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Sicily, Image and Reality

Sicily, Image and Reality

George De Stefano (November 4, 2008)
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Change agents: Sicily's Rita Borsellino meets Fabio Messina, a Palermo anti-Mafia merchant

The recent New York visit by the island’s labor minister prompts some not so sunny thoughts


“If we want to recast a new image of Sicily, we must begin here [New York], in the commercial and cultural capital of the world.”



So said Sicily’s Labor Minister Carmelo Incardona in an interview conducted by I-Italy’s Letizia Airos during his recent visit to New York (Sicily. What is There After the Carretto? October 30).  


Incardona’s intent, in both the interview and his visit, was to promote a Sicily that is modern and dynamic, respectful of its traditions but not held back by them.


As a Sicilian American who has visited the island numerous times, I found myself agreeing with many of Incardona’s observations. He’s certainly right about Sicily’s enormous potential, and he was fairly candid about its shortcomings.


I also agree that New York City, being the world’s media capital as well as one of the most “Italian” of cities not actually in Italy, could be a launching pad for a campaign to recast Sicily’s image.


But savvy “re-branding” can only go so far. The reality on the ground must radically change for the island to realize its potential and attract greater numbers of foreign visitors.


Sicily’s biggest liability, of course, is La Cosa Nostra. Though vigorous and sustained law enforcement has put bosses in prison and weakened the vise grip of “la società onorata,” the Mafia still enjoys considerable economic and political power. It was just this year that the island’s regional president Salvatore Cuffaro was found guilty of Mafia-related charges and forced to leave office. And he’s hardly the only Sicilian politician to have disgraced himself by collaborating with gangsters.


The Mafia’s penetration of Sicily’s economy has been a drag on the island’s progress for decades. In addition to such traditional centers of business activity as agriculture and the building trades, La Cosa Nostra has had its bloody hands in manufacturing, tourism, hotels and restaurants, waste disposal, public works projects, and health care. (After the 2006 arrest of fugitive boss Bernardo Provenzano, it was reported that the capo di tutti capi had been treated for various ailments in Mafia-owned clinics.) In parts of western Sicily, the Mafia has even controlled the supply of water. Incredibly, what should be a public resource has been a private monopoly of criminals.


Addio, Pizzo?

Minister Incardona mentions the civil society group Addiopizzo as an example of a new and encouraging surge in political commitment among young Sicilians. But he doesn’t really address the reasons for the group’s existence. In 2004, several young Palermo residents were thinking about opening a pub. They quickly realized they’d be forced to pay “protection” money, known as the pizzo, to mafiosi if they wanted to stay in business. They formed Addiopizzo out of anger and frustration that one cannot start a business in Palermo without Mafia bloodsuckers feeding on it.


The group’s slogan attests to the pervasiveness of the problem and its impact on Sicily: “An entire people that pays the pizzo is a people without dignity.”


It has been estimated that some 80 percent of Palermo businesses pay the pizzo, including some of the city’s most prestigious shops. A 2007 article in The Economist put the annual estimated value of the pizzo in Sicily at 8 billion euros, or about $12 billion.


For tourists, the pizzo is the Mafia’s version of the value added tax. And like the VAT, it inflates the cost of goods and services.


"Monthly protection money ranges from 200 euros for a bar to 1,000 for larger hotels,” anti-Mafia activist Laura Nicastro told the British daily The Guardian. “That means that, for every euro you spend on a coffee, up to 10 cents may go to Cosa Nostra.”


Given how widespread this practice is, and considering the high cost of resistance – noncompliant business owners have been killed and their properties bombed – one can only applaud an initiative such as Addiopizzo.


But when you go to the group’s website (, you will see just how many businesses have heeded its call to refuse to pay the pizzo: 313. That’s certainly encouraging. But it’s only a small fraction of the shops and companies in the greater Palermo area.


The experience of one business owner who did refuse might help explain the reluctance. Vincenzo Conticello is the owner of the Antica Focacceria San Francesco, a 175 year-old restaurant specializing in traditional cucina siciliana. I’ve eaten there several times, and I've enjoyed the panelle, caponata, and pasta, as well as the ambiance at this venerable and still popular establishment.


Last year Conticello did something that had been unthinkable. He not only refused to give in to demands to pay the pizzo; he even testified in an open court against the mafiosi who were trying to shake him down.


His refusal won him respect and admiration. But it also made him a marked man. Today he and his restaurant are under 24/7 police protection from machine gun-toting carabinieri. How many businesspeople are willing to pay such a price?


It’s Not Just the Pizzo

The pizzo, unfortunately, is no isolated evil but a symptom of a larger malaise. Corruption and poor public administration are endemic in Sicily, and it’s not always because of the Mafia. In today’s Sicily, a raccomandazione (preferment) from a powerful figure – who may or may not be “connected” -- still can count more than skills and experience in getting a good job. Clientelism and other corrupt practices are widespread, infecting even the universities of which Minister Incardona is so proud.


“It is still possible, for example, to obtain a high grade at the University of Palermo through an offer of money or even, in the case of a pretty studentessa, sex,” Sicilian commentator Roberto Paglia has observed.


Speaking of university students, Minister Incardona boasts that Sicily now produces so many college graduates that the island’s economy cannot employ them all. Two of my closest Sicilian friends, both university professors, have told me that graduating students have begged them for help with finding jobs because they didn’t want to emigrate. But the problem isn’t too many graduates. It’s that the sclerotic, corruption-prone Sicilian economy can’t generate enough jobs for them. 

Besides Italian tax revenues, Sicily receives considerable European Union funding. But euros intended for job training and public works projects have been diverted to private interests, producing little genuine development and few jobs. Agricultural subsidies are another reliable source of graft.


In the political realm, parties still buy votes. Bribes and kickbacks remain a common feature of Sicilian politics.    


Missing from Minister Incardona’s interview, however, was any discussion of politics, and of how Sicily’s political system contributes to the island’s problems. That’s hardly surprising – Incardona, from the “post”- Fascist Alleanza Nazionale, is a member of Prime Minister Berlusconi’s center-right People of Liberty coalition. Berlusconi embodies the clientelism so entrenched in Sicilian and Italian politics, with its trading of favors and provision of work to favored individuals and businesses.


This political tradition fosters a “culture of illegality,” as former Palermo mayor Leoluca Orlando observed.


Indeed, one of Berlusconi’s closest associates, Marcello Dell’Utri, was convicted in 2004 of aiding the Mafia and was sentenced to nine years in prison. At his trial former mafiosi testified that Dell’Utri was the Mafia’s chief contact in the Berlusconi financial empire and that Cosa Nostra provided huge amounts of investment capital for Berlusconi’s business ventures, particularly in the early years.


To paraphrase a popular slogan from the Sixties, you can’t be part of the solution if you’re part of the problem. 


Another Sicily

In light of these problems, inconveniences to tourists might seem trivial. But I can’t let pass Minister Incardona’s comments about Sicily’s hotels. He says that “Even the smallest places provide warm hospitality with all of the services that a tourist could want.”


When I visit Sicily I stay with friends. But I have had occasion to stay in hotels when traveling on the island, and my experience, albeit limited, doesn’t jibe with Incardona’s glowing description. A few years ago, at a hotel in Selinunte, a beautiful town on Sicily's southwest coast, an officious desk clerk decided that two gay male couples – my partner Rob and I, and Giovanni and Salvo, two friends from Catania – could not have rooms with double-beds. The “letto matrimoniale,” i.e., “marriage bed,” was not for us, he sternly declared.


Giovanni was furious, and he argued with the clerk, who would not budge. As the decibel level rose, the manager came out of his office to see what the problem was. “Let them have what they want,” he instructed the clerk. Although the dispute was resolved in our favor, the contretemps, which was witnessed by other guests, was embarrassing. And the staff members we encountered during our thankfully brief stay were hardly brimming with “warm hospitality,” with the exception of the young gay waiter who served us at the hotel’s (mediocre) restaurant. 


This experience might not be typical of Sicilian hotels. But I’ve never encountered anything like it in any other European city, not even elsewhere in Italy. It’s bad enough when locals suffer from archaic attitudes. But inflicting them on visitors doesn’t help to promote Sicily as a desirable destination.


The social critic Luigi Barzini once described Sicily as a metaphor for the Italian nation, noting that the island incarnated, often in extreme forms, Italy’s virtues and vices. Echoing Barzini, political satirist Beppe Grillo says, “Italy will not change until Sicily changes.” The issues Sicilians are grappling with – organized crime,  political and economic corruption, and lack of trust in public institutions – confront Italy as a nation.


Rita Borsellino, a leading Sicilian progressive, speaks for many on the island who are struggling for what she calls “another Sicily.” At the core of the struggle is the confrontation with organized crime, as the Mafia virus has infected the central structures of Sicilian society. It is a fight for honest government, for socioeconomic development, for civic engagement. The reform movement also champions gender equality and a more modern sexual culture, freed from the dead hand of patriarchal tradition. The “new Sicily” that Labor Minister Incardona extols – disingenuously, in my view -- is still gestating.  Its birth will require much more than a public relations makeover.

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