NISCEMI, Sicily (CN) — At the height of protests against the Pentagon's plan to install gigantic satellite dishes and transmitters close to this town in arid southern Sicily, locals and activists laid down in front of delivery trucks and even clambered over the fences of the secretive American military communications and radar base where the Star Wars-like devices were being erected.
For years, townspeople protested against the Pentagon and NATO and their new global satellite system called MUOS. Locals were joined by Italian anti-war activists, communists, feminists, environmentalists, anti-war Catholic groups, anarchists and also politicians.
Cries of “No MUOS!” “No to war!” “Enough of American imperialism!” were a regular occurrence in Niscemi's squares, streets and at the entrance to the secretive base for years.
The Niscemi protests, in fact, were not novel in themselves: Ever since at least the early 1980s, Washington's navigated recurring bouts of anti-U.S. demonstrations in Italy and faced down currents of political opposition to its military foothold in a country it defeated in World War II and then forcefully steered away from communism and the Soviet sphere. Italy's Communist Party – whose members led the partisan resistance against Benito Mussolini's Fascist dictatorship – was the largest in Western Europe after the war and the country's second-largest party well into the 1990s, second only to the arch-conservative Christian Democracy party.
In Italy, U.S. political intervention in the devastated country's post-war development remains a bitter and contested subject that galvanizes anti-American sentiment. Debates continue to rage over U.S. interference in Italy's post-war elections, on how it empowered Sicily's mafia, uses the country for imperial ambitions and allegedly had a hand in some of the nation's most high-profile political assassinations and political intrigues.
Seventy-seven years after World War II, the U.S. and its military continue to play a major role in Italian affairs. The Pentagon has about 12,500 troops up and down the Italian peninsula and it has stationed nuclear weapons, ballistic missiles, aircraft carriers, fighter jet squadrons, spy planes and other military hardware at several large bases. Since the 1990s, Italy has been used as a launching pad for military operations in the Balkans, the Middle East and North Africa. Its Italian bases are playing a role in Washington's efforts to counter Russia today.
The Niscemi protests started in 2009 and reached a climax in 2013, when daring activists prostrated themselves in front of trucks delivering the mega-powerful tilting antennas and gigantic helical transmitters for the MUOS project. Audacious protesters even stole into the base over fences and chained themselves to the Space-Age communications towers.
All of this anti-war activity and the slew of legal fights that paralleled the demonstrations hardly made it into American newspapers and got little notice outside of Italy even though years of opposition over the installation of this next-generation communications system at Niscemi were a big setback for the Pentagon.
MUOS – an acronym that quickly became the rallying cry of the “No MUOS” protest movement – stands for Mobile User Objective System. It is a typically obtuse military term that's a mouthful to say and conveys almost nothing.
But its importance cannot be overstated: Under this multibillion-dollar Pentagon project, the Lockheed Martin Corp. – the Maryland-based aerospace and defense giant – built a global ultra-high frequency satellite communications platform that allows soldiers almost anywhere in the world crystal-clear, fast access to the internet and communications channels of the U.S. Department of Defense.
"The base and most of all the global satellite communications system MUOS are fundamental for American armed forces, in particular for the U.S. Navy,” said Gianni Piazza, a political sociology professor at the University of Catania in Sicily and an expert on MUOS. He said Niscemi's geostrategic position in the middle of the Mediterranean is key to making the MUOS system possible.