[Marxism] Hotel Rwanda
lnp3 at panix.com
Sun Dec 19 12:38:29 MST 2004
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.
"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
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
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
"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."
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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