Conversation class in Paris. A sixty-year old man from Costa Rica with grown out short hair flat on top. Maybe ex-military. He described himself ironically as un Flâneur (one who strolls through life?). A smart, compassionate woman of forty something from Brasil, white skin. I didn’t catch her job or project. I thought I caught a slightly slavic accent. A young man, dark skin, of thirty-five or so from Cape Verde, an island nation off East Africa, quite a way off shore. Another white-skinned Brazilian woman, late twenties or early thirties, very white skin, writing a doctoral dissertation on Sartre. I asked her if she could say what existentialism was in one sentence. She responded, saying, We are condemned to a life of freedom. That’s as far as she got before the men jumped in. Her French was very good. The best among us. Then there was me (Pete). I walked my usual thin line between irony and serious contribution, and survived once more! Javi, to my left, from Spain, a face always a little on the red side. I keep forgetting what he does, some kind of research. I think sociology. He has a dim view of what will become of Spain. Then Ross, a Scotsman, who is learning to detect and track laundered money. That brought up a discussion of what kind of money was being laundered: drugs, arms, child-adult sexual slavery and traffic. Then came a Turk, who is writing a book on the Turkish general Cherif Pacha, exiled to Paris, where he survived an attack on his life in January, 1914 because he had opposed the Young Turks (Ottoman Empire) and won their wrath. Each day, the discussion leader is an older French person, with great variety, always a puzzle at first because of accent, clarity of voice, and political views and other presumptions. This man today, seventy-maybe, one pack a day, never once addressed the very decent black man from Cape Verde (or I think even looked at him), one of the smallest countries in the world, perfectly placed for the slave trade, later a Portuguese colony. The leader treated him as if he didn’t exist. I kept thinking his turn was coming up, but it didn’t. Our leader also gave a short discourse on the benefits French colonialism brought to Southest Asia. The older Brazilian woman exchanged a look with me over that. I love these classes. I get to communicate with people from the rest of the world in a third language. It makes me very happy.
How many groups in exile have met in this city (or New York or Mexico City) to discuss the salvation of their countries of origin, or to simply write what they risked their life for by saying it at home? During different periods of history, they came from Argentina, Uruguay, Chile; from the Congo and Egypt; from Turkey, Afghanistan, Lebanon, Syria, Iran and Irak; from Palestine; from Germany, Cuba and The United States; from Vietnam, China, Russia and the Soviet Union. There is a long history of “Paris talks.”
I attend a daily two-hour conversation group for foreign students wanting to improve their French. All of us come in off the street, paying a small fee. I meet bright, kind, likeable young people, roughly 25 to 35 years old from some of these countries, and from many others. Some of them hate their governments for the oppression they exercise over their people. Some of these students will not being returning home, if they can help it, at the risk of living in exile.
Last night I attended a meeting at a private venue. There were perhaps twenty people, out of all of Paris, in the room. They were Mexicans. They had come to listen to a panel of Mexican scholars and writers discuss the political situation in Mexico. Mexico is where I live and, to a great extent, the subject of my novels and essays. I listened intently. What I heard was not new to me. What was new was being witness to a kind of exile group meeting to discuss what can be done to save their country from full-blown dictatorship.
They talked about what should resonate with almost everyone these days: living in a country where there is a long history of voter fraud, intense, unrelenting and reality-distorting propaganda, with essentially no outlet for massive grass roots discontent. Where the powerful in the country, elected or not, are disconnected from the base and answerable only to themselves and their allies and cronies. A great question looms, and that is whether, with the June 7, 2015 elections coming up, one should vote or annul one’s vote, rather than support a corrupt system. Because the voice of the people is blocked, the three speakers argued that that Mexico is essentially a dictatorship. What I thought they left out was the context: a country where there is no rule of law, where judges and prosecutors have no protection because all the police forces are corrupt; where journalists and labor leaders are murdered in great numbers (the most journalists of any country in the world); where a parallel narco government exists or merges with the regular government; where in two states at least (Michoacán and Jalisco) Army generals rule like war lords, committing more extrajudicial executions than the narcos; where auto-defense groups formed to protect their communities become the targets of Government, the narcos, the Army and other militarized groups.
During the meeting, the pendulum swung between despair, cynicism and hope. One speaker urge support for MORENA, a relatively new grassroots political group that grew out of the National Convergence and became the National Regeneration Movement (el Movimiento Regeneración Nacional), made up of many citizen initiative groups. MORENA is putting up civilian candidates: academics, writers, athletes and social activists in the up-coming congressional elections. Up to this point, in their brief history, they have won only about 2% of the national vote. But things may be changing if enough of the disenfranchised electorate can hear about them and act.
Of course, even if they could win in larger numbers, the citizen candidates would still have to contend with the reality of existing power: the separated, uninterested, entrenched, perpetually ruling political leaders (the PRI and the other parties) who have become the great masters of fraud; two television monopolies that are handmaidens to them; the Army (Marines, Navy); the corrupt police at all levels; the narco rule on the local and national level; and the legal vacuum which can offer them no protection to those who want and lobby for the rule of law.
One more Paris talk on how to save one’s home country from tyranny. Was it one of the seeds of a citizens’ non-violent revolution? We will have to wait and see.