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Articles by: Judith Harris

  • Italian Church in a Political Quandary

    It was a formal diplomatic event, all tea and sympathy and polite shaking of hands, but the bitter after-taste lingers. On February 18 Italian President Giorgio Napolitano and select members of the government met in the Italian Embassy to the Holy See with a delegation from the Vatican to honor the anniversary of the signing of the Concordat. The treaty of 1929, formally called the Lateran Pacts because signed in the Basilica of St. John Lateran, put a belated but definitive end to the so-called “Roman Question” that had been left dangling ever since 1870, when Rome fell and the Vatican lost its temporal powers to the newly united Italy. For Italy the Duce signed the peace treaty on behalf of King Victor Emmanuel III; for the Holy See, Cardinal Secretary of State Pietro Gasparri signed on behalf of Pope Pius XI.

    Marking the anniversary celebration was a not particularly veiled sense of embarrassment in the Vatican delegation, headed by an extremely formal Cardinal Angelo Bagnasco, over the presence of Premier Silvio Berlusconi as head of the government.

    Fact is, the Vatican is in a quandary. Italian bishops may not necessarily read every detail of the bungabunga phone taps filling the newspapers, but they know full well that Premier Berlusconi faces a judiciary trial on April 6 over his interference with Milanese police when a young woman—a very young and unscrupulous woman who has allegedly benefited from expensive gifts of jewelry and cash traceable to the Premier—was arrested on charges of theft.

    But at the same time most of the bishops do not trust the leftist politicians who might be an alternative to Berlusconi, like the openly gay Nichi Vendola or the old-style cigar-chomping Pietro Bersani. Even more importantly, they also know very well the advantages Berlusconi offers to the Italian Church. His government has backed “Family Day,” where abortion has been denounced. He has given assurances that his government will block efforts to give individuals the right to die (known here as the “biological testament”). He has hinted that more funds could be forthcoming for the nation’s economically troubled Catholic schools, whose enrollments have dropped by 20%, by an official estimate, due to the recession and families’ inability to pay tuition.

    As a result, as Religion News Service Rome correspondent Francis X. Rocca wrote, “the most eloquent statement by church leaders so far may have been silence,” and at the Feb. 18 ceremony commemorating the treaties, “Bertone and Berlusconi were both present but reportedly did not speak."

    Officially the Vatican has been trying to maintain an even keel, equidistant, but it is not easy. Mons. Giuseppe Anfossi has called for Berlusconi to “take a step backward, resign and clarify the situation in the proper places.” Local Catholic reaction to the sex scandals has increased dramatically, and in recent issues Famiglia Cristiana, the foremost Catholic magazine in Italy with one of the country’s largest circulations, has taken the bull by the horns. One of its January backgrounders was headlined, “Le notti di Arcore,” The Nights at Arcore (Arcore is the popular name for the villa in Milan where Berlusconi lives). From its lead item:

    “The head of state [President Napolitano] says that he is ‘troubled.’ The daily newspaper of the Italian bishops speaks of an ‘overwhelming’ affair. If what the magistrates have stated in their request to the Chamber of Deputies to authorize a search of the office of Berlusconi’s colleague [his paymaster], the picture would be squalid and desolating. The investigation that began with the ‘Ruby case’ that involves the President of the Council of Ministers is shattering the political offices and the entire country, and has been heard world wide.”

    This was the magazine which, as long ago as last October, appealed to Berlusconi to observe more self-control. In mid-February an editorial writer Giorgio Vecchiato commented that the real news was not so much that Berlusconi would have to face trial April 6 on charges of abuse of office and for his relationship with an underage prostitute, but that the three-man court required to pass sentence would be composed entirely of women. “It makes one think of nemesis,” Vecchiato opined. “You, Berlusconi, made use of women, and in a bad way, and now it is women who will pass judgment on you…. We await justice, without prejudices on being conditioned.|

    Reactions in the parishes has also invested those Catholics who still defend the Premier, like Roberto Formigoni of Milan, who said, “Let he who is without guilt cast the first stone.” One outraged Famiglia Cristiana reader wrote in accusing Formigoni of misusing the Bible and of a “dangerous kind of moralizing…. As a Catholic I find myself faced with a scandal. How can all this be put down as nothing but gossip?” And in case anyone missed the point, a Catholic survey team shows that three out of four (73.4%) of those interviewed would like to see Berlusconi resign—now. And this is their opinion even if, they add, not all of the goings-on reported are criminal offenses.

  • Op-Eds

    At Lampedusa, “The End of the World”

    Lampedusa is an eight square miles islet off the Sicilian coast, and beloved of tourists and summertime scuba divers for its crystal clear waters. If the vacationers also visited the cemetery, they would see, off to one side, a dozen or so fresh graves unmarked save for a cross and a few dusty plastic flowers.
    Despite the cross, the dead there are presumed to be Muslims—no one can be sure—whose names, ages, religion and countries of origin are unknown. Buried here are the bodies of the boys and men who drowned while trying to make their way to what they thought was the promised land after a 60-mile crossing from North Africa at a price of about $1,350 a head. Their bodies, lacking identification, were instead found washed up on the rocky Lampedusa shoreline, or were fished out of the sea, sometimes tangled in fishing nets. In the past two weeks several dozens more are believed to have perished when the sleazy ships manned by the people-runners sank in rough seas. Tragically, one of the survivors related that sailors on a Tunisian ship seeing their rickety boat of immigrants fall apart had applauded without intervening to help. By contrast, for the past decade fishermen from Lampedusa have intervened to help.
     

    But today in Lampedusa the problem is the living. In the past few weeks at least 5,500 immigrants from North Africa, among them 100 children, did make it alive to the island, or one for every Italian resident. These days most have been Tunisians fleeing from that revolutionary fervor that won so much praise from Europeans, or at least had won it until the problem landed on the island doorstep of Lampedusa. Now it is a safe bet that they will be joined by thousands of Libyans fleeing their homeland turmoil. 
     

    Many of the new arrivals interviewed said that they did not intend to remain in Italy, but hoped to move on, with France their preferred final destination. Already, however, the French have backed away from accepting this new wave of mostly French-speaking immigrants, while Germany and Austria have firmly declined. By way of compensating for there rigidity they have made vague offers of improving the policing of Lampedusa’s watery border. Premier Silvio Berlusconi’s solution was to offer to send a contingent of Italian police to North Africa, but on this was roundly snubbed; other countries do not want foreign soldiers on their soil, particularly when these countries are themselves still engaged in deadly civil strife. Even in Tunisia the new regime does not control the entire country.

    Meantime, Lampedusa is exploding. With a local population of just 6,000, it cannot handle such a mass flood of cold, wet and hungry newcomers Even though hundreds have already been flown to Palermo, where their applications as political refugees to be processed, the local holding station, built to house 800, is presently accommodating 2,000. Hygiene, hunger and a place to sleep are daunting problems. Other venues are being sought, and other funds to feed and clothe these desperate newcomers, but, taking matters into their own hands, one group of refugees broke into the empty summer home of Italian singer Claudio Baglione, and helped themselves to canned food.

    Local residents seem to alternate between angry frustration and generosity. They make gifts of foodstuffs, shampoo and whatever they can, but know that it can never be enough. “We ship out 700 or 800 people every day,” said Lampedusa mayor Bernardino De Rubeis, “but then others arrive, and there just aren’t beds enough for everyone. If the sea turns calm and other people come it’ll be the end of the world.”
     

    So what is to be done from on high? Later this month European Union (EU) ministers of the interior, including Italy’s Roberto Maroni, who represents the Northern League in the Berlusconi government, will meet to discuss the problem, also on the agenda for the meeting of prime ministers March 24-25. Maroni, who has predicted 80,000 new arrivals in Italy has called upon the EU agency for immigration to take action, but already some of the Eurocrats are talking only of helping Italy police its borders better, or perhaps sending equipment and personnel to help out. “It’s incredible that in the face of a crisis like this the European institutions just look on and do nothing,” an embittered Maroni complained Wednesday.

    And Lampedusa is not alone in accepting immigrants who arrive by sea. At Crotone a holding station built for 900 is now providing accommodation for 1,400, and the situation is described as explosive.
     

    At present foreign immigrants make up about 7% of the Italian population. At the end of 2009, the latest statistics available, the population was of 60,340,000, with an increase of almost 500,000 (or up 13.4%) over the previous year. All the newcomers were immigrants from abroad, but they were only those with regular documents. The true figures therefore are higher. One change is visible: a slight drop in East European immigration.

  • Facts & Stories

    Fêting and Fighting Italian Unification

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    ROME – They had never asked to be part of Italy, they say, but were victims of an Italy forced upon them. As Regional Governor Luis Durnwalder of the Südtiroler Volkspartei (SVP) proclaimed bluntly Feb. 7, “We were annexed to Rome against our will. We have no reason to celebrate the unification of Italy.”

    It is true that three out of four in the Alto Adige are native German speakers, but his words ignore, among many other things, that one out of four inhabitants is a native Italian speaker. Durnwalder goes so far as to concede that if these Italian speakers in his the area he represents really want to celebrate Italy, that is their business.

    And yet Durnwalder is indeed part of Italy, with representatives in both houses of the Parliament he sneers at in Rome. His party also has representation—and for Italy—at the European Parliament. Waspish local commentators further remind their readers that in two recent votes of confidence, Durnwalder’s party’s abstention in crucial votes in Parliament made a difference to all of Italy by helping to keep the present government in office in two votes of no-confidence: first that for Premier Silvio Berlusconi Dec. 14 and again this month for Culture Minister Sandro Bondi.

    Even in his home turf Durnwalder’s words outraged some residents. “My grandfather and my great-uncle are dead and buried at Innsbruck, but they were Italian. Anyway, this is no time to radicalize public opinion—it’s time to project ourselves into the global world with new rules, new international authorities, and with the culture and knowledge that makes everything more beautiful,” was one heated protest in an on-line debate. Two young women were similarly irate. “What a slap in the face. We are from Trento and will never again vote a South Tyrolean into Parliament. From now on we vote only for Italians.”

    In another concrete protest, hotel cancellations for ski vacations came flooding in. “The news got a lot of attention in the national press,” acknowledged the local tourism gaulleiter Dado Duzzi. “There was a harsh reaction from Italian tourists. We hope the protests will stop with the e-mails. We don’t want to lose our clientele.” To fight back, local ski hotels have taken to offering special patriotic deals for tourists for the mid-winter long weekend break (a “ponte” or bridge) offered by the sesquicentennial celebration, called “Offerte Ponte dell’Unita d’Italia Trentino Alto Adige.”

    The Volkspartei came into being in May 1945, with the edelweiss the party’s symbol. From the outset there were local protests that both post-World War One and Two peace treaties had maintained an unfair division of the Tyrolian mountain area, with Italy arbitrarily granted the Southern tier. Mussolini fought to reduce the basic non-Italian culture there and eliminated its local political parties, reborn in the postwar era. Anti-Italian feeling brought a spate of terrorist stunts, which the SVP coyly describes like this:

    “In 1961 some South Tyroleans expressed their displeasure and their disappointment in Italy’s uncompromising attitude through bomb attacks on electricity pylons.” (For full details, see: http://www.svpartei.org/de/english)

    Another raining on what ought to be a great national parade—and far more seriously than Durnwalder by dint of his position—is Roberto Calderoli, who represents the Northern League in the government, where he serves the somewhat ambiguous function of “Minister for Simplification.” In his simplified view, taking a day off is an invitation to an extended weekend that could cost the country “billions of euros.”

    His explanation: “It is simply unacceptable that the March 17 holiday would mean that many public offices would be closed. In a time of crisis like this it seems paradoxical to weigh ourselves down with the costs of a holiday. An event as significant as the l50th anniversary of Italian unification can be celebrated with dignity by going to work instead of just staying home. Closing public offices risks putting jobs into the private sector, he concluded.

    But this argument does not hold water with the private sector, represented by Confindustria president Emma Marcegaglia. She says that a long weekend would be the inevitable result of declaring the day a full public holiday, and would be too costly for private industry—hence not a beneficiary. Will the government step it? So far it is undecided, and Berlusconi, who can only go so far in risking alienation of Calderoli’s and Umberto Bossi’s Northern League, is yet to make any decision.

    In some ways one can sympathize with the Trento crowd. All this should have been hammered out a year ago, not four weeks before the event. Indeed, one Trentino factory owner phoned into a Rai radio talk show to say, “I’d have been happy to celebrate the day, but I’d made a lot of commitments before I even knew about the holiday. They had 150 years to plan it – why wait till the last minute?”

  • Op-Eds

    The Broken Promise: Fiscal Federalism

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    ROME—In this bleak and scandal-ridden winter’s last two votes of confidence in Parliament, the Northern League made fiscal federalism a condition for support of the government of beleaguered Premier Silvio Berlusconi. For Umberto Bossi, head of the League, federalism has been a battle cry for the past twenty years, and his voters have been promised that fiscal federalism would curb state subsidies to the Italian South, meaning that Northerners would pay lower taxes. Most recently Bossi issued an ultimatum that, unless fiscal federalism were enacted by the end of January 2011, he would make sure new elections take place two years ahead of schedule.

    Two laws establish the theoretical existence of federalism: a reform bill of Title V of the Constitution, approved in 2001, and a 2009 law that establishes the principle of that taxation income and expenditures should be correlated. So far only minor norms putting this principle into effect have been passed, however, and before this framework law can take effect, a joint commission of the Ministries of the Economy and Finance must produce enabling legislation.

    The six projected enabling laws, which are aimed at a gradual increase in local and eventually regional autonomy (that is, devolution), was sent for consideration to the 30-member joint Chamber of Deputies-Senate commission. By its terms, municipal governments, and in this first legislative round only they, would collect a single local tax and then spend the money in proportion to the amount of the taxes raised. In theory, then, the North, with its stronger economy, would be able to collect more taxes and provide more services to its citizens than the poorer, more agrarian and bureaucracy-dependent South. To Northern voters this means they would no longer be subsidizing the South, as they see it.

    Some critics of the bill believe that fiscal or municipal federalism, as conceived today, would inevitably increase the North-South divide. Others doubt that the municipalities will be able to raise as many taxes as hoped. If, as many now predict, the result is instead a drop in income for townships all over Italy, a knock-on effect could be the further destruction of the Italian landscape as city officials compensate the lack of income by selling off land parcels to building speculators.

    For Berlusconi, fiscal federalism was a promise he had to keep, not least because Bossi is the beleaguered Premier’s sole remaining ally in government. Bossi, on the other hand, had to demonstrate his party’s clout and counter any suggestion that its ministers, like Roberto Maroni, the Interior Minister, were supine bridesmaids standing at the altar to prop up a wobbly bride. Center-right hopes were therefore high last week when the joint commission convened to vote the on the government’s draft of this first concrete step.

    In the event, the commission stalemated in a fifteen-fifteen vote, but too much was at stake to let it go at that. Ignoring the outcome, ignoring Parliament itself, Berlusconi whisked the draft bill off to the Quirinal Palace for ratification. Instead Italian President Giorgio Napolitano returned the bill to sender, with comments  that it was “unreceivable,” poorly drafted and generic.

    What are the repercussions of rejection? This is like reading tea leaves, but it is a safe bet that Berlusconi knew full well the bill would be rejected, but preferred that blame for blocking federalism be cast on President Giorgio Napolitano, rather than on either the draft law text or its insufficient Parliamentary support. “It’s as if Napolitano has already decided at this point that early elections are the lesser evil,” one insider opined. Others counter that Berlusconi seems to be simply playing for time and has only to wait a few weeks before it is too late for elections to be called for this spring. Perhaps this is the case; Bossi’s January ultimatum seems forgotten, perhaps because lack of a victory in this particular cause would weaken the League in an election campaign just now.

    To many, the rebuff showed that the government itself, like the parliamentary commission, has come to a screeching halt even though Berlusconi is announcing a schedule of reform projects. He is also seeking new allies, and so, to beef up the numbers backing his government, Berlusconi reportedly plans to name Nello Musumeci a deputy cabinet minister. Musumeci is one of the followers of the rightist Francesco Storace, formerly of the Movimento Sociale Italiano (MSI). Storace’s party, La Destra, commands less than 2% of the electorate, but in Berlusconi’s paper-thin majority, another vote or two can help keep him in office.

    A problem is that Bossi is under pressure from his rank-and-file, with phone-in Leaguers complaining on Radio Padania that in rejecting the bill Napolitano exceeded his constitutional authority as president. A few grumbled against Berlusconi himself. One League supporter, who signed his name, wrote on a League Facebook page that, “Our own [Roberto] Maroni should have been premier instead of that pig from Arcore.”

    In recent votes of Parliament the government’s margin has been so slender that governing the country is extremely difficult. The problems are not lacking: a public debt of 1,800 billion Euros, growing unemployment, a sagging economy, a breach with the manufacturers of the Confindustria association, toxic rubbish still plaguing the South, and students angered by cutbacks in schools and universities. 

  • Op-Eds

    On Both Sides of the Atlantic, Pride in Anti-Mob Action

    ROME – Their pride was justified. In what American federal officials called “the largest mob roundup in F.B.I. history”—dawn raids involving 800 federal agents and state and local investigators—125 alleged Mafia racketeers and drug dealers were arrested Jan 19 in the U.S., many in the New York area. Although not all authorities agreed, in the background were concerns that, after two decades of relative quiet, organized crime involving the five big Mafia families of New York has regrouped. By coincidence, at about the same time as the stunning US sweep took place, Italian judiciary authorities were expressing their pride in combating the Sicilian Mafia, but with a difference: the successful prosecution of a ranking political leader on charges of links to the Mafia. 

    On Jan. 22 the Court of Cassations, Italy’s highest court, found Salvatore (“Totò”) Cuffaro, the former governor of the Sicilian Region (one of twenty such regional governors), guilty of having passed confidential information to Mafiosi about investigations and otherwise aiding and abetting Cosa Nostra. Among other things Cuffaro informed a Sicilian Mafia boss that police had bugged the man’s house. The sentence, which includes perpetual banishment from public office, upholds a previous Court of Appeals conviction to seven years in prison; in practice, Cuffaro is expected to remain behind bars for five years and five months. And there may be more, if Cuffaro is convicted in a second Mafia trial in which he is a defendant expected to take place in February in Palermo, where he has been indicted on the more serious charge of external support for the Mafia (concorso esterno in associazione mafiosa). A conviction there could bring a sentence of ten years in prison.
     

    It is rare in Italy for a court to succeed in documenting just how politicians and the mob work hand in glove, and so the significance of the case would be hard to overstate. Cuffaro, Sicilian regional governor from 2001 through 2008, was elected to the Italian Senate in 2008 to represent Premier Silvio Berlusconi’s Partito della Libertà (PdL). Cuffaro furthermore is considered responsible for Sicily’s having delivered a favorable vote in the 2008 elections for the party created ex novo at that time by Catholic politician Pier Ferdinando Casini. President of the Chamber of Deputies from 2001 through early 2006, Casini had just broken with Berlusconi and created a new xCasini’s party, the Unione del Centro (UdC). The UdC risked failing to achieve the minimum of 8% that permitted representation in the Senate. Cuffaro’s help with the Sicilian electorate apparently made the crucial difference.

    Interviewed about the Cuffaro conviction, Casini spoke of his old friend and former ally with some fondness, though quickly specifying that the two had “gone separate ways.” One has an obligation to respect the law, he declared, “but we cannot overlook so many years of friendship, and we continue to believe that Cuffaro is not a mafioso.” Not everyone appreciated this. Luigi De Magistris, former front-line anti-mob magistrate now with the European Parliament representing Antonio Di Pietro’s Italia dei Valori (IdV) party, protested that in effect Casini was negating the validity of the court sentence. Only four hours after the Rome high court issued its decision a stunned Cuffaro was in Rome’s Rebibbia prison, taking with him a book on the Madonna and the Bible, George Orwell’s 1984 and a novel by Georges Simenon.
     

    Here the story took an unexpected twist. Instead of disappearing with a few gold bars into the suspect arms of a welcoming nation, Cuffaro went off to prison with tears in his eyes but apparent calm, and spoke of relying upon his religious beliefs to aid him in the coming days and years. In prison he was able to speak with some of his former fellow Senators and MPs, to whom he reiterated his respect for the law and for the judges’ verdict. These are unusual words in Italy these days, and, no less than the verdict, Cuffaro’s citizen-like composure caught the Italian press by surprise. Such exemplary dignity under terrible stress made many feel sympathy for him for the first time. As contrasted with other leading politicians tangling with the law (guess who?), he suddenly looked heroic.

  • Facts & Stories

    Mr. Berlusconi: Ganging up, but who cares?

    ROME - They are ganging up on Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi: magistrates, TV talk showmen, tell-all eye-witness prostitutes confirming sex-for-money, moderate politicoes like Pier Ferdinando Casini, the Italian Roman Catholic bishops and even, if only by discreetly advising more attention to morality in public affairs, Pope Benedict XVI himself. Obviously a beleaguered Mr. Berlusconi is outraged, and obviously his legal staff of 86 are busy are as wasps. And yet, as Mr. Berlusconi declared in a national TV panegyric to himself last week, he has no intention of resigning and even less of obeying a summons to appear before magistrates. Why not? Ah, there's the question.

    During this incredible week we have seen teenage party girls giving weepy, amusing and literally unbelievable TV interviews ("Yes, he gave me $10,000, but never touched me" and, albeit phone tracks prove otherwise, "I spent the evening there only once"). We have seen a condominium administrator issue eviction notices to a bevy of young females who frequented Berlusconi parties and were living, altogether and apparently thanks to his generosity, in a building that was the equivalent of a harem. Co-tenants of the harem complained that they were lowering the tone of their building.
     

    Nevertheless, whatever the thick of scandal and the thin of government action, “Some analysts are willing to bet that even a conviction would not change the forecasts. If people voted today the Cavaliere [Berlusconi] would have a good chance of winning,” Ugo Magri wrote in La Stampa Friday. Indeed, independent polls show that Mr. Berlusconi’s Partito della Liberta (PdL) claims the loyalty of 32% of those queried, a figure that reconfirms the party as Italy's largest. Mr. Berlusconi himself claims that fully 50% of the Italians continue to support him personally. His pollsters of preference moreover report that, despite the crescendo of scandal worthy of an 18th century Turkish sultan, he lost a mere 0.6%. Not least, an Ipsos poll commissioned by a respectable TV talk show Ballarò showed that, when asked which politician would be the most capable and charismatic prime minister, Berlusconi led the list at 17%. The only one who came close was newcomer governor of the Puglia region Nichi Vendola at 11%. Conservative leader Gianfranco Fini lagged behind at 7%, in a feeble showing matched by the leader of the Partito Democratico (PD) Pierluigi Bersani. The others, from Antonio Di Pietro to Emma Bonino and Umberto Bossi, logged in at under 3%.
     

    The fact is that Mr. Berlusconi remains the most charismatic and popular politician in Italy. Whatever the atmosphere of dancing on the deck of the Titanic, however great the dismay among family-oriented Catholics here, the pro-Berlusconi public is rock solid with those who fear increased taxes or a loss of state contributions of one kind or another (pensions, cushy bureaucratic jobs, construction work). And it still matters less to the Italian voting public than does fear of the old, unappealing and still quarreling leftist establishment.
     

    These rock-solid voters are described as stay-at-home TV viewers, female, up in years, scantily educated and geographically Central-Southern. They believe—truly believe—that the goings-on as leaked from judiciary documents simply cannot be true because they defy belief. Silvio (they think of him on first-name basis) is therefore a victim of cruel gossip, to be protected, not further villified, and shame on those pointing the finger at him.

    The medium fosters this message, to the point that RAI President Paolo Garimberti went on record criticizing the director of RAI Tg1, Augusto Minzolini, for dodgy reporting of the investigation into what is being called "Rubygate". "Rai cannot and should not be used for media exploitation that risks bringing about a very ugly result--people being exasperated at the conflict underway in this country," Garimberti complained, pointedly mentioning "omissions." "I have the utmost respect for the autonomy and editorial freedom for the directors of the [TV and radio] channels, but a rule that cannot be compromised is that information must be complete."  

    The missing  news seems to be that Ruby Rubacuore (Ruby Heart-stealer, a Moroccan teenager) had asked Mr. Berlusconi for E 5 million. Minzolini's response was that the network's reporting was correct, but that "Garimberti was not very alert." However, the RAI editorial committee of journalists also protested at  missing information that would leave viewers uninformed.

     

    Does anyone care? Less than one might think. As a Corriere della Sera editorialist has pointed out, a factor in maintaining Mr. Berlusconi’s popularity is the public’s loss of the quasi-mystical reverence it had for the magistrates during the heyday of Tangentopoli. This gives Mr. Berlusconi free rein to thumb his nose at the Milan team of magistrates who have summoned him to explain his relations with the then under-age Moroccan girl known here as Ruby. He dismisses the magistrates as publicity-seeking leftists, evil elements within a vindictive bureacracy. Who needs them? True democracy, he believes, comes unmediated, and straight from the people. It is revealed by public opinion polls, piazza demonstrations and, if need be, via a new election, the last recourse, and one that Mr. Berlusconi's opponents fear perhaps more than he does.
     

    Meanwhile, the walkup to a handful of local elections in May is already underway, and Mr. Berlusconi’s spin professors are cranking up a new message that will appear on gigantic billboards. The thrust—interesting in case national general elections actually take place in March, two years ahead of time—will be to identify protection of Mr. Berlusconi with protection of Italy itself, along the lines of "Forza, Silvio, only you can defend Italy." Already his political staff are looking to the U.S. Tea Party for fresh ideas about recruiting, organization and themes, in words like fighter, radical, individualist and conservative.

  • Op-Eds

    On the Disassembly Line at Fiat: A General Strike in the Works?

    ROME –Both sides, Fiat management and a hard core of recalcitrant labor leaders, are claiming they won in a two-day referendum over a tough new contract. The controversial contract had been hammered out by Sergio Marchionne, the suave and savvy Italo-Canadian who has been running the historic manufacturing company for seven years. In exchange for signing the contract Marchionne promised an unspecified investment in the Turin plant of E 1 billion, and production of new models at a time when European auto sales are beginning to pick up. Besides the 5,500 Fiat workers, the new contract is expected to impact another 10,000 employed in associated industries in and around Turin. Observers here also consider the deal a bell weather for future contracts involving working conditions and salaries for as many as 50,000 factory workers in Italy. While accepted by four smaller and fairly conservative unions (including one of white collar workers), the contract has been bitterly opposed by the left-leaning metal workers union FIOM, part of the powerful CGIL national union, already threatening a general strike and calling for its renegotiation.
     

    At least in theory, FIOM lost, and Marchionne won hands down with 54% of the vote. The turnout, moreover, was of 94% of the circa 5,500 eligible voters (their average age: 48). Visibly relieved, Marchionne praised the vote as “courageous” and “historic,” representing “the desire to take action against being resigned to decline.”

    In the background in Turin, besides a few nasty graffiti signed by self-styled Red Brigades, was a European Communist party protest against the “slave conditions” in the contract. This is overstatement, but the new contract is such that, while white collar workers may find it tolerable, its conditions are tough for the assembly line workers.

    And in fact, the 441 white collar staffers and supervisors made the difference; if solely blue collar workers had been counted, the referendum would have squeaked through, but by a mere nine votes.
     

    The FIOM protest is over assembly-line conditions, beginning with an eight-hour work day that allows precisely three ten-minute breaks for bathroom calls and coffee, and another thirty minutes for lunch. There will be double and triple turns; plenty of six-day work weeks; no absences for illness near holidays; 120 hours of obligatory overtime—and, as punishment for refusing to sign the contract in the first place, no representation for FIOM delegates. Indeed, some labor experts say the new contract will actually reduce productivity because workers under this degree of stress simply cannot perform well.
     

    Already Marchionne has announced that within this year he will shut down Fiat’s assembly line at Termini Imerese in Sicily, which employs 1,800. Speaking with a journalist some time ago he said that each automobile turned out there cost E 1,000 ($1,300) more than any produced in the Turin plant. Moreover, because the plant was situated close to the sea, parts rusted prematurely.
     

    The Turin workers knew that the stakes were similarly high, for Marchionne’s alternative was to move the Fiat production plant at Mirafiori right out of Italy and into Serbia, where workers earned half as much, and where the government invested in rebuilding the war-damaged plant. This is why the various unions themselves split, quarreling angrily among themselves to the point that one old Fiat hand was shown on Italian TV weeping his heart out. The newcomer pop star politician Nichi Vendola, governor of the Puglia region, who made the pilgrimage to the Mirafiori plant earlier this week, declared, “A referendum like this is a dog’s dinner (una porcata) because it means voting between survival and being thrown onto the street.”

    When Italian Premier Silvio Berlusconi made clear his support for Marchionne’s position, Susanna Camusso, the leader of Italy’s largest trade union, CGIL, to which FIOM is allied, said angrily, “The premier and Marchionne are fighting to see who can deliver the greater damage to our country.”
     

    Curiously, in the course of the months-long dispute over the terms of the new contract, Marchionne bolted from the Italian national manufacturers’ association Confindustria. This loss of its preeminent member was a slap in the face for its president Emma Marcigaglia, but then she went on to defend Marchionne’s position anyway. One reason for her supporting her defiant bolter: as Confindustria itself has complained, Italian industrial production has been “bad since 1997.” According to an end-of-year report by the association’s research center, the Centro studi Confindustria, the number of jobless doubled between April 2007 and October 2010, with Italy losing 540,000 jobs between the beginning of the current recession in the first quarter of 2008 and the third quarter of 2010. The report goes on to say that in 2011 “the number of those employed will continue to diminish in 2011 by an estimated 0.4%,” bringing unemployment to 9% by January 1. (The current Economist agrees, putting Italy’s unemployment rate at just under 9%.)
     

    Over the same period Italy’s GDP shrank by 6.8%, despite a more recent upward boost of 1.5% more recently. “It would take us till 2010 to return to the growth levels of the period 2000-2007,” but to achieve this would require emulating German industrial production, concludes the report, which resulted in a 3.5% hike in GDP in 2010, as compared with 1.1% for the same period for Italy, and unemployment at 7.5% as compared with Italy’s 8.6%. However, the Confindustria goes on to say, with a dig at Premier Silvio Berlusconi’s government, “the available tools are inadequate.”

  • Facts & Stories

    Heart warming vs heart breaking

    ROME – Here you have it – heart-warming fiction vs. heart-breaking reality. To begin with the heart warming, make an effort to see director Luca Miniero’s delightful Welcome to the South. The movie is the wildly successful remake of a wildly successful French flick that pits cultural cliches against the (at least cinematic) reality of life amidst The Others. In the Italian case those others are from a town in the Italian South.

    In brief, Benvenuti al Sud, the original title, is about a North Italian postal employee, Alberto, played by Claudio Bisio, who aspires to a transfer to Milan, but instead finds himself dispatched to a small town near Naples. His wife, played by Angela Finocchiaro, is so appalled at the prospect of heading to the Mezzogiorno that she stays behind with the couple’s young son, so Alberto, after donning a bullet-proof vest, sets out alone and frightened.

    Initially all appears as Alberto and his family had expected. Chickens patrol the narrow streets, and the benighted and picturesque local yokels do not seem much better. But then Alberto begins to see that the bag of garbage chucked out of a window is going straight into a recycling bin. Gradually he also comes to see a dignified culture, and indeed falls in love with the spectacular seaside town and its people. Then his wife shows up—Well, go and see the movie. Only the most deep-dyed cynics will fail to find it and the town depicted beguiling.
    The problem with this charming, well-made, and well-intentioned movie is that, after it was made, reality stomped into the cutting room, most cruelly. Pollica, pop. 2,477, is a charming little town near Salerno a hop, skip and a jump from the village where Benveuti al Sud was filmed. On September 5, 2010, its courageous and singularly competent mayor, Angelo Vassallo, 52, was murdered by a still nameless gunman who fired nine shots directly through the window of the car Vassallo was driving on a lonely country road after midnight.
    Married, the father of two, Vassallo was much admired for his passions: family, going fishing and working for the protection of the environment and for the advancement of the South. He was a member of the progressive Partito Democratico (PD), but hardly an acritical member—on the contrary, he implicitly criticized its delays in taking aggressive action in the Mezzogiorno by his publicly praising the Northern League for, if nothing else, its activist approach. He himself was an activist; he imposed stiff fines (from $800 to $1,300) on citizens for tossing cigarette butts on public soil, he fought against poor construction work on the local port by a Neapolitan builder, he revoked public works contracts on companies who failed to pay taxes. Among his accomplishments was to ensure that almost 70% of rubbish generated—and this in the Neapolitan hinterland—was recycled.
    Although other hypotheses are considered, some law enforcement officials suspect that the murder is a warning linked to major investments in tourism, according to reporter Roberto Galullo, writing in the Milan financial daily Il Sole-24 Ore.
    “The territory is the avantgarde for future investments that the beauty of the place makes inevitably appealing, especially because the traditional Campania areas no longer offer good investments,” says Galullo, the author of Economia Criminale – Storia di c apitali sporchi e societa’ inquinate (Criminal Economy – a History of Dirty Capital and Polluted Companies). He explains that the area is a center for usury and related money laundering as well as for other illegal trafficking that involves the Camorra as well as ‘Ndrangheta (Calabrian) crime organizations. Salerno Mayor Vincenzo De Luca has acknowledged his concern over possible criminal money laundering in huge new shopping malls in unlikely locations. “It is useless to deny it: we are only 30 miles from towns like Casal di Principe and others impregnated with criminal violence… I too have seen an increase in usury in recent times and informed the Finance Guards (financial police) of this.”
    Vassallo was not alone in facing risks. Giovanni Di Martino, the courageous mayor of Niscemi, near Caltanisseta, has also been threatened; last September his car was put to the torch. Prior to Di Martino’s election as mayor of Niscemi, formally declared infiltrated by the Mafia, had had an outside, non-elected administrator for three years. Last October—that is, after Vassallo’s murder—Di Martino created a permanent anti-Mafia watchdog office in his administration of this Sicilian town and formally declared war against the Mafia.
    In recognition of the link between organized crime and the destruction of the environment, an association of environmentalists named him the man of the year 2010. On Jan. 26 Vassallo will be honored by the associations Mediapolitika and DaSud at the conference “Contromafie – Legalità e libera informazione in terre di mafia” (Against the Mafia – Legality and Freedom on Information in Mafia Territories), being organized at the Department of Letters and Philosophy at the Tor Vergata University of Rome. “With Vassallo the dream of a clean Italy died,” Carmen Vogani wrote in an anti-Mafia blog site.

  • Op-Eds

    Words I wish I hadn’t heard


    Rome – The political year isn’t over, but I can’t wait for it to end. Not so long ago Italian political discourse, conservative as well as progressive and beyond, still found inspiration in the lessons of World War II and the postwar longing for a democratic way of life. Alas, these days that discourse has come to resemble the smelly barnyard muck that students dumped in front of the house of Education Minister Mariastella Gelmini in Bergamo recently.

    So here’s my personal compilation of nastiness and trash talk—the words I wish I hadn’t heard over the past few months. Please vote for the best.

    Emilio Fede (director of TG 4; name translates to “Fido”): “The Premier is single. Since he lost his mother his life has become much sadder. If he wants to have a bit of fun one evening a week, I see no harm in it.” To journalist Lorenzo Galeazzi, Nov. 4

    Silvio Berlusconi: “I’m a star. At international summits everybody wants to be photographed with me. It’s because I’m a tycoon as well as prime minister.” Dec. 6

    Mara Carfagna: “She [Alessandra Mussolini] is a vaiassa [Neapolitan dialect for sluttish kitchen wench].” Quoted from Il Mattino, Naples

    Alessandra Mussolini: “She [Mara Carfagna] needs a punch in the face.”

    Silvio Berlusconi: “That TG3 journalist [RAI 3d channel TV newsreader] would have done better to present himself as a reporter for TeleKabul…Actually TG3 is even worse.” Nov. 24

    Hon. Marco Reguzzoni, 39, Northern League whip in the Chamber of Deputies: “I don’t think girl children should be brought up to think they are inferior—I myself have two girls.” Well, duh. On the other hand, here’s finally something that links his anti-immigrant political party with the Muslim world. Rai Radio, Nov. 24

    Daniela Santanchè (Pdl): “Wanna know what I think of Fini? That he should resign right away for his own good. On the human level he’s a shit.” Aug. 13

    Giorgio Stracquadanio (Pdl): “Let’s be clear. Fini should be chucked out of the Chamber presidency, period. If necessary there’s always the Boffo treament.” Boffo was the editor of the Catholic magazine who was hounded out of his job on the basis of a now admittedly false dossier of allegations that he is gay. July 31.

    Alessandra Mussolini (Pdl) on Italo Bocchino: “If I were in Berlusconi’s place, I’d have him decapitated. He deserves the Ann Bolyn treatment.” Aug. 12

    Silvio Berlusconi: “In consideration of the blows we are dealing out to the Mafia, no one today can exclude with any certainty that some of the things that are happening aren’t fruit of a vendetta of the malavita.” Nov. 4

    Giulio Tremonti, Treasury Secretary: "At a time of belt-tightening, you can't eat Culture." Oct. 12

    Sandro Bondi, Culture Minister: Anyone calling for a vote of confidence vote over the collapse of the Pompeii gladiator domus is not bringing shame on me, but on himself for doing so… There are no responsibilities of my own or of others in what happened. Otherwise I would resign.” Nov. 11

    Giuseppe Spadaccini, testifying to an inquiring magistrate in re an alleged political kickback by way of thanks for supporting his bid worth E 50 million to supply civil protection airplane fleet: “I [i.e., his company, Sorem Srl] had obtained the bid for the Civil Protection for Candair. But Guido Bertolaso wanted me out—he wanted to revoke the contract. I am convinced he did so because his brother [Antonio, colonel in the air force] at that time was its director general.” Lest one overly sympathize, Spadaccini was among a group of 13 businessmen arrested Oct. 21 for alleged tax dodging in the amount of E 90 million.

    Silvio Berlusconi: “It is far better to look at pretty girls than to be a gay.” NOV. 2 THE WINNER!

    Sandro Bondi: “I desire to be respected even by a newspaper that does this kind of work [Ed: Il Fatto Quotidiano]. This happened because of a very painful situation. It was completely personal, private and a bitter event.” In re the Culture Ministry he heads handing over a E 25,000 consultancy fee to the future ex-husband of Bondi’s partner Maela Repetti, and also a sinecure of “little more than E 1,000 net” to the son of the future ex. A journalist’s comment: “Yeah maybe, but the money was public.”

    Andrea Carandini, archaeologist and chairman of the Culture Ministry’s advisory board: “Next year we will get E 53 million for all the Italian archaeological sites, more or less what a top manager gets for his golden handshake.” Nov 12. (in Il Giornale) So why not resign in protest? Salvatore Settis did—and was replaced by Carandini.

    Luisa Bossa, former mayor of Herculaneum (10 years): “If he comes incognito to Pompeii, [Culture Minister Sandro] Bondi will see septic tanks for the bathrooms made for building sites where they excavate only a few meters from the ancient walls. He will see Corinthian columns and arches in Roman recticulate that are used as clothes hangers for jackets, maybe with some nails stuck into the ancient walls. …A picture of desolation, yet Bondi criticizes those who speak of it.” Oct. 5

    Silvio Berlusconi (joking at himself): “Ruby is a problem. Where can I fix her up with a job?” Cited in Corriere della Sera, Nov. 15

    Sandro Bondi, Minister of Culture:

    A Silvio

    Vita assaporata

    Vita preceduta

    Vita inseguita

    Vita amata

    Vita vitale

    Vita ritrovata

    Vita splendente

    Vita disvelata

    Vita nova

    --Vanity Fair
    , republished Apr. 27

    Translation:

    Life savoured/Life preceded/Life chased/Life loved/Life vital, Life found once more, Life splendid/Life unveiled/New life

    Umberto Bossi (Lega Nord): “Casini is shit [stronzo]. He’s one of those guys that, having no merits of their own, insult other people. Casini is what is left over from the Christian Democrats—of those bad guys [furfanti e farabutti] who betrayed the North.” Aug. 23

    The year was rung out with a real winner. From the shadowy mirrors-upon-mirrors world of espionage, counter-espionage and sheer hocum straight from Austin Powers came the phony-sounding revelation of a phony  "plot" that supposedly would have a phony gun fire but miss a phony shot at the real Gianfranco Fini, who would then automatically blame the Premier, Silvio Berlusconi, who would be therefore either weakened, or, alternatively--because innocent of blame--somehow have taken benefit from the fraudulent near-miss. The mind reels, but anyway, here are the revelations made Dec. 27 by the editor of the daily Libero, Maurizio Belpietro: 
     
    "Weird stories regarding [Chamber of Deputies President] Fini are circulating. I don't know if they have any basis, or if they are just made-up stories--traps to lead us astray. If I decided to reveal them it's because some individuals, of whom I ascertained their identiy and profession, came to me and assured me of the truth of what they said...It wold be up to others to ascertain the facts... True? False? I don't know. The people who whispered the plan to me did not appear nuts...in exchange for the information they asked nothing. Headline seekers? Blackmailers? Something else? Boh! [translation: boh!] Why did I decide to write of this affair? Because if it's true one shold be worried, but if it is false it's to ask just why these storie pop up just now."





  • Op-Eds

    The Flames of Protest Envelop Rome

    My impression, standing in the midst of the maelstrom, was that most did not care; they had different concerns. There were two sets of warriors on the march: the high school and university students whom I'd seen earlier gathering in front of the Liceo Virgilio on Via Giulia and the others--the ones in ski masks already throwing loud firecrackers, petardi, at onlookers including me. These are the men and a few women being called the Black Bloc, as at the violence-stained G8 summit a decade ago in Genoa, where a demonstrator was killed. Later in Rome we saw broken store windows, trashed ATMs, tear gas clouds, street signs torn down and used as weapons, destroyed police vehicles, burnt parked cars, savage beatings and ambulances carrying away the more than 50 injured policemen.
     
     

    Despite this havoc, the non-violent student majority are of greater interest than the predictably violent Black Bloc anarchists, who are more a police and psychiatric problem than social phenomenon. The ordinary students and university researchers, like those I saw a few hours later, seated on a curb (again at Largo Argentina) and enjoying a picnic while sharing a bottle of wine, are the sons and daughters of middle-class Rome. They are attractive, bright and well dressed--but they look ahead and see a diminished future. They are protesting the same sort of schooling budget cuts as are their British peers, but, far worse than in Britain, they see scant future prospects unless the emigrate. Clientele job appointments, connections, and for the young women, a chance to be on TV in a bathing suit: not everyone has these entitlements. This realization is devastating, and to admit that the peaceable majority of demonstrators have good reason to take to the streets is not to justify the violence of the provocateurs and of the invisible, unknown paymasters behind at least a few of them..
     
    Analysts here see a second element in these marchers--a rejection of the political party system that has managed Italy since the end of World War Two. For these young people, the political parties of every stripe are simply irrelevant. Like the sense of diminished prospects in education and the job market, this perception of no one speaking for them has serious implications for the future.
     
    And so once again Silvio Berlusconi has shown a canny instinct to survive, and the predictions--in truth, more in the foreign than the Italian press--that Black Tuesday would mark the end of what is being called "Berlusconism" were proven wrong. And although Italy was rife with rumors that some votes in Parliament were traded for well-paying posts in government, the fact remains that Berlusconi walked out of both houses of Parliament the winner.
     
    What next? First, the defiant President of the Chamber of Deputies Gianfranco Fini, for years Berlusconi's partner in a political party and then in government, has suffered a crushing defeat. The level of insults levied at Berlusconi by Fini in recent days ("Berlusconi wants to stay in power solely to avoid the courts") means there can be no reconciliation between the two. In addition, Futuro e Liberta', the fledgling political party Fini launched only months ago, split in two, shuttling votes back to Berlusconi. Indeed, Berlusconi would not have had his three-vote lead had not two women from Fini's party, both of whom had signed the motion for a no-confidence vote a week ago, turned tail and voted for Berlusconi.
     
    The question now arises of who among defectors like this will fill in the empty cabinet slots. Berlusconi cannily says he is thinking only of single individuals (the two from Italia dei Valori, perhaps, who broke with Di Pietro to vote for Berlusconi?) to fill the posts vacated by the Fini loyalists. Moderation is the new watchword; in recent days Berlusconi, looking ahead, has toned down the rhetoric and said that, in the predicted government reshuffle, he will welcome moderates.
     
    Negotiations for cabinet slots to replace the Fini faithful begin with the Catholic moderate Pierferdinando Casini, but he is playing hard to get. Berlusconi needs Casini in order to stave off those Springtime early elections that risk further bolstering the Northern League, and Casini knows it. In fact, last night Casini truculently threw down a gauntlet at Berlusconi, by telling the premier, "Go on--govern."  The meaning: go on and govern if you can. But of course Berlusconi cannot simply go ahead. The next few days of frantic negotiations will be a grotesque poker game, whose highest stakes are held by three tough rivals--Berlusconi, with his shadow premier Gianni Letta in the wings; Umberto Bossi of the Northern League; and Casini.
     
    Meantime, serious reforms--beginning with the electoral law made to measure by Berlusconi that gave him a fat premium of deputies in Parliament--are unlikely, for every vote on a new law risks a new defeat for the government; a three-vote lead is not enough. The country remains on hold or, as the noted economist Mario Deaglio predicted Monday, slated to become a museum stopover for tourists and little more.
     
    A final question is whether Berlusconi will remain in the saddle long enough to replace Giorgio Napolitano in 2013 as president of Italy, as Berlusconi is known to hope. A few months ago that would have seemed most unlikely. Today it is anyone's guess.

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