Saturday, February 27, 2010

Gürtel....The Code For Business As Usual?

Can it really be so long since I last blogged about the Gürtel case? You could almost be forgiven for thinking that it had disappeared, although the first anniversary of its emergence into public view has only recently passed. Despite the decline in coverage of the case, the investigation continues to advance steadily and the number of people who might face charges of corruption is now claimed to be around 80. The investigating judge in Madrid who is dealing with the bulk of the case is having his own problems. Apart from the complexity of following the money trail around the world, the defence lawyers have been systematically appealing every action he takes and in the process slowing down the processing of the investigation. Despite this we have been told that the secreto de sumario protecting details of the prosecution case will mostly be lifted in the middle of March, meaning that the issue will certainly return to the headlines with the revelation of what the formal accusations are.

One of those who were originally accused last year, the former PP member of the European Parliament Gerardo Galeote, had a very happy new year when it was revealed that he would not be charged. Not because he was innocent, but he benefits from the fact that the time limit on charging him for his alleged offences had expired. He may not be so lucky with the tax collectors of Hacienda who have calculated that the money owed in unpaid taxes by several of those involved in the case would do much help public finances in these difficult times.

Not everyone has got wealthy out of Gürtel, and this is why I ask you all to find a little place in your hearts for Valencian president Francisco Camps. There we were thinking that he liked the good life, with elegant clothes and fast cars. Then this week we discovered from the pseudo declaration of assets in the Valencian parliament that the poor man is only just keeping his head above water! Shades of Esperanza Aguirre and her now infamous difficulty in getting by on her miserable salary as it turns out that Camps only possesses €900, a 15 year old car and a half share in a humble apartment. If I was him I would commission one last item of clothing with the legend “My friends all went to Gürtel and all I got was this lousy T-shirt”.

Camps still has to wait for the appeal to be heard concerning the case of his expensive suits, but for the moment his friend and favourite judge, José Luis de la Rúa, continues to run the Valencian court that dealt with the case; thanks to political wrangling over the naming of his successor. The same court has happily ceded to Madrid on the question of whether the Valencian PP used the Gürtel ring to illegally finance its own activities. The PP in Valencia has in the process offended the national party by claiming that it was headquarters in Madrid who ran their financial affairs. With Madrid, Valencia and the Supreme Court all involved, Gürtel is putting some stress on the division of the judicial system between Spain's autonomous regions.

Politically, the case of the PP's treasurer Luis Barcenas is particularly interesting, it seems that his resignation as treasurer of the PP was every bit as bogus as that of Ricardo Costa in Valencia. Not only does he still have his office in the PP's national headquarters but it appears that the party is paying for his lawyer. This is a bit odd for two reasons. Firstly because Bárcenas is not exactly short of cash, and secondly because it would appear to be ever so slightly inconsistent with the party's claim that it now has a tough code of ethical conduct. So very tough that it appears to involve no action of any kind being taken to deal with any of the PP members currently involved in corruption cases. It is widely believed that the special treatment being received by Bárcenas is due to him being the “man who knows too much”, with insider knowledge of everything concerning the PP's finances and more in recent years.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Protests Over Pensions, But The Government Sticks To Its Plan

This week's protest by Spanish trade unions against the plan to raise the retirement age to 67 is unlikely to force Zapatero's government to change course. The turnout on the demonstrations held in various cities wasn't a complete disaster but it didn't suggest that the unions are riding a tide of public outrage over this issue. The weather, and the fact that the protests were organised for a weekday, didn't help the mobilisation. The union leaders have enjoyed a cosy relationship with Zapatero's administration so far, and many government supporters are nervous about the pensions issue but without feeling ready to take to the streets over it.

Zapatero acted in advance to try and defuse the protest by claiming that he was not going to impose a solution on pensions. However, I've yet to see any sign that his government is considering any other options and the measure is still being presented as part of the anti-crisis package, even though it has nothing at all to do with the current economic situation. There is a point at which Zapatero's tendency to offer one message to the “markets” and another to his supporters is going to come under intense strain. In the meantime the question is who will be the ally to guarantee a parliamentary majority for the changes.

There was an interesting piece in Público the other day about the dramatic predictions made during the 1990's concerning the sustainability of the public pensions system by banks and employer organisations. If any of these predictions had been even close to being accurate then the system would already have collapsed, yet the opposite has been the case. The obvious defence is to claim that nobody predicted the influx of immigrants into the Spanish labour market, but this is not the only miscalculation that was made.

Above all you have to take into account the self interest that lay behind such calculations, and many of these reports were issued shortly before or just after the PP came to power in 1996. I suspect, as we get nearer to the next election and the possibility of the PP returning to power, that we will get another wave of doom laden reports about pensions with the hope of swaying government policy towards private provision. It's interesting to see how little faith many institutions really have in the prized structural reforms actually producing any success, the underlying assumption being that many of those waiting to be allowed to retire will probably spend the latter years of their working lives either unemployed or struggling in poorly paid, insecure, jobs.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Europe Doesn't Know What It Is Missing

A video of one of the candidates who won't be representing Spain in this year's Eurovision 2010. It's hard to say whether his television career is at an end or whether he will soon be given his own show. Quality television, sin publicidad.

Ever since Rodolfo Chikilicuatre won the right to be the Spanish representative a couple of years ago there have been moves to dilute the amount of popular democracy involved in the selection process so that the winner will be less friki. This year several potentially successful candidates were simply disqualified on a variety of pretexts as soon as it looked as if they might win. Whilst John Cobra almost made it through to the end, the Aznarines weren't even given a chance. There's no justice.

Updated: As it seems that the youtube video has been blocked by RTVE, here is a taste of what is left after the censors have been at work:

1). The song

2). The aftermath

Friday, February 19, 2010

You Want Chorizo, We've Got Chorizo

South of Watford coming live and direct from Oviedo, at the start of what promises to be a weekend of gastronomic excess. We'll be meeting the same friends who participated in the last assault on the legendary chuleton of Potes. Last night I broke all Spanish digestion rules by mixing Pote Asturiano, a chunk of beef, and tarta de queso. But it's ok, because I had a digestivo. I have spent this morning splashing through the rain examining pre-Romanic churches. The price you have to pay, tonight the roadshow moves to Aviles and tomorrow to Gijon.

Little did I know that I was in the city at the same time as the moustachioed crusader! Aznar has provided further proof of the benefits of a strict religious education by outdoing Esperanza Aguirre when it comes to insulting people. I imagine Espe is already planning how to raise the bar just a bit higher.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

A Goya For Malamadre

If I haven't posted much about cinema in the last year it's not because I don't want to, but because I spent most of it working in Germany and missed a good percentage of the Spanish releases. I'm catching up a bit now, but didn't see several of the nominees for the prizes in this year's Goya ceremony. I missed part of the ceremony too, the effects of my Sunday walk and possibly the wine I had with my dinner meant that I fell asleep for the middle section. Maybe it doesn't help that the presenter of the show always seems to be in need of a good scriptwriter, despite having the highly rated Andreu Buenafuente in charge of proceedings this year.

In any case I felt happy with the fact that Daniel Monzon's Celda 211 took the highest number of awards. It was closely followed by Agora, which is one of the films I haven't seen, although Alejandro Amenábar's film seemed to do better in those categories where you would expect such a high budget production to do well. The success of the more international Agora also meant that we heard more English from the stage than is normal, as many of those involved in the film were not Spanish speakers. This, and the inclusion of nominations for El Secreto de Sus Ojos, provoked a bit of debate in South of Watford's home about what actually counts to make something a Spanish film as far as the Goya's are concerned? It seems that just having Spanish production money now makes it qualify.

Celda 211 is not a great film, but it is a very effective thriller set around a mutiny in a Spanish prison. It also features one of the best character performances of recent years in Spanish cinema, and Luis Tosar fully deserved his best actor award for the portrayal of Malamadre, the leader of the mutiny. The film also featured a significant change of character for Antonio Resines, normally seen playing much lighter roles than that of a sadistic prison officer. El Secreto de Sus Ojos is also one of the films I have enjoyed most in the last few months, and had it been a genuinely Spanish film it would have probably taken more prizes. Presumably it was the distance between the funding and where the fim was made that meant the award for the best "new" actress went to Soledad Villamil, who has some 20 years of film, television and theatre work behind her. At least Buenafuente confirmed during the show that my problem of understanding the first 20 minutes of any Argentinian film is not just because I'm not a native Spanish speaker.

The biggest headlines of the night were almost captured by the surprise appearance of Pedro Almodóvar, who has boycotted the Spanish academy in recent years for what many believe to be the serious offence of not giving him enough prizes. It seems he was persuaded to appear by Alex de la Iglesia, and he handed over the award for best film to Monzón. Not everybody is overwhelmed by this apparent reconciliation, Santiago Segura suggested that Almodóvar should feel a bit ashamed for his slightly petulant attitude in recent years. He has a point.

The Trail Of The Frozen Pine

It really didn't seem like a good idea to go walking in the mountains on Sunday. After a bitterly cold Saturday in Madrid the forecast for Sunday was for more of the same, and my rucksack was full as we went prepared for all possibilities. The route was from Prádena to Robregordo. Sounds straightforward enough, but Prádena is in Segovia province and Robregordo belongs to Madrid. In between lies the Sierra de Guadarrama, not far from the important northern pass of Somosierra.

We set off in perfect walking conditions, although patches of frozen water gave a hint of how cold it had been during the night. For the second week running we had to follow a different path from that one that was planned because of hunters but it didn't make too much difference. This is Prádena from above.

The first part of the walk took us through an area of juniper trees. As we got a bit higher we hit the snow line and the plants were covered in icy crystals.

In the end I was wearing more clothes than necessary, which is not to say that it was warm but the combination of sunshine, climbing and hardly any wind meant that it was more than bearable. I had no regrets about coming, this was one of these crisp winter days when the clarity of the views is amazing. In one direction you have the Madrid/Segovia frontier, in the other we were looking towards the mountains separating Soria and Guadalajara. This is also the hydrological division between the Duero to the north and the Tajo to the south.

Most striking of all was the sight of the pine trees and how they manage to make it through the tough winter on the sierra. Each pine seems to have its rough, wind battered Segovian side, and a greener, softer Madrileño side.

On the way down to Robregordo we stopped to take a look at a different kind of tree. This is a holly tree, and this area is well known for the species. Much bigger than the holly I remember from the UK, you can walk inside this one. The leaves, when the tree grows higher, are no longer prickly. It seems they grow that way further down as a protective adaptation.

A memorable day in the mountains, and well timed. After a grim and freezing start to the week yesterday and today I imagine that this route would be difficult to do.

Monday, February 15, 2010

No Takers For The Pacto De Estado

The lobbying that has taken place to promote a pact between the major Spanish parties over the economic crisis looks set to come to nothing. The initiative took off last week after the Catalan nationalists of Convergència i Unió (CiU) made an appeal for the governing PSOE to reach agreement on economic measures with the Partido Popular (PP). Then the king got involved, making it clear that he favoured such a pact and calling for "grandes esfuerzos" to get out of the crisis. A careful choice of words, had he used "sacrificios" instead of esfuerzos he might just have left himself open to some criticism.

Now when the king makes such a pronouncement it's difficult for the monarchist parties to criticise the initiative. Nevertheless, sources reliably close to the PP have made it clear that the party is furious with the royal intervention. The last thing in the world that the PP wants to do is to lose its main weapon against Zapatero's administration. A pact over the economy would remove their ability to use every consequence of the crisis for electoral benefit. The pact would mean sharing responsibility for tough measures instead of just maintaining a careful distance and criticising the government. Such seemingly responsible behaviour is beyond Mariano Rajoy's party, even though justice dictates that they should take their fair share of the credit for the collapse of the housing boom. Only amnesiacs or the deluded believe it started in 2004. In any case the Spanish right can never get used to the idea of a constitutional monarchy, it's a bit too modern for them and they still believe the monarch should always side with them.

Now CiU are also suspected of playing a political game with an eye on the Catalan elections later this year. By projecting such an image of responsibility in the face of the crisis they hope to broaden their appeal, as well as reminding nostalgics of the days when they were the main power brokers for minority national governments. They could still play that role if the government decides to do a deal with them, but then they would be the ones sharing the responsibility for unpopular measures. On economic issues CiU are the PP of Cataluña and would undoubtedly like to see even more market pleasing measures than those that have already been proposed.

From the government's point of view it's arguable whether they want a pact. On the one hand they wouldn't be so lonely, but on the other they only need seven additional supporters on each measure to get them approved. Izquierda Unida and the leftist nationalist parties are unlikely to provide those votes given the current pressure for cheaper firing, later retirement and massive public spending cuts. So that could leave things in the hands of CiU anyway. On Wednesday we get a parliamentary debate on the economy and even if Zapatero was to propose measures teken directly from the PP we can bet that Mariano Rajoy will oppose them. Of course such a situation is hypothetical because, despite claims that they have the solution to the crisis, nobody knows what measures the PP favours. The only concrete proposal they have made so far is to reduce taxes, an absurd proposal when the government is under pressure to slash the budget deficit at a moment when tax revenues have fallen through the floor.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Nepal, Annapurna Circuit....Siurung To Jagat

Day 3 of the trek and we woke up none the worse for the local products that we had sampled the night before. Just as well, we had a hot walk ahead of us to rejoin the main Annapurna route. Leaving from the other side of Siurung we got a more panoramic view of the village and its hilltop position.

The walking wasn't difficult, especially as it was mostly a gentle downhill descent. Even so, some sections of the path were in better condition than others.

Today's digression is about water. Even without the impressive drenching we got the day before, water seemed to be everywhere in this area. Often carefully managed to make sure that it fed all the terraces of rice on its way down the hillside. The problem was that we couldn't drink it, and on a hot day it's not easy to see so much water flowing but still have to rely on bottled water to deal with thirst. Then there is the environmental damage caused by having so many plastic bottles being brought into a region with little capacity for recycling or careful disposal. Further up the trail we would come across an excellent solution for this problem, but on this day in Siurung our bottles were filled with boiled water; we had to put the bottles into a stream for a few minutes to cool them down.

By lunchtime we made it down to the bottom of the valley and were once again beside the river on the broad path that is the main Annapurna route. A stop for lunch seemed like a good idea, we had come downhill and it was significantly hotter on the valley floor. The reason why this route gets referred to as a "tea-house trek" is mostly to do with the facilities that are available to walkers rather than with the ease of the trek. On this part of the route it is rare to go more than a couple of kilometres without finding somewhere where you can buy a drink, have a cooked meal or find a bed for the night. I don't normally eat a lot when I'm walking but the heat left me feeling a bit weak, so I opted for a plate of vegetable noodles. This would become a daily habit from now on because it did the trick, I felt better for it on the afternoon walk that took us further up the river valley to Jagat.

The surroundings were changing, as the valley closed in the rice fields became scarcer and the vegetation started to look more like something you would associate with a mountain landscape. The water doesn't flow down the valley sides here, it tumbles! Then we arrived at Jagat, in number of buildings it's probably smaller than Siurung was but is much more prepared for the trekkers that pass through - it even has a "shoping centre".

The village is little more than a single street but there are several hotels and plenty of shops. You can see that the locals do not depend entirely on tourism, which is very seasonal on this route. They still have their chickens, goats, buffalos and their fields; but the Annapurna Circuit offers an extra source of income. The thunder clouds had gathered again over the hills as the afternoon progressed, but today we were spared a soaking. In the evening we found that all restaurants in the village had exactly the same menu, but in any case the norm on the route is to eat in your hotel and the (normally very cheap) price of your hotel can depend on whether you do this.

View Nepal - The Annapurna Circuit in a larger map

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Now For A Large Uptight Elephant

Yesterday was cold but bright and sunny in Madrid, a perfect day for taking a look at some street sculptures in the city. The first few images are from an exhibition of work by Xavier Mascaró which has been installed in the Paseo de Recoletos.

Then I went down to the CaixaForum where they have installed this sculpture outside as part of a major exhibition of the work of Miquel Barceló.

Closer inspection of the plaque suggests I may have got the name of this work slightly wrong, but it made for a better title.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Say That Again And I'll Whack You With My Golf Club!

Not wishing to be left behind the boss when it comes to swaggering arrogance, other members of the infamous Aguirre gang are now getting in on the act. Almost three years ago, back in 2007, I wrote a post about how a proposed public park in Madrid got suddenly transformed into a private golf practice centre, all in the "general interest". This latter factor was the excuse used by the Comunidad de Madrid to get around the refusal of the city administration to give a licence for the project. One of the key figures in the decision was Ignacio Gonzalez and members of his family were very closely linked to the project. Gonzalez is of course the man that Espe wanted as president of Caja Madrid, no doubt because of his high ethical standards.

Anyway, a court in Madrid has now ruled that the project was done illegally, for the fairly obvious reason that the "general interest" was abused to push it through avoiding the need to have a licence. So here is how Gonzalez responded yesterday to a question on the subject of this ruling and his family connections. To listen to him you would think that the court had never ruled one of his pet projects to be illegal. There are some who believe that, right at the very end of this video, Gonzalez mouths a common Spanish insult recently popularized by the lady sat to his left. Any lip readers out there?

What is the cause of such bad behaviour? Personally, I blame the parents.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Garzón's Enemies Sharpen Their Knives

The case against judge Baltasar Garzón over his decision to investigate crimes committed by Franco's regime has moved closer to seeing Garzón suspended from his duties as a judge. Such a suspension would just be the precursor of the judge being put on trial charged with perverting the course of justice. The judicial governing body in Spain, the Consejo General del Poder Judicial, has passed the buck onto prosecutors over whether Garzón should be suspended now, but it seems that the prosecutors are not up for the job. Normally a judge cannot be suspended until a firm accusation has been made and the case is set for trial.

There seems little doubt at the moment that Garzón will end up in court, the investigating judge in the Supreme Court has rejected his last appeal and it looks like the case will end up in the hands of the same court that accepted the original accusation from the far right Manos Limpias. The investigating judge claims that Garzón deliberately disregarded the amnesty law that was passed in 1977 in order to proceed with his investigation. This is a law that the United Nations has previously asked Spain to repeal because it contravenes international conventions signed by the Spanish government.

It wouldn't be fair to say that all of those who are out to get Garzón are just from the political right. The judge who has prepared the case against him for the Supreme Court has always been associated with the more progressive current of the judiciary. What does seem to be the case, though, is that Garzon's decision to open the civil war case has created an alliance of convenience between the most conservative sections of the judiciary and his other enemies, of which he seems to have plenty. The case is being handled in a manifestly unjust way, whilst a fine collection of extreme right wing groups has been assembled to support the accusation, representatives of the victims of Franco's regime are denied the possibility of participating.

At the same time another case claiming that Garzón unjustly favoured the president of the Banco de Santander has been revived even though it's already been previously rejected as unfounded by the Supreme Court. It looks very much a case of trying one thing, and if that fails then going with another. It's going to offer a tremendous image of the Spanish judicial system if Garzón goes to trial. Whilst other countries (of which Brazil is just the latest) deal with those who committed the crimes, in Spain it will be the judge who tried to investigate them that gets put on trial....with the accusation against him presented by those who still carry the standard for the dictatorship. It's a bit of a cliche to say "Spain is different", but in this case?

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Gavilanes To Pedro Bernardo

A brief respite from what is being quite a tough winter in Madrid meant that last Sunday was a good day for doing some walking. The route was in the lower part of the Sierra de Gredos, connecting the two small villages of Gavilanes and Pedro Bernardo. I wonder if you can guess, from visual clues in the images below, which political party controls Gavilanes? I'll offer another hint, it's not the Falange.

The route climbs up from the top of Gavilanes through the woods, following a beautiful path. This area was once an important source of resin extracted from the pine trees for industrial uses, but now the woods are just for walkers....and hunters. Higher up we wandered into the middle of a batida de caza, behind every tree or large rock there seemed to be a heavily armed hunter waiting to see whether the dogs could drive something his way. They didn't seem very pleased to see us and we had to change our route just in case someone confused a group of 25 walkers with a wild boar.

Down below there were views far across to the province of Toledo.

The water tumbling down the hillside in this image is not a natural stream. The water has been redirected for electricity generation and falls some 400 metres down the mountain.

Sadly, the area near Pedro Bernardo is no longer so beautiful as it once was, two fires in recent years have destroyed much of the woodland. Pedro Bernardo itself looks from above like quite a large village but many of its houses are only occupied at the weekends, many of the villagers live in Madrid.

Tuesday, February 09, 2010

The Polls Offer No Comfort For Zapatero

The latest Spanish opinion polls that have been published in the last few days all show the Partido Popular extending its advantage over the governing PSOE. The PP's lead varies from poll to poll but can be put in a range between 3-6%. This trend is a bit worrying for Zapatero's government because, despite the economic crisis, they had managed to hold up fairly well against an opposition that seemed unable to obtain a clear advantage. Zapatero's support has shown two clear dips since the last general election. The first when he was still in denial about the crisis, and the second in the last few months as unemployment has continued to rise and the government has run out of steam on initiatives to combat the worst effects of the slump. Perhaps the most alarming signal of all is that Zapatero's personal rating has fallen below that of Mariano Rajoy in some polls! You know you're in trouble when that happens.

The PP has sensed the change, and there have been many calls for within the party ranks for early elections and a motion of censure against Zapatero's administration. The PP leadership has moved to calm things down a bit because they know they won't win such a motion at the moment, and Rajoy's strategy is based entirely around the crisis wearing down the government. This has its risks, and that may partially account for the enthusiasm for bringing forward the date of the next election. Zapatero theoretically has two years left of his term of office and if recovery gets under way before he has to call an election then Rajoy might need something else. Perhaps that's why we've also had the recent populist ventures over immigration and prison sentences from the PP. Otherwise, their best chance for success is to hope for more crisis and more unemployment. The shift in the polls so far is almost entirely due to a drop in support for the PSOE rather than an increase in those prepared to vote for the PP.

The latest polls also show signs that those deserting the PSOE are not necessarily just heading for abstention. Support has risen for both Izquierda Unida and for UPyD. IU could expect to attract support from some of those disillusioned with the PSOE, there is a segment of the left vote that the PSOE has gained because of fear of the PP returning to power but which is not necessarily loyal to them. The question is whether it returns to the government at the next election? Meanwhile UPyD are hoping to overtake IU to become the third force at national level.

There are a few tests that should come before a general election and this may account for some of the nervousness amongst the PSOE's regional "barones". Elections have to be held this year in Cataluña and next year in municipalities and all those autonomous regions who haven't claimed the right to set separate election dates. The worry for the PSOE is that they could be left with very little regional presence if these elections coincide with a high tide in PP support. A recent poll put the PP ahead in Andalucia for the first time, and other strongholds such as Castilla-La Mancha could also be in danger. Meanwhile in Madrid, where the PSOE currently stands no chance, there are rumours of internal polls showing UPyD holding the balance of power as the rest of the opposition fails to cut into Esperanza Aguirre's support.

Saturday, February 06, 2010

Spanish Pensions Work....So They Must Be Stopped!

Let's turn our attention to the question of pensions, and the proposal by the Spanish government to increase the retirement age to 67; a suggestion already dubbed the "pensionazo" here in Spain. The government did little to improve their already severely damaged reputation for handling of sensitive political issues when it was revealed that they had also submitted a document to the European Union suggesting that they planned to increase the number of years used to calculate the state pension from 15 to 25. This proposal, a covert way of cutting pensions further, was hurriedly withdrawn amidst unconvincing excuses about how it had just been an exercise rather than a genuine plan.

Almost the first thing to be said about the proposed change is that it may not happen for a while, if at all. Changes to the Spanish pension system go through what is called the Pacto de Toledo, an agreement to seek the maximum political consensus for the changes. That also means it takes time. Given that the Partido Popular has expressed opposition to the government's plan along with almost all other parties it is entirely possible that no change will be introduced before the next general election. The PP's opposition to the plan is almost certainly based around short term electoral advantage, given the party's current devotion to ultra liberal economic solutions it's very likely that they would favour something far more drastic once in office. Probably involving privatization. However, at the moment they flatly oppose all economic measures proposed by the government.

The really odd thing is to see such a proposal being presented as an anti-crisis measure. Odd because Spain's pension system isn't in crisis at all, it's been doing very nicely in recent years. Now of course that doesn't mean to say that things will always be that way and the balance between contributions and expected number of claimants has to be maintained....for the future. The automatic assumption made by many is that Spaniards are living longer and that therefore it's inevitable that they should work longer too. The problem is that figures on average life expectancy get used in a very loose way. The fact the life expectancy has increased by x number of years doesn't mean that all Spaniards can expect to see their own life expectancy increased by the same amount.

Nor is it that simple for everyone to keep on working, it's not the same for someone to be clambering over scaffolding at the age of 67 as it is to be sitting in an office taking the money that people pay for the house that gets built. There are some jobs where those doing them are lucky if they even reach 65. Another major problem with a generic raising of the retirement age is that it discriminates against the poorer sections of society; who tend to be those with the longest working lives. It's one of the paradoxes of welfare provision that those who do best out of it are often more hostile towards it.

There are many issues that should be addressed with Spanish pensions. Too many companies have used early retirement as a means of shedding labour and people who would find it difficult to find other work are therefore forcibly retired, but on pensions probably lower than they would have received by working longer. Also, it doesn't make much sense that a professional footballer can get early retirement for an injury that stops him from playing but not from doing all sorts of other jobs. The situation with the self-employed autonomos is frankly a bit silly. Most autonomos pay the minimum social security contribution until they reach 50, at which point they have to raise their contributions hugely to stand any chance of receiving a decent pension. So there is plenty of scope for sensible reforms which help to maintain the system, and if people want to work beyond 65 then they can swap places with me. Sorry, I meant to say they should be allowed to do so.

The fundamental problem is that the debate on the viability of state pensions is almost always contaminated by the ideological hostility that some have to their very existence. That's why favourable reports by banks or insurance companies on state pensions are about as rare as blizzards in Madrid in July. They want the business and it's in their direct interest to float the idea that the state system can't work. We're told that Spain must reduce the proportion of its GDP that goes on pensions even though the estimates for 2050 show that it will only just have reached the level that some European countries already have. Spain's social spending is well below that of many of its neighbours, yet much of the evidence on demographics suggests that extra spending can solve some of the problems that ultimately affect pensions. You want a higher birthrate? Then spend money on facilitating full, and flexible, access to the labour market for women so that they don't have to choose between work and having children. No such thing is likely to happen given the way things are going at the moment in Spain.

The loudest applause for the government plan comes from those who will either not need to work until 67, or who have very comfortable alternative arrangements for themselves. Members of the Spanish parliament only have to sit there for 11 years to qualify for the maximum pension. Yesterday we were informed that the president of the BBVA bank has had his pension pot capped, he's only left with a criminally low €79.5 million to see him through the tough years of retirement. The European employers federations says the move "goes in the right direction". Ah, but clearly not far enough for some.

Then there is the inaptly named Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) who have come up with a very bright idea. The OECD suggests that the Spanish government needs to dedicate more public resources to promoting private pensions, by protecting them from the vagaries of the market! This is a very "Washington Consensus" argument. Public money spent directly on pensions is bad, but spend it on guaranteeing banking profits regardless of what they do and it suddenly becomes good. Oh, and who was it who bought much of the worthless crap peddled as sound investment products by the banks and ratings agencies before the crisis? The pension funds. Take your pick.

Thursday, February 04, 2010

Is Spain Under Attack?

While Spanish prime minister Zapatero has been kneeling in prayer in Washington, it seems that his country is undergoing what could be called a Soros moment. This is in memory of the infamous speculative attack launched years ago on the UK pound by the financier George Soros. Obviously there is a key difference, Spain doesn't have a currency of its own to be attacked, but the pressures from the international financial markets are definitely there. It's clear in this case given the statements coming out of Brussels and other international bodies that the target is not just the now infamous "structural reforms" to the labour market, it's public welfare services. Greece has been given the full list for wielding the axe, which doesn't just include pensions, health services are also there.

In the case of Spain the government's proposal to cut back pensions has already received warm approval from these bodies, even though the issue has little or nothing to do with the crisis - I shall return to this in more detail in another post. It's beginning to look like the wave will go from country to country and the solutions being offered in all cases will be massive cutbacks in public services. Welcome to the crisis double whammy, countries go deep into debt because of a crisis largely provoked by the financial markets. The price of rescuing financial institutions is to have them come chasing after each country in turn to pay the bill. We'd already got used to the idea that there was going to be no word of thanks for such massive assistance, I think next time around the case for taking the toys out of the hands of the boys who don't know how to use them responsibly is going to be unanswerable.

Nepal, Annapurna Circuit....Khudi To Siurung

Before we set off for our first full day of walking on this trek we learnt one of the most basic facts about the Annapurna circuit - the high peaks are often only visible in the early morning. As the day progresses the clouds move in and by 11 or 12 there is often little to see. So it was that we discovered before breakfast that we had a big peak behind our hotel! Part of the Himal Chuli.

The route for this day abandoned the main Annapurna track. Our schedule had us heading for the village of Siurung which sits high above the river valley that the main route follows. The detour is well worth it as the views from the higher vantage point have to be better than those from the valley floor. The only difficulty for those attempting this without a guide would be to follow the correct path. Although the turnoff in Khudi is signposted, things become less clear further on. That said, the path ascends the valley in the same direction as the main route below it. As the valley curves round so some more peaks come into view.

It was relatively hard work, not because the path is very difficult, but it was a steady climb for much of the day and it was hot. The landscape compensated for the effort, we looked down on the river and the terraces of rice fields that spread over the hillsides.

Being off the principal route, the only people we saw were locals from the mostly tiny settlements that you find up here. We tested our command of the language by greeting everyone with "namaste", it's not much but it gets a friendly response. In the end I was more than happy to see the sun finally covered by the clouds that had been gathering throughout the morning, but just a few minutes later this developed into a violent, although relatively short, Himalayan thunderstorm above our heads. We got completely soaked in the space of a couple of minutes, but there was nothing we could do about it and we just kept moving towards our objective. Fortunately the rain stopped for the last steep climb up to Siurung, an ascent made much easier by the lowering of the temperature.

Siarung is a pretty village built onto the hillside, and populated by the Gurung ethnic group. We were supposed to stay in the one and only guesthouse the village possesses, but then we found out that the rain had leaked into much of this building. It seems that the solution to such problems is to temporarily evict some locals from their house, a tiny one-roomed construction which seemed quite full with the two of us and our rucksacks inside. The boots stayed on the roof to dry a bit following the drenching we had got in the storm.

To dry ourselves we took a tour of our new surroundings. The locals seemed friendly enough, even though they were armed.

It's time for a short digression, if you're about to eat you may not want to read this. At one of our breaks on the path up to Siurung our guide remarked that he had been bitten by a couple of leeches. Both of us had managed to avoid this, but I did see one of the ugly bichos approaching me amazingly fast when we stopped for a drink of water. Later on, in Siurung, I noticed they had got me too. Some people seem to notice when they attach themselves to your leg, I didn't feel a thing but when I discovered a sticky blob of blood just above my ankle I realised they had got me too. Leeches, apart from being strangely agile when it comes to attaching themselves to passing walkers, are also notably messy eaters. The anti-clotting substance they inject into the bite means that even after they have had their fill and dropped off, the bite continues to bleed. I was to get more bites. Later on in Siurung I watched a chicken pecking at a leech and almost gave it a round of applause as encouragement. I suppose the leech is a chickens equivalent of morcilla, a nice bit of blood sausage as a supplement to the diet.

In the evening, after dinner, the only foreign guests in the village were offered a show of local dancing. I was a little bit reluctant to do this as I suspected that it might not be that gripping a spectacle - but I was overuled. To be fair, there's not a lot to do after dark in a small Nepali hill village. Just at the point when it seemed like nothing was going to happen anyway, a group of the older women in the village turned up with a single small drum. When the show started we were presented with garlands of flowers and sat back to watch the spectacle. It seemed to both of us that the music didn't change that much, nor for that matter was there much variation in the dance, even when some of the younger members of the group got going. Our guide assured us this was not the case.

What inspired true fear was the bottle of local wine that was produced for us to try, we were given cups filled to the brim with it and I started to think what was going to happen to our fairly tight trekking schedule if I spent the next day lying on my back mumbling "I don't feeeel very weeell!" I've had experience of Asian "wines" before and some of them should definitely not be approached with a naked flame, this one turned out to be not so dangerous but I still only drank what I thought would be enough not to seem rude. The sky was clearing as we made our way to bed, and the silhouette of the mountains around us was just visible.

View Nepal - The Annapurna Circuit in a larger map

Wednesday, February 03, 2010

Water Flows Again In Las Tablas De Daimiel

Journalists were taken on a boat tour last weekend of Las Tablas de Daimiel, so that they could marvel at a level of water that once again allows this hugely neglected national park to be referred to as wetlands. It seems that the underground fires that were burning in the dried out peat of Las Tablas have now finally been extinguished. The Spanish government would almost certainly like journalists to write that this transformation has been accomplished as a result of the emergency water transfer organised from the Tajo river. In reality most of the water to be seen in the area these days is a result of more natural conditions, the unusually intense rainfall in Castilla-La Mancha during the last few weeks has provided significantly more water than the government's efforts.

Whatever the source of the water it has to be welcomed. The problem is whether, as critics of the government's plan have frequently pointed out, the water will last for very long. The reason why Las Tablas dried out was not because of natural causes, there are said to be thousands of illegal wells being used for agriculture in this area and over exploitation of the aquifers is what led to the dramatic situation for the park. So if nothing is done to prevent the continuing extraction of water from these wells it seems quite likely that the water shipped from the Tajo could just end up passing temporarily through the Tablas before being used for crops. The long term question is whether the government is really prepared to stand up to the demands for water for agricultural use in order to preserve Daimiel.

Tuesday, February 02, 2010

Golpe De Estado 2.0

As I was chopping up the pumpkin for tonight's dinner I got to thinking, as you would, just how long it will be before someone tries to use Facebook to organise a military coup? The inspiration for this line of thought came from this page - which has been publicly disowned by the PP. Not because it advocates a military coup, but because it uses their logo. Then I started thinking how the owners of Facebook would react to such an event, somehow I suspect they would be quite proud. General Pinochet has added you as a friend in Facebook.....