Wednesday, November 20, 2019

The Vampires Descend

Sign of the times

NOTE: I wrote most of the below last week, just after the disastrous acqua alta of 187 cm.

MOSE, the acronym for the mobile flood barriers that were by now supposed to protect Venice from disastrous flooding of the sort that swept into the city Tuesday night has been on everyone’s lips these past days--almost invariably preceded or followed by a variety of imprecations, directed not just at the monstrously-expensive and still non-functioning things themselves but at the various people who have promoted them, and profited from them for the last 37 years.

After all, not long after the big project (it was literally called Il Progettone) was formally announced, the then-Prime Minister of Italy, Bettino Craxi, named the date of its completion: 1995. If by some miracle the gates had been operational by that time, Craxi himself would have had to miss their inauguration, as in 1994 he fled from Italy to escape imprisonment for corruption to Tunisia, where he'd remain a fugitive until his death in 2000. 

This would be just the first of many, many, many missed deadlines.

Sadly enough the best account I've seen on MOSE remains John Keahey's 2002 book Venice Against the Sea. "Sadly," I say, not because of any fault in the book itself--on the contrary, it's an impressive and fair depiction of the complex political and historical forces involved in the dream of saving Venice from encroaching tides--but because so little progress on the problem has been made that it remains as good a guide to the current situation today, 17 years after its publication, as it was when first printed.

"Sadly," too, because all the reservations which Keahey carefully documents various people expressing about the project from its very inception to the time of his writing--engineers, environmentalists, and the EU itself--have been shown to be not just valid, but nothing less than prophetic.

For example, consider this passage about the creation of Consorzio Venezia Nuova (or Consortium for a New Venice), a target of more than a few curses, not to mention corruption charges, in recent years:
Created by government fiat, the Consorzio is made up of about fifty of the largest public and private civil-engineering and construction firms in Italy. This [gives] a virtual monopoly for the rescue of Venice to a group of Italy's largest for-profit firms. Such a monopoly could never been created in the United States. There it would require several independent groups, all bidding for a variety of contracts. They would compete for the right to determine what solutions needed to be developed for problems within the lagoon, how those solutions should be designed, and then who should build them. [I must insert here that while this invocation of the US makes for an instructive contrast, and is along the lines of the process which Keahey later notes the EU wanted Italy to follow, America has since proved itself to be quite fond of no-bid contracts, not to mention unpunished corruption.]

The Consorzio was created in the years when Italian contracts and money were routinely funneled to "friends of friends," as one official wryly described it. And it was created before the 1990s crackdown by judicial magistrates on major business executives throughout Italy who were believed to have profited from a variety of favors and scams.

To its credit the Consorzio has weathered the wave of investigations that swept the country in the last decade of the twentieth century, a fact that have not stopped cynical Italians from continuing to believe that money is being poured into a bottomless hole, and that the Consorzio was making billion of lire from a project--the mobile gates--that would never see the light of day. Even today, in the dawn of the twenty-first century, there are those who believe that the Consorzio is content to have the gates continually delayed because it gives the organization a reason to exist--and continue to draw billions of lire annually in government funds.
Those billions of lire have swelled enormously to billions of euros--6 billion euros by latest estimates.

And deadlines continue to be missed regularly, and one news article after another recounts the latest humiliating revelation of the Consorzio's ineptness and knavishness. The latter perhaps surprises no one: as the excerpt above suggests, corruption and unaccountability were baked into the very being of the Consorzio.

But the utter incompetence is such that it alone, the sheer embarrassing stupidity, especially in the context of saving one of the world's great historical and cultural sites, merits criminal charges. They're the kinds of stupidity and irresponsibility one must laugh about so as not to cry, recounting to others in Venice, "Ah, remember when the geniuses at the Consorzio discovered--but only after installing the gates--that the sea is salty?!"

The website Campaign for a Living Venice has recently compiled a very useful list of links of the Consorzio's most recent failures under the heading "MoSE Will Not Work."  It provides a succinct and valuable context for understanding why this week's floods hit residents so very hard--the blow to local morale being no less severe than the substantial damage done to landmarks, homes, and businesses.

A group portrait of shamelesness: Silvio Berlusconi, center; Renato Brunetta, right of him; Luigi Brugnaro, at far right (Corriere del Veneto)

Indeed, given the long painful history of MOSE it requires, in truth, a rather extraordinary amount of shamelessness to arrive in the city when the water has once again filled the calli and campi to alarming heights, slip into some rubber boots, and declare with no sense of irony that the key takeaway from this ongoing disaster is that our dedication to (and, inevitably, funding of) the completion of MOSE must be intensified.

But then some politicians become legendary for their shamelessness, and one of the most infamous of this sort showed his wax-work face in Venice the day after Tuesday's near-record acqua alta of 187 cm to laud the project whose cornerstone he quite literally laid on May 13, 2003.

If, as the saying goes, the apple doesn't fall far from the tree, it should come as little surprise to be reminded that, yes, indeed, it was Silvio Berlusconi (during his first term as Prime Minister) who served as the midwife of what, in terms of its non-functioning, might be called MOSE's still birth.

Though this week a good many people might describe MOSE's entrance into the lagoon as nothing less than an abortion.

But Berlusconi was not alone in this week's pitch for MOSE, nor the only person present at the inauguration of MOSE in 2003 to reappear this week in rubber boots as the image below from Dagospia shows:

Silvio Berlusconi (center) with Luca Zaia to his left, and Renata Bruneta (far right: current head of Berlusconi's Forza Italia party's group of deputies in the Chambers of Deputies, then a minister in the Berlusconi administration) at the May 14, 2003 ribbon cutting of MOSE

Though not pictured in the second image of this post taken in the high water of Piazza San Marco, the President of the Veneto region, Luca Zaia, was also in town yesterday--as he was in 2003 to kick off MOSE's construction (see directly above)--and Venice's own non-resident mayor traveled all the way from his home in the Treviso region to push for MOSE's "speedy" completion.

(Soon after Venice's current mayor was elected, a native Venetian, retired after a lifetime of serving in local and regional administrative roles, characterized him to me as "ruspante." I didn't know the word, so he gestured with one hand as if scraping for something on the table top between us and explained, "Like a hen in the farmyard, you understand? Scratching at the dirt to see what she might find for herself." It has proved to be--or, rather, the mayor has proved it to be--an apt description. So much so that that's how I always think of him, and how I'll refer to him here: Mayor Ruspante.)

Climate change was to blame for the increased frequency and intensity of flooding, said Mayor Ruspante, and only MOSE could save the city.

Well, being an American citizen, I had to give the good mayor a point just for mentioning climate change, as American politicians on the Right don't dare utter that term--and even go out of their way to entirely ban its use by state and Federal government agencies.

But while climate change is a major factor, it is not the only one. Also known to be a factor in the intensity of acqua alta are the kinds of changes to the morphology of the lagoon which Mayor Ruspante himself supports: that is, the digging of deep water shipping channels, which have washed away the extensive mudflats that once filled the lagoon and tempered tidal force, and the reconfiguration of the ports into the lagoon from the Adriatic for the sake of--the construction of MOSE.

Moreover, climate change is not the reason why MOSE is way behind schedule and still not functioning--nor giving many signs that it ever will.

It's simple (and cynical) enough to use the backdrop of a flooded city to demand that the pipe line of public funding poured into the private interests profiting from MOSE be kept fully open--after all, Berlusconi has declared "it's 94% completed!"

An impressive figure, indeed.

Until you consider that for the most part it's proven itself to be pretty much 100% non-functional.

If we've learned nothing else from this great long-running swindle, surely we've learned that all the money in the Italian budget doesn't buy competence or accountability. Why should it suddenly do so now?

These are some of the reasons why all the expressions of dismay in the world by Mayor Ruspante and Zaia and Brunetta and Berlusconi (if his face were capable of forming expressions) don't go very far with most Venetians.

And why a flyer posted all around town this week (below) labels these recent visitors "Crocodiles in the Lagoon," with the tears and sharp teeth that go with such creatures.

Venice's Mayor Ruspante (left), Regional President Luca Zaia, (center), and the Patriarch of Venice (right) are pictured on a flyer posted all around the city this week
But yesterday as I walked my son home from school--my son who has lived in Venice since before he was three years old, and who never wants to leave it--I caught sight of Berlusconi himself. We were approaching a bridge near Piazzale Roma as a long row of police boats and taxis began to pass beneath it, and then suddenly there he was: standing in the open air at the back of a taxi, spray-on hairline as black and flat as Bela Lagosi's Dracula, a faint fixed smile on his fixed filler-plumped face, a toady at the front end of the taxi's roof filming the former Prime Minister's slow procession down the Rio Novo with a smart phone as "Il Cavaliere" looked to see if anyone along the fondamente was noticing him--an aborted little wave attesting to a momentary false hope that he'd spotted an admirer.

Some, like myself, had noticed him, but I saw no one give a wave, and I saw no one smile. Seeing him cross one's path less than 24 hours after the acqua alta of 187 cm seemed a particularly inauspicious sign: a primped and long-black-coated undead passing through the stricken city, looking for more blood. 

An inauspicious sight in Rio Novo


  1. Hasn't Venice suffered enough recently, without the Berlusconi circus?

  2. Yet another excellent piece - one the best I've read on the ongoing calamity of Mose and sindaco Ruspante. Thank you Steven. One very tiny point: you write 'Though not pictured in the images above, the President of the Veneto region, Luca Zaia, was also in town'. But isn't that Luca Zaia standing shoulder to shoulder with Berlusconi, to the right of Berlusconi as we look at the picture?

    1. Yes, JCB, thanks for pointing that out--through sloppy writing and sloppy placement of the image in the text I managed to confuse even myself! And thank you very much for your comment, it means a lot to me.

  3. Hello Steven. I am very glad to discover your blog today. It is just what I need to learn more about your beautiful and unique (but now suffering) city. Thank you especially for the good explanation in today's post.

    1. You're very kind to take the time to let me know you liked what you read, Dina, thank you.