Review: Why new Ukraine documentary film Maïdan is right to resist the voiceover

 

I was asked to review Sergei Loznitsa’s 2014 documentary film Maïdan for Radio 4’s Front Row programme earlier this week. You can listen to the review, in the form of a stimulating conversation with presenter Samira Ahmed, here.

 

A year on from the massacre of Maidan protestors by president Viktor Yanukovich’s berkut officers, there’s a very real danger of the Maidan protests becoming lost from view.

 

Russia’s black propaganda efforts have been unrelenting – from official attempts to label the protestors ‘Nazis’ and their leaders in Kiev a ‘junta’ to the flooding of commetary with trolls and masking of their own forces as ‘separatists’, protesting in turn. So any document of Maidan that takes us back to first principles – that bears witness, rather than imposing a retrospective interpretation – is welcome.

 

And in a lot of ways, Maïdan is that document. The cameras are simply installed, and left to run, picking up the crowd, in parts and whole. There is no narrator. Or at least, not of the kind of narrator we’re used to in films. More of that in a moment.

In some ways, it’s as much a video installation piece as a film. I actually think the cinema is the wrong place for it: for my first viewing, I sat and watched. It was a strange, gripping but occasionally frustrating experience. For my second, I watched while pottering about, eating and wandering in and out… And it was amazing.

 

It’s a film that invites you to be part of it, in an almost ambient, inclusive way. For long stretches, it even feels like those long, late-night live-broadcast hours they used to do from the Big Brother house outside of scheduled programme time. There’s a screen between you, but there might as well not be. Life is being lived, sandwiches eaten, tea drunk on both sides of the glass. You feel like following buskers past the edges of the frame as they wanderout of shot. Faces in the crowd peer out at points just past your shoulder. But then suddenly – very suddenly – things turn. And by that time, you’re… what… tuned in and on their wavelength somehow. You feel involved, without being offered easy hooks, personal stories, heroes. No leading men or ladies, no leading politicians. You are one of the crowd.

 

In particular, what struck me about the protestors is just how sauntering and adhoc and The Mouse That Roared it all was. Hot drinks are clutched, volunteers make soup. Community centres, street corners become meeting places. They look, for the most part, like people with jobs, and mums and dads, and wholesome aspirations. People like us. Of course, that’s just how they look, and talk, and act. And amid all the noise, that’s all we have to go on. We don’t know them. We don’t follow them as individuals. There are no emblematic stories. It’s as if to say that emblematic stories have caused enough problems already. As a voice cries over the PA when imploring the crowd to remain calm even as the violence begins: “Emotion is your enemy.”

 

Maïdan’s insistence on not entering the mad arms race of over-narration and assertion and theorising all sides were/are being sucked into around Ukraine really does feel like the only sane thing to do.

 

I think that act of asking us to look and see what’s happening, and getting out of the way, is an absolute masterstroke.

 

Maïdan is not bums-on-seats, Hollywood-style commercial dynamite. And yet it feels like something people will return to for far longer. It feels, at times, like we’re seeing cinema stretching itself again, in ways that will have value in decades to come, like The Battle Of Algiers or even Eisenstein.

Of course, those are hardly examples of POV-free filmmaking. Which is, I guess, the twist.

 

Nothing is really that simple. Loznitsa shot more than a hundred hours of footage. We get two. Maybe Maidan does have more in common with narrated or polemical collages like Adam Curtis’s Bitter Lake after all.

For me, though, this is where Maïdan gets really interesting. In fact, the longer it goes on, the more snatches of PA appeals for doctors, crowd chants, half-conversations-in-passing, painted slogans, odd shouts, noises off, radio pop songs and so on you hear, the more that circus of voices becomes the chorus, the narrator. It felt at times like those great Robert Altman films, M.A.S.H. (narration comes from tannoy), Nashville (chorus/narration comes from overheard snatches of event PA/DJs on the radio), Short Cuts (character scenes are accompanied by TVs on which you overhear news bulletins of the impending earthquake and crime stuff) etc. If it’s a composition of broken voices in an hour of chaos, maybe it’s our, or Ukraine’s version of T.S. Eliot’s ‘The Waste Land’.

But even if it is a collage, a composition, it’s one that leaves you alone for long periods, including extraordinarily long static shots.

 

There are no characters. No individual stories are asked to be emblematic of the whole. The subject is the crowd, and your responses to it. And while the camera is there, trained on the square or the refectory like a CCTV or weathercam, there’s no-one telling you what to think. You’re forced to pick your way through those voices and faces and messages… watch, listen and interpret which way things are about to turn as you watch the crowd at that moment. The crowd is all.

 

We don’t get to see inside anyone’s head. We’re among strangers. The anthem swells and disappears. People read demands to Putin. People talk about what Putin’s said back. People make and eat sandwiches. Mill about. Someone strums a guitar. There are moments when it feels closer to the infamous, unreleasable outtake-as-feature footage that made up Robert Franks’ Rolling Stones doc Cocksucker Blues, or Bob Dylan’s abandoned ’66 tour chronicle Eat the Document than anything else. Aimlessness as purpose. Chaos as direction. Crowd as motivational force.

In fact, for the most part – including the endless lulls, the itch to interpret someone coming towards us as a sign that ‘things are about to happen’, the comic moments, the slow-train-crash horror of things turning ugly and uncontrollable, whatever we intend – really is just like being part of a big demonstration/protest crowd. Key events are happening are out of sight. You hear that they’ve happened, or may be about to happen, elsewhere. You’re always reading the mood of the people around you and seeing how things are about to turn/who to be close to and who not/what happens next should someone kick off, etc.

 

This is a huge part of what I take from the film. The beginning really immerses you – sort of stretches your idea of what to expect I think. It’s like those long, fixed-camera hours broadcast live from the Big Brother house, or Andy Warhol films. You start getting itchy feet, thinking ‘When is something going to happen? Why all the waiting around in one place, camera?’ And of course that’s very much the start of any movement, if I recall my Iraq Demo, Occupy and Poll Tax Protest days right.

 

Maybe no-one telling you what to think is the point about revolutions. And about Maïdan. It’s messy. It’s bewildering.

 

And it might only make sense later, when it’s slipping away again.

 

What’s not cool: The UNODC’s demand-side denialism on cocaine

 

A very quick reaction post this one. I just read through the United Nations Office on Drugs & Crime’s World Drug Report 2014… and I’m unsure whether the writers are being disingenuous or intellectually dishonest, or how many revisions and blue-pencillings it went through on its way to publication.

 

Consider this tweet.

 

 

 

Now, there’s nothing there that’s untrue, as far as it goes. But let’s look at the graph around use and seizures in the US over that period – a pretty good index of availability, right?

 

Cocaine prevalence & seizure UNODC

So OK, we can see that the US seems to bear that story out as far as it goes. Availability looks like it’s declined, in the major market shown at least. I mean, users aren’t getting their hands on any. Nor are the cops. So it must be down (as the report then goes on to say) to supply-side successes in the War On Drugs. Central and South American eradication efforts are bearing fruit, hurray.

 

No, wait. What? It’s that simple? Crop eradication has meant less availability in the US? Well, that’s not the way it normally works, I don’t think. I mean, the price didn’t go up, not according to users I know. (Anecdotal! But, uh, pretty robust.) And that happens if there’s steady demand but a shortage of supply, right? I mean, that’s a market.

 

Well, let’s look at what else happened between 2006 and 2012 in the major markets for cocaine globally (they’d be America and Western Europe, according to the report). Well, I’m drumming my fingers here. Did ANYTHING happen that might conceivably have led to fewer people wanting to buy cocaine (demand), that in turn led to lower availability?

 

Let’s look at this, from ZeroHedge.

 

Casino Gambling

Oh wow, look: There was this huge dip in gambling spend in the USA over that exact same period! 2006-2012 sure was a dip. So, was there less supply-side availability of bets? Or might something have happened that lowered demand for both cocaine and gambling among consumers in affluent Western markets? God, I’m really stuck as to what that might be.

 

Let’s look at another graph, from Tim Duys’ Economists Review – plucked from among thousands in a hurried and random manner – see if that helps. This is real personal consumption expenditure, and that huge dip is the period we’re looking at.

 

Consumer purchasing power in the recession

OK, look, I can’t ignore this any longer. Was there… was there a recession or something? I mean, if there was a recession in the West, then that would stop consumers spending, right? On stuff, including those nice-to-have lifestyle luxuries like gambling and the odd line of coke, right?

 

Of course. And that’s exactly what happened. But to admit that the recession is largely responsible for the drop in cocaine use would mean two things. First, that the War On Drugs is fighting the wrong enemy, and that supply is not the problem here, but demand. Second, that the war is unwinnable, because you cannot stop goods making their way to centres of demand without somehow addressing those appetites that drive demand. Which means Americans, and Western Europeans.

 

And that means intervention. And that means big government, and investment and education, and all those dirty words that put additional zeroes on Government balance sheets. (Nobody minds if those zeroes are on the military budget, to help eradication efforts in Colombia. But put them into a budget that might stop the next generation paying cartels for nosebag that we then have to pay again for soldiers to go and torch, and that sounds dangerously like nanny state madness, right? Give me strength.)

 

Of course, the report can’t address everything. It may be that looking at the deeper causes of cocaine’s hemisphere-wide blizzard is outside of the remit of the UNODC’s researchers. But it’s a hefty report – 82,264 words including footnotes, to be precise. And the word “recession” appears twice. In references given as footnotes. And neither of those references concerns the reasons for cocaine’s sudden partial disappearance from streets, homes, noses and impounded contraband during the recession.

 

The economy is growing again. Here comes consumer spending. The dirty habit’s ours, not Colombia’s or anyone else’s. That the UNODC can’t seem to address that makes for a dangerous cognitive dissonance that will cost more lives, and plenty more zeroes, in in the coming decade.

 

Well, I daresay a more careful reading will bring out hitherto undiscovered nuance. But for now, the World Drug Report 2014 – or at least the way it’s been edited and represented – feels like a ducked opportunity. The UNODC feels more like an arm of US foreign policy than it’s felt in years. And the War On Drugs feels bigger, and more hopelessly wrong, than ever.

 

You can download the entire report as a PDF here.

 

Are US mercenaries deploying in Ukraine? Or… is it bullshit? On Putin’s use of speculation as foreign policy.

 

RIA Novosti screenshot

 

Yesterday, Russian news agency RIA Novosti asked for my insight into Kremlin claims that US private military company Greystone is deploying mercenaries in Ukraine.

 

Amid the chaos of eastern Ukraine and Greystone’s association with Blackwater/Xe Services, the Russian claims seem to be gathering momentum, regardless of evidence. There’s an added twist. RIA Novosti itself – once a pretty independent source of news – was shut down late last year by the Kremlin, and now exists as a government controlled agency. 

 

Claims like these remind me of the ‘Bullshit Or Not?’ sketch on cult 1987 film ‘Amazon Women On The Moon’ in which Henry Silva floated the possibility that Jack the Ripper might in fact have been the Loch Ness Monster. So I figured the least I could do would be to point out how problematic agenda-driven news like this can be. Here are their questions (below). What follows is my reply, warts and all (but with links and some hurriedly made typos corrected).

The April 10th 2014 email from RIA Novosti

The April 10th 2014 email from RIA Novosti

Hi _____,

 

Thanks for inviting me to comment. I’ve written you some answers, and they appear below.

 

But of course I’m a little wary of the current editorial line of the ‘reborn’/post-shutdown RIA Novosti. From the questions you ask, I sense that it would be convenient for me to get excited (like the classic nutters and conspiracy theorists on Russia Today) to back up some line about mercenaries. (“We are doing a story about Greystone mercenaries in Ukraine” would seem to accept that such forces are in Ukraine before the question “Are there mercenaries in Ukraine” even arrives!)

 

I’m afraid that if that’s the editorial line, my answers are going to disappoint.

 

I don’t think there’s credible case either way for the presence of mercenaries (we’ll get to contentious definitions later) in the places RIA Novosti is currently reporting, and I don’t think interviews with local militia commanders who reckon they saw people who “look like” mercenaries (were they wearing the party hats?) or spoke to people who claimed they’d heard some mercenaries (were they discussing their membership of a mercenary union?) is the way to go.

 

I could probably find someone on my road who says they were John Lennon in a previous life, but I don’t think I’d report it as fact. Although actually, the Lewisham News Shopper did have a cracking piece on a poor lady who was convinced she’d been Arsène Wenger’s fiancée in mediaeval France. Apparently he had no Plan B then either.

 

Essentially, if this is part of a piece in which the editorial line is “Let’s get some people to agree that there are mercenaries doing evil deeds in Ukraine”, I’m not your man, and I can’t give permission to participate, or to use my material.

 

OK. Apologies for saying all this first. I’m a confirmed and lifelong russophile, my work in journalism tends to be around avoiding the harmful push towards convenient but mendacious narratives, and I’d say the same to trolls-and-nutters US networks like Fox TV these days if they asked me for material to back up what I suspect might be a non-story.

 

That said – and on the understanding that you guys will treat this with integrity – happy to offer some insight.

 

Here are your questions, with my answers underneath. I hope they’re helpful.

 

Qualifier
The pathology around the word ‘mercenary’ makes it an easy thing to accuse someone of, but a very difficult thing to define, much less prove. And of course, the absence of a mercenary force is by its nature unverifiable – could it just mean that they were “so good they were never caught!” Which makes it the new witchcraft, I suppose. Certainly the new conspiracy theory. Libya was a recent example of the word ‘mercenary’ applied to just about every side at one point – depending on who you wanted to delegitimize. I reckon this is not only intellectually dishonest, but sows fear and miscalculation. It also (perhaps more importantly from your point of view and this story) misses the key points about mercenary use anyway.

1. How legal is it to use mercenaries, what are the existing regulations?

There’s a UN convention against mercenaries (UN resolution 44/34, International Convention against the Recruitment, Use, Financing and Training of Mercenaries, came into force on 20/10/2001) and different countries rule against their use too. However, their definition of a Mercenary is quite full of loopholes, and could either encompass security guards in buildings, or Blackwater, or soldiers of fortune, or none of them. (The UN’s definition is copied here.)

 

Parameter one, “…in order to fight…”: Historically, that’s been got around by saying “Our staff are not there to fight, they are security guards specifically trained in conflict avoidance techniques” or some such. Is guarding something fighting? Not really, no – you hope it won’t be, any more than walking down the street means getting mugged. So in practice, there’s often a huge blurry area where terms like security guard, courier, technician and mercenary (and too many others to mention) tend to edge into each other.

 

Perhaps the most famous recent example of someone who inhabits that grey area is Viktor Bout – a simple businessman in the air freight industry, as he and the Russian government claimed during his extradition hearing? Or The Merchant Of Death, the world’s most notorious gunrunner to mercenary and guerrilla armies, as the US & UN Panel of Experts claimed? The picture gets complicated because, though he worked for private militaries in Africa, promised to supply what he thought was FARC and so on, he was also subcontracted to both the Pentagon (as a transporter for US reconstruction in Iraq) and the Russian government (flying arms to Afghan factions in the 1990s – see the 2010 Russian blockbuster Kandaghar for the dramatization of the story of one of his real crews). But there’s also the ‘grey’ zone around US PMCs in Iraq, armed security around oil pipelines and refineries (in Russia, Africa, Libya, everywhere), and companies like DynCorp and Executive Outcomes used by peacekeeping operations in Africa.

 

Or, more simply (if no more easy in terms of answers), it is not legal to use the classically defined proactive paid combatants known as mercenaries. But to deploy trained security personnel who can protect property, people, assets, businesses, whatever – that can well be legal, and of course for businesses across Russia, the West, the world generally, it’s part of standard corporate practice. So the dividing line becomes something people tend to define for themselves on a case-by-case basis.

 

2. Are there mercenaries in Ukraine?

Nobody has credible information on that score – including, I’d strongly suggest, the ‘local militia leaders’ and sundry other types currently pointing and shouting about mercenaries from RIA Novosti’s Twitter feed.

 

 

 

And I’d tend to mistrust anyone who claims to know differently right now – like those local militia commanders being treated as responsible/expert sources on RIA this afternoon… Because ‘mercenary’ so loose and therefore easily manipulated, defining people as ‘mercenaries’ has become as much an act of political will and expediency as calling someone a “traitor”.

 

(Example: Just look at the ongoing claim and counterclaim as to whether pro-Russian protestors in Kharkiv are “paid and arrive in buses” or “locals who are not being paid”.)

 

For what it’s worth, I suspect that there’s an element of that here. The Kremlin and bystanders have said people look like mercenaries. Yet (unless you’re reading graphic novels or watching Hollywood films) mercenaries don’t really look like mercenaries. Well, you wouldn’t want to really, would you? For the same reason, you don’t get a badge and uniform when you join the Mafia!

 

Sometimes private military contractors take full advantage of that looseness too – as did Blackwater in Iraq.

 

But beyond ‘Nobody knows for sure’, we can say that it’s in the interests of (or, it fits the policy of) the current Russian government to say there are.

 

This leads us to the goal of any mercenaries – whether real or imagined.

 

3. What are their goals?

If there were any paid personnel (please see earlier qualifier as to what makes one person’s mercenary another’s guard), their goals would probably be the usual – protect key people, assets and potentially places and resources.

 

This is not the goal people usually imagine, of course. But remember, any private military company who pro-actively deploys to engage with an enemy is no longer deniable: it would be breaking the UN Convention in a very clear way. So ‘mercenary’ units (PMCs) don’t tend to do that. Hence the high number of ‘security contractors’ and not ‘mercenaries’. Usually their deployment makes a deterrent to casual or spontaneous damage (like a bodyguard to a celebrity – you won’t ever hope to protect them from a planned assassination, but from a nutter with a broken bottle, sure) and potentially to be there for the rapid rescue of specific people or intelligence or whatever, in the event of an acute crisis.

 

But then, we also need to ask what would be the purpose of phantom (ie: not really there at all) mercenaries. Well, on one hand, if the West were deploying mercenaries in Ukraine, it would be very easy for the Kremlin to call it a provocation (In fact, though there’s no credible evidence, it just did anyway.) So it’s clearly in the Putin administration’s interests – or rather, again, it seems to fit their current line of policy with regard to Ukraine – to claim they are there.

 

Which is one reason, actually, that I’m a little dubious about the claim. Are there businesses (including, but not limited to, Western ones) with regional HQs in Ukraine that employ heavy security to protect their property? Well, they’d be stupid not to, right? In the same way that Gazprom employs a private army to protect miles and miles of Siberian pipes, or Shell uses armed security to protect oil installations.

 

Are they anything to do with the current crisis? I’d tend to think they were trying not to be.

 

Are they a convenient thing for hawks in Putin’s administration to call mercenaries?

 

Maybe. Let’s ponder that.

 

4. What threats does it pose to the democratic processes in the country?

Well, as you see, nothing around mercenaries is simple. And when you throw in propaganda, high emotion and a chaotic environment in which the rule of law is being denigrated, it’s murkier still. Mercenary armies, when they exist and deploy, are clearly counter to the common good. That’s why the UN bans them, in language however woolly.

 

However, perhaps in this case you could say that throwing the phrase “mercenaries” around is also a threat to the democratic process in a country. I’d suggest that at the very least it’s unhelpful, and at worst intended to stir up a feeling of being “under occupation”, or being muscled into by a military force other than Russia. So of course, rather than “Do you want to be just Ukraine, or more closely tied to Russia?” they’d hope to force the question: “Under whose military occupation/protection would you rather be? Your neighbour, or a Western bunch of people some local militia leaders reckon are definitely mercenaries?” A choice based on a false premise, aimed at persuading floating voters? In the end, that’s the suspicion that lingers over these claims.

 

However, it’s just a suspicion. I’m probably being infuriatingly cautious from a broadcaster’s point of view. Apologies. But truthfully, it’s best to be suspicious of anyone who speaks with less caution at a time like this. By far the greatest threats to the democratic process in Ukraine and everywhere else are fear, miscalculation, and bullshit.

 

Make sense?

 

Thanks for letting me sound off! Hope some of this is useful.

 

Many thanks.

 

Postscript: Well, I wrote that to be as defiantly unquoteable as I could, copying in a fellow Moscow journalist, just to put the exchange on-record in real time. Here’s what RIA Novosti turned the above contribution into.

... here's how RIA Novosti extracted my quotes to suit their purpose.

… here’s how RIA Novosti extracted my quotes to suit their purpose.

And here’s my reply, pre-publication:

My response to RIA Novosti, asking that my quotes not be decontextualised

My response to RIA Novosti, asking that my quotes not be decontextualised

The piece eventually appeared with my one-line qualifier in. I’ll leave you in the capable hands of Henry Silva, Jack the Ripper and the Loch Ness Monster, and a sketch that could have been written for Russia Today (or Fox News, to be fair). In Mr Silva’s words: “Is it bullshit? Or not? YOU be the judge!”

 

Premiere: Official preview clip from ‘The Notorious Mr Bout’

 

There’s a great documentary feature film on arms smuggler Viktor Bout at Sundance 2014 this week.

 

I’m part of it, but don’t let that put you off – it’s by the team who made the award-winning Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer last year. There’s more detail below, but in the meantime, here’s the official trailer for The Notorious Mr Bout.

 

 

I’m available for comment or press purposes around the release of the film. Contact me through the comments here, or on Twitter where I’m @MattPotter. For film or TV work, contact Rebecca Watson at Valerie Hoskins Associates.

 

Russian arms trafficker Viktor Bout linked to UK horsemeat scandal… And we’re, like, totally shocked

Looks like someone’s finally catching on. This is the network my book is about:

“#Horsemeat firms linked to Russian arms dealer #ViktorBout” http://t.co/e4xTQnls.

Rebel militias, high street retail giants, Somali pirates, fashion brands, Peruvian drug lords, our own government, ready-meal makers, all depend on some of the same shady people, but we all get it cheap so don’t ask too many questions & act shocked when you’re rumbled.

Meanwhile, subcontracting is what makes the world go round, from the UN to arms dealers, blood diamonds to NGOs, and Afghan heroin to food processing. And if some of that gets mixed up on the way? There are enough weak links to mean it’s not your proble.

Free-Market Mercenaries: Matt speaking at Swansea University on 28th February

Matt will be talking transnational crime, Russian gunrunners and the deadly compromises between narco-mafias, FTSE 100 businesses, terrorists, ‘big aid’ and our own government at Swansea University on 28th February.

The event, titled ‘Free market mercenaries: Cocaine traffickers, Somali pirates, and how the Soviet Union won the Cold War’ is organised by Swansea University’s Research Institute in association with the History Faculty, and will start at 5.30pm in Fulton House on the main campus.

The topic is one the recent conviction of Russian businessman Viktor ‘Merchant of Death’ Bout has brought to global attention. Across the world, a secretive network of lawless, untraceable ex-Red Army airmen function as the delivery channel for everything from Afghan heroin and illicit guns to pirate ransoms, UN aid and supermarket flowers. They are living testament to what happened when the Soviet army met Western outsourcing, free-market economics and foreign policy. Matt has flown and worked with these fugitive airmen, and his adventures and investigations are revealed in the book Outlaws Inc, published globally last year and reissued this year in a new, updated edition featuring extra material on Britain’s part in what UN investigators call the “shadow network of illicit arms transfers” and transcripts of the secret tapes from the CIA’s wire during their sting operation on Viktor Bout.

In his talk, will be asking what their industry means for our self-image as citizens of an enlightened, post-Soviet world. Matt is speaking at the invitation of Dr Kelly Hignett, Lecturer in the School of History and Classics at Swansea University, specialist in crime and deviancy in the former Eastern Bloc and author of ‘Transnational Organised Crime and the Global Village’. Dr Hignett is also the woman behind the highly regarded blog The View East.

For a free invitation to the event as Matt’s guest, or if you’d like Matt to speak at an event, just email matt [at] mattpotterbooks [dot] com, or tweet me @MattPotter.

 

Full press information, interview requests, serialization or review copies of the new, expanded edition of his acclaimed book Outlaws Inc., are available from Dusty Miller, Director of Publicity at Pan Macmillan in London. Email: D.Miller@macmillan.co.uk; Telephone: (+44) 20 7014 6188.

 

 

 

 

Extract: Colombia, cocaine and the coastal paradise on a US blacklist

Today, the US finally blacklisted Belize and El Salvador for being major narcotics transhipment hubs – mainly for Colombian cocaine. Anyone who’s been to the former British Honduras, a tiny little country on the Central American coastline, will already know very well how much of it goes down there. Indeed, most are probably wondering, like me, what took the US so long.

For those who don’t – and for everyone interested in the cocaine trade – I’ve decided to post a free extract of my book below, in which I witnessed the workings of the Belize cocaine transhipment trade at close quarters. Read it and weep…

– From the chapter
High Times on the Costa Coca

“It’s just the start of another lazy, sun-kissed day on Ambergris, one of the tiny, sandspit-and-swamp cayes—pronounced keys, like the Florida archipelago they resemble—off the mainland of this Mayan-Caribbean state. Belize is a tiny coastal country nestled between Guatemala and Mexico on the Central American coastline. Accordingly, the former British Honduras is part coastal paradise, part Mayan hill-and-jungle backwater, and projects the kind of quaint, slow-paced charm we all remember from childhood visits to elderly aunts by the seaside. The waters this side of a long coastal reef glow bright blue, and farther out, where the peasant fishermen ply their trade and the occasional launch zips by on its way up the Central American seaboard toward Florida, they are calm and reassuringly hushed. It genuinely is the last place I’d ever expected, quite literally, to fall over the slit and dissolving remains of a twelve-kilo sack of uncut cocaine someone had left lying on the sandspit beach of the long caye during a dawn walk.

If I’d been able to read the local papers for the couple of months before my arrival in March 2003, I might have had an inkling. On a cloudy Wednesday morning in February 2003, Belizean drug-enforcement agents on a tip-off stormed a field on the Mexico-Belize border and stumbled upon a still-smoldering torched aircraft. But if that was genuinely their first clue that all was not entirely as it should be on the sunny shores of this tiny Central American paradise, perhaps it shouldn’t have been. For years, fishermen and farmers up and down the Mosquito Coast have been doubling up as cocaine salvage men, pushing out early in the morning to see what they can rescue from the fields and waters of Belize and neighboring countries like Mexico, Guatemala, and Honduras. Locals here earn a matter of pennies a day—yet a handful or those industrious or well-informed enough have long been living a Central American rewrite of Whisky Galore (Compton Mackenzie’s book and subsequent film about a small Scottish island community onto whose beach fifty thousand cases of scotch from a wrecked World War II cargo vessel are washed). Only here, the flotsam comes in the form of shrink-wrapped bales of 100 percent pure cocaine, not bottles of booze.

On a sandy, shark-encircled caye a few kilometers along the Costa Coca just weeks later, I was a passenger on a local fishing boat whose skipper explained to me as he sped right past his fishing waters and into the deeper ocean that it was always worth his while scouting around for the “taped-up plastic sacks of cocaine that the narcotraficantes drop into the water at night.” Sometimes, he explains, the narcos whose job it is to deliver the drugs to the planes come round the coast at night and attempt to rendezvous with the plane’s crew. If they are disturbed, chased by law enforcement, or just paranoid, the easiest thing for them to do is push the cargo over the side, carefully wrapped so that it floats discreetly, in the hope of doubling back and retrieving it when the danger has passed—the big-money equivalent of throwing your joint from the car window. The air trapped in the sacks makes them float, semi-submerged or just below the surface, glinting as the light bounces off the plastic. Often they do return and retrieve their cargo, but there are often stragglers, bales washed away from the rest. These are, says the skipper, “the bales the fishing boats find, mostly. Sometimes from a plane too, though, I think.”

By now it was late morning and my skipper and I were no longer alone: A handful of small dinghies could be seen combing the reef waters and the deeper sea beyond, packed with fishermen hoping to land their own twelve-kilo, plastic-wrapped golden ticket. Up and down the beach, meanwhile, were the sacks that hadn’t made it—punctured on impact with the ground, swept out, torn, and washed up again, their precious contents either a dissolving bubbly residue or gone forever.

Back on land, the caye is awash with the stuff, young teenagers selling cocaine—or a hurriedly home-cut version of what the boats or 4x4s brought in—for as little as ten dollars a gram on jetties, beach bars, and up and down the sand in a way you’d normally be offered cheap souvenir beach towels or hair braids. One can’t help but notice how, among the rows of hovels, rusting pickups, and wooden boats, the occasional spanking-new, tinted-glass Humvee sits incongruously; or the odd rococo home extension with pool among a cluster of poor-but-proud shacks at the end of a dirt road. This is just one of the bizarre local economic glitches—along with a series of microbooms to the cash economy whenever a shipment falls—that attends this particular delivery method to the local arms-for-drugs traders.

The idea of spiriting large quantities of Colombian-grown drugs out of rural Belize by cargo plane is not new. In July 2000, British paratrooper Ken Lukowiak wrote a best-selling account of a successful marijuana-smuggling operation he masterminded from his British garrison in Belize in 1983, using military-transport aircraft to spirit large quantities of grass to Europe. Successful until he was caught by the army and jailed, that is.

Yet the Belizean police do seem incredibly unlucky to keep narrowly missing an arrest despite the tip-offs they receive from local witnesses. Just months later in August 2003, enforcement authorities in Blue Creek, a mile and a half from Quintana Roo, Mexico, arrived just too late once more and found another ditched Antonov. This time the gun was smoking: On landing, the An-12’s wheels had become stuck in the thick mud of the field, crippling it. Just like the Candid team who left their junk plane to rust in Afghanistan after having dropped their generator for the U.S. military, this crew knew what to do. The plane itself had cost just $1.5 million; it was expendable. The cargo wasn’t. Witnesses reported seeing men arrive at the plane by car, pick up the crew and a suspected ten bales of cocaine, and speed off in the direction of the Mexican border . . . where they vanished forever.”

Analysis: Chewbacca, Kurt Cobain & cheap thrills, or life in a post-Soviet West

What if…? is a popular parlour game among historians. How would the world look had World War Two ended differently? What would a Confederate-won Civil War have meant in a parallel 21st-century USA? What if the DDR’s army hadn’t wavered, and the Berlin Wall had never fallen?

 

This week brought a chance to play a different, even more tantalizing game. Truthdig Radio and the KPFK network in Los Angeles devoted a half-hour segment of their weekend show to discussion with Matt this week, talking Outlaws Inc., the 20th anniversary of the Soviet collapse, and its continuing aftermath.

 

Titled ‘Dodging Missiles With Russian Smugglers‘, the segment looked at the way in which everything from free trade to terrorism, our own governments’ foreign and fiscal policy, and even our own view of democracy, society and the world continues to be affected by what Soviets called the Cataclysm of 1991. While we in the West were all obsessing about a Reagan/Lucasfilm showdown with the Evil Empire and its Politburo of Darth Vaders that never materialized, should we have been watching instead for the thousands upon thousands of demobbed, unaccountable and nigh-untraceable Han Solos and Chewbaccas in their rusty old Millennium Falcons that suddenly swamped the skies? And what, from Afghanistan to Iraq and Colombia to Haiti, might have been different if we had?

 

Were we distracted by our own propaganda into believing a Cold War could be won outright, to the point of ignoring the aftermath of cheap AK-47s and Strela rocket launchers flooding the market? Is the War on Terror floundering precisely because it’s based on the fatal assumption that the War on Communism ended nice and neatly? Where would Rumsfeld and co have found all the ‘non-state actors’ to fly materiel to Iraq and Afghanistan without all the cheap ex-military Russian labour? How did we not predict the USSR’s military-assisted heroin pipelines suddenly redirecting through Europe and America as its newly freelance – and impoverished – ex-servicemen strove to make a buck out of their old infrastructure?

 

Could it be that, as well as arming a rash of conflicts from Somalia to Afghanistan and Armenia to Liberia and creating the generation of highly educated software dabblers who more or less invented the DDOS and spawned the download and piracy industry, the suddenness of the Soviet collapse was what killed Kurt Cobain and that guy from Alice In Chains?

 

So, how much of all our lives in the West 20 years on is secretly, subtly, Soviet-influenced? Are we ourselves living inside one of those ‘What if…?’ games after all? You can listen to the interview here, read the book if you want to, and make your own mind up…