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RETURNING THE GAZE: Representing poverty and precarity in a post-colonial world

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RETURNING THE GAZE: Representing poverty and precarity in a post-colonial world
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To a greater power and a better nature you, free, are subject, and these create the mind in you that the heavens have not in their charge.
Therefore, if the world around you goes astray, in you is the cause and in you let it be sought.

~ Marco the Lombard’s counsel, from Dante’s Divine Comedy

Novelist Pankaj Mishra, referring to “the history of modernisation”, observes how despite pretentions to rationality and order described by the American originators of the term in the 1950s and 1960s, modernisation’s history “is largely one of carnage and bedlam” that disproportionately afflicts a targeted,othered”, dehumanised, inferiorised population invariably classified as poor, who by implication are also made responsible for the pathetic state in which they find themselves.

A polarisation of conscience means that little solidarity can be extended to those who suffer the greatest burden of the consequences of the worst of human impulses and choices. Do we imagine that the gaze infected by the paradigm in which it thrives can refocus its witnessing lens from a place of profound empathy for and with humanity, and see itself in the suffering of the other?

There is nothing objective in the human gaze. We know this. Yet we collude with this post-Enlightenment, neoliberal hubristic production system that even proposes its own transcendence and omniscience— and does so while denying or erasing the reality of the shared experience of suffering so that it can lay claim to transcendent objectivity. How can a corrupted witness purport to offer a truthful testament to human experience? How unbiased is the evidence (images, stories) that such a witness brings forth?

Humanity now thrashes about in a chasm of the absence of a real vocabulary of beingness today, while at the same time, makes excuses for a parasitic ideological structure that requires the stories of others’ vulnerabilities in order to shore up itself and its peculiar myths. An obsessive and pornographic preoccupation with the wounds of others serves two key purposes: one, it enables the observers to feel, what is that imbecilic word…superior, and two, it helps the observers to avoid engaging with their own internal contradictions and pathologies, it buries their fears.

Against such a backdrop, what does our own articulation of post-coloniality, social development, vulnerability and poverty actually mean here and now? What does “representation” become when forged through an epistemological structure that fragments the world so that it can elevate itself as the “universal” and the standard by which the human race measures its progress. In referring to this dilemma, the thinker Santiago Castro-Gomes calls it the problem of the “hubris of point zero”.

This is the epistemology that, despite its, yes, many virtues, treasures, and achievements on behalf of its select, could also declare those on the right of the screen as virtuous and righteous in their actions against those on the left, who are consistently classified as soulless, valueless, ungovernable and unmournable savages, barbarians, terrorists and heathens— not entirely human and, therefore, exploitable and dispensable. The mostly Euro-American collective societal imagination, in particular, was co-opted into this belief. The paradigm deliberately enlisted science and academia to develop a literature and theory to absolve itself from this, its public evil. The desecrated bodies on the left of the screen are rendered undignified and nameless even in their ancestral homes—and there are no plaques to commemorate their histories, achievements, their existence – while museums are built to enshrine the so-called exploits of those on the right.

An obsessive and pornographic preoccupation with the wounds of others serves two key purposes: one, it enables the observers to feel, what is that imbecilic word…superior, and two, it helps the observers to avoid engaging with their own internal contradictions and pathologies, it buries their fears.

What we see and hear now has a history and a template. Given this, what then should a person do with an array of stories and images embedded in a diminished, diminishing and disordered framing of life, that from its origins, and despite the evidence of its horrid impulses, has never been forensically interrogated?

In a 1999 New York Times article, Nigerian author Wole Soyinka reminded us how “the great philosophical minds of Europe, like Hume, Hegel and Kant, bent their prodigious talents to separating the species into those with rights and those with none, founded on the convenient theory that some people were human and others less so. The Encyclopedists of France, products of the so-called Age of Reason, remain the most prolific codifiers of the human (and other) species on an ambitiously comprehensive scale, and their scholarly industry conferred a scientific benediction on a purely commercial project that saw millions of souls dragged across the ocean to serve as beasts of burden. Religion and commerce … were reinforced by the authority of new scientific theories to divide humanity into higher and lower manifestations of the species. The dichotomy of the world was complete.”

I am compelled to ask how truthfully a person of this epoch can speak to precarity, poverty or marginalisation without making incisions into the profound moral and existential vacuum that are their sources and causes, which the human collective treats with amnesia. We are enduring a season of an unprecedented crisis of being and vision – and the devastation of lives we see and label as “precarious” are symptomatic of this.

Reality, they say, is relational, not representational. I retreat once more to Marco the Lombard’s counsel from Dante’s Divine Comedy for guidance:

To a greater power and a better nature you, free, are subject, and these create the mind in you
that the heavens have not in their charge.
Therefore, if the world around you goes astray, in you is the cause and in you let it be sought.

Do we really have the adequate tools of analysis that will lead us into an immersive experience of the realities to which we refer? We live a lie-laden un-reality where communities of the most resource-rich territories of the world are interpenetrated by the most devastating forms of poverty while those of the resource-consuming lands are lauded as the most advanced, the wealthiest, the best, when the questions that should be asked are: How does the world’s wealth get to be transferred, from where, by whom, for whom and at what price? Who sets the rates? To what obscene extent are precarity, marginalisation and poverty in themselves a profitable by-product of a way of being in the world? How are these accepted by-products of an accepted global industrial ideology? Will we explore poverty in its multiple designs and constructions in Bretton Wood cults, in the numerous multinational boardrooms, and in all those resource-hunting, territory-scouring Trojan horses that first appear as non-governmentals and then collude with emasculated, lobotomised post-colonial governors masquerading as leaders of so many nations?

We find ourselves entangled in and by a culture that, for example, knowing there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, still allowed its privileged liars, those contemporary high priests of baal, a gateway to create and launch a grotesque unending war fifteen years ago that has since devoured an ancient civilisation and pushed our earth into the cusp of a human-caused apocalypse. This alleged “war on terror”, an abominable act, co-opted forty other nations, all of which fly the banner of democracy and human rights, and who have wilfully and continuously committed atrocities before slithering away to reconstruct a narrative of righteousness by evolving new euphemisms that deny the horror that their choices have visited upon millions and millions of innocents.

I am compelled to ask how truthfully a person of this epoch can speak to precarity, poverty or marginalisation without making incisions into the profound moral and existential vacuum that are their sources and causes, which the human collective treats with amnesia.

The abomination is today visited on Yemen for no real reason other than Saudi Arabia, this paradigm’s favourite pimp, wishes to test its war chops and spread its particular version of self-rightousness. Saudi Arabia is spending trillions of dollars on weapons sold to it by nations, that offer themselves as ‘paragons of human values’ weapons that are sometimes procured through second or third parties. Money gratefully received without question. Later, when the images of devastating Yemeni starvation hits your Christmas screens, some scrawny Englishman will compose a “Do they know it’s Christmas?” dirge so that we can all send our one pound to help the poor, the starving and the helpless. Meanwhile, it is Christmas every day in our weapon-manufacturing communities; the war in Yemen is a ceaseless bounty.

I ask you, are there any stories today, any images of the full Yemeni reality? Of course not. We will neither reveal the images of the generals overseeing the devastation of an already weak land, nor will we show what bullets and grenades do to human bodies. Why should the truth of what sustains our economies and guarantees our lifestyles interfere with the pleasure of our morning cappuccino? But God help the ones who emerge from the inferno of our making. They become our revenants. Their bodies and haunted lives are fingers pointing at us, which without a single word, mock our presumed innocence.

Here is our world now, this massive entangled bruise of traumatised, alienated, marginalised, terrorised, impoverished hundreds of millions, a world offering itself to the possibility of self-annihilation as entertainment.

This epistemological framing by which we live has won for its adherents entire territories that are relabelled as, for example, the United States of America, Australia, Canada, and then elevated as “universal” beacons of high human values that also confirm the hegemonic paradigm’s transcendent delusions, those mythologies that are adorned with titles such as “civilisation”, “democracy”, “scientific”, “advancement”, “philanthropy” and “human rights”, so many gilded fig leaves positioned to conceal the wound and its questions, which may include:

What is the origin of this nation?

How did the current governance structure evolve? Who and how many had to die to invent this “country”? How did they die?

Who atones? Who does not atone?

This dominant system, including its knowledge systems, generates and reinforces a malignant Military Industrial Complex upon which entire economies depend. And it seduces us with amnesia. Forget! it suggests. In exchange we may frolic carefreely amidst the flowers of Orwellian doublespeak – collateral damage, for example, a euphemism for lies, transference, prevarications, perception management, propaganda, erasure and rewriting and rebranding of horrors. Meanwhile, in a world of abundance, how is it even possible that eight men from the same cultural paradigm have gained control of 80 per cent of the earth’s wealth? Is this the culmination of the so-called Age of Reason?

Today we accuse Kim-Jong-Un of impoverishing North Koreans, but do we also reflect on the meaning (today) of the American war in Korea (1950-3)? The wilful carpet bombing of a country by one set of humans until everything is rubble, as the generals casually cited that 20 per cent (a conservative estimate) population death rate? Why do we act shocked when grieving, starving, devastated, traumatised people turn their backs on a world that turned its backs on them? And we suddenly have something to say about…what?

Please don’t get me wrong; I am not excusing insanity. What I ask is if the prevailing global paradigm and its tributaries—-modernism, post-modernism, post-post-modernism…with their penchant for laundering their darkness – are what can gainfully articulate the dimensions, meaning and language of profound human suffering. In the end, after we have described, or gazed upon, the poverty- stricken, the marginalised, the oppressed, the dehumanised, in whatever forms these take, what actually changes for the common good as a consequence?

A different point.

We neither see nor imagine the same thing when we say “poverty” or “precarity”, do we? Despite our preferred assumptions, there is no uber-state of poverty or precarity that is the universal template. Yet so very rarely do we allow an exploration of the varieties of consciousness that imbue human seeing, recognising, describing and attending; or the reality of philosophical and cultural divergences.

This alleged “war on terror”, an abominable act, co-opted forty other nations, all of which fly the banner of democracy and human rights, and who have wilfully and continuously committed atrocities before slithering away to reconstruct a narrative of righteousness by evolving new euphemisms that deny the horror that their choices visited upon millions of innocents.

To some, poverty is an asset in a world where shareholder profit is the Holy Grail, where consumption is the measure of nirvana. So valuable it is that should the economies of certain nations decline, wars must be manufactured. As long as weapons can be sold and jobs created, a necessary magic happens—these economies are rich and stable again and can hold themselves up as beacons of world development and order, right? But the blood-price that designated scapegoats have paid remain obscured and untold.

Precarity does, however, explain how humanity has turned vampire to humanity, feeding on its own lifeblood, its harrowing collective gaze always turned outward and elsewhere. Precarity (or what some might refer to as precariousness, which is a less enduring/permanent condition) – a word that was apparently coined by the Catholic monk and anarcho-communist Léonce Crenier (1888-1963) – has been defined as “the politically induced condition in which certain populations suffer from failing social and economic networks…becoming exposed to injury, violence and death”. Precarity is a condition that is often associated with neoliberal capitalism and its perverted logic of blaming the victim for his or her suffering, rather than examining the skewed power and economic relations that might have contributed to that suffering – a logic that relies on scapegoating to absolve the inflicter of suffering from any blame.

What the scapegoater’s target (the poor, the starving, the helpless, the victims) may have to give up is the power to name themselves. If they survive the struggle, they will be doomed to be spoken for, depicted, analysed and approached with the delicious frisson of Freud’s unheimlich — the uncanny. But sometimes, sometimes, it is true, that the monstered being growls back using the tools and technology of the paradigm against itself.

We, the inhabitants of this earth, are caught up in the matrix of a dark drama that services our fears, our violence, our silences, our looking away, and in some cases, our approval. This grotesque dance is justified with epic headers: Age of Discovery, War on Terror, Humanitarian Interventions. Weapons of Mass Destruction. Mother of All Bombs. Later, imagine our surprise when survivors from such expeditions flee their homes seeking refuge and peace in our midst. Having even been robbed of their names, we are now able to label them poor, marginalised, migrants, refugees, precarious, as if what befell them happened through their own fault. We negotiate encounters so that their suffering is kept as far away from our lives as possible.

Their courageous odyssey, their spirit and strength in the face of overwhelming intimate losses are rarely voiced, lest they expose our cowardice. Their desperation is often criminalised, as if it is infectious. We may safely look at their drowned bodies on television, but having seen enough of these, no longer notice them. We engineer them into concentration camps in Turkey, Lebanon, Kenya, Uganda, Jordan, Greece and Libya. Meanwhile, we neglect to act on the reality that we know that their powerless bodies are minute by minute being brutalised, experimented with and traded. Their organs are being auctioned, their children are being raped, their women are being violated, their men are emasculated, humanity is being brutalised by humanity using its most insidious weapons: human absence and human silence.

To some, poverty is an asset in a world where shareholder profit is the Holy Grail, where consumption is the measure of nirvana. So valuable it is that should the economies of certain nations decline, wars must be manufactured.

In April last year, the American military dropped what they christened the “Mother of All Bombs” over the Achin district in Afghanistan’s Nangarhar province, a public display of the same casual evil that created the Nagasaki and Hiroshima slaughter, a prelude of what is to come, perhaps? There is still to this day a terrible silence over the actual number of Afghani casualties, which have already been pre-stigmatised as ISIS, not to speak of the devastation of the landscape and environment. There are no independent verifications, no counter-checks, no accountability, no display of bodies other than those of living American soldiers standing in caves that are still intact and whose locations cannot be verified.

So, when a surge of humans in deep distress whose environment has been poisoned and shattered will flee Afghanistan trying to find new homes, will they be returned to the source? Will we try and find the reason for their fleeing and hold to account the responsible nation? Of course not. That would require what seems to have been leached out of the human collective: a will to truth and courage. Indifference has been made cool. “Post-truth” has been invented. When the desperate immigrant carrying his remaining child peers through a fence, won’t we line our words and images to articulate a preferred trope that reinforces our framing of poverty, powerlessness, and precarity regarding him and his country?

Shall I go on?

Weeks before the bombing and Donald Trump’s foray into Syria, American soldiers and their Saudi friends were implicated in the mass slaughter of a boat filled with innocent people escaping Yemen. After the announcement of the mistake, nothing. There was also the horrible and mistaken slaughter of innocents in Mosul involving the so-called coalition forces. After the initial alarm, nothing. You who study representation, have you heard anything more of these crimes against the earth, decency, morality and humanity that sink without a trace, without a second bleep? The silence, though, does make it simpler to rationalise the sacrifice of humans to tomahawk missiles while the enabler eats chocolate cake—or was it vanilla?

It is to specific and targeted realms of anguish that we send our image capturers and story makers. The consistency of the ideology calls for the permitted symbols of doomed desires: the sacrificeable, the pitied and – despite the pathos – the unmournable body (preferably in a particular melanin shade and from a particular culture). This paradigm allows the media to use and expose them as the poor, the less fortunate, the marginalised, the victims. So the advantaged—and that is the adjective always used – might make meaning by pressing a forefinger on the donate button and dispatch two euros fifty to support one of a hundred thousand non-governmentals who promise the miracle of turning coins into medicine and water for the ones, who, fortunately, are not us. These days it is accompanied with a hashtag. But no questions.

So what do we have to show, we humans speaking about poverty and precarious lives lived in ineffable margins? What do we have to show that amplifies our abysmal and wilful unknowing of the actual and inner lives of those whose histories we choose to condense into a single, transient thumbprint, captured, edited, and distributed by a thinned-out imagination? In the academy’s retelling of precarity, poverty and their representation, what room exists for a multidimensionality and multiperspectivity that breathes fresh knowledge and insight that might actually transfigure our humanity?

Let us change track and look at some art, okay?

The cover image of Job’s Friends by Lenny Caccio is inspired by the biblical Book of Job. It features three friends – Eliphaz the Temanite, Bildad the Shuhite and Zophar the Naamathite – who show up to supposedly console a terribly afflicted Job. Encountering the extreme suffering and wounded spirit and body of their friend, they first choose to sit in shock. After a suitable interlude, now accustomed to the spectacle of suffering, they proceed to diagnose the disease from a safe space that does not require them to touch Job. They also evolve a branding plan in which they excuse everything but Job, who is somehow made responsible for his fate. They offer a scholarly treatise on meaning, suffering and Job’s responsibility. They wonder why Job is not more like them, they who are favoured by God. If he were, such suffering would not be his fate. Nay indeed, since they know the mind of God, actually, in a way, this makes them, like God…if not God Himself.

Meanwhile, we neglect to act on the reality that we know that their powerless bodies are minute by minute being brutalised, experimented with and traded. Their organs are being auctioned, their children are being raped, their women are being violated, their men are emasculated, humanity is being brutalised by humanity using its most insidious weapons: human absence and human silence.

Suddenly, certain of their transcendence, they authoritatively proceed to make decisions for Job. They go on and on until Job became a scientific and social development project. They discuss the alleviation of Job’s poverty, precarity and disease. Dear Job is sucked into the eye of the cyclone of stupidity and is compelled to reclaim a semblance of humanity by trying to explain the inexplicability of his existential harrowing.

In the eyes of the three idiots, Job, the scapegoat, must not be perceived as innocent, for through this judgment he is designated as the carrier of the pathologies and terrors that afflict the human journey; upon him rests the entire mystery of human suffering. Now Job is the heathen. The savage. The pagan. The terrorist. The infidel. The Third World hordes…or was it swarms (David Cameron). The extreme other from whom our lives are detached, whose suffering is alien to our righteous ease. Behold this, the detached collective observing human suffering, not as witnesses, but as judges and gossips. They fail to see that Job is a mirror and witness to the reality of life. These idiots (yes, I am judging them) look and look and turn blind.

It does end rather well, with a schadenfreude twist. The mysterious Source of Existence in whose name much was suggested by the trio shows up from out of the whirlwind, the storm, the chaos, and is in a very bad mood. He stormily affirms and underlines the truth of human unknowing before the immensity of life. Some paraphrased bullet points from within the storm: You are not the authors of nature or life. You are all subject to the mystery of suffering, pain, death, and the unknowing. In other words, as a millennial friend once put it to me, you know shit about life.

The three self-appointed dunderheads get their knuckles thoroughly rapped by a God who makes them dependent on Job for a dramatic gesture of forgiveness and sacrifice that will release them from the hell their presumptuous babblings have driven them into, thus demonstrating another useful point: You need one another other in order to get yourselves out of your self-created hell.

Back to earth.

On January 24, 2017, a 22-year-old human being, a man named Pateh Sabally, either jumped into or slipped into Venice’s Grand Canal. Witnessing this were about two hundred men and women. They were cited as cursing, mocking and abusing him as he flailed and cried.

What did Pateh see? What did he experience as he started to die? To know that the last human gaze Pateh experienced was the gaze of hatred is such a weight on a sensitive human conscience. What looks out of the gaze of this mob in Venice, finding satisfaction in the slow death of an ebony-bodied stranger in a canal?

A dying man entered the doorway of death with the sound of over two hundred apparently “sane” human beings mocking his life, urging him to annihilation, amused by his suffering. What did Pateh see? What did he experience as he started to die? To know that the last human gaze Pateh experienced was the gaze of hatred is such a weight on a sensitive human conscience. What looks out of the gaze of this mob in Venice, finding satisfaction in the slow death of an ebony-bodied stranger in a canal? And death and dying are such a private, intimate happening, even among creatures. So, what has become of a people and their interior values who seek and find intense porno-visual satisfaction in the death of a stranger? What turns these people into a howling beast, a mob that has lost access to the grammar of life? What is in the gaze of the human in the canal looking at his audience?

We have been here before, haven’t we?

I was surprised, and then not surprised, that the horror did not generate greater contemplation in the media or in societal reflections and that the only images published were those of the drowning Pateh, with the mob offered as a faceless mass without a shape that melts into the day when invited to account for their manner of witnessing. I am struck by the length of time that the mob spent observing, archiving, recording and commenting on Pateh’s dying, and the eerie idea of profound satisfaction in the experience. The mob is so preoccupied with their perception of Pateh’s otherness, his immigrant-being, that nothing of his humanity penetrates their gaze. What is this epistemology of life that makes of human beings a thing that finds pleasure in the dying and death of a man? Why has it not been hacked to pieces yet? Unless, of course, its diminished conceptualisation of who a human being is has its worshippers. In this event, who in our epistemological structuring would be the subject of our reflections on poverty, precarity and pity? Pateh or his mob?

Second case: On September 8, 2015, a woman who had veiled her face, protecting herself from the contagion of encounter, filmed the flow of human sufferers crossing into her country, Hungary. She would at some point drop her camera to focus on extending her foot to kick two children and their father, a former Syrian football coach, Osama Abdul Mohsen, who carrying one son, stumbled to the ground. It is not possible to list the many ways that this man, travelling without his wife, was humiliated. A man has lost his home through no fault of his own, has lost his country, is compelled to impoverishment, and struggles with life in ways that not many in the world can. He traverses unknown worlds, deserts, storms, wars, water, death, displaying the noblest human spirit and its will to live and hope.

This human seeks refuge among other humans, strangers. Reduced to scrambling across a man-caused frontier, he runs in the direction of a camerawoman, who is masked to preserve herself from the diseases he purportedly carries. Let us think carefully about the gesture as she pauses her filming and puts out a leg to trip a man carrying his son, who flails and falls. That fall, friends, is a wounded gong in the deepest soul. A warning. This episode is enshrined as the Petra László incident. It travelled as a cold slithering shiver across the world. In our house in Nairobi, when we saw it, no one could speak. But it was recognised for what it was.

I am struck by the blank in the place where people have absented themselves from, or even worse, have become so paralysed by human uncertainty that they do not know how to be hospitable to and receive, perhaps through an embrace, the wounded among and within them.

My own gaze stays on the camerawoman Petra László. I want to meet her. I have questions to ask. What drives a human being to this place of cruelty? I have traced her narrative of defence. Her first explanation: “I just snapped.” The second: “The man lied.” The third: “I am in danger.” The fourth: “I shall sue Facebook, I shall sue the witnesses.” It goes on.

The discomfort for us is this, the reason for our unspeaking witnessing: Here is the public revelation of the disintegration of humanity, the evidence of the wound. And no, this is not about privilege. Petra is a mirror, you see. Here also is my emptiness. Here is my terror of the mysteriousness of another. Here is a symbol of my impoverished humanity. Here is the sign of the unspoken wound that tears through my own soul, that if unattended for much longer will turn septic and evil—for here precisely is what I do not wish to be.

So who are these people? And why does society and popular media collude in an act of amnesia and erasure, not of the dead or suffering, but of the agents who amplify the suffering of others? It is not labelled as anything, is it? There is no name offered for this precarious condition. Why? There is the gaze. But what is heard? What is told and repeated? What gets muted so that an image can be explained differently?

In August 2016, police in Rome received a phone call from a stranger asking them to investigate a situation. An 84-year old woman and her 94-year old husband were in their apartment. They had been wailing so loudly for a good part of the day and their cries were now disturbing their neighbours. When the police entered the house, they found an elderly couple who were so overwhelmed by an existential loneliness, who having watched the news were horrified by the state of the world, that all they could do was wail, and wail, and wail. The media story slides quickly to the part where the police cook pasta for them. But I am interested in the spaces of silence and absences of neighbours, of family, of community. I am interested in the gaps occupied by this profound human keening, the sensitivity of a man and woman who feel the wounds of the world so profoundly.

But I am mostly struck by the communal unhearing and unseeing and unfeeling and unregarding. The story is not only about the police and pasta, but also about the meaning of that human cry, and the reactions of those who heard it. I am struck by the blank in the place where people have absented themselves from, or even worse, have become so paralysed by human uncertainty that they do not know how to be hospitable to and receive, perhaps through an embrace, the wounded among and within them. Yet here are the kind of people who would press the contribute button on the computer to send one euro to pay for a borehole in Timbuktu.

The worst of these are the leaders of nations whose people are compelled to flee to find life elsewhere, despite the wealth and treasures of home. Each of these leaders, through their incompetence, cowardice and collusion, are culpable and accountable for the extremes of suffering experienced by their people.

What has happened? Do you know? I don’t. But does our lexicon for poverty and precarity encompass this, the marginalisation of persons from themselves? The meaning of lives no longer at ease with embracing, holding, comforting, or mourning each other?

For the Bretton Woods and United Nations indices on global well-being, this scene scores high on the wealth index. It shows evidence of the consumption of pasta. Poverty or precarity, under the dominant paradigm does not figure, does it?

There is an adjunct to this that often skips our global headlines: The state of the elderly in European and American societies, evidenced in excessive winter mortalities, is a reality that is carefully left out of developmental indices and global conversations about precarity. Yet the paradigm to which our world has pledged its visioning will implode before it admits that its mythology is erasing the top end of its generations. It would be cynical to imagine, I guess, that the wild reaping of a generation judged as no longer productive is a desired outcome for a worldview obsessed with human usefulness, wouldn’t it?

What I am trying to say, perhaps not too eloquently, is that perhaps, primarily, for me, this conversation we are having about ‘precarity’ is about humanity and its choices, this is an examination of a communal consciences in an attempt to see a way to engage that is transformative to our humanity and its dignity.

Allow me to make brief references to two key aspects in the global value chain of the misery economy that have a role in informing our constructions and perceptions of poverty and precarity:

First, the matter of forced philanthropy, one of the studios and markets for the representational images of poverty and devastation that social development paradigms offer. The business of imposed philanthropy is a fascinating study of human delusion to omniscience, the exercise of power through the mask of pity and the subversion of genuine human compassion for the purposes of profit and personal glory. It too has a history that reaches deep in the roots of the alleged Age of Discovery that I do not need to go into now. Its patterns are the same. The designated beneficiaries are always rendered choiceless, voiceless and nameless and subject to the character profile the philanthropist imposes upon them. Their most intimate lives are exposed to an irresistible gaze. The philanthropists have the power to speak for and represent an entire people and their experience. It is like the ventriloquist who seeks dummies into which he can throw his voice and reiterate his agenda.

Deus ex machina. I will not names.

Caught up in a devastating existential struggle, the targets rarely fight this denudation of their humanity—because, admittedly, some coins to alleviate immediate suffering are made available. Those who object to this business model are often labelled as out of touch, people who are denying or manufacturing reality. For the patron society must always reaffirm its intrinsic goodness. Its people are good. Its intentions are good. And the vulnerable are a blank canvas upon which stories can be repackaged. And if the images are from the imagined African milieu, I promise you a fly on the face shot, even if it has to be photo-shopped in. But this imposed philanthropy serves its most potent purpose: it offers the paradigm a messiah, or many messiahs.

We lament the body of Aylan but immediately censor our awareness about the link between his sea-washed body and that of the CEO of the weapon-making factory that supplied the manufactured rebels with the guns and bombs that destroyed the Kurdi family life in Kobani, Syria.

An overview of this ecology of suffering would be dishonest if it did not refer, at least once, to the role played by the useful idiots, those too-numerous colonial (they pretend to be “post-independent”) governments – those impotent venal agents of collaborative coloniality, betrayers of hopes, repellant homeguards. The worst of these are the leaders of nations whose people are compelled to flee to find life elsewhere, despite the wealth and treasures of home. Each of these leaders, through their incompetence, cowardice and collusion, are culpable and accountable for the extremes of suffering experienced by their people. Entangled in a grammar of violence and oppression, they have woven their individual lives into a life-destroying global economic paradigm at the expense of a vision for the world and their own people; they create new demons and excel in the creation and sustenance of a hell that destroys even the future of their land and generations of people. They engineer displacement, and do so in the name of social development. Yet their governments spend twenty times the resources allotted to national development to buy weapons abroad for incompetent armies trained to turn their weapons inward. These caretakers of disaster have nothing to say about a reality that has turned their people’s bodies into the most tradeable and the most disposable, mere containers for other people’s organs. (Many of their people now lie on the bed of the Mediterranean as undersea ghosts.) What a wreckage. What an abysmal poverty of spirit and imagination.

Is there a repository of more profound ideas, values, and words that can engender transformative human relationships so that we do not have to bear the burden of human anguish and injustice alone?

We lament the body of Aylan but immediately censor our awareness about the link between his sea-washed body and that of the CEO of the weapon-making factory that supplied the manufactured rebels with the guns and bombs that destroyed the Kurdi family life in Kobani, Syria. In the representation of poverty, precarity and alienation, where are the images and stories of the weapon factories and the military or prison industrial complexes? We side-eye bodies that have drowned attempting to cross the Mediterranean Sea but block our ears to the reality of a multi-billion-dollar human trafficking/slavery network owned by an amoral global elite for whom business has never been better, certainly in the supply of human organs that had been a problem before but is no longer an issue in most of the world now.

How can one enter the soul of this theme without a life-giving mythology of presence so that when we speak of human poverty and precarity we do so justly, and in a way that shelters all that is shamed, broken, unjust, flawed, deaf, blind, lost, wounded or sad? What framework do we have that can call out the normalisation of unmitigated evil and our human dalliance with a violence that excuses itself and erases the voices of the most vulnerable?

Is there a way to interrogate the entrenchment of a seemingly omnipotent economic complex that mocks humanity by calling itself not only humanitarian but also just? What do we do with processes and ideologies with which we cohabit that glorify hatred, injustice, fear and violence that turn others into bogeymen? What ideologies of being exist that are capable or brave enough to hold perpetrator predatory systems and cultures accountable for their wilful desecration of life and meaning? Is there a repository of more profound ideas, values, and words that can engender transformative human relationships so that we do not have to bear the burden of human anguish and injustice alone?

Paraphrasing Mignolo, it must be possible for our humanity to imagine “institutions at the service of life rather than life at the service of institutions.” There has to be a way of being and seeing that deepens the witness’s gaze, a daring to first love—yes, I said it, love – and, therefore, make representation a true gift, a grace of human encounter, of human discovery, dignity, enchantment and knowing.

 

This essay is adapted from a speech by the author at the Gesellschaft für Anglophone Postkoloniale Studien / Association for Anglophone Postcolonial Studies (GAPS)Annual Conference on the theme, ‘Representing Poverty and Precarity in a Postcolonial World’, held from May 25 – 27, 2017 – at the University of Bonn, Germany.

Author’s preamble:

The ideas this essay puts forward are mined from many disciplinary spaces and are especially energised by proposals from thinkers like Enrique Dussel, W.D. Mignolo, Santiago Castro-Gomes, Arturo Escobar, among others, who dare to interrogate the reality of the extended and always-morphing life-cycle of coloniality existing in a dominant historical framework that informs the state of the world today. My intention is to exhume a few sacred graves, particularly those masked in silences. This is a basic exploration of, to borrow from Dussel, “negated alterities”.

I want to now confess to you that writing this was a struggle for so many reasons, some not too clear. For one, what really is an adequate analytical framework through which to enter a thorough exploration of the contemporary iconography of profound human suffering? In considering this question, I was forced to recoil before the dominant post-Enlightenment, modernistic ideology and paradigm that fakes its break with its myriad pasts, while embedding and consolidating its humanity-displacing values and intentions To pretend that the paradigm—modernism, post-modernism, post-colonial, neo-liberal, whatever – is not also a violence-based, suffering-denying, scarcity-inducing, wound-causing, human-dividing, difference-criminalising, consumption-adoring, crisis-creating, self-aggrandising, disordered belief system, with its prosperity gospel, slaughtering priests, elaborate infrastructure, instruments, and institutions that favour a pre-selected few would be ingenuous of me.

In which case, how then does one truly speak about representation, for example, within the framework of this overarching epistemological ecology? How does one address its systemic propensity for blood-letting, dependency on the commodification of life, a habit that is soothed by an instinct to euphemise atrocities that include presiding over a protocol that governs which images and narratives are allowed, sought, desired, derived, edited, distributed, sold and pre-explained? This essay is my attempt to deconstruct the representations and present a life- and human-affirming mirror to those doing the gazing.

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Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor is a Kenyan writer and the author of the much-acclaimed novel Dust.

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Black Votes Don’t Matter: The Shrinking Civic Space of African Immigrants in the US

It is a difficult time to be an immigrant in the US. For those of African descent, theirs is a rare combination of challenges, not only in becoming part of a new nation but also in carrying the baggage that comes with being black in America.

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Black Votes Don’t Matter: The Shrinking Civic Space of African Immigrants in the US
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The United States of America has excelled in projecting an extraordinary image of itself as a free nation with a thriving democracy, where anyone can come and work their way towards a better life through civic participation. However, what the past few years in particular have peeled away betrays a somewhat different truth: that voting in the United States is hard and getting steadily more so. And there’s one group of people who face a particular set of difficulties when seeking to cast their ballot: African immigrants.

Some historic context is needed regarding voting issues within the US. First and foremost, there is a historic precedent of voter suppression in the US that is unequaled within the modern Western world. Much of the targeting of such efforts has directly affected African Americans and people of colour. After slavery was abolished, states would go to incredible lengths to suppress the black vote, including implementing taxes on voting, forcing black people to produce extraneous forms of personal and family identification and making would-be black voters pass vaguely worded and lengthy “literacy tests” in order to cast their ballot. These systems, a part of the infamous Jim Crow laws, were struck down as illegal in 1965 when the country passed the Voting Rights Act.

In the years that followed, those who sought to seek the vote sought out ways to circumvent the law and keep the voter turnout low. Since the latter half of the 20th century, high voter turnout translated to a more liberal result. Take, for example, that a Republican presidential candidate has won the popular vote once since 1988 (George W. Bush in 2004). In the cases of the victories of Donald J. Trump in 2016 and George W. Bush, they skated to victory through the electoral college; a system that traces its roots to suppress the popular vote.

When looking at US politics, it isn’t as much a matter of high voter turnout as it is who comprise the voters that are showing up to vote. The most telling demographic, the group with the highest disparity of aligning with Democrats over Republicans, is African Americans. Hillary Clinton carried the black vote by an 80 point margin – 88 per cent to 8 per cent over Trump in the 2016 election. This margin, coupled with the United States becoming more, not less, diverse has left those seeking to suppress the vote scrambling for answers.

In 2013, efforts to suppress voters gained a major boost when the US Supreme Court overturned section 4(b) of the Voting Rights Act, which outlined that states and districts that had previously been involved in voting discrimination needed pre-clearance of the validity of their electoral processes. The conservative judges ruled this as unconstitutional, that the section “punished” states for past mistakes, not for possible future successes. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg dissented strongly, stating that “throwing out preclearance when it has worked and is continuing to work to stop discriminatory changes is like throwing away your umbrella in a rainstorm because you are not getting wet.”

The Voting Rights Act had been brought before court in the wake of a series of issues across the US, primarily having to do with controversial voting ID laws, reports of voter suppression and other forms of disenfranchisement. In a theme that runs across America’s election process, the black community was disproportionately affected.

This brings the issue to focus on African immigrants in the United States. The issue of immigration in the United States has currently brought the federal government to a shutdown for over a month. There is constant rhetoric from the Trump administration targeting illegal immigrants as a major obstacle to the security and economic future of the United States. The issues of building a border wall with Mexico and continuing to provide guaranteed safeties (such as the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals programme, which offers protections to the children of illegal immigrants into the US) are being used as bargaining chips at the government level.

A difficult time

It is a difficult time to be an immigrant in the US. For those of African descent, theirs is a rare combination of challenges, not only in becoming part of a new nation, but also in carrying the baggage that comes with being black in America.

African immigrants in the US are a small but rapidly rising group. The increase has been marked since 1970, especially amongst sub-Saharan Africans. According to the Pew Research Center, the number of African-born individuals heading to the US increased nearly 250 per cent between 2000 and 2015, from 881,000 up to 2,060,000. Africans are also the fastest growing demographic among black immigrants, increasing by 137 per cent between 2000 and 2013.

It is a difficult time to be an immigrant in the US. For those of African descent, theirs is a rare combination of challenges, not only in becoming part of a new nation, but also in carrying the baggage that comes with being black in America.

In the US, a major aspect of any voting rights issue is where in the US you’re living. Different states hold different standards, different regulations and varying requirements. When examining how voting standards impacts African immigrants, there needs to be a brief examination of where African immigrants live.

The five states with the highest African immigrant population are California, New York, Texas, Maryland and Virginia. Cities such as Atlanta, Georgia and Minneapolis also have high numbers of such migrants. This is where context becomes even more important; California and New York are known as more immigrant-friendly destinations, and their major metropolitan areas are regarded as “sanctuary cities” for illegal immigrants. New York and Minnesota don’t require a photo ID whereas California may require one for a first-time voter (newly-naturalised US citizens are always first-time voters). Maryland holds a similar policy.

Texas, Virginia and Georgia, on the other hand, are a different matter entirely. Virginia requires a valid photo ID in order for an individual to vote in person. Texas and Georgia are both mired in controversy over the stringent regulations put in place regarding the standards for voter IDs. The state of Texas is currently mired in litigation over the voter ID laws, with opponents arguing that it disproportionately impacts minorities.

In Georgia, where over 70,000 African immigrants reside in the Atlanta metropolitan area, the man who was presiding as the Secretary of State (the office which controls the conducting of elections, a possible conflict of interest) won narrowly and controversially over Stacey Abrams, who would have been the first black woman elected to be a state governor in the US. Abrams repeatedly made claims that there was voter interference, particularly amongst black precincts, where electronic voting was in disarray and reports of voter suppression were rampant. These claims had much of their basis in and around Atlanta, Georgia.

Why does voter ID matter and how does it affect Africans living in America? For starters, the path to US citizenship (which is needed to vote in America) is extremely arduous, long and difficult. The paperwork hoops to jump through are staggering. On average, it takes an immigrant a minimum of five years of continuous residency to become a naturalised US citizen. In cases that need further legal counsel, it can take even longer as the legal side of American immigration courts have become steadily more choked and congested in the new millennium.

Why does voter ID matter and how does it affect Africans living in America? For starters, the path to US citizenship (which is needed to vote in America) is extremely arduous, long and difficult.

For immigrants, the issues surrounding voter ID can often be much murkier. For instance, immigrants can gain driver’s licenses within the United States, which is one of the key forms of identification needed in states with more stringent regulations. This doesn’t mean that immigrants have the appropriate information explained to them regarding the IDs being obtained. The African Advocacy Network of California notes that although driver’s licenses are applied for successfully by immigrants who aren’t naturalised, the fact that they are still unable to vote due to their status isn’t explained to them. This can lead to immigrants attempting to vote, unknowingly engaging in an illegal act of fraud. The penalties for such fraud in the US are harsh. Both illegal and legal immigrants can face deportation if found to be involved in fraudulent voting. Cases of actual voter fraud involving illegal immigrants are incredibly rare, but that doesn’t stop Trump from repeatedly claiming that Hillary Clinton won the popular vote because of millions of “illegals” somehow managing to cast ballots.

Illegal immigrants in Trump’s America

The Obama administration was noted for its strict approach to illegal immigration, deporting hundreds of thousands between 2009 and 2017. That same administration, however, did focus on expanding a programme called the H1-B visa, which encouraged workers from outside of the United States to enter the country to work. Many prominent corporations, including Amazon, Google and Microsoft, heavily leaned on the programme as it eased the transition for professionals to gain a foothold in the US workforce. In addition, the H1-B programme made the path to a Green Card visa (an initial step towards US citizenship) markedly smoother, encouraging immigrants to engage in the process of becoming a citizen.

The Trump administration, on the other hand, has taken a significantly different approach. The current White House passed an executive order titled “Buy American, Hire American” that directly encourages American companies to hire only the most skilled workers from outside of the United States. This will have a long-term impact on the number of H-1B applicants who can head down the path of gaining citizenship.

The Obama administration had an unfortunate track record of harshness regarding immigration, including reopening and examining case files of naturalised citizens (immigrants who gained their citizenship in the US). The Trump White House has, of course, seized on this idea and expanded it. Under this administration, the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service (U.S.C.I.S.) has created a new task force to look into cases and possibly “denaturalise” citizens for often muddied reasons, such as making a clerical mistake on a form. In essence, this leaves millions of naturalised United States citizens’ status at the discretion of officials appointed under the Trump administration, one noted for its blatantly anti-immigrant rhetoric.

A prominent path to Green Card visas for African immigrants is the Diversity Lottery programme, which grants visas to citizens from all over the world. Given the administration’s track record, it comes as little surprise that the White House has looked repeatedly into cutting the programme entirely. As egregious as this is, perhaps the repeated ransom holding of the so-called “dreamers” (children of illegal immigrants born in the United States and granted legal protections) is even more insidious. Trump has made a repeated talking point of ending protections for the dreamers, even going so far as to offer continued protection as a bargaining chip for $5.7 billion of funding for a border wall in January of this year.

The Obama administration had an unfortunate track record of harshness regarding immigration, including reopening and examining case files of naturalised citizens (immigrants who gained their citizenship in the US). The Trump White House has, of course, seized on this idea and expanded it.

So how does this apply to African immigrants, specifically? The numbers indicate that immigrants from sub-Saharan Africa are the fastest growing group, and that the vast majority of this immigration has occurred after 1960. This translates into African immigrants having less of an established civic network than other immigrant groups in the US.

Less civic engagement

Less network means less community engagement and less protection for Africans now calling the US their home. This, in turn, translates into issues surrounding social integration facing Africans in America. Those in questionable status are likely to eschew anything to do with getting on the record, including engaging in civic discourse. One example saw the city of San Francisco engaging with members of the African immigrant community to get involved with the local school board elections, despite many holding illegal immigrant status. Illegal immigrants worry about what will happen to their information and whether it will end up in the hands of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

This is compounded by the constant shifting and swirling of regulations surrounding immigration within the US. Frankly put, in America, thing currently seem extremely uncertain. Those who would have gained the path to citizenship by being granted immigration visas are suddenly on the outside looking in. Immigrants from Libya, Sudan and Somalia (the three African nations affected under the Trump administration’s travel ban targeting Muslim-majority nations) are suddenly unsure of their status.

Noticeably, despite all of his talk of walls and increased military presence, Trump has not issued a travel ban to a Latin American country. The current administration is seemingly preoccupied with all things immigration, how to stop it, how to grandstand from it, how to flex political muscle by stopping it. In fact, in 2017, despite overall numbers of deportations falling, ICE deported a record number of African immigrants, more than double of the total from 2016. There were reported instances of poor treatment and abuse of deportees by ICE agents. While the numbers are comparatively small, increases in deportation can push African immigrant communities even farther outside of the democratic process. What was the number one country for African immigrant deportations from the US? Somalia.

Less network means less community engagement and less protection for Africans now calling the US their home. This, in turn, translates into issues surrounding social integration facing Africans in America. Those in questionable status are likely to eschew anything to do with getting on the record, including engaging in civic discourse.

Ilhan Omar, herself a Somali immigrant to the US, is now a first-term Congresswoman from Minneapolis, Minnesota. Her election is an indication of a potential future of US politics: that African immigrants can find a voice in politics, in part due to the rallying of their communities. She’s become an outspoken advocate for the Somali community in Minnesota while continually deriding the Trump administration’s anti-immigration policies.

Since her election, Omar has been a frequent target of scathing criticism from the conservative media and the Republican Party, who have even claimed that some of her pro-Palestine comments are blatantly anti-Semitic. While her election to the US Congress is historically significant (she’s the first African-born refugee in the history of the United States Congress), Omar is still just one member of Congress, one voice for an ever-growing population that seems ever-more targeted by executive orders of the Trump administration. Think of it this way: Omar wouldn’t be able to enter the US under the travel ban of Muslim majority countries passed down by Trump.

In essence, this message to newcomers to the US is: DON’T BOTHER GETTING ENGAGED BECAUSE THE CONSEQUENCES COULD OUTWEIGH YOUR EFFORTS. To those emigrating to the US from Africa, this messaging can appear even more insidious, as Adoubou Traore (who himself emigrated from the Ivory Coast), the director of the African Advocacy Network in San Francisco outlines: “Many Africans have inherent doubts about the legitimacy of elections, they’re a headache, their experience makes them not believe that their voices matter. When there is no guarantee that their information won’t be subject to being exploited, from their view: what’s the point?” There isn’t much that would prevent them from holding such views in America. It becomes a community question of why organise if doing so can only lead to more headache?

With issues surrounding racism against black people in America being dissected and moved further towards prominence in national dialogue, it would, at least on the surface, seem as though the communities of African Americans would provide a steady ally for Africans adjusting to life in America. Unfortunately, this is often not the case. There is a noted divide between Africans and black Americans, one that many coming to the US find difficult to bridge. Some of this gap is historically entrenched, some of it is due to the truly lacking breadth of coverage in the US education system regarding African history and culture. The awkward truth is: Africa as a topic in the US is regarded as a monolithic punch line to a bad joke, and is hardly rendered an after-thought in terms of democratic engagement.

In terms of vulnerability to less-than-democratic interests, there are myriad of groups in the United States that could use additional legal and outreach protections. Practically anywhere in America that can’t be categorised as white and suburban finds itself victim to voter suppression efforts. In the US context, the black community is systematically targeted the most.

Laws are seemingly rolled out in force yearly in dozens of states, implementing further restrictions and using scare tactics, lies and intimidation to influence local and national elections with a conservative slant.

The unavoidable truth is that Africans in the US find themselves at an ugly modern crossroads: the centuries of subversive efforts to reduce the so-called “urban” vote at a crossroads with the modern iteration of all-American xenophobic fervour. Though growing fast in population, the democratic influence has not kept stride.

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Death in Vienna: The Death of Erich Rebasso

In the last days of 2008, Erich Rebasso, an Austrian lawyer, sent a letter to the main Vienna headquarters of the Federal Criminal Police, the country’s top law enforcement agency. Its purpose was unusual — the father of four young children was blowing the whistle on himself.

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In the last days of 2008, Erich Rebasso, an Austrian lawyer, sent a letter to the main Vienna headquarters of the Federal Criminal Police, the country’s top law enforcement agency.

Its purpose was unusual — the father of four young children was blowing the whistle on himself.

“I deeply regret having been used for criminal purposes and I am willing to submit the matter to the required criminal review,” Rebasso’s five-page confession concluded.

But it had all come apart. Rebasso admitted he had been used to launder tens of millions of dollars. He explained that, for over a year, he had been accepting payments from Russian criminals and had sent the funds to other bank accounts at their instruction. Then 45, Rebasso specialized in advising Russian clients on how to do business in the West. He had an excellent reputation as a fast, reliable, and discreet partner, and he spoke Russian fluently.

As it turns out, those criminals were using companies that were part of the Troika Laundromat. The massive financial scheme revealed in OCCRP’s latest Laundromat investigation had been put together by Troika Dialog, then Russia’s largest private investment bank. Some of the accounts Rebasso wired to belonged to two of the system’s core offshore companies: Industrial Trade Corp. and Nixford Capital Corp.

Between December 2006 and February 2008, Rebasso used 150 individual transactions to send almost US$ 96 million to laundromat accounts at Ukio Bankas, a Lithuanian bank.

Many of the reasons specified for the transfers made little sense for a law firm. Along with trades involving “fruits and vegetables,” “consumer goods,” and “electronic goods,” Rebasso is even listed as buying “frozen herring” from companies with Ukio bank accounts. More likely, the description was a red herring aimed at Ukio’s compliance department.

Rebasso’s own Austrian bank accounts were held at Raiffeisenlandesbank Niederösterreich-Wien (RLB). Though the bank investigated his large transfers, it appeared to take no further action for two years — at which point it finally pressed him to stop.

The massive financial scheme revealed in OCCRP’s latest Laundromat investigation had been put together by Troika Dialog, then Russia’s largest private investment bank

Rebasso’s confessional letter had little effect. While police looked into the matter, it was two years later when they informed him that they had stopped the proceedings because they believed any potential crime had happened outside their jurisdiction and been committed by foreigners.

Two years after that, Rebasso was dead.

The Sheremetyevo Fraud

According to his statement, Rebasso’s involvement in the money laundering scheme began on a visit to Moscow in November 2006 where he was introduced to Viatcheslav Dremin, a Russian businessman. Dremin told him that he provided financial services to Russians who needed to transfer funds abroad. But the official system for sending money across borders was very bureaucratic, he said, and he needed to speed up the process. He wanted Rebasso to act as his trustee in Vienna to help him move the money faster.

The lawyer accepted. Soon, two Vienna bank accounts belonging to his Austrian company, Schulhof Investigation (later renamed Sostegno), began receiving large sums from companies Dremin represented, along with instructions on where to send them. In every instance, he received his directions via an anonymized email address.

Rebasso worked on behalf of three insurance companies registered in Dagestan, a troubled North Caucasus republic within the Russian Federation.

At least some of the money appeared to be of criminal origin.

One of the companies Dremin represented, National Insurance, was directed by Russian businessman Maxim Vedenin. In 2011, Vedenin would be sentenced to 19 years in prison for robbery and the murders of two prostitutes.

Prior to that, Vedenin’s company had received money from a widely-known fraudulent scheme involving fuel at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport that OCCRP uncovered in 2012.

Between 2003 and 2008, Moscow’s busiest airport bought fuel through a long chain of intermediaries that grossly inflated its cost. According to court documents, phantom companies earned at least $200 million in unnecessary markups in 2006 and 2007 alone. The Russian government lost more than 1 billion rubles ($40 million) in tax revenue from the scheme. The higher fuel costs also meant higher airplane ticket prices for the travelling public.

A portion of the money generated by the scheme was laundered through the Troika Laundromat. Vedenin’s company, National Insurance, received some of the proceeds, and then sent them on to Rebasso’s company.

The Austrian lawyer then sent the funds into the Troika Laundromat, using it as a money laundering system. Over the same period, between December 2006 and March 2007, he sent $19.4 million to the accounts of Nixford and Industrial Trade Corp. To justify the transfers to the bank, he provided false invoices indicating he had bought “consumer goods” from the Troika Laundromat companies, or was simply paying “for bills.”

All but one of Dremin’s companies have been dissolved, and he couldn’t be reached for comment.

Raiffeisen Looks In

Despite Rebasso’s efforts to mask his money transfers as legitimate trade deals, his own bank began to investigate the financial activity in the spring of 2007.

On March 15, Rebasso’s office received a letter from his bank’s legal department inquiring about a “sharp increase in transaction amounts” on one of his accounts. The bank wanted to know on whose behalf Rebasso was acting.

A few days later, Rebasso responded in a letter, explaining that he was handling “foreign payments” for three Russian insurance companies. He also provided their names, their information from the Russian commercial register, and evidence of his business relationship with them.

The bank appears to have been satisfied with Rebasso’s explanation, because afterward, his transfers continued.

(A representative of RLB said the bank could not comment on its clients and that it had complied with all anti-money-laundering obligations.)

A Last Client

In mid-2007, Rebasso’s statement to police says, Alfis Mirgunov, one of the Russian partners in his arrangement with Dremin, got in touch. Mirgunov planned to start his own financial enterprise and wanted Rebasso to open bank accounts in Austria on his behalf. Once again, the lawyer agreed.

He opened three new RLB accounts for his company, Schulhof, to handle the anticipated load. The accounts were denominated in U.S. dollars, euros, and Russian rubles and soon, more money started to pour in. Once again, Rebasso received his instructions from an anonymous e-mail address, this time identified only by a sequence of digits.

In mid-2007, Rebasso’s statement to police says, Alfis Mirgunov, one of the Russian partners in his arrangement with Dremin, got in touch. Mirgunov planned to start his own financial enterprise and wanted Rebasso to open bank accounts in Austria on his behalf. Once again, the lawyer agreed.

Over two months near the beginning of 2008, Rebasso wired $68.3 million in 106 individual transfers to a bank account owned by Vantrel Invest Ltd., a New Zealand–registered shelf company.

Vantrel doesn’t appear to be a Troika Laundromat company; rather it is an intermediary that sent millions on to the Laundromat. (Vantrel’s bank account was held at Ukio Bankas, where many Laundromat companies held their accounts.) Documents related to the transactions said they were to buy mobile phones, though this explanation is almost certainly another fiction.

In his confessional letter, Rebasso told the Austrian police that he stopped working for the Russians in 2008. It isn’t known how much money he took for his services.

“I ended this activity at the end of February,” he wrote. “Among other reasons, primarily because the scope overwhelmed my control options.”

His hesitation appeared to be only part of the truth.

In fact, that month, Rebasso’s Austrian bank, RLB, had had enough. His transactions had apparently triggered another serious review, and senior executives told Rebasso he would need his own banking license to continue such large transfers.

The Finlist Fraud

Though he had stopped working with his Russian partners, Rebasso’s troubles were just beginning. He appeared to have become an unwitting facilitator of a fraudulent investment scheme.

According to his letter, in June 2008, Rebasso started receiving emailed complaints from ordinary Russians who said their savings had been stolen.

Rebasso described the correspondents as “rather simple-minded, not very wealthy people who were baited with internet ads.”

Apparently, the victims of the scheme had been offered what appeared to be lucrative investment opportunities through a platform called Finlist Forex Found. Then, without Rebasso’s knowledge, they were instructed to send their money to the accounts of his Austrian company, Sostegno.

Rebasso said the Russian fraudsters provided the investors with fake documents bearing his forged signature (some of these were shared with him by the angry correspondents). When the money arrived in his accounts, Rebasso sent it on without being aware of its origins.

Now the victims were furious, demanding repayment of money he had already sent on to the Laundromat.

Rebasso said the Russian fraudsters provided the investors with fake documents bearing his forged signature (some of these were shared with him by the angry correspondents). When the money arrived in his accounts, Rebasso sent it on without being aware of its origins

Rebasso got in touch with Mirgunov and asked what was happening. The Russian told him he would fix the problem and reimburse anyone who had lost money. But he never did, and by the end of the year, Rebasso sent his letter to the Federal Criminal police.

The Beginning of the End

The police forwarded the case to the public prosecutor’s office in Vienna. Nothing appeared to happen. On Dec. 3, 2010, two years after his complaint, Rebasso was notified that police had ended their case. It had been dismissed because the public prosecutor decided the case was outside Austrian jurisdiction. “Foreign acts of foreigners,” the statement read.

Rebasso’s own story was nearing its end.

In late July 2012, as he walked from his office to his Mercedes SUV in an underground parking lot, he was ambushed by two men. His car was later found empty in a different location, and shortly after his disappearance, his family received a demand: The kidnappers wanted a 435,000–euro ransom. After no deal was reached, Rebasso’s body was found three weeks later in a forest near Vienna. Austrian authorities concluded that he had been suffocated, probably while he was taken into a headlock.

Soon afterward, two former Moscow police officers were arrested and charged in connection with the ransom demand — but not for Rebasso’s kidnapping and murder. They were sentenced to eight and nine years in prison, respectively.

It’s still unclear who ordered Rebasso’s murder and why, though media and police speculated that victims of the investment fraud had hired the officers to recover the money.

More than six years later, the exact circumstances of Rebasso’s death are still unclear.

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The Troika Laundromat: How Vast Offshore Network Moved Billions With Help From Major Russian Bank

The Laundromat wasn’t just a money laundering system. It was also a hidden investment vehicle, a slush fund, a tax evasion scheme, and much more.

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The Troika Laundromat: How Vast Offshore Network Moved Billions With Help From Major Russian Bank
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At first blush, Ruben Vardanyan and Armen Ustyan have nothing in common beyond their Armenian roots.

Vardanyan is a wealthy Russian banker who once led Troika Dialog, the country’s largest private investment bank. He’s spoken at the World Economic Forum in Davos and spent tens of millions of dollars on philanthropic projects in his native Armenia. Ustyan is a seasonal construction worker who shares a chilly apartment with his wife and parents in northern Armenia when he isn’t renovating flats in Moscow.

Ustyan’s name and a copy of his passport appear in the bank documents for an offshore shell company that played a role in Troika’s system. The company was one of at least 75 that formed the complex financial web, which functioned from 2006 to early 2013. Over that period, Troika enabled the flow of US$ 4.6 billion into the system and directed the flow of $4.8 billion out. Among the counterparties on these transactions were major Western banks such as Citigroup Inc., Raiffeisen, and Deutsche Bank. The dozens of companies in the system also generated $8.8 billion of internal transactions to obscure the origin of the cash.But Ustyan’s signatures on documents he says he’s never seen draw a direct line to Troika — and to a financial Laundromat that shuffled billions of dollars through offshore companies on behalf of the bank’s clients, many of whom were members of Russia’s elite. The system enabled people to channel money out of Russia, sidestep restrictions in place at the time, hide their assets abroad, and launder money. It also supplied cash to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s friends and powerful oligarchs, and enabled criminals to mask the illicit origins of their cash.

(Citigroup didn’t respond to a request for comment on this story; Raiffeisen declined to comment, citing client confidentiality; and Deutsche Bank said it had “limited access” to information about Troika client transactions and couldn’t comment on specific businesses for legal reasons.)

At the time, Vardanyan was Troika’s president, chief executive officer, and principal partner. He enjoyed a reputation as a Western-friendly representative of Russian capitalism, known for working to improve the country’s business environment and for co-founding the Moscow School of Management Skolko

As with the previous Laundromats, many of the large transactions were made on the back of fictitious trade deals. The bogus deals were invoiced variously as “goods,” “food goods,” “metal goods,” “bills,” and “auto parts.” All the invoices included in the leak were signed by proxies and sent from Troika.ru email addresses. Meanwhile, employees at Troika were setting up the opaque financial system — dubbed here the Troika Laundromat because of its resemblance to previous money laundering schemes uncovered by OCCRP.

This portrait of the operation emerges from a trove of leaked banking transactions and other documents obtained by OCCRP and the Lithuanian news site 15min.lt, and shared with 21 media partners.

As a whole, the data set includes over 1.3 million banking transactions from 238,000 companies and people, as well as thousands of emails, contracts, and company registration forms. This analysis of Troika’s network is based on a subset of the data.

In an interview, Vardanyan said his bank did nothing wrong and that it acted as other investment banks did at the time. He stressed that he couldn’t have known about every deal his enormous bank facilitated for its clients. Reporters found no evidence that he was ever investigated or accused of any wrongdoing by authorities. His signature was found on only one document in the entire scheme, in which he gives a loan to a Troika Laundromat company.

Vardanyan described the system as a private wealth management service.

Referring to the constellation of offshore companies that comprised the Laundromat, he said: “Those are technical service companies of Troika Dialog clients, among them, mine.”

“It could be called a ‘multi-family office,’” he said. “A similar practice still exists at foreign banks. Most of their clients work through international companies. I repeat: We always acted according to the rules of the world financial market of that time … Obviously, rules change, but measuring a market in the past by today’s laws is like applying modern compliance standards to the time of the Great Depression. You’ll agree that this distorts the true situation.”

Asked about the fictitious trade deals, Vardanyan said Troika Dialog’s revenue topped 2 trillion rubles from 2006–2010 ($63–85 billion, depending on currency fluctuations) and that he “couldn’t possibly know about all the deals in a company of this size.”

Though such practices were considered business as usual in Russia at the time, specialists note that systems like the Troika Laundromat can have serious repercussions.

The schemes stunt national economic development, undermine human security, and diminish the quality of life for people left behind, said Louise Shelley, director and founder of George Mason University’s Terrorism, Transnational Crime, and Corruption Center and author of the book “Dark Commerce.”

“Money laundering countries, particularly in the developing world, are losing enormous amounts of capital that are needed for infrastructure development, education, health, [and] the development of new businesses, of entrepreneurship,” Shelley said. “With this much money lying overseas, you can do all sorts of malicious things. You can interfere in electoral processes. You can help pay for fake news.”

Criminal Services

The Laundromat wasn’t just a money laundering system. It was also a hidden investment vehicle, a slush fund, a tax evasion scheme, and much more.

Troika’s clients also used it to buy properties in Great Britain, Spain, and Montenegro; to acquire luxury yachts and artwork; to pay for medical services and World Cup tickets; to cover tuition at prestigious Western schools for their children, and even to make donations to churches.

In addition, the Troika Laundromat enabled organized criminal groups and fraudsters to launder the proceeds of their crimes. OCCRP and partners have identified several high-level frauds perpetrated in Russia that used Laundromat companies to hide the origins of their money.

Troika’s clients also used it to buy properties in Great Britain, Spain, and Montenegro; to acquire luxury yachts and artwork; to pay for medical services and World Cup tickets; to cover tuition at prestigious Western schools for their children, and even to make donations to churches.

One of these schemes, known as the Sheremetyevo Airport fuel fraud, took place from 2003 to 2008 and artificially inflated aviation fuel prices while depriving the Russian state of more than $40 million in tax revenue. The scheme led to a hike in plane ticket prices. More than $27 million was sent by companies involved in the fraud to Troika Laundromat accounts. Vardanyan has not been implicated in the scheme and said he had no knowledge of it. In 2010, two years after the fraud ended, Troika Dialog began consulting for the airport along with Credit Suisse.

A second significant criminal inquiry tied to the Laundromat, from which $17 million ended up in the system, involves a tax avoidance scheme allegedly perpetrated by several Russian insurance companies. A man named Sergei Tikhomirov was accused of concluding false service contracts with the insurers as a pretext for having them send him large sums of money, which his accusers say he cycled through several accounts before depositing it abroad or cashing in. A portion of the money ended up in the Laundromat. (Tikhomirov did not respond to phone calls seeking comment.)

Roldugin didn’t respond to an email requesting comment, and Vardanyan said that he knew of the cellist, but was not aware that he had any business dealings with Troika.In a third case, at least $69 million went to companies associated with Sergei Roldugin, a Russian cellist and one of Putin’s best friends, who became famous after his vast unexplained wealth was revealed by OCCRP, the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, and other media partners in the Panama Papers project. Some of the money that Roldugin’s companies received from the Laundromat originated in a massive Russian tax fraud exposed by Sergei Magnitsky, a Russian lawyer who died in jail after revealing it.

The Troika Laundromat enabled organized criminal groups and fraudsters to launder the proceeds of their crimes. OCCRP and partners have identified several high-level frauds perpetrated in Russia that used Laundromat companies to hide the origins of their money.

Companies involved in the fraud exposed by Magnitsky moved more than $130 million through the Troika Laundromat. In fact, hundreds of millions of dollars went into and out of the Laundromat for unknown purposes.

Vardanyan said he was not aware of any of these transactions.

“Understand, I’m no angel,” he said. “In Russia, you have three paths: Be a revolutionary, leave the country, or be a conformist. So I’m a conformist. But I have my own internal restraints: I never participated in loans-for-shares schemes, I never worked with criminals, I’m not a member of any political party. That’s why, even in the ’90s, I went around with no security guards. … I’m trying to preserve myself and my principles.”

Vardanyan and his family were among those who received money from the Laundromat. More than $3.2 million was used to pay for his American Express card, went to accounts belonging to his wife and family, and paid school fees for his three children in Great Britain.

Asked about these sums, Vardanyan said the offshore companies Troika created serviced his own companies in addition to the bank’s clients.

Troika as Capstone

The Troika Laundromat is unique among the Laundromats that have been uncovered in recent years in that it was created by a prestigious financial institution.

Like all investment banks, Troika handled stock and bond issuance, initial public offerings, and acted as an underwriting agent. It also had a strong relationship with the local office of Citibank Inc., with up to 20 percent of Troika’s new investors coming via the American behemoth. That made New York-based Citibank Troika’s biggest “external agent,” according to a 2006 interview with Troika co-founder Pavel Teplukhin. (Citibank didn’t respond to requests for comment.)Established in the early 1990s, Troika Dialog became Russia’s largest private investment bank. It operated under Vardanyan’s leadership until 2012, when it was purchased by Sberbank, the nation’s largest state-owned lender.

The Troika Laundromat is unique among the Laundromats that have been uncovered in recent years in that it was created by a prestigious financial institution.

Other major international banks, including Credit Suisse and Standard Bank Group, did significant business with Troika as well.

Starting in 2006, Troika employees began putting together the pieces of the Troika Laundromat.

Four essential elements are needed to build a functioning Laundromat: a bank with low anti-money laundering compliance standards; a maze of secretive offshore companies to hold accounts at the bank; proxy directors and shareholders for both the companies and the accounts; and the so-called formation agents that can quickly create, maintain, and dissolve the offshore companies as needed.

The bank orchestrated all of these components of the Troika Laundromat, in addition to directing the money flows and fake trade deals that made up its operations.

The pivotal mechanism was based on trade: Shell companies created bogus invoices for non-existent goods and services to be purchased by other companies in the system. The practice provides a fig leaf of legitimate economic activity that makes the transactions appear less suspicious to regulators.

Al-Qaida founder Osama bin Laden used a similar system to move money around the Middle East, she said.“You’re disguising an illegal payment by pretending that it is linked to a shipment of goods,” said Shelley, the George Mason corruption expert. “The trade-based system is one of the most central parts of money laundering in the world today.”

If Troika was the capstone of the Laundromat, its cornerstones were three British Virgin Islands-based shell companies: Brightwell Capital Inc., Gotland Industrial Inc., and Quantus Division Ltd. Brightwell’s first known transaction was on April 12, 2005. Gotland was established on Feb. 17, 2006, and Quantus followed six months later on Aug. 23.

An analysis of these companies’ banking records reveals how they put the Laundromat together: Starting in 2006, they made numerous small payments to a formation agent called IOS Group Inc. to create the dozens of companies that comprised the complete Laundromat. IOS didn’t respond to requests for comment.

The three cornerstone companies then continued making payments to IOS ranging from 40 to almost 5,000 euros over almost six years to keep the entire network operating. Over that span, the total reached over 143,000 euros.

Quantus, for example, paid formation and maintenance fees for the British Virgin Islands-based Kentway SA. This company was later used, among many others, to send millions of dollars to Sandalwood Continental Ltd., a company connected to Sergei Roldugin, the cellist, and one of Vladimir Putin’s oldest friends.

Quantus’ involvement with Kentway demonstrates the many ways in which the Laundromat companies were interconnected. In this case, after first helping establish Kentway, Quantus then funded it with money that Kentway forwarded to Roldugin’s company.

The Bank

To direct the flow of funds through the Laundromat, Troika needed a commercial bank to host accounts for the companies involved. And it needed that bank to avoid looking too closely at the contracts and trades Laundromat businesses used to justify moving money from one offshore company to another.

Troika chose Lithuania’s Ukio Bankas for the job. (The Lithuanian lender would later be seized by the country’s National Bank in 2013 for engaging in risky deals and failing to follow regulators’ orders.) Ukio is known to have set up accounts for 35 companies used in the Troika Laundromat, and likely more.

Because Lithuania wasn’t yet using the euro, Ukio needed correspondent accounts at European banks, such as the Austrian Raiffeisen or the German Commerzbank AG, to handle euro-denominated transactions. Those two lenders and many other large European and U.S. financial institutions accepted Laundromat money, though they did sporadically inquire about the nature of some transactions. After prodding by one of the correspondent banks, for example, some Ukio compliance officers made inquiries about Laundromat payments that didn’t make commercial sense.

“What is the essence of this transaction? We have a contract (attached), but to be honest, I don’t really get what’s happening,” one officer wrote, adding an unhappy face, in relation to a payment that went to a company associated with Roldugin.

By this point, the money had already left Ukio’s accounts.

Asked why Ukio was chosen as the banker for the offshore companies Troika created, Vardanyan said it was just one of about 20 banks Troika used around the world.

The Armenian Proxies

A central figure in many of the transactions involving the Laundromat companies was Armen Ustyan. Far from being an investment banker, Ustyan, 34, works seasonally as a construction worker in Moscow.

Ustyan said he had never heard of Dino Capital SA, the Panama-based Laundromat company whose Ukio bank account was registered using his signature. A copy of his passport was attached, but Ustyan insisted he had no idea how it got there. Ustyan’s signature can be found on contracts and banking paperwork in the Troika Laundromat along with those of a few other Armenians. Wearing an old military jacket and hat, he sat down with reporters this January in his cold living room to answer questions about high finance.

At his mother’s request, he wrote his signature on a piece of paper and concluded that the one associated with Dino Capital had probably been forged.

The Armenian said he knew none of this, though he did recall a slim connection to Troika Dialog: While in Moscow looking for work, Ustyan stayed with a Russian Armenian whose brother he said worked for the investment bank and helped him find employment. In addition to having his signature associated with Dino Capital’s bank account, Ustyan is also listed as an attorney authorized to sign contracts on the company’s behalf, and his signature appears on at least $70 million worth of financial agreements.

The Moscow address is indeed that of Nerses Vagradyan, a Russian citizen of Armenian descent. Nerses’ brother, Samvel Vagradyan, is a director of a Russian company that received millions of dollars from Brightwell, a core Laundromat company. A Samvel Vagradyan is also mentioned on Vardanyan’s website as a donor to the banker’s charitable causes. It’s unknown whether Samvel really worked for Troika.

Neither of the Vagradyan brothers could be reached for comment. Ustyan said he doesn’t believe they used his identity.

Another Armenian front man in the Laundromat appears to be Edik Yeritsyan. His identity was used to register an account at Ukio for the Cyprus-based Popat Holdings Ltd. This company was involved in Laundromat transactions worth millions of dollars.

Yeritsyan told OCCRP that he lost his memory three years ago after a car accident and doesn’t remember some parts of his life. However, Ustyan said that he and Yeritsyan lived together in the same flat they were renovating in Moscow.

This article was first published by The Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) a global network of investigative journalists.

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