Glitz and grime: Lagerfeld in Cuba

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Karl Lagerfeld in Havana

We’ve been discussing Karl Lagerfeld‘s recent fashion show – a massive bash to promote Chanel’s new line-up of pricey schmattas for rich people – held in the heart of destitute Havana, complete with 600 well-heeled guests, many of them international celebrities. Forget the cruel Communist reality that surrounded this scene – the event itself was all about fantasy, about illusion. Indeed, as Avril Muir put it in Harper’s Bazaar, “the entire thing looked like a film set, insanely beautiful in the soft evening light.” Never mind, as we say, the half-century of brutal Castroite repression and terror that was responsible for the crumbling backdrops of this “beautiful” spectacle: Lagerfeld and his crew from Chanel, cheered Muir, had “created a moment of fashion history.”

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Tilda Swinton was one of Lagerfeld’s 600 guests

To be fair, Muir was only one of many members of the fashion media – and, for that matter, mainstream media – who gushed over this event. While acknowledging that it was tough to put on “an elite fashion show in a country with an annual salary of £3,000,” and that Lagerfeld’s audacity in doing so “raised a few eyebrows,” the Guardian‘s Jess Cartner-Morley pronounced  Havana “a gorgeous setting for a fashion show” and decided to brand “Lagerfeld’s world view” with the relatively innocuous word “mischievous.” In the Daily Telegraph, Lisa Armstrong quoted a “flustered Chanel PR” person as saying that, yes, accommodation and dining options in Cuba are still “a bit Soviet,” observed that “most of the city is so decayed that only will-power and defiance keep it standing,” and pointed out that the country’s average annual salary is equivalent to the price of one large “classic Chanel quilted handbag” – but more important to Armstrong, apparently, was Havana’s “jaw-on-table degree of beauty,” which for six decades has been “un-besmirched by Western brands.”

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What’s left of the second-floor hallway of a building that collapsed in Havana on May 4

As it happens, on the same day (May 4) that Cartner-Morley and Armstrong filed their stories, one of those “beautiful” old Havana buildings collapsed “after a day of heavy rain and strong winds,” leaving fifty people homeless.  “The building had been declared unfit for habitation 31 years ago, in 1985,” reported Marti Noticias, “but people continued to live there and nothing was fixed. In addition, the wall that gave way, causing the building’s roof to cave in, had been declared extremely dangerous 13 years ago in 2003.”

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“Ordinary Cubans” checking out the glitterati

Despite claims, moreover, that Chanel had arranged for “ordinary Cubans” to be able to take part in the event, CNN, to its credit, noted that “[t]ight security prevented anyone without a coveted invitation from getting too close” and that those ordinary Cubans who wanted to get a peek at the “gloriously exuberant spectacle” had to do so from the windows and balconies of a relative handful of apartments that happened to look out on the Paseo del Prado. As Agence France-Presse put it, “ordinary Cubans were left watching the glitz from afar.” (WISH-TV, Channel 8 in Indianapolis, offered its own angle: Chanel’s show “offered a startling sight in a country officially dedicated to social equality and the rejection of material wealth.” The key word there, of course, being officially.

What Avril Muir and her colleagues were recounting, in short, was nothing less than yet another shameful episode in the history of privileged Western indifference to Communist despotism and deprivation. Alas, as the Cuban “thaw” continues, it looks as if there’ll be much, much more of this sort of nonsense in the months and years to come. 

YPT: one-stop propaganda for tyrants

Young-Pioneer-Tours-LogoYesterday we started looking at Young Pioneer Tours, a firm that conducts tours to North Korea – and one of whose recent clients, an American college student named Otto Warmbier, was sentenced on March 16 to 15 years at hard labor for stealing a propaganda banner from his hotel in Pyongyang.

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Otto Wambier

You might think an American tourist in North Korea would know better than to commit even so minor an offense as stealing a propaganda banner from a hotel wall. After all, doesn’t everybody in the West know how monstrous the Kim regime is? The answer to this is that when you combine the ignorance about the world (and especially about Communism) that is common among young Westerners nowadays with the wall-to-wall B.S. on YPT’s website, Facebook page, Twitter feed, and Instagram account, all of which repeatedly insist that North Korea is a safe, fun country that loves tourists, it’s not hard to believe that Warmbier thought he was doing something innocuous.

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Rowan Beard and friends

Certainly YPT didn’t rush to take responsibility for Warmbier’s action. How exactly, you ask, did YPT respond to his sentencing? With the following statement,  posted online by YPT representative Rowan Beard:

Young Pioneer Tours are fully aware of the recent sentencing of Otto Warmbier that was announced by KCNA on Wednesday the 16th March 2016. This should be viewed in similar context of previous cases of Americans being sentenced in the DPRK. We are continuing to work closely with relevant authorities to ensure a speedy and satisfactory outcome for Mr Warmbier. Thus for obvious reasons we cannot currently make any comments related to what is an ongoing case.

Pretty lame. That awkward sentence about how Warmbier’s case “should be viewed in similar context of previous cases,” etc., comes off as a feeble attempt to absolve YPT of any responsibility. Otherwise, Beard’s statement isn’t really saying anything. One might have expected that a company with a greater sense of responsibility and/or more of a sense of shame at its relationship with such a regime would, say, decide to call off all tours to North Korea until Warmbier is released. But YPT, of course, made no such decision.

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Gareth Johnson, British founder of YPT, who on the firm’s website declares his “love for the people and culture of the DPRK”

James Kirkup of the Telegraph had a few choice things to say about YPT’s shameful stoogery. Noting that the firm’s site “makes North Korea [look] like just another delightful tourist destination,” with its “numerous photographs of young tourists having a jolly time around North Korea, marvelling at various monuments to the regime and giving (presumably ironic) salutes in the style of its soldiers,” Kirkup reminded readers that the people of North Korea “have seen every basic freedom and dignity stripped from them by the world’s worst and most oppressive regime….When it comes to human rights abuses, North Korea isn’t so much in a different league as a different planet.” Precisely. 

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YPT’s Shane Horan, of Ireland: “I’m passionate about travel to so called ‘rogue nations’ and changing people’s often incorrect perceptions of them”

Kirkup quoted a UN commission’s 2014 determination that “abuses in North Korea were without parallel in the contemporary world,” with prison camps housing some 200,000 regime opponents who experience “torture and abuse, starvation rations, and forced labor.” On one occasion, prison officials cooked an inmate’s baby and fed it to their dogs. North Korea, Kirkup concluded, isn’t a country; “it’s a prison camp and a torture chamber. Taking a tourist trip there means spectating on the murder and abuse of your fellow human beings, and putting hard currency into the hands of the people responsible for those crimes.”

Yep. But even in the midst of the Warmbier crisis, YPT has clung tenaciously to the line that North Korea isn’t as bad as you think. Just the other day, YPT retweeted an Al Jazeera video about three or four fake stories that have circulated recently about North Korea – the point obviously being to support the premise that the evils of Kim’s regime have been exaggerated.

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The king of fun

By the way, YPT also conducts tours of other tyrant-run countries, including China, Iran, Cuba, Venezuela, and Turkmenistan, and it hasn’t stopped whitewashing those regimes, either. On March 10, YPT posted the following statement on its Facebook page: “A lot has already been said about Turkmenistan’s repressive nature, and cult of personality surrounding the leader. There’s more to the country than this.” On February 25, YPT posted on its blog an interview with an 86-year-old Red Army veteran that was pure propaganda, whitewashing Mao’s atrocities and attributing China’s recent economic success to Communism.

Despicable. How do these stooges find one another? And, having found one another and gone into such a disgusting business, how do they live with themselves?