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Buck the System: in Italy, Old Towns Eager for New Blood Sell Homes for About $1



MILAN, Italy — 

The first time Heather and Steve Giammichele of Southern California decided to take a road trip through Steve’s ancestral homeland of Italy, their car broke down about three hours outside of Pisa. At least 30 townspeople stopped to make sure the couple were OK, and one ended up canceling his plans for the day to drive them all the way to the Pisa airport to make sure they got a new rental.

The Giammicheles, from Orange County, were so struck by the hospitality that almost as soon as their 2019 trip ended, Heather began researching how they could move to Italy one day. A few months later, they enlisted an Italian company to help them start looking seriously at buying one of the country’s famously low-priced homes, including some on the market with the symbolic price of one euro — about $1.16.

“We looked at a bit of everything,” recalled Heather Giammichele, 31, a California state employee.

Late last year, the couple settled on a two-bedroom fixer-upper in the historic village of Palmoli, across the street from a castle and near a beautiful park with hiking trails through scenic hillsides. The price tag: 10,000 euros, or less than $12,000.

The Giammicheles aren’t alone in the quest for a cheap home in the bel paese — or “beautiful country,” as Italy is known — and Palmoli isn’t alone in boasting properties to fulfill it. More and more Italian towns and villages eager to attract new residents are putting up homes for sale for as little as one euro (it’s illegal to give away property for free), a trend that was once confined to the impoverished and depopulated mountain towns in the south but that has spread since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic to wealthier northern regions like Liguria and Lombardy.

Officials have latched onto the idea as a way to breathe new life into moribund rural areas. With the pandemic showing many workers that they can do their jobs remotely — and that there’s life outside the urban jungle — the hope is that a good portion of prospective buyers will be younger people willing to relocate with their energy, their drive and their paychecks.

Steve and Heather Giammichele of Orange hold the key to their new home in the historic Italian town of Palmoli, not far from the Adriatic Sea.

(Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)

“We don’t just want these places to just make beautiful postcards but, through technological development, to be places to live — places that attract residents and digital nomads,” said Lucia Borgonzoni, Italy’s undersecretary for cultural heritage, activity and tourism.

The Italian government is also betting on small towns to help relaunch the nation’s economy following its coronavirus-induced downturn. Italy has about 5,800 towns with fewer than 5,000 residents; around 2,300 of those towns have been partially or completely abandoned. When COVID-19 slammed Italy in the early days of the pandemic — the virus has killed more than 131,000 people, the most of any country in Continental Europe except for Russia — residents in rural areas generally fared better than their urban counterparts.

Prime Minister Mario Draghi’s National Recovery and Resilience Plan has earmarked $2.3 billion for revitalizing Italy’s historic small-town centers, rural villages, smaller cultural heritage sites, and historic parks and gardens.

The town of Pratola Peligna, about a two-hour drive from Rome, is trying to attract new residents by selling as many as 250 homes for one euro ($1.16) each.

(Angelo D’Amico / Getty Images)

The response to the offer of cut-rate homes has been overwhelming in some places, such as the town of Biccari, which lies nestled in the forests of northern Puglia. (Puglia is the heel of Italy’s “boot.”)

Biccari, population 2,700, announced in February that it was selling one-euro houses in need of a bit of renovation. Other ultra-affordable homes on the market, priced between about $8,000 and $11,500, were already habitable.

“We’ve received 20,000 offers from all around the world,” said Mayor Gianfilippo Mignogna.

Thanks to the pandemic, aspects of small-town life previously considered undesirable, including the more leisurely pace, have suddenly become attractive, Mignogna said. With remote working trends accelerated by the pandemic, people can achieve a healthy work-life balance in quieter places.

“It’s more important than ever to be outside in places with lots of green space, to walk and hike,” he said. “It’s more important than ever to have good relationships with other people.”

It was this pandemic-spurred realignment of values — and news of other towns’ successes — that persuaded Biccari to launch the one-euro home program, Mignogna said.

Soon afterward, the Alpine village of Oyace (population 200) followed suit, and received more than 1,000 offers for four homes, said Mayor Stefania Clos. Many of them were from Italians abroad who wanted to move back to Italy because of the pandemic.

It’s difficult to determine how many of the buyers of one-euro homes are foreigners and how many are locals, but most towns seem to attract a combination of both. Non-Europeans can stay in Italy for only about six months out of the year, meaning that American buyers are generally looking for vacation homes, rental income and possibly a part-time retirement spot.

A narrow street outside the home in Palmoli, Italy, that Heather and Steve Giammichele of Orange purchased for less than $12,000.

(Heather Giammichele)

The Giammicheles, who live in Orange, bought their budget home in Palmoli, in Abruzzo, about a 30-minute drive from the Adriatic Sea, hoping eventually to settle in the country full time. They’re studying Italian and researching paths to citizenship based on Steve’s Italian ancestry.

Because of coronavirus travel restrictions, they haven’t been able to visit their new home in person yet, but once they do, they’ll start planning its renovation, said Heather Giammichele. She and Steve, 32, intend to visit and integrate as much as possible into the community, chatting with neighbors and sipping espresso.

Further in the future, the couple envisions buying farmland and installing solar panels.

“There are so many amazing properties in those little towns,” Heather Giammichele said. “They just need a little bit of help, a little bit of money from younger generations to revitalize the town.”

But repopulating Italy’s small towns can’t simply be an exercise in nostalgia, an attempt to re-create some Arcadian idyll cut off from modern amenities and infrastructure, renowned architect Stefano Boeri said.

Boeri — the designer of Milan’s celebrated “Vertical Forest” residential towers, which are covered in trees — said the goal of rejuvenating outlying areas should be to create a more symbiotic relationship between urban centers and the small towns and villages on their periphery. Italy’s 14 metropolitan areas can offer economic heft, innovation and services, while surrounding towns can provide resources like clean water, healthy food and space for satellite corporate and academic offices.


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Under Boeri’s supervision, students at the Polytechnic University of Milan have designed case studies and begun working with small towns to realize his vision.

“I don’t see it as competition” between cities and villages, Boeri said. “I see it as an interesting alliance.”

Ignazio Tuzzolino, a retired banker from Palermo, was looking for a weekend retreat close to the Sicilian capital when he and his wife decided to buy a four-story house in the village of Gangi. Built in traditional white stone, with sweeping views of green valleys, the home — which took about a year to renovate — is about an hour’s drive from the city.

Gangi has been completely transformed since it launched the one-euro housing craze in Italy in 2011, Mayor Francesco Paolo Migliazzo said. A medieval hamlet with frescoed churches and steep, narrow stone pathways, it was declared the most beautiful small town in Italy in 2014. Today, tour guides shuttle groups of visitors along historic and artistic walking routes.

Many Italian villages are home to important artworks and other cultural heritage that local administrators hope to publicize through their one-euro home campaigns.

Living in such places can come with drawbacks, including a lack of specialized medical care, fewer academic opportunities and more difficulty traveling. But Tuzzolino, 61, loves the break from urban stress.

“When we’re in Gangi, the thing we enjoy most, besides relaxing, is taking walks around the town,” said Tuzzolino, 61. “It’s that life of taking walks, meeting people you know, stopping to chat, having a coffee or eating breakfast together. It’s a very simple life, and certainly much less frenetic than the one we live in big cities.”

Brancolini is a special correspondent.

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Why Mexico’s President Is Promoting a Recall Against Himself




Standing before hundreds of thousands of cheering supporters in downtown Mexico City’s central square, President Andrés Manuel López Obrador saved his most striking comment for the end of his speech.

He urged the Mexicans packed into the Zócalo to participate in an April referendum to decide whether they want to boot him from office more than two years early.

“None of, ‘They chose me for six years and I can do whatever I want,’” López Obrador said at the rally Wednesday to mark his midterm. “If one who governs is not up to the task and obeying the people, revoke their mandate and out!”

The president, 68, likely believes he has nothing to worry about.

Recent polls show that about two-thirds of the public approve of his performance since taking office in 2018 on a platform that promised a radical transformation of Mexican society to combat corruption and inequality and to roll back free-market economic policies.

Families and marching bands making their way to the Zócalo passed vendors hawking gray-haired López Obrador dolls and posters with the hashtag #QueSigaAMLO, or “may AMLO continue,” referring to the president by his initials. Many said they view a referendum, authorized by a 2019 constitutional reform spearheaded by the president, as proof of his honest character when compared to decades of presidents accused of corruption.

“AMLO is the first president that dares to put himself to the test before the people,” said Debanhi Andrea Garcia, 22, who drove 14 hours from the state of Nuevo León with her boyfriend. “Because he’s like that, we support him.”

Supporters of López Obrador hold banners in support of the president at Mexico City’s Zócalo.

(Manuel Velasquez / Getty Images)

Mexicans have until Dec. 25 to sign a petition supporting the referendum, which can move forward only with the signatures of at least 3% of eligible voters, among other caveats.

So far, the initiative has received more than 703,000 signatures from Mexicans who have valid voting credentials, or 25% of the required total, according to the National Electoral Institute, an independent agency overseeing the process. (That tally includes signatures that will be discarded because they are duplicates or have other irregularities.)

Officially called the “revocation of mandate,” the measure follows other efforts by the president to increase citizen engagement in public policy. López Obrador has also backed referendums to decide whether former Mexican presidents should be prosecuted for alleged crimes, on the construction of a new airport near Mexico City and on the development of a tourism train line that would run through the Yucatan Peninsula.

“He does conceive his power as being a function of people reiterating their support actively,” said Francisco González, a professor of Latin American politics at Johns Hopkins University. “He wants it officially confirmed to give him that comfort of being the popular leader who is doing the right thing for Mexico.”

Since taking office, López Obrador has also expanded social welfare programs while introducing sharp austerity measures. He has halted renewable energy projects, promoted a constitutional reform to increase the country’s control of the electricity market, and given more power to the military — putting it in charge of projects such as the tourism train.

President López Obrador gives an address to mark the midpoint of his term.

(Manuel Velasquez / Getty Images)

His critics say that he hasn’t done enough to reduce high levels of homicides, including many killings of women and attacks against journalists and public officials. Dozens of candidates across the country were assassinated ahead of last spring’s midterm elections for governorships and legislative and mayoral seats.

Critics also are concerned about López Obrador’s attacks against democratic agencies that could check his power, notably the National Electoral Institute. He has repeatedly disparaged the independent agency, which last May sanctioned him for making statements in at least 29 news conferences that it said could be considered government propaganda that could influence the midterm elections. In Mexico, such statements by public officials are generally barred during the election season.

But the president’s vision of transformational change continues to resonate among many voters who view him as a paternal figure. López Obrador is in constant dialogue with his electorate, holding press conferences every morning that last hours.

“The figure he has constructed of an honest man, an honorable man, an incorruptible man — that helps him in a society that is used to seeing terribly corrupt politicians,” said René Torres-Ruiz, a political scientist at the Universidad Iberoamericana in Mexico City.

Even if enough signatures are gathered, hurdles to a referendum remain. The National Electoral Institute’s members have said that the agency doesn’t have the budget to carry out the vote and at least 40% of eligible voters must participate for the referendum to be binding. The referendum on former presidents last August fell far short of the 40% voting figure.

Ariadna Gomez, left, and another volunteer collect signatures for a referendum on whether Mexico’s president should continue.

(Leila Miller / Los Angeles Times)

Stephanie Brewer, the director for Mexico and migrant rights at the D.C.-based Washington Office on Latin America, said that winning a referendum would increase López Obrador’s perception that he could move forward freely with his agenda.

“What he wants is to come out of the vote, supposing there is one, politically strengthened with this renewed and amplified popular mandate,” she said.

Opposition parties have accused the president’s supporters of twisting the stated purpose of the referendum into a tool to promote López Obrador’s agenda. The 2019 reform called for a referendum to “revoke” a president’s mandate rather than “ratify” it and a complaint before the National Electoral Institute by the National Action Party referenced how volunteers have registered voters next to posters that advertise the referendum as a means of promoting the president rather than recalling him from office.

Luis Cházaro, a congressman from the Party of the Democratic Revolution, told The Times that the referendum “has been transformed into a promotional tool for the party.” He does not plan to participate.

In Coyoacán, a cobblestoned neighborhood in Mexico City known for Frida Kahlo’s home, volunteers last Sunday gathered signatures at a plaza in front of posters of the president that said “may AMLO continue.”

Ariana Garcia, a 24-year-old volunteer, said she uses the term “ratification” for people she senses like the president and “revocation” for those she thinks oppose him.

“People tell you, ‘But I don’t want my president to leave,’ so we tell them, ‘OK, then in this case you can ratify your support for the president,’” she said.

A supporter of López Obrador listens to his speech at a rally to commemorate the president’s midterm.

(Marco Ugarte/Associated Press)

Roberto Garcia, a systems engineer in Mexico City, said that he would vote against the president, uncomfortable that the federal government recently issued a decree that requires federal agencies to automatically approve infrastructure projects that are deemed to be of interest to the public or national security. He also sees the referendum as “a type of manipulation,” suspicious of why the president has contradicted the National Electoral Institute, saying it has enough funding to hold a vote he himself has fought for.

María de los Angeles Resendiz, a grandmother of 10 from the state of Mexico, will support López Obrador without hesitation.

Resendiz, 62, watches the president’s 7 a.m. news conferences each day with her husband while preparing breakfast and washing dishes. If she needs to skip one, she’ll track it down later on YouTube. She also listens to summaries in case she’s missed something.

Before López Obrador took power, Resendiz tried to stay as far away from politics as she could. She became disillusioned when she was a little girl after the 1968 Tlatelolco massacre, in which soldiers killed as many as 300 people at a student protest in Mexico City.

She called López Obrador a “simple” man who has won her confidence with his anti-corruption platform. She eagerly described how his government has set money aside for youth job training and expanded welfare payments to the elderly.

“He’s given us back our dignity,” she said. “I am proud to say that I am Mexican and that he is my president.”

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Op-Ed: the U.S. Shouldn’t Ignore Mexico’s Ongoing Human Rights Catastrophe



On Dec. 1, Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador reached the halfway point of his six-year term. Since his election in 2018, López Obrador has not only failed to improve the country’s disastrous human rights record, he has worked to undo many of the hard-fought gains in transparency and the rule of law that rights groups, activists and campaigners have achieved since the end of one-party rule in Mexico in 2000.

The United States has been noticeably silent regarding the Mexican president’s accelerating attacks on democracy. President Biden has instead chosen to focus on enlisting López Obrador to prevent migrants from reaching the U.S. border.

López Obrador, a prominent anti-establishment figure in Mexican politics for decades, is the kind of populist leader that has become increasingly common in Latin America. He was democratically elected in a landslide on a promise to “transform” Mexico by taking back control of the country from the elites whose policies he blamed for economic inequality, social breakdown and growing violence.

López Obrador inherited a human rights catastrophe. When he came to office in 2018, 12 years of a military-led drug war had led to horrific abuses. Homicides hit staggering numbers. Thousands of people disappeared every year. But he has not addressed these problems. Soldiers continue to kill civilians. Homicides remain at historically high rates. And according to the government’s figures, more than 25,000 people have gone missing on his watch.

Even so, López Obrador has remained immensely popular with his base. He appears to believe that his continued popular support gives him the moral authority to concentrate as much power as possible in his own hands and to attempt to control every part of the state to bring about his promised transformation.

He labels anyone who criticizes him or stands in his way as a “neoliberal” or “conservative,” nebulous groups of supposed adversaries whom he describes as corrupt and morally bankrupt. Leveling this charge allows him to avoid responding to genuine concerns raised by journalists who question him, women’s rights campaigners upset at his lack of action on gender-based violence, Indigenous communities who oppose his megaprojects, environmentalists who disagree with his coal and oil-focused energy policy, and press freedom campaigners concerned about his government’s harassment of journalists, among others.

He has eliminated or proposed eliminating many government agencies not under his direct control, including the independent energy and telecommunications regulators, funds for protecting journalists and responding to climate change and natural disasters, the independent transparency agency and the independent electoral authority. He recently decreed that his government’s construction and infrastructure projects would be automatically granted permits without any review and that as matters of “national security,” would be exempted from transparency rules.

He has also gone after the judicial system, which has delayed or blocked a number of his projects and proposals as abusive or unconstitutional. His efforts to intimidate the judiciary have grown brazen. López Obrador has publicly singled out those whose rulings he dislikes and called for a judge who ruled against him to be investigated.

In April, his coalition in Congress passed a law — since overturned — to extend the term of the Supreme Court chief justice who has ruled in favor of the president. And in August, López Obrador held a referendum on whether the government should put five previous presidents on trial for alleged crimes such as “neoliberalism” and the “privatization of public goods.”

The U.S. policy of ignoring López Obrador’s attacks on the rule of law came into stark relief in June, when Vice President Kamala Harris visited Mexico and met with him. At the end of the trip, a journalist asked the vice president if the United States was concerned about López Obrador’s hostile attitude toward the media and civil society.

Harris initially responded that she had urged the Mexican president to respect the independence of the judicial system, the press and civil society. However, hours later, her spokesperson issued a correction to the Spanish wire service EFE, saying the vice president had been confused; she and the Mexican president had only discussed immigration and the economy, nothing else.

López Obrador will be in office for another three years. His coalition still controls both houses of Congress and he has made it clear that he is willing to amend the constitution if necessary to remove obstacles to achieving his goals. Unless the circumstances change, there are no signs he intends to alter his course.

José Miguel Vivanco is Americas director at Human Rights Watch. Tyler Mattiace is a researcher at Human Rights Watch.

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Photos: As Roe Vs. Wade Challenged, Demonstrators Gather Outside Supreme Court



Juanito Estevez, of Freeport, N.Y., holds a cross as he and abortion rights advocates and anti-abortion protesters demonstrate in front of the Supreme Court in Washington, D.C.

(Kent Nishimura/Los Angeles Times)

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