The world got a pungent whiff of how Italy's public life has decayed when the southern city of Naples was buried under block-long piles of trash last December. But here's another image from the south of Italy: two men in a three-wheeled mini Piaggio garbage truck puttering along the narrow cobblestone streets in the small coastal town of Amendolara, picking up neatly placed bags of refuse for recycling. While the Neapolitans were fuming over the corruption and political spinelessness that elevated their trash woes to iconic significance, a door-to-door pickup scheme was successfully encouraging the good citizens of Amendolara to separate out plastics and paper.
We all think we know this about Italy's social topography: the north is efficient and prosperous, the south beset by poverty, mobsters and bad governance. But it was never that simple, as Amendolara demonstrates. This generally well-run coastal town is in the most troubled southern region of all: Calabria, the toe of the Italian boot, where the baleful influence of the crime syndicate 'Ndrangheta is pervasive, the infrastructure is dismal, and the unemployment rate is 13% double the national average. Amendolara partakes of some of that woe it's still underdeveloped and isolated but not all of it. The mob holds no sway here, and the coastline has so far not been marred by ugly construction projects. This quiet town both defies and embodies the deepest problems of the south and of Italy as a whole. And it is places like Amendolara, neither blazing northern successes nor clichéd horrors of the south, that are most likely to chart the country's future.
Italians are heading to the polls on April 13-14 to choose a new Prime Minister, following the premature collapse of Romano Prodi's center-left government in January. The race between former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi and former Rome Mayor Walter Veltroni comes at one of the lowest moments in post-war Italian history. With the country locked in a vicious cycle of public cynicism and economic malaise, the election does not bode well. Many pundits think the best-case scenario might be a failure by both Berlusconi and Veltroni to win a ruling majority an outcome that would lead to the formation of a caretaker grand coalition. It is a sad day indeed for democracy when smart people start pulling for both sides to lose.
But there's another bad omen. Calabria and the south are conspicuously absent from the national agenda. Only in passing does the region feature in campaign speeches, and there are few premium spots for southerners on the political parties' parliamentary-candidate lists. True commitment to solving the problems of the "Mezzogiorno" as Italy's eight southernmost regions are known is clearly not considered a vote getter. Yet for reasons that transcend geography, turning around the south ought to be Italy's most pressing national priority. Youth unemployment in the Mezzogiorno is a staggering 36%; and between 1991 and 2005, according to one recent study, the Interior Ministry dissolved 154 local city councils in the area because of Mob infiltration. These conditions have caused a steady exodus of the region's most promising youth to points north and abroad.
Too often, Italian politicians have addressed the south as an isolated regional problem: some say too much public money is frittered away there, while others say the 14 million southerners among Italy's population of 59 million need more support. That's all beside the point, says Domenico Cersosimo, an economics professor at the University of Calabria. "We shouldn't see this as a country divided in two," he says. "The maladies of the Mezzogiorno are the maladies of Italy. It's just a question of degree: what is gray in Italy is black in the south." Indeed, entrenched nationwide ills like tax evasion, cumbersome bureaucracy and a self-serving political class are of a piece with the south's blight crime and blatant corruption. Neither the public nor private sectors have been modernized in Italy, as they have been elsewhere in Europe, explains Fabrizio Barca, a senior Italian Economy Ministry official. "The north has found ways to compensate for this, and can be competitive in spite of the state of country," he says. "It is the north that is the anomaly, not the south. Rome and its ministries operate like the south. Fixing the south means fixing Italy."
Amendolara offers a tiny blip of hope on the otherwise bleak map of Calabria. Current local leaders have pushed to maximize the town's tourist potential and improve living conditions for residents. Beginning in 2001, Mayor Mario Melfi, a former union leader, implemented a municipal program under the grand slogan: "Amendolara wants to be in Italy, in Europe, in peace." Funded by $3 million a year in local property taxes and $630,000 in revenue from traffic tickets plus additional grants from Rome and Brussels the town has offered financial incentives and improved infrastructure to attract private businesses. The mayor's program lured the town's first local bank and four-star hotel, promoted the uncovering of pre-Roman archaeological treasures, and led to the establishment of scuba and sailing schools. Thanks to local efforts, Amendolara has managed to renovate the historic city center, open a state-of-the-art physiotherapy center, and step up environmental efforts like recycling.
On the strength of those initiatives, Melfi was re-elected in 2006 by a 15 percentage point margin over his closest rival. Talk to the locals and you hear the rare sound of southerners pleased with the direction in which their town is headed. One morning in March, Pasquale Salandria, taking a break from his work on a city clean-up crew, gestures toward two new seaside cafés and a disco. "Ten years ago there was almost nothing here," he says. Indeed, the town of 3,000 now seems to strike a nice balance between dynamism and coastal pleasantness, favoring local sports facilities, for instance, over outsized tourist lodgings.
Still, it would be a mistake to get seduced entirely by the mayor's efforts, or by the good-life charms of the town's refurbished 11th century chapel, homemade salami and Mediterranean breeze. For Amendolara's residents are still short on opportunities. Melfi himself says a lack of industry, large-scale agriculture and sufficient air and highway connections means that poverty and unemployment are bound to persist. "We're not some kind of 'happy island,'" he says. "We've got many of the same problems as the rest of Calabria. Too many young people are packing their bags, with their college diploma inside." Indeed, the quaint face that Amendolara, like much of Italy, puts on for visitors often hides the nation's great plague: wasted potential.