art of resistance, Pakistan

Tariq Ali: The Duel (excerpt).

The following is an excerpt from Tariq Ali’s book The Duel: Pakistan on the Flight Path of American Power (published by Simon & Schuster).

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“Books have a destiny. This is my third study of Pakistan. The first, Pakistan: Military Rule or People’s Power?, was written in 1969 and predicted the breakup of the state. It was banned in Pakistan. Critics of every persuasion, even those who liked the book, thought it was going too far in suggesting that the state could disintegrate, but a few years later that is exactly what happened. Just over a decade later I wrote Can Pakistan Survive? The question mark was not unimportant but nonetheless struck a raw nerve in General Zia’s Pakistan, where to even pose the question was unacceptable. The general himself was extremely angry about its publication, as were sections of the bureaucracy, willing instruments of every despotism. Zia attacked both me and the book at a press conference in India, which was helpful and much appreciated by the publisher’s sales department. That book too was banned, but to my delight was shamelessly pirated in many editions in Pakistan. They don’t ban books anymore, or at least not recently, which is a relief and a small step forward.

When I left in 1963, the country consisted of West and East Pakistan. Eight years later the East defected and became Bangladesh. The population of the Western wing was then 40-45 million. It has grown phenomenally ever since and is now approaching the 200 million mark. The under-thirties constitute a majority.

This book centers on the long duel between a U.S.-backed politico-military elite and the citizens of the country. In earlier years the State Department would provide the seconds for the duel, but with U.S. troops now in neighboring Afghanistan and U.S. bombs falling on homes inside Pakistan, the conflict is assuming a more direct form. Were it to proceed further, as some have been arguing in Washington, there is a distinct possibility that serious cracks would threaten the much-vaunted unity of the Pakistan military high command. The relationship with Washington, always controversial in the country, now threatens the Pakistan army. Political commentators in the United States together with a cabal of mimics in Pakistan regularly suggest that an Islamist revolution is incubating in a country that is seriously threatened by ‘jihadi terrorists.’ The only function of such a wild assertion is to invite a partial U.S. occupation and make the jihadi takeover a self-fulfilling prophecy.

The most important aspect of the duel is not the highly publicized conflict in Waziristan, but the divide between the majority of the people and their corrupt, uncaring rulers. This duel is often fought without weapons, sometimes in the mind, but it never goes away. An important reason for the deep hostility to the United States has little to do with religion, but is based on the knowledge that Washington has backed every military dictator who has squatted on top of the country. With Pakistan once again a strategic asset, the fear is that Washington will do so again, since it regards the military as the only functioning institution in the country, without showing any signs of comprehension as to why this is the case. This book might help in this regard.

What explains my continuing interest in Pakistan? I was born and educated there. Most of my family still lives there, and in periods when I haven’t been banned from entering the country, I visit regularly. I enjoy running into old friends and acquaintances, especially now that most of them have retired from important positions and can speak openly and laugh again. I never feel alone in Pakistan. Something of me stayed behind in the soil and the trees and the people so even in bad times I am welcome.

I love the mountains. At least they can’t be skyscrapered and forced to look like Dubai. Palm trees, Gulf kitsch, and the Himalayas don’t mix, not that it prevents some from trying. The cityscapes are something else. They have greatly changed over the years; new unplanned and poorly designed buildings have wrecked most of the larger towns. In Islamabad, the capital, one of the U.S. architects who built the city in the late sixties, Edward Stone, was unhappy with the site because it sat on a geological fault line and had weak soil. He advised that no building higher than three stories should ever be built there. He was ignored by the military dictator of the day. When a massive earthquake hit the country in 2005, buildings trembled all over Islamabad. I was there during the aftershocks, which were bad enough.

It was not only the earthquake that hurt Pakistan. This latest tragedy brought other wounds to the surface. A deeper and darker malaise, barely noticed by the elite and taken for granted by most citizens, had infected the country and was now publicly visible. The earthquake that killed tens of thousands of people shone a light on a country tainted by corrupted bureaucrats, army officers, and politicians, by governments rotten to the core, by protected mafias, and by the bloated profits of the heroin industry and the arms trade. Add to this the brutal hypocrisy of the Islamist parties, which exploit the state religion, and the picture is complete. Many ordinary people on the street, unsurprised by tales of privilege and graft, viewed the disaster in this context. At a state school in Lahore, students collecting toys for the children who’d survived the tragedy were asked whom they would like to address them. They voted unanimously against any politician, army officer, or civilian bureaucrat. They wanted a doctor.

None of this, of course, explains the urge to keep writing about a country. The reason is simple. However much I despise the callousness, corruption, and narcissism of a degenerate ruling elite, I have never allowed that to define my attitude toward the country. I have always harbored a deep respect and affection for the common people, whose instincts and intelligence, despite high levels of illiteracy, consistently display a much sounder appreciation of what the country requires than those who have lorded it over them since 1947. Any independent-minded Pakistani journalist or writer will confirm this view.

The people cannot be blamed for the tragedies that have afflicted their country. They are not to blame for the spirit of hopelessness and inescapable bondage that sometimes overcomes them. The surprise is that more of them don’t turn to extremist religious groups, but they have generally remained stubbornly aloof from all that, which is highlighted in every election, including the latest, held in February 2008. Given the chance, they vote in large majorities for those who promise social change and reforms and against those in power. They are always disappointed.

Colin Robinson, my long-standing editor, first at Verso, later at the New Press, and now at Scribner, was strongly convinced that I should write this book long before I was. His persistence paid off. His instincts were better than mine. As I was working on the book, Mary-Kay Wilmers, stern janitor of the London Review of Books, plucked a lengthy extract from the work-in-progress on Benazir Bhutto’s return home. It was, as readers will discover, sharply critical. Two weeks after I delivered it, as I was working on this manuscript, Bhutto was assassinated. Sentiment dictated I soften the prose, but despite my sadness and anger at her death, I resisted. As the German writer Lessing once remarked, ‘The man who presents truth in all sorts of masks and disguises may be her pander, but never her lover.’ And truth usually visits Pakistan in whispers. We owe it to the people to speak our minds. The death of Benazir, whom I knew well over many years, was undoubtedly tragic. But not sufficient reason to change my assessment. That she handed over her party to her husband till her son came of age was a sad reflection on the state of democratic politics in Pakistan and confirmed my judgment. The country needs a break from uniforms and dynasties.

My thanks are due to numerous people in Pakistan from all walks of life, from peasants and trade unionists to generals, civil servants, and old friends, who spoke without inhibition during my trips over the last few years. Naming them would not necessarily be construed as friendly. Thanks also, as always, to Susan Watkins, my companion for almost three decades, a friendly but firm editor of the New Left Review, as many contributors (myself included) have discovered.

When I began to write this book a London friend asked, ‘Isn’t it reckless to start a book while the dice is still in the air?’ If I waited for the dice to fall, I would never have written anything on Pakistan.”

• • •

For more on this book, go to Simon & Schuster.

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art of resistance

“Our own brand of socialism” by Gabriel Garcia Márquez.

The following interview was published in the March-April 1983 issue of New Left Review and featured again online (this week) on JacobinMag.

Gabriel García Márquez on Fidel Castro, the Soviet Union, and creating “a government which would make the poor happy.”

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Can we look back over the way your political ideas have developed? Your father is a Conservative. Colombia went through a century of intermittent civil war after its independence from Spain in 1819. Two political parties crystallized in the 1840s: the Conservatives whose traditionalist philosophy was based on family, church and state; and the Liberals who were free-thinkers, anti-clerical and economic liberals.

The bloodiest of the wars between these two parties was the ‘War of The Thousand Days’ (1899–1902) which left the country bankrupt and devastated. In Colombia we say being a Conservative or Liberal depends on what your father is, but yours obviously didn’t influence your politics at all because you opted for the left very early on. Was this political stance a reaction against your family?

Not against my family as such, because you must remember that, although my father is a conservative, my grandfather the Colonel was a liberal. My political ideas probably came from him to begin with because, instead of telling me fairy-tales when I was young, he would regale me with horrifying accounts of the last civil war that free-thinkers and anti-clerics waged against the conservative government. My grandfather also told me about the massacre of the banana workers which took place in Aracataca the year I was born. So you see my family influenced me towards rebellion rather than towards upholding the established order.

Do you remember where and when you read your first political texts?

In my secondary school in Zipaquirá. It was full of teachers who’d been taught by a Marxist in the Teachers Training College under President Alfonso López’s leftist government in the thirties. The algebra teacher would give us classes on historical materialism during break, the chemistry teacher would lend us books by Lenin, and the history teacher would tell us about the class struggle. When I left that icy prison, I had no idea where north and south were, but I did have two very strong convictions. One was that good novels must be a poetic transposition of reality, and the other was that mankind’s immediate future lay in socialism.

Did you ever belong to the Communist Party?

I belonged to a cell for a short time when I was twenty, but I don’t remember doing anything of interest. I was more of a sympathizer than a real militant. Since then, my relationship with the Communists has had many ups and downs. We’ve often been at loggerheads because every time I adopt a stance they don’t like, their newspapers really have a go at me. But I’ve never publicly condemned them, even at the worst moments.

You and I travelled around East Germany together in 1957 and, in spite of the fact we’d pinned out hopes on socialism, we did not like what we saw. Did that trip alter your political conviction?

It did affect my political ideas quite decisively. If you think back, I put my impressions of that trip on record at the time in a series of articles for a Bogotá magazine. The articles were pirated and published some twenty years later — not, I imagine, out of any journalistic or political interest, but to show up the supposed contradictions in my personal political development.

Were there any contradictions?

No, there were not. I made the book legal and included it in the volumes of my complete works which are sold in popular editions on every street corner in Colombia. I haven’t changed a single word. What’s more, I think an explanation of the origins of the current Polish crisis is to be found in those articles which the dogmatists of the time said were paid for by the United States. The amusing thing is that those dogmatists today, twenty-four years later, are ensconced in the comfortable armchairs of the bourgeois political and financial establishment while history is proving me right.

And what did you think of the so-called Peoples’ Democracies?

The central premise of those articles is that the Peoples’ Democracies were not authentically socialist nor would they ever be if they followed the path they were on, because the system did not recognize the specific conditions prevailing in each country. It was a system imposed from the outside by the Soviet Union through dogmatic, unimaginative local Communist Parties whose sole thought was to enforce the Soviet model in a society where it did not fit.

Let’s move on to another of our shared experiences — our days in Prensa Latina, the Cuban news agency. You and I both resigned when the old Cuban Communist Party began taking over many of the institutions of the Revolution. Do you think we made the right decision? Or do you think it was just a hiccup in a long process which we failed to see as such?

I think our decision to leave Prensa Latina was correct. If we’d stayed on, with our views, we’d have ended up being slung out with one of those labels on our forehead — counter-revolutionary, imperialist lackey and so on — that the dogmatists of the day used to stick on you. What I did, if you remember, was to remove myself to the sidelines. I watched the evolution of the Cuban process closely and carefully while I wrote my books and filmstrips in Mexico.

My view is that although the Revolution took a difficult and sometimes contradictory course after the initial stormy upheavals, it still offers the prospect of a social order which is more democratic, more just, and more suited to our needs.

Are you sure? Don’t the same causes produce the same effects? If Cuba adopts the Soviet system as a model (one-party-state, democratic centralism, government-controlled unions, security organizations exercising a tight control over the population), won’t the “just, democratic order” be as difficult to achieve there as it is in the Soviet Union? Aren’t you afraid of this?

The problem with this analysis is its point of departure. You start from the premise that Cuba is a Soviet satellite and I do not believe it is. I think that the Cuban Revolution has been in a state of emergency for twenty years thanks to the hostility and incomprehension of the United States, who will not tolerate an alternative system of government ninety miles off the Florida coast.

This is not the fault of the Soviet Union, without whose assistance (whatever its motives and aims may be) the Cuban Revolution would not exist today. While hostility persists, the situation in Cuba can only be judged in terms of a state of emergency which forces them to act defensively and outside their natural historical, geographical, and cultural sphere of interest. When the situation returns to normal, we can discuss it again.

Fidel Castro supported Soviet intervention in Czechoslovakia in 1968 (with certain reservations, it is true). What position did you take?

I made a public protest at the time and would do the same again should the same situation arise. The only difference between my position and Fidel Castro’s (we don’t see eye to eye on everything) is that he ended up justifying Soviet intervention and I never would. However, the analysis he made in his speech on the internal situation of the Peoples’ Democracies was much more critical and forceful than the one I made in the articles we were talking about a moment ago. In any case, the future of Latin America is not and never will be played out in Hungary, Poland, or Czechoslovakia, but in Latin America itself. To think anything else is a European obsession, and some of your political questions smack of this obsession, too.

In the seventies after the Cuban poet Heberto Padilla’s famous self-criticism, Padilla was detained by security police to discuss “suspect” political attitudes in his work, and released a month later after publicly confessing counter-revolutionary tendencies. This launched a flood of criticism by European and Latin-American intellectuals. The event was seen as a watershed in the relationship between writers and the Revolution — either as the emergence of latent Stalinism, or as proof of the bourgeois intellectual betraying its duty to stand by a revolution under siege. Some of your friends, myself included, distanced ourselves from the Cuban regime.

You didn’t. You didn’t sign the telegram of protest we sent — you went back to Cuba and became a friend of Fidel. What made you adopt a much more favorable attitude towards the Cuban regime?

Better information about what really happened, and a mature political outlook which made it possible for me to view the situation with more calm, patience, and human understanding.

A great many writers in Latin America besides yourself talk of socialism (Marxist-Leninist) as a desirable alternative. Don’t you think this is rather “old-fashioned” socialism somehow? Socialism is no longer a generous abstraction but a rather unattractive reality. Do you agree that after what has happened in Poland, nobody can believe that the working class is in power in those countries?

Can you see a third option for our continent between decadent capitalism and decadent “socialism?”

I don’t believe in a third option. I believe there are many alternatives — perhaps even as many alternatives as there are countries in our Americas, including the United States. I am convinced that we have to find our own solutions. We can benefit, wherever possible, from what other continents have achieved in their long turbulent histories, but we must not go on copying them mechanically as we have done until now. This is how we can eventually achieve our own brand of socialism.

Talking of other options, what role do you see Mitterrand’s government playing in Latin America?

At a lunch in Mexico recently, President Mitterrand asked a group of writers, “What do you expect from France?” Their reply provoked a discussion which veered towards who was the principal enemy of whom. The Europeans at the table, convinced that they were on the brink of some new Yalta-style carve up of the world, said their principal enemy was the United States. I answered the President’s question (the same one you are asking now) by saying, “Since we each have our own Enemy Number One, what we need in Latin America is a Friend Number One. Socialist France can be that friend.”

Do you believe that democracy as it exists in the developed capitalist countries is possible in the Third World?

Democracy in the developed world is a product of their own development and not the other way around. To try and implant it in its raw state in countries (like those of Latin America) with quite different cultures is as mimetic and unrealistic as trying to implant the Soviet system there.

So you think democracy is a kind of luxury for rich countries? Remember that democracy carries with it the defense of human rights for which you fought so…

I’m not talking about democratic principles but democratic forms.

Incidentally, what is the result of your long battle for human rights in terms of success and failure?

It is very difficult to measure. There are no precise or immediate results with work like mine in the field of human rights. They often come when you’re least expecting them and due to a combination of factors where it is impossible to assess the part played by your own particular action. This work is a lesson in humility for a famous writer like me, who is used to success.

Which of all the actions you’ve undertaken has given you the most satisfaction?

The action which gave me the most immediate personal satisfaction was one I undertook just before the Sandinista victory in Nicaragua. Tomás Borge, who is now the Interior Minister, asked me to think up a good way of putting pressure on Somoza to allow his wife and seven-year-old daughter to leave the Colombian Embassy in Managua where they had asked for asylum. The dictator was refusing them a safe conduct, because they were the family of no less a person than the last surviving founder-member of the Sandinista Front.

Tomás Borge and I turned the problem over for several hours until we came up with a useful point: the little girl had once had a kidney infection. We asked a doctor how her present conditions would affect this, and his answer gave us the argument we were looking for. Less than forty-eight hours later, mother and daughter were in Mexico, thanks to a safe conduct granted on humanitarian, not political, grounds.

My most discouraging case, on the other hand, was when I helped free two English bankers who’d been kidnapped by guerrillas in El Salvador in 1979. Their names were Ian Massie and Michael Chaterton, and they were going to be executed within forty-eight hours because no agreement had been reached between the two parties.

General Omar Torrijos telephoned me on behalf of the kidnapped men’s families and asked me to help save them. I relayed the message to the guerrillas through numerous intermediaries and it arrived in time. I promised to arrange for the ransom negotiations to resume immediately, and they agreed. Then I asked Graham Greene, who lives in Antibes, to make the contacts on the English side.

The negotiations between the guerrillas and the bank lasted for four months. It had been agreed that neither Graham Greene nor I would take any part in the actual negotiations but, whenever there was a hitch, one side or the other would get in contact with me to try and get the talks going again.

The bankers were freed but neither Graham Greene nor myself received a single word of thanks. It wasn’t very important, of course, but I was rather surprised. After a lot of thought, I came up with an explanation—Green and I had arranged things so well that the English must have thought we were in cahoots with the guerrillas.

Many people look on you as a sort of roving ambassador in the Caribbean — a goodwill ambassador of course. You’re a personal friend of Castro, but also of Torrijos in Panamá, of Carlos Andrés Pérez in Venezuela, of Alfonso López Michelson in Colombia, of the Sandinistas in Nicaragua … You are a privileged interlocutor to all of them.

What motivates you to adopt this role?

The three figures you mention were in power at the same time — a very crucial time for the Caribbean. It was a very fortunate coincidence, and a great pity that they could not have cooperated as they did for longer. There was a moment when the three of them, working with Castro and a president like Jimmy Carter in the United States could, without a doubt, have put this area of conflict on the right track. There was a continuous, very positive dialogue taking place among them. I not only witnessed it but helped in it whenever I could.

I think that Central America and the Caribbean (for me they are one and the same thing and I don’t understand why they are called two different things) have reached a stage of development and a point in their history when they are ready to break out of their traditional stagnation. But I also believe that the United States will frustrate any such attempt because it means giving up very old and important privileges.

For all his limitations, Carter was the best party to this dialogue the Caribbean has had in the last few years, and the fact that his presidency coincided with that of Torrijos, Carlos Andrés Pérez, and López Michelsen was very important indeed. It was this particular situation and conviction which encouraged me to get involved, however modestly. My role was simply that of an unofficial intermediary in a process which would have gone a lot further had it not been for the catastrophic election of an American president who represents diametrically opposite interests.

Torrijos used to say that my work was “secret diplomacy,” and he often said in public that I had a way of making bad news seem like good. I never knew if this was a reproach or a compliment.

What type of government would you like to see in your own country?

Any government which would make the poor happy. Just think of it!

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