Wednesday, May 31, 2006

South Of The Border

An enjoyable weekend in La Gomera, one of the Canary Islands, also provides a connection to one of the main news stories in Spain at the moment. Tourists passing through Los Cristianos, the port in Tenerife where ferries leave for some of the other islands, probably notice the Red Cross tent that has been set up in the waiting area. Whilst they are passing by, they might also notice that some of the boats floating in the port stand out a little from the others; simply constructed long boats decorated with painted symbols or words in an unidentified language. Both the tent and the unfamiliar boats are a consequence of sub-Saharan immigration into the European Union via its southern frontiers.

Until quite recently, most African immigration into Spain came via Morocco. Some managed to cross the ever higher fences surrounding Ceuta and Melilla, the Spanish enclaves in northern Morocco. Others, probably many more, made the dangerous journey by boat across the Strait of Gibraltar. An unknown number have died in the process, the distance is not so great but with a small boat and a dangerous stretch of water (where the Atlantic meets the Mediterranean) the risks are very high. Eventually, the Moroccan authorities gave way under Spanish pressure and started to crack down on those who attempted this journey, dumping some of them in the desert far away from the coast and without water or food.

This did not end the attempt to seek a way through, those looking to make the crossing and those who profit from it moved down to what used to be the former colony of Spanish Sahara (now mostly occupied by Morocco). Being further down the African coast the journey to the southern coast of Spain was no longer practical and the target became the Canary Islands – a much longer journey. Boats would carry up to 100 people at a time, again nobody really knows how many did not survive the journey. With further Spanish pressure the boats could no longer leave from here, so the next departure point moved to Mauritania, subsequently to Senegal, and now there is talk that boats are coming from as far away as The Gambia and Guinea Bissau. This means a journey of over 800 kilometres in a boat that may be sturdy but which has no comforts of any kind and which is filled to a dangerous capacity. Because of Spanish pressure on the departure points there are currently very high numbers arriving every day in the Canary Islands in a bid to get there before the current exit port is closed off. In the absence of repatriation agreements with their country of origin, almost all of the arrivals end up being shipped to the Peninsula with a deportation order which is never enforced, left to find a way of surviving without any legal entitlement to work. Many will end up working in jobs where there is no security or decent pay, picking the fruit and vegetables for much of Europe.

The issue is prominent now because the destination where these immigrants can get to has been reduced to Tenerife and surrounding islands, and sometimes several hundred are arriving on the same day. Predictably, the opposition Partido Popular (PP) has tried to take advantage of the situation and create public alarm by linking immigration to crime, anything that might get them that extra point in the opinion polls. There has been substantial publicity over some armed assaults on isolated houses by organised armed gangs, something which has nothing to do with African immigrants but in the search for a convenient scapegoat these details no longer seem to matter. Spain is a significant target for African immigration because of geographical proximity, and of course because it is now much wealthier than before. There are a whole series of jobs in agriculture, construction, restaurants and other sectors where very few Spanish people now work. These jobs are done by immigrants mostly from South America, Africa and Eastern Europe and the result has been a significant increase in the Spanish population in the last few years, it’s something that Spain (traditionally a country of emigration) is going to have to get used to. It’s also something that highlights the frontier between rich and poor in the same way as the border between the US and Mexico – what a pity the resources they devote to border protection can’t be devoted to a bit of wealth creation.

Thursday, May 25, 2006

Living Above The Tree Line

Madrid, at only 650 metres above sea level, is not a place where trees don’t grow. It is, however, a city that is losing its tree cover at a frightening speed as a result of the actions of the city’s administration. The main culprit is a project that was always presented as being environmentally friendly – a decision to bury a substantial section of the M30 (the inner ring road) where it runs on either side of the River Manzanares. It’s really a project to expand the number of lanes on the road, something that could not be done on the surface without losing the river or demolishing buildings. Apart from turning the area of the river into a vast dusty construction site, the project has also involved the removal of thousands of mature trees in a city not renowned for its greenery. The standard response of the administration to any protests about this is that the trees were not healthy anyway. The companies carrying out the tree massacre will probably be the same ones paid to plant tiny saplings in their place when they have managed to find the river again. No environmental impact assessment of any kind was carried out for this project – again fairly standard practice, and probably what also permits the placing of an escape chimney for traffic fumes in the middle of a public park.

As if this wasn’t enough, another project has recently been unveiled to ‘reform’ the Paseo del Prado, one of Madrid’s principal avenues and of course home to the museum of the same name. But here there was a difference, as soon as it became clear that the plan involved removal of some of the very well established trees in the Paseo, a row began that drew in the aristocracy in the form of (Spanish born) Baroness Thyssen. The Thyssen family donated their art collection to Madrid and the museum hosting it is more or less opposite the Prado. The Baroness declared that she was prepared to tie herself to one of the trees that was under threat. So the right wing government of Madrid found itself in direct confrontation with the aristocracy, and the plan is now under review. One consequence of all of this is that every campaign in the city is now looking for a baroness to get them onto the front pages of the national press.

Sometimes in this city you can get the feeling that there is no administration at all, but when it comes to the art of transferring vast amounts of public money into private hands there is no doubt they are up there with the best. Some estimates of the number of trees lost recently to all these great works put the figure as high as 40000…there can’t be many left.

Monday, May 22, 2006

NEWSBLOG... ETA Ceasefire

After almost 2 months of ceasefire by the Basque separatist group ETA, the Spanish Prime Minister has announced that formal dialogue with the political wing of ETA can begin in June. This follows a process of verification to check whether the ceasefire is genuine. Now begins the complicated part.

Everything points to this being a serious truce on the part of ETA after over 30 years of armed action; they are currently in a very weak position and their political wing, Batasuna, is illegal and feeling the effects of not being able to operate openly. The issues are going to be about how to bring ETA's armed activities to a close, it's clear that there has to be a negotiated exit and the open question is how much either side will give to permit a situation where terrorism ends, and the radical wing of Basque nationalism focuses on open political activity.

The other side of the coin is going to be how this plays politically in Spain as a whole. Despite mistrust about ETA's intentions the truce is generally and understandably popular. Without internal opposition, and given the pressures on ETA and their supporters, it would probably be quite possible for the government to press ahead with a Northern Irish style settlement where ETA prisoners are released and there is a degree of negotiation on the extent of Basque autonomy within the Spanish nation - a general process of renegotiation is already underway with other regions on their autonomy statutes.

But the signs are that there will be internal opposition, from the right wing Partido Popular (PP). Despite having negotiated themselves (unsuccessfully) with ETA during the government of Jose Maria Aznar, the PP has been on the offensive over terrorism ever since losing power to the Spanish Socialist Party (PSOE) following the March 11th bombings in 2004. Motivated largely by the loss of power, all consensus on issues of terrorism has been lost as the PP look for revenge, even though they were the authors of their own misfortune having tried and failed to convince the Spanish public that ETA were responsible for March 11th (carried out by Islamist terrorists). The PP adopts a position which they know will never come about; they demand the surrender of ETA as a pre-condition of any end to the situation. Meanwhile, they use one of the (several) associations that represent victims of terrorism as a shield to try to present their policies as representing the will of ETA's victims. This association has already announced a demonstration against the government's announcement of negotiations and this has been quickly followed by the PP making it clear that they will not support such a process.

So things will move forward, but the whole process is on a tightrope, the PP cannot yet come out in full opposition to any negotiated solution but they will attempt to chip away at the confidence that people may have in it. Already they claim that concessions have been made by the government on self-determination for the Basque country and on the future of the region of Navarra (traditionally claimed by Basque nationalists as being part of the Basque country). There is of course no evidence to suggest any such concessions have been made, and either would be political suicide for the government. Having spent two years inventing conspiracy theories around the events of March 11th the PP keeps its membership happy with such morsels. Meanwhile ETA and Batasuna want something to show their own supporters, the legalisation of Batasuna will have to be part of the process and if they are going to present themselves in the next elections in the Basque country it will have to come soon.

If the government offers nothing the truce will come to an end, something which the right wing opposition in Spain will seize on as vindication. At the same time, anything that the government offers to maintain the process will also come under attack as a concession to terrorists. It’s going to take a long time, if it doesn’t all fall apart, and it’s going to be tough.

Friday, May 19, 2006

The Best Team In Europe

I don’t like Real Madrid and I used to maintain a more or less equal disdain for Barcelona football club, for reasons that I might feel tempted to expand on at some point…or not. However, the truth is that I dislike Real Madrid quite a lot more than Barcelona and I’m quite happy that the latter have won this year’s Champions League. That’s not just because they beat Arsenal, although every little counts, it’s mainly because they are playing genuinely good and sometimes exhilarating football. The fact that they did’nt really do that on Wednesday night does’nt change my opinion, when the combination of Etoo, Ronaldinho and Messi is really working there is very little in European football that can match them. The destruction of Real Madrid in the league match at the Bernabeu earlier this season was majestic; the fact that it was Madrid on the receiving end only highlighted the difference at the moment between the 2 clubs. Barcelona are completely renovated compared to 3-4 years ago, and have what can genuinely be called a ‘team’ rather than just a collection of expensive individuals. Their president has also done something which, to my knowledge, no other club president in Spain has done – he has broken the power of the club’s ‘ultras’, the hard-core and often violently neo-nazi supporters. He did so despite receiving threats and its long overdue in a country where normally no action of any lind is taken against these ‘supporters’ and they often receive privileges that the ordinary supporter does’nt get. So good for him, and hats off to his team – shame it meant the Spanish league this season was so boring though.

Thursday, May 18, 2006

Two Legs Good, One Leg Bad

My partner, Silvia, is currently using crutches as a result of twisting her foot whilst out walking – nothing too serious but she is unable to use her right foot. The injury has given her an insight into how disabled people can sometimes be treated. Going to do some shopping at a ‘well known Spanish department store’ she was faced with swing doors at the entrance that she was unable to open, her hands being occupied with the crutches. She tried repeatedly asking people entering the store to hold the door open for her, only to find that everybody swept past without even looking at her, obviously afraid that she might be asking them for money. Eventually somebody inside the shop opened the door for her but to receive such treatment just because she happened to be supporting herself on crutches was revealing.

Saturday, May 13, 2006


Quite a lot happening in Spain today for this inaugural entry - I now declare this blog open!

Spanish government in the balance

The future of the Spanish government could be put in doubt by developments yesterday in Cataluña, where the leftish Catalan nationalist party Esquerra Republicana have been expelled from the regional government. The national government, a minority administration of the Spanish Socialist Party (PSOE), depends on support from Esquerra and Izquierda Unida to get their majority in Parliament; so the question now will be whether Esquerra will maintain their support at national level. The crisis in the Catalan government forms part of a complicated political dance which has its origins in the rivalry between nationalist parties in Cataluña. The Spanish Prime Minister, Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, got the support of the conservative nationalists (CIU) for his reform of the autonomy statute for Cataluña. Esquerra, which had been involved from the beginning in the reform process, then got upset about their rivals being involved in the process and getting credit, so they opted for a blank vote in the referendum which has to be held to approve the new statute. Their membership, in internal meetings, then started campaigning for a no vote and pushed their leadership into this position; leaving them with the prospect of campaigning against the only significant result of the government which they form part of, and which has significant support amongst their electorate. The Catalan socialists refuse to accept a partner in government campaigning against them, hence the expulsion which will mean new elections after the referendum has been held. Esquerra, having been pushed out of the government, and looking likely to be on the losing side in the referendum, are now making threatening noises about ‘consequences’ in Madrid. Its been quite normal in recent years for Spanish governments to depend on minoruty parties, now that Cataluña has two significant nationalist parties they are competing with each other for influence at national level and for power in Cataluña itself. The last elections in Cataluña threw out the conservative nationalists after a long period in power, its going to be a pity if the only achievement of the government that replaced them is a new statute, something which in the end has minimal impact on the day to day lives of people. The rivalry between the different parties means that each tries to be more nationalist than the other, in the end thats all such parties have to offer.

Investment scandal

The world of postage stamps does not usually provoke many headlines, but its at the heart of a what could potentially be a huge investment scandal here. Two companies who have persuaded thousands of people to invest their savings in stamps in return for higher than average interest payments are now being investigated for fraud. The case involves hugely overvalued stamps being sold to investors and shows all the signs of being a pyramid scheme where the companies use the money from recent investors to keep paying interest to the old ones. The juiciest detail to emerge so far has been the discovery of 10 million euros in a recently created hiding place in the luxury home of one of the directors of the companies involved (presumably in 500 Euro notes – the banknote of choice in Spain these days). There is no real protection for the people who are at risk of losing their savings, unless they make so much noise the government decides to bail them out.

Elections In Real Madrid

Elections for Cataluña and elections for a new president for Real Madrid. The club is supposedly in the hands of its members and the president must be elected by them, although the membership always seems more than happy to elect any passing construction millionaire who promises them glory. Florentino Perez resigned faced with the imminent prospect of a third season without any trophies, as has subsequently turned out to be the case. He put his own man in place as interim president (yes, another construction millionaire) and thought he would continue to run the club this way without elections. Unfortunately his substitute went ‘off-message’ and started acting as if he really was the president of the club, so Perez organised his downfall and the inevitable result is elections. Most of the candidates are of the usual kind with the potential novelty of rally driver Carlos Sainz entering the race; expect wild promises of players and coaches that they intend to hire in a bid to gain votes. Whether any of this will make any difference to the dismal performance of such an expensive team remains to be seen. July 2nd is the day, leaving the new president one week in office before the post World Cup sales begin.