Tuesday, September 30, 2008

The Indestructible Mr Fabra

It’s time for a little bit of new vocabulary again. Today’s word is cacique, and we’re not referring to the Venezuelan rum either; South of Watford doesn´t do advertising. Instead, I want to focus on the political usage of the term, and the example that comes quickly to hand is called Carlos Fabra. Mr Fabra is the man in charge of the Diputación de Castellon, which is a body whose purpose I don’t understand very well but which is more or less equivalent to a provincial administration. In addition to this, Fabra is the Mr Big for the Partido Popular in Castellon and this is what makes him a cacique as a result of the tight control he exercises as the local party boss. It’s a family business, Castellon, and Fabra is occupying a position held by his father and grandfather before him. This political dynasty seems set to continue as he has already arranged a place in the national Senate for his daughter.

Now everyone likes to have a hobby, whilst some people collect stamps or matchbox labels Fabra collects bank accounts and the collection is coming along very nicely; he’s almost reached 100 either as sole or joint signatory. On the evidence of the the sums of money contained in these accounts it’s quite a profitable pastime too, and Mr Fabra seems to have been so busy with his financial movements that he didn’t quite find time to keep the Spanish tax authorities fully informed about many of the substantial sums of money which have been deposited in these accounts. Just in case anyone imagines that we are talking about the meagre savings of a professional politician, let me help to put the record straight. Fabra is said to have millions of euros distributed amongst his fine collection of bank accounts, yet his annual tax declarations seem to be so low that he often gets money returned to him. All of this has finally led to him facing very serious fraud charges as Hacienda seek to discover the origin of his riches.

The judge responsible for the local court dealing with the case has subsequently been changed no fewer than 8 times since the initial accusation was made, all of which suggests that Fabra could be moving towards that happy state of affairs where the time limits for the crimes concerned expire. In which case he will be able to declare himself innocent on all charges regardless of whether this is the case or not. However, last week there was sudden movement in the case as investigators visited personally many of the banks where Fabra is a customer. Fabra also recently gave a demonstration of just what a class act he is. In a session of the Diputación he was questioned about his legal difficulties by a member of the opposition. Refusing to answer any of the questions put, he was then caught by a stray microphone describing the questioner as an “hijo de puta”. Fabra later claimed in his defence that this is simply a commonly used expression in the area, and I’m sure it is. It’s used quite regularly in Madrid too.

Now in some other cases the PP has moved swiftly to remove representatives accused of serious corruption, but in Fabra’s case it appears that he is an untouchable; and the PP leadership has always defended him. Mariano Rajoy even described him as a model politician and citizen, which gives us some useful insight into his particular ethical baseline. In fact he’s the very model of a modern day cacique who appears to believe that he can do what he likes and who doesn´t need to be accountable to anyone. The question of why he can´t just be dumped by his party is almost as interesting as the origin of all the millions which pass through his bank accounts.

Monday, September 29, 2008

Madrid Feels The Pinch

Just in case anyone gets the impression that I´ve thrown in the towel and gone into permanent exile, let me pick up on something that I didn´t find time to post on before I left Madrid. The chill winds of economic crisis are blowing hard across the meseta of central Spain and have now made it as far as the gates of the capital. The occupants of that fine palace overlooking Cibeles have done their calculations and realised that something has to give. What will it be? Maybe they´ll have to reduce the capacity of that glorious Olympic stadium for those games which have yet to be awarded to the city? No don´t worry, Madrid has an administration which knows where it priorities lie, so the axe has fallen instead on residences for the elderly, sports facilities for the barrios and nursery education. There are those who like to present Alberto Ruiz Gallardón as a social democrat who just somehow took a wrong turning when it came to choosing his political party. How wrong they are.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

A Change Of Scenery

Productivity on this blog has been fairly high this year, a state of affairs which is mainly due to the fact that I've been a bit, er, underemployed. In addition to blogging I've had more time to enjoy Madrid, and to travel, and - of course - to waste time at home. I'm particularly good at the latter and I've enjoyed the opportunity to dedicate so much time to it. All of this is about to end, the inexplicable refusal of the Spanish state to pay me in return for withdrawing from the labour market means that I'm forced to take extreme measures and start working again. What's more, I'm going to be doing this in Germany, where freelancers like myself are a bit more common than here in Spain. I fly out this afternoon and its likely that for the next few weeks, and probably months, I will be spending most of my time there. I still intend to blog, there has to be some novelty value in an Englishman blogging about Spain from Germany! I'm less sure about the frequency of posts, depending as it does on how much free time and Internet access I have. We'll see.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Garzón To Church....Try Again

The Catholic Church in Spain has been given another opportunity to collaborate with the investigation into the whereabouts of the victims of Franco's repression. This follows their initial refusal to help after they received the first request from judge Baltasar Garzón. It gives the organisation an opportunity to demonstrate that all this talk about ethics isn't just for show. Of particular interest is the situation of the Valle de los Caidos, the massive mausoleum and eyesore built into the Sierra de Guadarrama near Madrid. The remains that were brought there following instructions from the dictatorship came from the Republican side too, and Garzón is now seeking access to the documentation held there. Accounts of those with some inside knowledge of this still secretive institution suggest that the human remains brought there were mixed together and are probably difficult to retrieve.

Meanwhile Garzón has now received a list of of over 143,000 names of victims of the repression both during and after the Civil War in Spain. This is not a definitive list, in many provinces the associations who have investigated the issue are still compiling information. The judge has now widened his request to include information on some of those killed by the Republican side. Whether this has been done to try and get the Church to help is unclear, in general the information on these victims is much easier to obtain as they were given full honours by Franco's regime rather than just being left to rot in mass graves. The key moment is still to come, when Garzón has to make a decision on whether there is a case to pursue.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Educashun To The Valencian Style

I wrote recently about how the Valencian regional government hoped to undermine the new Citizenship module for Spanish schools by ordering it to be taught in English. The new term has already seen some farcical scenes in Valencian schools as those teachers who are qualified to give classes on the new subject then have their words translated into English by another teacher. All of this so that they can play political games with the national government, the rulers of Valencia probably regard this expensive anti-educational chaos as a good result. After all, if they can't even translate correctly the name of the course then there is little chance of them getting the rest of it right.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

The Trickle Down Effect

Leaving aside the music chosen for the Partido Popular conference in Madrid at the weekend, the policy declarations for the event were also a little bit outdated. As merchant banks and insurance companies crashed so expensively in the US, Madrid's PP decided to take us all back to the 1980's when complete economic liberalisation could be argued for on the grounds that people had forgotten why it fails. Current events were not allowed to intrude as we were treated to declarations against the public “monopolies” in education and health. As if anyone could seriously argue in Spain that education is a monopoly when so much of the public funding for it goes on propping up private schools. No matter, reality was kept safely at bay.

The jewel in the crown of the new proposals from “Espp's” ever more extreme Madrid party was a proposal to privatise 49% of the local water company – the Canal Isabel 2. Now of course the case for privatisation is unanswerable, after all it's intolerable that a company which delivers some of the best quality drinking water in Spain and which made a profit of almost 80 million euros last year without charging rip-off prices should be allowed to continue in this way. Especially when it has 670 million euros worth of assets, including some very nice city centre sites that used to be used for boring activities such as storage of drinking water.

So the stage is set for an exercise in “popular capitalism”. It works this way, first the water company uses its profits on an expensive share issue campaign to entice the small investor who then in turn sells on the shares to larger investors. Meanwhile, the newly private company is obliged to pay its directors (probably the same ones as before) much higher salaries on the grounds that the market dictates this. At the same time as it will no doubt dictate that the other employees of the company need to be put on less secure, worse paid contracts. The final bill is of course picked up by the lucky consumer, probably still unaware of the numerous benefits resulting from this process.

Then came the catch. It turns out that the responsibility for delivering water to the residents of the Madrid region doesn't belong to the Canal Isabel 2 at all. Instead, it forms part of the responsibilities of the individual municipalities who have in turn ceded this to the water company under the misunderstanding that it was a public utility company. Madrid's mayor Alberto Ruiz Gallardón was very quick off the mark on this point, suggesting that he might need to put the water services for the capital up for auction if the Canal was going to be privatised. He's looking for alternative sources of funding, and if he can combine that with the possibility of poking Mrs Aguirre in the eye then that makes it all the more attractive. The PSOE run municipalities in the region have also made it clear that they will seek renegotiation of the agreements they have to supply and treat water. None of this means that the privatisation process will be stopped, after all us consumers will still need to drink. Gallardon's move does raise the intriguing possibility that Madrid's water could end up being delivered by Aguas de Barcelona. Don't tell Espe, she doesn't like “foreign” companies.

Madrid Airport Accident....Messing Up The Investigation

The investigation into what caused the horrific plane crash at Madrid's Barajas airport has now become a controversial issue in its own right. Last week saw resignations from the commission of investigation as some of its members claimed that they were becoming increasingly fed up with leaks of information about the crash. A first draft of initial conclusions was leaked to the press even though it had apparently not even reached the stage of being approved by the commission itself, and the number of possible causes of the crash has now multiplied as the press pick up on each possibility.

As if the leaking of the partial investigation didn't provoke enough confusion, the video of the final moments of the plane's failed attempt to take off was then released to the newspaper El País. This in turn provoked the wrath of the judge who is also investigating the crash; the same judge who had to demand to be given a copy of this video in the days following the accident. The judge banned El País from continuing to distribute the video, a bit of a pointless measure given that anyone who wanted to watch it had already had the chance. In any case, the short video only confirms what we more or less already knew, that the plane took off very briefly before coming back down again and careering off the runway towards the stream where it finally exploded.

The judge was probably upset that a video which he had to struggle to obtain then ends up so easily in the hands of the press. Fingers are being pointed at the government over both the leaks and the release of the video, El País is a favoured recipient of information in this manner. It's a pitiful way to conduct investigations and can't be doing anything to help the families of the victims who have already been left with the impression that those who died were in a plane that maybe shouldn't have been allowed to take off.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

The Dancing Queen

I don't know whether it's fair to judge a political party by the music they choose for their conferences, but in the case of the Partido Popular I've always tried to avoid letting issues of fairness cloud my judgement. The PP had their regional conference in Madrid this weekend and “Mamma Mia” was the theme chosen for the acclamation of the newly elected president. This personality, identified on the badges worn by delegates as “Espp”, was re-elected to her post with the slender support of slightly over 96% of those attending. I like to think that the other 4% are already serving their sentence tilling the land on one of the Condesa's many country estates. Oddly enough, given their reaction to Mariano Rajoy being the only candidate as national leader, there were no protests in the Madrid PP about delegates having just a single candidate to vote for.
Madrid's mayor was introduced to the theme of “The Winner Takes It All”, a choice which has been widely interpreted as a reference to the fact that none of Gallardón's supporters are represented in the ruling bodies of the Madrid party. It's one thing to have a show of unity, quite another to start putting it into practice. By the time the PP in Madrid gather together again it should already be clear whether their leader's attempt to move onto greater things has succeeded or not. If I was them I would take the precaution of recording a copy of “You Can't Always Get What You Want”. Just in case.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

An Ordinary Week, Only Two Political Parties Banned

This week saw a long awaited, but more or less predictable, decision by the Supreme Court to ban two Basque political parties. Acción Nacionalista Vasca (ANV) and the Partido Comunista de las Tierras Vascas (PCTV-EHAK) were both illegalised under the Ley de Partidos. This is the law introduced under Aznar's administration with the particular aim of prohibiting ETA's political wing, Batasuna. Both ANV and the PCTV have been banned on the grounds that they are regarded as successor parties to Batasuna, both parties having effectively lent themselves to the task of representing Batasuna's voters in regional and municipal elections in the Basque Country.

The decision is particularly paradoxical in the case of ANV because this party was created some 50-60 years before Batasuna was even thought of, so the idea that it is a successor to the latter is odd to say the least. ANV currently control around 40 municipalities split between the Basque Country and Navarra, and although the party may be illegal their councillors in these municipalities will continue to hold their position unless a legal pretext is found to remove them from office; something that can't be ruled out. It could be argued that there is more consistency now than the previous situation where half of ANV's municipal candidates were ruled to be illegal and the other half not. The PCTV only stood in the last regional elections in the Basque Country although their elected members do hold the balance of power in the Basque parliament. However, with the Basque elections due in a few months time their seats will not be occupied for much longer.

Whatever the feelings may be towards the parties concerned, the law is still a bad one. Despite the judicial show that is put on, once a process is set in motion to ban a party under this law it only ever has one result. Also, it's application seems to depend entirely on which way the political wind is blowing. The criteria permitting a party to be banned become ever broader, as the cat and mouse game to try and enforce it becomes more complicated. In the meantime, the distinction between the terrorist who places the bomb and those who sympathise with ETA has almost completely disappeared allowing for all sorts of people to be classified as "terrorists" in an arbitrary way. Still to look forward to are the ridiculous attempts to prosecute nationalist and socialist leaders in the Basque Country for having talked to Batasuna representatives in an attempt to bring an end to terrorism in the region. In the end the strongest argument for ETA abandoning violence is that they can pursue the objectives of Basque independence by legal and peaceful means. Laws like this make that argument harder to sustain.

A Competition You May Not Want To Win

The Partido Popular, in their long running search for someone who knows something about economics, have decided to cast the net a bit wider. They have organised a video competition on the economic crisis. Because we are dealing with people who have a short attention span, the videos submitted should not exceed a maximum length of one minute. Now comes the catch, there's always one, the unlucky winner is expected to have lunch with Mariano Rajoy in his office at PP headquarters. You would have thought that they could have come up with a better way of rewarding the effort involved in all that video editing, the thought of watching Mariano slurping his way through the Caldo Gallego for a couple of hours isn't everyone's idea of a big day out. It's not clear whether the winner is expected to pay for the lunch, although these politicians often don't carry money so I would be ready for anything! Anyway, for those who are interested the email to submit the videos is comeconrajoy@gmail.com. Remember, keep it simple. The second prize is two lunches with Mariano Rajoy....I think I'd better leave it there.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

The Law Shall Be Obeyed, Unless You're A Judge

The outgoing members of the Consejo General del Poder Judicial (CGPJ) were already severely criticised for the leniency they showed in dealing with judges who haven't done their job properly. As they are about to leave office, the distinguished members of the CGPJ couldn't leave without taking one last kick at judicial credibility. This time they decided that judges who refuse to apply the law should also go unpunished. The judge Laura Alabau refused to preside over marriages involving gay couples, and did her best to prevent them from happening; despite the fact that such unions are now completely legal in Spain. Her case reached the disciplinary commission of the CGPJ who punished the judge with a fine of – sharp intake of breath here - €305! Such a crippling punishment couldn't be allowed to stand against a judge who had been so loyal to her ideological principles, so the conservative majority on the CGPJ lifted the sanction yesterday.

Normal Service Will Resume (After A Short Break)

Today's big word in Spain is "paréntesis". We're not talking about brackets either. Given that things are not going very well economically the head of the Spanish employers association has called for a paréntesis in the operation of the free market. Roughly translated, what he means is that the state should hand bucket loads of cash to the private sector. Then, when things recover again thanks to this communal generosity, we can go back to the normal situation where a tiny group of beneficiaries keep almost all of the profits. To help them on their way, the employers also called for a return to the days of guaranteed easy pickings with more privatisations and contracting of public services. That's what free enterprise is all about isn't it?

Meanwhile the latest construction company to be tottering on the edge seems to be Habitat, a name I always associate with overpriced furniture. They are reported to be in the process of renegotiating their debts with the banks in an attempt to avoid going into liquidation. With all the talk of a credit crunch and lack of liquidity, I was a little bit surprised to get a letter from my bank the other day offering me an easy loan. Not only that, they then phoned me up to check whether I had got the letter and to remind me that they could still lend me lots of cash. I don't know whether to be pleased or worried by this - it could mean my bank is flush with funds, or it could be that they just don't care as we all slide down the precipice that the pre-paréntesis free market has created for us.

Get Out The Way ZP!

Many years ago, back in the early 1990's when Felipe Gonzalez was still Spanish Prime Minister, the then leader of the opposition hit on a simple formula for undermining the government. Playing on the idea that Gonzalez had stayed in power too long and that his government was worn out and unable to react to developments, Jose Maria Aznar used the phrase “¡Váyase, señor González!” to such effect that it now forms part of Spanish political history. It's a great formula if you use it at the right time, when your opponent is clearly on the slide. It avoids any sort of ideological exposure or the need to present any concrete alternatives, you simply play on the feeling of popular exasperation with someone who clings on to power. Well the Partido Popular, having failed with ideological opposition in the last parliament, now seems to be searching for a way to repeat the Aznar formula against Zapatero. The speech made by Mariano Rajoy on the economy last week, the one where he demonstrated his “sincere perplexity, was littered with references suggesting that Zapatero was part of the problem and should get out of the way. This has been followed up this week with further attacks suggesting that ZP is the main obstacle to solving the economic crisis in Spain.

All of this might be a little bit more convincing if the PP had something more to offer on the economy than tax cuts for their mates to be paid for with undefined public spending cuts. Nevertheless, the PP is actively trying to give the impression that only Zapatero stands in the way of a solution for all economic troubles. The problem for the PP is that Aznar used the formula against a government that was generally exhausted and mired in scandals, and that Aznar himself was still in a secure position as PP leader. Rajoy cannot say the same, and who better than Esperanza Aguirre to remind us of this? Last weekend the Lideresa gave a revealing interview to the newspaper ABC, where she made it clear that for her at least the leadership question in the PP was still not settled. Aguirre insists that the candidate for the next general election will only be decided at the next PP conference which should be held in 2011. All the more reason for Mariano to step up the pressure on the government, the best thing for him would be a government that can't see out its full term. Otherwise Zapatero may not be the first to fall.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Apartheid A La Madrileña

Here's the recipe for traditional Madrid style educational apartheid. First take one school, let's call it "San Roque", whose pupils are mostly of gypsy or immigrant origin. The school has reasonable facilities and even a bit of spare space for more pupils. Then take another school just 300 metres away, we'll call this one "Cristóbal Colón", where the pupils are mostly of Spanish (non-gypsy) origin. This second school is crowded and lacks key facilities such as a library. What to do about such a situation? San Roque offered to take excess pupils from Cristóbal Colón but such a mixture wouldn't work for the Comunidad de Madrid - most definitely an unequal opportunities administration. So the solution adopted is to put the gypsy and immigrant kids into the cramped school without facilities, and therefore leave the other one free for the Spanish kids. Swap the names of the schools and problem solved.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Rajoy Plays The Race Card Again

When he's not blaming Zapatero for the economic crisis, Partido Popular leader Mariano Rajoy has another favoured target; immigrants. Yesterday Rajoy directly attacked foreigners working in Spain by linking the number of immigrants claiming unemployment benefit and the number of Spaniards who travel to France every year to work on the grape harvest in that country. He suggested that immigrants should have no right to claim such benefits by claiming that the government budget was for “los Españoles”.

Sometimes with people like this who are a bit slow on the uptake you need to state the obvious. If there are immigrants claiming unemployment benefit in Spain it's because they have paid their social security contributions while they have been working here. The same contributions which are also paying the retirement pensions of several hundred thousand Spaniards. The last government which Rajoy formed part of was content to leave close to a million immigrants in a situation of absolute insecurity, without papers or social security and easy prey for unscrupulous employers. The regularisation of many of these immigrants led to a huge increase in the numbers paying social security contributions.

Meanwhile the explanation for the number of Spaniards going to France to work is equally simple, the conditions they are offered there are much better than those in Spain. They can be paid double what is on offer in their home country and have in fact been travelling to France to work on the harvest for years, this is not a new phenomenon resulting from the crisis. A PP which is increasingly attached to neocon economic policies at the very time when those same policies are unravelling at speed is naturally going to be unable to see the wood for the trees. The tried to play the xenophobic card in the general election campaign and if yesterday is anything to go by they will continue to try and use it to their advantage as the economic situation worsens. They have nothing else to offer.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Uncovering Lorca

One consequence of the census of Franco's victims set in motion by Baltasar Garzón could be the exhumation of the remains of the poet Federico García Lorca. The burial place of Lorca, who was executed at the beginning of the Civil War, has been known for some time. It lies between the municipalities of Viznar and Alfacar near to Granada. Despite this, the grave was never opened because members of Lorca's family did not want this to happen. The problem they have now is that Lorca does not have the grave to himself, he was killed as part of a group and relatives of at least one of those buried alongside him are now seeking permission to open the site.

Meanwhile it is becoming clear that a final count of those who were victims of summary executions by Franco's supporters will go way beyond the the estimates of 20-30,000 often given for those who still lie in unmarked graves around Spain. According to a report from El Pais the number of victims identified by different “historical memory” associations could be as high as 130,000. It remains to be seen whether the information provided by other bodies who have received requests from Garzón will have the effect of raising this figure even higher. No wonder so many on the right are nervous about Garzón's initiative, as the full extent of the killing becomes clearer.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

La Liga 2008-9....Who Will Provide The Competition?

With the Spanish Liga about to see its second round of games this afternoon, I'm a bit overdue with my pre-season post and wildly inaccurate predictions. The truth is I'm not very optimistic about this season, I have the feeling that it could turn out to be one of the most boring for several years. The reason behind that feeling is that La Liga seems to be heading towards an English style league where the title is disputed by a small elite group of teams, and the rest are simply dedicated to ensuring their survival in the top flight. Obviously football in Spain has long been dominated by Barcelona and Real Madrid, but the last few years have at least seen other clubs that have been able to challenge the supremacy of the big two. There's the problem, the number of candidates likely to do that this season is smaller, and the best chance for a bit of tension lies in Madrid and Barça failing to live up to expectations. This is always possible and the first day of the season was encouraging in this respect as the big two both lost.

So who else could be a contender come the end of the season? I would argue that there are only three other teams capable of mounting a serious challenge; Villareal, Sevilla and Atlético Madrid. Villareal continue to demonstrate what can be achieved with limited resources but good management. Having survived the departure of players like Riquelme and Forlan they managed to make it all the way to Champions league qualification last season. Fortunately, they have held on to key players like Senna and Cazorla although their problem could always be that they lack the squad strength to maintain form throughout the season. I would still make them the best outside bet. Sevilla are another team that have a system for discovering inexpensive talent and which allows the club to survive the departure of key players. Last season they were rocked by the death of one of their players at the very beginning, and then the departure of Juande Ramos to manage Tottenham. They are still there as contenders but don't seem to be the team they were two or three seasons ago.

Atlético Madrid have had the most dramatic start to the season, they got a tough preliminary round draw in the Champions League but produced a thrilling second leg performance to make it through to the main part of that competition. The word was that any chance of strengthening their squad this season depended on that qualification, said to be worth €20 million. The big question is still whether they can reproduce that kind of form week after week, and they seem to be very dependent on the mood of the Argentinian “Kun” Agüero. An almost traditional lack of consistency, coupled with the distraction of being back in the Champions League, rules them out for me as potential title winners. Who else is there? I don't include Valencia amongst the top group at the moment. Despite the appointment of a promising coach the club is so badly run that they ended up flirting with relegation last season. Most of the summer was taken up with a farcical battle for control of the club, and it just doesn't seem to be a stable outfit at the moment; anything could happen.

Madrid and Barcelona have also provided plenty of entertainment during the summer. The Guardiola era has begun at Barcelona and the future of club president Laporta is still under threat as he only narrowly survived attempts to unseat him. It's a curious demonstration of how quickly people go from being heroes to villains. Talking of which, we saw the expected departure of Ronaldinho and Deco, although Samuel Eto'o was reprieved as the club failed in their attempts to attract a big name striker to replace him. Guardiola is a sterner figure than Frank Rijkaard and is already attempting to impose a bit more discipline than the laid back Dutchman was able to do. Given his legendary status as a player he should be given time to prove whether he can deliver as manager of the team. Unless things go very badly, he will probably outlast Laporta.

The spectacle at Real Madrid has ended up being about much more than their fruitless attempt to attract Cristian Ronaldo. In the end they were turned down by Villareal's Cazorla and Valencia's David Villa, and were said to have launched all sorts of desperate last minute bids for players. Their only significant signing was Van der Vaart, and Bernd Schuster is reported to be extremely fed up with the way he has been ignored when it comes to decisions about which players to buy. He should have known this might happen, it's the Real Madrid way and the man who selects the team usually has to accept that he will have little choice on the players who make up his squad. Finally, there came the ultimate humiliation for Madrid with the sale of Robinho, once touted as the “new Pele”. Although I don't really like the trend towards clubs being owned by mega millionaires, there was a certain satisfaction in seeing Madrid on the receiving end of tactics which they have used themselves to get players from other clubs. Their traditional method has been to unsettle players without openly bidding for them so that the player then declares his desire to go to Madrid. This is more or less what Chelsea did with Robinho, even if things didn't turn out quite the way they planned. It was a humiliating experience for Madrid, they are not used to players declaring that they don't want to stay at the club.

The failure of Real Madrid and Barcelona to attract big name players, together with the Robinho saga, is revealing about the shifts in economic power inside European football. The English league is far outspending Spain at the moment, not that this necessarily means we will see better football. Clubs that are not owned by the super rich have to generate income, Madrid and Barcelona have been good at this but are now finding it may be enough when there are people around who can always outbid them for a player. As for the rest, you won't find a Spanish club that has spent truly significant sums on new players. Which is why, in the end, the best hope for a bit of excitement in what I am very reluctant to call La Liga BBVA lies in the big two performing less well than expected. On the topic of sponsorship, I wonder whether Spain will end up with an equivalent to England's Coca Cola Cup. How long before we get the Copa Chupa Chups?

P.S. One very encouraging sign from the first day of the new season. Newly promoted Sporting Gijon were reported by the referee because of racist chanting from some of their fans. They were fined, the club accepted the fine without complaint and quickly published on their web page a condemnation of what had happened without making any excuses. A model for other clubs to follow, and a small lesson to those who would have us believe that such things are just an anti Spanish Anglo-saxon plot.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Basque Vote Is Ruled Out

The decision announced yesterday by the Constitutional Court to prohibit the Basque government's planned “popular consultation” has not surprised anyone, not even the promoters of the initiative. The membership of the court is decided in a similar way to that of the Consejo General del Poder Judicial and there was never any real possibility of it finding against the national government on this issue. The stage is now set for what promises to be a lengthy and hard fought election campaign in the Basque Country, this election is expected to take place next spring. The nationalist led administration there is likely to make the “right to decide” the central issue of their campaign in what is going to be a close fought battle with the Basque wing of the PSOE.

The court's judgement doesn't accept the distinction the Basque government tried to argue between a non binding popular consultation and a referendum; the latter can only be convoked with the agreement of the national government. That may solve the issue in the Basque case, but it promises to cause problems in other parts of Spain as the new autonomy statutes for Cataluña and Andalucia both contemplate the possibility of being able to hold popular consultations. The Constitutional Court still hasn't ruled on the Catalan statute, for some reason it always seems to come last on their list of priorities, but logic suggests that they will not accept for Cataluña what they haven't been able to accept for the Basques.

The Night In White

Tomorrow sees the third edition of what has become one of Madrid's biggest cultural events, La Noche En Blanco. With over 150 activities to choose from, there is a mixture of music, spectacle and art with open nights at many museums or notable buildings. There are even bicycle or roller skate tours organised around the different events. A route which takes you from the Templo de Debod via Plaza de España up the Gran Via, then on to the Puerta de Alcala, returning via the Puerta del Sol, Plaza Mayor, Vistillas and the Royal Palace will take in several of the events organised. Not recommended for the impatient, those who like to go to bed early or those who feel claustrophobic in big crowds. The full program is available for download here.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Here's One I Prepared Earlier

What have you come here for?” was the contemptuous question tossed at Prime Minister Zapatero by PP leader Mariano Rajoy yesterday after Zapatero's speech in Parliament on the economic crisis. Rajoy went on to talk about the “sincere perplexity” he felt after paying close attention to what Zapatero had said. The only problem with this demonstration of sincerity is that these same words were included in the copy of Rajoy's speech distributed to journalists before Zapatero had even uttered a word.

The PP is determined that all political debate shall focus solely on the issue of the economy and the alleged failings of the government in dealing with the crisis. So any other issue is routinely dismissed by the PP as an attempt to divert attention, an excuse which PP representatives then use to avoid talking at all about the issue concerned. Now that governments have effectively surrendered most of the control they might have over economic developments this would make life very dull indeed, as the PP insist on trying to suggest that it is only Zapatero's administration that is to blame for the current economic troubles.

Now although it's likely that the government is relieved to be able to talk about other things than the economy, it's not so likely that they are reforming the abortion law or proposing legislation on voluntary euthanasia with this as the sole objective. Which is not say there aren't political forces at play, but the objective is almost certainly to try and force the “new model” PP to define itself. The strategy of the PP is to avoid putting off any potential voters by appearing to represent only the most reactionary sectors of society. The government's announced measures put them in the quandary of deciding whether they will take to the streets again, or just vote against the new legislation with the pathetic argument that it is not about the economy.

Bird's Nest Soup

It was in the time known as the Years of Vak Asflak As. The Pharaoh Gayadonn had gathered together in his palace and post office his most trusted advisers to talk of the future. “We shall build a mighty stadium the like of which the world has never seen, not even in China!” he proclaimed. There was silence in the room, all of the Pharaoh's advisers knew there was no money to pay for such grand works, but how to tell this to their ruler. Finally one of them broke the silence. “My Pharaoh, such a monument to your glory should not just be paid for by the grateful citizens of Madrid, many others across the nation should surely contribute also.” Gayadonn was convinced, and asked “Who shall deliver to me these funds?” “You must speak with Sol Bes, high priest of the national treasury” was the reply. “Bring him to me!” demanded Gayadonn. “Er, I think you must go to him, my Pharaoh” was the reply.

So Gayadonn dressed in his finest robes and set off to the Temple of Money. Sol Bes received him and listened patiently as Gayadonn explained his exciting plans for the city. Eventually, and when Gayadonn had finished talking, Sol Bes spoke in his characteristic monotone. “Gayadonn, can you not see that the people have no work and there is famine across the land? No longer do the great machines roar day and night, the high cranes stand silent and every day brings more signs of hardship and trouble.” “Yes, I know”, said Gayadonn impatiently, “but my projects shall bring work for all who want it.” “You have not spent wisely”, declared Sol Bes, “your tunnels fill with water every time it rains and still no trees grow by the river. Must the whole country pay for your extravagance?” Sol Bes fingered the key to the treasury that hung from his neck. “The people must eat Gayadonn, they cannot live with circus alone.” Gayadonn tried to reason with the old man, promising him that he would receive an even finer position when Gayadonn became supreme ruler. “I am old and weary” replied Sol Bes, “soon I will return to my village and tend my garden. Then you must deal with Seba Styan, who once tried to depose you. I can do no more.

Gayadonn returned empty handed to his palace and locked himself inside his private chambers. His advisers were not worried, this was not the first time their ruler had behaved this way. Only a few months before he had declared that maybe he didn't want to be a Pharaoh anymore. Three days later Gayadonn emerged and called his advisers together for another meeting. “What news do you have?” he asked wearily. One of those assembled spoke. “My Pharaoh, we have received reports there are still residents of the city who do not have chariot meters outside of their homes." Gayadonn's expression brightened as he pondered this news. Perhaps all was not lost. “Are they many?”, he asked.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

The End Of The World

With all the talk of the CERN particle accelerator in Switzerland destroying the world, it seemed like a good enough excuse to post this.

Montesquieu's Ghost

It all sounds so impressive, the grand talk of Montesquieu and the separation of powers. Politics shall not interfere with the judicial system and judges shall act as independent custodians of the law. Now for the reality. The institution formally responsible for governing the judicial system in Spain is the Consejo General del Poder Judicial (CGPJ), although there is a Ministry of Justice too. The CGPG is supposed to be formed by a mixture of experienced judges and eminent jurists, and to be above the party political battle.

However, the current members of the CGPJ have overstayed their welcome by a long way, their term of office expired two years ago. This situation arose because the Partido Popular systematically blocked any renovation in the last parliament in order to try and preserve the conservative majority in the institution, at least until the general election when the PP hoped to be returned to power. These same conservative members effectively acted as a judicial wing of the PP throughout the last four years, and in the process left the institution itself severely discredited.

Now, with the long awaited renovation of the CGPJ, it seems that the government is prepared to do its bit to remove any left over shreds of credibility for this body. The new members appointed divide evenly between members close to the PSOE and those close to the PP. Two other members have been nominated by the conservative nationalist parties in the Basque Country and Cataluña following the same model of political loyalty. The nationalist representatives have been allowed in on the understanding that they won't ever gang up with the other conservative representatives. As you can see, the very model of judicial impartiality. The almost 50% of judges who do not align themselves with any professional association are feeling a bit put out, none of them have been chosen.

It gets worse, one of the PP's appointees stands out in particular. Judge Gemma Gallego was responsible for one of the most ridiculous farces arising from the conspiracy theories about the Madrid bombings. She was the judge who laid charges against several senior police officers over the insane “boric acid case”, indeed those behind this piece of nonsense manoeuvred very hard to get the case into her hands. Now she gets her reward for party loyalty, but who can seriously pretend that someone who behaves in this way is demonstrating the qualities needed to oversee the judicial system? It also puts talk of the change in the PP's attitude into perspective.

Now the only question is how long it will take before one of the CGPJ's members treats us to a stern lecture on the impartiality of their decisions. It all raises the issue of whether it's necessary to have such a body at all, apart from its usefulness in rewarding loyalty and in putting a barrier between the government and the chaotic state of the judicial system. The latter has been illustrated today when the outgoing CGPJ finally dealt with the case of a judge who had failed to execute a sentence against someone who then subsequently murdered a little girl. The CGPJ has fined the judge €1500 for what they appear to see as a slight oversight, think about that if you ever come before the courts accused of negligence.

Hailstones The Size Of Houses!

Not really that big, but big enough to persuade me that sticking my head out of the window during last night's thunder storm in Madrid was probably not a wise thing to do. The noise they made as they landed on the balcony was impressive.

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Un Ajuste De Cuentas

The Spanish police didn't take long to reach conclusions about the murder of a Senegalese immigrant in the Almerian town of Roquetas de Mar on Saturday night. An “ajuste de cuentas” (a settling of accounts) we were told, probably involving drugs. I've often heard this given as the motive for a crime here. At first I marvelled at the rapidity of the police investigations, the bodies would barely be cold following a shooting and already the police had come up with the motive for the crime. Then with the passage of time I realised that this conclusion was hardly ever the result of any investigation at all, and seemed to simply be a way of explaining away crimes that might otherwise be difficult to solve; usually involving foreigners killing other foreigners. I even found that I could more or less guess when it would be used, with practice I have a fairly good success rate.

Those who know the victim of the weekend's events claim that he had no involvement of any kind in criminal activities, he had a job and was close to securing legal status in the country; the dream of all of those who continue to undertake the tremendously dangerous journey by boat from Africa to the Canary islands or the southern coast of Spain. Some press coverage has also focused on the miserable conditions in which many of these immigrants live as they collect the fruit and vegetables produced under plastic in Almeria and other areas on the Mediterranean coast. At the same time the native population does very well from the steady stream of cheap labour. One of the best columnists in the Spanish press, Javier Ortiz, writes eloquently on the subject today. The police crackdown in the town contrasts sharply with the events of El Ejido a few years ago, then the police watched with folded arms as the locals burnt and chased hundreds of immigrants out of their homes.

Monday, September 08, 2008

The Outlaw Esperanza, Part One

I was planning to compensate for the inexcusable absence of recent posts about the Lideresa by writing a slightly jokey post along the lines of “Does anyone remember Esperanza Aguirre?” Of course I should have realised that the silence was deceptive, with only a few days left before her coronation as Supreme Leader of the PP in Madrid, Espe has made her presence felt to such an extent that I need more than one post to deal with it all.

So what has she been up to? Breakin' the law seems to be the answer to that question. Just as the new school year is about to begin Aguirre's administration has challenged the government over the new Citizenship module which has now been introduced nationally. This new, and innocuous, subject has been a particular target of the Catholic right who are perfectly happy to have priests indoctrinating all and sundry, but hate the idea that any teaching falling in the sphere of ethics might be taught without the aid of a Bible.

So Madrid has announced that it will offer an alternative to those who declare themselves as “conscientious objectors” to the new subject. Such an escape clause isn't contemplated in the legislation, but has received support from courts in other regions of Spain. This is sufficient justification for Espe to defy the government. One of these judgements, in Andalucia, was delivered by the son of a prominent campaigner against the government's plan, and the sentence itself was close to being a copy and paste job from his fathers writings. The issue is up before the Supreme Court, and you would have thought that the PP would respect that given that they like to pose as the party of law n' order.

Not wishing to be left out of the fun of using education as a means of opposition to the national government, Valencia's PP led administration intends to teach the new subject in English even though it is not a subject which can be taught by English teachers or have the exams set in that language. Other PP controlled regions such as Castilla y Leon have decided to abide by the law and teach an obligatory subject. It's all a bit of a throwback to the previous parliament, with Madrid's PP seeking to be in the forefront of all out opposition to the national government. Because of this we now have the concept of educational conscientious objection as being the preserve of a small number of religious fanatics.

Since we're on the subject of education I came across confirmation in El País of Madrid's policy of using the state schools for children of immigrants whilst encouraging Spaniards to use the publicly (well) funded concertados. According to the latest figures only 23% of immigrant children in the region go to concertados or private schools, whilst the equivalent figure for all children of school age is almost 45%. Given that this 23% figure will include many of the offspring of the wealthier (and whiter?) expatriates the true picture of this undeclared policy of segregation is likely to be worse. Meanwhile, a long established parents association faces eviction because they have been too critical of Espe's gang, who upped the pressure by cutting off the electricity. Just another day here in the badlands, nothing more can be expected in such a lawless region.

Austerity Begins At Home

Touched by the evident difficulties that the Partido Popular has been having in identifying areas of public spending that can be cut back to pay for their tax cuts, I've decided that South of Watford should come to the rescue. Our crack team of specialist investigators has come up already with some stunning results. You know that rumour that was circulating the other day about a well known Spanish intellectual and statesman? It was interesting to see that the statement issued in denial of the rumour came not from the great man himself, but from the foundation that he set up to propagate what I suppose we are obliged to call his “ideas”. This foundation is called La Fundación para el Análisis y los Estudios Sociales, or FAES for short. Now it turns out that the FAES receives a somewhat generous public subsidy from the Ministry of Culture, this year's figure is no less than €2,861,302.29. I'm not sure whether the 29 centimos is there just to distract attention from the rest. That's not bad for an organisation that dedicates its time to issuing statements on behalf of its founder, and reheating any neocon garbage they can find on the Internet.

You would imagine that PSOE might make something of this scandalous waste of public funds, but there is a slight problem. At number two on the list of political foundations receiving huge wads of public money comes the PSOE's very own Fundación Pablo Iglesias which gets a somewhat rounder figure of €2.8 million. Now it's possible that this foundation is the intellectual powerhouse behind the Zapatero project, but then why would Zapatero have entrusted former minister Jesus Caldera with setting up yet another think tank? Maybe the other parties could take up the issue? Alas, it seems that CiU, the PSC, the PNV, IU, ERC and even the BNG would all end up losing a bit of free cash.

Nevertheless, it's interesting to see further evidence that those who preach the idea of minimal government always seem to be first in the queue when it comes to getting public subsidies. So there we have it, the total amount saved by getting rid of these concealed subsidies to political parties is a bit over €7 million, which even allowing for my 10% commission for identifying the saving is still not a bad start. All Mariano has to do is call Jose Maria and tell him it's about time his foundation was exposed to the chill winds of market forces. It may not seem like much money compared to total public spending, but often getting started is the difficult part. Alternatively, and this is where we get really radical, instead of cutting the money from the budget the Ministry of Culture could use it for promoting the arts. For example.

Sunday, September 07, 2008

Church To Garzón....Go To Hell

As it's Sunday it seems like a good day to examine the response of the Catholic Church to Baltasar Garzón's request to help in constructing the census of those who disappeared or were executed during or after the Civil War. Garzón directed his request to the Conferencia Episcopal, which is the assembly of Spain's Catholic bishops. You might have though that it was a good place to start, after all the hierarchy existing within the church would then ensure that orders were passed from each bishop to the individual parishes under their control to ensure that any information they possess was passed on.

Well no, the Conferencia Episcopal has instead decided not to collaborate, the bishops claim that their assembly is not the competent organism to carry out the task. Apparently, when it comes to uncovering some of their darkest secrets the bishops suffer a sudden loss of authority and are unable to issue any instructions. The aim is clearly to try and make Garzón's task as difficult as possible by forcing the judge to direct his request to thousands of individual parishes.

It's interesting, in the light of those who claim that the judge is “reopening the wounds of the past”, to take a look at the church's attitude to Franco's regime. I may be wrong but I have the feeling that this is the same organisation that holds regular and lavish martyrdom fests in St Peter's Square in Rome, where praise is heaped upon carefully selected religious victims of the war. One was held only last year. You would imagine that this would have Mariano Rajoy, Manuel Fraga and company protesting for raising the ghosts of the past? Instead of protesting, they put on their Sunday best and catch the first flight to Rome. Or how about those plaques on so many church walls that commemorate the Falangist leader José Antonio Primo de Rivera? It's not just a case of the transition to democracy being insufficient, in the case of some institutions it's as if it never happened.

Saturday, September 06, 2008

Three Valleys In Huesca

Taking advantage of the mid-August “puente” in much of Spain, we managed to do 3 days of walking in the Pyrenees of Huesca, using the village of Benasque as our base. All of this left me a bit footsore, two of the routes we did were a bit longer than what I'm used to. Fortunately, the scenery compensated for the effort involved. Day one started with a walk up the valley of Ballibierna, which is one of the possible approach routes for climbing the peak of Aneto. There is a bus service that will take you up to the refuge of Coronas, we found out about this service about 10 minutes after the bus left and the alternative is a 9 kilometre walk. The weather wasn't very promising as we set off, it had rained for most of the previous day and the clouds coming down the valley looked threatening. As it turned out we were lucky and after a brief shower the weather cleared.

The walk up the valley is easy on a good trail, and we made it to the refuge in less than two hours. From there we decided to go up to the Ibones de Coronas, a steep climb up to the lakes lying below the summit of Aneto. This was as close as we would get to the highest peak in the Spanish Pyrenees.

It was cold up there, forget any ideas of summer as a biting wind brought back memories of other seasons. We even got a bit of sleet at one point. The stop by the lake was short, we admired the determination of those who climb up there to camp overnight for an early ascent of Aneto, but we didn't feel tempted to follow their example.

Going down the mountain by the same route, we decided not to wait for the bus and walked back down to the campsite where we had left the car. All of this effort had to be compensated for by the big chuleton we ate at night back in Benasque.

Day two took us to the valley of Estós, which leads to the other major peak of this area; Posets. A trail leaving the main path up the valley makes for a beautiful detour around the Ibones de Ballisielle.

Here we got a bit over confident, trying to do a circular route of all of the lakes left us improvising a path across a field of huge boulders; just when it started raining. Boulder hopping is one of my least favourite activities, a combination of vertigo and a keen survival instinct mean that I avoid it whenever possible. This time there wasn't much choice and it made the round route a bit more exciting than I needed it to be.

From the bottom lake there is a path that leads up the valley to the refuge of Estós. This is what I call a proper mountain refuge, it sells beer. The return route was a path gently returning down the opposite side of the valley. Another long route, but amongst the best we have done.

On the third day we went to the frontier. From the inappropriately named Hospital de Benasque (it’s a hotel) a path goes up to El Portillon, a historic crossing point between France and Spain. This route passes opposite the other side of Aneto, and offers as convincing a reason as I need for not trying to climb it; the glaciar that runs across the breadth of the peak.

They predict it won't be there any more in 50 years time, the glaciar that is, the views from the border side were stunning and we could see all the way up the valley to the beginning of the Catalan Pyrenees.

Benasque makes a great base for walking, we only had to do a few kilometres in the car to cover all three of these routes. As always, GPS recorded routes are available on request for those who want them.

Friday, September 05, 2008

Hard Times, And It's Going To Get Worse

The unemployment figures for August have shown a sharp increase in the total. It's normal for unemployment in Spain to increase in August as seasonal work starts to dry up, but the increase this year has been way above the average and the total of those out of work has topped 2.5 million for the first time in 10 years. That's not the end of it, the figure to watch out for will be that for next January which is seen as something of a peak month even when the economy is expanding.

The government chose this moment to mix immigration into the economic debate, with a decision to stop employers in Spain contracting labour from overseas. The decision was soon modified as it was pointed out that the only people queuing up to pick next year's strawberry crop were going to be immigrants. This highlights a significant detail concerning unemployment in Spain, if you look at the figure for the boom years since the late 1990's you will see that once the total got down to around 2 million it didn't change very much at all even though the economy was growing rapidly. The reason in the end why there are so many immigrants working in Spain is because they are doing jobs that Spaniards don't want to do. This makes it all the more depressing that the government should try and suggest that immigration is the problem.

The Partido Popular are of course delighted that the government has raised the issue of immigration, they see it as a vindication of their opportunistic attempts to use the issue in the general election campaign. Meanwhile, PP leader Mariano Rajoy has been invited to spell out his solutions to the country's economic troubles, and a fairly uninspiring set of proposals it is. Whilst most economists would probably argue that the state running a deficit in difficult times is normal, the PP focus their attack on government spending at the same time as they argue for tax cuts. Rajoy and his team crucially always dodge the question of what spending they will cut to pay for these tax cuts. The main tax they want to reduce is the Impuesto de Sociedades (on company profits), a tax which is already contributing significantly less this year to government coffers and which has been significantly reduced anyway in the last few years.

The PP have preached austerity but so far there is little sign of them practicing it in areas where they govern. The PSOE have made a smart move to highlight this by calling on all of their mayors around the country to take the lead with a bit of belt tightening. The problem is that municipal financing is in even more of a mess than that of the autonomous regions. With the housing boom over, a key source of revenue has disappeared overnight for many municipalities, and mayors of the larger cities are now uniting to try and get more money from the government. One PP mayor who certainly isn't interested in austerity programmes is Madrid's Alberto Ruiz Gallardón, a man with Olympian ambitions who refuses to see his dreams knocked off course by such trivial details as a global economic crisis.

Thursday, September 04, 2008

Otegi Gets Out Of Jail

Last weekend saw the release from prison of Arnaldo Otegi, the man who would probably like to be seen as the Basque Country's equivalent of Sinn Fein's Gerry Adams. Otegi went to prison as part of the backlash following the breakdown of the last attempt to persuade ETA to dissolve itself.

Otegi finds himself in a complicated situation. The political party he led, Batasuna, is illegal and the next few weeks are almost certain to see the illegalisation of those parties who have taken much of Batasuna's support in recent elections; ANV and the PCTV. Otegi himself faces the possibility of returning to prison as a result of other charges that have been laid against him. The political climate at the moment does not favour any resumption of attempts to get ETA to give up the armed struggle, government ministers moved quickly following Otegi's release to make it clear that they saw no prospect of resumed negotiations.

Meanwhile there have been reports of discontent amongst ETA prisoners and exiles in South America. Some of these reports have to be taken with a pinch of salt, there are several hundred ETA prisoners in Spanish jails and the fact that some of these may now reject violence as a way forward doesn't necessarily mean that this is the general opinion. Nevertheless, there are expressions of discontent with the direction which ETA has taken, in the case of the exiles it seems that some have simply become tired of spending years far away from home. There are exiles who would not even face charges if they returned, given the time that has elapsed since they left.

ETA's leadership made a significant miscalculation in the last negotiations, and now it is difficult to see them forcing the Spanish government back to the negotiating table; assuming that this is what they want to do. Whilst this remains the case there is little role for someone like Otegi to play, he has been given permission to take a holiday in Italy and could probably make it a long one. Which is not to say that his time will never come, at some point ETA will have to face up to the reality of their situation and the futility of their continued existence.

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

Aznar, Sex Machine?

Wonderful. A Moroccan newspaper has attributed the pregnancy of the French justice minister, Rachida Dati, to none other than José Maria Aznar! Disappointingly for those thinking that here we have the macho ibérico in all his glory, Aznar has flatly denied the rumours. He is threatening legal action against those responsible for the original report and those who echo it - which already covers more or less the entire Spanish press and a good part of the blogosphere. You never know what might happen, now that he's become a long haired intellectual!

The hero of Perejil and the Azores recently put aside his onerous workload with Murdoch's News International to tell us that his (minor) participation in the declaration of war against Iraq was the most important event to have happened in Spain in the last 200 years. He's obviously not a football fan then. It was always clear that his interest in the overthrow of Saddam Hussein was really just a product of his own desire to strut the international stage. I always thought he was a mediocre politician but he insists on confirming it with this kind of nonsense.

Garzón Breaches The Wall Of Silence

A suitably heavyweight topic to mark what Blogger tells me is my 500'th post on this blog. No sooner has everyone returned from their holidays than judge Baltasar Garzón has grabbed national attention with his move to assemble a census of information on the victims of Franco's regime. The request by Garzón marks the beginning of a process which will determine whether there is a case to be pursued on the grounds of genocide. Several town halls in major cities have been requested to provide information they possess on those who were summarily executed or who simply disappeared without trace. The same request has also been made to the Church, which holds much of the data as well as having been an active and keen collaborator with Franco's regime.

The estimates of those from the Republican side who remain buried in unmarked graves around the country is generally put at around 25-30000. However, the number of victims of reprisals by Franco's regime is estimated at a much higher figure, Garzón's move should hopefully ensure that the available data on those who were killed is at last united. It is something that has been commented on ever since Garzón himself sought the extradition of General Pinochet, how can Spain actively take up cases concerning the disappeared in South America if it doesn't do the same with those who have never been accounted for here in Spain?

The reaction from the political right to Garzón's move has been utterly predictable. Partido Popular leader Mariano Rajoy reacted with the now traditional cliché about not reopening the wounds of the past. This popular right wing argument is always wheeled out when reference is made to Franco's victims, those who use it are not shy of coming to the defence of Franco's regime when it suits them or of fighting to maintain the public symbols of that regime. The dictatorship buried and honoured their dead, those whose political roots lie in that same regime have always argued that the dead on the other side should simply be forgotten. El Mundo led the charge against Garzón yesterday to such an extent that his fellow judges in the Audiencia Nacional came out publicly in his defence.

Once again the issue puts the spotlight onto the question of just how model a transition Spain really had from dictatorship to democracy. An implicit pact of silence during 30 years of democracy has meant that the mass graves lie largely untouched even though many of them are common knowledge in the nearby villages or towns. Much of the work that has been done to excavate some of these sites has been carried out by volunteers. An interesting piece by Jesús Maraña in Público at the weekend described quite well the unbalanced nature of the transition as agreements were reached under the ever present threat of military intervention if democracy looked like going too far. That the constitution and political arrangements resulting from that process should now be regarded as untouchable makes no sense. There is unfinished business, something that the case Garzón has opened demonstrates very clearly. Whether or not this case eventually proceeds, the census of Franco's victims marks a historical turning point.

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Making Money While The Sun Shines

It's time for some new vocabulary on South of Watford. Today's word is cazaprimas, or “car-thar-primars” for speakers of SSAE (Spanish Standard Airport English). A cazaprimas is a subsidy chaser, someone whose money goes into those sectors of the economy that attract the highest level of public subsidy. The classic model of cazaprimas took full advantage of the EU's Common Agricultural Policy in the days when half of Europe's budget was dedicated to agricultural subsidies. A famous case in Spain involved the production of linen which was then mysteriously destroyed in a series of fires once the generous subsidy had been claimed.

Nowadays the cazaprimas has diversified, which brings me to the topic of solar power. It was strange, for years I was wondering when Spain was going to start showing some interest in energy produced from the sun. A country with so many hours of sunshine seemed dedicated to ignoring the possibilities of the technology, whilst wind farms seemed to cover every available hillside. Then things started to change, and this summer on my travels around different parts of the country it's been hard not to notice the solar power plants that have suddenly emerged. The reason for the change is simply because of a very generous subsidy scheme that guarantees the purchase of all electricity produced by these plants at high rates.

A not so subtle variation on the theme has emerged in the region of Castilla Leon where it seems that evolution of the species has taken a further step with the introduction of what we can call the funcionario-cazaprimas. Several people in senior positions in the regional government there seem to have fallen into the common trap of confusing the public good with their private gain, and have ensured that the permissions for new solar power plants go to companies with which they are directly or indirectly involved. All of this is now coming to an end, the government has decided to cut the subsidies from this month and solar power is expected to lose its attraction. The cazaprimas will move on to something else while Spain continues to grapple with an increasingly urgent need to diversify its energy sources.

Monday, September 01, 2008

La Ley De Costas

I spent the last few days of August in the swanky Mediterranean resort of Benidorm. I went equipped for blogging, but then I found that the ritual of beach, aperitivo, lunch, siesta, watching football, going for a walk and then dinner didn't leave me quite as much free time as I expected to have. All of this and the reality that many of the places supposedly offering free Wifi are often not able to actually provide the connection. Still, I engaged in some important tasks of cultural “mestizaje”.

Now the Ley de Costas, the law theoretically governing what can be done with the land bordering the sea in Spain, tells us that the strip immediately by the sea is public domain. Benidorm has obviously adopted a slightly more restrictive interpretation of this law, try getting round the front of these new skyscrapers seen through the palm trees without getting your feet wet.

I suppose not much else can be expected in the town which launched the political career of Eduardo Zaplana. I wonder what the shepherds make of it all?

Those who travel to this part of Spain might be interested to know that there is now a very efficient light railway line linking Alicante and Benidorm, eventually it will reach Alicante airport. It's a lot more comfortable going from Madrid to Alicante by train than going directly by bus to Benidorm.