In historic Vicenza, Italy, the U.S. has plans to build a new military base, and never did they expect such strong opposition in the city that has been home to the base at Camp Ederle since 1955. Times have changed.
As news of the proposal leaked out in May 2006, following years of secret negotiations, the people of Vicenza, led by women, mounted a grassroots campaign the likes of which had never been seen in the hardworking town in the north of Italy. With little or no experience as activists, they organized debates, vigils and protests against the further militarization of their city. What began as a local movement grew to become a national cause in all of Italy, leading to a demonstration on February 17, which saw 200,000 people protest in this town of 120,000.
After a year of expressing dissent with their own government, only to see them give in to pressure from the U.S. in January, the organizers decided to take their message to Capitol Hill. With the help of U.S. peace activists, including Medea Benjamin of CodePink and David Swanson of AfterDowningStreet, I accompanied a delegation of 4 to Washington DC to lobby Congress and spread the word to the American people.
We met with Congress members and staffers, many completely unaware of the new base or the local opposition, which came as a surprise to Cinzia Bottene and Thea Valentina Gardellin, two of the women leading the Italian delegation. During the meetings, Cinzia and Thea talked of Vicenza’s status, with its treasures of Renaissance architect Andrea Palladio, as a UNESCO World Heritage site. They expressed the people’s alarm at the impact the new base would have on the city, with increased traffic, pollution, water and energy consumption as well as risk to the ground water resources directly beneath the site, not to mention the concern many have of becoming a terrorist target. However, nothing was as telling as the photo taken from the hills over Vicenza showing the proposed base site in the heart of the city and just one mile from the historic center.
But the main message the Italians tried to drive home was that the people of Vicenza will never accept the new base and are prepared to do everything in their power to halt construction. The campaign against the base has succeeded in uniting people across political and social boundaries, and in mobilizing the residents of Vicenza, not known for political activism, to speak out and openly express their dissent. Shortly after news of the base became public, over 10,000 signatures were collected in just 10 days in opposition to the base. The local government has denied requests for a referendum, but a poll conducted in October 2006 showed over 2/3 of the people oppose the new base and a whopping 85% favor a local referendum to resolve the issue.
Local organizers have kept up constant protests over the last year, from blocking the train station upon Prime Minister Prodi’s unexpected announcement in January that the Italian government would not oppose the base, an announcement made during a trip abroad shortly before a deadline given by the U.S. Ambassador to Italy, to the peaceful occupation of the Basilica Palladiana, symbol of the city. Weekly City Council meetings are filled with activists and a permanent camp, open 24 hours a day, has been setup on donated land across from the new base site. Though there has never once been an incident of violence, the U.S. Embassy in Italy continues to issue warnings for many of the demonstrations.
Along with the local protests, two national demonstrations have been organized and members of the citizens’ committees have traveled throughout Italy as well as other European countries to participate in debates and round table talks. The recent international conference against foreign bases in Quito, Ecuador was all abuzz over the struggle in Vicenza.
There were a few exceptions to the lack of awareness on the issue that seemed to pervade Capitol Hill, including newly elected Congresswoman Shea-Porter who knew about the opposition to the base, and upon invitation to travel to Vicenza and see the situation for herself, promised to make one of her next trips abroad to Italy.
We also met with three members of the professional staff of Senate subcommittees on Readiness (Armed Services) and Military Construction (Appropriations), who were well aware of the planned base, as they had all traveled numerous times to the site, years before the citizens of Vicenza knew about the proposal. One had recently participated in a hearing where witnesses confirmed the Italian government’s support of the new base. Unfortunately, the session dedicated to foreign bases was behind closed doors.
They informed us that the first part of the funds for the construction of the base had already been appropriated ($223 million), with the second part ($173 million) up for a vote this October. However, they are still awaiting official word from the Italian government in the form of construction permits.
One member of Congress stood out from the rest. Rep. Dennis Kucinich took a firm stand against the new base, stating that what we need to be doing is closing rather than opening new bases. He also offered to circulate a letter to his colleagues in the House asking that they oppose the base in Vicenza.
Over the weekend I spent some time at the Library of Congress looking for information on some of the bilateral agreements between Italy and the U.S. from the 1950s regarding “defense” and use of infrastructure. I was able to print copies of several treaties, including the Mutual Security Act, which states that while for the moment the U.S. has bases in Italy and enjoys impunity and tax breaks, should there ever be a need for Italian bases in the U.S., the same benefits will be afforded the Italian military. This gave rise to much laughter from the Italian delegation. Unfortunately, the one document of most interest, the Bilateral Infrastructure Agreement of 1954 dealing specifically with U.S. military bases in Italy, remains classified.
Following our meetings with members of Congress, we turned our attention to the National Italian-American Foundation. We met with the Managing Director for Government Relations and Public Policy, who was once again unaware of the issue. He explained that the organization exists to favor relations between the two countries. Cinzia and Thea replied that nothing is creating more tension or doing more damage than the issue of the new base in Vicenza.
Our last stop before returning to Italy was at the Italian Embassy. After trying in vane to set up a meeting with the ambassador or a representative, we decided to organize a protest in front of the embassy. Just minutes away from the embassy, and with the fabulous women of CodePink already in front of the building, Cinzia received a phone call inviting the Italian delegation to the embassy.
They met with the Deputy Ambassador, who agreed that the entire matter had been handled poorly and that the new base would be problematic for Vicenza. He was aware of the situation, though the Embassy had never been involved in any of the negotiations. While the Italians were inside, we kept up the protest outside, banging pots and pans, which have become a symbol of the movement in Vicenza, and shouting slogans in English and Italian over the megaphone.
Much of the feedback we received over the course of the trip was along the same lines. There was talk of Italy being a strategic ally of the U.S. as well as the need for U.S. bases to provide security. However, the people of Vicenza are not feeling much like equal partners and certainly do not feel any safer with a U.S. military presence in their city. The references to economic benefits of the new base were quickly shot down with facts on Italian taxpayer contributions to the operating costs of U.S. bases, which hover around 37%, not to mention the many tax breaks the U.S. military enjoys.