Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Electoral reform: could the "Porcellum" law be even worse?

In Italy, politicians are discussing an electoral reform. Nobody can deny that we need one.
Consider this: Roberto Calderoli, member of the Northern League and Minister during the last Berlusconi’s government, was the author of the actual electoral law. And he himself calls it “porcata”, that more or less could be translated as crap, junk. Indeed that law is now called “Porcellum” (pig in Latin).

Right now, the Italian electoral system is a variant of the proportional representation system, usually known as “Party-list proportional representation”. The main feature of the Italian system is that it offers a “reward for the majority” for the party, or coalition of parties, which gets the greatest number of votes. In other words, many seats are ensured for the first winning party (or coalition). 
Another feature is that lists are closed: voters cannot express their preferences for candidates, all the choices are made by the parties.
Last week Fabrizio Cicchito, leader of “People of Freedom” in the Chamber of Deputies, admitted that many well-known MPs were elected in Parliament only because of closed lists, otherwise they wouldn't even be there.
So, how is the new law going to be? I think I can claim very frankly that nobody has the faintest idea. Nobody understood a thing.  Translating an Italian expression: everything has been said, so as the opposite of everything. One day they say the law is done, the day after that they are working on it. Impossible to follow. 
What seems sure, for now, is that the leftist parties push for the reintroduction of preferences. While some parties from the right want to make it for possible for coalitions to be announced only after the election. This last feature would make the law, according to Antonio Di Pietro, former magistrate and leader of the party “Italy of Values”, a “super porcata”. Let’s give them some credit: if they have to do something, they do it well. Apparently, this law didn’t suck enough, so they want to make it worse. 
For now, let’s watch one of the highest moments of Italian politics: Minister Roberto Calderoli calling his own law a “porcata” and then explaining it by making no sense at all. Enjoy.  

“Mentana (host): Do you agree, even if you are the author of the (actual) law, that preferences should be reintroduced, otherwise it becomes a proportional in a majoritarian system with nominees…

Minister Calderoli: But see, I knew that this law here is “una porcata” (crap), I’ll tell you frankly.

Mentana: … Have I heard it right? It’s crap? You wrote it and it’s crap?

Calderoli: Yes, yes. When someone does “una porcata” without realising it, it’s another thing, (compared to) when someone does it deliberately to give troubles to both the left and the right, which now have to take into account not how they handle power, but the (Italian) people, the one that votes. Now they will have to answer to the people.”

Yes, please: somebody answer us and explain us why we are still paying this guy. 

Sunday, August 26, 2012

The New York Times: "Where the mob keeps its money" by Roberto Saviano

Today the Italian journalist Roberto Saviano, author of the bestseller “Gomorrah”, wrote an article for The New York Times where he discusses how criminal organisations took advantage of the economic crisis. They flourished while making things worse for anyone else. It’s particularly appalling to find out that banks admitted how quite often they could get liquidity exclusively from groups involved in illegal activities.
Here’s the whole article.

Where The Mob Keeps Its Money

THE global financial crisis has been a blessing for organized crime. A series of recent scandals have exposed the connection between some of the biggest global banks and the seamy underworld of mobsters, smugglers, drug traffickers and arms dealers. American banks have profited from money laundering by Latin American drug cartels, while the European debt crisis has strengthened the grip of the loan sharks and speculators who control the vast underground economies in countries like Spain and Greece.

Mutually beneficial relationships between bankers and gangsters aren’t new, but what’s remarkable is their reach at the highest levels of global finance. In 2010, Wachovia admitted that it had essentially helped finance the murderous drug war in Mexico by failing to identify and stop illicit transactions. The bank, which was acquired by Wells Fargo during the financial crisis, agreed to pay $160 million in fines and penalties for tolerating the laundering, which occurred between 2004 and 2007.

Last month, Senate investigators found that HSBC had for a decade improperly facilitated transactions by Mexican drug traffickers, Saudi financiers with ties to Al Qaeda and Iranian bankers trying to circumvent United States sanctions. The bank set aside $700 million to cover fines, settlements and other expenses related to the inquiry, and its chief of compliance resigned.

ABN Amro, Barclays, Credit Suisse, Lloyds and ING have reached expensive settlements with regulators after admitting to executing the transactions of clients in disreputable countries like Cuba, Iran, Libya, Myanmar and Sudan.

Many of the illicit transactions preceded the 2008 crisis, but continuing turmoil in the banking industry created an opening for organized crime groups, enabling them to enrich themselves and grow in strength. In 2009, Antonio Maria Costa, an Italian economist who then led the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, told the British newspaper The Observer that “in many instances, the money from drugs was the only liquid investment capital” available to some banks at the height of the crisis. “Interbank loans were funded by money that originated from the drugs trade and other illegal activities,” he said. “There were signs that some banks were rescued that way.” The United Nations estimated that $1.6 trillion was laundered globally in 2009, of which about $580 billion was related to drug trafficking and other forms of organized crime.

A study last year by the Colombian economists Alejandro Gaviria and Daniel Mejía concluded that the vast majority of profits from drug trafficking in Colombia were reaped by criminal syndicates in rich countries and laundered by banks in global financial centers like New York and London. They found that bank secrecy and privacy laws in Western countries often impeded transparency and made it easier for criminals to launder their money.

At a Congressional hearing in February, Jennifer Shasky Calvery, a Justice Department official in charge of monitoring money laundering, said that “banks in the U.S. are used to funnel massive amounts of illicit funds.” The laundering, she explained, typically occurs in three stages. First, illicit funds are directly deposited in banks or deposited after being smuggled out of the United States and then back in. Then comes “layering,” the process of separating criminal profits from their origin. Finally comes “integration,” the use of seemingly legitimate transactions to hide ill-gotten gains. Unfortunately, investigators too often focus on the cultivation, production and trafficking of narcotics while missing the bigger, more sophisticated financial activities of crime rings.

Mob financing via banks has ebbed and flowed over the years. In the late 1970s and early 1980s organized crime, which had previously dealt mainly in cash, started working its way into the banking system. This led authorities in Europe and America to take measures to slow international money laundering, prompting a temporary return to cash.

Then the flow reversed again, partly because of the fall of the Soviet Union and the ensuing Russian financial crisis. As early as the mid-1980s, the K.G.B., with help from the Russian mafia, had started hiding Communist Party assets abroad, as the journalist Robert I. Friedman has documented. Perhaps $600 billion had left Russia by the mid-1990s, contributing to the country’s impoverishment. Russian mafia leaders also took advantage of post-Soviet privatization to buy up state property. Then, in 1998, the ruble sharply depreciated, prompting a default on Russia’s public debt.

Although the United States cracked down on terrorist financing after the 9/11 attacks, instability in the financial system, like the Argentine debt default in 2001, continued to give banks an incentive to look the other way. My reporting on the ’Ndrangheta, the powerful criminal syndicate based in Southern Italy, found that much of the money laundering over the last decade simply shifted from America to Europe. The European debt crisis, now three years old, has further emboldened the mob.

IN Greece, as conventional bank lending has gotten tighter, more and more Greeks are relying on usurers. A variety of sources told Reuters last year that the illegal lending business in Greece involved between 5 billion and 10 billion euros each year. The loan-shark business has perhaps quadrupled since 2009 — some of the extortionists charge annualized interest rates starting at 60 percent. In Thessaloniki, the second largest city, the police broke up a criminal ring that was lending money at a weekly interest rate of 5 percent to 15 percent, with punishments for whoever didn’t pay up. According to the Greek Ministry of Finance, much of the illegal loan activity in Greece is connected to gangs from the Balkans and Eastern Europe.

Organized crime also dominates the black market for oil in Greece; perhaps three billion euros (about $3.8 billion) a year of contraband fuel courses through the country. Shipping is Greece’s premier industry, and the price of shipping fuel is set by law at one-third the price of fuel for cars and homes. So traffickers turn shipping fuel into more expensive home and automobile fuel. It is estimated that 20 percent of the gasoline sold in Greece is from the black market. The trafficking not only results in higher prices but also deprives the government of desperately needed revenue.
Greece’s political system is a “parliamentary mafiocracy,” the political expert Panos Kostakos told the energy news agency earlier this year. “Greece has one of the largest black markets in Europe and the highest corruption levels in Europe,” he said. “There is a sovereign debt that does not mirror the real wealth of the average Greek family. What more evidence do we need to conclude that this is Greek mafia?”

Spain’s crisis, like Greece’s, was prefaced by years of mafia power and money and a lack of effectively enforced rules and regulations. At the moment, Spain is colonized by local criminal groups as well as by Italian, Russian, Colombian and Mexican organizations. Historically, Spain has been a shelter for Italian fugitives, although the situation changed with the enforcement of pan-European arrest warrants. Spanish anti-mafia laws have also improved, but the country continues to offer laundering opportunities, which only increased with the current economic crisis in Europe.
The Spanish real estate boom, which lasted from 1997 to 2007, was a godsend for criminal organizations, which invested dirty money in Iberian construction. Then, when home sales slowed and the building bubble burst, the mafia profited again — by buying up at bargain prices houses that people put on the market or that otherwise would have gone unsold.

In 2006, Spain’s central bank investigated the vast number of 500-euro bills in circulation. Criminal organizations favor these notes because they don’t take up much room; a 45-centimeter safe deposit box can fit up to 10 million euros. In 2010, British currency exchange offices stopped accepting 500-euro bills after discovering that 90 percent of transactions involving them were connected to criminal activities. Yet 500-euro bills still account for 70 percent of the value of all bank notes in Spain.

And in Italy, the mafia can still count on 65 billion euros (about $82 billion) in liquid capital every year. Criminal organizations siphon 100 billion euros from the legal economy, a sum equivalent to 7 percent of G.D.P. — money that ends up in the hands of Mafiosi instead of sustaining the government or law-abiding Italians. “We will defeat the mafia by 2013,” Silvio Berlusconi, then the prime minister, declared in 2009. It was one of many unfulfilled promises. Mario Monti, the current prime minister, has stated that Italy’s dire financial situation is above all a consequence of tax evasion. He has said that even more drastic measures are needed to combat the underground economy generated by the mafia, which is destroying the legal economy.

Today’s mafias are global organizations. They operate everywhere, speak multiple languages, form overseas alliances and joint ventures, and make investments just like any other multinational company. You can’t take on multinational giants locally. Every country needs to do its part, for no country is immune. Organized crime must be hit in its economic engine, which all too often remains untouched because liquid capital is harder to trace and because in times of crisis, many, including the world’s major banks, find it too tempting to resist.

Roberto Saviano

Friday, August 24, 2012

Taranto, Puglia: the Ilva case

One of the most recurring topics in Italian news over the last few weeks has been the Ilva case.
The Ilva steelworks, one of the biggest in Europe, is the main source of employment in the city of Taranto (Puglia). On the other hand, it looks like it both hires and kills at the same time: the amount of pollution generated by the factory is huge. Recent government figures put the cancer death rate in the area at 15% above the national average, and lung cancer deaths at 30% higher. 6 year old kids have the lungs of inveterate smokers. 

Honestly, such a polluting and dangerous factory should have been reclaimed a long time ago, not to mention that it should have been built in a totally different way from the beginning. 
A legal action seemed obvious. So I have to admit I was really surprised that everyone got mad when a magistrate ordered to shut down the steelworks. Workers went on strikes and “occupied” Taranto, not allowing anyone to enter the city. I was even more surprise when the Environment Minister, Corrado Clini, criticised the magistrate decision’s as well. He claims that the shutdown of Ilva would cause great damage to the Italian economy. Even the governor of Puglia, Nichi Vendola, who is the leader of the leftist party “Left and Freedom” usually quite concerned about the environment, is not entirely backing the magistrates. He must be afraid to lose votes, if he does. 
Ok, so there’s who is worried about the economy and who is worried about voters. And what about the health of Italian citizens? 
The smartest idea would be to employ Ilva’s workers to clear up the furnaces and then re-open the steelworks once they are reclaimed. But since that’s the most sensible solution, it will probably never be chosen. For the moment, the steelwork is still operative, but production has highly decreased.
The Ilva case underlines an extremely sad reality: Italian workers are so terrified to lose their job that they prefer the risk of getting cancer, or even worse, risking their kids’ health, rather than back the decision to shut down the steelworks. It’s really, really depressing, to see how many things are wrong with society. Puglia is one the most beautiful Italian regions, but instead of safeguarding it, we destroy it. 
I read this joke on an Italian satiric website, “Spinoza”, that couldn’t be more appropriate:
Vendola: “We won’t let that Taranto people have to choose between cancer and poverty”. When they can have both.
For who might be interested, here is an article by The Guardian:

Monday, August 20, 2012

"Yes, Prime Minister": the ultimate evidence that politics never changes

I've recently started watching the British sitcom “Yes, Minister”, and I’ve already seen a few episodes of its sequel “Yes, Prime Minister” too.  Needless to say, if it is this famous there must be a reason.

I really like the show. It’s extremely clever, and it portraits in a very cynical way how politics is essentially run. It’s hilarious (and depressing, at the same time) to see the idealist Minister actually trying to do something, but being stopped by his Permanent Secretary, from the Home Civil Service. And in the end, the civil service always manages to make it looks like they did what the Minister wanted, instead of what they wanted. Hence the very sarcastic “Yes, Minister” that closes every episode.
According to Wikipedia, the show was actually aired in Italy. By some local channels, nothing major, of course.  Indeed, I don't think anyone knows of it existence. And its sequel “Yes, Prime Minister” was apparently never aired at all. 
I wonder why… Were they afraid that it would make our politicians look bad? If that is the reason, no need to worry: we can’t possibly think any less of you.
I strongly recommend the show.  Here is the first episode from season one of “Yes, Prime Minister”, "The Grand Design". And its best quote: a perfect description of how Italian politicians consider the press. Years gone by, and the show is as current as it could be. 

Secretary Sir Humphrey: Let me put it like this. Do you really want the press to announce that your first act as Prime Minister was to give yourself an effective salary increase from £8000 to £10.000 a year?

Prime Minister Hacker: We won’t tell them!

Humphrey: We have no alternative. Prime Minister’s salary is an expense and it must be published.  

Hacker: Is there really no way that we can…?

Humphrey: Open government, Prime Minister. Freedom of information. We should always tell the press freely and frankly anything… that they could easily find out some other way.

Friday, August 17, 2012

Ciao ciao, Italy

Just a quick post to say good bye to Italy.
After my summer vacation, it's time for me to head back to London.
I'm going to miss Italy, especially my family and my friends.
It's such a shame that we have to leave: Italy would be the most beautiful place ever, if it weren't for all those Italians. Especially the ones who hold all the power.

Duomo di Brescia, my hometown

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Vatileaks: is it always the butler?

Pope’s butler Paolo Gabriele is facing a trial for leaking stolen papal correspondence the press.  In his house, investigators found not only the stolen dossiers, but also three presumed presents for the Pope: a check made for Benedict XVI, a gold nugget and an ancient edition of the Aeneid.
The so called “Vatileaks” case is still extremely taboo in Italy, but now it seems to be getting more covering. Paolo Gabriele claimed he stole the documents because the Vatican is too corrupted, and he wanted to reveal its scandals. But so far, the only one facing prison terms (up to 6 years) is the butler himself. His references to corruption and scandals so far have been almost ignored. 

Here’s a completed summary of the matter in an article published by The Guardian:

Sunday, August 12, 2012

"Good night to Italy": a song, a photograph of a country

This is the video, with a translation, of one of my favourite songs, “Buonanotte all’Italia” by Luciano Ligabue. It is a tribute to Italy, saying that despite all the things are still wrong there, it is, and always will be, the most beautiful country in world.

“Good night to Italy”

From a song to another
From toll-gates to stations
We made a day
That still had to be made
The moon took us
And put us to sleep
Or to circle our mouth
To be amazed and to smoke

As if the angels were there
Saying that, yeah
Everything is possible

Goodnight to Italy, she needs to get some rest
After all, there's a great amount of sea watching over her
There is some faded moss in this nativity
That never gets changed, nor taken down
And mosquitos-vampires that suck her there
And pump such a great blood right in their stomach
Goodnight to Italy, that you either make her or die (famous statement by Garibaldi, meaning that they either had to unify the Italian state or they would never make it in any other way)
Or you spend the night wanting to buy it

As if the angels were there
Saying that, yeah
Everything is possible
As if the devils were to say
That no, it is nothing but a fairy tale

Goodnight to Italy, that has too much to do
All the history books won't let her sleep
Lying on the world, under a private sky
Between St. Peters and Virgin Marys
Between progress and sin
Between a future that is coming, but seems in apnoea
And yesterday's scars that won't fade away
From caress to caress
From certainty to amazement
All this beauty without a navigator

As if the angels were there
Saying that, yeah
Everything is possible
As if the devils were to say
That no, it is nothing but a fairy tale

Goodnight to Italy, that has scars in her heart
And drips plugged in by who holds all the power
And looks distractedly at her, as if she were a wife
Or a game in the attic that is not appealing anymore
But a star always shines without any question
It forces you to see everything that is there
Goodnight to Italy, that you either make her or die
Or you spend the night wanting to do her

Friday, August 10, 2012

"We stand with the magistrates": petition in favour of Palermo judges

Italy really is a weird place.
Instead of praising the Palermo magistrates that are trying to find the culprits of the Mafia massacre season, we get mad at the magistrates. Politicians label them "giustizialisti" (I've been looking for a translation and couldn't find it), meaning that they rather punish an innocent than not finding someone to punish (or something like that, it's a typical Italian concept that is quite hard to explain). 
Too many people are attacking the magistrates, and passing on the idea of the evil judge who doesn't care about justice and only acts in their self-interest. And a lot of newspapers don't even bother reporting the fact.
The national newspaper "Il Fatto Quotidiano" started to collect signatures to show that there are people on the magistrates' side, and most of all on justice's side.
For any Italian who wants to sign, here's the link.

Marco Travaglio's article (Italian) and petition, named "We stand with the magistrates":

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Alex Schwazer: guilty, yet at least sincere

Italian walker Alex Schwazer failed a doping test, and he is out of the Olympics.
Italian media are going crazy about the topic. We have already seen hundreds of melodramatic reports going on and on about his fatal mistake, and they will probably never get tired of broadcasting the interview where Schwazer burst into tears admitting his faults.
Schwazer made a huge mistake, that’s sure, and a hateful one. Assuming drugs to perform better is definitely not sporting.
Anyway, now they are turning him into a scapegoat. He tried to cheat and they got him. Unfortunately, there are many more people who cheat and never get caught.
As wrong as he was, to me Schwazer looks like a good guy who, in the end, was too afraid not to satisfy other people’s expectations.  He really seems to regret what he has done, and I honestly think that what he needs the most now is psychological support.
I don’t mean to make him look less guilty, but at least we have to admire the way he took responsibility for assuming drugs. The minute he was caught he gave in. He apologized and said that he deserves to be disqualified for life.
If only in Italy we saw the same sense of responsibility in every other area besides sport, maybe we would be a better country. You will never see an Italian politician apologizing for their mistakes (which usually cause much more damage) the way Alex Schwazer did. 

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Mario Monti to the WSJ: "Spread at 1200 if the previous government were still in power"

PM Mario Monti finally said it.
He was interviewed by The Wall Street Journal, and his statements already caused the rage of Berlusconi’s party, People of Freedom. He claimed that Italy would be in an even worse economic situation if it weren’t for his government.
Here is the incriminated excerpt:

“Question: Why, despite your measure, have Italy’s borrowing costs remained so high?

Mr Monti: Spreads are still high because our debt is objectively very high, and markets have started realising in a dramatic way that Eurozone governance is weak. France has done much less reform than we have and yet its spreads are lower. I think the reason is that people believe Germany will never let France go. I think that if the previous government were still in power, Italy’s spreads would now be at 1200 or something.”

Well, he might be right. Monti could probably do more, but I have no doubt that if we had Berlusconi in power, he would still be claiming that there is no crisis and therefore he wouldn’t do anything to solve it. And that holds for almost every party in Italy. If the oppositions actually knew what to do, they would be asking for early elections. They are all very good at criticising Monti, but at least he is trying. Does anyone else in Italy actually have the guts to do something? 

Excerpts from the WSJ interview:

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Mario Monti wants Italy to become "more boring". Sorry, too late

Italian Prime Minister Mario Monti was interviewed by the German magazine “Der Spiegel”. He mainly discussed the future of the Eurozone, but he also talked about Italy. He claimed that he wants to govern until the end of his mandate (April 2013), and that he hopes that by then “Italy will be a little bit more boring to foreign observers’ eyes”.
Yeah, right. We Italians are never boring, especially when it comes to politics (and we will be even more hilarious if Berlusconi actually comes back), but generally speaking we are undoubtedly amusing . The world will always watch and smile. So, Monti, don’t even bother: we are not boring, and never will be. That’s just too much fun. 

Picture: Italian athlete holding the note "Mum, I'm here" during the Olympics opening ceremony. Would you call that "boring"?

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Will Italy's default start with Sicily?

Sicily’s regional president, Raffaele Lombardo, resigned yesterday. He is under investigation for Mafia ties, but Sicily has recently been hit by another scandal: the region is at risk of defaulting on its debts.  There must be a reason if they call it “the Greece of Italy”. The rumour is spreading all over the world; even The New York Times wrote a big article about it.
Sicily is currently governed by the Movement for Autonomy, a party which wishes Sicily seceded from Italy. Honestly, I have no idea how Sicily could survive on its own, since it is already having trouble as it is. Sicily is already an autonomous region, and as such it has almost full control of its tax revenue. Whether they use it properly or not, that’s the question.  It seems that Italy doesn’t want to let go of Sicily simply because many parties need the votes of Sicilian people to survive.
Meanwhile, PM Mario Monti is sending 400 million euros to solve Sicily’s liquidity problems.
Among all the good news we hear recently, the thought of Sicily defaulting isn’t really reassuring. As Italy is at risk of defaulting as well, let’s hope that Sicily won’t start a chain reaction that will turn the whole country into another Greece.