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Articles by: Judith Harris

  • Facts & Stories

    The Bosses of Finance, The Huge Power that Threatens Us

    ROME -- In his latest book, sociologist Pino Arlacchi, Italy's famed Mafia analyst, takes a broader look at crime than do any of his previous works. Published in Italy by Chiarelettere, "I Padroni della Finanza Mondiale, Lo Strapotere che ci Minaccia" (The Bosses of Finance, The Huge Power that Threatens Us), was presented at a book launch in Rome March  30. "I'd intended to call it 'The Other Mafia,' but then I realized that in fact it is not about illegality, even though this is a world that can impose extortions and even kill people," said Arlacchi. "It is about the corruption of the super-rich, who make laws in their own interests. They propagate a formal legality that justifies de facto illegality."

    Arlacchi's books include "Mafia, Peasants and Great Estates: Society in Traditional Calabria" (1980) and  "Mafia Business: The Mafia Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism and the Mafia" (1983). After 1997 he became Executive Director of the United Nations Office for Drug Control and Crime Prevention. As UN Under Secretary-General, he then launched an international campaign called "A Drug-Free World." Following election to the Italian Chamber of Deputies and then the Senate, he was elected to the European Parliament and is today professor of sociology at the University of Sassari.

    Speaking in public at a trial in 1994, the then head of Cosa Nostra, Totò Riina, declared that among his principal enemies was "that guy Arlacchi who writes books." For 13 years he was obliged to live under police protection after receiving threats from the Mafia. Despite all the trials and convictions, including as a result of the famous Maxi-trial in Palermo, which lasted from 1986 to 1992, and which this reporter covered,  the Italian Mafias continue to exist, Arlacchi acknowledges. "In the early Nineties we came very close to destroying the Mafia, but at the last minute we failed," he said in an interview with journalist Anna Germoni of Panorama magazine.

    Indeed, over the decades the Mafias have internationalized, and his analyses of organized crime have expanded beyond Italy, to become ever more trans-national. The postwar creation of the United Nations and an "international system was a great conquest," but then the crises of finance intervened in 2007-2008.

    Although for a quarter century the Italian economy grew by 8% annually, today's Italy has plunged into recession. Although the government optimistically claims that GDP will rise by 1% this year, the OECD this week predicts it will sag to a mere 0.2% . Future economic troubles come primarily, not from China or Russia, but from Italy's low economic growth, Arlacchi believes: "Our private citizens still have only very limited indebtedness, but our public debt is very serious. Even as other governments grow (Indonesia, Japan, South Korea, China), we face the problem of  poverty." Unless wisely guided by the state, the capitalist system, according to Arlacchi, can be "savage" and destructive.

    Other experts agree: behind these developments, according to Christopher DeMuth, writing in the winter edition of the U.S. quarterly "The Clairmont Review" (CRB), is the fact that special interest groups "evade democratic accountability and lead to overregulation and 'agency capture' by special-interest groups.... Agencies often go to extremes, or cut deals among insider groups, that could never survive a vote in an elected legislature."

    As an example Arlacchi pointed to the United States: "U.S. lawmakers are expected to pause to reflect upon the bills they are writing for possible  consequences to the economy. This means that, if it is a big corporation, you can't touch it; it has immunity. In the US only one banker has been convicted and sent to prison."

     

     

  • Facts & Stories

    For Steve Bannon "Italy is the Center of the Political Universe"

    "We have no formal arrangement, we won't sign any formal document, but we are evangelists who are meeting to talk together informally," he said. As for his own role, "These parties are sophisticated. The best I can do is tell them to stay on your message. None of them needs me to win, but I am their cheerleader."

     

    Speaking at a packed two-hour press conference March 26 at the Foreign Press Association in Rome, he said that Marine Le Pen, President of the National Rally party in France, is perhaps the most outstanding politician on the scene today. Recent polls in France show Le Pen and Emmanuel Macron almost in a tie as they gear up for the May election, with Le Pen trailing behind the French president by just 1%. Bannon also expressed admiration for the German populists of Alternative für Deutschland and for Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, enemy of environmentalists and gays, who has dubbed the United Nations "a bunch of communists."

     

    "These days the populist sovereignty movement has tremendous support, including from young people," said Bannon, adding that this upsurge in popularity was amply demonstrated in the March 22 vote for regional parliaments in the Netherlands. In that Dutch election involving 570 legislators, presumably a foretaste of the election to the European Parliament in late May, the far-right populist newcomer Forum for Democracy won more votes than any other party. "If the momentum continues as it is now, we populists just may end up with 50 to 100 MPs in the European Parliament," he predicted.

     

    Is there a China-Russian axis? he was asked. China is a problem, he conceded. "I love the Chinese people but not its government. As for Vladimir Putin's Russia, "the atmosphere between the US and Russia is currently poisonous, but going forward we must befriend Russia," he said. The goal is to eventually bring together the entire Judeo-Christian West, which includes Russia. It will take time: "Bear in mind that Russia's GDP is smaller than that of the state of New York, that it suffers from a demographic crisis, that it lives off natural resources, that it is managed by oligarchs and that it's a kleptocracy."

     

    The mainstream media are, in his view, "a disgrace." They are supposed to be self-regulating, yet no reporter is ever held accountable. "I think it's time they should be," he said, in words that, to most journalists, sound disturbing; worldwide over 250 journalists are now imprisoned because of their work, according to the annual survey of the committee to Protect Journalists, as reported in CNBC.

     

    Particularly harsh words were reserved for Pope Francis. "He is the Vicar of Christ." But when the pope talks politics at mass, as for instance when he spoke about the situation at the US-Mexican border, "He seems to think that all the world's problems are due to populism. Instead of politics or from the pulpit the pope should start focussing on the metastasizing character of the Catholic Church, which in the US is in terrible financial troubles through the RICO indictments."

     

    Several US prosecutors have attempted to use RICO (the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act), which dates from 1970, to prosecute Catholic Church dioceses for covering up child sex abuse. "This is the worst crisis for the Catholic Church in all time," he concluded. Bannon added that the pope has signed a secret agreement with China after a Vatican-China summit meeting, which he never talked about, nor released any details.

     

    Next week Bannon plans to continue his evangelizing and cheerleading in Spain.

     

  • Facts & Stories

    Italy Balks at Saudi Entry Into La Scala Opera Theater

    After lengthy and delicate negotiations, Italy is backing out of having Saudi Arabian oil money move into the La Scala Opera Theater in Milan. The agreement was for ARAMCO, the national petroleum and gas company owned by the Government of Saudi Arabia, to provide La Scala with € 15 million ($17.03 million). In exchange, a Saudi representative would have a seat on the board of directors at La Scala. Already in late February the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, 33, handed over to La Scala € 3.1 million ($3.52 million) as an advance, described as private and personal, albeit via ARAMCO. Now -- say the Italian authorities -- that sum is to be returned.

     

    The financing was to be for € 103 million for five years. The La Scala orchestra in exchange was the creation of a music academy at Riad and to perform there two concerts and a performance of the opera "La Traviata," directed by Zubin Mehta. On the Italian side thus plan had been elaborated behind the scenes by the Austrian director of La Scala, Alexander Pereira, 62. But as news of the "deal" entered the public domain, opposition in Italy rose to fever pitch. "The entry into La Scala of a foreign government is inappropriate," said Culture Minister Alberto Bonisoli of the Movimento 5 Stelle (M5S). Another fervent opponent of the arrangement is deputy premier and interior minister Matteo Salvini, whose rightist Lega party is partner in government with the M5S.

     

    For 15 years La Scala has been governed by non-Italians, beginning with the Stéphane Lissner, who is French and now directs the Paris Opera (slated to be replaced, however, in 2021). Alexander Pereira of Salzburg directed the Zurich Opera house and was chosen as superintendent of La Scala in 2013; one of his music-loving ancestors was a friend of Mozart. When he took over in Milan, elected unanimously, Pereira won praise not only for his musical ability but also for saying that he hoped to bring young people back into the opera house.

     

    The proposed accord with the Saudis ran into trouble on two accounts. First, politics and especially objections to a possible (though never proven) direct role of the Crown Prince in the brutal murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, 59, after he was last seen entering the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul on Oct. 2, 2018. The second is the fact that Pereira's contract expires next year, and there is open opposition to its renewal. This is Italy's most famous opera house, and sentiment for an Italian superintendent is strong in Milan after those 15 years of foreign directors. Pereira has "managed things badly," Milan Mayor Beppe Sala.

     

    The candidates for possible replacement of Pereira include Filippo Fonsatti, the Italian who is currently director of the Teatro Stabile of Turin, whose contract there continues until 2022. Still, foreigners are among those shortlisted. Peter Gelb of the Metropolitan in New York is another mentioned, along with Dominique Meyer, director of the Vienna State Opera, born in France. As the son of a diplomat, he grew up in German before studying in Paris and going on to work in the French Ministries of Economics and of Culture.

     

    On the other hand, ousting Pereira and sending the Saudi donation back home does not resolve the knotty problem of financing and managing grand opera. The superintendent must have a deep musical background but also be able to deal with trade unions. "An advantage of having an Italian superintendent is that he may be better able than outsiders to deal with the unions," said Cesare Mazzonis, who was artistic director of La Scala for a decade after 1982. Asked if sharing such a high cultural monument might serve to broaden the Saudi intellectual world, Mazzonis said diplomatically that it might do the opposite: legitimize an eventual laggard partner, "giving luster to those who do not warrant it."

     

  • Art & Culture

    Verona's Romantic Aura Now Comes at a Cost

    ROME -- Seeking romance, millions of tourists converge upon the gracious North Italian city of Verona. Recalling the star-crossed lovers of Shakespeare's tragedy "Romeo and Juliet," they come to stand where Shakespeare had Romeo stand beneath Juliet's balcony; some lovers are even married in Juliet's supposed home. Increasingly, this romantic aura comes at a price, however. Under the tutelage of Federico Sboarina, Verona Mayor since 2017, tickets are now required for what was once free.

    Juliet's house is located at 23 Via Cappello, not far from the famous ancient Roman Arena di Verona, where splendid opera classics are performed in summertime. The house, which dates from the 13th century, belonged to a family called Cappello, who came to be known as Capulets. It is no deterrence to romantic tourism that the world's most famous balcony was actually not part of the original 13th century house, but a 20th century addition, made from a sarcophagus dating from the 17th century.

    The romantic tourist hordes continue to descend upon Verona, bringing wealth to the city, but at a price. "Verona is literally submerged by couples convinced they are madly in love," wrote Giampaolo Visetti in La Repubblica daily. One consequence is that this treasure trove for the town and its budget is a "traffic catastrophe," Visetti wrote. Indeed it is: besides the traffic jams and pollution from the flotilla of tourist cars and buses, the influx mean that locals must fight to find a place to park.

    And there are other problems. At the rear end of the courtyard of Juliet's house is a much admired copy of a bronze statue of her, sculpted by Nereo Costantini in 1969. But since touching the right breast of the original was supposed to bring good luck in finding one's true love, it was caressed (literally) by thousands of tourists, and has had to be replaced by a copy. To preserve the original, it has had to be placed inside the house.

    The newest irritants are what are called "love locks." Verona could hardly avoid sharing in the worldwide fad of showing eternal love by attaching a padlock anywhere possible, on the roadside or especially on bridges. Complaints are that the million or so of these "love locks" in Verona add so much weight that they risk collapsing some walls. The padlocks must be removed, at a price for the city administrators. The chewing gum lovers use to post notes and letters vowing eternal love on walls or wherever they can find an empty place are less harmful, but when they eventually flutter to the ground they must be cleared away and the chewing gum removed from walls it has besmirched. To avoid this the city fathers have applied removable panels to the walls, but tending these too comes at a price.

    To fight back, the Verona administration plans to monetize Romeo and Juliet further. The courtyard and House of Juliet will soon offer what is described as a "multimedial emotional tour" complete with audioguide. The five-storey house will be embellished with cafeteria, restrooms, cloakroom and a small meeting room. Already entry into the courtyard, free until 2015, now requires paying a ticket, and entry into that house itself, which at present costs $6.80, will shortly bounce up to $11.38. Student discounts will no longer apply.  

    Those who want the full romantic effect can be married in that very house. Presently, Verona residents pay $683 per wedding; European Union citizens, $911; and, for those outside the EU, who include U.S. citizens, $1,140. And the truly romantic couple can spend their honeymoon first night in the house, sleeping on Juliet's bed.

    Another favorite of tourists is Juliet's tomb, located in an ex-convent of Capuchin friars dating from the 13th century. As for Romeo, the house which tradition maintains was of Romeo's family, the Montecchi, is private and cannot be visited. And at any rate a sophisticated travel writer named Nina, writing online at travelboulevard, points out that there are far more interesting things to do and see in Verona than Juliet's House, "And to be honest, the idea is based on one big fantasy. But I must admit it: it's a great fantasy, and I love it." See >>

     

     

     

  • Facts & Stories

    Mimosa May Fade but Italian Women Don't

    ROME -- On March 8, International Women's Day since 1910, the Italian tradition is to honor a woman by handing her a sprig of yellow mimosa, among the earliest and loveliest of Spring flowers. But even as the mimosa blossoms fade, the women do not, and it is noteworthy that, well after Women's Day, interest in the world of women does not.

    The most outrageous news is from Ancona. There, four years ago, a Peruvian lass of 22 went drinking with two male fellow students. After abundant booze -- so she says -- she found herself the victim of rape by one of the youths while his mate allegedly looked on. Accompanied by her mother, the young woman went to police. Medical examination showed injuries typical of rape, and a blood test showed she had received a psychotic substance. When the matter wound up in court, the two youths received sentences of five and three years respectively.

    But then the two young men took the case to an appeals court, where in July 2016 a three-woman tribunal declared the lads not guilty and said that they suspected that she may just have been suing for money. The reasoning for their absolution: the girl -- described by the judges as "the sharpster Peruvian" -- is singularly unattractive, and looks too masculine for anyone to bother raping. "Her photo in the files confirms this," said a note in the judicial procedures. Further proof was that the youth, in his mobile phone, called her "a Viking," which is to say (if only in the opinion of this trio of judges) that she was too mannish. However, "this is not a beauty contest," one observer complained. The main complainant, thanks be, is the Italian court system, which overthrew the dodgy verdict and has ordered a full retrial.

    Speaking of judges and the Constitutional Court, on the brighter side is Judge Marta Cartabia, 55, only the third woman to serve as constitutional court justice. Nominated in 2011, she is a full professor of law at the Bocconi University of Milan. Wife and mother of three, in a March 8 interview she was asked if she ever felt discriminated against as a female. "Not particularly," she responded, "I consider myself above all sustained by the academic life where I can count upon genuine allies, by my own teachers and by my husband." On the other hand, she added, when she appears at events with her (male) assistant, he is always taken to be the famous professor and she, his assistant. "I do feel sometimes that I have a weightier burden than my male colleagues," she conceded.

    Another outstanding, and extraordinarily successful, Italian woman is astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti, whose new book, "Diario di un'apprendista " (Diary of an apprentice astronaut), is being presented March 15. In her book Cristoforetti describes the 199 unforgettable days between Nov. 23, 2014, and June, 2015 she spent aboard the International Space Shuttle (ISS). Today, she said in an interview, her longing is to return into space. And because China is involved in future space explorations, she is now studying Chinese.

    Cristina Cattaneo, 55, is a forensic doctor whose work examining the dead amounts to the work of a detective. For years she has been working on the corpses and bones of the hundreds of migrants who drowned off the Libyan coast and especially those who lost their lives near the isle of Lampedusa. In her new book, "Naufraghi senza volto: Dare un nome alle vittime del Mediterraneo" (Drowned without a face: Giving a name to the victims of the Mediterranean), she writes that every item found on the remains tells a story, such as a Juventus T-shirt, a library card or the report card sewn into the shirt of a little boy. "Behind each object is a life," she says. Dr. Cattaneo works the team of the Laboratory of Anthropology and Forensic Odontology of the State University of Milan.

    Obviously not all outstanding Italian women are as famous as Judge Cartabia, astronaut Cristoforetti and forensic professor Cattaneo. International Women's Day also brought to the fore in Italy Elena Bairan, a baker in Rome's crowded San Giovanni quarter. In late afternoon every day she places a basket of bread and rolls in a corner of the bakery with a sign "Free Bread for Those Who are Hungry." She is hardly alone: any number of bakeries do the same, throughout Italy.

    It also made news that Italian women now approach power as bosses in companies and in the bureaucracy, with 52 women managers for every 54 men. On the other hand, the news was also broadcast, for March 8, that women in Italy continue to lag behind the men in most other positions of power. Among university presidents only 6 are women, by contrast with 76 men. One thousand women are mayors while seven times more are men. As for business managers, only 5,000 are women versus 17,000 men. In terms of jobs, women make up almost 50% of the employees and men, almost 69%.

     

     

     
  • Facts & Stories

    Sour Notes From Sanremo Festival Linger in the Air

    A few sour notes from the 69th edition of the Sanremo music festival still linger in the air, one month after the end of the festival February 9. Viewed on TV by at least 12 million, for most festival lovers -- and I am one -- it was a great success. A ticket for a seat in the stalls for the five-day festival in the Ariston Theater sold for $1,464 and, for one in the gallery, $763. Even so, setting a record, by Jan. 21 tickets were already sold out. "A magical week," sentenced the popular TV Sorrisi e Canzoni magazine. During the festival the New York Times celebrated Sanremo with a long article of praise: "Sanremo is a national gathering, like the Academy Awards in the United States," wrote Beppe Severgnini, the correspondent who was one of the judges. "It's a truce in quarrelsome times. It's predictable and reassuring."

     

    The winner, Mahmood (it is fashionable for a performer to use just one name), will represent Italy at the the international Eurovision Song Festival that will take place at Tel Aviv in May and is broadcast worldwide. In his quasi-rap song "Soldi" (Money), Mahmood complains about a girlfriend interested only in money. The child of a Sardinian mother and Egyptian father, in the lyrics Mahmood wrote a few words in Arabic, "Waladi waladi habibi ta'aleena." Elsewhere tucked into the lyrics are a few other references to a Mideastern connection that came as a novelty for Sanremo audiences:

    What seemed love was something else

    During Ramadan she drinks Champagne

    On TV there's Jackie Chan

    Smoking the nargile

     

    Presenting the songs and singers were musician Claudio Baglioni and actors Claudio Bisio and Virginia Raffaele. When Bisio announced the day after the festival that he would not participate in any future festival, the gossip mills churned. Reporter Anna Bandettini of Milan wrote that, along with the joy and success of the festival, came "polemics and disappointments." The festival week generated "enormous enthusiasm," she wrote, "but also a poisonous [atmosphere] affecting even an artist like Bisio, who is diplomatic and peaceable, and has his head on his shoulders." Bisio himself acknowledged only that, "At Rai TV it was heavy weather and all very complicated. Behind the scenes the atmosphere was of fear."

     

    Some saw a political connection. In the digital daily affaritaliani.it, critic Angelo Maria Perrino disagreed with this. For him, Mahmood's success cheated both TV viewers and the show's sponsor, the telephone company TIM. "Someone is bound to insinuate that Severgnini and company wanted to strike out at Matteo Salvini and his populist 'Italians first.' Maybe so, but that is not the point... The problem is that [the jury's selecting Mahmood] came at the price of those Italians who voted from home, paying for their phone calls out of their own pockets." This is simply "not serious," Perrino complained.

     

    In fact, this was a particularly contentious element. Mahmood was elected by two-thirds of the eight-member jury (63.7%) inside the Ariston Theater, but rejected by the thousands of phone-in TV viewers; only 14% of those chose Mahmood. By the same token almost half of those phoning in (over 46%) preferred the singer whose stage name is Ultimo (real name: Niccolò Moriconi), winner of the Sanremo Festival last year. The split between the TV audiences and the jurors inside the Ariston theater was repeated: only one quarter of the jury voted for Ultimo.

     

    In a day-after video of outrage, an angry Ultimo complained. "People paid their money to phone in and vote, but their votes were completely ignored by the journalists and jury," he said. "If an artist has three times the votes [Mahmood had], a jury of eight people simply cannot ignore this." (Watch the video >>)

     

    Some viewers simply disliked the rap concept and a certain lack of tradition, rather than Mohmood himself. Enrico Nigiotti's song "Nonno Hollywood" came in only tenth, but, played on the radio day after day in Italy, his song gained in popularity for its poetic sense and traditionalism. Nigiotti dedicated the song to his grandfather, and in one line he sings, "I hold tight to your advice/Because you know that here things are not easy...." His voice, the words, music and concept of a love song to his grandfather drew myriad admirers. One, Giuseppe C., wrote, "This song is a true masterpiece and you are the real winner at Sanremo." From other admirers: "This poem, dedicated to our grandfathers, is the true Sanremo music, which blends sentiment and melody." Said another: "This song will remain eternal in the history of Italian music and should have won at Sanremo." The song begins:

    Certain things hurt

    You can't hold it back

    There's no way to change what you don't like

    They say that with time all will pass

    But when will it pass?

    Fact is, it just doesn't pass.

    (The above is my translation: to hear and see the real thing go to this video >>)

  • Facts & Stories

    Rising on the Roman Skyline, Spires of Europe's Largest Mormon Temple

    ROME -- Located in the crowded Buffalota neighborhood north of Rome near a gigantic shopping center, the spires of a huge new Mormon temple make a striking addition to the Roman skyline. To be inaugurated in March, the 40,000-sq. foot building, under construction for a decade, covers 15 acres which include fountains and gardens. Inside is a roomy visitors center plus a family history center that will be open to the public. The entire temple is described as "religious and cultural center," . Of the 162 temples worldwide, this is the 12th to be built in Europe and the very largest; another is to be built in Portugal.

    The  Rome congregation of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (the formal  name) vaunts 5,000 members while all told Italy hosts some 26,000, scattered in 100 congregations. The relationship with Italy began when a Sardinian immigrant to Boston, Mass., named Giuseppe Taranto, known in the US as "Joseph Toronto", was baptized there and then returned to Italy with two fellow American Mormons in 1849. These early Mormon missionaries were particularly active in Piedmont, where they made proselytes in the Waldensian territory.

    In the visitors center is a wall-sized, five-panel stained-glass mural depicting scenes from the life of Christ. Under the direction of artist Tom Holdman, 25 skilled assistants  cut by hand and installed 6,000 pieces of colored glass. Incorporated in these stunning panels are gold coins that date from Jerusalem in the time of Christ plus salt from the Dead Sea and a shell from the Sea of Galilee. In an adjacent rotunda are life-sized statues of Christ and the Twelve Apostles which replicate those created by the famous Danish sculptor Bertel Thorvaldsen for the Church of Our Lady in Denmark. Thorvalsen, who spent much of his life in Italy, is the only non-Catholic sculptor to have carved a funeral monument in St Peter's Basilica for Pope Pius Vii.

    "The church is growing, and this new temple can be a determining factor in encouraging people to discover our church," said Elder Massimo De Feo. The aim is for the temple to be a place to know and to appreciate, he added. Unlike most Christian churches, the two spires soaring into the sky are not atop large places of worship. Inside are a series of fairly small rooms in which the aim appears to be a family-style friendship and intimacy. In its design energy efficiency including solar energy loomed large, with predicted savings of over 50% over building code minimums.

    Family history and hence genealogical research have long been a staple of the religion. As a result, at the press preview Jan. 14 an agreement with the Culture Ministry MIBAC for acquisition of genealogical data from Italian archives dating back to 1908 was announced. (As a footnote, at the same press conference one journalist asked if the Mormons still practiced polygamy. "No," came the answer. "That was abolished in 1905.") For further information, see: http://www.media-mormoni.it/articolo/tempio-di-roma

    Speakers also made clear that a key goal is to demonstrate their activism in Italian civil society, including with helping migrants. In recent years the Mormon church has made conscientious efforts to work together in charity projects with other organizations in Italy, including the Vatican and  Roman Catholic religious communities here. In 2015, 14,000 hygiene kits were prepared and distributed in collaboration with the Roman Catholic Sant'Egidio Community in Milan, Calabria, Palermo and Rome.

    That same year the Mormons donated to the Italian Red Cross a camp kitchen for preparation of 900 meals daily for the needy. The following year another 6,000 hygiene kits were prepared and delivered for distribution to Sant'Egidio in Rome. by The Mormon youth organization in Venice prepared another 3,000 such kits -- they included diapers, toothpaste, soap, toiletries -- distributed to refugees arriving across the Alps into Italy. Packages of underwear and shoes went to the underprivileged in Rome, and aid to the victims of the Perugia earthquake zone in 2016.

     

  • Facts & Stories

    "Solid" Italian Economy Wins Positive Fitch Rating

    ROME -- Last week Fitch Ratings of London and New York, one of the world's big three of international credit agencies, gave Italy a "BBB" rating, a signal that Italian bonds are investment grade, with low risk of default. Needless to say, "A" ratings, for higher credit quality, would have been better, but even so this fairly positive triple "B" was cheering for the many Italians worried about the economy. "As regards the sustainability over the medium term for the Italian debt, we see a moderate and positive potential," said the Fitch report issued Feb. 22. At the same time, to maintain that solidity requires the continued support of the European Union, says Mario Draghi, president of the European Central Bank.

     

    For Fitch, the diversity of the Italian economy is a plus, as are the strengths and talents of the Italian people. For the goverment, the BBB rating brought sighs of relief and, from the office of Premier Giuseppe Conte, an enthusiastic press release. "The Fitch evaluations confirm the economic solidity of our country. As was predictable, they reflect the transitory economic slowdown that is visible throughout the European continent.... [We continue] on the road traced in the budget so as to guaranteee development and social equity in Italy, while not ignoring the risks deriving from the international context."

     

    As Conte pointed out, among the economic strong points are these: that Italy's private sector is only moderately indebted; that the government's pension system is sustainable;  and that the economic bases of the country "are solid": export profits, the financial solidity of the Italian family and its capacity for saving, the solidity of employment, and the regained strength of the banking system.

     

    To this a slightly more cautious Economics Minister Giovanni Tria commented that the forecasts for the European Union as a whole indicate a slow-down for "all the big economies" -- i.e., for Germany and France as well as Italy. In addition, EU rules, which were "approved in haste a decade ago," should now be revised to respond to today's economic situation.

     

    On the negative side, said the Fitch report, are, first, the extremely high level of the public administration debt and, secondly, the absence of "plans for structural adjustments." The political tensions within the government create risks: "The huge ideological differences between the Five Star Movement (M5S) and the Lega will probably be a difficult test for the governing coalition. We do not rule out the possibility that the Lega may urge new elections, to return to their previous alliance with Forza Italia [Silvio Berlusconi's revived party] and Fratelli d'Italia [headed by rightist Giorgia Meloni]. Calculations show that together these three would have a majority of the members of Parliament."

     

    One of the quarrels within the government over its economy is the 28-member European Union, with its rules on public debt. "Sovereignist" proponents, dubbed "Euroskeptics" want their country to have at the least fewer conditions imposed by the EU. Deputy Premier Matteo Salvini, head of the ever stronger Lega, is considered one of these Euroskeptics, in league with Marine Le Pen in France, the Law and Justice party in Poland and Viktor Orban in Hungary. With EU elections approaching this May, one of the questions being asked is how many of these sovereignists will win seats in the EU Parliament, and what a strong showing by the Euroskeptics would mean for the EU future.

     

    Italy's own most prominent spokesman on the economy is Mario Draghi, who, however, has warned against Italy's backing away from the European Union. Draghi, 71, president of the European Central Bank (BCE) since 2011, spoke Feb. 21 at the prestigious University of Bologna, where he was awarded an honorary law degree.  The EU is under threat, he said, but EU members should not give credence to the "sirens" of sovereignism. "It's not surprising that the outsider challenges to the European Union are ever more menacing," he said, but many confuse sovereignism with independence.

     

    Draghi argues that these critics are reacting to the prolonged economic crisis, as well as to the "inequalities" deriving from migrations and developments in technology. Together, he says, these have opened a breach in the economic and political order of the whole postwar era. Should a country revert to its own currency as a "sovereign" gesture, and that currency weakens, devaluation follows and with it inflation and problems with exports, leaving the country ever more poor. Still, as Draghi pointed out, recent polls in Europe show that over 70% of Europeans favor the EU. Without it, he said, Germany's GDP would be 8% lower than today and Italy's, 7% lower.

     

    A problem, he concluded: the tax dodgers who cost the nation at least 4% of its income and possibly as much as 10%.

     
  • Op-Eds

    Sardinian Shepherds Spill Milk to Make Their Point

    ROME -- Ever consider writing a letter to philanthropist Bill Gates, founder of Microsoft? Two years ago Sardinian shepherd Fortunato Ladu, from the town of Desulo near Nuoro, did just that. "Dear Bill," he began, "This island of 24,000 square kilometers is home to 3 million sheep, 700,000 goats and 200,000 cows. Would you be willing to sponsor our battle to help keep this millenary economic system surviving?"

     

    While I do not know if Mr. Gates was able to respond, today the island's shepherds are still fighting for survival. In Sardinia, sheep's milk is used to produce a number of cheeses, beginning with the prized Pecorino Sardo DOP. At present Sardinia hosts 12,000 sheep farms and 2.7 million sheep. In the words of the on-line Sardinian network Terraévita (The Land is Life), "This economic situation, unless it is handled quickly, risks degenerating, with unforeseeable social risks and turbulence." The turbulence is already visible, the result of the shepherds' loss of income. This month the price the shepherds received fell to E62 cents per liter, even as production costs rose to over E70 cents per liter.

     

    After protests from Sardinian farming associations, the Government, represented by Agricultural Policies Minister Gian Marco Centinaio, offered to pay the farmers E72 cents a liter. This means that the shepherds would earn almost nothing at all, for their twelve hour day and 7-day work week. This offer was the spark that triggered even more protests, and more precious spilt milk. It is easy to understand why. For a shepherd, the day begins at dawn, when sheep must be fed and watered, then set out to graze and later be milked by machines that require careful cleaning.  

     

    In fairness, a problem pointed out by Gavino Ledda, 80-year-old retired shepherd from Sardinia, is that the government has been subsidizing the farmers with EU funds providing E20 for every sheep in the flock. Implicitly, this EU subsidy "encouraged the shepherds to accumulate the animals" that require so much care, he said.

     

    "For the past three months we have been explaining that, with payments like that, we'd have to shut down the sheepfolds," said Luca Saba, director of the Coldiretti Sardegna farmers association.  Because the government's offer would barely cover costs, Sardinian shepherds protested by dumping whole rivers of their sheep's milk right into the street. A few rejected this and instead made donations of their milk, but the photos and videos of the milk being thrown away shocked the whole country.

    The  shepherds' anger has turned the sheepfolds into "dynamite," in the words of Coldiretti president Battista Cualbu Feb. 11. "Tensions are running high, and it's out of control, as what's happening demonstrates. We are convinced that with mediation it can be resolved, but it's up to the industrialists to take action" -- industrialists the shepherds blame for keeping milk prices low.

     

    At the moment, that mediation is due to begin. At Tramatza 1,000 shepherds assembled to approve a position paper to be presented to Italian Premier Giuseppe Conte on Feb. 21, just three days before regional elections are to take place in Sardinia. Although Coldiretti says that the correct price would be at least E90 cents per liter, at present the shepherds' associations plan to ask that the price be boosted immediately to E80 cents a liter and, later, to E1 plus the VAT tax.

     

    And if Sardinia is today's most dramatic instance, the same is reflected elsewhere in Italian agriculture. In May 2018 Italy's official statistics-gathering agency ISTAT reported that throughout the nation income from agriculture fell in just a year by over 8%, while the gross value added within the sector was down by 5.4% (2016 over 2015). in just one year farming production was down by over 3% in both Sicily as well as Sardinia.

     

    It remains a knotty problem: can local agriculture -- that is, small farms -- help a world of robots and declining industrial production to survive? An encouraging factor is that Italian exports of foodstuffs, including cheeses, continue to grow. But, oddly enough, pecorino is an exception: during the first 11 months of 2018 its exports fell by over 30%, more than any other cheese (for full cheese export statistics see >>)

     

     

  • Facts & Stories

    To TAV or Not to TAV, That is the Question

    ROME -- To TAV or not to TAV -- that is the question that divides the government, and threatens to bring European Union wrath down upon Italy's head. For the Treno Alta Velocità (high speed train) a projected 35-mile-long train tunnel is to be built linking Turin in Italy with Lyon in France and, by easing the connections, Naples to Paris. The tunnel would have independent galleries for trains going in either direction, and links constructed to stations en route. For this, the European Union contributed, last year alone, $930 million; if Italy halts the project the total the EU threatens to reclaim is considerably higher, dateing back to 2014.

     

    Back in 1980 a toll-road tunnel was inaugurated between Col du Fréjus in France and Bardonecchia in Italy. Only eight miles long, the Frejus handles 80% of the commercial traffic between the two countries, and is used by about a million vehicles a year. However, in 2005 after a fire in the tunnel killed two workmen, the Fréjus was shut down for weeks. Again in 2007, 2010 and 2014 it was again closed due to tunnel fires, fortunately non fatal.

     

    Today's TAV quarrel is heated and discordant. For the M5S, "Not a single centimeter of the tunnel has been completed," whereas, for the Lega, over 15 miles are excavated -- and last week Deputy Premier Salvini made a point of being shown on TV with the workmen inside of one of these. For his co-Deputy Premier Luigi Di Maio of the M5S, future costs are wasted money whereas, for the Lega, completion would cost less than leaving it partially complete.

     

    The TAV debate actually began three decades ago after the French proposed a Train à Grande Vitesse (TGV) that would cut through the Val di Susa. Backing the project in Italy were, among others, the Piedmont Region, the City of Turin, and local businessmen and industrialists, including Fiat through the Agnelli Foundation. In 1992, Italy and France approved the project, and the EU inserted the TAV into its list of 14 "priorities projects," slated to begin by Jan. 1, 1997. EU contribution to ongoing feasability studies have so far amounted to $473 million.

     

    In 2001 the two countries signed an agreement in favor of the project. This was ratified in 2003 again by the European Commisssion. Since then variants have been proposed every few years. The latest, approved in Italy in 2015, said that the almost 11 miles within the Italian territory would include 7.5 miles in the main tunnel; by contrast, the French portion would involve 28 miles of tunnel.

     

    In the early 2000s demonstrations by the "No TAV Movement" began. Just 11 months ago 4,000 at Sant'Ambrogio near Turin vicinity marched against the TAV. Shortly after the national general elections last March, the two-party coalition government linking the Movimento Cinque Stelle (M5S), headed by Di Maio, and the Lega, headed by Matteo Salvini, took opposite sides on proceeding with its construction: M5S with the No Tavs, the Lega with those in favor.

     

    But meantime work had already begun, with construction in 2011 of a 4-mile exploratory tunnel to study the geology of the area within the mountain arc. No TAVs included local mayors and administrators. Some pelted trucks with rocks, blocked access to the work site, and organized round-the-clock sit-ins with camp kitchens and music. One claimed that, "The TAV won't be built, not because there's no money, but because they lack clear ideas and because we are here. All they can do is begin the work so as to grab the money."

     

    In a pitched battle against the tunnel workers on July 13, 2011, two hundred demonstrators and police were injured. Last Oct. 12 a Turin court convicted sixteen activists for violence during yet another demonstration in the Val di Susa in June 2015. Other court convictions in 2016 involved organized crime efforts to profit from transport of building materials to the site where work was underway.

     

    The battles continue. Although local communities have protested a presumed environmental impact, Deputy Premier Salvini, in contrasto with Di Maio, claims that once the tunnel is complete, "it will take a million big trucks off the roads, with eventual benefits for the environment." The M5S also objects that local highways need improvement far more than Italy needs to go from Turin to Lyon. Italy's Transport Minister Danilo Toninelli, of the M5S, shouted on national TV on Feb. 5 that, "No one wants to go to Lyon anyway."

     

    No TAV was one of that party's short list of election promises, and, even as Di Maio and his party continue to slip behind in every poll, they cling to that position all the more. Those rejecting this oft-heard claim try to explain that this is only a miniscule portion the TAV link, which actually stretches 168 miles.  

     

    An updated estimate of the total costs, to be divided among Italy, France and the EU, is due to be presented within weeks. But to date a reliable estimate is that the total cost will be some $28 billion, with Italy's portion $9.8 billion, the EU $9.94 billion, and France, $10.2 billion. However, proposals to reduce the costs by postponing or even eliminating construction of some of the rail connections to stations in some towns are under discussion.

     

    Can this bitter, complex issue can bring down the government? Regional elections in the Abruzzo on Feb. 10 may give an indication. If Salvini's party surges further ahead, as polls suggest, Di Maio may be obliged to back down on the TAV so as to avoid being eliminated from the government and reducing his party to a shadow of its former self. In a complete reversal of their positions, latest polls show the Lega continuing to grow, with over 36% of the potential vote, as compared with the M5S,continuing to shrink, now down to under 21%.

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