Even while I was still hoping for a miracle, I had no doubt that the Lega was going to win the municipal elections in Riace. I told my friends and companions who have been laboring over the years to safeguard the extraordinary experience of this place.
I also told Domenico “Mimmo” Lucano, the exiled mayor: “If you set up your own list, you have to be sure you’re going to win, otherwise it’s an unbelievable own goal! Maybe it’s better if you don’t take part in these sham elections, because the practice of democracy is impossible: you are not allowed to talk to your own people, from whom you have been separated for eight months now… You can set up a great fight on this issue, and many will listen to you…”
Unfortunately, Domenico was convinced he could win, and everything ended as we all know. However, few truly know what actually happened there.
The Lega won because, since the past winter, it had set up a very powerful strategy through its delegate in the Locride region. The Lega’s supporters made promises: if they won, the money would finally come. It would take just a word from the minister, and the Prefecture would pay out the arrears due for the municipality’s reception of migrants and people would finally be able to breathe.
To understand the situation, one must realize that 80 young people from Riace and its surroundings, dozens of shops and the few migrants who have still remained have been waiting to be paid for two years. For the past seven years, under the so-called Riace model, they used to be paid immediately in the local vouchers (bearing the image of Nelson Mandela, Peppino Impastato, Che Guevara, etc.). Then, when the municipality received funding from the Prefecture, this local “currency” was converted into euros. The system worked well, and it gave a big boost to the local economy—but it collapsed as soon as the state stopped making the payments.
That was when the people of Riace began to turn against their mayor, slowly at first, but more and more over time. First came the doubts about his activities, then an anger that only increased as the months went by without any solution in sight, while Domenico Lucano only got more famous and was a presence in all the mass media. They felt that their former mayor was being honored in Milan, Paris, and beyond, while they in Riace were growing more and more desperate. Then, Lucano’s enforced exile did the rest, cutting off all relations between him and the majority of the population of Riace.
It did little good to explain the facts: that this situation had been created on purpose, first by Minister Minniti and then by his successor, with the collaboration of some of the institutions, which have persecuted the former mayor of Riace to an unbelievable extent, treating him as if he was a dangerous mafia boss.
Of course, having witnessed the events from an insider’s perspective, I have to be honest and say that Domenico Lucano also committed errors, stemming from naivety. His most serious error was to think that he would soon return to his position: that since he had not committed any crimes, he was going to be quickly vindicated. A consequence of this naive expectation was the stalling of all the proposals made by many organizations and NGOs, both Italian and European, who were willing to reopen the workshops, to bring back the tourists—in short, to jump-start the local economy. But Domenico told everyone, “Wait until I come back, I have to review so many things, have a little more patience…” He didn’t realize that sheer despair had pushed a significant part of the population of Riace into the arms of the Lega.
But the story does not end here. They have struck a blow against a symbol, but they cannot defeat a practice and an idea: there are many municipalities in the inland areas of Calabria who have been reborn thanks to immigrants—from Acquaformosa to Gioiosa Jonica and those in the foothills of the Aspromonte—whose experiences will be spoken about in turn. That is because the experience of Riace has inspired many imitators, and no one will be able to stop it. Not even the Minister of Infernal Affairs.
Tonino Perna is a sociologist at the University of Messina.