Sunday, May 30, 2010

Nepal, Annapurna Circuit....Manang

Acclimatisation day in Manang, 24 hours extra to get used to the altitude in preparation for the next couple of days which would see us doing the highest part of the Annapurna Circuit. Manang is a pleasant place to stop and spend some time. Unlike other villages on the circuit, there is a division between tourist Manang and the real village; the hotels and shops are all on one side leaving the traditional part largely untouched. Which is not to say that Manang does not have any signs of modernity. Those who are familiar with the Spanish blogosphere will know about the HOYGAN, those who comment on web pages almost always using capitals and often very ungrammatical Spanish. Well one of them has got a job in Manang doing the advertising for the telephone service.



Now it would be a big mistake, at least in our case, to confuse acclimatisation day with a rest day. Our program had us set to do the ascent to the Iced Lake, almost another 1000 metres above Manang, the idea being that you go higher and then come down again to get the body used to the altitude. The weather was still not good, from Manang we should have enjoyed magnificent views of Annapurna 3 and Gangapurna. But the clouds were not going away and we were resigned to another day of seeing just occasional glimpses of the higher parts of the range.



The climb up to the Iced Lake is short in distance, but steep. We were soon high above the valley floor and at least we had the view of the glacier of Gangapurna and the lake that lies at the bottom of it. We had to imagine the upper part, shrouded in clouds.


Up here vegetation is sparse and the tree line seems to end around 4000 metres. A bit higher up and we got what would be our only significant wildlife sighting on the whole circuit, assuming you exclude donkeys, dogs, yaks, goats and chickens from the definition of wildlife. These are Himalayan blue sheep, a favourite meal of the much more elusive snow leopard.


As we got higher I started to feel the effects of the altitude. It was a steep climb, but not more so than many others I have done at lower altitudes. The last part of the ascent was very difficult for me and at one point I seriously considered turning around and going back down as my head started to throb and I felt nauseous. Instead I kept on going, but very slowly and having to stop every 50 or 60 metres. I've been in this situation enough now to recognise the difference between being tired and being affected by altitude, even though it can feel a bit like the same thing in terms of energy to keep moving.

The last part of the climb followed a stream gully, and a walk that would normally have taken me about 15 or 20 minutes turned into an agonisingly difficult hour long struggle. At the top of that gully I saw a tiny lake and learnt that the real one was still a couple of hundred metres ahead of us. In my state at the time this was bad news, but at least the rest of the walk was not so steep. I was very relieved to get to the lake. The landscape that we saw in front of us now could very easily have been in the Pyrenees of Huesca, were it not for the ever present Buddhist flags by the water.



By this point it was cold and had started to rain, so we didn't spend much time by the lake. I was more or less ok descending but felt a bit worried about what was to come given the problems I had going up, and the altitude headache that I still had. Despite the indifferent weather in the afternoon, we still got a fine view of the continuation of the valley after Manang.


Once we were back down in the village I was happy to do as little as possible. I went off with my book to one of the cafes where I could have a coffee and a big slice of apple pie. An hour later I no longer had my headache and I felt fine, maybe the acclimatisation walk had worked the way it was supposed to. The next day would be the first test.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Having Christ For Dinner

Way back in 1978, the Spanish singer-songwriter (and I suppose for the purposes of this post, occasional film director) Javier Krahe made a short film for the amusement of himself and his friends. The film was a parody of cooking programmes and contained instructions on the best way to cook Christ. Just harmless atheist fun. Those interested in the recipe may want to check out this translation of an article on the issue from Público. There is also a piece in English on the New Humanist.

Nothing happened over the film, most people were certainly unaware of its existence. Then, in 2005, Krahe was interviewed on a programme on Canal + and reference was made to the film during the interview against a backdrop of some stills from it. The film itself wasn't shown. As a result of this interview an organisation calling itself the Centro de Estudios Jurídicos Tomás Moro brought a court case against Krahe and the director of the Canal + programme. They are claiming €192,000 damages from Krahe and a mere 144,000 from Montserrat Fernández Villa, the director. The case is likely to be heard in the next few months. The courts, you see, have so little to do.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Una Condesa De Clase Media

As the Spanish government dropped ever heavier hints about taxing higher earners in an attempt to offset the impression that the cost of the crisis is being far from evenly shared, it didn't take long for Esperanza Aguirre to share her opinions on the idea. La Condesa de Murillo claimed that she wouldn't be paying any new tax on the wealthy as she is "pobre de pedir". Only those with very short memories or the recently arrived will believe that this is the first time that Aguirre has tried to plead poverty.

Espe claimed that the new tax would be paid by the president of the Spanish parliament, Jose Bono, who has been under heavy fire recently over the startling increase in recent years in his wealth. Whilst Bono probably should answer some of the questions over his property dealings, he still doesn't seem to be quite as lucky with the lottery as, say, Carlos Fabra. He has also been slightly more open about his possessions than most Spanish politicians. Responding to criticisms of her cynical claims of poverty, Aguirre claimed that her declaration of assets had been made available on the internet. In reality, the only document she has made public dates from 2003, before she became president of Madrid's regional government. This document does not list her assets either, instead it makes references to a set of other (unavailable) documents that may or may not deliver the goods, so to speak.

In any case it is well known that Aguirre and her husband (shall we just call them the Murillos?) possess several estates in different provinces, as well as a substantial residence in Madrid. Now the Partido Popular has taken recently to presenting itself as the defender of the middle classes, a category that constantly stretches to include anyone affected by any of the government's economic measures. Chez Aguirre it would seem that everyone from the gardener up to the Condesa herself now forms part of the same social class.

Meanwhile, the government has continued with its now familiar, but bewildering, strategy by appearing to promise a new tax on wealth but then parking the issue for an unspecified "momento oportuno". Many would think that a time when pensions are being frozen and public sector workers are having their salaries cut would be a much more "oportuno" time than any other. Particularly given the reports on how Spain's top executives have continued to do very nicely during the crisis, and when the newspapers have been carrying many announcements recently of the annual general meetings for the very generously taxed SICAV's. It's reported that the government doesn't want the wealthy to take their money elsewhere, but then if they don't pay taxes on it anyway?

The idea of a new wealth tax has provoked some predictable accusations of populism against the government. I don't see anything populist about expecting the wealthy to pay taxes, on the contrary. Populism is threatening to do something like this and then not doing it. Or doing what the PP do, which is to pretend that you can pay off the deficit by reducing a couple of ministries whilst opposing the measures that they would almost certainly introduce themselves if they were in power. But taxing those who have the means to contribute without seriously affecting their opulent lifestyles just seems like common sense. Also, if the measure doesn't affect people like the Murillos then something is wrong with it.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

A Pharaoh Without Phunds Is No Phun

We were still in the times of Vak Asflak As. The people were ever more miserable and there was much complaining throughout the land as the few who still had work found their salaries had been reduced. The Pharaoh Gayadonn wandered the empty corridors of his vast Tel E Kom palace and post office. He was bored and restless. He walked into the office of his faithful adviser Ko Bo and announced "I need to get out of here, this place is driving me crazy."

Ko Bo though for a moment and then suggested "Let us go down to the oasis and listen to the roar of the great Manzanares. Much work has been done and all should be green and splendid." "Oh, is it finished then?", said Gayadonn, "So soon before the elections?" It was not finished of course, but Ko Bo though better of mentioning this and off they went down towards the river.

As they strolled by the Manzanares the Pharaoh gestured towards the people around them. "Are these the people who used to follow us all the time?" "No, my Pharaoh", said Ko Bo, "the spies of Ah Gi Ray no longer trouble us, for I have taken the matter before the Council of Elders. These people you see are the unemployed and those too old to work, they come here because they have no money." "I miss the spies", said Gayadonn, "it made me feel sort of important." "But of course you are important my Pharaoh, what is more you have not been touched by the curse of Gur Tel and the future is still bright for you."

Further down the track they came to a great construction occupying one bank of the river. "What is this huge building doing in the middle of my oasis?" demanded the Pharaoh. "That is the stadium of Att Letti", said Ko Bo, "one day in its place there will be a beautiful park dedicated to the goddess Pelo Tatho, who blesses all of your great works." "Can't we do it now?" Gayadonn asked. "No my Pharaoh, we have used all of the money from Plan E to make this path and the bridges, you must be patient and wait for the people to start buying houses again."

Suddenly as they walked Gayadonn pushed Ko Bo to one side and shouted "Watch out! Wild boar!" Ko Bo just laughed and said "they are only made of wood, do not worry." "Well that's a stupid idea", said Gayadonn as he realised he wasn't beng chased. "Who thought of that?". Ko Bo decided it was better to say nothing on the subject.


Proyecto Madrid-Rio April 2010 - things have moved on.






Saturday, May 22, 2010

The Happy Camps

Now that the Supreme Court has returned the case concerning Gürtel and Francisco Camps to the Valencian courts, it has become clear just what a gift to the Valencian president was the decision by the local courts to shelve the case last year. The Supreme Court ruling does not make it certain that Camps will stand trial for the gifts he received from the Gürtel companies, but it makes it quite likely. At the same time it puts the political future of one of the Partido Popular's main regional barons in doubt.

Some things have of course changed since judge Juan Luis de la Rúa came to the assistance of his friend Mr Camps last August. Despite the claims of many in the PP that this is a trivial case of a few innocent gifts we now know quite a lot more about the close ties between the Valencian administration and the Gürtel companies. The African bull elephant in this particular room is the issue of illegal financing of the PP, and a report prepared by Hacienda suggests that the party could have hidden around 2.5 million euros of income. None of this affects directly the case against Camps, because the main bulk of the Gürtel case remains in the hands of the investigating magistrate in Madrid.

The PP's defence is already familiar. On the one hand we have Camps continuing to claim that he didn't receive gifts anyway, whilst his closest associates suggest that even if he did there is no problem as no one would sell himself for a few suits! This gets mixed in with the "they're all out to get us" conspiracy theory which tries to present the party as an innocent victim of the corruption case. However, the decision by the Supreme Court leaves it clear that the judges do not believe the version of events offered by Camps. When the judge in Madrid recently asked for details of all those involved in awarding contracts to the Gürtel companies, the PP's legal machine went into overdrive to try and stop this from happening.

Camps organised today a homage to himself, but attention already focuses on the absentees from this event. Party leader Mariano Rajoy seems to be so keen to avoid being seen with Camps at the moment that he took what I at least consider to be the extreme measure of going to eat snails in Lleida! There are many voices inside the PP who now question whether he can continue as Valencian president and bets are already being taken on who his successor might be. Not that he doesn't have any friends at all. One of the Basque PP's hardliners, Carlos Iturgaiz, described those criticising Camps as "Bolshevik hyenas". Which tells us all we need to know about his ideological roots.

Before the Supreme Court reached their decision there was optimism in the PP that Camps might get away with it, and Rajoy said at one point that he would still be the PP candidate in Valencia regardless of what the justice system had to say. Yes, this is the same party that lectures the rest of us on respect for judicial decisions. At least so far there is no sign of the case having any impact on the PP's electoral support in Valencia, but it will be harder to pretend that everything is going fine for the leader if he has to go on trial. Despite the evident danger to his position, Camps still remains trapped in his own little world of "Estoy tan feliz, todo es muy bonito".

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Zapatero Could Still Make More Friends At Home

He looks decidedly unhappy, these days, in the official photographs taken at European summits. José Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, surrounded in the photos by people who he thought were his friends, but who have recently forced him to take decisions on cuts in spending that have led to him betraying his commitments on an exit to the crisis without further pain. The weekend brought bad news for him as a poll published in El País showed Zapatero's government 9 percentage points behind the opposition Partido Popular, just a few days after one that had showed the gap between the two parties at a slender 1.5%. All of this in the name of a failed economic orthodoxy, whilst the supposedly wise "markets" change their minds every 10 minutes about whether they like it anyway.

We still don't know exactly how the axe is going to fall as the government tries to manage the fallout in a way which they can sell to their core voters. The cuts in salaries of public employees are supposed to be done in a way which hits the higher paid more, but the details are still not clear. Although some might welcome the pay cuts for people who they regard as the stereotypical "vuelva usted mañana" funcionarios, the more mundane reality is that the vast majority of Spain's public workforce have real jobs to do in education, health and other essential services and are going to find it hard to understand why they have to pay for a crisis they didn't cause at the same time as those who did so well seem to be getting off scot free.

Then people look at Portugal where there are are equally brutal cuts, but where there is at least some small sign of the wealthier sections of society making a contribution. Or Greece, where tax fraud has to be taken seriously as it should be in Spain. Or France, controlled by the right, where plans are afoot to tax higher incomes to protect pensions. In Spain there is still no indication of any similar measures, and we have a now familiar confusing situation where some ministers float the possibility whilst others who take the key decisions act as if it had never occurred to them. I don't know whether PSOE strategists think this is clever politics, but it's happened with a frequency that suggests that is not entirely accidental. As things stand at the moment there seem to be few better ways of pushing their voters further towards abstention in the next elections.

Such a possibility is music to the ears of the PP, because that big lead in the polls doesn't come from people being attracted to the PP's absurd solutions for the economic situation of the country. Far from it, there are no signs of non-PP voters being in any way convinced by Mariano Rajoy and the PP's best hope is yet again to try and demoralise government supporters rather than attract them. The fewer that go to the polls the better is still at the heart of their electoral strategy. The other part of that strategy is of course to deny support to the government even when it has been forced to adopt measures which the PP have claimed were necessary years ago. The contrast with Portugal could hardly be greater, there the opposition has joined with the government in supporting the measures taken. That will not happen in Spain, regardless of what the government does, and many prominent leaders in the PP are pushing Rajoy to insist on early elections. Rajoy will use his traditional method of reaching a decision, and get back to them in a couple of years time.

Friday, May 14, 2010

A Brief Introduction To Market Logic

Step 1: Hey, some countries have budget deficits. This is terrible. Sell! Sell now!

Step 2: Countries are making huge spending cuts. That's great! Buy, everybody buy. Now!

Step 3: Oh my god, we're falling back into recession because of the budget cuts! Sell dammit! Sell, now!

To be continued until there is nothing left.....

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Garzón Chooses Exile Over Suspension

The judicial persecution of Baltasar Garzón is now reaching a crucial phase. The other day, Garzón played what may be his last card before facing trial accused of acting unjustly in his investigation of Franco's repression. With the failure of his, well-founded, challenge to the partiality of judge Luciano Varela, Garzón could see clearly that things were not going his way. So he unveiled a plan to seek a transfer to the International Criminal Court in The Hague where he would act as an advisor. Initially for a few months, with the possibility of a longer extension.

Garzón's intention was not to avoid trial through this move, the case against him does not depend on him continuing to work as a judge in Spain. It was however a pre-emptive move against what looks like being his almost certain suspension from his current post in the Audiencia Nacional. His challenge to Varela, after the latter assisted the far right group of Manos Limpias in preparing their accusation against Garzón, was dealt with very quickly and in a way which suggested that Garzón has no friends at all in the Spanish Supreme Court. A worthy contender for any award for judicial cynicism, the challenge was dismissed on the bizarre grounds that Varela's assistance to those who are out to get Garzón was guaranteeing the rights of the accused!

Then, once Garzón had announced his intention to seek the transfer to The Hague the wheels of justice suddenly started to move bewilderingly fast. Varela issued a whirlwind of decisions and documents including the formal "auto" which officially commits Garzón for trial. This, despite the fact that there are still appeals pending against Varela's decisions from Garzón himself and from state prosecutors who argue that the case has no foundation. It seems fairly clear that Garzón's enemies are determined to see him suspended and are now seeking to prevent him from getting the transfer by fast tracking the accusation against him. Once he is suspended of course, the pace of "justice" will be expected once again to leave most snails looking like boy racers.

So all eyes will now be on the specially convened meeting tomorrow of the Consejo General del Poder Judicial (CGPJ). This meeting has to consider both the possible suspension of Garzón and his request for a transfer to the ICC; which has already been given the green light by Spain's foreign ministry. What they do will be the true test of the weight of Garzón's many enemies, some of whom occupy comfortable positions on the CGPJ itself. If they deny the transfer request it will be because they want to see him completely out of action, regardless of whether the accusations against him eventually succeed or not. Together with the equally pathetic spectacle created around the Constitutional Court over its verdict on Cataluña's Estatut, we can now say that the Supreme Court is seriously competing to be the most discredited judicial institution in the country. The judges don't seem to care much about that, they want their prey.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Then For Dessert We'll Have....Spain

That the Spanish government has been under heavy pressure in the wake of the "rescue" operation launched at the weekend by the EU can be in little doubt after the cuts in public spending announced this morning by Zapatero. It's now clear that instead of just being thrown directly off the cliff, we get offered the chance to see whether we can climb down it ourselves or be tossed over the edge in a slightly more selective fashion. Don't be ungrateful.

The cuts package, already dubbed the "tijeretazo", just helps to confirm something we already knew; that Europe's leaders continue to feel much more at home with the bankers than with their voters. The idea that sharp cuts have to be made now is nothing to do with sound economics, it's entirely down to short term market pressures and the refusal of the political leaders to live up to their promises of reform. The old maxim about what's good for GM being good for America was never true, and neither is its more recent cousin. What's good for the markets most definitely isn't good for the rest of us.

The bulk of the sacrifices will be borne by public employees and pensioners, with public investment also being slashed. They say the party is over, but the problem is that the consequences are being felt mostly by those who were never invited in the first place. Meanwhile the fiesta continues with an ever more exclusive guest list. The cheque-bebé for new parents may have been an unnecessary electoral gift, but then so was the abolition of the wealth tax. We've lost the cheque, but we won't be getting a tax back that would have helped in some way to redress the regressive nature of so many measures being taken. Of course, you can't imagine that the markets would react in the same way to deficit cuts achieved through butchering public services as they do to deficits which get narrowed by, say, taxing their activities.

This isn't so much voodoo economics, it's more slash and burn. It's a big mistake to call these anti-crisis measures, the most likely effect of them will be to return Spain to negative growth in the next few months. Nor is it any use asking what happens if the policy fails, as I've commented before the proponents of these kind of measures apply no failure threshold to their recipes and any subsequent lack of success in the economy will simply be attributed to the fact that there is still a doctor somewhere treating his patients for free. Or will it be because the, now imminent, McJobs labour market reform doesn't go far enough?

Meanwhile those who did best out of the boom years, and those who live on the profits of economic fraud, are allowed to continue their lives completely untouched by the cold winds of austerity. Over on Planet PP, the Partido Popular continues to play its ever more surreal game of opposing every measure the government introduces at the same time as they claim they can fund massive tax cuts by abolishing the Ministry of Equality! As those who have done very well out of other people's misery continue to do very very well, it seems only fair that the final word should go to the hungry. Let me offer this article from the Wall Street Journal as an antidote for those tales of market traders just doing their best to protect the savings of poor widows. A few people get together for dinner and decide to have Greece as one of the courses in between the lemon-roasted chicken and the filet mignon. For those who don't want to read the whole article the key phrase comes from Hans Hufschmid of GlobeOp Financial Services. "This is an opportunity...to make a lot of money".

Erlich, in El País.

Thursday, May 06, 2010

Wednesday, May 05, 2010

The Sleepwalkers

You know those reports you see occasionally in the press about people drowning and how a crowd of spectators gathers to comment but no one does anything to help? That's an image which comes to mind when I think about the current assault by the financial markets against several European countries, most notably Greece. Except there is an important difference, apart from the spectators we have a group of people off to one side who place bets on whether those in the water will drown or not. Whenever they do, the same gamblers then select the next victim so that the spectacle doesn't end. If anyone looks like bucking the trend then they get their head held under the water for a while.

Greece is now being treated to modern capitalism's very own version of medieval medicine. The patients will not get better unless they are made much, much sicker than they were in the first place. You're looking a bit poorly, the best thing is for you to be left to bleed for a few years until it gets better. What happens if the patient dies? No problem, shit happens. Anyway, the next one will be along in a minute and payment was charged in advance. I was completely wrong when I thought that the next crisis would follow the previous one after a short interval, we are now living in the age of permanent recession as countries see any prospects of recovery smashed by the very same people who did so much to provoke the original crisis.

The commentators who support the gamblers like to entertain us with legends of Greeks who retire before they are old enough to work, but it won't be Greek pensioners who will be sipping mojitos on Caribbean beaches as a result of this crisis. It's those who are doing the betting who will enjoy the benefits of a comfortable early retirement. With the added advantage that they get applauded for it by the same people who criticise anyone else who gets such a privilege.

As we saw yesterday, all it takes is one fuckwit to start a false rumour, and a whole bunch of other fuckwits then spend the day doing everything they can to spread the same rumour. It all seems like lunacy, but there is a whole bevy of commentators and sleepwalkers who will, a posteriori, always find perfectly rational reasons to explain what has happened. Who cares whether it's genuine or not. The best thing about the current crisis for those busy earning a living out of it is that each further attack creates a state that can be used to justify the next one. "They're having problems paying their debts, so we have to make it more expensive for them to do it". "Oh, we've pushed them further into recession, better downgrade their credit rating".

I read a report a report last week of how traders had a "crazy, fun week" stuffing the future for yet another country. It's leading to a ridiculous situation where the prospect of an Argentinian style "corralito" becomes more real. More than anything because defaulting on debt will start to look more attractive for those running the countries concerned than implementing measures whose main effect is to prolong indefinitely the recession in the affected country. Of course such a corralito affects millions of people who might have a bit of money saved from doing real work, whilst the wealthy usually have their money stashed somewhere else. If anyone has seen any sign that the markets are not prepared to take their victims to that extreme then please point me to it. It's pointless to criticise the governments for not doing the right kind of reforms, the Greek example demonstrates that nothing will be enough whilst the opportunity to profit from the crisis remains.

So many millions of people now face a future even more uncertain than that which existed a few short months ago. Trapped into this situation by a political class that talked so smoothly of reinventing capitalism, but which has instead buckled at the first push from financial institutions rescued at public expense and who bring nothing to the table but who take so much away. Insanity in motion. They say it can be dangerous to wake up sleepwalkers, but surely not when they are about to take us all over a cliff?

Tuesday, May 04, 2010

Open Government....Madrid Style

Anyone seeking insight into obstacles facing the cause of open government in Spain could take as the perfect case study our beloved Comunidad de Madrid. Yesterday was just another normal day down in La Puerta del Sol. An opposition member of the regional assembly, José Cepeda, went to the archives department to exercise his right to see the documentation concerning the digital television franchises which Espe's administration has handed out in recent years to an assortment of her political allies. The archives are housed, rather spookily, in the same place where Franco's secret police used to hold their prisoners.

Cepeda had only lodged his request a year ago, so things were moving quite fast. Admittedly, he had already tried to see the documentation on Friday but had been refused on the all too reasonable grounds that he was accompanied by another elected member of the same regional assembly. Yesterday, he finally got to see the documentation....a lot of it. But then when he asked for copies of the parts that interested him he was refused on the grounds of "superior orders". So he stood his ground, and sent out a message on Twitter which rapidly started to spread. Finally, after 8 hours of waiting he was able to get the copies that he had requested. This, we need to repeat, is the case of an elected member of the parliament. Had it been a journalist or even, god forbid, one of the voters who had asked for access to the documents you can easily imagine that one year would turn out to be a short time in Madrid politics.

Meanwhile La Lideresa passed a happy Dos de Mayo celebration with the publication of an opinion poll showing that she is still on course to maintain her control of the region despite Gürtel, spies and her commitment to the maximum lack of transparency in government. Nevertheless, the poll shows her losing votes - something which is not to her credit if you take into account that the PP at national level has been steadily building an advantage against the government. The lost votes are not going to the PSOE or Izquierda Unida, the poll shows UPyD entering the regional assembly for the first time. Madrid after all being the stronghold for their kind of nationalist and centralist politics. Aguirre's supporters have tried to pretend over the last few years that she attracts more votes for the PP than Madrid mayor Gallardón and they have also made much of the fact that Mariano Rajoy has such a slender lead in the polls. Their arguments no longer look so solid if the Madrid PP vote starts to decline at a time when it should be hitting new highs.

Aguirre continues to benefit from a weak opposition, and we still don't know who will be her official opponent for the PSOE in next year's election. Regional PSOE leader Tomas Gómez has not made a strong impact, and didn't help his cause this week by sparking a row with the national party after he accused José Blanco of being too friendly to Aguirre. Internal PSOE dissidents can be threatened with disciplinary measures if they speak too publicly, but there have been outbreaks of criticism of the ineffective opposition campaign led by Gómez. Meanwhile, Izquierda Unida - which takes 10% of the vote in Madrid - has had its own problems. Inés Sabanés, who was very well respected beyond the confines of IU's supporters, was removed as candidate for the next elections in an internal coup launched by more hardline sectors. In neither party have calls for primary elections for party members to choose candidates been heeded. It's not just open government that we need.

Monday, May 03, 2010

Racism Takes Centre Stage In The Catalan Campaign

There are already some clear signs that racism will be part of the campaign in the Catalan elections to be held later this year. The most notorious example came in Badalona, where the Partido Popular distributed a nasty anti-Romanian leaflet. That the PP councillor behind this racist crap turned out to have a Romanian babysitter for his children should come as no surprise. It fits neatly into the "I don't think there should be so many of them here and what's more my Polish/Bulgarian/Romanian woman doesn't clean my house properly" kind of discourse.

It's not just about the PP either, because sadly we still haven't seen the end of the saga over the attempts in the town of Vic to exclude immigrants without papers from the municipal census. Although it appeared that Vic had fallen into line after the government told them that they couldn't do this, a statement from a European Union commissioner criticising Spain's policy led to Vic adopting a new measure. They threatened to report any illegal immigrant trying to register to the authorities. The intention is less one of upholding the law, it's much more about deterring immigrants from registering.

Vic has now been joined in this policy by another municipality, Sant Andreu de Llavaneres. This latter case gives the game away, it's a wealthy place with a low percentage of immigrants and where many of those from outside come from the European Union anyway. Despite this the PP and the conservative nationalists of Convergència i Unió have united to remind any illegal immigrants in the area that they are just there to tend the gardens of the richer inhabitants.

This kind of behaviour is nothing to do particularly with Cataluña, as I'm sure we'll find out next year when more regional elections are due to be held in Spain. It's just that the PP does so badly there that there is little they will stop at in return for a handful of votes. It's an ugly warning signal given that there has still been relatively little backlash against immigrants during the crisis. Anyone who has seen the dismal portrayal of immigration as only being a problem in the UK election debates will be aware of what some will try to do here.

Saturday, May 01, 2010

Madrid Gets The European Final It Didn't Expect

The car horns were hooting late at night in the centre of Madrid on Thursday. Of course it's not exactly an unfamiliar sound in the Spanish capital, but when so much noise is being made at such a late hour it's normally because Real Madrid supporters are celebrating one of their (increasingly rare) triumphs. This time was different however, it was the Atlético Madrid fans who were out making the noise even though their team had lost on the night against Liverpool. Over two legs in the Europa League semi-final Atleti came out on top and reached their second cup final of the season; they are already in the final of the Copa del Rey.

Nobody would have predicted such a situation at Christmas, but then Real were still in the Champions League and Atlético were close to the relegation positions in the Spanish Liga. Their league form hasn't improved that much, but in the cup competitions they have found a means of salvaging something from the season. It's a club with some talented players and disastrous management, and fans with a tremendous endurance and loyalty. It would be impossible to imagine Real Madrid supporters making the same sort of noise that Atleti's fans produced in Anfield, the fickle followers of Real rarely make that much noise when their team plays at home.

It's difficult not to enjoy the situation. As I walked through the recently pedestrianised square at Callao this morning I saw a bus that was parked offering the chance to anyone who wanted to hold the Champions League trophy. The final is to be held in Real Madrid's stadium later this month. There was already quite a queue but I didn't see Ronaldo or Kaka amongst those who were waiting. This after all was part of the plan behind the huge investment made by Florentino Pérez for this season, to win the trophy in their home city. It may have helped to heal the wounds of Madrid fans that Barcelona are not going to be in the Champions League final either. When the trophy was presented in the city a few weeks ago almost everyone was smiling except for Pérez, who sulked in the corner. Despite that small satisfaction, Real still face the possibility of not winning anything this season; if Barcelona don't slip up in the league.

We'll see whether Jose Mourinho comes to Madrid just with the hope of seeing Inter Milan win the final, or whether he will have more profound conversations with Pérez about terms and conditions. Entertainment will be guaranteed, at least off the field, if Madrid take him as their trainer. Meanwhile Atlético and their fans should enjoy the moment. The points gap in La Liga between the first and fourth places (which guarantee Champions League qualification) is currently greater than that between fourth and last. Those who are followers of teams other than the big two increasingly have to look to the cups for a bit of entertainment and excitement, because La Liga just hasn't got it.