America’s Prisoner: The Memoirs of Manuel Noriega by Manuel Noriega and Peter Eisner

Political memoirs should probably always be approached with a healthy scepticism. This one was written by a man in prison for drug-trafficking, so I approached it with a lot of uncertainty; especially since I don’t know enough about the politics of Central America in the 80s.

The book does provide some help in the form of Peter Eisner, the American journalist who ghost-wrote the main text, based on interviews with Noriega, and added an introduction, footnotes and endnotes which (as agreed in advance) Noriega did not have any say over. So that provides some useful context.


Noriega’s version of events is that he was nothing but a patriot, working for the good of the people of Panama, trying to avoid getting caught up in the shitshow of Nicaragua and Honduras, and trying to keep on the good side of both the Americans and the Cubans. He also says that the US invasion of Panama was based on nothing but political expediency, that the drug charges against him were trumped up, and that the Americans were up to their eyeballs in every nasty, dirty, shady thing that happened in Central America, including drug-running.

Now a lot of his accusations are clearly true; but of course that doesn’t mean it’s all true. So, for example, given the stuff we know the CIA and the DoD were getting up to in Central America — most famously, but not only, Iran-Contra — pretty much any accusation against them starts sounding plausible. And of course the invasion was political: the fact that they ousted an uncooperative government 12 days before the Canal Zone was due to be handed over to Panamanian control doesn’t seem like a coincidence. And the idea that they did it because Noriega was a Bad Man? Well, given the kinds of regimes the US propped up in Latin America, they clearly had a very high tolerance for brutal dictatorships when it was convenient. But then you can say the same about, say, Saudi Arabia and Iraq: support for the Saudis undermines any claim to a foreign policy designed to spread democracy, freedom and human rights; but whatever the real motivations for invading Iraq, that doesn’t alter the fact that Saddam Hussein was a genuinely terrible figure.

For what it’s worth, Eisner’s conclusion is that Noriega was clearly guilty of a lot of things — like rigging elections and intimidating the opposition — but that Panama was still comparatively stable and peaceful compared to most of its neighbours. And that if Noriega was running drugs, the trial did a poor job of proving it; it relied on testimony from informants within the US prison system who were rewarded for their testimony with reduced sentences, and potentially damning evidence about American government involvement was ruled either secret or inadmissible.

Who knows. I mean, somebody probably does, and if I did the research I might have a clearer idea; but I found the book interesting, even without knowing what to make of it. The tangled politics of the region, and the extent to which the US government was caught up in it, is fascinating. Presumably, now we’ve moved on from the Cold War to the War on Terror, the CIA is less involved in Central America than it used to be, but who knows what they’re now getting up to in, say, Yemen. Or Egypt, Indonesia, Pakistan, Turkey…

[Oh, yeah, I forgot to say: this is my book from Panama for the Read The World challenge.]


The Memoirs of Lady Hyegyŏng, translated by JaHyun Kim Haboush

This is a properly remarkable book. It is, as the subtitle explains, ‘The Autobiographical Writings of a Crown Princess of Eighteenth-Century Korea’. Lady Hyegyŏng* was married into the royal family; she married Sado, the Crown Prince, when they were both nine years old. Sado never became king — he was executed in 1762 at the age of 27 — but their son inherited the throne as King Chŏngjo. Remarkably, Hyegyŏng outlived him as well, and three of these four ‘memoirs’ were written after 1800, during the reign of her grandson King Sunjo.


So she had a long and eventful life, and it makes for fascinating reading. It’s sometimes a little difficult keeping track of who’s who: there’s a large cast of characters, the court intrigues are confusing, and the family relationships are complicated by the fact that the kings and princes have children by multiple women; some wives, some consorts. And because I’m unused to Korean names they all sound a bit the same to me. But it has a list of characters and some family trees, which helped.

The other complication is that these are four separate memoirs which overlap with each other. So the first (‘The Memoir of 1795’) is closest to the modern idea of a memoir, starting with her childhood and covering most of her life, but it carefully avoids any details about the single most important event: the execution of Prince Sado. The execution of the crown Prince by his father is so politically charged that she only alludes to it in the vaguest terms. Then the memoirs of 1801 and 1802 are more directly political; public advocacy aimed at defending the reputation of her father and brothers, who had fallen out favour after the death of Chŏngjo. And in the Memoir of 1805, she finally returns to the story of Sado, explaining that 40 years of silence has allowed false versions of events to take hold, and she believes it is important to tell what really happened.

And the story of Prince Sado is extraordinary. I don’t want to give all the details; I’m sure I enjoyed this book more because I was surprised and shocked by it. But the central fact of his execution is this: he was suffering from some kind of mental illness, and it progressed to the point that he was thought to be a credible threat to the life of the king. But because he was royal, custom forbade any method of execution that would disfigure the body, and poison would have implied he was a criminal; so he was shut into a rice chest and left to starve to death.

As you might imagine, this event traumatised the entire royal family in various ways; hence it being taboo to talk about it for four decades after it happened.

But although it was an extreme example, it also gives a hint of the brutality of court life. There are an awful lot of people who get banished to remote islands, or tortured or executed; usually for saying something which is perceived to be disloyal. That ‘disloyalty’, at least at this cultural distance, often seems to be based on terrifyingly slight nuances of speech.

So I found it fascinating as a portrayal of a time and place, and the whole story is positively Shakespearean.† But it is also much more readable than you might expect. If you skipped the two middle memoirs it would be a positive page-turner; not that they aren’t interesting, but they are harder work.

The Memoirs of Lady Hyegyŏng is my book from South Korea for the Read The World challenge. I’d still like to read some contemporary Korean fiction, it seems like a really interesting country at the moment. But this caught my eye, and I’m glad I read it. It’s fascinating.

*Or Hyegyeong, in the newer Revised Romanization which is the official standard since 2000 (this is all according to Wikipedia, obviously). Similarly, Chŏngjo = Jeongjo, etc. The book was published in 1985, so it uses the older McCune–Reischauer system. 

†Genuinely, it was reading books like this, whether about historical kings or modern dictators, that helped me see Shakespeare’s plays in a new light; I always read them as psychological studies, family dramas that just happen to be set against a more glamorous background. But life in the court of an absolute ruler, like Stalin or King Yǒngjo or Elizabeth I, is really not a normal family situation. Unfortunately I only arrived at this insight after I finished studying Shakespeare at university.

» The portrait is of King Yǒngjo, Prince Sado’s father. I took it from Wikipedia.


My Country, Africa: Autobiography of the Black Pasionaria by Andrée Blouin

I read this for the Read The World challenge as my book from the Central African Republic, which is where Andrée Blouin was born — although she didn’t actually live there for very long.

Her father, Pierre Gerbillat, was a French businessman with a transport company in what was then French Equatorial Africa. He saw Andrée’s mother, Josephine Wouassimba, dancing in a local village and decided he wanted to marry her. Although she was already promised to somebody else, he offered such a large dowry that her parents were persuaded.

He was forty; she was thirteen. And although they were married according to local custom, they were not actually married under French law — not only that, he was already engaged to a Belgian woman, who he married very soon. And after briefly juggling two wives, he left Josephine and sent Andrée to an orphanage for mixed-race children run by nuns in Brazzaville. She was at the orphanage from the age of three until she was seventeen, when she managed to escape, literally by climbing over the wall.

Then she worked as a dressmaker, and had a sequence of relationships with white men, before getting involved in the campaign for independence, first in Guinea and then the Belgian Congo, where she was Chief of Protocol for the newly independent Republic of the Congo for the very brief period before Mobutu overthrew the government and she had to flee the country, and move to France.

So she’s an interesting subject. Although the stuff which is most obviously notable about her — the politics — was not actually the most engaging part of the book, for me. The most powerful section is about severity of the orphanage, and the sheer cruelty of the nuns; and throughout the book the racial dynamics are particularly thought-provoking.

She was a mixed-race child at a time when they were so rare that they were shipped of to special orphanages and coerced to marry each other, to reduce their disruptive impact on society. And it made her even more of an outsider that she was cut off from normal African society for her entire childhood.

Then as an adult, she was a beautiful mixed-race woman who, despite having suffered at the hands of white institutions and individuals, was apparently only drawn to relationships with white men; one of whom she lived with, and had a child with, even though he was so racist that he would not allow her mother into their house.

And I don’t think she makes any comment herself about whether her partial whiteness made it easier or harder for her to be a woman taking a prominent role in the politics of independence, but it must have been relevant one way or another.

So there’s plenty of interesting material here. And it’s well written, for which the credit may go to Jean McKellar, who is credited as a ‘collaborator’; I don’t know exactly what that means in this case. It’s also out of print, though, and unless it sounds like it’s particularly relevant to your interests, I don’t think it’s so amazing that you need to seek it out.


A Woman in the Crossfire: Diaries of the Syrian Revolution by Samar Yazbek

A Woman in the Crossfire is, as the subtitle suggests, an account of the Arab Spring-inspired uprisings in Syria; or at least the first few months of them.

This is my book from Syria for the Read The World challenge. Because of the rules I’ve set myself, that the books should be written by people from the countries in question, I often find it frustratingly difficult to find books which are up to date, and which engage with life in those countries as it is now: usually if a book is only twenty years old I’m doing quite well.

This book is certainly up to date. Or at least, as a piece of journalism I suppose it’s already slightly out of date; it covers the period from March to July last year, and the situation in Syria has moved on since then. But it still feels very fresh and raw.

Like A Poet and Bin Laden, this is journalism (in a broad sense) written by a novelist. And although it is much less ‘literary’ in form — it’s written in a pretty straightforward diary form, plus interviews she did with other Syrians — there are certainly bits that don’t quite read like standard journalism. Most obvious is the amount of emphasis on her own emotional and psychological experience. It rubs against the normal assumption of journalism that keeping the journalist out of the story is evidence of objectivity.

But actually, the psychological pressures on a dissident living in a police state which is cracking down violently on protests is a fascinating subject in its own right. The sleeplessness, the panic and uncertainty, the fear that the regime will take revenge, not just on her but on her daughter: this is an important part of the story of what it means to live in a dictatorship. And it makes it all the more admirable that she kept on putting herself in danger by going out to observe protests and conduct interviews; and completely unsurprising that after a few months she chose to leave the country, taking her daughter with her.

At times it starts to feel a bit repetitive because, well, events were repetitive: there are an awful lot of protests and massacres. Generally, though, the quality of the writing is enough to keep up the interest. The book does a particularly good job of providing a sense of life as it happened; it’s not just the facts, it’s the texture of experience.

» The photo Banyas Demos – / Syria سورية مظاهرات /صور بانياس, from 6th May 2011, is © Syria-Frames-Of-Freedom and used under a CC attribution licence.


Drugs Without The Hot Air by David Nutt

David Nutt became somewhat famous in the UK when he was chairman of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs [ACMD], the statutory body which is responsible for advising the government on drug policy, and specifically on the appropriate legal classification of different drugs.

He was criticised and eventually fired for being rather too vocal about the fact that the government consistently ignored the advice of the ACMD and allowed political considerations to trump politics, and for pointing out some inconvenient truths about relative harms; that alcohol and tobacco are both more dangerous than many illegal drugs, and that horse-riding is considerably more dangerous than taking ecstasy.

This became a bit of a cause celèbre in the geekosphere. Because we all know that  politicians will ignore the evidence if it’s politically inconvenient, but it’s rarely quite so blatant as firing someone for saying what the evidence is.

This book covers various aspects of drug use: how drugs work, how harmful they are, what addiction is, what treatments are available and so on. It covers alcohol, tobacco and prescription drugs as well as the illegal ones.

It’s interesting to read because it simultaneously seems radical and rather obvious. Radical because if all the evidence in the book was taken seriously it would involve a top-to-bottom rewriting of UK drug laws; and obvious because actually not much of this stuff should come as a surprise.

For example, however much politicians may splutter about the comparison, can anyone who lives in this country seriously doubt that alcohol causes far more social harm than ecstasy or cannabis? Or that, purely pragmatically, treating addiction as a medical problem is likely to be more successful than treating it as a moral failing? And even if you think cannabis should be illegal, surely it makes intuitive sense that it is counterproductive to imprison users: both because being in prison is in itself more damaging to the individual’s future prospects than the actual drug use, and because it is very expensive to lock people up.

It’s interesting though, and very readable. It helps that, although the book takes a ‘liberal’ stance compared to the current law, it’s not derived from a naive libertarianism. Nutt is not arguing for loosening the drug laws on the basis of increased personal liberty; he wants the law to be better at managing harms and risks. So he supports the ban on smoking in public places and would tighten some of the rules on alcohol sales. And although treating addiction to heroin and cocaine as a primarily medical problem could be seen as ‘soft on drugs’, he’s arguing for it on the basis that it is the best way to minimise harm.

A few random interesting points from the book: he points out that coca leaves, cocaine and crack are all pharmacologically the same substance, and that the method of delivery makes a huge difference not just to the experience but also the addictiveness. I was startled to learn that about 500 people a year die of heroin overdoses after coming out of prison because, having stopped or reduced their use while inside, they have lost the tolerance they used to have.

And I was struck by his suggestion that the duty on alcoholic drinks should be proportional to actual alcohol content, rather than by category with one rate for beer and one for wine and so on. That would be a direct incentive for drinkers to switch to weaker drinks and for manufacturers to reverse the trend of beers and wines getting stronger. Which seems sensible. There a general argument for making alcohol more expensive anyway, but it seems like a good start to make Special Brew considerably more expensive than lagers with less than half the alcohol.

» The Pink Elephants on Parade LSD blotter is from the Blotter Art website. The bottle of Papine is from Wellcome Images and used under a CC by-nc-nd licence.


The weird existence of tax havens

Tax avoidance/evasion is in the news again, and once again I find my mind drifting back to that book Treasure Islands, which I read a year ago and stuck with me since. Because a lot of these issues of tax policy are inevitably messy and complicated, both ethically and as a matter of pragmatic policy; but there is one particular point I keep returning to.

Which is this: when you think about it, it’s a bit weird that tax havens are allowed to exist. Because all those ‘companies’ which are just a pigeonhole in a lawyer’s office in the Cayman Islands? The only reason they exist is for the explicit purpose of escaping the laws and regulations of another country.

That’s not intended to be a rhetorical flourish; it is, as far as I can tell, a simple statement of fact.

If a company does its business in the UK but has part of its corporate structure registered in the Cayman Islands*: they are trying to avoid laws passed by a legitimate democratic government. To get pompous for a moment, they are rejecting the democratically expressed will of the British people.

They might be doing it to avoid tax, they might be looking for lax financial regulation, they might be trying to disguise corporate fraud or launder the proceeds of organised crime. All you know for certain is that they intend  to avoid the law.

So why do we put up with this crap? The Caymans, the British Virgin Islands, the Turks and Caicos, Jersey, Bermuda, Guernsey, the Isle of Man, Luxembourg: it’s not a list of great global powers that we need to tread carefully around because of their terrifying military and economic influence.

The EU and the US could simply† refuse to recognise the legal validity of companies and trusts registered in these countries. No doubt clever accountants and lawyers would still find ways to avoid paying tax, and to launder money, including of course the most direct way of avoiding tax: lobbying politicians to change the tax code in your favour. But I don’t see why we should make it any easier for them than necessary.

* or a trust in the Turks and Caicos, or Guernsey, or whatever it might be.

† Well, OK, it might not actually be ‘simple’. But I’m sure we could come up with something.