Tuesday, March 15, 2005

A tale of two events

Two different kinds of occasion you could not get. Last night it was the annual students’ lecture at Senate House. For the occasion the current director of Chatham House director and a former one at ISA, Victor Bulmer-Thomas, was prevailed upon to give his thoughts on ‘Living with the Mega-Power’.

Restrained, moderate, coherent and balanced, Bulmer-Thomas set out the framework within which states can operate with or against the US. Concepts such as ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ power abounded, along with observations on ways to restrain the mega-power, including through treaties and international obligations. Frustratingly, every time I scribbled a point which I thought he had overlooked, sure enough, back he came, addressing precisely that topic. I soon gave up.

Later on and by contrast, what had been billed as a seminar on micro-credit in Venezuela under the auspices of a women’s bank was almost anything but. Walking into the LSE’s refurbished New Theatre (well, it may have been done several years ago but since I haven’t been in there for 10 years, who am I to say?) I momentarily assumed I’d come to the wrong event. Cuban flags and portraits of Che adorned the walls, along with a banner expressing solidarity with the ‘Miami 5’. Richard Gott was in full swing, talking about the channelling of Venezuelan oil money under Chavez directly into the poorer sections of society. Cue enthusiastic cheering. It seemed I had stumbled on a rally.

Nora Castañeda, the president of the women’s bank, gave her speech through a translator. Some numbers were given of the number of projects they had funded, but very little could I remember. Instead we were treated to a diatribe against colonialism and imperialism (conveniently overlooking the bourgeois, elitist and anti-democratic sentiments of the Venezuelan independence movement) and much pro-Chavez endorsement. Not only that, she was cheered when she reported the government’s decision to pass legislation to muzzle the anti-government (and pro-business) big media. Upon finishing she was given a standing ovation – or was that for Chavez?

“Now we open the floor to questions,” the chairwoman said. “We’ve got the room for an hour, but please, don’t take too long to ask your question. Please keep to two minutes.”

Two minutes just for a question? I don’t know what other feel, but that to me was a speech! Taking that as a cue, I surreptitiously slipped out.

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