Rulers of Poor Nations Come for
U.N. Support, Stay for N.Y. Luxury
Most New Yorkers don’t mind the U.N’s annual General Assembly. Sure, security armies and traffic jams clog the city, and the east side’s all but lost for the count. But what’s that compared to what the organization stands for as symbol of dialog and peaceful resolution to conflicts?
So we may get annoyed with its sluggish politics, but we’re used to it. Now, shopping is a whole other story. And when rulers of some of the world’s most miserable countries are caught on a spree at the city’s most expensive retail joints, well, then forget all about ‘peaceful.’
Never mind the illegal parking. It’s nothing short of criminal to watch their entourages spending public money on luxury items for themselves and their hangers-on. And yet, year after year, such depressing spectacle plays on right under our jaded, despising noses.
The phenomenon is not new, or unique to New York, or even represents too much of a surprise. Two recent worldwide events have only asserted such glaring inequity: the near collapse of the world financial system in 2007, and the Arab Spring that swept north of Africa and Middle East countries less than a year ago.
When the banking structure failed and caused millions to lose their jobs, homes, lifetime savings and even their sanity, it also exposed the inconceivable amount of personal wealth those who caused the crisis had, and still have, access to. So far, no one of that rarefied income bracket has been held accountable for their crimes.
It was not much of a difference with the ouster of Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, Tunisia’s Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, and Yemen’s Ali Abdullah Saleh: the personal wealth of these three dictators amounted to huge percentages of their countries’ GDP, which all have some of the lowest per-capita income, even among Islamic regimes.
As with the bankers that almost bankrupted the world, these deposed rulers still managed to keep large parts of their personal wealth in hidden tax-havens around the world, not unlikely the U.S.’s Republican presidential candidate. Sadly, many more billionaires remain in power in other, equally impoverished nations and no one dares to question their supposedly religious fervor either.
Many hope not for long, though. Last month, France seized the $180 million Paris mansion from the son of Equatorial Guinea’s dictator Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo, Teodoro Nguema Obiang Mangue, as part of a corruption probe. The $50 million-furniture, five-story, 101-room pied-à-terre, followed a previous seizure of Mangue’s 11 supercars, a $2 million wine cellar, and a $3,7 million clock.
VIRGIN PARADES, SHOPPING BAG DISPLAYS
When King Mswati III, of Swaziland, took some of his 13 wives in a luxurious trip to Vegas recently, it was reported that his group of 66 people flew on private jets and stayed in 10 luxury villas at a total estimated cost of $6 million. Left at home, his 1,38 million subjects subsist on less than $2 a day.
But why stopping at 13? This month, thousands of such subjects, bare-breasted young Swazi women, paraded in front of him to celebrate ‘chastity and unity,’ in what cynics called a ‘scouting ceremony’ for a possible selection of a few more wives among them. For girls now as young as five, it may be the chance of a lifetime, to be part of the $200 million-net worth monarch’s harem.
This week, some of the members of Swaziland’s diplomatic corps were caught on film, by a crew of NBC TV, leaving the expensive Bergdorf Goodman store, in Manhattan. Before quickly squeezing bags full of goods inside their cars, one of them managed to explain that they were actually ‘gifts.’
THE PRESIDENT HAS TO GO, OR NO SEX
Togo’s President Faure Gnassingbe, whose family has held power for decades, has clearly failed to promote any social changes for the majority of its about seven million people, more than half living in extreme poverty. So, a women-led coalition of nine civil society groups and seven parties and grassroots movements have come up with a novel way to pressure him to step down: a sex strike.
The ‘weapon of the battle’ to change the country’s social inequalities, in the words of opposition leader Isabelle Ameganvi, was inspired by a similar strike for peace held by the Liberian women in 2003, then in the middle of a vicious civil war. It worked there: Last year, Liberia’s President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf and activist Leymah Gbowee, (along with Yemen’s Tawakul Karman), all shared the Nobel Peace Prize, the first time three women won the prize.
The NBC crew reports that the Togo’s U.N. delegation is a guest at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel, ‘where suites go from $8,000 to $18 thousand a night. A security guard tried to take their camera away, when he realized they were being filmed. He wouldn’t need to if he were with the Tanzania delegation, who reportedly stayed at the budget Double Tree hotel.
THE WALDORF TONIGHT, AT WAR TOMORROW
Even Mali, which is trying to gather international support for an armed invasion of its Islamic-controlled north region, hasn’t shown much restrain even to those that may potentially heed to its call for help, at the U.N.: its delegation stayed at the historic, and still very expensive, Waldorf Astoria hotel.
Even if they had not stayed at such exclusive address in New York, it wouldn’t make much of a difference to those who control the country’s north, to be sure. Preaching a radical interpretation of the Koran, these Islamic rulers have only recently reopened schools to girls, who’re still forced to wear veils and sit in the back.
Women’s segregation and suppression of their rights is a sure sight of religious and political obscurantism, and almost always leads to tragic injustices and bloodbaths. Thus, President Dioncounda Traore already has, most likely, the support from the international community, despite the obvious carnage such a war would entail.
But neither he, nor his diplomatic corps are setting a stellar example of moral probity at such a political global loudspeaker as the U.N.’s gathering can be. And it does make one wonder whether we’ve already lost any hope for a new brand of political leaders, with backbone and personal ethics to match the challenges they need to face.
FOLLOWING THOSE WE DESERVE
Such hope, mind you, is neither baseless, nor grounded in lofty aspirations of flawless leaders leading us to some promise land, where everyone is virtuous and, well, you get crappy the picture. We all know how’s that working for those who believe in such hogwash. Not surprisingly though, they continue to multiply.
Time and again, tyrants are brought up by their sheer ability to con whoever wants and expects to be conned. Those can not be defended or protected from themselves. But we do have a moral obligation with those who have no choice, the millions trapped under these brutal regimes, whose leaders come to town every once in a while, to flaunt their shining armors.
New York can and most likely will gladly accept theirs and anybody’s cash, regardless whether it was honestly earned, or cruelly robbed from somebody else. We, however, can not. And yes, it is our business, since most of our personal heritages can be traced back to lands whose representatives congregate annually at the Le Corbusier, Oscar Niemeyer-designed building on First Ave.
Besides, as we said at the beginning, New Yorkers are almost always proud of playing hosts to the 193-nation gathering, for as long as they keep out of our way to do what’s obviously much more important. Whatever it is, dear reader, it’s your own, godamn business.