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Articles by: Judith Harris

  • Op-Eds

    Italian Politicians Lose Their Cool (and Slip in the Polls)

    In the past year Italy’s political language—its Politichese, a play on the word Inglese (English)—has taken on the nastiness of a slumland playground: “Liar!” “Bossy boots!” “Thief!” This week the tone went ballistic. A few weeks ago Premier Silvio Berlusconi kicked out of the Popolo della Libertà (PdL) its co-founder with him, the president of the Chamber of Deputies, Gianfranco Fini. On Sunday Fini responded in a much-awaited speech at Mirabello, in which he formally divorced Berlusconi’s group in Parliament and invited his supporting members there to join him in forming a new grouping. This is being seen as the first step toward creating a new and “normal” conservative political party in opposition to Berlusconi’s. As the able commentator Gianfranco Pasquino remarked Monday, “It was a brilliant speech,” and in it Fini particularly assailed Berlusconi’s penchant for considering the government a personal feifdom.


    By way of reply, Berlusconi minions accused Fini of conducting “guerrilla warfare” and of turning the PdL, which Fini and Berlusconi had co-founded exactly eighteen months ago, into a “Vietnam”-style battleground.
    Italian politicians rarely shy away from shouting down opponents and hurling invectives, especially when on TV, but this time their attitudes too betrayed serious concern. Speaking to his own party backers last month, Berlusconi, usually the smoothest of ad libers, stumbled over words as he tensely read from an eight-page diktat. When Fini finished his j’accuse against Berlusconi-style autocratic rule and “Stalinist” tactics of personal attacks on Fini’s family, observers reported that Fini was literally trembling with emotion. Politicians from other parties were no less exercised. While giving a speech Pier Ferdinando Casini, 55, who speaks for Catholic centrist voters, agitated his arms as if he were announcing Armageddon.
    The one who lost his cool least was Umberto Bossi, 69, visibly licking his chops because—more than Berlusconi’s PdL—the Northern League which Bossi heads, and which backs Berlusconi in government, continues to gain consensus among voters. Another relatively cool customer was a spoiler on the moderate left, former magistrate Antonio Di Pietro, 60, whose small Italia dei Valori party (with about 4%), takes a staunch stance against organized crime and attracts young people. That party too may make some gains should early elections be called.

    So will they be called three years ahead of schedule? Before this is decided, the most likely first step is for Berlusconi to call upon the Italian President in coming days to insist that Fini be removed as President of the Parliament, on grounds that Fini was put there by the Berlusconi coalition for which Fini no longer speaks and his presence there is no longer “compatible,” to quote from a joint Bossi-Berlusconi statement issued Tuesday. The situation, says the statement, is “very serious [and] raises serious problems for the regular functioning of the institutions.”

    Bossi is openly campaigning for elections in late November. Berlusconi too now seems to agree, truculently in public, reluctantly in private, that the legislature elected only two years ago is beyond salvaging. The Italian Constitution puts the decision to call new elections in the hands of President Giorgio Napolitano, but if and when the Berlusconi government succumbs in a vote of confidence, Napolitano will have to take action. The conventional wisdom here is that the longer Berlusconi waits, the more votes he is likely to lose to Fini. But Napolitano has the option of appointing a caretaker cabinet, perhaps headed by a Berlusconi rival in the PdL, Finance Minister Giulio Tremonti, 63.

    As the parties gear up for the possibility of elections in late Autumn or early Spring, eyes naturally turn to the polls, but these are tricky. According to Euromedia Research, as reported in the pro-Berlusconi Il Giornale (it is owned by Berlusconi’s brother Paolo), a poll of 1,000 (presumably) representative individuals suggests that a brand new Fini party would, on its own, obtain only from 1% to 3%. Were a Fini party to face voters in a coalition of center-left parties, according to this poll, it would receive no more than 2% of the vote, or quite possibly too few to make it into Parliament, for which a 2% minimum is necessary.
    At the same time, another poll—this one by IPR Marketing and reported in the opposition newspaper La Repubblica—suggests that all the parties are looking like losers. Since last summer Berlusconi has shed 10% of his popularity, which now stands at no more than 50%, or one out of two potential voters. He remains popular among white-collar employees, young people and small-towns citizens, for whom TV viewing is more important than it is in urban centers. But among middle class, educated voters his personal popularity has sunk from 43% to under 30%, with the biggest losses in the South, where voters resent Berlusconi’s concessions to Bossi’s Northern League. In particular, voters with a high education level, once 40% in favor of Berlusconi, now give him only 28%.

    On the other hand, does this matter? Put another way, which is the tea party, Berlusconi with his know-nothings, or the more elitarian Fini? And at any rate predictions of elections in November may be premature, for the politicians know that, the more time passes, the more the greater the disenchantment with the political class. Voters may simply stay away from the polls in droves, and, no matter what the pollsters say now, anything can happen. This awareness is acting as a brake on both Berlusconi and Fini. For despite the battlefield war room tone, both are still cautiously raising, if not white flags, at least white hankies to each other. Fini, after all, has not yet announced that he is forming a new political party—just a Parliamentary group called “Futuro e Libertà”, already dubbed the “Futuristi”. And Berlusconi would rather not turn the vestiges of his old party, Forza Italia (the “Forzisti”) over to Bossi, lock, stock and barrel. Berlusconi fared best when mediating between the two, one representing the disgruntled populist North, the other the state-dependent South. In a peculiar way, Berlusconi was a unifying force.

     In short, Berlusconi still needs Fini, and Fini still needs Berlusconi, if Fini is not to disappear into the woodwork.

  • Op-Eds

    Can Italy Be Too Italian?

    A New York Times headline asked a bizarre question the other day: “Is Italy Too Italian?” At first the question seemed absurd. I mean, can a dog be too canine, a goldfish too fishy? In his article, Times reporter Michael Kimmelman, taking the manufacturing industry as an example, suggested that Italy is so tradition bound, insular and lacking in upward mobility that the nation risks sinking into a “gradual, grinding decline.”

    Would that we Italian lovers could disagree. On the contrary, Italy is doing its best to shoot itself in the foot, fast, beginning with a sickening neglect of its greatest single and unique strength, its deep culture, including but not only its archaeological sites, being less undermined that blown to pieces. Beginning at the top, the government acknowledges and indeed boasts that Italian archaeology and historical sites—statues, fountains, temples, palazzi, historic gardens, bridges, Baroque cupolas—sell Italy; log onto the Italian Tourism Official Website, and you can hear Premier Silvio Berlusconi in person invoking, in the tone one uses while speaking to very young and not very bright children, “Magical Italy,” its “storia, cultura ed arte.” Lovely zoom shots show ancient towns, the Trevi Fountain, turquoise bays, and so on (without a single human being, car, boat or graffito, but never mind).

    The point is that all this Magical Italy is being left to rot and ruin. Grand opera house budgets have been slashed. Library personnel who retire are not replaced, so that the number of librarians drops, and even rare books disappear from shelves. The latest depressing shock news: reporter Carlo Alberto Bucci of La Repubblica informs us that cultural maintenance funds have been cut back to the point that, as of August 1, archaeologists, architects and art historians “cannot utilize their own automobiles to travel to excavations and sites scattered throughout the territory” which they are supposedly controlling because travel reimbursements have been cancelled to cut costs and to avoid possible liability actions. In a way, this is good; as archaeologist Salvatore Settis reminds us, the average age of ministry functionaries is now 56 so perhaps it is best if the old dears give up driving.

    However, as a result, the 6,000 archaeological sites in the area of Rome alone can no longer be checked by trained Culture Ministry supervisors. The sense of this is that no one with archaeological expertise will be tending the store.

    In Rome, one way around the financial crunch—a result of the government’s slashing of the culture budget—is being promoted by Mayor Gianni Alemanno, who favors raising ticket prices for entry to museums, the Colisseum and all Roman archaeological sites, plus applying a tourism tax of perhaps E. 3 as of January 1, 2011.

    One could feel pity for the struggling Italian culture administration, save for the fact that the current Minister, Sandro Bondi, seems singularly indifferent to what is going on in his bailiwick, given that he is also responsible for the beleaguered Berlusconi party organization.
    Curiously, in certain areas money seems to be no object. At Pompeii, brand new and expensive-looking metal gates have been put into place to keep people out of the closed-off buildings and houses. These gates, and there are hundreds, are archaeology in their own way as examples of 1970s bad taste.  

    Finally, a worrying new ISTAT figure shows a 5% drop in productivity over 2007-09 in Italy. By comparison, France and Germany have boosted productivity (worker output in units) by 5-10% during the same period. An old Italian hand wrote me yesterday: "Italy used to be funny, but now it's a bad joke." I can't go that far, but it is painful to watch a nation, in dire need of the structural transformation that will bring it into the post-industrial world and the knowledge economy, sabotage its prime selling points--not only the vast cultural heritage, but also the universities, arts academies, schools, and landscapes as well. Oliviero Toscani, with Prof. Settis as advisor, is assembling a gallery of Italian horrors, which documents in photographs the destruction of the landscape.  (For details of how to contribute your own photos, go to: http://www.nuovopaesaggioitaliano.it/)

    So maybe Kimmelman’s question could be rewritten as: “Is Italy believing too much in magic, at the expense of common sense?”  Beloved Italy, it is time to stop shooting yourself in the foot, not to mention shooting off the mouth about “magic.” Time to come back down to earth, and to reality. Time to protect your unique, marvelous heritage, rather than leave it to rack and ruin, plunderers and pollution.

  • Facts & Stories

    Divorce, Italian political style

    Can media magnate Silvio Berlusconi survive his second acrimonious divorce in a year? Last summer his wife Veronica filed for divorce after publishing a flamboyant letter in which she charged the Premier with fooling around with young girls and of suffering from an unnamed illness. This week an irate Berlusconi seized the initiative, ousting his recalcitrant partner Gianfranco Fini from the political party, the "Partito della Libertà" (Party of Librty, or PdL), which the two co-founded only two years ago. With that split, what Berlusconi has also been calling the “Partito dell’Amore” (Party of Love) has just foundered, becoming instead the party of rancor.

    The chaotic breakup of the party which triumphed at elections only 27 months ago has the Italian political class reeling, with no one certain of what is to come. Not least, Berlusconi has called on Fini to resign as president of the Chamber of Deputies (Speaker of the House) on grounds that in that office Fini represents the PdL party. Replying that his post, the third highest office in Italy, is institutional and not political, Fini refuses flatly to quit.

    Party meetings are going on long into the night as the leaders debate the other big issues: whether it is in Berlusconi’s interest to demand early elections next spring (or perhaps as early as November); whether a babysitter government of technicians would be a wise move; what clout Fini will have with voters now that he is on his own; what position President Giorgio Napolitano will take; how many deputies Berlusconi can poach from other groups; or if life in Palazzo Chigi (the Italian White House) can be made to slog along as usual until the extent of the damage to both Berlusconi and Fini can be measured.

    Nevertheless there are a few fixed points. This definitive breach with Fini after a year of alienation shows that Silvio Berlusconi is unable to impose upon the country his project to remain in power for at least an entire five-year legislature, if not more. Romano Prodi’s left-leaning legislature lasted two years before being swept aside by Berlusconi’s zealous new party, which however is similarly crashing after only two years.

    It is striking that, despite Berlusconi’s charisma with his peers and with the voters, this is his third time at bat with governing partners and the third time he has struck out. The first time he quarreled with his partner from the separatist Northern League, Umberto Bossi; the second time he was in government the fracture was with the Catholic politician Pier Ferdinando Casini; and now, with Fini, formerly of the rightist Alleanza Nazionale.

    Whether or not new elections are called in coming months, the likelihood that Berlusconi will become president of Italy, succeeding Napolitano, seems sorely reduced. Other observers here say he has no chance whatsoever.

    Fini promises to respect the voters’ wishes, but Berlusconi’s kicking Fini out of the government could make the passage of future legislation difficult unless Fini agrees with whatever law us proposed. At present the new Fini group, to be known as “Futuro e Libertà per l’Italia” (Future and Freedom for Italy), has 33 members of Parliament out of 630. Although a small group, this is troubling for Berlusconi, whose PdL has 238 deputies and Bossi’s Lega, 59. The government’s parliamentary majority is thus reduced to 297, whereas the 316 necessary for a majority vote. In the Senate, with 322 senators, a majority of 161 is required; the center-right (Berlusconi plus Bossi) has 163, and the Fini group, 10.

    For the country, this signals a failure of that two-party system which many of us had hoped would replace the unstable coalitions that have characterized Italy for decades.

    So what happened? It seems to be the cumulative effect of scandal upon scandal. Last summer’s sex scandal involving various call girls evolved gradually into revelations of political connections with Mafia bosses, even as the government took credit for arresting Mafia foot soldiers. When phone taps showing corruption were leaked, the government tried to push through a press gag law and began promoting changes to the Italian Constitution, which Fini opposed. But one after another government figures—members of cabinet among them—were forced to resign as shocking evidence of the manipulation of state contracts to government cronies emerged, including in quake-stricken L’Aquila. At that point, even the customarily tolerant Italian man in the street (less the women, quicker to take umbrage) began reacting against an unacceptable level of the “culture of corruption,” as it is suddenly being called here. And this may be the most important element in le divorce: that Italians of all parties and religious views and walks of life are reacting with shock and disdain at such shenanigans, which are certainly not limited to the Berlusconi crowd.

    It’s not only about the economy, stupid.


  • Facts & Stories

    Falcone and Borsellino Die Again

    "Italy, how could you have let Judge Giovanni Falcone die?” In a state of shock I wrote this in May eighteen years ago for the op-ed page of the Wall Street Journal. The article was published just in time for Falcone's partner in anti-Mafia investigations, prosecutor Paolo Borsellino, to be similarly murdered by a Mafia bomb.

    On Saturday both men were murdered once more, in effigy. To honor the anniversary of the murder of Borsellino on July 18, a local sculptor, Tommaso Domina, had created statues of both in plaster-of-paris, preparatory to their being cast in bronze as a permanent memorial to the two emblematic victims of the Sicilian Mafia. On Friday the statues were mounted on Palermo’s elegant main street, Viale della Libertà. At midday Saturday, before witnesses—none of whom so far has come forward—a small group of vandals smashed the statues. Elsewhere in Palermo vandals also stripped down posters announcing a candle-light march for Monday in memory of the two judges.

    In April the tree on the sidewalk at the entry of the apartment building in which Falcone lived in Palermo was also vandalized, presumably by a mentally disturbed individual. The tree has become a shrine to anti-Mafia sentiment, and schoolchildren and others write letters they pin to the tree.

    This Sunday, as 100,000 in Venice watched the historic regata, a scant one hundred marched in Palermo in an anti-Mafia procession, led by Borsellino’s brother.

    Today, still lacking an answer to my question of eighteen years ago, I would put the question differently: why kill the judges again? Why are their statues—their memories, that is—dangerous, and precisely to whom?

    A series of events shortly before and after Borsellino’s murder may eventually provide an answer. In the background was the famous maxi-trial of Mafia bosses in Palermo. The indictments written by Falcone, Borsellino and others in the so-called anti-Mafia “pool” of magistrates had resulted in 360 convictions, making that trial the most successful assault against the Mafia in Italian history, where acquittals were the rule.

    Paolo Borsellino was Falcone’s fellow member in the pool. Scraps of evidence garnered this past year from a variety of sources—and not only from “repentant” mafiosi—suggest that, following Falcone’s murder, Borsellino learned that a secret service intermediary—that is, an emissary of the Italian state—was involved in negotiations with a top boss, Bernardo Provenzano. (This was not the first time a secret service connection was hypothesized; piloted leaks in June 1989 reported a secret service presence when a bomb was placed at a beach at Addaura that June 21, in a presumably intentionally failed attempt on Falcone’s life. Falcone chose to ignore this warning by the “Mafia”.)

    In the alleged negotiations of 1992 and 1993, the Mafia sought more lenient treatment for its hundreds of men of (dis)honor in prison. In pursuit of this end the Mafia set off death-dealing bombs the following year in Rome, Milan and Florence.
    The purported goal of the state (or of a part of the state—not all), before and after Falcone’s murder, is still unclear. One theory is that the negotiators sought an agreement to live and let live, in exchange for a reduction of violence.

    But perhaps there was more. And this still ambiguous and sinister perhaps more, datable to the events of 1992 and 1993, may be what is behind the toppling of the statues and the attempts to stop the candle-light march in memory of the slain judges. Among other things, this June Palermo’s Section 2 of the Court of Appeals issued a verdict affirming that Sen. Marcello Dell’Utri, formerly a top aide to Premier Silvio Berlusconi, maintained close relations with the Mafia of Stefano Bontade and with two Mafia bosses, Totò Riina and Bernardo Provenzano, at least until the period of the murders of Falcone and Borsellino in 1992.

    By this conviction, wrote Palermo journalist Salvo Palazzolo in La Repubblica of June 29,  the appeals court “seems to challenge what had been considered fixed points in the latest investigations into the negotiations between the Mafia and the politicians during 1993’s season of massacres.”

  • Life & People

    The Child Soldiers of Scampia

    The beauty of Naples was once so inspiring that, at sight of its transparent gulf waters and palm parks and handsome youth, the 18th Century German poet Goethe exclaimed, “See Naples and then die!” The phrase lent itself to twisting, and in later times came to insinuate the dark side of Naples, as in Elmer Rice’s 1929 Broadway play "See Naples and Die" starring Claudette Colbert. Today, the upside-down title referring to the sinister Neapolitan half-life continues to endure in movies, novels and scholarly works, most recently referring to the violent and drug-ridden Rione Scampia quarter, Italy’s Ciudad Juarez.


    Seen from the air, Naples is shaped rather like a butterfly. Goethe’s beautiful gulf shapes its tail; the postwar bedroom suburb of Scampia, jerry-built in the 1970s and 1980s, its head. With at least 50% unemployment (the figure is higher still among youth), Scampia is home to some 50,000. Although originally planned to provide public housing, including for earthquake victims, it had poor transportation facilities into central Naples and quickly became a center for the organized crime gangs of the Camorra. Their capital in Scampia is the vast beehive of 20-story apartment blocks set in a treeless waste. Known as Le Vele (The Sails), they would be scorned by today’s architectural aesthetes as a misunderstanding of modernity in construction; indeed a few have been demolished. In this, Naples is hardly alone; the same social and economic problems aggravated by architecturally-driven alienation arose in the densely-inhabited, crime-ridden high-rise buildings constructed in Britain in the same period.

    Buses bring drug users from many miles away to Scampia, where they stock up on cocaine, crack, marijuana, heroin and its nasty smokable sub-species called Kobret; this reporter has seen two youngsters shooting heroin directly into the vein. Overdoses are frequent. Said one student who lives in Scampia: “Our parents are frightened when we go off to school. This is no man’s land.” Addicts admit they pay for their habit by stealing cell phones, bicycles and motor bikes (a motor bike brings E 100, or $125).


    Davide Cerullo was one of fourteen sisters and brothers who were born and raised in the gangland turmoil of Scampia, where he has lived for twenty-five years. At fourteen he began hustling drugs, earning, he says, up to E. 500 (about $650) a day. In the bad times he was tossed into a prison cell. During one of his several prison stints, he found on a bunk bed a copy of the Bible. “I opened it, and in it I found, repeated again and again, my own name, Davide. It triggered something in me.”

    The experience turned his life around. “Poetry and art became my passport to a better life…. I began to take photographs first because I stopped the image in my mind, and then I reflected upon the world [through it]. Even if we make mistakes it’s not true than an individual can’t be saved. The unsalvageable is only an invention in bad faith, that makes us think that all is lost. Give people an opportunity, and real miracles can happen,” he said in a recent interview in Panorama magazine.
    This week Cerullo’s book on the child soldiers of the Camorra, Ali Bruciate, I bambini di Scampia (Burnt Wings, The Children of Scampia), written together with Don Alessandro Pronzato, priest and author, is being presented in Rome (Edizioni Paoline). An exhibition of his photographs of the children of Scampia will be on view through October 22 in Trastevere at the Casa della Memoria e della Storia di Roma, Via San Francesco di Sales, 5 (summer closing Aug. 1-31).

  • Op-Eds

    Cradle of Love

    For the Roman Catholic Church in the Middle Ages, the fate of children born out of adultery was a problem. A Milanese high priest named Dateo therefore wrote in his last will and testament of February 787 that, “Not wanting the affair to be know, women who conceive as the consequence of adultery kill their own newborn infants, and in this way send the infants to hell without baptism. This happens because they [the women] cannot find a place to take them where they would be kept alive…so then they throw them into the sewers, the rubbish and river. Therefore I, Dateo, dispose the institution of an orphanage for babies in my house, and I intend for this orphanage to be placed legally under the power of Saint Ambrose.”

    This was Italy’s first orphanage, but it did not quite go far enough. In the year 1198 Pope Innocent III had a recurring nightmare of seeing new-born babies being fished out of the Tiber River—as he may well have seen in daytime. So distressing was this vision that the pontiff ordered the Santo Spirito hospital to install a wooden  “Ruota” (Wheel) behind a wooden door into which women could anonymously slip new-born babies they were unable to keep, then ring a bell before they fled into the night.

    The hospital still exists near St. Peter’s Basilica on the banks of the Tiber, and is still at the service of Romans, pilgrims and tourists. And so is the problem of unwanted babies, along with the Ruota. Although it was gradually abolished all over Italy during the 19th C., in recent years the Ruota has had a come-back as a heated cradle which is kept under constant surveillance (the cradle, not the mother) by a TV camera.

    Why should this be necessary in this day and age? Every year some 3,000 babies are abandoned in Italy. Three-quarters are children of Italian mothers, but the number being born to immigrant women is rapidly rising, to the point that women in Italy abandon eight babies every day of the year.

    Many such women are in denial, authorities here explain. Some are very young schoolgirls or immigrant older women who fear family, social or religious reactions. Others are terrified of the reactions of husband or partner who suspects an adulterous relationship. And some of the very poorest fear losing the job that supports the children they have already, and so many of these hide their pregnancies until the last moment. A few are prostitutes. Over half of the cases involved a single parent with other children and 22%, single individuals.

    Just as in the priest Dateo’s time, some of the newborns are dropped into dumpsters that will carry the baby into a rubbish tip where the child will be crushed. “We had three sad cases in 2006. Two babies were tossed into dumpsters and another left on the back ledge of a truck. All three were found and saved, but this told us that we had to take action,” Dr. Michele Paolillo, who heads the neonatal section of the Casilino Polyclinic of Rome, told a radio audience recently. “Another woman appeared with a newborn she said she had found on the street—but then she fainted, and we discovered that she was the mother. So we installed the heated cradle, and two months later had our first guest, who was rapidly adopted.”

    The social makeup of Dr. Paolillo’s Roman neighborhood is a mixture of very poor Italian families and new immigrants. As a result, of the 2,000 births in his hospital over the past year, 37% were born to non-Italian women.

    The present legislation needs retouching, he says, but in many ways is nevertheless “very avant-garde since a woman can give birth in a hospital and then, without risking penal action, can decide to relinquish the baby if she believes that in doing so she can give it a better life.”

    Why was the Ruota phased out during the 19th C.? Because as more babies survived in the families and the population expanded, more babies were abandoned to public services, with over 4,000 a year in Milan alone, or almost one of every three births (30%). The cost to the public and charities was seen as too high.

    The current revival of the Ruota began because of pressure from the right-to-life movement, whose supporters hoped that this would reduce the request for abortions, legal at public expense since May 1978. But social changes have outstripped the original ideological motivation, and for the past fourteen years Milan has been offering similar services free to the public. “We have a hot line that gives information of what’s available,” said Matilde Guarnieri of the Milan Region. “We think it’s our duty to ensure that both mother and child are safe so we also offer some support, including psychological, during the pregnancy.”

    At Abbiategrasso on Christmas Eve last year one such heated cradle was inaugurated by Mons. Masperi. Outside are instructions in five languages: Italian, Spanish, Albanian, Russian and Arabic. At the touch of a button the door opens to the cradle and remains open exactly one minute. If a baby is placed within, the Blue Cross operator plus three volunteers from the Centro Aiuto alla Vita (CAV) are automatically contacted.

    “We chose a place where there isn’t much light outside so that he mother won’t be frightened of being recognized, but is easy for an ambulance to reach,” one of the volunteers told a local reporter.

    The cradle was a gift from a local engineer, Signor Bernardi and his wife, following an incident where, hearing whimpering, a girl came down into the street and—thinking to find an injured cat—found a newborn. That baby lived—and so will others, thanks to what a local reporter called “the cradle of love.” 

  • Op-Eds

    Where’s the Joke? Not in the Senate, Alas

    Stefano Benni, the author of the beloved short story collection Bar Sport (1997), is one of the funniest men alive. But not even Benni can make us laugh about the government-proposed gag law that was passed in the Senate in a vote of confidence on Thursday. The bill now passes to the Chamber of Deputies, where an even more bitter battle is expected. 

    While the vote was being counted, the opposition senators on the losing side staged a walk-out, and the following day the nation’s best-selling daily La Repubblica, went onto news stands with a blank front page to show what it means to be muzzled. The beleaguered author of Gomorrah Roberto Saviano, who is Italy’s Salman Rushdie, wrote that the aim of the law is “not to defend the privacy of the citizen, but on the contrary it’s a law to defend the privacy of power itself—understood not as the privacy of powerful men, but of their business interests, including crooked.”

    When and if it becomes law, the bill will seriously clip the wings of magistrates and journalists investigating financial and other crimes. As many believe, it will whittle away at democracy itself, in a country whose democratic system of government dates only from 1947 and was won only in war.

    Before the law takes effect, that rare beast here, the opposition media (rare because Premier Silvio Berlusconi owns or controls the vast majority of the media, from movie and shelter magazines to film companies and TV networks), is offering readers a flood of details which in future can be published only at risk of giant fines and jail sentences for both journalist and publisher. The National Federation of the Italian Press spoke direly of this as one of Italy’s “darkest moments” for press freedom.

    And an authoritative American figure, Vincent Cannistraro, CIA veteran officer and former director of intelligence programs for the National Security Council from 1984 to 1987, in a telephone interview with La Repubblica said that his understanding is that the new law would attempt to make “the tool of wire taps completely residual—it would discourage them. But if so I fear that the costs  your country is preparing to pay in terms of security will be very high indeed….Such a disciplining of wire taps as you are discussing in Italy would be unthinkable in the US.” (my retranslation from Italian, fyi). 

    So what’s there to laugh about? Very little, but Benni tried. His conceit was that at an outdoor market he picked up a box of ratty old tapes. Taking them home, he played them (again, my translation from Benni’s fertile imaginings) and heard things like this:

    “Pronto, Napolitano here. Am I speaking with the Premier?”

    “This is the voicemail of Silvio Berlusconi, Emperor of Italy. If you wish to leave a message of congratulations, press one. If you wish to obtain a personalized law written just for you, press two. If you want to bring charges, call the number 89999999965432222 to leave a message with an operator who speaks Swahili. If you wish a gorgeous chick, press four. If you want to abolish the Constitution. press five. If you are a Commie, press the trigger and shoot yourself. If you are Bondi [Culture Minister Sandro Bondi, author of affectionate verses to Berlusconi], stop calling me your little cupcake. If you are Napolitano [President Giorgio Napolitano], press nine and leave a message after the beep.”

    “I am Napolitano. What I wanted to say is….”

    “The three seconds at your disposal are over. You may call again next month.”

    One of the left leaders predicted that the coming battle in the Chamber will be like the Vietnam war. Most eyes are turned to Gianfranco Fini, in hopes that the President of the Chamber of Deputies can somehow soften the blow. But the problem is that Fini, if he presses too hard, will bow to Berlusconi’s not very veiled threats to take the country to the polls. It’s a sort of political blackmail, for the problem is, what if elections were held and Berlusconi were to win? What then? 

    Not even Benni can offer us a laugh at that prospect.

  • Op-Eds

    Fini: “Other dangers” Lie on the Political Horizon. But Just What are They?

    ROME –At a meeting last week of industrialists from Confindustria, the equivalent of the U.S. National Association of Manufacturers, Premier Silvio Berlusconi proposed that its president, Emma Marcegaglia, replace the outgoing Economic Minister Claudio Scajola. (A frequent beneficiary of government contracts paid for most of Scajola’s $2 milllion apartment overlooking the Coliseum—“unbeknownst to me,” Scajola explained lamely before resigning).

    No one in the audience overlooked the fact that Berlusconi, in attempting to lure the popular Marcegaglia into his government, was angling to co-opt Confindustria itself, so when Berlusconi called for a show of hands, only three were raised. This blunt rejection by Confindustria from the audience of 3,000 economic leaders was a stunning rebuff, which the Premier brushed off  with a quick, “All right, but then don’t you complain about my government.” 

    Unperturbed, while in Paris last week Berlusconi blandly mentioned that as premier he, “like Mussolini,” never had the sensation of wielding power over Parliament. This blatant appeal for a more docile parliament was more than one of Berlusconi’s customary gaffes. The country’s top independent political commentators are warning of the grave risks inherent in the government’s attempts to nibble away at constitutional guarantees, which Parliament’s first and only post-Fascist president Gianfranco Fini, of all people, is battling to defend. “Our Constitution is the foundation and guarantee of the unity of the Republic,” Fini told a group of students visiting the Chamber of Deputies  the other day. Ambiguously he added, responding to the chorus of criticism at Berlusconi’s comparing himself to Mussolini in relations with Parliament: “Today it’s not a dictatorship that is threatening us, but other dangers.”  

    Just what those “other dangers” are was not explained. However, one element may be the present government’s dodgy reliance on passing legislation via government decree, which means that a given bill  immediately becomes a valid law for three months without debate. Similarly the government constantly calls for votes of confidence which also have the advantage for him of stifling debate in Parliament (as of March 2010, a record number of 31 over 22 months). Both political ploys have drawn fire from Italian President, Giorgio Napolitano, whose position is so delicate and important that he seems almost palpably to be walking on eggs. An aggravating factor, as one commentator pointed out, is that most Italian citizens seem unaware of the gravity of the gradual but relentless attempts to erode the rights they enjoy as a result of their post-World War Two constitution. In the words of author Umberto Eco (The Name of the Rose), “Berlusconi is giving us a sort of ‘homeopathic’ coup d’etat. We’ll find ourselves in a dictatorship without even realizing it.”

    Besides bypassing Parliamentary debate, a double-whammy government-proposed gag law is soon to come to a vote. The bill would muzzle a publication’s rights to report what is happening, particularly as it concerns judiciary matters. Because Premier Berlusconi personally owns the largest three private Italian networks and wields nearly total control over the three state-owned radio and TV networks, the gag law will, if passed, actually apply only to the narrow margin of opposition newspapers, spearheaded by the best-selling daily La Repubblica, owned by Carlo De Benedetti. The gag law is opposed by the left, but also by such conservatives as editor Vittorio Feltri, whose newspaper, Il Giornale, is owned by Premier Berlusconi himself.  

    In addition, in all but a few cases the gag law would—and most likely will—eliminate or seriously curtail the judiciary’s use of wire taps, including in Mafia investigations. On grounds of privacy protection, for instance, no phone bugs can be placed in cafes, including those where mob bosses do their business. The author Roberto Saviano, for one, says that, if such a law had been in place at the time, he would “not have been able to write Gomorra.” No less seriously, businessmen doing deals that involve political kickbacks would be protected. Most of the country’s investigating magistrates and top police are doggedly opposing the legislation.  

    That the public is TV-dependent is beyond doubt. In a broadly-based survey both TV viewers and newspapers readers were asked questions about the economy, such as the Italian growth rate. The TV viewers described the economic growth as twice what it actually was. As a result, until this month the government has pooh-poohed the very existence of a financial crisis, but has now finally been forced to bite the bullet and agree to cut its budget deficit by 24 billion euro ($29.5 billion). The cuts punish countless already luring Italian cultural institutions and foundations, but they do include a 10% cut in salaries for Members of Parliament (cabinet ministers excepted) who are among the best paid in Europe.

  • Facts & Stories

    Mafia, Kinds of Applause & Saviano's Quotes

    ROME – The applause at the capture of Calabria’s most wanted mobster on the night of April 26 will go down in the annals of Italian organized crime. Giovanni Tegano, 70-year-old boss of the region’s capital of organized crime, Reggio, was wanted for seventeen years on charges of homicide, arms trafficking and Mafia association, according to the Italian press. When he was brought into police headquarters in handcuffs, the police applauded the team of their fellow male and female detectives who had finally captured him together with five younger associates. A jubilant Interior Minister Roberto Maroni sent congratulations. 

    But it was the applause the next morning that made the real headlines. Outside the Questura headquarters at Reggio a crowd of some 500 people applauded, not the police for their sleuthing, but Tegano himself, shamefully hailed as friend and martyr and—as several admirers shouted—“a man of peace.” As if this were St. Peter’s Square, a child was held overhead in the crowd for Tegano’s presumed blessing—and indeed the kindly-looking, white-haired crime boss in handcuffs managed to wave benignly and smile to his faithful followers.  

    A second shameful incident occurred over the weekend in Palermo. Mafia investigating magistrate Giovanni Falcone, his wife Francesca and three police bodyguards were murdered by the Mafia on the highway between Palermo and its airport in an explosion in May 23, 1992. Ever since then the tree in front of the apartment building in which the couple lived has been a symbol of resistance to the Sicilian Mafia. But on Saturday vandals stripped off the photos, poems and letters written in his memory and attached to the tree by well-wishers, especially schoolchildren. 

    At Perugia that same evening author-journalist Roberto Saviano, sharing the platform with former US Vice President Al Gore, addressed a packed theater as part of the annual International Journalism Festival. Exactly like Tegano in Reggio, Saviano is a hunted man, but for the opposite reason. Saviano’s book published in 2006, Gomorra, details the activities of the vicious Neapolitan organized crime networks that thrive by dumping toxic waste wherever it suits them and by controlling the Neapolitan docks where containers bring cheap Chinese goods (people, too) into Europe. Translated into 42 languages, with over three million copies were sold, in 2008 this literary phenemonon evolved into a wildly successful and horrifying movie whose director, Matteo Garrone, also won major prizes. For Saviano, all this success spelled personal disaster. He has received so many death threats that, like Salman Rushdie, he lives in perpetual danger and cannot be without bodyguards.

    The Italian offshoot of Al Gore’s non-profit investigative journalism TV channel, Current TV, featured a long interview with Saviano a week ago on its Italian platform, SkyTG24. Over-directed, with busy visual and sound effects that tended to obscure Saviano himself, the documentary was nevertheless fascinating and eloquent. 

    While Saviano and Gore spoke in the packed Perugia theater hundreds braved the chilly spring wind outside to follow the discussion on TV. They had lined up hours ahead of the debate in hopes of getting inside; luckily I had a ticket and managed to squeeze into a cramped seat at the back of a box on the fourth tier. Appropriately for the arrest of Tegano, Saviano quoted Mafia victim Paolo Borsellino, who worked with Falcone in prosecuting the so-called “Maxi-Trial” in Palermo, saying: “You don’t decapitate the Mafia. You eradicate it.” It is important, Saviano added, that any anti-Mafia struggle not be perceived as part of an ideological battle. However, “When the Center-left [coalitions] were in power, they said I defamed the Campania. And now that Center-right is in power, they are saying it.”  

    Last week Premier Silvio Berlusconi claimed that non-fiction books about organized crime such as Gomorra, mentioned specifically, and works of fiction have a boomerang effect by glamourizing the Mafia. To this allegation Saviano responded, “It’s painful to think that, when there’s a fire, you get mad at the firemen.” What he hopes, he concluded, is that words like “honor” can be restored to all Italians. “Truth brings honor to a country. It’s not being truthful to speak of 'men of honor'.”

    When Saviano spoke about how the mob works—he spelled out its connections with the politicians—he was obviously deeply moved. So was the audience, and he, exactly like the mobsters in the Calabrian street, was applauded by his fans, which is to say by that Italy which rejects and resists all the mobs. Indeed, Saviano’s standing ovation went on so long that, even from our distant viewpoint, he seemed close to tears. He was not alone.  

    A translated segment of Roberto Saviano’s talk in Perugia is at: http://bambuser.com/channel/fieldreports/broadcast/713091 His official website is: http://www.robertosaviano.it/index.php?LANG=ES

    Both Tegano’s nighttime arrival at the Questura and the daytime applause can be seen at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kFFENeeJGL4. (The text, quoting an AP report states incorrectly that “scores” of people died in the two years of ‘Ndrangheta warfare which left Tegano the victor in the early Nineties. That figure is actually estimated at 600, or almost one a day, similarly to the Mafia wars of Sicily in the Eighties.) 

  • Facts & Stories

    Emergency’s Emergency: Italian Medics Seized in Afghanistan

    On Saturday in Rome’s Piazza Navona a demonstration is  being organized in support of a trio of Italian doctors Matteo Dell'Aira, Marco Garatti and Matteo Pagani who were arrested without formal charges at Lashkar Gah in Helmand province of Afghanistan, accused by local authorities with involvement in a plot to have Helmand governor Guland Mangal assassinated.

    Evidence of the plot, according to the provincial authorities, was the finding of a cache of weapons and explosives hidden by Pakistan-based Taliban in a store room of a hospital built and run by the Italian medical charity, Emergency, whose founder is Italy’s Nobel Peace Prize candidate Dr. Gino Strada, 62. On April 13 the hospital itself was shut down and the staff, including those seized, sent to Kabul.  

    Many here in Italy maintain that the charges are trumped up, and that the Italians and the six local employees of Emergency, five of them Italian, who were also seized are themselves victims—though of whom and which side in the war is far from clear. Their situation was compromised by a now discredited report in the Sunday Times of London that the arms cache belonged to Al Quada forces.

    It was further confused by a second formally discredited report that the Italian doctors had “confessed.” And in the meantime, a crowd of 200 or so Afghani marched through the town yelling “down with Emergency.” 

    This war story is particularly sad to all of us who have followed Strada’s work, for Strada and his Emergency medical team are among the heroes of our time. Born and trained in Milan, Strada was performing transplant surgery before creating Emergency in 1994 as a non-profit and apolitical organization of hospitals active in war theaters. Since then Emergency has built and run field hospitals in thirteen countries, including Pakistan, Peru, Ethiopia, Somalia and Bosnia in addition to Afghanistan, and has helped some 3.5 million patients. Many victims treated—apparently far more than officials have reported—were  children who lost limbs to bombs and land mines. The child victims of war are so inured to suffering that, as Strada himself has remarked, they do not even cry from pain and the loss of a leg. 

    With apparent assistance from British soldiers, the three Italians and six local employees were seized at the hospital by Afghan security forces on April 10. Interviewed by Fabio Fazio on Italian TV the following day, Strada said that, “We immediately contacted the governor, who said he knew nothing about all this. But that very evening the governer told a press conference that the Italian surgeons were behind the plot.” 

    However, as Strada went on to say heatedly, “It’s ridiculous to think that people go to work in a hospital for years and then go about trying to blow everything up. Give us a story that’s a bit more credible.” However, he  acknowledges, it is not impossible that weapons could have been concealed by an employee inside the hospital store room: “I have no control over what the employees, including the guards, may be thinking—some may side with Karzai, others with the Taliban. Our checking system is fairly rigorous, but in a situation like this we can’t rule out that, among the 250 Afghan employees in the hospital, one could have lent himself to such an operation, either for money or because of blackmail.”

    Strada is the author of Pappagalli Verdi, Cronache di un chirurgo di guerra (Feltrinelli, 2010). The title, which translates as "Green Parrots, Diary of a War Surgeon", refers to a type of land mine produced by the old USSR. A brief excerpt: “In today’s conflicts more than 90% of the victims are civilians. Thousands of women, children and unarmed men are killed every year in the world, and many more are wounded and mutilated…

    From the beginning the humanitarian activities of Emergency were concentrated in particular on the treatment and rehabilitation of the victims of anti-personnel mines, inhuman weapons of which Italy has been among the main manufacturers. For years Emergency has been attempting to have these weapons banned, and on Oct. 22, 1997, the Italian government approved Law No. 374 which bans the production and sale of these anti-personnel mines. But the 110 million mines still in the ground in 67 nations continue to injure, mutilate and kill.”  

    Elsewhere Strada is on record saying, “I don’t believe in war as a tool. It’s undeniable that as an instrument war simply does not work.” And on Italian TV he also said in 2007, “If man doesn’t chuck out this business of war, war will chuck out the history of mankind.” As for terrorism, it is “the war that generates war.”  

    To sign an on-line petition in support of Emergency and those arrested, visit the organization's website