When Maurizio Dibitonto went on a work trip to Latin America early this year in search of young sporting talent, he passed through a remote mountain village in Bolivia and explained that he was Italian. The locals grinned, responding with the phrase “Bunga bunga!”
Despite having no phone lines or electricity, the name of the alleged sex parties of Italy’s 74-year-old billionaire prime minister had reached the Andes, and clearly caused great amusement.
“This is how low we have sunk,” says Dibitonto, 53, now back at his family home in Puglia. “We are the laughing stock of the world. It’s humiliating.”
Dibitonto once believed that Silvio Berlusconi – a man who had built up his property and media empire from scratch – could help Italians prosper as prime minister. “Not any more,” says Dibitonto. “In the end, he’s done nothing for this country. And now he’s just an embarrassment.”
Today is set to be a day of public humiliation for Italy, a country more obsessed than most with outer appearances and making a good impression – or as they say, fare bella figura.
Early this morning, the Milanese court that is deciding the fate of Mr Berlusconi – over charges he paid for services from an under-aged prostitute – opened for just seven minutes, adjourning the trial until 31 May.
Today also marks the second anniversary of the earthquake that shook the little central Italian town of L’Aquila. Reconstruction has yet to begin in the medieval centre. At short notice, the embattled prime minister announced he will make an appearance in L’Aquila today, and not in court – time will tell how many locals are willing to shake his hand there.
Similarly, at the same time as Italians hear about their billionaire prime minister’s lavish parties, the draconian 2011 budget is also coming into force, a harsh reminder to them that they have become poorer, not richer, under their business tycoon leader.
Opinion polls show that support for the prime minister is falling month by month. A March poll by IPR for La Repubblica newspaper showed that only 33 per cent of the population still have faith in him as a leader, compared to 56 per cent just two years ago.
“People are really angry now,” says Flavia Perina, a deputy of the right wing Future and Freedom party of Gianfranco Fini, which broke its long alliance with Berlusconi last year. “There’s a real revolutionary spirit waking up. There’s a desire to get Italy back up to European standards.”
Berlusconi’s well-paid army of lawyers will no doubt put up a strong defence against the charges, which he denies. They might yet manage to get him off. But it’s hard to see at this stage how the media mogul could repair Italy’s image in the world. Or the nation’s wounded pride.