Friday, November 28, 2008

A Hungry Man Is An Angry Man

Another translation triumph. This item at Malaprensa tells us that Antena 3 carried footage the other day of an interviewed tourist trapped at Bangkok Airport saying "I am angry and sad". Translated by a top Antena 3 expert this emerged as "Tengo hambre y sed".

Pharaohs Prefer Cats

I'm not a big animal lover myself, but even I was a bit shocked by Madrid's latest measure against those who don't clean up behind their dogs. The maximum fine until now for letting your dog choose the middle of the pavement or the entrance to someone's house as a toilet is a reasonably harmless €90, and I wonder whether anyone has ever been fined. That's about to change and the new maximum goes up to a staggering €1500. At this price it almost becomes worth hiring a servant to walk behind the animal with a cushioned heated potty. It's all part of the consequences of Alberto Ruiz Gallardón's particular approach to tax and spend politics. In order to protect everything except essential services and to pay off a debt where the interest alone costs €750,000 per day, the city is now trying to raise money in any way it can. The property tax has risen, people are going to be fined for not recycling properly, and now whatever the Spanish equivalent of Fido or Rover is will get their owner into a bigger mess than the street they shit on.

What you really need when faced with inconsiderate behaviour is a polite campaign of civic education from your fellow citizens. Take, for example, the MEMPEC campaign - aimed at those users of public transport who choose to share with the rest of the passengers the music which they are listening to on their mobile phones. Via Las Penas del Agente Smith.

Oh, what does MEMPEC mean? Métete el móvil por el culo. Or SYPUYA in English.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Patriotas Sin Fronteras

I was in the UK at the weekend, and both in the press and on TV I noticed an extensive advertising by the Banco de Santander. Nothing unusual about that, now that the Santander has increased still further its interests in the British banking sector. What really caught my attention was that the advertising was based around images of a well known Formula One racing driver....Lewis Hamilton! I wonder how many of those Spaniards whose irrational hatred for Hamilton is so forcefully expressed have accounts with the Spanish bank that is helping to make him richer?

The amount of corporate advertising directly linking itself to sporting events seems to be much greater in Spain, there always seems to be something in the press from a company congratulating the underwater synchronised hockey team for their latest achievements. I always find these adverts by multinational companies like Coca Cola in support of "la selección" quite funny because I assume they produce probably identical advertisements for every country that is competing in the event. I suppose its only to be expected, many of the most highly rewarded sports stars soon find their own patriotism doesn't survive the test of paying taxes in their country of origin.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Civil Unrest

It's almost predictable isn't it? The moment Maria Esperanza turns up in India the shooting starts! I can understand the reaction, she has a similar effect when she gets into a helicopter - just ask Mariano. According to El País she plans on visiting a computing company, presumably to congratulate them on how poorly paid their staff are. Of course there are no such companies in the Madrid region, La Lideresa is forced to travel half the world in the midst of an economic crisis just to say something like "that's a nice flatscreen monitor you've got".

Gloss Skating

Those of you in Spain who are starting to shiver as the cold weather works its way south might be reassured to know that exiles like me have been putting up with it for a bit longer. My plane back to Germany from the UK on Sunday night left significantly later than planned because of the snow that was falling on Frankfurt airport. It snowed again the following night. Just to show that Spain has no monopoly on bizarre translations there was a warning sign placed in the morning at the exits in my hotel; it said "Dear guest, please be careful. It is glossy". Wondering what could be meant by this I almost slipped into the ice covered pond just outside the door.

Monday, November 24, 2008

From The Cold War To The Energy War

Not the first energy war, obviously, but as we're on the dawn of a new era let's move on. I wouldn't normally post about one company buying a share in another, it's not the sort of thing that generally interests me very much. The case of the Russian oil company Lukoil attempting to become the owner of around 30% of Repsol is a bit different, as political considerations vie for supremacy with economic ones and the potential entertainment value rises. The fear that it all forms part of an evil Kremlin plot by the "Russian bear" to control Europe's energy supplies has inevitably surfaced in the last few days. The fact that Lukoil itself is partially owned by US interests doesn't seem to affect this perception.

At the heart of the proposed deal lie the problems of debt facing Spanish construction companies. The case of Sacyr-Vallehermoso is particularly grim, they owe several times their stock market worth to the banks. It's a staggering level of debt that can't even be temporarily kept at bay by handing over newly finished houses to the banks; a solution that is being adopted by other troubled companies. So instead they are seeking to offload their 20% stake in Repsol in order to at least reduce that debt burden and keep the company going. If the deal goes ahead Lukoil won't actually be paying a penny to acquire their stake. Instead they'll just take over the debt that Sacyr incurred in the process of "buying" their share of Repsol. This was done back in the not so distant days when the construction companies were awash with money and developed grandiose expansion plans into other sectors such as utilities or energy.

I wonder just how many of Spain's ardent free marketeers will be screaming for government intervention over this one? Talking of the devil, also related to Sacyr's situation was a curious court appearance last week by the former Partido Popular general secretary Francisco Alvarez Cascos. Around the election campaign in March, there were a spate of rumours originating inside the PP that Sacyr was already bankrupt but had been persuaded by Zapatero to defer the announcement until after the election so as not to adversely affect the campaign. These rumours were spread by SMS text message and one such message sent to a friend of Cascos was found to have come from a phone belonging to one of his companies. Nothing to do with him you understand.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Garzón Throws In The Towel

Baltasar Garzón seems to have abruptly given up in the case he initiated over the victims of Franco's repression. This follows an emergency judicial session held a couple of weeks ago which led to progress on reopening some of the mass graves of the victims being suspended. The judges put aside minor issues such as terrorism cases or the massive Marbella corruption trial to hold their special hearing at the request of prosecutors determined that the case should not go any further. Garzón has now decided the case should be dealt with by local courts in each area. Opinion seems to be split on the move, some observers seem to think it was his only option to keep the issue open, others believe that it will kill the initiative. Where this leaves issues such as the move to open the grave of Federico García Lorca is open to question. The genie is still out of the bottle, and interestingly Garzón has now raised the issue of children who were taken away from their parents and "adopted" by Franco supporters. It's a crime that is not covered by the amnesty law, and raises a clear parallel with similar cases in South America.

The president of the Spanish parliament, Jose Bono, provoked an extraordinary row over his acceptance of a PP proposal to put up a plaque in honour of a nun who was persecuted during the Spanish Civil War. Bono, who would doubtless be horrified at any similar proposal to honour victims of the Republican side in the Congreso, has started a rebellion in the ranks of the PSOE. He was overheard the other day calling his colleagues "hijos de puta", which suggests that the use of the expression is not just confined to Carlos Fabra and the province of Castellón. In the end the proposal had to be dropped. Switching seamlessly to a surreal parallel universe, Esperanza Aguirre claimed last week that her party had nothing to be ashamed of over the past because Franco was a Socialist! So now the truth finally emerges, he started the civil war because the liberal pinkos running the Republican government refused his request to make the Internationale the national anthem. Of course, he moved a tiny bit towards the right in his later years.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

The Bank Robbers

The ongoing feud between Esperanza Aguirre and Alberto Ruiz Gallardón reminds me occasionally of one of those bar brawls in a Western. All of a sudden it escapes the confines of the bar and spills out onto the street. At the moment the fighting is not taking place directly inside the Partido Popular, nor is it even one of those frequent disagreements between the Gallardón controlled Ayuntamiento and Aguirre's regional Comunidad. Aguirre is determined to add Caja Madrid, the regional savings bank, to the list of institutions which she can use for the purposes of political influence and patronage. Gallardón seeks to block her and the battle is taking place over the presidency of the bank.

The current president of Caja Madrid, Miguel Blesa, got the job in the first place because he was a friend of José Maria Aznar. Sorry, let me rephrase that; he got the job because of his extensive financial experience and impressive curriculum. However, the presidents of the cajas are not permanent appointees and Aguirre is now seeking to bring Blesa's reign to an end. You would have thought that any friend of Aznar's would also be a friend of Espe's but it seems that Blesa has offended the Condesa by refusing to allow the bank to be used as a comfortable refuge for the likes of Angel Acebes and the other under employed PP hardliners who have been cast out of the party leadership. Gallardón has given his full support to Blesa who for the moment is holding onto his post. Perhaps Aguirre also wants the bank because she is experiencing financial difficulties again, are we back to the pauper president already?

Meanwhile, one of Gallardón's latest moves has been to use Madrid's money to sponsor the basketball team of Georgetown University. Is that in Madrid? Not really, it's not even close. There is however an Aznar connection here as well because this university was his destination during his brief career as a visting lecturer following his exit from government. In honour of the moustachioed crusader's recognised fluency in English, the university is now almost always referred to in the Spanish blogosphere as "Yorchtaun". Prior to leaving government Aznar managed to ensure that some government cash headed in Yorchtaun's direction and now Gallardón is following suit. Any suggestion that this is because Mrs Aznar is his deputy must be firmly rejected. Neighbourhood sports facilities in Madrid are being denied investment because of the city's drastic financial crisis whilst cash is easily found for sponsoring sports teams in far off lands of which we know almost too much. Maybe he borrowed it from Caja Madrid?

Monday, November 17, 2008

Izquierda Unida - Missing In Action

At times like this, with the established certainties on the economy crumbling in the face of the current crisis, you would hope that those who have a different political vision might step forward to make their case. Sadly, Izquierda Unida (IU) - the third national party in terms of votes in Spain - doesn't seem to be ready to meet the challenge. Following a disastrous general election result which saw their parliamentary presence reduced to just 2 members, IU has been facing a very difficult situation. Their conference held this weekend doesn't seem to have resolved those difficulties.

The problem is largely historical, IU was forged out of an attempt by the Spanish Communist Party (PCE) to form an alliance with other sectors of the left outside of the social democratic PSOE. The PCE always envisaged this alliance as being one that they would control, a vision that has led to a steady leakage over the years of those who find that their voices will never be heard. The federation is currently split between three broad groupings, those loyal to the PCE leadership, supporters of the positions of outgoing national coordinator Gaspar Llamazares, and those who represent a third way independent of the two other groupings. The voting at the weekend reflected the stalemate between these factions, with the PCE drawing the largest vote but without achieving a majority.

Llamazares himself came from within the PCE, but took the federation in a direction that his party's national leadership rejected. He appeared to understand the need to reach out to other social movements and attempted to make the concept of a coalition mean more than just a series of mini planets orbiting around a PCE sun. The PCE leadership holds this strategy responsible for the decline in votes, but in reality it's unlikely that any other strategy would have made a significant difference. Apart from the longer term decline in support for a left alternative to the PSOE, the latter party grabbed many votes this year that they would not normally get because of the fear that a possible return to power of the PP provoked amongst the voters of the left.

Whether it's the reality or not, the impression that many people will get from the weekend is that of a seriously divided party. None of the attempts to reach consensus over the leadership issue were successful, although the fact that serious attempts took place to find agreement suggests that all may not be lost. A declining PCE has always regarded IU as being its property and still cannot come to terms with the idea of a genuine coalition where it does not decide the political direction to impose via a preliminary caucus. It is at the same time the single largest provider of members, and the single largest problem that IU has. Particularly on the economy, but also on other issues, there is clear political space to the left of the PSOE. IU's problem is going to be getting its act together in time to present that alternative.

The Summit Industry Is Booming

While our noble and wise leaders were "reinventing" capitalism I decided to escape to the Black Forest for the weekend. On returning I find a world that looks very much the same. The main conclusion of the summit on the economic crisis seems to hold another summit in a few months time. The culprits for a slow recovery have also been identified, if those poor countries who refused to accept the monstrously unfair Doha trade agreement continue to reject it they can be accused of holding back recovery. Meanwhile I don't see anything to suggest that we won't be back after the recession for yet another round of (publicly subsidised) hedge fund fuelled casino madness.

Meanwhile Spanish Prime Minister Zapatero got his picture taken at the White House shaking the hand of the caretaker. Having made it to this gathering, the Spanish government's main concern seems to be to ensure that they get invited to the next one as well. Zapatero confidently declared that this was not a problem because he trusted the word of Nicolas Sarkozy. If that's not a risky strategy I don't know what is. I would post some Black Forest photos but I'm hampered by a slight technical problem; the camera with the photos is here with me in Germany but the cable that connects it to my laptop failed to leave Madrid.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Hunting De Juana

The former ETA prisoner, Iñaki de Juana Chaos, who was released from prison in August is still facing the prospect of having to return to jail. De Juana Chaos is supposed to appear before a Spanish judge today to declare on a possible charge of praising terrorism. The case notionally concerns a letter that was read out at a homage to him following his release from prison. I use the word "notionally", because in reality the judicial persecution owes far more to the circus organised by right wing media and pressure groups in their attempts to convert De Juana Chaos into a symbol of their real battle; the one against Zapatero's government and the Basque peace process.

The letter in question contains no serious indications of a crime having been committed, the case depends very heavily on contestable interpretations of words. Worse than that, the police don't even have any evidence that De Juana Chaos actually wrote it, and he did not attend the event where it was read. Details schmetails, if a judge wants to send him to prison for it then that is where he will go. However, first they have to find him and despite reports placing him in the Irish Republic or in Belfast, the former prisoner has made no public appearances since leaving Spain. The likely consequence of his failure to declare is that a detention order will be issued via Interpol and no doubt huge resources will then be completely wasted to try and locate him and force his return to Spain. He may attract little sympathy, but this pointless persecution is trampling key principles. The idea that someone can be maintained indefinitely in prison just because a few over powerful pressure groups demand it, and judges have the power to do it, is a serious problem; and not just for cases involving terrorism.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Pisando Nieve

I found time during my brief return to Madrid this weekend to check out the results of the recent cold spell in central Spain. It's unusual for so much snow to fall on the mountains of Guadarrama before winter even begins, and despite the bright sunny weather on Saturday there was still plenty left. Up above the clouds on either side of the sierra the views were perfect.

We took the train up to Cotos and then the route of the lagoons lying beneath Peñalara. This takes you around the peak until you get to the Laguna de los Pajaros, still mostly frozen even on a relatively warm day like this.

I chickened out of the ascent above the lagoon that takes you up the tougher side of Peñalara, plenty of people seemed to be doing it but the more sensible ones wore crampons on their boots. We got high enough to take this picture before turning back.

Zapatero's Afghan Dilemma

The deaths of two Spanish soldiers yesterday in Afghanistan have brought that country back into the headlines in the Spanish press. Although the almost 800 Spanish soldiers stationed in the country are not close to the main battlegrounds, there has been a steady succession of attacks against them and yesterday's deaths are not the first fatalities the Spanish have suffered. Domestically the Spanish presence in Afghanistan has not caused the government any significant problems, helped by the lack of direct involvement in the fighting. The government presents the Spanish contribution as a humanitarian mission, although it is clear that foreign troops in that country are embroiled in a war with no visible end in sight.

Despite having hailed the election of Barack Obama as US president, Spain's prime minister will not be looking forward to discussing the Afghan situation with him. Obama is said to want to increase the number of occupying troops in Afghanistan and will undoubtedly be looking to other countries to increase their presence. This is something which Spain has already resisted before. Obama seems to believe that a troop surge is going to deal with the situation, whilst many of those with actual involvement in the country now see the war as unwinnable; hence the quiet negotiations that are taking place in the background with the Taliban and other parties. Meanwhile, the death rate amongst civilians seems to count for as little as it did in Iraq; Afghanistan is the original disaster of the "war on terror".

Sunday, November 09, 2008

Navarra's New Party

Following their dispute over the vote on the national budget last month, it does look as if the split between the Partido Popular and their Navarran partners of the UPN is really taking place. Let nobody accuse the PP of being behind the times in anything except their politics, they have now unveiled a true Web 2.0 virtual headquarters in Navarra; it exists only on Internet. You would have thought that a party with such close connections to the construction industry would have managed a slightly more solid base than this, but perhaps UPN still has more influence on the bricks and mortar distribution in the region. A handful of senior UPN figures have already deserted to the Populares de Navarra and the point of no return is probably not far off. UPN leader Miguel Sanz has described the deserters as being from the extreme right and Opus Dei, which may possibly be true but he never objected to their presence whilst he had their support!

The newly formed division of the PP has more serious problems than the question of their headquarters or their still meagre support. They have already got themselves into a political mess over a constitutional clause which theoretically permits Navarra to be incorporated into the Basque Country. You would have thought that the PP would simply have opposed the existence of such a clause, but anything which smacks of a change to the Spanish constitution is now anathema to the party which originally opposed the entire document. So instead they have proclaimed their support for self-determination, by stating that the Navarran people can decide their future freely in a referendum. Sounds perfectly reasonable, but it hardly fits with the general position of the PP on such issues does it? Think Basque Country, and think Ibarretxe referendum. For the Basques to vote on their political future is illegal and anti-constitutional, for the Navarrans to do so is a legitimate expression of free will. The PP has attempted to excuse the evident contradictions of their position by claiming that Navarra could vote to be part of any other comunidad, presumably they could vote to link up with their very distant cousins in Sevilla. You are now entering the Comunidad Autonoma de Navarralucia.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Dial R For Recession

Spain is not yet officially in recession, that only comes when you have had two consecutive quarters of negative growth. However, the expectation is now that the recession will be officially declared in the new year as the last quarter has already given us a negative growth figure, and there is no reason to think that the one that began in October will be any better. Gloomy predictions have been made about unemployment reaching 15% next year as the crisis really starts to bite.

Politically, the economic downturn isn’t yet producing the kind of anti-government backlash that Mariano Rajoy and the Partido Popular are desperately hoping for. The latest opinion polls published this week showed the two major parties exactly level, which is an improvement for the PP on the election result but which is worse than a previous poll which showed them starting to edge ahead of the government. The PP’s level of support in the polls is a bit lower than that which they achieved in the general election, meaning that the voters who have deserted the government are not turning to Rajoy as the alternative. The government may benefit from it becoming clear just how international the crisis has become, and has at least given the impression of being a bit more active in recent weeks.

One beneficiary, if the poll in Público is accurate, is the UPD - Spain's newest nationalist anti-nationalist party. Stop me if this gets confusing. Público's data showed UPD ahead of Izquierda Unida although when you are dealing with figures of around 4% support then the margin of error could be significant. Based on the only electoral evidence we have so far, UPD's programme of rolling back regional autonomy in Spain is most popular in the Villa de Madrid. Meanwhile the employers association has criticised measures designed to alleviate the problems of the unemployed, claiming that it's the companies that should be paid to get rid of their workers. They seem to be unaware that all of our money is already tied up propping up the banks.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

George, We've Found Him!

Oh no, sorry, it's only his son. Never mind. It appears that Omar Osama Bin Laden is claiming political asylum in Spain.

Sunday, November 02, 2008

If Flags Could Talk

Significantly more interesting than the Queen of Spain's opinions on all sorts of topics has been the political reaction from the major parties here. A pact of silence has been imposed both by the governing PSOE and the opposition Partido Popular. I don't know how many republicans there are in the PSOE's parliamentary party, but all their representatives received a text message after the controversy hit the headlines telling them that the party would not comment on declarations by members of the royal family.

On the PP's side the pact was broken by Esteban González Pons who suggested that the monarchy was like the flag, and that flags don't make declarations! Personally, I believe that if flags could talk most of them would be every bit as reactionary as the royal family seems to be. In any case, we now know that what the royal palace described in their statement as a private conversation was in fact a series of no fewer than 15 separate meetings between the Queen and the author of the book - preceded by a questionnaire containing over 600 questions! Pre-publication copies of the book were sent to the royal palace and the title was even changed on the palace's suggestion. No objections were made to the content of the book itself, and a delighted publisher wasted no time in getting it issued.

As an interesting aside I read yesterday in the press that Sofía was questioned about whether any members of her family were freemasons, an important issue when the writer of the book is a supporter of the extremist Catholic sect Opus Dei. Apparently, Sofía denied that any of her immediate relatives were masons, but acknowledged that there was one in the family. I think this is a reference to Prince Philip, who is known to have a bit of a taste for rolling up his trouser leg and inventing funny handshakes. We were also treated to some of the Queen's earlier declarations about Franco's dictatorship, which she apparently described as a "dictablanda" rather than a dictadura. Hardly a surprise if you happen to be the wife of Franco's chosen successor, I imagine they rarely felt the full force of the dictatorship. Those who are still being dug out of roadside graves around Spain would probably not have shared her opinion.

Saturday, November 01, 2008

I Say You Chaps, Let's Rock!

A curious video resulting from the latest initiative by the youth wing of the Partido Popular in the Basque Country. The political message seems to be “never mind the politics, enjoy the music”, but this performance by the band Pignoise serves more as a handy “spot the pijo” guide. The obligatory, but completely uncoordinated, clapping that the PP’s yoof section maintain throughout suggests that their true musical tastes perhaps lie elsewhere. Apart from the contrast between the appearance of the band and their audience, it’s amusing to see how the clapping suddenly picks up again each time the camera pans around.


Spain Stunned By "Queen Not A Leftie" Claim

Spain is trying to recover from the revelation this week that Queen Sofia is not left wing. One observer, struggling to hold back tears, remarked that the Queen had always seemed so nice as she comforted accident victims by saying “I hope you get better soon dear”. Now, all of a sudden, it appears that she is behaving like a hereditary monarch. Rumours that her relatives fought with the International Brigades in the Spanish Civil War are also being rapidly reassessed.

The Queen, who comes from the same family as Britain’s famously open minded Prince Philip, is said to be bemused by the impact of her remarks. She is quite happy for homosexuals to do what they want as long as they do it somewhere else, women who have abortions will burn in hell and a failure to teach religion in schools may even lead to some misguided pupils accepting the theory of evolution. So what’s the fuss about?

The Royal Family has issued a statement claiming that her remarks were made in private and that their subsequent publication in a widely publicised book coinciding with her 70th birthday was down to a misunderstanding. The incident follows last year’s equally shocking news that the King, having given full consideration to the other alternatives, had reached the conclusion that the monarchy is a good thing.

Salud y Republica. A brilliant front page from yesterday’s Público.