Anti-U.S. Uproar Sweeps Italy
by David Swanson
After Downing Street
www.Alternet.org, May 8, 2007
The U.S. government has proposed to make
Vicenza, Italy, the largest US military site in Europe, but the
people of Vicenza, and all of Italy, have sworn it will never
As with the story of the Downing Street
Minutes two years ago this week, a major news story and huge controversy
in Europe right now is unknown to Americans, despite the fact
that it is all about the policies of the American government.
In February of this year, 200,000 people descended on the Northeastern
Italian town of Vicenza (population 100,000) to march in protest.
Largely as a result, the Prime Minister of Italy was (temporarily)
driven out of power. Meanwhile, just outside Vicenza, large tents
now hold newly minted citizen activists keeping a 24-hour-per-day
vigil and training hundreds of senior citizens, children, and
families every day in how to nonviolently stop bulldozers. The
bulldozers they are waiting for are American.
The conflict, should it come about, will
be as surprising to American television viewers as were the attacks
of 9-11, unless someone tells them ahead of time what is going
on. This week a group of Italians is in Washington, D.C., attempting
to do just that. A group of Italian Members of Parliament also
visited Washington last month in opposition to the base.
To understand this story it is necessary
to be aware of a few basic facts that Americans are not supposed
to be aware of, including that our military maintains several
hundred bases in other people's countries, and that many of the
residents of these countries resent the U.S. military presence.
(Of course, the alleged planner of the murderous 9-11 attacks
said he was reacting to U.S. bases on foreign soil, in that case
in Saudi Arabia. The Bush Administration closed the offending
In addition, it is helpful to understand
that Vicenza is a UNESCO World Heritage site, a beautiful treasure
of a town showcasing the renaissance architecture of Andrea Palladio.
Reflecting on this makes it easier to put into context the proposal
for Vicenza from the U.S. military and the reaction of the people
who live there.
If you google "No Dal Molin"
you'll find 83,300 results. Dal Molin is the name of the proposed
new military base. This compares with 9,290 for such an important
news story as "John Edwards' hair." But the only U.S.
media link you'll find is Democracy Now, which interviewed one
of the Italian activists in Washington this week.
In Italy, the women leading the opposition
to the base, women who were housewives and had never been activists
until news of this proposal leaked, have appeared frequently in
the media. Here's a television news show video in Italian (click
on "Puntate," scroll down to "Vicenza," and
click). And here is an activist's video in English.
Since this story broke last year, Vicenza
has become a focus for peace activists in Europe, including Americans
living abroad, and has been the site of numerous protests and
acts of civil disobedience. There is another protest march planned
for this coming Sunday. (Flyer).
I spent all day Thursday with U.S. peace
activists Stephanie Westbrook and Medea Benjamin accompanying
a delegation of four Italians to meetings with Congress Members,
Senators, and their staffers. The Italians were led by two women,
Cinzia Bottene and Thea Valentina Garbellin.
They had arrived Tuesday and began their
lobbying efforts on Wednesday. Stephanie and Thea appeared on
Democracy Now that morning. And Code Pink launched a petition
website where we are collecting Americans' signatures in support
of the people of Vicenza.
On Wednesday, the delegation spoke with
various Congress Members, including Rep. Neil Abercrombie (D.,
Hawaii) and Rep. Walter Jones (R., N.C.). At these and many other
meetings, the Italians dropped off materials, told their stories,
and answered questions. The Congress Members and staffers made
no commitments but promised to look into the matter.
"The amazing thing," Cinzia
said, "is that nobody in the United States, not even Senators
and Congress Members, knows anything about it. But we found a
great deal of interest."
On Thursday we met with Rep. Carol Shea-Porter
(D., N.H.)and a staff person. They, too, knew nothing about it,
but were very interested. The same goes for aides to Sen. Edward
Kennedy (D., Mass.) and Sen. Jack Reid (D., R.I.).
Congressman Dennis Kucinich (D., Ohio)
had a little bit different reaction. He said he opposed the base
and would write a letter to all of his colleagues asking them
to join him. He said he favored closing foreign bases but not
opening new ones. Cinzia thanked the Congressman and invited him
to come and speak in Vicenza.
Another meeting we had on Thursday was
with three Senate staffers, who each worked for the Armed Services
Committee or for a member thereof. They had all been to Vicenza.
In fact, they flew to the new base location to examine it in 2004,
two years before anyone in Italy had even learned about the proposal.
In our meeting, they articulated the U.S.
government's position, and Thea and Cinzia articulated that of
the people of Vicenza. At times, the two world views clashed.
One of the staffers, who said he had been to Vicenza many times
and had many Italian friends there, but who did not speak a word
of Italian, suggested that the base might be necessary to allow
the U.S. to airlift aid to starving Africans. This did not sit
well with the Vicentines, who are motivated as much by their opposition
to global militarism, arrogance, and lies, as they are by the
potential impact on their city's water and traffic.
The Senate staffers tried to be helpful,
and explained as others had before them, that what they needed
to know about were potential impacts on water, traffic, power,
pollution, and the environment. They also were very interested
in learning about alternative locations for the base and accounts
of the Italian government having offered other locations. But
the danger brought to the people of Vicenza by making it a major
military target was not a concern that had made it onto their
radar screen. The damage to historic and artistic treasures was
deemed "intangible." And the affront to the dignity
of the people of Vicenza was unfortunate but insignificant.
The Italians explained that they have
never protested the existing U.S. base in Vicenza, which has been
there for 50 years. In fact, there are a number of U.S. military
installations in and around Vicenza and throughout Italy, including
facilities holding 90 atomic bombs, according to the Natural Resources
Defense Council, and this video news report in English from Italian
"The people of Vicenza and the Americans
have always been friends," Cinzia said. "But when you
invite a friend to your house and give them a room, it changes
when they demand to have the whole house."
As in much of the world, Vicenza is already
overrun by American soldiers who drink too much, commit too many
crimes, return from Iraq in mental anguish, and - since 9-11 -
remain ever more isolated from the Italians. It's the Vicentines'
city, but they are second-class citizens. If an Italian is waiting
in line in a hospital emergency room, and a U.S. soldier comes
in, the soldier can go straight to the front. And the economic
argument so cynically used all over the United States to keep
our economy based on war does not work in Vicenza: Italian tax
payers are paying a large portion of the cost of their own occupation.
American taxpayers, on the other hand,
are completely oblivious to the fact that they are paying hundreds
of millions of dollars for the construction of a base that has
enraged the nation of Italy and serves no purpose that the people
of the United States have ever debated or had any say in. While
the State Department and the Pentagon make our decisions for us,
the Congress does have to approve the money. They've already approved
half of the money for this base, and the rest is expected to be
voted on by October.
The people of Vicenza have also had no
say in this. They handed in 10,000 signatures and requested a
referendum, but were denied. The Italian government has said it
will permit the base, but it has not actually issued the construction
permits. Leaders of the opposition movement met with the Minister
of Defense who said that Italy was capable of saying No to the
United States. But the U.S. ambassador gave Italy a deadline of
January 19th to accept the base, and the Prime Minister announced
his acceptance of it on a trip abroad on January 16th. While no
permits have been issued, fiberoptic cables have been laid on
the site, which activists have dug up and ripped out.
The activists leading this resistance
struggle say they want to be friends with Americans. They have
even proposed that the hundreds of millions of dollars for the
base be spent instead on aiding the people of New Orleans, and
that the cities of Vicenza and New Orleans establish a relationship
as "twin cities."
But Cinzia Bottene made her case very
clearly in the meeting with the staffers. "The citizens,"
she said, "will never, I repeat, never accept a base at Dal
The Italians plan to deliver a petition
showing American support for their peaceful efforts to Senator
Carl Levin and Congressman Ike Skelton, chairs of the Armed Services
Committees in both houses. You can add your name to it here.
The Commander Guy, George W. Bush, plans
to visit Rome on June 9th. He might actually be greeted by some
cheers if he cancels the plans for Dal Molin. Otherwise, he can
expect a grand unwelcoming party.