Friday, January 29, 2010

The Countess, The Banker, The Deputy Mayor And The Hijoputa

So finally Rodrigo Rato rode in to Caja Madrid and took control of one of the largest financial institutions in Spain. This, you would think, might mean the end of the long battle fought by Esperanza Aguirre to take control of the Caja. Indeed, the scene was set nicely for a peaceful takeover by Rato, without making it appear that Aguirre had been humiliated. But for Espe, losing a battle never means that the war cannot continue by other means.

Just before the changeover, the Partido Popular conveniently announced its disciplinary sentence against Madrid's deputy mayor Manuel Cobo for having revealed to a wider audience just how things work in a Madrid PP led by the Lideresa. Cobo has been suspended from the party for a year, exactly the same sentence as was given to Valencia's Ricardo Costa for defying the national leadership. Not that Cobo cares too much, his loyalty is to his boss Alberto Ruiz Gallardón and it's probably the case that his intervention helped to tip the balance against Aguirre in the battle of Caja Madrid.

Unsurprisingly, the measure taken against Cobo didn't satisfy Aguirre's lust for revenge, she would prefer something closer to a severed head on a stake. Ignacio Gonzalez, the man who was Espe's candidate for the job that Rato got, soon made it clear that hostilities continue when he reminded journalists that the lists for the next elections are in the hands of the Madrid PP, controlled by his boss. Aguirre herself has today come out and said to El Mundo that she doesn't think Cobo should be included in the lists for the next election. Even so, PP leader Mariano Rajoy could still veto any attempt to axe Cobo from the PP list, assuming that he feels like it. One reason for the continuing animosity is that the case investigating the great Madrid spy scandal still continues, and I have read that Cobo will be declaring before the judge tomorrow.

The best, however, was still to come. At the end of last week a conversation between Gonzalez and Aguirre concerning Caja Madrid was captured by a stray microphone, and provided an interesting insight into Aguirre's way of thinking....and talking! Discussing the new members of the Caja's governing body, Espe celebrated the fact that she had managed to give a place to a representative of Izquierda Unida rather than it going to "el hijoputa". Initial shock at hearing a member of the aristocracy talk in this way gave way to speculation about who exactly she was referring to. Most people believed it was a direct reference to Gallardón although Aguirre has denied this and I think there might be something in what she says. Surely Gallardón woud be "el gran hijoputa" as far as she is concerned? How revealing, though, that she should prefer the left wing IU to get the position rather than someone from her own party.

Many observers have asked the obvious question. If Cobo loses his membership for saying Aguirre's actions were "de vómito", how come there is no action against her for calling a fellow party member "el hijoputa"? Don't hold your breath on that one, it will only cause unnecessary suffering. Although the insult captured the headlines, there was another more tantalising part of the conversation where Aguirre was believed to be asking Gonzalez what weapons her faction possessed for use against Rato himself. If I was Rodrigo I would get to each meeting early and check under the chairs and tables.

Apart from the danger of having crossed Aguirre's path, who wouldn't like to be Rodrigo Rato? It's a nice little earner being in charge of Caja Madrid, and Rato has come through the battle completely unscathed having done all of his manoeuvering in the background. Even if you can't occupy the big comfy chair at the head of the table it's still worth getting a walk on part in the Caja Madrid story. Those who turned up to raise their hands for the appointment of Rato as president were rewarded for their tremendous effort with a free DVD player and €700. That enters into the "nice work if you can get it" category.

Someone who would have liked the extra cash but who no longer gets it is one of the outgoing members of the caja's governing body. Gerardo "Aguirre es cojonuda" Diaz Ferrán ended his term of office having successfully managed to avoid repaying the €26,000,000 that the institution so generously lent to him. Gerardo still has a line of communication open to him in the ongoing negotiations, the place he vacated has been taken by his brother in law.

Let's Be Factual....You're Fired!

Another of Spain's recently created internet news platforms has suffered a major crisis. Factual, a site that was launched only a couple of months ago, sought to try out a new model by inviting to readers to pay a subscription for some of the content. The "star" name used to attract readers prepared to pay for content on the site was the Catalan journalist Arcadi Espada, who was director of Factual....until yesterday. Espada has abruptly parted company with Factual amidst rumours that the owners want to turn the site into a more belligerently right wing platform. These rumours seem to have been confirmed by the replacement brought in for Espada. Juan Carlos Girauta has worked with a variety of right wing media organisations, and it seems that Barcelona can now proudly claim to have its own version of Libertad Digital. The name of the site is now likely to be a reflection of its content in the same way that La Razón instinctively makes you expect the opposite. True to their principles I gather from some things I've seen on Twitter that the owners of Factual have been very busy today sacking journalists.

Foro Social Mundial En Madrid

While the politicians, businessmen, celebrities, dictators and bankers enjoy their annual chat in Davos, the alternative of the World Social Forum also takes place. Although the traditional meeting in the Brazilian city of Porto Alegre still exists, the forum has now become much more decentralized and one of the places where an annual event takes place is Madrid. I went last night to the opening session of the forum in the very impressive surroundings of the salon de actos of the Universidad Complutense in the Calle San Bernardo.

Starting this afternoon and continuing all day tomorrow there are a huge number of workshops which are divided between the Instituto Lope de Vega (also in San Bernardo) and the Patio Maravillas in the Calle del Pez. Full details can be found on the web page.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

The Vultures Circle Over Spain's Economy

As Spain still waits for a formal declaration that the recession has finished, the Spanish government has been getting a lot of advice recently about what to do with the economy. On the international front the ratings agencies have been getting terribly worried about the debt of some countries. These are of course the very same ratings agencies that thought Bernie Madoff was marvellous, and which gave top ratings to some of the most worthless financial products which the world has ever known. Now they are busy telling "the markets" that the problem is one of the public debt which countries have. Could there possibly be any connection between this debt and the spending which has had to be done to bail out the financial system because those highly rated products turned out not to be quite as good as their ratings suggested? Don't go down that road, you might draw dangerous conclusions and we all know now that the crisis has been caused by simultaneously incompetent behaviour on the part of 150 different national governments. There is nothing else fundamentally wrong.

Meanwhile a loose tongued banker went very off message in Spain the other day and suggested that private debt could also be something of an issue as the construction sector owes a mere €325,000,000,000 to the banks and is not being very good when it comes to paying it back. Mortgage defaults are significantly lower than the defaults on the loans to the industry that built the homes. Better cut that public deficit now in case the bankers need more funds, at which point public spending suddenly becomes more respectable again. That's just what has been suggested by the governor of the Banco de España, who has temporarily abandoned his previous crusade to make sacking people easier.

There is no doubt that Spain's deficit has increased significantly as a result of the crisis, as has also happened in several other countries. Despite this, Spain's debt is not tremendously high by historical standards and even though it can be expected to rise further it's not a cause for hysteria. The main problem with the deficit is the over tight restrictions placed by the European Union on budget deficits, which were the product of another age when people thought that spending your way out of a crisis was just so 1930's. The EU's upper limit of 3% of Gross Domestic Product has been shattered in the recession, and given that several respected sources think that it's going to be necessary to carry on spending to avoid a relapse it seems crazy for people to be looking for massive spending cuts at this time.

Anyway, let's get back to sacking people. With some disastrous unemployment figures expected for January it's clear that unemployment is going to continue its rise in 2010 even if the economy stops shrinking. Bizarrely, it is still insisted by those who want to make sacking even easier (for which read cheaper) that this is the only solution to the unemployment problem! We still hear a lot about the two-tier labour market (a product of the last time it was reformed) where temporary workers get sacked and the rest don't. In reality, as the recession has advanced, this has become something of a legend and many workers with greater security have also been sacked. In fact, sacking people during the crisis has not been a problem at all for Spanish employers, they've done it very successfully. What they are now looking for is to come out of the crisis with even more advantage.

If it wasn't enough just to lose any job security at all, we have the head of the Spanish employers federation - the now thoroughly discredited Gerardo Diaz Ferran - telling us that everyone should work until they are 70. Coming from an employer who doesn't pay his employees or their social security contributions you might be tempted to ask what Gerardo thinks people will live on? Silly to ask. Pension reform is on the agenda and does need to be dealt with because of demographics. That, however, is no reason for us to be bombarded with suggestions on how long we can work from people who have almost certainly arranged very generous retirement pensions for themselves.

Then there is the question of the salaries. One of Gerardo's colleagues the other day suggested that the fundamental problem was the high salaries paid in Spain, and I have reason to believe that he wasn't talking about Gerardo or himself. On this issue we also have the IMF back to its old game with the mantra of making salaries more "flexible" (i.e. lower). Somebody slap me in the face, I think I must be dreaming! I was completely unaware until now that Spain had a problem of high salaries. Never mind the mileurista, if these people get their way we should prepare now for the bright future of the 75 year old ochocientoseurista - doesn't roll off the tongue as easily.

The government may lack ideas for the future of the Spanish economy, but at least they can claim something that their critics cannot; they have given consideration to options which don't just consist of greater insecurity, lower wages and a longer working life. Where the government most definitely went wrong is in their tax increases to try and rein in the deficit. Despite playing footsie for weeks with the idea of making those who can best afford it pay their contribution to dealing with the crisis, they opted in the end for a mostly regressive solution by putting the bulk of the tax increase on VAT. No extra increase at all for the barely taxed SICAV funds used by the super rich, and Cristiano Ronaldo continues to pay income tax at the same rate as those on the lower end of the earnings scale. I read a book about the crisis last year which I strongly recommend (The Gods That Failed by Larry Elliot and Dan Atkinson). It's hardly a radical manifesto but amongst many other things it does ask the question of just how unreasonable is it to ask that the very wealthy pay tax at the same rate as those who clean their houses?

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Nepal, Annapurna Circuit....Besi Shahar To Khudi

The first full day of our trekking holiday in Nepal and it was a fairly abrupt beginning. We arrived mid-afternoon in Kathmandu after a long journey from Madrid via London and Delhi, and at 7 the next morning we were on our way. It took us about 4-5 hours driving to the small town of Besi Shahar where we were due to start our walk. We'd arrived in the country in the midst of the Hindu festival of Dashain. This meant it was a good day for travelling, being a holiday for many Nepalis and with little traffic on the road. The weather was good and from the car we caught our first glimpses of distant peaks.

Once in Besi Shahar we couldn't possibly start walking without having lunch first, so I had a big plate of noodles to prepare myself for what lay ahead. All set to go, we had our guide and, to our surprise, only one porter for both of our bags! This seems to be more or less the norm for treks on the Annapurna Circuit, but it came as a bit of a shock. Although we had tried to follow the advice on not taking too much stuff, the reality is that you need clothing for almost all weathers on this route, and half of my rucksack was filled with the thick sleeping bag that I hoped would help to keep me warm at higher altitudes. We were expecting more basic conditions and less facilities for washing clothes than we encountered in the end so only in that sense could it be said that we carried a bit more than we needed. I was wondering just how well I would cope with my small day rucksack, I could never have done this route carrying all of my stuff.

Off we went, walking alongside the river on a broad, easy, track. Many of the people we saw on the way were celebrating the holiday, their faces gave them away.

The weather was warm and the surroundings seemed to be more semi-tropical than Himalayan. The landscape was lush and green, there didn't seem to be any water problems in this area and terraced rice fields were all around us.

Then, after just a couple of hours walking, we stopped! A little bit short of the village of Khudi. It hadn't been a very challenging start to the walk, not that I minded as I settled down with a book for the rest of the afternoon. The hotel was simple, but comfortable enough and the temperature still warm enough for it not to matter about the cold water in the shower. For anyone feeling the need to do more walking the village is not far up the road and from there you can walk to a waterfall tumbling down the hillside.

I was told by friends who know people who have done this trek that the food would be very boring and that I would come back hating lentils. When I saw on the menu for our dinner that there was buffalo curry I thought that things were not necessarily going to be that bad. As it turned out the buffalo in question was probably a grandfather judging by the chewiness of the meat. Still, you have to try these things. That night we slept with the background noise of the roar of the river not far below our hotel - this would be a familiar sound for the next few days. The heat of the day gave way to a cool night, even at this relatively low altitude.

View Nepal - The Annapurna Circuit in a larger map

El Limbo De La Dependencia

The Ley de Dependencia is perhaps one of the most significant pieces of legislation introduced by Zapatero's administration. It recognises the situation of many people who are having to spend much of their lives looking after dependent relatives, and offers financial assistance to them. I wrote a post over two years ago on how this law was being systematically obstructed by the regional government in Madrid, and it's sad to report that this situation still exists when most other regions of the country have implemented the law in full. In Madrid thousands of applications for help under this law have been ignored. It matters little to the Aguirre gang that those who pay the heaviest price for their political posturing are amongst the most vulnerable.

It seems that there are two regional governments in particular, those of Madrid and Valencia (both PP controlled), who are determined to ensure that no national government initiative with any risk of being popular gets implemented successfully. It's not just the case with the Ley de Dependencia, the government's education plan to ensure access of all schoolchildren to laptop computers has also been obstructed in both of these regions. Of course neither Madrid nor Valencia likes to claim that they do this just for reasons of sectarian political opposition, they find all sorts of other pretexts for not being able to do what the rest of the country can. But when it comes to non-compliance the same names come up again and again. With Murcia occasionally joining in.

We wait to see now what will happen with the plan by the national government to tighten anti-smoking legislation, but Madrid has already hinted that this law could go the same way as the current one; completely ignored in the Spanish capital because the regional government refuses to enforce it. With the rumours of a new law being introduced Esperanza Aguirre left it to one of her most loyal sidekicks to express opposition. The fact that the smarmy Juan José Güemes is allegedly responsible for Madrid's health service and supervises the spending of huge sums on treating tobacco related diseases doesn't mean that he should not lead the charge. I know what you are thinking, surely the PP that runs these regions can't be related to the other PP that constantly claims it is the only party supporting equality of treatment between all of Spain's autonomous regions? It is, I have to insist, the very same party.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Giant Sand....Johnny Cash At San Quentin

"We just wanna play a few Johnny Cash songs, nobody is going to get hurt". We Used To Party is the name of a project where bands perform the songs from a selected album by another artist. So last night Madrid had the US band Giant Sand doing their version of the legendary concert by Johnny Cash at San Quentin prison. An exercise of this kind could be a disaster but last night it worked. It helps to understand some of the comments from the stage if you are familiar with the original recording. This was not just copying, but interpretation with enough tongue in cheek humour for it not to be taken too seriously. For the encore of Ring Of Fire the band was joined by BB King's favourite Spanish guitarist, Raimundo Amador. They are playing again tonight in Madrid although I think it's sold out. After that I believe that Barcelona, Mallorca, Castellón and Granada are the remaining places on the tour. One of the pleasures of not travelling so much for work is that I can start to focus again on cultural events happening in Madrid.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Nuclear War breaks Out....In The PP

It's not been a very easy week for Maria Dolores de Cospedal, the general secretary of the Partido Popular. To make it worse, as so often seems to be the case her most serious problems come from within her own party. The crisis in this case has come from an unlikely source, the PP mayor of the tiny village of Yebra in the province of Guadalajara. This municipality voted the other day to bid for being the location of Spain's centralized storage facility for nuclear waste. Up to now the waste has been stored, with varying degrees of security, in the nuclear plants themselves. But now the government wants a central depot for the ever larger nuclear waste mountain. Officially, the facility is described as being temporary, but nobody seems willing to define whether temporary in this case means 10 years or 10000.

So what's the problem for the enthusiastically pro-nuclear PP? It seems that De Cospedal, who doubles as PP leader in Castilla La Mancha, is only in favour of nuclear energy when it's located in other parts of the country; despite the fact that Guadalajara is home to one active nuclear plant and another that has only recently been closed. So she has threatened the mayor of Yerba with disciplinary action for seeking to host the storage facility. It's all quite odd, if they think that nuclear energy is so clean and safe it's surprising that PP leaders don't volunteer to store the waste on their own, often extensive, properties. Whatever, De Cospedal put her foot down over the issue and then promptly found out just how little authority she has in the party as Andalucian PP leader Javier Arenas quickly announced that no action would be taken against the mayor of Yebra. Surely Maria Dolores could appeal to her boss, PP leader Mariano Rajoy, to back her up? In now typical fashion Mariano asserted the extent of his own control over the party by stating that he didn't have a firm opinion on the issue! De Cospedal has been left to fight her own nuclear war.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Vic Changes Course, Torrejón Still Discriminates

The administration of the town of Vic has announced that they are withdrawing the plan to deny illegal immigrants the right to register as residents on the local padrón. This turnaround has been a result of the massive media attention, the government making it clear that such a policy is not legal, and the pressure put on some of the local councillors by their party leaderships. It has been a depressing episode which has focused huge attention on a supposed "problem" of illegal immigrants precisely at the time when there are fewer arriving in Spain than at any time in years. The whole affair shows that race and immigration don't necessarily become hot political issues because of public concern, illegal immigrants instead make a handy scapegoat for opportunist politicians. The PP's candidate for the elections later this year in Cataluña has quickly made it clear that she intends to use race in an attempt to improve the PP's miserable electoral performance in the region whilst the nationalists of CiU compete with their own proposal to award points for integration. Meanwhile the PP at national level has revived their idea of an integration "contract" that they tried to use to electoral benefit in the last general election.

The change of policy in Vic is not the end of the matter, the town of Torrejón de Ardoz near Madrid maintains their own policy that directly discriminates against immigrants. The insistence by Torrejón's administration that their measure is only aimed at those with tourist visas borders on mendacity. Some people may imagine that the majority of illegal immigrants in Spain have arrived on boats crossing from Africa, but the reality is that far more will have turned up at Barajas airport in Madrid, entering as tourists because no "illegal immigrant" visa exists. Someone who is here as a genuine tourist is unlikely to waste their holiday standing in a queue at the local ayuntamiento. Torrejón has also been using the amount of square metres occupied by each person as a criteria for refusing registration, a policy which it seems was not applied before to Spanish residents but which if it were to be applied generally would count as a direct attack on the poor of all nationalities. It doesn't help the PP's lies in the case of Torrejón that the local party has issued propaganda boasting about how their measures have reduced the number of immigrants living in the town. By displacing them to neighbouring municipalities of course.

José Maria Aznar was sounding off in typical fashion in an interview this morning blaming Zapatero's government for an imagined policy of "papeles para todos" for the problem. In fact the current regulations concerning access to the padrón were drawn up by a certain M. Rajoy who was serving at the time as the minister of public administration in a government led by one J.M. Aznar. It has nothing to do with the regularisation of illegal immigrants carried out by Zapatero's administration. The latter measure was one of the best things that Zapatero's government has done, it gave contracts and rights to hundreds of thousands of illegals whilst ensuring in the process a very healthy boost to the social security fund. Obviously many of the PP's supporters preferred to have a huge source of cheap, insecure labour in the form of the illegal immigrants; a situation that Aznar's administration happily tolerated. Places like Vic, and Almeria where there have also been complaints about immigrants having rights, have done extremely well from the labour of illegal immigrants. If there is any problem with payment for provision of local services then maybe those who pocketed the profits should be asked to make a contribution?

Cultura Vs. Internet....The Battle Continues

The attempt by the Spanish government to arm itself with special powers for closing down web sites is still proceeding. This is despite the impressive success in the Spanish blogosphere of the manifesto that was launched in protest against the proposed new law. Just 24 hours after the manifesto was issued the culture ministry had already convened a meeting with some of those behind it, and then prime minister Zapatero stepped in with an assurance that no web site would be closed down without judicial intervention. The original proposal would have left the decision solely to a committee appointed by the ministry.

So far, however, the changes to the legislation in response to the critics are minor and it is clear that the government is still seeking to avoid any comprehensive judicial review of their decisions. The current version will present the proposal to close a site to a judge only for a ruling on whether closure breaches "fundamental rights". The judge only has four days in which to respond on this issue. This detail is little short of amazing, there are supposedly "fast-track" courts in Madrid which are currently giving dates for the year 2013 to ordinary citizens with a grievance to pursue, yet when the entertainment industry wants to shut down a site the judge has to give it maximum priority! Truly a two-tier system.

The government is also being very coy about the composition of the committee that will decide whether a website is engaging in piracy. No details of who will be on it are going to be released before the legislation is passed, leading to suspicions that it will be packed with industry representatives. The latest response from opponents of the plan is explained in the web page Red SOStenible. The government's plans form part of the new Ley de Economia Sostenible which was supposed to be the flagship legislation that would set out a new model for the Spanish economy. It will be ironic if it becomes most remembered for being nothing more than a tool used to defend an outdated model for an industry that still doesn't know how to cope with the internet.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

A Question For Madrid's Rulers

Why didn't Madrid send firefighters to Haiti if they have a special unit set up to assist with major disasters?

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Coming Soon To Madrid....My Bici

Never a city to take the lead when it comes to promoting alternative forms of transport, it seems that Madrid has now finally decided to follow the example of several other Spanish cities and set up a public bicycle hire scheme for journeys within the city. Don't rush out too quickly, the project is just going out to tender and will not be up and running before 2011. The plan was originally announced on the "day without traffic" last year, an event which is now only marked in Madrid by the mayor getting out of his official car just to be photographed on a bicycle before getting back into the car again.

Madrid's bicycle scheme is to be called My Bici, yet another of these awful combinations of Spanish and English that seem to be so common; although those behind the idea claim that it is an abbreviated form of Madrid y Bici. It's said that it will cost an annual subscription of €25 plus a flat fee to be charged on a credit card for each journey. There's a lot of work to be done in advance if the start of the new scheme is not to be marked with mass summary executions of cyclists by Madrid's drivers.

Let's finish with something truly frightening. Inspired by the FBI's demonstration that anyone can mess around with Photoshop, El Mundo has decided to present us with a genuinely scary image of what Esperanza Aguirre and Alberto Ruiz Gallardón might look like in 10 years time.

I can't see Aguirre ordering many prints of that one. However, I'm more worried about what the rest of us will look like after 10 more years of the Espe and Alberto show.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Has The Search For Zapatero's Successor Begun?

Some think it began with an article in El País shortly before Christmas. Whatever the original cause might have been, there has been extensive speculation over the last few weeks about whether Spanish prime minister José Luis Rodriguez Zapatero will stand for a third term of office at the next election. Now that election does not have to be held before 2012, and Zapatero himself has avoided addressing the issue; but it has been suggested in the past that he might want to "do an Aznar" and leave voluntarily after two terms in office.

Supposing that he doesn't want to continue in the job, Zapatero faces the problem of what we doctors call "Blair's Syndrome". This condition affects the ability of a prime minister to leave office when things are going badly, it's believed to have a particularly serious effect on the legacy. Declaring that he doesn't intend to stand again when unemployment in Spain is still hovering around 4 million would not look good, and given that there is little hope of a significant improvement in the near future, that suggests Zapatero would have a very limited window of opportunity if he chose to give another candidate time to get ready.

Then there is the question of who that candidate might be. Zapatero himself would be the person with most influence over that decision and there is as yet no obviously anointed successor. The favourites from the younger generation of PSOE politicians seem to be the Basque president Patxi López, the defence minister Carme Chacón and José Blanco, who still wields influence over the party machine. López is currently having problems convincing the Basques that he is doing a good job, Chacón has lost favour a bit over the clumsy handling of the troop withdrawal from Kosovo, and Blanco is skilled in the art of political presentation but doesn't seem to be very popular in the opinion polls. Oddly, there are quite a few who look back to the pre-Zapatero generation and name candidates such as interior minister Alfredo Pérez Rubalcaba and even Javier Solana who has spent years outside of Spanish politics.

All of this may just count as idle speculation, a way of passing the time. Officially, there are very few prominent PSOE figures who would even suggest that Zapatero will not be a candidate in the next election. The opinion polls may show the government trailing at the moment, but the gap is not so great that it will provoke a crisis within the governing party. On the contrary, given everything that has happened to the economy in the last 18 months it's surprising that the difference between the major parties is so small. At least part of the explanation for that is called Mariano Rajoy. Zapatero has, with his initial unwillingness to recognise the depth of the crisis, clearly lost much of his shine. But it's not clear whether he or his party is yet ready for the post-Zapatero era.

Monday, January 18, 2010

The Right To Inform In Danger

If the examples I gave the other day of judicial craziness weren't satisfying enough, then try this one for size. Two journalists from the Cadena SER radio station are currently facing a prison sentence of 21 months. What did they do to deserve such a stiff punishment? They published a report on the very abrupt rise in membership of the Partido Popular in the Madrid locality of Villaviciosa de Odón. The PP in this town was in the midst of an electoral process and the journalists reported that no fewer than 78 people suddenly joined the party, many of them giving the same address.

The original complaint about this suspicious rise in PP membership came from within the party itself, but the regional leadership did nothing about it. Why would they, if they do nothing about far more serious issues? The suspicion was that there was a connection between the new members and local construction interests, something which is unlikely to cause much surprise. Although the PP did nothing about the case, the two journalists from the Cadena SER ended up in court charged with revelation of secrets.

Under normal circumstances you would imagine that the journalists would be amply covered by the right, enjoying constitutional protection, to inform. However, the Madrid judge hearing the case decided that this protection didn't apply in this case....because the story was published on internet! The web, according to the creative judge, is not a medium of information like the printed press, TV or radio. Understandably, the sentence has provoked significant protests, not least because of its implications for all those who inform via internet. Even some senior PP politicians have agreed that sending the journalists to prison is perhaps not appropriate.

There has to be an exception to this consensus, so step forward Esperanza Aguirre. The Lideresa, who amazingly has yet to appear in this blog in 2010, declared that the sentence was fully justified because the journalists had revealed sensitive personal data about PP members. This was Aguirre playing typically fast and loose with the the truth but we shouldn't be surprised. Those who are suspected of being involved in the Villaviciosa affair are also linked to the still unclarified "Tamayazo", the scandal surrounding the defection of PSOE representatives that paved the way for Aguirre to come to office in the first place.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

The Spanish Economy Works Underground

The Spanish employment minister, Celestino Corbacho, did something last week that very few Spanish politicians have ever seemed willing to do; he issued an estimate on the size of the hidden economy in Spain. Now of course Corbacho is a politician and his estimate, at 16-20% of the gross national product (GNP), is probably a little out of date.

It might have been more or less accurate a few years ago but the construction boom and the economic crisis mean that the real figure is larger. In the case of construction because so much activity in that sector has been invisible to the tax inspectors. In the case of the crisis because of the number of self-employed autonomos who have stopped paying social security contributions, and also because of other indicators; such as the low take up of the payments to those who had exhausted their unemployment benefit. So the real figure is almost certainly higher than Corbacho's estimate and the plumber who once gave a customer a genuine receipt has since been forced into unhappy exile.

Even so, old habits die hard and the finance ministry soon came out with a statement disowning Corbacho's estimate and the minister was forced to make a retraction of sorts. This reticence when it comes to recognising the reality may be down to different factors. In the days when EU subsidies were being dispensed using official figures on the GNP, it worked to Spain's advantage to have a lower figure than the real situation. Also, if you don't talk abut the subject then you avoid any uncomfortable questions concerning the number of €500 notes circulating in the country or comparisons with other countries. All of which leaves commentators questioning why Corbacho chose to raise the subject at all?

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Gaspar Bin Laden

Just in from the "you couldn't make it up if you tried" department we have El Mundo's report that the FBI have used an electoral image of former Izquierda Unida coordinator Gaspar Llamazares as part of their latest Osama bin Laden photofit. Check out the hair and the forehead. Then they wonder why they can't find him.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Haiti....The Bishops Put It Into Perspective

With the race already underway to make the most idiotic comments about the the awful earthquake in Haiti, the Spanish Church could not be left behind. The bishop of San Sebastian, José Ignacio Munilla, has hit the headlines today for remarking that bad though the earthquake is, it's not as serious as the spiritual situation of the Spanish people! Obviously it's not easy for a bishop to explain anyway why God has suddenly decided so many Haitians must die. He now claims that he was misinterpreted as he was talking from a theological point of view, so that's alright then.

The recently appointed Munilla has already had his share of controversy, as the decision to give him the job is widely regarded as having been a move by the Spanish church to impose central control over their Basque followers. Munilla is from the more ultra wing of an already hardly moderate institution, and many Catholics in the Basque Country have opposed his appointment. He is on the other hand very popular amongst right wing Catholics in Madrid who see him as someone who will crack down on any signs of Basque nationalism amongst the clergy. Given the attention he has already captured he might need to spend a period in silent contemplation.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Vic Sets An Ugly Precedent

The decision by the town of Vic not to permit immigrants without residence papers to enrol on the municipal padrón (list of residents) has provoked a strong protest. The national government insists that the policy is illegal, as all residents have the obligation to be on the padrón regardless of their legal status. It's not just about being on a list, the ability to register also affects access to basic public services. Vic is the political base of an openly xenophobic political movement called Plataforma per Catalunya, but sadly it is not this party which is responsible for the new policy. The town is run by a coalition between Convergencia i Unio, Esquerra Republicana and the Catalan wing of the PSOE (PSC).

The leader of Plataforma per Catalunya, Josep Anglada, is unsurprisingly delighted with the decision which plays directly into the hands of the anti-immigrant party and simply feeds the myth that immigrants do better out of public services than the local population. Now the racists can present themselves as having been vindicated. Meanwhile both Esquerra and the PSC are putting pressure on their local councillors to backtrack on the decision. Vic is probably not alone, as reports start to surface of other municipalities that have more quietly tightened their own requirements.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Another Great Year For Judicial Madness

If we need proof that things don't really change just because the calendar shows a new year, we have as evidence the Spanish Supreme Court. Today this institution was busy dealing with one of the multitude of cases brought by right wing fringe groups whose main objective seems to be to bring an already frail judicial system to a complete halt. The case in question involved the ongoing attempt to prosecute the current Basque president, Patxi Lopez, and his predecessor Juan Jose Ibarretxe for having talked to ETA's political wing during the failed peace process in the region a couple of years ago.

Some sanity prevailed, and the Supreme Court decided that talking to Batasuna as part of an attempt to bring an end to terrorism doesn't constitute a crime. However they did it in a way which suggested that it was right to bring the case against the politicians involved and therefore justifiable that the Supreme Court should rule on such matters. This court has developed a habit of setting precedents which suit its convenience in cases with a political impact. They have what we could call the bankers doctrine which set free the president of Banco Santander when the state prosecutors refused to present a case and there were no individuals directly affected. When the same circumstances have applied to politicians they have reversed this doctrine and allowed cases presented purely for political motives to proceed even though prosecutors argue there is no case to answer.

When a similar attempt was made to prosecute Zapatero for the same "offence" concerning the Basque peace process the court delivered a very sensible ruling that said that the separation of powers doesn't permit judges to assume powers that rightly belong to democratically elected institutions, and that the attempt to negotiate an end to ETA's terrorism belonged to the political sphere. It seems that the same court has now decided that the decision belongs to them instead.

In a similar vein we have the equally crazy case against Baltasar Garzón for having the temerity to open an investigation into the victims of Franco's regime. This act of judicial revenge against Garzón is not only still open but from today it has a new player invited on board - none other than the fascist Falange have been allowed to join the other equally ultra right wing groups that presented the original case against the judge. Garzon's lawyer has been quick off the mark in asking how likely it would be for a German court to permit a neo-nazi group to bring a case against a judge who dared to investigate Nazi crimes. Spain is different on this issue and the judges say the past must stay buried. Perhaps the most alarming aspect of this case is that it allows all of these organisations to have access to the data on victims that formed part of Garzon's investigation. So fascist organisations can be handed the personal details on those relatives of Franco's victims who have presented claims. Doesn't sound like justice to me.

El Patio Se Queda

Last week the police closed off several streets in the centre of Madrid for a special operation. No, it was nothing to do with terrorism or even anything that remotely affected the safety or lives of the vast majority of Madrileños. The big police operation was solely to remove the squatters from a building in the Calle de Acuerdo that had been left empty for years. El Patio de Maravillas was not just a squat for people to live, it housed workshops in languages or bicycle maintenance, offered legal advice services and staged numerous cultural events over the last couple of years. In other words, it made good use of a building that had been left empty for years by its owner and which now may well be empty again until Madrid's ever generous administration permits its demolition for speculative construction purposes. The owner, you will be amazed to hear, is of course a long standing member of the PP who, even more amazingly, is involved already in what could be described as some legally questionable activities related to construction projects.

The occupants of the Patio and their supporters accepted the expulsion, they had little choice given such a massive display of force. However, it didn't take long for them to find a new home with another decaying, unused, building in the nearby Calle del Pez. The Patio continues and represents a movement in favour of a model that finds social uses for buildings where the owner desires nothing more than a demolition order and a subsequent "pelotazo". Madrid is not short of such buildings, there is one in my street that has been empty since I arrived and probably for years before. Anyway, that's enough about Madrid, what about the situation in Valencia?

The barrio of Cabanyal is one of the most traditional in Valencia, and for that reason alone it must have the heart ripped out of it. The Valencian administration wants to make a huge hole in the Cabanyal so that they can extend a broad avenue all the way to the sea. Their argument is that Valencians need "access" to the beach and in their view of the world no sane Valencian would go down to the sea without a broad new road where they can drive their broad new car. Also, incidentally of course, some nice new 5-6 storey blocks of flats can be built by the usual suspects to replace all of those ugly old low buildings. The residents of the barrio didn't agree with the plan and the national Culture Ministry agreed with them by blocking it. The response from the Valencian regional government didn't take long, Mr Camps put on his best suit and an emergency session was convened to change the local legislation protecting buildings of cultural interest so that they can be demolished more easily. Truly an administration that thinks of nothing except the well-being of those who so generously support it.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Same Country, Different Worlds

It looks like La Gomera was a smart move, I understand things have been a bit chilly here on the peninsula. Arriving back last night I had the novel experience of landing at a Barajas airport covered with snow and there is still some in the centre of the city, although today's rain will probably take care of it. I don't want to gloat but on our first day in the Canary Islands I spent some of the time we had in Los Cristianos waiting for the ferry watching Sky News report on the snow falling in the UK. I was sitting in the shade surrounded by happy tourists dressed in their summer beach wear.

La Gomera was great, we did some fantastic walking routes and the island is a very relaxing place to be. Getting back was not so relaxing, we were supposed to arrive back in Madrid on Sunday night but it wasn't to be. The ferry company Fred Olsen has taken over the service to the smaller ports of La Gomera and it seems that when the sea gets a bit choppy they axe that service in favour of their other, bigger, boat that runs on a different timetable. That's what happened to us, despite what seemed to be a very calm Atlantic, and the late arrival of the other ferry guaranteed that we stood no chance of catching our flight home. Spanair told us not to bother even coming to the airport and we changed our ticket - at a price - for the next day.

So we got another unexpected day in Los Cristianos where the beaches were busy and the weather was perfect. Arriving yesterday afternoon in the airport the first thing we saw was that our new flight had been cancelled! It seemed like we were never going to get home but Madrid weather came to our rescue. The previous flight, which should have left an hour before we arrived at the airport, was seriously delayed along with all other flights to Madrid. We got onto that plane and finally made it home in the early hours of this morning. Now all I need to do is get the temperature of my flat above 15 degrees and life in the chilly centre of Spain might start to become bearable.

Tuesday, January 05, 2010

Benidorm's Grapes Of Wrath

It was New Year's Eve in Benidorm, and the queue for the free grapes and (plastic) glass of cava got ever longer. The señora behind me was so determined to get to the front that she pushed me consistently for a good 10 minutes until I finally gave way and let her push the people in front of me instead. They complained. As we got nearer to midnight and they started the countdown things got tenser. It started as a low murmur, but eventually the queue began to disintegrate amidst shouts of "¡Las uvas, las uvas!". Then it was everyone for themselves, dog eat dog, survival of the fittest. "Why didn't we just buy half a kilo of grapes ourselves?" I asked, but it was no use, the battle of the freebie had to be fought.

It wasn't very warm at all for New Year on the Mediterranean, although I have reason to believe that we did better than much of the rest of Spain. Strong winds meant that the seafront was almost deserted and the sea was rough but at least we still had clear skies.

Once New Year's Day was out of the way the weather got better and we spent a very pleasant day in Calpe. The town itself is not very nice to look at but we did the ascent of the Peñon Ifach. Naturally, with it being a "peñon", I had to put up with one or two remarks about Gibraltar. "But if you've already got one here, why do you need them all?" was my defence. From the top you can truly appreciate the landscape of an area that has long lived under the protection of Nuestra Señora la Santísima Virgen de la Destrucción de la Naturaleza.

The climb to the top looks much more daunting from below than it is in reality, a tunnel has been built so that you can walk up a zigzag path rather than climb up the sheer rock face. It was a healthy piece of exercise before a lunch that has now gone into the record books as the Great Calpe Gamba Massacre of 2010.

Of course not every piece of land has been built on, let me introduce you to the innovative Valencian concept of the microreserva, which I suspect to be a euphemism for a site awaiting the recovery of the construction industry.

The sun sets on one trip but then tomorrow we are off to La Gomera for the puente de Reyes. It's perhaps my favourite of the Canary islands that I have visited so far. After all these trips I'm looking forward to some time in Madrid, which improves enormously in January once the prolonged Christmas/New Year/Reyes festivities are out the way.

Monday, January 04, 2010

283 People Enjoy Another New Year

Complain, if you want, about the crackdown on dangerous driving in Spain. The figures tell their own story, last year saw the lowest number of deaths from traffic accidents since 1964, and you have to bear in mind that there are now 15 vehicles for every one that existed 45 years ago. It's a combination of factors that have seen road deaths more than halved in the last 6 years alone, from campaigns against drunk driving to the points system for licences and the increased use of speed traps. When I arrived in Spain in the second half of the 1990's it was still common for people to get completely drunk in a village bar and then drive a long way home. Now it has become quite normal for the person doing the driving driving to steer clear of alcohol on a night out. Most people no longer drive so fast, it may be for fear of fines or losing points but the system is working to the extent that this year there were almost 300 fewer deaths than last; even after the sharp decline of recent years. There's not much to celebrate about 2009, but at least more people survived it than might have been the case a few years ago.

Sunday, January 03, 2010

Three Routes In Aigüestortes

Way back in September, as a test to see whether I might survive our trip to Nepal, we spent a weekend walking in the national park of Aigüestortes. It's a long trip by road from Madrid to this park in the Catalan Pyrenees, and I think if we decide to do it again we will take the train to Lleida and make our way up from that city. The weather forecast for the weekend we went was gloomy, almost bad enough for us to think twice about making the journey. In the end things weren't that terrible and we missed the worst of the weather.

Our base for the weekend was the small village of Esterri D'Aneu, which lies a few kilometres away from the main entrance to the national park. On the first day we did a route from the park entrance near Espot to the Portarró D'Espot. This is where many of the routes in the park begin from. You cannot take private vehicles beyond the entry barrier, but the gentle walk up to the popular Estany Sant Maurici is worth doing anyway. Because it had been raining recently the woods on either side of the path were full of wild mushrooms, more than I have seen anywhere else.

From Sant Maurici the path to Portarró takes you past the small refuge of Ernest Mallafre and then starts to climb more sharply taking you above the lake. The paths in Aigüestortes, at least the ones that we took, are in excellent condition and there are signposts to guide walkers in the right direction.

As we got higher up we found out just how bad the weather had been the day before, we were walking on fresh snow. Officially we were still (just) in summer when we did this walk but the conditions suggested otherwise.

At the top we attempted to find a way up the peak beside the path but gave up as the snow hid the path and the views down the other side from the ridge were already spectacular enough.

In theory it's possible to do a circular route that continues over the other side of the Portarró but somehow we missed the path that takes you back to Sant Maurici and gave up after half an hour, returning the same way we had come. This is a medium level route, around 16 kilometres and with an ascent of about 800 metres.

On day two we did another route from the same start point at the park entrance up to the Puerto de Ratera. This means repeating the stretch to Sant Maurici but from there you can follow a path that goes up to a nearby waterfall and then continue beyond this up to the Estany de Ratera. From this point onwards the path rises through some typical rocky Pyrenean scenery to the ridge. The views of the route behind us were beautiful, ahead of us was a wall of cloud and it was cold at the top.

To take the route back you need to retrace your steps from the ridge of La Ratera and take a signposted path which leads down to the refuge of Amitges. This is a proper mountain refuge providing food and accommodation for those who need it. For us it was a handy place to stop to avoid the rain that had started to fall. From this point we improvised a route back to Sant Maurici by taking a path that runs from the dam just opposite the refuge. It's just about possible to follow a path of sorts, but occasionally this way involves going over some rough terrain and the easier alternative is to follow the main path down from the refuge. This route is a bit longer and more difficult than the ascent to Portarró but not significantly so.

On our last day we went to the northern tip of Aigüestortes along the road that leads to Vielha. We did a short route here as we had the long journey back to Madrid ahead of us, but the walk up to the Estany de Gerber is definitely worth it. Nobody else was walking this route on a quiet Monday morning and the surroundings were fantastic.

I passed the fitness test, so I could go to Nepal. This is the map of the routes we did.

View Walking Routes in Aigüestortes in a larger map