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3.01.2011

Turmoil in the Middle East: Will it Change American Foreign Policy ?

War in the Middle EastImage by Stewf via Flickr
Article first published as How Turmoil in the Middle East Might Change American Foreign Policy on Blogcritics.

America has to rethink its diplomacy in the Middle East. The revolution that started softly in a minor country - Tunisia - has now overtaken Egypt, a behemoth in the Arab world, and threatens to spread like wildfire to the whole region: Lybia, Yemen, Bahrein, Oman, Algeria, Morocco, Jordan, Iraq, Iran and even beyond the region, as far out as China (where a so-called "Jasmine revolution" was immediately quelched)!

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about this tsunami is that it hasn't yet hit other dictatorial regimes as strong as Mubarak's Egypt, like Saudi Arabia or Syria.  It may come there too, but for the moment, the attention of the international community is trained on Lybia. And no wonder. So far, it's the only country that has experienced a bloodshed that looks almost like a civil war, while Qaddafi shoots on his own people.  

Israel is understandably worried about losing its allies in the region and, overall, it is keeping mum while everybody else is speaking up.  Israel had signed a peace treaty with Egypt and another with Jordan, and for the last three decades, it has felt relatively safe. Now that Mubarak is gone and Egypt is in transition towards a new government, all the options are open. Including a rejection of the treaty, as a majority of Egyptians appears not to like it.

What about the US? Obama, in line with America's vision of itself as the champion of democracy, has come out very clearly on the side of the protesters, as has Europe. With regard to the bloodshed in Lybia, there has been near-universal condemnation, with the notable exception of Cuba, Venezuela and Ecuador who have sided with Qaddafi. So far, the UN estimates more than 1,000 have died and 100,000 have fled the country. As might be expected, this has led to cries for sanctions - the UN Security Council responded fast with a resolution slamming sanctions on Qaddafi and his family: freezing of assets, interdiction to travel, arms sales embargo, and perhaps what is more important, opening the way to refer him to the International Criminal Court (ICC) charging him with crimes against humanity.

Some, like Senator John McCain even want military intervention though that's unlikely. The internal situation in Lybia would have to degenerate a great deal more to justify an intervention. Why? Because the international system - the United Nations - is firmly based on a principle of non-intervention in the domestic affairs of  member countries. If you jump into Lybia because you think unspeakable wrong is done to innocent people, you may be morally right but countries like China or Russia will not appreciate (for obvious reasons). Nor support you.

Actually in Lybia there is a good chance the country will break in two: the eastern part, with Benghazi and 80 percent of Lybia's oil  in the hands of the rebels and an increasingly smaller western part with Tripoli, where local tribes are loyal to Qaddafi. Unless, of course, the rebels assault Tripoli and manage to conquer the whole country.

So is it right for the United States to pursue sanctions against Lybia and, generally speaking, bang the table in favour of democracy protests? Surely this attitude is not to the taste of Saudi Arabia that remains the main oil player with 12% of world production. The Saudi don't like what is happening in Bahrein either: first, it is happening on their doorstep, and second they don't want the Sunni monarchy there to lose out to the Shia majority - and in any case, it is a tiny country, some1.2 million people...

It would seem that democratic change won't go either very far or very fast. Leaders have been toppled in Tunisia and Egypt, but that's only the first step. To actually bring about real democracy is a long, complex process. As to other places, like Lybia where credible opposition leaders have yet to emerge, it is difficult to imagine what could happen next.

So can one expect a sea change in American policy in response to so-called Arab revolutions?

I don't think so. Obama seems to have played his cards well so far. But he is treading a mine field. He can only come on the side of street protesters whenever it becomes clear that the leaders they try to topple are threats to democracy - like in Tunisia and Egypt. There are however a number of countries where the situation is not that clear, for example in Yemen where considerable pro-government manifestations have taken place in response to the protests (but the situation could change there too if the government continues to lose support). In such cases, American reaction has to be more subdued. Then there's a series of manifestations that are not real calls for a regime change but  only protests against specific conditions, like unemployment, poverty and disgust towards the corruption of the ruling elite, as  in Iraq and Oman. Furthermore, it is not in the American interest to go against oil giants like Saudi Arabia that have been long-standing allies in the region.

One thing is certain: these are not revolutions inspired by Al Qaeda-type violence or religion. They are classic middle class revolutions, led by the "facebook generation", young, savvy people with often a higher education and little prospect for a good job once out of the university.

How far on the road to democracy will the Arab revolutions go? It is obviously a very complex process. Arabs all look to the "Turkish model", a largely islamic country that has "made it", successfully combining democracy and capitalism with a moderate, liberal version of Islam. But it took 60 years for Turkey to get there, and its starting point under the iron guidance of Ataturk was somewhat different: it was a military, secular republic.

Can the Turkish model be replicated? Probably. What can America and Europe do to help? Provide technical support and guidance to develop democratic state structures and give aid to alleviate poverty and create jobs.

Easier said than done, and in any case, it can't be done if the countries in question do not request help...



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2.27.2011

Sanctions on Lybia? Yes! But there are sanctions and sanctions

Protest March (oil painting by Claude)
Obama's first move was to call Prime Minister Erdogan of Turkey while French President Sarkozy was there on a visit, and tell them he wanted sanctions. Of course, they both agreed. The very next day, the United Nations Security Council produced a sanctions resolution backed by just about every member country, probably a first in the annals of United Nations history.

On February 24, the minute all those Americans who wanted to leave Libya had safely escaped, President Obama bandied about sanctions. That's the favourite threat used by our political class on both sides of the Atlantic whenever war is out of the question.

One can only applaud the international community for its reaction to the bloodshed in Libya. Anyone who's followed the unfolding of the tragedy on Al Jazeera, as I have, will have seen Colonel Muammar al Qaddafi at his worst on Tuesday, February 22 in a raving 80 minute speech, threatening death to his own people. There can be no doubt the man is bloodthirsty, out of touch with reality and out of his mind.

No one wants to invade Libya to restore peace or save lives, so sanctions are the answer.  Okay, I can live with that. But there are sanctions and sanctions: only those that directly hit Qaddafi should be used; meaning a freeze on his assets, an interdiction to travel, bringing him to trial for crimes against humanity, a ban on arms sales to Libya. All of that is fine, but not a trade embargo that would only hurt the man in the street and leave Qaddafi unharmed.

It would seem the UN is going in that direction. For the sake of the poor Libyan people, I hope it keeps going that way...
 

 
Article first published as Sanctions on Lybia? Yes! on Blogcritics.

PS: In case you're wondering about the image on this post, it's an oil painting I did a couple of years ago: I intended it to be emblematic of protest marches, with a kid waving madly while riding on his father's shoulders. I've always been struck how people take their own children along when they descend in the streets, whether in Egypt, Tunisia, Lybia or elsewhere (this particular painting was inspired by a march in Afghanistan). 
 
I have never been able to figure out whether this is very brave of them or irresponsible. I know I probably wouldn't dare to take my kids to march out!


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2.25.2011

Lybia Breaks Down and Oil Prices are Up: Is That Unavoidable?

02_19_2011_DC Libyan Protest032.jpgLybian Protester, Feb 19, 2011 Image by messay.com via Flickr
Lybia is breaking down. According to some reports Muammar al-Gaddafi is hidden in a bunker in Tripoli and has unleashed mercenaries to try and regain control of his country. For the moment, no one knows how it will all end but one thing is certain: oil prices are spiking, pushed up by the usual culprits: speculators.

When will we get rid of speculators? The reaction in oil prices is idiotic. Lybia furnishes about 2% of world oil supplies and most of this to Italy that can easily switch to other sources. Plus, European governments all have emergency stocks for at least 3 months. Plus Saudi Arabia, which already accounts for some 12 percent of world supplies, can easily increase production at the drop of a hat because it has plenty of unused capacity.

Plus the pernicious view that Lybian-like turmoil will spread like fire to the rest of the Arab oil suppliers. I believe it's way over the top.

Sure, there are problems in Bahrein, but nowhere near the kind that has developed in Lybia. The democratic wave launched by the "facebook generation" - call it a tsunami - is threatening every dictatorship in the Arab world, but how it will play out is likely to be highly variable. In Egypt and Tunisia, we've seen relatively "soft" scenarios, with limited loss of innocent human lives. Why? Because the army was capable of maintaining order. Bahrein and Yemen, if handled well by their leadership, could play out equally "softly".

So far, Lybia is the only country that has descended into civil war. When Gaddafi's son, Saif al Islam, threatened las Monday that it would, I was surprised. Civil war? Of course, he meant tribal war. All around Tripoli are the tribes sustaining Gaddafi, whereas around Benghazi where the revolt started, are those tribes Gaddafi  never trusted. They have hated him for the past 42 years of his rule. As a result, the "Leader of the Revolution", as he likes to term himself, has never been able to develop a homogeneous, trustworthy national army and now there is none. None to maintain order and no one able to lead the opposition. For the moment, it looks like utter chaos. And there is only a trickle of news as Internet and normal news channels have been snuffed out by the regime. Indeed, Lybia may be quite different from Egypt and Tunisia: it certainly does not look like the result of "facebook generation" activism. Of course, it is too early to judge, but my guess is that we are seeing here tribal revolts.

If Lybia is such a special case, why the reaction in oil prices? Why can't the speculators be reigned in? In this particular case, I think there would be an easy way to fight them - and without resorting to the complex mechanism of regulation, always so difficult to put in place because it requires world-wide coordination.

No, there's something much simpler that European governments - starting with Italy - could do right away, with the stroke of a pen. They could adopt a system of flexible rates on the tax they apply to oil. Did you know that when you fill up your car at a gas station, government taxes slapped on oil account for an average 80% of the price you pay? Yes, that's not a typo: the real cost of oil is only about 20% (it varies somewhat from country to country, but that's the general range).

So why not adjust the tax so that price spikes in oil are absorbed? This way, one could avoid the detrimental  knock-on effects on the price of commodities and all traded goods, and snuff out inflation at its source. Naturally, governments would take in a little less money for a little while. But probably not for long (until the Lybian situation stabilizes). And the advantages would far outweigh the disadvantage: if there is no shock to the economy, there will not be the usual slowdown in economic activity which pulls down tax revenues. On the contrary,  taxes will continue to flow into treasury coffers at an unabated rate...

But, such a measure is probably too clever for our politicians. I don't know what's the problem: Is is laziness? Lack of imagination? Poor management?  What do you think?




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2.23.2011

Dude, Where's my Europe? Why is the EU the Last to Speak on Tunisia, Egypt and now Lybia?

Baroness Ashton of Upholland, British politicianBaroness Ashton (British politician) at her bestImage via Wikipedia
What is the EU doing on the international scene? Why does it always speak last, after the US and the UK, and France, and Germany and a score of other European countries?  Why is everyone commenting on the Tunisian, Egyptian and now Lybian revolution and the EU keeps mum or barely mutters? Why is Europe such a pigmy in foreign affairs?

What's the matter with Lady Ashton, the new European Foreign Affairs Minister? Why won't she speak up? Why doesn't she travel? She was supposed to go to post-Ben Ali Tunisia and everyone got there before she did, starting with the Americans. And post-Mubarak Egypt? Same thing. She's travelling there on February 22nd but that won't make her the first: Cameron got there before. He shook hands with the military leadership - Defense Minister Mohamed  Tantawi and Prime Minister Ahmed Shafiq - then met some of the organizers of the Tahrir Square protest but - and that was stupid - refused to meet anyone from the Muslim Brotherhood. Naturally the latter were of no interest to him: among other things, he happened to be in Egypt to promote British business interests, including the sales of weapons...

When will our politicians ever learn that DIALOGUE is the basis for international peace and understanding?

Repression is not the answer, as Lybia's Gaddafi is discovering these days. On 22 February, he gave a despicable performance on Lybian television, theatrically standing in a bombed out building, alongside a metal monument showing a gigantic hand crunching an American fighter plane. That building was bombed out by the Americans in 1986, and presumably he hasn't repaired it in order to turn it into some sort of testimonial against the West. Wearing a brown desert outfit and looking appropriately somber, he ranted and raved for a full 80 minutes, threatening his own people with death, brandishing about an unidentified green book (no, it wasn't his green book but some earlier Lybian code of laws calling for the death penalty) and invoking the example of Tienanmen. I'm not sure the Chinese appreciated... Moreover he had the gall to pretend he hadn't yet ordered anyone to shoot protesters but warned that he would - and to think that so far, since the turmoil started, at least 250 people have been killed and according to some reports, much more, up to a thousand. Here is a man with blood on his hands who is truly out of touch with reality!

At this point in time, nobody knows how it will turn out, whether Lybia will descend into civil war and he will be ousted, but surely strong condemnation from the international community is called for. Within hours of his speech, condemnation punctually arrived from the United Nations Security Council and from the Arab League. Lady Ashton spoke afterwards to the BBC  from Cairo but didn't add anything to the statement prepared for her the day before in Brussels by the 27 foreign affairs ministers of the EU.

Naturally the 27 ministers in question had a hard time agreeing on the wording of the condemnation: at one extreme, the Finnish wanted a strong-worded condemnation and sanctions (not surprising, given the distance to Lybia) while at the other extreme the Italian called for restraint (even less surprising considering the proximity of Lybia). Indeed, Italy has much at stake and much to worry about: huge Italian investments in Lybia and vice-versa, thousands of nationals trapped in Lybia, not to mention that 27 percent of its oil is exported to Italy, plus the possibility of an exodus of "biblical proportions" of Lybian refugees: Mr. Frattini, the Italian Foreign Affairs Minister, evoked the possibility of 2 to 300,000 Lybians arriving in Italy. Add to this mix the French embarrassment about its own Foreign Affairs Minister (mis)behaviour in Tunisia  - she had offered Ben Ali help to control the protest, travelled in the private plane of a Ben Ali friend during her year-end holiday while her parents were signing the purchase of a hotel in Tabarka, the famous Tunisian resort on the north coast. Result: a much delayed and weak statement. 

Poor Lady Ashton! Institutionally, she cannot speak before getting the green light from 27 European ministers. No wonder she is mum and doesn't travel!

I'm truly, totally pissed off. I've always believed in a United Europe, I've always felt that was the way forward to put behind us, once and for all, the wars and injustices that have lacerated Europe for the past 2000 years - and especially in the past century. We were supposed to have new, stronger European institutions with a newly created Foreign Affairs super-ministry and an EU President. It was all getting installed in 2010 and we were told to be patient, that the new super-partes institutions would take some time before becoming fully operational.

Okay, we've waited over a year. That should be about long enough to start having results. Instead, what have we got?

Nothing. The EU President -  Herman Van Rompuy, a Belgian politician and a clever economist and negotiator - is remarkably low key. Every six months, we hear a lot about the new country whose turn it is to preside over the Union (now it's Hungary) and never hear about him - though he tries hard to call for "EU summit" meetings...On the other hand, he's another one who hasn't hesitated to walk on Lady Ashton's territory: he's just set up his own foreign policy unit in his office.

That does seem rather unnecessary, doesn't it, when Lady Ashton is supposed to put together a 7,000 diplomat force together? And, by the way, why so many? And why didn't she start with the beginning, i.e. develop a policy framework, so she would be guided by general policy principles regarding all the likely areas of EU international relations: Eastern Europe, the Mediterranean, Turkey, the Israel question, China, India, Japan, Brazil, not to mention the US etc? Really, those areas are well known in advance - no need to wait for a crisis to arise -, and consulting her 27 Foreign Affairs Ministers over the past 365 days (especially at a lower, technical level), she and her team should have been able  to discover common threads and space for her to move in.

Did she do this? I doubt it. I even suspect the worst: that our political leaders, Merkel and Sarkozy foremost among them, were more than happy to select a non-entity as the first European Foreign Affairs Minister. Probably the only dissenter was Berlusconi, given his liking for pretty women...But in the end, they could all agree on Lady Ashton since nobody likes to be overshadowed by someone brilliant, particularly not a politician...

I am really disappointed and very, very angry. What about you? Do let me know... 

PS. In case you were wondering about the title to this post, Michael Moore's fans will have recognized it: it's a take on his bestseller entitled Dude, where's my country?

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2.20.2011

Berlusconi? Ridicule!

Silvio BerlusconiImage by rogimmi via Flickr
Berlusconi is not afraid of ridicule, no doubt about it. In spite of his age (he is 74 years old), he regularly throws "bunga-bunga" parties in his villa in Arcore, outside Milano, with young, uninhibited girls, belly-dancers and the like, brought to him by newscaster Emilio Fede (80 years old) and others working in his Mediaset TV empire - "fresh flesh for the dragon", as his recently separated wife once described it. Bunga-bunga apparently refers to the fact that the parties end with naked dancing and touching (and who knows what else).

When one of the sex bombs was arrested in Milan - she is known to Italians by her stage name,  "Ruby Rubacuori", Ruby the heart-stealer - he didn't hesitate to personally call the police that very night to get her released, alledging she was Mubarak's niece (which she isn't - she's Moroccan) and that a diplomatic incident needed to be avoided.

One really doesn't know what's worse: an old man pursuing teen-agers, a prime minister wasting his time in all-night orgies with vulgar, easy women, the head of government pressing police officers for the release of a nightclub dancer using lies as arguments.At this point, he is probably the most despised politician in Italy. Millions of men and women protested against him in the streets last week. Yet, he won't give up in spite of a tenuous majority in Parliament that can only be maintained with the support of the  Northern League  whose federalist agenda most Italians (i.e. everyone outside of Lombardy) find totally unacceptable. Italy is about to celebrate 150 years as a nation-state and no one, except the League, wants to hear about Italy breaking up.
 
No, Berlusconi is not about to resign in spite of being indicted two weeks ago on on charges that range from paying for sex with Ruby when she was 17 and under age to abuse of influence of his office - a charge that is probably more serious for him than the one regarding sex that is always difficult to prove since Ruby vehemently denies it (she doesn't deny receiving €7,000 from him). Not only he is not  resigning but he is even convinced that if elections are held, he would win again.  And I would be very surprised if he turns up on April 6 in front of the three judges who have indicted him. Incidentally, they were picked for the job by the standard lottery system and as chance would have it, they are all three women!

And so he might as there's no one else on the political scene, either on the left or the right. Politicians on the left fight among themselves, and while there might be a younger generation trying to emerge, like the young mayor of Florence,  it is probably too soon for them to make any difference yet. On the right, it's Berlusconi's party plus the Lega. Gianfranco Fini, once Berlusconi's ally, used to be a third force but he has blown his political career by fighting with Berlusconi and developing  moral problems of his own. He has abandoned his wife and lives with a much younger "companion", an ex-model, who has given him a child this summer. As if this were not enough, his companion's brother became embroiled in a financial scandal, obtaining at a suspiciously low cost a flat in Montecarlo that once belonged to Fini's party. As to the others, Casini, Di Pietro, Vendola etc, they're too small in terms of votes to make a difference.

So what is Berlusconi doing? He claims he's put his finance minister Giulio Tremonti back to work. Hopefully that's true because Tremonti is one of the few capable politicians on the Italian scene. Meanwhile, Berlusconi attends parties, the latest one with the Roman nobility. As it was only covered in the local press (the Messaggero, the Corriere della Sera and Libero), I'd like to share the high points of that evening with you.

It took place in the Circolo degli Scacchi (Chess Club), located in a lovely baroque palace near Piazza del Popolo. It is the city's second social club (the first is the Caccia). The dinner was organized by a woman of the Roman nobility, a friend of Berlusconi's, who managed the invitation with the help of a club member (this is an exclusive man's club, on the English model). Only 30 people were present and the Club's president was not invited; indeed, he learned about the party the next day reading the papers.

Why would Berlusconi suddenly attend such a party when has never roamed Roman society since he came into power over 15 years ago (presumably to protect his privacy) ? Perhaps he thought that the veneer of such a party with Roman nobles - and with women averaging 80 years of age, according to Libero - would rub off him, giving him back a semblance of dignity.

If that was the purpose, it miserably misfired. The Libero has a particularly juicy account of how the evening went - and I'd like to quote from it. It seems that when Berlusconi walked in at 9:30 pm and realized how old most of the guests were, he said "Ehhhh, what beautiful women! So tonight, we'll have some bunga-bunga!" A musician, Maestro Mariano Apicella, played his guitar and Berlusconi grabbed the microphone, belting out a string of songs in French and Neapolitan and jokes.

The Berlusconi show went this way till one o'clock in the morning, but when he tried to get the old ladies to dance a rumba, apparently they all stayed put, presumably unwilling to risk breaking a bone. They clearly preferred to enjoy the prime minister's cabaret. And he kept going: Ruby of course had nothing to do with Mubarak, he told them, she was Ramses II's niece! And do you know why princesses have blue blood? Because they make oral sex with the "principe azzurro" (Prince Charming).

Upon leaving, he called out: "auguro una buona digestione a tutti!" (I wish you all a good digestion!) and stopped for a moment with Anna Maria Bernini, much younger than all the women present and a member of his party, who reportedly was the go-between with Roman society and instigator of the evening. "E' bravissima," says Berlusconi, "presto sarà promossa sottosegretario" (soon she will be promoted as under-secretary). Yep, we all suspected that's how he packed his government with young, good-looking women!

Before he left, Berlusconi belted out one last song dedicated to Gianfranco Fini. Based on a Johnny Dorelli song entitled "Montecarlo", it has one unforgettable line in Milanese slang: "me sunt cagaa adoss a Montecarlo". As Libero put it, this is untranslatable but I'm sure you can guess what it means (and your worst guess is the right one).

It seems everyone thought that was hilarious.

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2.19.2011

Is Italy's Art Heritage going to the Dogs?

POMPEII, ITALY - NOVEMBER 14:  Works in progre...POMPEII, ITALY - Works in progress at the House of Faun on November 14, 2010..Image by Getty Images via @daylife



Italy is the cradle of European art and with 45 registered UNESCO heritage sites, it has more than any other country in the world.  While Italy seems unable to look after it properly, we probably shouldn't accuse it of negligence: there are more archeological sites, monuments, artworks and museums here than anywhere else, surely more than the Italian people can afford to maintain.

Then there is a more insidious problem: when you have so much, you tend to believe that this abundance will always be around, and a certain amount of indifference sets in...

According to the latest comparative figures from the OECD, Italy devoted only 0.8% of its public spending to culture and leisure in 2006, putting it 22nd on a list of 27 countries for which statistics were available. Roberto Cecchi, Director-general of the Italian Culture Ministry in charge of the so-called heritage department, told the UK Guardian (see article below) that "Italy has never spent enough on culture. France and Spain spend twice as much." Yet, as he pointed out: "France has 20 national museums. Italy has 400. In France, there are 25,000 protected buildings. Here, there are between 350,000 and 400,000."

Well...of course, these are just numbers bandied about. To start with, what constitutes a "museum" and what should be preserved? But setting aside such issues, there is little doubt that Italy has more than it can handle in the art and culture department.

Last November, when the government decided as an austerity measure to cut €280 million from the culture ministry's budget from 2011 to 2014, a protest strike closed Italian museums down for one day. Not much of a protest, really. Meanwhile, walls collapsed in Pompei and some 60 sites are on Italia Nostra's red list, meaning they're about to crumble down. Even the Colosseum is at risk, and the government has called out on the private sector to help out in its restoration. Nobody responded to the call except Diego della Valle, head of the Tod's leather business, who ended up sponsoring the whole of €25 million that will be needed to restore it.

I guess we'll have a Colosseum wrapped up in a Tod's shoe until the monument is restored - and that means probably for several years...I hope you like Tod's!

Actually, half of Italy's museums are kept open thanks to private funding. Though problems occur if you try to run particularly "off" exhibitions, like on the mafia: both in Naples and Sicily, the mafia has resented the honour, threatening acts of vandalism. One private museum director in Naples decided to take refuge in Germany, saying that the Germans were far more serious about art than the Italians. Reportedly they have not (yet) cut back on their support for culture. Naturally, the Germans are notoriously serious about everything ...

In my opinion - but do let me know if you agree - it's not so much a matter of money as a management issue. The Stampa,  in a recent strongly-worded article written by Giuseppe Salvaggiulo (published February 13, 2011) is very clear on the subject: "Bell'Italia, i primi vandali siamo noi - the first vandals are us"  In it, reference is made to a book that has just come out, "Vandali. L'assalto alle bellezze italiane" (ed. Rizzoli) by two Corriere della Sera journalists, Gian Antonio Stella and Sergio Rizzo. They paint a dramatic picture, whereby Italy, over the last 30 years, has lost its primacy in international tourism, dropping to 5th place. The internet portal www.italia.it, which has cost millions of Euro to set up, is ranked 184,594th among the most visited sites of the planet (!). When an internet site was recently set up to promote Italy in China, the background music is not even Italian, the home page shows Bologna rather than Rome (because it was a cut-and-paste job on an Emilia-Romagna site)  and the text is often in Italian rather than English - but then, why not Chinese?

And that's only the tip of the iceberg. Maintenance is next to zero: just one example, in Pompei, maintenance workers used to be 98 fifty years ago, now they are 8. And with only one archeologist. As to the mosaic repairman, he's retired and never been replaced. And the archeological structures that could be visited back then were 64, now they are only 23. And that's just Pompei. In Selinunte, the temple of Apollo, restored eleven years ago, still cannot be visited because no one has yet taken away the scaffoldings. Fewer people visit the Riace bronzes than go to the Pistoia zoo. There is a gasifier next to Agrigento, threatening the whole site. I could go on and on, as I am sure you can too.

It's no wonder then that in the last fiscal year, the Tate Britain has taken in €76,2 million as against 82 million for ALL publicly-held museums and archeological sites in Italy put together.

Is it lack of money to manage the museums and sites? Not really. One can find dozens of examples of wasted and pointless spending. Again Pompei as one example among many: €2 million were spent on ugly sheds that are supposed to be the caretakers and guards changing rooms...

The crowning touch? There's not even a general maintenance plan anywhere. As Francesco Bandarin, the Italian Assistant Director-general in UNESCO told the Stampa: "protecting art is not a luxury but an investment". Absolutely right.

So when are the Italians going to start doing it? Yet this is a country that can do extraordinary and innovative things if it sets its mind to it: like dig a 500 mt deep hole in a volcano and send underground sensors - in the caldera at the Campi Flegrei near Naples - for the purpose of  monitoring since there is a danger of eruption. The place has risen almost 3 meters since 1968, and this particular caldera is one of the largest and most populated in the world. An eruption here could cause millions of deaths, not to mention of course the disappearance of archeological sites like the Roman market that emerged in Pozzuoli from the bottom of the sea since the caldera pushed up the ground...This is a scientific project with risks attached - and some have heavily criticized - but for the moment, the scientists are pushing ahead, and might even go down to a depth of 4000 meters, unless they unexpectedly hit magma and have to stop.

Now, how about directing some of this remarkable energy to the preservation and management of Italy's cultural heritage?

   



 
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2.18.2011

HOW TO SHED THOSE EXTRA POUNDS AND STAY TRIM IF NOT THIN...

Obesity IllustrationThe road to obesityImage by Combined Media via Flickr
Have you noticed that diets never really work? I've had friends who followed stringent diets under medical control, who've gone to America for an operation, and yet, in every case, results were never permanent. Most disappointing! After a while all the weight - or nearly all of it - was back.

So, after watching this happen to my friends who tried all sorts of diets and never achieving any permanent result - actually slowly growing fatter over time - and finding that I too was slowly putting on weight - a couple of pounds every year, starting at age 40 - I tried to control this slow drift towards fat. I went for something else: I've changed my lifestyle in the kitchen! A different eating style is harder to implement at the restaurant, but you can fight the pounds off if you stick to ordering just one dish - preferably the grilled variety and no sauce - and cut out the dessert.

But at home you're in full control of what you (and your family) eat. And the first thing to do is review how you cook and adjust it in case there's a problem. And, noticing how most of my friends cook, I would say there's a problem: TOO MUCH FAT is regularly used. Yes, I know, that's what teflon pans are for...but what about the taste? We all are convinced deep down that an extra pat of butter or a spoonful of olive oil is going to add that indispensable extra taste to our food. Well, if that's your conviction, try to add it AT THE END, when you're finished cooking, and then only HALF of what you're used to.

Mashed potatoes are a case in point. Of course one shouldn't eat them if one is trying to lose weight, but if you really love them (as I do), why punish yourself? Just stay away from cream and other luscious fats and mash them with skim milk. Bring to a boil and keep beating with a wooden spoon to make them fluffy, then add a pat of butter at the very end, just before serving. You'll see how good your mashed potatoes are, full of fresh butter flavour precisely because you've put it in when you've stopped cooking and it's off the fire. And mashed potatoes are not that fattening: potatoes, by themselves are not bad calorie-wise. The problem is that they absorb fat like a sponge, and french fries, as everyone knows, are a real no-no...

Well, yes, if you want to keep trim, there are certain foods you have to eat very, very rarely: fried food and desserts. It's just common sense. But there's no reason to cut anything out of your diet: just eat less (or rarely) of the stuff that you know is fattening. But don't cut it out altogether! Do have that piece of chocolate or that whiskey and soda when you really feel like it! Again, it's psychological common sense: one has to maintain a balance in life and indulge in a few good things just to feel good...

Over time, I've developed a few rules to follow in both cooking and eating. Indeed, I find that my cooking is so much lighter than anyone else's that I don't enjoy much eating out anymore because I find other people's cooking often hard to digest... I thought you might be interested in those rules - and they're not that hard to follow, keeping in mind that you should always allow yourself a splurge now and then, just to keep smiling and stay on the sunny side of life! So here they are - a bit personal, sorry about that, but I find they work for me and I hope they might work for you:

1. Breakfast, as all nutritionists insist, is not a meal you should skip, but it really isn't the most important one in the day, and if you're not hungry in the morning...don't eat! But you do need to get a little something in you to face the morning's work: a plain yoghurt (based on skimmed milk) with a sprinkle of brown cane sugar does nicely for me, and one piece of toast with jam, and lots of tea (I'm a coffee drinker, and a big one, but only after breakfast). Plus an occasional fresh orange juice, but only if I have the time to press the oranges myself (I hate the frozen stuff); if you're keen on fruits, breakfast is a great time to have a couple of fresh fruit. Also breakfast is a good time to take all those vitamin supplements and in particular Omega 3. The latter is extremely important to keep your hair and eyes shiny and fight off the signs of age on your skin. Since you could never eat the amount of fish required for a daily minimum of Omega 3, take a spoonful of linseed oil (the edible variety, found in pharmacy). Sure, it doesn't taste good but the effects are guaranteed!

2. Break up your standard meal - first and second courses - into two parts: one for lunch, the other for dinner. Better the second course in the middle day because you have time to exercise it off in the afternoon. And by "second course" I mean either fish or meat plus an ample vegetable side dish, but, of course, you may not have time for it. Then reverse the order, and have it at night, sticking to the lighter first course for lunch. Living in Italy, what I mean by a "first course" is naturally a pasta, rice dish or polenta. But let's face it: if you have a whole grain sandwich with a good filling of healthy stuff without skimping on the vegetables (lettuce, tomatoes etc), you're okay. From a nutritional point of view, it's about the same as a good pasta with broccoli and sausages or tagliatelle with asparagus tips! Notice that I don't mention pizza: I love it, but let's face that's one of those dishes you should eat as rarely as you can: a pizza is a real calorie bomb, alas...

3. Try to cook with a minimum of fat. All recipes are systematically wrong in the amount of fat they call for. And, as I said before, if you really must have that taste of fresh butter, add it at the end. And put in half of what you usually use.

4. Eat plenty of vegetables - fruit too, but remember they're full of sugar (so more fattening than veggies). The way I balance the weekly intake of vegetables is to make a soup of pureed vegetables at least three times a week. And the soup followed by a small piece of cheese becomes a whole meal. And I do it entirely without fat, and I just use Knorr broth powder in place of salt - I personally like the taste of Knorr better (it seems more natural to me) but any other brand does nicely. Then puree whatever mix of vegetables you've decided on in your blender until creamy smooth. Try to give your soup a colour: for example, put extra carrots for a pink soup, spinach for a green one. Dont' forget onions and/or leeks for taste and remember to use at least one potato to ensure that the mix will be creamy. Also turnips are a nice addition or replacement for potatoes, making the soup lighter.

5. If you can and live in a place where organic food is available, do buy it. It know it's more expensive but there are definite benefits. First, it often noticeably tastes better, and that's a plus in itself. Also, organic fruit  and vegetables last longer on the shelf and that's a definite advantage. An organic banana can turn brown on you, and if it were a normal kind of banana you'd have to throw it away but not the organic one: if anything, it tastes better and sweeter. Amazing! Another reason why I like organic food - including organic or "bio" meat - is that I suspect that something happens when we eat the products of our modern agriculture, so full of chemicals/fertilizers to make plants grow bigger and taller and hormones to make animals fatter faster. I can't prove it, and I haven't yet found any scientific confirmation of my suspicions, but I do suspect that since "we are what we eat", the chemicals and hormones that have gone into our food have also seeped into our system, provoking an inevitable tendency to obesity. Indeed, the wave of obesity started in America, the first country to embrace modern agriculture and its fertilizers and pesticides, and it is now rushing through Europe and surely will soon invade China. The only country that has more or less resisted is Japan, no doubt for its cultural tendencies to eat fish and sushi in preference to anything else...

Basically, that's all there is to it. It's just five simple rules and not 15 tips like in the article below (a very good article btw, do read it!). They're just overall, common sense rules for healthier living - not forgetting to exercise of course, and walk, walk, walk whenever you can! But it does make for a sea change in your diet and if you stick to it, you'll see that you won't put on anymore weight, and after a while, you'll even start to shed off those extra pounds. The process is a slow one, but it (generally) works for me (except when I break down at Christmas time...) and I do hope it will work for you too!
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2.13.2011

Mubarak gone, what next?

Egyptian man
A great victory for the Egyptian people, and we are all so happy for them, but what next? There are a lot of fears in the West, especially in the US and Israel, that the Egyptian revolution will degenerate in an Iranian form of Islamic extremism, but in my opinion - of course, it's just an opinion - that is extremely unlikely.

Egypt is not Iran. 2011 is not 1979. We've all learned a lot since 1979 about religious extremism, and those who have learned most are the facebook generation. And that's the generation that has brought about the Egyptian protests that have swept Mubarak away. People like Google's young executive Ghonam who directed the Facebook page that helped coordinate the protest leaders and was jailed for 12 days, only to come back with words that inspired more protest the next days. While no single figure has emerged, the leaders seem to be mostly well educated young lawyers and doctors, many of whom rushed to Tahrir Square and helped the protest along - a secular protest, not a religious one. Indeed, the Muslim Brotherhood joined late and continues to claim that it will not seek the presidency or a preponderant role in the coming elections.

Is the Muslim Brotherhood likely to take over? I doubt it. It's very different from Al Qaeda. It's not a recent explosive terroristic movement. It's been around a long time - since 1928 - and it has evolved from what was once a radical start. It has become more liberal but  hasn't yet succeeded in cutting for itself a big slice in the political cake. In 2005, when it was allowed to participate in elections,  it may have reached some 20 percent of the electorate (but probably much less). Of course, Mubarak saw to it that its rise to power would not continue by banning it from last year's parliamentary elections. That was not a smart move: it is always better to have the opposition involved in the parliamentary game. But the Brotherhood is used to being banned and simply returned to the grassroots level strategie that have served it so well over time, like setting up schools or health care centres for the poor - all things that Al Qaeda despises. Indeed, the Brotherhood and Al Qaeda do not see eye to eye: Al Qaeda has nothing but contempt for the more liberal Brotherhood and its attempts to participate in democratic life. And if the Brotherhood did succeed in attracting a lot more votes in 2005, that's because many shared with the Brotherhood a  hatred for Mubarak's regime, rather than its religious views. Now these secular people will have other places to go to and the Brotherhood is not likely to continue in its role as the sole serious opponent to the regime.

So, if all goes well, we should see a democratic game develop, with new political movements, secular and non, vying for power. That is, if the military will allow it. Because that is the real question: will they act as a force guaranteeing the orderly transition to democracy or will they attempt to keep power for themselves? Let's not kid ourselves. The military has been in power in Egypt since 1952, and overtime, they have developed  strong vested interests, including a big slice of the economic pie (reportedly between 5 and 15% of GNP), running all sorts of industries, from construction to baking bread. And they receive American assistance to the tune of $1.3 billion/year. That's a lot of money to buy army  toys - mostly in the United States, of course.

Who exactly is running the Egyptian army? It's a conscription army, which means all males are called on to participate. And that probably explains why the army would not execute Mubarak's orders to restore order: these soldiers probably saw the protesters as people like themselves. According to the New York Times, and as far as we know, there are two important figures running the military. One is Field Marshall Tantawi, 75 years old. Known as "Mubarak's poodle",  he shares with him, not only an education in the Soviet Union, but a conviction that democracy is not viable in Egypt. The other is Lt. Gen. Enan,  63 years old, much younger and reportedly more "open" and someone who has spent extended time in the United States. He has gone to Tahrir Square on Thursday, assuring the protesters that their demands would be met. Enan may not be alone of his kind. Since the Egyptian army has been receiving American aid for a long time, it is possible that a new class of younger officers educated in the United States (rather than the Soviet Union) might make a difference, but there is no way of knowing whether that is what is actually going to happen.

At this point in time, the future does look extremely uncertain. The revolution could yet be highjacked by the army and hopes of following the "Turkish model" whereby the army guarantees the transition to democracy and allows for the creation of a moderate islamic party like the Turkish Justice and Development party, may well vanish.What is certain however, is that the position of Israel could rapidly deteriorate if Egypt's support for the 30 year-old peace treaty wavers (there are lot of Egyptians, including secular ones, who don't like it).

What is also certain is that America is walking a tight rope in the region, as it supports a variety of dictatorial regimes simply because it vews them as bulwarks against Islamic extremism. The trouble is, to the man in the street in Egypt and elsewhere, America appears as hypocritical when it talks of defending democratic values...


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2.08.2011

Are we suffering from Museum-itis or Museum Creation Fever?

Hiller Aviation Museum, San Carlos Airport, CA
The most bizarre museums are created nowadays - for example, former President of France Jacques Chirac founded a museum in the small rural village (286 inhabitants) where he was born, in backwaters Correze, to display the gifts he received during his presidency, most of them deplorable kitsch. And it cost the French taxpayers all of €16.7 million ($23 million)!

Another example is the Cat Museum in Malaysia with more than two thousand items, including a mummified Egyptian cat, the perfect venue for cat lovers of the world! Or outdoors eco-museum, underwater art displays and indoors forestry museum. Or the Hiller Aviation Museum specialized in Northern California aircraft history and helicopter history (see picture). Not to mention secret agent museums and erotically subversive museums: there's a Museum of Old and New Art opening in Tasmania, dubbed as the "subversive adult Disneyland" for the whole of Australia. Founded in 2001 by Australian millionaire David Walsh, it underwent a $75 million renovation and was re-opened on 21 January 2011 with a lavish party attended by nearly 4000 guests.

Then, of course, there's a plethora of Modern and Contemporary Art museums, not only in the main capitals of the world but in medium-sized cities and even small towns. You're simply not "in" if you haven't got your MoCA museum. Every collector worth his salt dreams of founding sooner or later his or her museum. The first step is storage of the collection (always too big for a private home) in a warehouse, waiting for the upgrading to museal display. For politically well-connected collectors, the game is a lot easier. The example of Carlo Bilotti is a model every true collector should strive to follow: a retired Italo-American perfume executive from Palm Beach, Florida, Bilotti donated to the city of Rome in 2006 his collection of modern art, spanning from Dali to Warhol. To store and display it, the city promptly restored a lovely 16th century villa in the park of Villa Borghese (I wasn't able to discover at what cost - does anyone know?) Now the Museo Carlo Bilotti has become a must for art tourists. Rome has given him eternal fame. What more could you wish for as a private collector?

Much of Carlo Bilotti's collection is interesting - even if I'm neither a fan of Dali or Warhol -  and it is, occasionally, a lively venue for contemporary art shows. But it is definitely, among the prestigious Rome museums, a very small one, a dwarf among giants, merely reflecting one man's taste and luck in finding art works.


Now does this really make sense? When I was a child, a museum was something serious: it was the repository of precious art work and/or of scientific knowledge and major discoveries. It brought together not one man's collection but many, not one man's views but that of the community as a whole. A museum acted as a general reference for intellectual and cultural life. It gave one a sense of belonging to a great civilization, it linked you back to your past. It was meant to defend and preserve a particular civilization's most important features through Time.

Going beyond the individual quirks of the ultra-rich who dream of having museums in their name, or of those who call museums what are nothing more than clever variations of Disneyland themes, there may be some honest attempts to create show places for historic events, like for example, the planned Museum of the Shoah in Italy. But are these really "museums" in the basic meaning of the word?

Shouldn't we start to use different words for such endeavours? Perhaps we could call them "Memory Monuments",  or perhaps even invent a new term based on the concept of "showcase" or some sort of "dedicated space". For example, "Experimental Art Space" for a Contemporary Art Museum, because it is not really a museum: not enough time has gone by to decide whether the art is historic or not. But to have a place somewhere in town, supported by public funding and dedicated to artistic experiments and innovations, why not? Just don't call it a museum!

What do you think? Any ideas on how to call a museum that isn't a museum?


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