Small memories from my transitional hometown (Washington D.C.)


Just barely 48 hours after coming to Washington, still not a full-fledged Executive Director, around seven in the evening of a dark October night, I stopped and looked up to admire the beautiful building of the National Geographic Society, especially its illumination, when suddenly I was thrown to the pavement by a third-rate version of He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named who kept pushing a handgun into my belly while loudly demanding my watch and my wallet. The watchstrap had just broken, and so I had placed it in my pocket and had a hard time getting it out while being held down. After seconds turned into minutes, I was relieved of my wallet, with too much cash in it, although the watch, when I finally got it out, was scornfully rejected with a “Keep it!” Meanwhile my side of the street had of course emptied completely. 

Shocked, I walked a block and entered a liquor store (I don’t know why) where they immediately called the police, who arrived in seconds. We started to discuss the incident. As it all had happened just blocks away from the World Bank building and the White House, I inquired whether this really could be considered a dangerous area of the city. The policeman told me no, it was a safe area, but, as people did not go any longer to the unsafe areas, all these small-time criminals had to come and search for their victims here. Although I strongly disagreed with reducing my assaulter to a “small-time criminal,” as an economist I could identify with his looking for the appropriate market for his activity.

The policeman, very kindly, perhaps because he also had a Polish surname, presented his sincere excuse on behalf of Washington, with a “You know, this happens in all big cities.” I, though grateful for his attitude, could just not resist letting out an “I know, but I come from Caracas, Venezuela, and we never see such incidents there.” At that moment, I felt a lot better, so much so that I even left the liquor store empty-handed.

Days later, I found the incident reported by the police in “District Events,” and that clipping became my first souvenir from Washington.

P.S. The last time I had been attacked, it was at knifepoint in the very shady port of Buenaventura, in Colombia, in 1966. At that time, the events featured the following incredible dialogue: “Give me your money!” “I don’t have any money” “Come on, you must have hidden it—perhaps in your shoes?” “Well . . . perhaps?” “Well, if you care about the money enough to hide it in your shoes, then we don’t take it.” And that was it! 

I always think back to this incident as the night I discovered some very particular ethics among Buenaventura’s hoodlums.

Washington and the GPS (Global Positioning System)

When I arrived in Washington I got to know the modern GPS systems that allow you to drive your car exactly where you want to go. Truly amazing although, as I probably said before somewhere, being able to lose yourself should still be a human right since otherwise how could you ever be able again to enjoy finding yourself. I still remember with much nostalgic enjoyment those many hours my wife and I spent, over and over again, just trying to get back into the City of London. That was true quality time together—the two of us against the world! 

But let’s not cry over times gone by. Let’s look at it all from a more constructive and positive angle. As far as I see it, with GPS, you really don’t need to have signs on poles display the street addresses any more. So, GPS opens up a world of new financial opportunities for governments. For instance: for how much could you auction away on e-Bay the rights for a corporation to have its name supplant that of Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, for two months? Toyota Avenue? I am sure that would provide some politically correct fiscal income that could come in quite handy.

But then again, if there’s ever a place you need a GPS, it has to be here. No matter how much this country has and says it thrives on diversity, it is amazing how its citizens then blend all the diversity together to come up with an absolute uniform product. I have seen the same suburb, the same mall, and the same street with the same stores, appearing at least under a thousand different GPS coordinates.

Snowing in Washington

Yes, it had snowed a little, but never would I have imagined when I arrived for an early-morning conference at the World Bank that I would find the meeting had been suspended because of “inclement weather.” Later I came to understand. Just a minimum amount of snow creates total havoc in Washington. The snow covers the streets for days and except for those few corners that are shoveled clean by some tropical Salvadorian saviors living up to their name, it will have to melt away either through warmth or tons of salt. The schools also shut down for any little flurry and although the news of this is received with great joy by all children, my daughter first among them, but nonetheless of course, not braving it will only make it harder for Washingtonians to conquer their weakness through Darwinian evolution. Indeed, Washington is a great and beautiful city and although it is the capital of the world’s mightiest nation it has also its Achilles’ heel. It could be completely shut down with just a couple of strategically located snowmakers.

This would never have happened to John Wayne

About the same week as the United States Congress refused to renew some make-it-at-least-a-little-bit-difficult rules with respect to the purchase of automatic guns, a Colombian coffee shop duly named Juan Valdez was opened quite close to the WB in Washington. Mr. Juan Valdez himself attended the opening and stood there outside so that anyone who so wished could have a photograph taken with him. He was clad in his traditional white country suit, patting his traditional donkey—but with a machete holster that in the new traditions of some code-alert colors had been emptied. I felt so sorry for him having to stand there with no machete! What a shame! How come that in the land of Hollywood they were not able to come up with an innocuous substitute for his machete? Well, this would never have happened to John Wayne. Out of solidarity, I refused to have my photo taken with Juan Valdez. You have to respect a man when he needs to be alone. 

A monument to transparency.

I have no idea what is to come out of it and I have no idea whether it has anything to do with true accountability but, in my book at least, The 9/11 Commission Report, that in its 567 pages contains the Final Report of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks upon the United States, and that can be bought in any supermarket for less than ten dollars is a true monument to transparency. I cannot imagine any other country being able to come out with so much information on a so sensitive a public issue in so short a time after the events. We, the rest of the world, should stand in awe in front of it! That, of course, does not imply not being critical of many other things going on in the United States, that land of contradictions.