Thursday, August 20, 2009

A Poor Way To Help The Needy

You have to wonder at times whether the Spanish government has anyone on call to warn them about potential political disasters. Maybe they all go on holiday in August? The announcement was made the other day that the unemployed who have exhausted their eligibility to receive unemployment benefit would receive a replacement payment of €420 a month. It's not a lot of money, but compared to having nothing at all it starts to look better. Not surprisingly, with many households in Spain where no member of the family currently works there were queues forming quickly at the unemployment offices. Then it emerged that the new payment is only available to those who have exhausted their right to benefit after the 1st August. Leaving aside for the moment the evident unfairness of such an arbitrary limit, the simple fact that this wasn't made clear at the time of the announcement has just meant that an issue intended to demonstrate concern for those with no resources to maintain themselves has backfired in the most spectacular way. Is there really nobody at all around the government who saw that one coming?

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Water Not Holy Enough For Swine Flu

The Spanish Catholic Church has shown a disappointing lack of faith in its own propaganda recently. The faithful who came to Toledo last weekend to pay homage to La Virgen del Sagrario were advised not to follow the traditional customs of kissing the Virgin's medal or drinking the "agua de la Virgen" from communal containers. Why the Virgin should have a medal is a mystery to me, presumably it's awarded for good behaviour. Anyway, the reason for the advice was the risk of passing on swine flu. This is more than a little ironic when you consider that the water from the holy well has long been claimed to have curative powers! Meanwhile, poor Madrid bumps along in mid-table in the international swine flu league with a miserable 700 cases a week. Although we're still in the pretemporada.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Millonarios En Tiempos De Crisis

It's tough out there on the street. Some people think it's all about shopping, but then a journalist comes in and asks you about the crisis! What's that all about, can't you see I'm busy?

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Rompiendo El Silencio

There is a very valuable NGO working in Israel called Breaking The Silence. This group is made up of soldiers who have taken part in Israeli army operations in the occupied territories of Palestine, and is therefore in a privileged position to report on the routine abuses committed as part of that occupation. So how does the Israeli government respond to the revelations of such a group? The choice is between acting against the perpetrators of such barbaric activities, or acting against those who reveal their existence. It will come as little surprise to find out that it is the latter policy that has been adopted. The Spanish government provides a small contribution of around €60-70,000 a year from international cooperation funds to help fund the work of the group, and the Israeli government has decided that the best way to suppress any criticism of their activities is to put pressure on those who fund Breaking The Silence

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Another Fine Trick With The Euribor

The Euribor, that artificial interest rate which has been used so successfully to produce windfall profits at the expense of Spanish mortgage payers, has slowly come down to a level which almost approximates to the real interest rate. All of this should be of enormous benefit to those who have been struggling to keep up with massive mortgage payments as a result of having to buy during the property bubble. This will not be the case for many thanks to the ingenuity of the banks. Many mortgage holders find that their bank has set a minimum level of interest on their mortgage which currently means that they can be paying more than double the figure of the Euribor. The banks protest at criticism, saying that they also set a maximum level. However, that maximum will only be ever hit if we get a rate of price increases that sets us on a path towards hyperinflation. Spain isn't quite there yet, with 5 consecutive months of "official" deflation.

Meanwhile, our good friend Gerardo "Aguirre es cojonuda" Díaz Ferrán has got yet another suggestion for getting him out of the crisis at the expense of everyone else. Wages should be cut so that those whose mortgage payments have fallen feel no benefit. Careful, we're not talking about everybody's wages and especially not about Gerardo's pay packet. Spain's top executives have continued to increase their salaries even in the midst of the crisis. I welcome this news, mostly because it means we can now treat those who claim that such lavish rewards are in some way "performance related" in the same way as we would regard members of any crazy religious sect.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Cycling Across Mallorca

So where were we? Oh yes, the Palma Arena. Mallorca's government decided a few years ago that what the island really needed was an international class indoor cycling arena - a "velódromo" for those as keen as I am to add to their Spanish vocabulary. Originally the Arena was budgeted to cost a little over 40 milllion euros. That seems quite a lot for a cycling arena, but it turns out that the final cost has been more like 110 million. No explanation can be found for the increase and no documentation appears to exist showing where the money went. All of this led to the arrest last week of several prominent members of the Partido Popular in Mallorca. The suspicion is of serious embezzlement coupled with the added possibility of illegal funding of the PP. It is the latest of a whole series of cases in the last few years involving the local administration headed by former Aznar minister Jaume Matas, who had the good sense to head off to the US as soon as he lost power in the last elections.

All sorts of events are held at the Palma Arena. Except cycling competitions. Despite the 70 million euro overspend it seems that the track was built with cheap wood and doesn't come up to international standards. Never mind, there's always the concerts. Those accused of dodgy dealings concerning the velódromo have been busily engaged in another popular Spanish sport known as "echando balones fuera", and they claim the overspend was necessary to correct the original project - designed by the same man who managed to provide Beijing with a perfectly usable Olympic cycling arena. The arrests more or less coincided with the miraculous saving of the honourable Mr Camps and the subsequent announcement that the prosecutors would appeal that decision.

This rollercoaster of events has sent the PP into hysterical overdrive with the accusation that the government is orchestrating a vicious campaign against the party. Much has been made by the PP of their members being taken before the judge in handcuffs. Here they are being treated as if they were criminals when all they are in reality is, er, suspected criminals. There are people who have been treated much worse for stealing a loaf of bread, but then they don't hold party membership cards. It has taken Mariano Rajoy with his keen sense of historical significance to introduce the Spanish Inquisition into the story. Rajoy, like other members of the PP leadership, has been issuing his declarations from his August holiday destination. Presumably the Inquisition have brought out that most lethal of all weapons, the comfy deckchair!

Leading the charge from the PP chiringuito has been the inevitable Federico Trillo, who claims to have definitive proof of illegal espionage against his party. Trillo's case is not standing up well to examination. His evidence consists of an alleged tape of a police officer informing Camps of the transfer of the case against him to the Valencia courts. The tape, if it really exists, is hardly evidence of espionage. Trillo also claims that a report accusing him of telephoning one of the judges involved in the Camps case is further proof of the spying. It is claimed that he was in fact talking to a PP lawyer with the same surname as the judge. Something doesn't fit here, if he was really being spied upon then presumably the original report would have got its facts right.

If anyone didn't understand at the time why Aznar's last government was so keen to disable the anti corruption prosecutors they had hailed when in opposition, there can be little doubt about it now. The roots of much of what is emerging lie in the "we are the masters now" arrogance of that government. Trillo and other PP leaders are seeking to create a political climate which pardons corruption, based on the sad fact that their supporters seem willing to continue voting for them regardless, and this odd insistence that for every PP member accused of corruption at least one prominent member of the PSOE should resign. This has to be the most comfortable group of "persecuted" people outside of the international banking system. Whether the profits of their work lie inside or outside of that same system has yet to be established. The investigation continues.

Sunday, August 09, 2009


I'm a bit busy chewing on octopus tentacles in Galicia this weekend, so all you'll get out of this blog is some pictures of a weekend trip to the German town of Heidelberg in June. From a previous day visit a few years ago I had the idea of Heidelberg as being completely swamped by tourists, and it has to be one of the biggest tourist destinations in the country. Despite that, once the lunchtime marabunta passes the place is not so busy and in the evening it is relatively quiet in the old town. We had some fantastic weather the weekend we were there which means you also appreciate the surroundings a bit more. The town has plenty of restaurants for all tastes and mostly reasonably priced. Hotels are significantly more expensive than in other parts of Germany although if you search on Internet you can get something for a reasonable price a bit out of season.

Heidelberg castle is the main destination of most of the tourist groups which sweep through the town. For that reason, it's best to get up there quite early shortly after it opens. The castle is, to use the words of an English estate agent, in need of some repair. But then that's part of its attraction.

Continuing up the hill behind the castle you reach the Königstuhl. There are footpaths to take you there although the lazy can use the funicular railway. The whole area is a natural park with numerous walking and cycling trails through the woods, but being a civilised country there is also a beer garden near to the top of the funicular. Down by the river when we were there it seemed that half of the town was taking advantage of the great weather and gathered on the grassy banks by the Neckar. There were wedding parties, barbecues or just groups of friends taking it easy with a beer - there don't seem to be any anti-botellon laws in Germany or any need for them.

On day two we headed over to the other side of the river and took what they call the "Philosophers Way" up the hillside. As with the area behind the castle this leads up to the woods, again with dozens of marked trails. So what did the Nazis do for Heidelberg? Well they built the Thingsstatte ampitheatre up on this hill for their "special events". A bit further up beyond this is a much older ruined church, from where you get a good view of your surroundings.

Friday, August 07, 2009

So Who Spies On The Spies?

In the aftermath of the case of Mr Camps and his very fine suits, the Partido Popular has again opted for the politics of distraction. They are now claiming that the whole party is being subjected to illegal interception of communications, even affecting those few sections of the PP leadership stil left untouched by the multiple corruption scandals their representatives are involved in. The latest case in Mallorca leaves us with very few members of the former PP administration on that island who haven't yet been charged with corruption. Nevertheless, the obvious question that occurs to me about such allegations is how the PP leadership could possibly be sure that any espionage taking place doesn't come from within their own party?

Remember the Madrid espionage scandal? Well it hasn't gone away and despite the obligatory August break for exhausted judges, the case is continuing to advance. Mobile telephone records have blown apart the attempt by the Madrid PP to claim that the agents employed by Esperanza Aguirre's administration were not engaged in tracking the activities of former Aguirre loyalist Alfredo Prada after he opted to support Mariano Rajoy. It's now clear that Prada was followed by some former Guardia Civil officers who had been personally recruited by the regional secretary general of the PP, Francisco Granados. The latter of course shares his political position with that of being in charge of "justice" in the regional government, a situation which you're entitled to regard as coincidental if you want to. The main point is that it allows the agents to draw a salary as public servants instead of having their espionage expenses paid for by the PP.

Th evidence of the phone records was of course flatly denied at the time of the fraudulent commission of investigation into the affair. Granados and the Comunidad have now changed their argument to claim that the spies were engaging in tasks of ensuring the security of Prada - even though Prada himself has no knowledge of this and the Comunidad de Madrid does not possess any power to carry out this kind of task. It's a role still belonging to the national police. Apart from anything else, such security activities always have to be communicated to someone who has his own security escorts, otherwise you end up with shooting in the street. Someone has not told the truth and interestingly enough those who mislead parliamentary commissions are also committing an offence. Could be a busy autumn for the judges.

The similar case affecting Manuel Cobo, a key political ally of Alberto Ruiz Gallardón, is going to be more difficult to establish because the stored mobile phone records do not go back as far as the dates when he was said to have been followed. Clearly the pretext of security vigilance would be even more difficult to use in Cobo's case as he is not even a part of the regional government. Despite this, I think we have some credible suspects. María Dolores, they're behind you!

Wednesday, August 05, 2009

It's My Party And You Can Leave If You Want To

It may generally be the left that is seen as having an infinite "Life of Brian" style capacity to divide, but in Spain at the moment there seem to be more problems with some of the newer parties on the political scene, as well as with some old friends. Unión Progreso y Democracia (UPyD), which has hopes of becoming the third force in national politics recently experienced a serious internal row and one of the founding members, Mikel Buesa, walked out the other week criticising the party leadership. Then a number of dissident members who had started a blog critical of the same leadership found themselves threatened with disciplinary action and more or less invited to leave if they didn't like the way in which the party was being run. This invitation was a bit rich coming from party leader Rosa Diez, who is something of an expert on hanging on inside a party that she doesn't agree with.

Parties like UPyD try to present themselves as being different from the rest of the political pack as they leave old politics behind. At least in the case of internal party democracy and the politics of personality it seems that the main influence must have been Stalin. Diez described the situation as a "crisis of growth", in reality that stage will come when they need to persuade all party members plus relatives and dogs to stand as candidates in the next municipal elections. Another of the newer parties in crisis is Ciudadanos, which emerged as a sort of Catalan predecessor of what UPyD is attempting at national level. Ciudadanos seems to have even more factions than it does elected representatives, relations between its three members in the Catalan parliament are said to be very frosty, even more so following the decision to join the Libertas ticket in the elections for the European Parliament.

Outside of the political parties there have also been serious internal problems inside the Asociación de Victimas del Terrorismo (AVT). The former president and self-styled leader of the "civic rebellion", Francisco José Alcaraz, thought he had left everything "atado y bien atado" when he left the presidency in the hands of his anointed successor - Juan Antonio García Casquero. Sad to say, the new president has failed to live up to the expectations of those who helped him to the position, his greatest crime of course being his failure to call repeated demonstrations against the government. García Casquero has come up with the incredible excuse that you can't demonstrate against the government for negotiating with ETA when there is actually no negotiation taking place. It's even possible that he believes the AVT should use its resources to help its members rather than as a political propaganda weapon. Understandably this has all been too much for Alcaraz, who has stomped off to form his own splinter group.

Although parties like UPyD and Ciuadadanos try to feed off general disaffection from the main national parties they also share a common factor with the AVT under Alcaraz. All of these organisations thrive in an atmosphere of political "crispación", where there is a constant tension over issues such as nationalism and terrrorism. Now that Mariano Rajoy and the PP have changed strategy and have dropped the openly confontational style of the last parliament, the political atmosphere is no longer so advantageous and the splits we are seeing reflect the lack of a real project once the headline grabbing enemy no longer seems so visible.

Monday, August 03, 2009

El Molt Honorable Francisco Camps

They say there's a big party going on tonight down at the Tailor's Head pub in Valencia. The Valencian Supreme Court came to the rescue today of the region's president Francisco Camps by halting the case against him concerning his very fine clothes and the Gürtel corruption ring. The three man panel issuing the verdict was inevitably headed by the man whose relationship with Camps is so close that friendship is not a sufficient word to describe it. No doubt Camps will be out early tomorrow looking for a bigger dictionary to try and find the word he is looking for to explain his feelings for judge Juan Luis de la Rua, I think "saviour" might be a good starting point. Even so, an overwhelmingly conservative tribunal still split 2:1 on the decision meaning that De la Rua effectively had the casting vote. Just how close a friend of the accused do you have to be before you step down from hearing a case against them?

The reasons given by the judges are to say the least arguable, and the state prosecution service has already announced its intention to appeal to the national Supreme Court. It seems that one of the principal arguments for shelving the case has been the absence of a direct link between the gifts given to Camps and friends, and the contracts awarded to the company Orange Market. Apart from anything else this argument seems to open the floodgates to elected politicians receiving expensive presents from companies that work for their administrations; as if those gates really needed opening!

Most of all, however, the argument fails because the Valencian courts have so far refused to investigate any possible connection between the contracts awarded and tailor-made suits, expensive watches, circus tickets and so on. Indeed the decision on whether to accept the case referred to them from Madrid last week has been postponed until after today's verdict. Of course you never find evidence for something that you don't look for. Having found no case against those who were accused of accepting bribes, it now seems very unlikely that the same judges will proceed against those accused of paying them. It's all molt curious, if you'll pardon my Valencian.

Orange Market have made millions out of the Valencian government and many of these contracts were "troceado", a euphenism for slicing a contract into smaller pieces so that it can be awarded directly without having to go out for public tender. It's a device that is not just restricted to Valencia and which is almost always used to favour certain companies. We can now expect the traditional Christmas cestas full of goodies to be even more luxurious than normal in the Valencia region this year - perhaps it will be enough to kick start the economy? They could put a sticker on each pata negra ham saying "Approved by the Valencian Supreme Court". Meanwhile Mr Camps and company will carry on doing whatever suits them.

Sunday, August 02, 2009

La Mar de Músicas

I spent two weekends in July at the Mar de Músicas festival in Cartagena. I've been in Cartagena for this event most years since 2002 and I have to say that the city has changed dramatically since then. The first time I went there the town looked terribly neglected. Buildings in the centre were crumbling and that part of the city seemed to have become something of a ghetto for immigrants whose labour was no doubt making someone wealthy. Down by the seafront things weren't much better and I left with the impression of a city that was being allowed to decline whilst the new uglier housing was developed in the outskirts. That's not what I think anymore, the area around the port has been transformed in recent years with one part dedicated to a new museum, and alongside it there is a string of bars and restaurants facing a marina.

Other major buildings have been rehabilitated, and the roman theatre has been turned into a proper museum too. The wharf that has been constructed to provide a berth for cruise ships strikes me as being a bit optimistic but maybe I'm wrong and the city does appear on cruise itineraries. Some of the local restaurants have now sort of translated their menus into English for the expected tourists and there is a greater choice of places for eating and drinking than there was a few years ago. There are even some souvenir shops selling goods of the plastic flamenco dancer variety, although one shop I saw was offering thimbles decorated with a picture of Jose Maria Aznar! That's a must have for my currently miserable collection of political kitsch, but the shop wasn't open when I passed.

The transformation is striking and the city is becoming a much more pleasant place to spend time in. In any case the Mar de Músicas festival makes it worthwhile visiting. The stages are set up on the hill overlooking the port and being up there on a July night listening to music is one of the things I like best about summer in Spain. The variety of music they programme is impressive. In two visits this year we have seen Emir Kusturica, Spanish rapper La Mala Rodriguez, Calle 13 from Puerto Rico, Jamaica's Buju Banton, Oumou Sangare from Mali as well as musicians from the Congo, Algeria and Morocco. The concert featuring La Mala Rodriguez and Calle 13 was much better than I expected considering that I'm not a big fan of rap music. Like Aznar with speaking Catalan I prefer to rap "en la intimidad". Oumou Sangare for my money was the best of the bunch and if you like African music then her latest CD is as good an investment as you can make.

The concerts don't start before 11 at night, so during the day we usually get the bus down to Cabo de Palos and spend the day by the beach. The sea was a bit rough last Saturday with red flags waving, the waves also seemed to bring in an unhealthy quantity of small jellyfish. Things got calmer on Sunday. Lunch down there consists of fantastic grilled sardines, calamar a la plancha and chilled beer followed by a well deserved siesta. La Manga may not be the prettiest beach in Spain, but there are much worse places to be on a hot summer's day. Colombia is the featured country for next year's event, explaining why we got given straw hats and free cava at the last concert of this year's edition.

Saturday, August 01, 2009

An Independent Verdict On Abortion?

Proposed new laws in Spain are normally presented for consideration of their legal implications to the Consejo General del Poder Judicial (CGPJ). This body is theoretically responsible for the administration of the judicial system and is also a part of the much broader system of political patronage. When the CGPJ was finally renewed last year after the Partido Popular stopped blocking any change, there were significant protests about the packing of the institution with political appointees by both the PSOE and the PP. The PSOE did surrender a couple of their places to representatives recommended by the conservative Basque and Catalan nationalists. Then Zapatero seems to have decided that he needed to take the edge off the evidently political choices by appointing an independent to preside the body. That person was Carlos Dívar, who is truly a god fearing citizen.

So recently it came to the turn of the proposed reform of Spain's abortion law. The CGPJ split right down the middle with those appointed by the PP acting as a bloc and issuing a report against the new law. The PSOE representatives then produced their version in favour and both reports were put to the vote. The PP supporters cannot on their own command a majority so their report was voted down. The other report favourable to the reform could have been passed were it not that the representative proposed by the Catalan CiU decided to abstain on both documents. This left the result for the second report in a draw meaning that the president had to use his casting vote. Step forward Carlos Dívar, who apparently believes that the only true justice comes from God, making his choice of earthly profession a strange one. Dívar voted against the report approving the new law on the basis of his religious convictions and creating for the first time a situation where the CGPJ cannot pronounce itself either for or against a new law. The reform will still go ahead and will inevitably end up in the Constitutional Court, destination of all laws in the last few years that the PP has opposed.