Italy and the G8: Voices from L'Aquila

posted by Geoff Andrews at Sunday, July 12, 2009

Open Democracy 10 - 07 - 2009

The earthquake-shattered Italian town chosen to host the G8 summit is also the site of a passionate citizens’ protest against Silvio Berlusconi and for justice, reports Geoff Andrews.

The location for the Group of Eight (G8) summit of 8-10 July 2009 - the town of L'Aquila, in the region of Abruzzo, devastated by an earthquake on 6 April which killed around 300 people - was intended to be a showpiece political opportunity for its host, Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi. But his opponents too were never going to miss the chance for a high-profile display of their own agenda and ambitions.

So it has proved. Barack Obama's journey by car through the medieval centre of L'Aquila on the opening day of the summit would have brought him in sight of the banners decorating the town and its environs - most graphically on the nearby Roio hillside - emblazoned with the slogan: "Yes We Camp". The inventive phrase was adopted by local citizens among the town's 68,000 population to draw visiting leaders' attention to the plight of the thousands of people still affected by the earthquake - the 23,000 who are still living in 180 tent-cities, and the 30,000 who have been temporarily relocated along the coast. "Yes We Camp" is more than a clever play on the United States president's campaign cry: it is also a timely reminder to Silvio Berlusconi that "we, the people of L'Aquila" will pursue their goal of having their houses rebuilt and their town restored.

The slogan was adopted by the Comitato 3e32, the grassroots citizens-action group set up days after the earthquake, its name taken from the time of day the disaster struck. It represents those at the sharp end of a terrible natural calamity, and is an inconvenient reminder to Silvio Berlusconi that the claims of the Aquilani will not go away. More widely, 3e32 is a local, grassroots organisation that also reflects the best of Italian civic movements. Its story - part of a mosaic that has become familiar to me over the last eight years as I have travelled across Italy - tells us much about contemporary Italy: the hopes and fears, the fight against corruption, a real sense of tragedy, and - above all else - a profound failure of political leadership.

The event

The hastily arranged G8 summit took place a few kilometres from the centre of L'Aquila in a place called Coppito; more precisely, in a training school for the Guardia di Finanza (Italy's financial police). It seems an appropriate venue, given the list of financial crimes allegedly associated with the Italian prime minister.

The facilities - artificial lawns, an ad-hoc basketball court, and (of course) extreme security measures - are also typical of Berlusconi's attempts to present an image of Italian strength and authority. His own TV channels and newspapers have been showing a succession of eulogies and images of Berlusconi the statesman. Barack Obama's praise of Giorgio Napolitano, the president of the Italian republic, was quickly converted into an endorsement of their own padrone.

The core agenda of the G8 - the world economic crisis, international aid, Iran and climate change - is both important and international. But many in Italy believe that the whole event, including the decision to move it from Sardinia to L'Aquila, has for Silvio Berlusconi a narrow political purpose: to put on a "show" that will restore the Italian premier's flagging leadership and declining credibility among his international partner. Some have compared his current predicament to that of Benito Mussolini, as satirised by Pier Paolo Pasolini in The Last Days of Salò. There is no Pasolini to make the connection between the current Italian leader's sexual perversions and his obsession with power - but there are citizens' movements committed to the pursuit of truth and justice.

The committee

To travel through L'Aquila three months after the earthquake is a difficult and sobering experience. The ruins of the city resemble a mixture of war-zone and ghost-town. Everywhere there are dilapidated buildings, holes in the tarmac, frequent road-blocks, areas cordoned off by the civil-protection units - and tents. The constant sound of drilling is an optimistic reminder that urgent efforts are being made to restore some sense of normality. Several local citizens have set up makeshift shops and bars in tents.

At the Genoa summit of the G8 in 2001, we were prevented from entering the city-centre "red zones". In L'Aquila, too, these zones have reappeared. This time, however, it is not the "no global" forces that have been denied entry, but the local aquilani who are forbidden from entering the heart of their town. It seems another confirmation that the decision to move the summit here was made less in the interests of the local citizens and more as part of a characteristic media spectacle designed for the aggrandisement of Silvio Berlusconi.

It is lunchtime at Parco Unicef, on the middle day of the summit. This is the headquarters of Comitato 3e32. A band plays in the central marquee; people join the queue for pasta; a couple throw a Frisbee back and forth. There is a spirit of optimism, defiance and solidarity among the mainly young people here. Regular meetings decide on tactics and strategy, and how to pursue their goal of reconstructing damaged houses in the city as well as the general rules of living together. There are no leaders and many people contribute to the discussion.

The ideal

One of the activists is Claudia Pajewski, born in L'Aquila, who was involved in setting up 3e32 along with friends and people she remembered only by face from her early years. It started days after the earthquake, from a series of sms exchanges. "We said to each other: ‘This is terrible. We have to do something'". She is dismissive of Silvio Berlusconi's promises. "He took a long time to come and visit after the earthquake, though during the [European parliament] elections he came many times". She believes that he is using L'Aquila to revive his faltering leadership, yet offers only "false" promises.

"The day of the funeral was one of the worst days", Claudia told me. "Everything was organised for the TV. They didn't even read out all the names of those who died, but instead the list of dignitaries who attended".

Claudia Pajewski and her colleagues in 3e32 have a simple demand: to reconstruct the damaged homes, including those in the centre of the city. Instead she fears that Berlusconi's hollow promise to "build better homes" will result only in some cheap new houses on the outskirts of the city, and that the claims of the citizens for a proper restoration will soon be forgotten. Like many others, she is also convinced that the contracts for rebuilding will go the mafia. For Claudia, this is because "the problem of the mafia is the problem of Italy".

In many ways L'Aquila is indeed a true reflection on the way Italy has been governed in recent years. "I am ashamed to be Italian", a phrase repeated to me by Claudia, is now a frequent comment from Italians living under Silvio Berlusconi. When people talk of the mafia being involved in building contracts in L'Aquila, they do so with resignation. A short time before the G8 summit began, Massimo Cialente - the mayor of L'Aquila - led a torchlight procession through the shattered town. It was a dignified protest from citizens whose underlying objective was, in the mayor's words, the pursuit of truth and justice. In the Italy of Silvio Berlusconi, before and after the G8 summit, such an ideal remains a long way off.