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