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The rise and fall of a mastermind

Richard Cachia Caruana rummages around his desk frantically, devoid of any humour.

Alfred Sant probably summed up Dr Pullicino Orlando correctly

He is not facing the breathtaking panorama framed by his office window on the top floor of the prime real estate that is Malta’s EU permanent representation in Brussels. Instead, his desk faces the two doors from which employees armed with key-cards slowly come through.

“Is everything all right, Ambassador?” asks a worried young woman. “No it’s not,” he bellows.

A wire has gone missing and he cannot print some notes he prepared for the interview. “I will see where it is,” she responds assertively. “No don’t. It’s too late now.”

Minutes ago, Mr Cachia Caruana was heaping praise on his employees as he introduced them jokingly as the ones who must put up with “the monster”.

“These are the people who are meant to tremble at the sound of my voice,” he said, with a hint of sarcasm. But really, they do. They quiver at the thought of disappointing him.

And the mere hum of the printer as it finally sucks up a sheet of paper is enough for a young man to breathe a visible sigh of relief and wipe the sweat from his forehead.

Earlier, however, another employee confided in me: “We’re all very sad about what happened to PR,” she said, referring to her boss, even outside his presence, by the abbreviation of his official title, Permanent Representative.

“Everyone knows he has his moments. But working with him has been a pleasure. You never catch him on the wrong foot. He knows everything about everything,” she adds.

“And the discipline... Well, where would we be without discipline?

“We know that if we make a mistake we can cost our country millions of euros. So if that’s what it takes for us not to make a mistake, so be it.”

All the staff seem to have been working with Mr Cachia Caruana for years. And as he prepares to clear his desk, they are feeling like headless chickens.

“Somehow, he has remained focused throughout. And he keeps telling us to do the same... We’re trying,” one of them tells me.

Mr Cachia Caruana’s stern exterior quickly melts into charm as he sits down comforted by the notes he managed to print out all by himself.

His disarming nature can mask his mythical status.

But a scar on his left hand (from when he was stabbed in 1994) guides my eyes to the discreet white letters embroidered on the cuff of his starched shirt: RCC.

This is no ordinary man.

As he speaks, messages of support trickle in, mostly from politicians, even some from the opposite side of the political spectrum.

Though not for publication, he reads most of them aloud with childlike enthusiasm.

Despite all his confidence, he is surprised by each one, as if he never expected to receive any support.

He has been receiving similar reactions from other EU ambassadors. Having served since 2004, Mr Cachia Caruana, aged 57, is the longest standing permanent representative in Brussels, so is also known as the Dean.

Even though two other long-standing members are leaving this month, they will have to share a farewell dinner and Mr Cachia Caruana will get his own.

Mr Cachia Caruana’s shoes will not be easy to fill. He is no ordinary ambassador. He spends half the week in Brussels and the other half in Malta, where he deals with Cabinet matters.

As if that were not enough, he is also a master PN strategist, though he abhors that title. He does this job officially only during general election campaigns (usually the ones the Nationalist Party wins).

This explains why this “bad golfer”, as he describes himself, hasn’t played since 2004.

Mr Cachia Caruana, a bachelor, is married to his job, which makes his resignation all the more difficult.

Born in 1955, he joined the Nationalist Party aged 18, driven by the injustices he saw committed by the Mintoff government. (He experienced this firsthand when the government withdrew his scholarship for a PhD in the UK. Naturally, he went anyway.)

“These people believe that if you are Nationalist you are basically subhuman,” he tells me later.

At University, he did not bother with partisan student politics.

Instead, his course elected him on to the international economics organisation Aiesec and his faculty elected him to the students’ council.

He was also chairman of a university newspaper.

Eventually he worked his way to the top of Aiesec, which, in a taste of what was to come, saw him to-ing and fro-ing between Brussels and Malta.

Like many young political activists in those days, life in Malta was not easy and he soon found himself in the filthy police lock-up where he immediately began a hunger strike that would last only 24 hours.

“When I was released, a well-known policeman at the time told me I was the most arrogant person who ever entered police headquarters. I thanked him.”

The accusation of arrogance stuck with Mr Cachia Caruana throughout the years. Although he does not wish to make excuses, he can explain.

In 1981, PN stalwart Louis Galea asked him to fly back to help the PN’s campaign. No one else in the party had studied marketing and he had already proven his commitment by helping set up a PN office in London together with Michael Frendo, who is now Speaker.

Flying back to Malta meant leaving his PhD (a move that would haunt his educator father for 30 years), but as his Dean told him: “In life there are some people you do not say ‘no’ to.”

Aged 26, together with Austin Gatt Mr Cachia Caruana oversaw the flourishing of Eddie Fenech Adami from “the so-called village lawyer” to hero.

The experience, which included ordering huge personalities around, stunted his growth, he says.

“We were given certain responsibilities for which we were not adequately emotionally prepared.

“When you have that sort of responsibility at that age there is a danger that patience does not develop... You retain a certain roughness which more rounded characters do not.”

After running two successful campaigns in 1981 and 1987, Mr Cachia Caruana became Dr Fenech Adami’s right-hand man. But the experience was not all rosy and in 1994 there was an attempt on his life.

He was stabbed in the back – a crime that was attributed to vengeance over the resignation of the Brigadier of the Armed Forces, whose daughter had been caught with cocaine at the family home.

When I met my family that evening or the next day I said: Do not give Jeffrey Pullicino Orlando more than your last vote

Mr Cachia Caruana narrowly escaped death. The attack left him with scars on his hand and larger ones on his back.

He doesn’t deny the scars are not only physical.

But what he recalls most was the “cruelty” of the Labour Party during the investigation and court case.

Labour accused the government of protecting a co-conspirator in the attack (Joseph Fenech, known as Zeppi l-Hafi), whom he points out was actually a disgruntled Nationalist-turned-stalwart of the Labour Party club bar in St Julian’s.

“The Labour Party launched an attack on the credibility of the witnesses,” he says. Though he found this unacceptable, it taught him some important lessons, which he used during the 2008 election.

Mr Cachia Caruana still retains police protection – something the Sant government had at one point tried to remove. The decision was revoked by the Ombudsman.

Almost two decades after the attack, Mr Cachia Caruana still feels unsafe when he is “demonised” in the press.

“There is a measure of déjà vu,” he says, knowing that people will call him too sensitive.

He claims he is also concerned when others are demonised.

Yet, he respects veteran columnist Daphne Caruana Galizia, who is a less sensitive type.

“I admire her for having the guts to say what she thinks and express herself so eloquently,” he says, adamantly refusing to judge whether she has ever crossed the line in terms of decency.

(He finds the mere suggestion offensive. It is always better to err on the side of freedom of expression, he says, especially after the stifling of opinion this country witnessed in the past.)

Mr Cachia Caruana is often accused of influencing Ms Caruana Galizia (and other journalists) to try to bring down politicians he does not like – an accusation he vehemently denies.

It is not difficult to see why the connection is made.

The two seem to have practically identical opinions and descriptions for people like Nationalist MP Jeffrey Pullicino Orlando, who voted against Mr Cachia Caruana in Parliament, partly because of this connection.

“Dr Pullicino Orlando has decided it is not possible for a woman to write articles criticising a man... a Sicilian man I suppose.... and forcefully saying she disagrees with him,” he says, ridiculing the suggestion that he could somehow coordinate a team of journalists in the middle of his 24/7 job.

However, he says he has also been at the receiving end of Ms Caruana Galizia’s criticism, such as during the Libya crisis where the “proud” work he was doing with the Prime Minister and the Foreign Minister was being fiercely criticised “unfairly”.

“I found what she wrote extremely offensive. But you lump it.”

These people believe that if you are Nationalist you are basically subhuman

Arguably, Ms Caruana Galizia is a player in the backbench revolt seen in recent months, with both Franco Debono and Dr Pullicino Orlando lashing out at her for what they call “personal attacks”.

Mr Cachia Caruana concedes that her blog may be causing damage to the PN. But what she writes under her name remains her responsibility.

“And damage has not necessarily been caused by what was written, but by the interpretation of people who are unable to understand that as politicians they have to be able to take the rough with the smooth.”

“The first thing the MPs concerned have to do is look at the mirror and stop blaming other people for their failures and insecurities,” he says.

“It’s rich for Mr Mugliett and Dr Pullicino Orlando to complain about being victims of a clique when they were both preferred and promoted by the Fenech Adami and the Gonzi administrations”

This prompts him to tell his version of what happened with Dr Pullicino Orlando during the last days of the PN election – an episode he says deprived the Nationalist Party of an absolute majority at the polls.

“In the fourth week of campaigning, a message came that Labour was going to destroy one of our new stars.”

Eventually someone worked out this would be Dr Pullicino Orlando and Alfred Sant was planning to hold a press conference the next day at the planning authority, to talk about some permits.

“[Then PN general secretary] Joe Saliba called for Dr Pullicino Orlando.

“I was present at one of the follow-up meetings. I listened to what he had to say. He assured us there was nothing they could possibly say he had done wrong.”

“Dr Pullicino Orlando can be quite credible in getting his message across. I believed him. So did everybody else.”

The accusation made by Dr Sant was that Dr Pullicino Orlando had played an active part in an application to build a disco on land owned by the MP in Mistra – which would harm the party’s environmental credentials.

“I came to the conclusion that if we did not take dramatic action they would destroy him. I had to persuade the electorate that an innocent person was being unfairly attacked.”

This is where he recalled how credibility of witnesses in his attempted murder case was destroyed.

“My advice was: if you want people to think you are innocent, follow Dr Sant around everywhere. People will understand that only an innocent person would do this.”

But trouble began on the Sunday before the election, when Dr Pullicino Orlando addressed a party meeting.

“I was in the media room at party headquarters and plonked myself in front of the TV. Suddenly Dr Pullicino Orlando came on screen and burst into a flood of tears with great sobs. I looked at the screen and said aloud: ‘There is no way people are not going to believe him.’”

But a woman who stood behind him immediately said: “He’s just like my child. He’s done something wrong, he knows it’s his fault and he’s throwing a tantrum to convince people he hasn’t done it.”

“What I took as absolute honesty and ability to persuade, rang untrue to somebody with experience of raising children,” Mr Cachia Caruana says.

The next day Dr Pullicino Orlando arrived at a press conference where Dr Sant “mishandled him completely”.

But Mr Cachia Caruana only seriously began to doubt Dr Pullicino Orlando’s innocence when the next day Dr Sant released a registered letter in connection with his application for the disco at Mistra.

“From that day on I insisted only party officials should deal with him.”

On Thursday – the last day of the campaign before the period of reflection – Dr Pullicino Orlando sent a letter to The Times where he mentioned a contract.

“Until then he had always maintained there was no contract,” says Mr Cachia Caruana.

The contract was eventually published by Dr Sant minutes before midnight on the last day of campaigning.

“At this stage, people like me were in an absolute crisis. The steady increase we were seeing in the polls every day stopped. We realised that if we were lucky, we had saved the government. But in doing that, Dr Pullicino Orlando was going to get an extremely good result.

“When I met my family that evening or the next day I said: Do not give Dr Pullicino Orlando more than your last vote.

“I have no doubt that if we knew what we knew at the end of the campaign, everybody would have tackled it differently. We were caught in a situation where we trusted somebody who, even if he didn’t lie, didn’t tell the whole truth either – and this misled people.”

Similar behaviour was displayed by Dr Pullicino Orlando in the last six weeks running up to Monday’s vote in Parliament, he says.

“I regret to say Alfred Sant probably summed him up correctly.”

He maintains, however, his advice to the party after the election was that a resignation was “not possible” and the party needed to keep Dr Pullicino Orlando on its side because of the government’s one-seat majority.

We trusted somebody who, even if he didn’t lie, didn’t tell the whole truth either – and this misled people

He categorically denies having been behind an effort to get him to resign his seat and insists that, as Ms Caruana Galizia testified under oath, it was not him who called her to feed her this line, which, as Dr Pullicino Orlando pointed out in Parliament, she adamantly refused to take.

Now, Dr Pullicino Orlando has brought Mr Cachia Caruana’s shining career to an abrupt end.

“Part of me wants to tell all politicians to go to hell.

“But part of me thinks, from the way things are being handled, that Joseph Muscat and the people around him will damage the country seriously if they get into power. Vindictiveness will also become a way of life.”

Mr Cachia Caruana has not committed himself to coordinating the party’s “message” in the next campaign, as he did in 1998, 2003, the EU referendum and 2008. He does, however, rule out frontline politics.

One thing he will undoubtedly continue to do is give his strategic advice to the Nationalist Party.

So, will he suggest an election?

“If I tell you what I am going to tell the Prime Minister, I would be useless. I would be no better than a columnist.”

After three-and-a-half hours of talking, he is weary, but immediately lights up at the irony of what he has just said.

“That might not be a bad idea,” he says with a mischievous grin.

See also: Stabbed in the back, for the second time

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