Colossus on the Hudson? Exercises in 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 colossal statuary of Christopher Columbus cast in Moscow above the Hudson River in 1997 reveals an early illustration of how transactional Trump’s world-view was as he first became attracted to the prospect of expanding his brand to Moscow. Indeed, the potential of the arrival of a monument to Christopher Colombus that Moscow’s then-mayor would dangle as a robed statue greater in size than the Statue of Liberty that has long dominated New York harbor since 1876.

We often date the notion of a Trump Tower Moscow to the visit of Ivanka Trump to Moscow to explore options for a luxury hotel there in 2006, to “connect” with possible business partners in the heady post-soviet period, seeking to license his family name as a brandname to luxury residences, and securing funds from a Russia’s Foreign Trade Bank. But acceptance of the promise to deliver a monument to the fifteenth-century navigator as a “gift of the Russian people” preceded it by at least a decade–a blatant attempt to promote Trump as a national statesman, of sorts, and a negotiator of a new landmark of colossal size, larger than the defining monument of New York Harbor from base to torch, long emblematic of American values, years before Trump changed the immigration policy. of the American government as U.S. President. Indeed, before the events of September 11, a new figure of national authority seems to have been planned by Russian oligarch backers of Moscow’s major Yuri Luzhkov and others, who seem to have designed a monument to American authority that is tempting to see as a sort of script of American politics, named Birth of the New World and aimed at an audience of one.

The towering figure cast in Moscow would be the largest of the western hemisphere; crafted from low-grade bronze worth a purported $40 million in materials, the 600 ton statue, Trump boasted, would be a welcome gift from Russia’s government on New York’s skyline, suitable for situating off his planned West Side residential complex; he helped organize of a “great work” to arrive in New York in ways absolutely above board, and described its artist Zurab Tsereteli as unquestionably “major and legit” with a customary allowance for superlatives. His public comments reveal few allowances, customarily, for the impact of installing the massive statuary on the New York skyline that he knew so well; this much was left implicit in Trump’s customary hyperbolic promotion of a building as a monument to the press as a global destination–or a structure bigger than could be found anywhere in the globe.

The wholesale manufacture of global destinations were increasingly Trump’s new specialization after 1990, when he opened the most costly and glitzy casino ever built, financed by junk bonds, aiming its monumental status to global audiences in an exercise of global kitsch publicists triumphantly promoted as “an eight wonder of the world”–banking on the Trump brand to pull in $1-1.3 million/day to be solvent: the optimism and difficulties obtaining funds or securing bottom-line performance of the $1.1 billion remodel is a possible precursor for later hucksterism of promoting a US-Mexico monumental Border Wall.

Trump Taj Mahal (opened 1990)

Trump had in 1996 he declared an arrangement to license his name to for a project of non-exclusive ownership he boasted would have funding from the Soviet government in Moscow in 1986, declaring himself “impressed with the potential” of Russia’s capital and, after meeting Moscow’s mayor, the possibility of Russian backing for the luxury complexes. Trump crowed to Mark Singer of the New Yorker that the value of the statue in raw materials alone exceeded $40 million–“It’s got forty million dollars’ worth of bronze in it, and Zurab would like it to be at my [new] deveelopment“–to have been creating a record for a massive tax write-off for installing a statue that he stood to be gifted, if in the guise of a spokesman of the nation.

The transformation was odd, but performed by a clever sleight of hand that his Russian handlers seem to have intuited. His acceptance of the gift was a form of immensity flattery, and the promise to deliver the statue of a piece with a history of transactions to circumnavigate city building regulations and restrictions by which he hated to be hampered. Trump saw his engagement in luxury residences as a new form of monumentalism, as much as an art of building. His tastes for monuments, as much as residences, is apparent in the images not only of Trump Tower, but were the hallmark of Trump Properties. His optimistic estimation of Moscow as a site for Trump Properties to expand globally reveals a terrifying interchangeability of urban skylines, rooted less in place, than in the potential for building a local construction of truly international impact and transnational scope. Orchestration of such a project was itself rooted in evading local restrictions, to be sure, but enabled by capital moving frictionlessly across national borders in the form of illicit international financial transfers, money laundering, and shadowy deals to evade taxes. The non-specifity of monuments and the almost mobile nature of building projects was balanced by the backers he could assemble for each, linking local agencies whenever possible to a web of backers, institutions, creditors, and tax abatements in a cocktail that cannot be understood as a local economy.

Such luxury complexes were almost interchangeable. Trump considered the Russian developments on the scale of Las Vegas, which he partnered with to built in 2002, and planned two years earlier, viewing it as a similar expansion of the Trump brand. Trump’s eagerness to pronounce Moscow distinguished by potential for a Trump tower–and “I’ve seen cities all over the world!”–in 1996 showed more interest in locating a Trump Tower to confirm the international status of his brand and buildings of global destinations, after several casino bankruptcies and a pressing need to reduce debts.

The construction of global destinations indeed obscured global politics, as Trump Properties became the determining map of global relationships in those years, when licensing the Trump Brand held the promise of an international economic comeback for properties on a financial precipice. The place of self-interest as he head of Trump Properties effectively redrew the international maps, in ways that may have made Columbus a new, and unexpected symbol of the global international capitalism that would be associated with the Trump brand. As Donald staged a financial comeback of sorts on international terrain, brand obscured nation, as Columbus became a witness not of discovery, but the instauration of a new global order, and gestured toward Trump’s own prized adeptness of navigate the waters of international finance.

As the institution of the Presidency became the basis for forging ties of Trump Properties to foreign governments across the world, from Saudi Arabia to Qatar to Kuwait to Turkey to Afghanistan to China, since Donald Trump’s assumption of the Presidency, Foreign government officials are now regular expected guests at the gala openings of Trump-owned properties in Istanbul, Ankara, Macau and Mexico, opening possibilities of approval for the expansion of Trump Properties or Trump trademarks; the overlap grows as foreign ambassadors from Russia, Romania, Malaysia and China have visited and held meetings at Trump International in Washington, DC, and even held state-level meetings at the hotel with White House officials, as Trump International to gain better access to President Trump.

In ways that foretell Trump’s desire to join as President an exclusive club of makers of monuments–including Erdogan, Putin, and Kim–the monumental statue soothed his ego. The massive six-foot tall head Trump commissioned from a speed painter for $20,000–taller than the 579″ President–significantly predates the election, but similarly reveals the fluidity between personal needs and a public charity in his name. The instrumental use of office to enrich entities that he owns fails to establish any firewall between expansive personal needs and national goods once he entered office, quickly after his inauguration.

Citizens for Ethics and Responsibliy in Washington

The figure of Columbus provided an unlikely but compelling symbol of globalism, if not an earlier age of globalization:: while I questioned the pedagogy of beginning a course on globalization with Columbus as did a colleague at California College of the Arts in 2006, the image of spanning the Atlantic, blurring of national and international power by commercial ties, was cast as a unilateral victory in the rather ominous statue Tsereteli had designed that Trump wanted to erect on the Hudson River in 1997.

For the resurrection of an imagined and imaginary Columbus, a figure whose afterlife in the United States I traced in a previous blogpost, came to be recycled and deployed to glorify the underwater global financial transactions as if there was ample precedent for their transatlantic scope.

If the statue of Columbus in Columbus Circle was ceremoniously carried from Little Italy to what was then the center of Manhattan, the colossus would be donated from the Russian government for display on a tract he owned on the Hudson. He claimed the monument’s sizable head had arrived already, and the body would be delivered from Moscow, underscoring the value of the deeply transactional tie. The apparently diminished size of the monumental bronze statue assembled in Puerto Rico by 2016 may hints a head on the smaller side for a body pontentially have been enlarged to be 600 feet taller than New York’s iconic Statue of Liberty, as if Trump or its sculptor ad imagined it would replace an iconic statue given by the French government in 1886 at the centenary of the Declaration of Independence, “Liberty Illuminating the World,” long understood as promoting an optimistic ideal of global relations.

Was Trump offered the statue by the Russian Government, who promised to cover all costs of its delivery, aspiring to be a new offshore icon of American national identity? If the below 1875 drawing raised funds for the base for the monumental personification a global ideal France hoped to gift the United States, a story of the triumph of global conquest was the subject of the statuary whose arrival Trump boasted he brokered.

Frédéric-Auguste Bartholdi, Presentation Drawing of “The Statue of Liberty Illuminating the World” (1875)

The story of the never installed monument of Columbus, the fifteen-century navigator of contested centrality in stories of nationhood, promised a theater blending personal gain and global politics in truly cartoonish ways. But the possibility that Russian oligarchs seem to have extended of the “gift” of the navigator long celebrated as having “discovered” America on his personal property seemed to dignify not only Trump Properties, but increased the potential power of viewing one’s residential development on the international stage. Did the monumental gift lead Trump to imagine himself as a representative of the United States government–and perceive the transactional possibilities opened by being a figure of state–that may have attracted him to the political sector?

1. Trump hoped to erect an icon of the nation on Manhattan island without committee review was implied in his discussion of a deliverable already partly in the United States, as if to strong arm the city into accepting it as the latest addition to his conversion of the West Side Yards into a new complex of luxury housing. Trump boasted to journalists immediately after his return from Moscow, already elevating the towering monument to exceed the height of the Statue of Liberty as a personalized transaction he had gained for the nation. We don’t know how the Russian sculptor gained Trump’s attention in Moscow, but the recent addition of a monument to Peter the Great of 1,000 tons that would be erected near the Kremlin in 1997 could offered a model illustrating the monumentality of such an addition to urban space.

Trump has a keen eye to global competition, and eagerly promoted the image of a monument of the fifteenth-century navigator of unquestioned authority and greatness–assembled over twenty years later in the Puerto Rican fishing town of Arecibo, at the outer edge edge of United States territory–promoting a hackneyed, offensive and problematic monument to the father of colonization with personal pride.

A sense of pride was understandably felt by the Georgian Zurab Tsereteli at having found a home for his monument, but Trump’s eagerness to spin adding the massive monument on newly developed properties–for which he had already received federal subsidies–as a public good suggests an exercise in his customary use of superlatives, blind to their political context. It certainly suggests the skill of Trump’s Russian handlers in reading the close ties between his vanity to his interests in transnational properties, and introducing the realtor to the King of Kitsch, client of Moscow’s powerful mayor. The transactionality of Trump’s complicated transnational expansion wasn’t clear, but the ties of transnationalism and egocentrism lie at the center of Trump’s interest in opening two Moscow luxury hotels, in ways his eagerness in promoting the monument of the navigator that the Russians thought an apt gift of transatlantic friendship.

Four years after Trump Tower opened in early 1983, a building Trump celebrated as a global destination, he began to contemplate international expansion of Trump Properties. The realtor surveyed half a dozen sites for Moscow luxury hotels in a visit to prepare for Trump Tower Moscow. The possibilities of the project kept alive through 2016 plans for a “Moscow trip” planned as late as the Republican National Convention, offer a curious starting point for his political emergence, embedded more in private gain than public service; indeed, the coaxing emails exchanged about planned working visits to Moscow with mortgage tycoons that paralleled Trump’s praise for Vladimir Putin’s politics suggest a confusion of public service and private gain that was inextricably entangled, an entanglement that seems evident in the monumental proportions of this Russofied image of the fifteenth-century navigator Trump would long be inclined to proclaim commemoration of Columbus Day as fundamental and transformative in “the development of this great nation,” as he proclaimed Columbus Day an occasion of national celebration, if one only recognized in 1934 as such, at the urging of the Knights of Columbus.

If the extended engagement reflect Trump’s insatiable thirst for expanding his brand, stretching from Trump’s first broaching possibilities of considering a Presidential run in April 1988 to his nomination to run as Republican nominee,–and a telling 1984 KGB memorandum, directing the Russian intelligence agency to shift its cultivation of foreign contacts to unofficial assets, to “prominent figures in politics and society, and important representatives of business and science” in the twilight of the former Soviet Union. Prominent figure as Trump provided, moreover, likely targets to blur private and public interests in multiple ways.

If the 2019 Impeachment Hearings of 2019 have begun disentangling the threads of the truly transactional nature of the Trump presidency after the start, the pronounced lack of division between personal gain and political office seem embodied in the odyssey of an unbuilt monument, the acceptance of which as a gift from the people of Russia to the United States first put Trump in a position of national representative able to wrangle both private gain and equity from the Moscow contacts he met to expand a chain of luxury hotels.

As Donald recounted in his Art of the Deal, the topic arose out of sociability while seated beside Soviet Ambassador Yuri Dubinin in 1986 as discussion naturally turned to Trump Tower and the possibility of a Moscow analogue: “One thing led to another, and now I’m talking about building a large luxury hotel across the street from the Kremlin in partnership with the Soviet government,” as if the hope for Russian realty were a sheer coincidence or fate that he began to engage, mutatis mutandi, in negotiations with the Soviet tourism agency, moving around more chess pieces on a personalized monopoly board. Dubinin was tasked as Ambassador to reach out to United States business elites, as Politburo aimed to understand capitalism, and went to Trump as its font: the letter Trump soon received with “good news from Moscow” of jointly managing a hotel in Moscow provided bait that Trump would long pursue, long “impressed with the ambitions of Soviet officials to make a deal.” He also first gained anew sense of himself as a politician with responsibilities of national representation

Invited to Moscow on an all-expenses trip in 1987, he examined half a dozen sites for two hotels, but balked at ceding 51% control to Intourist state agency. By 1997, things had changed, and by 2016, Trump Matryoshka dolls were on sale in Red Square.

Matryoshka Dolls in Red Square, Moscow (2016)/Preston Bailey

The discussion of Trump’s engagement in Moscow however turned to the location of a massive statuary of the “discoverer” of America, an odd gift from a former enemy state. Trump was invited to place what was to be the largest statue in the Western Hemisphere upon planned riverfront Manhattan properties, which must have seemed a great deal, perhaps in hopes to pursue a better deal on the two luxury hotels Soviets invited Trump to build. He may have accepted in an attempt to curry favor from his Russian hosts, in recognition of the transactional nature of all real estate deals, negotiations, and accords. But the massive monument seemed designed for Trump’s tastes–and resonates eerily with his famous preference for celebrating Columbus Day as a national holiday, despite the clearly hurtful resonance of Columbus in a globalized world and pluralistic democratic society.

Across the discontinuities of the post-soviet era, the tools of intelligence cultivation have suggested prominent continuiities although dynamics of global economies and globalization have shifted. However, there seems a rather remarkable continuity in the inextricability of private profit and national symbols hard-wired in Donald Trump’s enthusiasm for accepting on behalf of the United States the monumental commission of a statue of Christopher Columbus, forged in 1991 in Moscow, but as yet undelivered, what had seemed undeliverable after demurrals from several cities, from Miami to Baltimore, to loom over the Hudson River.

The unbuilt monument was perhaps best known by the inflated version of Tsereteli’s monumental head of Columbus, an anti-monument inflated as a protest in Plaza de Colón in San Juan, Puerto Rico, behind a statue of Cristóbal Colón,  constructed on occasion of the fourth centenary of 189w, showing holding a globe and a flag. The arrival of a new monument Columbus of Tseretli’s design was slated to arrive in Cataño, Puerto Rico, precipitating a local crisis in government. The arrival in Puerto Rico occurred after seven cities in the United States decided against accepting the “gift” of questionable political impact and aesthetic appeal. As the bronze monument of Columbus remained in thousands of pieces in a rum warehouse, the inflated white head poked fun at what seemed to be a failed monument on May 20th, 2006–to mark the 500th anniversary of the death of Christopher Columbus–not desired by Puerto Rico, but installed on a classical pedestal built in 1893 by Americans–in what might best be called an “anti-monument” to the practice of commemorating the navigator as a discoverer whose voyages led to the “Birth of the New World,” as Tsereteli had grandiosely entitled his as yet unbuilt sculpture.

Inflatable Head of Columbus, San Juan PR 2006

The inflatable protest art echoed what had been the most prominent marker of the unbuilt monument. It is striking for resembling the anti-monument of an inflatable protest “baby trump” blimp angrily wielding a cel phone–a dirigible that suggests how much hot air went into Trump’s style of personal self-promotion that would follow President Trump’s public appearances for some times nd was flown at Trump’s authoritarian fourth of July celebrations in Washington. The twenty-foot tall helium balloon first appeared on Trump’s state visits to London–and has itself since gone on world tour. Perhaps the global prominence and cache that Baby Trump quickly gained greater as the dirigible as a vehicle of protest, a negative anti-monument to the near global monumentalization of Trump Properties, whose urban ubiquity whose sense of assault extends beyond architectural or aesthetic criteria.

As prominent positioning of the inflated head of the Tsereteli statue in San Juan openly mocked the monumentalism of a statue eventually assembled on Puerto Rico–far from inhabited regions, far from Plaza Colón in old San Juan–it was inflated as one of the many acts of protest that greeted news of the statue’s imminent arrival. It never circulated globally, like the Baby Trump balloon. But the inflated head contains the Donald Trump’s fingerprints ambitions, and deeply compromised search for deals lying at the heart of the story the statue’s curious provenance.

Leo Murray, “Baby Trump” (2018)

The inflation of both dirigibles suggest the aspirational nature of Trump as a political figure. The ambition for personal inflation is illustrated in Trump’s hope to bring a monument weighing 600 tons of $40 million worth of bronze sheets after he probably saw the monument Tsereteli made of Peter the Great of equal size, erected in 1986 on River Moskva to public chagrin; the addition of similar statue seemed only fitting for the grandiose developments Trump then planned on property rezoned for residences, which he conceived as a counterpart to the latest iteration Trump proposed of the tallest building in the world.

Indeed, in a world where everything has become smaller, and space has effectively contracted, the over-the-top grandeur of positioning Columbus on a scrolled Corinthian column once again, celebrating the navigator as having made truly global progress across the Atlantic, here revealed on the map that decorated the current base of the monument finally erected one of Puerto Rico’s uninhabited fishing villages, outside the capital of San Juan, seemed a blatantly self-serving appeal to a mythistory of discovery, perseverance, innovation, and individuality erected on the basis of a mythic map, made to promote a legend that never existed, but that may well have led Trump to fetishize Columbus as a figure and image of authority on the map of the nation that he has in his head.

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Filed under Columbus, commemoration, Donald J. Trump, national monuments, New York Skyline

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 recent adoption of random power shut-offs to stop fires spread of fires in California reveals a level of poor management and lack of any coherent strategy for climate change. Unannounced shut-offs for “public safety” reflects deep insecurity of climate change and an unpreparedness to deal with a climate crisis we have not even been able to acknowledge or even fully recognize–and a lack of imagination, creativity, and foresight, as well as an abandonment of the long-term view. And the long-term view is lacking, both with the 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.

The new fear to engage is that shut-offs of electricity could come to be a part of our regional landscape. If Fire Season is expanding in an age of increasingly extreme climate change, the news that electricity may be cut to up to 40% of the state covered by the electric grid suggests a new level of volatility across the state–one imposed by the owners of the grid, PG&E, as grid operators, fearing the calamitous collapse of transmission wires through which bear an electrical current of over 115,000 volts. PG&E was aware of the risks of wildfires for at least central years, noting wires sagging, towers at risk of failure and of poor support due to ground erosion, fifty years older or more, and dead branches that might break to strike them in high winds. But the scale of collapse of limbs grows with higher gustiness and forests of dead or brittle trees, and even the inadequacy of inventories of electric towers that date from the 1920s–and over half of the towers of the 230 kV system was date from 1920-50, the stress thatchy have come under is unknown along hundreds of miles of its power lines–suggesting that failures of towers was not at all an irregular aberration, but a near eventuality.

If we hope for (and may soon receive!) a full and open database of drone data above the 100,000 miles of PG&E electric lines, to help establish the scale of needed upgraded of power lines, the danger of limb strikes grow, and as they do, they expand the region of fire danger–and indeed ratchet up extreme fire danger, that put us in a new landscape of fire risk. Even as we have become habituated to real-time mapping of fires and their spreads, both from remote sensing and geothermal measurements that pierce dense smoke and cloud cover, the 100,000 miles of electric lines that PG&E supervises exposes the danger strikes conduct sparks to dry forest to ignite a fast-moving conflagration as gusts rise.

If PG&E networks extend across area almost two-fifths of which is judged of “extreme risk” in the state, the topography of risk changes with the instability of electric wires. Even a complete drone dataset of the 100,000 miles of wires might be difficult to view for signs of damage, which demand walk-throughs of a scale truly difficult to contemplate, and whose infrastructure is not only aging but, in the case of a transmission line whose collapse triggered the deeadliest state fire, a full century old. A President who once championed the repair of aging infrastructure is AWOL. But reliance on a no longer adequate infrastructure has disrupted a faith in the credibility long granted the privately held public utility as we try to remap the relation of the power infrastructure to the overdraw land.

John Blanchard/Source: California Public Utilities Commission/SF Chronicle Dec 15, 2018

The problem is both regional, state-wide, and local: increased gustiness across Northern California with the arrival of the feared hot, dry Diablo Winds across the Bay Area created a challenge for brittle, aging wooden electric and telephone poles outside most of our neighborhoods in the Bay Area, as emergency details were sent out to fix impending collapse of tresses that mounted ramrod straight Eucalyptus trunks, leaving wires in danger of falling, as teams of technicians on cranes made adjustments and needed repairs as large tree branches fell against aging cross-arms and crowded supply spaces of electric poles or higher voltage wires on transmission towers broke in the high winds. And it was not much of a surprise that PG&E focussed with something approaching panic on its own power lines, wherenthe malfunctioning of a 115, 000 volt power line had caused the deadly Camp Fire that lead to 86 deaths and destroyed almost 14,000 individual homes, rendering many more homeless only the previous years, in generating outage maps as an emergency response that the terms of its bankruptcy had permitted.

PG&E Directors must have entertained often the prospect of imposing outages, but refrained from adopting, was now allowed. With something of the demeanor of a boy caught looking at a jellybean jar, PG&E noted the possibility of “several snapped trees, with some on top of the downed wires” near transmission lines in the region, conjuring the precipitation of fires by high winds, and brittle branches near power lines: they noted fallen power poles, a broken part of the tower which malfunctioned in Pulga, and the danger of additional problems of distribution lines. The scenario made the prospect of outages seem a failsafe important to adopt and a new part of the landscape of fire. The fear of outages snaked in what seemed like canyons like fire itself, in fact, in the visualization that PG&E released, crowding the wild land-urban interface near city peripheries around Sacramento, San Francisco, and Oakland, nestling all too uncomfortably around urban areas themselves.

In a region of high-tech mapping, are these crude maps conscionable? The sudden loss of power that might arrive with little warning–in response to high seasonal winds that seem an occurrence of climate change, but are known to help whip up flames into fire whirls that generate their own tornado-like winds–runs along the edges of greener areas of the state,. They seem to mirror so many maps of power lines carrying currents to residents who have populated these areas where housing has readily been constructed and improvised since the 1970s, and began in the post-war period, providing something like the skeleton of the burn regions and blackened areas that are by now engraved in Californians’ minds, and the minds of PG&E directors. But the sudden warning that power may be turned off for 800,000 customers across 34 Northern California counties serviced by the utility, proceeding in a custom-designed fashion, after midnight, came as a bit of a shock–waking up to no power?–and seemed a bit of corporate opacity, only barely disguised as based on scientific reason, as heat and wind increased risk beyond normal parameters.

While these poles are property in the purview of PG&E, who are responsible for their maintenance, even with spending $700 million on vegetal management of brush, trees, and plants along the web of transmission lines, the scope of dangers of fire spread cannot be tracked or monitored as adequately as is now needed.

Transmission Lines in Forested Region of California Susceptibble to Branch Strikes

The precarity of transmission lines in the face of offshore and diablo winds grew problematic–far beyond the scope of PG&E’s abilities, due to sustained absence of groundwater from rainfall across much of the state–outside the Central Valley, in relation to the levels of groundwater in most of the entire state, taking 2005-2010 as a base-line, before 2014–

Disappearing Groundwater, 2011-13 (November, 2014)/ NASA Earth Observatory/Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment (GRACE)

–and seems to escape the ability of any one company to supervise vegetation with sufficient intensity without going beyond their own annual revenue.

And PG&E provided a map of the fires forestalled by outages, as if to confirm their value for customers after the Public Safety Shut-Offs, that remind us all in the Bay Area how much we are indebted to them in preventing the possible start of fifty six sparking of what they call “wildfires” from the aging infrastructure that they administer.

Indeed, safety inspections after the high winds suggested that the outages had been a sort of controlled experiment for power structures and transmission lines, a stress-test of sort that revealed the clustering of incidents around the very areas that they had mapped, and a density of considerable alarm within the Wildland-Urban Interface on which all eyes have been directed since SILVIS Lab,–much more on them and their visualizations later, although at the end of this lengthy long-brewing post!–had already cautioned that they had identified as an area of risk.

The growing risk of the region of dense housing and inadequate trimming was a region using old wires to send high voltages into new areas of houses often freshly built with poor fire policies. Over in Madison, WI, SILVIS Lab had already cautioned back in 2017 that the huge ecological change of such extra-urban expansion constituted an underappreciated and significant risk, not only for the environment, as it raised problems of forest health and wildlife habitat loss but as its anthropogenic nature posed problems of elevated wildfire risk and indeed of risk without proper escape routes. And when the 2017 fires mapped neatly onto the rise of housing denisty in the Wildland-Urban Interface–WUI–in what was clearly a broad state-wide problem, that a state-wide energy corporation seemed as if it were best to uniformly address, though would be challenged to do so without federal aid if it could retain profitability–and would drain the state of finances if they undertook the mission by making the company public.

Los Angeles Times/ SILVIS Lab data/Open Street Map
Statewide Fire Distribution as of October 12, 2017

Mapping the spread of fires is usually considered as important for fire fighters, or for home-owners and residents who increasingly have come to expect real-time on-demand fire maps, but the new trigger of electric shut-offs was strikingly, less a transparent or clarifying map than an opaque one, creating such worry that the demand to download maps erased the PG&E servers, even if they were not especially information rich. The sudden demand for new information about maps was frustrated by the lack of clear information in the outage maps, and their lack of easy navigation from our handhelds, or integration with map servers: as PG&E servers crashed, with folks expecting quick answers, cursing the private power agency, and being accustomed to have online responses readily at hand, and maybe less practiced in looking at paper maps as a consequence.

1. It is hard to map the experience of living in an area of high fire risk against the frustrating opacities of outage maps. In the robust but contingent real estate sector of California’s economy, the valuation of land is contingent on fires, a contingency that has been long supressed–or repressed, because the extreme interdependence is not seen as so contingent on global warming and climate change. But as the value of beach-front coastal properties in California may be changed not only by erosion but by sea-level rise, the increasingly great dangers of fire and fire spread expose a delicate pick up sticks construction of the high valuation of houses and land, increasingly closely tied to insurance rates and insurability; the x-ray that the spread of fires created on California’s class society, showing how the wealth, super-wealthy, and rest respond to fires by opting out of public fire-fighting, the fires have exposed uneven nature of home insurance coverage in real estate in fire-prone regions, and even the ability of insurers to close policies and cease to serve areas of the state, as insurers elect to stop covering homeowners in fire zones.

The very regions of wildland-urban interface where Californians have flocked to buy what seemed affordable homes, of lovely scenery, or have been desired areas of habitability, have been removed from fire coverage policies or increased rates in unexpected leaps and bounds that stand to create cascading effects in the economy in areas of significant brush; the rise of “insurer-initiate non=renewals” have created deep scars in the realty market and economy in response to fire severity, leading courts and the State Insurance Commissioner to block their spread to prevent freefall. In ways that have created ongoing fights in the courts about the markets, the low paybacks for destroyed properties and withdrawal of insurance policies stand to create earthquakes that reveal the close tie of the economy to increased dryness and intense groundwater declines–making us more conscious of the need to map our presence in a volatile landscape of extreme climate change as a dramatically uncertain terrain.

Temperature Change in California, 1895-2018/John Muskens based on NOAA data

The dangers for managing the state’s energy infrastructure far surpass PG&E’s ability to supervise–and that have challenged fire prevention strategies that have been farmed out to state parks, forest services, and national parks, although much of the fires derive from failed transmission lines carrying high voltages from property damages to increasingly populated urban interface.

With dangers ranging from the rapid intensity of fires, the increased number of acres consumed by fire, and possible risks of the airborne dispersal of smoke, and the long-term ecological effects of burnt structures and toxic fumes, or heavy metals leached into soil. The scale of increasing levels of fire risk remain poorly understood, and attributed, so interconnected are they to cascading effects and feedback loops of climate change: intense cuts in groundwater supply due to an absence of rain have changed the landscape of fire management, but in many ways begin from the lack of water in California’s soil, even in greatly wooded areas, that have created drying out landscapes of even greater risk.


MODiS Spectrometry

In such a scenario, the blanketing of regions with energy shut-offs that prevent current running through its electric grid to areas of wildland-urban interface seem the only possible response.

Management of energy infrastructure was became prioritized as threats of high winds this Fire Season sent warnings across the state,–prompting successive alarms of electric shutoffs cascading through the state, sending people to check their addresses on interactive web maps–even if the maps of shut-offs were themselves quite crude–that led PG&E online services to crash, creating even greater panic and uncertainty in the state in what seemed new fault lines where no one knew faults existed.

The new landscape of volatility, or of extra-urban combustibility, is not only a reflection of the drying out terrain of the state or the dry woods, dead leaves, and nearly crisp chaparral, but the real estate maps of extra-urban additions that increasingly jostle next to and beside undeveloped wildland. Pacific Gas & Electric is increasingly creating incursions into these lands, keeping up with the landscape of what seems late capitalism across California. The regular recurrence of “urban interface fires” across California’s fastest-growing communities in extra-urban additions over the past three decades terrifyingly follows a map of real estate extra-urban additions, however–

Destroyed Structure in California Fires in order of magnitude, 1985-2013, with 2017 Tubbs Fire Heather Anu Kramer (SILVIS, University of Wisconsin)

–that has redefined the pyrogreography of the state, and made it into one of the states with the highest probability of burns–three times higher than most other states–and transformed its cities: air quality to among the worst in the nation, radically reframing the question of the habitability of the state–to use an index of medieval geography, as if it were a torrid zone rather than follow familiar geographic indices. There is little way out of it, as the many drivers who sought to flee Paradise, CA, site of the Camp Fire, which became deadliest fire in California history, that continues to haunt the state, both in the real estate, insurance, and energy industry, who, famously, considered shutting off power to the region in a temporary power shut-off, just before the transmission towers that started the fire collapsed under heavy winds peaked just above thirty miles per hour, with gusts above fifty miles per hour.

The results were deadly–but also largely because of how much the maps available to residents mislead. The bulk of the seventy-one people killed as a result of the raging fatalities Camp Fire died as they were directed by GPS maps to drive into the areas of the fire they sought to flee in their cars, by maps that failed to account for fire in indicating drivers the most preferable routes. As transmission towers in the Sierra Foothills fell, as the transmission tower failed at Pulga station near the Poe Dam, and a second, potentially, near Concow Reservoir, both sent sparks into dry brush, but failed to register on traffic maps or GPS, with devastating and deadly results. Can one imagine future lawsuits against poor mapping servers that lead people into burning landscapes in the future?

Carolyn Cole, Los Angeles Times

The fire history of the same region east of Highway 99 is not encouraging, as it bears such tragic traces of increased combustibility.

Jonathan Schleuss/Los Angels Times; sources: Cal Fire, USGS, NextZen, Open Street Map

The range of fire intensity can be mapped synchronically to paint a picture of the intensity of tree loss and fire spread in most all areas of the state outside the heavily irrigated Central Valley. Fire, in Obi Kaufman’s powerful rendering, seems the destiny of the state that its inhabitants have denied–but the anthropogenic character of increased fire intensity is only being clearly confronted for agencies like PG&E that have responded to demand by building out electric infrastructure in areas of already high fire risk–a build-out they can only respond to by subtracting electricity at the drop of a match.

Obi Kaufman, Fire Destiny

And yet we are compelled to map the increasingly combustible landscape, and map it repeatedly as if in the hopes to press out meaning from the landscape in hopes to make meaning out of something that is both a local, regional, and global phenomenon, as if to press significance out of it that we can better grasp. For so much lies on it. If California is something of an improbable test case for global warming–an advanced economy that lies at the cutting edge of climate change, with the most cutting edge and intensive mapping abilities at its service, there seems to be some way to serve its communities better. And in a region that relies intensely on maps, for commuting, watching weather predictions, and navigating real estate and home buying as well as school districts, parks, and criminality with increased intensity, where better but to expect better mapping of climate change?

If the report card is not good, it is because the picture is so dire, and the maps so poorly correspond to clear-headed choices or expectations. Indeed, they only multiply the parameters of danger the state is courting as it enters a climate emergency of droughts, fires, desiccation, and sea-level rise, of which fire risk is only the most prominent.

The recent plague of fires since 1995 across the state pose a question that we never expected: have the extremes of climate change forced us to return to geographical constructs of a lost past? If so, it is mediated by the nature of real estate markets in late capitalism in an overcrowded state: for the expansion of building not following regulations or preventive measures of fire safety has shaped the changing contours of risk in ways that we have been able to map most recently by the proxy measure of transmission lines across the state whose collapse has resulted in so many recent ignitions. Fires of increased burn-intensity, rapid and aggressive spread released carbon emissions in the 2018 fire season collectively totaling emissions of a year of power in the state–sixty eight million tons of carbon dioxide, as well as untold property damages and loss of lives.

This terrifying vision of the losses that fires bring has not only haunted the nation but created a corporate restructuring of Pacific Gas & Electric, the privately held power company. For the fears of past fire continue to haunt corporate policy. And if the power shut-offs that cut off electric power to provide the company time to inspect all power lines in the region seem, as the mayor of Malibu, Rick Mullen, put it, an eighteenth century technology to respond to a twentieth century problem of global warming, the mapping of shut-offs seems to have been invested with the appearance of high-tech tools, even if they were low tech approximations of where transmission lines ran–of limited actual data.

The frustratingly low informational level of these maps, which seemed to promise so much in an era of high mapping of fire spread, intensity, and directions, responded to gustiness more than fires, but imagined the threat of fires that seem only destined to grow in the feedback-loop of climate change and global drying that afflicts the state. The vivid aqua of recent outage maps snake across the landscape that reflect not only the imprint in their iridescent glow, but fail to educate consumers by keys that might adequately orient them to the imminent topography of combustibility, or the dangers of fires but only trace the negative spaces where power was at risk of being suspended across the state–roughly following the above-ground power lines that run across the woodlands-urban interface, telling us what those of us who have been looking at fire maps over the previous three years already know, and maddening most by raising the prospects of suddenly losing electricity, cel service, radio contact, and perhaps even the ability to charge their cars.

The maps might be confused with a form of readiness. They seemed a rather desperate attempt to escape similar levels of financial liability to find a shred of liability release and summon a sense of corporate responsibility by suggesting that they prioritized public safety in an era when public safety is in crisis mode.

Of course, PG&E is in crisis mode–and the maps reflect their difficulties in shouldering the possibility of liability for future fire outbreaks. Faced by bankruptcy, and apparently conceiving itself without funds to trim trees or prioritize the maintenance of transmission lines, the power behemoth has resisted spinning out parts of its extended enterprise, but rather insisted on its continued profitability, without, apparently, acknowledging the risks that the continuation of extreme weather in the state might cause. The resulting maps of shut-offs that were reflexively announced at the first word of high gustiness-surprising many consumers, created skeletal images of the forced closure of electricity to hillside towns, ravines and moutainsides in once bucolic areas, where property is sold in hopes to perpetuate the vision of bucolic hillside towns, which now looked like sculptures of Walter De Maria’s Lightning Field, as if natural sites of aggression, or jagged lines ripping across a natural landscape,–

–if not, more situationally appropriately, as this image by the Otolith Group from a film that reflects the seismically disruptive landscape of California, the creation of the anthropocentric environments that we have created in what was once prized as a landscape of pristine nature, as if this existed, but is now increasing at growing risk of being scarred as a man-made landscape is electrified.

For the maps of forced electrical shutoffs are truly creations an anthropogenic environment, if they are supposed to respond to wildfire risk. They reflect a new fear of the management of landscape, and of electrical infrastructure, based on the spaces served by the infrasctures of electrical power transmission lines, and the regions that they affect.

Rooted in the current growth of urban interface, the topography of landcover where older electric infrastructure bears new loads of coursing current provides the chance for transmission lines to create ignition points for fires, in the stripped-down maps that provided the basis for the outage maps PG&E posted in the Fire Season of 2019, haunted by the memories of the burnt landscapes of the 2018 fires.

Even as the Department of Interior of the Trump administration blamed poor forest management, the location of fires suggest that “proper forest management” was less a problem than the poor oversight of the expansion of realtor’s rapid remapping of extra-urban additions across the state–in the very regions where residents were effectively warned by the energy company itself that it would adopt new policies of cutting electric power that took full advantage of emergency powers it was granted as it entered bankruptcy, announced at a dedicated website it unveiled, www.PrepareForPowerDown.com, in order to reduce its liabilities, even if it only announced it only introduced “Public Safety Power Shutoffs” in order to “keep communities safe” in the eventuality the state continued to face extreme weather in the future.

If this is a landscape of late capitalism, and the burgeoning real estate market, the maps of outages are echoes of the far deeper, pressing questions of the landscapes of risk we have often forgotten to map with needed accuracy–even if we fear the destruction of the very extra-urban additions that have been broadcast to the nation as if they were the bombed out battle sights of global warming, and we have yet to map in the parameters of a climate emergency or bureaucratic irresponsibility.

While the map was not about to receive much circulation even as PG&E representatives visited California cities to inform communities on the urban interface for the eventuality of a power shut-off of “public safety,” the image by which most of the state was haunted by drone imagery from the previous fall was of the burnt-out areas of Paradise, CA and of Santa Rosa, from previous years, that so surreally seem to transpose what are bombed out areas of war fields and American suburbia with an almost hallucinogenic quality that bodes fears for the future of California–and, after this map appeared from the California Public Utilities Commission, haunted PG&E enough to provide a basis or template for warned outages.

Potential Areas of Planned for Power Shutoffs/May, 2019

Even as the energy company promised investments to “make its grid sturdier,” it predicted the likelihood of executing shut-offs “multiple times” in the future, as it indeed had in the Napa Valley Fires of 2018, but which it had not in the 2017 North Bay Fires which had caused $14.5 billion in property damages or the 2018 fires that had raged across an unprecedented 1.9 million acres–a surreally tipping point of sorts, transcending poet Walt Whitman’s query of readers’ ability to reckon a thousand acres by a multiple of thousands–and exceeded 16.5 billion in property damages in the Camp Fire alone, which PG&E is still trying to accommodate victims for property loss, wrongful death, or loss of residences. If the ongoing deep-lying effects of an officially over drought have conspired to create a shortage of underground reserves in the entire state, compromising the state of its forests and undeveloped areas in ways that go far beyond “forest maintenance,” it has created a lopsided continental map of fire risk whose consequences will be felt for decades.

The ever-increasing uncertainty of the landscape multiplied in unknown ways with the spread of power shut-offs whose enactment appeared a straw that broke a collective back: if the threat of smoke had created panicked uncertainty across the Bay Area in previous fires led residents to shift from the color-coded *AirNow” EPA maps of air quality–3.2 million in a week, causing the site to crash–during the Camp Fire, and rushed to interactive open source alternatives for greater security, the insecurity of announced electrical shut-offs seemed to make the state all the more inhabitable, and suggest that the relation of habitable and inhabitable lands was being rewritten by climate change with unforeseen rapidity, as the maps from the California Public Utilities Commission that provided the basis for PG&E to warn of electrical shut-offs registered, based on the expansion of areas of urban interface in Northern California on both sides of the San Joaquin Valley, an area not serviced by PG&E.

CPUC Map of High Fire Threats, 2019

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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. But if the bull kelp and other marine plants we find in the sandy beaches of northern California seem otherworldly representatives of a marine world, the contraction of kelp forests across much of the offshore areas where they provided such rich habitats may soon start to 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 and what we see as underwater species impact a large ecosystem that provides atmospheric oxygen, and is integral to coastal biodiversity that gives so much of a specific character to the California coast, and indeed gives us so much of a sense of where we are.

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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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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