Thursday, September 27, 2012

Looking for boltholes – Part Two

The more we (Linda and I) think about an emergency bolthole to escape a worldwide economic collapse, the more we wonder if we’re not already living in it. One’s home is always familiar territory, isn’t it? We know who to go to for goods and services of every kind, where to shop, what areas to stay out of for personal safety, who to allow in our house and who not. And, how to minimise taxes.

It’s fairly easy for a new resident in any country to learn all those things from other expats who have arrived before, but even so... Often the advice one receives is conflicting. Even married couples don’t always like the same dentist or car mechanic. People tend to stay where they feel most comfortable, especially in old age.

 Some day, this Island may become too expensive for us, or too crime-ridden, or too noisy. Its medical and communications facilities may become sub-standard; so may its policing. Its underclass and its yard-dogs may become out of control. Its infrastructure may collapse; our household garbage-collection service may be cut back to once a week. The local authorities may become too hostile to foreigners.

I’ve written before about the resentment that many native-born Caymanians feel for more-recent immigrants; that’s not diminishing, as years go by. I am one of a handful of immigrants stubborn and defiant enough to sign their names to published criticism of our government’s policies and practices. That’s five (a handful is five, right?) out of 30,000, in a population of 50,000. Cayman is a tribal democracy, not a real one. Outsiders’ concerns are rarely taken into account. Much the same as in any bolthole, of course.

For boltholes, we have our eyes on Lake Atitlan in Guatemala, Lakes Chapala and Avandaro in Mexico, and maybe the vicinity of Vilcabamba in Ecuador if it hasn’t changed too much in the past few years. Friends recommend parts of Costa Rica and Panama, but we don’t know them at first hand.

Why would we consider anywhere in Latin America, when we don’t speak Spanish? Well, we can speak a sort of pidgin Spanish, which is adequate for day-to-day dealings. We rely heavily on goodwill, which we’ve usually found more effective than language. Hey, we have Norwegian grandchildren, and we don’t speak their language. Spanish is a doddle, compared with Norwegian.

Naturally, Norway is also a prospective bolthole – though the cost of living might be a problem. The same goes for southern France. We loved the Greek islands in the old days, and we hear they haven’t changed all that much. Property is cheap there in these days of crisis; but we’re not tempted. Foreign-owned property would very likely be repossessed the minute Greece recovered its independence.

We got caught like that in Vanuatu years ago, when the post-independence government stole our suburban lot. We won’t be caught again. Anyway, we’re both over seventy. We’d be crazy to sink our savings into a house and land, when we could rent.

The ambient language of a prospective bolthole isn’t important enough to rule any place out of consideration. All the same, it would certainly be more convenient to choose one of the eastern Caribbean islands, or southern England, or Gibraltar, or New Zealand. All wonderful candidates. So is Cayman. Its status as a British colony gives us a certain degree of protection against lawlessness, in an increasingly lawless world.

We will keep all the other prospective boltholes in mind, and keep our fingers crossed. The words of an old Creedence Clearwater song spring to mind:  
Bother me tomorrow; today I’ll buy no sorrow. (Doo, doot, doo – lookin’ out my back door.)

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Julian Assange & the evil empire

Whatever else he is, the man is a master of propaganda. Every seller of goods or services in the world ought to be begging his advice on the subject. He may or may not have the skill to boost sales or revenue, but he sure as hell can destroy a competitor’s credibility.

A little while ago, a Chinese dissident found refuge in the US Embassy in Beijing. After a bit of argy-bargy, China agreed to let him catch a flight to America, and it all ended cordially. But when an Australian dissident found refuge in the Ecuador Embassy in London, the UK government went into a snit and refused to give him safe passage to the local airport to catch a flight to Ecuador.

Oh, my! China did the honourable thing, Britain (backed by Sweden and the US) the dishonourable. The British government, having allowed many “extraordinary renditions” of America’s Prisoners of War through Britain to torture camps in Europe, is now insisting on one more victim. Its treatment of Assange has shown up Britain’s cowardice when America cracks the whip. Pathetic.

By his resistance, Assange has shone the light of publicity on the moral corruption of three nations that I have admired and respected most of my life – Sweden, Britain and the USA. Now, with so many others, I find myself despising them as bullies. The young man is a hero – like the Chinese man who defied the tanks in Tiananmen Square, in the famous photograph.

The US is ruled by certifiable psychopaths, now, who have ripped their country’s reputation to shreds. It is today’s Evil Empire. Its money buys acolytes – the rulers of Britain and Sweden, for instance. The US’s desire to deliver Assange into the bloody hands of its eager torturers at Guantanamo is what drives the British and Swedish politicians to please their paymasters. The corruption stinks to high heaven.

How bizarre, that this one small man of no intrinsic importance has been promoted to the status of a Solzhenitsyn, a Dreyfus, a Stauffenberg, a Daniel Ellsberg, for daring to do the right thing. What a cracked-up sense of honour the three nations’ representatives are clinging to.

In truth, there is little surprise about the US government’s determination to punish Assange’s whistle-blowing. The bombings, invasions and occupations of Moslem communities have put the USA and its cronies beyond the pale of civilised society. The drone-strikes target civilians, on the off-chance of killing a stray resistance fighter. Murder by joystick, they call it, and Assange believes it should be reported. The kings of the killing fields have adopted the cynical words of Shakespeare’s MacBeth:

I am in blood stepped in so far that should I wade no more, 
Returning were as tedious as go o’er. 

Britain? Well, Britain has a long history of savagery in defence of its commercial interests. They have done very well out of the slaughters in Iraq and Libya and Pakistan, and expect to do well in Iran. Sweden’s miners and manufacturers too have a vested interest in the wars of the Empire. Those interests are infinitely more important than the old-fashioned virtues that the nation used to practise.

An online newspaper the other day referred to the Swedish rulers as “a Quisling government”, which is amusing, in a sick way. Mr Quisling was the appointed ruler of Norway during the German occupation in the 1940s. I don’t suppose many Swedes enjoy seeing their nation bracketed with a Nazi puppet.

Sigh. In 1961 Joseph Heller wrote Catch-22, a satirical anti-war book that ended with the main character plotting to flee to Sweden in a row-boat from his squadron’s base in Italy. The last scene in the movie shows him actually in the boat and rowing out to sea. Today, the objective might not be Sweden at all, but Ecuador.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Looking for bolt-holes – Part One

Once you’ve made your home somewhere, it’s hard to be truly objective about the changes you see happening. You’re aware of the physical changes, as time goes by – a new apartment block, a new marina or entertainment complex, new roads – but you tend to forget the order in which they came. At least, that’s what we’ve found, in the several places we’ve called “home” in our 45 years together.

We remember when we could leave all our keys in the car and find them there next morning. But we can’t name the exact year when criminals became so cheeky that absent-mindedness of that kind became costly. What year was it that we put burglar-bars on all our house-windows? We don’t remember. It all just crept up on us.

In this Caribbean island, most of the changes have been recent. Two generations ago there were only 12,000 residents, all of one ethnic identity. What money there was, had been wired home by men working on American merchant ships; local work-opportunities were limited to fishing and dirt-farming. Now, we have 50,000 people of dozens of different nationalities; our tourism and Offshore tax-haven bring in more money than our government can sensibly spend.

Today, things are about to change again – but this time it’s serious. We are faced with the prospect of a new world order, imposed by the criminal cabals in charge of Western countries today. They seem to be planning the world’s future with the help of two famous instructional books. One is 1984, the other is Brave New World. It would be prudent to familiarise ourselves with their outlines in Wikipedia.

Personal freedom in future might not always be an option for individuals within the reach of the cabals and their enforcers. Already we see some representative democracies developing into Police States, as economies collapse into high unemployment and super-high inflation. The rule of law is weakening, as the definition of “terrorism” is broadened to include ordinary dissidence. The Wikileaks persecutions (Assange and Manning) are clear evidence of that.

The changes in police uniforms over the past fifty years illustrate the point. The gentle English bobby and his counterparts have become stormtroopers; his policeman’s whistle has become a taser gun: his polite enquiry, a debilitating kick. Not in Cayman, I hasten to say, but sooner or later even the gentlest of Caribbean islands will be urged to follow suit. Guantanamo is only ninety miles across the water, from our Islands. That's handy.

What can we do? Where can we go, if push literally comes to shove? That’s the question of the moment.

Our grandchildren and their parents all live in Norway, a country that shares that wonderful Scandinavian reputation for freedom and safety. But Norway was a Police State in 1940-45, during the cruel German empire; and there is no guarantee it won’t become one again under the cruel American one. Norway is a member of NATO, after all, whose members all claim the right to abuse human rights where they find them. Libya and Syria are a long way from Oslo, but you can understand why we don’t regard Norway as the ideal refuge in a 1984 world.

There are some places in Latin America that seem attractive to us. The nations there are famous for the ease with which they revert to Police States at the drop of a hat. However, the US-government-sponsored death-squads in the latter half of the 20th Century didn’t regard resident expatriates as threats to national security, and actually killed very few peaceful foreign residents – if any. We might be safer there than in any of the NATO nations or their dependent territories.

It’s a topic worth taking a second look at.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Nothing to loose (sub-standard English)

Ahh – loose, lose, what difference does it make, eh? You know what I mean.

Confusing lose and loose happens not just in Cayman, but all over the English-speaking world. Unfortunately, the rest of the world isn’t doing anything to fix the problem, so we must fix it ourselves – if we can.

The functional illiteracy of so many of our graduates of government schools has been covered by several posts on this blogsite. It’s good to see Rotary getting involved, at this time. If they can keep theirs a private-sector program, their efforts should be very productive. The Education bureaucrats will only jerk them around, if they push their way in.

The “glass ceilings” encountered by victims of our government-schools system have been written about on this site, too, in several posts. Nothing constructive ever gets done about that problem. In December 2010, in a blog titled Everybody’s Cheating, I outlined clearly the stand-off between the Immigration authorities and private-sector employers.

Those particular authorities would rather have Cayman’s private-sector disappear altogether than compromise their dream of total state control of the private-sector workforce. Theirs is the same ideal that Communists have, if you think about it. God help us!

In the absence of improved education, the glass ceilings will last as long as government schools churn out graduates who don’t know the differences in usage and spelling between lose and loose, their, there & they’re, and here and hear, and so on and on. Seem and same, too, in Cayman. What can be done?

One thing that could be done, which I wouldn’t mind getting involved in myself, is to hold classes (free to all comers) in what could be called “Conversational English”. Since the major fault lies in written English, not spoken, it may seem an odd title; but to call it by a realistic name (“Learning proper English” or “English as a foreign language”) would offend the political establishment, and the bureaucratic one too. Would “Through the Looking-Glass Ceiling” be creative enough, do you think? You never know.

A child who is never taught proper grammar, and writes “he is suppose to be here” or “he trick me”, doesn’t know what a past participle is. A smart child will usually correct his usage by paying attention to the way words are used by others, in speech or in writing, but if he doesn’t catch all his mistakes he will be dismissed as ignorant. In speech, he may receive the benefit of doubt – but in writing, not. Emails provide a harsh test of English usage, as we see from comments on Internet forums and the like.

Is punctuation even a tiny part of any syllabus in government schools these days, anywhere in the world? It’s hard to tell. Few high-school graduates seem to know when to use which marks, and when not. Unwarranted apostrophes commonly betray an ignorance of plural and possessive forms that has survived thirteen years of schooling.

Greengrocers can be forgiven for advertising tomatoe’s and bean’s, because they write a special dialect of English called (jokingly) Grocerese; but in other contexts the usage simply screams, “I am ignorant beyond redemption; ignore everything I say”. Why haven’t our state educators sorted this out before now?

In many cases, it will be necessary to teach something about the origins of words and expressions. Explaining the differences between the origins of premier and premiere, rogue and rouge, would surely be more satisfactory than insisting on learning the differences by rote. A hare-brained person would be explained as one having the erratic thinking pattern of an excited hare. A hair-raising experience, on the other hand, has nothing to do with hares, however excited.

Friday, September 7, 2012

A day late and a dollar short (the FCO and Cayman)

Again – or still – we are fretting over the possibility that incompetent bureaucrats (in both London and Cayman) and ignorant local politicians will put an early end to Cayman’s boom. The politicians have alienated pretty much all foreign-born residents, and the bureaucrats have alienated pretty much all non-bureaucrats.

The Immigration authorities, who are all bloodline Caymanians, are philosophically opposed to making life comfortable for non-Caymanians of any variety. Expats (whether immigrants or transients) have no true friends in high places, generally speaking.

The prospect of discriminatory taxes and levies on expats is the straw that may well break the camel’s back. Unless the FCO backs out of its longtime alliance with the local anti-expat lobby (which includes all elected MLAs), Cayman’s prosperity will go the way of Nassau’s in the 1970s. The events of the past few months have been ominous.

Memo to the FCO clerks in London... Sucking-up to the Lobby will only bring grief. Please stop doing it. Small-town “granny-wits” are enough to run a community of simple fisher-folk (as ours used to be), but not an international tax haven. Cayman’s is a sophisticated service-economy that needs at least some of its local rulers to have some first-hand experience of the outside world.

I’ve just read the US Congress’s report on the HSBC Bank’s money-laundering allegations. Our local Monetary Authority – government’s regulator – deserves a triple-Z-minus for its utter failure to discover the Bank’s reported compliance failures. Will the FCO remove the personnel responsible for the failures? Of course not. The inevitable result will be more of the same, as far as one can imagine. Sigh.

Our current Constitution is a grab-bag of childish fancies and prejudices. Britain made a serious strategic error in nodding it through in 2009. Suddenly, we had a Premier and a Protocol Office: motorcycle escorts, personal bodyguards, and luxury vehicles became de rigueur for our local nabobs. New slush funds brought new ways to waste ever more millions of dollars.

What a mess it all is now. No audited financial statements exist to show what our total public indebtedness is; government deficits are envisaged from now until Kingdom Come. What on earth was London thinking? Nothing intelligent, apparently.

It took until this year, 2012, for London to notice the mess. Only then did the FCO clerks twig the full effect of their collective Attention Deficit Disorder. Only now are they suddenly aware of the need for independent audits of government accounts, and for prudent monitoring of public expenditures. Even now, their latest proposals call for only the barest minimum of fiscal responsibility from the same people who got us into the mess.

The FCO’s intervention is a day late and a dollar short, as the saying goes. Unless and until long-term immigrants are allowed to participate fully in local governance, nothing will improve. We aren’t holding our breath; with each week of inaction that passes, more of us lose confidence in the FCO's ability to cope.

In 1997 the UK’s National Audit Office warned the FCO that inattention to the Overseas Territories had created a significant contingent liability. Since then, that contingent liability has increased massively. Nobody knows what it amounts to now. Britain’s own government finances are in such chaos that the Territories’ debts may be a drop in the bucket of Britain’s public debt. Nevertheless, one can measure the effect in terms of straws and camels’ backs.

The FCO is not literally “a day late and a dollar short”. It is at least fifteen years late and several billion dollars short. If we could be sure that its ADD were cured, we would feel a whole lot more comfortable.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

On the buses (T-12 The Middle East – 1965)

(This is the twelfth in my series on travels in the ‘60s, for my grandchildren to read when they’re old enough to appreciate it.)

Travelling “poor” isn’t always fun. Once you’re committed to hitch-hiking, you have to wait in rain, hail or snow, and take whatever vehicles come along. If you’re on a back road and there are no vehicles, tough. I once (on my own) had to bed down in a ditch beside a road in northern Finland in drizzling rain. My first ride next morning was in a slow old tractor. Ah well, I was glad of the shelter.

Sometimes, you can get lucky. Linda once stormed out of a hostel in Greece before dawn after a big fight with her travelling companion, and hitched a ride with an unshaven middle-aged truck-driver who promised her breakfast with his wife at his home just down this side-track. And, an innocent breakfast with his wife is what she got, plus a ride back to the highway afterwards. (As it happened, she met up with me that evening, so her luck was really in that day, obviously...)

We tell people we hitched around the Middle East for three months, but it wasn’t all hitching. There were some boats – the cattle-boat to Kuwait, and ferries from Lebanon to Egypt and back via Cyprus. There were trains from Alexandria to Cairo and return, and there was the Mercedes I drove into Tehran. And there were buses, whenever trucks weren’t available.

Our budget could cope with local buses designed for poor peasants, but not with long-distance intercity coaches – at least not at the prices offered at the ticket-offices. By accident, we discovered a way around that financial barrier. We told the ticket-office in Shiraz (southern Iran) that we couldn’t afford their coach, and walked a mile to the edge of town to try our luck hitching. The only vehicle that stopped for us, eventually, was the same coach we’d turned down at the depot. The conductor invited us to buy a ride.

With one foot on the step to show willing (but only one foot, in case the driver took off suddenly with us on board and in no position to haggle), I settled for about a third of the proper fare. No ticket, of course, and the price had to meet with the approval of the paying passengers as well as the two rogues who pocketed the money. The ethical question boiled down to “Is it fair to all concerned?” All those present, at least.

We’d have gotten no respect if we’d paid the conductor's asking price. As it was, our deal was greeted with murmurs of approval, and we proved our worth by joining in the enthusiastic cries of Inch’allah! (“Praise the Lord!” more or less) as we sped around every tight corner in the middle of the road.

The only time we had to pay full price on an intercity coach in the Middle East was from Baghdad to Amman, across 500 miles of desert. There were no local buses on that route, and no trucks willing to take passengers. The coach was going on to Syria, so those of us headed for Amman were bundled into a fleet of taxis for the last thirty miles. More Mercedes, not nearly as new as our first one, a couple of months earlier.

Neither of us ever got motion sickness, that I can recall. Just as well, because bus drivers all over the world make no concessions to passengers who get sick. Many years later, we had a bus trip in Bali that stands out in my memory. It was stinking hot – really stifling – and Linda sat up on the front step while I grabbed a window-seat just in case. I was fine, as it happened, but the man next to me had to reach across from time to time to throw regurgitated rice from his hand out the window. Most of it got there safely, though not all.