From Russia with Love? Monuments of Global Kitsch

The transactional nature of Trump’s world view has been so much on view in recent weeks that it is hard to shock. But the cast of characters involved in promoting a grotesquely colossal statuary of the navigator Christopher Columbus, cast out of bronze in Moscow, that he planned to install staring outer the Hudson River in 1997 on a new property development he had secured. If the story of this odd addition to New York’s many monuments–promised to be taller than the Statue of Liberty, Trump boasted to newspapers, would rewrite an icon of American immigration and ideals in rather startling ways.

The quadricentennary of 1892 had marked the very first use of a personal likeness on American currency–the reluctance to adopt any image of a person or ruler ran deep in the nineteenth century, given deep suspicion of the imperial connotations of public coinage, and was only allowed on a commemorative coin, linked to the universality of the modern globe, rather than to any explicit sense of territoriality, by appealing to the historical specificity of the anniversary, and th Chicago commemoration.

The championing of the clear-eyed foresight of Columbus, imagined as able to have foreseen the new continent of America by his foresight and reading of the globe, was recast in the monument. Removed from a map, indeed, the figure of Columbus seems to salute the terra firma as a regal visitor and emissary, able to domesticate the New World and impress it by his worldly grandeur: the huge size of the monument confers on the figure of the navigator a monumental scope akin to Disneyworld, less rooted in any specific time, theater, or moral universe, but only as trafficking in absolutes. The adoption of Columbus as a national icon seems distinct from the odd choice of Columbus as a Neo-imperial visitor from afar, before sails emblazoned with Christian royal emblems, that evoke a sense of government and global monumentality–to be echoed in the projected size of the monument feet taller than the torch held up by the Statue of Liberty of 1896–that the Russian-made monument Trump hoped to sell to the American people, or at least to the New York mayoralty of Rudy Giuliani, whom he believed sufficient to give the towering statue the green light.

Columbus’ unmooring from history over the twentieth century has been told. The unlikely story of his adoption as a figure of patriotism told in a previous post advanced to a domain of authoritarianism and fanciful history in the monumental statuary, long kept at arm’s length by American cities and presidents. For whereas vituperative rejection of Columbus as providing anything like an image of national identity of the United States–indeed, Columbus emerged as the target of protest, public contestation, and questioning during the 1992 quincentenary, questioned the universality of the navigator who was an emissary of an old world order, and self-identified as such. Trump believed his prominent position in New York commensurate to receiving a national gift he vaingloriously promoted to whoever would listen in 1997 to help “work it out with the City of New York.” By putting his own prestige on the line in urging Moscow’s mayor mayor, the post-Soviet apparatchik par excellence, Yuri Luzhkov, Trump urged he approach to his friend Rudy Giuliani “stating that they would like to make a gift of this great work by Zurab.” Assuring oligarchs that “I am absolutely favorably disposed” for the first time led the realtor to imagine himself as a delegate for the American people in ways he never had before, and preceded his first candidacy for President.

Trump was dazed by the Russian oligarchs he had met, and the possibility of expanding Trump Properties to a global stage in the post-Soviet world, including a hotel bordering Red Square he imagined as taller than the Kremlin. He was enraptured with the sculptor’s sense of grandiosity– “Zurab is a very unusual guy. This man is major and legit.”–a grandiosity evident on his website, and a bit intoxicated with his global power to serve as a medium for this “gift”–with no strings attached!–from the “Russian people.” How naive he was in accepting the gift of the statue on behalf of the City of New York seemed less of a problem for a man who had already built Trump Tower, which he saw as a new icon of the urban skyline, that had placed him on top of the world–

“Donald Trump on Trump Tower,” Harry Benson/Getty Images, 1987

–as if this would parlay his status to a global stage of realty, in the years that he had already seemed to conquer the New York skyline, as if it were but a microcosm of the world.

The grandiosity of the figure of Columbus proposed for the Hudson shore mirrors the lack of compass and mooring Trump followed in his planned expansion of hotels on a global scale. Trump’s lack of restraint and lack of mooring in imagining himself to proceed across the ocean into realty markets, entering the post-Soviet world with a supremacy free from laws of finance codes of international finance and national imaginaries.

To be sure, Tsereteli sketched the outsized majesty of a statue of Columbus before Trump proposed its arrival, but the utter lack of proportions, in its size tailored to Trump’s outsized sense of himself; its isolation from all context mirror the unmoored nature of Trump’s aims to expand his brand from and unbridled ambitions. Did the outsized desire Trump had for breaking ground in Moscow however find a perfect response in the monumental size of a statue that the sculptor must have shown Trump as he proposed to build the tallest tower in the world in Moscow? Adrift as if in international waters, making landfall in Manhattan, where he never arrived, the statute would have been improbably out of synch with its surroundings, but a monument to the lack of mooring in his overweening ambition to advance personal interests as a developer. The cartoonish nature of the grandiose version of Columbus that so rewrote the historical role of the navigator seemed to reflect the cartoonish grandiosity, in hindsight, of pursuing self-interst alone as he ventured overseas, and indeed as the disjuncture between his own elevated sense of self-interest from his political surroundings.

As much as Moscow’s mayor sought to attract capital investment to his city, was the monumental statue cast in 1991 a way of concretizing a new relation to space, reflecting an acknowledgement of the huge self-interest of the developer, as much as of squirreling Russian influence across national lines and space? Gargantuan in size and unwanted after it was cast, and only accepted by an island Columbus landed on his second voyage, the “Invention of the New World” seems to commemorate a new world order with parallels to the new order of end of the Soviet era. Did it provide a precedent of relations between Trump and Russian oligarchs willing to gift this unwanted sculpture to the preening realtor, who placed his own interest outside precedents? Placing the monument on Trump Properties conflated the public symbol whose universality was being interrogated with elevating personal against democratic ideas, in its brazen elevation of Columbus as a new King, elevating his figural place in a city without many statues as a foreign emissary of majesty, unmoored from constraint and of cultish majesty. The license with which Trump examined the real estate projects in Moscow that year found response by casting Columbus on a huge pedestal; mirroring a monumental statue that mirrors the Tsereteli statue of Peter the Great, founder of the Russian navy and nation, whose reforms subsumed Ukraine in the early eighteenth century, of 1997, that was suggested to have been Columbus in disguise, in mockery of the failure of Tsereteli’s earlier sculpture to find an appreciative audience abroad: the grotesque monument glorifies the figure of Columbus as a law-giver removed from history, outside history, in a grandeur destined for a Trump Properties’ development pandered to an American symbolism of national identity Trump would have understood as reflective of his own grandeur.

Was the image of Columbus as open a political statement as the monument to Peter the Great, mining a dismissed American national symbol to new ideological ends? Trump seems to have appreciated the statue for its grandiosity, and he famously introduced Tsereteli to American audiences as “major and legit,” in 1997, if the sculptor was then largely unknown in the West: he wanted to build a tower in New York that extended beyond the tower he had named after himself, taller than any statue near Manhattan island and in the Western Hemisphere, as if to dignify Trump Properties on the level of a state–or to suggest the bridging of the diminished importance of national frontiers in a context of global realty–and indeed the adoption of the global at the base of the old Gulf+Western building remarked as Trump International, by Columbus Circle–which he converted to a joint hotel and condominium in 1994–as if Trump Properties were a truly “international” entity.

The fatal confusion, tied to the grandiosity of Trump International, placed Trump in his own eyes on a global stage equal to figures of state, if one that he arrived at for solely personal self-interest. The paradox was profound, and in ways revealed in proposing to place a gargantuan statue of Columbus on his development, blind to the international import of the deal, and embrace of the historical revision of Columbus as a an authoritarian figure as something that would only affirm the importance of his own size on a global marketplace, and to launch multiple dealings across the globe with little attention to national politics. (Indeed, few better images of globalization exist than a map of Trump Properties.)

Trump’s Global Business Deals/Time Magazine (2017)

Is Columbus not a preeminent figure of globalization, avant la letter?

The openly authoritarian imagining of the navigator long identified with patriotic ideals undertook by Georgian sculptor Zurab Tsereteli was an early if particularly telling illustration of how transactional Trump’s world-views,– and how removed they were from any sense of the recreation of political space. Indeed, the image of a Presidential authoritarianism–evident in Donald Trump’s striking familiarity with a cast of strongmen ranging from Recep Tayypi Erdoğan to Vladimir Putin to Kim Jong-Un,–all nominal Presidents, but operating with quite unfettered understandings of their offices, seem to have found an odd precedent as a model of cross-national authoritarianism, deserving perhaps of further attention and concealing many clues to the present.

Trump aimed to bring to his development on the Hudson River shore a monumental Columbus, the tallest statue in the western hemisphere, which would have cast a long shadow each and every evening across Manhattan. The monumental statue of cast bronze only recently relocated to Arecibo, Puerto Rico, casts a long shadow over the verdant island where the navigator Columbus did set foot, if dislodged from the shady international exchanges Trump sought to broker, opens a quite surprising forgotten history demands to be mapped, as we process the unbound proclamation of executive authority from the Trump White House in 2020.

Zurab Tsereteli, “Birth of the New World” (2016), Arecibo PR

The oddly stateless notion of the figure of Columbus–who moved across the Atlantic Ocean with royal privileges, to be sure, but set foot in what were previously unknown islands, which he claimed for the Spanish King in 1492, was shown as arriving at a New World. Columbus had to be sure long evoked the rational arts of cartography and global circumnavigation, becoming an emblem and figure of lettered tradition of civility, learning, and mental apprehension of the globe, figurative of the westward expansion of Empire. But in an authority beneath which a history of colonization is barely concealed, his immobile statue moves triumphantly between different worlds, not only as an emissary but the herald of a new order of things. But if Columbus was long celebrated as confirming the spherical nature of the earth–a belief increasingly in question among Americans–two percent ready to identify as strongly adhering to a doctrine of global flatness, with some ten percent unsure or skeptical–the broad acceptance of a curved earth was less contested among educated than the extent of global circumnavigation.

De Sphaera (1550)

The discovery of Columbus as a figure of unbound authoritarianism was perhaps only made in the late twentieth century. The statue that towered above the ground, and seemed to befit the complex that contained the world’s tallest building, may well have incarnated the promise of public authority that Donald J. Trump was promised by Russian oligarchs as a suitable gift in the post-Soviet era, which might take its place as a gift from “the Russian people” on the very development that Trump must have described his hosts in great detail and with great self-satisfaction, having only recently rezoned it a residential, and imagined as a complex boating the tallest building in the world, which he planned for the old railroad yards by the Hudson River–and saw as a model for the quick negotiation of rules, precedent, and local codes of laws to which he was as if by birthright entitled as a realtor.

The poise and stature of this monumental refiguration of Columbus suggests a future able to move outside a state, or navigate stateless waters in a strikingly frictionless manner. Represented in 1892 in New York as a preeminent Renaissance figure, as if without concern of his relation to his surroundings, but to be a testimony to a removed past, but self-contained in his dignity, but affirming his role in spatial conquest in multiple ways.

Christopher Columbus in Columbus Circle/Peter van der Krogt

The Columbus cast in the 1996 Tsereteli monument in bronze was triumphant in his ability to move outside of sovereign boundaries, demanding recognition as a vanquisher and victor who with the support of a foreign imperial ideology and faith, in the act of claiming ownership by a single gesture over a newfound land. First presented to Trump four years before he declared himself a candidate for the Presidential primary as a candidate for the Reform party in 2000, the image of such imperial identity would have provided a model for the excavation of a public sphere by entertaining a new symbolics of global empire.

Zurab Tsereteli, “Birth of a New World” (2016)

Without any sense of triumphant reaction to transoceanic travel, the odd image of an impassive, idealized, “white” Columbus erases race, omits questions about his own relation to the new land of the so-called American continent or its inhabitants, and seems to have been carried by the winds that billow behind him as if to designate him as a royal Catholic emissary of a foreign land, or ensure smooth landing in port as he guides his ship across international waters by anachronistic means of a rotary wheel. The kitsch image of the monumental Columbus would be an aspiration to a global stage that Trump had aspired with Trump Intenational, but was sanctioned by his post-Soviet hosts.

Was the monumental Columbus, first commissioned from Tsereteli in 1992, a prescient image of a future President who would distinguish himself primarily by moving outside legal precedent and defining his exceptionalism to the law? The monumental statue had its origins in the post-Soviet restructuring of Moscow by he new image of Columbus, who seemed to view Columbus as an iconic symbol of a new world order after the Cold War when Luzkhov and Tsereteli had jointly arrived in America to present “The Birth of the New World” as a gift of friendship, recasting this emissary from foreign lands as a triumphant herald of a new world order. By 1997, Luzhkov’s attraction of billions of dollars into Moscow’s development, as housing complexes replaced historic buildings and the monumental Christ the Savior Cathedral was rebuilt in its gold electro-plated splendor of onion domes as seat of the Patriarch, after Stalin had destroyed the structure with dynamite in 1931, represented the intersection grandiose plans for monumentality.

As the monuments and buildings of Luzhkov’s Moscow, tied to embezzlement for his wife’s development business, redesigned the face of the city Trump visited, Columbus was an apt choice of subject to curry Trump’s taste for grandiosity–and Trump’s penchant to place himself outside the law. Was the monumentalization of Columbus emissary of foreign lands, this image of a bronze Columbus cast in Russia, an oddly prescient image of a future President who has distinguished himself as working outside of legal precedent? Is it only unintentional that it echoes Trump’s ability to place his own speech as existing outside of the law–and indeed to place himself, or his invitation of a foreign government to intervene in American elections, outside the law? The sense that this Columbus travelled in international waters in new ways seems but his ability to block public or congressional testimony as U.S. President,–and his own legendary obliviousness to constraint?

The increasingly nationalist figure Columbus evokes seems a way of pandering to an audience, in “Birth of a New World,” seems a figure of sovereign authority taking command over a new world, hailing or heralding an imaginary audience with grandiosity and sovereign majesty that is not only un-American, but seems to be captured in the act of remapping global relationships in 1996, when Trump confirmed the impending arrival of the statue, shortly after he returned from Moscow, where he met the sculptor, and the man known as redefining the art of the deal signed a deal to license his name for projects of non-exclusive ownership funded by the post-Soviet government, with the promise of participating in the rebuilding of Moscow’s public space in the apparent free market of the post-Soviet era as a landscape of the flowering of capitalist construction and unprecedented building development. What Luzhkov¥ branded as a Europeanization of Moscow was criticized as a Disneyfication of nineteenth century architecture to a theme park.

Closely tied to building companies, including that of his wife, billionaire developer Yelena Baturina, Yuri Luzhkov’s restructuring of historical Moscow with a pseudo-historical opulence created a landscape rooted in replicas of rapid fabrication and hyper-development. It was typified by the restoration of the gold-gilded Christ the Saviour Cathedral, on whose site Stalin had built the monumental the Palace of Soviets on Moskva River–after having spectacularly dynamited the cathedral seat of the Patriarch, built by Tzars to celebrate Napoleon’s defeat, which Stalin in 1931 Stalin had detonated in a public spectacle commanded as a vanishing of all solid to air, and the instantaneous vanquishing of a sacro-imperial past that Stalin had sought to symbolically banish by rebuilding a site for Soviet glory.

The curious coincidence between recycling a new icon of imperial authority whose grandiosity might appease or please Trump, his Moscow projects paused or placed on hold, was nothing less than a form of bait for the developer even before his political designs would become known. Did the promise of a statue of Columbus inflate the ambitious developer to imagine his role on a truly global political stage? The notion of placing Columbus, perched atop a global map that wraps around the statue’s pedestal, provided a cartoonish rending of the world as a global play space, removed from political power or individual claims, suggesting a sort of global chess board of confrontation and domibnation, as if rewriting public memory of an inhabited public sphere.

Yuri Luzhkov’s itineraries with Tsereteli to Miami, Washington, and other American cities, as a power-broker of a new age of development, shopped around a dunification of authoritarian monumentalism with Disneyfied kitsch epitomized by the 1997 erection of a statue to Peter the Great, at the costs of $120 million, across from the Cathedral’s gold domes–a work that epitomized his bend of populism and overbearing intervention in the re-engineering of Moscow’s public space to rewrite public memory in a seat where 80% of Russia’s wealth was concentrated–with two-thirds of foreign investment; he crafted his own style of privatization with the development firm of his second wife, Intenko, promoting a new vision of Russonationalism and Russian chauvinism while guiding Moscow through the real-estate boom in which Donald Trump had landed in 1996. When Trump toured the vast underground shopping complex, Manezh, beside Red Square, as a potential site to build a hotel.

At a time when increasing capital was arriving for construction projects in Moscow, Trump offered a known model for global capital, no doubt familiar to Luzkhkov’s wife, Yelena Baturina, who exploited her husband’s office as a developer, and whose connections to organized crime has been revealed by Wikileaks. Trump claimed losses of $916 million in his 1995 tax returns, as projects failed in Atlantic City and the Plaza; he hoped to refurbish his finances by ventures in Yuri Luzhkov’s Moscow, boasting to build Trump International and a new Trump Tower–expanding the developer’s 1986 hope, about which he crowed in Art of the Deal, for “a large luxury style hotel across the street from the Kremlin” bearing his name, despite resistance at erecting the world’s highest skyscraper in competition with the Kremlin–a qualification of which Trump’s unbounded ambitions were perhaps not aware.

In Moscow, Trump had proposed a $250 million investment for a Trump International complex at a November 1996 news conference, bragging upon returning to New York that his ties to Luzhkov boded success in building only “quality stuff”–when he first dropped a public hint about plans for the Columbus statue. The trip to Moscow was not so climactic, for Trump International, although the trip led to attracting Russian investors only to a Trump International Beach Resort in South Florida.

Trump International Beach Resort in Sunny Isles. (Angel Valentin/The Washington Post)

One might pause, however, at this globe that Trump seems to have adopted as his new venture’s emblem, and the similarly gaudy image of a new globalism distinguishing Trump International–epitomized by the rebuilding of the enormous silvered globe encircled by orbital rings. This very globe long stood at the building Trump has rebranded as Trump International Hotel and Tower at New York’s Columbus Circle–as if the globe could provide a powerful basis of international brand that Trump could tap into having purchased the old Time-Life building at Columbus Circle, and the globe itself had come on its property.

The iconic statue outside Time-Life–or Gulf + Western building seems to have been prized by Donald Trump that it became a target of his desires. Yet in October, 1996, New York’s City Planning Department rejected the proposal to emblazon the orbital globe with “Trump International” on the orbital globe as a way to brand his new venture–but the developer took the shiny orbital globe, silhouetting the world’s continents on a thirty-foot wide globe, modeled after the Unisphere built for a 1964-65 World’s Fair, as fair game to brand his ambitions, as it lay on property he now owned, and even if the words “TRUMP INTERNATIONAL” were not emblazoned on it to reveal his new global ambitions, the shiny sphere was replicated, in Sunny Isles, as an icon of the global scope of Trump Properties.

Brandell Studios, Architectural Rendering

The provision of Trump with a new image of Columbus on his own Hudson Yards development would be, perhaps, an alternate glorification of hi self-fashioning and marketing as a truly international developer. Was the discussion of the arrival of Tsereteli’s monumental figure of the navigator meant to hold an image of the orbital globe that Trump saw as an emblem of his new expansive network of global real estate properties beyond New York City–as if to brand the statue that was located on his properties as an icon of its aspirations to an actual globalism, and as if a statue could bolster its claims to internationality by virtue of a monumental map.

The brokering of new sites of power and monumentality were both local, and occurred on an international stage. Was the statue of Columbus that Luzhkov brought to America nothing less than a bid to rewrite the memory of the navigator as a figure of the place of commerce in the globalized world. The monumentalization of the voyage of discovery installed eventually in Puerto Rico in 2016, on the eve of the Trump Presidency, hinted at a new image of authoritarianism to come, blurred and with soft edges: in casting a Christopher Columbus on steroids as an emissary of royal Catholic majesty, he seems almost an emissary of a new global order. If a relic of the rebuilding of Moscow under the Luzhkov’s corrupt mayoralty, when billions arrived in Moscow for rebuilding d to the awarding of building and development contracts often tied to Intenko, his wife billionaire wife Yelena Baturina’s real estate company, over the eighteen years he held power since 1992 in Moscow, rewriting the past by the free market, this unmoored Columbus, arms elevated in apparent victory, offered a disturbingly authoritarian image, inaugurating hidden financial exchanges in a new global era of illicit international transfers and underwater financial transactions.

This Columbus seems dressed in neoclassical robes to bolster his authority, and anachronistically cast as guiding his craft by a rotary wheel, but as an emissary of sovereign right, who claims a pride of place as existing outside any legal code or precedent. The evocation of such a figure of extra-legal majesty, and truly transnational authority, seems crafted from a symbolics of authoritarianism, dear to a devout sculptor who would specialize in Neo-imperial statuary, who had already reclad Tsar Peter the Great in Roman robes in a strikingly similar sculpture.

While no-one imagined at the time that Trump boasted to all who would listen that he had negotiated the arrival of such a statue that Trump would be United States President, the “gift” he announced was conveyed from the Russia people moved outside international laws. At the time, his own global ambitions as an hotelier drew attention post-Soviet society. And the approach, made by Moscow’s Mayor Yuri Luzhkov, cast an icon of patriotism in the guise of authoritarian nationalism, recasting the iconic figure of American nationalism in a sovereign fashion removed from legal precedent, democratic practice, or inclusive politics.

In deeply disturbing ways, the combination of self-interest and public interest, or the inability to distinguish self-interest and public interest, that is so characteristic of a Trump Presidency, seems encapsulated, before the fact, by the cloaking of the proposed arrival of this massive monument, whose height he specified as greater than the Statue of Liberty from the base of its pediment to torch, on a proposed riverside development on the Hudson, as a marker of personal and national grandiosity. The “gift” he claimed to convey from the “Russian people” would serve as an adornment to his projected properties, and elided international politics with international commerce of undisclosed nature, but touching on tax-free transfers of goods and cash, in ways that turned on a figure–the fifteenth-century navigator–who acted outside any body of laws, but as the emissary of a sovereign decree, in ways that were already disturbing to be seen as a basis for national identity.

The model was already presented as a gift to the United States when in 1992 Moscow’s new elected populist mayor Luzhkov proposed gifting the statue for the Columbus quincentennial, its size larger than the statue of Peter the Great would assume when it was erected in 1997 in Moscow, which assumed such status as an evacuation of public space. As billions of dollars entered Moscow–$4.6 billion of foreign investments in 1996–the monument that did not provoke engagement with the past but propose a traditional model of global authority suggest a distraction, a worthy precedent for Trump’s late massive monument of a border wall. As Columbus in “The Birth of the New World” seems to obscure all else to fill the fragmenting of the post-soviet state, the public statuary seeks not to create a new innocence and stability, in a time of uncertain post-Soviet social order, but a celebration of identity removed from social improvement, or from meaningful political action and inclusiveness.

Trump was eager to promote the promised arrival of the monumental statue to media outlets when he returned from surveying real estate prospects in post-Soviet Moscow, boasting about his contacts with the affable Georgian sculptor who had won the Lenin Prize and was awarded Hero of Socialist Labor. As much as only an artist, the sculptor Trump treated with customary familiarity by praising “this great work of Zurab” as a gift that it “would be my honor if we could work it out with the city of New York” manufactured his own authority as an international intermediary in ways that omitted that “Zurab” was not only an artist, but a bit of a figure of state, who identified his work as an artist as a Hero of Socialist Labour who designed war memorials, and statues in Soviet embassies throughout the world; since 1997 was President of the Russian Academy of Arts, offering multiple post-Soviet monuments including for 9/11 to other countries on behalf of the state.

And what better place to position the image of the fifteenth-century royal navigator than to detract attention from the Enlightenment inheritance of the Statue of Liberty Enlightening the People, over which it would tower from the perspective of Trump Properties, in the New York skyline? It is telling that if Tsereteli’s later contribution of a statuary honoring 9/11, “Tear of Grief,” located in Bayonne, NJ, is situated in a site where it is seem before the Statue of Liberty in New York Harbor–as if to redefine public political space and to take the place of the Statue of Liberty as the image that defined the visual experience of all who arrived in New York Harbor, rewriting the experience of universal ideals with mourning and global fears. The monument that used steel from a former Soviet military factory located in a Soviet “secret city” called Dzerzhinsk, suggesting its tie to a project of national calculations as much as a generous gift.

While artworks are branded an autonomous aesthetic status, the placement of Teresteli statues in embassies and consulates in Brazil, Portugal, and Japan, suggest we examine their role as an art of state. The promoting of the Russian-Georgian sculptor’s work transformed a relatively obscure Georgian artist to a figure of state in the post-Soviet era, as millions of tax dollars were pilfered to instal his folk-like sculptures in Moscow’s public spaces, imbuing with a false populism that suggests reproductions of kitsch inscribed with globalist ideals. The image of creating a new space of public admiration was central to Tsereteli’s works of art. “Make way, rogues of political blackmail,” reads a 1997 inscription on his monumental statue to Peter the Great, for founding a navy that was used to invade Ukraine, “Welcome the ship which has sailed into the eye of a grand Moscow scandal./ At the head of the tiny vessel . . . /Stand Peter in bronze!” The glorified elevation of its vision of authoritarian identitarian politics, familiar to post-Soviet Moscow as a new glue of public space, suggested a symbolics of political unity that Trump may well have taken as a model for global politics.

The attention-getting image of Columbus as a glorified authoritarian figure, to stand beside Manhattan in the Hudson, may have been far to heavy to be supported by the landfill of Trump Properties. The statue, weighing in at approximately 6,500 tons of sheer bronze, would not be likely to be supported by the landfill Trump had rezoned for residences. Rather than most solid metal sculptures built in Moscow, where a similar image of Peter the Great was erected in 1997, the image of Columbus would be hard to support. But the monument whose imminent arrival of which Trump boasted as an adornment to his most recent developent reveals a complex entangling of symbolic icons, redefining public spaces, and personal gain,

The recycling of patriotic platitudes in the monument during the post-Soviet era seems an attempt to refurbish Russia’s relation to the world. The monument Trump promoted was hardly designed with Trump in mind, or his property development as its intended site–but Trump Properties offered the perfect presence for its erection in ways that might be under the radar. Tseretelli had presented the statue, “Birth of the New Man,” to the city of Miami in 1992 to mark the cinquecentennnial of Columbus’ arrival, through a businessman with multiple Moscow business interests, Sol LeBow, who helped broker an early deal for the 600-ton sculpture by ponying up $20 million to install it off the beach, which brought both Luzhkov and Tsereteli to Miami’s City Hall during the Columban cinquecentennary in 1992, before Trump entered the scene. Once rejected, it was offered to the city of Columbus, Ohio in 1993, but rested in storage in Puerto Rico, an island where Columbus had actually set foot, and made landfall in 1493, before Zurab or his handlers proposed Trump serve as an intermediary who might erect it on his own property development whose monumentality would illustrate the majesty of the complex boasted to hold the hemisphere’s tallest building.

The image Tseretelli designed may have been preferred by the sculptor, but certainly made the rounds on the international stage. For Tseretelli presented a smaller version of the monument to UNESCO’s center in Paris in 1994, and a larger version in Seville in 1995, continuing to seek a global stage for the gigantic bronze monument, “Birth of the New World,” a vertical sculpture of the navigator before royal flags only installed in Puerto Rico in 2016. If the presence of patriotic populism provided a cover for transporting the statue across the Atlantic–or moving it up the seaboard–the prominent Muscovite’s backers, probably including not only Mayor Luzhkov but Vladimir Putin, who had begun to work in Moscow in the Department of residential Property Management; Trump was identified to bring the monument of the fifteenth century navigator to the New World as a new triumphant image of globalism.

John Alex Maguire/REX/
‘Birth of a New World’ by Zurab Tsereteli

The planned arrival of the monument designed by the court sculptor of Moscow’s mayor, Zurab Tsereteli, led Trump to gloat about the Neo-imperial visions of the fifteenth-century navigator raising his right hand to hail the world in an imperious neoclassical salutation of open address, that the sculpture was designed for his properties–“Zurab would like it to be at my [new] development,” blurring state and personal interests as only Trump can. While no one wanted the massive statue, which would long remain in limbo, the curious tracking of this gigantic monument spoke to Trump’s sense of grandiosity that may well have inflated his sense of himself as a global figure, and indeed paralleled the launching of Trump Properties on a global stage that makes one wonder about the power of monumentalism and Trump’s attraction to monumental art as a nexus of personal interests and state power.

The developer crowed about Zurab’s preferences as if to promote his new friendship with Moscow’s post-Soviet oligarchs’ preferred monument man, as well as to subtract himself from a grand affair of state that was working out around his land. The gambit to offer an apparent icon of patriotism, refracted through Tsereteli’s imperial lenses, shows an image of Columbus whose imposing presence stepped off a boat he apparently guided to the shores, hailing his presence before Christian-Imperial flags that double as the sails of the original caravel, an eery emissary of a new world order, offering no recognition of the inhabitants of this new land.

Trump was an unlikely medium of the monumental sculpture showing Columbus, hand raised in a gesture of imperial salute, as if victorious over a new continent, a statue that had itself in face mirrored the transatlantic voyage in traveling from Moscow, where it was cast, to the New World. And unlike the elegantly poised figure of Columbus poised contraposto Columbus standing elegantly atop a pedestal in Columbus Circle, the geometric center of New York City, the Columbus that Trump boasted to be built on rezoned landfill on the banks of the Hudson was Neo-imperial and gigantic in size. The sculpture that itself echoed the statue to Peter the Great of such massive proportions that had replaced the Soviet realist monuments of the past with a folksiness bordering on cartoons, in stone sculptures and brightly colored surfaces that captured Russian folklore and state emblems for the Russian Parliament in the White House, blurring state functions and public art with sacred art, who Moscow’s mayor acclaimed as a “new Michelangelo for our time.” When Trump celebrated the sculptor as both “major and legit” in 1997, was he only echoing the praise Luzhkov bestowed so lavishly on the Georgian-Russian sculptor whose work he had preferred as a new public language for state-sponsored art at a moment of historical change?

The comparison between Tsereteli and the papal sculptor Michelangelo, who was commissioned to design St. Peter’s dome by Pope Paul III, as a symbol of papal opulence and the chief architect of what would be the tallest dome then existing in the world, and a symbol of ecclesiastic grandeur, was telling. Boris Yeltsin visited the sculpture and called it “truly horrible;” Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn bemoaned the “massive and third-rate memorials” by which Moscow was increasingly “disfigured” as such state largesse was conferred on a romanticized past so huge and immersive that it all but erased the present, and seemed an unlikely hybrid of the cinematic and the folk that seemed to be most distinguished by abdicating any ethical code of governmentality. The very overwhelming nature of monumentality seems to drown the viewer in a mythic sense of transcendence of the state, and rehabilitates an imperial sense of conquest as natural.

But the comparison to Michelangelo would of course have appealed at base to Trump’s vanity. What was the inspiration for its future placement on Trump’s property? He had returned from Moscow, “impressed with the potential” of Russia’s capital and, after meeting Moscow’s mayor, investigating the possibility of Russian backing for the luxury complexes in the post-Soviet era, when intelligence sources were hoping to cultivate new foreign ties. The power of Tsereteli’s statues lay in their increasing universal reproduction of that, as Bruce Grant has identified in his compelling analysis of patronage of Tsereteli’s public statuary in Moscow, keeps an imaginary state in public eye even in corrupt regimes, that in its immensity all but erases civil society–an aesthetic, or lack of one, that seems oddly similar to the illusion of a symbolics of prosperity that Trump International increasingly sustained. Grant ties Tsereteli’s ability to sustain an “artful prosperity in elite Russian circles” in the post-Soviet era not only as a sign of corruption, but of how corruption offer a set of practices that reconstitute the state.

The Columbus figure that serves as a symbol of a “New World”–a figure rewriting the notion of the Soviet “New Man” or “man of the future” to be created by socialism, a superman emblematic of a world of post-scarcity, a man of selfless individualism, the sculptures of Tsereteli remove the state from political practice, and indeed rewrite the relation of the realtor to the past, by providing an authoritarian image of globalism or globalization from Russia with Love.

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Filed under Columbus, commemoration, Donald J. Trump, national monuments, Zurab Tsereteli

The New World in Practice: Placing Columbus in a New World

Christopher Columbus’ transatlantic voyages assume problematic status as part of a “discourse of discovery,” but also the foundational role that the navigator’s transatlantic voyage has assumed in a search for national identity. If Columbus the Genoese navigator was hit upon as a figure of national unity in the post-Civil War centennary of 1892, in which Columbus assumed new currency as a national figure, a map on silver able to enter broad circulation as a memory for how a three-masted caravel mastered terrestrial expanse, resting above a hemispheric map of global oceanic expanse. The anachronistic map suggests as much a modern triumph of hemispheric cartography–the coastline of the United States was surveyed by geodetic terms and that established the role of the United States Coast and Geodetic Survey in producing maps of uniform toponymy and hydrographic accuracy had only recently set standards of coastal surveying that unified triangulation, physical geodesy, leveling, and magnetic of authority within the US Navy to produce coastal maps of the nation extended from the Gulf of Mexico to the Alaskan shoreline.

The imperious gaze of the limp-haired navigator seems the first self-made man as he gazes with gruff determination on the coin’s face, almost entirely filing the surface of the first American coin bearing human likeness. Columbus was an icon it identified with how the hemispheric map took charge over a continent, and gave a sense of predestination to the recently settled question of continental integrity–and a territorial bounds that new no frontier up to Alaska, whose coast had been recently surveyed, and much of Florida and the Gulf of Mexico. Its design for the Chicago Word Exposition suggest a hemispheric dominance reflecting the growth of Rand McNally in Chicago, a map-publisher for America, as well as the self-assertion the United States as a hemispheric power, as much as the Genoese navigator about whom so many meanings have encrusted.

The striking hemispheric map of global navigability on the obverse of the coin circulated in Chicago’s World Exposition was global, but would also mimic the claims of hemispheric dominance that the hemispheric projection recalled, prefigured the Pan Am logo, in its global in reach.

In 1893, the point was made as replicas of the Nino, Pinto, and Santa Maria sailed in Lake Michigan during the Centennary, for which the U.S. Congress approved the printing of the first commemorative coin of an individual, beer flowed on tap at what was celebrated as a “blueprint of America’s future,” foregrounding the technological supremacy of the West and America. Ehe figure of Columbus was assimilated to the new technologies of transportation and conquest in a new center commerce where railroads open onto the west, in a condensation of a national celebration that cast Columbus as a figure of the destiny of western expansion, indulging in an American hyperbole of incandescent lighting, the championing of new technologies, in which the replicas of the Pino, Nina, and Santa Maria that had sailed from Spain were again sailing on a landlocked Lake Michigan were exhibited to foreground, Gokstad Viking ships sailed the flooded Midway, beside the mock-Venetian crafts of gondoliers.

Such global mariners provided a flourish within a World Exposition whose stage sets and soundstages, P.T. Barnum like, celebrated transit, transport, and mobility to astound visitors and silence all questions of not presuming to celebrate four centuries of progress; the neoclassical facades of buildings as the Administrative Building, Palace of Fine Arts, Agricultural Building, and Court of Honor, were iterations of the Crystal Palace that were precursors to Las Vegas, proclaimed the birth of a “White City” at the World Exposition that promoted the figure of Columbus and was under-written by the federal government and corporate America, recasting the shady city of vice as the “White City.”

Chicago Tribune

The claiming of Columbus as a national figure in the rebranding of the World’s Exposition set in neoclassical buildings as the site to celebrate Columbus recreated the l’Enfant architecture of the District of Columbia, and elevated the city as “white” in some of the very issues that make the continued celebration of Columbus Day so fraught in a pluralistic society: Peter van Der Krogt has surveyed in striking detail some four hundred monuments to Columbus that were erected after what was called the “World’s Columbian Exposition” in 1892-3, a century after the first monument to Columbus was built in Baltimore, in 1792, what it meant to identify Columbus as American, if not name the nation “Columbia”–the popularity of these monuments in New Jersey (32), Connecticut (15), and New York (24) suggests the clear lack of uniformity of enthusiasm of celebrating the navigator’s equivalence with the nation.

Peter van der Krogt

The fraught question of celebrating the Genoese navigator became a hot-button topic for Donald Trump to rally red state voters–“to me, it will always be Columbus Day!”–and to serve as clickbait as part of the new, perpetually churning culture wars. In an October state meeting with Italian President Sergio Mattarella, Trump was pleased to note that while “some people don’t like” the continued commemoration of Columbus’ transatlantic voyage, “I do”, as if that should be sufficient for the nation. Prime MinisterMattarella’s state visit became an occasion to espouse public disdain for the renaming of the national holiday as Indigenous Peoples Day, if not Native Americans Day, in over 130 cities across 34 states. For President Trump, doing so seemed designed not to impress Mattarella, but define a wedge in a deeper cultural urban-rural divide– a yawning divide of economic opportunities, the knowledge economy, and the shifting horizons of economic expectations, more than political belief. The nature of this poorly mapped landscape, the thin substrate of uneven economies and cultural disjunctions and divides, that passes as a political in a datamap of the district-by-district voting preferences that rips a red continuity all but from its bordering blue frame.

Mark Neumann/Red State-Blue State Divide

The national discontinuities reveal an impoverished geographic sense of meaning, one that makes all but ironical the prestige placed on the legibility of the map by the legendary figure of Columbus, who never set foot in the continental landmass now known as the United States, but was, in an era of increased hemispheric dominance of the quatrocentennary nearly engraved map–a reflection of the prominent role Rand McNally played in the organization of the Exposition of 1892, promoting the prominent place that the mapmaking company had gained in the design, dissemination and marketing of instructional printed maps in the later nineteenth century, just a decade after the Chicago-based printshop primarily producing train time-tables expanded its role in a growing educational market for globes and printed wall maps, using its engraving methods emblematized in its dramatic bird’s-eye view of the exposition.

And although it did not design the commemorative silver half dollar that included a caravel of the Santa Maria moving on creating ocean waves above the very anachronistic map that suggests the continental expanse of North and South America–as if Columbus’ guidance of the historic transnational voyage in three caravels he captained was based on a mastery of modern cartographic knowledge. The clear-sightedness of the navigator below the legend “United States of America” linked fearless scrutiny of the global expanse to the foundation of a nation, as the coin designed by the U.S. Mint sough to give circulate a discourse of national unity in the first coin printed in the United States to include the likeness of an actual individual, after hopes to copy a Renaissance portrait by Lorenzo Lotto were replaced by an austere profile suggesting intellectual grasp of space to be sold as souvenirs to visitors of the national fair. Yet the notion of hemispheric dominance was not far off: the explosion of the American naval frigate in the port of Havana led to charges to attack Spain in the press to exercise dominance ridiculed in the Spanish press–

The hint at hemispheric dominance in these maps mirror a push in the 1890s against how “the self-imposed isolation in the matter of markets . . . coincided singularly with an actual remoteness of this continent from the life of the rest of the world,” as a shift in global governance and prominence; the earlier celebration of the continental expansion of the United States to an area “equal to the entire circumference of the earth, and with a domain within these lines far wider than those of the Romans in the proudest days of their conquest and renown.”

Casting nationalism in such cartographic terms mirrored the embedding of Columbus in legacies of nationalism and colonization,–the coin that gave the navigator currency, if it silenced the recognition of the other, presenting Columbus as emblematic of a conquest of space. At a time when Italians were regarded as of different status from other whites, the figure of the Genoese navigator became a lens to project the “white” essence of the territorial United States in quadricentennial celebrations of 1892, recasting the navigator as an unlikely and implausible hero of the white race at the culmination of claiming native lands within the bloody landscape of Indian Wars–roughly, from 1860 to 1877–and to erase the violence of the seizure of these lands to crate the new map of the West, remapping the western lands “as” legible Anglophone and American, and the province of the White Man. Was Columbus the improbable hero of such whiteness and the claims of whiteness in the quadricentennary celebrations that led the nation to celebrate a “white” Italian, as a figure of the whiteness of the nation?

If we are realizing the loaded nature of the erasure of earlier inhabitants in the celebration of arrival in ‘America’ as a prefiguration of the nation, the condensation of this genealogy in the coin of the quadricentennial was a celebration of the witness of the national nd legibility of the new continental map map.

For as ethnicity was understood in sectorial and distinct terms of labor in the late nineteenth century–erased by the notion of an “end of ethnicity” and melting pot of the late twentieth century–the image of Columbus as a “white” hero, the image of the discoverer was purified of his own ethnic origins, at a time when negroes and Italians were excluded from social orders, and lived in Chicago sequestered in enclaves like Little Sicily, or Five Points in New York City, President Benjamin Harrison in 1892 promoted Columbus Day as a “one-time national celebration” to quell international tensions after lynching of Italian-Americans in New Orleans’ Little Palermo between Italy and the United States: the image on the commemorative coin of a pacified globe of continental unity as if it were included in Columbus’ fashioning of his own prophetic identity affirmed Columbus’ whiteness, as it erased the identity of indigenous subjects and silenced the other.

Columbus was promoted eagerly to claim whiteness for Italian-Americans, as well as to define a non-indigenous figure of the nation and national pride. Long before Italian-Americans adopted the festivities of Columbus Day as a regular celebration to incorporate their centrality in a civic record of national identity, as New York Times editorialist Brent Staples has put it, purged of racial connotations that continued in the popular press, only after the celebration of Columbus Day opened a pathway to integration in the face of racialist slurs. As those Sicilians who segregated in their dwellings in New Orleans were seen as targets of racial persecution, and as northern newspapers used stereotypes continued to magnify charges of poor hygiene and linguistic differences, casting Italians as vermin unfit for public schooling, Columbus provided a figure to flee from dispersion as a “Dago”: as immigration from Italy faced official restrictions by 1920, and Italian immigrants were subject to at the start of the first great Age of Mass Migration, as Calvin Coolidge barred “dysgenic” Italian-Americans from entering the country.

In the very years wen immigrants were both sectorized and accorded new status as “whites” who were eugenically suspect, and rates of immigration were slowed under the banner of eugenics, the figure of Columbus proved an able image to launch a powerful agenda of alternative immigration reform: in the very regions where the share of population of Italian origin was most pronounced by 1920, in those very counties the erection of Columbus monuments grew. They appeared in interesting fasion from the eastern seaboard inland to the Great Lakes, into the Chicago area on Lake Michigan, to the Texas and Lousiana seaboards, and San Francisco area in northern California: the dispersion of Columbus monuments across the nation below lacks dates,–

Statues and Monuments to Columbus/Peter van der Krogt

–it is a striking reflection of what U.S. Census records reveal about the relative proportional concentration of Americans of Italian parentage in the United States in 1920, when the Census tabulated those identifying as of Italian parentage as a category.

The increased transatlantic migration that occurred around the 1920s could recast the topos of overseas arrival as embodied by Columbus. The figure of Columbus as an intellectual, a civil servant, and of the statue as a monument of civic pride all encouraged the appearance of the navigator in public monuments. Of course, they recuperate the image of the placement of the flag of authority overseas, as much as vanquishing native one of the first global maps, planting the flag of authority overseas.

The question of such exportation of royal claims was a truly cartographic problem: the spatial migration of Portuguese royal authority was seen in Martin Waldseemüller’s 1514 printed global map as a pair to the discovery of a Spice Route around by Vasco da Gama. overlooking and surveying coastal toponymy in a statuesque manner, bearing the figure of the flag and cross as an ambassador of the most Christian regal monarch.

The oceanic voyages of Vasco da Gama, as of Columbus, were seen as those of an emissary of royal authority, whose travels recuperated tropes of imperial migration that derived from early church history, and were given new lease in the Holy Roman Empire by imperial chroniclers and pre-Colomban universal histories, as a spatial migration of imperial authority: in maps, the Christian migration of royal authority over space, along rhumb lines and nautical travels born by sea monsters who embodied the oceans, was a repeated topos of cartographic tradition not initiated by Waldseemüller,–the cartographer who named the continent after the Florentine navigator and mapmaker Amerigo Vespucci–

Waldseemüller world map, 1515
https:/Tabula Nova partis Africae, in Lorenze Fries’ reduced woodcut of Waldseemuller, (1541)

–and would echo the prophetic cast Columbus had assumed in his letters, and would give as he cast his exploratory voyage in terms of one of renaming, conquest, and discovery, rather than exploration, as he cast himself as acting as of an emissary of and invested with authority by the monarchs of Spain, and a delegate of royal sovereignty who had himself moved across the map to lay claim to unknown islands that he named after his royal patrons.

The naming that was cast as emblematic of civility and civilization of new lands, and of the new naming of the Land. Indeed, the privileging of the effects of cartographic literacy were felt in the Waldsemüller map. by its foregrounding of the cartographic prominence of the insularity of the lands of discovery, greatly magnified in Waldseemüller’s map to reveal the prominence they held in the European imagination as a revision of Ptolemaic geography, the islands alone doubling the territoriality of the Spanish monarchy–by expanding it to a transatlantic set of islands that were cartographically inflated in size, and not only to accommodate the toponym “Spagnuola” but magnify the scale of the discovery. If the band East of Eden sing, in Mercator Projected, declare over the strong guitar strums, “It’s in the Western Hemisphere/that’s where the nicest things appear,” Mercator effectively magnified the very same hemisphere as the cartographic expansion that doubled the demesne of Spanish kings, cleansed of all of its indigenous inhabitants.

The discovery of course altered the scope of Spanish sovereignty, as much as the cosmography Ptolemy set forth based on the astrolabe he proudly held in the upper right of this twelve-sheet wall map. In this fractured world of multiplying insular fragments, where the entire of the modern South America, here island-like, if immense, labeled “America” and below the island of Hispaniola, was “discovered by the command of the King of Castille”–island-like as Waldseemüller most likely was forced to add the to the pre-1491 global maps that perhaps remained his source–dotted with even greater abundance of islands, all acting as if beckons to potential sites of untold wealth. The figure of Columbus may be absent from the map, but the caravel identified as sent by the European monarch seems to provide the basis for information in the 1507 global map–where it seems as if the emblem of Columbus–

I found myself recently standing in New York City’s Columbus Circle, a towering column constructed shortly after the erection of the Liberty statue in New York harbor, it was hard to imagine how the towering figure of the navigator once stood above the circle.

The prominence this late nineteenth-century Columbus claims atop a pedestal before a shop of corsets is a bit comical. The 1892 statue must have been a reply to the lady who stood as a welcome sign to recent waves of immigrants; funded by the Italian language newspaper that had begun publication only a decade earlier in 1880, the monument to the Italian navigator’s discovery served as a proclamation of civic dedication as well as rected; the encounter was monumentalized as an auspicious arrival of a man who seems to proclaim the New World’s settlement before a group of shrinking natives, who retreat behind foliage.

The statuary made in Rome during the centenary of 1892, seemed intended as a moment of immigrant pride, and indeed identify the navigator as an Italian navigator, unlike the native inhabitants who seemed unclothed and barbarous. The statue of Columbus Circle stood facing to the south of Manhattan island, as if in rejoinder to the midwestern Columban exposition that celebrated the expansion of Chicago and the opening of an American West. The contest between the monuments aspiring to announce the New World back to Europe demands to be teased out, but played out over the next century.

The icon has defined the southwestern corner of Central Park, and as a monument of triumphalism has, even if it has been dwarfed by the nearby Trump International and, since 2003, the Time Warner building, the once soot-covered statuary had a prominent civic function of rehabilitating one immigrant group, if perhaps at the costs of denigrating others and promoting a dated form of patriotism. The reduced place of the smaller Trump property may now seem in the shadow of the far more monumental Time Warner complex, but Trump had already aspired to displace the tower of Christopher Columbus as he wanted to put his own imprint on the New York skyline before 1992, and readily adopted the Columbus centennary as a pretext to demote the Columbus Square column at the same time as he promoted his vision of a Trump City by the Hudson River banks, for which Columbus became a pretext as much as a backdrop of sorts.

But is it a surprise that as a New York realtor eager to dodge financial ruin in the late 1980s, Donald Trump boasted of plans to erect an immense statue of Christopher Columbus in 1992 by a Russian sculptor, Zurab Tseretelli, shortly after the fall of the Soviet Union, from a massive $40 million of bronze. The statuary framed as a gift from Moscow’s mayor to the New York mayor, Rudy Giuliani, to rival that of Columbus Circle must have been a massive tax write-off of the sort Trump had specialized. And grotesquely, the statue revealed, far from patriotism, the deeply transactional legacy of linking Trump’s developments to the nation, whose grandiosity of re-monumentalizing Columbus–Trump boasted the head made by the Russian sculptor Zurab Tsereteli from $40 million of bronze was already in America–“It would be my honor if we could work it out with the City of New York. I am absolutely favorably disposed toward it. Zurab is a very unusual guy. This man is major and legit.”

The grandiose claim is classic Trump, designed to feign disinterest and patriotism but searching for fame. Zurab, a prominent member of the Russian Academy, mighthave been quite legit, but building the massive bronze statuary was also a huge tax dodge to be built on Trump acreage, whose immensity only made it more valuable as a dodge and gift to the city of the sort one could write off but was also an investment inflating the real estate’s value: which Trump presented as a done deal accepted by then-mayor Giuliani as a “gift” from the Mayor of Moscow, mediated by the patriotic developer who had secured the landfill as realty he sought to boost before he built. The statue reveals early interest of the transactional nature of exchange and inflation of value, which long animated the Trump brand.

Site of Proposed ‘Trump Cityin Manhattan

The quite hideous statue, whose head had arrived in New York, was rejected for reasons unknown. The rejection was perhaps not aesthetic alone, but as the immense complex of figure and naval vessels, eventually recast as The Birth of a New World when the complex was finally installed on the coast of Arecibo in Puerto Rico, weighing in at 6,500 tons, in 2016, was hardly designed to be sustained by landfill: what piles into the Hudson’s banks would sustain all that bronze? The dedication of the statue at the year of Trump’s victory in the Presidential election was not planned, but is oddly telling. The gaudy if not hideous monument was rejected flatly first by New York, and then by Miami; Columbus, OH; Baltimore; Ft Lauderdale; and lastly Cantaño, Puerto Rico, where it faced intense local opposition, from the United Confederation of Taino People given their conviction “Colombus was a symbol of genocide, not a hero to be celebrated” by monumental statuary in the nation’s public memory.”

The collective reaction of the grotesque figural complex may have arisen because of effects on the community, but the body of the statue was recycled as it was transformed by Tseretelli, rumor has it, with a new head as Peter the Great, for Moscow, that celebrated the tsar for founding–yes–the Russian Navy. The monument that was the world’s eighth largest piece of global statuary at 93 meters voted was voted the world’s tenth ugliest buidling. The this 81 meter animated statue beside an oddly raised arm of greeting evidence that it was indeed remade in an attempt to match the massive body of bronze that remained in Moscow in 1992, or was the mismatch due to a new fashioning a body for the head returned to Tseretelli’s studio the became a monstrous monument of eery import? T eh odd disconnect of head and body seems not an illusion of perspective (witness those huge shoulders), but seems evidence of some sort of switcheroo in statuary that Tseretelli or his assistants bungled.

Zurab Tsereteli, The Birth of a New World (2016)

The image that we can entertain of Donald Trump transactionally pedaling Columbus from shore to shore tragically concludes the triumphalit Columban statuary–who better to pedal dated triumphalism? How did the Columbus statue ever arrive at this port? If removed from a discourse of discovery, the notion of “birth” is perhaps more odious.

Trump identifies himself–sons of immigrants of Scottish and German stock, allegedly, but must have wanted to bask in the idea of endowing monumentalism of Columbus statue for New York, beside Trump’s new monumentalization of his name in West Side Yards, the landfill expansion of the old yard of New York’s Central Railroad, that Trump had long sought to expand as the site of 20-30,000 residences, massive residential expansions of the city alternately hoped to be rezoned as residences and promoted to be renamed as “Lincoln West,” “Television City” and “Trump City,” all of which faced fierce community opposition, even if they were planned to feature the world’s tallest building. Would the 1992 statue be a $40 Million investment to lend prestige to the projects Trump imagined for a site he long promoted as both”positioned to get rezoning and government financing,” in 1979, and “the greatest piece of land in urban America” in 1992, housing 20,000 in 8,000 apartments and almost 10,000 parking places for the midtown area.

The “new Columbus” was as a conceit never achieved; but was it also a sense of the arrival of Trump in America, and the conquest of New York City? The statue planned to be erected on landfill was rejected for the fifth centenary and then promised to at least six other cities may speak to Trump’s disconnect from the world, and how poorly the notion of a purely triumphal celebration has aged. The grandiosity of statuary and buildings–perhaps also ugliness–was a perverse trademark of Trump, and was promoted a grotesque nationalism long dear to the developer. And it paralleled the growing public resistance to Columbus statuary that occurred in 1992 across so much of the increasingly diverse United States, as citizens questioned what was to celebrate in a figure long idealized in heroic monuments.

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Filed under American history, Columbus, commemoration, Voyage of Discovery, whiteness

Loopy Maps to Rationalize Random Shut-Offs?

The announcement in California of the arrival of random power shut-offs this fire season sent everyone scrambling to maps. In order to stop fires spread of fires, the impending public safety power shut-offs crashed websites as folks scrambled to get updates in real time, frustrated by the relative opacity of maps in a hub of high tech mapping and public data, as the impending possibility of power shut-offs wreaked neurological chaos on peoples’ bearings. From mapping fires, we transitioned to the uncertainty of mapping regions where consumers would lose power in an attempt to prevent fires from spreading due to strikes on live wires of broken limbs, branches, or failed transmission structures whose immanent collapse were feared to trigger apocalyptic fires of the scale of those witnessed last fires season, as the largest fire in California history raged for days, destroying property and flattening towns, burning victims who followed GPS lacking real-time information about fires’ spread.

In an eery mirroring of looking to maps to monitor the real-time spread of fires, which we sensed in much of California by smoke’s acrid air, the expectancies to which we had been habituated to consult real-time updates was transferred to the availability of electricity, in a sort of mirror image unsurprising as the outages were intended to stop fires’ spread. The decision to continue public power safety shut-offs as a part of the new landscape of controlling fires’ spread in future years–perhaps needs to be accepted for up to a decade, although this was walked back to but five years in recent years.

Expanded power shut-offs justified by needs for public safety suggest how much climate change has changed the expanded nature of fire risk. But in an era when the vast majority of televised segments that aired on network television– ABC, CBS, and NBC combined–despite an abundance of powerful image and video footage the 243 segments on destructive wildfires raging across northern and southern California, a type of public disinformation seems to have been practiced by most news outlets that served only to disorient viewers from gaining any purchase on the fires, colored by the shifting validity of climate change denial as a position among their viewing public: only eight of the news media mentions of the fires, or 3.3%, mentioned climate change as a factor in the fires’s spread, from October 21 to November 1, as the spread of fires in northern California grew that precipitated public power shut-offs. If new cycles shy away from citing climate change as a factor on the spread of fires, most of the mentions came from specific weather reporters, from NBC’s Al Roker to CBS’ Jeff Berardelli, extending the range of fire seasons and area of burn, the silo-ization of such explanations were rarely digested in mainline reporting. And if FOX ran 179 segments on the fires, more than other cable networks, climate change was mentioned in 1.7%, with most segments mocking the contribution of climate change.

If we are poorly served by the news media in reporting the fires and downplaying climate change–or indeed criticizing California for poorly maintaining its forests’ safety, as President Trump, the eery landscapes provided by PG&E raise questions about the messages they communicate.

But the electric green maps of a startlingly unnatural aquamarine, yellow, and orange suggested a strange distantiation of the landscape in the age of Climate Change. The electrified hues of the maps, which monitored the possibility of customers loosing electricity in many districts, reveals a level of poor management and lack of any coherent strategy for climate change as much as the huge area that is served by PG&E, and the man-made infrastructure of electricity and transmission towers, which courts have rightly decided the privately-owned power agency that serves state residents is responsible for.

While we follow the news, even among the most die-hard news addicts, the prospect of “public safety” power shut-offs seemed unannounced and irresponsible, and a premonition of a new landscape of risk. For the shut-offs that were announced as impending by PG&E reflect a deep insecurity of fires, climate change and perhaps what we feared was a collective unpreparedness to deal with a new set of implications of climate crisis we have not even been able to acknowledge or even fully recognize, but which seemed spinning out of control–even in the nature of maps that were made of it–and to betray a lack of imagination, creativity, and foresight, abandoning the long-term view.

The sense of emergency electrifies a landscape whose woodland-urban interface is electrified by aging power structures and transmission lines, carrying increased current to extra-urban areas. And there is a fear that the long-term view is lacking, as we continue to turn to maps, even months after the first shut-offs were announced to forestall fears of a raging fire season. As we map the expanding sense of risk to respond to both demand for currently updated real-time maps for fires, and the calamitous images of apocalyptic fires raging that dominate the news cycle and make us fear the near future, or have a sense of living with a deferred sense of emergency at our doorsteps. And so when we received a text message of impending loss of electricity, we turned en masse to maps to learn about outages at risk, alerted to the need to ready ourselves as best we could by our local government-

Extreme fire prevention funding, precarious in the Trump Era, stands to be abolished as the Dept. of Interior retreats from federal fire programs: the Wildland Fire Office, funded at $13 million in 2012, if slated to be abolished in the Trump era, in an agenda denying climate change, lacks funding, undermining close scientific examination of a new topography of fires, even as climate change has increased the costliness of fires and the ferocity of their spreads. If the costs of the Camp Fire of 2018 grow beyond $10 billion–or over six times as much as the Oakland Firestorm of 1991–those costs and the cost of insurance liabilities only stand to grow. As we confront poor planning of climate readiness, as we lack real images of extinguishing fires’ spread–and imagine the temporary shut offs can intervene as a deus ex machine to prevent fires’ spreads all we have to forestall the fears of spreading flames and intense firestorms or whirls.

In the Bay Area, where I live, the danger of the new firescape is so pressing, and so impossible to process, that we can only digest it as a danger that is ever-present, akin to living in an active seismic area, but we cannot process in a static or dynamic map.

But this is an area of risk that we are living cheek-by-jowl beside in ways that are truly unfathomable. As the power shut-off zones have been expanded in clearer detail by PG&E in response to the growing gustiness of winds that threaten to compromise the safety of residents as well as the aging electric infrastructure of the state, we are oddly haunted by past promises to maintain or upgrade our national infrastructure–the promise to rebuild national infrastructure was itself an energizing call of the Trump campaign–only to be demoted by being assigned, with improved veteran care, the opioid addiction, workforce retraining, and the Middle East peace to Jared Kushner, in ways tantamount to moving it to the way back burner, soon after being mentioned in the State of the Union as a non-partisan issue in January, 2018.

And yet, the spread of fires with increased rapidity, across landscapes that remain highly flammable, has created terrifying imagers of a highly combustible landscapes, where the recent growth of fires–in this case, the Kincade Fire that did began only long after the shut-off policies began–chart the spread of fires across terrain multiple times larger than cities, moving across the landscape rapidly, driven by unprecedentedly strong offshore winds: the passing overhead of satellites charts its expansion, making us fear the expansion of the next pass overhead as realtime images of the durations of fires only grows.

Burrito Justice/VIIRS/MODIS fire spread map/October 27, 2019

Sure, the current landscape had long seemed to be burning up at a rate we had not begun to adequately acknowledge–as Peter Aldhous promptly reminded any of us who needed reminding in Buzzfeed, providing a GIF of CalFire’s data of areas of California that had burned since the 1950s, decade by decade, in an animation of red bursts of flames atop a black map, that seemed to eerily illuminate the state by the 2000s, and hit much of the north by the 2010s, as they close,–illuminating fires as a state-localized crisis–

Peter Aldhous for Buzzfeed from Cal Fire and frap.fire.ca.gov

but the scope of human-caused fires that have consumed land, property, and habitat are a truly endemic crisis in California, he showed, in ways that he suggested reflect a parched landscape and the uptick of human-generated fires that are a direct consequence of climate change, especially in a region of increased residential construction. This sense of illumination places a huge onus on PG&E for its corporate responsibility, and the very notion of distributing electricity and power as we once did,–and illuminates the imperative to think about a new form of energy grid.

Human-Generated Fires Peter Aldhous/Buzzfeed

Indeed, the parsing of “human-caused fires” as a bucket suggests the real need to expand the classification of wildfires. Whereas most earlier fires were caused by lightening strikes in the western states, the expansion of housing and electricity into areas suffering from massive drought–as if in an eery reflection of the spread of “slash fires” across the midwest during the expansion of railroads that caused a rage if firestorms coinciding with World War I–press against the category of fires as wild. The deeper question that these maps provoke–as do the data of Cal Fire–is whether the term wildfires is appropriate to discuss the hugely increased risk of fires that damage or destroy property and land.

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Freezing Time, Seaweed, and the Biologic Imaginary

We can all too easily lose sight of the centrality of seaweed plays in coastal habitat–even in Northern California, where seaweed washes up regularly in clumps and beds along the shore. Bull kelp and other marine plants on the sandy beaches of northern California seem otherworldly representatives of a removed marine world, but their proximity is revealed in remote mapping that promises to remap the role of seaweed in coastal ecosystems, and offer a picture of the terrifying prospects of ocean warming and climate change.

The relatively recent contraction of kelp forests across much of the offshore where they long provided such dense habitats may soon start to contract in ways never before experienced. The remapping of kelp forests, and the problems of their contraction of treasured habitat, reveal how much coastal waters demand to be seen not as so separate from the land, but part of a complex ecotone–a region where land and sea interact. Underwater species impact a large ecosystem that provides atmospheric oxygen, integral to coastal biodiversity that imparts a specific character to the California coast, and a sense of where we are–as well as makes it a destination for countless Pacific pelagic, shorebirds, and insects, as well as shellfish and fish. But the decimation of kelp forests, tied to an absence of predators to urchins, but more broadly to the ocean warming of coastal waters, as well as potentially an unprecedented increase in coastal pollution, makes both the mapping of the shrinking of kelp forests and the deciphering of that shrinking pressing problems of mapping, destined to impact a large variety of ocean and land-dwelling species.

The need for such mapping underscores all of our relation to the vital ecosystem of the shores and coastal ocean–even if we too often bracket it from our daily lives. While beached kelp may be present before our eyes, the problems of mapping of kelp forests with any fixity complicates how we process the disappearance of offshore kelp beds in an amazingly rapid timeframe. And the failure of creating an actual image capture registering the extent of kelp forests poses limits our awareness of their diminution off coastal waters. The observations of the shrinking of coastal spread of bull kelp is based on local aerial surveys, over a relatively small span of time, the accelerated roll-back of a once-vital region of biodiversity is both global, and demands to be placed in a long-term historical perspective of the way we have removed the underwater and undersea from our notion of coastal environments and of a biosphere.

Bull kelp forest coverage at four sites on the North Coast of California,from aerial surveys (California Dept. of Fish and Wildlife)

What was first registered in the plummeting of abalone, and the wasting disease of sea stars, afflicting stars from Baja to Alaska in 2013, suggest a condensation of a radical change in near-coastal environments of global proportions, paralleled by the arrival of warm waters that are not conducive to kelp growth, even before El Nino, and before the the arrival of purple urchins whose levels stars controlled, as if the result of cascading effects of a tipping point atmospheric change.

The quite sudden growth on the ocean floor of “sea urchin barrens,” where the near coastal waters are cleared of seaweeds and kelp, is a global problem. As global oceans absorb warmth of increased global warming, near-shore environments are particularly susceptible to species changes that create large disequilibria–from the bloom of phytoplankton to the rise of purple sea urchins and the dearth of shellfish–that stand to change coastal oceans. Yet the same creatures are often ones that fall of outside of our maps, even if the presence and scale of massive kelp beds and submerged forests are hard to map. And even if we see a shrinking of the large undersea submerged beds of kelp off coastal California, it is hard to have clear metrics of their shrinking over time or past extent–or of intervening in their reduction, which we seem forced to watch as inland spectators.

NASA Earth Observatory., image by Mke Taylor (NASA) using USGS data

Indeed, if the presence of coastal seaweed, and the distinctive kelp forest of California’s coastal ocean seems the distinguishing feature of its rich coastal ecology, the holdfasts of kelp forests that are grazed down by sea urchins and other predators are poorly mapped as solely underwater–they are part of the rich set of biological exchanges between the ecotone of where land meets sea, and ocean life is fed by sediment discharge and polluted by coastal communities, as much as they should be mapped as lying offshore, at a remove from the land. Yet the death of beds of kelp that is occurring globally underwater is cause for global alarm.

For from Norway to Japan to but the decline of natural predators of urchins in California has made a rapid rise of urchins on the seafloor along the coast have contributed to a shrinking of once-abundant kelp forests that produce so much of our global atmospheric oxygen. And these hidden underwater changes seem destined to rewrite our globe, as much as climate change, and threaten to change its habitability. Even as large clumps of seaweed are removed by powerful waves, that deposit piles of offshore forests ripped from holdfasts on beaches in northern California, the narrative of large coastal kelp deposits, their relation to climate change and coastal environment demands to be better mapped, as the transition of kelp to barrens afflicts so much of the coastal waters of the Atlantic and Pacific, at so many different latitudes and across such a variety of local cold water ecologies.

While the decline of kelp forests seems as radical as the clear-cutting of redwoods, it is both far more rapid and far more environmentally disruptive, if far less visible to the human eye.For in recent decades, increasingly warming waters and out of whack ecosystems have led to a massive decline of seaweed, decimated by a rise in the sea urchin population to by 10,000 percent off the California coast over only last five years, shrinking kelp forests that stand to catapult us to a future for which we have no map. The long-term decline in sea otters and sea stars, natural predators of the urchins, have removed constraints on urchin growth, which warming waters has encouraged, reducing a historical abundance of kelp in the near coastal waters across California.

This has perhaps been difficult to register due to the problems of mapping seaweed, and indeed registering kelp forests’ decline. The advance of sea urchin populations that have created barrens in coastal waters stands to disrupt and overturn some of the most abundant ecological niches in the global oceans. How has this happened under our eyes, so close tho shore and lying just undersea? We have few real maps of seaweed or kelp, lurking underwater, rather than above land, and leave out kelp from most of our maps, which largely privilege land. But the abundance of kelp that produce most of the global oxygen supply live in underwater ecotones–sensitive places between land and sea, in-between areas of shallow water, abundant sunlight, and blending of land and sea–an intersection, properly understood, between biomes, on which different biological communities depend.

Looking at the offshore seaweed near Santa Cruz, CA, I wondered if the predominantly passive registration of location–onshore registration of sites remotely by satellites, familiar from the harrowing images of the spread of fires, provided a basis to register our states of emergencies that was spectacularly unsuited to the contraction of coastal kelp, despite the huge advances of mapping techniques, and left us without a map to their contraction, or to register the subtle if radical consequences of kelp loss, and the almost as devastatingly rapid progress of their advance as populations of urchins have mowed down underseas kelp beds. For even as we strike alarms for the the decline of global kelp populations and seaweed forests as a result of the warming of offshore temperatures that place the near offshore regions at special risk of atmospheric warming–

Paul Horn, Inside Climate News/Source Wernberg and Staub,
Explaining Ocean Warming (IUCN Report, 2016)

–we lack maps of the place of seaweed and kelp beds in their ecotone, and indeed have no adequate maps of seaweed populations under threat.

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Filed under climate change, Global Warming, oceans, remote observation, seaweed

Gulfs of Meaning

In a world where borders don’t often correspond landmarks or terrain, tensions of incursions on new forms of territoriality multiply. Tensions of violations of airspace and national waters pose questions of the accuracy reliance on mapping systems, moreover, difficult to contest or resolve on a single map, as, at the same time, the frictionless nature of drone flights–here embodied by the costly RQ-4A Global Hawk, whose price as a high-end unmanned surveillance tool reflects its abilities to transgress borders without detection, flying at over 20,000 feet across borders at a speed of five hundred miles per hour, embodies an ability to remap a space of surveillance by superior mapping technologies than other countries. With literally hours remaining before devastating military airstrikes on Iran, amidst fears that a slight miscalculation or misinterpretation of mapping systems could precipitate an unwanted war of massive scale, the strikes were canceled at 7:30 p.m. Washington time, and the threat that Iran had “made a very big mistake” de-escalated. Trump surprised the world by suddenly allowing for the margin of human error, even as he insisted the drone was flying “clearly over international waters,” rather than Iranian airspace just 750 miles southeast of Tehran, refusing to relinquish his own map of wherejn the Global Hawk was downed.

The trust in this unmanned drone may possess its own almost hubristic quality. For its downing by Iranian missiles downed not only a costly military surveillance tool, but punctured a space of surveillance of the Persian Gulf and Iranian territory, and a sense of security in a precarious geopolitical region–at the same time as the American government seems to be bent on increasing tensions about the continued flow of crude petrochemicals to much of the industrialized world, creating global flows and energy markets that are themselves concealed by the question of at what point Iranian missiles struck the drone–or into whose national airspace the drone was flying.

The downing of the drone punctured confidence in a continuous space of surveillance that was built, painstakingly and over time, to guard those global energy markets. While the shock to U.S. military intelligence may have been that Iran had gained the ability to observe, fire at and down the high-flying unmanned vehicles that they had purchased at considerable expense from Northrup Grumman, not revealed even by the most precise hexadecimal GPS coordinates, which would render the costly drones more than a poor investment in preparation for the very grounds of war that Northrup Grumman had promoted to transmit high-resolution images from higher than ever altitudes of sensitive hotspots in “real time.” The United States Military didn’t ever think Revolutionary Guards possessed or could acquire marked not only a threats of war,–and chose to celebrate the RQ-$ “Global Hawk” as a tool of maintaining an infrastructure of global surveillance rooted in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria, as well as covering the Persian Gulf, while piloted remotely, by yet another one of the increasing paradoxes of the globalism of globalization, by pilots in bases in Beal, California and Grand Forks, North Dakota, far from the military theaters they sought to control

U.S. Air Force/AFP

But the shattering of this imagined space of global dominance occurred not in U.S. bases, or even on the military maps of Americans, but rather on the screens that Iranians used to monitor the unmanned vehicle’s flight, and, by extension, the missiles they launched that downed it. The missiles’ surprising accuracy disrupted the imagined continuity by which the United States hoped to extend sovereignty into international waters to protect traffic across the Strait of Hormuz–not only by a new surface-to-air missile, but a new radar system able to detect the drone–

–that effectively ended a map of surveillance that will no longer exist in the face of new Iranian defense systems allowing Revolutionary Guards to protect their territorial claims.

The Persian Gulf region has long been planned and imagined to be a new theater of possible war. Indeed, each side has become compelled to map the potential battle field in ways that has been forced the region to be remapped, creating a delicate balance of often contesting Exclusive Economic Zones, international waters, and territorial waters, in ways that have constrained the possibility of American surveillance. But the drone’s downing air revealed that Iranian guidance systems of surface-to-air missiles that Iran possesses to target drones, aircraft and unmanned vehicles are no longer clearly understood by the U.S. Army or U.S. military intelligence. The American “upper hand” in mapping technologies has perhaps been punctured, in ways that may cause the entire battlefield to need to be remapped in costly ways, if to preserve the delicate balance global trade of petroleum from the Persian Gulf, one of the most concentrated and easily accessible site of petroleum reservers, especially in the increased tensions between the United States and Iran.

Airspace and territorial waters are more difficult to map on earlier maps, and difficult to map on top of shorelines, or in navigational routes, perhaps, for an untrained eye, but the proliferation of alternate readings of sovereign space have become especially fraught in the waters of the Strait of Hormuz, where overcrowded traffic turns on hairpin turns, seems to have been detected entering Iranian airspace–if one trusts the maps tweeted out in self-defense by Iran’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif–who argued the unmanned surveillance drone had crossed the “red line” of its sovereign airspace without warning, ignoring alerts from Revolutionary Guards, and interpreted as threats to its sovereignty.

Coming on the heels of Iranian threats to shut the Strait of Hormuz to all traffic, as Iranian speedboats patrolled the waters, as if tempting to assert their control over the narrow passage-way out of belief that “if our oil does not go through the Strait, other countries’ will certainly not cross the Strait,” the jockeying for power over the transit of oil in international waters set up a conflict between where national sovereign interests began and ended, and what power the United States regained on a global geopolitical stage, even as the United States openly asserted the upper hand of global surveillance over what is one of the narrowest maritime site of petroleum transit in the world wildly out of proportion to the millions of barrels that cross the narrow strait daily, a transit that wildly dwarfs the petroleum carried to global markets by other maritime routes–despite the quite narrow nature of its passage, and the even narrower space of international waters by which oil tankers navigate the Strait.

NASA/Public Domain
Shipping Lanes of Strait of Hormuz

Where the unmanned vehicle flying American colors flew–and whether it crossed into a sovereign space–bedcame a flash-point of regional tensions, so much that the downing of the $110M drone, long celebrated by the U.S. Army as covering surveillance needs over the Gulf, embarrassingly became a target of Iranian defenses, as it was downed on June 20, even as it was flying at over 60,000 feet, or above what American forces believed that Iranian Revolutionary Guards could detect. The illusion that American unmanned surveillance drone RQ-4A Global Hawk could itself move frictionlessly across national boundaries without being downed was itself unmanned, creating a small catastrophe or large disruption in the international balance of powers.

Did it cross the red line?

Or, as the U.S. Military’s Central Command tried to assert with its own parallel graphic of where the drone was downed, showed the apparent intensity with which Iran was able to pursue the dominance in a theater of oil transport vital to the global energy economy, and to the global economy that was attached to it, signaling a real Achilles heel in the continued image of American global invulnerability. which the United zStastes was determined to map as occurring outside Iranian sovereignty as an attack on American property and super-costly military hardware–starting a war of maps on the heels of a renewal to past Tanker Wars, both possibly poised to escalate into actual military bombardment.

It certainly seemed that the downed Global Hawk would constitute something akin to the arrow fired by the Trojan Pandarus into the groin of the Spartan Menelaus, the great warrior and husband of Helen of Troy, causing blood two streak down his legs, in an image of the fraught virility of the fabled warrior to incite the wrath of the leader Agamemnon, if not reveal newfound imbalance of military relations which Athena seemed to use to provoke the shattering military disaster of the Trojan War by starting the siege of Ilium. Would the downing of the jet provide the occasion of the bombing of Iran that Donald J. Trump has hoped to begin, matching his heightened bellicose rhetoric with the presence of a violent escalation of arms?

What happened was not clear, as was evident in the difficulty of mapping the event. When the costly U.S. Army Global Hawk drone looped back in the course of its surveillance of the Strait’s coasts, possibly entering Iranian airspace, after it was shot down, reverberations spread across the world, quite quickly. President Trump declared that Iran had shown itself by this act to be “ready for war” before plans for a miltirary reprisal were called off with but hours before it was poised to begin–perhaps saving the world from a global catastrophe, although U.S. Secretary of State was later dispatched to forge an improvised alliance against Iran in the coming weeks. Although war was averted on a global scale, the question of whose map was more authoritative, and whose could be trusted, reveals much about the contested status of authoritative maps in the globalized world, beyond being a debate waged across social media. The debate turned on different ways of reading space–or of wanting to read space; one hinged upon a notion of national boundaries and sovereign space, whereas the other relied upon the frictionless space of a notion of regional surveillance.

The downing of the drone lifted a corner on the shifting tensions in globalization, and indeed the increased problems of lamination of multiple maps over the increased density of economic traffic across the Strait of Hormuz, and indeed the conflicts between national and international waters along which petrochemical and crude petroleum leaves the increasingly blurry–if much mapped and over-patrolled–region of the Persian Gulf. The tensions were not about the drone. At least not only. The ratcheting up of tensions with a policy of “maximum prsssure” and rhetorical escalation has ratcheted up tensions, as Iran policy has been transformed into a flag-waving exercise of defense against a perceived infidel enemy–one that has disdained civil discourse and alleged overtures of open negotiation–in ways that are about American desires to map “international waters” and international airspace–

–rather than recognize even the potential legitimacy of a sovereign state’s defence. For all the mapping of “national” spaces on new maps of the region–that for all their identification of names of nations affirm the abilities and potentials of U.S. surveillance maps.

The Strait of Hormuz exists on the borders of several nations, and might be mapped in multiple ways. While the central waters of the Strait–which narrows to just twenty-one nautical miles, or less than forty kilometers–nonetheless retains a thin band designated as international waters, which puts it outside of local sovereignty. But the Strait increasingly is mapped in radically different global and local contexts, making the question of its territoriality and international status a question of increased tensions in the past weeks–when one American Global Hawk, a pretty fancy piece of surveillance, was downed. The cost was not only limited to the fourteen million dollar piece of military hardware, or to its symbolic loss, but the casualty of a sense of security in the frictionless policing of an economically vital transit routes–and the hegemony of mapping and ensuring the safety of the movement of crude oil from the Persian Gulf to global energy markets.

What appears to be a navigational course, in an era when territoriality is designed by points, rather than either landscapes or terrain, created an increasingly serious a quandary for measuring locations along a nautical map alone, or in reference to a mainland. For the question of incursion in territoriality–as the high-grade U.S. Army drone that was shot down in Iranian airspace–is not so evident from the Gulf waters, or the landscape over which it flew, approaching the Islamic Republic of Iran’s sovereign region of Hormogazan Province, or appearing to stray outside of the path of international airspace, or at least doing so at a height of 20,000 meters, higher than Americans’ expected Iranian radar systems could detect, but in fact just within the Iranian Revolutionary Guard’s radar detection abilities.

Was it an incursion of sovereignty? It depends less on whose maps you are looking at, than what sort of landscape of military conflict and geospatial intelligence you followed, or what side of the cat and mouse game of mapping the nature of the international status of the navigational paths of the Strait you follow to understand how securing “free passage” through he Strait of Hormuz became rooted in the security of abilities of mapping energy transit. If the Strait has emerged as a hotspot in an increasingly irrevocably globalized world, the conflict between Iran and American interests arose as abilities of local mapping temporarily shifted, and the hegemony of American mapping of gulf waters was challenged, as Iran accused the United States of crossing a long drawn “red line” of sovereignty in spying on the banks of a Strait that Iran has increasingly asserted its ability to close, and indeed to monitor the escalating American surveillance of its waters and shores.

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Venezuela’s Terribly Slippery Sovereignty

Almost unnoticed in the current crisis of who is the real sovereign of Venezuela is that national maps fail to show the remove of sovereign power from territorial bounds. Even as blockades obstruct borders, closing points of entry and ports from entering Venezuela, the pressure that push the Venezuelan people into dire economic straits underlie the map of its population, lying deep, deep within the ground beneath their feet. The ties of this underground offshore sovereignty, lying deep in oil deposits located in sandy regions or in sandstone basins, suggest the scale of redrawing sovereignty in an age of globalization–when the nature of what lies offshore can becomes a rational for globalized conflict.

The precarious claims of petrosovereignty are hard to map, but as the reserves in the Orinoco Basin and offshore on the continental shelf are leveraged against a global energy market, the real sovereignty of Venezuela–and the tensions manifested on Venezuela’s national boundaries–have become a touchstone and trigger point of global attention as the nation’s huge oil reserves held by Petroleos de Venezuela SA (PdVSA) have made the legitimacy of the nation’s Presidential election a topic of global divides.

The infographic that has gained such wide circulation in differing forms transposes the red/blue divide of the election of Venezuela’s President, as I noted in an earlier post, on a global map, in ways that barely skim the surface in suggesting the truly global consequences in which the election is understood as less by geopolitics–the ostensible reason for America’s increasing attention to its results, according to John Bolton, in a policy that extends back to the Monroe Doctrine, of preserving democracy’s expanse across our own hemisphere, but global energy markets.

The Venezuelan tragedy is local, but crises of immigration, economy, and public health seems undergirded by the corollaries of globalization–and how globalization both erases boundaries, and puts pressures on defining them, and invests huge significance on defining the “boundary” even if it has become something of an empty fetish in maps. If oil and gas were made central to Venezuelan sovereignty by Simon Bolivar, it is increasingly linked to global webs of oil exports and ties of international commerce–visible in the petroleum tankers marked by red dots in a visualization of global shipping routes–that have refracted and become a basis to interpret the question of Venezuela’s sovereignty, and in which the future of its economy and the future of its sovereignty are unavoidably entangled and enmeshed.

 Red dots are oil rigs in interactive map, courtesy UCL Energy Institute/Map: KILN

For the crisis that is unfolding against the economic backdrop of a precipitous drop of wages, goods, and basic human and health services suggests one tied to ripples in a global energy market. For as much as Venezuelan sovereignty was long based in the “bituminous belt” of the Orinoco Basin, whose expanse exceeds the oil in all of Saudi Arabia–

–located in the Eastern Venezuela Basin in the Orinoco Belt, surveyed as recently as 2010 by USGS as the Venezuelan government of Maduro’s predecessor Hugo Chávez took bids from Chevron and others to help finance exploration projects in the Orinoco Belt, seat of the world’s largest reserves, in a basin extending quite far offshore, in quite dense jungle.

USGS, 2010

Venezuela has long seen its petroleum sovereignty as the source of its regional independence, and of needed cash influx from multi-national corporations with whom its nationalized Petroleos de Venezuela SA–PdVSA–undertakes strategic partnerships, including Exxon and Gazprom (Russia), Sincor (China), and Belarusneft, as American multinationals were pushed out of the heavy oil-rich Orinoco Valley during the Chávez regime. The evolution of multiple “strategic alliances” in mining and oil and gas speculation with over a hundred and fifty companies from thirty-five nations led to an expansion of foreign involvement in oil extraction and gold and mineral mining that has created a lamination over the region–

–that provides a complex lens to examine the refraction of its sovereign status, and the global geostrategic importance of the region to the globalized world.

Venezuela’s sovereignty is viewed as so closely tied to global energy markets that invocation of hemispheric dominance and the American “Monroe doctrine” truly seem only so much lip service–if it weren’t for the huge access to oil reserves that the sovereignty of Venezuela will determine who has access to these reserves. And much as the earliest mapping of the same region of South America combined the rich natural hydrogeography of the curving river basin that snaked through the territory with missions who had colonized the land, to convert its inhabitants, in the region of Granada–note the jesuit presence above the equatorial line–

Libarary of Congress, Map of the Province and Missions of the Company of Jesus in the New Kingdom of Granada

–the new presence on the Orinoco Basin are transnational oil companies, and repossession of their extractive wealth has provided a basis for not only nationalism, but Although their stewardship of the delicate ecosystem of the Orinoco may be doubted, as charges of a crude oil spill in the region that would be so disastrous to its ecosystem has created a specter of ecological disaster for several years that PdVSA has steadfastly denied, despite the threats of accelerated deforestation, pollution, and extinction that mining and oil accidents portend in the Guyana highlands: Maduro has claimed mining and oil extraction are now “environmentally friendly,” but satellite images have shown the extent of deforestation into once-protected areas. Little of the protected regions are actually protected as the economy has fallen into free-fall and pressure to extract gold from the region brought increasing use of mercury in mineral mills, despite a Presidential ban, and the erosion of legal enforcement on workers in the region. Although PdVSA has asserted that leaking of over 100,000 barrels of oil from local pipelines did not enter the Orinoco, but was contained in the Anzoategui province in 2016, the extent of environmental devastation may only be understood in future years across the “Strategic Mining Belt” south of the Orinoco, where the Orinoco’s major watersheds lie, where gold, iron, copper, and bauxite feed the cash reserves of the government as well as oil.

Indeed, as we consider

Virginia Behm, ESRI Story Map: The Orinoco Mineral Arc and Mega-Mining in the Amazon

In an age when we increasingly form interactive maps in terms of the information we desire at the moment–and the needs that this information can provide–perhaps Trump is the sort of executive we deserve, framing information by infographics he can grasp on demand, rather than motivated by universal ideals. After the Venezuelan “economic miracle” grew by oil from 2004-2008, Maduro had declared his own state of emergency in Venezuela, back in 2016, when American intelligence predicted his time in office was only a matter of time, as inflation neared 180% and GDP fell to levels before 2004. But increasing exports to China and Russia sent a lifeline, despite shrinking foreign exchange reserves, of which Trump and Bolton are no doubt extremely attentive observers–even before PdVSA moved its European offices to Moscow in early March.

While cast to reach 100,000%, the peaking of vertiginous levels of hyperinflation near 41,838% led economic data to be closed to the public, as all revenue sources dwindle or vanish, and all foreign aid is refused by the Maduro government, as all question of a coup increasingly uncertain as most of the country is living in poverty, and a fifth of PdVSA is laid off–raising questions about the fate of extractive industries and the continued safety of existing oil reserves that are inseparable from state sovereignty.

Venezuela’s sovereign wealth extends globally, if it is located deep underground. But the long-cultivated dependence of the United States, where heavy crude flows to three refineries, which supply over 5,000 retail stations in twenty seven states, has created a question of linked economies which our ADD-afflicted President is now doubt attentive: CITGO plants along the Gulf Coast and eastern seaboard run against according independence to sovereign state in a globalized economy–a tie that President Trump would want to keep alive, and indeed that the impact of a sudden shock an absence of oil flowing in its nine pipelines would create.

The flows of oil have blurred Venezuelan sovereignty, and allegedly led Donald Trump to ask advisors repeatedly why American couldn’t invade the nation in August, 2017, stunning former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and former National Security Advisor Clapper, as American sanctions against the nation were discussed, and then again to float the question with Latin American leaders, including the President of Colombia, after addressing the U.N.’s General Assembly, to make sure none wanted to oust Maduro as President. Global energy supplies have created a lens by which the “legitimacy” of Venezuela’s government and Presidency is questioned that has overriden constitutional practices sanctioned by Venezuelan law.

The crisis of immigration on our southern border notwithstanding, the fear of a crisis in oil important have encouraged the United States to invoke the arrival of a “crisis situation” in Venezuelan internal politics, that allows action outside the rule of established Venezuelan law of due process Trump’s eagerness to recognize Guaidó as “interim President of Venezuela” on January 23, shortly after Maduro assume the and declaration, before any other nation, of readiness to use “the full weight of United States economic and diplomatic power to press for the restoration of Venezuelan democracy,” as he encouraged other governments to follow suit. As Bolton works to distill Presidential Daily Briefings on global intelligence into a form that is more amenable to his chief executive–“big points and, wherever possible, graphics,” as James Clapper put it–energy markets are the basic map on which he seems to be informing himself about global politics. Mike Pompeo noted that President Trump is said to “dig deeper” into his President’s Daily Briefing about Venezuela to assess the “real layout” of “what was really taking place” there–who had the money? where was the debt?  who stood to loose and gain?–led to open questioning of the legitimacy of Nicolás Maduro.

At a time when 8.36 million barrels of heavy crude managed by PdVSA–the state-owned oil and gas conglomerate, Petroleos de Venezuela SA–which is worth half a billion American dollars lay off in tankers nation’s shoreline, in national waters, ready to ship to refineries to be processed by Chevron, Valero Energy Corp. and Rosneft, but with no place to ship the heavy oil, the local and global seem to intersect in globalized energy markets.

Tankers Holding Venezuelan Oil off Venezuela’s shoreline

As Clapper remembered Trump’s preference in Daily Briefings for charts and data visualizations quite early on, the distilling of the Presidential Daily Briefings by John Bolton into America’s bottom-line interests may compel re-examination of the place of the nation in a global energy market, and his sense of the value of the region’s geography to American national interests. Mike Pompeo, current secretary of state, has similarly described the need to reduce global conflict to the bottom-line of America’s economic interests for Trump, given his dislike for distilling the PDB to American interests, the Venezuelan crisis may more easily be understood by infographics or “mapped” as a global calculus of oil exports, rather than a defense of democratic principles. Trump has increasingly asked, Pompeo remembered, with interest for “more clarity” on financial issues–“Who had the money, where was the debt, what was the timing of that?”–aware, as the self-proclaimed “King of Debt,” of how debt, too, structures sovereignty, and deeply aware of the US$60 billion in foreign debt the nation carried–a massive amount that has grown almost six-fold in recent years, as oil exports from the nation increasingly grow, and Russia and China invested increasing sums in its oil exports as the debt grew.

Of public sector debt above $184.5 billion, $60 billion is foreign debt, though smaller numbers are claimed by the Venezuelan Central Bank 

–no doubt fascinated that the submerged collateral of such huge oil and gas deposits allowed the debt to grow to unprecedented height, as the exodus of refugees leaving Venezuela’s borders grew. Indeed, we focus on the fate of refugees, and cross-border flows, as a humanitarian crisis, but on which we focus more than the flow of extracted minerals, oil, and gas that have spread out to the world, and the arrival of capital from global sources as energy exports grow.

The sovereignty of the state was long tied to the concentration of oil and gas fields in sedimentary basins of northern Venezuela and South America–and which are the understory of the global attention to results of the election. As much as they are rooted in ideological debates of socialism and free market advocates, one needs to made sense of what “what was really taking place” in much of the Eastern Venezuela Basin and Columbus Basin to parse the deep interest in Venezuela’s sovereignty–and indeed to drill down, literally, into what Venezuelan sovereignty meant for the United States.

For the protection of those reserves led U.S. Secretary of State Pompeo-former director of the CIA–to try to entice Venezuela’s own armed forces to remove Maduro as President on January 28, 2019, as Trump helped assemble hemispheric powers to deny Maduro’s legitimacy. And it has led Donald Trump to advocate gunboat diplomacy by asking aides about benefits of a “military option” they openly called analogous to the 1989 Invasion of Panama when 9,000 troops toppled dictator Manuel Noriega, with 12,000 military already stationed in the nation, after Noriega had annulled a popular election, denying foreign sovereignty in the Panama Canal Zone with little military resistance of Panamanian Defense Forces. If America seeks to achieve a similar shift of sovereignty, hoping to echo the use of military force to topple Noriega–years after he was installed as leader of Panama to stop a feared spread of Communism in 1970—due to charges of Cuban collaboration, rather than money laundering and long involvement in the drug trade, such arrogant denial of sovereignty of other states in the hemisphere would not be so lopsided an engagement of force, or so smooth.

“Soberana” or “sovereign” is somewhat ironically the now-obsolete brand-name for a beer popular in Panama, now updated, which hung from the store-front of a Panama street American forces occupied back in 1989–

–the questions of the legitimacy of Venezuelan sovereignty are deeply intertwined with the offshore drilling rights that American oil companies are eager to acquire–or repossess–and underlie the denials of the legitimate sovereignty of elected leader Nicolás Maduro. The powerful evocation of the map

The American demonization of Mauro as military dictator erases the basis of Venezuelan sovereignty and a patrimony of petroleum, from Bolivarian models of sovereign economic independence; if oil is the source of 95% of the currency provided to the government, and was long seen as a gift from God to the Venezuelan independence at the heart of Socialist prosperity–

–the ties between the oil company and oil extraction and the nation grew hen Maduro declared personal leadership of PDVSA before the National Assembly in January, 2019, on the eve of his country’s assumption of OPEC presidency, as General Manuel Quevedo–a man without oil industry experience but a close Maduro military ally from the National Guard–assumes presidency of the global cartel OPEC, with ambitions of using OPEC to affirm Maduro’s swearing in as President, and his status as a defender of retro-sovereignty as counter-weight to the United States on a global stage–as the leader of sustaining the global prices of oil, offsetting the fall in prices with the increased production of shale-derived oil in the United States from 2014 that had caused a problem for Venezuela’s national wealth, and removing oil from the hegemony of dollar prices by cryptocurrencies as Venezuela’s own oil and mineral-backed Petro,

as well as by tying them to Chinese Yuan, in the face of growing US sanctions that Trump announced as Maduro heralded the digital currency as a way to affirm his nation’s “monetary sovereignty, to make [global] financial transactions, and overcome the financial blockade” imposed by the United States on investors, which led Trump to impose further sanctions on electronic transfers from by Americans in 2018, after the Petro netted $5 billion from American investors. The hope of decoupling from the US dollar was allowed by the transfer of the 30,000 million barrels of oil in the Orinoco Belt to the Venezuelan Central Bank as collateral for the hoped-for cryptocurrency–itself a proclamation of the national ownership of oil reserves that the current struggle for Presidential legitimacy would contest.

The map of national sovereignty onto the petroleum reserves was engraved in the public’s mind on oil and gas tanks that dot the coast and interior–

–even if may of the drilling projects are in fact joint ventures of PdVSA with other nations, from multinational based in Russia (Gazprom) to China (Sincor) to Belarus to Brazil (Petrobras) to Argentina (Repsol-YPF) to Uruguay (ANCAP & ENSARA)–and image of the deep-seated globalism of the Venezuelan oil economy, whose extraction of heavy underground oil is to be piped from the Orinoco Basin to ships waiting off the coast to be refined.

As Maduro tries to reaffirm the notion of petroleum sovereignty–the slogan of Bolivarian socialism is soberania petrolera–rooted in fashioning Venezuela as a global energy power, is there a logic of the staking of war for the offshore? The alleged fear Noriega collaborated with Cuba was voiced from 1986, and offered a rational for the “Christmas-time” invasion of December 20-24, 1989, as much as Noriega’s indictment for drug trafficking, although this was the reason for his eventual arrest by the DEA. The spectacularly lopsided and unrisky military deployment of 26,000 U.S. troops in “Operation Just Cause” against the Panamanian police force is a scenario, of course, quite unlike the threat of American invasion of Venezuela, a larger sovereign nation, not without its own armed forces–an invasion of which would provide far more expansive hemispheric consequences, as the scale of targeting Chávez’ appropriation of economic property. Yet Trump thirty years later in mid-February 2019 invoked the need to end Venezuela’s “humanitarian disaster” in Florida, beside Venezuelan refugees beside an American and Venezuelan flag, to inveigh against “Dictator Maduro” as being–hear the echo–a “Cuban puppet” for blocking the arrival of aid, and describing “our neighbor” Venezuela in ways that recall Panama.

In Florida, Trump threateningly observed that “we have troops all over the world in places that are very, very far away [and] Venezuela is not that far away,” while privately asking advisors if invasion wouldn’t resolve threat of Venezuela’s economic collapse. As FOXTV states that the refugee crisis in Venezuela–a political, humanitarian, and economic crisis, to be sure–could “match the scale of Syria’s catastrophe,” and as sanctions imposed on Venezuela have helped precipitate an exodus that unfolded over the previous years, he was quite eager to suggest military options, in ways that give his declarations of geographical proximity particularly disquieting.

The impromptu geography lesson had huge implications: “The people of Venezuela are standing for freedom and democracy and America is right by their side,” announced the American President in Miami, before flags of Venezuela and the United States and nationalist chants of “USA! USA!”

Maduro rightly feared coup, as Trump invited Venezuelan citizens in the “Maduro regime” to “end this nightmare of poverty, hunger and death” by a peaceful transition of power as Senator Marco Rubio tweeted images of Noriega on social media–as a specter of the bombast of Quadaffi and the criminality of Noriega, that “thug of a different era,” brought down by American troops.

Rubio’s tweet of head-shots of two thugs helped recall his creation of a niche of helping to design American foreign policy toward Venezuela: the echoes of the offshore in both Venezuela and Panama were perhaps the only element that might link them, for all the similarity of a Cuban connection Trump–who seems to have little familiarity with the region–supplied. The fear that “war for the offshore” may underlie Trump’s eagerness to entertain military options. Gen. Manuel Noriega had not only been on CIA rolls, but preserved access to a notion of the offshore-banking system about which we have learned in the Panama papers; the preservation of the offshore oil derricks that Exxon and Conoco had left in Venezuela in 2007, as well as in the Orinoco Belt, which PdVSA has presumably used new international partners to maintain since to pump viscous heavy oil for international use. Trump’s familiarity with Panama and its President may mostly be through hotels–the Trump International Panama was planned from 2005 opened in 2011, and is the tallest building in Latin America–but the invasion must have provided a point of entry for inaugurating the “fantastic building in a fantastic location” on beachfront property with then-president Ricardo Martinelli, who later fled to Miami, Florida to escape charges of embezzling public funds, and has only recently returned.

The local political dynamics are vastly different, despite some similarity in American eagerness to secure offshore sites: Maduro had won his Presidential election, whereas Noriega had annulled one, but the suggestion of toppling his regime undercut all sense of sovereign boundaries, was a clear parallel assertion of hemispheric dominance, to protect offshore assets. For all the lip service to Democracy and the Will of th People–Guadió was not really elected, although as head of the “Voluntad Popular” (Popular Will) party, and has declared himself as leader of opposition to Maduro in the National Assembly, with American blessings: after trying to direct the arrival of humanitarian aid into Venezuela, he met with Mike Pence in Bogota and President Lenin Moreno in Ecuador, but his success would open the offshore waters to American interests, and has been anointed President in one theater of public opinion–but in ways that break the world in ways that reflect continued accessibility to Venezuelan oil.


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But the offshore benefits of a Guaidó Presidency to the United States may be as great as any benefits that he might be able to bring, at this point, to the Venezuelan people: they transcend surely ideology, economic prosperity–save in US aid–btu would be a viable way to reopen offshore Venezuelan oil reserves, and secure assets of ExxonMobil and ConocoPhilips that had been nationalized in the Chávez Socialist regime. With the Orinoco Belt resources, which transformed a marginal area of oil extraction into a particularly lucrative one in a short time, complemented the drive of Houston-based Conoco to retrieve $2B of assets of lost Venezuelan oil projects, only partly reimbursed as Conoco seized some offshore PdVSA rigs in the Dutch island of Curacoa, in May 2018; ExxonMobil and Hess were poised in 2017 to start drilling projects offshore of Guyana–including several regions Maduro has claimed as Venezuela’s sovereignty, if ones identified, in public maps show, to ExxonMobil’s and Shell’s ambitions for offshore drilling and exploration.

Oil Rig Reclaimed by Conoco in Curacao
6.6 Million Acres offshore Guyana being Explored by ExxonMobil/Hess Guyana/CNOOC in 2017/ ExxonMobil

Claims of Shell, Canadian Oil Company CGX and ExxonMobil Claims off Venezuelan Coast (April, 2017)

CGX Energy INterative Map

If there is a connection between Panama and Venezuela, is it in the prospect of invasion to protect role of the offshore assets so dominant in an age of globalization? If the comparison of invading Panama was widely entertained by military, U.S. bases not only lay in Panama, unlike Venezuela, but Venezuelan troops are loyal to the Maduro government, and any asymmetrical invasion with support from neighbors is unlikely. The attempts to delegitimize the election of Maduro, and his sovereign claims to offshore oil, with such finality have been an increasing goal of ensuring global claims to its petroleum sovereignty. Yet in an American administration that encouraged the expansion of offshore drilling, the arrogance of regarding sovereignty over offshore and inland black dots denoting oil and gas wells in the below map reveals the slipperiness of Venezuelan sovereignty, no doubt tied to the readiness of regarding them as an extension of our own energy security.


Based on A. Escalona and P Mann, Marine and Sedimentary Geology, v 28, 1 (2011)

And despite the heralding of waters offshore of Guyana as “the next big beast of global oil”–medium-light crude that is closer to major Middle East grades than United States shale-based oils, hoped to be rich in diesel when refined, the championing of Guyana as a next new site for oil extraction in late 2018, lies in a region that Venezuela has proclaimed as it sown, in a proclamation of uncertain enforcement, from 2015: ExxonMobil announced Stabroek blocks in 2015 and 2016 as a “world-class discovery” of up to a billion barrels of oil, as the Venezuelan government asserted it sovereignty over some of the exploration block, and has demanded that all exploration and development work be ceased until the international resolution of territorial boundaries.

ExxonMobil Oil Platform offshore of Guayana/Reuters

The continued dispute of the “offshore” and the state of Venezuelan sovereignty only increase the importance and significance of dismissing the legitimacy of the Maduro government in Trump’s America. The confusion of sovereign claims over the reserves sadly may underly full-throated blaming of other nations for “protecting” Maduro, as much as concerns for the Venezuelan people. Maduro in November, 2017, appointed his own National Guard major general—Manuel Quevedo, who lacked expertise in the oil industry—to run the national Oil Ministry and PdVSA, gathered with oil ministers in the Caracas headquarters to pray “for the recovery of the production of the industry,” the beleaguered company come under American attention, as the petroleum-technologies that remain in the region. Quevedo’s almost surreal level of inexperience in the oil industry has decreased oil production; and the decline of an established oil industry became seen as a question of American National Security, as army officials without familiarity with oil production meant that military managers have purged the industry of former executives, arresting former leaders, and appointed former military aides to supervisory positions.

National oil production plummeted by over half a million barrels from 2016-18, as maritime units entered critical mismanagement, more practiced executives and engineers left, many fleeing the country among three million displaced refugees, and oil production fell daily, as the National Guard assumed leadership positions–and foreigners invited to fill needed roles as infrastructure went unprepared, creating a time bomb dramatically reducing oil production by a million barrels per day from previous years–



BODI

–and reducing exports even far more severely, as far as an be gleaned from available PDVSA and OPEC records–

–but has created steepening anxiety about the futures of its oil exports.

How to map their decline against the increasingly slipperiness of sovereignty in Venezuela–undermined by economic catastrophe and lack of goods, as well as mismanagement–and on a global stage?

Deep confusion of sovereign claims over the reserves may underly full-throated blaming other nations for “protecting” Maduro–as much as concerns for the Venezuelan people. Although such calls for the legitimacy of Juan Guaidó’s self-declared Presidency present themselves as rooted in international consensus, Guaidó’s “Presidency” would pave the road for an increased access of American multinational companies to refine and extract oil from Venezuelan. The nationalization of oil has marginalized joint ventures with American companies and stands to diminish investment and servicing of rigs. Exxon has been barred from extraction by Maduro and its assets nationalized, and its exploratory ships confronted by Venezuela’s navy off Guyana’s coast; Shell has been trying to unload its stake in joint ventures on oil and gas with PdVSA; CITGO will cease to ship oil to America as American sanctions have struck the Venezuelan economy–the massive decline of venezuelan oil production stands to impact American gas prices.

The result is a scarily liquid sense of Venezuelan sovereignty. America entertained possibilities of a military coup openly from early 2018, and since the summer of 2017, seems to have led him to assemble pressure from Brazil, Peru, Guatemala and Honduras–leaders themselves not elected democratically–to endorse and call for regime change in Venezuela. The pressures created on Maduro’s claims to presidential sovereignty, and a national vision rooting sovereignty in mineral deposits and wealth have grown, as the nationalized oil and gas company has seemed close to collapsing.

Such a dated geopolitical spatial imaginary runs, however, directly against the longstanding centrality of Petróleos de Venezuela, S.A. (PDVSA) to national sovereignty of the state in exporting, manufacturing, and transporting crude oil and other hydrocarbons, and its central place in the sustainable and indeed “organic” development of Venezuela’s economy–and the longstanding celebration of the three hundred billion barrels of confirmed oil reserves verified in 2015 by Petroleum Intelligence Weekly, whose location is currently trumpeted on all holding tanks in maps of a natural resource fundamental to plans for the nation’s economic growth–and indeed a proclamation of their national ownership.

Map of Orinoco Belt Owned by PdVSA and Venezuelan Central Bank

Although the laminations of sovereignty reveal the problems of Venezuelan sovereignty or its legitimacy that are so evident in maps of border conflicts, cross-border migrations, or humanitarian crises across borders, the problems of sovereignty in a globalized oil market, whose prices are upset by Venezuela’s shrinking exports, but which have long focussed global attention on Venezuela’s sovereignty on a global scale, at the risk of eliding and omitting the crises of regional displacement, economic disruption, and human suffering that “humanitarian aid” can’t resolve.

A crisis of global proportions rooted in the circulation of underground and offshore goods of oil and gas offshore has created a crisis that has spilled over the nation’s borders, and undermined Venezuelan sovereignty and borders–and even created a state of exception that threatens to undermine the legitimacy of its political government. The sustained undermining of Maduro’s claims to authority as illegitimate, and as allowing the very “state of exception” that would allow the leader of the elected National Assembly to oversee the transition to a new government, and constitutional order, by calling for new elections, the need for a new sovereign power to control the rich oil deposits offshore and underground with speed and expedience by the hemispheric global energy conglomerates that have contracts with PdVSA–Shell; ExxonMobil; CITGO–to resolves cascading economic troubles in Venezuela by ending Maduro’s presidency as expediently as possible. The stakes of doing so would, as Tony Wood argued, run against Venezuelan law and overturn long-established procedures of political process.

As one is struggling by attempts to imagine the crises faced on the ground by refugees and displaced on Venezuela’s boundaries–many of who provide a quite different image of refugees than we have seen from the ravages of globalization–crossing bridges and fleeing frontier with down jackets and backpacks and water bottles, if without jobs, livelihoods, or residence–

Indeed, it may be that problems of the gears of global capital, less clearly visualized, despite a mastery of multiple scales of global mapping, has pushed the nation of Venezuela to such international prominence. Despite ever-increasing facility with switching between local, regional, and global scales of mapping, we however are less able to register the increased impact of shifts of global economic changes that manifest in the fetishization of the border, and its closure. It is as if despite the omniscient promises of Google Earth to take us to any site in a globalized world, we lack an ability to map global shifts that provoke displacement onto local crises. And as much as globalization creates renewed tensions around borders that are defended and redefined against global pressures, in which the question of Venezuelan sovereignty over offshore areas where many derricks are located, and where Venezuelan oil fields are located with easier access for global markets–

Continental Shelf of Venezuela (in blue-green cyan hue)

–the sovereignty of Venezuela stands to be upset for emergency reasons–in a “state of exception” or of emergency that is able to invest legitimacy in the very young leader of a very small minority political party, Juan Guaidó, who was trained in the United States in Washington, D.C., after opposition parties have subtracted themselves from the democratic process and boycotted recent elections, and the oil reserves in Venezuelan waters and the pipelines able to move heavy crude reserves lying under the Orinoco River into global energy markets or to refineries in the United States. Even as Venezuela has failed to create functioning cross-border pipelines to Colombia, or to Aruba, or even to meet its citizens’ needs in gas, the national oil and gas company, PdVSA, to place hopes on exporting gas for needed capital to an imagined market for exports from that same offshore region that sadly reflects the flow of displaced persons from its borders.

Gas Exports Planned by PdVSA, 2018

–that would link Venezuela through both gas pipelines (shown in red) and oil pipelines to Trinidad and Tobago, Brazil or to port towns, but are now inactive. Guaidó was quick to congratulate Bolsonaro on his victory in Brazil,


Synthesis of varied sources on pipless connecting Venezuela to Trinidad and Tobago and Brazil, planned oil pipelines in dotted green and gas pipelines in dotted red

The failure to use petroleum products to provide needed agrofertilizers that the nation once provided and exported with plastics and other mineral fuels that made up a substantial share of its GDP and national wealth, and the problems of integrating such offshore or inland projects of extraction to the “resto del mondo” in an efficient manner have created a deep cyclical crisis of economic hardships that we register now on its borders,–tied to the increased migration from Venezuela’s frontiers. But might these pressure be more accurately mapped as lying in the deep attachments of the nation’s sovereignty to reserves both offshore and underground? Even if support accorded either Maduro or Guaidó are described in most news markets and by the American President Donald J. Trump in ideological terms of socialism and populism, the underlying pressures of controlling Venezuela’s large oil reserves–and returning its productivity of oil and exports–created huge permeability of its borders, as oil output suddenly drastically declined.

The recent attempt to view the crisis as at the border where refugees and displaced have fled Venezuela at such a staggering rate–over three million Venezuelans have left its borders for other Latin American nations, leaving a million Venezuelans now residing in Colombia, among that nation’s eight displaced, as 5,000 left the nation daily during 2018—a boggling scale seen only as the result of war or huge natural disasters. The cascading numbers of displaced Venezuelans mirror the collapse of oil prices and oil industry–both of which have transformed the state’s boundaries, and transformed national borders into regions overcrowded with displaced refugees–

April 2018

–in ways that recent discussions of the “sovereignty” of Venezula have difficulty including in any discussion of the nation’s economic crisis or current future political uncertainty.

In response to these crises of migration, displacement, and economic decline, many frontiers have been closed to Venezuelans, and anger at Venezuelans has grown in many host countries, creating a humanitarian crisis far beyond Venezuela’s own frontiers. The promise of energy nationalization to provide a vision of “La Gran Venezuela” since 2007 rooted in an image of national autonomy has paradoxically led its national bounds to become more porous than ever, and threatened the national economy in ways that have destabilized its national borders, opening them to humanitarian crises and economic collapse, creating odd out-migrations, quite distinctive from most images of other global refugees or displaced.

Despite invocations of the sovereign desires of the Venezuelan people, symbolized by banner-like display of territorial maps, the struggles for sovereignty in Venezuela are more removed from ideology than one might believe, following most news media. For rather than the crisis being about cross-border flows, or the barriers to needed humanitarian aid poised to cross the border into Venezuela, the global attention to the crisis of sovereignty responds less to any on the ground situation, but rather about what is mapped offshore, under the ocean, and underneath the Orinoco Petroleum Belt and Basin. For in sites of potential extraction where most of Venezuela’s nearly three hundred billion barrels of heavy oil reserves lie sequestered deep underground in sandstone, in the largest in the world, and levels of petroleum extraction–long the basis for Venezuelan national wealth–which have currently fallen to levels not heard of since the 1940s, with disastrous results of paralyzing the national economy and affecting the global oil market.

Even as Venezuela finds itself increasingly subject to global pressures even as it assumes the presidency of OPEC, the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries. As current President Nicolás Maduro threatens to defend his nation’s place on a globalized international energy market, threatening to “substitute the United States with other countries,” to undermine the American economy and the stability of Donald Trump’s presidency, and American energy markets, the sovereignty of Venezuela is again threatened by an increasingly protectionist American government, eager to take action to keep energy prices down–keeping Venezuelan oil, long shipped to and refined in the United States by its North American subsidiary CITGO, providing tens of billions of gallons of crude oil flowing into American national energy pipelines and refineries.

As the infrastructure of oil production have either collapsed or vailed to be invested in and maintained in the nation, they have become an object of eager attention in the petroleum industry as reserves once easily able to be shipped to a global energy market have been remapped for nations that offering to provide new extractive technologies: since oil prices collapsed in 2014, the state-run oil company PdVSA without a plan or ability to invest in necessary infrastructure,–tragically echoing, perhaps, how Chavista policies hurt agrarian and agrochemical industries by short-sighted collectivization and appropriation without an effective working plan. As the rural regions often returned to something similar to subsistence farming, and uncertain future, the lack of maintaining many PdVSA rigs and derricks have created a crisis of sovereignty and capital in the nation, that demands to be better visualized and mapped.

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