Month: June 2017

mkriOn Tuesday, June 27, 2017,  Argentine President Mauricio Macri of Argentina and Michelle Bachelet of Chile met in Santiago, Chile to discuss a trade agreement between the two South American nations.  A trade agreement would be a boost to the economies of both nations and help the Argentine economy recover from years of devaluation of the peso and loans on which the country was forced to default.  In three weeks I will revisit the Argentine Republic, landing in Buenos Aires, appropriately called the “Paris of South America”.   As of today, the exchange rate between the United States Dollar and Argentine Peso is  $1=16.4ARS. The peso continues to struggle to regain its value as the Macri administration continues its mission to reform the economy.  Incredibly, between the late 1800s and 1930, Argentina was one of the richest nations on earth and boasted a high rate of exports.  Changing world markets and political instability plunged the nation in dark times as the grip of Juan Perón (1895-1974) tightened over Argentina giving birth to the Peronist party.  Even today, his influence and that of the late Evan Peron (1919-1952) continue to be felt in Argentine society.

Students of Argentine history will often ask the question, why did Argentina end up in a financial collapse in 2001?  Paul Blustein (1951- ) tackles this questions and provides answers to help us understand how and why it happened.  Blustein is former writer for the Washington Post and has written about economics for more than 35 years. It was during a post in Buenos Aires that he began the project that became this phenomenal book that tells the story of what proved to be the inevitable.   As part of his research, he interviewed dozens of individuals who were direct participants in the events in the book and others knowledgeable about what really happened.  And what he explains in the book is eye-opening and prophetic not just for Argentina but for every country across the globe that has to confront a rising deficit and possible financial collapse.

On April 1, 1991, Economy Minister Domingo Cavallo (1946- ) adopted the convertibility system which fixed the exchange rate at $1=1ARS.  The new policy initially proved to be a blessing for the Argentine economy, allowing citizens to improve their quality of life, invest, improve savings and travel abroad.  But behind the scenes the government was struggling to reign in spending and raise enough taxes to maintain the newly placed system which required banks to keep an equal amount of U.S. Dollars to Argentine Pesos. A pesos crisis in Mexico and changing world markets, set the ball in motion for what was to come in the next decade. As Argentina grappled with a looming financial disaster,  the International Monetary Fund (IMF) became a prime player in the effort to save its economy.  The Fund, created in 1944 in New Hampshire, engaged in protracted negotiations with Argentina to save the Republic even in the face of financial mismanagement and a severe inability to stimulate economic growth.  The two would eventually reach an agreement that showed signs of being the saving grace needed to save the nation.   Despite IMF intervention, a second agreement would be reached before the long feared collapsed occurred dropping the value of the peso completely.  In fact, things got so bad that President Fernando De La Rúa (1937- ) escaped by helicopter after resigning along with Cavallo, who had previously instituted a zero deficit policy and enacted the corralito, the infamous rule that capped the amount of money citizens could withdraw from their bank accounts sending the public into a rage.

With the whole world watching, Argentina sank deeper into financial distress but in recent years has enjoyed a streak of years of political stability. Its economy still has a long way to go to reach pre-2000 levels and time will tell if the Macri administration can fully rebuild the country’s bank accounts while avoiding another financial catastrophe. For those in control, the lessons of the past will need to be remembered moving forward. What I did like deeply about this book is that not only does Blustein tell us the story but he helps us understand how the IMF works and the value of currency.  And no matter where you live, your country has the potential to suffer the same fate as the Argentines if adequate controls are not placed on spending and taxation. For those seeking to understand the crisis that crippled Argentina, this is a good place to start. I highly recommend supplementing Blustein’s compendium with Luis Alberto Romero’s A History of Argentina in the Twentieth Century. Both books will give the reader tremendous insight of a country that has to be seen in person to be appreciated.

ISBN-10: 1586483811
ISBN-13: 978-1586483814

Latin America

25246114On January 23, 2007, E. Howard Hunt died in Miami, Florida at the age of 88.  Hunt is best remembered for his conviction as a result of his role in the Watergate scandal that helped end the presidency of Richard M. Nixon.  Hunt was also a prime suspect in the murder of John F. Kennedy. His son St. John, spoke with his father prior to his death and their discussion is referred to as his deathbed confession about what he knew about the events in Dallas, Texas.  In the years following his death, truths about his role in the Central Intelligence Agency and the events in Dallas disproving his claim to be just a ‘bench warmer” in the crime.   Next to Hunt throughout the Watergate crisis was his first wife Dorothy who perished when United Flight 553 crashed on December 8, 1972 as it approached Chicago Midway Airport to make its landing.   The NTSB attributed the crash to pilot error but researchers have long suspected sabotage in the crash and have alluded to a long number of disturbing facts surrounding the crash.  On the surface, it seems to be just a tragic accident that killed a housewife en route to visit acquaintances.  But upon deeper examination of the crash and her life as revealed by her son in this book, the real story of the life of Dorothy Hunt is nearly as intriguing as that of her husband.

St. John Hunt has made himself known in JFK assassination circles.   His prior book. Bond of Secrecy: My Life with CIA Spy and Watergate Conspirator E. Howard Hunt, looks into the life of his father and the effects of his profession on their family.  Here, the focus is on his mother and her untimely demise.   No stranger to the world of covert operations, Dorothy also has a past with intelligence work, having been station in Europe on more than one occasion.  Her marriage to the blossoming operative Hunt, was a bond between two intelligence assets deeply involved the back channels of Washington and tied to a president facing a dark fate.

The early parts of their lives reads like a great novel; two young adults, meet, fall in love, start a family and move from one country to the next as their father is reassigned from one post to another.  Enter Watergate and the scandal that turned their lives upside down.  It is at this point in the book that the rug is pulled right out from under our feet and the dark side of Richard Nixon and Washington politics is revealed.  Those old enough to remember Watergate will not be surprised in what is contained in this book. In fact, the book is not a complete source on the investigation as St. John himself points out.  This is purely what he saw his parents go through as his father faced criminal prosecution and the impact his mother’s dad had on his life and those of his siblings. What is evidently clear from taped conversations at the Nixon White House and St. John’s account, is that his father’s legal defense was being paid for by Nixon and the money was also intended to keep Hunt quiet.  Following her death, Hunt ended up being convicted and served thirty-three months in prison for his role in the Watergate scandal.

The lives of St. John and his siblings would never be the same again.  Fallout from Watergate and the loss of their mother caused splits between siblings as each struggled to put their lives back together and come to terms with what they had been through.  I do not believe they will ever get over what happened but have learned to cope with it on a daily basis.  It is clear that  St. John, the first son of the family had a special bond with his mother.  The heartache and grief he experienced is evident in the pages of this book. And through his words, her memory continues to live on.

At the conclusion of the book, there is a section on the crash itself and the investigation by Sherman Skolnick (1930-2006), a noted conspiracy theorist and activist who challenged the NTSB’s position of pilot error.  This part of the book is an added bonus and reveals a ton of incredible and troubling information about the crash.  And what was once believed to be an open and shut case is revealed to be far more complicated and sinister.  While it is not inconclusively proven that Dorothy Hunt died as a result of homicide, there are dozens of deeply disturbing facts about the incident that should have raised the eyebrows of anyone investigating the crime. And next to 9/11, it is the only case I can think of where the FBI preempted an investigation by the NTSB, removing key evidence from the scene while preventing emergency personnel from completing their assigned tasks.  The complete story of what really happened that day may never be known but what we do know is that many strange things were occurring that had nothing to do with pilot error.

JFK Assassination researchers may be looking for a smoking gun but it will not be found here. In fact, not much about Dallas is discussed.   In St. John’s defense, that was not the purpose of the book.  His intention was to bring his mother’s story to light which he succeeds in doing.  And although he did get some factual information wrong,  the story is still a good read about a family caught up in one of the greatest crimes in American political history.

ISBN-10: 1634240375
ISBN-13: 978-1634240376

American History

1Today, sixty-four years after his death in,  Joseph Stalin (1878-1953) remains one of the most polarizing and studied figures of the 20th century.  As the leader of the Soviet Union during the Second World War,  he enforced the legendary Red Army as it fought off a German onslaught and helped the Allies put an end to Germany’s Third Reich. Following the war, tensions between the United States and the USSR escalated giving birth to the Cold War.  In 1991, the USSR collapsed and today Russia is under the control of Vladimir Putin, undoubtedly one of the world’s most controversial figures.  Stalin’s reign may seem to be in Russia’s distant past but it was less than one hundred years ago that Stalin ruled with an iron fist, striking fear into the hearts of not only his enemies but those closest to him.   Rumors have surfaced over the years regarding everything including his love life, health, mental state and bungled policies.  But who was the real Joseph Stalin?  Born Ioseb Jughashvili in Gori, Georgia on December 18, 1878 to Besarion “Beso” Jughashvili (1850-1909)  and Ketevan “Keke” Geladze (1858-1937), few could have imagined that the young child would grow up to rule an entire nation.  His life in later years became mysterious to those inside and outside of Russia.  Misconceptions and falsehoods have spread, causing even more confusion about the truth.  Stephen Kotkin has takes on the late leader’s life in a multi-part definitive biography that is simply outstanding.

Kotkin’s compendium is extensive, totaling over seven hundred pages of text.  And from what I have seen, the second volume, due to be released in November, 2017 will be slightly larger.  But contained within the pages of this book, is the incredible story of the life of Joseph Stalin from his birth until the year 1928.   The book was exhaustively researched and at times, is heavy on historical figures, places and dates.  At first it may seem challenging to keep track but as the book goes on the, the figures reappear to remind us of their importance.  The beauty in the book is that Kotkin deeply examines all situations that require explanation.  And in his writing, he is neither for or against Stalin. He simply shows us his life and who he was, based on his own statements, transcripts of Party Congresses and documents that have survived from the era.   For history lovers, this is nearly heaven on earth.   History textbooks tell some of the story of the Russian Revolution, but here we have an inside look into the movement that catapulted Stalin, Vladimir Lenin (1877-1924) and Leon “Lev” Trotsky (1879-1940) to eternal fame and later condemnation.  The subsequent Russian Polish War and escalation of tensions between Russian and it’s allies Germany and Britain following Lenin’s death, highlight the fractured foreign policy enacted employed by the Bolshevik party.

As Kotkin showcases, Stalin’s rise to power was based on fear, intimidation and deception.  Even those closest to him, never truly knew what he was thinking or how to approach him at times.  His first wife Yekaterina “Kato” Svanidze (1885-1907) died only a year into their marriage but his second wife Nadya Alliluyeva (1901-1932) witnessed first hand his unpredictable nature and abrasive moods.  And for those that were enemies, they often face exile in Siberia, where Stalin himself was once confined to during the First World War.  Trotsky,  Grigory Zionviev (1883-1936)  and Lev Kamenev (1883-1936) would find this out firsthand. His NEP  or “New Economic Policy” was supposed to be the plan that saved Russian but instead propelled it towards disorganized collectivization intended to balance the economy as Stalin moved further to the left.  But as we see in the book,  the Bolsheviks had steep learning curves in many areas. The results of their shortcomings are tragic having resulted in the deaths of over seven million people. Famine spread like a virus forcing many to eat things unmentionable and unimaginable. And throughout the crisis that arise, Stalin comes off as a cold machine unaffected by anything and  driven by ideology.  As we re-live the past through Kotkin’s words, we see the deep level of seriousness and vindictiveness that composed the former Soviet dictator.

Stalin took with him to the grave, answers to many questions that have puzzled researchers for years.  And although we have documents that have been graciously preserved, some parts of his life are lost for good.  Perhaps some day in the future, more information about him may be discovered but with Kotkin’s work, we have the first part of what could be the best biography of Stalin to date.  It is one of history greatest stories and filled with historical figures such as Pyotr Stolypin (1862-1911), Maria Spiridonova (1884-1941), Fanya Kaplan (1890-1918), Gavilro Princip (1894-1918) and Nicholas II (1868-1918) among others.   Students of Russian history have been presented with a gift in this book and I am sure it will find its way to the bookshelves of many.

Ideas are more powerful than guns. We would not let our enemies have guns, why should we let them have ideas” – Joseph Vissarionovich Stalin 

ISBN-10: 0143127861
ISBN-13: 978-0143127864

Biographies