Tag Archives: transnationality

From Russia with Love? Monuments of Global Kitsch

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Was the image of Columbus as open a political statement as the monument to Peter the Great, mining a dismissed American national symbol to new ideological ends? The language of grandiosity in the statue was clearly appreciated and praised by Trump, who famously introduced Tsereteli to American audiences as “major and legit,” in 1997, if he was then largely unknown in the West: as he wanted to build a tower in New York that extended beyond the tower he had named after himself, a statue taller than any statue near Manhattan island and in the Western Hemisphere would have been symbolically apt.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

De Sphaera (1550)

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

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

Christopher Columbus in Columbus Circle/Peter van der Krogt

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Brandell Studios, Architectural Rendering

The provision of Trump with a new image of Columbus on his own Hudson Yards development would be, perhaps, an alternate glorification of hi self-fashioning and marketing as a truly international developer. Was the discussion of the arrival of Tsereteli’s monumental figure of the navigator meant to hold an image of the orbital globe that Trump saw as an emblem of his new expansive network of global real estate properties beyond New York City

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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Filed under borders, energy independence, energy markets, national borders, Venezuela