Sunday, May 02, 2004


In Arianna Huffington's biography of Picasso, she quotes poet Michel Leiris on the subject of Guernica: "In a rectangle of black and white such as that in which ancient tragedy appeared, Picasso sends us the announcement of our mourning: all that we love is going to die."

The Basque town, Guernica, came under high-explosive and incendiary bombardment on April 26, 1937. The Condor Legion of the German Luftwaffe was on loan to Francisco Franco, to help put down the Spanish Republic during Spain's Civil War. Of some 7,000 souls, about 1,600 were killed; and the town itself burned for 3 days. When the shock wave, that news of the slaughter of civilians reached Paris, thousands of people poured into the streets to protest. Picasso, who had been procrastinating for weeks over a commission, a large mural for the Spanish Gallery, was among those who mingled with the stunned Parisians. He began living out of his studio, as he completed a work of abstract art, that is considered by many to be one of the most compelling anti-war statements ever conceived. It was only after Franco's death in 1975, that it was possible for Guernica to come back to Spain as a national art treasure; only when democracy had been restored.

Not just anyone can pose in front of Picasso's Guernica, with the chilling and sinister effect of John Negroponte. Half-turned to the camera, he offers only the ghost of a little grin; and the gestalt of that abstract bull stares with such intensity from the tapestry. It's not the original Picasso, to be sure; but rather a reproduction that was commissioned by Nelson Rockefeller, a tapestry that has hung at UN Headquarters in New York for many years. And it's a bit curious that this image first surfaced on the CPA (Coalition Provisional Authority) website that originates in Iraq. As American Ambassador to the UN, Negroponte has been highly visible in the run-up to the invasion, and throughout this year of occupation. Now, his latest nomination has cleared the Senate; and he will become ambassador to the New Iraq, sometime after June 30th.

In February of last year, this particular Guernica made a splash of its own in the news. When Colin Powell was making the US case for war with Iraq in 2003, a controversy was raised over this copy of Picasso's masterpiece. The whole tapestry was covered by a blue curtain, in that UN reception area that normally served for press conferences. It was discreetly masking Guernica, so as not to embarrass Secretary of State Powell. Reporter Maureen Dowd summed up the situation, writing at the time that, "Mr. Powell can't very well seduce the world into bombing Iraq surrounded on camera by shrieking and mutilated women, men, children, bulls and horses."

Clearly, one has to look back to 2001, when Negroponte was facing close scrutiny. He was then proposed as the new US Ambassador to the UN. Mr. Frank Del Olmo, an associate editor for the LA Times, referred to Negroponte as a "warmed-over Contra paymaster"; and in his article, Olmo stresses the importance of a series which appeared in 1995 in the Baltimore Sun. These well researched articles dealt with Ambassador Negroponte's tenure in Honduras in the 1980's.

"Through interviews with former Honduran soldiers and some of the people they kidnapped and tortured, the articles laid out in gruesome detail the activity of a CIA-funded death squad run by the Honduran military during the Contra war."

"Those articles also made a credible case that Negroponte knew about the Honduran death squad, officially known as Battalion 316, and other covert operations taking place under his nose, and he ignored them."

'The Sun documents the fact that embassy staffers knew about human rights violations and duly reported them to their superiors in the embassy" (including Negroponte).

But questions about John Negroponte's past in Honduras fell by the wayside in the hysterical response by Congress after the 9/11 attack. George W. Bush's nominee was waved on through the Senate, pushed by the obsession to install a UN Ambassador quickly. The rationale was to avoid any display of partisan rancor during a time of emergency. In that year, Sister Laeticia Bordes wrote about the personal dealings she once had with Negroponte during his posting to Honduras. She essentially described how she was stonewalled by the Ambassador, when she tried to learn the fate of thirty-two women who fled from El Salvador to Honduras. These same women were subsequently kidnapped, tortured, and thrown to their deaths from helicopters.

Referring to events surrounding Negroponte's confirmation in the Senate in 2001, Sister Laeticia writes, "Since Bush made it known that he intended to nominate John Negroponte, other people have been "disappearing", so to speak. In an article published in the Los Angeles Times on March 25 Maggie Farley and Norman Kempster reported on a sudden deportation of several former Honduran death squad members from the United States. These men could have provided shattering testimony against Negroponte in the forthcoming Senate hearings."

An April 27, 2004 piece, from the Council On Hemispheric Affairs adds:

"Negroponte's objective in Honduras was eerily familiar to the Bush administration's present goal in Iraq. The U.S. government, again, is attempting to implement a democratic format on a country that has not yet chosen to do it on its own, and not necessarily by democratic means."

American mercenaries and CIA operatives were behind the recent torture and humiliation of Iraqi captives; and it is now reported that one captive has died from this abuse. What more can be done to discredit our so-called liberators, than crimes that they commit within Saddam Hussein's infamous Abu Ghraib prison? Another shock during the previous few days came from an article in the UK's Daily Telegraph. A British officer in Iraq, speaking on condition of anonymity, made these comments to Sean Rayment:

"The view of the British chain of command is that the Americans' use of violence is not proportionate and is over-responsive to the threat they are facing."

"The problem was that American troops viewed the Iraqis as untermenchen" [my italics]. The British officer explained the word, the historical expression used by the Nazis, which translates as subhuman."

We must stand down from the butchery we have seen in Fallujah. The Bush Administration aims for propaganda victories. They sanitize this carnage with political slogans and ideological props. But some part of the facade is always slipping. What?-American Marines shooting women and children? Civilians burned and mangled by cluster bombs? Artillery and 500 pound bombs leveling city blocks? They mask the truth with euphemisms. Torture goes by another name; it is called softening-up.

The nightmarish quality of this Occupation scenario is only heightened as veteran reporter, Helen Thomas, asks the obsequious Press Secretary, Scott McClellan, if the United States intends to turn besieged Fallujah into another Guernica.

Into this New Iraq comes Ambassador John Negroponte. "In a rectangle of black and white such as that in which ancient tragedy appeared, Picasso sends us the announcement of our mourning: all that we love is going to die."

The body of the Iraqi boy is still. A photographer blinks at him through the lens. The light is resonant in black and white; it is antique. The boy's head is tilted by gravity slightly, as he lies on his side on the gurney. A chaos of small, dark puncture wounds cover his stomach, arms and legs. What breathed in him has sunken. His skin has drawn taut like the head of a drum. It looks like rigor, except for those dark, dark eyes, that pay homage to privacy. Dark eyes, black shreds of cloth at his waist and shoulders, rigid flesh; he was all of 12 years old.

This writer at least wants a statement that is urgent and evocative. It would be something, owing to his taste, that the Greeks have said. Sophocles will do, in the CHORUS of his Antigone. In Robert Fagles translation, the CHORUS sings the marvels of Man, and at the end, it sings its sharp warning:

"Man the master, ingenious past all measure

past all dreams, the skills within his grasp--
he forges on, now to destruction
now again to greatness. When he weaves in
the laws of the land, and the justice of the gods
that bind his oaths together
he and his city rise high--
but the city casts out
that man who weds himself to inhumanity
thanks to reckless daring. Never share my hearth
never think my thoughts, whoever does such things."

Sources via Billmon
Images via indymedia argentina and Atrios

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