"We don’t want a militarised city; we want to decide our own future".
With these words Patrizia Balbo voiced the sentiments of tens of thousands of local people in the small northern Italian town of Vicenza. On Saturday, 17 February, Vicenza was ’invaded’ by 200,000 people from all over Italy to protest at the decision by the centre-left government, led by Romano Prodi, to approve the doubling of the US base in the town.
If this enlargement goes ahead, as planned, at the civilian airport Dal Molin, it will be the biggest US base in Europe. Just this week, Bush announced that the US army 173rd Brigade will be leaving Vicenza for the spring ’offensive’ in Afghanistan, in which carpet bombing will inevitably kill and maim hundreds, possibly thousands of civilians.
Over the next few weeks, Prodi’s government will be voting to refinance Italian troops in Afghanistan. Coming after a budget which increased military spending while raising taxes and making social cuts, the two issues of Vicenza and Afghanistan have merged together to create a major crisis for the governing nine-party coalition.
For over eight months there has been what can only be described as a ‘community rebellion’ in Vicenza, involving women, students, workers and tens of thousands of local people organised in the ‘No Dal Molin’ campaign. They headed the massive demonstration, with the women in the front row holding a banner declaring: “The future is in our hands”.
Behind them came community activists from other parts of Italy, including at least 4,000 people from Val di Susa, where a long campaign has been waged against the building of a high-speed rail link from Turin to Lyons. There were also ’no war’ activists, members of the ’unions of the base’ and the main trade union federation Cgil, with thousands marching behind the banner of Fiom, the metal workers’ union.
But the biggest groups of protesters were youth from the social centres and the universities, whose banner read “It is right to rebel”.
We travelled to Vicenza from Bologna on an ’occupied’ train, jammed full of young people. Hundreds of similar special trains and coaches were organised all over the country.
Government tries to link protesters with terrorism
In the week before the demonstration, 15 alleged members of an offshoot of the Red Brigades, the terrorist organization, which was active in Italy in the 1970s and early 80s, were arrested. They were under surveillance for a long time and many people feel that it was no accident that they were arrested so close to the demonstration. Government ministers scandalously seized the opportunity to link the protesters with violence and terrorism to try to criminalise and discredit the massive wave of opposition against their government and their policies.
But the demonstration was completely peaceful and almost carnival-like. The overwhelming mood was a sense of betrayal by a government that is not listening to people and is continuing with the policies of the previous right-wing Berlusconi government. Many local people explained how they had voted for the centre-left government but were not sure that they would do so again. During the campaign, hundreds of activists of parties in the government coalition have burnt, torn up or sent back their membership cards.
The organisers of the demonstration, while welcoming the participation of members of political parties who are in the government, nevertheless asked them to march at the end of the demonstration.
Vicenza has created a crisis inside the Prc (Party of Communist Refoundation) which is participating in the government and has, therefore, been tainted by the decision to go ahead with enlarging the US base. While thousands of Prc members marched on the demonstration, including some MPs, the Prc’s Minister of Welfare, Ferrero, and other undersecretaries, did not, caving in to pressure from Prodi, who said “The government cannot march against itself”. Ferrero justified his decision by saying, "My job is to listen and interpret what the people are asking for".
However, the role of a worker’s party is not to passively interpret the mood of working people (and the Prc is not even doing that), but to actively mobilise and give a lead to struggles of the working class to build the movement to change society. It certainly should not involve participation in a government that is carrying out neo-liberal policies against the working class and pursuing an imperialist foreign policy.
Giorgio Cremaschi, a member of the Prc and a leader of the Fiom trade union, this week wrote in the Italian newspaper ‘Corriere de la Sera’, “The time has come when the Prc’s exit from the government should no longer be considered a taboo”.
Prc must change course
In our bulletin, which we sold on the demonstration in Vicenza, members of Lotta per il Socialismo (CWI in Italy) clearly called on the Prc to break with the anti-working class, pro-imperialist policies of the Prodi government – to oppose the base at Vicenza and to vote against refinancing Italian troops in Afghanistan. We explained that the government’s policies are preparing the way for a return of a future right-wing government.
Vicenza and Afghanistan should have been the opportunity for the Prc to change course and to give a political lead to the movement that is developing. The potential is there to build a mass, independent, working-class political party. This could in turn lay the basis for a struggle for a workers government, which could provide a socialist alternative to neo-liberalism and the anarchy and inequality of capitalism.
“All those who want to develop an independent working-class political alternative, wherever they are active,” we wrote in our bulletin, "must begin now to organise together to make that alternative a reality".