Italy deals with racist intimidation of cabinet member

Cecile Kyenge
Italy’s Northern League, a political party founded by politician Umberto Bossi, which was once known for its motto ‘Rome is a thief,’ is now being called the ‘thieving League’ by its critics. The Northern League has regularly condemned government corruption while also seeking referendums in carve out Lombardy, Piedmont, Veneto and other areas of the prosperous north to form an independent republic called Padania. This was an impossible dream since Italy’s constitution prohibits it, despite the League’s efforts since 1996. But now its political fortunes are at an ebb as it continues to hemorrhage voter support. In February 2013, the party faced a debacle when it garnered but 4 percent of votes cast. Castigated by its opponents, and European institutions, for its racism and xenophobia, it has continued its campaign against the European Union and the Euro.
 
The party’s founder, Umberto Bossi, has been a poster child of the rise and fall of the Northern League. Bossi founded the League in 1989 with the express intent of ending government corruption. But it was after a number of scandals, including one in which he was accused of channeling party funds for his own use, that he was forced to step down in order to save the League.
 
Charges of racism and xenophobia have pursued Bossi and the League since the beginning and have isolated the party and its secessionist ambitions. Bossi, who is said to have never left the confines of his beloved Padania, once tried to get an interview with Jordi Pujol – a political leader of Spain’s Catalonia region. Pujol has been at the forefront of Catalonian nationalist claims, but even he would not receive Bossi, recognizing the disrepute in which Bossi is held in Italy.
 
Undeterred, the Northern League is on a desperate quest for voters by seeking alliances elsewhere in Europe and by further radicalization. A member of the European parliament, Matteo Salvini (40) of Milan is the League’s new secretary-general and a vocal critic of the EU. On December 15, 2013, Salvini used his first speech before the parliament to condemn the Euro as “a crime against humanity.” Salvini  is seen as increasingly radicalized. In Strasbourg on January 15, Salvini met with Marine Le Pen, the leader of the National Front of France, to hash out a common campaign strategy for the European elections of this spring.
 
Charges of intimidation
 
The League’s newspaper, La Padania, publishes the daily itinerary of Cécila Kyenge – the only black member of Prime Minister Enrico Letta’s cabinet. While the paper asserts that her itinerary is in the public domain, it has enabled the League’s supporters to be on hand to heckle Kyenge during her duties. Ever since her appointment in April 2013 as Minister of Integration, Kyenge has been subjected to a torrent of ad hominem abuse by the League and other critics. Born in the Democratic Republic of Congo in 1964, Kyenge is a Catholic. She is a graduate of the Universita Cattolica di Sacro Cuore in Italy and is a qualified physician and opthamologist. She is married to an Italian, with whom she has two children.
 
Kyenge's Democratic Party and other center-left parties have called for the offending column ‘Here’s Cécile Kyenge’ to be pulled by the League’s newspaper, arguing that it is “tantamount to intimidation.” Concern for Kyenge’s safety was only heightened last week when a package containing a suspicious white powder was intercepted at a mail processing center. It was later confirmed by the police to be baking soda.  
 
In 2013, following her victory at the polls in Emiglia-Romana to Italy’s Chamber of Deputies as a member of the Democratic Party, one of the most senior figures of the Northern League likened her to an orangutan, while another said she will foster her "tribal traditions" in Italy. Some members of the League accuse Kyenge of seeking to impose “negritude” on Italy, while opposing her policy of seeking to grant citizenship to the children of immigrants. Since then one of the League's councillors called for her to be raped, while another claimed that Kyenge frequents an area near Milan noted for its prostitutes, many of whom are of African origin. At a political rally last year, bananas were thrown at her in a sign of contempt. For her part, Kyenge says Italy is “better than this,” while avowing that “Our constitution is a strong tool to fight racism, but it's never used.”
 
"The country must react in response to these acts, which must be recognized for what they are, that is, acts of racism and discrimination," said Kyenge, according to media reports. As a black woman and as a professional, said Kyenge in a newspaper interview, that she has given the lie to intolerant prejudice. Making clear that by backing down that she would thereby grant victory to bigots, she has vowed to continue in her job.
 
“I’m not a person ‘of color.’ I’m black and I’m proud,” said Kyenge to her critics.


Spero News editor Martin Barillas is a former US diplomat, who also worked as a democracy advocate and election observer in Latin America. He is also a freelance translator.

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