Friday, December 15, 2006

Happy New Year!

I know it's only December 15th today but South of Watford is following the commendable example set by Northern and Central European football leagues and taking a winter break. I will be in India for the next four weeks and unless for some reason I get stuck somewhere, there is very little possibility of any blogging taking place. I will restart the engines on January 15th.

March 11th....Two For The Road

A conspiracy theories double whammy before I disappear for my winter break. The promoters of these theories about the Madrid bombings have created fresh headlines in Spain recently, after the quiet period we had enjoyed while the “Boric acid” case bounced from judge to judge. That particular case is still going on, although the judge in charge made a procedural error in her instruction of the case and has had to repeat part of the process.

There are two stories which have recently been floated by El Mundo as part of their continuing and determined attempt to undermine the judicial investigation and pending trial of those accused of the bombings. The first of these “exclusives” took a very dramatic turn which has resulted in several people being imprisoned pending further investigation of their activities.

The story concerned an ongoing investigation into police corruption involving drug trafficking and attempts to traffic explosives. The case first emerged in August this year with the discovery near Madrid of some stolen explosives. The case ended up in the hands of the same investigating magistrate who handled the train bombings investigation, Juan del Olmo. Something about the circumstances surrounding the discovery of the explosive didn’t convince the investigating team, and their suspicions focused on a couple of the police officers involved in the case. So they decided to monitor the activities of the officers involved, including tapping their phones.

For reasons which will become clear below, El Mundo heard about the case and decided that given the right interpretation they could situate the story within their conspiracy theories about March 11th. There were two key elements to their story; the stolen explosive was GOMA 2 ECO (the same as that used in the train bombings), and at least one of the police officers under investigation had been stationed in the Vallecas police station where they discovered the device from the trains that did not explode, and which gave the police their first leads. There is not much there, the stolen explosive was not from the same batch or place as that used in the train bombings, and the events under investigation took place over two years later.

That, of course, is not how El Mundo presented the story and you need to switch into conspiracy theorist mode to see their angle. The conspiracy theorists maintain that the unexploded bomb found in Vallecas was planted by the true authors of the bombings, and was therefore never on the trains. They also claim that there is no proof that the explosive found in this bomb, GOMA 2 ECO, was the same as that used in the bombs that did explode. Then to give the story a final twist, they claimed that the latest discovery of stolen dynamite was only 2 minutes by car from the flat in Leganés where several members of the group accused of the bombings committed suicide after being surrounded by the police. That’s a very crafty description because it wrongly suggests that the discovery was made very close to the flat, and the Leganés suicide is also seen as a setup by those who want us to see a grand conspiracy behind it all.

Anyway, as a result of El Mundo printing this story the case under investigation had to be swiftly concluded, because the newspaper had blown the undercover operation. Here came the surprise, because those arrested did not just include those accused of corruption and trafficking; two other police officers were arrested under suspicion of revealing secrets, i.e. feeding information about the case to El Mundo. Judge del Olmo included, in his summary of the accusation, details from phone conversations between these officers and the El Mundo journalist. These conversations revealed how the El Mundo journalist promised the officers feeding him the information that the story would be front page news and would make a lot of noise. Another telling detail from the recorded calls was that El Mundo deliberately delayed publication of the story so that it wouldn't overshadow the anti-government demonstration called by the Association for Victims of Terrorism.

El Mundo have protested about the arrests claiming that "talking to a journalist" was a perfectly innocent activity for the police officers involved. Angel Acebes of the Partido Popular was quick to echo this claim, lightly skipping over the fact that El Mundo had knowingly disrupted an active investigation into police corruption just so that they could publish a story on the Madrid bombings. The boric acid case raised serious questions about whether the newspaper had crossed the line and begun to interfere directly with the judicial process; this case confirms that this has happened. The difference is that this time they have been found out, and in the process have probably lost a key informant inside the police force.

Undeterred, El Mundo returned to the attack a few days ago by claiming that former Socialist minister Rafael Vera gathered information from his contacts in the days immediately after the bombings and fed this to his party colleagues. He is alleged to have done this from an office ceded to him for this purpose by the regional president of Extremadura. Now Vera has form, literally. He has been in prison for his role in the GAL, the group (set up in the 1980's when Felipe Gonzalez was Prime Minister) which set about eliminating Basque activists related to ETA as part of a dirty war.

This is where the personal and the political start to mix, because Pedro J Ramirez (director of El Mundo) and Vera are sworn enemies. Both Vera and the outgoing president of Extremadura's government have denied the claims, and El Mundo have not produced a single fact to prove them, not much change in their behaviour there. Mixing Vera into the story allows the conspiracy theorists to pursue another of their favourite themes, that the Madrid bombings were the product of what would have to be a very bizarre alliance between the GAL and ETA! Conspiracy theorist in chief Luis del Pino was not slow to suggest, naturally with absolutely no evidence, that Vera was really coordinating the actions of the conspirators as they planted their faked evidence pointing to Islamist authorship of the bombings.

So it goes on, the completely shameless abuse of the Madrid bombings and its victims for political, commercial and probably personal motives. If only El Mundo, del Pino, Losantos and their friends could have found a more harmless way of seeking their revenge.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

You've Got To Be Cruel To Be Kind

Amongst all the comments on the death of Pinochet comes this gem from Manuel Fraga, founder of the Partido Popular (via

"Podía haber cometido algunos excesos pero, en principio, dejaba un país mejor de lo que se lo había encontrado"

my translation

"He might have committed a few excesses but, in principle, he left a better country than the one that he found"

Nobody should be too surprised by these words, Fraga served for many years as a minister under General Franco before discovering the joys of democracy and of course, impunity; nobody from Franco's regime ever faced a trial of any kind.

Those were the days....

Christmas Appeal....A Song For Espe

The wave of public sympathy generated by news of the sad plight of our regional president is inspiring fresh initiatives to help Esperanza Aguirre in her moment of greatest need. The blog set up to support the campaign 1 Euro Para Espe has announced a benefit concert that might allow her to turn the heating on, particularly necessary these days as the cold Madrid winter starts to bite. 1 euro for each ticket bought for the concert by the group Diane on the 18th December will be donated to the campaign. The group’s music is described by the blog as power pop, although frankly it shouldn’t matter if they want to sing the best of Demis Roussos given that it is all in aid of such a good cause. The concert is to take place in Sala El Juglar and tickets will cost 6 euros. Enjoy yourself while helping others.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Chronicle Of A Peace Process….It’s Legal To Talk, But Nobody Is Talking

There was an important ruling made by the Spanish Supreme Court last week that impacts on the Basque peace process. The court rejected a case presented by a far right wing association called Manos Limpias that the contacts between the Basque section of the governing PSOE and Batasuna, ETA’s political wing, were illegal. The argument made by lawyers for Manos Limpias was that Batasuna has been declared an illegal organisation, and that therefore it is illegal to hold any kind of political conversations with them. The court threw out this claim and established an important principle in the process by declaring that it was not the role of the judges to decide whether such contacts could take place or not, such decisions being the responsibility of political institutions.

The decision is a significant blow to attempts by the Partido Popular (PP) and other organisations in their political orbit, to halt the peace process by judicial means. Also, after so many judicial decisions that seem to be tainted by political considerations, it is a welcome decision by the most powerful court in the country to stay out of the political arena. The PP reacted by declaring that if the contacts with Batasuna were not illegal they were still immoral. The irony of this position will not escape anyone with even a basic knowledge of the peace process attempted by the PP when they were in power; a process which included direct face to face contacts with ETA. Now ETA has always been an illegal organisation, yet this did not prevent the PP from talking to them, and of course nobody attempted to take them to court for doing so.

Meanwhile the peace process has not moved forward, the government has not responded to pressure from the PP to halt it, or to pressure from ETA/ Batasuna to make prior concessions on key issues. On the surface, there appears to be no movement at all from Batasuna towards returning to legality in the way that the government has demanded; by rejecting the use of political violence and accepting the law on political parties that was used to illegalise it in the first place. Police activity against ETA in France has resulted in several recent arrests of activists, and the overall impression is one of stagnation, although it remains difficult to know what might be happening in the background.

Some observers now openly talk about the truce by ETA being ended, and the possible political consequences of such an event. There is also an abundance of judgements being made with the benefit of hindsight about whether the government has done things in the right way. It may still be too early to talk of this happening, but there is a mood of pessimism surrounding the process because it is not clear what it will take to move things forward. The first few weeks of the new year will be crucial to determine whether there really is a possibility of progress, or whether a return by ETA to armed activity is on the cards. If ETA does end the truce then they will undoubtedly want to do it in a dramatic way which demonstrates that they still have the strength to survive as an organisation. Someone has to blink because an indefinite standoff is not likely to happen. Nobody said it was going to be easy.

Monday, December 11, 2006

I Would Rather Remember His Victims

Whilst the press bombards us with images of the dead dictator, I prefer to concentrate more on those who were murdered on his orders. The words below come from one of the most well known of Pinochet’s victims; singer, songwriter and poet Victor Jara (or here in Spanish). An article about the fate of Victor Jara is the first thing I can remember reading about the aftermath of the coup that brought Pinochet to power.

Vientos del Pueblo

De nuevo quieren manchar
mi tierra con sangre obrera
los que hablan de libertad
y tienen las manos negras

Los que quieren dividir
a la madre de sus hijos
y quieren reconstruir
la cruz que arrastrara Cristo

Quieren ocultar la infamia
que legaron desde siglos,
pero el color de asesinos
no borrarán de su cara

Ya fueron miles y miles
los que entregaron su sangre
y en caudales generosos
multiplicaron los panes

Ahora quiero vivir
junto a mi hijo y mi hermano
la primavera que todos
vamos construyendo a diario

No me asusta la amenaza,
patrones de la miseria,
la estrella de la esperanza
continuará siendo nuestra

Vientos del pueblo me llaman,
vientos del pueblo me llevan,
me esparcen el corazón
y me aventan la garganta

Así cantará el poeta
mientras el alma me suene
por los caminos del pueblo
desde ahora y para siempre

My thanks to Evaristo for pointing me to the English translation:


Once more they want to stain
my country with workers’ blood
those who talk of liberty
and whose hands are blackened

those who wish to separate
the mother from her sons
and want to reconstruct
the cross that Christ dragged

They want to hide their infamy
their legacy from the centuries,
but the color of murders
cannot be wiped from their faces

Already thousands and thousands
have sacrificed their blood,
and its generous streams
have multiplied the loaves of bread

Now I want to live
beside my son and my brother,
daily working together on
a new springtime for all of us

You can’t scare me with your threats
you masters of misery;
the star of hope
continues to be ours.

Winds of the people are calling me
winds of the people carry me
they scatter my heart
and take the breath from my throat

so the poet will sing
as long as my soul sounds
from the roads of my people
now and forever.

Cava will be consumed this evening at South of Watford Central HQ, the news that Margaret Thatcher is “profoundly saddened” by the loss of her dear friend will only make it taste better.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Dressed In White

The Spanish press has been bemoaning the lack of snow in a week when there are two public holidays and all the skiers are desperate to get out to the slopes. All this panic seems a bit exaggerated, have a look at the pictures below, taken yesterday in the Sierra de Guadarrama near Madrid. South of Watford is off to the beach this evening for a long weekend (I love being able to say that in December!), I won’t be relying on Air Madrid to get there and normal blogging resumes on Monday.

Fly Air Madrid? Sorry, I Don’t Have The Time

As I walked to the departure gate for my flight to London last Friday afternoon, I passed a large group of passengers gathered around the gate for the Air Madrid flight to Santiago in Chile. It was already around 16:30 when I got there, and I could see from the screen above the gate that the Santiago flight had been scheduled to leave shortly after 11 in the morning. A few minutes later, an almighty row erupted around this gate as the waiting passengers were obviously informed that their plane was not about to depart. On my return flight from London to Madrid on Sunday afternoon, I opened my copy of El País and discovered that the unfortunate people who had expected to arrive in Chile on Friday didn’t even take off from Madrid until Saturday afternoon.

None of this surprised me, Air Madrid have constantly been in the papers recently for the late arrival or departure of their flights, and the police have had to intervene on several occasions to try and calm the situation as irate passengers try and find out exactly when they can expect to leave for their destination. The airline offers low(er) price flights from Madrid to several South American destinations. It is absolutely clear that they do not have enough planes to adequately cover themselves when something goes wrong with one of these flights, so a delay with one plane is causing severe delays for those who are waiting to board the same plane for the next flight. Yesterday it was reported that 8 Ecuadorians had been denied the right to board their severely delayed flight, Air Madrid claimed that they had abused ground staff at the airport.

The situation has now reached the point where government inspectors are apparently recommending that the airline have their operating licence withdrawn. This is a measure that the government is reluctant to take, given that it will create a difficult situation for all of those who have already bought tickets for future flights; finding space for them on other airlines over the Christmas period would not be easy. On the other hand, the erratic performance of the company does not seem to improve.

I can write from personal experience on this issue, I flew with Air Madrid for a trip to Mexico last year and it was undoubtedly the most unpleasant long haul flying experience I have had. On the way out to Mexico the cabin crew turned off the main cabin lights immediately after dinner, and all of those who wanted to pass some of the remaining 9 hours reading then found out that the individual reading lights were not working. I ended up using the seat-back video screen at maximum brightness as a reading light. The return flight was much worse; as departure was delayed several hours until 4 in the morning. After a couple of hours flying I got up to go to the toilet. That is when I discovered that the chewing gum left on the seat belt from a previous flight had now spread itself over my clothes, 3 out of 4 toilets in my section of the plane were out of order; and the reading lights still didn’t work. Still, at least I got home. I did wonder at some point what else might be wrong with the plane if the owners cannot even get the lights to work.

In short, you might get a cheaper flight with this company but if you have to arrive on a particular day, or if you have a connecting flight on arrival I would suggest you look at alternatives.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Celebrate It With Cava

Sales forecasts for what the Spanish are not allowed to call champagne are looking fairly good for this Christmas. Not much news in that normally, cava is a standard feature of the Spanish festive season, and the producers spend huge amounts of money on their pre-Christmas/New Year advertising campaign. However, last year sales dipped a few percentage points as all the angry right thinking people in Spain protested about the Catalan autonomy statute by boycotting products from the region. I did my best to offset the effects of this stupid campaign by buying a couple of extra bottles, but I didn’t spend much time in Madrid last Christmas. Anyway, it seems that the outrage has died down now that the statute has been approved and Spain still appears to be more or less in one piece.

I always make sure I have at least one bottle of cava at home in the fridge, just in case Margaret Thatcher dies. Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not generally a vindictive person, and I don’t make a habit of dancing on the graves of the departed. I just feel that there are a few particularly deserving special cases. Yesterday I had a brief moment of panic as I realised that General Pinochet could be about to die and that if he and Thatcher were to go on the same day I could be left short of cava. Unfortunately, it looks like he isn’t leaving us yet and the Thatch is safely locked up at home where she can howl at the moon without disturbing anyone. Still, I should really think about getting another bottle, just in case.

Monday, December 04, 2006

Video Games

The use by political parties of videos to make their case on an issue has quite suddenly become a popular practice in Spain. These videos are subsequently spread by Internet and with a bit of publicity can soon be seen by hundreds of thousands of people.

A few weeks ago the Partido Popular (PP) decided to use this method to spread their “message” on crime and immigration, two separate issues which are unfortunately linked together by too many people here. Seeking to take advantage of opinion polls which place these issues amongst those that cause most concern to many people, the PP video presented Zapatero’s Spain as a nightmarish place bedevilled by crime and horrific street violence; mixed together with images of African immigrants who of course have no relation to any of the other events portrayed.

Shortly after the video was released came the first signs that perhaps it was not the most accurate representation of the real situation in the country. It emerged that two of the scenes portrayed in the film were actually of events that took place when the PP was in power, including one that occurred when their leader, Mariano Rajoy, was Minister of the Interior. The PP attempted to brush aside the charges of manipulation, and shifted the blame onto the external company they had contracted to produce the video. Then things got worse; another of the more dramatic scenes from the video was identified as being film of a shootout involving drug traffickers in Medellin, Colombia. Now Zapatero gets routinely blamed by the PP for most things that are wrong with Spain and the world, but making him responsible for 50 years of violence in Colombia seems to be going just a bit too far. Or maybe not, given that they already insinuate the involvement of him and his party in helping to organise the Madrid train bombings.

Well now Zapatero’s party, the PSOE, has produced its own video, and an interesting one it is too. The video, entitled “La Otra Tregua” (The Other Truce) deals with the negotiations in 1998 between the PP government led by Jose Maria Aznar, and ETA. What makes this video so interesting is that it leaves very clear that Aznar’s government was prepared to make significant concessions to ETA in order to achieve an end to their armed activity, and this is reflected both in their actions and in the words that the video reproduces. ETA prisoners were moved closer to the Basque country as a gesture for the negotiations, Aznar and other ministers spoke of government generosity, and had no misgivings at the time in talking about a “peace process”; a description they insist now can only be applied to a situation where a war exists.

The concessions made at the time by Aznar’s government went further than anything that the current government has done as part of the ongoing peace process, yet the PP has made complete opposition to this process one of the key planks of its strategy. They have reacted furiously to the issuing of this video, not surprisingly given that it exposes the extent of their change of direction. Aznar himself has passed through a Greta Garbo moment, and has declared that he should be left in peace; something that he would find easier to achieve if he could just resist the temptation to publicly criticise the current government at every opportunity.

The PSOE’s video is certainly not going to improve the chances of the PP supporting the peace process, but that possibility is so remote anyway that it really makes no difference. It is now widely accepted that the PP will never support an effort by the current government to negotiate the end of ETA. Whilst you have to take into account that the video is produced by a political party, I recommend it to anyone with an interest in the issue who understands Spanish. It is probably available in many different places on the Web, but I found it on the blog of El rey de la baraja

Thursday, November 30, 2006

Cinema....La Reina (The Queen)

I went to see The Queen last Sunday. Don’t get me wrong, I’m proud to be a republican but you have to be able to say or write a phrase like this at least once in your life. So there is my excuse for posting about a British film, that and the fact that I am off to inspect the homeland this weekend. The story told by this film, directed by Stephen Frears, is familiar to anyone who can recall the events following the death of Princess Diana in 1997. It is an account of a royal family resolutely determined to ignore the death of someone who was no longer considered a part of that family, and hiding behind a façade of protocol as they continued their summer holiday in Balmoral. Meanwhile, a newly elected government led by Tony Blair demonstrated a much keener awareness of events and deft political touch as the still fresh spin doctors quickly moulded the image of “the people’s princess”.

Eventually, the Queen is forced to recognise that something has to give as a “public opinion” spurred on by the press makes it clear that aloofness is not the expected response. The pile of flowers at the entrance to Buckingham Palace gets ever bigger, and the empty flagpole on the palace becomes a symbol of royal indifference. Back in Scotland Prince Philip decides that the best solution for the newly bereaved sons of the late Diana is to take them out to shoot deer.

This is a film that impresses most of all for the strength of its performances. Helen Mirren is excellent as the Queen, and Michael Sheen demonstrates that he has studied the mannerisms of Tony Blair down to the finest detail. He even gets that look of momentary panic that crosses Blair’s face occasionally when somebody responds to him in a way he doesn’t expect to happen. Most of the character acting is very believable, whether or not what they do or say actually corresponds with reality. We have Prince Philip (James Cromwell) showing a customary disdain for detail of any kind as he gets on with his not very busy life, and a typically hand-wringing and agonising Prince Charles (Alex Jennings), who gets surprisingly favourable treatment in the film. The Queen Mother (Sylvia Syms) gets away without being portrayed as the gin soaked Nazi that semi-reliable sources always assured us that she was. For some reason we are missing Princess Anne, not that it makes a great deal of difference to anything.

I liked the film, but if I have a problem with it is that in the end it lets everyone off the hook; we are invited to admire Blair for his political agility in handling the situation (rather than seeing the opportunism that was involved), and the Queen for the dignified way in which she responds to the pressure to change direction. I’m not convinced that the gulf between the “modernising” Blair government and the stuffiness of the royal family is actually as great as is shown here, any more than I believe that Blair was ever particularly sceptical about royalty. There is one great moment in the film when Mirren’s Queen reminds Blair that what has happened to her could also happen to him; I have always believed that much of his initial self-confidence over taking Britain into the Iraq war comes from that moment when he believed he was speaking for the people about the death of Diana. The belief that he could convince the public of his case on anything was probably born in September 1997.

It was a curious period, I was already living in Spain at the time and I have to admit, even though I have no liking for him, that I had a few Prince Philip moments as I turned on the TV to see yet another 6 hour special on the life of the person known here as “Laddy Dee”. I never bought the idea that the outpouring of grief for Diana was about the English finding their emotional side, to me it always seemed to be much more a reflection of the cult of celebrity. Before Diana died she was a figure of fun for so many, those carefully arranged interviews on television and the awful stunt of turning up in the middle of someone’s heart operation for the photo.

A few months after Diana’s death, I was working for a while in Jakarta. One evening, as I relaxed with what was almost certainly a well deserved beer, a group of Indonesian students selected me for a bit of English practice. After chatting for a while, the leader of the group (who was virtually the only one saying anything in English) said something along the lines of “Mr Graeme, I want you to know that when our class heard about the death of Princess Diana we all cried”. These were not school kids, they were of university age and they live on the other side of the planet. I didn’t know what to say, my immediate temptation was to reply “Why?”, but keeping things polite I think I just opted for a bland “Oh, did you?” and then changed the subject to something else. Still, the film is definitely worth seeing, I’m not aware of anything remotely similar about the Spanish royal family.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Christmas Appeal Update....1 Euro For Espe

Who said solidarity was dead? The wave of public sympathy provoked by the appalling plight of poor Esperanza Aguirre has now reached the point where everyone can do their bit to help drag her out of poverty. The brave and selfless initiative launched by Periodismo Incendiario has now led to the creation of the web page 1 Euro Para Espe. From this page anyone will soon be able to make a donation of 1 Euro (or more) to this campaign, which is intended to run until the 12th April 2007.

Should Esperanza, perhaps out of pride or what remains of her self-respect, reject the generous offer of the money that has been collected, the proceeds will be shared between the following campaigns:

La Asociación de Victimas del 11-M - the association of victims of the Madrid bombings which has been refused support by the regional government of Madrid.

Attac España - an NGO who can use the money to campaign against poverty.

The payment options currently available are via direct payment into the Bankinter account number:
0128 / 0360 / 65 / 0100026664

or send an SMS text message MENS ESPE EURO to the number 5377 - you will receive a message in return acknowledging your donation, I just tried it and it works. The cost of the text message is 0,90 cents. Of this money only part goes to the campaign so you may wish to send two messages.

If you agree with this campaign and you have a blog or web page, then please help to spread the message. If you agree and just want to make a donation then that is great. Let's show that the Internet also works for helping the needy, I am sure Esperanza will never forget your gesture.

Monday, November 27, 2006

Walking Against The Flow

There were Barbour coats by the hundred. Spanish flags too, thousands of them, and umbrellas because all those fine clothes don’t look so good in the rain. Yes, I went to have a look at the AVT’s demonstration. It was a damp Saturday afternoon and I had a bit too much time on my hands so I thought I would do an eye witness report from the front line of the Partido Popular’s campaign against the Basque peace process.

There they were marching, of course, in one of Madrid’s more upmarket barrios. The demonstration mixed the theme of opposition to what they describe as the government “surrender” to ETA, together with the campaign to promote conspiracy theories on the Madrid bombings. So naturally the peones negros were there with their banners, so was the entire leadership of the PP – leader Mariano Rajoy, Esperanza Aguirre (she saves on her heating bills if she gets out more), Angel Acebes and even Madrid’s mayor Alberto Ruiz Gallardon, who is regarded as dangerously left wing by many of those attending.

Special attention was paid by many of the demonstrators to a small familiar looking man walking in front of a banner proclaiming that “España no se rinde” (Spain does not surrender). It was none other than the man so memorably described by Jeb Bush as “President Ansar of Spain”. The cry went up: “Se nota, se siente, Aznar esta presente”. Apart from these isolated moments of over-excitement the demonstration was not particularly noisy, of course we heard the familiar and predictable calls for Zapatero to resign; but perhaps the advanced age of many of the participants made it harder for them to make themselves heard. One or two demonstrators attempted to express their feelings in English, my particular favourite was the placard proclaiming that Zapatero is “mat and treacherous”. No, that is not a typo – at least not by me anyway.

So on to the big question, how many people were there? The regional government of Madrid claims 1,300,000, not that a government presided by Esperanza Aguirre should be considered in any way biased. The figure is propagandistic nonsense, and as usual they have failed to reveal the method they used to arrive at this total. The government estimate was 130,000 and is undoubtedly much closer to the reality, measuring the space occupied by the demonstration there would need to be about 20 demonstrators per square metre to get anywhere near the million mark – that would leave muddy footprints on many of those expensive jackets. I walked most of the length of the demonstration in the opposite direction, and at no point did I need to climb over human towers of irate PP supporters; the surrounding streets were virtually empty of demonstrators.

These figures are important because the AVT and PP are determined to try and present these demonstrations as part of a growing civic rebellion against the government’s position, and they are having to deal with the reality that those being mobilised are just the hard core of their supporters. 130-150,000 people on a demonstration is not an unimpressive figure by any means, but it is well below what the organisers have managed to assemble previously, their train is not gathering speed despite the current difficulties in the peace process and the doubts that many people in Spain have about it.

Updated: here are some photos I took of the demonstration, the poor quality is down to me using a telephone instead of a proper camera!

1 family size umbrella per square metre....

They said I was mat! I'll show them....

Crazies night out....

Aznar stands firm..he's in there somewhere....

See how difficult it was to get close?

Friday, November 24, 2006

Lipstick On Your Collar

Australia's finest played in Madrid last night, they didn't play this song but their cover of River Deep Mountain High remains one of my all time favourites.

The Saints - Lipstick On Your Collar

Thursday, November 23, 2006

It's Safe To Sing

Whilst I am genuinely trying to prevent this blog turning into the South of Watford Journal of Legal Studies, I am happy to be able to report that one of the legal cases I have been following has finished with the right outcome. The case brought by the Association of Victims of Terrorism (AVT) accusing the rock band Soziedad Alkoholika of praising terrorism in their songs has finally been rejected by the courts. The band faced the possibility of 18 months imprisonment for the alleged offence. As a face saving measure, the judgement has suggested that one of the songs cited in the accusation was close to the line; we are not told whether the judges involved have bought the album or not.

Anyone who thinks that this means the AVT is going to dedicate more time to representing the victims of terrorism would be wrong, they are far too busy organising the anti-government demonstration planned for this Saturday in Madrid. This makes it a good weekend for escaping from the city.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

The South Of Watford Christmas Appeal

Christmas is traditionally a festive occasion, when families gather together to eat and drink, argue, fall asleep in front of the television and give each other gifts that nobody really wants. In addition to this, it is also a time for reflection and for thinking of others who are perhaps less fortunate than ourselves.

Manuel Rico at Periodismo Incendiario has drawn my attention to the sad case of Esperanza Aguirre. At first sight it seems that Esperanza has more than anyone could possibly ask for in life; she is president of the regional government of Madrid, married to the Count of Murillo, has a palace in Madrid and extensive estates in Ávila, Salamanca and Guadalajara. However, we should not be fooled by this superficial appearance of affluence. According to a newly published biography of Esperanza (simply titled “The President” – no delusions of grandeur here), she is facing a difficult Christmas. Esperanza confesses in this authorised biography that at times she has difficulty making it to the end of the month on her salary. Also, unlike many others in Spain, she does not receive 14 salary payments throughout the course of the year, she has to make do with just 12. Imagine, with Christmas fast approaching, the sacrifices she will need to make to get through the festive period without having that extra December payment that so many others will be enjoying and using to fund this carnival of exaggerated consumption!

Despite her troubles, she keeps smiling....

In telling the story, Esperanza recalls that as President of the Senate her salary was sufficient, but that sadly the 100,742 euros that she now receives every year for presiding the government of Madrid is just not enough. Most of her clothes, we are told, she buys in Zara; only one step above having to forage in the charity shops. Then there are the servants who have to be paid, the heating bills for those palaces and estates must be tremendous (the ceilings are so high in these old buildings), the list is endless. Esperanza, as I am sure I hardly need to explain, means “hope” in English. It is my hope that the readers of this blog will want to make their contribution to helping her get through this difficult patch. As soon as I manage to find a suitable tax haven to set up the account for donations, I will make the details available to all.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Entre Copa Y Copa

Memorable concert by Lila Downs last Saturday night at the Circulo de Bellas Artes here in Madrid. Here's the trailer from her last album where she pays homage to her Mexican roots:

Monday, November 20, 2006

Carlitos' Way

Ok class, it's history and geography today; so pay attention. First the history. On the 28th September 1556 the emperor Carlos V (Carlos 1 of Spain) disembarked at Laredo in Cantabria to begin the journery to what was to be his final resting place, the Monastery of Yuste in the province of Cáceres. He arrived at Yuste in February 1557, and died aged 58 in September of the following year.

Now for the geography. The last section of this route, starting from Tornavacas in the Valle del Jerte, is a well marked trail taking walkers across to the small town of Jarandilla de la Vera; not far from Yuste. I did this route last week, although I have to admit I didn't do the full 28 kilometres; unlike Carlos I didn't have anyone to carry me. It is a beautiful route, helped by the effect of the recent rains which have refreshed the countryside and the rivers.

With this post South Of Watford becomes spatially enabled. Anyone who has the Google Earth client installed on their computer will be able to see the place or route which is the subject of the post, just by clicking on the planet icon shown here:

Friday, November 17, 2006

Spanish Football For Beginners....The Pelotazo

The pelotazo is a complex offensive manoeuvre usually initiated by the president of the football club. Play begins when the president invites the mayor of the city which the club belongs to out for dinner at an expensive restaurant. After juggling with some finely sliced Iberian ham, and dribbling around a choice selection of seafood, the serious part of the move begins. The objective for the president is to make the mayor understand that the best way forward for the football club is to redevelop either their stadium or their training ground, whichever happens to be situated on the most valuable piece of land. As a result of this slick piece of trickery, and before anyone can shout “fuera de juego”, there will be a few thousand new homes built, a new stadium is constructed on the edge of the city, the football club’s debt will disappear overnight, and everyone involved will do very nicely for themselves. This manoeuvre usually works better if the football club president owns a construction company. If the mayor owns one too then success is almost guaranteed. It can also have the beneficial side effect of confusing the opposition, who turn up to play at the previous location of the stadium.

The pioneers of this revolutionary tactic were of course Real Madrid, when Florentino Perez took over as club president. Having their central Madrid training ground reclassified to allow construction of four massive office buildings has wiped out their debt and paid for all of the major signings of the last few years. The income generated is estimated to be around 500 million euros, not that it has had much effect on their results. Murcia has already followed the Madrid example, and Valencia is set to do the same; both clubs stand to benefit to the tune of 150-200 million euros, and other clubs are lining up similar operations. Atletico Madrid intend to make the pelotazo a key part of their strategy for the future, and are expecting profits of the same magnitude that Real obtained. The debate about whether to play 4-4-2 or 4-5-1 is all very well, physical preparation is of course important, but the most important thing in today’s game is never to take your eye off the pelotazo.

Play Spot the Ball - 1000`s of prizes to be won!

Mark with an x where you think the ball is in the above photo

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Remember, Remember, The 20th Of November

Continuing with yesterday’s theme of dictators here we have further evidence, if any was needed, that El Mundo is fast becoming the favourite newspaper of the far right in Spain. Take a look at one of the death notices they have printed today:

The Fundación Franco have also announced a mass in Franco’s memory for this Saturday at the Valley of the Fallen near to Madrid – the weather forecast is for rain.


Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Not Welcome Here…..Teodoro Obiang

The dictator of Ecuatorial Guinea, Teodoro Obiang, is here in Spain on an official visit. The oil-rich African country, a former Spanish colony, should be able to provide its relatively small population with one of the highest standards of living in the world. Unfortunately, the vast majority of the population lives in abject misery as the country’s oil wealth goes almost entirely to foreign companies and the tiny elite consisting of Obiang’s family and friends. Meanwhile the opposition to the regime has been subjected to tremendous pressure and persecution, the country’s jails have a well deserved reputation for being truly awful places. Despite this, Spanish foreign minister Moratinos has claimed that the human rights situation in the country is improving; no evidence has been produced to back up the assertion.

Here's how we deal with dictators....

It seems that Obiang’s visit to the Spanish parliament today has been cancelled after protests, he probably won’t mind very much as he is not a big enthusiast for democratic institutions. He still gets to have dinner with the king, and I’m sure that there will be a token mention of human rights while all sides sort out the benefits which Repsol can expect to receive from the visit. The strategic importance of the country is significant because of its oil reserves, both the US and China are very active diplomatically in oil producing African countries these days as they seek alternative sources of supply. Equatorial Guinea is the third biggest oil exporter in Africa.

A failed coup attempt in the country by mercenaries a couple of years ago was what led to the downfall of Mark Thatcher, who was living the good life in South Africa until becoming involved in the plot. Thatcher..Obiang..Thatcher..Obiang…..there’s a difficult choice if ever there was one. It is still not very clear who was behind this plot, although there have been rumours that the Spanish government (at the time led by Jose Maria Aznar) was either involved or at least aware of what was being planned. There has always been a mystery about the sending of two Spanish warships to the country a few weeks before the arrest of the mercenaries, and the unexplained decision to abruptly cancel this mission when the ships were already on their way. There is not necessarily any connection between this and the coup attempt, I haven’t become a conspiracy theorist, but there was never a very convincing explanation of what was going on.

See Guerra Eterna for more information about the visit (in Spanish).

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Across The Green Pastures Of Madrid

Sunday saw what remains of an old tradition in Madrid; as a herd of about 1000 sheep made their way across the centre of the city following the route of a “cañada real”, one of the routes created centuries ago and which remain open to all those moving their livestock from one part of the country to another. On their way into the city the sheep had to negotiate the chaotic walkways of the massive construction project burying part of the M-30, the inner ring road.

The spectacle attracted huge crowds, now that not so many Madrileños have such close connections with the villages where their parents came from. It also reportedly collapsed traffic in the city, although recently I’ve come to the conclusion that it is pedestrians that are at the heart of Madrid’s traffic problems. The reason I have reached such a startling conclusion has been the activities of the agentes de movilidad (mobility agents), a uniformed force created supposedly to improve traffic flow in the city. How do they do this? From my experience their main activity is to reduce the amount of time that pedestrians have to cross the road; hence my conclusion that those who choose to walk are clearly the main obstacle to free flowing traffic. It’s not as if Madrid drivers need much encouragement to indulge in the ancient tradition of “saltando el semáforo” (jumping the lights), I’ve had people almost driving over my feet as they accelerate in the face of a traffic light that has just changed to red.

So there you go, if we could only get rid of the sheep and the pedestrians, the traffic problem goes away. Forget all that nonsense about it it having something to do with the number of cars on the road.

Monday, November 13, 2006

March 11th....The Wrong Kind Of Victims, The Right Kind Of Judge

800,000 euros. According to El País on Saturday, that is the amount of money which the regional government of Madrid, led by Partido Popular hardliner Esperanza Aguirre, has budgeted for assistance to victims of terrorism in the year 2007. Now, here is today's big question. How much of this money will go to the Asociación 11-m, Afectados por Terrorismo; the association which represents the largest number, if not the majority, of affiliated victims of the Madrid train bombings?

The answer to the above question is zero....not a cent....nothing. There is plenty of money for other associations representing terrorist victims (such as the AVT), so what could the difference be? Well, perhaps it is because the Asociación 11-M doesn't use its money to organise political demonstrations against the government, nor does it use it on lawyers fees for the prosecution of rock groups over the content of their lyrics. Perhaps even more importantly, this association does not support the conspiracy theories which attempt to attribute the authorship of the bombings to an alliance between ETA and the Spanish government. Instead, it devotes it's time and resources to representing the victims of the worst terrorist attack in the country's history, an activity which Madrid's government clearly does not believe to be sufficiently worthy of financial support.

The scales are tipping to the right...

Meanwhile, the bizarre case of the "boric acid report" supposedly linking ETA to the Madrid bombings is moving towards an ever more absurd conclusion. The Madrid judge Gemma Gallego has overturned all of the conclusions in the case that were reached by fellow judge Baltasar Garzón, who accused the original authors of the report of committing an act of falsification of official documents. Gallego has cleared the three police officers who prepared the original report, explaining their curious decision to reissue their report 16 months after the original was rejected by saying that they had noticed the original was no longer in its envelope. We are offered no further explanation of their actions and no mention is made of the fact that all copies of the report almost immediately made it into the hands of El Mundo following this decision to reissue.

On top of this, Gallego has prepared the way for almost the entire chain of command of these officers to be prosecuted for the offence of falsification; no fewer than four senior officers are facing the possibility of being charged. All of this because an entirely speculative paragraph relating the discovery of boric acid, a common household substance, in the home of one of those accused for the Madrid bombings to the same substance being found in the safe house in of an ETA commando, was removed from the final version of the report. There is no connection between the two discoveries, there is no suggestion that boric acid was used in either case for anything relating to terrorist activities, and there is no record of boric acid ever having been used in such activities in Spain. The decision to delete the reference to ETA in what is supposed to be a report based on scientific analysis is entirely justified.

Perhaps Gallego has strong legal reasons for the conclusions she has reached, but her handling of the case has been far less transparent or comprehensive than that carried out by Garzón, who explained his reasons in detail. El Mundo is already running with the issue as if those accused have been convicted, should that actually happen the conspiracy theorists can be expected to go into overdrive with their allegations that connections between ETA and the bombings have been suppressed as a result of political pressure from the government. Wait a minute, did I forget to mention something? Oh yes, judge Gallego is a candidate of the conservative judges association for election to the Consejo Superior del Poder Judicial. This body is supposed to play an important part in the running of the judicial system, but it has recently become discredited because the current conservative majority has acted as a partisan bloc adopting decisions with evident political intentions. Given the behaviour of the current Consejo, it is unlikely anyone is nominated for the conservative association without being a loyal follower of the party line; Gallego should feel at home if she is chosen.

I have no idea whether the courts in Madrid have a statue of the Scales of Justice, but if they do I suggest the best thing to do would be to place it in a dark corner and cover it with a sack, because justice has recently become a rare and precious commodity in these parts.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Chronicle Of A Peace Process....The Judges Have Their Say

A peace process in the Basque Country that was already moving very slowly faces a new obstacle today. The ETA prisoner Iñaki de Juana Chaos, whose hunger strike I wrote about recently, was yesterday sentenced to just under 13 years imprisonment for alleged terrorist threats he made in newspaper article. The sentence is the heaviest ever to be handed down for this offence, and even the judges had to accept that the alleged threats were veiled ones. The decision is very questionable, there is no clear threat to anyone in the articles that were published, and the whole case is more a result of political and media pressure to prevent De Juana from being released after having completed his previous sentence. As a consequence De Juana has now announced another hunger strike, and this can be expected to mobilise support amongst ETA sympathisers.

Combine this judicial decision with the political consequences of the arms theft in France attributed to ETA, and it's hard to see how things can move forward in the next few weeks. There was speculation over the arms theft about whether it was an indication of ETA returning to armed activity, there are no signs of this being the case. However, the government has said there will be no movement until they are completely satisfied that ETA has taken an irreversible decision to turn their back on the use of violence.

Not surprisingly, the opposition Partido Popular (PP) siezed on what they saw as an opportunity to put pressure on the government over the arms theft, and called for the whole process to be halted. So the government is in a difficult position to make any kind of concession, although the PP pressure also gives them a pretext for not making any significant moves. They seem to be opting for letting the issue cool down a bit politically before making any further moves; the problem now is that an ETA prisoner on hunger strike will make that strategy more difficult as it will raise political tension in the Basque Country.

The main enemy - for the AVT

Equally keen to raise the tension is the inappropriately named Association for the Victims of Terrorism (AVT), which has decided to call yet another of their demonstrations against the supposed surrender to ETA that Zapatero is accused of having agreed to. This demonstration will be in Madrid in 2 weeks time; as a nice touch in the run up to this event the AVT has included an image of Zapatero amongst a collection of photos of convicted ETA members, compiled under the heading of "The Faces of Terror". It will be interesting to see how many people they can mobilise on this demonstration, the most recent ones have not proven to be tremendously successful, despite having the PP put their weight behind them.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Cinema....El Laberinto del Fauno

The latest film by Mexican director Guillermo del Toro, El Laberinto del Fauno (in English - Pan’s Labyrinth) is an extraordinary mixture of fantasy combined with a dramatic story about the aftermath of the Spanish Civil War. Set in the year 1944, the film tells the story of Ofelia (played by Ivana Baquero), a young girl who travels together with her pregnant mother (Ariadna Gil) to a remote mill in the Spanish countryside. From this mill, her stepfather Captain Vidal (Sergi López), is leading a company of government soldiers in the battle against anti-Franco guerrillas hiding out in the nearby mountains. The sadistic Vidal has no interest in his stepdaughter, and only shows concern for the unborn son that his wife is carrying.

One night, close to the mill, Ofelia discovers a ruined labyrinth and inside this labyrinth she encounters a faun (played by Doug Jones), who reveals to her that she is really a princess whose return to her magical kingdom is eagerly awaited. To return to the world from which she came, she must pass three tests before the full moon. The story of how Ofelia tackles these tests provides the structure for the fantasy part of the film, and the most imaginative scenes of the film.

Meanwhile back in the real world, the mill is run by the servant Mercedes (Maribel Verdú), apparently loyal in following the orders of Vidal; whilst secretly doing everything that she can to help the rebels. The local doctor (played by Alex Angulo) also plays a dual role, taking care of Ofelia's mother and at the same time making a risky trip into the mountains to tend injured guerrilla fighters

What might otherwise have been a satisfactory, if slightly predictable, story about the continuing anti-Franco struggle after the Civil War, becomes a different film altogether with the imaginative interweaving of fantasy and oppressive reality. Somehow, del Toro manages to ensure that the two stories in the film are not separate from each other, they interconnect with each other at different points throughout the film. Bizarre though it might seem, the resulting film is strangely effective. This film did not really attract my attention when it first came out, but having seen it I have no hesitation at all in recommending it.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Three Party Politics

It was all so quick, just days after the Catalan elections we have a new government for the region; and a fairly familiar looking government it is too. Convergència I Unió (CiU), the party that obtained the most votes in the elections, failed in their attempt to persuade either the nationalist Esquerra Republicana (ERC), or the Catalan socialists (PSC) to play second string in a government dominated by CiU. That left as the only alternative a repeat of the “tripartito”, the coalition that emerged from the previous elections between the PSC, ERC, and Iniciativa per Catalunya (ICV). The deal has been done and the new government assures us that their priority is going to be social welfare. Let’s hope this is the case because the last version of the coalition was consumed almost entirely by the debate over the reform of the autonomy statute for Cataluña, and it was this issue that eventually led to its downfall and the calling of early elections. Meanwhile, CiU are furious over being denied once again the chance to rule and have withdrawn their support for the government at national level, something that shouldn’t really matter too much as long as the tripartito can survive at least until the next general election. But it’s all a little bit disappointing with such a rapid and apparently easy resolution of the issue, we needed someone like the market trader in The Life Of Brian who says “We’re supposed to haggle”.

Monday, November 06, 2006

Out For The Night

The live music scene in Madrid is not that exciting, but it still offers a reasonable range of possibilities. Last week I did something that I should do more often, and went to see some bands I'd never heard of in one of the small clubs near where I live. Only laziness stops me from doing this more. The music on this night could be described as being close to thrash metal, without reaching Napalm Death levels of excess.

The second group were my favourites of the three that performed, I don’t know what they are called so let’s call them Tattoos All The Way Up My Arms (Tatwuma for short) in honour of the member of the group who acted as enthusiastic cheerleader and part-time vocalist. Mostly his contribution seemed to consist of bellowing “Fwaaaarrrrrkk” into the microphone, but he did it well. It was, how shall I say it, a tiny bit difficult to distinguish very clearly what they were singing about – nobody will ever be able to accuse them of supporting terrorism in their songs. The only word I could clearly distinguish during their entire set was a crystal clear “cojones”! But then I found that I could more or less fit words to what I was hearing, and after a while I could convince myself that this was what they were actually singing. It is quite possible that the songs People Cry For Rice, George Bush Can’t Walk, and You’re From North London are just products of my imagination; although if you ever hear songs with these titles, then remember where you read about it first.

The club was small, and with the music not being that interesting I also had time to study the audience reactions a bit. The man at the front with more hair on his sideburns than on the rest of his head was having a great time, while there were others looking very serious and nodding intently as if they were listening to a lecture on German Expressionism rather than being at a concert. A shame that the only beer at the bar was Budweiser, awful stuff - fwaaaarrrrrrkkkk.

Friday, November 03, 2006

On Trial For Their Lyrics

I was intending to do a completely different post on a musical theme today, but on opening my copy of El País this morning I find an amazing legal farce being promoted by the Association of Victims of Terrorism (AVT). This organisation, closely aligned with the hard right faction of the Partido Popular, has brought a criminal case against the rock group Soziedad Alkoholika accusing them of praising terrorism.

The accusation is based on the lyrics of some of the songs of the group, who have denied that they are ETA supporters or that their lyrics can be interpreted in this way. The case has already been shelved twice by judges Garzon and Grande-Marlaska, but was reopened yet again on the request of the AVT. So the members of the group find themselves facing a possible prison sentence based on how a court decides to interpret the lyrics of songs which were written between 1989 and 1993, and which apparently have not been performed in public since 1996! The AVT, which supposedly exists to represent victims of terrorist actions, is becoming increasingly litigious and must be spending a significant proportion of its income on lawyers. It is of course also deeply involved in the campaign against the Basque peace process and in promoting the conspiracy theories about the Madrid train bombings.

Even leaving aside the whole question of whether there is any case at all for prosecuting the members of this group, the offence with which they have been charged was introduced as a result of a reform of the Penal Code introduced in the year 2000. This means that they face the prospect of being convicted for an offence that didn’t even exist at they time they wrote or performed these songs, such a retrospective application of the law is (supposedly) expressly forbidden by the Spanish Constitution.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

The People Have Spoken....But Not Very Clearly

Those with a liking for really complex electoral politics will probable feel a little disappointed by the result of yesterday’s elections in Cataluña. In the end the formation of the next government in the region is going to depend on the left leaning nationalists of Esquerra Republicana (ERC). As predicted by the opinion polls, the right wing nationalists of Convergència I Unió (CiU) have emerged as the biggest party with a clear advantage over the Catalan socialists (PSC). However, CiU still fall well short of a majority, and need to form a coalition if they want to govern; something they can achieve with the support of ERC alone, so at least they are spared the humiliating prospect of having to bargain with anti-nationalist parties. The nationalist vote has not changed significantly, the 2 seats gained by CiU are balanced by the 2 that ERC have lost.

The big losers of the election have been the PSC, 5 seats down in the regional parliament and with their lowest vote for over 10 years. The seats they have lost probably went to Iniciativa per Catalunya (ICV) to the left of them, who gained 3, and to the new anti-nationalist party Ciutadans, who enter the parliament for the first time with 3 seats. The Partido Popular are down 1 seat as well, probably due also to the emergence of Ciutadans (who El Mundo are today treating as if they have won the elections). The outgoing 3 party coalition between the socialists, Iniciativa and ERC could also be repeated again, which is why it is ERC that really hold the key to what happens next.

In reality there has been no very significant shift in voting patterns, but the two parties with hard thinking to do are the PSC and ERC. In the case of the PSC it looks as if their shift towards a more Catalanist position during their time in office has proved costly, they have lost votes to the left and from that sector of their support that does not identify itself strongly with Cataluña. This would not be such a problem if they could attract nationalist voters, but there is no sign that this has happened. The bad result has come despite a new face as candidate, and with a strong involvement in the campaign from Zapatero, who is generally popular in Cataluña.

ERC are in the position of being the kingmakers, but are going to have to make a choice which has profound implications for the future direction of the party. Their impressive increase in support over the last few years has gone into reverse, and if they show a preference for putting the conservative nationalists of CiU back into power then their pretensions to be seen as something more than just another nationalist party will disappear. They will just confirm themselves as Option B for nationalist voters. On the other hand, their nationalist stance requires that any alliance with the non-nationalist parties of the left brings benefits for their positions. They are in a position of strength for negotiating their support, but at the same time the soul of the party could disappear as a result of the process. If ERC try to ask for too much from both of the larger parties, there is also the possibility of a super-coalition between Convergència and the PSC.

Tuesday, October 31, 2006

The Chainsaw Blues

Following up on my posts about destructive development proposals in Ávila, there has been a bit of good news. It turns out that there is a crime in Spain known as a “delito ecológico” (environmental crime), something which was news to me, and that the developer who destroyed thousands of pine trees in spite of a court order halting his development is to be charged with this offence. At least this means that the proposed development is halted until this issue is resolved, although if they do not find him guilty then he can probably resume the destruction of what should always have been a protected area.

Meanwhile, the recently appointed prosecutor for offences connected with urban development has come up with a very radical proposal, the demolition of illegally built dwellings! This would be a very drastic change from the policy that seems to have existed up to now, where illegal buildings are constructed and sold without any apparent impediment, and then 10 years later someone from the relevant authority comes along and says “you really shouldn’t have done that” – end of story. If things carry on this way we could even reach a stage where construction could be stopped before the building is completed and sold, or they could even make it impossible for a property to be sold without having the required permissions. There are an estimated 100,000 illegal dwellings in the country, probably several thousand of these are in Marbella and other areas on the Mediterranean coast. That should keep the bulldozers busy for a while.

Monday, October 30, 2006

Breakfast With Laporta

Voting in the Catalan regional elections will take place on Wednesday this week, and as the campaign draws to a close it is clear that the candidates of the main parties have got their priorities sorted out. The weekend has given us an interesting insight into Catalan power structures, and at the centre of it all was Joan Laporta, president of Barcelona football club.

I didn't pay for this breakfast...

Laporta first had a “private” breakfast (i.e. on a terrace in the Ramblas of Barcelona) with Artur Mas, candidate of Convergència I Unió (CiU), the right-wing nationalist alliance. Given that he cannot be sure how the elections will turn out finally, he had to balance this the next day by meeting Jose Montilla, the candidate of the Catalan socialists (PSC). Both breakfasts were very intimate affairs, just the candidate, the football club president, and a couple of hundred journalists and photographers to record the occasion. We don’t know what they talked about in these meetings, perhaps Laporta is deeply concerned about the lack of access for young people to adequate housing, or maybe he is more worried about hospital waiting lists. Or alternatively, perhaps they just talked about football, we don’t know and it doesn’t matter anyway because the meetings were largely symbolic; Laporta revelling in his position as someone who the main politicians want to be seen with, and the candidates happy to be associated with the club.

...and I'm not paying for this one either

Meanwhile the latest opinion polls suggest that CiU are going to emerge as the largest party after the elections, and that they could even have the possibility of forming a majority government with just the support of Esquerra Republicana (ERC). This assumes that the two competitors for the nationalist vote can reach agreement on forming a coalition. CiU will be desperate to return to power in the regional government, so the often bitter rivalry with ERC is unlikely to impede negotiations, and ERC in turn will be looking forward to exercising the decisive role in the formation of a new government. It will be ironic if the main achievement of the outgoing three party coalition has been to reinforce the nationalist parties by making the reform of the autonomy statute almost the only visible result of their time in office.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

If You Don't Want Bertie, Then Vote For Bernie!

Finally the PSOE have chosen their candidate to be mayor of Madrid, although in reality is it is Prime Minister Zapatero that has made the choice. Anyway, the candidate chosen is Miguel Sebastían, an economic advisor to Zapatero and hardly the political heavyweight that we had been promised. I am not even sure if he has ever stood as a candidate for the party in an election, and he is certainly not well known. It doesn’t inspire much optimism that Madrid mayor Alberto Ruiz Gallardón is going to be defeated in the elections next May. The choice has been made after strong resistance was starting to grow against the suggestion that Vice-Premier María Teresa Fernández de la Vega might have been put forward, she is consistently rated as the most popular member of the government and a campaign based around SMS messaging was started to try and keep her in her current position.

But fear not, we do have another candidate from the Spanish blogosphere who has thrown his hat into the ring! Bernardo Muñoz, owner of the blog El Siglo de las Luces, has selflessly offered himself as a candidate to fill the vacuum left by so many others rejecting the possibility. Don Bernardo does not feel that being a resident of Barcelona, and a supporter of the local football team, need necessarily affect his chances in Madrid. Nor will his lack of local knowledge be a disadvantage, indeed it offers Madrid the chance of a fresh start with some “blue skies” thinking. If we have to move the Plaza de España somewhere else, then let’s move it! Bernardo did after all do his military service in the capital, defending Madrid against the enemies of the nation! I should make it clear, of course, that the fact that I have been (more or less) guaranteed a choice position in the new administration has nothing at all to do with my support for his candidacy. Nothing.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Chronicle Of A Peace Process....Slow Progress Is Not No Progress

I haven’t written much on this topic recently, as much of the movement that is taking place is subterranean and therefore not so easy to track. However, the process continues to inch forward as there are signs that some of the obstacles to progress are slowly being removed.

The main sticking point continues to be the means by which ETA’s political wing, Batasuna, regains its status as a legal political party. Not only is there unwillingness on the part of Batasuna to do things the way in which the government insists they should, there is also pressure for some kind of concession from the government in return for Batasuna taking this step. Publicly, the government is adamant that no concessions will be made until Batasuna shows that it is prepared to definitively reject violence and support for ETA. In turn, the leadership of Batasuna wants reassurance that the judicial pressure on them will be completely lifted if they take these steps, and also some guarantees on the “mesa de partidos”, the conference of political parties in the Basque Country that will determine any political reforms to be made as part of the process. The government has also hinted that some concessions on the issue of ETA prisoners could be made once Batasuna is legal again, possibly ending the policy of dispersion of these prisoners around the country. In the meantime, the government’s dialogue with ETA that was supposed to accompany progress on the political front has not yet officially begun.

The situation was made more complicated recently by a hunger strike involving one of ETA’s prisoners, Iñaki de Juana Chaos. He declared the hunger strike as a protest against a judicial decision which owed far more to politics than it did to any even handed application of the law. De Juana has been kept in prison as a result of fresh charges brought following a political and media campaign against his proposed release for the offences that led to his original imprisonment. He has been charged with making terrorist threats because of some articles he wrote in Gara, a newspaper close to Batasuna.

Whether the decision to bring the charges is legally valid or not is almost irrelevant, he was not charged when the articles originally appeared and it is clear that the decision to present new charges was a political response to the furore created over his case. His hunger strike, which has now been called off, was accompanied by an increase in acts of street violence by activists in the Basque region; all of which threatened for a while the possibility of further political progress. Perhaps not too surprisingly, his decision to call off the hunger strike has been followed by a decision on the part of the state prosecutors to reduce the seriousness of the charges against him.

Meanwhile, the opposition Partido Popular (PP) maintains its position of all-out opposition to the process, and the battle has now reached the European Parliament as the PP have managed to persuade their European partners to join them in opposing a resolution supporting the policy of negotiation. At the same time they have made it clear that they will not feel bound to honour any political agreements reached as part of the process in the event of them returning to government. As if this was not enough, they have pledged to raise the issue in Parliament at every opportunity. Surprisingly, they didn’t manage to prevent a declaration by the Pope in favour of the government’s policy; it seems the Basque bishops have their own line of communication with the Vatican. Jose Maria Aznar’s former best friend, Tony Blair, has also annoyed the Spanish right by endorsing the peace process. For the moment, the Spanish government holds its nerve in the face of this opposition onslaught, whilst it does them no political damage then they will continue to do so.

Update 25th October: Just as you post on something the situation changes. ETA have been accused of being responsible for the theft of hundreds of pistols from a factory in France. It is still not proven that they are responsible, but the French police say they used some handcuffs that ETA members had stolen from French gendarmes a few months ago. Meanwhile, the European Parliament has voted narrowly to give its support to the peace process, it is largely a symbolic vote but at least denies the PP a propaganda victory.

Monday, October 23, 2006

Speak Catalan And Win Points!

Campaigning is well under way for the Catalan elections, due to take place at the beginning of November. The latest opinion polls are showing a slight advantage for the right wing nationalists of Convergència I Unió (CiU), who were probably the main beneficiaries of the prolonged debate over the new autonomy statute for the region. However, these polls indicate that there will be no outright winner of the elections, and a coalition government is again going to be likely. The power brokers in this situation could well be Esquerra Republicana (ERC), the leftist nationalist party. Esquerra got themselves into a contradictory mess in the referendum on the statute, and it looks like the dramatic increases in support that they have obtained in the last few years have now come to an end. Despite this, they are the third biggest party and could opt to support either a nationalist administration led by CiU, or a repeat of the previous three party coalition with the Catalan socialists and the more left wing Iniciativa per Catalunya.

CiU are so far the winners of the award for the silliest electoral proposal, their leader Artur Mas has said that he wants to introduce a points system for immigrants in Cataluña, where demonstrating knowledge of Catalan culture and learning the language would be rewarded with privileges when dealing with the administration over issues such as residence permits. He did state that essential services would not be included in the proposed system, but whether this is the case or not it is clear that the proposal leads to the creation of categories for immigrants. Those who don’t demonstrate enough interest in “integration” will be classified as bad immigrants and punished for this lack of interest. Which category Samuel Eto’o falls into is not clear, given his recent refusal to answer a journalist’s question in Catalan, on the other hand he scores enough goals for his team to escape further punishment. Now that the autonomy statute is out of the way, this kind of proposal forms part of the rivalry between the nationalist parties and the pressure this creates to constantly come up with new proposals that show a greater commitment to the national cause.

The issue of political intimidation has also surfaced in the campaign, although it has been greatly exaggerated. The Catalan leader of the Partido Popular (PP), Josep Piqué, and Angel Acebes (Interior Minister under Aznar), were jostled and generally given a rough reception on arrival at a campaign meeting. The PP always tries to make as much as possible of such incidents, to present an image of being the innocent victims of intolerant nationalists. The incident was not so serious, and the same media that gave it so much attention were strangely quiet when Josep-Lluís Carod-Rovira, leader of ERC and a favourite hate figure for the Spanish right, was barracked by a group of neo-nazis a few days later. The PP in Cataluña has very low support, around 7%, a fact which puts in danger its claim to be a nationwide party. Piqué avoids association with the more right wing national leadership wherever possible, and for that reason is detested by many of the more right wing supporters. He knows perfectly well that adopting the positions favoured by the leadership in Madrid would probably result in an even lower percentage of the vote in Cataluña

A victory for CiU will be a blow for the national government, it was an important victory when the Catalan socialists broke years of CiU domination in the regional government at the last elections. Coupled with the fiasco over the selection of a candidate to be mayor of Madrid, defeat in Cataluña could affect PSOE morale in the run up to next year’s municipal elections in the whole country. Unless the polls change significantly, it will be a tight race followed by some very complicated behind the scenes negotiations to form the next government.

Friday, October 20, 2006

Not A New Blog, Just A Beta One

Today was supposed to be the day when a new improved South of Watford emerged from the migration process to the beta version of Blogger. It’s almost there but in between recovering everything I lost from the old version, and struggling with GIMP to get my shiny new banner ready, there are still a few things to do. The official unveiling ceremony is therefore postponed to next week, unless I follow the tradition of Spanish politicians and inaugurate something months before it is ready. In which case I am now proud to declare this blog……half finished.

It's Raining In Madrid, Isn't It Great?

For most of this week it has rained in Madrid, the sort of steady rain that you wrongly think is not going to soak you. This might not seem like big news, but after two years of very poor rainfall the city and surrounding region badly needs all the rain it can get. This week has been perfect for the countryside, and for refreshing the near empty reservoirs that provide the city with its drinking water.

I am so glad to see some decent rainfall that I can even put up with the 80 per cent of Madrileños who seem to think their umbrella is a weapon, much of the time I walk with a hand near to my eyes ready to stop any umbrella attack before it causes serious damage. It probably doesn't help that it seems to have become the fashion to carry an umbrella capable of sheltering a family of 10. I could even put up with another week like this, it doesn't really need to rain for months on end in Madrid to guarantee the water supply - which is just as well because I haven't seen rain like this for a long time. I never thought when I came to this country that I would be so happy to get wet.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

March 11th....Luis del Pino Comes Clean

We have been having a bit of a lull on the conspiracy theories about the Madrid bombings, largely because it appears that El Mundo and their associates are waiting to see what happens with the famous boric acid report before deciding their next move. This delay in new "revelations” means that the promoters of the theories have more time to write about other things, and in the process are revealing a little more about their motives.

For example, Luis del Pino, leading light of the Peones Negros (Black Pawns) sect, dedicated his blog post on Tuesday to a discourse on the Partido Popular (PP) and why he thinks that the supporters of the sect should be backing this party. Del Pino acknowledges that the PP has not done as much as he would like to push the conspiracy theories, and he also takes a swipe at those prominent PP members, such as Madrid mayor Alberto Ruiz Gallardón, who do not believe the issue brings the party any benefits. His most interesting point is linked to his rejection of those who presume to hold more centrist views in the PP:

El PP no necesita que ningún electorado de centro le de la victoria: al PP le basta con conservar su electorado movilizado y conseguir, con una oposición feroz, que ese electorado que dio la victoria a Zapatero gracias a las 10 bombas del 11-M vuelva a refugiarse en la abstención. Y la manera de conseguir eso es presentar claramente el desastre en que Zapatero está sumiendo a un país que hace menos de tres años estaba en el pelotón de cabeza de las naciones.

My translation.

The PP does not need any votes from the centre to give it victory; it is sufficient for the PP to maintain its electorate mobilized and to achieve, with ferocious opposition, that the electorate which gave Zapatero victory thanks to the 10 bombs of the 11th March, takes refuge again in abstention. The way to achieve this is to clearly present the disaster into which Zapatero is plunging a country that less than three years ago was in the leading group of nations.

There we have the thesis of the hard right in the PP – do enough to convince voters on the left to stay at home and a radicalised PP can return to power without making any political concessions. There is nothing here about “wanting to know the truth” about the bombings, the political objectives of del Pino’s campaign are clear and the claim that the Peones Negros have no political stance looks even thinner than it ever did. The conspiracy theories about the Madrid bombings form a central part of that aggressive campaign to try and demoralize the pro-government electorate.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Crazy Golf

Since writing last week about the proposed urbanization and golf course development in Las Navas del Marqués in Avila, a few more details have come to light:

  • The regional government of Castilla and Leon, together with the local council, set up a public company which had as its declared aim the protection of the area where the development is supposed to take place. No sooner was the company set up than they promptly changed the use of the land to allow construction.

  • The developer behind the project had already presented his project before the land was put on sale. There was only one bidder.

  • In between the original proposal and the actual sale of the land, the developer was given double the area originally proposed for very little additional cost. It has been estimated that only 6000 euros per house sold is needed to pay the cost of the land.

  • The developer was promised huge compensation if the land use of the area was not changed to permit construction within a fixed period.

  • In addition to being a nesting area for black storks, several other rare species of bird (including eagles) also nest in this area.

The deal with the construction company included a commitment to reforestation of another area of similar size to that which was to be stripped of its trees. This led the court dealing with the case to question, not unreasonably, why they couldn’t just build on this second area and leave an area of ecologically valuable woodland in peace. The whole affair stinks to put it mildly, but that does not guarantee anything will be done in the end to prevent the development; it was only the initiative of a private citizen that led to the courts dealing with the case at all.

Meanwhile details of another similar project In Ávila province have been published today in the press. In this new case it is proposed to construct 7500 houses and 3 golf courses in the village of Villanueva de Gómez, which currently has just 143 inhabitants. It appears that 10000 pine trees have already been cleared in a zone that had only recently been nested by an imperial eagle. It almost seems to be a prerequisite for development in these areas that the environmental destruction involved has to be significant.

All of this development in Ávila is a further consequence of the trend for people to move out of Madrid and buy a house in what used to be called the countryside. With much of the area between Madrid and the Sierra de Guadarrama already constructed, companies are now looking at the possibilities on the other side of these mountains and seem to be able to count on the enthusiastic backing of the local and regional governments.

The curse of South of Watford on all these developments. May all their golf courses dry up and turn to dust.