Friday, March 13, 2020

Peter Robb, "Midnight in Sicily"

Peter Robb's Midnight in Sicily, published in 1996, is half about the experience of living in southern Italy and half about the mafia corruption trials that brought an end to the First Italian Republic. I found it a weird book because I thought the two parts did not go together well. I did, however, very much like certain scenes from each half. There is some great material about the restaurants and hotels of Palermo, the rituals of Italian coffee, and especially the impact of heroin on street culture of Naples. There is also some great material on the mafia and the pervasiveness of corruption in Italy.

The basic story of modern Italy is this: After World War II, Italy was the only country in the West that had a really strong Communist party, which regularly got 20% or even 30% of the vote and was sometimes the biggest party in Parliament. (Partly because the Communists were the only ones who actually fought against the Fascists.) In the late 1940s the US brought all the anti-communist Italians together and told them, your job is to make sure the communists never get power. So from then down to 1994 all Italian governments were coalitions, usually including both the main right-wing party (the Christian Democrats or DC) and the main center-left party (the Socialists). Some of the work that went into organizing all those coalitions was done in a secret Masonic Lodge called P-2, an old institution relaunched by Italian gangsters at the behest of the CIA that included half the Italian leadership among its members.

(If you search for P-2 online you will find all sorts of crazy stuff about secret meetings of men with red robes and masked faces and an inner clique called the "Wolf Pack" who were all sworn to kill to protect the Lodge and so on, and you may end up thinking that this has to be made up. Maybe half of it is, but the P-2 Lodge was real, counting five Italian Prime Ministers and 200 generals of the armed forces and police among its members. And by the time you're done reading about what really happened in Italian politics, you may start believing in the red robes and the Wolf Pack, too.)

The DC had some strength across Italy but it was based in the south, and its continued presence in every Italian government depended on always winning the vote in Sicily. The DC always won in Sicily because they had a deal with the mafia; the mafia delivered the Sicilian vote, and the DC ignored the mafia, in fact denied the existence of the mafia even though every single person in Sicily knew this was a lie.

The depth and breadth of corruption that sprang from this deal would be impossible to believe if it weren't so copiously documented. Giulio Andreotti, three times Prime Minister, was accused by prosecutors of being a Made Man in la Cosa Nostra, and several mafia witnesses testified that he ordered the assassinations of communist labor leaders. Everything was sold or traded for favors: permissions to build new buildings or tear down historic ones, fishing licenses, construction contracts, jobs in museums and tourist bureaus, everything over which the state had any control. Especially egregious was the way money voted for earthquake relief was spent on hotels owned by mafiosi or roads to their estates or just flat-out stolen while homeless people lived for years in WW II surplus quonset huts.

What finally brought this perfect system down was a war within the Sicilian mafia. In the late 1970s a faction from Corleone, led by the monstrous Toto Riina, launched a violent takeover of the whole organization, murdering hundreds of rivals. Seeing that there was no more honor among the mafiosi, several leading members turned state's witness. Their testimony was made public in the 1986 "Maxitrial," which led to the jailing of hundreds of mafiosi. In the course of this investigation the magistrates turned up evidence that many, many government officials colluded with the mafia, including the leadership of the DC. It was a two steps forward, one step back operation, with many mafia convictions overturned on appeal by DC judges, apparently at the behest of DC politicians. But some Italians struggled on, determined to learn the truth.

In 1992 the two magistrates most involved in fighting the mafia, Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino, were assassinated on the orders of Riina. This caused a profound reaction even among the cynical people of Sicily, and a wave of anti-mafia feeling led to first Riina and then his two successors being betrayed to the police. Riina was convicted in 1995 and died in prison. A committed group of investigators and judges followed the trail all the way to the top, and in 1994 they indicted Prime Minister Andreotti himself.

Andreotti was convicted twice but both convictions were overturned on appeal, and he died a free man in 2013. But the Christian Democrat party evaporated, paving the way for the TV tycoon Silvio Berlusconi (former member of the P-2 Lodge) to become Prime Minister. Some outsiders marveled that Italians voted for the clown Berlusconi or some of the weirder parties who came into Parliament in the 2000s, but consider that the entire Italian establishment had been shown to be corrupt and allied with the mafia; you would probably have voted for crazy people over them, too.

It's dizzying, really. While reading about this stuff I always think, this doesn't happen in America. Or does it? Am I naive? After all millions of Americans believe that the Clintons have ordered many assassinations. I don't believe that, but I have to wonder what about the world is hidden from me. Is the Sinaloa Cartel really in a war with the Mexican government? Where did the Covid-19 virus really come from?

Who is lying to us, and how would we know?

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