Italy Comes In from the Cold War

WILLIAM PFAFF

March 01, 1993|By WILLIAM PFAFF

Paris. -- What is happening in Italy is the cathartic reaction of a fundamentally healthy society. An explosive popular revolt is taking place against the corruption produced in that country by professional crime and also by the unnatural political immobility, or repression, caused by the Cold War. There is a sense in which the Italians -- like the East Europeans -- have been victims of the Cold War.

For a year now the judiciary (police investigations are under the control of magistrates) has attacked the financial corruption of the political parties and politicians, and now of the Italian industrial corporations who have made themselves part of this discredited system.

At the same time judges and the state police and intelligence services have broken the secrecy of the Mafia and attacked its leadership, doing more damage to it than has occurred since the 1930s, when Mussolini suppressed it. They have had the enthusiastic support of a public that in the past tolerated the Mafia as an Italian inevitability.

Mafia influence and its protection rackets have become so pervasive, however, that businesses and professions through much of Italy have increasingly been compelled to pay their tribute, and now an infuriated public is ready to talk to the police and judges, despite the risk of retaliation. The Mafia itself is splitting, with former members -- ''repenti'' -- willing for the first time to break the code of silence and give information to the authorities. This is a signal break-through.

There has always been an interaction between Mafia and politicians, particularly politicians from the predominantly LTC Christian Democratic south, for whom the Mafia could deliver votes in exchange for protection. There has also always been a tolerated corruption in the way all of the political parties were financed, with public-sector contracts going to favored enterprises. It was an arrest a year ago in Milan that led to the revelation of how deeply the Socialist Party was also mired in pay-offs.

From that have come wider and wider circles of revelations and arrests, which at this writing have brought 460 people in public life under investigation, including the heads of both Socialist and Social Democratic parties, 9 former Cabinet ministers, 46 deputies and 12 senators, 192 local politicians or state functionaries, and nearly 200 businessmen. There have been six suicides. Three ministers have chosen, or been forced, to resign.

The minister of justice himself, a Socialist, is currently under investigation in connection with the collapse in the 1980s of the notorious Banco Ambrosiano. The minister of finance, a Christian Democrat, resigned in protest at rumors circulating about him. There are reports of a new scandal concerning the famous ''P2'' Masonic Lodge, accused in the past of having plotted a coup d'etat. Its head, Licio Gelli, was questioned again last week concerning new documents said to compromise still more people in public life and industry.

The principal reason corruption should have reached a tidal level in Italy is that serious political change has been impossible. The Christian Democrats have for almost 50 years dominated coalition governments in corporating various combinations of Socialists, Social Democrats and members of the Republican Party.

The opposition was dominated by the Communist Party (now divided), which it was taken for granted would never govern, and which over the years found itself a very comfortable and profitable role as the permanent opposition. The reason it could not turn the more conservative parties out, or form a coalition government of the left, was not only the difficulty of finding sufficient votes in this fundamentally Catholic country, but because it was generally accepted that the United States would never let the left rule.

The United States had in fact intervened massively in the Italian election of 1947 to keep the Communists out of power. This was the first of the CIA's clandestine political operations, and was a momentous development for the agency itself, whose charter until then had been held to concern intelligence-gathering only. A National Security Council directive of December 1947 put the agency into covert operations in Italy even though the CIA's own legal department ruled against it. A second legal opinion was obtained which argued that if the president told the agency to act, and Congress provided the funds, the CIA had ''administrative authority'' even without legislative authorization. That is how it all began.

The right's victory in that election put the CIA lastingly in business with the Christian Democrats. The agency also conducted a major operation to influence Italy's trade unions, which in the 1950s were under heavy Communist influence. The United States had also, during the war, made use of American Mafia members' Sicilian connections to prepare the Allied landings there. This contributed significantly to the Mafia's rehabilitation.

Later, a U.S.-sponsored secret ''stay-behind'' organization for guerrilla warfare in the case of Soviet invasion of the West also got out of hand, and involved itself in Italian neo-Fascist politics, and allegedly, in terrorism.

The Italians vote in April in a referendum which will include a demand that the voting system be made a majority system like that of France or Britain, replacing proportional representation -- which has had a pernicious influence, perpetuating the power of party hierarchies and thereby promoting their corruption. After that, probably in the autumn, there will be national elections under the new system. Italy's ''First Republic'' will have ended, in shame. A second will begin. The Italian people will have earned it.

William Pfaff is a syndicated columnist.

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