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Corridors of Silence

Corridors of Silence

Mini Teaser: Today, Washington views Italy in a different light than it used to.

by Author(s): Roland Flamini

When I was a correspondent in Rome in the early 1980s I regularly did the rounds of four centers of political power. First stop was usually the Christian Democrat Party headquarters in Piazza del Ges, across the square from Giacomo della Porta's severe facade of the Jesuit church del Ges, prototype of early Baroque churches all over Europe. Until 1992, the Democrazia Cristiana-or dc-had been the main party in Italy's fifty-six postwar governments, almost all of which were coalitions, and to a large extent Italy was run from the party's ancient palazzo. Dark blue Alfa Romeos drove in and out of its cobbled courtyard. A continuous procession of politicians, diplomats, supplicants, and hangers-on filed past the portico, which bristled with police.

A block away, in the quaintly named Via delle Botteghe Oscure, was the base of operations of the dc's major rivals, the Partito Comunista Italiano, the powerful PCI. The solid, granite structure, built after the war with Soviet money, housed the party that for over twenty years, from the 1950s to the 1970s, gained the largest number of votes, but was consistently kept out of office by a succession of political alliances cobbled up by the Christian Democrats with a varying collection of bedfellows. The exclusion of the PCI from the government at all costs was the central fact of Italian postwar political life, imposing limits on the country's democratic system; but the vigorous comings and goings at its headquarters reflected the party's undeniable influence.

The entrance to the Italian Socialist Party's headquarters was through a galleria of fashionable stores. In the main hall there used to be large pictures of the Socialist leader Bettino Craxi. When Craxi was prime minister of Italy at one stage of the eternal political choreography, banners with the Italian Socialist emblem of a red carnation fluttered from the balcony, and the waiting blue Alfas blocked the busy street.
The fourth power center, of course, was the one inside the stone embrace of Bernini's circular colonnade in St. Peter's Square. With an Italian pope on the Throne of Peter, Vatican backing of the Christian Democrats was automatic. Italian bishops issued regular directives to the faithful on how to vote before every election, and threats to excommunicate those who supported the Communists were frequent. The late William Colby once told me that when he was CIA station chief in Rome he worked as closely with the Pope's substitute secretary of state, Monsignor Giovanni Battista Montini (later Pope Paul VI), as with any political leader.

I went back to Rome in September. The pace was slowly picking up after the long summer vacation. Clouds of scooters raced like gnats through the streets. Wall posters advertised the Rome Opera season's performances in the Borghese Gardens. Until the summer of 1995, opera in the famous Roman Baths of the Emperor Caracalla was one of the city's main tourist attractions. But environmentalists protested that the audience was damaging the archeological site, and the opera was forced to move to the park. Meanwhile, the Colosseum, enclosed behind massive scaffolding and green net, was being cleaned, perhaps for the first time in its long existence.

On a whim, I telephoned an old Christian Democrat contact. A decade ago I would have had to wait a week for an appointment. Now, I was immediately invited to visit him at Piazza del Ges. The single, bored policeman hardly looked up. Inside the portico, the cobbled courtyard was deserted, and on every floor of the building there were empty offices. The corridors of power had become corridors of silence. My contact said, "If you think this is quiet, you should visit the Socialists' graveyard."

The old seat of the Socialist Party was deserted. The pictures of Bettino Craxi had long since vanished, of course. Craxi, the Ozymandias of this ruined empire, was living in self-imposed exile in Tunis to avoid being brought to trial on charges of graft and bribery in connection with government contracts in Milan.

Then on to the Vatican, where I saw no slackening of activity. Swiss Guards in their colorful uniforms stood at the Bronze Door, the main entrance to the Pontifical Palace to the left of St. Peter's Basilica. They carried their ornate halberds, or sixteenth-century pikes, but hidden in the big, brass umbrella stand beside the door were two sub-machine guns. The main topic of discussion was not so much Pope John Paul II's forthcoming surgery for appendicitis as the broad implications of his declining health. He may not be a dying pope, but as far as the professionals in the Vatican are concerned, John Paul II presides over a dying papacy, and a lively "dialogue" (ecclesiastical speak for fight) on the papal succession has been going on quietly behind the scenes for some time.

The choice of the next pontiff will be decided by the 120 or so cardinal electors, locked up in the Sistine Chapel. Before each ballot the cardinals invoke the aid of the Holy Spirit, but divine inspiration is helped along by a process that would be instantly recognizable to the likes of Dick Morris and Mary Matalin, namely political campaigning. The list of papabili, or likely papal candidates, includes cardinals from Latin America, where the majority of Catholics live today, and Africa. But in the Vatican itself the consensus is that the next pontiff is more likely to be Italian. If so, he is not expected to reverse the Catholic Church's current policy of staying out of Italian politics. There are two reasons for this detachment. One is the steady decline of the Catholic Church's influence in Italian society. Church attendance is down, and the Italian birth rate is lower than the death rate despite the Church's continued ban on contraception. The image of mamma, bambini, and pasta is today truer in Queens than in Torino. Secondly, the Polish-born Pope John Paul II does not share his predecessors' personal concern for political developments in Italy, particularly since communism has collapsed. To him, the main threat to Christianity comes from the new materialism, a concern to which he returns often in his speeches.

Continuing my political tour of Rome, I went around to the Communist Headquarters in Via delle Botteghe Oscure, and here the story was somewhat different. The sign on the door reads Partito Democratico della Sinistra (PDS), the born-again Communists' new name. Inside, the atmosphere was one of contained satisfaction. Of Italy's three mainstream political parties, only the former Communists, the eternal outsiders, survived the political upheavals of the past five years, and they are now in government. Although the prime minister is Romano Prodi, the low-key economics professor who carved a new center out of the debris of the Christian Democrat ranks and their former allies, the only party with a national organization in place in Prodi's coalition is the new Democratic Party of the Left.

The arrival of the former Communists in government is yet another aftershock of the break-up of the Soviet Empire. The long-standing American argument against the Italian Communists gaining political power was, of course, rooted in Italy's membership in the North Atlantic Alliance. A NATO country with communists in the government was unacceptable to Washington. In the late 1970s Enrico Berlinguer tried to change that by pronouncing his party independent of Moscow. The party's first priority, he said, was Italy's best interest. But Berlinguer's Eurocommunism-as it immediately became known-failed to remove the American interdict. As one wobbly government followed another, usually in quick succession, Washington continued to invest millions of dollars to ensure that the Christian Democrats and other politically acceptable parties maintained a viable edge, to keep the Communists at bay. An American diplomat, who was a consular officer in a major Italian city during one of the elections in the 1980s, recently recalled how astonished he was to see the amount of money being channeled to the parties in his area from U.S. agencies and other American sources.

Today, Washington views Italy in a different light. My Christian Democrat contact said some senior members of his party were disappointed at the haste with which-in his words-"Italy disappeared off Washington's radar screen", and felt that the United States had forsaken the mainstream parties when they most needed support. The conventional wisdom is that, without American underpinnings, the old political system collapsed under the weight of its own corruption. This is only partly right. The other important factor leading to today's political reality was that the leading lights of the 1968 student unrest in Italy did not go into politics when they grew up. They became journalists and lawyers.

Former Settantottisti-literally '68ers-now hold senior editorial posts in the Italian media and the judiciary, and this alliance was behind Tangentopoli, the catch-phrase for the crusade against top politicians and leading businessmen allegedly involved in illegal political campaign contributions and payoffs to officials for government contracts. The magistrates brought the court action, the press cast them as heroes.
It is not known exactly how many young, left-wing activists helped Italy's Red Brigades terrorists operate with their logistical support in the late 1970s-giving shelter without asking questions, passing on messages-but the number is known to run into the hundreds. For that generation, says Rome University sociologist Franco Ferrarotti, striking at the heart of the Italian political establishment fell into the category of unfinished business. It was no coincidence either that the Communist Party was largely immune from this onslaught, first because it had been kept out of power, and also because campaign funding came largely from rank-and-file party dues-and from Moscow-not from big business.

For a while it seemed that the devastation left in the wake of Tangentopoli had left the road open for the reconstructed Communist Party to speed into power in the 1992 elections. But it had not reckoned with the appearance of Silvio Berlusconi, the Milan builder turned media baron, turned politician. With a rousing slogan borrowed from the soccer stadiums-Forza Italia-a well packaged campaign on his own television networks (which the Italians immediately dubbed "American style"), and promises to reform Italy's huge bureaucracy and stem the hemorrhage of deficit spending, Berlusconi edged out the Democratic Party of the Left, forming a government alliance of his own with the other big winner, the Italian Social Movement, Mussolini's political descendants. The rehabilitation of the neo-Fascists, after decades of being cold-shouldered by the Italian electorate, was the other notable development of that election.

But the novelty of a fast-talking businessman in office soon began to wear off. Berlusconi made the mistake of trying to curb the powerful, free-wheeling magistrates when they were investigating tax evasion in his own organization, allegedly involving his brother, and within two years his government had run out of steam. Berlusconi is still politically active, but he has been put in the shade by Romano Prodi and Prodi's left-wing coalition partners, the Partito Democratico della Sinistra, making its delayed move into government under its new leader, Massimo D'Alema.

As if Italian politics were not complicated enough, there is now the noisy political sideshow created by Umberto Bossi and his separatist Lega Lombarda-the Northern League. Bossi's call to establish an autonomous region centering on the fertile, prosperous Po River Valley, so that the industrial north will stop having to support the economically depressed south, appeals to some northern Italians. Still, the idea of dismantling the 130-year-old nation into something close to its pre-1865 component parts is not considered likely to gain enough support to become a major issue.

For one thing, and although the circumstances are very different, neighboring former Yugoslavia provides a compelling example of how regional extremism can run amok. But there is another reason. Except under Mussolini, and when Italy is doing well in World Cup soccer, the Italians have never been ones to go overboard on nationalism. Ask a Frenchman where he comes from, and he will almost certainly answer "France." Ask the same question of an Italian, and he is more likely to name his hometown. But Bossi's separatist campaign has for the first time made many Italians appreciate the unification they had long taken for granted.

Since last year's election, the furor over Tangentopoli has died down largely due to new government measures designed to rein in the magistrates. D'Alema gets credit for closing down the anti-corruption campaign, which-in the cynical view-has in any case served its purpose. But D'Alema comes under attack from the Italian extreme left wing, which also supports the coalition, for trying to broaden his party's appeal by courting the middle class. D'Alema's model is Tony Blair, Britain's Labour leader, who has also worked hard to tone down Labour's working class image.

The Italian leader's fervent hope is that Blair wins the forthcoming elections in Britain, and wins big. Such a victory will bolster his own strategy. As left-wing sources see it, the current period of political transition in Italy will be resolved in the next election, when the Left will become the dominant coalition partner. As his left-wing allies see it, Romano Prodi had better not give up his teaching job.

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