US military interests reign supreme in Italy
September 9, 2008 17:13 | by Stephanie Westbrook
Italian High Court resorts to laws enacted under Mussolini to approve work on a second US military base but grassroots opposition is growing and determined to stop the base in Vicenza
On Tuesday, July 29, the Council of State, Italy's highest administrative court, overturned the June 20 decision by the regional court of Veneto to suspend work on a second U.S. Military base in the northeastern city of Vicenza. In contrast to the regional court's methodical examination of each of the points brought forth in the case filed by the consumer and environmental advocacy group Codacons, the appeals court summarily dismissed the case - in record time for Italy's normally sluggish judicial system - stating that the administrative courts had no jurisdiction in what was a purely political matter. In upholding the appeal filed by the center-right Berlusconi government, a staunch ally of the Bush Administration, much of the high court's ruling was based on the infamous 1954 Bilateral Infrastructure Agreement between Italy and the U.S., which remains classified to this day, as well as an Italian law from 1924 - when Italy was still a monarchy and under Mussolini's fascist regime!
The appeals court went on to say that there appears to be no solid evidence of possible environmental damage caused by the new base at Dal Molin Airport. What they failed to mention is that despite repeated calls from the people of Vicenza for an assessment of the environmental impact of the base, no such study has thus far been carried out. And, judging from the September 2007 letter from the Special Commissioner Paolo Costa to then Defense Minister Arturo Parisi, of the center-left Prodi government, it was something to avoid at all costs. "It is clear that this point [Environmental Impact Study] represents an obvious risk to the possibilities of proceeding while respecting deadlines; and it is possible that it could even put the final decision in jeopardy."
In the period between the regional court's ruling and that of the Council of State, a slight shift occurred in some who had not initially opposed the base. By the time the court was ready to make its ruling, the Codacons, who had made the initial filing, had been joined as plaintiffs by the City of Vicenza, the Società Aeroporti Vicentini, which manages the civil airport of Vicenza at Dal Molin, and the City of Padova, concerned about risks posed to groundwater sources located directly under the proposed base that supply both Padova and Vicenza.
The grassroots No Dal Molin movement, which has been opposing the new U.S. base since the news leaked out in May 2006, was quick to respond to what was a disappointing but not surprising result - both Berlusconi and Defense Minister La Russa had already proclaimed that the show would go on. Spreading the word with text messages, a protest was organized in a matter of just a few hours, with hundreds blocking the entrance to the site of the proposed base. Rapid-set concrete was used to bond everything from bricks and cement blocks to a toilet and bidet to the road leading to Dal Molin.
Once the entrance had been blocked, the demonstrators proceeded to organize a "protest crawl," in which 200 cars slowly, but noisily, traversed the city to the site of the existing U.S. base of Camp Ederle, which was then encircled by the protesters. It had already been an eventful month for the No Dal Molin movement. On June 30, the eve of the official turnover of the area to the U.S. Military, a protest march was organized from the Presidio Permanente, the permanent encampment of the movement, to the gates of the site of the proposed base. Over 1,500 people, including families with children, marched under increasingly darkening clouds. The Italian saying piove, governo ladro (it's raining, blame the government) had never been more appropriate.
When the clouds broke, pounding the protesters with not just rain but also hail, a number of the leaders said, "Let's turn back." This was met by cries of "NO!" by the people. "How will we ever block this base if we let a little rain and hail stop us!" At the weekly assembly, Francesco Pavin, one of the main organizers said, "This was by far the best demonstration we have ever had!"
A group of roughly 50 remained at the entrance the entire night, which continued to be stormy, and others joined them the following day to make sure that no U.S. military vehicles entered the site as the Italian Air Force moved out.
On July 8, the Vicenza City Council held a long-awaited session dedicated to the issue of the new U.S. base. In a historic vote, the recently elected center-left majority Council not only overturned the previous administration's October 2006 vote in favor of the new base, but also voted to hold a local referendum. With 25 in favor and 2 opposed - most of the opposition members had walked out - the motions passed.
During the debate, a number of opposition party members spoke of anti- Americanism as the driving force behind the opposition to the base. Cinzia Bottene, newly elected City Council member and leader of the grassroots movement, reminded everyone that at the Presidio permanente, next to the No Dal Molin flag, flies a U.S. flag, with a peace sign replacing the stars, given to them by U.S. citizens united in their struggle. The people down on the square, following the session on a giant screen organized by the Presidio Permanente, cheered.
In an unexpected turn of events, members of the center right UDC party, who would normally have voted against the measure, abstained from voting in protest of "insulting language" used to portray Italy and Prime Minister Berlusconi during Bush's visit to Europe in June. In a profile distributed to U.S. reporters traveling with Bush, Berlusconi was described as "one of the most controversial leaders in the history of a country known for governmental corruption and vice ... regarded by many as a political dilettante who gained his high office only through use of his considerable influence on the national media ..."
Despite the Council of State's decision, which also rejected the lower court's ruling that a local referendum was required as per the Memorandum of Understanding between the U.S. and Italy, Vicenza's new mayor, Achille Variati, who made the issue part of his campaign, has every intention of going ahead and has set the date for the referendum for October 12. The people of Vicenza will finally have their say in a matter that has dominated local and national politics for over two years now.
Throughout the month of July, the No Dal Molin movement saw confirmed, time after time, everything they had been saying about the new base and the undemocratic manner in which the matter had been conducted. Not only by the regional court, which ruled favorably on every point, but even in the letter from Special Commissioner Costa on the need to "act in a timely manner to eliminate the reasonable concerns - because they are valid - of this opposition." And finally by the Council of State, which in spite of its ruling, admitted that the "protests are not without objective justifications."
Codacons intends to continue the legal battle against the base. Under a provision that allows for appeals of the decisions by the Council of State in the case of judicial flaws - Codacons is citing two errors - they will now turn to Italy's Court of Cassation. And in October, the regional Veneto court will again take up the case, with additional evidence of risks to the environment.
The legal proceedings have brought to light new information and produced some positive results. But as Olol Jackson of the No Dal Molin movement said, "No one expects this struggle to be won in a courtroom. It will also take mass mobilization, people in the streets." And that's what the people in Vicenza have planned.
Stephanie Westbrook is a founding member of U.S. Citizens for Peace & Justice in Rome, Italy and currently serves on the group's coordinating committee.