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Year of the Plague – 8 – Skyping with Aurelia: The Denver-Barcelona Connection

March 31, 2020

Aurelia Mane Estrada and her mother. Brighton Beach, Brooklyn, New York. July, 2010

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But there were other, broader societal worries, as the shadow of fascism spreads over much of the world, certainly both in both our countries, Spain and the USA. It’s not here in either place, but growing in both.

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(I continue with my series – just musings, odd thoughts mixing personal experience with the current Coronavirus pandemic. )

1. A dear friend, met on the internet (I think) 25 years ago

I did manage to take a walk today in the neighborhood in the early evening. There is a middle school across the street from where I live – we used to call them “junior high schools” back East. On the school’s athletic grounds, a baseball field, a place to practice soccer, a man with a United Arab Emirates t-shirt was practicing soccer shots, shooting into a net. He had such a powerful and accurate kick that I wondered if perhaps he’s not a professional player just trying to stay in shape during the Coronavirus crisis. I saw him last night as well; tonight I said hello, he nodded in return. I have a feeling he’ll be there tomorrow. Maybe he is just trying to stay in practice shape during the pandemic? I might try to extend our greetings each day by two, three words.

It was a busy day, won’t go into all the details but among the more pleasant parts of it – an hour discussion with my Spanish friend from Barcelona Dr. Aurelia Mane Estrada – one of the more fascinating and close long time connections. A professor of Political Economy at the University of Barcelona and some kind of Dean there in change of international students… we have been fast friends for 25 years. What brought us together, oddly enough, was a common interest in the modern history of Algeria. She was writing her doctoral thesis on Algeria since independence. For my own personal reasons, I have woven the Algerian Revolution and post colonial Algeria into most of my courses and on occasion, to this day, still write about it.

We met on-line. It was “mutual interest at first sight”… and our intellectual and personal relationship has only grown from there. We hadn’t spoken to one another for a good two years, time to reconnect I thought. She felt likewise.

Once I was able to organize a teaching stint for her at the University of Denver’s Korbel School of International Studies – as I remember for about a month. We team taught what was one of the best classes of my teaching career – Energy and Democracy in the Middle East – (the title was something to that effect). It was a joint senior-graduate level seminar and one of the only classes I taught that I still both have the notes and readings for but also actually look at them even now in retirement. On occasion we’ve published a few articles together as well.

Mostly now we relate on Skype.

Nancy and I had considered a trip to Spain in the fall, but I would imagine that the Coronavirus will prevent that. We wanted to visit Spanish Andalusia, the region of Southern Spain where, for one glorious moment, there was one of the richest interchanges in history between Moslems, Christians and Jews. Granted it was 1000 years ago, but still – an example of what is possible – cooperation, interchange, dialogue rather than intellectual – or otherwise – guerrilla warfare.

Our discussions are usually about the political economy of Europe, the Middle East, North Africa, Russia, etc. Aurelia is first class experts on these subjects, has written widely on them and I have a feeling is one of Spain’s foremost experts. I almost always come away with some new insight, some intellectual jewel, some book I have to read, etc.

But today the discussions were more personal. She’s met my family both in Colorado and back East and I have met her mother and life-long wonderful circle of friends in Barcelona. How is very body (in my circle) she asked, wanting details – and really caring about how our daughters and grandson are, how are my sisters and their families back East. I do likewise. How is her mother, living alone in her mid eighties across town in Barcelona. How is that wonderful circle of friends?

2. The Coronavirus viewed from Barcelona and Denver.

And then of course, the Coronavirus came up as one would expect it would these days. Madrid is getting clobbered, Barcelona is in trouble but not as bad. She’s self isolating and trying “teach on-line” which is tedious and takes up most of her day.

Neither of us is in a panic, and yet we shared the same fears which we openly shared to one another – and which I share here.

She’s very worried about the United States, the laxity of the response, the utter irresponsibility of the Trump Administration’s response – or more precisely its lack of response until lately, the chaos of a country that doesn’t have a national healthcare system. I don’t remember her exact words but it was along the lines that Spain is much poorer country that the USA but will be able to handle the crisis better because it, to the contrary, has a national healthcare system that is open and responsible to everybody. Whatever criticisms she has of her country she is deeply grateful for that.

But she worried about the American response for another reason: she isn’t sure that the USA can handle sustained suffering. There is nothing – no matter how turbulent the 20th century was in the America – that compares to the horrors of the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939) and then the decades of living under the seethingly fascist Franco dictatorship. Other places in Europe – and Asia – suffered the horrors of World War II, Nazi military occupation in the western parts, Nazi policy of extermination against Jews, Poles, Soviets, anyone left of center in Eastern Europe and the then USSR.

THAT level of sustained systematic suffering on a global regional scale is unknown here both an obvious advantage, but in some ways a disadvantage. Americans – unless they served in the Armed Forces in such a far flung (for us) place as Korea, Vietnam, Guatemala – has not experienced war and most of us therefore, our rhetoric aside, don’t take it seriously. For Europeans, war, repression, “fascism” in a word is a part of the national consciousness. Although more recently far right proto fascist group are on the rise, for most of the past 75 years since the end of WW 2, the memory of war was present and vivid.

I think she’s right about that. Europeans don’t make sit-coms about Nazi concentration camps. I wish we didn’t either.

In the end, our fears were more or less the same – on an individual level the pain of knowing that if someone close gets the virus and dies from it that they will die alone, without family and friends. How terrible a thought that is, and how real and shattering it is for more and more Americans as well as people all over the world. I suppose with the death of a loved one there really never is closure – at least that my experience, management of sorrow over time perhaps, but no closure, none whatsoever. And with this pandemic, there is even less, no way – given whatever the rituals of society – to say good bye.

Our hearts went out to those who have suffered in this way and those who will in the weeks and months ahead. That is one heck of a lot of shattered people who are left the world over. Aurelia worries about her mother who lives on the other side of Barcelona.  I have my own worries.

So there were personal, emotional considerations…

But there were other, broader societal worries, as the shadow of fascism spreads over much of the world, certainly both in both our countries, Spain and the USA. It’s not here in either place, but growing in both.

This has been on my mind for some time – frankly even before Trump became president. Aurelia sees the fascist germ – like the Coronavirus, but at a slower but steady pace – growing throughout Europe. She brought the subject: the ways in which the powers that be – governments, multi-national corporations – are using – perhaps “misusing” is more appropriate – the current crisis to push their own neo-liberal agenda – a living example of Naomi Klein’s “The Shock Doctrine” similar to what happened in Chile when the Allende government was overthrown.

We both see this pandemic as the first round of a global corporate take over – the attempt to privatize medical care completely, the privatization and intensified use of surveillance, the further erosion of the public sphere and government role in the country’s economic life, the breakdown of social bonds necessitated on some level by social distancing. How to re-establish human connections in an age when so many young folk – and not just them – have their nose in their cell phones, already a kind of pandemic of self-isolation before the Coronaviris?

Such agendas are being played out globally, in Spain, here in the USA and elsewhere.

Without going into details let me cite two examples that I just learned about today…

  • One of the limits of the stimulus package is that there is no funding to keep the U.S. Postal Service alive and postal officials stated publicly that without that, the U.S. Postal Service will collapse in two months. This is the culmination of decades of Republican Party attempts to privatize the post office. First funding is cut; because funding is cut, service suffers. Republicans than talk about the inefficiencies of public concerns that they themselves and their Democratic patsies (like Joe Biden) have put in place. Then the argument for these inefficiencies is used to eliminate the institution. The Post Office!
  • Then there is Andrew Cuomo, the governor of New York state. On the one hand he has emerged in this crisis as a kind of national hero – my relatives in New York area are very impressed and on a certain level so am I. But he plays a two-edge game. On the one hand he’s legitimately critical of the Trump Administration and calling for more federal aid.  On the other hand, Cuomo is fighting to protect the rich and impose austerity, including devastating Medicaid cuts, on everyone else.

There’s something special about an  open discussion with someone whose life experience is somewhere else in the world, someone with whom one can speak with honestly and in a kind of intimate manner.  Such friendships put a needed dent in the xenophobic nationalism ravaging the United States as much as the pandemic. Always, it seems, out of step with the times, as the United States become more narrowly nationalist, I feel just the opposite – more like a world citizen, that we’re “all in this together” – whether it’s to reverse climate change and global warming, or eliminate the threat of nuclear war.

I wish every American had such a friend, like my friend, Aurelia.

 

3 Comments leave one →
  1. William Conklin permalink
    April 1, 2020 7:09 am

    This is an extremely important article. One of the biggest dangers to the world Is the takeover by corporate fascism while the sheep are in their pens

  2. Sarge Cheever permalink
    April 1, 2020 3:06 pm

    It’s Andrew Cuomo, not Mario.   Don’t get senile on us.   Sarge

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