Monday, March 28, 2011

Biden visits Moldova!

Opera house decorated for the visit.
I know I’m a little behind on this one, but on March 11, Moldova played host to a very exciting visit from our Vice President, the Honorable Joseph Biden.  In case you missed it (his visit happened the same day as Japan’s earthquake and tsunami), here is the AP story.

The Vice President’s visit marked the highest level visit of a U.S. official to Moldova in its history.  Though he was only on the ground in Moldova for 6 hours, you wouldn’t have known it from the country’s enthrallment in all things Biden for a good solid week before, and many days after as well.

Biden met with the government while Second Lady Dr. Jill Biden toured a wine cellar outside the capital with the Prime Minister’s wife.  The Vice President then gave a speech to a large crowd in front of the opera house (video embedded at the end of the post), which was followed with further meetings, and then a closed door event for U.S. Embassy Staff and Peace Corps Volunteers.  Needless to say, volunteers were more excited than even the Moldovans, and I’m not just talking about your own political junkie of a blogger here.

The only picture I've been able to find that offers proof I met the Vice President.
Where's Zach? Look to the left, in the top row.  It's a little like Where's Waldo...
(click to enlarge)

Perhaps the most fascinating thing for me about this visit is getting to see the “story behind the news story.”  The article linked to above makes some questionable generalizations about Moldova and then goes on to mention a lot of the standard things one reads about these types of visits.  Types of things like, “cheering crowds of Moldovans gathered waving American flags.”

What the news stories didn’t capture is just how many Americans were in that crowd, or the fact that those American flags were handed out by the Vice President’s advance team (along with Moldovan flags).  Nor does it mention the fact that we shut down the entire capital city of a country for three days before the event.

Apparently, the seal is carried in
a small bag not unlike a laptop case.
I almost, in fact, didn't make it in past the first security check point.  It was vacation and we figured two hours early was more than sufficient.  But the Moldovan police controlling the first check point were nervous, and we were unwilling to use our passports to gain "special" access.  Not so of the Moldovan friend I luckily had brought with me.  He understood that when the police said "No more admission", what they really meant was "Stick around for a bit and convince us."  The almost-irony is that after the friend convinced the police that as Americans really must be allowed to enter, they didn't want to let him through.  At this point, however, we Americans had caught on, and stuck around standing one the "in" side of the perimeter arguing that he was here with us, also by special invitation.  It worked.  Eventually, we ended up on the stage right behind Biden.

The Vice President's motorcade,
note the D.C. plates.
(click to enlarge)
Watching the spotters on the roof of the opera house above where Biden spoke, the three concentric circles of airport security set up around the perimeter, and the fleet of armored SUVs that were flown on a separate plane from D.C., the overwhelming sentiment, a sentiment not captured by the press, is that these are the trappings of an empire.  It’s a statement I have always pushed back against, but standing at street level in the midst of an impoverished country, sharing the same vantage point as Moldovans, the contrasts become a lot sharper.  None of that is to question the Vice President’s security precautions, or suggest that the visit wasn’t an extremely positive development.  It’s just striking, seeing the difference between the printed and lived version of events.

And it was then, that my thoughts turned back to something I had been wondering about earlier: the meaning of the spectacle.  It was an easy parlor game before the Vice President got here, predicting what he would say. The content of the speech itself was indeed entirely predictable, as of course it should be – surprises make for poor diplomacy.  Still, listening as Biden carefully kept to the inspirational and avoided the previous administration’s penchant for lecturing, I kept wondering if even this positive tone would seem trite in a country that plunged itself into poverty and instability in pursuit of democracy.

It was much easier to set analytics aside during the separate meet and greet for Americans.  Biden delivered another speech, largely geared at the Embassy Staff, in which he emphasized the talent of our diplomats, and the career and lifestyle sacrifices their spouses make.

Biden speaking to Americans: PCVs and Embassy Staff.
Finally, we got to what we all considered the main event for the day: when Biden came over to speak with PCVs personally.  It may not sound like much, but those 10-15 minutes of the VP’s time when there was a plane and a budget battle waiting meant a lot.  He even asked our opinion on a few things.  When speaking with us, he emphasized the importance of progress against human trafficking, which has been a huge problem for Moldova.  We’re not sure if he was told ahead of time, but that’s an initiative Peace Corps Moldova spends a lot of time working with, so it was gratifying to hear.  My friend Melissa, a board member of our anti-trafficking initiative, was so excited she basically dedicated her whole blog post about his visit to the issue.

Later that night, I visited my old PST host family in Bardar, not far from the capital.  The visit was long overdue, so I was thankful for the distraction of Biden’s visit to break the tension and move us beyond the conversation of why I hadn’t been back to visit earlier.  We watched the news – twice, once for the bias of each political faction – and never once heard mention of the nuclear and humanitarian crises unfolding half a world away.  No, on this night, Moldova’s attention was turned entirely toward the U.S and Biden.

Watching the news that night, it would have been just as easy to predict what each channel was going to say.  The thing about being an empire, if that is in fact what we are, is that omnipresence becomes self-inflating, a blank canvas onto which people can paint all their hopes, or all the world’s problems.

Biden speaking to Peace Corps.
And so it was.  The communists mostly complained about the blocked traffic, the cost to Moldova (far less than the quarter of a billion dollar Millennium Challenge Corporation grant Biden announced), and noted that when Brezhnev visited it was much more transparent, as evidenced by the fact that he rode in an open top car.  The pro-Western government, meanwhile, said the visit is was historic occasion, marking Moldova’s democratic progress, a reward bestowed for the virtues of the government’s reforms.  Both sides seemed to neglect the problems of human trafficking and harder reforms ahead that Biden alluded to.

During commercial breaks and in between news hours, my old host parents remarked on just how important this visit was.  About what it meant to them, as former citizens of a country forcibly added to the USSR as a compromise at the end of WWII, to have the Vice President of the United States visit their country, and how they never thought they would see that day.  About how for the majority of their lives, they had been told we were evil, the enemy, the other out to destroy their way of life.  And how after forty years of this, they had opened their home and culture and family to not one but 5 Americans, and now, they were seeing the Vice President speak to their people, a sign of just how far they had come.

And so my thoughts returned to the question of the value of these visits.  The meaning of the spectacle.  We hear a lot that official visits are “symbolic”, but symbolism is a vague concept, and especially in international relations, it can feel a bit impossible to pin down what a “symbolic visit” means in tangible terms.  As it turns out, what it means depends a lot on where one stands.  For my host parents, at least, it was the crystallization of the struggles of the past twenty years.

All that time, while we volunteers had been looking at the fact that Biden was here just six hours, we were missing the story.  For many Moldovans, Biden was here for a whole six hours. Within that subtle change of vocabulary lies a world of meaning.

I made it onto the stage behind the Vice President, though the most you'll probably be able to catch of me is the occasional wave of my flag.  Many of the people in the shot behind Biden are Peace Corps Volunteers, albeit ones who had arrived earlier than I.

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