Kleptowatch Catch: U.N. 2011

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Rwandan President Paul Kagame
Rwandan President Paul Kagame / REUTERS

The streets of New York were awash in luxury. The city’s fanciest hotels stood roped off for security, while fleets of Bentleys, Mercedes and BMWs clogged midtown traffic. The priciest uptown retailers and restaurants were jammed.

No, the Academy Awards had not moved east, and with the exception of a few marquee names like Arnold Schwarzenegger and Matt Damon, the visitors weren’t movie stars. Rather, presidents and diplomats from around the world, many from countries marked by massive poverty, converged on New York for the annual opening of the United Nations General Assembly.

The doings in New York offered a one-stop glimpse at the pervasive disconnect between the lifestyles of the political elite in much of the world and conditions back home. For the anointed, no restaurant was too posh, no hotel too expensive, no clothier or jeweler too chic–regardless of the struggle for survival that marks the lives of their countrymen, or the lack of accountability for government officials in the countries they represent.

At the Mandarin Oriental, President Paul Kagame of Rwanda claimed the coveted presidential suite, hitting his countrymen with a tab of $16,000 a night, according to the New York Post–a sum it would take the average Rwandan nearly 15 years to earn. Before coming to New York, Kagame was feted at Carnegie Mellon University, which announced plans to open a branch in Kigali, the Rwanda capital.

The Mandarin Oriental’s website touts it as “the most breathtaking luxury hotel in New York.”  At the pinnacle of that opulence is the two-room presidential suite, of a luxury likely beyond the imagining of Mr. Kagame’s countrymen. The walls of the bedroom are upholstered in silk. “The master bath, outfitted with honey onyx walls, features separate over-sized soaking tub and glass-enclosed steam & shower for two,” the website notes. “The Suite features over [US $100,000] of state-of-the-art Bang & Olufsen entertainment technology, including a 65 inch plasma screen television, five independent audio zones, and Blu-ray HD-DVD player.”

Kristina Fernandez de Kirchner with Mexican President Felipe Calderon in 2010 / REUTERS

Also staying at the Mandarin Oriental, where lesser suites ran $2,000 a night and up that week, was Dilma Roussef, Brazil’s president, and Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, the president of Argentina. For the presidents and diplomats visiting the city, the lavish hotels were an unnecessary expense: each had the option of staying at their country’s mission in New York.

Before coming to the United Nations, Kirchner had reportedly stopped in Paris with her daughter, where she prepped for a meeting with President Nicolas Sarkozy by buying 20 pairs of Christian Louboutin shoes. Initial reports suggested that Kirchner had paid an average of $5,500 a pair for the distinctive red-soled confections, brought to her hotel room at the swanky George V by a personal shopper. A visit to the company’s website, however, shows its prices range from about $545 a pair for ballet flats to $4,645 for crocodile pumps.

Back in Buenos Aires, Kirchner’s office denied she had spent $110,000 on shoes. The Argentine president, known for not wearing the same outfit twice, is running for re-election on a neo-Peronist, populist platform, and the Louboutin episode is just the kind of story that threatens to deal a mortal blow to that image. Alfredo Scoccimarro, the presidential spokesman, branded the reports “a total invention, a total absurdity.”

Kirchner was not the only leader to indulge a taste for fashion far from home. Saudi royals staying at the Plaza stopped in for grooming at the uber-chic Warren-Tricomi salon, while officials from the Qatar dropped six figures at the bespoke men’s clothier Domenico Vacca.

Harry Cipriani, the Fifth Avenue restaurant where breadsticks go for $19.95 and a plate of lasagne for $36.95, was jammed every night with visiting public servants, whose limousines lined the block nightly. The Moroccan foreign minister, Taieb Fassi Fihri, stopped in, as did the Nigerian delegation. One night, Schwarzenegger reportedly turned up with friends for the $300-a-head champagne dinner, as did Matt Damon and Pierce Brosnan.

Bentley of the Moroccan delegation to the United Nations / Farhod Family for 100Reporters

Morocco shares a coast with Tunisia, site of the spark that ignited unrest throughout the Arab world this year, but somehow seemed not to have heeded the warning emanating from the east. Morocco’s foreign minister tooled around town in his delegation’s Bentley–a car that, stripped down, starts at US $205,700.

An employee at Harry’s New York Bar on Central Park South, who declined to give his name, said delegations of diplomats stopped in from Morocco, Nigeria, Argentina, Lebanon and Equatorial Guinea–an oil rich kleptocracy where the average citizen’s life expectancy is 50.6 years old.

Nor was Nello, the recherché uptown eatery to the stars, where dinner for one typically tops $100, out of bounds.  In its review of the restaurant, New York magazine noted that while the food is excellent at Nello, “eating is not a particularly important activity. What counts at Nello is being seen at Nello: seen in your Chanel, your St. John’s knits, your tailored Italian sut; seen canoodling on the banquette with your co-star . . .”

The owner, Nello Balan, was gratified by the crowds. “It was a very busy week,” he told 100Reporters. Nello had served “most of the royals from the Middle East,” a source at the restaurant said, as well as some “European dignitaries.”

Balan, whose restaurant charges $26 for an appetizer of four slices of roast beets with goat cheese, said it was “a bit unfair” to criticize the visitors for living it up in New York, wherever they call home. “When people come to New York and they help the economy, then we end up criticizing them. Why they spend $3,000 on a coat? There are stores on Madison Avenue, and that’s what they charge for clothes. That’s not news. We should encourage people who visit New York to spend money.”

Not that Nello had suffered much with the turmoil roiling the economy. The crowds at Nello have remained healthy, the tables ever booked.

“We’re always busy,” Balan said, “but it’s always refreshing to see other cultures in the city.”

 

Diana Jean Schemo

Diana Jean Schemo

Diana Jean Schemo is co-founding executive editor of 100Reporters and an award-winning former foreign, national and cultural correspondent for The New York Times and the Baltimore Sun.

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