Monday, February 28, 2011

Drive Less Quickly And You'll Have More Time To Think

It's quite amazing to see the reaction to the Spanish government's announcement last week of a 10km reduction in the speed limit on motorways. Anyone might think that the most fundamental of all human rights had been breached by the measure, which was justified as a means of reducing petrol usage. The current limit is being "temporarily" reduced to 110km along with measures to cut train fares in a bid to encourage people to switch to public transport.

Despite the hysteria generated by the announcement it makes very little difference to all but the longest of journeys. A 360km journey will take a terrifying 15 minutes longer once the new limit comes into place on March 7th. In return the country (together with those drivers who obey the limit) gets to spend less on its fuel bill helping the balance of payments at a time when the cost of petrol is rising sharply. In addition we get less contamination and probably some further improvement in accident statistics. Terrible isn't it?

Accusations by opponents of the move that the real intention is to increase income from traffic fines seem to ignore the fairly obvious consequence of less petrol being sold; the government loses significant income from taxes. In any case fines are only available for those who choose to ignore the limit. Always ready for a bit of empty populist rhetoric, the Partido Popular has denounced the measure as being reminiscent of the Soviet Union, and no doubt the same people who claim the anti-smoking law is evidence of creeping dictatorship will be on the case.

The new government in Cataluña had already anticipated the PP's position by lifting an 80km restriction around Barcelona that was working quite well, and counted as one of the few measures to reduce the awful traffic pollution problems. Critics like to claim that the new measure won't work, and it is arguable whether it is sufficient to really make a difference but I'm sure may of the same people made similar claims about the measures which have led to a massive reduction in deaths due to traffic accidents in Spain.

For the boy racers whose favourite activity is to go up to 2 metres from the car in front to try and force them into another lane, any restrictions are an attack on their inalienable right to put other people in danger. I laugh when I see people claiming that the way forward is to educate drivers on how to drive more efficiently, as if those who have supposedly learnt to drive properly to get a license don't forget half of what they have learnt as soon as they get it.

With everything else that is happening you have to wonder about some people's priorities. The economic good times have left this legacy of people who buy expensive, powerful cars and have contempt for anyone who hasn't done the same. Making train fares cheaper is not a bad thing but it won't attract these drivers to switch, they regard public transport as being for losers even though in Madrid at least it is generally excellent and cheap. For the moment.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

The Best Dressed Candidate In Town

It's been a while since I've written about the Gürtel corruption case. Things have been relatively quiet although the investigation continues to proceed and the amount of (usually public) money that was ripped off by those involved continues to grow. Now, with regional and municipal elections approaching in May, the case has returned to prominence because of the effect it can have on Partido Popular candidates standing at those elections. The most notable case is undoubtedly that of Francisco Camps, the Valencian president. Camps looks almost certain to be facing a trial for his acceptance of gifts of expensive clothing from those behind the Gürtel scams. The confirmation of this could easily happen in the next few weeks, leaving the Valencian leader in what you would think would be a vulnerable position.

Today the national PP has, somewhat reluctantly, issued official confirmation of Camps as their candidate for the elections. The party has been dragging its heels on this issue whilst waiting to see what happens in the courts. The word is that PP leader Mariano Rajoy would have preferred to drop Camps altogether, but we know how things work with Mariano and taking decisions. The Valencian PP has forced the hand of the national party by organising their own proclamation of the man who modestly describes himself as the candidate with the most support in the entire history of the Western world! In reality you have to say that today's decision doesn't absolutely guarantee that Camps will make it all the way to election day, although the political cost of replacing him with the campaign ever closer may be higher than letting him stand.

Both Camps and the PP have been engaging in intense background legal manoeuvres to try and delay the announcement of a trial, obviously with the hope that they can kick it into touch until after the elections. This is not because Camps will lose the election, all the signs are that rampant corruption in Valencia is having no effect at all on the PP's support in the region. It's more a question of appearances. Having a candidate who could soon be on trial for corruption forces the PP to openly argue what they privately believe, that it doesn't matter how corrupt you are as long as you can persuade people to vote for you. The philosophy has been best expressed by (who better to say it?) notable tax dodger Carlos Fabra who has claimed that Camps will be absolved by the ballot box.

All of which gives us a taste of what to expect if the PP recover national power in 2012. In true Berlusconi style we can expect a PP government to devote much of its time in office to rescuing its own members from their legal difficulties. All parties are the same, some say, and that's certainly the argument that the most corrupt like to promote as they benefit from such a belief. But there isn't currently any other party in Spain that dedicates itself so energetically to undermining any legal process involving their members as the PP does. Nevertheless, in the interests of balance I'll point readers of this blog in the direction of a map of political corruption prepared by the No Les Votes campaign; created by opponents of the Ley Sinde.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

The Photo Opportunists

We already know that El Mundo likes to play games with photographs, but today it seems that they have shot themselves in the foot and perhaps even lost some readers. The paper featured prominently on its front page this morning a snatched, blurry, photo of Esperanza Aguirre en route between the operating theatre and her room, following the removal of a potentially cancerous tumour. We'll have no sick jokes about Aguirre being removed from a benign tumour if you don't mind! The photo seems to have been captured by a mobile phone and has provoked outrage amongst many of Aguirre's supporters because of the invasion of privacy. It's worth noting that many of these people have shown no previous anger over El Mundo's ever more frequent use of tabloid journalistic ethics, it seems to be merely a question of who the victim is.

Meanwhile, I hope that readers of this blog have noticed that I have shown commendable restraint over Aguirre's illness. I have resisted any temptation to question whether she got priority over other sick people on the hospital waiting lists. I also express my sincere hope that she is never sick enough to require the application of palliative care. This could cause great suffering when you bear in mind the tremendously callous policy adopted by Madrid's regional government on the use of such pain relieving treatment.

This wasn't the only story in El Mundo today concerning the use of photographs. The paper claimed in another article that a photograph on the new web page in support of the re-election of Madrid mayor Alberto Ruiz Gallardón could lead to the page being closed down under the new anti-piracy Ley Sinde! The header of the page has been clumsily "photoshopped" in order to include an image of Gallardón against a background of happy smiling citizens. We know this because the same picture (without Gallardón) can be found elsewhere on the web and can be purchased from one of these internet photo stock sites.

A flustered town hall responded that of course they had paid for the right to use the image, and then confusingly added that they would change it. Perhaps because it was now evident that none of the people shown standing with Gallardón were actually residents of Madrid, and perhaps also because at least one of them seems to have been cloned. According to the not necessarily reliable El Mundo some of these people are Danish, which raises the question of whether Gallardón, having ruined Madrid, has now set his sights on governing Copenhagen? The last time I looked the picture was still the same but just in case I decided to capture a screenshot for posterity.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

A Poor Return From Nueva Rumasa

The full-page advertisements have been appearing in the Spanish press for a couple of years now, encouraging private investors to ignore the meagre offerings from the banks and put their money into a rapidly expanding company with a great future. With interest to be paid at rates of around 8% per annum, the offer from Nueva Rumasa clearly was too good to be true and last week the company announced that it was seeking temporary protection from its creditors.

Obviously those creditors include the estimated 5000 investors who bought in to the scheme and gave the company around €140 million. Sadly for these investors, it seems that they could end up at the end of the queue if the company finally goes bust; an outcome which is quite possible. The reason for this is that Nueva Rumasa was effectively offering nothing more than IOU's in return for the money, and way ahead in the queue if bankruptcy occurs are the other multiple creditors of the company which include the Spanish tax and social security agencies.

There is quite a lot of history behind Nueva Rumasa. The head of the company, José María Ruiz Mateos, had the previous (and larger) incarnation of the company (Rumasa) expropriated by the government led by Felipe Gonzalez back in 1983. The reasons given for this action had much to do with the similar circumstances surrounding Nueva Rumasa, a mountain of debt and unpaid bills. Ruiz Mateos fought many legal battles against the government and was prosecuted himself for fraud; he never got his company back.

Idolised by some as a martyr of a cruel socialist regime, he has managed to reconstruct a business empire apparently using the same principles as he did the first time. Wages are unpaid, providers are unpaid, social security and tax payments are pending, and now we have a small army of investors who are seeing what looked to them to be a fantastic offer turn into a potential nightmare. The difference this time is that he has located his companies offshore, making it even harder for creditors to get their money back.

The whole operation has the look of a Madoff style Ponzi scheme as any money made available has been used to expand the business at the expense of paying the costs of those companies that already form part of Nueva Rumasa. These companies are mainly producers of food and drink, but also include hotels and Madrid's other football team; Rayo Vallecano. Ruiz Mateos has claimed he would gladly shoot himself before seeing any investors lose their money, but that unfortunately his religion (he is a devout Catholic) doesn't permit him such an option. 

It's sad to see small scale investors faced with losing their money, but it's hard to feel too much sympathy given the obvious danger of the investment. The government commission that regulates investments warned several times about the lack of protection available to those who put their faith in don José María, nobody can claim that they weren't advised. Like those who were caught in the stamp investment fraud a few years ago, people have fallen for an offer that was just too incredible when compared to returns on other investments. If the stamp case is anything to go by, it will all turn out to be the fault of the government as investors seek to find a scapegoat for their own poor decisions. 

Monday, February 21, 2011

Modern Day Slavery In Almería

This depressing report from the Guardian on conditions in the greenhouses of Almería appeared a couple of weeks ago. Much of the report doesn't come as a great surprise to anyone a little bit familiar with the way in which a good proportion of Europe's vegetables are produced using immigrant labour working and living in often appalling conditions. Much of this came to light several years ago following the racist pogrom in the town of El Ejido. Whether you are aware of the issue or not, the accompanying video is well worth watching.

What I didn't know about until today was the dreadful response of the local media to the Guardian's report. Via David Jackson's blog I came across the articles which the local Voz de Almería has run on the issue. Unable to acknowledge in any way that much of the wealth of the region has been built on the exploitation of immigrant labour, they attempt to characterise the report as sensationalist journalism and portray the exploiters as if they were the victims. This, together with the typical and pathetic "there are problems everywhere" attempt to minimize the importance of what happens in the region.

Apart from the portrayal of the conditions which immigrant workers have to put up with, one of the most interesting aspects of the video is the effective confirmation that there has been a deliberate policy in Spain of directing illegal immigrants to areas like Almería where the government knows they will be working. Obviously for very low wages and without any rights. When you hear politicians who complain about the regularisation process that was carried out a few years ago for paperless immigrants, you have to remember that what those politicians seek is a situation just like that which exists in the greenhouses.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Cinema....The Goyas 2011

Spain's annual cinema awards ceremony, the Goyas, took place last night with almost as much interest being focused on relations between some of the main participants as there was shown in the prize giving itself. The Goyas have come quickly following the row over the Ley Sinde, supposedly intended to combat internet piracy. Film director Alex de la Iglesia made it as far as the ceremony as president of the Spanish cinema academy, despite pressures for him to stand down earlier following his resignation announcement in the wake of the PP-PSOE deal that rescued the Ley Sinde in the Senate.

De la Iglesia had been criticised within the industry for having dared to come down from the mountain and treat critics of the new law and internet users in general as if they were human beings instead of monstrous thieves. Last night in his final act as academy president he had to sit next to culture minister Ángeles González Sinde, in whose honour the law has been named. His farewell speech was a cracker, he reminded his audience that internet wasn't the future, it's something that's already here and the cinema industry has to learn to live with it and to learn how to relate to their audience. There were some stony faces in the audience, a noisy protest outside the ceremony by opponents of the Ley Sinde was also largely ignored by the television coverage.

Returning to the awards themselves, the surprise big winner of the night was Pa Negre (Black Bread) which took several of the most important prizes. This outcome has been treated with derision by many, who say that it demonstrates the lamentable state of the Spanish film industry. It probably doesn't help that Pa Negre was shot in Catalan and is set in the period just after the Spanish Civil War. Burn the heretics! 

Now I'm part of what seems to be quite an exclusive club, I've actually seen Pa Negre. What's more I liked it very much, even though I don't think it would have been my first choice as Spanish film of the year. Most of the critics of last night's awards almost certainly haven't seen the film although there is at least now a possibility that more people will be able to see it following the prizes it won. The way in which cinema distribution functions means that only one cinema in the whole of Madrid is currently showing the film, probably most of Spain hasn't even had the chance to see it. I don't know whether it can be downloaded!

Those who judge the quality of their movies by the size of the budget, the big names involved or the special effects may as well not bother trying to watch it. Pa Negre isn't really about the Civil War, although the plot at times may lead you to suspect this and the new order created after the war has its effect on the way in which events unfold. It's much more about the dark history of the village where the film is set. Based on a book by Emili Teixidor and written and directed by Agusti Vilaronga, it features a very strong cast and deserved more recognition than it got from the original release. 

Apart from seeing Pa Negre, I've also managed to get to see the other three films that competed with it for the best film prize. Of the rivals it was De La Iglesia's own Balada Triste de Trompeta that made the least impact on me. It's better than his (to me) misfiring attempt to move away from his typical style with The Oxford Murders, but it didn't have the spirit of his earlier films even if we did get a dramatic finale on the Cruz de los Caidos that fully matches those epic battles from his other films that took place on the rooftops of Madrid's Gran Via. 

Then there was Buried, or "Booryedd" as everyone insisted on calling it last night. A Spanish film because of its  director, Rodrigo Cortés, the film takes on the difficult task of portraying the nightmare of a kidnapped American contractor in Iraq who awakes to find himself buried underground in a box with just a lighter and a mobile phone for company. No other actors appear in the film apart from Ryan Reynolds as the lead, the other participants are just voices on the other end of his phone connection. You wonder whether such an idea be sustained for a full length feature but for me this film worked and maintained the tension throughout. 

The final big contender was Iciar Bollain's También la Lluvia (Even the Rain). This movie also takes on a notoriously difficult task, that of representing the making of a film within a film. That and attempting to use this as a hook on which to compare the situation facing the indigenous peoples of South America at the time of Columbus with that faced by the modern day inhabitants of Cochabamba in Bolivia. Based on real events surrounding the attempted privatisation of the water supply for that city, the fictional part is provided by the attempts of the foreign film makers to see through their project about Columbus and the divisions between the greedy colonists and the priests who tried to restrain their brutal treatment of the native peoples. 

All of this is a bit too much for a two hour film to take on, but if I'd had to choose my Spanish film of the year then this would have been it. Strong performances from the always reliable Luis Tosar and Karra Elejalde who got the role of the actor who gets to play Columbus. In the end last night Tosar lost out to Javier Bardem for the best actor award, although it's not as if he's been badly treated in previous editions of the Goyas. Instead it was Elejalde who won a prize for the film as best supporting male actor. Amidst all the noise about the Ley Sinde and the future of the industry it's actually been quite a good year for Spanish films, and for all the talk about piracy cinema audiences have not been too bad either. In case anyone is wondering, I paid happily to go and see in a cinema all of the four films mentioned in this post. 

Saturday, February 12, 2011

La Cortina De Humo

We've now had about 6 weeks of Spain's tougher anti-smoking legislation, and it looks very much like this law is here to stay. Despite the predictions of widespread disobedience, it's now a regular sight in Madrid to see smokers standing on the street outside bars or restaurants and the law is being observed with very few exceptions. It's even been quite funny to read accounts of people who seem to have suddenly discovered the link between spending the night in a smoke filled bar and the smell of their clothes afterwards. 

A significant part of why the law is succeeding comes from the fact that the noise being made by outraged smokers is out of all proportion to their weight in Spanish society. It's a widespread assumption outside of the country that almost every Spaniard smokes constantly, but it simply ain't true.  Before the tougher law was introduced I'd already noticed a steady decline in the number of smokers in bars and concerts, and the new reality here is that most people are not smokers and are happy to be in places that are not full of smoke.

A lot of the opposition has come from bar and restaurant owners who fear a decline in their takings with smoking being banned. Now maybe I go to the wrong places but I've been enjoying nights out in Madrid in bars or restaurants that seem to be as busy as ever. Some restaurant owners were opportunist enough to start using the law as an excuse for firing employees as early as two days after it came into force! I know I've complained before about the short termism of Spanish employers but even so.

The new legislation has also created a very unappealing martyr for the cause of smokers liberty. The owner of a restaurant in Marbella openly defied the law from the beginning and has finally been forced to shut the place down or obey the law on the orders of Andalucia's regional government. Marbella is of course a place where respect for the law could hardly be said to be a well-established tradition. In this particular case the restaurant owner has become a hero for the likes of Intereconomía because of his insistence that nobody should be allowed to eat a steak unless there is someone blowing tobacco smoke across it. His arrogant "I do what I feel like doing" attitude is nicely topped by his thoroughly balanced description of the government as being Marxist and terrorist. He has deservedly won his very own Twitter hashtag, #eltontodelasador.

The requirements of opposition to everything the government does leads many Partido Popular supporters to talk about how we now live in a dictatorship where nobody is allowed to do anything. Funnily enough I don't think their party has presented any proposal to change the law when they come to power. Things can really get a bit ridiculous, I was in a shop last week where the owner was talking about a fire that was raging in a nearby building. On hearing the word smoke, the customer in front of me launched into the "dictatorship" diatribe for all the world as if a house fire was just a minor distraction. I felt like suggesting it could have been started by a smoker but I showed commendable restraint. After all, you have to feel sorry for people who are now only allowed to smoke, er, almost everywhere.

Nor should we forget the contribution which some politicans and smokers themselves made to the toughening of the legislation. It wouldn't do at all not to acknowledge the role played by that crusader for individual liberty, Esperanza Aguirre. It was her decision to defy the previous law that meant it went virtually unenforced in Madrid. Under that legislation nobody should have been smoking at all in a concert venue but once she made it clear that the law wouldn't be enforced then smokers felt free to do what they wanted. I went to a concert a few weeks before Christmas in Madrid where it was written very clearly in large print on the ticket that the band respectfully requested those attending not to smoke during their performance. The result was, predictably, that nobody took any notice. Is it any wonder, given such arrogant selfishness and unwillingness to think of others, that the previous law had to be hardened?

Wednesday, February 09, 2011

Sortu....Testing The Law That Bans Political Parties

A few people went to Spain's interior ministry today to register their new political party. The new party is called Sortu, and the reason why it is creating headlines is because it is seen as being a successor platform to Batasuna, ETA's political wing. The new organisation is an attempt to recover the political space that was occupied by Batasuna until its illegalisation under the controversial Ley de Partidos.

There is a difference this time, one which has to be seen in the context of ETA's ceasefire announcement. The new party has copied much of its constitution from other legal political parties, like the PSOE or the Basque PNV. In addition, Sortu's representatives have also explicitly rejected the use of violence to achieve their political aims, and have included a specific reference to ETA as part of this rejection.

All of this creates an interesting situation. The Ley de Partidos allows parties to be banned if they support violence or terrorism. On the basis of the constitution presented by Sortu there is no justification for illegalisation of the new party. Despite this it seems fairly likely that state prosecutors will call for Sortu to be banned, and therefore prevented from participating in the municipal elections in May.

The Partido Popular is openly in favour of illegalising the new party, regardless of what the law says. As far as they are concerned any movement that may lead towards an end to ETA's activities is a trick and the looney right were marching on the streets of Madrid again last Saturday; notionally in opposition to ETA although there was far more chanting against Zapatero and Rubalcaba. Zapatero has already commented ironically on how different the reaction would have been had the PP been in power.

In the end, if Sortu is not allowed to exist it will be a political decision rather than a legal one. The judges may say that the new party has failed to condemn ETA's past attacks, or to call for its immediate dissolution. All of which is true, but is not legal grounds for illegalising a party. This is the sort of situation where we could see just what a bad law the Ley de Partidos is, it was created to specifically prohibit Batasuna and permits a formal legal cover for decisions that have a purely political background.

I registered for an invitation for a new web site called Storify some time ago and had forgotten all about it until I got the invitation the other day. This site allows you to aggregate information from different sources about a topic and one of the issues I have decided to use to test it is the ETA ceasefire. It also allows you to embed the resulting story in another web page. I will continue to add new reports as I see them, what is shown here are a few that I collected yesterday and today.

Saturday, February 05, 2011

I've Got A Solution For The Spanish Economy...It's Just That I Can't Read It

Unintentional political comedy was provided last week by Mariano Rajoy, as he appeared on El Mundo's digital TV station to present himself as the alternative to Zapatero. Asked for his policies on Spain's disastrously high youth unemployment, Rajoy reached for his notes only to discover that he couldn't read his own handwriting. So instead he attempted to bluster his way through the question, obviously unable to say anything of significance on the issue without having legible notes.

What makes this moment so special is that the question he was asked appears to have been pacted in advance, it wasn't that he didn't have any warning about it or lacked time to prepare properly a response. Although it might have appeared to viewers that the questions were spontaneous, this was not the case and the woman (a self-confessed PP supporter) who asked the question had already appeared together with Rajoy on El Mundo's front page a couple of days earlier. Ironically with a headline where Rajoy claimed he would sort out the Spanish economy in 2 years. The interviews with the paper and the TV channel were part of a several day love in between El Mundo and Rajoy, who have not exactly got along well given El Mundo's preference for Esperanza Aguirre. However, with the sniff of power it's time for a reconciliation.

The newspaper interview did at least give us some hints on what has so far been a very carefully hidden, or perhaps badly written, PP programme for economic recovery. Privatisation (= public sector gifts for private sector friends), tax cuts for businesses at the same time as (unspecified) cuts are made to control the budget deficit, the reintroduction of tax relief for mortgages and a familiar populist swipe at immigrants with the old idea of an integration contract more or less sums up the measures Rajoy proposes. With the tax relief proposal it's fairly clear that they are staking their hopes of sorting out the economy on another round of bubblenomics, with the slightly inconvenient problem of all those unsold houses from the last bubble. No indication of future growth coming from anything else.

The PP has also launched an offensive recently against Spain's regional autonomy. The ball was set rolling by José Maria Aznar who called Spain's decentralized political structure unviable. I'm curious to know what someone who spends so much time in the US, and who lavishes praise on that country, has to say about the federal structure there? Or in Germany? Rajoy has of course adopted a softer line on the issue than Aznar, as part of his bid not to offend the abstainers who he hopes will help him gain power at the next election. The PP's loyal electorate is kept happy with the prospect of action being taken against regional nationalism, but don't say it too loudly in case the anti-PP vote is mobilised.