Tuesday, July 31, 2007

A Royal Flush

Yet more costume drama involving the Spanish royal family following the persecution of the magazine El Jueves. Another attention seeking judge, Fernando Marlaska Grande, has activated a case against a different satirical magazine for a piece they printed on a bizarre trip by King Juan Carlos to Russia a few months ago. This trip, which was not part of an official visit to the country, is the origin of a very strange tale about the king hunting a bear that, to put it mildly, was not in full possession of all its faculties at the time of its death. In short, it was said to have been drunk (the bear, not the king). Whether true or not, the story is hardly grounds for threatening people with court action, and was widely published by all sorts of media at the time. It may not portray the king in the most flattering of lights, but why should anyone be obliged to do so?

The consequences of the decision to pursue the case against El Jueves continue. I am no fan of the conservative Basque nationalist party, the PNV, but I think the article written by one of their veteran politicians last week on his blog hits the nail right on the head. The Basques have a reputation for straight talking, and Iñaki Anasagasti doesn't mince words in his forthright piece. People have subsequently been very hard on Anasagasti, who did nothing more than express his personal opinions on his own blog. You could legitimately ask why it is not illegal to call the royals a bunch of idle wasters on a blog, yet it is apparently illegal to do a satirical cartoon of them. Bad, unnecessary laws applied in a selective way always throw up such inconsistencies.

Meanwhile, it's amusing to see the gymnastics being performed by some of those who saw the freedom of expression issue with such apparent clarity in the case of the caricatures of Mohammed. One example was a piece by Peruvian author Mario Vargas Llosa in El País at the weekend, where he indulged in a pompous attack on those responsible for the offending cartoon. Vargas Llosa is living proof that being an excellent writer of fiction does not mean that you will write sensibly on anything connected to reality. Much of those who rush to defend the royals against what are hardly deadly attacks always turn to the king’s supposed role in “saving” democracy during the failed coup attempt in 1981. The fact that, after thinking it over for quite a few hours, he decided to come down on the side of democracy doesn't seem to me to be something that deserves special praise. How do we know he didn't just toss a coin to decide the issue? Perhaps he did it on the best of three to make it more interesting. I'm afraid that a head of state that doesn't have it absolutely clear where he stands on the values which he has been appointed to uphold should not be in that position in the first place. The Bourbons don’t come high on any list I have ever seen of strugglers for freedom and liberty.

Some people might get offended by such opinions, but that is no justification for us to have judges crawling over every word that gets written on the subject. Seeing the opening of new cases in this way simply suggests that the judges involved have nothing better to do with their time; that's unlikely to be the case. Republican sentiments may be in a minority in Spain, but it is still a significant minority and no amount of judicial intimidation of critical voices changes that. So there, it’s hot as hell in Madrid and I’ll say no more.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

In Defence Of Benidorm

I spent last weekend in Benidorm, a place that at one time I thought I was never very likely to visit. I had an image of the town as being the archetypal place for the cheap package holiday, largely based on a British documentary that I remember from quite a few years ago. This programme tracked a package tour group during their trip to the town, and the resulting portrayal was both funny and horrific at the same time. I still have this memory of one member of the group, who wore a huge straw hat and carried an enormous ventriloquists dummy duck (I suppose it could have been an ostrich) with him at all times! It showed the rituals of the package holiday in all its glory with bogus flamenco shows and rivers of cheap sangria.

Well now I have been, more than once, and I have to say I quite like the place. Much more residential than I imagined, and with a stronger Spanish flavour than the image presented, it's not an unpleasant place to go. The weather can be good at most times of year and the place has life all year round, unlike some other places that seem semi deserted outside of the main season. Admittedly, the average age in November or December probably gets close to 90 as it is such a favourite for retired people escaping the cold northern winter; but that doesn’t matter.

Part of what I like about it is the mixing of the cultures, not because I need to have a full roast dinner with all the trimmings in the middle of July; but it does make the place very easy to adapt to if you’re a Brit based in Spain like I am. You can go for an excellent Spanish lunch and then settle down in an English style pub by the beach to watch some Premier League football in the afternoon – now that’s what I call multicultural. In addition the surrounding area has some excellent walking routes, best done outside of the hottest months. Unfortunately, to get there directly from Madrid without a car means taking the bus, and the bus drivers of ALSA for the journey there and back are runaway winners of this month's China Railways Customer Service Prize for degrading and humiliating treatment of passengers. Sunday's driver was spectacularly nasty. Fortunately the train service to Alicante is fast and comfortable, and that’s how I'm going next time; because I’m going back.

Monday, July 23, 2007

Meanwhile, Back In The Middle Ages....

On my way to the beach on Saturday morning I stopped to buy the paper and was stunned to see the headlines about the seizure of an entire edition of the satirical magazine El Jueves. The reason for this drastic action was that the front page was allegedly insulting to the Spanish royal family with its cartoon of Prince Felipe “pleasuring” his wife (I think that’s the royal way to say it?). The move was ordered by judge Juan del Olmo, who was the investigating magistrate for the Madrid bombings and who is now showing alarming signs of wanting to be one of these judges for whom the day to day judicial routine is never going to be enough. Now I knew there was a crime of insulting the royals, but I thought until now that it was just something that they dragged out whenever they needed to lay charges against Batasuna’s leadership. The prosecutors have confirmed their intention this afternoon to charge those responsible for the cartoon.

A seizure of this kind is reminiscent of other times with the police being sent out to grab every copy they can find; one of the worst things about it is the claim proudly made by prosecutors that they acted of their own accord, without any pressure from the royal family. Effectively they are saying that if they voluntarily sweep the path under the royal foot then they are demonstrating greater dignity and independence than if they are obliged to do it. I’m not sure I get that one. The response from the government and many others has been pathetically timid, with the vice president of the government shamefully declaring the other day that the right to free expression had to be limited by “respect” for institutions; in other words you can say what you want as long as it’s not against the powerful.

The object of the satire is only partly the prince, it is aimed equally at the proposal by the Spanish government to pay €2500 for each newborn child. The universal nature of the benefit does, I suppose, mean that even members of the royal family would be eligible; and given their recent prolific breeding habits they could do quite nicely out of it. Those who think that the royal family is just a harmless medieval decoration should think again when it starts being used as a reason to seize publications and close down web sites. There are already plenty of reasons to justify a republic; we don’t need to be offered more. Anyway, judge the “offence” for yourselves:

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Regional Dancing

Several weeks have passed since the municipal and regional elections at the end of May, but some complicated politics mean that the question of who governs still isn't resolved in all cases. Most complicated of all has been the case of Navarra, where we have witnessed a very strange and slightly farcical negotiating process. The result of the elections in the region left the Partido Popular (PP) - known there as the UPN - short of an overall majority. This left open the possibility of a coalition government being formed by the PSOE and the alliance of Basque nationalist parties known as Nafarroa Bai (NaBai).

After several weeks, the negotiations between the PSOE and NaBai finally broke down last week, and the reason seems to be that the PSOE never wanted them to succeed. With apparent agreement on the program of the government, and with NaBai having agreed to drop any nationalist demands on the status of Navarra it seemed that the only thing left to agree was the composition of the government itself. That is where the PSOE put a significant spanner in the works, by demanding a significant presence of independents in the administration. They then declared the negotiations to be over. It's hard to avoid the suspicion that the whole negotiating process has been a pretence on the part of the PSOE, with no genuine intention of ever reaching an agreement. It has been evident that much of the national leadership is uncomfortable with the idea of an alliance with NaBai, for fear that the PP would exploit it in the rest of the country. This being Navarra, and not Cataluña, the national leadership gets its way.

It's not as if we haven't been here before, the "tripartit" in Cataluña caused the PP to make all sorts of extravagant claims and to demonise Esquerra Republicana as being the most evil creatures that ever existed. Obviously in the case of an agreement in Navarra they would have tried to do the same, along the lines of their hysterical campaign before the elections. However, given that none of this has worked it is hard to see what the PSOE are so scared about. Their local leader, Fernando Puras, has now been reported as saying that he sees fresh elections as the best solution. Given that the only outcome likely to change the current situation would be an overall majority for the PP he is effectively advocating this as the solution to the impasse. Maybe he will even call on his supporters not to vote, wanting your opponents to win so that you are not placed in a delicate position is taking things a bit too far.

Meanwhile, interim PP leader Mariano Rajoy has presented a proposal for a new electoral law which would make it impossible for parties with less than 30% of the vote to form a government. The proposal is essentially a result of the inability of the PP to form alliances with other parties, and amongst other curious effects would mean that no party at all would be allowed to govern in Barcelona. All Rajoy needs to do now is add a clause forbidding parties whose names contain the words "Izquierda", "Socialista" or "Nacionalista" from participating in elections and success for the PP is almost guaranteed. Oh, but maybe Spain has been down that road before?

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Holy War

The Catholic Church in Spain has declared war on the government. What could the evil infidels running the country have done to warrant such a strong reaction? Perhaps they have decided to stop collecting money for the Church via the taxation system, or to stop subsidising religious schools with public money? Much to the disappointment of those of us who believe in a genuine separation of Church and state it is neither of these. Instead they have introduced a new citizenship course into the education curriculum. It doesn’t sound like such a terrible thing to do, all very worthy, but hardly the sort of thing to provoke such a strong reaction. However, under the guise of turning young Spaniards into responsible citizens it turns out that the course is going to be filled with dangerous ideas about….wait for it…tolerance, democracy and equality of treatment! It should be no surprise therefore that Spain’s bishops have taken up arms against such ideas, all of which are very foreign to them.

Most ironic of all is the way in which they protest about the new course, claiming that it is an attack on freedom of choice in education. Ironic because this comes from an institution not exactly noted for their promotion of choice when they were given the chance to be involved in deciding how to educate the country’s youth. It's not too difficult to see that their real problem is that they are now firmly removed from the control over moral indoctrination that they would love to have. Gone are the days when they could freely impose their firm spiritual beliefs on impressionable young children - when commandments like the following provided a sound moral platform for all:

Thou shalt not kill unless you are a powerful person and remember to express mild regret afterwards.

Thou shalt not pay compensation to the victims of child abuse by members of the clergy until compelled to do so.

It's definitely a higher kind of morality that they represent. This after all is the institution which still mourns dead fascists on the walls of hundreds, if not thousands, of churches around the country. The same Church that is proceeding with the latest beatification process for 498 "martyrs" of the Spanish Civil War without even considering for a moment whether the Church might not bear some responsibility for its own role in that conflict. The transition following Franco’s death did not reach all areas of life in the country, and the ecclesiastical hierarchy in Spain provides us with regular reminders of that.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

The Red Flags Of Murcia

Don't get too alarmed, this post is not quite as militant as the title suggests. I spent the weekend in Murcia on what has now become an annual excursion; visiting the Mar de Musicas festival held in Cartagena. Youssou N'Dour was the attraction on Saturday night and the place was packed, to the extent that we had a serious case of overbooking. This wouldn't be so bad if it weren't for the evident lack of interest that many of those attending had in the concert - I suspect an inflated guest list is the cause of the crowding and the presence of so many people who go to an event that doesn't interest them. Meanwhile, the only red flags I saw were those flapping on the beaches of La Manga as a strong wind meant that swimming was declared unsafe and the temperature never got near what you would normally expect for Murcia at this time of year. Not that I minded, the beer was cold and the grilled sardines were fantastic.

All of which gives me a suitable pretext for writing on a Murcia related story that previously fell off my list of potential topics to post about. A few months ago I read in the press about a new stretch of motorway that was being opened between Cartagena and Almeria to the south. This would normally be of no interest to me but it was reported that nobody from the government turned up for the wine and canapés that accompanied the inauguration of this motorway, despite it being a national government project. The reason for this absence has to do with what lies behind the new road. It has several exits which lead the driver taking them to nowhere at all! No village or town lies at the end of them. At least not yet, the reason these exits exist is because of plans to open up one of the few stretches of Mediterranean coastline that has not yet been entirely constructed. The projects that the Murcian regional government have prepared for the area are not small scale, we are talking about developments that combined involve hundreds of thousands of new homes.

The new motorway was projected by the previous government led by our bitter and twisted old friend José Maria Aznar, and the regional government of Murcia is also firmly under the control of his party, the Partido Popular. One of the biggest developments planned for the region, Marina de Cope, is intended to have accommodation for 60000 people as well as the now mandatory golf courses. Following the finest traditions of the construction industry, the site chosen was previously a protected natural park which amongst other attractions had one of the few remaining turtle populations. Such details could not be allowed to stand in the way of such a promising development, and the Murcian government acted to remove the protection. This decision has been taken to the Constitutional Tribunal, which you might think would mean the plans have to be put on hold. No way, the Murcian government has informed the tribunal that it doesn’t matter what decision they reach when they finally get around to hearing the case, because construction is going to start anyway. There’s nothing like a bit of respect for the rule of law! Don’t even ask where the water for these developments might come from, you could present a serious argument for saying that the Sahara begins in this region.

The best summary of this situation I found on the web came happily from a site that I already link to, Los Genoveses. It’s a pity there isn't a red flag we could use to stop these people from concreting the few remaining open spaces on the coastline. Avanti popolo!

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Shed No Tears For The Spirit Of Ermua

It's all very well to say that summer is just about concerts or sitting in terrazas, but surely there still has to be a bit of space for politics? Today is the 10th anniversary of the assassination by ETA of the Partido Popular (PP) councillor in the Basque town of Ermua, Miguel Ángel Blanco. He is not the only local councillor to have been killed by ETA, but his death created a huge impact in Spain because of the way in which it happened. First he was kidnapped, and ETA delivered an ultimatum of 48 hours for the Spanish government to agree to move their prisoners to the Basque country. With no concessions forthcoming from the government, ETA carried out their threat and executed Blanco.

There was a genuine popular reaction that followed the assassination, the tension of the 48 hours between the kidnapping and the killing set it apart from many other ETA actions. I remember the events quite well, the drama of Blanco's assassination took place just a couple of weeks after my arrival in Spain. Unfortunately, this is also the point at which the abuse of terrorism for political advantage by the PP became part of the political landscape. Let's fast forward a couple of months from the assassination. A concert was organised in the Las Ventas bullring in Madrid in homage to Blanco and supposedly in support of liberty and democracy. It turned out to be very different. The singer songwriter Raimon began singing and a huge chorus of boos and whistles came from a significant section of the audience; Raimon had the temerity to sing in Catalan! The actor José Sacristan, associated with the left, stepped forward to cite some verses from Brecht; and got the same treatment. The entire leadership of the government and PP was present and didn't even seem a little bit perturbed by the behaviour of their supporters. It was a display of aggressive intolerance that at the time I found shocking, although seeing it in the light of events that have occurred since it fails to surprise. I just didn't realise at the time how neanderthal the Spanish right is compared to much of Europe - Poland excepted. The concert ended up as a shameful propaganda gift to ETA, who could point to such behaviour as a sign that things in Spain had not really changed.

That concert is where the true spirit of Ermua ended, the appropriation of terrorism for electoral objectives began and has continued ever since. So when I saw the PP leaders calling this week for a return to the spirit of Ermua I understood exactly what they meant, they organised their own commemoration of Blanco together with their satellite organisations; and boycotted the all-party event organised by the town council. That same council has requested that one of those satellite organisations, the Foro de Ermua, stops using the name of the town so that it ceases to be associated with their sectarian positions. What is regrettable about the whole affair is not the isolation of the PP - they made their choice - simply that they cannot shake the habit of opportunist manipulation of a genuine public rejection of terror.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Summer Tunes

Enough ranting about politics, summer is a time to take it easy and enjoy the fact that Madrid gets some decent live music for a change. Last night it was the turn of this man, Alpha Blondy, at Conde Duque.

3 more concerts in the next 4 days, life is good.

Monday, July 09, 2007

Are You A Ratista?

No sooner had I written my post on who is best placed to be the next leader of the Partido Popular (PP), than something had to happen to throw it all open again. In a comment on my original post, Evaristo suggested the name of former Spanish finance minister and current IMF director-general Rodrigo Rato as an alternative candidate to Esperanza Aguirre or Alberto Ruiz Gallardón. No chance, I said, he's too far from home to be a contender and doesn’t have sufficient support in the party. A couple of days later, Rato took care of the distance problem and announced his intention to leave the IMF and return home to Spain.

I like to think he took his decision after reading South of Watford and realising that his chances of being PP leader were not good while he lived the good life in Washington. However, I’m prepared to accept that his return might not be a result of this blog showing disrespect for his chances. In any case the decision certainly caused some expectation both inside and outside of the PP. Officially he has returned for family reasons and is not seeking to resume his domestic political career (cue murmurs of “heard that one before”). I have even seen suggestions that he is returning to Spain because of lurrrv, although I’m not sure about that one because he could always have followed the Wolfowitz Principle and placed the object of his affections in a well paid post in the IMF.

Maybe he is retired from active politics, but the problem is that a politician who wanted to place himself as a possible successor to current leader Mariano Rajoy would not behave much differently. Rato is making loyal, supportive, noises but maintaining a safe distance from a party leadership that could be facing a second successive electoral defeat. Should that defeat occur then he can instantly put himself at the service of the party. He certainly provokes less rejection inside the PP than Gallardón does, although maybe he is not ideological enough for those who currently pull the strings in the party. He’s a candidate…..or maybe he isn’t!

On an incidental note, Rato’s return spells the end of the war “dividend” from Aznar’s disastrous participation in the Iraq invasion. The only beneficiaries of this adventure have been those PP politicians (Aznar included) who got nice jobs out of having US support for positions in major companies or international organisations. Jobs for the boys (and girls), shame about the rest.

Saturday, July 07, 2007

Fast Track Justice

The justice system in Spain receives frequent criticism for its slowness and misplaced priorities, but at least in one case residents of Madrid can sleep easily in their beds safe in the knowledge that a threat to their way of life is being dealt with. I wrote a few months ago about the decision to convert a piece of public land in the centre of Madrid into a golf practice centre instead of the public park that had been promised. This brave decision to raise the sporting prowess of Madrileños, many of whom can’t tell one end of a golf club from the other, was criticised by the ungrateful local residents who insisted that a park was what they should be getting. Unfortunately, some of the more radical elements of this opposition decided to take things into their own hands. Armed with a variety of weapons (including picks and shovels), these - let’s not mince words here - urban terrorists decided to plant a tree replacing one that work on the site had removed. Fortunately, that is where the justice system has intervened and the 5 residents responsible for this act of wilful vandalism have been taken to court, thanks to the vigilance of a security guard. This same guard risked his life in an attempt to preserve the integrity of the driving range, because we all know that picks and shovels can be used for other things than just planting trees! I can’t find anything to confirm the rumour that the charge was one of “planting a tree with intent to improve a public space”, but let’s hope that the authorities crack down on this problem before it gets out of hand.

Thursday, July 05, 2007

The State Of The Opposition

Starting again after my latest absence from Madrid, I didn’t expect to be posting on the “state of the nation debate” that was held this week in Spain. For all my interest in politics, I find these staged annual parliamentary debates a bit boring, and with this being the last one before next year’s general election I thought it would probably be a tedious and content free event with a careful eye on not doing anything to upset the electorate. Well I was right, mostly, but what makes it worth posting about is the evident incapacity of the opposition Partido Popular (PP) to find anything at all to talk about other than the collapse of the government’s attempt to negotiate with ETA. We had a brief political truce with the formal end of the ETA ceasefire , and even though I never thought for a minute it would last, it is a little bit surprising that the PP should still seek to make it their sole theme for opposition. I should have known better, given that the combined intellectual might of the party machine and all their associated think-tanks could not come up with a single parliamentary question worth asking on any other topic.

PP leader Mariano Rajoy dedicated no fewer than 9 pages out of 22 in his keynote speech to ETA, he had no proposals to make on other issues; and very little of substance to say about anything else. All the recent talk of him presenting a more moderate, centrist image just came to nothing as he shrugged aside urging from his own party ranks to take on the government on other issues in the debate. Undoubtedly the PP will attempt to present this faked centrist image as the election gets nearer, but this was one of those opportunities where you would expect the leader of the opposition to try and present some kind of project to the country. It didn't happen, there is no project.

The aggressive, obsessive, insistence on putting ETA at the centre of the political debate just doesn't seem to make any sense, even from the PP's point of view. Between them, the PP and ETA have created a variety of mutual dependency - without the crutch of continuing terrorism the PP has no theme, nothing to offer, no issue to run with. If ETA doesn't carry out a major attack soon then where does that leave their strategy, they have succeeded in making terrorism the centre of political debate but despite their assistance it will only stay there if ETA manage to carry out a successful (on their terms) attack. There are some subterranean signs of unhappiness with this strategy even inside the PP, whose lack of internal democracy means that dissent is difficult to express openly.

The opinion polls are confirming the failure. Although polls often seem to reflect the political bias of those who commission them, in this case the pro-PP El Mundo published a poll that shows Prime Minister Zapatero with a clear advantage over Rajoy in the debate. Crucially, the sector that gave him that clear advantage was that part of the population not strongly committed to either party; the very voters that you would think the PP needs to reach out to if they are going to stand any chance of returning to power. Another voting intentions poll gave the governing PSOE a clear advantage. The current strategy of the PP seems to be based entirely around keeping their confirmed support angry and motivated, which only works if they manage to get enough of the other side to stay at home come voting day. If I cared for the PP I would be tearing my little remaining hair out in despair, fortunately I’m quite happy to see them trapped where they are – if they carry on like this they stand every chance of ending up as the authors of their own misfortune. Precisely what saw them thrown out of government in the first place. In the meantime, there have been interesting developments which could affect the South of Watford sweepstakes on who might be the next leader of the PP – but that’s worth another post.