Friday, December 26, 2008

Standing On The Equator

It's time for the South of Watford winter break. The destination this time is Ecuador, where I hope to be spending the next three weeks. If that sounds a bit doubtful it's because a combination of documentation issues, the airline we are going with, and the fact the flight is not direct all leave open the possibility that something could go horribly wrong and I might be back at my laptop tomorrow. Whatever happens it promises to be a very long day.

Unfortunately my absence means that I will miss the traditional end of year mass/anti government rally organised by the Catholic Church. Meanwhile, if I understood his speech correctly, the King of Spain is going to lead by example - "tirando del carro" - to drag Spain out of economic crisis. Hardly surprising given that so many members of his family appear to be unemployed. Feliz Año Nuevo!

El Mayor Problema

I hope Partido Popular leader Mariano Rajoy has had a peaceful Christmas, because next year promises to be anything but relaxing for him. Whether he survives 2009 as PP leader or not depends crucially on two of the three electoral tests that are coming up in the next few months. First will come perhaps the most important of these elections for him, for the regional government of Galicia. The PP lost control here by a very narrow margin last time, so a failure to win back Galicia could be enough on its own to encourage his internal opposition to start mobilising against him. It is also Rajoy's home territory. Galicia's election will be quickly followed by one in the Basque Country, where the PP is not expected to do well in any case; only a complete disaster here would hurt Rajoy. Then come the elections to the European Parliament, where a PP defeat would also be tremendously damaging. The latter may be the election where they do best, given the likely low participation and the generally greater motivation to vote amongst right wing voters.

With any other politician except Rajoy, it might seem surprising that the choice of the main candidate for the European elections has still not been made, the governing PSOE presented their candidate months ago. Mariano has almost as many problems taking a decision as he does with remembering what happened during the government which he formed part of under Aznar. The current PP leader in the European Parliament is Jaime Mayor Oreja, one of the few surviving Aznaristas still in a prominent position. Mayor was very critical of the post election purge in the PP and many observers saw his hand behind the resignation of Maria San Gil in what was yet another attempt to force Rajoy to go. It seems a bit strange that Rajoy would leave him in place, but given that the European Parliament is far away it can be a good place for a party leader to send his critics and rivals. Perhaps he will also choose to apply the Lyndon B Johnson principle; it's better to have your opponents inside the tent pissing out, than on the outside pissing in.

One of the significant threats to the PP vote, apart from Rajoy's uninspiring leadership, comes from ex PSOE member Rosa Diez and her new party, the UPyD. Rajoy himself is said to have described Diez as a left wing leader who takes votes from the right. The second part of that assessment could be correct, given the failure of the PP to rise in the opinion polls despite the economic situation. El Mundo has been doing a good job of promoting Diez recently, naturally any suggestion that they are doing so to try and undermine Rajoy has to be firmly rejected. Diez and UPyD have moved opportunistically to fill spaces that the PP's apparently less strident opposition has left open. Rajoy himself seemed to respond to this recently by returning to the theme of terrorism and the continuing municipal presence in the Basque Country of the illegalised ANV. In doing so he let the genie out of the bottle and in no time it seemed just like the old days as the usual suspects from the hard right ranted on about how the government and ETA were working hand in hand. Realising a bit too late what he had done, Rajoy moved to calm things down by publicly stating that the government was not negotiating with ETA. It was a brief and ugly reminder of what lies just below the surface in the PP.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Espe Pulls Her Christmas Caja

Without wishing to spoil the festive season, or cause temperatures to drop too sharply, I couldn't resist a last post of the year about Mrs Aguirre. Espe always keeps a special place in her heart for those who have defied her at some point, and bides her time until she can take revenge. I wrote a few weeks ago about her attempts to take control of the regional savings bank, Caja Madrid. For a while it looked as if she had been outmanoeuvred by the Caja's president Miguel Blesa and Madrid's mayor Alberto Ruiz Gallardón. Not so, in one of her last political acts of the year Aguirre moved to change the law governing savings banks in the region and clear the way for her to take control.

As part of her takeover bid, Aguirre has placed some of her people onto the board controlling the bank and interesting appointments they are too. Step forward Angel Acebes, cast out into the political wilderness by Mariano Rajoy and forever associated with the attempts to manipulate the political fallout of the Madrid bombings. Don't worry, he's in good company because also appointed at the same time to one of these cosy positions is Manuel Lamela, whose only significant claim to fame is the vindictive persecution of the Leganés doctors. You could present a plausible case for both of these men spending the rest of their days breaking rocks in the hot sun, it takes an Espe to see the good side of them. Compared to these two, the additional appointment of her deputy's sister-in-law seems like run of the mill political patronage, scarcely worth commenting.

For Aguirre this use of political patronage is the key to her power in the PP. She became president of the Madrid regional government just a few months before the PP was ejected from power at national level. She then turned her administration into a kind of mini Valle de los Caidos for those refugees from Aznar's government who were faced with the awful prospect of having to look for a real job. What she is doing now with Caja Madrid is simply a continuation of that strategy. To some it may seem odd that someone so apparently convinced of the virtues of the free market for everything should spend so much of her time immersed in battles for control over public or semi-public institutions. There's no real contradiction, this confusion of the public good with private interest lies at the heart of her political philosophy.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Give Me The Child And I'll Give You The Man

If anyone needs to reflect on the terrible consequences of a religious education then take a look at this video. These poor innocent children have been trapped in the hands of a brutal, heartless, political sect for years and look how they have ended up. Despite the false smiles, and the robotic repetition of slogans, their hopeful dreams for the future have been shattered.

It All Comes Out In The Wash

Every year, when the results of the Christmas lottery are announced in Spain, there always seems to be a tragic tale to accompany all those joyful scenes of very drunk people celebrating their success. There has to be someone who can't find their lucky ticket to claim their prize in El Gordo. This year we got the "I put my ticket in the washing machine and look what happened" tale which got widely reported yesterday. The lady concerned sobbed as she told her story to the cameras and explained how this would affect her unemployed son and his pregnant wife. She even waved a little plastic bag containing the remains of the lottery ticket. There's only one problem, it seems this little tearjerker was invented by the TV station La Sexta. The biggest winner in the lottery, as usual, was the Spanish government.

Monday, December 22, 2008

A Million Homes For Sale

A new report by the bank BBVA puts the number of new homes in Spain waiting for a buyer at between 800,000 and 1,400,000. They say that it's difficult to estimate the real figure but that it could easily exceed 1 million. As if that wasn't enough over supply, this figure is going to keep increasing as building projects started before the economic crisis are completed.

The determination of the constructors not to reduce their prices too sharply is going to be severely tested in the next couple of years. The BBVA report estimates that Spanish house prices will drop 25% between 2009 and 20011. Those promotors who said they would rather hand over their properties to the banks than decrease the selling price may be forced to reconsider. Does all of this this mean that anyone in Spain who needs a home is going to have one? Of course not.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

We Could Start With The Euribor

I'm not sure exactly what month of the economic crisis we are in, but the refounding of capitalism seems to be taking its time. I haven't seen a single solid proposal yet that tells me that the same factors and agents that caused this crisis won't bring about another identical or worse one in a few years time. So to help the process along I think we can start identifying some targets for action so that at least those who have no responsibility for causing the crisis do not have to bear the full brunt of it.

Candidate number one is the Euribor, this curious rate of interest that is used to control the mortgage interest payments of those Spaniards who have managed to become property owners. The Euribor, as everyone is now finding to their cost, bears surprisingly little relationship to the real rate of interest. People used to think that their enemy was the European Central Bank, as the Eurozone attempted to keep interest rates high to try and cap inflation. Not so, now that interest rates have fallen fast and there is no reason to imagine they will rise in the near future, it turns out that the Euribor still comes close to doubling the interest payments that people have to give to the banks. It's similar to the way in which people still believe that it's OPEC controlling the price of oil, when in reality its the Let's Make Money Out Of Betting On Oil Prices Casino that runs the show.

The Euribor is supposed to be the interest rate at which banks lend to each other, quite how it became the rate which banks use to rip off their own customers is not clear. Now that banks don't trust each other or anyone else, this has the very convenient windfall effect of keeping the Euribor high and along with that the banks receive a windfall premium from those who are struggling to survive the same crisis that the same banks did so much to bring about! If you want to borrow money at the moment you can be sure it will be at Euribor + rates of interest, the "+" will probably be quite substantial. Deposits are not treated in the same way, they are often based on what the banks jokingly call the "cost of money". In other words, the Euribor bonus is for the banks only. So, what possible justification is there for banks to charge their own customers such a high rate of interest, apart from massively increasing profitability at every mortgage payer's expense. Let's get rid of it for bank loans to their own customers. It's a start, any other suggestions?

Monday, December 15, 2008

Zero Tolerance In Madrid's Mountains

This weekend in Madrid has been as cold as any I can remember in recent years. After what I have now taken to calling Grim Saturday, when it snowed a little in the centre of the city and rained the rest of the day, it didn't seem like a very promising idea to spend Sunday in the mountains outside of Madrid. If I'd known anyone prepared to suggest a cordero asado for lunch followed by a lazy afternoon cinema session then the decision would quickly have gone the other way. The snow was already around us as we left the city limits yesterday morning and headed for Cercedilla, one of the easiest points for accessing the sierra. Even parking wasn't easy, the normal place to leave a car was out of bounds to those not carrying chains for the wheels.

Despite all of this, we had a fantastic day. The really bad weather seemed to be concentrating on the highest peaks, and we made our way through the snowy woods in reasonably comfortable conditions. The seasons make all the difference, and a landscape with which I'm very familiar in spring or summer looks entirely different with snow deep enough to reach the top of your boots or higher. The branches of the pine trees were bending under the weight of snow, and every rocky outcrop with water passing over it had its formation of long, jagged icicles. On the way down we were finally caught by a blizzard and the wind drove the snow into our faces for about 15-20 minutes, leaving a legacy of icy crystals behind it. It didn't matter, once we got low enough the freezing wind was left behind and we had that great Spanish winter invention, a steaming hot caldo, in the restaurant down at the bottom.

A couple of weeks ago, when the weather was not quite so severe, we did another great walk in La Pedriza. This is another area that takes on a completely new look when the huge granite boulders have a layer of snow. I used to think this part of the sierra would be out of bounds in wet or icy conditions, but the variety of walks you can do makes it an option for all weathers as there are easy walks in the woods for those who reject the idea of having to use their hands to get over some of the rockier parts. This time around we took the walk more or less to the limit where danger becomes a factor as the ice on the rocks made scrambling a risky option. The reward is the clarity of cold late autumn days and we still got enough sun to have a 15 minute lunch stop on one of the better view points. Today in Madrid the sun is out again but even in mid morning it was still only 2 degrees in the street. I think I'll go back to Germany for a few days, a bratwurst and glühwein in the Christmas market makes the cold a bit easier to bear. The funny thing is that when I tell people there how things have been in Madrid this weekend I'm sure I will get looks of disbelief; the idea of freezing conditions in Spain isn't accepted by most northern Europeans who only know the country from summer visits.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Spain At A Glance....Newspaper Readership

Charts code courtesy of

The truncated names are for La Vanguardia and El Periódico. These are the latest figures for newspapers with a general news outlook, otherwise the football dominated Marca would be the one with the highest figure. These are not sales figures, they are based on studies of what people read. The full data is available here. All the different media groups like to pick the most favourable interpretation possible from the EGM data. it's a bit like those elections where every party declares victory. Looking at the trends compared to previous figures, there are two key observations to make about the current situation in Spain. Firstly, there is little sign of much movement between different newspapers - the battles between different media groups are not having too much impact at the moment. Secondly, the predictions about the imminent end of printed newspaper readership as Internet news coverage increases are still premature.

Despite the reasonably healthy figures for newspaper readership there is a significant crisis emerging on the Spanish media scene. The main reason for this is to do with the decline in revenues from advertising. In part the crisis is due to the impact of economic problems on the newer media model that saw the growth of free newspapers sustained entirely by advertising revenues. Some of these free papers are already cutting back by chopping their editions in the smaller cities. However, it is also where Internet has really made its mark as the available income from publicity is spread amongst an ever increasing number of media companies and websites. Couple this with the economic recession and that explains why big selling papers like El País are dedicating significant space to trying to attract new advertisers. The Grupo Prisa, owners of El País, have significant debt problems and have been trying for some time to offload their Digital + satellite television platform. Their attempts to expand heavily into the Latin American market have probably not helped. Their problems are a reflection of a bigger problem that is really going to bite hard as the economic situation worsens testing the ability of each media group to adapt successfully to the changing face of news delivery.

Friday, December 12, 2008

The Lynch Mob

The insults have been flying quite freely between Spain's politicians in the last couple of weeks. First we had a storm kicked up by Getafe's mayor Pedro Castro who asked why there were still so many "tontos de los cojones" prepared to vote for the right. Then we got Joan Tardá of Esquerra Republicana who yelled "Viva la república, muerte al Borbón" in a meeting that was definitely not commemorating the 30th anniversary of the Spanish constitution. Both statements provoked loud protests from the Partido Popular and their media friends. Santa Esperanza de Mumbai is leading a boycott against Castro, who presides the federation of local municipalities. Others clamoured for Tardá to be taken to court for wishing death on the monarchy. Castro's choice of words may have been unwise, but to be fair at least there was an attempt at sociological investigation behind the statement. Particularly if you take into account the way the right operates in Madrid. Meanwhile Tardá's statement has been excused as a historical reference - he was talking about Felipe V, not about the current incumbent. The PP's indignation at what he said wasn't enough to stop them adding their support to an ERC sponsored motion rejecting the government's budget a few days ago.

Now let's look at the other side of the coin. Yesterday the PP's honorary president, Manuel Fraga, was quoted as saying that what the regional nationalists needed was to be hung somewhere. Pretty sweet isn't it? Don Manuel has actually softened in his political positions a bit over the years, after all he was a prominent member of a regime that preferred either the garotte or simply shooting its opponents and leaving them in shallow graves by the roadside. So credit where credit's due. At this rate of progress he should emerge in the centre right of the political spectrum shortly before his 150th birthday, an event which cannot be completely ruled out given his apparent resilience. No protests from the PP over that moderate statement, just as there are no protests when Carlos Fabra calls his opponents "hijos de puta" or threatens to piss on the headquarters of Izquierda Unida if he has another of his seemingly very frequent wins on the lottery. Even Santa Espe could be questioned over her description of those criticising her quick exit from Mumbai as "bellacos y miserables". That's not nice at all, coming from such a holy person.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Rajoy's Christmas Message

With all this talk of crisis it's time for a bit of alegria. Take it away Mariano....

Via Netoratón 3.0

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Beware Of Ultra Violent Rage

Tuesday night’s Champions League match between Atlético Madrid and Olympique Marseille promises to be a tense affair, something which has little to do with what happens on the pitch. A court in Madrid this week sentenced an Olympique fan to 3.5 years in prison for offences allegedly committed in the previous game between the two clubs. The supporter involved, Santos Mirasierra (yes he is of Spanish descent), is a member of one of the groups of “ultras” who follow the French club.

The sentence Mirasierra was given is almost worth using as a case study in how the law can be misused by a zealous prosecution and complacent judges who find demanding proof of guilt to be a bit tiresome. The only offence which they could say with any certainty that he was involved in was pushing a policeman. The incident took place during a clumsy and aggressive action by the Spanish police to try and remove a banner from a group of Olympique fans. The police justified their action on the grounds that the banner contravened UEFA regulations. Strangely, UEFA disagreed with this judgement and even went so far as to impose a punishment on Atlético because of it. Of course, in standard UEFA fashion, what started as a punishment involving the club playing two games far from their own stadium ended up as a one game sanction played at home behind closed doors. The punishment was incomprehensible to Atleti fans and I certainly wouldn’t stand up for UEFA’s consistency in dealing with such issues, but the sentence against Mirasierra smacks of a judicial revenge for the fuss made over the incidents that night.

Apart from anything else, the trial of Santos Mirasierra introduced the interesting concept of co-authorship. What this means in the context of his sentence is that if you are in the vicinity of a group of people throwing chairs at the police and it turns out that you are the only person arrested then you are guilty of what everybody else did. Regardless of the absence of any evidence proving your involvement in the events. It’s a fantastic catch-all concept and it almost puts me off the idea of going to any more Spanish football games, where outbreaks of throwing all sorts of objects onto the pitch are distressingly common. Ah, but there’s the catch, when it happens in a purely Spanish game neither police nor club seem to be in the least bit worried. Indeed the ultras of some Spanish clubs are amongst the most pampered of supporters, often enjoying a close relationship with those in charge. Only this week we have had reports of how Real Madrid president Ramon Calderón enjoyed the vociferous support of a group of ultras in what promised to be a difficult club annual meeting.

Sunday, December 07, 2008

A Walk In The Black Forest

Having reunited my camera with its cable, I can post some photos from my weekend trip to Freiburg a few weeks ago. We took the Schauinsland cable car that begins a few kilometres outside of the city, and which goes up high into the Black Forest. The night before had been very cold in Freiburg, and the evidence was on the ground in the forest itself.

Despite the cold start to the day, it was very clear and sunny and not far from where the cable car ends you can find a route taking you deeper inside the forest.

Such a fine day made for great views over the surrounding countryside.

In this image the line in the background is that of the high peaks of the Swiss Alps, including well known mountains like Jungfrau and the Eiger. If they are not very clear, that's because they are around 150 km away from where I took the photo. So they are far away, not small.

This is the cathedral square in Freiburg itself.

The cathedral itself has some interesting gargoyles and sculptures, don't stand under this one when its raining.

Friday, December 05, 2008

That's No Way To Stop A Train

The latest action this week by ETA, the execution of businessman Ignacio Uria, goes beyond demonstrating the ever more clear futility of the group's existence. Uria was killed because his company was working on the extension of Spain's high speed rail network to the Basque cities of Bilbao and San Sebastian. What is known in the rest of the country as the AVE (Alta Velocidad Española) had already been retitled for its Basque section as the TAV (Tren de Alta Velocidad). This rebadging does little to comfort those who regard a fast train link to Madrid as a connection to the heart of the colonialist beast.

There are good reasons for not feeling comfortable with the way in which high speed train travel has developed in Spain. The very fast connections between cities come with an environmental cost and the withdrawal of other trains that served intermediate towns on the route. Personally I think its great that I can get to Barcelona from Madrid in 2.5 hours but it comes at a cost that some people can't necessarily afford. The straight flat line that 300 km per hour trains require means that obstacles in the way have to be somehow removed. Perhaps if the train went at 200 km per hour it could just go round rather than through some of the natural landscapes affected by the new lines.

The problem now for anyone who wants to make such reasoned arguments in the Basque Country is that ETA has charged into the fray by shooting a contractor. The great fault line that runs through many of the arguments justifying terrorism is that those who claim to act in the name of the "people" are not inclined to let those same people decide how to campaign on an issue. Instead they assume the right to decide for themselves. Anyone opposing the project without supporting violence against those working on it will now find that their arguments are overshadowed by ETA's decision to try and dictate the shape of opposition to the new link.

Thursday, December 04, 2008

When The Music's Over

Following the killing of an 18 year old in a Madrid disco a couple of weeks ago, the municipal government has suddenly launched a crackdown on a number of venues throughout the city. The club where the killing took place was apparently in breach of all sorts of regulations, but continued to operate for years without any problems. It seems that several other venues are also in the same situation and operate in this very Madrileño twilight zone of licensing restrictions. With the ongoing "Guateque" corruption scandal still working its way through the legal system, the latest events simply underline that the whole system of licensing bars and clubs in the city works in an arbitrary and opaque fashion. Which is of course what made it so easy for bribery to become an easy route to getting your papers in order or keeping them that way. Some places can operate for years competely illegally while others are never able to get started.

At least two of the venues closed recently, Riviera and Macumba, are regular live music venues as well as being nightclubs. Several significant concerts have had to be cancelled as a result of a crackdown which appears to have nothing to do with the incident that sparked it. Apart from anything else it emphasises just how badly off Madrid is for medium sized concert venues - a situation which together with geographical factors helps to account for the dearth of concerts in the city compared to Barcelona. The Riviera, with its plastic palm trees, may not be the ideal venue for live music but take it away and there is really nowhere else in the capital city for those rock concerts that attract 1500-2000 people. Madrid's administration is now trying to (ab)use this situation to promote the privatisation of the licensing service - the best possible way to ensure that transparency and control of corruption will simply never happen.

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Let's Send Aznar To Cuba

I suppose that the revelations this weekend concerning the Aznar government's complicity with the transport of prisoners to Guantánamo have not come as a great surprise to most people. Even so, it's nice to have the confirmation. What has also become clear is that the then government was so convinced of the morality of what it was doing that it even had some cute little lies prepared in the event that the Spanish people found out what was being done in their name.

The current administration has denied any knowledge of Aznar's collaboration with the US on this issue. The denials are not very convincing. There has been a long running judicial investigation into the flights that are said to have stopped over in Spain as they transported prisoners between various countries and the prison camp in Guantánamo. The evidence emerging from that investigation suggests that such flights continued after the change of government in 2004. Zapatero's government has turned their back on that investigation, and done very little to cooperate.

The Partido Popular has come out with their now standard cut and paste response that any attempt to talk about an issue other than the economy is simply a diversion. Mariano Rajoy is still being affected by serious memory problems about the decisions taken by a government in which he was a senior figure. I laughed when I saw them complaining about official documents being leaked, Aznar boasted loudly after leaving office that he had copies of all official documents relating to the Madrid bombings whilst the incoming government found that the originals appeared to have been shredded. It seems he didn't manage to carry away everything about his term in office.

Monday, December 01, 2008

Barefoot In The Taj

I'm not sure whether being given a copy of El Mundo counts as an advantage of flying with Iberia, but at least you don't have to pay for it. Today's edition carried a pearl of a column by Federico Jiménez Losantos in which he took the left and Catalan nationalists to task for criticising Esperanza Aguirre's extremely hasty exit from Mumbai last week; leaving behind virtually all of her delegation. Losantos went so far as to declare that Aguirre had behaved in a dignified way.

There are several words that come to mind to describe Espe's return to Madrid, but dignified isn't one of them. Theatrical and ridiculous are on the list. So spontaneous was her appearance before the press that her entire regional government and part of her party's national leadership had somehow found time to attend the event. Never one to let a camera or a microphone pass without making some sort of statement, she was so keen to sieze the moment that she didn't even bother to change clothes between landing and appearing at the press conference. Clearly she had decided that her odd and slightly comical appearance would help to add more dramatic effect to the story she had to tell.

That Losantos and El Mundo should be so loyal to Aguirre is hardly surprising and is not just a question of ideolgical affinity, as was made clear by a court decision that also came at the end of last week. This ruling declared that all the digital TV licences awarded by Aguirre's administration a few years ago were illegal. Given the fuss that the El Mundo/Libertad Digital axis had been making about Cataluña's recent decisions on media concessions, it might seem surprising that they have no comment on Madrid's methodology. Of course Madrid doesn't bother with setting up commissions to govern the awarding of media licences, there's no need for such formalities. Nor is there any need to publish the criteria on which the decision is based. Plurality of opinion is fully respected by ensuring that all of those who pledge their political loyalty to the Condesa get their share of the pie. So El Mundo, Libertad Digital and other right wing media groups were all handsomely rewarded, without any of them necessarily meeting the criteria for receiving a franchise.

The same edition of El Mundo carried another revealing story about a planned meeting between Alberto Ruiz Gallardón and the Pope. The meeting was all set to go ahead until Gallardón let it be known that he was going to raise the subject of Losantos and the Church owned Cope radio station that the ranting one works for. All of a sudden the Church in Spain decided that such a meeting was no longer desirable and it was abruptly cancelled. El Mundo thinks this was a good idea, after all if the Pope was to hear about what his organisation gets up to then he might lose interest in the job.