Wednesday, March 31, 2010

It's All About Value For Money

To say that the investigating judge listening to the declaration of Jaume Matas was unimpressed would be a huge understatement. "Kafkian" and "absurd" are just a couple of the terms used by the judge who accused Matas of mocking mere mortals in his defence against a truly impressive list of corruption related charges. In the end Matas has to come up with €3 million bail if he wants to avoid going to jail before the trial. Some were thinking that his situation might mean that the Partido Popular would finally get a chance to show off the new ethics code that they are supposed to have adopted. In the end Matas saved their face by voluntarily suspending himself from membership. He also resigned from his position as an adviser with PricewaterhouseCoopers! I'm dying with curiosity to know what his advice to them consisted of.

Back in Madrid we've had some interesting revelations concerning a company that has associations with those involved in the Gürtel case. It seems that well over a million euros was given to Marketing Quality Management for a publicity campaign, the visible results of which appear to have been....well, nothing. It took opposition representative Reyes Montiel almost a year just to get access to the papers on this contract, which tells us all we need to know about La Lideresa's commitment to open government. Apart from the lack of results, the case shows how it is possible for administrations to bend the rules rather than simply breaking them. Formally they follow the procedures with what looks like an open invitation to tender, but somehow all of the other competitors get eliminated for a variety of convenient reasons so that the winner is hardly ever in doubt. No need to even break the project (supposing it exists) up into small pieces which can be awarded without any tender process.

Finally for today we have the always exemplary José Maria Aznar. The right wing press have been celebrating the 20th anniversary of the PP congress that made the moustachioed crusader party leader. If you believe them, this was an event that transformed Spain's standing in the world, only for the evil ZP to destroy all of his good works. It seems that the Tribunal de Cuentas, responsible for overseeing financial probity in the public sector is not so impressed. They are investigating the decision by Aznar's administration to allocate a cool €2 million to an American lobbying firm whose brief was to secure the Congressional Gold Medal for our hero of the Azores. The medal never came, but the money was spent. Amongst the recollections of the 20th anniversary has surfaced the statement made by Aznar that the PP was "incompatible" with corruption. Matas and Aguirre were both ministers in his administrations.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

ETA, The FARC And Venezuela

There has been significant coverage both inside and outside of Spain of the decision by the judge Eloy Velasco to point the finger at Venezuela for allegedly providing ETA with an operational base in that country. Almost as a postscript in his document on supposed collaboration between ETA and the Colombian FARC, Velasco claimed there was evidence of Venezuelan government cooperation with the two groups. The accusation has caused problems between the governments of Spain and Venezuela, with an angry reaction from Hugo Chávez. Within Spain itself it has provoked a predictable chorus from the right along the lines of "this is what you get for maintaining friendly relations with Chávez".

The problem is that Velasco doesn't prove his own accusation. The presence of ETA members or sympathisers in Venezuela is not in doubt, but what many people may not know amidst all the noise is that this presence dates back to the 1980's. Not only that, but it was the result of negotiations between the Spanish government led by Felipe Gonzalez and the Venezuelan administration presided at the time by Carlos Andrés Pérez. Following the failure of negotiations with ETA in Algeria and in an attempt to get known ETA members removed from France, the agreement with Venezuela became the solution. Despite all the recent reports about ETA members living openly in Venezuela under Chávez, the truth is that they did the same with the full knowledge of the Spanish government under previous Venezuelan governments. Some weeks ago I read a report of a former Spanish ambassador in Venezuela recommending a Basque restaurant in Caracas. He said that it was a very good place to eat, despite the fact that the cooks were all Etarras!

The key to the current accusation is a man called Arturo Cubillas, who is one of those who has been in Venezuela since the 1980's. Cubillas currently occupies a relatively minor position in the Venezuelan administration, yet it it is this fact which Velasco has used as a peg for the accusation of Venezuelan government support for ETA activities. We can't yet rule out the possibility that some suitably incriminating "evidence" will surface from the bottomless resources of the laptop computer that allegedly belonged to the FARC leader Raúl Reyes. This amazingly bombproof laptop which survived unscathed when Reyes was killed seems capable of producing documentary proof of whatever Colombia's government would like to demonstrate at any given time.

Also involved in the accusations launched by Velasco is the Spanish citizen Remedios García, who is often cited in reports as being the European representative of the FARC or similar. García was arrested in 2008 following the initial supposed revelations from the miraculously strong laptop, and was deemed to be so terribly dangerous that she was quickly released on bail of €12000. Between then and the new case brought by Velasco we know of no concrete accusations against her. Meanwhile there continues to be a group of Basque exiles linked in some way to ETA living in Venezuela. Some may still be sympathisers of the group, others may not be. We don't know the reality, although it has been reported that the exiles in Latin America were amongst those who took badly the failure of the last peace process as they find themselves trapped in the limbo of exile without any obvious solution.

Monday, March 29, 2010

The Poisoned Fruit Of The Gürtel Case

Madrid's judges did a big favour to those accused in the Gürtel corruption case last week. The decision to disallow as evidence all of the recordings made of conversations between suspects and their lawyers has even led to speculation about whether the case will proceed at all. The three judge court split 2:1 on the issue after failing to reach any sort of consensus. There was even a suspicion of illegal surveillance surrounding their own deliberations, at one point the police were ordered to check for eavesdropping devices in the court building after press reports appeared describing the disagreements between the judges.

On the face of it, the prosecution case shouldn't be in any danger as there is significant evidence that does not depend at all on the recordings that were made. This is the position being adopted by prosecutors in the aftermath of last week's decision. The problem is that the defence lawyers, who have already worked hard to slow down the preparation of the case, will now try to apply the poisonous fruit doctrine to much of the prosecution case. This doctrine consists of challenging any part of the accusation that can be linked in any way to the evidence that has been declared illegal. Whether they succeed or not, the longer they can delay prosecution the closer they get get to the dream objective of reaching the legal time limits on prosecution for at least some of the offences. Whilst of course allowing more time for the profits to be well hidden. We will see whether the investigating magistrate in Madrid now manages to untangle the rest of the case in time to meet his latest deadline for lifting the secrecy surrounding much of the prosecution case. Next Monday should be the big day.

It is of course important that protection exists for defendants conversations with their lawyers, otherwise the whole idea that prosecutors have to prove their case independently of the defence crumbles. On the other hand, this case raised the issue of what happens when the lawyers are potentially part of the group that can be accused? One of the lawyers concerned was visiting people in prison who he was not even representing. The Madrid decision soon started a trend, within hours the lawyer representing Jaume Matas - whose fate we will know more about tomorrow - was calling for recordings involving his client to be disregarded, even though Matas is not yet formally charged.

The PP has been seeking, sometimes openly and sometimes not, any kind of legal defect which will halt the Gürtel case. This worked for them on a previous occasion in the 1990's when they escaped serious accusations of illegal financing thanks to legal technicalities. They are helped in this instance by the fact that it was Baltasar Garzón who authorised the surveillance. In the current judicial climate you could get a legal case accepted against Garzón if it rains during your Easter holiday. It takes someone who is truly cynical, someone like Esperanza Aguirre, to suggest that the PP won't be satisfied until the Gürtel case runs its full course. Aguirre continues to receive the loyal votes of the three members of her parliamentary group in Madrid who face serious corruption accusations. Of course they are not formally part of the PP's group, and they don't participate in party activities. But they loyally turn up week after week just in time to vote....for the PP.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Nepal, Annapurna Circuit....Dharapani To Chame

There is a kind of routine on the main Annapurna route. Almost everyone gets up early in the morning, has breakfast more or less at the same time and then sets off to the next stop. This has the effect, in busy times, that for the first kilometre or two the route can be relatively crowded with a mixture of trekkers and porters, until gaps start to open up between those walking at different speeds. The bigger groups tend to fall behind, as they stop more often, and because we were just a group of two we could set our own pace and usually were amongst the first to arrive at our destination for the night. Not everybody stops in exactly the same places, because there are many possibilities, but you do end up seeing the same people day after day.

Soon after leaving Dharapani, and still following the course of the river, we got a reminder that there were some bigger mountains beyond the high walls of the river valley. It had been a couple of days since we had seen much more than our immediate surroundings, but not far from Dharapani we got a brief view of a distant peak, as a smaller valley met ours.

A short way further up the track we got a view in the distance of the peak of Annapurna 2. There are four numbered Annapurnas, with Annapurna 1 topping 8000 metres and the others not far below this. It was quite exciting to see these peaks like this, we got the feeling for the first time that we were getting into the high range. Little did we know at the time that this was to be the best view we would get of Annapurna 2 on the whole trek.

For a while the track leaves the river and enters into the forest, with a steeper climb. After this section the route is easy and beautiful as the landscape becomes much more what we would expect for such a mountainous area. It was perfect conditions for walking.

There is now plenty of pine woods and the vegetation is not as lush as it is further down the valley - we were now well over 2000 metres above sea level. The main crops cultivated up here are maize and wheat, and we also saw the first buckwheat fields and some apple orchards. Stopping for a mid-morning drink after our climb we were treated to a view of Manaslu behind us, already half covered by clouds

The path descends slightly in the latter part of this day's walk, rejoining the river with an easy stretch the rest of the way to Chame. The villages on the way look different from those that we had seen before, and we started to see the first signs of what would become a very strong Buddhist influence. At the same time the maize being dried in the sun is an image that can still be seen in rural parts of Spain.

Chame is the big city compared to many of the other villages on the circuit. It has a bank, a police station, a reggae bar where they appear to play no reggae and internet! It wouldn't do to exaggerate things, it's still one long street surrounded by the walls of the river valley. The houses by now are almost all built of stone and there are big piles of firewood used for heat and cooking. So did I feel the need to test the internet connection? Well of course I did, it had been almost a week! It was slow. I also changed some money here, although the rate you get is much worse than in Kathmandu. It's hard to know in advance how much money to change for the trek, we had prepaid for almost everything but there are always essential extras - like internet.

Just outside of Chame there is a small Tibetan community, a presence that would become significantly stronger over the next few days. The flags, prayer wheels and stones we saw here for the first time would soon become a familiar sight.

View Nepal - The Annapurna Circuit in a larger map

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Welcome Home Mr Matas

It was quite a day in Mallorca as Jaume Matas, the former president of the Balearic Islands regional government, returned home to face what could turn out to be an impressive list of corruption related charges. Matas, who also served as environment minister in the administration of José Maria Aznar, has established his residence in the US since losing power in the Balearics; something not that surprising given everything that has emerged about how the islands were run under his control.

The main issue which the judge is dealing with is the huge scandal over the construction of the Palma Arena. But Matas will almost certainly face questions over the luxuriously fitted mansion that he owns in Palma, a large and noble property which he managed to acquire for less than a million euros even though the taxman believes it to be worth almost three times that figure. Also under inspection is what on the face of it appears to be a remarkably frugal lifestyle. Based on the movements in his bank accounts, Matas managed to meet all of his expenses during three years with less than €500. An example to us all, captives as we are of relentless consumerism.

The Balearics could probably claim to be in the lead in terms of the number of politicians facing corruption related charges. To use a currently popular phrase, that puts them in the Champions League. The Partido Popular on the islands has effectively had to find an entire new leadership given that so many leading figures associated with the previous regime are currently facing charges. Unió Mallorquina, a party which has been in the happy position of lending its support to governments led by the PP and the PSOE, has recently also been decapitated as its leading figures face corruption charges. All of which has left the current administration in a minority, with the possibility of the PP then returning to power at the next election.

Matas was supposed to declare today but the judge gave him until tomorrow so that his defence could study fresh evidence. If things go badly for him, he may be spending tomorrow night in accommodation significantly less elegant and comfortable than that of his mansion. Although no one will try to break in. The PP at national level is just looking the other way whilst party leader Mariano Rajoy decides whether to burn those holiday snaps of him and Jaume enjoying their summer holidays together on Mallorca. Nobody in the party seems to be rushing to put "la mano en el fuego" for Matas.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Firefighters Or Terrorists? An Easy One For The Press

If one good thing has come out of the lamentable mistake made by French police the other day accusing five Catalan firefighters of being members of ETA, it is that at least a few sections of the Spanish media have had to think about the way they go about their work. The video footage of the firefighters doing a bit of shopping in a supermarket near to where ETA killed a French policeman was passed to the Spanish authorities who promptly paid no attention to any concept of presumed innocence and circulated it to the Spanish media as being film of wanted ETA members.

That doesn't excuse the fact that much of the media then did the same thing. The mistake was disguised a bit for those who live in the larger Spanish cities as the revelation that those appearing on the video had been recognised by their families back home managed to reach some newspapers in time for them to change their second editions. The first editions had been in no doubt that the video showed dangerous terrorists. El País even had a police "expert" who assured the paper that the five firefighters were either ETA members or policemen - no other option was possible. The press soon had to change their tune, although on the whole they did so without recognising their own contribution to identifying the innocent as terrorists.

It's a frequent problem involving terrorism, with headlines proclaiming the capture of an "Etarra", whilst the subsequent release without charges of the same person may not even be reported at all. The presumption of innocence only seems to come into play for politicians and priests. It's not just terrorist suspects who might be affected, a few months ago the paper ABC carried an atrocious front page that accused an innocent person of being the killer of a small child. The paper's editor later had to publicly apologise for that one but the damage was already done, and probably sales increased that day.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

So This Is What They Meant By A Pacto De Estado

Although there seems little chance of the two major parties in Spain reaching agreement over economic measures, it would be wrong to assume that they cannot unite around anything. Just recently we have had two examples of the PSOE and PP finding enough common ground to shoot down any proposals that threaten their monopoly on power.

First there was a proposal to limit the amount of time which judges on the Constitutional Court could stay on after their terms of office have expired. Given that this is a situation affecting several members of that institution it would have an immediate effect if adopted. The disagreement between PSOE and PP over the way in which to nominate successors has frozen any renovation of the body which is currently very very busy sleeping - no, I really meant to say deliberating - on the issue of the Catalan Estatut. Changing the members might mean that the decision on the Estatut goes into yet another decade; but anyway the PP and PSOE ensured it wouldn't happen.

Then there was the parliamentary commission set up to study the issue of electoral reform and the massive under representation of smaller national parties that results from the current electoral system. After two years of hard work the commission has agreed that reform is the candidates for the Senate will no longer have to be listed in alphabetical order. That's it, the major beneficiaries of the current system have unsurprisingly decided that there is no need to change it for something a bit fairer.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

A Strange Day In La Puerta Del Sol

Heartfelt apologies for writing yet another post so soon about events in Madrid's regional government. I'm sure you appreciate that I only do this in the public interest and it hasn't been a normal day even by the standards of Planet Aguirre. Today began with the news of the surprise reappearance of someone who already had his 15 minutes of fame back in 2003. Not that Eduardo Tamayo has been forgotten by everyone. He is after all the person who gave his name to the "Tamayazo", that murky defection from the PSOE that cleared the way for Esperanza Aguirre getting another chance to rule Madrid after falling short of an overall majority at the first attempt. No wonder the sun had disappeared again this morning after three glorious days that looked like spring.

It could well have been Tamayo himself, or someone close to him, who leaked the news to Público that he had a meeting arranged this morning with La Lideresa herself. With the journalists already gathered in La Puerta del Sol the man turned up for his meeting, only to be informed by those in charge of reception that Santa Espe was involved in other, more urgent, tasks. There is plenty of speculation about what is going on here, mostly focusing on whether Tamayo feels that his contribution to gifting power in Madrid to the PP has been sufficiently recognised; if you see what I mean. Tamayo has promised further revelations within the next few days, but it's hard not to be sceptical about whether anything of substance will emerge from this.

As if that wasn't enough for one day we got the news of the resignation of Juan José Güemes, who had been in charge of Espe's policy of transferring Madrid's public health service into private hands. Whilst leaving medical ethics to be decided by the priests. It's a curious move, Güemes is abandoning active politics for a post at a business school, although this is certainly something more suited to his abilities than ensuring the health of the region's citizens. It's just that it seemed that he still had years of wrecking public services ahead of him. Fortunately for those medical ethics committees, it is reported that his successor (Javier Fernández Lasquetty) is profoundly religious. Even the atheists pray for good health in Madrid.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Three People Who Should Not Decide Garzón's Future

The attempt by sectors of the Spanish judiciary to end the career of Baltasar Garzón continues to advance. For the judges of the Supreme Court it wasn't enough that they had already admitted cases against Garzón from the extreme right and some lawyers with a grudge against the owner of the Banco Santander. Something more was needed, especially as the efforts to suggest Garzón was effectively bribed by the Santander to give some lectures in New York have not gone particularly well. Best not to involve foreigners at all, and so the willingness to admit any complaint against the judge now means that none other than Francisco Correa, the principal accused in the Gürtel corruption case, has been allowed to present a new one.

That Correa, who liked to be called Don Vito, should be allowed to join the Garzón witch hunt is an indication of the all comers welcome policy being employed when it comes to nailing Baltasar. Only ETA seem to have been left out of the chase for some reason. Moreover the latest development has caused great excitement within the Partido Popular as it offers the prospect of sympathetic, and overwhelmingly conservative, judges delivering what could be a fatal blow to the progress of Gürtel. The complaint against Garzón over Gürtel concerns the decision to intercept conversations between lawyers and some of the accused, an issue which is also being considered this week by the highest regional court in Madrid. If El País is to be believed the judges in that court are currently inclining towards declaring the interceptions to be illegal.

Such a verdict would seem to justify the action taken against Garzón but the situation is not so simple. The argument behind the interception of these conversations is that some of the lawyers are said to be involved with the accused, especially in the laundering of the proceeds. The legal situation is far from clear and the judge in Madrid who took over the investigation from where Garzón left it regards the interception as being legally justified. As with the case over the victims of Franco's repression, we are left with the curious situation of Garzón being accused of exceeding his powers whilst the other judges who agree with his positions are not accused of doing anything wrong. Such an inconsistent situation, together with the almost simultaneous admission of three separate cases against Garzón, supports the conclusion that what is happening is much more about the man than the details of the cases themselves.

Such a conclusion will of course be strenuously denied by all concerned. The president of the Consejo General del Poder Judicial (CGPJ), the judicial governing body, has already spoken out against criticism of the Garzón case. The trouble is that when judges try to stop anyone else commenting on their actions it's almost always because such actions go beyond the run of the mill functioning of the judiciary. Sadly, the same people who now call for judicial independence to be respected did nothing in the face of the determined attempts to sabotage the trial of those accused of perpetrating the Madrid bombings, to name just one recent example. But then such selective criteria brings us to the heart of the problem, one that has been highlighted by Garzón himself in his attempt to prevent the CGPJ from suspending him before he has even been formally accused.

Garzón has challenged the right of three members of the CGPJ to sit in judgement of him, and in the process has spotlighted just how politicised that institution is. First off we have Fernando de Rosa, vice-president of the CGPJ and formerly in charge of justice in the Valencian administration led by Francisco Camps and his very fine suits. De Rosa held a well reported meeting with Camps just after Garzón accused the latter of receiving gifts from Don Vito and friends. After that meeting De Rosa issued a public warning to Garzón not to cross the "red line" in his Gürtel investigation. In other words, the very model of judicial independence. De Rosa has wisely decided to abstain from the meeting that will decide Garzón's future, but he has done so in a way which avoided discussion of the reasons why he should not be present.

Secondly we have Margarita Robles, and here we start to get an understanding of the alliance of convenience between the right wing defenders of the nation on the Supreme Court and some others more commonly associated with the left. Robles served in the administration of Felipe Gonzalez at the same time as Garzón during his very brief political career. In what could be considered his greatest error, Garzón fell into the trap laid by Gonzalez in an attempt to stop the judicial investigation of the GAL case involving government support for a dirty war against ETA. Finally realizing that he was not being offered what he hoped for, Garzón subsequently resumed his career as a judge and took up the GAL case with renewed enthusiasm. This made him many enemies in the Gonzalez administration at the same time as it made him a hero for the Partido Popular and the right-wing press. How times change, but Robles is said to be a close ally of Luciano Varela, who is preparing the case against Garzón for the Supreme Court. Robles has also decided to abstain following the challenge, having been the main mover in favour of immediate suspension for the judge.

Last but by no means least we have judge Gemma Gallego, who has rejected any suggestion that she should not decide on the issue of Garzón keeping his job. Judge Gallego is known above all for being the judge who launched that most ridiculous of judicial processes, the infamous "boric acid" case. She had several senior police officers facing a potential prison sentence over what was nothing more than a set up devised by El Mundo and other supporters of the conspiracy theories over the Madrid bombings. The case, if it deserves such a title, was resoundingly rejected by Garzón who saw through it. But the conspiracy theorists manoeuvred to get it into the hands of Gallego, who did her political duty and got her political reward. It's arguable, after such actions, whether she was fit to continue as a judge at all; but here she is deciding the futures of others on the supreme governing body of the Spanish judiciary. I rest my case your honour.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Nepal, Annapurna Circuit....Jagat To Dharapani

The route from Jagat to Dharapani starts with a beautiful walk along the narrow river valley. Waterfalls are everywhere, and the vegetation becomes a mixture between the lush greenness of the first couple of days and the woodlands of a higher, mountain altitude. At first the route goes up and down quite gently above the river, but soon comes a steeper climb – we were now walking close to the 2000 metre mark.

After the climb you arrive in Tal, which is said to have once been the site of a lake that gradually silted up. The result is now that the river spreads across the valley, looking much slower and in many ways less impressive than it does with a narrower channel and steeper gradient.

We were no longer seeing rice fields, maize is much more the preferred crop in these parts. In Tal we came across the solution to the problem of water and plastic bottles that I mentioned in a previous post. A scheme has been set up in several of the villages on the Annapurna Circuit to provide safe drinking water to walkers. You pay less for good quality purified mountain water than you do for mineral water, and you reuse the plastic bottles that would otherwise end up on heaps of rubbish. Just to make it the perfect scheme, the local community makes some income from it. It's a wonderful, and very simple idea. From this point onwards we hardly had to buy bottled water.

After lunch in a restaurant in Tal, a privilege of tea house trekkers, we set off again into a narrower valley. The big peaks are invisible in this stretch of the route, hidden behind high valley walls. At points here the route becomes difficult and even slightly risky as we had to navigate a waterfall. However, most of the time the path is broad and easy, something that has been “helped” by ongoing road construction work on the lower parts of the route. Judging by current progress this work could take years, but if the result is traffic along this road then it's worth asking whether the trekkers will still want to walk this path? It's a good reason, if you need one, to do the Annapurna Circuit before it is too late.

The ascent is generally not too hard. What it did have was several river crossings, which brings us neatly to the subject of bridges. Now I have what could be described as a medium level vertigo problem, not so serious that it stops me from enjoying high mountain walks, but occasionally quite severe when I find myself feeling insecure with a big drop below me. It's hard to explain to those who don't suffer from the problem, those that do will know what I'm talking about.

One of my big fears about this route concerned bridges, more or less from the moment that I read in our schedule about having to cross a valley at 4000 metres. My imagination got to work with this idea and I soon had the picture of a flimsy rope bridge high above a ravine, and probably with some malevolent local chopping with his machete at the last remaining threads on the opposite side. Something a bit like this.

The reality, I'm happy to report, is different. Strong metal bridges cross the river, supported by very sturdy steel cables and huge concrete blocks on either side. They are still crossing fast moving Himalayan rivers of course. The first bridge we had to cross was during the great Siurung thunderstorm, all I had to do was make a simple association between water, lightning and a metal bridge and I was across in record time. My second bridge was on the other side of Siurung and some local kids thought it was great fun to start jumping up and down in the middle of the bridge. Not everybody was laughing. On the third bridge I was lucky, the group of donkeys got across before I got there.

These animals transport most of the goods that reach the villages up here and it's not a good idea to get in their way. In the end I adopted a simple system of getting Silvia, my partner, to walk ahead of me on the bridge, I would go about one metre behind and focus on her rucksack or cap rather than on the torrent of water below me. It works.

One of the villages we passed through closer to Dharapani was clearly in the hands of the Maoist party, who are now a major political force in Nepal following the civil war a few years ago and the conversion of the country into a republic.

Dharapani is similar to Jagat but the river gorge at this point is even narrower, and the village faces an almost sheer rock face rising above it. There is always the local cartography to help you find your way, although it's quite hard to get lost.

View Nepal - The Annapurna Circuit in a larger map

Friday, March 12, 2010

The Outlaw Esperanza Rides Again

There's trouble down near the Rio Bravo (formerly known as the Manzanares - we've had a wet winter in Madrid). When there's trouble in these parts folks usually look towards the Puerta del Sol, hideout of the infamous Aguirre Gang. No wonder, as it's well known for being a lawless part of town. The latest breach of the peace concerns Esperanza Aguirre's decision to launch a campaign against the increase in VAT that the government has planned to help bring down the budget deficit. Immediately challenged on what she would do with the money that would come from the tax increase, Aguirre claims that she doesn't want any of it. Maybe she doesn't need it now that the Gürtel companies are not creaming off a huge profit on every contract? She would certainly be in a far stronger position to present herself as the public defender if she hadn't already slapped a 20% increase on the price of the 10 journey public transport bonobus this year.

The PP claims that this is a legal protest, and that they are not encouraging people to refuse to pay their taxes, at least in the case of those who are not donors to the party. Now imagine for a moment what the reaction would be if such a rebellion was proposed by the Basque or Catalan governments? ABC, La Razón, El Mundo and probably the bishops too would be demanding action against separatist rebels who dare to propose their own taxation policy. It's one of the great ironies of Spanish politics in the Zapatero years that those who most loudly proclaim the idea of Spanish unity are the same as those who most frequently use their regional power to defy the national government.

The issue helps to put the focus on the fact that a large part of the public spending in Spain is no longer in national government hands, it's the regional comunidades that are responsible for much of it. All of which brings us to a fairly simple conclusion. The PP have loudly proclaimed that the solution to the crisis lies in reducing public spending rather than increasing taxes. Well the power is in their hands to lead by example in their strongholds like Valencia or Madrid. So what do you think happened when the opposition in Madrid took their PP at their word and proposed one of that party's key proposals for reducing the deficit, a reduction in the number of highly paid executive posts in Madrid's government? Did they really think that Espe had spent so many years using her powers of patronage to provide refuge for those who had lost their positions following Aznar's downfall only to start getting rid of them just because of a budget deficit? Inocentes.

Meanwhile, Spanish finance minister Elena Salgado was quoted the other day as regretting the abolition in 2008 of the impuesto de patrimonio, a wealth tax. This was done as part of Zapatero's populist "bajando impuestos es de izquierdas" policy a couple of years ago. Now the government is increasing taxes that everybody pays to help compensate for the abolition of one that was paid by very few. It gets worse, a large part of the extra take from the VAT increase goes anyway on compensation to the regional governments for the loss of the patrimonio tax. So far, Aguirre hasn't renounced the €500 million every year that she gets from the government because of that.

Such behaviour makes it clear that the PP's opposition strategy doesn't stop at just dynamiting any possibilities of a pact over the crisis, the decision to oppose the tax increases shows that they are determined to try and shut down any possible exits for the government. A recent attempt to promote a non-party confidence building exercise in the economy has swiftly come under attack from the PP, who regard any notion of shared responsibility for the crisis as an obstacle on their route back to power. The campaign was being promoted by Spanish state television and the PP threatened to withdraw their support for consensus with the government over what happens in the state broadcaster unless the publicity for this campaign was dropped. They got their way.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

A Crash Landing For The Galácticos

There is little to be surprised about with the exit last night of Real Madrid from this years's Champions League. It is after all the sixth year running that they have been eliminated at this stage of the tournament. It was all supposed to be different this time, following the return to the club of Florentino Pérez as president and the huge outlay on players now that Real Madrid are the only entity which the banks will still lend money to. Instead Galácticos 2 looks like it could go the same way as the first version, and for much the same reasons.

Even with a perfect start to the game, and a good first half, Madrid were unable to overcome Olympique Lyon and could easily have lost both games if it hadn't been for some slack finishing by the Lyon strikers. So what, some people might say, there is still La Liga. But the expression on Florentino Perez's face as the game ended suggests that this was the end of the season for him. The final of this year's Champions League is to be held in the Bernabeu stadium, and winning the trophy in their own stadium was intended to be the launch pad for years of domination by the new model Real Madrid.

Instead Madrid's supporters are now faced with the horrific prospect that it might be the captain of Barcelona lifting the trophy at the end of that final. Barcelona president Joan Laporta says that he is waiting until June to announce his political intentions, and I have no doubt that he has calculated just how many points in the opinion polls it might be worth to win the Champions League in the home of their greatest rivals. There are of course a few other teams less fragile than Madrid who still have something to say on the subject.

Madrid were beaten by opponents who played as a team rather than as a random collection of stars, a simple idea but one that Pérez and company still seem to treat with disdain. It's a hugely satisfying result for all those who see football as being about more than the price of the players. As happened in his previous reign, the new Madrid has come to depend on players who were unappreciated or on the list of likely discards; Van der Vaart, Diarra, Higuaín. Then there is the case of Raúl, who Pérez reportedly regards as having had far too much power inside the club. When the ineffective Kaka was substituted by Raúl last night we should have been treated to Florentino's expression - when things get tough the expensive imports are often nowhere to be seen.

Nobody should be fooled by the routine support given to trainer Manuel Pellegrini who was always unlikely to survive beyond the end of the season. Not because he's bad at his job - he's not - but because Pérez still seeks someone with a profile to fit his notion of the team. Remember Vicente del Bosque's exit from the Galácticos first version? Apart from anything else, one constant in Madrid is that the directors of the club take the credit for all success, and the blame for any failures is always passed to someone further down - usually the trainer. Pellegrini will survive, especially with the payoff he will get, and will probably be happier in a more modest team where he is allowed to pursue his own project.

Who was beside Pérez in the "palco" at the Bernabeu last night? Esperanza Aguirre, already in full electioneering mode and always desperately keen to get into the picture if there is any chance of glory to be celebrated. Any club with friends like that deserves all that it gets.

Tuesday, March 09, 2010

Barcelona In The Snow

"It's only a bit of rain", I thought, as I left my hotel in Barcelona yesterday morning. Anyway I had things to do in places where there was a bit of shelter, and I headed for the newly reopened Fundació Antoni Tàpies. That was my first mistake, I'd left until Monday what I should have done on Friday before going to Girona; Monday is everything is closed day for museums in Spain.

The rain turned to sleet as I arrived in the old part of town. "It's the brilliance of the light that makes the difference on the Mediterranean", I said to myself in an attempt to keep my spirits up. Those who were marching to mark International Women's Day also needed something to lift their spirits. I suspect the weather did little for the turnout.

After a while I was really just killing time before I could get inside for my menú del día. Unfortunately, the waiters in the restaurant were very efficient and I was back on the street an hour later. Things were not improving in downtown Barcelona.

Forced by the weight of circumstances to take refuge in a nearby pub, I could see the snow getting heavier outside. The passing umbrellas already carried a layer of the white stuff. Now I had a problem, the worst of the weather hit just as I needed to go to Sants station for my train back to Madrid. I had no choice, and as I went back to the hotel to collect my bag the ground was covered in slushy snow. I stopped briefly to record the scene in the Plaça de Catalunya.

Many visitors to Barcelona can't resist the temptation to stop for a refreshing drink in one of the numerous terrazas scattered around the city.

I decided to walk from my hotel to Sants. What the hell, I was already wet and I wasn't sure where the nearest metro station was. A taxi was just an impossible dream in these circumstances and there was very little traffic of any kind on the streets, even though this would normally be rush hour in the always busy city.

The walk to Sants was not easy, I seemed to be heading always with my face towards the wind and snow. The pavements in Barcelona don't seem to drain very well, and the half-melted slush just sat there surrounded by puddles of water. It was bitterly cold, wet and unpleasant. Then came the first crack of thunder. I've never been in a snow thunderstorm before. I stopped in front of Sants for one last photo of the snow. Moscow or Barcelona?

Inside the station there were crowds of people, and I was relieved to see that the entrance to the AVE area for the trains to Madrid was still open. Most of the local services seemed to be suspended, with grim warnings on the information screens that no alternative forms of transport were available. As we waited to board the train there seemed to be a lot of coming and going on the other side of the barrier. It got nearer to departure time and they started to check our tickets, but still we couldn't go through. A man I took to be the boss paced up and down talking into his mobile phone. Either he was worried about the train or trying to organise a weekend skiing in the Pyrenees. I couldn't tell, but he didn't look happy.

Suddenly we were allowed through the barrier and I was relieved when the train started moving, taking me swiftly back to the relative security of the drier meseta. For the first 15 minutes or so the carriage filled with the sound of 20 simultaneous phone conversations as everyone wanted to tell of their adventures in the great snowstorm. "They say it hasn't snowed like this in Barcelona since the last ice age" more or less sums up the theme of many of these conversations. I think about what a nice weekend we spent in Girona, and how bad it could have been.

Monday, March 08, 2010

This Cheese Is A Bit Rich For My Taste

As I'm still slowly making my way home from a very successful calçotada weekend in Girona, it's a short post this morning. As part of my very occasional series on weird Spanish menu translations, I offer you this from the place where we had lunch in Tossa de Mar yesterday. Obviously the economic crisis has affected cheeses as it has the rest of us, but it's nice to know that some have weathered the storm. Although there is no need to flaunt it.

Saturday, March 06, 2010

Aguirre, The Matador's Friend

As the Catalan parliament was busy debating bullfighting this week, Esperanza Aguirre couldn't resist making a special contribution to the debate. She announced on Thursday that the bloodsport is to receive special protection in Madrid as a Bien de Interés Cultural, a status normally only awarded to physical buildings or landscapes. Of course this was Aguirre making her bid for the headlines as the right wing media in Spain raged about the evil Catalan threat to the "fiesta nacional". Espe spent most of the day being photographed in a series of bullfighting poses and she got her reward; pictures on the front pages of the three major right wing Spanish papers. For a person who finds the restricting role of governing Madrid so terribly dreary it's very hard for her to avoid the temptation to upstage the rest of her party in this way and the move came just a day after she told her regional party to get into electioneering mood. Not to worry, there's only another 15 months of this kind of campaigning ahead of us, who says sport and politics don't mix?

Meanwhile the appearances of pro and anti bullfighting witnesses in the Catalan parliament have been quite interesting and in many ways a model of how to deal with such issues. The bullfighting lobby has been working hard but in the end their arguments come down to liberty (obviously not for the bull), tradition (anyone for a stoning?) and unconvincing attempts to minimise the suffering of the animals. What makes the debate special is that there is very little outside intervention involved, a sign of how attitudes towards bullfighting have changed here over the years. The sport is gradually declining, despite very significant public subsidy, and those against it are not just to be found in Cataluña. Its future in that region now seems to depend on the nationalists of Convergencia i Unió, as the rest of the parties have lined up their votes on either side. CiU has so far allowed its members a free vote on the issue.

Friday, March 05, 2010

The Contract To End All Contracts

Do you remember all that talk of how unfair the Spanish labour market is with some workers enjoying protection whilst others are condemned to work on a series of temporary contracts? This, in theory, is a problem which the government in Spain is currently attempting to address via negotiations with employers and trade unions.

So the other day a leading member of the employers association presented a make the labour market even more unfair. For some it seems to be too much to take that workers under 30 should be able to enjoy any kind of employment protection, and the proposal was for a special contract for this age group that would deny them any right to compensation on dismissal and would also not include the possibility of claiming unemployment benefit.

The storm that this suggestion provoked led to a hasty retraction by the employers, who claimed that it was just an "example". Presumably one to put alongside being a galley slave. I wonder whether they would want to charge for the chains? What the employers, led by the exemplary Gerardo Díaz Ferrán, are trying to achieve is open to debate. Some believe that they simply want to torpedo negotiations that won't give them the result they want, in the hope that a future Partido Popular government might compensate them for joining the opposition.

There is a reasonable chance, given the pressure on the Spanish government at the moment, of changes favourable to their interests being made to the employment legislation. But these changes are likely to involve little more than making an already existing, but little used contract, the new standard for future contracts. What is clear is that the employers are seeking much more, and their miserable vision of the future Spanish labour market is one of low pay and maximum insecurity for all. No amount of rhetoric about the unfairness of the dual labour market or the even more fantastic talk of a highly skilled and trained workforce is likely to change this perception.

Thursday, March 04, 2010

El Mundo Goes Into Orbyt

The newspaper El Mundo has become the first of the major Spanish papers to go for a new mode of paid for content. Starting next week is a new service called Orbyt which will cost €15 a month for subscribers who will get access to the contents of the paper edition as well as a range of other services. Quite how this will affect the rest of the content currently offered free on the paper's website is unclear, but the suggestion that access to El Mundo's archives will be part of the new service indicates that it may no longer be available for nothing.

It's a risky strategy to make too much of your content available only to those prepared to pay, El Mundo owes the strong position of its website to the fact that it made more content available at a time when others such as El País tried to get people to subscribe. It truly tests the loyalty of your readers in an age when so much information is freely available. The challenge now will be to see how the other Spanish papers respond to the precedent. In the meantime your conspiracy theories will cost more money! At the same time as they seek to charge for content I read recently that El Mundo has an ever greater number of "becarios" working on the paper whose initial three month placements have been indefinitely extended whilst the paper has shed journalists. Quality and price don't necessarily go together.

In other news from the media front it seems that the newest Spanish paper, Público, is now getting its third editor as Felix Monteira departs to take on the difficult task of communications director for the government. His replacement, Jesús Maraña, has been with the paper since it began. In addition to all of this tomorrow will see the launch of a new web-based journalism platform called Cuarto Poder, involving a number of experienced Spanish journalists.