Italy: The left and the earthquake in Abruzzo

Corruption kills

The earthquake which struck Abruzzo in Italy, in the early hours of April 6, killed almost 300 people, injured more than a thousand and left at least 40,000 people homeless. Yet, as Marco Veruggio explains, much of the responsibility for the death and destruction rests with a system in which profit takes precedence over safety.

crowds at state funeral for victims

“The tsunami which razed the coast to the ground like a bulldozer offered building contractors an opportunity they could never have dreamed of, and they moved quickly to grasp it”. (Seth Mydans, Times Southeast Asia correspondent)

“We have finally managed to clean up public housing in New Orleans. We didn’t know how to do it but God did it for us.” (Jim Baker, Republican congressman).

These quotes from Naomi Klein’s book ‘The Shock Doctrine’ show clearly what the capitalists think of natural disasters. While all of the politicians in Italy are talking about ’national unity’ and avoiding controversy (including Paolo Ferrero, general secretary of Rifondazione Comunista), it would be useful to reflect on what has happened in order to avoid the Abruzzo tragedy becoming once again a tragedy in two acts: the earthquake and the reconstruction.

Today the mood of people hit by the earthquake is despondent, in some cases distrustful of institutions (there are small towns which were only reached three days after the earthquake) and, above all, worried about their future because in Italy there are earthquake victims who are still living in prefabricated wooden houses 20 years on. But this mood could soon turn to one of anger.

Could it have been foreseen?

Immediately after the tragedy a controversy broke out in the press about whether the earthquake could have been predicted. For months, Abruzzo had experienced a series of tremors which led to the mayor of L’Aquila ordering all schools to be closed in the week before that fateful day. But in particular, there was discussion about the fact that a week previously, Giampaolo Giuliani, a technician and researcher at the Laboratori dell’Istituto Nazionale di Fisica Nucleare at Gran Sasso, had predicted the catastrophe. He had subsequently been accused of being alarmist and was called “an imbecile who enjoyed spreading false news” by Bertolaso, the head of Civil Protection.

The international scientific community intervened in support of Bertolaso, testifying that it is not possible to accurately predict earthquakes. While I do not feel qualified enough to get into a controversial scientific discussion of this kind, I would like to reflect politically on what a capitalist government in a country like Italy would do if prediction were possible.

L’Aquila has a population of 73,000. Obviously it would not be possible in every case to determine a priori how far the earthquake would spread, so the government would have to clear a much wider area, evacuating hundreds of thousands of people. If, for example, the cost per head of doing so was a minimum of €50 a day, to evacuate 300,000 people, it would mean spending around €15 million a day, probably for several days, because it would be difficult to predict exactly when the earthquake would begin. In addition it would be necessary to have a structure in place capable of carrying out an operation of this size 365 days a year, which would obviously be quite costly.

It would mean increasing public spending instead of cutting it as all governments have done in the last 20 years. We only have to consider the fact that the provision of hospital beds is based on ‘average occupancy’ so as to avoid empty beds, which means that with an ‘extraordinary’ event such as a ‘flu epidemic, heat wave or natural disaster the hospitals are bursting at the seams. (Recently, at the accident and emergency department of the San Martino hospital in Genoa, some patients had to wait to be seen stretched out on the floor of the hospital and similar incidents happen regularly). What is more, the government has recently drastically cut funds for safety, including for earthquakes.

All of that would be necessary without of course being sure that the earthquake tremors would be strong enough to ’justify’ such expenditure, and risk being accused of alarmism and wasting public resources. On the other hand, intervening after the event reduces expenditure because only the damage is covered. Or rather, only part of the damage, because in reality finances compensate only some of the damage suffered by ordinary people, the rest goes to the companies which will be involved in the business of reconstruction. In this way, earthquakes and any natural disasters become yet another opportunity to redistribute wealth from below to above. Workers and ordinary people lose out while the banks and building companies in particular win.

So, can earthquakes be predicted? Or rather, if the government had had wind of the danger, would it have had the will or the capability of intervening to prevent it? In reality, from the capitalist point of view, it is not worth having a huge safety apparatus and applying all the safety norms to protect the population. It is more economical and, in some respects, more profitable to close the stable door after the horse has bolted. The same cynicism which oozes from the quotations cited earlier on can be applied to Abruzzo as much as to South East Asia and New Orleans.

The building business

In a period in which the building sector is collapsing, an earthquake is one of those classic ’strokes of luck’ which can ’relaunch the economy’. In Abruzzo some buildings collapsed while others just a few metres away remained intact. One building company had built 60 buildings in L’Aquila, none of which collapsed. Media interest concentrated on the San Salvatore hospital, a building which was completed in the year 2000 and was almost destroyed in the earthquake. Work on the hospital began in the ‘70s and, over the years, the cost of building it increased tenfold. Impregilo, a company owned by Benetton-Gavio-Ligresti, which is already involved in numerous scandals and had won the tender to build the bridge over the Messina Straits, worked on the hospital from 1991 to 2000. But it maintains that it merely “made it functional” and does not know who was responsible for the hospital’s walls.

Quake’s devastation

Reconnaissance carried out at the ‘crime scene’ (because what happened was a crime) show that many buildings were not only built without complying to anti-earthquake norms, but without respecting the most elementary building rules – using out of date materials, building on unsuitable land and skimping on strengthening the cement. In particular, cement companies, which are usually subcontracted, use out of date material to mix the cement. Using sea sand instead of quarry sand can mean a doubling of profit margins from 30% to 50-60%. But because sea sand is full of salt, after a few years the metal of the reinforced concrete is corroded and becomes useless. If the percentage of sand is increased, compared to the cement and gravel, the costs decline further. Journalists wrote about blocks of concrete amongst the debris which had crumbled like sand. These kinds of irregularities have also been found in the new high-speed train lines in Italy, in some parts of the motorway system in the Veneto region and in the Genoa underground system.

It is well known that in Central and Southern Italy, and now also in many parts of the North, the cement market is controlled by the mafia-like ‘Camorra’. The subcontracting system allows companies at the top of the chain to entrust the dirty work to small companies and then wash their hands of them. It is also known that this system flourishes because of the links between the Mafia and politicians. In High Speed Corruption, ex-judge and ex-president of the anti-Mafia Parliamentary Commission, Ferdinando Imposimato, reveals how, in the 1990s, Romano Prodi, who was then president of the state company IRI, personally guaranteed work for the high-speed rail link in Campania to companies which had a whiff of the Mafia. Some had even been found guilty by the courts. Prodi was brought to trial and acquitted, but the magistrate who had conducted the enquiry was threatened. After the acquittal he transferred to another office before he could contest and appeal against the charge.

Now, having profited by building cardboard houses, these same companies (or other companies controlled by the same people) can see future rich pickings in the rebuilding process in Abruzzo.

As is always the case when there is a big cake to be divided, the employers call for national unity. The political parties have responded docilely and in unison. This includes the left which once again does not understand one of the golden rules of good politics: when you’ve got nothing intelligent to say it’s better to stay quiet! Rifondazione Comunista has organised groups ready to go to Abruzzo to help, even though comrades on the ground say that this is not the main requirement. But it leaves the press to denounce those politically responsible for the massacre. The Pdci (Party of Italian Communists) is silent. Berlusconi on the other hand has said that “there was no malice” and the Italian president, after visiting L’Aquila, decreed that everyone is guilty – those who sold cardboard houses and those who bought them. In other words, everyone is guilty and everyone is innocent. He is sure to be well received at the next reception organised by the association of builders!

Berlusconi at funeral

Berlusconi at funeral

A social and political response to the tragedy

People are anxious about the future. Everyone knows that reconstruction in Italy takes forever. Up until a few years ago in Belice, which was hit by an earthquake in 1968, 400 people were still living in shacks and reconstruction was not complete. The same is true for Irpinia, (hit in 1980), and for Umbria (1997). In Abruzzo, the government recently agreed to requests from builders to further delay any obligation to adopt anti-earthquake measures until 30th June 2010. It has waived payment of electricity and gas bills in the stricken area by way of compensation…but only for two months.

Some community organisations have already started to promote collective discussion and organisation. They have asked Italians to show solidarity with the earthquake victims not by going to Abruzzo but, for the moment, by organising initiatives and the collection of funds throughout Italy and depositing the money in local accounts until the affected community has set up its own representative organisations and projects. At the same time they have underlined the necessity of local control over reconstruction, explicitly banning companies which have previously disregarded building norms.

A left party should reflect on these initiatives, develop them and try to build a political campaign to denounce those responsible for the disaster and to promote a collective response to the needs of those who risk paying the highest price of the catastrophe – workers and small employers in the commercial and craft sector. All expenses should be frozen (bills, mortgages, taxes, charges) and everyone who has lost their house or their job should be guaranteed an income until normality is restored. Reconstruction should be immediately got underway under the control of organisations democratically elected by those who have been hit by the earthquake in order to avoid profiteering.

All building projects should be checked by law before building commences and anyone wanting to start a building company should have to meet specific requirements. At the same time, a more general proposal is needed aimed at finding those responsible for the disaster and avoiding another Abruzzo happening in the future. Large building companies like Impregilo should be nationalised with the aim of creating a large public building company with democratic control over what is built and how it is built.

Maintenance companies which have been privatised should be brought back into local authority control and building companies which have disregarded norms should be forced to pay compensation and be brought into a new public building system. Sub-contracting, which allows infiltration into the public system by small Mafia-controlled companies, should be ended. Illegal working, which in the building sector accounts for up to 40% of work, should be abolished. Workers who are deprived of basic rights are not in a position to denounce irregularities committed by the company they are working for.

A special plan should be launched to check and maintain the country’s buildings, beginning with those in the public sector. In L’Aquila it was not just the hospital and the student halls of residence which collapsed but also the court, the prefecture (from which the civil protection was supposed to have coordinated its assistance), the regional council building and the Land Registry office (where all the important data necessary for monitoring the situation and for reconstruction was housed). In addition it is estimated that around 800 schools in Italy do not meet safety requirements, as was tragically demonstrated a few months ago when the roof of a high school collapsed in a town near Turin killing one pupil.

Looking back at the regional elections

Until a few months ago the Italian Left governed in the Abruzzo region in alliance with the Democratic Party (DP) – known as the ‘cement’ party (or maybe it should now be the ‘sand’ party). Even after the arrest of Ottaviano Del Turco, regional president and DP spokesman, for a scandal linked to the health service, they continued participating in the alliance, covering this decision with the fig leaf of a ‘moral campaign’. On the day of the regional elections themselves the regional secretary of the PD was arrested, accused of corruption. The centre-right won the election in Abruzzo hands down. (Rifondazione Comunista alone lost 40% of its votes compared to the previous regional elections).

If the Left fails to represent the interests of workers and ordinary people when they come into conflict with the interests of the political and business lobbies, it will face self-destruction. In the regional elections in Abruzzo, 50% did not bother to vote. There did not seem to be a ‘clean’ political force. If voting were to take place today perhaps the abstention rate would be as high as 70-80%.

These are the ‘brilliant’ results of a ‘modern’ and ‘reasonable’ Left, without the ‘extremism’ which Controcorrente was accused of when we alone, at a local and national level, were saying that the Left should not ally itself with spokespeople of the ‘committee of builders ’ and a health service based on bribes and when we described the electoral agreement as an “unrealistic attempt at reviving a centre-left buried under its own rubble” (Ali Ghaderi quoted in Il Messagero, 1 November 2008). It remains to be seen whether, in the next few months, those who made that choice will examine their consciences, including at a national level, or whether once again we will be embroiled in another round of electoral alliances in the June local elections with the ‘party of crooks’, only realising the consequences of this when it is too late.

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April 2009