January 29, 2010

In defence of Guido Bertolaso (updated)

A couple of days ago La Stampa newspaper ran an interesting piece by Lucia Annunziata, whose interview with Guido Bertolaso, Italy’s top disaster official, caused a furious reaction on the part of US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Now I am pleased to re-publish it in English—translated by Mirino, who is a regular contributor to this blog (thank you!). I really appreciated the article, and I hope my readers will appreciate it as well.

It’s true. Of all nations the USA have made the most important engagement in supplying help to Haiti. But does the fact that the Americans are the protagonists of the operation also mean that they have done everything properly? The words of Bertolaso, head of Italian Civil Protection, representing a government “friend,” have caused a disproportionate reaction.

Unless one reads from this that no one is allowed to criticise the USA. After all, what has Bertolaso said? That help has arrived, but the population isn’t receiving it as rapidly as should be the case. He said that the Americans have an enormous military structure which is nevertheless unsuitable for dealing with an emergency disaster.
The question is: Are Bertolaso’s affirmations false? Is this perhaps not what all our correspondents are writing and seeing every day in Haiti? Are things then normalised in Port-au-Prince? Have we seen any large camp sites anywhere? Is it right that fifteen days after the earthquake the principal square of the city (not just a labyrinth of ally ways in a tiny quarter), thousands of people are massed without tents and without being regularly supplied with food and water? Are the criticisms of Bertolaso and Sarkozy inventions, the collapse of local government and that of the United Nations? And would it be sheer chance that Bertolaso’s words have also been amply repeated by other international media, especially English? If this affirmation be so echoed, it’s certainly not because of the importance of the personality (may Bertolaso forgive us), but perhaps because an exposed nerve has been touched.

It’s true that Europe hasn’t done a great deal, and even that, not well enough (Baroness Ashton has certainly done us proud!) and we could do with a lot of criticism ourselves, but the USA have engaged themselves in Haiti in such a big way, not because Americans are better than Europeans, but because for a century they have virtually been governing the place. From 1915, the year of the first US debarkation on the island, until today, Haiti has in fact been an American protectorate. And it’s really the awareness of this that incited Obama to move (his words). Among the Presidents that have been very concerned about Haiti is also Bill Clinton. Another engagement- this too- and also very generous, but not necessarily successful: if one refers to Foreign Policy one can read the auto-critic on those years by David Rothkopf, the man who directed the Clinton agency for Haiti’s economic revival. Today Obama has burdened Clinton with the responsibility of following the Haitian emergency. Unfortunately it’s undeniable that he only went there once.

To thus indicate today any shortcomings of this intervention doesn’t signify demeaning such generosity, but understanding the complexity of the situation. In this concern: Bill is also the husband of Hillary. We are persuaded that an American secretary of State is above all suspicion- but I don’t believe I’m wrong if I say that if one was dealing with an Italian case, we would have indicated a conflict of interests in such an affair.


UPDATE Jan. 29, 2010, 9:00pm
Speaking at a ceremony in Coppito, Abruzzo, marking the handover from the national to regional government, Prime minister Silvio Berlusconi announced (Italian) this afternoon his intention to reward Guido Bertolaso for his great job in Abruzzo. “After what he did in L’Aquila,” he said, “to make him minister is the least we can do.”


  1. It's agreed in principle, but let's not be too harsh, especially in view of our own (Europe's) relatively meagre effort.
    The Haitians must still be suffering from immense shock. Their world has collapsed in an unprecedented cataclysm. It wouldn't then be too abnormal if at first they preferred to mass in a place they can still identify with, no matter how unhelpful this might be, than be herded into an impersonal camp site. Let's not forget the miracles either. The delicate, successful rescuing of survivors.
    If the American engagement deserves any criticism, the Americans themselves are usually the first to admit it. But when this isn't the case, they are usually big enough to take it in a more positive way.

    This would refer to Americans in general. The Obama administration might be less inclined to accept constructive criticism. Obama might consider himself well above it, apart from self criticism, whenever finally persuaded that he has made an error of judgement, and eventually thinks that he would gain something by publicly admitting it).

    There's now a problem regarding US medical care costs for the thousands of wounded survivors, apparently including Americans. This seems to mean that they no longer have access to be treated in the USA. Although this is an inevitable problem, it seems incompatible with the enormous expense of the US rescue operation. It's another crucial factor that should have been anticipated and allowed for, so that the responsibility of necessary medical attention could have been more equitably shared by other nations and medical organisations.
    Perhaps to some extent the problem could be transformed into a useful opportunity for Obama to help instigate his social welfare reforms.

    When countries are cancelling the Haiti debt, when millions are being spent on the rescue operations, this development seems relatively uncharitable therefore absurd.

  2. "If the American engagement deserves any criticism, the Americans themselves are usually the first to admit it. But when this isn't the case, they are usually big enough to take it in a more positive way. This would refer to Americans in general."

    Absolutely true, Mirino. I couldn't agree more with you.

    "The Obama administration might be less inclined to accept constructive criticism."

    Generally speaking, this is, as far as I know, the problem with Obama (and his supporters). There seems to be a genuine intolerance towards dissent. When speaking at Notre Dame amid protests from pro-lifers, he said, “When we open up our hearts and our minds to those who may not think precisely like we do or believe precisely what we believe—that’s when we discover at least the possibility of common ground.” But his record of dealing with actual dissent usually paints a different picture. The same problem seems to exist with the Democrats, and from this point of view Mrs. Clinton is at the top of the list, if it is true that, in the last few days, the US Ambassador to Italy asked Berlusconi top aide Gianni Letta to fire Bertolaso…