Monday, December 20, 2004

Hotel Rwanda: Revisited

We had a review of this film a little while back but here is another one - PolPop

By Louis Proyect

As drama, "Hotel Rwanda" is very good. Politically and historically, it has some serious flaws.

It is based on the true story of a Hutu named Paul Rusesabagina (played brilliantly by Don Cheadle), who sheltered Tutsis in the swank hotel he managed in Rwanda's capital. In an extraordinary act of courage reminiscent of Oskar Schindler, he repeatedly buys off or cajoles Hutu soldiers who have come to the hotel bearing death lists to spare the Tutsis who have taken refuge there. Unlike Stephen Spielberg's treatment of Schindler, Irish director and screenplay author Terry George does not romanticize Rusesabagina. The hotel manager appears driven by feelings of neighborliness and decency rather than a desire to be a hero. In the early scenes of the film, when his Hutu beer wholesaler is revealed with a cache of machetes obviously intended to be used in the coming massacre, Rusesabagina remains silent. He only decides to take action when a next door Tutsi neighbor is beaten mercilessly and then dragged off by a uniformed Hutu death squad.

Ultimately, however, the message of the film is similar to that of "Welcome to Sarajevo" which blamed Western indifference for an alleged genocide against the Bosnian Muslims. Since the Tutsis were black, the indifference took on racist aspects. In a key scene, Nick Nolte playing a UN soldier tells Cheadle that the Tutsis are doomed because they are the wrong color.

Terry George was clearly influenced by New Yorker reporter Philip Gourevitch, who included Paul Rusesabagina's story in his 1999 "We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will be Killed With Our Families: Stories from Rwanda". In an interview with Gourevitch in connection to a PBS documentary on Rwanda, we discover that he views the slaughter of Tutsis as having the same logic as the Holocaust:

"What distinguishes Rwanda is a clear, programmatic effort to eliminate everybody in the Tutsi minority group because they were Tutsis. The logic was to kill everybody. Not to allow anybody to get away. Not to allow anybody to continue. And the logic, as Rwandans call it, the genocidal logic, was very much akin to that of an ideology very similar to that of the Nazism vis-à-vis the Jews in Europe, which is all of them must be gotten rid of to purify in a sense the people."

To Gourevitch's credit, he also acknowledges the role of European colonialism in fostering enmity against the Tutsi in the interview. His comments are echoed in a scene from the film in the hotel's bar, where a Rwandan journalist blames the Belgians for the unfolding bloodlust. Gourevitch states:

"Rwanda's population essentially consists of two groups, the Hutu majority (roughly 85%), the Tutsi minority (roughly 15%). There's a tiny minority of Pygmies as well. Until the late 19th century, which is to say, until European colonization, Tutsis (the minority) represented the aristocratic upper classes; Hutus were the peasant masses. The Europeans brought with them an idea of race science, by which they took this traditional structure and made it even more extreme and more polarized into an almost apartheid-like system. And ethnic identity cards were issued, and Tutsis were privileged for all things, and Hutus were really made into a very oppressed mass."

What Gourevitch omits (at least in this interview), however, is the economic crisis that raised this ethnic division to a qualitatively more lethal degree. It is modern *neocolonialism* rather than 19th century colonialism that is to blame for this.

More recently, Gourevitch has turned his attention to North Korea, which he regards as being under the grip of a "[James] Bond villain." He also covers the Iraq beat for the increasingly neoconservative New Yorker magazine, about which he states, "The President cannot afford to lose Iraq."

Another high-profile commentator on the Rwandan genocide is Samantha Powers, who is an associate of Michael Ignatieff at Harvard's Carr Center for Human Rights Policy. Basically, Ignatieff and Powers position themselves as Wilsonian liberals urging the USA to intervene anywhere in the world where human rights are threatened. Between these Wilsonians and the neoconservatives in Bush's administration, the differences are less about the right of imperialism to make war but the rationale for such wars. With the Harvard liberals, you get a bit more angst thrown in with the war whoops.

In a 2001 Atlantic Monthly article titled "Bystanders to Genocide," Powers puts forward an analysis that dovetails with Gourevitch's and Terry George's:

"The story of U.S. policy during the genocide in Rwanda is not a story of willful complicity with evil. U.S. officials did not sit around and conspire to allow genocide to happen. But whatever their convictions about "never again," many of them did sit around, and they most certainly did allow genocide to happen. In examining how and why the United States failed Rwanda, we see that without strong leadership the system will incline toward risk-averse policy choices. We also see that with the possibility of deploying U.S. troops to Rwanda taken off the table early on­and with crises elsewhere in the world unfolding­the slaughter never received the top-level attention it deserved. Domestic political forces that might have pressed for action were absent. And most U.S. officials opposed to American
involvement in Rwanda were firmly convinced that they were doing all they could­and, most important, all they should­in light of competing American interests and a highly circumscribed understanding of what was "possible" for the United States to do."

For an alternative to these sorts of "the West should have done more" arguments, we can turn to Mahmood Mamdani, the Columbia professor and author of "When Victims Become Killers: Colonialism, Nativism, and the Genocide in Rwanda." He also wrote an article in the March-April 1996 New Left Review titled "Understanding the Rwandan Massacre" that is unfortunately not online. Fortunately, there is a good presentation of Mamdani's ideas in the December 1996 Socialist Review, the theoretical magazine of the British SWP by Charlie Kimber. Drawing from Mamdani's work and other critical-minded journalists and scholars, Kimber writes:

"From 1973 to about 1990, Rwanda was relatively peaceful. This had little to do with Habyarimana himself and much to do with the generally stable price of coffee and tin. The economic blizzard of the later 1980s caused havoc. The striped blazer brigade on the London commodity exchange traded Rwanda's coffee and tin. As they settled the claims of supply and demand, matched the purchasing power of the multinationals against the weakness of African countries, they were sealing the fate of peasants 6,000 miles away."

He has an extensive quote from Gerard Prunier's "The Rwanda Crisis" which is worth requoting in its entirety:

"The political stability of the regime followed almost exactly the curve of coffee and tin prices. For the elite of the regime there were three sources of enrichment: coffee and tea exports, briefly tin exports and creaming off foreign aid. Since a fair share of the first two had to be allocated to running the government, by 1988 the shrinking sources of revenue left only the third as a viable alternative. There was an increase in competition for access to this very specialised resource. The various gentlemen's agreements which had existed between the competing political clans started to melt down as the resources shrank and internal power struggles intensified."

"Internal battles meant not only further pressure on the Tutsi elite, but also more clashes between regional leaders who were Hutu. These battles were projected onto the much bigger screen of the tensions created over a century by colonialism and its aftermath. The countdown to murder had begun.

"In 1989 the government budget was cut by 40 percent. The peasantry faced huge increases in water fees, health charges, school fees, etc. Land became scarce as farmers tried to increase their holdings to make up for the fall in raw material prices. The peasantry (both Hutu and Tutsi) were on the verge of open rebellion by 1990. The state absorbed more and more of the land which parents hoped to pass on to their children. State tea plantations opened up new sources of foreign exchange but restricted family holdings. The IMF's structural adjustment programme for Rwanda was imposed in 1990. As usual it meant the removal of food subsidies, privatisation and devaluation ­ and job losses.

"The World Bank and the IMF took no account of the likely effects of their shock therapy on a country that was ripe for civil war and had a history of massacres.

"A second devaluation followed in June 1992. Just as the war began, these [economic changes] saw urban living standards cut and a dramatic decline in the standards of health care and education. Inflation accelerated... By 1993, there was acute hunger in much of southern Rwanda."

full: http://pubs.socialistreviewindex.org.uk/isj73/kimber.htm

What films like "Welcome to Sarajevo" and "Hotel Rwanda" miss is the fact that West *was* involved in places like Yugoslavia and Rwanda all along. The IMF and the World Bank did not neglect such places at all. They were intimately involved along the line with turning such countries into pressure cookers. If a country like Rwanda had simply been *left alone* to begin with, it is doubtful that conditions would have reached the bloody state that they did.

This is something that ideologues like Samantha Powers cannot acknowledge. Despite the fact that there is an element of human rights imperialism in "Hotel Rwanda," this should not detract from the personal story of Paul Rusesabagina. Terry George has made a very good film and Don Cheadle's performance is top-notch. "Hotel Rwanda" is appearing in theaters all around the USA right now and is well worth seeing, as opposed to the meretricious "Welcome to Sarajevo".

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