Sometimes, the famed psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud admitted, “a cigar is only a cigar.”
But sometimes real and familiar phenomena can achieve greatly enhanced status by becoming important and powerful symbols.
That’s how it was, back in the 1970s when 5 legendary leaders of what was, back-then, called the third of Underdeveloped World formed the Non-aligned Movement. This large-scale collaboration show-cased the ambitions of such global political stars as Nehru of India, Sukarno of Indonesia, Nasser of Egypt, Nkrumah of Ghana and the host of the first formal meeting, Tito of Yugoslavia.
It’s title – the Non-Aligned Movement — was itself a declaration of symbolic liberation of the less-than-great powers from the domination of the Cold War super-powers, the US and Russia and their mostly-European allies.
The alliance was meant to compensate countries left out of the loop of economic and political influence through the creation of a loop of its own.
But symbolic loops down generate much power, and the NAM quickly became an alliance in name only, whose movements tended to be more talk than action. Today, there are 120 member states in the Non-Aligned Movement, and on the eve of their latest international conference, the benefits of membership remain mostly symbolic.
For example, the symbolic honor of the Presidency of the NAM…which this week will transfer from Iran to the host of the conference, Venezuela. Much pomp and circumstance will be devoted, particularly by the Venezuelan Government news media, to this event, and to the glory it is supposed to lend to Venezuela’s leader President Nicolas Maduro.
Unfortunately, the reality of the conference, like the reality of the NAM, will showcase dysfunctions on a symbolic level.
For instance, have you ever heard of a global conclave of these proportions being run on a BYO basis? The Venezuelan Embassies of the state delegations expected for this week’s conference on Margarita Island have, for weeks, according to sources on the island, been bringing in, not only their own beer and wine, but food.
On the resort island of Margarita, as in most of Venezuela, a large scale of the population goes to bed hungry many nights. Thus, Venezuelan TV can be expected to show much of the circus aspects of the conference, but not the usual bread-on-the-table images of the nightly banquets. The contrast between diplomatic life on-screen and real life at home in front of it might be too dangerously cruel.
Joshua Goodman is the Associated Press Buro ChIef for Panama and Northern South America, based in Bogota, Colombia.