Thursday, June 13, 2024

Pirates of the Mediterranean

A famous quote by Captain Jack Sparrow from the movie saga ‘Pirates of Caribbean’s’ goes like this: “I’m dishonest, and a dishonest man you can always trust to be dishonest. Honestly, it’s the honest ones you want to watch out for, because you can never predict when they’re going to do something incredibly stupid.” 

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This quote personifies almost any member of the ruling political class of Lebanon, and chief amongst them, the Hezbollah lot, who acts as the mob boss or better the Puppet Master. 

The Eastern Mediterranean is witnessing a pirating tale of colossal proportions. A cabal of sinister characters at work that will most likely end in a ghastly manner, for all. This tale is associated with the Land of the Cedars, who had always flattered itself, as part of its national myth, on the exploits of Master Mariners to wit, the Phoenicians. Seafaring people and explorers who very recently were credited with the discovery of Quebec. They created an unprecedented trade network which went from CyprusRhodes, the Aegean islands, EgyptSicily, Malta, Sardinia, central Italy, France, North Africa, Ibiza, Spain and beyond.

They did not live off ill-gotten fortunes. They were known to be astute negotiators who drove a hard bargain. They excelled in the tradecraft of exchanging (legal) goods including, textiles, cedar wood, glass, metals, incense, papyrus, and carved ivory. 

At the turn of the last century, Lebanese prided themselves on a modern form of overseas exploits, fueled by migration waves starting c. mid 1800s till the late 1900s, and caused mainly by famine and civil strife. Their more recent footprints are vividly discernable from Australia to Argentina and from Nebraska to Nigeria. Their migrant stories are filled with gratification and self-esteem. They are recounted with satisfaction for having flourished by hard work only, under harsh conditions. Some started as non-English speaking peddlers in US towns and in Latin America, while others began as small-timers in the dangerous bushes of Africa. Their descendants formed second, third and present-day generations of achievers and well-to do families, whose fortunes are directly related to their forefathers. Such wealth was amassed by the sweat of foreheads not by forgeries. 

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Today, Lebanon is famous for another type of trade unknown to Phoenicians. That of illegal goods: from narco-trafficking, to stolen cars, forged currencies and, everything in between.

In fact, Lebanon has become a sort of desolate ‘Treasure Island’ for both Hezbollah and the ruling political class. The first, usurped the country’s borders by turning the place into a smuggling free zone with all land crossings, airports and, seaports put at the service of its nefarious commerce. The second, looted the Treasury for purposes of its clientelism politics. The government, in turn, fleeced the banks, who got onto the gravy train for too long, till they finally had no more capital available to return to their depositors.

Lebanon has become a serious challenge for international trade. Soon, the GCC could be followed by the EU, for banning all sorts of goods going to and from, Lebanon. As a reminder of such nefarious exploits, Saudi Customs, on April 23rd discovered 5 million Captagon amphetamine pills stuffed in fruits imported from Lebanon.  In that same week, Greek authorities seized more than four tons of cannabis hidden in a shipment of industrial cupcake-making machines heading from Lebanon to Slovakia. The year before, Italian authorities confirmed seizure of nearly 15 tons of smuggled Captagon pills estimated at $1 billion, which appeared to have originated from Hezbollah, according to the Italian Nova news agency.

A country without a government, a defunct banking sector, declining medical and educational services, crippling unemployment and an eerie feeling of desperation, has sunk to an even lower level of lawlessness, never imagined before. Not even during the bloody episodes of the civil war (1975-1990), or during the darker days of the Syrian occupation (which officially ended in 2005) did Lebanon become an international pariah nation. Well now, it officially is.

Most ordinary citizens have given up. Many have surrendered to this surreal state of affairs. Fewer others, more fortunate than some, are making plans to join the previous waves of migrants. This is both understandable and expected. Nonetheless, such binary choices: merely living or actively leaving, do not bode well for a climb from the abyss. 

Quoting Captain Jack Sparrow again: “The problem is not the problem. The problem is your attitude about the problem. Do you understand?”

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