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 happen.
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 bases.)
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 television.
“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 Ã¢€” since 9-11 Ã¢€” 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 Molin.”
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.