Articles by: Judith Harris

  • AIBI in Syria distribution

    Italian charity supports "Children on the High Seas"

    Working with the Syrian Child Relief Association and three other non-profit groups, the Italian charity Amici dei Bambini (Friends of Children), or AiBi, helped build a huge bakery in the North Syrian town of Binnish. Included in the Italian contribution was the supply of bread flour as well as of the petrol which ran the generators for the bakery ovens. The bakery, the sole in the area, was inaugurated in January 2015, and sold bread at a specially low price to some 70,000 families in Binnish and its neighboring villages, where many thousands had lost their homes during the past five years of war. Bread was also supplied free of charge to the town's 600 most needy families.


    Last July a bomb destroyed the bakery and killed two staff workers and injured seven more, two seriously. In the loss, estimated at $30,000, the entire stock of flour was also destroyed. AiBi nevertheless goes on, including in Syria. Besides working toward reconstruction of the bakery, the Italian section of this worldwide charity is now contributing to construction of a 2,000-sq.-m. (21,500 sq. ft.) pediatric hospital which will have 32 beds plus equipment for gynecology and obstetrics, including incubators. For security from bombing the hospital is being built deep inside a small mountain of rock. As a reminder of why the pediatric shelter is built as if in a rock cave, on Oct. 3 warplanes destroyed yet another hospital in Aleppo.


    "We are trying to help what we call the 'Children on the High Seas,'" said Marco Griffini, AiBi Italian section president, told journalists Oct. 3 at the Foreign Press Association in Rome. Among the other aid efforts in Syria led by AiBi in Italy are, he said, distribution of food for over 4,000 and creation of a sewing workshop for 100 mothers. AiBi is also helping to build up a protective network for minors at Homs and rural Damascus.


    "What is especially disturbing is the high number of traumatized children who commit or try to commit suicide," said Griffini. "This is a new problem." For this reason AiBi is helping to provide socio-psychological help for bomb-traumatized children, and offering counselling along with such only apparently simple gifts like paper and crayons. "We gave a nine-year-old a soccer ball, and he didn't know what it was for. And we now see three and five year olds out begging."


    At the same time, AiBi operates in Italy itself, where some 6,000 new migrants arrived by rickety boats on the very day Griffini and his associates were addressing the Foreign Press Association. In the flood of unaccompanied migrants reaching Italian shores -- 13,000 last year, 16,800 as of Sept. 1 this year -- is a rapid increase in those from Syria, Eritrea, Sudan and Nigeria. When AiBi made an appeal for volunteer families to accept these "Children on the High Seas" in their homes, over 2,300 families came forward, but, tragically, bureaucratic obstacles have become such that relatively few are today actually accepted into families -- "The families are put on trial," Griffini complains. As a result, many young migrants simply disappear.


    "It is right to remember and to continue to protest about the young women and girls kidnapped in North Nigeria, but also to remember those who die in the desert and in our seas. As you know, we are cooperating to work all together to try to react to such a challenge," Mario Giro, Foreign Ministry Undersecretary for International Cooperation, wrote in a letter to AiBi dated Oct. 3. "Your project called 'Children on the High Seas' is part of the culture of accepting them and represents an important response. A part of the world is in movement and demands from Europe an action of loyalty and morality -- to accept them is not an act of kindness but a political reply to the rights for which we Europeans have fought."


    In Rome this press conference fell within the orbit of the Settimana della Famiglia, or Family Week, sponsored by the city assembly, by the provincial Christian Workers Association ACLI, the Catholic Diocese of Rome and by the Italian Bishops Conference. Those interesting in knowing more about AiBi in Syria, Italy and the other countries where it has branches, and in making contributions to its work, can request information at >>>.

  • President of the European Central Bank, Mario Draghi

    Mario Draghi: Center-stage for Italy's Star Economist

    If banker-economists were Oscar candidates, Italy's Mario Draghi, long since nicknamed "Super Mario," would be the winner. Last year Draghi, 69, was listed by Forbes magazine as number 11 among the world's most powerful people. Born in Rome, he was graduated from La Sapienza in Rome before moving on to Boston, where he took his Ph. D. in economics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. For 13 years he taught at the University of Florence before becoming a fellow at the the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. After stints at the World Bank and the Italian Treasury, he became Governor of the Bank of Italy in 2005 before being elected President of the European Central Bank in 2011, the position he is to hold for another three years.


    All the more important then that Italians listen seriously to what he has to say about their flagging economy. This week he is addressing the European Parliament with general comments, but which obviously contain a few messages specifically addressed to Italy. Editorialist Ferdinando Giugliano's view of Draghi's testimony before the European Parliament on Sept. 26 was that Draghi called upon all those countries whose accounts are not in good order (an obvious reference to Italy, whose public debt is third highest after Japan and Lebanon) to privilege budgeting rather than to go on letting its debt increase.


    Put another way, the Italian government is accused of having done too little to curb spending while paying scant attention to public debt, or the ratio between spending and income, or GDP. Today Italy's stands at 133.3%; by comparison the U.S. debt is at 107.5% and Spain's and France, under 100%. In an oversimplified nutshell, the essence of Draghi's message is that, in terms of budgeting, the Italian government must stop considering quantity of spending in favor of quality, and not hand out jobs to people whom they do not expect to hold down jobs.


    It is a longstanding problem. According to the European Commission’s 2016 winter forecast, Italy's gross public debt was expected to peak at 132.8 % of GDP in 2015, but in fact exceeded this. "The debt ratio is forecast to decline slightly in 2017, to 130.6 % of GDP, thanks to the expected recovery of real economic activity and inflation combined with a further decline in the implicit interest rate paid on debt," said that overly optimistic forecoast. Even so, said the forecast, the banking sector remains at particular risk because exposed to government securities, and vulnerable to possible "abrupt changes" in financial markets' perception of sovereign risk.


    If these are the problems facing Italy specifically, the Brexit vote, hints of economic problems in Germany and the rough ride of the former Soviet nations who are now an often recalcitrant part of the EU raise other issues which can possibly undermine Europe, in which Italy is among the most prominent players. Just two weeks ago, speaking in Trento on the occasion of the Alcide De Gasperi Prize, Draghi raised what he described as a "simple but fundamental" question: can a united Europe still lead the way? "My answer is an unconditional yes", he said. "Working together remains the best way to overcome the new challenges facing Europe. It is the collaboration among its members that makes the European voice strong.... The critical mass of a Europe that speaks with one voice has led to results that go well beyond what any single country could deliver."


    Climate change is only one among the key challenges with which only a unified Europe can deal, according to Draghi. Climate is "a global question that can be addressed solely through policies coordinated on the international level." In other areas, whereas technology reduces physical barriers, "Europe, with its 500 million consumers, is capable of imposing the recognition of property rights on a world level and the respect for the rights of privacy on the Internet, something no single country can achieve on its own."


    At the same time, the free market can function only if all its participants "accept to play by the same laws and rules, and have access to judiciary systems which apply [these laws] in a uniform manner." The response to problems must begin on the national level, and so European intervention matters only when national governments are unable to act individually, he said. And there what are needed are policies that promote growth, reduce unemployment and increase individual opportunities, offering at the same time the essential level of protection of the weakest.

  • Facts & Stories

    Distinguished former President Carlo Azeglio Ciampi dies at 95

    Italy today mourns the death at age 95 of former President Carlo Azeglio Ciampi, who was born in Livorno in 1920 and died on the morning of Sept. 16 in a Roman hospital following an operation in August. With the the Bank of Italy for 33 years, Ciampi was a technocrat who, however, served as a cabinet minister in several governments and was also the first Italian premier in a century not to have come to power from the benches of Parliament. In 1999 a two-thirds majority elected him on the first ballot to become the tenth president of Italy, an office he served through 2006.


    Throughout his lifetime Ciampi was praised for his professionalism as a top economist and for his commitment to creation of the European Union. Called to be premier for 13 months in 1993 because he was a banker and independent of the politicians, he shepherded the country through the shock waves of the Tangentopoli kickback scandals. The fallout from what was also known as "Operation Clean Hands" had weakened the lira, disgraced a number of politicians and cast into doubt Italy's adhesion to the EU. Later, as Treasury Minister under Romano Prodi, Ciampi contributed to Italy's participation in the Maastricht Treaty. In 1996, according to the Reuters news agency, in one year Ciampi slashed Italy's fiscal defict from 6.7% to 2.7%, thus securing Italy's entry into the "currency club." His talented team of economists at the Treasury were called the "Ciampi boys" and included Mario Draghi, today president of the European Central Bank.


    Ciampi's touching tributes to the Italy he loved are often quoted. In December of 2004 he addressed Italian youth, saying, "I know how much you love the environment, how much you work to protect it. That you try to live in harmony with the rhythms of nature. This is right. One feels stronger if one can give the best of oneself. Also try sometimes to rise at dawn, so as to live the daily miracle of the awakening of nature."


    Not all the Italian presidents actually resided within the Quirinal Palace, but, for Ciampi as he neared the end of his presidency, "I had been called to represent Italy, to be the guarantor of the Constitution. This was not only a great mandate, but above all a duty and a mission. For this reason I have lived in the Quirinal Palace. For seven years this has been my home, the home of the President of the Republic, and the home of the Italians."


    For former President Giorgio Napolitano, "Carlo Azeglio Ciampi was an extraordinary figure of an Italian and a European," who brought Italy prestige and respect. "He gave renewed vitality to the concept and to the symbols of our country, and personified important values: probity, moral integrity, hard work, talent. He had a rich cultural background, plus a dedication to the most noble causes." In 2005 it was Napolitano who had nominated Ciampi a life-time member of the Senate; only a few months later Napolitano himself would succeed Ciampi as president of Italy.


    "He was the president of our rediscovered pride," says a headline in tomorrow's Corriere della Sera. Indeed, Ciampi was cut of a different cloth from the politicians. A graduate of the Scuola Normale Superiore at Pisa he specialized in ancient Greek literature and philosophy. After 1941 he fought in the Italian army including in Albania. But on Sept. 8, 1943, he rejected Mussolini's newly created Italian Social Republic, to join fellow partisan fighters in the Italian Resistance with the Partito d'Azione in the Abruzzi mountains and then in Bari. At war's end he entered the Italian central bank, rising through the ranks to become its governor from 1979 through 1993.


    In 2010 his book, Non è il paese che sognavo (This is not the country of my dreams) was published by Il Saggiatore, written to honor Italy's 150th birthday. In speaking of his book, said Ciampi, "I believe in the dignity of people and in the ethics of the institutions.... This is a history of united Italy which belongs to us and which we are determined to defend with the only weapons we are willing to take into our hands: culture, memory, traditions." (To see a video of Ciampi speaking of his book, go to >>>)


    He is aurvived by his wife, Franca Pilla, whom he met when both were just 18 years old and married in 1946, when they were 26. As First Lady, she charmed most Italians but could sometimes irritate a certain level of citizens as when, for instance, she attacked some state TV broadcasts because "they make people vulgar and bastardized." She also irritated a few Northern Italians when, during a visit to Naples, she declared that the Neapolitans and the Southerners in general "are better and more intelligent" -- and this despite the fact that she herself was a Northerner, born in Reggio Emilia.

  • Facts & Stories

    Youth on the March to Save Venice

    ROME - Even as the ever larger tourist crowds jam into its narrow byways, the calle, Venice continues to lose almost four residents every single day, or 1,500 a year. This migration away from the city means that Venice's population has shrunk from 175,000 permanent residents in 1951, to only 55,000 today. Given the exodus, the local grocery shops are also disappearing in favor of shops offering  tourist fare all the way from high fashion to cheap Chinese trinkets.
    What is to be done? Young Venetians themselves are demanding answers. On Sept. 10 a committee of Venetians in their twenties and thirties, who call themselves "Generazione 90," staged a remarkably successful demonstration in favor of making Venice more viable. As their symbol, the Generazione 90 organizers chose the trolley shopping cart on wheels, along with baby strollers and shopping bags, which they carried in the march, and occasionally waved in the air,


    These carts on wheels typify the lives of Venetian residents. Daily survival means they must sdrag everything from oranges to toddlers, not to mention the elderly in wheel chairs, up and down dozens of little bridges -- hence the slogan for the march, "Ocio ae gambe che gò el careo," Venetian dialect for "Eyes on your legs, here comes the cart."

    The lively crowd began the march at Cannaregio on Saturday morning, and continued walking their carts all the way to the bustling Rialto market. "Our goal is to give a signal of normal living," said one of the organizers. "Life in our city can't be just the luxury of the few, or else a Disneyland. Venice has to be a place where we can continue to live." At the conclusion of the march at the Rialto, no speeches were given because, "This isn't the time for words. It's the time for all the citizens to show themselves united in defense of Venice."

    The march was intentionally apolitical, and participants were asked not to bring any political symbols. However, in support of the march were two dozen or so prominent civic associations, including the Venetian branches of Italia Nostra and Slow Food, a local mothers' sodality, church groups and the like.

    Tourism is the wealth of the city, "but it must be managed," said Giampietro Gagliardi, 23, coordinator of Generazione '90. "Failing to manage tourism means that it has become a danger to Venice." 

    As a reminder, UNESCO, no less, has warned Venice that it has only seven months to change course, or it will be canceled from the list of world heritage sites and transferred to endangered monument sites.

    In a pamphlet the organizers of Generazione '90 wrote that, "We are furious. Our institutions have been talking about what to do for 30 years, but nothing happens. They just can't go on pretending nothing is happening -- we young people want to go on living here and on the islands, but we must be able to program our future: we have to be able to rent an apartment at a reasonable rate, to find a job that allows us to pay a morgage and for the cost of daily living. We have to be able to have the services that every normal city offers its residents."

    One of the group's demands is to have a more serious management of the tourist influx. Under Luigi Brugnaro a modest beginning was made in June in an experiment that allows residents precedence over tourists on the ever crowded vaporettos that ply the Grand Canal.

    But that is not enough. "Now is the time," the young people insist. "We are determined to give everything we can so that this city, our city, does not fall into definitive decay. We don't want to see Venice lose all its residents, we don't want to see its economic, social, cultural and sports activities get ever poorer." (To see photos and their debate on facebook, go to >>)


  • Op-Eds

    Sour notes in Italy's. September Song

    ROME - A sour note will be heard in Italy's otherwise glorious September song: the economy. During the second quarter this year Italy's GDP grew by only 0.7% over the same period the previous year, or less than the 1% of the first quarter. This compares with growth during the same period of 2.2% in the U.K. and 1.4% in France. The slowdown "comes as no surprise," acknowledges Economics Minister Pier Carlo Padoan. "But despite the slow growth, public spending is under control," he added with a note of optimism.

    A fundamentl problem is that nine Italian families out of ten are relatively poorer than were their parents back in the last century. The recession is, at this point, global, but Italy's portion of economic woe is of particular concern because significantly greater than that of the United States and most European countries.

    According to the McKinsey Global Institute Report issued this July, between the years 2005 and 2014, two-thirds of the households in 25 advanced economies had flat incomes or worse. Save for a brief period during the Seventies, household income rose steadily by about 2% a year until 2005, when real incomes began to collapse. In a measure of flat or falling income, Italy hoved in at a staggering 97%. The U.S. came in second worst, with 81% of the families showing serious struggle. Next, tied for 70%, were the United Kingdom and the Netherlands. And despite its troubles France was better off than these four, at 63%. Compare this with Sweden, where only one out of five families had stagnant or falling incomes.

    The data sources derives from respectable sources such as the Bank of Italy, the U.K. Office for National Statistics and the U.S. Congressional Budget Office. "The hardest hit are young, less-educated workers, raising the spectre of a generation growing up poorer than their parents," the McKinsey Institute concludes. The social consequences are of concern particularly because the trend may well worsen, aggravated by automation in the factories.

    In the meantime Italian industrial production has just made an upward surge in the building trades, in production of leather products and of foods and beverages, transportation and pharmaceuticals. At the same time, however, other areas of the economy are in deep trouble. Between the year 2008, which ushered in the current recession, and 2015 media production (newspapers, journals, books) shrank by 38.5%. Even telecommunications along with TV productions took a beating during the same period, down respectively 24.3% and 12%. Not surprisingly, metal manufacturing shrank by over 20%, a crucial factor for a nation that had been a major manufacturer of automobiles and household appliances during the entire postwar period. Consider Fiat production: the Italian auto industry ranked third in Europe and fifth in the world in 1989 with a production of 2.2 million vehicles, but slumped by over half, or to just over 1 million in 2015. Thanks to robots, the factory work force shrinks by an even larger percentage.

    As a result, blue collar employment fell by 8% during that same seven-year period, even as industrial production rose by 6%. Thanks to automation, individual worker productivity has risen sharply, meaning that the surviving factories need hire fewer workers. The politics implicit in this are of concern; in the UK, which invented the manufacturing industry back in the l8th Century, the crisis in manufacturing was a huge factor in producing the Brexit vote. The U.S. is obviously suffering from a similar situation.

    Purchasing power of the average Italian family has accordingly declined, and, as Italy's official statistics-gathering agency, ISTAT, points out, and with it the mentality of the Italian consumer. Thanks to deflation, an individual's buying power has actually increased by 1.1% this past year, "but the consumer's philosophy has become the conviction that less is better than more," as one observer put it.

    Another respected pollster, SWG, determined that almost half (45%) of those queried fear that the sagging economy is not yet ready to be turned around, which helps to explain why sales of clothing and of footwear fell by 28% in the six years after 2007.  The SWG poll, sponsored by the  Confcommercio association of retailers, found that other primary factor are fear, whether justified or not: fear of crime, of terrorism, and of migrants who commit crimes even though the latter crimes listed often involve trafficking in other migrants, including forcing women into sex for pay.

    The picture is obviously complex. Stable migrant families, studies here show, become well inserted into Italian life. And then there are organizations like the Catholic charity Caritas, which is organizing migrants into squads to help dig out the Appenine towns devastated by the earthquake of Aug. 24.  

  • Op-Eds

    Quake Aftermath: Demands for Prevention

    ROME -- It takes courage to begin anew after an event as horrifying as the earthquake in hilly Central Italy. At least 300 lives were lost (294 officially). As of Wednesday ongoing tremors reaching in some cases a magnitude of 4 rocked Norcia and Preci (Perugia), Castelsantangelo (Macerata), and Montemonaco and Montegallo (Ascoli Piceno), and continue to terrify the survivors. The watchword: never again, and we must build awareness of the need for prevention.

    Prosecutors have opened formal investigations regarding collapsed buildings which had only recently been refurbished at public expense, but not rendered quake-proof. Among the outspoken critics of a lack of prevention is Giuseppe Zamberletti, the first head of the Department for Civil Protection when it was created 40 years ago. "Our political class does not come from Mars," he told a journalist from La Repubblica. "It reflects our country. Everybody is very active just now, but when the emotional moment is past, things come to a halt. What we need is to build awareness of these risks -- education in the schools, the creation of behavioral models."

    Among the most severe critics is Gabriele Ponzoni of the National Council of Geologists and General Secretary of the European Federation of Geologists. : "An event like that of August 24 isn't supposed to cause victims: scientific and technical knowledge is now at a point that we can create buildings and structures capable of dynamically enduring these events. But this can only happen if you have a good knowledge of the underground of the area," Ponzoni said in Rome today. A correct knowledge of structures president in the ground is essential.

    The potential for disaster differs "if the city is built upon soft or alluvial ground, or upon hard rock masses," said Ponzoni. Because Italy is highly vulnaerable to earthquakes, a deep knowledge of the terrain is esssential. For the future, a complete geological map should be created along with complete seismic micro-zoning studies. A dossier of buildings should be compiled, along with an analysis in its entirety of construction procedures.

    Still, amid the bad news there is also good. An ABC TV journalist who has just returned from Amatrice, the town which was grievously flattened by the quake, told me that the Protezione Civile efforts have been far more orderly and the temporary tent towns better organized than in previous such occasions.

    In addition, contributions for help for quake victims are arriving from all over Italy. On Sunday the Culture Ministry devoted the $679,000 from sales of tickets to the 70,000 visitors to all Italian state museums to urgent action on heritage sites. "It was a wonderful day of solidarity," said Minister Dario Franceschini. "Many citizens chose going to a museum as a way to be together with the victims of the earthquake." In fact, museum attendance was far larger than a usual Sunday, he added.

    Elsewhere cities and villages have organized benefits -- fund-raising eat-in's, literally -- in piazzas, where the popular pasta dish, spaghetti all'Amatriciana, was on sale. In our tiny town of Trevignano Romano, volunteer chefs cooked and dished out portions in a lakeside piazza for E. 5 each, as local entertainers performed. All profits went to the suffering towns only 90 minutes distant. Already the town, with a population of 6,000, had sent three truckloads of food and new clothing to the five quake-stricken towns.

    In those towns the local population is doing its best to return to some form of ordinary life. At newly upgraded Protezione Civile offices, parents of six children arrived to volunteer an offer of hospitality to those left homeless. It also made headlines here that in several towns, cafes have been reopened, with tables and chairs set outdoors. Braving the risk of collapsing walls, the owners venture inside to prepare cups of coffee and cappuccinos, soft drinks and, for the children, snacks.

    "At Arquata, you can come to the cafe, stop a bit to chat, drink an aperitif, and share your fears and hopes with your fellow villagers," journalist Michele Bocci reported. "The people talk about the stability of their houses and about the risk of looters -- though none has yet been seen." The owner of the cafe, Settimia, herself is now homeless, and she and her husband are sleeping in a caravan. "But we know that just being here in the daytime is important for our neighbors."

    Needless to say, recriminations abound. At a funeral for victims the priest conducting the rites had the huge floral offerings sent by Italian state authorities removed from the coffins because they smacked of sponsorization. "The authorities should have devolved the money to reconstruction instead of on flowers," he said.

  • Op-Eds

    Fragile Italy


    ROME -- After seven devastating and another 460 lesser tremors -- the latest in the early afternoon Thursday -- wrought havoc in these lovely ancient towns in the Central Appenines, the death toll stood at 241 and is expected to increase. These are moments which bring out the best and worst of us. In one revealing incident, an obviously foreign youth with a slightly dark skin was seen digging madly with his bare hands into the rubble of a collapsed building. The police, calculating that he was a looter, arrested him.

    In fact, he was one of a group of Afghan refugees who had been working in Amatrice, and were very much integrated and respected. He had been trying to dig out of the rubble, with his bare hands, two Afghan girls who, in fact, lost their lives. When the police realized the situation, they hugged and thanked him for his efforts.

    The scattered quakes began just after 3:30 am Aug. 24 with a huge tremor whose magnitude was over 6. The quake was felt in Rome, where tall new buildings swayed, and Florence, two hours from the epicenter, but also farther away in Naples and Rimini. The towns hardest hit are, in a circle around the epicenter at Norcia, Arquata del Tronto, Pescara del Tronto, Amatrice, and Accumoli. Other tiny hilltop borghi also suffered collapsed buildings. To see the damage at Amatrice, take a look at the fire department's drone video:

    Rescue operations began when helicopers arrived just three hours later, with trucks and ditch diggers arriving as well despite the difficulties in driving to towns through roads blocked by fallen debris and rocks. In addition to the Civil Protection forces and police, 60 geologists from the four afflicted regions (the Marches, Umbria, Abruzzo and Molise) came onto the scene in order to evaluate the residual risks of landslides, superficial earth fractures and possible subsequent tremors. And 200 chefs from all over Italy have volunteered to come help feed those who lost everything and are in tents and improvised shelters.

    For the emergency the government has already set aside E 50 million Volunteers came from as far away as Turin, and countless numbers are responding to the request for blood donors. Restaurants all over Italy are sending food, and the city of L'Aquila, itself half destroyed by a quake in 2009, has offered shelter to those in need. For private citizens anxious to make an offering, the Civilian Protection Department has set up a solidarity telephone number, 45500, to send Euros 2 automatically. The Catholic charity Caritas in the Diocese of Grosseto is also handling donations, see In addition, donations can be made to  Caritas Diocesana Grosseto - Banco Popolare – IBAN IT 77W05034 1430 200000000 4384

    Two of those rescued told reporters that they had instinctively crawled under a bed as soon as they realized that the shaking of their building was caused by an earthquake. One of these was Sister Maria, 32, an  Albanian nun. With blood trickling down her face, lying collapsed on a sidewalk, she was photographed speaking on her mobile phone to relatives, asking them to pray for the quake victims. She had been saved by "an angel," she related -- a young man who had been working in the hospice where she was living, and who risked his own life to save her and two others.

    In the tiny ancient medieval town of Accumoli, not a single dwelling remains habitable for its 650 residents. Quakes had already taken their toll in 1997 and again in 2009, contemporary with the L'Aquila disaster. As a result, just five years ago its church of San Francesco was given a new bell tower to replace the one that had collapsed, but no steel beam was inserted for extra strength, and the tower again crumbled, "just like pieces of panettone," said one observer.

    What of the future? "For years we geologists have been saying that Italy is still light years away from a culture of prevention," said Francesco Peduto today, president of the National Council of Geologists. Their goal, he specified, is to foster great risk awareness among Italian citizens, beginning in the schools. "Some studies show that from one out of five or even half the deaths are caused by people not knowing what to do during a seismic event." In addition, says geologist Raffaele Nardone of the Council, "In Italy at least 24,000 schools are in areas of risk. We simply must put the knowledge of geology at the center of territorial planning."

    With luck, within a year the first satellite capable of advance warning of an earthquake will go into space, launched by China with a helping hand from Italian engineers. "The advance warning alarm will be possible thanks to an increase in cosmic rays at about five hours before the actual earthquake," according to Marco Casolino, researcher at the Rome University Tor Vergata, who worked on the initial development of the project together with scientisits from the Agenzia Spaziale Italiana (ASI) and the Istituto Nazionale di Fisica Nucleare (INFN).

  • Op-Eds

    Talking Financial Turkey on a Summer Yacht

    ROME -- It's showtime in the big Italian yacht basins, and one of those seaworthy individuals attracting attention is none other than politician Beppe Grillo, a guest aboard a manufacturing friend's big boat that docks at Porto Cervo in Sardinia. Elsewhere the yacht crowd is even more seriously big time. An important three-way summit brings together Italian Premier Matteo Renzi, French President François Hollande and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, on board ship Aug. 22 off the beautiful isle of Ventotene, which lies between the regions of Lazio and the Campania. 

    Its agenda is attracting more interest than the fact of the shipboard encounter. High on the list is what position this Big Three of the European Union will take in regard to Brexit. Merkel, who met last month with the new British Prime Minister Theresa May, is willing to postpone the British exit from the EU by at least a year, according to British press reports. "We are listening to the UK, we are listening to what Britain actually wants and then we will give the right response," Merkel told reporters July 19. However, other EU countries are insisting that the UK be punished by pushing forward its withdrawal; hence the importance of Renzi's and Hollande's positions.

    For Renzi, support of the Merkel-May position may be a bargaining chip for obtaining help on the problem of Italian public debt, widely criticized for having reached 135% over the annual Gross Domestic Product (GDP). In a swap for a slow-down on Brexit, Renzi is expected to ask Merkel simply to shut an eye to the problem, although even if she and Hollande agree to do so, the problem remains. While it is generally believed that a major input of public spending will produce the famous Keyensian multiplier effect, by which every Euro invested passes through up to seven hands, thus multiplying itself and triggering economic revival as during the Thirties, new studies challenge this: if a state borrows excessively, the surge in interest rates actually undermines the value of the investment, and worsens the picture.

    In recent days the Italian political situation has come under fire from authoritative media in the U.S. as well as in Europe. The Wall Street Journal, for one, called Rome "the cause of the European stomach ache." Other international journals point out that the Italian economic crisis far predated the general disaster of 2008 caused by banking scandals. The problems will hit the fan this autumn, when Italy is to vote a referendum on voting and on a radical reduction of the Senate, in hopes that change will make the political process more efficient.

    Renzi now acknowledges that he had made a mistake by his earlier identifying a "yes" vote with approval of his governance, and a "no" vote with disapproval of him personally. As Renzi's popularity has waned, he has tried to backtrack, but the autumn referendum remains a huge risk: a victory for the "no's" will bring down mhis government, making new elections inevitable. In that case, who might succeed Renzi? Possibly a candidate promoted by that man enjoying the yacht off Sardinia; in June's local elections, 19 out of 20 townships went to his Movimento Cinque Stelle (M5S) candidates, including in Rome and Turin.

    Still, Grillo's party is coming under close scrutiny because of the signs of muddle in the city of Rome, where his M5S faces its first tough test of actually governing, as opposed to campaign rhetoric. Polls this August give the M5S Mayor Virginia Raggi a popularity rating of around 46%, but even more of those queried say they have little or no confidence in her, for a total 52% (Winpoll test with 1,500 interviewed).  

    Raggi's troubles come not only from the delays in dealing with the rubbish crisis, but also over her cabinet appointments of people earning unusually large salaries by Italian standards. The head of her office is now earning E200,000 ($225,377) annually, and, when challenged over this, snapped, "I am not a charity." One of her advisors, a specialist in rubbish, has received over one million euros as a consultant for the previous administrations which are being blamed for the current garbage problems.

    If the Summit partners discuss the Italian economy, they will have to deal with deeply serious problems that go beyond the trash crisis in Rome. First and foremost is the low growh of the Italian GDP, exactly 0% in the second quarter of 2016 over the first quarter, and just 0.7% over the same period of 2015. Renzi's economic czar Pier Carlo Padoan makes assurances that the public accounts are "under control." Growth throughout the EU has slowed down, with just 0.3% in the Eurozone and 0.6% in the UK, but Italy's flat zero growth is troublesome. Government efforts to cut expenses take their own toll: for the past six years schools have been put on a harsh diet, with the result that the Court of Accounts shows a decrease in teaching staff of 9% and teachers' salaries blocked at E1,300 ($1,465) monthly. 

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    In Italian Politics, Too, It's Ladies' Day

    ROME -- Even as Hillary Clinton became the first woman to be a U.S. presidential candidate, the New Yorker magazine ran an article called "The Woman Card" by the influential Jill Lepore. As for Italy, this country has never had a woman president, but women are making political strides. Among the most visible are Laura Boldrini, president of the Chamber of Deputies; Federica Mogherini, foreign affairs minister for the European Union (EU), Emma Bonino, former Italian foreign affairs minister; and two big-city mayors, Virginia Raggi of Rome and Chiara Appendino of Turin. 

    Admittedly, it has hardly been a picnic for any of them, any more than for their male colleagues. Boldrini has been assaulted viciously by right-wingers, all of them male, who have been extremely nasty ever since her election in 2013. At that time the daily Libero wrote: "Let's lay a shroud over the president [Boldrini] before she lays one on us." From another rightwing daily, Il Giornale, came this bizarre gripe: "Leave in peace the women strippers."

    Why they would write these escapes me, but worse was to come. Subsequently Il Giornale dubbed her "the teacher," intended as belittling. From Beppe Grillo's crowd came another rude insinuation: "What would happen if you found yourself alone with Boldrini in a car?" And from Grillo himself came the observation that, "She doesn't read what I say but, what's worse, she isn't capable of understanding it." Manlio De Stefano, one of the Grillini, went further, writing, "Boldini is a zombie, a woman without dignity, who talks on TV newscasts with unworthy journalists."

    Boldrini has also come under attack from the Northern League. In Oct. 2015 Gianluca Pini, a League deputy, called her "a goat" and "incapable." League boss Matteo Salvini (whose party incidentally is currently in stall mode) called her "poverina" (poor little thing) and compared her with a balloon doll.  The very worst ran on Facebook August 1, where a small-time Northern League town councilwoman at Musile di Piave, near Venice wrote that, "Laura Boldrini is to be physically eliminated." Needless to say, this became a firestorm, and the article by Tommaso Ciriaco detailing these attacks won thousands of "likes" on the web. See >>

    In July 2014 Federica Mogherini was appointed by Italian Premier Matteo Renzi
    to succeed the UK's Catherine Ashton as High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy of the European Union (EU). Perhaps because Mogherini works out of Brussels rather than Rome, she has been relatively insulated from the day-to-day Italian political rough housing. Her work, however, is no less difficult than Boldrini's, for Mogherini is dealing with such crucial defence and security issues as the waves of migrants trying to reach Europe; the Iranian nuclear program, whose successful negotiation with the EU was in part thanks to her; and, these days, the EU's stance on ISIS. She is on record as having said last May that the EU will act in support of Libya.

    Emma Bonino, 68, despite continuing her battle against cancer, remains the Grand Old Woman of Italian politics. She is a former Italian minister of foreign affairs, EU Commissioner, and founding board member of the European Council on Foreign Relations. She has also been a member of the European Parliament and an Italian senator, serving as its vice president from 2008 through 2013. During the same period she was also president of the Senate's Commission on Equal Opportunities. She has received various prizes for her work for women's rights and humanitarian causes, and in 2013 the Italy-USA Foundation gave her its prestigious America Award.

    Virginia Raggi was one of the two women big-city mayors who were elected representing Beppe Grillo's Movimento Cinque Stelle (M5S), and there is little doubt that her party bosses, and they are bosses, are following her every move because this is their first trial in action. The problem is that she inherited a poisoned chalice that almost defies description. Any mayor in any country would be hard pressed to deal with her almost 8,000 city employees and with the 5,000 tons of rubbish the capital generates daily. Piles of rubbish continue this summer to litter even some of the better neighborhoods of central Rome, such as Parioli and Prati.

    "In three weeks the capital will be cleaned up," she has said. And in fact on the plus side, 43% of Rome's rubbish is now differentiated, compared with under 25% just five years ago. However, apparently due to the lack of trucks, outsized rubbish, such as old sofas, broken refrigerators and even cupboards dumped into the street, is unlikely be removed until October. Even worse are the daily revelations of gigantic kickbacks and overly generously paid consultancies, currently under investigation by magistrates, which may lie behind the rubbish pile-up. Dealing with migrants, including underage unaccompanied children, is another difficult item on her agenda.

    By comparison, Turin mayor Chiara Appendino, 32, who like Raggi was elected by the M5S, was handed a fairly easy task, at least at the outset in June. First, the capital of Piedmont has under 900,000 inhabitants by comparison with Rome, whose population is estimated, depending upon who's counting, to be from 3 to 5 million. In addition, the previous Turin center-left administrations led by Sergio Chiamparino) June 2001 - May 2011) and Piero Fassino (2011 - 2016), both of the Partito Democratico (PD), have not left her a heritage of scandal.

    On the other hand, Turin has always been the locomotive of Italian manufacturing, beginning with Fiat, but manufacturing worldwide is in crisis as automation tends to make factory workers, even low-paid migrant workers, obsolete. Besides unemployment, a Facebook poll of the  problems she faces lists "too many migrants," to Roms, microcriminality, pollution, the neglected city outskirts, and schooling.


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    Italians Enjoy Holidays Close to Home

    One reason: whereas the vacations taken by Italians routinely lasted a month, today's are shorter, with many taking only a week or just five days off from work. The sagging economy is one explanation: travel is too costly. Over-crowded tourist venues is another as is a certain fear of airports and train stations and of flying and riding in trains even though the psychotic and terror attacks plaguing North Europe have yet to come to Italy.

    Demopolis director Pietro Vento, however, says that the Italians sticking close to home this year do so because they are "making a happy choice." Many simply want to enjoy seeing famed Italian artistic and archaeological sites near to home, but which they never have the time during the year to visit. I myself, for the first time in a quarter century of having a house in Trevignano Romano, yesterday made my very first visit to the lovely Civic Museum at Bracciano Romano, a 15" drive, to see its magnificent ancient Roman statue of Apollo. Returning home I stopped at the 17th km marker to see a mini-lakeside park, to admire the still visible underwater ruins of an ancient Roman villa. (Fortunately I had a big plastic bag in my car in which I collected picnic rubbish, including aluminum boxlets for lasagna, left by my fellow visitors.)

    The stay-at-home choice "is partly a reflection of the modern liquid society, which lacks points of reference," Asterio Savelli, University of Bologna sociologist specialized in tourism. "People used to go on vacation in exotic tourist localities as a show of their status -- a way to identify oneself with a social role that annouces, 'I'm the kind of person who goes to Rimini at Ferragosto and to the Maldives in December,' he told reporter Isabella Colombo.
    (See: >>)

    For those who do travel, the good news is that Rome's Leonardo Da Vinci Airport at Fiumicino, which now handles a stunningly large number, 40 million passengers a year, has just been named second best in Europe by the Airports Council International (ACI). In a tie with Munich, Fiumicino outperformed the top international airports in Paris, Amsterdam and Madrid, and was bested only by London's.

    Lucky tourists in Venice are in for a special treat: a production of Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice, in which, five centuries later, Shylock returns to the oldest Jewish quarter in Europe, the Ghetto. Beginning July 26 through July 31 (with the exception of Saturday July 30), the play is being presented in English, with inserts in Venetian dialect, directed by Karin Coonrod. The project was developed by Prof. Shaul Bassi of the Venetian University of Ca' Foscari in partnership with the city of Venice to celebrate the 500th anniversary of the Ghetto. Performing the play is the Compagnia de' Colombari, a company of 20 actors which operates primarily in New York but also in Orvieto. Two hundred seats have been made available in the main piazza of the Ghetto, the Campoa. Music is provided by American trombonist Frank London. (For further details, see:

    Not all vacations function smoothly, but even those can sometimes bring out the best of humankind. In the Duomo of Milan on Tuesday night a tourist was in the restroom when the cathedral guards locked it, leaving him to sleep on the roof among the elegant parapets. "I didn't want to create any alarm so I just lay down to sleep," he said Wednesday. Elsewhere in Milan, artist Riccardo Zangelmi has created a sculpture utilizing 130,000 pieces of Lego with which he has constructed two giant hands which shield an endangered young tree on a sidewalk.

    Others in Milan are young artists: in the past three years 11,300 migrant children from Egypt, Eritrea, Somalia, Syria and elsewhere, including 554 unaccompanied, have arrived in the Central Station, especially in summertime. There volunteers from the charity Albero della Vita take them in hand until a better solution is found; to know them better and to keep the younger ones occupied, they make available paper and crayons. The drawings often show boats, starry skies, their nation's flag alongside Italy's, but also tanks (see >>)

    In its way the worst (and best) summer tourism story, which has made the rounds of the country's news sources, came from the beachfront of Roseto in the Abruzzo, where a visitor complained that his hotel had not informed him ahead of time that there would be "myriad disabled young people" and "children in wheelchairs." His reason: it upset his own children. When this comment appeared on Facebook, it ignited a fireworks of reactions. "Shame!" was only one. "People like him should just stay home because he does not know the value of life and it difficulties." Others suggested that he teach his children to befriend those in wheelchairs, not to avoid them. And from the Abruzzi section of the association which arranges vacations for disabled youngsters: "The hotel is a positive example for many other tour operators."