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Articles by: Judith Harris

  • The Bin Laden affair: “What will the U.S. do next?”

    The Navy Seals’ dramatic killing of Osama Bin Laden gripped all of Italy and its media for two or three days, but by the end of the week a nascent debate over its legality was swept aside by the continuing savage Syrian government attacks on demonstrators, by speculation that Greece will drop out of the Euro zone, and by domestic politics as the country gears up for administrative elections May 15-16. The daily drama of terrified Libyans on the island of Lampedusa also continues to hold center stage. Even as Pope Benedict XVI this Sunday called upon Venetians to be welcoming to immigrants, TV viewers watched heart-rending scenes taken during the night of May 7, when a fishing boat laden with 400 Libyans attempting to enter the Lampedusa port in rough seas ran aground on rocks. Horrified onlookers, including soldiers, police and ordinary citizens, immediately formed a human chain and handed the passengers, one by one, to shore. Not a life was lost—this time. But only the day before a similar boat sank off Sicily, with loss of life.
     

    On the governmental level, Italy remains solidly behind the U.S. on the Bin Laden affair. Foreign Minister Franco Frattini, who met this week in Rome with his U.S. counterpart Hillary Clinton, called the killing of Bin Laden “a reward for the efforts made by all of us who stood side by side with the U.S. in the fight against terrorism.” This is, he went on to say, “a victory of good over evil, of right over wrong, of the free and democratic world.”

    In general the Italian media had special words praise for CIA chief Leon Panetta, taking care to remind readers that he is an Italian-American. For Corriere della Sera the CIA action was incredibly costly, but still, “just like a movie—a patient work of surveillance conducted with prudence.” Relations with Pakistan were already tense, the daily pointed out, because CIA agent Raymond Davis had wound up in a Pakistani jail after having killed two Pakistani secret servicemen under what appear mysterious circumstances, perhaps linked to the Bin Laden investigation.

    An editorial writer for the right-wing daily Il Foglio found it ironical that human rights associations had been endlessly battling the measures President George W. Bush had taken to combat terrorism, which included, as the writer pointed out, permitting overseas CIA actions like “black sites” and the Guantanamo prison. “But today the same critics who had attacked George Bush’s methods are keeping silent.” A law enacted by Bush the week after September 11 authorized the President to use “every possible means” against individuals who planned, authorized, committed or facilitated the attacks on the Twin Towers. “What counts therefore is the legal profile of the operation, which shows that to kill Bin Laden was not a violation of the law…. To kill Bin Laden was morally right and perfectly correct legally.”

    Writing for the daily La Repubblica, the prestigious Judge Antonio Cassese, who is professor of international law at the University of Florence and editor of the Journal of International Criminal Justice, took exactly the opposite tack. The U.S. violated its own principles, Cassese wrote May 6, first because it tried to acquire information through officially sanctioned torture. “Strangely enough, Leon Panetta, slated now to become Secretary of Defense, condemned torture in 2008, observing that it cannot be justified on grounds of national security.” Secondly, the operation violated the sovereignty of Pakistan, although—Cassese acknowledges—Islamabad was obliged to attempt to repress terrorism but did not do so: “In a certain sense, obviously neglecting to have taken action for years, in a certain sense Pakistan legitimized a substitutive action.” His third point is that the U.S. formally acted as an assassin because no state of war exists between the USA and Al Qaeda. Even if war status existed, the enemy can be killed on a battlefield, not while sitting at home watching TV; according to Cassese, Bin Laden should have been taken prisoner and put on trial. What the U.S. has done, he concludes, is to respect laws against summary execution and torture on U.S. soil while creating “a legal limbo” outside the U.S., where anything goes, including extra-judicial executions. “In which case, we have serious reasons to worry for the future about what is in store from the planetary superpower,” he concludes.

    As Cassese’s comments show, while there is little public debate today in Italy, on a serious level the U.S. decision to kill rather than to capture Bin Laden and put him on trial diminishes the U.S. reputation for setting a high benchmark in respect for international law. On the human level, reports that Bin Laden’s young daughter saw him being killed, and that his 70-year-old mother-in-law had a stroke and died when she heard the news, definitely struck a sour note in this country, where family ties still count. Finally, the televized scenes of soccer-match style celebration just after the news hit Washington and New York also distressed many here. Shock and awe may have a short shelf life in this case, but can return to haunt.

    But even in what is a tragic and difficult story there is always, also, a flippant level, and satirical cartoonists were busy at work. Down at our local café five grizzled farmers stood over their coffees and gazed at the headlines of the newspapers aligned on a rack. “Four,” one said marveling. “There are 365 days in the year. So there was at least one wife for every night of the year.” What mattered to them was not the moral issue, but a peek at polygamy.

  • Osama Bin Laden

    Bin Laden: A Thoughtful Vatican and a Concerned Italy

    ROME – Fearing a possible reaction from Bin Laden’s supporters, Interior Minister Roberto Maroni today announced heightened anti-terrorist measures in strategic sites such as airports. Elsewhere in Italy the killing of Osama Bin Laden on May 1 in a fortress hideout just 90 miles from Islamabad, built three years ago near a military training school, raised thoughtful questions and a few eyebrows. “And we’re to think that no one noticed a house with 16-foot walls?” asked one moderate Italian commentator. “Everyone knew that he was in hiding there all along,” said another.

    In a formal statement, official Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi said that, although Bin Laden had “sown hatred and division among peoples, causing the death of innumerable people, and had used religion for this purpose,” no Christian rejoices in the death of any man. He also expressed the hope that Bin Laden’s death would not spur further hatred, but become an occasion that works toward peace.
     
    For Renzo Guolo, professor of sociology of religion and an Islam specialist, “a phase has come to an end.” The charismatic Bin Laden was “a spiritual, caliph-like leader—an expression of the movement’s leadership, who also brought funding to it, and this was important.” His demise dealt Al Quaeda a hard blow, but nevertheless “more symbolic than strategic” since Al Quaedismo did not die with its leader. In recent years Bin Ladin has had no territorial base from which to take action, but over the last two decades, and especially since September 11, his Quaedism ideology has made notable inroads, Guolo said.

    In addition, “This marks the end of the hypothesis that Al Quaeda was the locomotive of change in the Islamic world—it turns out this came from others, including the Muslim Brotherhood, seeking grass roots Islamism of the masses, a concept opposed by Bin Laden. The Islamist forces which are fighting against their regimes are not part of Al Quaedism. Guolo’s carefully reasoned video commentary can be seen at: http://tv.repubblica.it/mondo/guolo-colpo-al-qaedismo

    Veteran foreign policy analyst Vittorio Zucconi, who has U.S. as well as Italian citizenship, similarly makes the point that, ““The head of a serpent was cut off, but the serpent is still there, and all the malignant cells., but now we’ll see just how much Bin Laden counted, or if at some point he simply stopped counting.” Ten years after Bush said they would take him out the U.S. did even though after a decade most Americans thought that he’d never be taken. “But let’s recall that during the fire fight one of the two Navy Seals helicopters was damaged. Now we know too that Bin Laden himself participated. It’s a symbolic victory, but let’s wait and see what happens in the Arab piazzas.” There’s some reason to fear that there may be a vendetta, he concluded.

    In an obvious reference to Italy’s participation in the NATO raids in Libya, Antonio Di Pietro, the leader of the Italia dei Valori party, said: “The killing of Bin Laden, and the way it was conducted, shows that you fight terrorism with police operations, intelligence sources and professionalism. These are the tools, not war, and not with so-called ‘intelligent’ bombs that in fact land just anywhere.”

    For once Di Pietro found an unusual ally in Umberto Bossi. In the background is Premier Silvio Berlusconi’s agreement, without informing Bossi’s Northern League, to allow Italian planes to bomb Libya as part of a NATO force. An angered Bossi, whose party is Berlusconi’s government partner, is forcing the issue to a vote in Parliament slated for Tuesday that would overturn Berlusconi’s agreement for Italian participation. In an ultimatum, Bossi said that, if Silvio Berlusconi does not sign the League’s motion opposing this extension of the Italian mission in Libya, “It means that he wants the government to collapse.” The raids in Libya, said Bossi, “serve no purpose but to kill people. Poor people, who’re forced to escape.”    

  • Massimo Ciancimino: Dynamite in the Garden of Justice

     ROME – He was a star witnesses, and in his testimony he tried to incriminate Premier Silvio Berlusconi. But when Mafia supergrass Massimo Ciancimino was caught falsely inserting the name of Gianni De Gennaro, a top Italian policeman, onto a list of alleged mafiosi, inquiring magistrates in Parma sent him straight to jail this week. Asked why he had forged De Gennaro’s name, Ciancimino replied that the previous week he had found three sticks of dynamite in his Palermo home and, terrified, had put them into a bucket of water and buried them so as not to frighten his family. This, of course, does not explain why he took matters into his own hands, literally burying dynamite in the garden instead of informing investigators.

    Possibly it is true that Ciancimino was threatened into taking an action that would muddy the judicial waters. But quite apart from his allegations of a Berlusconi-Mafia connection, his three years of testimony in three separate Mafia trials risk being compromised, even though prosecutors insist that, before accepting his testimony as credible, they had obtained confirmation, on every point, of Ciancimino’s allegations through testimony from other witnesses, phone and environmental taps and documents.

    Berlusconi’s political faithful could hardly fail to see this misstep as proof of the prosecutors’ general ineptitude, and an opportunity too good to pass up. The ponderous journalist Giuliano Ferrara, who these days is one of Premier Berlusconi’s closest advisors, has already called for one of the prosecutors who’d heard Ciancimino’s testimony, Antonio Ingroia, to be put on trial himself, supposedly to risk a 10-year sentence. 
     

    As right-wing journalist Filippo Facci (Libero, Il Foglio, Riformista) put it, “Everybody else had long since understood that Ciancimino was a proven liar, as well as a new kind of anti-Mafia media star—a trendy super-witness, at home in Roman drawing rooms and on Annozero [Ed.: the controversial TV talk show run by Michele Santoro], a welcome presence at the Feast of L’Unita’ and at Cortina, always ready, to hear him, to rewrite the history of Italy with clamourous revelations left on scraps of paper in the pocket of a jacket at the dry cleaner’s.” More seriously, in what amounts to a setback for the entire struggle against the Mafia, Berlusconi’s party is calling for a parliamentary commission to be created to investigate all pentiti.

    The man usually known here as “Ciancimino Junior” is the son of the Christian Democratic mayor of Palermo during the building boom Sixties, Vito Ciancimino, whose conviction for Mafia association and money laundering in 1992 brought him a 13-year prison term. He is believed to have salted away funds that have never been found, and Ciancimino Junior was arrested in mid-2006 on charges of money laundering. But then, testifying in Mafia trials in Palermo, Caltanisseta and Florence, Ciancimino provided magistrates with carefully dosed details from documents left by his father. He became a protected witness with bodyguards, and his testimony contributed to a recently revived investigation into the first known attempt on the life of prosecuting magistrate Giovanni Falcone, hero of the historic, two-year “maxi-trial” that ended in 1987.

    On June 19, 1989, two years after the maxi-trial brought 360 Mafia convictions for serious crimes, Falcone was vacationing in a rented house at Addaura, near Caltanissetta in Sicily, when twenty kilograms (44 pounds) of explosives were found in a gym bag alongside a snorkler’s wet suit and other diving gear at water’s edge on a beach where he was sun-bathing. Two policemen noticed the bag, and its contents did not explode. Subsequently Falcone was transferred to Rome, where he lived so cautiously that this reporter learned only after his death that he dined often in a tiny Roman trattoria in the piazza where I lived (and where I also dined regularly), and that, unable to sleep some nights, he wandered that same piazza restlessly. On a return trip to Palermo on May 23, 1992, Falcone was murdered by a Mafia bomb on the highway to the airport. His wife, Francesca Morvillo, and his three bodyguards also died.

    His murder put the unsolved question of what was behind Addaura in the background for a time, but gradually interest in it revived, along with suspicion of “Mafia infiltrations within the State and the secret services,” as a conservative Italian journal put it. One serious investigative reporter theorized that, lurking near the beach in addition to known mafiosi, there were also two separate and rival squads of secret servicemen: the good guys on the land who found the gym bag and, in a rubber boat, the bad guys in wet suits—or vice versa, went another version.

    It is true that Ciancimino became a popular figure making the anti-Mafia rounds. In May 2010, on the eve of the anniversary of Falcone’s murder, Ciancimino appeared on Michele Santoro’s evening talk show Annozero along with the Vice President of the Parliamentary anti-Mafia Commission and politicians of various stripes to talk about that presumed secret service connection. Ciancimino was there because, in a book written with the Sicilian journalist Licata, he had alleged that a secret serviceman with a scarred face, whom he knew only as “Signor Franco,” had been in contact with his father for years, and had met with Paolo Borsellino not long before a bomb killed that magistrate. In the book, Don Vito, written by Ciancimino together with Francesco La Licata, the two suggest that strands of the Addaura investigation lead into a sort of “war of the secret services.”

    Moreover, “The last time I saw him [Scarface], he was leaving the American Embassy to the Holy See.” That is, according to Ciancimino, rogue sectors of the secret services acted in concert with crooked Italian politicians, the Mafia and U.S. spooks hiding under the umbrella of the American Embassy to the Vatican. Did the judges believe this? It is doubtful. Indeed, the Caltanissetta prosecutors have flatly denied that Ciancimino ever identified the mysterious “Signor Franco,” and on the basis of the photos they showed him, are on record that he was unable to recognize the man he was describing. Nor was Ciancimino certain that the scar-faced man was in the secret services, the prosecutors said one year ago.

    In the meantime, prosecutors in Caltanissetta who reopened the 22-year-old Addaura investigation announced in January that they had found DNA traces on the wet suit, T-shirt and mask found with the bag of explosives. They have now matched it to Angelo Galatolo, described as the “boss of Acquasanta.” The latest twist: Totò Riina, the imprisoned Cosa Nostra boss, has just been named as the sponsor (mandante) behind the supposedly terrorist bombing of a train in the Val di Sambro near Naples in December 1984, when 15 people died. The explosives based on Brixia B5 dynamite, say investigators, was the same used for the bombing that killed Paolo Borsellino—and that was in the gym bag left on the beach at Addaura.

  • Blasting Off the Nuclear Referendum (and Others)

    ROME – Last week the Italian government headed by Silvio Berlusconi managed to quash a referendum, slated to take place June 12, that imposes a year-long moratorium on planned construction of nuclear power plants. But what sounds like a positive step—the moratorium—was in effect a cunning act of sleight of hand.

    First, if the anti-nuclear referendum were to pass, as was probable, it would have been a slap in the face of the government while slamming the door to construction of nuclear power plants for at least a generation. Ironically this maneuver seems to contradict a government decree of 2008 calling for construction of nuclear plants, later converted into law. But in fact the moratorim was a holding action intended to gain time until public fears, fanned by the reactor disaster in Japan, subside. 

    The blocking action paves the way for canceling the vote on two other referenda slated for that same day. Both challenge policies dear to Berlusconi and his allies: voting for or against the commercial privatization of water and, of vital importance to Berlusconi personally, for or against a law known here as “legitimate impediment,” which allows high-level politicians to beg off being tried for alleged misdeeds on grounds they are too busy with matters of state. In other words, passage in the Senate last week of the amendment to a government decree imposing a nuclear moratorium threatens the other two.
     

    Despite Fukushima, Berlusconi, backed by the Confindustria (Italy’s National Association of Manufacturers) remains enthusiastically pro-nuclear, as he confided to a group of 24 foreign journalists attending a four-hour supper with him two weeks ago. What he is lobbying for is construction, at a cost estimated at $60 billion, of advanced-generation EPR reactors with a 60-year shelf life for to be built together with the French nuclear agency. Jobs for up to 6,000 Italian workers are promised.

    But the Italian public has long been hostile to nuclear power, and the ongoing disaster in Japan has done little to change their minds. The planned referendum against it therefore showed every sign of being passed and once again blocking construction of nuclear plants for decades. The arguments against it are well known: Italy is one big earthquake fault-line, and has suffered serious quake from Friuli in the Alps down through the Abruzzi, the Irpinia valley, Assisi and Sicily. Tuscania in the Lazio Region and even Rome itself suffered quake damage at the Campidoglio, repaired—again with a touch of irony—by the Japanese. An obvious further problem is that the entire Italian territory husbands a uniquely rich artistic and archaeological heritage which any nuclear accident could destroy. 

    Referendum voting was first possible in Italy in 1972, and at that time efforts began to put nuclear power onto the public agenda. Nevertheless, that became possible only in 1987 in the aftermath of the Chernobyl disaster. That vote successfully imposed a total block on construction of nuclear power plants for nearly a quarter of a century, leaving Italy the sole non-nuclear country among the Group of Eight industrialized nations. As a result, Italy must therefore purchase almost all of its power from abroad, including electric power generated in nuclear facilities in neighboring France, while Russia and, at least until now, Libya supply the bulk of Italian purchases of petroleum and natural gas. 

    In case anyone missed the point, the reasoning behind the moratorium was spelled out by Emma Marcegaglia, the pro-nuclear head of the Confindustria; that public opinion polls were showing that an “emotional” response to Fukushima was propelling referendum voters to vote anti-nuclear. At stake moreover is the water referendum, which—if trounced—would cost the manufacturers something in the neighborhood of $80 billion over the next three decades. If privatization of supplying water to homes and factories and farms is permitted, capital investments by water suppliers would be repaid by the government, which is to say by tax payers. The prospects are alluring enough that Italian business page headlines speak of water as “blue gold.”

    As for the third referendum the government is intent upon sinking, any overturning of the “legitimate impediment” bill would be an obstacle on the road to elections for president of Italy, scheduled for 2013, when Giorgio Napolitano must retire. 

  • Playing it for laughs

    This week Premier Silvio Berlusconi was handing out awards to a group of particularly deserving Rome University students when he slipped into high entertainment gear. First he suggested that master of ceremonies Andrea Rocchi, who was handing out the academic awards, shave off his little beard (“It looks like you’re hiding a malformation”), then go see a doctor about his thinning hair and, while he was at it, also change his brown shoes to black to match poor Rocchi’s (obviously ill-fitting) black suit. Following this Berlusconi told a hackneyed and slightly off-color joke in which an Italian male explains to a dull-witted German man how to seduce a woman. In the version told to the students in their Sunday best, Berlusconi said, “You take Champagne and dribble it here and there and then you, er, lick it off…to which the German guy asks, ‘Can you do the same thing using beer?’ (This racism-tinged story seems to have originated in Belgium as a put-down by a French-speaker to his dull-witted Flemish fellow citizen.) Lastly, turning his attention to two of the young women prize-winners, Berlusconi said enthusiastically, “You’re so pretty, you can come to a bunga bunga party.”  

    There is no way of knowing the students’ reactions to these pleasantries. State TV showed them laughing and enjoying the show; La7, the independent TV channel, showed other students with stony faces. In itself that is a story, but what is also intriguing is to try to unravel what may lie behind these three pranks, worthy of Batman’s nemesis The Joker. One might put down the first as a way of showing that, to a man of such power and wealth, anything is permitted, including insulting his host in public; and in a leaked phone tap we hear the Premier actually saying that he is “Jesus,” in the sense that he can do whatever he wants. And why not? Consider the Corriere della Sera report of March 9 in which Berlusconi’s expenditures for the year 2010 amount to Euros 34 million ($50 million, give or take a million), including Euros 562,000 as gifts to fourteen young ladies and a mere Euros 20,000 to the mother of Noemi Letizia, the Neapolitan girl whose eighteenth birthday celebration Berlusconi attended in 2009.

    The second jest—showing a dumb German trumped in seduction by a suave Italian—just might reflect the fact that the German government has been in the lead in attacking the Italian position on immigration. Interior Minister Roberto Maroni has called for issuing a six-month residence permit to the circa 23,000 individuals who have crossed to Italy from Tunisia since mid-January. Because most of the arrivals are not expected to remain in Italy, but go to Germany and France, the Northern European countries are calling this unfair play since it permits the migrants to travel throughout the countries who are co-signers of the Schengen Treaty. In other words, the Italian-issued permits, which would allow the bearer to travel beyond Italy, is a virtual invitation to the migrants to go elsewhere. Minister Maroni has protested against the “total refusal to cooperate” by Italy’s neighbors and the European Union whereas, to quote a headline in Der Spiegel, “Italy Seeks to Pass Problem on to EU Partners.”

    The sense of the third joke, an obviously jesting invitation to the female winners of the academic awards, is much clearer. Again and again the Premier has been making public references to bunga bunga, as the parties in the wee hours of the morning in his various homes have been called. By repetition—by making the word more familiar—he removes it sting. Repetition sanitizes bunga bunga.

    The same prize-giving took a turn for the serious when Berlusconi said, not for the first time, that the Italian Constitution of 1948 needs revising. Just a year ago he had proposed changing the Constitution by referendum so that he would have greater powers as head of the Council of Ministers “directly elected” by the people. This may not be necessary: in two years time a new president of Italy will be elected, and Berlusconi—scandal or not, jokes or not—remains a candidate. After the first three votes, when a two-thirds majority is required, he would need only a simple majority in Parliament. There is little reason to believe he cannot achieve this, and in fact this week Berlusconi boasted that his government will soon control 330 deputies in the 617-member lower house of Parliament.

    He may well be right. Showing how the winds are blowing, on April 5 Parliament was to vote on whether or not on the night of May 27, 2010, the Premier literally believed that “Ruby Rubacuori” (the teenaged Moroccan party girl) was of age and also the niece of the now deposed Egyptian leader Mubarak. This vote was extremely important, for Milan magistrates are trying to nail Berlusconi on charges of having had sex with a minor and for abuse of his authority by intervening when the notorious Ruby was detained by police after being charged with theft. Berlusconi’s defense is that the girl lied about her age and that he intervened, not for personal reasons, but for reasons of statecraft. He and/or his office phoned the Milan central police headquarters seven times that night only because he wanted to avoid an international incident with Egypt. This two-pronged defensive strategy, which depends upon Ruby’s lying, a has been widely mocked since it makes the Premier sound uniquely stupid, which he is not.

    But never mind. Three hundred fourteen deputies voted with the Premier, who won by a comfortable twelve-vote margin, in what may be a sign of things to come.

  • Facts & Stories

    The People Tsunami in Italy’s Back Yard

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    Rome—One can almost pity Ignazio Benito La Russa. The stress must be horrendous: as Italy’s war minister in the government headed by Silvio Berlusconi, this former neo-Fascist activist in the defunct Italian Social Movement currently speaks for the defense forces in a country committed to fighting two wars: one to bring democracy to Afghanistan and the other, to rid Libya of Muammar Gaddafi. There is little support for either, and the government is literally split in two over whether to support or unseat the Libyan leader. On the personal level as well, La Russa is under siege for his hiring of a young soap opera starlet named Hoara Borselli, whose entire contribution to the Defense Ministry effort so far, in exchange for earning about as much as one of La Russa’s soldiers, was to organize a band concert.

    Small wonder, then, that Minister La Russa was edgy enough to lose his temper in Parliament Wednesday. Red of face, shaking with rage, he shouted and screamed so loudly at the leftist opposition that Chamber of Deputies President Gianfranco Fini asked him to speak more calmly. By way of response La Russa shook his arm at Fini in an unmistakable gesture and mouthed certain ugly words. Just as at a soccer match, a replay of the TV footage gave precise evidence of the Minister’s saying a phrase as unmistakable as the jabbing arm: Vaffa ‘n’ cxxx. (Go fxxx yourself.)

    After the fact La Russa explained lamely that, outside the doors of Parliament, he faced raucous hecklers, some tossing coins at him in gesture of scorn. Among these demonstrators, he said, was one who’d shouted at him on other occasions. Nevertheless, and not surprisingly, Fini objected that this display of cursing and yelling offended the dignity of Parliament itself. An investigatory commission of Parliamentary prefects will meet to determine what if any punitive measures are in order.

    During the Sixties such shambollicky battles in Parliament were frequent, and deputies from far right and far left often ran menacingly toward each other until stalwart Parliamentary officials kept them apart bodily. The tossing of coins to insult a politician is also a tried-and-true way of showing disdain; in the Eighties Socialists Bettino Craxi and Gianni De Michelis were both assaulted in this way. But since then such displays of ill temper in Parliament have been rare, and their revival evokes a saddening general sense of chaos and of no one tending the store. Even as the shouting goes on, and the Premier and his team of 80 lawyers are engaged in a desperate hunt for legal loopholes allowing him to dodge what is called Rubygate and other trials, the problems accumulate. Not least, the government must figure out what to do with the 20,000 or so immigrants who have landed on Italian shores in recent weeks—“a tsunami of people,” as Berlusconi called them Friday.

    According to the humanitarian organization Doctors Without Borders, the mass of hungry immigrants now on the island of Lampedusa, who continue to outnumber the local population, have just 16 chemical toilets and 1.5 liters of water per person per day. Standard for such refugee camps is 20 liters. There is little escaping of blame. As Charlotte Phillips of the Amnesty International Programme for Refugees and Migrants said bluntly, “The crisis has been created by the Italian government’s failure to respond adequately to the situation here in Lampedusa.”

    A problem for the 5,000 permanent residents of Lampedusa is that they live on summer tourism, and the grim reports and pictures sent worldwide can hardly be tourist attractions. And so, to show that his government was not absorbed in Parliamentary pyrotechnics to the point that it ignored the Lampedusa crisis, this week Premier Berlusconi logged onto an island real estate agency and—to show his solidarity—purchased, over the Internet, a villa on the island, in what was presumably intended as the equivalent of John Fitzgerald Kennedy’s saying, at the Berlin Wall in 1962, “Ich bin eine Berliner.” The morning after his purchase of the villa Berlusconi personally dropped in on the island, which he promised to “liberate” within 60 hours, by shipping the migrants elsewhere in Italy to hastily-organized (read: not yet organized) tent towns called Centers for Émigré Identification (CEI).

    That was Wednesday. Alas, winds and the sea whipped up, and two ships that were to take the refugees—escapees from poverty and politics—elsewhere were obliged to stay behind, though not in Berlusconi’s newly acquired villa. And in the meantime some of those already sent to a CEI camp at Manduria near Taranto in Calabria discovered a weak point in the fence that kept them locked inside, and simply walked away—where, no one knows. Meantime, on the Northern Italian border with France, which declines to accept refugees, reporters said that Italian guards were literally turning a blind eye to escapees slipping across the border to enter France.

    The next step is to try to stop the emigration at the source. Interior Minister Roberto Maroni of the Northern League has therefore announced that Italy may have to “force” Tunisia to block further departures (most of the arrivals are Tunisians) as well as to accept repatriations.

  • A Veteran Italianist Looks at Libya. Interview with David Willey

    ROME –David Willey, a reporter who has covered Italy and the Vatican since 1973 for the BBC, is the quintessential British subject. Cambridge educated, he speaks such excellent English that his broadcasts are used for teaching the language. At the same time he has a special affinity for Italy, for his grandparents were emigres to London from the Veneto, and his mother took great pride in her own Italian roots, sending young Willey to Italy for vacations with the Veneto cousins.

    Between then and now he covered the Vietnam war and, for the past twenty years, frequently covered Libya, where in 1986 he came under the bombs of American-British planes, was once arrested by Gaddafi’s police and twice interviewed Muammar Gaddafi himself. Most recently he followed Gaddafi’s state visit to Italy, a celebration of an unusual treaty between the two countries. In an exclusive interview we asked Willey to give us a personal close-up view of Gaddafi himself, of the country and of what makes the Italian-Libyan treaty of 2009 so unusual.

    In a word, how would you describe Libya?

    Dramatic. It is not a normal country—its dramatic geography shows 95% desert, with only a narrow habitable coastal strip. Almost all inhabitants live in coastal cities. It is in fact two countries—Tripolitania and Cyrenaica, which are divided by geography and by tribe. This makes Libya more a geographical expression than a country likely to have a united future.

    What is your personal view of Gaddafi—what kind of a man is he?

    He is a man of little formal education who nonetheless prides himself in having written a book of political philosophy, the Green Book, which purports to set out a blueprint for life and for a government ‘of the people, by the people and for the people,’ but which bears little resemblance to any known political system in the world. I’ve read it—he personally gave me a copy. At one point ambiguous phrases from it were hung up in banners at Tripoli Airport, such as, ‘All power is latent.’ Few travelers could figure just what that meant.

    Can he resist today’s attempts to unseat him?

    His whereabouts are always kept secret, and he is said to sleep in a different bed every night, in a country that is vast. He comes from a Bedouin tribe, and Bedouins are nomads so this nomadic existence is completely in character with the history of his family and of his tribe. Muammar Gaddafi has been in power for forty-two years. He has shown himself to be eccentric and unpredictable, but the mere fact that he has survived numerous assassination attempts shows what a survivor he is. He came to power at the age of only twenty-nine. Although his face appears ravaged despite plastic surgery, he is still under seventy years of age and retains both the will and the resources to continue to defy those wishing to unseat him. His financial resources help: he is sitting on a pot of gold and dollars, in cash, which he is prepared to disperse to keep himself and his family in power.

    What impression does he give during an interview?

    He has a good working knowledge of English because he was trained in the UK by the British army, but is reluctant to speak English in public, preferring to speak Arabic. He is canny but also very prolix—like Castro, he tends to speak for hours, and even during interviews his answers are long and sometimes rambling. He has immense charisma and is clearly in control of the military machine which the coalition forces are now doing their best to destroy. The contrast between his military forces and the ragtag followers of the rebel army is acute, however, and no one should conclude that the rebels can have an easy victory. I also attended the 40th anniversary celebration for his revolution in 2009, when he erected a giant tent on the Tripoli waterfront and hired a troupe of 800 actors, musicians and dancers to put on a three-hour sound and light extravaganza, which culminated in a gallop by a thousand Berber warriors on horseback. What was notable about this spectacle was the limited size of the audience: there were Gaddafi himself and a dozen heads of African states, senior military officers and a small group of foreign journalists. The people of Tripoli were unexpectedly shut out of the park in which this megaspectacle took place from midnight to three am. Earlier that day the Italian Air Force acrobatic team had performed a courtesy fly-past with their trademark red, white and green vapor trails, the color of the Italian flag. Gaddafi found this hard to swallow and ordered the vapor trails to be photo-shopped to show only the color green, the official color of the Jamahariyah, the revolutionary republic of Libya.

    Tell us about the Libyan-Italian friendship treaty of 2009.

    The treaty put an end to decades of dispute between Libya and Italy over compensation for the misdeeds of Italian colonial rule from 1911 through the end of WWII. Italy agreed to pay Libya a sum of $20 billion over a period of 20 years, of which the major part would be spent on construction of a coastal highway stretching from the borders of Tunis to Egypt. This was essentially an upgrading of the century-old military road built by the Italian colonial regime. In fact, the cost of this huge engineering enterprise is to be borne by the Italian oil company ENI, which, under the treaty, in exchange obtained favorable treatment for oil exploration during the decades to come. The cost will be deducted from a levy on their profits. In short, the Italian taxpayer will not fund this blood money compensation—it comes out of Libyan oil money. It is a form of kickback, and the Libyans themselves will pay for it.

    Another part of this complex relationship as codified in the treaty concerns Italian support of Libyan naval patrols in the Mediterranean aimed at preventing sub-Saharan African emigration, including of people working in Libya, or making hazardous journeys across the immense desert.

    How do you feel about what is going on these days in Lampedusa, with fishermen blocking the harbor, a serious sanitation problem and residents infuriated? 

    Initially the residents treated the new arrivals with generosity, bringing them towels, food, water. But Lampedusa is an island, where such resources are limited by geography, and this week there were 6,000 immigrants for just 5,000 inhabitants. I hope that the Italian government's action plan announced Monday is successful, but this dire situation could and should have been foreseen. Nothing can justify the lack of advance planning. 

  • Op-Eds

    Free Speech in Italy: Journalist Enrico Mentana Speaks Freely

    ROME –When Jean-François Julliard, general secretary of Reporters Sans Frontières, announced last October that Italy had sunk to the 49th slot down the list of countries holding high the banner of press freedom, many Italians were less than shocked. After all, in an obviously unresolved conflict of interests, the businessman who also happens to head the government, Silvio Berlusconi, still owns three national TV networks and wields some (though not total) control over the three state-owned networks. Frequent and long addresses to the nation via TV are therefore a norm.

    Two key incidents showed what this control also means to the 70% of Italians who rely on TV for their news. First, Italian Premier Silvio Berlusconi stunned televiewers last November when he cavalierly phoned in, live, to a RAI TV broadcast called Ballarò, headed by the dignified and fairly non-controversial Giovanni Floris, to protest the talk-show on the risks from toxic waste in the Vesuvius park area town of Terzigno. When Floris attempted to step in with a comment, Berlusconi snapped, “You have to stop interrupting me,” adding, “I know more about TV than you do.” Sergio Zavoli, the authoritative journalist who presides over the RAI oversight commission, said later that the phone call from Berlusconi was “an inappropriate use of an outside intervention on live RAI TV.”

    Nevertheless, in January the director of RAI Channel One, Mauro Masi, emulated the Premier by breaking into a broadcast with a similar phone-in protest to Annozero, Michele Santoro’s controversial talk show.. The subject was the so-called “Rubygate,” about the relations between Berlusconi and a teenaged Moroccan girl, which Masi declared, on the air, was an improper use of state TV. Members of Berlusconi’s own Partito della Libertà later protested that the broadcast had been “the usual [attempt] to put Premier Berlusconi on trial” and called for Santoro to be investigated by a RAI oversight commission.

    In yet another instance of tele-shut-up tactics, on Jan. 24 Berlusconi called a broadcast by Gad Lerner—again live during the show called L’Infedele—with negative observations on the on-going discussion like “disgusting…false…distorted…repugnant..far from the truth.” Worst of all, he called the broadcast “a whorehouse.”

    Not surprisingly, then, concerns over press freedom in Italy have grown. The ninth edition of the World Classification of Press Freedom issued by Reporters Sans Frontières showed Italy plunging a striking five notches below its rank of just two years before, to finish in a tie with Burkina Faso. Italy, moreover, placed below Bosnia, South Africa, Latvia and—get this—Romania. Only 13 of the 27 European Union members were listed high in the survey of respect for the freedom of the press, but all remaining EU members, including Italy, occupied the lower rungs.

    Nevertheless, the important point is that, despite the pressures for Santoro’s program to be blocked, at this writing that show goes on. And despite the legitimate concerns, the authoritative TV anchor Enrico Mentana, for one, claims that, “Those saying there is no freedom of speech here are wrong. We have courageous broadcasters. And on the newsstands you can find every type of journal, with every point of view. We have absolute freedom of speech.”

    Mentana is chief anchorman of La Sette, the lone alternative to the Berlusconi TV chain or the state channels. Curiously, he has worked for both before helping to found La Sette. In a session with a small number of journalists at the Foreign Press Association in Rome, Mentana reviewed his own relations with the two. In 1992, coincident with the Tangentopoli kickbacks scandal that resulted in the birth of the Second Republic, Mentana left his RAI slot for Berlusconi’s Mediaset, owners of his TV networks. “At the time I was told, ‘This is free TV, you can do anything you want—go ahead and show that you are freer and more able than RAI.’”

    But times changed. Berlusconi entered politics, and in 2004 Mentana was forced to resign after 13 years. “I was sacked, I believe because I was a challenge to the system, first to RAI and then to Mediaset.” The immediate cause was his broadcast on the death of Eluana, a woman in a coma for 14 years, whose father decided to have artificial life support systems removed. Mentana sued Mediaset, and in May 2009, “I won—and also became famous.” The new 8 pm news broadcast was born, and today La Sette commands an audience of 2.5 million and continues to grow. “We decided to have only serious news, without the slush of infotainment. And above all to try to tell the truth—for instance, on RAI, if there are rude photos of the Premier, they will not be shown.”

    Those interested can also see, disturbingly on the web from something called “Stormfront,” the headline: “Another Jew at La7: Enrico Mentana,” “son of a Jewish mother, therefore of the pure Jewish race.”

    Stay tuned.

  • Op-Eds

    Gaddafi, the Once and Future Friend

    At the beginning Italy dragged its feet over reactions to Gaddafi’s brutal attacks on anti-regime demonstrators. The initial reaction of Premier Silvio Berlusconi was to say that he did not want to “bother” the Libyan leader with protests. Then, pressed by the U.S. and the European Union, Foreign Minister Francesco Frattini agreed to follow the lead of the EU, the United Nations and even the Arab League in calling for an immediate cessation of the murderous attacks. In an interview with the daily Corriere della Sera on March 12, Italy, Frattini acknowledged that Italy needed to clear up “doubts and uncertainties” as to its position.

    On that same day Gaddafi’s son Saif also gave an interview to La Repubblica, in which he spelled out the issues. Herewith textual quotes:

    “We have been very unappy: you are Libya’s foremost world partner, the number one for natural gas, for petroleum and for trade, yet we have seen Italy remain silent in the face of those terrorists who killed our policemen in cold blood who tore the hearts from cadavers, who burnt them, who stamped on their hearts with their boots. Haven’t you see the videos of these scenes? I ask you Italians: show me the traces of the air bombardment! This is the time for true friends, and now Italy must change its position, understand that what you’ve heard over the past two weeks is false. Here is the message for Italy: the Libyan people are united, soon we shall win the battle against these terrorists, Insh’allah, and then we will take stock. It will be very easy to substitute Italy with China or Russia; China is asking us, they want to be our foremost [trading] partner. Beware.

    “We are irritated by the Italian position. Berlusconi is our friend. We are close, we are friends. We could have expected this from France, Great Britain, Sweden, but not Italy. The Chinese back us, the Brazilians, Russians, South Africa, but whatever happened to the Italians? We have a common future. If we lose the battle here, you are next. If we win, you will be safe…. Libya is a front line for Italy. What happens today here will decide what will happen tomorrow with you. So—beware.” 

    It will not be easy for Italy to ignore these all too open threats. Saif is telling the turth about a “common future.”  In fact, discussion of creating a no-flight zone over Libya stalled Tuesday at the G-8 meeting in New York, where the U.S. was cautious and Italy among those opposing. According to the New York Times, Frattini was in opposition, explaining that Russia had argued that a no-flight zone would be ineffective and even counterproductive.

    For the moment, Italy is therefore bowing to EU pressure, but keeping its distance from the leader at least treated as a friend in past years is difficult. Foreign policy leaders are deeply uneasy about what they are to do if and when Gaddafi successfully shuts down the opposition. For Italy, it is a tough call: most hearts are with the anti-regime demonstrators, but the pocketbooks—the suits—are with Gaddafi, as are concerns over energy requirements, all the more aggravated by the new EU fears over nuclear power. The closer Gaddafi’s heavily armed military and police goons close in on the rebels, the harder that choice becomes for Italy.

    It seems only yesterday—well, actually, nine months ago—that 500 women turned up in Rome to hear Muammar Gaddafi give a specific address on a sweltering day in June. The Libyan leader’s stated purpose when asking the Italians to provide an all-female audience was “to save women,” and those enthusiasts who attended did not seem at all to mind either his paternalistic posture, his bad hair day or his all-female corps of bodygaurds. Indeed, in this, his third visit to the country, Gaddafi was given star treatment and plenty of lusty applause from the well groomed businesswomen and female politicians. He had arrived for the state visit with thirty horses (just why is unclear) and a gigantic tent, which was raised in that portion of the Doria Pamphilj park in Rome which that family had genously donated to the Italian state in the Seventies; inside that tent at midnight one night Premier Silvio Berlusconi paid a friendly visit to the Libyan leader.

    Reports from a hotel owner on Capri that one of Gaddafi’s other sons had drunkenly trashed a room were politely ignored.

    Statistics explain why. Almost one-third of Libyan oil (32%) comes to Italy and another 12% of its gas is purchased by Italy. The quality of that oil, not coincidentally, is considered extremely high, moreover, which explains why the world’s airline fleets—including those in the U.S.—prefer Libyan crude. Altogether, Italy resolves 80% of its energy requirements through Italy. In return, Libya buys more of its weapons from Italy than from any other nation. According to a January 2011 report by the European Union, Italy provides a third of weapons sold to Libya from EU countries, in the amount of $153 million in 2009, the latest statistics available. 

    Libya owns a hearty stake in UniCredit, the former Banco di Roma, and in a soccer team. Countless other private and public companies hold fat contracts for construction projects. The quid pro quo: a formal agreement that Libya would do its utmost to block emigrants from heading toward Italy via Libya. And in 2010 Italy gave Libya $5 billion as compensation for its 32 years of colonial rule that ended in 1943.

  • Art & Culture

    In Search of the Real Caravaggio

    ROME – Archivists toiling away in dusty libraries are the Cinderellas of art history, and yet the men and women whose building blocks of documentation recreate the greatest glories of culture. So it is with Caravaggio. Marking the fourth centennial of his death, he is the subject of an elegant exhibition of original archival material supplemented by paintings—two Caravaggio masterpieces and others by his peers. Caravaggio in Rome, Una Vita dal Vero (Caravaggio in Rome, A Life Seen from Truth) is on view through May 15 inside the original La Sapienza University of Rome building with its chapel by Borromini, Sant’Ivo alla Sapienza. This was Caravaggio territory: here he lived, worked, drank in taverns, and walked the streets with his friends in the middle of the night. Here too he quarreled—just why and how often is being revealed only now, in the work of a team of seven young art historians, paleographers, archivists and historians from the Tor Vergata University in Rome.

    Michelagnolo Merisi (his real name) da Caravaggio was born in 1573 and died in 1610, aged 37. He was an extraordinarily visionary artist who marked the point in time when the Renaissance gave way to the Baroque. For his experiments in creating chiaroscuro effects he is considered the first modern painter. He was also among the earliest to depict ordinary people in extraordinary situations, as in his inspired chapel wall paintings of around 1600 known as the Calling of St. Mathew in the Church of San Luigi dei Francesi in Rome.

    Any Caravaggio exhibition is a blockbuster, and art historians acknowledge that he ranks in popularity today with Michelangelo, Raphael and Leonardo da Vinci. Besides his visionary works of art, his turbulent life style captures imaginations, and book shelves are well stocked with biographies. However, knowledge of his life has been based largely upon diplomats’ reports sent to such foreign states as Mantua and Lombardy. An important early account of his life was written by Giovanni Pietro Bellori, but Bellori was born three years after Caravaggio died. Caravaggio himself left no diary, no last will and testament, either because he was illiterate or simply died too young.

    Inside the old university building, the team was confronted with more than 60 kilometers of material inherited from the Vatican by the Italian state after unification in 1870. These official records, assembled into thick, ribbon-tied volumes called faldoni, were believed to include complaints to Vatican gendarmes (the birri, they were called) about Caravaggio and summaries of testimony given by witnesses at Inquisition tribunals. But the documents were in too poor condition to be deciphered properly until every page of his Roman years was restored. And there was urgency. The high acid content of the iron gall ink was eating up the documents; without restoration, all would be lost. To finance the slow restoration of ten volumes, each with from 600 to 2,500 parchment pages, art historian Eugenio Lo Sardo, director of the state archives, appealed to sponsors. From all walks of life they responded, among them the Italian Tobacconists Federation, the Axa Insurance Co. at Frosinone, Autoservizi, a bus company, and one individual, Prof. Giovanni Pezzola.

    The results have shown that Caravaggio was not born in the Lombard town of that name, but in Milan, and that he came to live in Rome not at age 19, as had been written, but when he was 25, making him something less than the child prodigy heretofore depicted. The new information also sheds light on his friendship with a kindly Sicilian artist, his wife and four children. The police blotters and court records also document just how aggressive he was. In one instance, around 2 am on May 4, 1598, Caravaggio was stopped by a policeman, Lieut. Bartolomeno, near Piazza Navona carrying a sword. Asked he he had the requisite permit, Caravaggio retorted that he had verbal permission from his patron, Cardinal Francesco Maria Del Monte. Indifferent to the name-dropping, the lieutenant hauled Caravaggio off to the Tor di Nona prison.

    Two years later one Girolamo Spampani of Montepulciano was purchasing candles in a Via della Scrofa shop at 3 am on Nov. 19, when he was attacked. Spampani told police that Caravaggio beat him with a stick and tore his cape with a sword. The artist ran away, but was recognized.  Again, on the night of October 1, 1601, Caravaggio was in the company of friends on a road near Piazza Campo Marzio when he ran into Tommaso Salini, whom he insulted and then assaulted. “With the sword  he was carrying he hit me from behind and wounded my arm, which I had raised in my defense,” Salini testified. Caravaggi allegedly insulted Salini as well, saying, “becco fottuto,” or “[shut your] fucking beak”. (Although this incident was partly described in l994, the new documentation is the first complete account.)

    On April 24, 1604, Pietro da Fosaccia, a young waiter in the Osteria del Moro tavern complained to police that after serving Caravaggio eight artichokes, he was assaulted. When the artist asked which were cooked in butter and which in oil, Fosaccia suggested that Caravaggio should sniff the artichokes to find out for himself. An infuriated Caravaggio grabbed an earthenware platter and flung in into Fosaccia’s face, injuring the boy’s left cheek. Witness Pietro Antonio de Madiis verified the account.

    Six months later, on October 19, 1604, Caravaggio dined at the Torretta tavern with a book dealer named Ottaviano Gabrielli and errand boy Pietro Paolo Martinelli. Later, near Via del Babuino, they began insulting policemen making night rounds and throwing stones at them. Questioned, Caravaggio claimed that he’d been walking and chatting and had heard the stones being thrown, but had no idea who had thrown them. He was arrested..

    On May 28, 1605, Caravaggio was seen on Via del Corso near the Church of Saints Ambrogio and Carlo carrying a sword and a dagger without a permit. Captain Pino arrested him, but this time, when Caravaggio claimed verbal authorization, he was released. The weapons were returned to him, but the scribe who had taken the complaint made drawings of them.

    Just two months later a notary for the Vatican Vicariate, Mariano Pasqualoni from Accumoli, told police that on July 29  he was walking, unarmed, near the Spanish Embassy in Piazza Navona when he received a severe blow on the back of his head from "either a sword or pistol,” according to an eyewitness. The aggressor was surely Caravaggio, Pasqualoni told police, because the two were involved in a quarrel over one Lena, described as "Caravaggio's woman."

    The new information alsos sheds light on the quarrel in which Caravaggio killed a man. Like a Los Angeles gang battle, the fight between two groups of four was not spontaneous, but planned. In a pitched battle May 26, 1606, at or near a pallacorda court (an early version of tennis) near Via della Scrofa, two rival gangs of four met and fought. The fight was over neither a bad call during a tennis match or a dispute over a woman, but more likely over a 10,000 scudi gambling debt owed by Caravaggio. During the fight Caravaggio ran his sword through and killed Ranuccio Tomassoni of Terni. Captain Petronio Troppa of the papal troops, a professional soldier whom Caravaggio presumably hired for the fight, suffered a severe sword injury and was arrested and imprisoned; the new details are from his testimony. Arrest warrants were issued for Caravaggio and the others.

    Now wanted for murder, at risk of being beheaded, Caravaggio fled Italy,  returning only four years later in hopes of a papal pardon. He did not die on a beach north of Rome, but in hospital—yet another hitherto previously unknown detail.

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