Saturday, May 31, 2008

Football Is History

The dispute between Manchester United and Real Madrid over the signing of Christian Ronaldo by the latter club is demonstrating in an entertaining way the educational value of football. First of all we got Alex Ferguson detailing the past links between Franco's regime and Real Madrid - "el club del regimen". Now his assistant, Carlos Queiroz, has joined in the history lesson; but goes a bit further back. Queiroz, who was briefly trainer of Real Madrid himself, has appealed to Ronaldo's sense of patriotism in a bid to stop Madrid getting the player. Queiroz referred Ronaldo to the case of the town of Olivenza/Olivença, which is currently in (Spanish) Extremadura but which once belonged to Portugal; hence the alternative spellings. I've been in this town and it looks quite different from the other Spanish towns or villages in the area. A few years ago I read that it still appears as being part of Portuguese territory on official maps from that country, and a bit of the history is explained here.  Just in case the Olivenza story wasn't enough to convince the player, Queiroz tossed in the example of Columbus as well, as further evidence of bad treatment of Portugal at the hands of the Spanish. There is a saying in Portugal about the only things they get from Spain being bad winds and bad marriages, maybe they need to add something about nicking their best players.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

The Death Of A Judge

The death about ten days ago of the judge Roberto Garcia Calvo has added a new twist to the ongoing saga concerning the Constitutional Court and it’s deliberations on the Catalan autonomy statute (Estatut). With the death of this judge, a very hard line conservative, the balance of power on the court has shifted away from those who support the attempts by the PP to achieve via the court what they couldn’t achieve via elections or in the Spanish parliament.

The tribunal is reaching the point where they are going to consider the PP’s objections to the Estatut. So the reaction of the PP to Garcia Calvo’s death was to demand that the government allow them to appoint an immediate replacement, given that the dead judge was one of “their” people. It was a hugely ironic demand coming from the PP, during the whole of the last parliament they systematically blocked all attempts to renew the main judicial institutions, hoping to preserve conservative dominance until they were returned to power again. Sadly for them, the elections in March put an end for the moment to such hopes. Not surprisingly, the government has rejected the PP’s demand. Meanwhile, the phantom seen quietly leaving by the back door is what used to be known as the separation of powers.

Garcia Calvo’s passing has led some to speculate that God may in fact be Catalan, as the late judge would certainly have attempted to strike down key provisions of the Estatut. In reality, any supreme entity that exists is more likely to be on the side of the Catalan socialists as they had most to lose from the Estatut’s failure. The nationalist parties would just use it as further evidence of the need for separation from the Spanish state. As an aside, it does also help us to understand the tolerance shown for crazy, extremist views by those over at Red Liberal. Another of their bloggers has suggested a possible reason for the sudden death of the judge, and strangely enough he’s written it in English. It’s obvious really, using Occam’s chain saw instead of his razor we reach the simple conclusion that Zapatero had the judge killed. What other explanation could there possibly be?

Cinco....El Meikinmoni

Well that’s over for another year. Taking advantage of the new RTVE web page that I wrote about the other day I’ve finally been able to catch up on Saturday’s Eurovision Song Contest. Rodolfo Chikilicuatre may not have captured many points, but the domestic marketing surrounding the Spanish entry certainly paid off with over 14 million viewers tuning in to watch the show in Spain. For the company behind it all, that’s not bad going for something that just began as a joke spin off from the Buenafuente comedy series. That background noise you hear is the sound of cash tills. Hopefully we’ll now get a bit of a rest from Chiki fever but with the summer coming up that’s probably doubtful.

The Spanish interpretations of why Europe failed to fall at the feet of Chikilicuatre have been quite interesting. The most common conclusion seems to be that Europe simply has no sense of humour, as if carrying a tiny plastic guitar and having one of your dancers fall over was a landmark in comic invention. Then there is always the effect of “los del Este”, a generic term coined by a previous Spanish loser which seems to include almost every country between Germany and the Pacific, bounded by Finland in the north and Turkey to the south.

It became fairly clear that this might not be the year for those who don’t take the competition seriously when Ireland’s Dustin the Turkey failed to take flight at the semi-final stage. However, the Bosnian entry was much more strange and “friki” than Chikilicuatre’s effort, and did quite well; although being an ex Yugoslav republic does seem to help slightly when the votes are being handed out. I'm off to the UK for a week, where the celebrations over Eurovision ended before they started; I don't expect to experience much build up for the European Championship either.

Rato Rides In....And Out Again.

For a brief moment yesterday supporters of Esperanza Aguirre maybe thought that their heroine was back on course in her bid to lead the Partido Popular. There she was in the Intercontinental Hotel in Madrid, presenting yet another of these awful books about how Spanish liberals supposedly defeated Napoleon. The door to the room opened, and in walked Rodrigo Rato - the man who refused recently to meet PP leader Mariano Rajoy. What could this mean? Perhaps the emergence of the Dream Team of the hard right in the PP, with Rato throwing his (still considerable) influence behind Aguirre. Then the bubble burst. Rato said something along the lines of "Oh, this is not the room I'm looking for" and left in search of the other book presentation taking place in the same hotel.

Monday, May 26, 2008

Fideos En La Boca

It’s time for a roundup of what’s going on in the hit Spanish telenovela Fideos en la Boca.

The story so far:

Mariano is the president of Popular Party Games (PPG), he’s a decent enough man but nothing ever seems to go quite right for him. Twice he’s been bettered by his great rivals at Zapatero Party Poopers, although Mariano always thinks that next time it will be different. Espe, who is in charge of sales for Madrid, thinks that Mariano is useless and that she would be much better as president. She is supported by Pedro Jota, who writes the daily PPG newsletter, and Federico, who shouts a lot in church. Espe doesn’t like Mariano and Mariano doesn’t like her; but the person who Espe really hates more than anyone else is Alberto. Now Alberto says he likes Mariano and wants him to stay, but everybody really knows that the person Alberto likes is himself and that he wants Mariano’s job. Meanwhile Francisco, from Valencia, and Javier, from Andalucia, think that Mariano should stay; but not for too long. Lots of people are being written out of the series. Eduardo left to work for the phone company, who pay him a lot more than Popular Party Games. So Mariano put Soraya in to do his job, even though she’s only seven years old; she is very keen. Angel also left but we don’t know yet whether he will work for the phone company or not. Last week Maria left too, she said Mariano was useless and that she didn’t want to play any more. Everybody likes Maria and nobody wants her to leave. Don Manuel, the ageing founder of PPG, likes Alberto, he is like a father to him. So don Manuel tells Mariano to give a good job to Alberto, even though that will make Espe very angry. Everyone else thinks that don Manuel should just go and look after his vegetable patch. Rodrigo, who left a long time ago to go and work in a bank, doesn’t talk to Mariano any more. Meanwhile José Maria, who used to run the company, doesn’t say very much because he chose Mariano and saying that Mariano is useless will make him look a bit useless too. So Jose Maria grows his hair long and spends a lot of time on holiday in South America. Ana, Jose Maria’s wife, doesn’t think much of Mariano but wants him to give Alberto a job because then she gets Alberto’s job. Gabriel, who almost no one has ever heard of, thinks it’s time Mariano got out the way. Pedro Jota thinks that Juan, who most people haven’t heard of either, looks more like Zapatero than Espe and might be the man to give PPG a new start. And so on and so on……

Confused? You will be. Keep an eye out for this week’s episode of Fideos en la Boca.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Fake Manchego Cheese

Yesterday was not a happy day over at Red Liberal, which is a union of blogs that are "liberal" in the Spanish sense of the word i.e. rabidly right wing. Close to Libertad Digital. One of their member blogs, La Hoja de Albacete, which had featured frequently on the front page of the site turned out to be a hoax. For a couple of years it seems the person(s) behind this blog had attempted to test the limits of what would be politically acceptable to those running Red Liberal. The author(s) had invented particularly venomous insults for some of the victims of the Madrid bombings, they defended genocide, praised the use of guns rather than just the possession, claimed homosexuality is an illness and all sorts of other wild ideas. The reaction of the other members of Red Liberal was, well, nothing. No objections were raised to the content of the blog, and those behind it seem to have reached the conclusion that there is no position too extreme for these people. It appears that the crazy opinions on the blog were accepted as normal and representative of liberalism by those who shared the space. By accepting without dissent this blog as one of their own they have portrayed themselves.

Friday, May 23, 2008

El Frente Sangilista

Almost live and direct from the front line of the Partido Popular’s power struggle comes this photo report from South of Watford’s very own “periodista ciudadano”. Oblivious to the risk posed to life and limb by mingling with so many angry, umbrella wielding pensioners, our ace reporter went to the PP’s headquarters in Madrid to bring you these images of the protest in support of Maria San Gil. There was no sign of an announced counter demonstration by Rajoy supporters, proof that a bit of rain soon separates the centro-derecha reformista from the derecha-centro reformista.

Maria si, MariaNo....

What would Aznar say about this?

Not so popular....

Who wants to win a pair of sunglasses?

Who said they're out of touch with popular culture?

What are we going to do without Maria? They will fight on, caiga quien caiga....

Or to be more precise, they were fighting Caiga Quien Caiga. Here we see the reporter from CQC being not so politely requested to leave the area....

But later they came back again....

The demonstrator that didn’t get interviewed by someone just wasn’t trying, I would put the ratio of journalists to demonstrators at about 1:2.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

The 'Anti-Peace' Process Continues

The capture in France of four alleged members of ETA has dominated the headlines because one of them is said to be the leader who decided to end the last truce with the bomb attack at Madrid’s airport. Whilst such arrests always produce optimistic noises about ETA being nearly finished, the Basque regional government has already announced that it is increasing the level of alert in case of potential attacks. After a high profile arrest like this one, there is always the risk that ETA will attempt to show that their capacity to act has not been affected. Those responsible for their most recent bombings are still at large.

There is the possibility that the arrest of a notable hardliner could lead to changes in the direction being taken by ETA. Even if that were the case, however, there is no reason to believe that there will be any substantial progress towards ending terrorism in the Basque Country for some time to come. ETA’s current campaign continues either because the group wants to try and bomb the government back to the negotiating table, or simply because they are unwilling to contemplate any other future. In either case the result is likely to be the same, after the failure of the previous process it would be hugely dangerous for the government to try again without additional guarantees on the part of ETA. Even if ETA were to unilaterally declare a new ceasefire that would not necessarily mean that the conditions existed for any resumption of the peace process. Equally, high profile successes like the latest arrests show how much the pressure is on for ETA in France, but don’t mean that the group is about to disappear.

A New Look For Spanish Television

Take a look at the new web page for RTVE, the state television and radio company for Spain. It's still in beta and they have a long term project to make available a huge selection of previous programming. With the TVE a la Carta option you can watch recent programmes or check the schedules. In amongst all the telebasura there are some things worth watching, and as I'm going to miss the Eurovision final on Saturday I'm depending on them to leave it here! The radio section is better, as well as having a selection of recent programming you can access all of the radio stations directly.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Conflicting Interests

The first scandal affecting the government since the March elections was caused by the announcement a few weeks back that David Taguas, the former director of the government’s economics office, was going to take up a very well paid position with the constructors association Seopan. Now it may come as a surprise to some to find out that Spain actually has legislation on conflicts of interests and the speed at which people can pass between the government and the private sector. So a report had to be produced on the proposed appointment, which allegedly comes with a salary of €300,000.

The report duly approved the move by Taguas on the interesting technicality that Seopan is a “non-profit” organisation. This treats it as if it was some kind of NGO, rather than the association representing private companies whose interest in profit is very well known. If he had gone directly to one of the member companies then that would have been classed as a conflict of interest. In his government position, Taguas would have had access to all of the most sensitive economic information; we have to assume he’s not being offered the post because of his bricklaying skills (although he seems to know something about laying golden eggs). One of his proposals whilst working for the government was to put back retirement to the age of 70, like so many of those who make such proposals it's unlikely that he will need to work so long. Taguas has almost as good a suntan as Eduardo Zaplana, who has also recently found a very well cushioned landing on leaving active politics.

David Taguas came from the circle around Miguel Sebastian, and there has been talk about the emergence of a group of “beautiful people” surrounding the government who are motivated as much by their own economic wellbeing as by any particular loyalty to party or government. The issue has caused problems within the PSOE, even Zapatero said that he was disagreeably surprised by the appointment; although I have read that he knew about it some time before it was announced. The issue got to the Spanish parliament yesterday with the presentation of a motion condemning the appointment. The vote saw a very rare case of rebellion by one of the PSOE’s own members of parliament who decided to vote in favour of the condemnation of Taguas, although there are suggestions it might have been an error. Such an act is a risky business in Spanish politics, where the chances of being elected to parliament depend entirely on where the party machine places you on the closed list of candidates.

In the end it was the Catalan nationalists of Convergencia I Unio (CiU) who came to the rescue of the (minority) government. This could be interpreted as a significant signal on the very day in which the government’s differences with another potential ally (the PNV) were being highlighted. When in power in Cataluña, CiU showed that they have their own issues with conflicts of interests, and there is little doubt that they will be expecting something in return for helping the government out on this occasion. In the meantime, the mother of all legal loopholes remains open.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Anyone For A Game Of Basque Poker?

Today sees yet another meeting between Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero and the Basque President Juan José Ibarretxe. In theory the objective of the meeting is to try and find a solution to the problems created by Ibarrretxe’s plan to hold a referendum on moves towards greater sovereignty in the region. In reality, today’s encounter is likely to see the opening shots fired in a lengthy run up to the next elections in the Basque Country. There is virtually no expectation of the two men finding any sort of middle ground. Zapatero rejects any idea of the Basque government being able to hold their own referendums, and Ibarretxe is not going to back down unless he is offered a succulent consolation prize. The Basque nationalists of the PNV are themselves split down the middle between the Ibarretxe wing that favours the plan, and those who prefer a closer relationship with the central government in Madrid. After the general election in March there was even an expectation that Zapatero might help those inside the PNV who aren’t happy with Ibarretxe’s plan by proposing an alternative reform of the Basque autonomy statute.

The big problem for such a solution is that the general election results saw Zapatero’s PSOE doing better in the Basque Country than the PNV. This has created the idea within the PSOE that they might also be able to win the regional elections there, which have to be held by spring 2009 at the latest. With that prize in mind, Zapatero might not see any benefit in doing deals, whilst Ibarretxe will see confrontation with the national government as being more likely to bring him electoral success. Another factor affecting Zapatero’s calculations is that he doesn’t want this parliament to be dominated by the issue of reform of autonomy statutes in the way that the issue became so prominent during the last one. That would be giving the Partido Popular (PP) too much ammunition, providing them with an issue they could unite around.

It’s dangerous in any case to compare the general election results with those for the regional government. Many nationalist voters abstain in general elections, and some may even have voted for the PSOE in order to try and keep the PP out of power. In a regional election many of these people will turn out to vote for the PNV. The PNV will also be fishing for the support of those who previously voted for ETA’s political wing, Batasuna. These voters are unlikely to have any other party to vote for given the effective illegalisation of ANV and EHAK, who had filled the space left by Batasuna’s absence. Even if the PSOE were to emerge as the largest party the nationalists would almost certainly go into opposition and force the PSOE to look for an alliance with the PP. Nothing would do more to revive nationalist fortunes than a fresh alliance between the two major national parties; the last time it happened the PNV got their biggest ever vote. In the end an autonomy statute reform would be the way out for all parties, but circumstances are conspiring against it happening.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Rajoy....I Don't Like Mondays

Monday has almost been declared the official day for things to happen in the Partido Popular these days. It’s a good day for stabbing your party leader in the back because the echo of what you have done can carry on in the media’s coverage throughout the whole week. Today created high expectations, because we had speeches from José Maria Aznar (who has been so quiet recently I thought – ever optimistic – that he had been kidnapped) and Alberto Ruiz Gallardón. In the end it’s all been a bit disappointing, Aznar made a few references open to interpretation but nothing that really stoked the flames of the inner party battle or which really let us know what he thinks. Gallardón pledged his loyalty to Rajoy at the same time as he modestly made it clear that he would also be at the service of his party should anyone wish to appoint him to a suitably important position.

The weekend saw an interesting event. The square in Madrid where several members of the Guardia Civil were killed in an ETA bombing some years ago became a sort of unofficial shrine for the intolerant right last year, in their attempts to present their opposition to the government’s negotiation with ETA as being some sort of popular uprising. Well on Saturday the shrine became official with the unveiling of a sculpture. All the usual suspects turned up from the AVT, the DENAES and other associated hard right front organisations. Also there were Esperanza Aguirre, Manuel Fraga and Gallardón. The whole event turned into something of a PP pillow fight with Aguirre getting loud cheers from those assembled, whilst Fraga and Gallardón were booed. Gallardón is used to this treatment from members of his own party, but Fraga – a former minister in Franco’s regime – has probably never experienced this from his own party supporters. The reason is that don Manuel is a big fan of Gallardón, and was his mentor in the past. Not much more than this is needed to enrage Aguirre’s supporters, so now the founder and honorary president of the PP finds himself on the ever larger list of traitors to the cause.

Now this may be a bit premature, but I think Aguirre has lost her battle. The conflict which she did so much to ignite is now raging out of control, and she may end up as one of the principal victims of it. Reports say that there is an almost desperate search in the parliamentary party of the PP to find a candidate around whom the whole opposition to Rajoy can unite. That candidate is not Aguirre, she has made too many enemies, and now the searchers are looking for a PP version of Zapatero. I don’t mean by that they need someone who constantly moves imaginary boxes around with his hands, or who has a particularly wide smile. The idea is to find someone younger, with a more appealing image to stand as leader at the next election. The current focus of much attention is Juan Costa who left his lucrative business interests to attend to Rajoy, and who now finds himself without any job that meets his requirements. Some think he could challenge Rajoy, many others believe he will be the next to walk out; slamming the door as he leaves. Costa is a big friend of another person who could gain wide acceptance as leader of the party, Rodrigo Rato. But he’s busy.

Dangerous Games With Immigration

Maria Teresa de la Vega, one of the vice presidents of the Spanish government took a swipe at the Italian government the other day over the anti-gypsy pogroms around Naples. It was a welcome statement, that Berlusconi’s government should try and make foreigners responsible for crime in Italy is, apart from being inaccurate, a major insult to all of those who have spent so many generations of effort building up domestic organised crime in that country. You would have thought that Silvio himself might know a thing or two about that. In any case, soothing diplomatic statements had to be issued along the lines of “When we called you a bunch of xenophobic bastards, what we really meant to say was that you are some of the warmest, most hospitable people we have ever encountered.

The initial protest was also welcome for other reasons, because the Spanish government recently has shown alarming signs of adopting a different discourse on immigration. I have the feeling that someone in the PSOE, shortly after the general election in March, told José Luis Rodriguez Zapatero that his party had lost votes to the opportunist attempts by the Partido Popular (PP) to play with the issue of immigration. First of all we got the appointment of Celestino Corbacho as minister in charge of work and immigration. His appointment was accompanied by plentiful press messages on how he had handled the town of L’Hospitalet as mayor with a bit of a “tough love” attitude towards the immigrants who made up a sizeable proportion of the towns population.

More recently things got worse as it seemed that the Spanish government was giving its support to a new directive from the European Union on immigration which was going to make the expulsion of illegal immigrants a top priority. Included in the measure are proposals to significantly lengthen the time during which member states are allowed to hold illegal immigrants in detention centres. The proposal is really a response to those European leaders such as Sarkozy and Berlusconi who have discovered to their delight that they can use fears raised by immigration to their political benefit. It is depressing to see the Spanish government giving any kind of encouragement to this, especially after resisting the temptation to play along with anti-immigrant sentiment during the election campaign itself.

Attempts by parties on the left to mimic the right on this issue always end up playing into the hands of the racists as each successive measure leads to demands for ever harsher legislation. The political history of France over the last 20 years shows this quite well. What you end up with are measures which can be notably headline grabbing and malicious in their treatment of immigrants but which make no real difference to anything else. The PP have of course seized on the government’s change of direction with a predictable “you called us xenophobes and now look at what you are doing” response. For once they could be right. Meanwhile the Italian government has issued a fairly sarcastic note of congratulations to Spain for reducing so successfully the flow of immigrants from sub-Saharan Africa. That a significant possible cause of the reduction is that more are probably drowning on the journey is not a point likely to be made by any of those concerned.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Luis Throws Away His Alibi

Luis Aragonés has announced his squad for the European Championship and naturally the press has focused more than anything else on the absence of Real Madrid's Raul from the list of selected players. Aragonés is leaving after the tournament anyway, which partially helps to account for his ability to ignore the pressure to include Raul. That and the fact that he generally makes a virtue out of not listening to any other opinions anyway. Now, of course, if Spain get eliminated in the early stages of the tournament then there will be a torrent of criticism concerning the exclusion of Raul; which is why putting him into the squad would have offered some protection for the national coach. Five players in the Spanish squad are currently playing in the English Premier League, a situation that would have been impossible to imagine just ten years ago when it was very rare for Spanish players to play in other countries. The law of probability and South of Watford’s notoriously unreliable crystal ball say that Spain will go out in the quarter finals.

The Spanish season comes to an end today with most clubs having little to play for. Barcelona secured third place last night, a disappointing outcome for a club that doesn’t like to have to play the preliminary rounds of the Champions League. It was Frank Rijkaard’s last game with the club, having been succeeded by home grown Barça legend Pep Guardiola. The fact that Guardiola was part of the Dream Team under Johan Cruyff almost guarantees that he will be given some time to make his mark, although the pressure to win something after two seasons of failure will also be intense. It is at the bottom of the Liga where most of the suspense will be today as one of Zaragoza, Recreativo, Valladolid and Osasuna will be relegated alongside Murcia and Levante. Zaragoza start in the worst position, although the Recreativo-Valladolid clash promises to be a tense encounter and Osasuna could easily lose in Santander. In the last couple of weeks I’ve started listening to football coverage over the internet from Spanish radio. When you want to have the full picture of what is happening in all the games it’s really much better than the television coverage, as well as being more entertaining.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Madrid Music

The day after San Isidro isn't looking much better for blogging - the cordero asado was very good though. Instead, I will do my bit to promote the independent Madrid music scene with a video of the band I saw last night in Sala Costello - the Zombie Valentines.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

San Isidro....The Silence Of The Lambs

Today is a holiday in Madrid and I intend to honour the festival by eating as big a chunk of cordero asado as I can find. I realised yesterday, just one day late, that the this blog has now passed its second anniversary - which gives me even more reason to leave it alone for a day.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

One Member, One Website

Mariano Rajoy has hit on a new strategy for dealing with the fallout from the Maria San Gil affair. He has advised his remaining supporters not to talk about it. That should take care of the issue, meanwhile it's time to do an update on the websites supporting people who are not supposed to be candidates to lead the Partido Popular (PP). One of the latest additions is Rodrigo Rato 2012, dedicated to someone who would certainly be able to afford to fund his own campaign should he ever lose interest in his current business activities. With all this proliferation of websites dedicated to potential or even unlikely candidates for the PP there must surely be an increase in demand for web design services in the posher areas of Madrid?

Proof, if it was needed, that Rajoy is no longer on the Christmas card list at Libertad Digital comes from the appearance of Alternativa a Zapatero. This is a product of that cold, dark cave where the Peones Negros and Hazteoir along with other assorted conspiracy theorists gather together for their communal hate sessions. The people behind this initiative are now so addicted to the pretence that they are not politically affiliated that they maintain it even for a website which is entirely dedicated to the political crisis inside the PP. It hardly seems like the sort of thing which is going to get COPE listeners marching on the streets again, but you never know - they might be preparing the placards already.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

An Inconvenient Guest

Life isn’t easy for a political exile at the best of times, but it can become much harder when the country in which you are exiled decides you are no longer welcome to stay. Take the case of Severo Moto, the best known political exile from the former Spanish colony of Equatorial Guinea. The Spanish authorities have been making quite determined efforts since 2005 to remove the status of political asylum from Moto, efforts which received a severe setback when the Supreme Court overturned the government’s decision to withdraw this status. Following that decision Moto has been arrested in connection with a very curious case of gun running.

The case concerns a second hand car which was being shipped from Spain to Equatorial Guinea. The car in question contained a shotgun, a machine gun and a pistol, together with various cartridges which it seems do not fit any of these weapons. The person who was due to receive the car in Equatorial Guinea subsequently suffered a fate common to anyone opposing the regime of that country; he failed to leave a police station alive. Something doesn’t fit, an exile who is facing expulsion from Spain allegedly organises the sending of a useless arms cache containing three obsolete weapons at the very time when the courts are considering his right to remain in Spain!

Moto has of course been associated with efforts to overturn the regime governing his country in the past. Most famously, there was the coup attempt in 2004 in which the boy Thatcher was heavily involved, and which has one of its main organisers currently languishing in the specially built Old Etonians wing of the Black Beach prison in Equatorial Guinea. Who said the class system was dead? Moto flew to the Canary Islands immediately prior to the failed coup, and was said to be the person who the mercenaries involved were going to install as the new (puppet) president of the country. The knowledge that the Spanish government may have had of this plan has never been fully clarified, nor has the mysterious about turn by two Spanish warships that were heading towards the country as the attempted coup fell apart.

Meanwhile Equatorial Guinea held elections last week, and the regime has claimed support very close to 100%. In an electoral process that makes Zimbabwe’s election seem like a model of democratic openness the only opposition party permitted has been awarded precisely one seat in the country’s parliament. Another democratic innovation in this election was the introduction of the “patriotic vote”, which consists of the voter publicly displaying his vote before placing it into the ballot box. Nobody is in danger of being deafened by the diplomatic protests over this bogus electoral process. A parliamentary deputation from Spain even seemed quite satisfied with it, and talked of encouraging democratic advances. I think there is a potential role here for that genius of a diplomat who rebadged turning a blind eye as "constructive engagement". All we need now is some infantile leftist to come along and claim that all this cuddling up to the regime is because the country has become a major oil producer in the last few years. In the meantime it might help if applicants for political asylum in Europe would try not to do anything that might displease the dictatorships from which they have fled.

Monday, May 12, 2008

San Gil Kicks Rajoy When He's Down

The fire is blazing again in the Partido Popular (PP). The decision by the PP’s leader in the Basque Country, Maria San Gil, to walk out of the group preparing the policy document for the PP’s congress is a serious blow for the party leadership. San Gil’s act of rebellion is a bit more difficult to deal with than any of Esperanza Aguirre’s outbursts. She is not seen as a candidate for the leadership and what is more she is widely respected throughout the PP. It seems that her reasons for walking out of the policy group are to do with disagreements over the PP’s treatment of regional nationalism. San Gil belongs to the most intransigent, hard line sector of the PP on this issue, opposed to anything which smacks of concessions to nationalism in the Basque Country or anywhere else.

Mariano Rajoy’s problem is to how to reconcile his party with political realities. He knows that the PP needs to win votes in Cataluña and the Basque Country to form a government. The problem is that the anti-nationalist sentiment that plays well for the PP in other parts of Spain doesn’t get them anywhere in these two regions. Even Aznar understood this. So there is an attempt to soften the “España se rompe” discourse of the last few years and the hope obviously was that the group set up to prepare the political principles statement for the conference would help to do this. With San Gil publicly pulling out in this way it makes it much more difficult to change the direction of the party without a difficult and potentially divisive debate at the congress in June. Although Rajoy does not yet have any declared opponent challenging him at the conference his position is getting steadily weaker. If he isn’t careful his enemies will place him alongside Zapatero and ETA on the list of those who are secretly plotting the destruction of Spain. Meanwhile, the government’s opposition-free honeymoon continues.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

We'll Bottle Your Water And Sell It Back To You

Those who campaign for water to be transferred from the River Ebro to Valencia and Murcia have been very vocal recently in the wake of the proposal to do a temporary transfer of drinking water to Barcelona. We hear heartrending tales of how crops will dry up unless the rest of the country shows a bit of solidarity with the Mediterranean areas. Andrés Martínez, the president of a farmers association in Villena, Alicante, has been particularly active in the pro-transfer campaign. It turns out that his interest in the issue has very little to do with anything you can grow. First of all his association is so strapped for water that they have agreed to sell their rights over water from the local aquifers to Danone, so that they can bottle it and sell it as mineral water! Then it emerges that Martinez himself has another plan to grow houses instead of carrots, he wants to build an urbanisation of 1200 homes and (do I really need to mention this?) a golf course. Thirsty work, I’m sure you’ll agree, I suppose those who buy the houses will need to get their water from Danone.

I’m not trying to suggest with this example that there are no water problems in parts of the Mediterranean region, there always have been. It’s just that the interests behind the campaign to transfer water from other parts of Spain have much more to with an unsustainable model of development that will never be satisfied. Those who have dedicated themselves to agriculture in the region have always been very careful with water usage, treating it as a scarce resource. Those who have more interest in concrete, bricks, and golf show no intention of managing water resources, their solution will always be to demand more from other parts of the country.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

The Best Police Force Money Can Buy

We have discovered a revolutionary method for cutting crime near to Madrid this week - arrest the local police force. Coslada, a town not far from Madrid, has seen 26 of its local police officers placed under arrest, including the chief of police. The expected result of this is that the incidence of prostitution rackets and extorsion of bar or discoteque owners should decline dramatically. Almost every report I read about the case says that is was a "secreto a voces" , meaning that everybody knew about it but nobody did anything. The political authorities evade responsibilities by saying that nobody laid a formal complaint, perhaps understandable given that such a complaint might have ended up in the hands of the local police! The arrests were made in the end because of a police investigation launched from Madrid into a prostitution ring that turned to be controlled by members of the Coslada police.

La Nueva Cocina Española

As seen by Forges in El País:

Friday, May 09, 2008

Madrid Versus Barcelona

No, this post is not about football. That’s probably just as well after what happened on Wednesday night. I have been meaning to write a post comparing Madrid to Barcelona ever since my visit to the latter city a few weeks ago. I have what I suppose might be a slightly romantic notion of Barcelona, which perhaps comes from being an occasional visitor rather than someone who lives there. I’ve always had the idea of it being a more imaginative, better administered city, than Madrid. Every time I go there it seems that something has been done to make the city more attractive and user friendly, and I compare this with Madrid where it has always seemed to me that making the city more attractive and easy to live in has never been high up on the list of municipal priorities.

In Barcelona I see more pedestrian areas, inner city cycle lanes, and the complete renovation and recovery of the beach area by the sea. The bicycle sharing scheme they have introduced seems to be a great success, much to the disappointment of those whose gloomy vision of human nature demands that such schemes should fail. Then I think of Madrid with narrow traffic clogged streets where the remaining pavement is so thin that you and the bag you are carrying cannot share it. Those who ride a bike on the streets of Madrid do so because they need an adrenaline fix that they can only get from dodging murderous taxi drivers. The “beach” by the River Manzanares is still a dustbowl and will probably stay that way until two months before the next elections – they could at least plant some plastic palm trees to give it that desert look and feel. I know it’s not all so rosy, Barcelona has its protests over urban speculation and some things they do there are just disappointing. The imaginative extension of the Ramblas into the port area is completely marred by placing the most ordinary of chain-store, fast food, multi screen shopping centres at the end of it; it’s already starting to look a bit tatty.

Is this as good as it gets?

In reality, Madrid is not just behind Barcelona in terms of making the city more habitable. I’ve seen similar initiatives to those I’ve mentioned above in other smaller cities of Spain, and Madrid always seems to be the last place to adopt such ideas. I’ve reached the conclusion that the capital simply lacks the sense of civic pride that Barcelona and other cities possess. If you look back over the past few years for significant projects or changes in the city the result is the infamous traffic tunnel under the river and four huge office blocks built as a result of the dodgy deal done over Real Madrid’s former training ground. That’s about it, I can’t think of anything really important that I’ve missed, and the biggest problem of all is that very few people in the city seem to care. The interests and priorities of the city administration are a reflection of that.

Much of the municipal budget for the next few years disappeared under the river with the traffic, and what can literally be described as “tunnel vision” seems to dominate thinking about what the city needs. Madrid has boomed economically in recent years, and the spread of the city means that almost everything is just reduced to how to navigate between the suburban home, the out of town shopping centre, and the office. A large part of the population rarely passes by the centre of the city and when they do they are often just driving underground. In other words, a significant part of the population cares little about what happens in the city provided that their key journeys are not interfered with in any way. Broach the subject with Madrid residents and many will probably protest that they do care about their city, all I can say is that they hide it well. Perhaps my (undisguised) prejudices against those who run the city and the region affect my judgment, but I don’t think I have ever lived in a large city where there is so little evident interest in how the city evolves. Despite what some might think after reading this post, I’ve said all of this because I like Madrid; I just think it could be better.

Thursday, May 08, 2008

The Fire That Never Goes Out

The situation in the Partido Popular (PP) at the moment reminds me of those forest fires where they say the fire is under control but it keeps on smouldering underground and the fire fighters constantly have to run all over the place to stop it from breaking out again. Meanwhile their bosses are busily claiming that it wasn’t really a very serious fire anyway.

The departure of Angel Acebes has done little to calm things down in the PP, quite the opposite in many ways because of the rampant speculation about who Rajoy will choose to put in his place. The list of potential candidates is very long although I have the feeling that Rajoy will not give control of the party machine to anyone who is not one of his own people. There have been rumours that the position might go to Alberto Ruiz Gallardón. If Rajoy was to do this then he would effectively be directly challenging Esperanza Aguirre to challenge him, any favourable treatment of Gallardón is like a red cape to the Aguirre bull. Initially I thought the rumours about this happening were being spread by Aguirre supporters to try and encourage her to stand, but it now seems that it started with a comment by a pro-Rajoy journalist. Gallardón has in fact been secretary general of the PP in the past, or at least of its predecessor party, but I will be surprised if he is offered the job this time. Short of offering the position to Jose Maria Aznar, Rajoy can expect to be criticised whoever he chooses, which is probably why he is in no hurry to reveal the name.

The strategy of the anti-Rajoy camp is now switching towards a longer term campaign focused on the congress that the PP should theoretically hold in 2011, one year before the next general election must be held. There are a couple of potential problems with this strategy, leaving aside the considerable damage that three years of steady sniping can do to the party in general. The first is that the congress may not be held at all, the PP was supposed to have a congress last year and it just got postponed until after the election. A second problem is that you can never be sure that the government will see out its full term, anything can happen in the meantime and a minority government can always decide or be forced to go for early elections.

The big tests for Rajoy coming up in the not too distant future are the elections to the European Parliament and the regional elections in the Basque Country and Galicia. Things will have to go very badly for Rajoy if he is to be hurt by the European elections, hardly anyone will vote and the greater loyalty of PP supporters could well see them win regardless of other factors that might affect voting intentions. The elections in the Basque Country are unlikely to produce a good result for the PP, and those in Galicia could severely damage Rajoy if the PP fails to regain control of a region that it treated for years as its own private property. The national congress in June is only going to be the prelude to what could turn out to be some very vicious regional congresses, as power struggles are emerging in different areas. There’s still a very strong smell of burning around the PP headquarters.

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

650,000 Reasons Why The Builders Are Having Problems

The lack of reliable information on what is going on with the construction industry here in Spain can be attributed largely to the fact that the news is not good. When things were going well we were being overwhelmed with statistics about homes constructed and sold. The industry is now desperately trying to play down the evidence of a decline in prices whilst the statistics on the falling number of sales and mortgages granted tell their own story. El País at the weekend came up with some extraordinary figures, they did an estimate based on the difference between the number of dwellings built since 2005 and those registered by their new owners to come up with a figure of 650,000 unsold homes around the country. That is just new building, what the Spanish call “second hand” dwellings are not included in this estimate.

This total represents about one dwelling for every 70 inhabitants in the country, and if it is near to the truth then it makes the optimistic industry spin that the worst will be over by next year look hopelessly misplaced. With a stock of unsold properties this big it is hard to see anyone engaging in serious building projects to add further to the pile of the unsold. As if it didn’t sound bad enough, this total can be expected to increase further because of the numerous building projects started before the end of the boom but that have yet to be terminated. There are regional variations, El País highlighted the case of Castilla - La Mancha saying that 68.5% of the new properties built there since 2005 are still unsold. The high figure in this region could be due to the attempts to convert parts of it into the new dormitory towns of Madrid. The effects on employment are already being noted, as are the early signs of construction companies having liquidity problems. Who is going to argue, looking at these figures, that the worst has already passed?

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Acebes In His Own Words

Angel Acebes has decided to leave the post of Secretary General in the Partido Popular, thus providing a solution to one of the many problems facing PP leader Mariano Rajoy. We can assume for the moment that he will probably follow the example of his party comrade Eduardo Zaplana. I want to post some time in the next couple of days on the consequences of his decision for the PP, in the meantime I think it's worth reminding ourselves why he should really have resigned from politics four years ago.

Via 3 días de marzo


I'm not not much given to fits of patriotic outrage - I think there are too many flag wavers in the world already - but this is different. It has been brought to my attention by today's Guardian that Spain stole the Eurovision Song Contest in 1968. Franco sent out emissaries to buy votes around Europe so that Massiel could win over our very own national hero....Sir Cliff Richard. So there they all are with their talk of "el pérfido Albión" and mad cows, hooligans, Gibraltar and all that stuff. It turns out that all along they're travelling all around Europe with nothing more than a "¿Cuanto cuesta el voto?". That's it, there's no trust anymore - there's nothing left to believe in. Chiki chiki!

Monday, May 05, 2008

La Liga 2007-2008....May The Least Bad Team Win

Someone had to put this year’s Liga out of its misery. Only a late burst of consistency from Villareal in their bid to grab an automatic spot in next years Champions League had meant that Real Madrid’s celebrations had to be postponed. They had Cibeles in Madrid all set up (i.e. protected against vandalism) last week for the possibility that Madrid would claim the title, but Villareal refused to lose. Then they had to take it all apart for the Dos de Mayo celebrations at the weekend only to put it back up again for last night; fortunately the club has to pay for this rather than the city administration.

I was listening to last night’s game on the radio and they said that when Osasuna took the lead in the 82nd minute that all the workers in Cibeles started celebrating because they assumed that they wouldn’t need to stay up until 3 in the morning for the victory celebration. Some of the fans who were gathered there started to leave; I wonder when they found out that their team had scored two late goals to win the game? With the game against Barcelona coming up on Wednesday Madrid are now afforded the satisfaction of facing their greatest rivals as champions. Barcelona have lost the same number of games as Madrid, but find themselves way behind because they have drawn many more. Whatever else I might think about this Madrid team, and I don’t rate them very highly, you have to say that last night they showed that sometimes you just need to look up, see the goal, and go for it. If Barcelona had followed that example in a few games they might not be submerged in such a profound crisis now.

The season isn’t over yet, there are three games still left to play but all that is at stake near the top is the battle for the Champions League places; Barcelona will see it as beneath their dignity to have to play the qualifying rounds of the Champions League but they have their work cut out to catch Villareal, who deserve credit for being the only team in the end to make any kind of challenge to Madrid. Meanwhile, Atletico Madrid are currently claiming the fourth spot although they could still lose it to Sevilla or this season’s revelation, Racing Santander. The main drama for Barcelona is going to be taking place off the pitch as the great clearout marks the likely end of the Rijkaard era. The players were whistled as they came onto the pitch yesterday and even putting 6 goals past Valencia is nowhere near enough to calm their supporters, too little too late.

The main action now will take place at the bottom of the table where Osasuna, Recreativo, Zaragoza, Valencia, Getafe and Valladolid are separated by just 2 points. One of these teams is going to be relegated and with Valencia playing Zaragoza on Wednesday there is no reason to assume it will not be one of the “big” teams. I would be most sorry to see Getafe go after their heroic run in the UEFA Cup. Both Zaragoza and Valencia could have been top six finishers if it were not for catastrophic management of the clubs combined with tantrums on the part of some of their players. It’s been an odd and largely disappointing season, almost tension free as all of the possible contenders for the crown ended up failing to live up to their potential. Real Madrid, champions by default….again.

Canon Fodder

Do you like this building? It's not really to my taste, a bit too over elaborate. In any case, if you buy digital storage media in Spain it doesn't really matter whether you like it or not because you'll be paying for it. The building is the headquarters of the Sociedad General de Autores y Editores (SGAE), collectors of the now notorious "canon digital" - the private tax that means you have to pay extra for those CD's on which you store your own intellectual property.

Sunday, May 04, 2008

El Dos De Mayo....Goya En Tiempos De Guerra

This exhibition at the Prado is probably the jewel in the crown of all the exhibitions marking the events of 200 years ago. It includes works by Goya from the period more or less beginning with the French revolution up to the years immediately following the restoration of the Bourbons to the Spanish throne after the defeat of Napoleon.

Goya was not just an exceptional artist, his work gives a real feel for the times in which he lived. Although many of his paintings were commissioned works of royalty, members of the aristocracy or other dignitaries, he also painted ordinary people going about their business, or even scenes of asylums for the mentally ill and prisons. Many of his works include elements of fantasy with the presence of demons, ghosts or witches. Even the commissioned portraits avoid the stiff formality so common in such works.

At the centre of this exhibition are his two famous paintings about the events of the 2nd and 3rd of May 1808. The first shows vicious street fighting between Madrileños and the Egyptian Mameluke cavalry which the French sent in to try and suppress the uprising. The second painting portrays the summary execution by firing squad the following day of those accused of being involved in the uprising.

The exhibition also features a collection of drawings under the generic title of the “Disasters of War”, a grim series which makes no attempt to conceal the miseries inflicted by the conflicts of the era. Even a series of still lifes included here seems to focus more on death than anything else. Goya himself was a survivor, he lived in very turbulent times and managed to be court painter for both the Bourbons and during the short lived rule of Joseph Bonaparte, Napoleon’s brother. Surviving the purge of the “afrancesados” following the end of the Peninsular War, he continued to work both for the court and for private clients.

It goes without saying that the Prado has a fine permanent collection of Goya’s paintings which can be seen at any time. Nevertheless, even allowing for the effect of marketing this show is worth visiting. It runs until the 13th July and costs just €6, a bargain.

Saturday, May 03, 2008

El Dos De Mayo....La Batalla De Los Mamelucos

An odd and disjointed event celebrated yesterday in the Plaza Mayor. Playing the part of Napoleon's Mameluke cavalry we had Les Musiciens du Nil. I once saw them on a Thames river boat, which seems a bit more appropriate given that their name comes from a river. I suppose that getting a boat to even float on Madrid's river might have been beyond the technical resources of the organisers.

We had horses that walked (briefly) on their hind legs.

Then we had La Symphonie Mechanique, which was supposed to be a symbol of the French industrial revolution. A bass player in a crate.

The final event yesterday was a spectacular show organised by La Fura dels Baus in the Plaza de Cibeles. My camera is afraid of the dark so I have no photos, also there were so many people there that I couldn't get very close to the action anyway. I thought everyone was supposed to be stuck in the world's largest traffic jam between Madrid and the Mediterranean? Fortunately, Probably Madrid got closer than I did and has a better camera. His post links back to my page so if you're not careful you could be stuck forever somewhere between the two!

El Dos De Mayo....Los Amores Y Desamores De La Maja Y La Bestia

Plaza 2 de Mayo, midday yesterday. Los amores y desamores de la Maja y la Bestia, con permiso de Manolita Malasaña - performed by the Compañia Sol Picó.

The gate in the centre of Plaza 2 de Mayo was originally the entrance of the Monteléon artillery barracks placed under siege by the French troops on the day of the uprising.

Friday, May 02, 2008

El Dos De Mayo....Interpretations

Alberto Ruiz Gallardón, the Mayor of Madrid, said the other day in a speech that no aristocrats were amongst those who were shot by the French on the 3rd May 1808 following the suppression of the uprising. Gallardonologists see in his words a barb aimed at the Condesa de Murillo, and they may well be right. Whether that is the case or not, Gallardón made a useful point. The Dos de Mayo uprising was a popular rebellion; not a revolt led, or even supported, by those who ruled the country until the French takeover. Whilst poorly armed citizens of Madrid were engaged in bloody fighting with the French army on the streets of Madrid, almost all of the Spanish troops stationed in the capital remained in their barracks; with a handful of notable exceptions. There is a divide between those who see the rebellion as a glorious patriotic reaction to foreign oppression, and those who regard it as being a more chaotic and spontaneous product of frustration amongst the population of the occupied city. In any case, the number of people who participated is not estimated to have been more than a fraction of the population of Madrid, perhaps a few thousand.

Last night I took the risky decision of watching Telemadrid’s documentary on the uprising without first donning full protective clothing. This exposed me to dangerously high levels of patriotic garbage, as it emerged that Napoleon’s defeat was almost entirely the work of the Spanish rebels. There was little or no mention of the role of Portugal, Great Britain or even of the broader European war that brought Napoleon’s overstretched empire building to an end. Who was the world renowned history expert chosen to deliver the final verdict in the documentary? Why, none other than the Condesa herself, who expounded on her view that the events marked the birth of liberty in Spain. That the immediate effect of Napoleon’s defeat for Spain was the return of an absolutist monarchy could not be allowed to interfere with such a narrow vision of history. Perhaps the whole commemoration should be named “Hats off to the Bourbons” in tribute to their powers of survival? The more I read about Spanish history the more it amazes me that they are still occupying the throne.

El Dos De Mayo....6 Goyas 6

Six paintings by Goya distributed around the squares of central Madrid.

Someone claiming to be the "Mayor of Madrid"

La Maja Vestida

La Carga de los Mamelucos

Los Fusilamientos del 3 de Mayo

Thursday, May 01, 2008

El Dos De Mayo....The Background

An anniversary such as this one almost inevitably produces attempts to rewrite history and to present events in the best possible and most patriotic light. So the Dos de Mayo uprising is presented as the rebellion of an occupied people against a cruel French invasion of Spanish territory. However, calling the French presence in Spain in 1808 an "invasion" is not strictly accurate. The background to the Peninsular War lies in a couple of catastrophic decisions taken by Spain's rulers, and particularly by Manuel de Godoy.

The first of these decisions was the alliance with France that led up to the Spanish fleet being decimated at the Battle of Trafalgar. The second had more serious consequences, Godoy forged an alliance with France against Portugal as part of Napoleon's efforts to isolate Britain and its allies. It was this alliance that permitted the intitial presence of French troops on Spanish soil, the aim supposedly being to invade Portugal and then partition that country with everybody concerned getting their piece of the action. The French then took advantage of having their troops established in key points in Spain to embark on an occupation by stealth of Spanish territory. It doesn't sound quite so good to say that your country was occupied because you were trying to participate in the carving up of your neighbours, but that is a far more accurate description of what took place. Authors of their own misfortune, the rulers of Spain created the concept of "invasion by invitation".

El Dos De Mayo....Bicentenary Activities

I thought of doing something similar myself, but fortunately over at they are a bit quicker than me and have spared me the effort. This map shows the locations of the activities programmed in Madrid for the Dos de Mayo bicentenary. It's easier to view if you expand to the larger map.

Click for larger map