Kelly)

Columnists Suli Breaks, Ajit Niranjan and Jonathan Freedland are saying the same thing from different perspectives. Wouldn’t it have been a better use of their copy to create a big four page feature comprising all three articles about the topic of the relationship between Remainers and Brexiteers, and how and why Remainers can and should reach out to them, to lead the way forward, whatever your background? That could have been a strong and diverse cover, a call-to-arms. But instead – surprise! – the white, middle aged, famous media type gets the first spread on page 4 and the not-white, younger, less established writers saying the same thing languish together on page 19.

Demonstrating integrity

Inconsistent use of and incomplete bylines is poor practice and it means I can’t tell sometimes what is what, so integrity is called into question. Some articles have detailed bylines (Jonathan Freedland; Dr Paddy Hoey, Osman Ahmed) and others carry nothing but the author name. So I can’t tell if the pieces on pages 8-9 are letters sent in by concerned and opinionated readers, or commissioned articles by journalists? Both have the email address sitting directly under the author names. I don’t know if this is saying that these are independent opinions sent in by readers and the editor is inviting more, or if it’s saying that these are articles written by journalists and the editor invites readers to respond. The first on the spread, written by Angela Jameson and spanning both pages, is about jobs being under threat in Hull because agreements to build wind farms have been put on hold after the Brexit vote. Who is Angela Jameson? Why does her letter deserve almost two pages? If she is writing a letter – not a column – she must be a business leader, perhaps a consultant? Nope! She’s another hack (sorry – ‘expert’). The second letter/article, about English Remainers who are threatening to move to Scotland, is by Mark Nicholls. Who he, you ask? Yup! A freelance journalist who runs a news and features agency. I literally have no idea what either the title or the stand-first on a piece about the Tour de France piece means so I haven’t been persuaded to read it – and who is Michael Bailey, the author? He’s one of Archant’s sports writers, Twitter tells me – hence the subject matter. So say that in his byline!

This authenticity thing. I have no problem with journalists writing things – if I did I’d be out of a job – I just want The New European to be clear why people are writing things because context is so important. There are articles on things like the idea of reintroducing Lynx to rural Britain, on something called Tauromania, and a piece by a bloke called Steve Snelling about the Polish in Britain that only state the author name and no information that explains why it is them writing and not some other hack.

Perhaps this is not poor design and signposting, but just that Archant and Kelly don’t think readers care much who is writing or what their legitimacy is. I’m coming at this as a curator of communities around magazines and their brands, where enfranchising your readers by connecting them to your contributors – making them your contributors too – is the goal. You need to demonstrate legitimacy and transparency to deliver that, which means crystal clear and complete contributor bylines, stand-firsts, making sure readers understand who they’re reading and why and how they can get in touch to agree or disagree with these views. Legitimacy can be found in famous contributor names, but Miranda Sawyer’s views on Brexit are no more valuable than my mum’s just because I know her name. She isn’t an expert. Repeat after me, everybody: hacks are not experts. They collect, collate, understand, distil and communicate other people’s experiences and opinions in ways their readers can access, enjoy and learn from. They are not experts when it comes to a newspaper talking about Brexit and calling the section where much of this comment is housed ‘Expertise’ is just pushing it a bit too far. Calling the section for James Brown’s piece ‘Eurofile’ comes across dated – I get the play on words but wouldn’t something like ‘Citizen’ or ‘The European’ be a bit slicker and more focused on the person writing than the newspaper acting as a file of stories of people who like Europe? But that is a very personal thing, and section names can cause very intense debates.

Perhaps a newspaper with a four-week life may simply not think like that. But I don’t think life expectancy or medium excuses these simple housekeeping rules on reader experience.

A final whine. The outside back page with 48 facts about something to do with the number 48. Please, no no no. Stop it. It’s screaming ‘we didn’t know what to do with this page’ to me. You want people to pay for the newspaper over the next three weeks, either on the day or by subscription. Stick a house ad there. If someone reads and enjoys the paper and then see on the final page how they can subscribe or share their views on it, they can get on their smart-phone and do it while the mood takes. That page should work harder for the project than 48 things about the number 48, though at least now I know how how old Kylie is.

The New Day, which lasted barely three months and had an apolitical agenda just as The New European has taken, is still fresh in the memory. What was the point? Launching on the back of the Brexit vote result shock but stating that it is not a political paper and will not invite politicians to contribute, nor write about the political processes involved, is a strange decision for a newspaper trying to capture the mood of millions of people who are pissed off about the most important political event for the UK of the new millennium. And please, por favor, bitte, s’il vous plait,  per favore, proszę – Matt Kelly, stop telling people you’re capturing “the zeitgeist” or that you’re being “zeitgeisty”.There is already barely a wet cigarette paper between being British and any episode of The Day Today right now.


Homeward bound: Why companies are ‘re-shoring’ back to the UK

23 Mar

This is a piece of mine just published in Financial Director, a monthly magazine for British finance directors and chief financial officers that I used to edit a few years before going freelance. A few of the big business consultancies are saying that the time is right for British businesses to stop sending their manufacturing work to China and use companies at home- but the evidence that British businesses agree is not compelling. There are, though, a few small-scale operations that are making it work. Read about them below.

British economy is beset by persistent structural problems. We haven’t been a manufacturing power for generations because we’re a ‘knowledge economy’.  It’s more profitable to sell land to a foreign investor than to stick a factory on it and make things. So why is ‘re-shoring’ – the practice by which British businesses stop outsourcing production of some or all of their goods and services to China and other historically low-cost, high-volume countries, and bring it home to employ, innovate and build at home – being pitched as a good thing to do?

With the inception of minimum wage law and the emergence of highly-skilled, better protected, educated workforces in some Asian countries, manufacturing in that region has become almost as expensive as it is at home. Yet the operational risks unique to doing so remain. At home, labour is cheap because it is unskilled. The tide has gone out on the labour cost advantage that Asia has offered.

So re-shoring is a pragmatic choice. “For us, it was quite simply a matter of cost,” Eben Upton, a founder and now chief executive of the Raspberry Pi Foundation, which makes and sells the ubiquitous low-cost computer. The Raspberry Pi Foundation transferred production to Sony’s South Wales factory in 2012 through its partner, Premier Farnell.

“While we were satisfied with the quality level of our original Chinese contract electronic manufacturer and their factory-gate cost, we were able to reduce the UK landed cost of our product through re-shoring. Subsequent cost optimisation – easier without a language barrier and physical distance – has delivered further savings,” Upton tellsFinancial Director. “We build in the UK because it’s cheaper than the alternatives.”

According to Big Four accounting firm EY, which published a study of re-shoring earlier this year, about half the manufacturing businesses in the UK have actively re-shored part of their operations or have been considering doing so. The government has established its own advisory, Reshore UK, to guide small to medium-sized businesses (SMEs) on the process of re-shoring.

The tide has gone out on the labour cost advantage that Asia has offered

However, Civitas, the think-tank, found in its 2014 study that only 64 British SMEs of some 49,000 observed had undertaken re-shoring. The study concludes that “only a tiny part of current production in China will be returned to the UK during the next five to ten years”.

Yet, Civitas lays out several frightening examples of problems British companies have had when giving manufacturing contracts to Chinese companies that would give any FD reason to re-shore. These range from manufacturers ignoring specific instructions on how to produce a product, delivering it months late and with faulty parts, using counterfeit materials in high-spec products, even factories running two production lines – one for the contracted manufactures and another for illicit copies, with nothing but a curtain separating them for the benefit of their visiting clients.

Meanwhile, the language barrier and distances involved in visiting factories add cost and complexity to their supply chains that slow down everything. Re-shoring requires careful planning if it is to bring the financial benefits you want. And it can go wrong. When Magmatic, maker of the famous Trunki children’s wheeled suitcase, moved all its production to a British manufacturer, Inject Plastics, in 2012, it was forced to buy the company six months later to keep the whole project afloat. Inject had cash-flow issues that resulted in the withdrawal of bank finance.

The move to buy Inject became pivotal to making re-shoring work: on closer inspection, it wasn’t equipped to do the job. “When we acquired Inject, we had a good look at what it needed and, yes, it did need further investment – in equipment and the organisational structure,” says Andy Jones, finance and operations director at Magmatic.

“Whether this turns out to be expensive will depend on the value we can continue to create. If we just saw a UK facility as cranking out a standard product at volume then it’s likely offshore operations could do it cheaper. We gave some thought as to how it could offer us a point of difference over our competitors.”

Raspberry Pi and Premier Farnell collaborated for some months on finding costs that could be removed from the manufacturing process, so that the re-shored operation had many more automated steps and needed fewer humans. Adding two holes to the circuit board greatly improved automation and allows faster response to spikes in demand.

Tim Lawrence, a manufacturing expert at PA Consulting, says FDs with whom he has spoken about re-shoring usually prioritise this ability in their considerations.

“Those FDs we have spoken to are interested in the ability to respond to customers’ demands more quickly and to hold less inventory,” he tells Financial Director.

At Trunki and Raspberry Pi, a vital benefit had to be the ability to bring research and innovation teams physically closer to production, to respond to the increasing thirst customers have for customisation and evolving design or capabilities of products. Manufacturing in Asia was simply too cumbersome. Re-shoring made it cheaper to chop and change designs, functionality and to release upgrades and new designs faster.

Magmatic’s Andy Jones says that buying Inject Plastics (now called Magma Moulding) gave the business a readily available, fully controllable and flexible resource that has created new business. “The inputs you need for successful innovation can vary greatly; it’s difficult to predict exactly what you’ll need and for how long. We’ve found that parts of our process lead us in directions we’d not fully considered at the outset,” says Jones.

“Having this access to our quality people has paid dividends in delivering brand new products – like our Trunki case with ‘in-mould’ labels, around which the case is actually moulded so you get no join lines. This has allowed our design team to be more creative with their artwork.”

Jones says there are no other case manufacturers that can in-mould labels onto a case surface which curves over numerous plains, making this a unique selling point it can offer its clients. “We can now make up to 1,000 Trunki cases a day, but we restrict it to about 600 to remain flexible and responsive if we get a sharp fluctuation in demand,” he adds. “Being able to develop new case decoration processes in the UK has helped differentiate us from the copycats. And the factory also acts as our warehouse, which saves us a lot of money on storage and gives us better control over our customer service.”

Those FDs we have spoken to are interested in the ability to respond to customers’ demands more quickly and to hold less inventory
Tim Lawrence, PA Consulting

But little has changed in Britain’s ability to provide skilled technicians and craftspeople, a linchpin element of the re-shoring proposition as painted by advisers such as EY. It posits a government policy of lowering employers’ national insurance contributions, especially for under-25s, to exploit the pool of young unskilled people for the purposes of promoting re-shoring.

However, re-shoring is more likely to be predicated on more automation, rather than more hands, as in the case of Raspberry Pi.

“The key issue in any migration project is retaining and transferring the necessary knowledge that can be difficult to capture and document. In the case of re-shoring, it applies especially when that knowledge, after a long period of offshore activity, has completely been lost in the country of origin,” says PA Consulting’s David Vasak.

With emerging technologies – such as 3D printing and global machine-to-machine connectivity on the internet of things – “a new industrial era is emerging. The way value is created in manufacturing will completely change,” he says.

“Productivity will be based on complex technology and a ‘knowledge workforce’ supporting flexible, highly automated value chains. These will project customer wishes through product development and production to a network of suppliers. Cheap labour won’t drive productivity anymore; here, we see great potential for the UK.”

It remains to be seen how many businesses are prepared to make those complex and fundamental changes to their model in order to benefit from the re-shoring idea.

Bolivia’s doble aguinaldo

7 Jan
I wrote this just before Christmas for the news briefing of the Bolivia Information Forum, about Evo Morales’ decision to double the annual Christmas bonus for state employees – and to enforce private businesses to pay it too. There is very little space in the briefing to discuss all the ramifications of the decision, be they political, social, and financial, as well as what it says about the trajectory of the Plurinational state today. I await late February and the deadline by which private businesses are legally bound to pay the double bonus. And I wonder what would happen if such a measure was taken in the UK!
Double Aguinaldo: Private business on board, but some will struggle to pay
On 20 December, the Bolivian government issued a decree that brought into force the double bonus, or doble aguinaldo, a payment equivalent to one month’s salary to all salaried workers. This is in addition to the bonus, equivalent to one months’ salary, to employees each Christmas. The Supreme Decree 1802 states that the double payment this Christmas is intended to reflect the fact that economic growth is above 4.5%. The doble aguinaldo is to be paid each year for as long as growth remains above that point. In 2013 Bolivia expects to register growth of 6.5%, slowing to 5.7% in 2014.
Potosi, now a down at heel city in Bolivia but once the centre of the Latin American silver mining trade.

Cerro Rico at Potosi, now a down at heel city in Bolivia but once the centre of the Latin American silver mining trade.

Christmas bonus payments equivalent to one months’ salary are common in Latin America. Critics have suggested that the doble aguinaldo is a political tool that Evo Morales is using to buy votes in the run-up to the 2014 national elections. Bolivia has around 400,000 state employees on an average monthly salary of $500.
The decree also requires private enterprises to pay their employees the double bonus, leading to criticism that doing so would push up inflation and make them less competitive. Daniel Sánchez, the president of the Confederation of Private Business of Bolivia (CEPB), met with Labour Minister Daniel Santalla and Finance Minister Luis Arce to negotiate the terms of the payment. As a result, a memorandum of understanding was signed giving private businesses extra time, until 28 February, to pay the bonus to their employees. State employees meanwhile were to have received payment by 31 December.
Several municipalities have said that they will have trouble meeting the requirement, despite the decree stating that, where this is the case, the Treasury will transfer the necessary funding. Meanwhile, smaller businesses, non-governmental organisations and the Catholic Church in Bolivia have said that they will find it next to impossible to fund the double bonus.
Less has been made of the fact that some 70% of Bolivia’s urban and rural workforce are in informal employment, meaning that the vast majority of individuals will not receive any bonus. Pensioners were quick to take to the streets to protest against their not receiving the doble aguinaldo, though they managed to negotiate a 3% increase in their pensions from 2014 over and above inflation.

Educate me, please! Why I don’t like Gustu, Klaus Meyer’s Bolivian restaurant

16 Dec

A piece of rather long-form journalism coming up below. This is not so much a restaurant review as a review of a restaurant concept.

Have a read.

Bolivia doesn’t disappoint Western eyes set upon it for the first time. On my first visit in 2007, walking across the border with Argentina at dusty La Quiaca onto dustier Villazon on the Bolivian side, I was agog as four-foot tall octogenarian women, teal-stained and creased of face and bent almost 90 degree over, race-walked past me with several bags of cement slung over their backs. In my brain, two synapses met and made love: one, all the clichés I’d boiled up about what I expected Latin Americans (never mind Andeans, never mind Bolivians) to look like, gathered from travel guide books and Flickr photo galleries, and two, the bit where you learn something brand new that only The Road can teach you. That mixture of the expected with the unexpected is what well-heeled gap year students come to find in a place like Bolivia – that, and the cocaine.

But what do well-heeled visitors, expats and gringo inhabitants of the country want of the place? In my opinion, not what Gustu has to offer – well, not yet, anyway.

Gustu is one of several high-end restaurants across the Andean countries that has opened to cater to the region’s emergent middle classes, who mingle with said expats and gringos. They all have the means to enjoy the extraordinary ‘authentic’ culinary riches of the region, but packaged up in a thoroughly chic, modern and sanitary (read, ‘safe’) environment. Un poquito de Londres en los Andes, or un peu de Paris perhaps, or Copenhagen, where founder Klaus Meyer is from.

Gustu is all about gastronomy; not just food, but the experience around it, is the vision. And as the founder of Noma, voted best restaurant in the world in 2010 and 2011, Meyer knows how to give monied punters what they want. Noma’s thing is the wrapping up of Nordic cuisine, produce and culture in a world-class, two Michelin star environment. Forbes magazine describes it as a place where at least one dish in every meal “makes you glad to be alive”, which helps when you leave a couple hundred quid poorer.

Gustu, La Paz. Photo: El Deber

Gustu, La Paz. Photo: El Deber

Gustu is a repeat of this idea, but in very different cultural circumstances. It’s somewhat the grown-up version of the Andes’ hostel trail, where foreign gap year kids congregate with their equal numbers from other rich nations, llama jumper-breasted, to enjoy the infamous marching powder among the reassuring safety of their peers. I take no issue with those scenesters: they’ll be stacking shelves and selling hedge funds soon enough, so let them blow off steam and try old wine in new bottles.

But Gustu is a jarring upgrade on the concept of something new in familiar surroundings, with its waitresses in thigh-grazing, black corduroy pollera and matching black shirts. It is too little of Bolivia inside an Ikea pastiche of a European dining experience. It neither satisfies the genuinely curious visitor with sufficient local ‘authenticity’ nor delivers enough first-worldliness to draw La Paz’ nouveau riche week after week. It just isn’t much fun to be with, or to look at – and I visited twice, just to be sure.

It’s unusual for a restaurant reviewer to tackle décor before food, which will be mentioned last here, but that’s what you consume first in any restaurant, and the first cut is the deepest. To return to my maiden voyage over the border, I had my mind (enjoyably) bent by the sight of all Bolivia’s authentic madness, the elderly women, their bright pollera with their bowler hats, the frontier wilderness mixed in with breathless mercantilism.

You’re a long way from it here. For a start, Gustu is a million miles (and two hours of tailbacked traffic) across town and away from the bulk of La Paz civilisation, in the white, wealthy quarter of Calacoto. Here, men in army fatigues guard romantically-lit private streets from sentry boxes. Once arrived, yes, Gustu beckons you into Copenhagen with its understated entrance. But on stepping in, it’s dead quiet. No music plays. It’s a bit cold, and the aircraft-hanger like walls are painted a flat clay grey. There are no photos, paintings, sculptures, no pieces of Andean art, nothing to get your mind into gear for a new and exciting experience costing more than most natives’ monthly wage. Compare that with Noma’s interiors – yes, grey, but a lighter, warmer, tonal grey – with furs draped over easy chairs, rustic brick walls and aged wooden beams. Something to feel, to look at, to be inside of.

Not so much at Gustu. A couple of small couches at the entrance next to the bar are made up in what is presumably Gustu’s take on ‘Andean’ fabrics: stripey, colourful and rough. The same fabric hangs down from the high ceiling in the form of long lampshades. Colour, yes, but not Andean or Bolivian colour. I’ve come for dinner in some sort of clown prison. Take a trip to the ethnographic museum in the centre of the city to discover the breadth, intricate beauty and meanings of regional textiles. They aren’t just there to be pretty for us foreigners. Patterns vary by region, tribe, age, family, ayllu, trade, ritual, time of year – but they all say something, flora, fauna and human life in the Andean cosmovision, in ambers, maroons, shocking pink, neon green, and earthy brown. Stripey yellow and red is no kind of Bolivia I’ve known, and sits badly with the deadening attempt to Europify with empty grey walls. What is perplexing about this is that Gustu’s interiors were overseen by a Pacena fashion and homewares designer, Joyce Martin. I wonder what the brief was.

I search the faces of other diners to check the clientele: of maybe 15 tables, only about four are taken, on both visits. The one within earshot is a trio of American journalists having the food explained to them by Jonas, the blonde, Danish restaurant manager and sommelier. Behind me stuck in a corner is a young, monied-looking couple with a small baby, looking rather miserable. A couple of yanqui tourists sit way over the other end of the place, and then there’s myself and my two friends, a photographer and a music teacher, both from La Paz.

Wheat..and chaff

Before our starters come the bread rolls. Part of Gustu’s business plan, Jonas tells me, is to open a bakery in the city; he tells me that Bolivian bread is awful. The rolls are fine, nothing like the ones I’d been eating for breakfast at my friend’s house near El Alto – but no better. The butter was served on a little slate with a silver butter knife: Paris was interrupting rudely, as Parisians do, and I felt positively dainty manhandling it onto my roll. Is this the cosmopolitanism that local visitors want of this place, I asked myself, and if so, do they know if this is what Europe feels like? I found myself bristling again looking at the small grey knotted serviette in which the bread arrived, undone by the waitress on the table as if setting down Huckleberry Finn’s worldly belongings. I looked through the printed menu for the explanation of this ritual, and glanced at the walls for gringo helping signs, but the waitress made no attempt to translate. I didn’t understand.

The aguayo in action. You'll see this everywhere in La Paz. Photo:

The aguayo in action. You’ll see this everywhere in La Paz. Photo: Jaime Ravallo Camacho, Flickr

I asked my friends what this was all about. They suggested that it was supposed to emulate the aguayo, the large square of hand-woven fabric used by Andean peoples to carry foodstuffs to and from the market – these are trading and agricultural peoples – to carry wawas (babies) on backs up and down mountain passes or on city buses, and to serve food or coca leaf in a traditional apthapi ritual, something I was lucky enough to attend myself on my trip this year. I could see this was an attempt to incorporate something very Bolivian into the Gustu experience, but why not use the Andean textiles aguayos are made with, instead of a boring grey cotton napkin? Make the breaking of bread a Bolivian statement in the colours that travellers will see on the streets.  Wawas continue to be carried in aguayos, and stallholders continue to trade their wares on them. Why hasn’t Meyer brought his clueless foreign diners into his vision with a simple explanation of that history and meaning, without so much as a paragraph on the menu?

I mentioned that I visited Gustu twice. My first visit was aborted after my two-hour trip there because my friend, a Bolivian who lives in Germany, didn’t turn up. But Jonas calmed me down with a cocktail of Singani, orange and thyme. Singani is the national eau-de-vie, a brandy-like spirit distilled from Muscatel grapes, served warm up in the colder reaches. It’s not a drink I like, but clothed in citrus and finished with a sharp little Sunday roast herb edge, it was a pleasingly innovative turn on a Bolivian tradition.

Other visitors might not know what Singani is; and perhaps they’d enjoy their visit more if they were told. Jonas has written about his plans to get big wine producers to mentor Bolivia’s winery minnows and capture this new world. I think he could really make it happen for Bolivian wine. I can only hope that with this, he tells the story he finds to Gustu’s guests.

Onto the food. My costillar de lechon, pork cooked gently in milk and butter served with onions and pears, was good. There wasn’t much of it for 115 Bolivianos, but that’s haute cuisine for you. My friends had the llama with chuno, the former of which is out of many locals’ price range these days, but the latter – a grey, freeze-dried potato – a dietary staple for the masses. I liked Jane Black’s review of Gustu in Food & Wine that reveals Meyer’s first llama meat delivery showed up wrapped in a blanket (possibly an aguayo?) in the back of a taxi. Now that is authentic! It brings back memories of taking lanches (a bastardised version of the word ‘lunch’ I have seen in Bolivia and Brazil) in the central market of Potosi, the historic silver mining city where for the first time, I clapped eyes on meat butchery Bolivian style. A very portly lady presided over an ancient, flaky wooden beam, over which huge sides of cow flapped in the breeze just a few steps from where myself and two travelling friends were wolfing down bowls of steaming sopita.

It wouldn’t pass an official inspection back home. But it’s how many Bolivians really live.

Absent Andes

Not much of human life is here at Gustu yet. The lack of ambience and community in Gustu jabbed me in the back throughout dinner and left the biggest impression. Jonas explained that he just didn’t know why it was so quiet, that this was really unusual. I went on a Wednesday and a Friday night, and both were the same. Fair enough, restaurants need some time to get the word out and punters in. But I think Gustu will continue to struggle attracting first and repeat customers beyond the first flush of glowing publicity it has enjoyed. Meyer has himself spoken about the difficulty Gustu has persuading Bolivians to visit, indicating a fundamental problem with his vision here.

For what it’s worth, my dining partners said they would come again, but maybe for a special occasion – though our bill came to 750 Bolivianos, a little more than the average monthly household income (in a country where not too many people are in regular salaried employment). And other local friends were not keen on trying it at all.

A bottle of Tarija Aranjuez red. Get in my belly! Photo:

A bottle of Tarija Aranjuez red. Get in my belly! Photo:

Sure, maybe some wealthy locals will enjoy the prisonesque walls if they think that’s the height of Western opulence. There is strong demand in Bolivia for foreign things. The same food presented in a regular food stand or cafe would cost around 20-30 Bolivianos, and many people’s mum’s make delicious, fresh specialties for the daily family meal that rival Gustu’s. So there is a gap for Meyer to bridge with the locals. Bolivians know their food is good; they love to eat. A first-time gringo diner may be unaware of the sheer variety of foods that are unique to the Bolivian topography and climate systems: jumbo pods that contain not peas but something akin to candyfloss, potatoes that are brown on the outside but shocking pink on the inside.

Apparently, Gustu is compiling a registration of all the weird and wonderful foodstuffs his team come across. Its team is gathering a lot of information about the biodiversity, cultures, histories, cultivation and uses of Bolivian produce. But none of that is made available to diners, despite the time and money the Melting Pot foundation puts into training its young charges on all of this. Before one tastes the ceibo flower, one sees it on the plate, and has the chance to marvel at just how far from home they are. So why not provide some details, some photographs for the punters – in the menu, on the walls, through the waiters’ descriptions?

There’s no excuse for the lack of atmosphere. La Paz is a city of intellectuals, of artists, of dreamers, and Bolivia’s population is young. They stand at a unique crossroads in Bolivian history, inculcated with all the regional stories, cultures, beliefs, traditions and habits of this complex country, but with both feet firmly in the 21st century, with its J-Pop, network games, smartphones, women engineers and worldly ambitions. Its many creatives strive against a lack of funds and materials to produce work in all media rivalling the quality anywhere, and reflecting their own take on what it means to be Bolivian. Any number of those creatives would surely throttle a chance to hang their work on these very large walls, to be seen, to be heard. But they are shut out here. My dining partners both play cello in the city’s youth orchestra. One of them is also a member of the iconic Wara rock-classical orchestra, pride of the city. But they play for free, smuggle knock-off Chinese-made cellos in on overnight buses, study from books of photocopied text, and they’ve never had access to string wax nor horsehair to replace their bows. Still, they sound incredible and they would not be out of place at the Royal Festival Hall.

Why can’t some of their players be drafted in to play intimate, low-key sets in one of the very draughty corners of Gustu, to welcome in diners with the sound of cosmopolitan Bolivia set against the most earthy of Bolivia’s riches – its food? Why is Gustu’s take on Western chic so deadening to the senses when an intensity of home-grown expression sits on its doorstep? Much has been made of the Melting Pot foundation bringing in disadvantaged young Bolivians to train up in the gastronomy business. Why, then, do I only see white faces cooking up my food through the plate glass window to the stainless steel kitchen – but distinctly local youngsters in all-black outfits doing the serving and saying very little?

Questions abound from the strangeness of the Gustu experience. Surely Meyer is aware that Bolivian wine, while unknown in Europe and Northern America, is very gluggable? On a boozy night out to some very tacky nightclubs in Cochabamba, a city one day’s bus ride from La Paz, I bought too many bottles of Tarija Aranjuez red from the local cornershop at 25 Bolivianos each (£2.20) and enjoyed every slurp of what tasted like a leather-and-tobacco Bordeaux. (I almost bled through the eyes when three bottles of it, bought in duty-free at La Paz airport, were taken off me at Madrid airport.) Tourists with money will be making a pilgrimage south to the Tarija wine region and the vineywards on their organised tours, only just now opening up. Why is Gustu sneaking these wines out without making something of it for pig ignorant gringo punters like me? My dining partners seemed to be having out of body experiences sipping the rose we ordered, but the waiting staff didn’t attempt to explain to me the story or location of these wines. Yes, I need an English translation, as most of Gustu’s visitors will. If you’re asking people to pay for the Europe-in-Bolivia experience, and you want to educate and delight them, then help them out with staff who can answer questions in the international language of business about the produce on offer. It may sound pretentious, but that’s the reality of seeking out gastro-tourist dollars. Meyer isn’t maximising his golden opportunity to showcase Bolivia.

Most of the reviews Gustu has had are glowing; the next big thing in gastronomy, another triumph for Noma’s founder, yadda yadda. These reviews are written by people who are not usually familiar with Bolivia, are sent on paid-for press trips with the quid pro quo of a positive review, and always appear to contain surprise that Bolivian food isn’t slop gathered by the hands of homeless children from open sewers. I think it’s clear that these reviewers go to Bolivia expecting bad food in a poor country, and come away relieved to find something that speaks to their Western sensibilities about experimentation and first-class surroundings, not to mention hygiene. It’s that safety factor again.

Fair enough. But is that all there is? The offering is, to me, not enough – not exciting, adventurous, Bolivian enough, while the Eurocentric touches come across as bland. A couple of purple potatoes and some llama steak washed down with a Singani cocktail is not worth the air fare, nor the long taxi ride to the splendid isolation of Calacoto in an empty clown prison. Meyer has a large space into which he could easily invite Bolivia and become a Hadron Collider of local and global cultures. The vision needs a lot of engineering.

Essay: “A problematisation of the victim-perpetrator dichotomy in Chile and Colombia to propose ‘contentious coextistence’ as a form of national reconciliation”

11 Sep

Today is the 40th anniversary of the overthrow of Chilean president Salvador Allende by General Augusto Pinochet, leading to the reign of terror whose legacy still plagues Chilean society today. I’m off to see two films marking the event, ‘Death and the Maiden” and “Nostalgia for The Light” tonight at Bolivar Hall, both recommended by my human rights tutor Par Engstrom at UCL’s Institute of the Americas where I’ve just completed my MA in Latin American Studies.

Thinking back to what I learned about Chile and the Pinochet era in that class, this week I dug out three of the sources I found more useful in learning about that time and about its legacy: Patricia Verdugo’s “Chile, Pinochet and the Caravan of Death“, Leigh Payne’s “Unsettling Accounts: Neither Truth nor Reconciliation in Confessions of State Violence (The Cultures and Practice of Violence), and the essay “Irruptions of Memory: Expressive Politics in Chile’s Transition to Democracy” by Alexander Wilde. I used all of these in my examined essay for the human rights class. which I present below. This was my first ever academic essay writing exercise (I don’t think you can count GCSE level!) and I picked a horribly complex, un-black and white issue, arguing that reconciliation after such atrocities as committed by the Pinochet regime can never be settled of wiped off the national psychological accounts, so rather, society must seek to bring ‘victims’ and ‘perpetrators’ together with equal value, to find common ground.

Margaret Thatcher and Gen. Augusto Pinochet, March 1994, Santiago de Chile. Photo:

Of course, this is a hugely challenging and controversial viewpoint, and my essay can probably be accused of being naive, idealistic, unrealistic, ignorant, and coming from the easy standpoint of someone who has only ever read about such atrocities, never experienced them. I would not argue forcefully against those accusations, but I found the experience of reading widely about truth and reconciliation efforts, ‘contentious coexistence’, and cases where this process had taken place seemed to point to a truth: that after so much pain, hate, fear, and generations deep, no amount of retribution or ‘reconciliation’ can change memory. Chile’s own truth and reconciliation efforts are regarded at the success benchmark for other countries that have tried to deal with such atrocities in this way, but Wilde’s essay makes plain shortcomings and failures in that approach, though it is regarded as the best one on offer. But people have to live, and find a way to go on, so I examined cases where, beyond simple ‘truth telling’ followed by simple ‘reconciliation’, forms of contentious coexistence between ‘victoms’ and ‘perpetrators’ of violence had been tried in Chile and Colombia, arguing for this model. I imagine that there would be a range of views on this essay, but in memory of the events in Chile, and to show how ‘live’ and complex those legacies are today – for those affected and students of the time – I’m posting it here.

I highly recommend reading the three sources above: only Wilde’s paper reads in the ‘scholarly’ style that some find hard to process, but is still compelling enough to be worth the effort, while the two books are ‘plain English’ in their style and are very accessible, if grim.

“A problematisation of the victim-perpetrator dichotomy in Chile and Colombia to propose ‘contentious coextistence’ as a form of national reconciliation”


Much of the scholarly debate around reconciliation within the transitional justice context is heavily biased towards the perspective of victimhood of an authoritarian regime – the tortured, the disappeared, the murdered. Human rights law applied through truth and reconciliation commissions seek reparations for victimhood, through which post-authoritarian democracies offer their societies national reconciliation. This essay asserts that this bias towards victimhood comes at the expense of the role to be played by perpetrators in understanding the violence, context and history that led to terror regimes and their perpetration within them, and the thorny reality that there is often more crossover between victim and perpetrator than truth commissions can reveal. The bias in reconciliation discourse encourages a common victim-perpetrator dichotomy unhelpful to the project.

I problematise the dichotomy and argue that transitional justice must valorise perpetrators in reconciliation discourse by looking at examples where perpetrators are also, or have been victims, recognising that perpetrators and victims of such violence have different, but equally weighted perspectives, with a view to constructing national reconciliation. I propose that equalising these actors leads us to a form of ‘contentious coexistence’ (Payne 2007: 279). In this case, rather than two opposing groups (victim and perpetrators here) competing for sovereignty, a range of groups, identities and realities co-exist. I compare the cases of Chile and Colombia, specifically Chile’s Caravan of Death and Colombia’s programme of demobilising and reintegrating former illegal combatants into civil life, as two examples where clear victim-perpetrators exist, explaining how they break the dichotomy. I sketch the implications this has for reconciliation discourse and summarise that through this process, we can re-evaluate what we mean by national reconciliation when victims can be perpetrators, and perpetrators victims.


As democracy scholars contend for a definition of the word, scholars of human rights and transitional justice debate definitions of ‘reconciliation’. Post-authoritarian democratising societies seeking reconciliation likewise contend for clarity; who are ‘we’, and who gets to be part of ‘we’? Society is thus split into distinct groups of victims and perpetrators. This creates a victim-perpetrator dichotomy, with clear sovereignty awarded to victimhood. Perpetrators feature only minimally, as a force to be extinguished, neutralised in the clamour for justice after brutality.

In part one, I set out some of the discourse on defining ‘reconciliation’ in transitional justice literature, and its bias towards what it identifies as ‘victim’. Part two presents my theoretical base and assertions for breaking the victim-perpetrator dichotomy as a route to reconciliation, viewed as contentious coexistence. Part three demonstrates in practice where perpetrators are also victims, in Chile and Colombia. Part four is a conclusion of my thesis.

Part One: Defining reconciliation and the victim bias

There is no definition of reconciliation; trying to pin down this “will-o-the-wisp” (Weinstein 2011: 7) may be futile. But it has common characteristics in the transitional justice literature. As Latin American post-authoritarian societies seek to use international law governing human rights, guaranteeing the rights of victims to truth and justice – and expressed in the form of truth commissions – much of the literature is dominated by that perspective. The ‘duty to prosecute’ (Orentlicher 1998:2551; Mendez 1997:261) is one important expression of transitional justice ideals, but reinforces the victimhood bias. Reconciliation has been viewed as a vision of “reconstituted society” formed upon “democratic principles, rule of law and observance of human rights norms”, as an evolution from simply punishing “evildoers” (Weinstein 2011:2). But without defining democracy and with wildly varying comprehensions of human rights norms, it is hard to establish.

Huyse (2003:19) captures the essentially contested nature of reconciliation. By his estimation, “backward-looking” reconciliation focuses on healing, reparations for survivors, constructing “a common vision and understanding of the past”. A “forward-looking” interpretation focuses on getting victims and perpetrators to “get on with life, and at the level of society” establishing a “civilised political dialogue and an adequate sharing of power”. The former definition characterises the bulk of scholarly debate on reconciliation. Most Latin American countries that have been through the truth commission process focused on forming one official version of the truth from which reparations can flow to victims. Renner (2012:51) finds academic discourse predominantly framing reconciliation in relation to truth commissions. She sees reconciliation as an ’empty universal’ (2012:52) – an ideological goal delivered discursively, which assumes that truth-telling itself will deliver national reconciliation. The vagueness around the term has, Renner (2012:56) says, encouraged an accepted a ‘reconciliation paradigm’ based in three assumptions: that reconciliation is opposed to retribution, that it requires truth-telling, and that truth-telling and healing are best achieved through truth commissions (2012:56).

There is, however, a corridor of literature pressing for the valorisation of the perpetrator in reconciliation discourse, with the broader focus of coexistence for all of society and recognition of difference.

Govier and Verwoerd (2004) criticise the way victims and perpetrators are created in opposition in the literature on peace studies as an oversimplification (2004:371). Having worked on the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission (2004:377) Verwoerd’s views reflect the weight of real experience among practitioners of reconciliation in complex, post-violence societies.

Echoing Huyse’s (2003:19) forward-looking model, Bankowski (c2007:49) sees reconciliation as a process of asking ourselves how we can take responsibility for wrongs “that we or our society has committed”, but argues that reconciliation framed in terms of “the sacred victim” (c2007:51) produces a concentration on rights and reparations that stands in the way of putting the self and community in question. He says: “Reconciliation has to start from the recognition of our common humanity and equality in pain and affliction” (c2007: 55) – “we cannot, oppressor or victim, escape….by constructing purified selves” (c2007:55).

Shifter and Jawahar (2004:127) see the trend in Latin America towards establishing one version of the truth as leading to reconciliation defined as “peaceful coexistence and respect for difference”, finding that justice for perpetrators “is only one of many tasks that must be undertaken” (2004: 127). They believe, though, that amnesties “are not incompatible with reconciliation, provided they are a product of genuine negotiation and are not imposed or forced, as Chile’s was” (2004:127). But amnesties by their nature are always imposed or forced; they do not simply materialise out of thin air.

Humphrey (2002:105) argues that states seeking to establish truth through remembering dichotomise reconciliation and justice. He argues that reconciliation through trials is a function of a new government seeking to found democratic legitimacy by stigmatising the “predecessor’s programme and not just individual accountability for ‘crimes against humanity’” (2002:132) and that this means reconciliation “reconstitutes everyone as members of the same political community”.

Humphrey picks two quotes from Taylor (1994:200 in Humphrey 2002:123) to end his assessment of reconciliation: one, that the Latin American ‘Nunca Mas’ truth commissions failed because truth “constructs, invents and is exclusionary”, and two, that remembering is also, therefore, a process of forgetting (Taylor 1994:200 in Humphrey 2002:123). In all of Latin America’s ‘Nunca Mas’ truth commissions amnesties were imposed, subjugating and omitting perpetrators from the process in favour of Bankowski’s “sacred victim” (c2007:51).

Part Two: The victim-perpetrator dichotomy, and the more complex truth

Tristan Anne Borer (2003:1090) offers three Venn diagrams of two sets apiece, victim and perpetrator, which I use here as the theoretical model from which my assertions arise. The first is two co-centric circles side by side; the second sees the circles start to overlap, and the third set – representing her thesis that there is much crossover between victims and perpetrators – not only overlap, but have serrated edges, driving home the point that binary opposition does not tell the truth about pre- or post-conflict relationships. From here, I assert that deconstruction of the victim-perpetrator dichotomy into a more nuanced picture, where we discover the victim-perpetrator, makes the dichotomy hard to sustain. We no longer have two opposing sides to reconcile, nor one side to which all reparations are directed, but rather a set of people with complex relationships and their own interpretations of society. The implications for transitional justice are that perpetrators are valorised in the reconciliation discourse, seen here as a form of contentious coexistence (Payne 2007:279).

Evidently, the concept that perpetration is more diffuse among society is an uneasy one. The focus on legal structures to deliver truth, justice, reparation and reconciliation in the transitional justice literature might be a response to this unease, isolating victim and perpetrator into separate groups and within those, defining types of victim and types of perpetrator or crime that make life simpler. Latin American truth commissions set their definitions narrowly, within specific kinds of crime, or a specific set of dates. Borer’s model shows that some of those individuals may be ‘the enemy’ too. Politically, for a new government at pains to demonstrate adherence to democratic ideals and to be seen to deliver justice, to recognise this could be destabilising – one outlook on the fervour for amnesties founded by post-authoritarian governments, as supported by Humphrey’s thesis (2008:132).

Halperin and Weinstein (2004:562) recognise the value perpetrators must have in reconciliation. They suggest a process of rehumanising must occur, where participants in war and conflict must learn to live side by side to engineer the shared “social capital” (Putnam 1993:163 in Halperin and Weinstein 2004:562) needed for society to rebuild itself. They contend that social reconstruction in a transitional society depends on people acting in concert to rebuild societal structures, “requiring respect for and the synthesis of divergent views” (2004:575).

Huyse (2003:67) organises offenders in violent conflict into primary and indirect in a way that widens society’s perpetrator net. Primary offenders committed acts that can be brought before a criminal court based on international and national laws, the type of perpetrator that is simple to identify and receives most of the attention in the reconciliation process (Huyse 2003:67). Indirect offenders are “silent offenders” – they profited from the perpetrating regime, remained silent or inactive in witnessing human rights violations (Huyse 2003:67).

Payne (2008:138) believes victims of torture hold insight into perpetrators that outsiders do not share, know that perpetrators have no choice but to perpetrate in order to stay within the authoritarian security structure, and that they might have done the same in that situation. They sense how context and history bore down on perpetrators because they share some element of it. After speaking about what they did, Payne (2008:138) says, perpetrators are viewed as equals by victims, without having forgiven them. On that basis, we arrive at Payne’s contentious coexistence (2008:287), where instead of two contending perspectives, a fledgling or recovering democracy enjoys the contest of a range of views and alliances – a spectrum of victims and perpetrators, and victim-perpetrators – in recognition that one version of the truth is neither obtainable nor desirable. Society must play its part by acknowledging history and context that led up to the regime and to perpetration; acknowledging its part in contentious coexistence.

Part Three: When are victims perpetrators, and perpetrators victims in Chile and Colombia?

The Caravan of Death (the Caravan) was a death squad directed by General Augusto Pinochet three weeks after his September 11, 1973 takeover of the Chilean state, sending a military delegation by helicopter to five military garrisons across the country. Its aim was twofold: to round up civilians named on a list of supposed state enemies and murder them, and in so doing, to terrorise the military into compliance with a regime ousting elected government against a long democratic tradition. The Caravan delivered brutal torture and extra-judicial executions, directed by the General’s second-in-command but physically carried out by officers stationed at the garrisons with no prior notice of the Caravan’s arrival or goals. This diffused perpetrator status among often young, inexperienced officers at a time when Chilean society viewed the military as unobtrusive, professional and trustworthy – conferring an unquestioned confidence in the institution across generations prior.

In Colombia, generations of widespread poverty and a societal tradition of extreme political, factional violence, conflated with US intervention that led the Colombian government to resort to draft “indigenous irregulars” into perpetrating terror in state defence (Tate 2001:164 in Theidon 2007:69), brutalising everybody in the civil war characterising the country today. A National Committee of Reparation and Reconciliation is charged with compiling an official historical memory, with a view to democratic strengthening [United States Institute of Peace: 2012]. Colombia began a process of collective demobilisation of combatants in 2003, which since 2006 has been succeeded by a focus on individual disarmament, demobilization and reintegration (DDR) of ex-combatants into civil life. There are some 43,000 ex-combatants involved in these processes throughout Colombia (Jaramillo, Giha and Torres’ 2009:4) in a country where over 70,000 people died in the conflict in the 20 years to 2008 [Amnesty International: 2008].

Both Chile (Hayner 1994:621) and Colombia have sought to establish a single version of the truth on their conflict experiences. Chile had two truth commissions, in 1990 and 2003 (Hayner 2002:xi). Both countries have used amnesty to extract truth from perpetrators, and draw up reparations for victims from testimony, establishing a firm victim-perpetrator dichotomy in a transitional period. In the DDR approach to perpetrators Colombia (perhaps accidentally) recognises perpetrators as victims in a nation long scandalised by violence. This could be evidence of a pre-postconflict environment akin to democratic transition.

First, to Colombia. Jaramillo, Giha and Torres (2009:37) contend that victims are today an integral part of the legal procedures to prosecute perpetrators. In assessing victims’ participation they refer first to Colombia’s 2005 Justice and Peace Law (JPL) and its three official classifications of ‘victim’ (2009:37):

  1. A person who has suffered direct harm to his or her personal and emotional integrity, or suffered financial losses, or whose fundamental rights were violated as a consequence of the criminal acts of organized illegal groups, is considered a victim

  1. It is presumed that the next of kin within the first degree of consanguinity or civil relation to the person assassinated or disappeared are victims, although following the decision of the Constitutional Court, other family members who prove that they suffered harm may also be considered victims3.The JPL considers as victims the members of the army and National Police who have suffered physical and psychological harm due to the actions of members of the illegal armed groups.

    Applying Theidon’s (2007) interviews with ex-combatants that have been ‘reintegrated’ into society in the DDR process places some of those in the first and second classification. One interviewee, 28-year old “J.M”, deserted the guerilla group National Liberation Army when some of its members assassinated his younger brother. He is a victim and a perpetrator.

    Govier and Verwoerd (2004:372) underscore this when they explain that a person who is perpetrating by supporting violence against “the other side” can concurrently be a victim if, for example, a relative of theirs has been killed in political violence.

The third classification of victim in the JPL includes the Army and National Police. This does not recognise that those groups initially joined forces with paramilitaries who, on the recommendation of US military advisors, enlisted “indigenous irregulars” in the Colombian government’s counterinsurgency plan, and created these groups by emergency decree in 1968 (Theidon 2007:69). A presidential decree in 1989 made them illegal (Theidon 2007:69). In this estimation, paramilitaries are victim to that switch in legal definition, becoming enemies of the state and terrorists – perpetrators – after 1989. Jaramillo, Giha and Torres point to controversy around classifying Army and Police personnel as victims (2009:37) and the exclusion of perpetrators of state crimes from the process [International Centre for Transitional Justice: 2012].

On the first classification, what Colombian can claim not to be a victim of one of the described forms of harm by one of the organised illegal groups who, prior to 1989, had legal status by presidential decree? Is, then, not all Colombian society a victim, necessitating the conclusion that many victims are also perpetrators?

Now to Chile. Theidon (2007:76) says her interviewed ex-combatants “blur the line between victim and perpetrator”. Most of her interviewees were foot soldiers – “cannon fodder that is woefully expendable” (Theidon 2007:76). This echoes in the case of those carrying out the directive behind Chile’s Caravan of Death. Oleguer Benaventes Bustos, second in command at the Talca regiment at that time, believes the Caravan’s goal was “[t]o instil fear and terror among the commanders. To prevent any military personnel, down to [the] lowest ranking officers, from taking a false step: this could happen to you!” (Cardenas 2001:30. My italics). The Caravan inspected garrisons as the helicopter landed, testing for disloyalty to the new regime among officers, with the aim of intimidation [Center for Justice and Accountability: 2012]

Comments made by Juan Salvador Guzmán Tapia, a Chilean judge who in 1999 ordered the arrest of five retired military officers who were participants in the Caravan, alongside the arrest of General Pinochet on human rights abuses, indicates the victim-perpetrator status of junior officers:

I am convinced that the junior officers, at least, believed in good faith that they were doing something for the good of the country…[t]hese are people who deeply repent their participation in the executions, and consider it perhaps the worst time of their life.

(Jane Gabriel and Isabel Hilton 2001: Correspondent special: Caravan of Death, British Broadcasting Corporation)

We can consider those individuals victims in the context of the societal norms around respect and trust for the military, in a long tradition of its subjugation to the sovereign power of Chile’s body politic. Most of the 75 individuals murdered by the Caravan gave themselves up to it voluntarily, calmly co-operating when arrested in a night raid on their homes, or appearing in front of new military authorities for the crime of working for the previous government (Verdugo 2001:1). The concept of their lack of safety, or of subterfuge, did not enter their minds. This is because the military enjoyed uncontested trust within a “strong legal culture” and long democratic tradition (Verdugo 200:1) was practically Chilean DNA.

This DNA worked in the same way for military personnel, who Verdugo asserts were “forced into fratricidal violence” (2001:1) by this history. For almost 150 years prior, Chilean society saw the military as subjugate to political life. With exception to the 1879 War of the Pacific, the military had no external battles to fight and was viewed by society as a harmless mix of “marches and melodies” (Constable and Valenzuela 1993:40); a safe place to stow less intelligent sons. Constable and Valenzuela (2003:54) assert that Pinochet’s junta sought to secure role reversal of that historic pecking order. Soldiers failing to follow orders “risked being demoted, arrested, or worse” (Constable and Valenzuela 1993:54).

This perspective is nonetheless challenging. Consider the case of Armando Fernandez Larios, who was a junior officer that perpetrated in the Caravan. In 2003, he was found liable by a Florida court for “torture, crimes against humanity and extra-judicial killing” in the murder of Allende government economist Winston Cabello at the Copiapo garrison [Center for Accountability and Justice (a): 2012], where Fernandez Larios was stationed. Fernandez Larios had argued that he was not liable as he was simply following orders and was a junior officer [United States District Court, Southern District of Florida, Southern Division 2001:8]. Without removing agency or blame, we can consider Fernandez Larios – with emotional difficulty, but logic nonetheless – to be a victim of the aforementioned history and context, and still view him as a perpetrator. He satisfies Borer’s (2003) model of victim-perpetrator even if he also satisfies Huyse’s (2003:67) direct and indirect offender status, the latter because he went onto become a Major in Pinochet’s army before resigning in 1987 and fleeing to United States protection [Center for Accountability and Justice (a): 2012].

In his work on ‘irruptions of memory’ in post-authoritarian Chile, Wilde (1999:480) points to a number of studies that, he says, argue authoritarian characteristics have been “a consistent feature” of Chile’s historic political institutions – “integral rather than exceptional” and pre-dating the Pinochet regime. He points to a ‘conspiracy of consensus’ (1999:476) among political elites, observable between irruptions, that permeates society at large as a “widespread aversion to conflict” and a low level of societal trust generated not just by dictatorship, but also by political polarisation in years preceding (1999: p. 476). It has been argued that the party politics of Chile today are a continuation of mid-nineteenth century social cleavages and trio of ideological blocs, formed into institutions that sought, and seek, to “reach deeply” into the mechanics of civil society (Scully 1995:100). Wilde points to a scholarly literature that suggests Chile’s conspiracy of consensus is a deeply ingrained character of political culture (Wilde 1997:480). In sum, officers summoned to torture and murder civilians were victims of societal norms operating in the reality vacuum that was the weeks after Pinochet’s power grab.

Verdugo (2001:i) implores us to see her pivotal inquiry not “in search of a useless and painful voyage to the past”, but as a contribution to “fraternal reconciliation”. This seems to echo the history affecting our soldiers as described above. Does Verdugo, likewise affected, see her book as another ‘irruption’?

Referring to Borer’s third set of circles and applying it to the cases of Colombia’s civil war and Chile’s Caravan as proxy for the Pinochet era of authoritarian rule, we can better understand that reconciliation must involve perpetrators, because we can also view some perpetrators as victims at some stage. Alongside victims of human rights abuse and terror, these perpetrators can tell us about the pre-authoritarian society and how this informed the period in question, giving us the context to shed new light on perpetrators and valorise their input when national reconciliation is the aim. In turn, this can deepen democracy.

Part Four: Conclusion

In this essay I have presented my thesis that the weight of transitional justice discourse on reconciliation falls too heavily on victimhood and on reparations for victims of widespread terror. I assert that this created a victim-perpetrator dichotomy that colours our notions of what reconciliation is to carve out large swatches of society from the process of reconciliation. In trying to show that the dichotomy is an oversimplification of the truth of pre-and post-conflict societies, I have presented ideas from a narrow corridor of the transitional justice discourse and also from peace studies to show that victims can often be perpetrators, and perpetrators victims, examining two specific cases in Latin American societies to show where these groups clearly exist.

I have shown that, in breaking the victim-perpetrator dichotomy we can re-examine our notions of national reconciliation and that we must valorise the role of perpetrator if we genuinely seek national reconciliation. I arrive at the concept of contentious coexistence as the resting point at the end of this thesis, a place where not just two opposing groups and ideas compete – and one is more heavily weighted in both society’s mind and in the relevant scholarly literature – but where a range of groups, identities and realities can co-exist, carry different, but equal weight and compete, which can lead to democratic deepening.

In the case of Chile, described as a ‘nation of enemies’ (Constable and Valenzuela: 1993), scholars point to regular ‘irruptions of memory’ (Wilde: 1999) that visit society because various realities about the era of terror have not sufficiently been dealt with. Chile dichotomised victim and perpetrator in its search for reconciliation and in subjugating what perpetrators could tell them about context and history, papered over awkward truths that may point to the causes of that period and how to deal with its fallout over successive generations. Wilde’s ‘irruptions’ are proof enough that a single truth has not materialised in Chile, and that a range of truths will continue in contention. In sharing this experience without contending for sovereignty over it, and with time having passed, perpetrators, victims and victim-perpetrators may share Huyse’s (2003:19) forward-looking “civilised political dialogue” and recover the germ of reconciliation.



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Huyse, L. (2003) ‘The Process of Reconciliation’ in D Bloomfield, T Barnes and L Huyse (eds) Reconciliation After Violent Conflict: A Handbook. Stockholm: International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance

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Wilde, A. (1999) ‘Irruptions of Memory: Expressive Politics in Chile’s Transition to Democracy’, Journal of Latin American Studies 31, pp. 473-500

Dangerous service, absent customer service: welcome to easybus

23 Jul

I’m publishing here a copy of the letter that I have sent to the customer services, and separately, the refunds department of easybus, a business providing bus shuttle services between three London airports and the city itself. I used the service coming home from Gatwick in June this year and their driver forced three people to squeeze into two seats (myself, my boyfriend and a stranger), meaning there was one less seatbelt for us than is legally required. This was after breaking the contract made between passengers and easybus that, if you already hold a paid for ticket, you will be given priority to take a seat on your scheduled service over those who turn up without a ticket. In fact, one bus refused to let us on and gave priority to a bunch of people who turned up without tickets; the next bus allowed more passengers without tickets on first, then squeezed myself and my partner on to the one remaining seat in the front alongside another passenger without a ticket. What followed was a very scary ride home in the early hours of the morning.

Why am I publishing this letter? Because I have sent it to two postal addresses for easybus complaints, the chairman and head of PR at easygroup, and I’ve tweeted easybus with my complaint, all over the last seven weeks. The single response was a one-line reply from the PR saying that someone would be in touch: over one week later, of course, no one has been in touch. I have now advanced my complaint to the ‘regulators’ – though they have no legal powers even to force easybus to respond, but they’re all us British bus users have. I hope they can get easybus and/or easygroup to act like a professional business, rather than a stone.

Three worrying things: one, I’ve told easybus about their having appearing to have broken the law, or at least, put passengers in grave danger. Two, they have failed to defend themselves against that serious accusation. Three, they don’t appear to care about the reputational risk in complaints being made public, and complaints about complaints being made public. A quick Google search shows a long list of angry people who have complaints about easybus, some of whom have contacted the business and experienced the same wall of silence. I’m willing to wager that few people will have made as many attempts to give the business opportunities to put this right as I have given easybus and easygroup. And yet the silence remains intact. So as a customer, I am left with no other forum but the public one, publishing my letter and my frustration. As a journalist, I’m extremely tempted to write about this for a travel supplement or magazine: surely then they’d take note?

It feels very much like easybus has a habit of ignoring complaints (based on what I have read online from others who have had no response), and hopes to simply keep making easy money from a poor service while relying on the fact that their silence is backed up with a sore lack of powerful regulators or ombudsmen. Complaining about this has taken my time and money, neither of which any of us have to spare on poor service, and the bodies I’ve contacted to help me (Bus Users UK and London Travel Watch) have no powers to compel easybus or easygroup to modify their attitude.

7th June 2013

To whom it may concern,

I write with a serious complaint about your service and to claim a full refund on the two tickets I bought for your service from Gatwick Airport on 07 June 2013.

On the morning of 07 June 2013 my partner and I were waiting for your easybus service to collect us from Gatwick North Terminal. We had bought two tickets and had our printed ticket/receipt with us. Our tickets were timed for 00.40 but we were waiting from about 00:00 for an earlier bus, as stated as permissible by you as printed on the ticket. As we had bought and reserved two seats that your ticket stated were able to be used up to one hour before or after the time stated on the ticket, we expected to simply board the next bus.

When the next bus arrived the driver made the choice to admit 4 passengers who had no tickets and were paying on the spot. I showed the driver my ticket as these people were boarding, and reminded him that he is bound, as the ticket states, to let us board as a priority because we have already got tickets. The driver refused us still and admitted these other people who were paying on the spot.

Further, he had at least two empty seats in the van and two in the front: when we wanted to board using these the driver stated that he could not allow this because he was going to collect more people from the other terminal. We were therefore left no choice, with the terms of the ticket broken by your driver, to wait for the next bus.

When the second bus arrived, we were sure to show him our tickets first as there was one other individual waiting to board who had no ticket, and the bus looked almost full. This driver said that all three of us must squeeze onto the two empty seats in the front, as it was likely that the next service would not show up at all. I was incredulous at this. I know that it is a legal requirement that easybus ensures each passenger has a seatbelt: one of the three of us would be forced to go without. I reminded the driver of the rules stated on the ticket which meant that he was supposed to prioritise pre-paid customers, and should allow myself and my partner to take the two last seats, not to squeeze a third person on between us without a seatbelt. I reminded him that to do so would mean easybus was breaking the law and putting its passengers in danger. He simply responded that we had no choice and argued that it was an act of charity to let the third passenger (who had no pre-paid ticket) on despite having no seat for her, because of the likelihood that no other bus would show up that evening.

We drove into West Brompton feeling very much at risk: my partner is very tall and practically sat with half his backside up against the door to make room for this on-the-spot customer to share my seat. I was in between them and felt very unsafe with all of us squashed up together. As we were so squashed up, my partner and I tried but failed to find and secure the two seatbelts available. The third passenger had no belt available.

As a consequence, easybus broke the law and put all three of us in great danger in order, as I see it, to squeeze in one more paying customer than is safely possible in your vehicles.

The law states that only one person is legally permitted to sit in each seat fitted with a seat belt. It also states that it is the passenger’s responsibility (aged 14 and up) to ensure they wear a seatbelt on a minibus or coach. Easybus removed the possibility of being able to discharge this responsibility by implying that there may not have been another bus for several hours if at all that morning and forcing a third passenger into two seats and leaving absolutely no room to move or fasten the available seatbelts.

In the easybus terms and conditions 7.1 on passenger behaviour, it states that passengers “must wear the provided seatbelt at all times whilst the vehicle is in motion.” How could easybus expect passengers to comply when it knowingly allows in a passenger for whom there is no seatbelt available?

You can read the legislation on seatbelts here

When we complained about our experience to the driver he said that the first driver should not have left us as it is the driver’s responsibility to make these decisions. However, I want to stress that I take no issue with our driver. The two drivers we encountered appeared to be under pressure with driver or service drop-outs that evening (which begs the question of whether we would simply have been left without any bus whatsoever had we tried to take the 00.40 service that the second driver claimed would not likely turn up).

My issue is with easybus and the way it runs an entirely shoddy and dangerous service. This service resulted in two drivers overriding the contract between passengers and itself to prioritise customers with tickets in hand, and failed to guarantee the safety procedures it is legally required to.

I have four things I want easybus to do to respond to this complaint as a matter of urgency:

Refund in full the £17.98 I paid for two tickets, and the £2.20 cost of sending this letter to easybus refunds and easybus customer services by Royal Mail Signed For second-class postage in both cases (because you do not provide an e-mail service).

Explain why on-the-spot customers were prioritised on these two occasions over two pre-paid customers who should, as stated on your ticket, take priority.

Explain how easybus defends breaking the law by failing to provide one passenger a seatbelt, and forcing two more to go without being able to use their seatbelts.

Declare whether easybus pays commission or any other form of incentive or reward to drivers for taking passengers who pay on the spot.

I have sent this message to the office of the chairman of easygroup. The same letter is copied to the easybus refunds department and the easybus customer services department.

I hope that you will respond soon, in writing (you can e-mail me or respond in writing through the post).


Melanie Stern

Cosmopolitan magazine: WLTM my dream job!

21 Sep Cosmopolitan magazine, October 2012

I’ve had a piece published in Cosmopolitan magazine (UK edition – October 2012 coverdate). Have a look at the PDFs – I can’t add the copy here as I usually do because the story is broken into various points of entry on the page, so to list it as paragraphs would not work.

Cosmopolitan magazine, October 2012

Cosmopolitan magazine, October 2012