Saturday, July 21, 2007

Operation Clean Hands

What is happening in Bangladesh is not at all unprecedented. Almost identical events occurred in Italy in the early 1990s.

But we have to go back a bit.

Mussolini had nearly destroyed the Mafia. After his defeat, the Americans, who are fond of the vilest bedfellows, resuscitated the mob in order to fight off communism. The Christian Democratic Party (DC) – this was the age of the Christian Democratic Parties in Europe – forged a symbiosis with the Mafia. Throughout the continuing pontificate of Pope Pius XII, the Italian Church was mobilized to feed votes to the DC – anything against the communist devil! (Italo Calvino recounts how the good nuns of post-war Turin brought the mentally ill and defectives in their care to cast votes.) Supported partly by American cash, the Social Democratic Party became a coalition partner of the DC.

Thus, over some fifty years, the Christian Democrats became corrupt and criminal. Then the Berlin Wall collapsed, and, with it, Communism.

The Christian Democrats and the Mafia were clearly liabilities now. A systematic purge of the Italian ruling elite began.. It was engineered by some brave magistrates known as mani pulite (clean hands), with, no doubt, the United States in the background. Several of those magistrates were assassinated by the mob. But enough pentiti (penitent mobsters) were rustled up to blow the whistle on the Mafia.

Bribe taking was discovered within the judiciary. The press came under public suspicion, as did the Vatican. By late in 1993, allegations had been made against over 3,000 politicians, business executives, and civil servants, of whom almost a third had been arrested or were under investigation, causing such a backlog in the courts that, it was estimated, the trials might not be concluded for a decade. Ten of those accused had committed suicide. (Nothing so dramatic has yet happened in Bangladesh: we don't even have 500 politicians behind bars, let alone 1,000, and nobody's shot himself.)

The Italian Christian Democrats were finished. Corruption did return, notably in the shape of Silvio Berlusconi; and so did the mafia, which was never an entirely criminal organization, but performed social services in the poorer south of Italy. However, the mafia was a shadow of its former self, and the nexus between politics and organized crime had been broken.

In Bangladesh, things happened in reverse. The Berlin Wall collapsed, and General Ershad was given the heave-ho by the donors (donor-propped dictators were falling like dominoes after 1989 – in that year, there were three democracies in Africa; in 1991, there were thirty! For more on the subject, see Patrick Chabal and Jean-Pascal Daloz's excellent book, Africa Works.)

Thus, instead of one dictator, we had two; and instead of men with guns, we had boys with guns.

Sixteen years later, the western powers realized that democracy was going the usual way, and sought to clean up their little colony called Bangladesh.

Thus, we have our own brand of mani pulite, the ostensible ridding of corruption and actual dismantling of dysfunctional political parties.

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