Monday, November 30, 2009

So Did Pinochet Go To Heaven?

I don't have much time for José Bono, but he hit the mark quite well the other day with his protest about the threats of the Spanish Catholic Church against those members of parliament who dared to vote in favour of the abortion law reform. How is it, he asked, that a mass murderer like Pinochet could continue to receive communion whilst those Catholics who also happen to be democratically elected representatives can have it withdrawn because of the way they vote?

Of course Pinochet wasn't just a mass murderer, he was a thief as well. It couldn't all be about torturing your opponents and then chucking them out of helicopters, there was money to be made too. Baltasar Garzón has extended the now famous case against the late general to include his money laundering activities and the bankers who were only too ready to help out. I wonder how many of them went to confession.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

The Prisoner Of Lanzarote....Aminatou Haidar

Two weeks ago the Moroccan government decided to expel Aminatou Haidar, a human rights activist from the former Spanish colony of Western Sahara. Haidar had just returned from a trip overseas and the official excuse that the Moroccan government gave for her expulsion was that she refused to put her nationality as Moroccan on her entry form as this would recognise the annexation of Western Sahara by that country. The Moroccan authorities seized her passport and put her on a plane to Lanzarote in the Canary Islands. What happened next is quite strange, normally no Moroccan citizen can enter Spain without a passport but this requirement was waived in the case of Haidar. Inside Lanzarote airport Haidar then tried to buy a ticket to return to El Aaiun, the main city of Western Sahara, but was refused the right to travel on the grounds that she had no passport!

Leaked documents have since revealed the planning behind the Moroccan decision to expel her, several flight reservations were made in her name before she arrived back at El Aaiun. It's very difficult to avoid the conclusion that the Spanish government has effectively colluded with Morocco over Haidar's expulsion by admitting her into the country. Now the only solution they are offering is for Haidar to claim political asylum, something she does not want to do because it will effectively confirm her exile. So Haidar is still in Lanzarote airport and has been on hunger strike for almost two weeks in an attempt to be allowed to return home. She is no stranger to hardship, having spent time in prison in Morocco and been tortured for the "crime" of favouring self-determination for the Western Sahara.

The case is now becoming embarrassing for the Spanish government, as it should. So far their attempts to persuade Haidar to abandon her hunger strike have failed and there is a growing campaign in support of her. Spain has been weakening its stance on Western Sahara for years now, more or less accepting the annexation of that territory but without openly declaring a position. Spanish foreign minister Moratinos has issued a typically ambiguous statement saying that he does not want to be regarded a pro-Sahara or pro-Morocco. Haidar's hunger strike is now challenging the Spanish government for assisting the Moroccans in ridding themselves of opposition to their control of Western Sahara.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Intereconomía: Where Ignorance Comes First

You couldn't make it up part 9456. As if having Libertad Digital TV wasn't enough, those of us who live in the PP heartlands are also blessed with the gift of Intereconomía. This channel would have us believe that the use of condoms to help prevent HIV infection in Africa is doomed to failure; because of the climate, because of the apparent absence of manicures and because Africans are said to be unable to read the instructions.


Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Nazi Punches Fascist In Madrid

I saw a reference in the press the other day to a clash between two far right groups in Madrid on the anniversary of Franco's death. I didn't realise, until I saw it on El-Andaloose, that the meeting organised by Democracia Nacional was attended by Britain's Führer wannabe Nick Griffin. Searching on internet for more information I got taken to a place where I had never been before - the BNP's own website. This has an account of the trouble at the meeting which is frankly surreal when you consider the group that it comes from. Take a look at this excerpt.

Twenty-five members of a fascist group closely aligned to the English Defence League attempted to disrupt a Democracia Naciona (DN) party meeting yesterday in Madrid addressed by British National Party leader Nick Griffin, reports our European correspondent. “There was no disruption to Mr Griffin’s speech, which was very well received by the packed room of DN supporters,” our correspondent said. The fascists, fresh from celebrating Franco’s birthday at a rally elsewhere in Madrid, demanded access to the DN meeting and had to be removed after scuffling with the police. The DN is an up-and-coming Spanish nationalist party which has modelled its political platform on the BNP — and is therefore detested by the fascists and neo-Nazis. According to their blogs, the skinhead football hooligan types who attempted to disrupt the DN meeting are closely aligned to the English Defence League.

I can't tell whether they are trying to be satirical, but the news that the different far right groups seem to hate each other more than they hate anyone else is surely welcome. Naturally it will just be coincidence that Democracia Nacional organised a major rally on the anniversary of Franco's death. Also worth noting in the same report is Griffin's response when questioned about Gibraltar:

"It is a very complex issue which we will have to deal with in the future,” Mr Griffin said. “It would be much easier to sort it out if we had nationalist governments in Britain and Spain because it would then be an agreement between equals. I must say that taking into account the geographical situation of Gibraltar and the Muslim threat on its door, I would prefer to see a Spanish flag fly in Gibraltar before an Islamic one."

Presumably DN and the BNP could agree on a common symbol for that flag.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

The Caganers I Want For Christmas

I have to admit, living far away from Cataluña as I do, that I hadn't come across the concept of the caganer until I saw this article in El País. Now I'm sold on the idea and the fact that these particular models are going to be on sale this year in Madrid means that I already have a Christmas present sorted out...for myself.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Help A Wolf Across The Duero

How does "You can't shoot me, I live south of the river" sound as an argument? The river in this case is the Duero and for the Iberian wolf it has now become the official boundary between being a hunted species and a protected one. This is not to the liking of the regional government in Castilla y León who generally like to give a free hand to those who want to hunt animals over those parts of the landscape that have not yet been turned into urbanisations. Fortunately for the wolf the local courts are not yet quite as subordinated to political power as they are in certain other regions I could mention. So there is at least some protection in the region that contains the greatest part of the wolf population in Spain. Getting them to cross the river is another matter.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

The Main Victims Of The Pirates Are The Fish

The freeing of the Spanish fishing boat that was captured by Somali pirates has put an end to what was becoming a very uncomfortable situation for the Spanish government. A substantial ransom seems to have been paid to recover the Alakrana and its crew after over 40 days of captivity. What made the situation much harder to resolve, at least from the point of view of those who saw a solution in negotiation, was the capturing by the Spanish navy of two of those said to have been involved in the seizure of the boat. Well not so much the capture, but the subsequent decision to bring them to Spain rather than hand them over to Kenya as has happened in other similar cases.

This decision set in motion a confusing judicial process and in addition a thinly concealed confrontation between government and judiciary. First we had a game of pass the pirate as questions over the age of one of the captured men meant that no judge was willing to take on his case. Some said he was over 18, others that he could be younger. Then, as it became clear that the issue of the captured men could hold up freedom for the Alakrana, we got the desperate search for a means of getting the two men out of Spain without making it too obvious that politics was winning over judiciary….again. One possibility explored was going to be the handing over of the two men to the Somali government, an administration that has about as much control over that country as I do over wins the Christmas lottery in Spain. Not that this detail mattered too much.

In the end it wasn’t necessary, as enough money was paid to free the Alakrana and its crew. The government had tried very hard to blame the judges for creating this messy situation, but eventually it became clear that the decision leading to the alleged pirates being brought to Spain was set in motion by the government's own lawyers. Now the opposition Partido Popular is as eager to use this case to make opposition as it is with everything else. They like to pretend that Zapatero's government has given way where other governments would have stood firm - as if there are not plenty of other examples of the Somali pirates having been paid off in other countries. Armchair warriors are always easy to find. Peridis in El País saw it this way.

What Peridis maybe missed out from the end of his instructive English lesson is a frame showing the Spanish fisherman happily returning to the same waters where the Alakrana was seized. These fishermen can get back to their own brand of piracy, which consists of fishing everything they can from these waters with as little regulation being exercised as possible. The Alakrana was outside the zone protected by naval forces when it was taken, and it was outside because there they could fish without any sort of control. The assumption that these boats deserve protection needs to be challenged. The Spanish government has rightly turned down requests for the boats to carry Spanish soldiers, but they have contributed to the cost and training of the hired mercenaries already on the boats

We wait to see what happens when these providers of heavily armed private security use their weapons against someone who turns out not to be a pirate. It doesn’t sound like an operation where questions will be asked before firing. This determination to carry on fishing in such a high risk area is an indication of just how profitable the tuna piracy business is. Spain did its very best recently to destroy an initiative to protect tuna stocks in the Mediterranean, again because of the protests of those who will happily fish everything they can until nothing remains - at which point they will demand assistance. It was Roto, also in El País, who saw things from the point of view of the tuna.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Valle De Los Caídos....The Case For Demolition

1). You restore a beautiful wild mountainside that was destroyed by the construction of a brutal, ugly fascist monument. The monument continues to be maintained with public funds.

2). You avoid this.

3). We could have a small scale memorial, appropriate for its surroundings, placed in memory of those political prisoners who died building El Valle de los Caídos.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Camps Takes Valencia For A Ride

The image of the week so far in Spain has to be this one. As Partido Popular leader Mariano Rajoy was delivering his big speech on the need for the PP to unite behind his leadership there were a couple of notable absentees from the event. One was the renegade Aguirre, but that didn't surprise anyone, and she excused herself quietly on the grounds of family commitments. Francisco Camps of Valencia decided to make sure everyone noticed his absence by leaving for a far more important event; he had to be seen driving a Ferrari in the presentation of Fernando Alonso as a member of that Formula 1 team.

Camps is increasingly becoming a problem for his party and for Rajoy, who had depended on the support he got from Valencia to bolster his own position. Last week in the Valencian parliament Camps made the extraordinary accusation that the opposition PSOE wanted to take him out for a Spanish Civil War style execution which would leave him lying face down in a makeshift grave. Even Camps had to at least partially retract this attack, which many people saw as a sign of his increasing nervousness and erratic behaviour as his previously safe position comes under threat. Not that the threat comes from the opposition in Valencia, his main enemies now are in his own party. In any case, there is far more accumulated experience within that party of bodies being dumped by the road side.

Another insight into the world according to Camps came from a report describing an exchange he had with the judge who was investigating the case of the gifts he is said to have received in the Gürtel case. Questioned about a recorded conversation where Alvaro "El Bigotes" Perez had suggested he was in debt to Camps, the Valencian president allegedly replied by claiming that all Valencians were in his debt because of what he had done for the region! Clearly not suffering from problems of self esteem, he seems unable to deal with the possibility that he may be on the road to becoming a liability for the PP. In the meantime, expect lots of expensive distractions like the one we saw on Sunday, the circus must continue.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

La Playa De Las Catedrales

In another of our summer trips to the north coast we spent a weekend exploring the coastline lying on both sides of the Asturias/Galicia frontier. We based ourselves in the small Asturian town of Tapia de Casariego, which turned out to be a good choice. On day one we headed for what is probably the most famous beach on this stretch of coastline, La Playa de las Catedrales. Our route started and finished in the village of Rinlo, just a few kilometres inside Galicia. From here there is a signposted Ruta de las Playas which takes you for about 7 kilometres along the coast to Catedrales. It's an easy route to walk and much of it passes directly beside the coast, although some stretches have to be walked on the road. Whilst thousands of people at this time of the year head directly for the Playa de las Catedrales, there are other beautiful beaches along the walking route we did.

Many of the beaches on this coast are only accessible when the tide is out, and it makes sense to check the time of low tide before doing this walk. We got to the Playa de las Catedrales at a good time for the tide, but also at the point when most of the people on holiday in the region decided to descend on the same spot. Despite the crowds, the beach is big enough to take it and walking around the caves and rock formations of the beach was still quite possible. Our route took us along the top of the cliff above the beach before finally descending.

Obviously with so many people on the beach at low tide you can spend a lot of time taking photographs of people who are in turn taking photos of other people.

Because the high tide completely covers the beach, many of the rocks on the lower part of the cliff are home to colonies of mussels and the inexplicably popular goose barnacles - percebes.

A final comment on this route, the reward for the walk was a hugely satisfying arroz caldoso de marisco in the restaurant run by the Cofradía de Pescadores in Rinlo. Strongly recommended if you like that sort of thing - I think you might need to reserve at a busy time of the year.

In the afternoon we did another walking route around the estuary of the River Eo, from Figueras to Castropol. This is also a marked route although finding the starting point in Figueras is not so easy, it's up in the village rather than down by the waterside. They say the route is 4 kilometres one way, although I suspect its a bit more than this. Perhaps it was just the effect of the arroz de marisco that made me feel that way. In any case, doing both of these routes on the same day is probably a bit too much for those who prefer a more relaxed pace of life.

The next day we walked another coastal route, this time starting in Tapia itself. From the village you walk across the beach and up the other side where they have a recently built urbanisation/coastal atrocity that makes you imagine that the Ley de Costas has never existed. From here there are two choices, if you follow the "official" route then you follow the road for a while before getting to a path that takes you down in between the maize fields to the coast. The less official way is to try and follow the coastline from the part of the urbanisation nearest to the sea, which will soon bring you to another beach. From there you can pick up the coastal path, although this occasionally veers inland to avoid the rougher and more inaccessible parts of the cliffs.

We walked up to a point where things got just a bit too difficult to continue following the coast. The beaches on this route are completely wild and can be just as beautiful, but much less popular, than Catedrales. The Atlantic coastline is almost always more impressive than that of the Mediterranean. There is of course the slight detail of the weather in these parts, but we were lucky yet again. I can't remember the name of the beach below, not sure if I ever knew, so for me it will always be Iguana Beach.

Back in Tapia there was a festival of Celtic music in the evenings, as I found out years before on my Navia visit it's a mistake to assume that Celtic Spain starts and ends in Galicia. It's not normally South of Watford policy to recommend restaurants but as I've already done it once in this post I might as well do it again. The pulpo and calamar en su tinta served to us in Tapia´s El Pilón were worth the wait in this busy place.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Eurovision 2010....The Countdown Begins

I know it's still early and that we haven't left 2009 yet, but I want to present a potential candidate for next year's Spanish Eurovision entry. I'm looking for suggestions for the name of the band, and for the song they can enter. Mamma Mia has already been taken, the Gürtel Blues might have pan-European possibilities. The choreography clearly needs a bit of work.

Friday, November 13, 2009

The Amazing Legend Of The Extremaduran Masturbation Workshops

As an example of how inaccurate news spreads rapidly across the Internet you could hardly do better than choose the reporting of a sexual education campaign launched by the youth department of the regional government in Extremadura. Because the name of the campaign is "El placer está en tus manos" and because masturbation is one of the many topics covered in the campaign it has now become more or less an established fact for many of those reporting on the issue that Extremadura is offering practical workshops on how to masturbate. This "bulo" started by some of the most notoriously inaccurate media in Spain has even spread to some of the foreign press.

The reality is very different and anyone who understands Spanish can read the document published by the campaign for themselves. This document seems to me to contain a sensible and straightforward exploration of many issues affecting sexuality. Naturally, those who believe above all else in the parental right to deprive their children of any sex education will no doubt be appalled by the content. The mere fact that it recognises the existence of homosexuality and contraception is in itself enough to enrage such people; hence the manipulation and distortion of its contents in some of the press.

One of the most bizarre aspects of the press coverage has been the emphasis placed on Extremadura being one of the poorest regions in the country. As if sex education should only be available for those areas with money to spend. The cost of the campaign is a hardly staggering €14000. Add up the cost to health and social services of unwanted pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases and it won't take long to realise that this campaign will pay for itself even if only a tiny percentage of its target audience take it seriously. Obviously "Extremadura saves money through sensible sex education for young people" is unlikely to ever make it as a headline in the national or international press.

We'll probably now be hearing for years about the great legend of the Extremaduran masturbation workshops. It reminds me of the myths that still circulate in the UK about how the European Union is attempting to systematically extinguish all distinctive aspects of British culture. Many of them started life as tabloid inventions but they continue to live on for ever in the popular imagination.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

A Mexican Health Warning

The Mexicans are no fools when it comes to taking sensible health precautions. If you don't believe me take a close look at this poster advising citizens in the state of Hidalgo about how to avoid spreading swine flu.

Flu might be the least of your worries if you are trapped into a deadly embrace with one of these two shady characters. You are more likely to get a 20cm blade lodged in your rib cage when greeting Espe or Alberto.

Monday, November 09, 2009

La Coruña

Some photographs of an August weekend trip to the city I shall call, in the interests of linguistic diversity, (L)a Coruña. Amazingly, considering the amount of travelling I've done in the rest of the country, this was my first visit to Galicia since my first ever time in Spain - the same journey that took me to Navia. I guess this is because it is just not easy to do a short trip from Madrid to this region - unless you fly and you can get a good timetable. On that first visit to the country I ended my fairly random wandering in Coruña and to be honest the place didn't leave much of an impression. This time I was far more impressed, things have changed for the better and it is not a bad place to consider for a weekend trip. I even took the gamble of travelling without anything to protect me from the rain and it paid off. After a cloudy but dry Saturday, the following day saw Riazor beach packed with people for what seems to have been the first day of summer in the city this year, at least according to the taxi driver who told us it was the worst summer he could remember in 35 years.

Inside that stretch of the city bordered on one side by the beach and the other by the port there are some pedestrianised streets, one of which is full of bars and restaurants and which leads to the Plaza of Maria Pita, a heroine of the resistance against an unsuccessful English attack on the city in 1589. This isn't the only English connection to the city. Starting from the small old city a bit further down from Maria Pita, we soon arrived at the park where the remains of General Sir John Moore lie in a shady garden overlooking the port.

Wellington seemed to have a feel for the diversity in Spain with his message "Españoles, dedicaos todos a imitar a los inimitables Gallegos". A message which the web tells me has travelled as far as the Centro Gallego in Buenos Aires. Down below this memorial is the Castillo de San Antón and from there you can begin to walk the 10 kilometres of paseo maritimo that the city possesses. We walked it all, some bits more than once.

Overlooking the ria it was strange to find a muslim cemetery for the North African troops who fought with Franco's forces in the Civil War. Obviously had they fought on the other side then their bones would just have been tossed into a hole beside the road somewhere!. The cemetery itself has ceramic decoration from which you learn the Arabic origin of so many Spanish words.

The open land nearby was used as an execution site by the Civil War victors and a "stonehenge" style monument now marks the spot.

One thing you won't be able to ignore is the fact that there is a tower in Coruña. La Torre de Hercules, recently declared to be a World Heritage site, is the oldest active lighthouse in the world. Most of what remains of the original tower is still said to be of Roman origin, in spite of successive remodelling operations throughout the ages. You can ascend most of the way up the tower and the views are worth it provided you can put up with the wind. Before you see the tower itself you will see it engraved on the paving stones, on the city shield which appears everywhere, and on the numerous posters supporting the campaign for it to be listed by UNESCO.

Over on the other side of the beaches there is the hill of San Pedro. Like many hills overlooking Spanish cities this was under the control of the military until they finally surrendered it to the municipality in the 1990's. It is now a public park and provides excellent views over the city as well as in both directions along the coast. As a reminder of its past usage there are still bunkers and two enormous guns which were imported from Barrow in Furness at the beginning of the 1930's. These weapons were never used in anger but apparently their 35km range protected German boats that wanted to stop in the ports of Coruna or El Ferrol during the second world war. Isn't the arms trade a wonderful thing? The paseo maritimo continues some way past San Pedro and out of the city, and it's possible to do the ascent of the hill from the end of the paseo too. Alternatively, there is a strange space capsule funicular to save you the climb.

This trip was never just going to be about walking, and Operación Pulpo was declared to be a great success. We tried a couple of the pulperias, unpretentious places that specialise in the tentacled beast to the exclusion of almost everything else. One was not far from the Torre de Hercules itself, and the other was somewhere near the railway station, located in ugly new Coruña. Perhaps not surprisingly, what Madrileños know as Pulpo a la Gallega doesn't seem to exist under this name in the region itself. The pulpo is almost always served without the ever present potatoes you see in Madrid, unless you get some as a side dish. Although we lived mostly off octopus during the weekend we did manage to squeeze in a mariscada on the Saturday night. For lovers of seafood the mariscada is heaven, and there are people who like nothing more than setting to work with their nutcrackers to get a thin string of meat out of a crab's leg. Personally I'm not a big fan of meals where the energy expended in getting at the edible parts is greater than that gained from eating them. Apart from anything else, I just don't see the point of eating percebes (goose barnacles), which are rubbery, tasteless and hugely expensive. I concentrated mostly on the gambas and cigalas. Tough life, tough choices.

Monday, November 02, 2009

Ready For Rajoy's Super Tuesday?

Last year it always seemed to be Monday that was the worst day of the week for Mariano Rajoy, as it is for many of us. In Mariano's case it was because that was the day chosen by his enemies inside the Partido Popular to complicate his bid to stay as leader of the party. Well last week he must have felt that every day was Monday, so bad did things get that even Rajoy himself finally had to protest and...this was a novelty...take decisions!

It was bad enough with the bitter battle taking place within the PP in Madrid over control of Caja Madrid, a conflict that reached its peak with the (kamikaze?) interview that Manuel Cobo gave to El País, in which too much about Esperanza Aguirre's leadership style was revealed for anyone's liking. Then Valencia struck back in a bid to steal the limelight. Ricardo Costa had resigned as secretary general of the PP in that region as a result of the revelations from the Gürtel case, at least that was what the national party claimed. The problem was that he carried on doing the job and the press reported it. Even that might not have disturbed Rajoy's siesta if it hadn't been for the fact that Costa felt the need to draw attention to his defiance. At that point the national leadership finally decided they had to do something, and Costa was promptly suspended from the party.

Meanwhile Aguirre, despite having effectively lost the battle to place her man in charge of Caja Madrid, was still mobilising her forces and preparing to surround the Ayuntamiento of Madrid until she got someone's head on a spike. By now there was hardly a senior PP figure who wasn't out there somewhere with their diagnosis of what was wrong with the party. José Maria Aznar couldn't be left out and launched a thinly disguised attack on Rajoy's leadership. Proving just how little shame he has, he even called on politicians to act over corruption. Given that the guest list from his daughter's wedding now reads like a Who's Who of the Gürtel case you would think that a bit of discretion might be advisable.

We even got the opinions of Manuel Pizarro, who if you remember was the PP's economics superstar in the last election...for about 30 minutes. Pizarro treated us to a parable of a shepherd unable to lead his flock without the help of a trusty sheepdog to keep order. He finished by claiming that Rodrigo Rato would make an excellent president of Caja Madrid, and an excellent head of the government! Woken up just before the removal men arrived to carry him away, Rajoy invoked the spirit of Job and declared that his patience was at an end. What's more, he set a deadline to put an end to the PP's crisis and that deadline expires today.

It's been a busy weekend, Valencian leader Francisco Camps had what was said to have been a very tense conversation with Mariano about Costa, and today he finally announced a successor for Costa's job. Camps gives the impression of living in a parallel universe where everything is "muy bonito". Knives are being sharpened around him but he seems completely unaware of how his situation is deteriorating. In Madrid Espe sent out Ignacio Gonzalez to confirm her defeat, as Gonzalez gave way to Rato in Caja Madrid. Here is the man who is probably the big winner in all of this, not only does he get another nice little earner but he emerges untouched by all the infighting surrounding his appointment.

Today we will get Rajoy's speech to the national executive, now that he has ensured a temporary ceasefire. Stand by for the internal party code of conduct on corruption! This will presumably be followed by the family photograph where everyone will gather as near to each other as they can bear to stand, the weapons having been checked in at the door. On Wednesday we will find out whether Aguirre gets a consolation prize as Manuel Cobo appears before the PP's disciplinary committee charged with telling the truth. The PP has a lead of 3% over the government in the opinion poll published today, but with data gathered before the latest crisis; a lead that is due more to a decline in support for the PSOE than any significant rise for the PP. It will take a day or two before someone in the party unfavourably compares Rajoy's advantage with that enjoyed by the Tories in Britain, then they can all get back to fighting each other again.