11 July 2019
The Great Escape
Voting with their feet.
By Neil Tidmarsh
Last week, someone cut through locks and fencing at the Spring River Zoo at Roswell, New Mexico. Four animals escaped from their enclosures. They were recaptured within twenty minutes. They didn’t go far. Why should they? They probably weren’t even trying to escape. They were probably just doing a bit of exploring. Enjoying a little holiday. No doubt they were planning to be back home in time for tea. After all, most zoo animals are well cared for and long-lived. They enjoy healthy food, suitable shelter and expert veterinary attention. The lucky ones on captive breeding programmes enjoy more sex than seems fair. Why run away from all that? Why risk starvation, disease, being attacked and eaten by other animals or being shot by human beings in the cruel and dangerous world outside their enclosures?
There were plenty of other stories in the news last week to suggest that human beings in some parts of the world are living worse lives than zoo animals. Many inhabitants of many countries are cutting through the locks and fences which surround them and they’re not hanging around once they’re out. They’re making a run for it, as fast as they can, and they’re risking incredible horrors (drowning with their families, freezing or asphyxiating to death as stowaways in a plane’s undercarriage) in the cruel outside world in an attempt to escape what we can only assume are the even worse horrors of an even crueller world inside their own countries.
Why? What are they running away from?
President Bukele of El Salvador was brave enough and honest enough to answer that question a few days ago, when commenting on the tragic deaths of Óscar Martínez and his daughter. “They fled our country” he said, because “our hospitals are crumbling, our infrastructure is crumbling, our young people are joining gangs because they don’t have a job, because they don’t have opportunities.” He added, with impressive candour, “We can blame any other country… but it is our fault.”
Along with neighbouring Honduras and Guatemala, El Salvador has been plagued by civil war, crime and corruption for the last two or three decades. But President Bukele was elected only five months ago; he won a landslide victory, promising to crack down on corruption and to create between 200,000 and 400,000 new jobs. He’s young (37 years old), informal (a former night-club owner), clearly honest and brave, and – most importantly – he’s a clean break from the ultra-right and revolutionary left which have torn the country apart between them in the destructive status quo of recent decades. With the goodwill of the rest of the world behind him, he might just pull it off. After all, he isn’t looking for excuses.
Unlike Mr Maduro of Venezuela, who’s famous for blaming the rest of the world for his country’s slow death. But in fact he has far fewer excuses than President Bukele. Venezuela, after all, is oil-rich, blessed with bigger reserves of the black stuff than almost any other country in the world. Yet his people are cutting through the locks and fencing of his borders and fleeing Venezuela for their lives, fleeing starvation, rampant corruption, economic mismanagement, fuel shortages, soaring crime levels and political repression. Getting on for three million Venezuelans – that’s almost ten percent of the population – have escaped so far.
And Maduro’s solution? Crack down on corruption, create jobs, fight crime? No. His solution is to double down on political repression. Last week we read about Rafael Acosta Arévalo, the naval Captain who was arrested and then appeared in court in a wheelchair, barely conscious, a few days later, and then died soon afterwards. This week we read about Rufo Chacon, aged sixteen, who was shot in the face by police while taking part with his mother in a small and peaceful protest against fuel shortages. He was hit by fifty rubber pellets; the attack left him permanently blind.
Turkmenistan is another gas- and oil-rich country with, coincidentally, a dictator for president and, perhaps not so coincidentally, an epidemic of emigration. The latest census has just shown that a third of the country’s population – that’s getting on for two million people out of a total of perhaps six million – has run away to neighbouring Russia, Kazakhstan and Turkey, and to other countries, in the last ten years (and the figures, apparently, don’t even include economic migrants working abroad).
President Berdymukhamedov, who has ruled – sorry, governed – Turkmenistan since the death of its first president for life in 2006, is famous for giving demonstrations of his weight-lifting prowess during cabinet meetings and for broadcasting videos showing off his shooting, car-racing and singing/song-writing skills. Like the Emperor Augustus (“I found Rome a city of brick but left it a city of marble”), he has ordered that the main streets in his capital are to be covered in white marble.
He was reportedly furious when he learnt that the audience of this cult of personality wasn’t sufficiently impressed to hang around for more of it. He apparently ordered another census, but the second head-count was just as bad. So has he decided to govern with a lighter touch (“human rights groups say that it is one of the most repressive societies in the world” – The Times) and do something about the chronic shortages of food and other essentials which reportedly plague his people? Apparently not – it seems he’s simply placed a travel ban on everyone under the age of forty.
Not all captive animals, of course, are as happy as the inhabitants of Roswell’s Spring River Zoo. This week we heard that Ettore Weber, a famous animal tamer in Italy’s Orfei Circus, was killed by his own tigers. Looking at the various human zoos around the world, we’re perhaps surprised that homo sapiens doesn’t resort to similar horrific retaliatory violence more often than it does. We might even be impressed by our species’ patience and stoicism. But it’s as well to bear in mind the words of Winston Churchill from 1938: “Dictators ride to and fro upon tigers from which they dare not dismount. And the tigers are getting hungry.”