Thursday, July 20, 2006

South West Of Watford

It is potentially bad news for both readers of this blog, but South of Watford is going to be away in Brazil for the next month. The implications of this journey for the content of the blog could be any of the following:

- assuming plenty of spare time and a decent Internet connection there will be entries on Brazil and updates on any news from Spain
- with a decent Internet connection but not much spare time there will be the occasional entry about Brazil
- without a decent connection or spare time there will be “cero patatero” and até logo.

Normal service, if such a thing can be said to exist on these pages, will be resumed from the 20th August.

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

70 Years After

Today another anniversary is being remembered, and it is an even less happy one than that which I wrote about yesterday. On July 18th 1936, 70 years ago today, began the military uprising that marked the beginning of the Spanish Civil War. The anniversary is receiving ample coverage in the Spanish press today, something that has not always been the case with the Civil War in the years since Franco died. In the transitional period following his death, it was as if a pact had been signed to forget all about the war and the repression during almost 40 years of dictatorship. In Spain there was no truth commission, the price that the left had to pay to be able to return from exile and participate legally in national politics was that those who participated in the dictatorship would never be accused of any crime and would maintain their positions and privileges. Indeed, Manuel Fraga, a minister for several years under Franco, is still a member of the Senate – the upper chamber, following many years of active political life after the death of his mentor.

This silence has begun to change in the last few years, as more voices have been raised in favour of recovering the memory of what happened, especially as it became evident that many younger people growing up in Spain knew virtually nothing about this period of their history. Also, the unequal nature of the transition was evident; those who died on Franco’s side at least received a proper burial and monuments were constructed to commemorate them. On the republican side, that of the legitimate elected government that was overthrown, there was no such recognition and it is estimated that the remains of up to 30000 combatants are still in unmarked graves that were dug where they were killed (often in summary executions). Also, there are still many places in Spain that retain streets named after Franco and other generals, even some statues of the dictator still exist. Most churches in the country still maintain plaques in memory of the Francoist side and the leader of the fascist Falange, Jose Antonio Primo de Rivera; the basilica in the Valley of the Fallen (where Franco and Primo de Rivera are buried) near to Madrid provides no mention of the political prisoners who died in its construction.

The government is soon expected to announce a law on recovering the historical memory of this period, but there are worrying signs that it will contain little real content, in an attempt to placate the Partido Popular who regard any talk of Franco and the Civil War as opening the wounds of the past – not a surprising attitude from a party that was founded by Manuel Fraga. In some ways, the transition in Spain still continues as the unequal nature of the post-Franco settlement comes under pressure. The divisions that this period can still provoke are well illustrated by the differing treatment given to opinion polls on the period by different newspapers today:

El Mundo (right wing) – highlights that 30% of those interviewed believe the military uprising was justified.
El País (left of centre) – 64% believe that the victims should be rehabilitated and the mass graves identified.

Monday, July 17, 2006

Remembering Guadalajara

This time last year I went with some friends to pass the weekend in the beautiful area known as the Alto Tajo, in the province of Guadalajara. It was a very hot July weekend, and we went swimming in the river Tajo to cool down. As we left the area where we had been swimming we stopped and took some photographs, the surrounding countryside is mostly hilly pine forest with the river cutting its way through the hills. One of these photographs is now quite difficult for me to look at, I’m not even sure if I still have it – it’s a group portrait like many others but with the difference that in the background of the photo there is a clearly visible column of smoke. At the time the photograph was taken we had no idea that this smoke column, some distance away, was turning into one of the most devastating forest fires of last summer – ripping its way through the resinous pines with a speed that made it extremely difficult to bring under control, spurred on by a hot dry wind. By the evening we already knew more about the fire, and that it was serious. We were far enough away from it to be safe and we slept out in the woods that night.

The next day on our way back to Madrid it was clear that the fire was still raging, we had seen that morning regular flights from the planes that were collecting water in reservoirs to try and bring the flames under control. We could also see from the road the massive cloud of smoke that the fire was producing. However, it was only when we got back to the city that we realised what was really going on out in the woods; on the television news we found out that a team of 12 people fighting the fire had been trapped in a gully and surrounded by the flames. Only one of these 12 survived to be able to tell how the fire had caught the group by surprise as it spread so quickly, leaving them with no chance of escape. The fire had been started by a poorly controlled barbecue, one of the many barbecues that were surely held that day in the region – we had one ourselves. The idea of a day out in the country accompanied with a barbecue is well established in Spain, and the place where the fire started was equipped for barbecues like many other similar sites, it wasn’t that someone had just lit a fire in the middle of nowhere.

Eventually the fire was brought under control, and then after the disaster the government took measures; by decree they made it illegal for fires to be lit in the countryside. But some of these measures were temporary, in the end it is the responsibility of the autonomous regional governments to control fire prevention measures, and each one can adopt a different policy. Now, one year on, the families of the dead firefighters are denouncing the lack of action taken by the authorities. After the fire last year there was plenty of coverage in the media of the poor contracts that are offered to those who work in tasks of fire prevention, and who get called on to act when a fire has broken out. They are not well paid and in many cases work on temporary contracts, as the authorities refuse to spend more than is absolutely necessary on fire prevention. It is a task which should be carried out in winter and spring, but which is often left until it is potentially too late to do properly. One year on the hot dry conditions mean that the risk is high; so far there have fortunately been relatively few fires this summer. Whether any of this is due to extra efforts and resources to prevent them is not clear. The death of 11 people should not be forgotten, it’s too high a price to pay just so that people can have their lunch in the middle of the woods rather than in the nearest village.

Friday, July 14, 2006

March 11th….Playing With Dynamite

I wasn’t really planning to return to this topic so soon, but it seems that this week the conspiracy theorists have been busy again. Perhaps also being labelled as a “supporter of ETA” and member of the “communist herd” has inspired me to revisit the issue. In this week’s episode we have El Mundo leading the charge yet again with another of its stories seeking to show that there has been a cover-up over March 11th. This time the accusation is that the explosives used in the train bombs were not the same as those stolen from a mine in Asturias and sold to those accused of carrying out the bombings.

This story takes us back to April 2004 when a senior officer from the bomb disposal squad made a declaration before the parliamentary commission of enquiry into the bombings. This officer declared that his team found traces of nitroglycerine in several of the train coaches where the bombs exploded, and he stated that this is a component of all kinds of dynamite. Well, it turns out that it is probably not a component of Goma-2 Eco, the explosive that was found in the unexploded bomb recovered from one of the trains. I say probably because it depends what source you read on the topic, and because my knowledge of explosive substances is (thankfully) more or less confined to what I have had to read for the purposes of writing this piece.

This statement made to the commission has led El Mundo to make its confident declaration that the explosives in the train bombs had to be different. Of course we already know where this is leading; it means that somebody else would have to be involved in committing the attack. We also know that El Mundo and their associated conspiracy theorists would really like us to believe that this “somebody” was ETA. In case anyone is having difficulty reaching that conclusion El Mundo is helpfully there to point out that Titadine, an explosive favoured by ETA, does contain nitroglycerine. One loyal follower of the cause got the hint and moved quickly to change the Wikipedia entry on Titadine to suggest that this was the explosive used in the bombings, an assertion not supported by even the tiniest scrap of evidence. The principle that the presence of one thing is not proof of the absence of another is clearly something that takes time for these people to learn.

In the judicial summary that has been prepared for the forthcoming trial, it seems there is no mention of nitroglycerine traces being found on the trains, and the Interior Ministry has released a statement saying that the declaration made by the bomb disposal officer to the commission was mistaken. The really curious thing about the El Mundo story is that there is nothing new in it; it is all based on a public declaration made more than two years ago. However, hours after the publication of the story the Partido Popular (PP) announced a barrage of parliamentary questions and claimed that failure to clarify the issue of the explosives would mean that the whole case would collapse. This, of course, is exactly what they would like to happen and they are fast running out of time because the case is now set for trial and expected to start sometime early in 2007. You might think that the trial is of course the correct place for the evidence to be tested, but for the PP and their supporters this carries the tremendous risk that a successful prosecution of Islamist terrorists means a permanent condemnation of their handling of the bombings and its immediate aftermath.

This time at least I was spared having to listen to La Mañana to hear what Federico Jiménez Losantos and Pedro J Ramirez had to say on the subject – but I am sure the Rush Limbaugh of Spanish radio had plenty to say on yet another amazing “revelation”. Me, I’m off to the beach again.

Thursday, July 13, 2006


I managed to get up this morning just in time to see the encierro, the running of the bulls, televised live from the fiestas of San Fermin in Pamplona. Just in case anyone thinks otherwise, I have got absolutely no interest in bullfighting; but I enjoy watching the encierros. So wouldn’t it be better to watch them directly in Pamplona itself? Well my experience of these fiestas a few years ago tells me that if I want to get a decent view then I’m much better off sitting on my sofa in Madrid watching the adverts for Navarran asparagus than I would be on the streets of Pamplona. There all I managed to see were the runners entering the bullring, many of them arriving well before the first bull. Getting any sort of viewpoint on the streets where the bulls run seemed to require getting there at about 4 or 5 in the morning; at which point I was probably still jammed in the middle of a crowd with a hugely overpriced beer in my hand.

Of course Pamplona is not the only place in Spain where it’s possible to see encierros, but it is easily the most well known both inside and outside of Spain. This is one of the reasons why running with the bulls there has become potentially more dangerous in the last few years, the huge numbers of people who turn up to run makes the course more difficult for both people and bulls, as there is less space to move around in. This is particularly the case at the weekend, and the advice I got from a native of the city is always to go to the fiestas during the week to avoid the crowds. It seems to be the case now with most of the major fiestas in Spain that they attract large numbers from all over the country (and overseas), and are consequently much more crowded and less “local” than they used to be. In the case of San Fermin, Hemingway made the fiestas famous a long time ago. It is probably the prospect of dealing with huge crowds at every turn that has put me off visiting some of the other major fiestas, such as the Fallas in Valencia or the Feria de Abril in Seville.

Madrid has none of these problems, the fiestas both for the city as a whole, and those that are more based around a particular barrio, tend to be much more low key than in other places. This has a contradictory effect, on the one hand there are no fiestas in Madrid that you feel are so unmissable that you can’t go away somewhere else for the weekend; on the other hand it makes them more accessible than those in other cities. Even so, the numbers attending, particularly those held in the summer months, has been rising in the last few years. Maybe it’s because the fiestas are now the only occasions when it’s legal in Madrid to drink alcohol on the street – a result of measures taken to try and put an end to the “botellon” where people buy their drinks in supermarkets and then look for a square or park where they can drink them.

There was one slight change in Pamplona this year, the city councillor chosen to launch the fiestas avoided the customary “Viva San Fermin” on the grounds of being agnostic – so we got “Vivan las fiestas de San Fermin” instead.

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Under Yellow Skies

A few years ago, when I was working outside of the Madrid city limits, I was able to see the purple-brown colour of the pollution cloud hanging over the city; largely caused by the combination of heavy traffic together with periods of stable sunny weather. It is something that is not so visible when you are actually inside the city, and which is almost permanent in summer. Well yesterday the sky turned a slightly different colour; in addition to the normal July contamination we received a visit from a cloud of Saharan dust. Most of the devices measuring particles suspended in the air went over the recommended levels, and residents were being advised not do any strenuous exercise. Coupled with a temperature that reached close to 40 degrees in the city centre it seemed sensible advice to me – I’m taking it easy. Time for a thunderstorm.

Monday, July 10, 2006

The Long Journey Of Jorge Hernandez

Yesterday afternoon I saw the excellent film The Road to Guantánamo, directed by Michael Winterbottom. It tells the story of four friends from Britain who went to Pakistan for the wedding of one member of the group, and who made the mistake of crossing over into Afghanistan just before the US invasion that overthrew the Taliban. Caught up in the fighting and trying to leave the country, one of them disappeared and has not been heard of since; the other three were taken to the camp in Guantánamo where they were imprisoned for over two years before finally being released.

The film tells the story of one long journey with an Afghan connection, and events this weekend in the country have provided another. Jorge Arnaldo Hernández Seminario lost his life on Saturday in the explosion of a remote controlled mine near to the town of Farah. Serving with the Spanish contingent (numbering around 700) in the country, Jorge was actually of Peruvian origin and formed part of the increasingly large foreign contingent in the Spanish armed forces. Since they abolished compulsory military service a few years ago, the Spanish have not found it easy to recruit volunteers – and it is now estimated that there about 3000 foreigners serving in the forces.

The Spanish presence in Afghanistan has not usually been a very high profile issue here; it was agreed by the government as part of the attempts to get Washington to answer the phone again after Spanish troops were pulled out of Iraq. Stationed in what has been a relatively quiet region of the country, the Spanish contingent have not been involved before now in much of the fighting that has seen a sharp increase in the last few months. The chaos that was left behind in Afghanistan as the US turned its interest towards Iraq has become clearer, as several British soldiers have been killed in recent attacks. It seems that the fighting is spreading and if the trend continues there could easily be more Spanish casualties. This creates a dilemma for the Spanish government who need to be able to show that what they are doing in Afghanistan is completely different from the Spanish role in Iraq; what has been presented as a routine peacekeeping role is in danger of turning into something very different. Central Americans dying for the US government in Iraq, Peruvians losing their lives in Afghanistan on behalf of Spain, and Britons being flown by the US military to Cuba to be held as “dangerous” terrorists. Bush may not be doing too well on finding Bin Laden, but he has been very successful in globalising his “War on Terror”.

German Visits Valencia

This weekend an elderly German priest visited Valencia. He came, he said mass, and he went home again.

Friday, July 07, 2006

Chronicle Of A Peace Process….Basque Socialists Meet With Batasuna

This week has seen the meeting between the Basque section of the Spanish Socialist Party, and Batasuna, ETA’s political wing. The proposal for the meeting was deeply controversial, as is almost every move being made in this process, and also provided the first test of the attitude taken by newly returned judge Baltasar Garzon (Here Comes The Judge). Garzon decided against prohibiting the meeting, a move which would have put him into the centre of a political storm, and so it went ahead yesterday.

More than anything else, the meeting seems to have been designed to serve two purposes, firstly to get people used to the idea that the peace process will involve open contacts with ETA and Batasuna, and secondly as a forum for an initial declaration of political positions. The Basque Socialist leader, Patxi López, has told Batasuna that the way forward for them is to take steps that will lead to them recovering their status as a legal party. The key aspect in this would have to be a clear rejection of support for political violence. Batasuna declared that the objective has to be a global agreement that respects the plurality of Basque society.

The Partido Popular (PP), which used the calling of this meeting as the pretext for breaking with the government on the peace process, has described the meeting as a surrender to terrorism and are threatening to take legal action. The president of the Association of Victims of Terrorism called the meeting “the highest form of treason”, and PP leader Mariano Rajoy has declared that Zapatero does not represent the Spanish state in this negotiation. Strong stuff, many of the right wing blogs are busily spreading claims that the government has already agreed concessions with ETA, including self-determination for the Basque country and the inclusion of Navarra in the Basque Country. All of this is nonsense and not sustained by even the slightest fragment of evidence, but that does not worry those who make the allegations – the PP cannot hope to make any headway opposing the negotiations unless it can present it as a surrender by the government.

Powerful Fools….FIFA

With the World Cup due to end on Sunday, an organisation gets the nomination for our latest Powerful Fools. It gets awarded to FIFA for their handling of the World Cup, especially for the following:

- Creating a huge black market in match tickets by handing out so many to sponsors instead of fans
- Making Dutch fans take off their orange trousers because they were advertising a beer that was not the disgusting Budweiser
- The Spanish referee who gave Italy their last minute penalty against Australia
- The English referee who gave 3 yellow cards to the same player
- The Russian referee who thought his job was to give cards to every single player on the pitch

There is still just enough time for them to something else to add to the list, but this is enough to merit the award.

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Water Down The Drain

I wrote recently about the huge amount of development taking place on the Spanish Mediterranean coast (Cement Works). Yesterday Greenpeace published a report claiming that there are currently 1.5 million new homes under construction on the whole Spanish coastline, together with 300 new golf courses. These golf courses are often being constructed as apart of a housing development.

Last weekend I was in Murcia, one of the areas where this explosion in construction is most evident. It is also an area that has some of the most severe water problems in the whole country, together with Almeria to the south. Under the previous government, water was going to be diverted from the River Ebro down to Valencia, Murcia and Almeria; this scheme was stopped with the change of government in 2004. The regions who want this water always use agriculture as their main argument, and clearly the huge increase of cultivation under plastic in these areas creates a certain amount extra demand. However, the farmers of these regions have in the past become expert in the maximum use of limited water supplies - they had no choice. An enormous increase in the number of homes, together with the development of water hungry resources such as golf courses is going to put tremendous stress on the available water supplies. To give an example, it has been estimated that the 28 golf courses in the Madrid region use the same amount of water as a town of 100,000 people.

This unsustainable development is happening at a time when Spain is in one of its periodic drought cycles, last year was one of the driest on record and this year is not going much better. Desalination plants are being built to try and meet some of the demand but the pace of new construction is still increasing, the 1.5 million homes figure is said to be double that of last year. It could be argued that the northernmost part of the Sahara is really in Spain rather than Africa, a really severe water crisis might be the only thing that puts an end to this boom, partly fuelled by corruption and money laundering.

Monday, July 03, 2006

Vote Early, Vote Often

Leaving aside elections that might make a difference, such as those in Mexico for example, let’s take a look at some that won’t. The elections for a new president for Real Madrid are threatening to make the election that brought George Bush to power seem like a model of democratic conduct, and look just as likely to be settled by the courts. As things stand at the moment, the winner is Ramón Calderón, but his victory is already being challenged. The main cause of the dispute was a decision by the courts last week to exclude postal votes from the elections – the case for exclusion was made by Calderón on the grounds that the club machinery was being used to favour the joint candidacy of Juan Miguel Villar-Mir and rally driver Carlos Sainz, widely regarded as the candidates closest to former president Florentino Perez. Now that Calderón has won on the basis of those members who turned up to vote in person, Villar-Mir is threatening to challenge the result to try and get postal votes included.

There were 5 candidates for the presidency, but realistically only 3 of these can have any chance of winning if additional postal votes are counted. During my time in Spain, it has been obligatory to have made a fortune from construction to be the president of the club – this trend could now be broken but all candidates (apart from Sainz) are wealthy businessmen or lawyers. Following the precedent set by Perez and his capture of Figo, there have been plenty of extravagant promises floated about players and coaches who will be coming to Madrid. Calderon’s team has promised Capello as the coach, and wants to bring in Cesc Fabregas, Kaka, and Robben – whether any of these will actually come is not at all clear. With the World Cup coming to an end, now should be the time for paying ridiculously high prices to attract the big names; but if the election result is in doubt this process cannot even begin. None of which looks very comforting for a club which may be the most successful in the world commercially, but which has failed to win a single trophy in the last 3 years. It’s ironic that there seem to be more ex-galacticos than current ones still competing in the World Cup.

This piece was not about football at all, that much should be clear.