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From the Archives: No time to lose

Fr John J. Carroll, SJ †
26 June 1993

It has been called a French Revolution without the guillotine, the bloodless decapitation of the entire political and economic leadership class of Italy. This may be an exaggeration, but Italians have watched with fascination and growing revulsion the unravelling of a massive system of bribery and corruption, centering on the awarding of government contracts involving untold billions of dollars. 

At first, the cases seemed trivial and the people involved relatively obscure. But as government prosecutors pulled at the loose threads the whole system began to unravel until some of the biggest names in Italian economic and political life were under investigation or actually in prison awaiting trial. The top officials of Italy’s largest enterprise, Fiat, have admitted paying bribes; the government has been decimated by the resignation of Cabinet members, including a minister of justice, who are under investigation; city governments have difficulty functioning as mayors and city councils are arrested; some 1,500 individuals, including 20 percent of the nation’s legislators are reported to be under investigation. A national revolt seemed to be around the corner when, for political reasons, Parliament refused to lift the immunity from prosecution of the former Socialist Prime Minister, Bettino Craxi. Those formally indicted are quickly slapped into prison, where many have quickly seen the error of their ways and agreed to provide evidence for the government. Eight, sadly, have committed suicide. 

At the heart of the system were the political parties, notably the Socialists and the Christian Democrats which had shared power over the last decade; eventually it came out that the Communists, too, and the smaller parties were all receiving cuts not only on government contracts but in the distribution of government jobs. One writer had asserted that more than a million of the 57 million Italians work officially for one of the parties, so one can understand their need for financing. 

As the scandals came to light, there was talk of a “political solution” to a problem which threatened to overturn the whole ship of state. A decree was prepared which would have exempted bribe-takers from prosecution on condition that they returned the money and retired from public life. President Oscar Luigi Scalfaro, who together with some of the public prosecutors and police officials stands out as a rock of personal integrity, announced that he would sign no such decree; public opinion backed him up resoundingly. 

In their anger and disgust, Italians in April voted in a referendum to revise the whole electoral system in which the parties and party slates had played a dominant role. Parliament must now write a law whereby its members must run for election as individuals, something which many of them have never done. 

In time the center of the investigations shifted from the industrial north of Italy to the south, with accusations of linkages between organized crime and the political parties – concretely between the Mafia and national politicians. At the same time the government, stung by Mafia assassinations of public officials, began going after the organization in earnest; the Pope himself visited Sicily and added his voice to the denunciations of the reign of terror which organized crime had inflicted on the island. Some of the most powerful Mafia bosses, men who had been “wanted” for years, began falling into the hands of special police units. 

Next came a series of auto-bomb attacks: one on the Parioli, a fashionable Roman residential district, in which by good luck no one was killed; then one in Florence, close to the Uffizi Gallery which houses some of the world’s greatest works of art, killing five and wreaking havoc on the gallery. On June 3, an auto-bomb was discovered in the nick of time only meters away from the Parliament and the offices of the prime minister, in the heart of Rome. It is assumed that they were the work of the Mafia, retaliating for the recent arrests of its bosses, similar to the terrorist attacks of the Medellín drug cartel when it found itself on the defensive against the government. If so, they could thus signal another phase in a process which is shaking the foundations of Italian political life as it has existed since the immediate postwar years. 

How much will actually change when the dust has cleared? Our Philippine experience at EDSA and its aftermath may be relevant here. We, too, saw a bloodless revolution and thought that we had witnessed the departure from the scene of a whole political and economic class: some went into exile, others had their property sequestered, officials down to the town and barangay level were summarily dismissed from office. Public opinion and indeed world opinion were enthusiastic, and applauded the new government’s survival in the face of bomb attacks and coup attempts. A new and idealistic constitution was written and approved by a massive majority. And yet we have seen since then how slow and difficult is real change, change that affects the ingrained habits, thought patterns, cultural and social systems of a people. 

The Italians, too, may learn as we have, that real change takes time. And yet, precisely, because it does, there is no time to lose. 

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