Thursday, January 31, 2008

Spanish General Election 2008....The Invasion Of The Tax Cutters

This is probably the first election campaign that I have observed in Spain where taxation has come to the fore as an issue. Even though many people in Spain dedicate incredible energy to trying to avoid taxes, there has never been any great groundswell of opinion in favour of tax cutting measures as electoral incentives. That is changing now as both major parties seek to offer competing offers on what they will do in the event of winning the election.

The Partido Popular (PP) started it, with talk of taking the mileuristas (those earning €1000 a month) out of those paying income tax, and of reforming the different tax bands. There is much that they fail to spell out on their proposal, we don’t know whether those who are currently paying 24% tax will in future be paying 20% or 30%. The difference is not insignificant. Also, if those who are earning €16000 a year will stop paying tax, what will happen to those earning 16001 – will they suddenly start having to pay 20%? The PP refuse to divulge any details on how much the proposal will cost, claiming that it is not possible to make the calculation. This is odd when you consider that they also claim it will be paid for by future economic growth, how do you know this if you don’t know what it will cost in the first place. I know they lack economics expertise in the PP headquarters, but surely someone there knows how to use a calculator?

Prime Minister Zapatero then responded with a proposal that at least as initially presented is not a tax cut at all, it’s a rebate that comes out of the budget surplus. However, the proposal has now mutated from being a one-off rebate of €400 to being an annual event throughout the life of the next parliament. Then it is not clear who will actually be entitled to receive it anyway, so further modifications of the proposal seem inevitable. Whatever the meaning of the details, we now have a process where competing tax offers have installed themselves as part of the electoral game, and once the genie is out of the bottle…..

Now Spain is not a country with historically high levels of taxation, nor is it one where state spending has been particularly high as a percentage of national product. The superficially attractive argument that people are better off having their own money in their own pockets is in the end a rich person’s argument. When people on lower incomes have to pay for everything, they stop going to doctors and they die younger. I don’t need public services that are starved of investment to pay for electoral bribes, and I don’t need expensive public transport. I’ve done all of that in Britain, there is no benefit in repeating the experience; it doesn’t work. So even though I stand to benefit financially from some of the proposals being made, I’m not interested; you can keep your tax cuts and the rebate too for that matter. In any case, the British example taught those of us who lived through it that much of what you supposedly get back on direct taxation later disappears through stealth increases on indirect taxation.

I like living in a country where people don’t have to live behind high fences in fear of the rest of their society. I want a public health service and education system, state pensions that do more than just keep people alive, and a transport system where I don’t need to consider getting a bank loan every time I want to cross the country by train. All of these have to be paid for. If there is any money left over after all of that, I propose to spend it on shipping all the tax cutting, neocon, “survival of the fittest” social-Darwinists to an unpopulated island somewhere in the Pacific, preferably one that is threatened by climate change. As the sea level rises they can hack each other to death to expand their little patch of sand without the rest of us having to suffer the consequences.

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

La Liga 2007-8....Is It All Over?

There comes a time every football season, when La Liga has passed its half way point, and a blogger has to look back at those unreliable predictions made while we were still being warmed by the late August sun.

I certainly didn’t get things right about Real Madrid, currently runaway leaders with a 9 point advantage over second placed Barcelona. The early season doubts have disappeared, and under Schuster Madrid are showing that they have perfected the art of picking up points even when they are not playing well; something they did in a less attractive fashion under Capello last season. A formidable season from goalkeeper Casillas has helped a lot, whilst up front the combination of Van Nistelrooy and a revitalised Raul is ensuring that goals are not in short supply. Also, Sergio Ramos has turned into the most versatile and solid player in the Spanish game, whilst Robinho may not be the “new Pele” but he seems to have found his role in the team. I still maintain that it is a team made to look better by the failings of their principal rivals, but the statistics are impressive. The test of my theory will be the approaching challenge of the final rounds of the Champions League. Of course, if Madrid take their traditional springtime exit from this competition then their chances of winning the Liga only improve.

As for Barcelona, currently the only other possible challengers for the title, it’s hard to say just why things aren’t working out for them. The team that was hailed as the best in Europe just 2 years ago has gone into a steady decline. Much of the attention focuses on Ronaldinho and there is now a lot of talk of his impending exit. However, the failure is a more general one than just one player losing interest, the team has lost its fluency and is in danger of becoming what Madrid have been for several years; a collection of talented players with a chronic inability to play together as a unit. Another team whose season will be shaped by the Champions League, failure in that tournament as well as the Liga probably means the end of the Rijkaard era.

Now where did it all go wrong for Valencia? At the top, I suspect. When I heard that they had contracted Ronald Koeman as their new coach I sensed potential disaster in the making. They say that Quique Flores, his predecessor, was sacked just as things were starting to work better for him at the club. He is said to have had problems with some of the players but the team was at least still functioning. Now, a team that should be in the running for at least a Champions League place is showing form that qualifies it as a relegation candidate. Koeman’s disastrous spell may not have much longer to go, given the reaction of the fans to last weekends defeat. His main legacy may be the wall he is having constructed at the club’s training ground to isolate himself and the players from the press and supporters. The squad probably needed a bit of refurbishment, with some of the senior players being eased out, but the ham-fisted way in which Koeman has isolated former favourites like Cañizares, Angulo and Abelda has not helped his situation.

Probably no club has had a more turbulent start to the season than Sevilla, beginning with the awful tragedy of the death of Antonio Puerta following the game against Getafe. Eventually the club had to appeal to the supporters to stop commemorating the player’s death in the same minute of every game as it was affecting the performance of the team. Then came the delayed, but unsurprising, departure of Juande Ramos for Tottenham. Nevertheless, it is a club that works with a system and so far at least that system seems to have survived the departure of Ramos. A variable performance in the league has been compensated by an impressive debut so far in the Champions League, although they need to concentrate on finishing high enough in the league to ensure participation in next years edition.

Al least in the case of Atlético Madrid my crystal ball seemed to function reasonably well. They have days when they seem inspired, and those days tend to be the ones when the Argentinian “Kun” Agüero is on form. However, there are still too many other days when the team is off colour, and that is what makes the difference between a club that will probably finish high enough to get European football next season, and one that will start to challenge the current dominance of their city rivals.

Of the rest, Villareal deserve a special mention. With Forlan gone to Atlético and with the troubled Riquelme having finally left the club, they have continued to show that you don’t always need pots of money to compete with the big boys. Likewise, both Español and Racing Santander have shown that teamwork and a bit of stability can lift a club above what might have been expected of it. Zaragoza have failed to impress, they didn’t start well and in the end they resorted to sacking the coach. The replacement for Victor Fernandez lasted a matter of days before former Deportivo trainer Javier Irureta was brought in to bring a bit of stability.

Take a close look at the league table, only 9 points separates 7th placed Sevilla from Deportivo in 19th. That’s 13 clubs that could find themselves in trouble if they have a bad run. Levante look doomed, despite a victory last weekend, but the battle for who will join them in going down is going to be tough and unpredictable. It’s hard to believe that Deportivo is the team that most threatened the stranglehold of the big clubs a few short seasons ago. Of course it doesn’t help the situation when your two main goalkeepers start (literally) fighting each other for a place in the team. Other supposedly big teams like Betis and Athletic Bilbao continue to struggle too. The battle in the lower half of the table could be what maintains any interest or excitement in the rest of the season, because unless Madrid lose their nerve or Barcelona recover their historical memory it’s going to be a dull second half for the Liga this year.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

No Peace For The Dying In Madrid

Last summer I wrote a post about the shameful persecution of a group of doctors working at the Severo Ochoa hospital in Leganés, near Madrid. As a result of a witch hunt launched by the regional government, these doctors had been removed from their posts and at one time faced the possibility of going on trial for murder because they had administered palliative sedation to the terminally ill. The courts threw out the accusations which amounted to involuntary euthanasia, finding no evidence to back them up. Yesterday, they went one step further and left it completely clear that there was no suggestion of any kind of malpractice by the doctors concerned.

That should be the end of it, and any of the professionals concerned should be reinstated to their posts. We could even expect a public rectification from those responsible for this sad situation, notably Manuel Lamela who was responsible for health in the regional government and who did so much to promote the accusations against these doctors. Lamela has since been moved to transport and so far at least no bus driver has been falsely charged with attempting to murder his passengers. But the doctor in charge of the casualty unit at Severo Ochoa, Luis Montes, has still not been permitted to resume his duties, and is now forced to consider what other legal options are open to him.

Esperanza Aguirre, questioned yesterday on the issue, claimed that she was glad that there was no evidence of malpractice. However, her stony faced expression didn’t suggest that happiness was what she was feeling, and she brushed aside any questions on reinstatement of Dr Montes by saying her administration would do “whatever needed to be done”. The man currently in charge of the health service in Madrid made it clear that Montes would not be reinstated because they had lost confidence in him. This is presumably because he committed the heinous crime of successfully defending himself against false accusations that he murdered his patients?

Aguirre and her crew are never satisfied with the routine political knockabout, they seem to feel a compulsive need to drag in some innocent bystanders. In this case, doctors and their patients; in another case those victims of the Madrid bombings who refused to support the conspiracy theories promoted by Espe and her chums. It is probably difficult for people like Aguirre, with their hatred of all things public, to understand why doctors would want to simply treat the sick and dying without asking for anything in return or having an ulterior motive. In the meantime, they have successfully smeared the good name of some dedicated professionals who have to deal with the rough end of health care. As if that wasn’t enough, they have installed a climate of fear in the region’s hospitals where doctors are still scared to administer palliative sedation to those who dying in agony; because it could cost them their jobs.

Monday, January 28, 2008

Spanish General Election 2008....The Opinion Polls Start To Move

The latest opinion polls on voting intentions published by Público and the Cadena SER show a change in the almost fixed pattern of the last few months. These are the first polls that take into account the after effects of l’affaire Gallardón and what they show is the governing PSOE increasing their advantage over the Partido Popular (PP) from around 2-3 points to a difference of 5-6. The situation up until now has been described by analysts as a “technical draw” on the grounds that the difference between the two main parties is small enough to fall within statistical margins of error. I have not been completely convinced by this description as the pattern of the polls has consistently placed one party (the PSOE) ahead of the other, but nevertheless it has been a sufficiently small margin to leave the outcome of the election looking very open.

These latest polls suggest that a stalemate is not the only possible result of the March 9th vote. A shift of 2 or 3 percentage points can make a big difference on the distribution of parliamentary seats. Now the question is going to be whether this widening of the gap is a temporary effect, or whether it is a sign that more voters have made up their mind and are opting for the government. The PSOE is seeking to keep the campaign lively to counteract the tendency towards abstention of part of their support, the general belief being that lower participation favours the right. The fuss over Gallardón is believed to have helped them in this because it reminds voters that those who are in charge of the PP are the same people who presided over the disaster of 2004. There is already an internet campaign combating abstention amongst left inclined voters. The shift in allegiances is a small tremor rather than a political earthquake, but it demonstrates that there are still votes to be won. It might seem hard to believe, but we are still not officially in the election campaign; that doesn’t start until mid-February!

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Close The Windows, Stay Indoors And Try Not To Breathe

Be careful today if you live in Madrid. The population of the capital has been issued with a warning by the city authorities not to do any strenuous outdoor exercise. The reason is because of dangerous contamination levels in the city; the culprit last time it happened was the “inversión termica” that we had shortly before Christmas, but this time it’s a cloud of African dust that gets the blame.

As yet another part of the Sahara moves northwards, the level of particles in the air at least in some parts of the city has breached recommended levels. This is happening with increasing frequency in Madrid and the reaction of the city’s rulers is curious. One surprising effect these particles seem to have is to put the city web page reporting on their presence out of action whenever it looks like they will clearly breach the limits. The most rapid way to reduce contamination in the city would of course be to restrict traffic, and that is such a horrific prospect for those who live in their cars that it in the end it is much easier to turn off the machines measuring the contamination. Another tricky problem solved, now I'm ready to go out and do some shopping.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Keeping Cool Under Pressure

You have to admire Pedro Solbes, the Spanish economy minister. It doesn't seem to matter what happens or how bad things get, he just carries on as if nothing is happening. With stock markets crashing around the world, out comes Pedro with his words of reassurance; there's nothing to worry about, it's just a minor readjustment, the underlying economy is sound etc etc. You get the feeling he would announce the end of the world with the same reassuring monotone, and at the same time give us a few useful statistics on how long it would take us all to die.

Of course he was put there to serve this kind of function, he doesn't come across as a partisan political figure. On the other hand you have the hysterical catastrophy-laden discourse of the Partido Popular (PP), which attempts to blame the government for every single piece of bad economic news happening anywhere on the globe. The serenity that Solbes shows is all very well, but there is a danger that it starts to appear as complacency as people start to feel the consequences of the end of the economic bubble. People don't want to be told everything is going pear shaped, but they also don't want to see those responsible for the economy pretending that nobody has any problems.

Meanwhile new PP economic superstar Manuel Pizarro tells us that "the party is over". This of course is not a reference to his own economic situation, Pizarro walked away from Endesa with millions of euros in his pocket and it was reported the other day that he could pocket an additional €35,000 for being a member of the board of Telefonica for one month. A month in which he was not required to attend a single meeting. Small change for him, but at least it ensures that the champagne can continue to flow chez Pizarro.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Splendour In The Grass

Let us speak today of the Pharaoh Gayadonn, who ruled the great metropolis of Madrid for so many years. One day, as Gayadonn sat with his council of wise advisors, he made a surprising announcement. “That ring road, you know, the one down by the river – I want it buried.” The advisors looked at each other in amazement, for no-one had ever heard of such a thing. Pyramids, yes, not much use but they were easy to build; but burying ring roads? “It’s going to be a green oasis” said Gayadonn, “the people will play once more by the river Manzanares, and they shall thank their ruler.” The Pharaoh had spoken, and his servants had no choice. So work began, earth was moved, what trees and shrubbery there were by the ring road were uprooted and tossed aside.

However, Gayadonn became impatient. “Listen you lot, I’ve got bleeding elections coming up in two months time and if that road isn’t buried by then people are going to think I’m a useless plonker.” So it was, the sound of hammering became louder, more earth was moved, great machines that had never been seen before were brought in to burrow under the ground, workers were brought from across the seas to work weekends and public holidays. The day of the election dawned and the machines fell silent. The people emerged from their dust shrouded hovels and beheld an amazing sight. “The road has gone!” they cried, and then they flocked to the voting stations and the Pharaoh was returned with a mighty majority he could use to smite his many enemies.

Time passed, the seasons changed, and there came the festive time of much shopping and eating and drinking. As the old year passed the people saw that they were fat and in need of exercise. “Let us go down to the river” they said, “for do we not have a fine park where we can run and cycle and make ourselves fit again?” So they went to the river, but they found no park. The land was dry, dusty and barren. The river an unhappy stream caught between great concrete embankments. The people began to wail, “Oh Gayadonn, when shall we cycle by the river, or rest under a shady tree, or bathe in the cool fresh waters?” But Gayadonn did not hear them. “Look, I’m too busy to discuss this now, can’t you see I’ve got a lot of reflecting to do about my political future?


Monday, January 21, 2008

Are You The Right Person For This Job?

As if getting a job wasn’t already hard enough in Spain there are always some companies whose requirements are somewhat exclusive. As it’s normally those who are politically on the right who like to complain about political correctness here’s a job advert to redress the balance (via Las penas del Agente Smith). Take a look at the list of Requisitos Minimos.

The company responsible for advertising the post has quickly withdrawn the ideological test from the original advertisement on one site, although not from another. Note also the requirements for the nationality of candidates, it’s not quite saying “only people of white European origen need apply” but it’s not too far away from it. Anyway, here are a handy couple of interview hints for anyone interested in the position:

Arrive late for the interview and offer as your excuse “I would have got here easily before Zapatero and his red separatist friends introduced all these speed traps on the motorway

Then rest your rifle on the table, cross yourself, and break the ice by saying “You do understand that I refuse to accept any payment for working overtime?”.

Presumably, if being right-wing is a minimum requirement for the post, left-wing candidates might be seen as over-qualified?

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Taking Good Care Of Their Own

This is the post that almost got buried by all the fuss surrounding the exclusion of Alberto Ruiz Gallardón from the Partido Popular (PP) election lists. The PP had planned for this week to see the triumphant presentation of their star signing for the elections, Manuel Pizarro. The former president of the electricity company Endesa has been drafted into the campaign as the economy has become an issue and the PP leadership realised that with Rodrigo Rato deciding to take more interest in his own personal economy they needed someone who at least understands the meaning of the word.

Pizarro was a key player in the prolonged, and very tedious, takeover saga that has surrounded Endesa in the last few years. It was he who led the rejection of a bid from Gas Natural, with the active support of a PP leadership determined not to see the company fall into the hands of the “foreigners” from Cataluña! When the foreigners from the German company E.ON came along suddenly the attitude to a buyout changed. The company spent millions on the campaign to the benefit of shareholders including a certain Manuel Pizarro who had the immense good fortune of purchasing a significant batch of shares shortly before the takeover moves became public.

Of course, we don’t want any of that leftist nonsense about how these millions could have been better spent on propping up some of the company’s crumbling supply infrastructure. Next thing we know they’ll be claiming that electricity supply is a public service. In any case, should Pizarro ever form part of a PP government we can be sure that appropriate price adjustments will be approved so that the company can recover this money from its customers. It’s probably unlikely he will be found pumping the flesh on the streets of Barcelona during the campaign, given the disdain he showed for those who dared to complain about the lack of electricity in the city last summer. The PP has abandoned the idea of trying to win over voters in Cataluña anyway.

The whole Pizarro story highlights the PP’s attitude to the economy. Pizarro is a good friend of Jose Maria Aznar and it was Aznar’s administration that enthusiastically pursued the version of crony capitalism that Pizarro has done so well from. In short the policy consists of mouthing platitudes about the invisible hand of the free market whilst ensuring that all the previously publicly owned companies are run by your mates.

So this is the man the PP presents to us as being a model to follow. Already he has started giving advice, and the mileuristas and those dedicating 60% of their income to their mortgage are already looking for their opportunity to spend less and save more….when they win the lottery or become president of Endesa. Don Manuel is showing all the signs of being one of those people for whom the Spanish word “prepotente” was invented as he dispenses wisdom to people whose lives he knows nothing about. Even further into orbit was Esperanza Aguirre who described him as the candidate of the workers and the young, presumably on the grounds that he is neither? The PP seems convinced he is a major asset, I suspect he could turn into something of a loose cannon unless there is someone who has the nerve to tell him to shut up occasionally. Should make the campaign livelier.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

For Madrid Things Can Only Get Worse

When I wrote my post yesterday about the exclusion of Madrid mayor Alberto Ruiz Gallardón from his party’s list for the general election, I still hadn’t completely assimilated all the possible consequences of the decision. Gallardón was initially reported to have threatened to resign after the election as a sign of his disenchantment, although he has since modified this to “opening a period of reflection”. Were he to carry out the threat it would just demonstrate that every silver lining has a cloud, because his designated successor would be a certain Ana Botella, who is better known for being the wife of former Prime Minister José Maria Aznar.

It’s a funny old world, the only reason why Ana occupies any position at all in the city administration is because Gallardón included her in his list as part of an attempt to ingratiate himself with Aznar, and therefore smooth his path towards greater things. Clearly it hasn’t worked, but it does leave us with the ironic situation where Botella could find herself in charge of the city as a result of Alberto not getting what the wants. If Madrid ends up being run by a tandem of Aguirre and the equally reactionary Botella then I think it will be time to leave, I never though I’d say it but just hang on for the moment Alberto! Poor Madrid, stuck between someone who evidently doesn’t think being mayor is sufficiently grand for him, and another who is only there as a result of the first person’s ambition.

Meanwhile, the more time passes the more I reflect on the sheer incompetence of the handling of this issue by Partido Popular (interim?) leader Mariano Rajoy. He had months to sort the issue out and yet the press reports suggest he left it to the last minute and then bowed to the bullying tactics of Esperanza Aguirre. Perhaps we shouldn’t be too surprised, Rajoy is where he is because of loyalty to Mrs Bottle’s husband, not because of anything he has ever achieved. Don’t take my word for it, ask any Spaniard you know with knowledge of Spanish politics to name anything significant that Mariano did on his passage through several major ministries while Aznar was in power. The man left no footprints, but loyally did what he was told. He doesn’t lack self-belief and evidently thinks that he is automatically better suited to lead the nation than Zapatero. This arrogance has been his undoing in several parliamentary debates, and may well affect the head to head confrontations with Zapatero in the election campaign. What a way to start the campaign, although I don’t mind if they carry on in the same direction.

On Top Of Tenerife

We saw Teide very clearly as our plane came in to land at Tenerife, the day was clear and bright and the mountain dominated the view from the plane. Half an hour later the clouds had moved in and it was as if there was no Teide there at all. We needn’t have worried about the weather, the next day was sunny and clear again, and we could see our objective all the time as our bus wound its way up from the coast to the point where we started the ascent.

We began walking at Montaña Blanca, which at 2200 metres is already higher than most mountains you can visit in Spain. Despite this, ahead of us was a 1000 metre ascent to the refuge of Altavista where we planned to spend the night; meaning that we had to carry all our baggage on our backs too. After a reasonable easy beginning, walking through the desert-like landscape at the base of the main part of Teide, we took a steeper path that snakes its way up to the refuge between tongues of jagged lava left as a reminder of the last time that Teide got really angry.

Having arrived at the refuge without too many problems, despite overfull rucksacks, we dropped off the bags and carried on walking towards the summit. Something strange happened to me here, I have never felt much effect from altitude before and I have been higher than this, but despite having no rucksack to carry anymore I was unable to walk more than 40 or 50 metres without pausing. Maybe it was the change from sea level to over 3000 metres in a few short hours that had this effect. Anyway, progress was slow but steady, and I arrived eventually at the top of the mountain. Hugo Chavez would have something to say about Teide, because it definitely smells of sulphur up there! The volcano may be sleeping, but it is not completely dormant.

Smoking is permitted

From the top (at over 3700 metres) on a fantastic day like this you can see Gran Canaria, La Gomera and La Palma without difficulty. As the sun goes down the shadow of Teide spreads across the island, culminating in an amazing optical illusion as with the last light it seems as if the shadow rises out of the sea.

The shadow of the mountain

Early in the morning is also a recommended time to take a look at the mountain and its surroundings, as the first rays of sun light up the volcanic rocks, as well as providing some welcome warmth; it was intensely cold outside at night. Fortunately the heating in the refuge worked very well.

The morning sun hits Teide

Only half way through January and I have already had two of the most impressive weekends in the Spanish mountains that I can remember, and very different weekends they have been too. The route we took going down was a variation on the one we used to ascend and both are shown on the map below. Expand the map to see more information; I have GPS recorded routes for those who want them.

Expand map view to see route information and points

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

The Night Of The Long Knives

I was going to write another post on the Partido Popular (PP) and their election list for Madrid, but it wasn’t going to be this one. However, the announcement last night that Madrid’s mayor Alberto Ruiz Gallardón is not going to get into the PP list for the general election on March 9th is worth looking at. If anyone still had any residual doubt about which sector of the PP is in control of the party then such doubts should have been completely removed by the latest developments.

Esperanza Aguirre is now the standard bearer of the hard right sector in the PP and has won her battle to stop Gallardón getting into the Spanish parliament before she does. This was a key issue for the succession battle that will follow another defeat for Mariano Rajoy, as it is seen as important for the candidates to succeed Rajoy to be members of parliament. Espe is not, and cannot stand as a candidate without resigning as regional president, and then how would she pay her heating bills? According to the press today she threatened to resign her current position so that she could go in the list together with Gallardón, putting maximum pressure on Rajoy to block Gallardon’s progress or face a crisis in Madrid. It’s also perhaps an indication of how little confidence Aguirre has in the prospect of Rajoy winning the election that she was so desperate to win this battle now.

There are now reports that Gallardón is threatening to abandon politics after the election, which strikes me as unlikely given his long proclaimed ambition to reach the top. It is a real setback for him, but his party is simply not ready for him. Even another election defeat is not going to be enough, although a third one might do the trick. The government has been given an unexpected boost by this news; despite trailing the PP in Madrid the capital is still an important source of votes for them, and with the electorally popular Gallardón humiliated there are now votes to be won. Meanwhile, the PP is not a party that likes to publicly exhibit its internal divisions, but if Rajoy loses then book your seat early for what promises to be as vicious and bloody a succession battle as possible. More than an Olympic stadium, what we need now in Madrid is a Roman arena.

Friday, January 11, 2008

It's Time For The Big One!

Having done my bit for the Asturian tourist industry, let's pay more attention to other parts of Spain. Most people with a bit of knowledge of Spanish geography know that the highest peak in Spain is not located in the Pyrenees, the Sierra Nevada or the Picos de Europa. It's not even on the peninsula, so I'm off to Tenerife for a few days. The ascent of the final part of Teide is on the agenda, and hopefully we will be lucky with the weather and it won't be covered in clouds. In any case, given the weather forecast for much of the rest of the country it looks like a good time to go. I'll be back on Tuesday or Wednesday next week.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

A Weekend In Somiedo

Another rewarding weekend walking in Asturias. If anyone believes that this region is just about the Picos de Europa, then I recommend a visit to the Parque Natural de Somiedo. Far less touristy than the Picos, but with some magnificent mountain routes and scenery. On Saturday we ventured to one of the most protected natural spaces in Spain, the Reserve of Muniellos. A maximum of 20 people per day are allowed to enter this reserve (and prior reservation is needed), which amongst other things serves as a refuge for the endangered Iberian brown bear. The lack of human disturbance is evident as you walk through one of the country’s largest oak forests. Even the rain didn’t put us off although I ended the day completely soaked. This place has to be wonderful in Spring or Autumn.

We had better luck with the weather on Sunday and Monday, and were able to do two different high mountain routes in the area around Saliencia and Valle de Lago. On neither of these routes did we see anybody else at all, obviously early January is not peak season but even so it is impressive to be in such peaceful surroundings. We did see plenty of wildlife in the area around Lagos de Saliencia, as every rocky outcrop seemed to have a rebeco (Pyrenean chamois) looking down on us.

Lago de la Cueva

Above the Lagos de Saliencia

Ever get the feeling you are being watched?

Lago de Valle

We stayed in Pola de Somiedo, a still small village although it seems to be expanding to meet the growing demand for rural tourism in Spain. Here is the map of the three routes, clicking on each one gives additional information and links. As usual it is easier to manage if you view the larger map. Any GPS users who want the tracks of the routes should send me an email.

View Larger Map

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

2008, A Year To Celebrate

Anyone who lives in Madrid will soon be aware, if they are not already, that there is an anniversary to commemorate in 2008. French residents of the Spanish capital might even want to consider taking a few weeks holiday around May, because the anniversary in question is the bicentenary of the 2nd May 1808 (dos de mayo) uprising against Napoleon’s troops. It was the event which sparked the war of the Spanish Peninsula and we can expect to hear much about the heroism of the city’s population.

Someone who has already raised the flag and started to advance on the French positions is our beloved regional president, Esperanza Aguirre, who dedicated her New Year address to the issue. La Espe has set up her own commission to supervise the celebrations, whilst her good friend and colleague Alberto Ruiz Gallardón seems to have decided he will be safer on the national government’s committee. The regional government has also commissioned a film to be made about the uprising, and has assigned an impressive budget of 15 million euros to the project. This in a region where financial assistance to the cinema industry is normally at a level more or less equivalent to the amount of small change you might carry in your pocket. The film will be directed by José Luis Garci, whose normal output is an annual nostalgic literary adaptation released just before the country’s nominations for the Oscars are decided. His effort this year will be an all action swashbuckling affair as brave Madrileños fall before the French cannon.

As anyone who has spent time in the city should know, these events used to be commemorated on a weekly basis with the holding of a mass botellón in the square that bears the name of the uprising. Somehow I suspect that such an event isn’t on the official agenda this year, whether we will get confrontations with the riot police on the eve of the anniversary is an open question. With Espe so heavily involved it seems almost inevitable that there will be at least a token attempt to extract political advantage from the celebration. I wonder how long it will be before we hear something along the lines of “our martyrs didn’t shed their blood on the streets of Madrid so that Zapatero could hand over the country to terrorists”.

The event will be commemorated as the beginning of a struggle for liberty, but it also had significance outside of Europe. The power vacuum the subsequent war created gave impetus to the independence movements in the Spanish Empire and the next 10-15 years are going to see many more bicentenaries as much of Latin America commemorates the end of Spanish dominance in that continent.

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Themes That Can Change An Election....The Voting System

According to an article in El Mundo this morning there is a clear majority in Spain in favour of changing the electoral system. The problem as they describe it is that the current electoral law favours regional nationalist parties at the expense of others, most notably Izquierda Unida (IU). This belief that the nationalists are overrepresented in the Spanish parliament is quite common, especially in right-wing circles; the argument goes that the law needs reforming in order to reduce this overrepresentation. As with so much of El Mundo’s journalism these days, the argument takes a factual situation (the imbalance in the electoral system) and manipulates it to give it the political angle they are looking for. So the article pretends that the reason IU loses out is because the nationalist parties get more members elected with fewer votes.

The reality of how the voting system works here in Spain was actually explained in some detail not long ago in an article from El Público. This paper also explained how IU is hurt by the way in which the current system works; the coalition should have 17 members of parliament but instead they obtained only 5 in the last elections. However, the disparity is not caused by any overrepresentation of nationalist parties, it emerges that the main beneficiaries of the way the current system works are the governing PSOE and ahead in first place the Partido Popular. This assessment is based on the number of votes needed to elect each representative in parliament. 42% of the current members of parliament are from the PP, yet this party won only 37% of the vote at the last election. The only nationalist party gaining a minimal overrepresentation is the Basque nationalist PNV, whilst IU needs almost 4 times as many votes as the PP or PSOE for each member elected. So reform is needed, but the parties most affected by it should be the largest. No genius is required to see that the chances of a genuinely proportional system being introduced are not very high.

Friday, January 04, 2008

Who's A Terrorist? Everyone's A Terrorist

How many readers of this blog are familiar with a trial in Spain known as “18/98”? This recently concluded trial was one of these huge judicial processes said to be aimed at organisations close to ETA and which provide support to that organisation. It ended with almost 50 defendants being sentenced to a collective total of around 500 years imprisonment, and has been hailed in the mainstream media as an important blow against ETA supporters. It is easy to assume that there must be something behind the sentence, after all surely the courts wouldn’t condemn people to prison sentences like this if they didn’t have at least something to do with terrorism? Well, I present to you the case of Sabino Ormazabal. Sabino is openly committed to non-violence as a key part of his political philosophy, and has publicly criticised the consequences of ETA attacks. Amongst other activities he has participated in days of action involving the collaboration of victims of terrorism from both sides in Northern Ireland. Despite all of these activities, and the clear rejection of violence to achieve political ends, Ormazabal has been sentenced to 9 years imprisonment; which is more than many people get for doing seriously violent things.

Surely the appeal court will do something to put this right? Well, the grounds for appeal are fairly limited in Spain and if the judges in the original case were evidently not very interested in dealing with the reality of the accused, then there is no reason to think that those hearing appeals will act differently. With cases such as this we are witnessing the ludicrous extension of the label “terrorist” to people whose political activities are entirely legitimate. Sabino’s best hope may turn out to be the European Tribunal of Human Rights and it is not at all far fetched to see him being adopted as a prisoner of conscience by organisations such as Amnesty International. In the meantime it is very likely he will end up in prison.

Talking of Europe, the case by ETA’s political wing Batasuna against the law used to make that organisation illegal (the Ley de Partidos) has been accepted for hearing by the European Tribunal. Despite this, it now looks almost certain that Acción Nacionalista Vasca (ANV) and the Communist Party of the Basque Lands (EHAK) are going to be declared illegal under the same law in the next few weeks. The government has been dropping very heavy hints on the issue and judge Baltasar Garzon has been gathering the “evidence”. Is there any relationship between this judge and the Baltasar Garzon who declared a few months ago that it was wrong to engage in a never ending series of illegalisations? Unfortunately there is. It appears that electoral expediency means that the government has decided to pre-empt the thorny issue of ANV presenting candidates in the elections and thus giving ammunition to the PP in their eternal attempt to reap electoral benefits from terror.

The judicial investigation that takes place to justify these bans is a charade; the Ley de Partidos was originally introduced with the specific intention of banning Batasuna, and was immediately followed by an “investigation” which could only possibly have one outcome. The same is happening now with ANV and EHAK. First the decision is taken to illegalise, then you look for reasons to justify that decision; precisely the opposite process to that which you would normally expect. So the game will begin again, there will be attempts by Batasuna supporters to get round the law and present candidacies in the elections, and any organisation which demonstrates sympathy with such attempts runs the risk of being illegalised.

Although I do not sympathise with Batasuna or their aims I hope they win the case in Europe, because the way things are going at the moment you will soon just need to know someone whose cousin had a friend who once lived next door to a member of ETA to be labelled as a terrorist collaborator. Someone has to put a stop to a process of criminalisation by association or ideas and it’s clearly not going to be the Spanish government or judiciary that does it. The terrorist is the person who places the bomb or pulls the trigger, but we are now seeing a creeping process where the definition is being applied to people who are not part of ETA and who even explicitly reject the use of terror as a way forward.

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Music To End The Year With

The last weekend of 2007 gave me a chance to catch up on current Spanish music trends with a couple of concerts in Madrid. First up was Muchachito Bombo Infierno who played in the Sala Riviera. One feature of the Madrid live music scene is that hardly any of the larger venues were designed for concerts; the Riviera is a huge discotheque complete with fake palm trees emerging from a bar in the centre. The place was packed, and the music was frenetic, a fusion of the rumba catalana with all sorts of other influences from r&b to ska passing via Manu Chao; all powered by a five piece brass section. Essentially it’s good time music, although none of it is memorable enough to make me feel like buying the record. The gimmick of the live show is to have an on stage artist who paints on a giant canvas as the concert progresses. It works quite well because Muchachito has a fairly tiresome habit of claiming that he is about to leave every 20 minutes or so. These lulls in the concert can be filled with speculation about how the painting is going to develop. With Madrid’s “special” interpretation of the Ley de Tabaco combining with my Christmas virus, I remember the night more for leaving me without a voice than for anything else.

The following night we went to see Fito & Fitipaldis, a band who have been around for a long time but whose popularity has really peaked this year after months of intensive touring. The venue this time was the Palacio de Deportes, a huge soulless venue where if you are stuck in the heights you are better off watching the concert on the video screens than trying to pick out any detail on the far away stage. It’s the price of popularity because this is a band that would be far better in a venue the size of Riviera or smaller. The music is more nostalgic, mainstream rock. Occasionally it reminded me of Dire Straits, at other times of Chuck Berry; together with some of those anthemic ballads so beloved of the Spanish who immediately whip out their lighters (or mobile phones!) to wave in the air as they sing along. You certainly get your money’s worth with Fito, their performance lasted at least 2 hours. Another very Spanish phenomenon in the concert was that of sitting behind what seemed to be a teenage daughter accompanied by both her parents – it was hard to tell who was behind the decision to come to the concert as the parents appeared to be enjoying it more than their offspring.