Bettino Craxi

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Bettino Craxi

Bettino Craxi (Milan, February 24, 1934 - January 19 2000), born "Benedetto Craxi" was an Italian politician. The diminutive of Benedetto used to be Benito until Benito Mussolini made it inexpedient to use that form.


Political ascension

Craxi was the Prime Minister of Italy from 1983 to 1987, and head of the Italian Socialist Party from 1976 to 1993. He is the second longest-serving Prime Minister in Italy since 1945, after Silvio Berlusconi. He had strong influence in Italian politics throughout the eighties; for some time, he was a close ally of two key figures of Democrazia Cristiana, Giulio Andreotti and Arnaldo Forlani, in a loose cross-party alliance often dubbed CAF. He had a firm grasp on a party previously troubled by factionalism, and tried to distance it from the communists bringing it closer to Christian Democrats and other parties; his objective was to create an Italian version of Socialist parties like the German SPD or the French Socialist Party. The party reached its apex when it increased its share of votes in the general election of 1983, after temporarily abandoning its coalition with the Christian Democrats. However, the Italian Socialist Party never outgrew the much larger Italian Communist Party, whose highly charismatic leader, Enrico Berlinguer, was a fierce adversary of Craxi's policies throughout the years.

The main dynamic of Italian post-war politics was to find a way to keep the PCI (Partito Comunista Italiano) out of power. This led to the constant formation of political alliances between parties keen on keeping the Communists at bay. Things were further complicated by the fact that many parties had internal currents that would have welcomed the Communist in the government coalition; in particular, within the DC, Democrazia Cristiana (Christian Democrats), the largest party in Italy from 1945 to end of the "Prima Repubblica".

Craxi was precocious and ascended to many levels public office at very early ages. In the international arena, he helped dissidents and Socialist Parties throughout the world organise and become independent. Notable recipients of his logistical help are the PSOE "Partido Socialista Obrero Español" during Franco's dictatorship and dramaturg Jiri Pelikan in the then Czechoslovakia. A rare footage of Craxi trying to lay flowers at the tomb of Salvador Allende has been unearthed from RAI's (RAdiotelevisione Italiana) archives.

On 16 July 1976, Bettino Craxi was elected to the vacant secretary’s position, following years of factional fighting within his party. Ironically, the "old guard" saw him as short-lived leader, allowing each faction time to regroup. However, he was able to hold on to power and implement his policies. In particular, he sought and manage to distance his Party away from the communists bringing it closer to Christian Democrats and other center and center-right parties.

During Craxi's prime-ministership, Italy became the fifth largest industrial nation and gained entry into the G-7 Group of most Industraliased nations. Inflation was however often two-digit, and this was dealt with eliminating a wage-price increase link known as scala mobile ("escalator"); under this system, wages were increased automatically depending on inflation. Abolishing the system did reduce inflation, but inevitably increased strikes in the long term, as workers have to barter for better salaries. In any case, the victory of the "No" front in the abrogative referendum called by the Italian Communist Party was also a major victory for Craxi. Italian national debt skyrocketed during the Craxi era, passing 100% of the gross national product. The level of the Italian national debt is still today well over 100% of the GDP.

The Sigonella Incident

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The Achille Lauro
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NAS Sigonella logo

Perhaps, he is best remembered internationally when in October 1985 he stood up to US President Ronald Reagan. Following the highjacking of the Achille Lauro cruise ship, the highjackers, after protracted negotiations, were given safe passage to Egypt by plane. Three United States Navy F-14's forced the plane down to the United States Naval Air Facility (NAF), Sigonella. Though the Americans demanded that the Italian authorities extradite Mahmoud Abbas of the PLO, Craxi stood firm on the grounds that the Italian Government had jurisdiction over its own territory, even though it was a joint Italian-NATO base. He ordered Italian troops to surround the US Forces protecting the plane. This move was supposedly dictated both by security concerns about terrorists deciding to target Italy if the US had had it their way, and an Italian tradition of diplomacy with the Arab world. Additionally two weeks later an Italian airline was hijacked, encouraged on by the success of Achille Lauro.

It should be noted that the highjackers were found guilty, and sentenced to relatively light prison terms, for highjacking and cold blooded murder of an American citizen, Leon Klinghoffer. Craxi first gave the United States Forces permission to detain the terrorists, but Craxi later reneged on the deal and took the US Special Forces team hostage, they later escaped from Italy. Craxi then rejected the US extradition order and let one of the world's most dangerous terrorists Abu Abbas flee to Yugoslavia. He we later convicted in Italy in absentia. Some justice for the victims of the Achille Lauro highjacking was done when the United Sates Military did what the incompetent Craxi's Government never could and brought Abbas to justice. Fortunately or unfortunately (depending on your politics) he died in US custody. Also fortunately or unfortunately (depending on your politics) Craxi was never charged for his role after the highjacking. This event strained US-Italian relations; many Americans felt "burn" by the Craxi Government, for the Sigonella incident and the eventual escape of all highjackers. This event is chronicled by the commander of the US Special Forces during the Sigonella incident now retained General Carl Stiner, in the book Shadow Warriors.

This episode earned him an article in The Economist titled "Europe's strong man" and more tellingly, in the Senate, a full-standing ovation which included his communist opponents.

Downfall and Disgrace

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Bettino Craxi contested

Mani Pulite

The last main turning point of his career began taking place in the early nineteen-nighties. A team of Milanese judges began investigating the affairs of party financing; Milan was then stronghold of the Italian Socialist Party, and for some time Craxi's own son-in-law, Paolo Pillitteri, was the mayor of the city. This initiative came to be called Mani pulite (Italian for clean hands). No party was spared, but in some parties corruption had become more commonplace than elsewhere (either because of more available occasion, or because of internal culture). To this day, some people (especially those who were close to Craxi) argue that some parties (such as the Italian Communist Party) were left untouched, while the leaders of then ruling coalition (and in particular Bettino Craxi) were wiped-off the political map.

The judges in Milan were put under scrutiny several times by different governments (especially Silvio Berlusconi's first government in 1994), but no evidence of any misconduct was ever found.

It was also alleged that the Communists could "afford" not to resort to corruption because of financing from the Soviet Union. While this still remains unproven, such a fact would anyway have been covered by a previous amnesty. Furthermore, the public opinion was much less concerned about foreign financing than about the misappropriation of "their" money by corrupt politicians.

In the end, his party fell from 14% of votes to virtual nonexistence. An ironic note was that the shattered remnants party were excluded by seats in the Parliament due to a minimum vote requirement of 4% on national basis, that Bettino Craxi himself had called for when his party was well above that level; the quota was actually lowered from 5 to 4% on the Socialists' request, but this was however not enough.

During the "Mani pulite" period, Craxi tried to use a daring defense tactic: he maintained that all parties needed and took money illegally, however they could get it, to finance their activities. His defense line was therefore not to declare himself innocent, but everybody guilty. While this may have been true to a certain degree, most citizens had anyway a bad feeling toward most politicians, and Craxi's "defense" met no sympathy in the public opinion, if it did not enrage it even further.

See also: Tangentopoli (Italian for bribeville, used to indicate the corruption-based system that ruled Italy, Craxi is seen by many as the symbol of it)

"Midgets and Dancers"

Craxi's lifestyle was perceived to be unjustified for the secretary of a party with so many alleged financial problems: he used to live in an expensive Hotel in Rome's centre (Piazza Navona), the Raphael, and had a large villa in Hammamet, Tunisia. As the Mani Pulite investigations were to uncover in the nineties, personal corruption was endemic in Italian society; while many politicians, including Craxi, would justify corruption with the necessities of a democracy, many political leaders at many levels enjoyed a lifestyle that should have been well out of their reach, while most parties continued having financial problems. Rino Formica, a prominent member of the Socialist Party in those years, wittily stated that the convent is poor, but the friars are rich.

Furthermore, his arrogant character won him many enemies; one of his most condemned actions were blaming corruption in the socialist party on treasurer Vincenzo Balzamo, just after the latter's suicide, trying to clear himself of any accusation. He had also controversial friendships with Siad Barre, dictator of Somalia, and Ben Ali, dictator of Tunisia. The latter provided protection to Craxi when he escaped from Italy.

Craxi's entourage was sharply defined by a critic as a court of midgets and dancers, indicating the often ludicrous and immoral traits of a system based on personal acquaintance rather than own merit. Among the friends of Craxi's to receive smaller and larger favours, Silvio Berlusconi is perhaps the most known: he received many favours, especially regarding his media empire, and had a decree named after him ("Decreto Berlusconi") long before he entered politics. Other figures were Craxi's mistresses Anja Pieroni, who owned a TV station in the Rome area, and Sandra Milo, who had a skyrocketing career in the state TV conglomerate RAI.

He was also known for never apologizing, as a matter of principle and while some people did like this autocratic trait in his success years, most Italians expected an apology after the corruption system had been exposed. Craxi never apologized.

Escape to Tunisia

All this resulted in him being considered the symbol of political corruption, and for a time he was probably Italy's most despised man. This was clearly visible when he, coming out of his hotel, received a salvo of coins that students threw to him as as sign of loath. Some of the students sang Bettino, take these too!.

Understanding that the risk of being jailed was growing very real, Craxi escaped to Tunisia in 1994, and there remained, protected by Ben Ali's government, until his death from diabetes complications. He repeatedly declared himself innocent, but never returned to Italy where he had already been sentenced to a number of years in jail because of corruption charges.

Craxi's figure is currently subject of experiments of rehabilitation by supporters of Silvio Berlusconi, who draw a parallelism between how Craxi and Berlusconi were "persecuted" by "red judges" (toghe rosse, lit. "red robes"). Many of his supporters in the socialist party moved to (an Italian pejorative expression is often "recycled themselves into") Berlusconi's right-wing coalition, among others his former foreign minister Gianni De Michelis, political TV journalist Giuliano Ferrara, and former priest Gianni Baget Bozzo, suspended a divinis (forbidden to celebrate mass and suspended from clerical duties) when he was elected to the European parliament with Craxi's socialist party.

Quotes by and about Bettino Craxi

Dentro Bettino, fuori il bottino ("Bettino (Craxi) in (jail), out with the loot"); popular tag on Milan's walls from 1992 on.
La Maxitangente fu solo una maxiballa ("The maxibribe was just maxibullshit"); uttered in court, about a (then alleged) huge bribe paid to many parties and politicians by Raul Gardini. Craxi was later convicted.
La mia libertà equivale alla mia vita ("My freedom is my life"), epitaph on his tomb.
The Mail Service proposed to release a stamp with Bettino Craxi's profile on it; it was discarded on accounts that people would have spat on the wrong side, the first joke in a book by comics Gino & Michele, that became extremely famous in the late eighties and early nineties.

External Links

Craxi Foundation (, in Italian.

Craxi: Fallen kingpin ( Article on Craxi's death by the BBC.

Preceded by:
Amintore Fanfani
Prime Minister of Italy
Succeeded by:
Amintore Fanfani

Template:End boxde:Bettino Craxi fr:Bettino Craxi it:Bettino Craxi nl:Bettino Craxi


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