My Quiet weekend was rudely interrupted Saturday night by a telephone call from my Italian runner, Teodora. The telephone conversation was brief and to the point; she was down-stairs in the hotel lobby with other Journalists, and that I should come down immediately. With the telephone line dead on the other side, I had no other choice but to get up, get dressed and join the media square down at the hotel lobby.
“So why the rush”, I asked Teodora, as I settled down in the hotel lobby with about seven other Journalists who are in town as well for the G8 summit.
Pointing to the television on the wall, she said, “L’Aquila has suffered other aftershocks;” and that the tremors, which reached 4.1 on the Richter scale, might force the Italian government to move the G8 summit to Rome.
“But why drag me out of my bed?” I enquired again. “We are in Roma and L’Aquila is miles away”, I said, to the approval of the other journalists in the hotel lobby. Without saying another word, Teodora went into her bag and produced what were briefing papers which included instructions on what to do in an earthquake and a map of where to meet the rescue teams in L’Aquila.
L’Aquila, where over 250 people were killed and thousands left homeless by an earthquake in April, will host the G8 summit starting today and it is estimated that by tomorrow, there will be about 39 to 44 Heads of States in the earthquake city. It was chosen by the Italian Prime Minister, Silvio Berlusconi, as a sign of solidarity after the earthquake.
But the Italian Prime Minister’s decision to move the venue from Sardinia, where a conference centre was being built, to L’Aquila, in the Central Abruzzo region on the mainland, has proved to be a serious headache for his officials and, preparations for the summit as delegates arrived in the country in total chaos, and there are calls for the Italians to be expelled from the G8 group.
One British Foreign Ministry official told journalists in Rome that there is “a complete absence of substantive initiatives on the agenda”. Last week, as the concerns grew over the poor Italian preparations, Washington put into action the “sherpa calls” a diplomatic gesture involving conference calls among senior G8 officials.
Indeed, the logistical nightmare for Heads of States, including the American President, delegates and their security, as well as the charities, observers, journalists and strategists booked to attend the summit, has forced the American government to take over the running of the summit in a last-ditch effort to inject purpose into the summit.
“For another country to organise the Sherpa calls is just unprecedented. It’s a nuclear option”, said one senior G8 member state official. “The Italians have been just awful. There have been no processes and no planning”.
Italian journalists we talk to say that if the summit had to be moved it would most likely be held in the ministry of foreign affairs in Rome, with national delegations staying in their embassies.
“This is a gigantic fudge”, said Richard Gowan, an analyst at the Centre for International Co-operation at New York University. Mr Gowan said. “The Italians have no ideas and have decided that the best thing to do is to spread the agenda extremely thin to obscure the fact that they didn’t really have an agenda.”
As if the business of hosting the G8 summit were not enough of a challenge for Mr Berlusconi, the Italian Prime Minister is now also fighting accusations of having sex with an under-age teenager on top of a series of sexual scandals that many say has brought shame to Italy.
Over the last two months, the European press has had a field day with relentless coverage of the Berlusconi sex scandals. Indeed, one prostitute has given reporters graphic details of her encounter in bed with the Italian Prime Minister the night Barack Obama became the first African-American President last November.
The headlines are scandalous, pornography and cruelly disgraceful for a sitting Italian Prime Minister. “’Papi’ was codename for Silvio Berlusconi, women party guests say”, the Times of London headline screamed out a few days ago, “Grandpa Silvio ‘is impotent’,” another newspaper headline; German, French, Spanish and of course the British, press have called him a “clown,” “an aging Lothario” and “a danger for Italian democracy”, and have compared him to decadent Roman emperors.
Over the past two months, several women have come forward with stories about their encounter with Mr Berlusconi at his homes in Rome and Sardinia. One, a self-described hostess, another a former escort, and then there is the TV announcer who introduced him on a television programme some time ago.
Today, as leaders of the world’s largest economies settle down for a two days summit in L’Aquila and chaired by Silvio Berlusconi, the topic of discussion amongst journalists at the summit, is that had any of the leaders within the G8 embroiled in allegations about the procurement of call girls and suspected of spending the night with one of them, he or she would have resigned or been forced out of office.
But this is Italy.
Mr Silvio Berlusconi has reacted defiantly. He has dismissed the allegations as concoctions of a Communist-led conspiracy that has recruited some European press to blacken his reputation.
However, after a long silence, the Catholic Church one of Berlusconi’s staunchest supporters-has issued stern comments about moral decadence and even suggested that he resign.
The newspaper Avvenire, the voice of Catholic Italy, called on Mr Berlusconi to “respond to public opinion” urgently. “It is fair to ask if he has chosen the best line of response or the most appropriate defenders for his situation,” its editorial said.
The newspaper urged the Italian Prime Minister to understand he needed to respond not just to his political adversaries but also to the section of the public who may be his supporters: “In the end, everything has a price. And the danger here is that the debt will not be paid by a single person but by the entire country.”
But it must be said here that although the sex and corruption scandals have irreparably damaged Mr Berlusconi’s reputation across the world, many Italians, both men and women still admire him tremendously.
The Media tycoon turn politician has achieved the highest elective office in Italy not once, but three times, having already given the Italian electorate ample grounds for thinking that his business affairs and his private life are better not too closely scrutinised.
As a regular visitor to Italy I have come to understand that many Italians don’t care that much about his private life or his problems with the law (defendants are more simpatico than prosecutors). Broken promises, half-truth, and unanswered questions? The word accountability doesn’t translate well into Italian. This is a country of human nature, as one traveller recently said. And of emotional politics. France is a bit like that too. It’s no coincidence that a bright, quick short populist, married to an Italian woman, who also happens to be a bit of a ladies man, is running the show in France.
Beppe Severgnini, an Italian journalist, recently wrote that Italians and the French see politicians the way British see City bankers. “We forget and forgive, even though we shouldn’t”.
Mr Silvio Berlusconi, 72, owns a business empire that spans media, advertising, insurance, food and construction. He also owns Italy’s most successful football club, AC Milan and he has confessed to have had cosmetic surgery and has fought off repeated corruption and mafia allegations.
Back to the 2009 G8 summit agenda: the anti-poverty group – one set up by rock star Bono have accused the Italian government of cutting aid to Africa despite making ambitious pledges at a 2005 economic summit.
The Italian government acknowledge it had missed its aid targets. It blamed the financial crisis and said it remained committed to helping Africa.
Yesterday, we watched as thousands of Italian security personnel and the military threw a three-kilometre security cordon around the town of L’Aquila.
It was awesome but there is still that fear of earthquake or an aftershock during the summit starting today and ending over the weekend. And the American Secret Service are buzzing.
But one question keeps coming up in recent days; can Silvio Berlusconi as chairman of the G8 summit “pull-it-off” this week? “Si”, said one Italian journalist. That was good enough for me.
It was late in the evening and we were doing what journalists do best; drinking, smoking and talking about women and politics. From the cocktail bar on the roof of my hotel, there is an unparalleled view of the Holy City, with St Peter’s dome prominently facing our table.
The frescoed ceiling and warm cherry wood interiors combined with the excellent setting inside the bar creates a magical atmosphere for our table talk of sex, politics and power.
Henry Kissinger once famously said “Power is the ultimate aphrodisiac.” Who can argue with that? Indeed, not too long ago, the Italian former deputy culture minister said that “men in power need lots of sex”, and “if Berlusconi does not gain sexual satisfaction he governs badly.”
Well Old Boy, I will leave you to imagine what it’s going to be like here in Rome and in L’Aquila for the next three days … But let me help you just a bit, the food is not only great, it is simply beautiful; and for the ladies … they are exceedingly gorgeous. Need I say more?
Winston Ojukutu-Macaulay Jnr