Articles by: Judith Harrris

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    Italian Mayor on the Front Line

    ROME -- Italy's mayors, women as well as men. are on the front line these days, under seige as heroes in some cities, as villains in others, and on occasion, as both. At the moment the top of the pops (or unpops, depending upon the point of view) is Rosa Capuozzo, the attractive woman who is the mayor of Quarto, a town of almost 40,000 in the Campania northwest of Naples. Near the famous vulcanic Campi Flegrei, Quarto was described by the ancient Roman historian Suetonius. 
    Capuozzo admits to having received serious threats from local organized crime lords, about which she failed to inform police. "If I did not tell them, it was so as not to destablize the township," she has explained. The back story: on March 27, 2013, Italy's Council of Ministers dissolved the previous Quarto administration on grounds of Mafia infiltration under the then mayor Massimo Carandente Giarrusso. New elections held in 2015 brought Capuozzo into office elected on the list of Beppe Grillo's Movimento Cinque Stelle (M5S). 
    News reports say that the threats, by the way, arrived to her via a fellow M5S town councilman. Now Grillo, backed by his alter ego Gianroberto Casaleggio, has kicked the hapless mayor out of his movement for immorality and ordered Capuozzo and her fellow M5S councilmen to resign on grounds of "grave violation" of his movement's principles. "We are not just any old Partito Democratico," said Grillo.
    Capuozzo, however, stubbornly refuses to resign: "I am going forward," she said Tuesday, looking tense and close to exhaustion after three hours of questioning by Neapolitan magistrate Henry John Woodcock. Speaking to the press, Woodcock gave the rather starchy explanation for her interrogation, and the police search of her home and office, was that, "Although Capuozzo does not seem herself under investigation, since she appears to be the person offended as the victim of attempted extortion, her conduct has been less than linear and is to be examined."
    This is the situation the Italian press describes as "dynamite." Capuozzo's fellow M5S councilmen and women, themselves expecting to be expelled similarly by Grillo,  are defending her and protest that Grillo & Co. did not bother to come down to Quarto to examine for themselves their difficult situation. "The Movement has abandoned us, lambs thrown to the wolves," said M5S councilwoman Concetta Aprile. The investigation seems to extend from attempts to make illegal building contract deals and to throw votes of the organized crime band which controls Naples, the Camorra, to selected city candidates, including those of M5S. 
    The Partito Democratico (PD) could hardly be indifferent, including to Grillo's insults, and Premier Matteo Renzi made a point of saying that the M5S has no monopoly on morals and also called for her to resign. To this Grillo responded in his blog with publication of a list of 83 PD officials he says have been put under investigation during the past year throughout Italy. 
    Indeed, one leaked police phone tap has Mario Ferro, former town councilman from the PD, speaking with a building contractor with a sullied reputation. Ferro calls Capuozzo a "half idiot -- Does she think her granpa gave her that office? I'm the guy at Quarto who can solve your problems, I am in charge in Quarto, I have businessmen, lots of people from the past with a lot of political experience." Capuozzo reportedly was not playing ball with Ferro over what police believe was at least one of the problems at stake: construction of a soccer stadium by private business with, it is assumed, associated generous contracts to friends, rather than, as originally planned, with public funding and hence greater public scrutiny.
    One of those who agrees with the demands for Capuozzo to resign is Giulia Sarti, a member of the Anti-Mafia Commission who heard testimony by Capuozzo, but also elected to Parliament by of the M5S. "In talking with her, we realized that she had held back information, so how could we know what else she might be holding back? This is Quarto, a township already dissolved for Mafia infiltration.... If we held back we risked measures against us for protecting a public official." On the other hand many in the rank and file of Grillo's movement are angry at his expulsion of Capuozzo, which they consider arbitrary. "Maybe it was a weakness on her part not to mention that she had been threatened, but dump her this way is wrong," said a fellow mayor, Federico Pizzarotti, head of the Parma city administration. 

    What may be a last word in Capuozzo's defense came in a phone tap from the son of a Camorra boss. "Now the toy is broken. We should have voted for someone else." Indeed. 

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    Looking Ahead to 2016

     ROME -- In his traditional year-end address to Parliament Dec. 29, Premier Matteo Renzi said proudly that, "The facts show that 2015 went better than 2014. It was a good year, with things looking up. Italy has come out of the recession." Indeed, optimism is in the air: for 2015 the Gross National Product (GNP or PIL in Italy) rose by 0.8% over the previous year, slightly higher than predicted. A scouring of the Italian horizon for the coming year shows other fixed points.

    Foreign relations: Relations with Europe, or rather with Germany, have slightly soured over Italy's plans for protectionist intervention in private industry and banking, as expressed in the new budget known as the Stability Bill. However, despite some tensions with its European partners, predicts Renzi, "Over the next couple of years Italy will once again play a leadership role in Europe. We shall sit down at the table with the decision makers." Most importantly, with U.S. backing Italy is moving into the forefront in negotiations with the tentative new leadership in Libya, Italy's former colony and its neighbor across a slender stretch of Mediterranean sea. In other areas:
    Migrants: Expect more in 2016. ISTAT, the official statistics-gathering agency, shows that the foreign population resident in Italy rose from 4.9 million in 2014 to 5 million in 2015. In what would seem a warning signal, thanks to the calm weather conditions, 4,000 crossed the Canale di Sicilia to land on Italian coastlines in just 36 hours during Christmas week, see >>>
    On the other hand, as Renzi told Parliament, during 2015 the number of new migrants -- as opposed to resident population -- arriving in Italy, especially from sub-Sahara Africa, but also from Syria and Lebanon, actually diminished over 2014. To cut back on the illicit traffic, many here urge creation of centers for handling refugees in their countries of origin.
    Politics: National general elections are not slated until 2018, but old and new pols will be watching the new year's primaries and then the important mid-year elections for mayors of Rome, Milan, Naples, Trieste and nearly 1,000 other townships. At stake is a test of the relative strength (or weakness) of  Renzi's Partito Democratico vis a' vis that of Italy's two largest populist parties, both of whom to some degree emulate Marine Le Pen, Beppe Grillo's Movimento Cinque Stelle (M5S) and Matteo Salvini's Northern League, which he has headed since 2013 and expanded into all of Italy. Some recent polls show only 4% difference between PD and M5S. But even as the anti-party parties grow, by 2016, Silvio Berlusconi's hold on national politics will be virtually nonexistent; during the past year he has lost consensus, even among his former faithful like Sandro Bondi, who called Berlusconi's governing period a "disaster."  
    Transport: As smog has shut down traffic as well as commerce, city adminitrators beg for commuters to take buses and ride bikes, and plead for reduced prices for public transport. Already there are fewer cars on the road than previously, down 150,000 in 2013 over 2012, the latest statistics available. Nevertheless, as quarrels continue over how much automobile traffic is to blame for the excessive smog ratings, the transformation promoted by such experts as Prof. Umberto Veronesi into solar power, methane gas for heating and electric autos will be slow. Veronese urges the politicians not to use the limitations on driving in town as an alibi to avoid taking more ambitious action. However, Transport Minister Domenico Del Rio promises improvements for 2016 whereby energy requalifications in building with be rewarded with a 65% tax detraction while the new budget has provisions for construction of bike trails and incentives to boost industrial transport via train.
    Food: Italian chefs continue to star on the world horizon, even as at home diets are becoming less healthy than in the past. According to Prof. Antonino De Lorenza of the University Tor Vegata in Rome, who heads the national institute on the Mediterranean diet, today's Italian commitment to the Mediterranean diet has dropped almost to the level of that in the U.S. New studies show that the diet of one out of three Italians is ever more poor in fruits and vegetables. The lowest adherence is in the 15-24 age group (32.8%), highest among the over 45's (53%). For the future, experts predict more obesity.
    Jobs: Unemployment, which had stood at over 12%, fell to 11%, with 300,000 newly employed. However, only Spain has a higher number of young people who are neither studying nor working, and almost one out of four Italians between the ages of 15 and 29 remains demotivated as well as unemployed. In Europe, the median of these NEETs, as they are called, is of 10% versus Italy's almost 25%. 
    Sport: Among the worst news items of the year: the coach of a young women's soccer team at Locri in Calabria resigned after receiving anonymous threats, and the whole team is just now shut down. All this may have to do with the fact, still unproven, that the female players were lodged in housing seized from local organized crime bosses of the 'ndrangheta. On this case, "I'll never tire of saying that we have a duty to intervene," says Roberto Saviano, whose best-selling book, Zero Zero Zero, just published in English, was described by the Guardian as "the most important book of the year, the most convincing every written about how the narcotraffic works." 

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    Fighting against the Sack of Rome

    ROME – Courageous police and magistrates are battling valiantly against a wave of high-level political corruption linked to organized crime in Rome that has just brought 37 indictments. The dozens more put under formal investigation in Rome include a cabinet minister and a former mayor. The media have christened this latest Italian scandal “The Sack of Rome” and “Mafia Capitale,” a play on the ubiquitous promotional slogan “Roma Capitale.”

    The investigation began quietly four years ago, and gradually revealed surprising links among Roman neo-Fascist punishment squadristi, the narcotics-fattened ‘Ndrangeta of Calabria, and white-collar bureaucrats and politicians in the capital. Investigators – they include the Carabinieri, anti-Mafia specialists, the tax police of the Guardia di Finanza, bank controllers of money laundering and secret services – believe that a clique of clever former neo-Fascists have for years manipulated campaign donations to local Roman politicians in exchange for lucrative contracts for everything from catering to construction and care for immigrants and Roma (Gypsies). According to wire taps, such contracts resulted in a 100% return on investments. “They were really sharp businessmen,” one investigator acknowledged.
    The mastermind of the network is allegedly Massimo Carminati, a former neo-Fascist terrorist with the Nuclei Armati Rivoluzionari (NAR), who was convicted in 1998 to ten years in prison as part of the notorious gangster clan Banda della Magliana, involved in drug trafficking and murder. He was sentenced to another four years of prison in 2005 for breaking into a bank vault in Rome. Somehow emerging from all this, he created a do-good organization of former prisoners who were given low-paying jobs like cleaning bike paths and collecting rubbish. The “Cooperativa 29 Giugno”
    allowed Carminati to ingratiate himself with local bureaucrats and politicians. Only weeks ago the head of prison services for the Lazio Region called the co-op “very good, very important.”
    Carminati’s arrest Dec. 2 came as a shock to those working in the co-op. “I earn 950 euros a month,” said a woman who was an ex-prisoner and was working as a street-sweeper. ”Now what am I to do?” Italian Premier Matteo Renzi was asking something of the same question. “I’m stunned,” he said on hearing news reports that members of his own PD were involved along with right-wingers. “All we’re missing are Jack the Ripper and the Loch Ness monster. We have to assume that everyone is innocent until proven otherwise, but I confess I’m really shocked.”
    Political corruption has increased notably in the past decade, with the result that Italy ranks 69th down on this year’s Corruption Perceptions Index by Transparency International. Ranked cleaner in the newly released list are, among others, Namibia, Rwanda, Botswana and Malaysia with Portugal, at 31st down, twice as honest as Italy. Even more devastating was the European Commission study released last February, which singled out Italy as the most corrupt country in Europe, at a cost of about 4% of Italy’s GNP. 
    It is no secret that, in early postwar years, the United States helped to fund the Christian Democratic party, seen as a bulwark against the Italian Communist party (PCI), which regularly won a quarter of the vote. The PCI in turn, albeit fairly independent from Moscow, was similarly subsidized by the Soviet Union with gold ingots brought into Italy by boat. With the advent of the Center-left governments in the Sixties, the Socialist party (PSI) became a coalition partner but was not subsidized by outside forces. To fight back (and this is no particular secret), it received kickbacks from certain government agencies.
    At the same time, those parties had activists throughout the country, who organized rallies and grass roots contributions that served, moreover, as a control over excess spending. Today, however, the end of ideologies including Soviet-style Marxism as well as the Italian Catholic church’s control over a portion of a once docile electorate, has decimated the grass roots parties. The surge in kickbacks in a swap for public contracts is also the result of a sea change in election tactics, such as the need for more sophisticated PR efforts and to pay for public opinion polls to bolster a candidacy, plus new laws meant for simplification, but which have resulted in an unintended hike in political party centralization.
    Here is the result, in the words of Raffaele Cantone, president of the Italian Anti-corruption authority, speaking to Nino Amadore of the financial daily Il Sole 24 Ore: “From this Roman investigation we see a political class that is completely subordinate to the crime lobbies. The novelty in this investigation lies in its having hypothesized corruption as a prevailing fact with Mafia association… Intimidation and physical threats are an indispensable component.” (“We’ll crack his skull with a brick bat,” was heard on one phone tap.)
    Il Sole 24 Ore of Dec. 7 lists names, titles and amounts of money and gifts (a Rolex) to individuals. A former aide to former Mayor Franceso Rutelli received a regular monthly stipend of $1,250 plus a one-off payment of $12,500. The network financed campaigns for both rival candidates for mayor last year, with rightist Nuova Italia of former mayor Gianni Alemanno reportedly receiving $40,000 while the campaign managers of Ignazio Marino, his opponent from the left-leaning Partito Democratico (PD), received only $35,000 or so (but won nevertheless). Marino, by the way, a doctor born in Genoa, has been pilloried in the press for having failed to pay a series of parking tickets; he normally rides around town on a bicycle but police have only now warned him that his life is in danger, and must travel with a bodyguard.
    One of the more disgusting ways the network sought to raise funds was to seek building contracts for housing for immigrants. In one Roman suburb the deal proposed was to sell to the town, for an inflated amount, properties the mob already owned; install the immigrants into these remodeled apartments; and then collect the money the state provides. Luckily at least this project was rejected because the suburb was already housing 800 immigrants, and the local politicians feared a reaction if they opened their doors to more.
    Rome is not the sole source of corruption, of course. Milan is working hard to recover from the scandals over construction contracts for Expo of 2015 while Venice has suffered from the kickbacks to top politicians for construction of its Mose water barrier.