Thursday, August 31, 2006

The Fleet Prepares

Last week I wrote about the possibility of Spain participating in the UN peacekeeping force in Lebanon. It now seems likely that up to 1000 Spanish troops could be on their way to participate in this force. The Spanish navy is already making preparations to leave as soon as the Parliament gives its
approval to the operation, the vote should be on the 7th September.

By this time we should finally see what the attitude of the Partido Popular is going to be, there are reported to be strong pressures from those close to Jose Maria Aznar to vote against sending the force. Naturally, those who supported the invasion of Iraq find it hard to stomach the idea of a UN sponsored peacekeeping force. I suspect they will not vote against sending the troops, but they will still be out to take any opportunity this risky operation provides to cause damage to the government.

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Immigration Makes Waves

In May I wrote about the attempts by African immigrants to reach the Canary Islands by boat from West Africa, and despite all the efforts of the Spanish government to close the exit points the flow of immigrants arriving in the islands has not significantly changed during the summer. One of the images of the holiday period has been that of sunbathing tourists coming to the assistance of exhausted immigrants as they finally make it to dry land.

The issue is also provoking political dispute on the mainland, regions which are controlled politically by the Partido Popular have been complaining that they are receiving the majority of those immigrants that are flown from the islands to the peninsula. Those immigrants who cannot be returned home because no repatriation agreement exists with their country of origin, are served with an expulsion order which cannot be enforced and taken to the mainland in an attempt to reduce the pressure of so many new arrivals in the Canary Islands. They then exist in a kind of limbo as they do not have papers which permit them to work legally.

When I read the news of these protests I felt sure that I could remember that when the Partido Popular (PP) was in power they were also flying the vast majority of these immigrants to areas such as Madrid, Valencia, or Murcia that already contained high immigrant populations. Well now I have found an article on the web confirming this and, interesting detail, it seems that the pioneer of this policy was none other than Mariano Rajoy when he was the interior minister; he is of course now the leader of the opposition PP. I assumed at the time that the PP did this because they knew that many of these immigrants would end up working illegally in these areas. Anyway, if the leaders of these regions want to complain about the policy they now have a much easier option than before, they can pick up the phone and complain directly to the leader of their own political party.

Thanks to El rey de la baraja for the link.

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

The Loneliness Of The Long Distance Runner

Alberto Ruiz Gallardón, the mayor of Madrid for the Partido Popular (PP), is an ambitious man. Not content with converting the Spanish capital into one of the world’s largest construction sites, Alberto has never made any secret of the scope of his ambition; he would really like to be Prime Minister. However, it is one thing to have the necessary ambition, and another to have a means of realizing that ambition. You would think that having presided both the city administration, and previously the regional government for Madrid, would be more than enough to set anyone on course for greater things.

Unfortunately for him, Alberto has one major obstacle in his path and that happens to be the political party he belongs to, the PP. After having carefully cultivated during years a presentable centrist image, socially liberal, Alberto now finds himself dramatically out of step with a party that is moving further to the right in its thirst for revenge for the electoral defeat in 2004. Gallardón has been very successful with the electorate in Madrid, but is roundly detested by the right wing hard core of his own party. Since the PP lost power his internal situation has worsened, he committed an unpardonable “crime” for many in the PP by suggesting that perhaps the PP should engage in some internal reflection on possible mistakes they had made which may have provoked their electoral defeat. Then he promoted an alternative candidate to preside the regional party organization in Madrid, an act that provoked a tremendous reaction in a party where internal democracy is not approved of; candidates for important posts almost always being chosen by the party leadership rather than the membership. More recently he carried out in person the civil wedding of two gay PP supporters, the PP has been completely against the reform which permitted gay marriage and this marked even more the difference between some of his positions and those of the party’s leaders.

Despite his differences, on the surface things are not going too badly for Alberto. It has been reported in the last few days that his will be the second name on the PP list for Madrid at the next general election, immediately behind that of the party leader Mariano Rajoy. Barring complete electoral catastrophe, this guarantees that Gallardón will be a member of parliament for the PP after the next election. In theory this takes him another step closer to achieving his ambitions, but the widespread antipathy towards him amongst many members and senior leaders of the PP means that the road to power will not be smooth. The situation of the PP at the moment reminds me very strongly of the Conservative Party in Britain after Mrs Thatcher was forced to resign. An embittered ex-leader, in this case Jose Maria Aznar, continues to dominate the direction of the party even when no longer officially occupying a position of responsibility. The Conservatives in Britain swung further to the right after losing power, as the Thatcherite wing of the party was unable to comprehend that they no longer had the sympathy of the electorate. A similar thing has happened to the PP, with Aznar’s appointees controlling the party machinery, and refusing even the slightest suggestion that they should moderate their all-out onslaught against a government they are unable to accept as legitimate.

Because of this strengthening of the right wing in the PP, Alberto’s prospects for reaching the leadership quickly are not looking good. Even if Rajoy were to lose the next general election and resign, something which is currently looking quite possible, the continuing dominance of Aznar and his supporters coupled with the absence of internal democracy in the party would almost certainly mean the replacement of Rajoy with another hard right candidate. If the PP wins the election, then again the path to the leadership would be blocked, probably for several years. In the end Gallardón’s best bet is for the PP to go down to a couple of resounding electoral defeats, which would force a renovation of the leadership as well as giving the membership something to think about. Just as the Conservatives in Britain needed three electoral defeats and several leaders before choosing a more centrist leader, so the PP in Spain seems to be going through a similar process. Alberto will have to play a long game and be very, very patient

Monday, August 28, 2006

Cinema....El Próximo Oriente

El Próximo Oriente, the latest film by Spanish director Fernando Colomo, is set in the Madrid barrio of Lavapiés. This area has in recent years become the entry point in Madrid for immigrants from all over the world, and the film reflects this new diversity.

For me the film is marred from the beginning by the unlikely plot, in which our timid hero Caín (played by Javier Cifrián) offers to marry the daughter of his Bangladeshi neighbours (Nur Al Levi), who his philandering brother (not surprisingly named Abel – played by Asier Etxeandia) has left pregnant. He converts to Islam in order to gain the acceptance of the family, and passes himself off as the father of his wife’s unborn child, in the process being adopted as part of his new family.

Leaving his job in a butcher’s shop, Caín sets about the renovation of the family restaurant which leads us into the part of the film where the clash of cultures becomes most apparent. Anyone who has seen the British film East is East will be familiar with some of the issues raised in this film, notably the difficulties of a traditionalist immigrant father having to come to terms with the fact that his children are growing up in a society very different from that which he left behind.

This film does not work for me as well as East is East, apart from my doubts over the plot the setting is a bit too artificial, and too often the film opts for the most predictable of outcomes. However, Colomo is not a director who seeks to make grand statements about social issues in his films, in reality this is a comedy-drama which does little to provoke too much thought about the background against which it is set. Despite this, it reflects new realities and a film like this would have been almost unthinkable as little as 10 years ago, a sign of just how quickly Spain has become home to immigrants from Asia, Africa and South America. It’s a watchable film, and has some enjoyable moments, but it never really takes off.

Friday, August 25, 2006

Riding Into The Sunset

We have one less statue of General Franco on display in Spain after the dead dictator’s effigy was removed from the military academy in Zaragoza yesterday. Following the removal of the statue outside the defence ministry in Madrid last year, it seems that there is at last slow but steady progress on getting rid of these unloved reminders of the past.

Predictably, the right wing here is against the statues being removed, on the grounds that they are part of the “historic memory” of the country. Naturally, they don’t show similar interest in other historical memories of the period, notably the remains of thousands of people who are still buried in unmarked graves. Neither do they show interest in restoring the statues of Stalin in Eastern Europe, or Saddam Hussein in Baghdad.

Now it’s Santander’s turn, the only city in Spain that still has a statue of Franco in a public square.

Who Can Stop Barça?

After my uncannily accurate prediction of Spain’s fate in the World Cup, and with the new season just about to start here, it seems like a good moment to assess the possibilities of a team that is not called Barcelona winning the competition this time around. However, the reality is that Phil Ball over at Soccernet has already done a far more expert and comprehensive analysis than I could hope to do of the contenders for the title.

Much of the attention this season will be on the renovated Real Madrid, with a new president, a new (old) coach in Fabio Capello and several new players. Capello has a sort of legendary status in Madrid, despite having only spent one season previously at the club, and it is going to be interesting to see whether he can deliver on the very high expectations his long awaited return will have created. Already there are significant changes from the way in which the club was run under Florentino Perez, it looks as if Capello even has some say in who the club is buying! The money spent so far has been more focused on the midfield and defence; although it looks as if Van Nistelrooy has been brought in to replace Ronaldo up front, assuming the negotiations with one of the two Milan clubs come to something and the chubby one leaves. Ronaldo, despite being a shadow of the player he once was, has been the main goal scorer for Madrid in the last few seasons. If he goes, then Van Nistelrooy will need to maintain an impressive strike rate, especially if Raúl continues to disappoint. Expect a more defensive Madrid, personally I don’t think they’ve got the team yet to out perform Barcelona.

The other possible contenders are Valencia, Atletico Madrid, and possibly Sevilla. Atletico almost always disappoint, but they have a good coach this year having captured Aguirre from Osasuna, and have been investing in the team; so their long suffering supporters may at last have something to cheer. I might even try and get down to the Vicente Calderon myself this season, always a much more authentic footballing experience than going to the Bernabeu.

Valencia are looking good, they have Morientes and Villa to provide the goals, and yesterday splashed out to buy Joaquin from Betis – although I always see Joaquin as being one of these players who runs faster than he can think, so too often he ends up lost on his own by the corner flag. Potentially Valencia could be the main contender ahead of Madrid. Sevilla finished very impressively last season, although to be fair they only had Middlesborough to stop them lifting the UEFA Cup; they probably don’t have the in-depth strength to mount a real challenge.

So, unless they lose interest, or get too obsessed with the Champions League, it should be Barcelona again. The hope for the neutrals has to be that at least one other manages to make a contest out of it.

Thursday, August 24, 2006

Spanish Troops For Lebanon?

As discussions take place on the composition of the peacekeeping force for Lebanon, it seems fairly likely that a contingent of Spanish troops will be included in this force. Should that turn out to be the case it will add another risky mission to the one which Spain already undertakes in Afghanistan

The reactions to the Israeli invasion of Lebanon have revealed further evidence of the shift that has taken place in right wing politics here in Spain. Before Jose Maria Aznar decided that he wanted to be involved in the Iraqi adventure, there was never really much interest shown by the right in foreign affairs, and in general they were fairly even handed on the question of the Middle East and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Since Iraq, and since losing power, all of this seems to have changed and the full neo-conservative “war on terror” agenda appears to have been adopted, at least by sections of the right here. When Spanish Prime Minister Zapatero expressed (fairly timid) doubts about the wisdom and proportion of the Israeli attack, he was accused by the Partido Popular of being an anti-semite, an accusation which I don’t think has ever formed part of the political debate here – at least not since the 15th century when the Jews were expelled from Spain.

Meanwhile, in the deepest recesses of the cave where the more resentful sections of the right have spent the last couple of years scratching the damp walls with their mammoth bones, there are even darker mutterings involving the situation in Lebanon. Far from desiring a successful mission for the Spanish troops, should they be sent at all, it seems that there are those who are hoping it all goes very badly and that Spanish soldiers return home in body bags. All this for the simple reason that it will backfire on the government, and increase the chances of the Partido Popular returning to power. Anyone who thinks I am making this up should take a look at this (in Spanish).

For the benefit of non-Spanish speakers, this is a little translated excerpt:

“There is only one reason for supporting the initiative of our smiling Prime Minister of deploying between 700 and 1300 Spanish soldiers in the south of Lebanon; that this deployment will be his tomb”. Sweet.

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Chronicle Of A Peace Process....Back To Legality

The peace process in the Basque country still faces a bumpy road. The most recent declaration by ETA included what many observers saw as a clear threat to return to action if the current police and judicial pressure on ETA was maintained. It is not always easy to know exactly what is going on behind the scenes in this kind of process, but the main sticking point at the moment which is preventing further advances is the way in which Batasuna, ETA’s political wing, finds a way back to legal operation as a political party. The government is insisting that they must do this via the “Ley de Partidos”, the law that was introduced by the previous government with the specific aim of illegalizing Batasuna. This would effectively require the formation of a new party with statutes that would probably have to include an explicit rejection of political violence. According to press reports today, the Batasuna leadership is coming under pressure from their supporters not to accept this solution, and there is also concern that following this path will not remove the judicial pressure on some of their leaders.

The return to legality of Batasuna is really the launch pad for the rest of the process, and they would like to be legal in time to take part in the municipal elections in May next year. There are hints that together with their legalization could come some concessions on the issue of ETA prisoners, which as a first step would probably involve prisoners being moved closer to the Basque country. With a right wing opposition ready to jump on anything they can present as a “concession to terrorists”, the government will be reluctant to give way to Batasuna demands and repudiate the Ley De Partidos. On the other hand, Batasuna’s leaders need to be able to show that the process brings benefits. ETA’s warning reminded me of the failure of the first IRA ceasefire in the UK, when John Major’s government thought that by moving as slowly as possible they would just reach a stage where the IRA would find it impossible to return to armed activity. They were wrong, and it doesn't look at the moment like the same mistake will be made in Spain, but deadlock on an issue like the legality of Batasuna could lead down a similar road.

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Pedro's Public Pool

We are still in August so I can keep things going here with a true silly season story. The protagonist of today’s tale has already made appearances in this blog before, it is none other than Pedro J Ramirez, director of the newspaper El Mundo. This time we are not interested in some of the imaginative stories his newspaper has been printing about the Madrid train bombings, of which we can be sure there will soon be fresh instalments. No, today the focus is on the swimming pool at his house in Mallorca.

This has been a long running saga, because the pool in his house in Mallorca was constructed on land that is public domain, and in recent months there have been a series of protests demanding that public access be restored. Earlier this year the government was quite generous with Pedro, offering him a deal which effectively would leave his precious pool in peace as access would be offered outside the summer months to local schools who would probably not take advantage of the offer anyway. Pedro Jota has of course not been shy about using his own newspaper to attack those who have led protests on the issue.

This weekend, however, the pool really hit the headlines as there were two simultaneous demonstrations on the island over the issue, one in favour of public access, the other supporting poor Pedro against the “radical separatists” who would deprive him of his simple pleasures. Most interesting has been the revelation that the Partido Popular (the PP) shipped in hundreds of members of its youth wing from the Spanish mainland to participate in the defence of Pedro’s Pool (the PP2). These participants in what El Mundo flatteringly described as a “human tidal wave” of protest (promote that journalist!) helped to boost the numbers on the pro-Pedro side to 800 according to the Guardia Civil, and over 2000 according to the organisers. Whether they all got to use the pool as part of the deal has not been made clear, but it does leave the supposed independence of El Mundo looking even shakier than it already was.

Funny how the defence of “liberty” so often seems to involve defending the privileges of the powerful – I would hate to think that any of the ever increasing numbers of jellyfish in the Mediterranean could breach the barriers and make it as far as the pool.

Monday, August 21, 2006

A (Short) Tale Of Two Cities

Returning, a little reluctantly, from my stay in Brazil, its time to get back to some semi-serious blogging. I have come back to a surprisingly cool and half empty city; August is generally the quietest month of the year in Madrid with many shops and restaurants closed for at least part of the month. Apart from that, little has changed in my absence; there seem to be a few more trenches excavated and even more pavements where it is impossible to pass than there were before – the ‘fascinating’ city that we have been promised is still not emerging from the dust.

It all provides quite a change from Rio de Janeiro, where I spent my last week in Brazil. The city spreads along the coast and the base of the green hills that descend towards the beaches, it is significantly bigger than Madrid both in surface and in population. More than most cities that I have visited, Rio shows the sharpness of the contrast between the lives of a very wealthy minority, and the much poorer majority. The favelas, the shanty towns built by immigrants from the countryside, spread over the hillsides looking down on the wealthy barrios below. Now tourism is beginning to reach them, there are organised tours which take visitors on a guided visit to some of these areas. Completely safe, despite the reputation that the favelas have, the tour I went on took a small group to two different favelas. In one of these the contrast could not be clearer, the left side of the road was occupied by large houses protected by high walls topped with electric fences, on the right side of the road was the favela, the distance between them no more than 10 metres. The occupants of these areas provide the labour that works in the construction of the homes of their wealthier neighbours, they build their own houses with the left over materials.

Dominating the favelas are the gangs that control the drugs trade in the city, a result of the indifference and neglect of the city and national governments. The police are only to be seen at the entrance, as a more or less symbolic presence – order inside these areas is maintained by the gangs. In fact Rio provides an opportunity for a study into the necessity of having a police force at all, it seems that the city’s police do little more than look for a means of increasing their own income – either from drug traffickers or simply from pulling up motorists on any pretext. Their effect on crime is probably to increase the number of offences committed; yet the city continues to function and despite its problems is not really as dangerous as the media makes it out to be.

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

The March Of The Jellyfish

It seems that the Mediterranean coast is being threatened by an invasion of jellyfish. Depending on which newspaper you read, it is reported that between 12500-15000 people have suffered jellyfish stings in Cataluña alone this summer. The reasons are not clear, it seems to be a combination of higher sea temperatures, a reduction in the number of predators through overfishing, and a product of untreated nutrients being dumped into the sea. The warnings are now official from Spanish Civil Protection, and a new flag has been designed to add to the standard ones advising on whether it is safe to swim or not. Happy holidays!

Saturday, August 05, 2006

March 11th....El Mundo And Their "Experts"

Even though I'm away from home at the moment I couldn't resist an entry about this one - already a few days old. The newspaper El Mundo presented its readers last Sunday morning with the opinions of some important experts on the question of whether it was possible to recover traces of explosives from the trains that were hit in the Madrid bombings. Naturally the experts were of the opinion that this should have been perfectly possible - thus supporting El Mundo's theme that we have not been told the truth about the explosive used in the bombings.

Unfortunately for their story it seems that El Mundo neglected to inform their readership of a few pertinent details about these "experts". One of them, Teresa De Lara, has been a professional politician since 1987 and is currently a member of parliament for, surprise surprise, the Partido Popular. She is a chemistry graduate, but unless she has some very unusual hobbies it is unlikely that she has participated in anything resembling explosives analysis in the last 20 years; given that she worked for Hertz before beginning her political career, we should probably extend that 20 year minimum.

Another "expert", Enrique de la Morena, is presented as an independent consultant; it appears that one of Enrique's consultancy jobs is to present the "Whats wrong with me doctor?" section on La Mañana, the programme on the COPE radio station presented by the rabidly right wing Federico Jiménez Losantos.

For five bonus points, what does El Mundo's choice of "experts" tell us about the solvency of their story?

Thanks to for the information.

Friday, August 04, 2006

Who's On Holiday?

Just in case anyone might get the impression that I am just lying in a hammock by the beach, I should point out that I am currently significantly further inland, in the state of Minas Gerais. I am at the Fazenda Iracambi, a working farm and research centre dedicated to conservation of the Atlantic Rainforest, known here in Brazil as the Mata Atlantica ( The Mata has been reduced to about 7% of its original extent, making it severely more endangered than the forests of the Amazon. This depletion continues with forest being cleared principally for agricultural use.

Iracambi seeks to reverse this process, searching for means of preserving the existing forest, and building new corridors connecting isolated patches of forest to help preserve the biodiversity of this region. The intention is to find ways in which local people can find it more beneficial to preserve the forest than to cut it down. I am here to learn, but am also participating in the creation of a land use map to enable more accurate measurement of the state of the remaining forest.

Where forest exists, the area can be strikingly beautiful, at least when it stops raining. The terrain is hilly and the cleared land is mostly used for pasture or for growing crops such as coffee or sugar cane. It is winter at the moment, something I didn't take too seriously at first as I struggled up hills in the heat to measure GPS reference points. However the last few days have brought rain and a significant drop in the daytime temperature - now I believe it.

But don't worry, South of Watford is intending to find that hammock somewhere near Rio de Janeiro for a few days before returning to Spain - hopefully I won't need an umbrella to go with it.