Sunday, December 30, 2007

A Sunday Prayer

Today is Sunday, the last Sunday of 2007. To mark the occasion the Catholic faithful are taking over the Plaza Colon in Madrid this morning for a mass gathering in favour of the “Christian family”. A live message from the Vatican will be delivered, from the personality so memorably described in Father Ted as “the old feller who lives in the art gallery”. So let us pray.

Dear Lord, we ask you to raise a mighty wind in the sea separating Iberia from the Canary Islands, so that the Bishop of Tenerife will not treat us to any of his homilies on how children provoke sexual abuse. May an equally mighty wind prevent the leader of the Legionaries of Christ from attending today’s service, due to his own difficulties with the same issue.

We also pray that the entire education budget of the nation be passed into our hands, so that no more will our innocent children be forced to become homosexual abortionists.

We beseech thee O Lord, not to allow any of our cardinals, bishops or priests ever to form any kind of relationship which permits them to belong to anything resembling the Christian family. May their children continue to be “nephews” and their wives “housekeepers”.

Finally, we pray that the red, secessionist, terrorist sympathising scum running the country be kicked out of office in March. May they be replaced by San Mariano and his faithful supporters who have wandered aimlessly in the wilderness for too long.

God bless you all.

Friday, December 28, 2007

A New Look For Carles Puyol

Unbelievable, two Barça posts on the same day! I just thought you might like to see Puyol's penance for Sunday's result, via - click on the image to see the full article:

Today is December 28th

A Place That Is Forever Barça

Here’s a post to cheer up all Barcelona supporters still feeling the pain of last weeks defeat at the hands of Real Madrid in the inaptly named “clasico”. My last destination on my trip to Costa Rica was the small and quiet village of Manzanillo on the Caribbean coast, not too far from the border with Panamá. Being a small place there are not too many options for eating out in Manzanillo, and the place that really seems to attract visitors is a restaurant bar called Maxi’s.

As we sat down for dinner on our first night there it quickly became evident that the wall decorations in the restaurant showed a strong bias towards football and to Barcelona in particular. The explanation for this came from a framed newspaper clipping also displayed on the wall. It seems that a nearby butterfly farm (I’m not making this up) was opened some years ago by a Catalan called Pedro. As a result of Pedro’s description of the injustices suffered by Catalans over the years the villagers of Manzanillo, many of whom are the descendants of poor Jamaican settlers on this coast, decided to identify themselves with Barcelona FC and the claim is that more or less the whole village packs Maxi’s whenever their favourite team plays. Unfortunately I left the village 2 days before Sunday’s game so I’m unable to verify the truth of this, although the waiter in the restaurant assured us it is the case.

So there you have it, the pain may still be there but it must be comforting to know it is shared by others. Oh, and the grilled red snapper is excellent.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Themes That Can Change An Election....The Party Lists

The date of the next general election in Spain has now been confirmed, it will be on March 9th 2008. The announcement didn’t provoke much surprise, the same date had already been chosen some weeks ago for the regional elections in Andalucia, and it was never very likely that Andalucians would be called to the polls twice on separate dates in a region which is one of the main sources of support for the governing PSOE.

One of the most important steps for all parties to take now is the selection of their candidates for the lists that are presented in each region of the country. Party politics in Spain tends to be very centralised with decisions on candidates in most cases being taken by the central headquarters of the party or by regional “barons”. Voters choose an ordered list of candidates rather than voting for individuals and the number elected from each list therefore depends on the total votes cast for that party in the region concerned. All of which makes the position of an individual in their party’s list a crucial issue for their chances of making it into parliament.

The party with the greatest headache in putting together its list of candidates is going to be the Partido Popular (PP). Prime Minister Zapatero is busy distributing his ministers to head the PSOE list in different regions, and so far everyone is doing as they are told. For the PP the principal problem is Madrid, and to some extent Valencia as well. In Madrid the problem is the intense rivalry between Esperanza Aguirre and city mayor Alberto Ruiz Gallardón, who has already staked his claim to a place in the PP list for the region. The main source of the problem is that Gallardón is allowed to combine his job as mayor with that of being a member of the Congreso, but Aguirre as a regional president is not allowed to do the same. So Esperanza has been busily trying to block Gallardón’s chances, or at least ensure that he does not get one of the first places on the list; which will be headed in any case by Mariano Rajoy. The background issue is of course the battle for succession to Rajoy should he lose the election, and the rivals are looking for the strongest possible position to make their move. It has been reported that Aguirre has lost her bid to prevent Gallardón appearing in the list and is now attempting to promote a formula where he will be held jointly responsible for any failure by the PP to win the election.

The situation in Valencia could also impact the Madrid decision, as the name of the problem in this case is Eduardo Zaplana. The cynical and shifty Zaplana, who giggled and joked his way through the parliamentary commission on the Madrid bombings, used to be the regional strongman in Valencia. However, since moving to Madrid to form part of Aznar’s administration he has lost power in Valencia to the current regional president Francisco Camps. All of which makes it unlikely that he can appear in the PP list for Valencia, or at least not in the top positions. One potential solution to this problem is that he also goes into the Madrid list. Whether that makes the Madrid list more electable is open to question; although PP supporters in Madrid have repeatedly shown over the past few years that quality of candidates is not an important issue for them. A parrot trained to say “Hello, I’m your PP candidate” would stand as much chance as anyone else, so why not put Zaplana there too? The toughest problem for Rajoy is not with the voters, but with the internal battle a misjudgement with the party list could unleash.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Holiday Dreams

I knew I had abandoned my blog for too long when I woke up on Christmas Eve in the midst of a dream about blogging. At the moment of waking I was convinced that Madrid Mayor Alberto Ruiz Gallardón had been assassinated during my absence, as this also featured in the dream. I knew it was just a dream, not a nightmare, as the most obvious suspect for such an act didn’t make an appearance. So two enormous Christmas meals later I have finally sat down to write a new post in an attempt to take my mind off indigestion.

Residents of the Spanish capital will no doubt be pleased to hear that the South of Watford rain curse on Madrid backfired spectacularly as dark rain bearing clouds followed me around Central America. I must have got something wrong with the incantation. Despite my Costa Rica guidebook assuring me that the rainy season there is over by the end of November I think they forgot to mention that it is succeeded by the not very dry season. So whilst I am sure that the volcanic crater of El Rincon de la Vieja is probably stunning I can’t actually testify to it as it was shrouded in clouds and we were forced to abandon the ascent by dangerously strong winds and torrential rain. Equally the volcanic lagoon of Cerro Chato is probably a natural marvel, but I couldn’t see it through the rainy mist, and wasn’t prepared to risk ending up in it by attempting the mudslide of a path that led down to its shore.

It wasn’t all so bad. Arenal, the most visited volcano of the country, finally revealed its presence on the third day. La Montaña de Fuego kept us entertained for an afternoon as it periodically spewed out huge boulders that noisily crashed down its slopes every few minutes. Apparently it was still possible to ascend the mountain until a couple of tourists were killed around 2000 as a result of gas inhalation.

This is the nearest I was prepared to get to its crater:

Then there was the very relaxing atmosphere of Tortuguero on the Caribbean coast, with its canals and forest full of wildlife. We also saw plenty of animals further down the same coast in Cahuita and Manzanillo. Some were resolutely indifferent to our presence:

Others put on a little show:

Whilst others were much less welcoming:

Finally, there was also an inevitably slow appearance by the three toed sloth:

The five toed sloth will demonstrate the advances of evolution by returning to full blogging activity in the next day or two. Pura vida, as they say in Costa Rica.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Post Early For Christmas

That's it, I'm out of here. For the next two weeks I will be in Costa Rica, although I will be back in time to spend Christmas in Madrid for the first time in 4 years and of course to deliver my seasonal message to the nation.

South of Watford has no Christmas Appeal to support this year. The most obvious case of hardship was going to be poor Rodrigo Rato, scraping by on a meagre pension from the IMF. Fortunately, Rodrigo has managed to do something about his dire situation and won't be needing our help; what further evidence is needed that personal initiative matters much more than any help from charities or the nanny state? An example to us all.

I leave you with my Madrid site of the week, as the district of Lavapiés makes its own bid to be considered an Olympic venue. They have some interesting new sports to be included in the competition and you can vote for your favourites.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Let's Play While The Sun Shines

Africa here we come! Well, in reality it's more a case of Africa coming to Spain according to the latest worst case predictions of the effects of climate change on the country. Spain has been told off last week for not even coming close to its targets on reduction of emissions, and up to a third of the country is said to be at risk of desertification on current trends. Those in the north will get the Mediterranean climate, whilst the rest of the country will experience African weather conditions. After a December day in the mountains on Sunday where I was able to spend a good part of the day in short sleeves I'm prepared to believe it; even if some people prefer the opinions of Mariano Rajoy and his now famous cousin.

Of course, not everyone is upset by the prospect of climate change. I'm sure that those who are proposing to construct a huge "Las Vegas" style complex in the desert like landscape of Los Monegros in Aragon are not in the slightest bit concerned about the issue. The project would include 32 hotels, 5 theme parks, and the now compulsory golf courses. The area is poor and has little to keep its existing population from drifting away to the cities. This is because it is very dry and not particularly suitable for agriculture. It also lacks good communications. I'm sure that the price of land here is very cheap compared to much of the rest of the country, and the local inhabitants are reported to be quite excited about the opportunities it will bring. Where will they get the water from? Maybe they can put that question to the organisers of next year's Expo in Aragon's capital, Zaragoza. The theme of the Expo is going to be err....water.

Somewhere else that could use some water is the city of Madrid, it has hardly rained this autumn and the city is suffering from what they call inversión termica, which means that we get a big static pollution cloud hanging over us. What would really sort this out is some rain, and given that I am about to disappear for two weeks the best time for it to start raining would be Thursday evening. A nice prolonged steady downpour, like something from a Gabriel Garcia Marquez story, so that the air gets cleaned, the lakes fill up and there is a good layer of snow on the mountains.

Monday, December 03, 2007

ETA Killing - The Mystery Still Remains

The circumstances surrounding Saturday's shooting of two members of the Guardia Civil in France are still not very clear. It is possible to accept as a coincidence that the two policemen and the ETA members alleged to be responsible were having breakfast in the same cafe. What is more difficult to understand is how those who carried out the shooting managed to identify their targets as policemen, given that they were in plain clothes. I have read this afternoon that a witness has reported them inspecting the car of the victims before the shooting took place. This raises even more questions, how would they even know which car belonged to the two policemen in the first place?

I can't help wondering about the possibility of a massive failure in the undercover surveillance operation and that the suspected members of ETA knew they were being watched and even possibly recognised those who were watching them. Unless the officer who survived the attack comes out of coma and fills in some of the missing details it is possible we will never know. In the meantime either the Spanish Interior ministry, or the press, is embellishing the account of what happened with details which they can hardly be in a position to provide.

Meanwhile, all political parties are putting on a formal show of unity; but in reality it has not lasted long. A 5 minute silence in Madrid today was completely disrupted by the intolerant antics of a noisy group of Partido Popular (PP) supporters. One of the PSOE councillors attending had to be escorted away at the end of the act as these lovers of liberty were threatening him. Those who created this monster bear some responsibility for its behaviour. The PP has also made clear its intention of pressing on the issue of illegalising parties like Acción Nacionalist Vasca (ANV) which refuse to condemn ETA attacks. Sadly, the government is showing signs of playing with the same issue by claiming that the refusal to condemn the shooting may be used in such a process. Nothing has really changed in the position of parties like ANV, and if their existence was not illegal before then there is no reason why it should be so now. All the arguments used on this question are entirely political, but then the law in question has always been based on such judgements, were it otherwise the simple refusal to pronounce on an issue could never be seen as an illegal act.

Saturday, December 01, 2007

ETA Kills Spanish Policeman?

A member of the Guardia Civil has been shot dead, and another seriously injured this morning, in an attack that is being widely attributed to ETA. There are two odd things about the attack, the first being that it took place in France and not in Spain. The members of the Guardia Civil are said to have been part of a cross border surveillance group working in cooperation with the French police. The second odd thing, at least judging from the intial reports, is that the attack did not take place in response to any move by the police against those they were watching; instead it looks as if those responsible knew about the police presence. As usual with these incidents it probably pays to wait a while to find out more, but in the meantime terrorism returns to the top of the political agenda. If ETA is indeed responsible it also goes against their traditional reluctance to carry out attacks in France, even if the victims are Spanish.

Friday, November 30, 2007

Fair Shares For All?

A revealing report was published this week on the question of how income is distributed in Spain in relation to the wealth of each autonomous region. There has been much talk about how the system of devolving central government powers to the regions puts an end to the idea of solidarity across the country as the wealthy regions hold on to more of what they earn. Well the conclusion of this report is that this has not been the case; at least during the period 1991-2005.

The region which contributes most to the redistribution of resources is Madrid, followed in second place by Cataluña. However, not all of the richer regions are contributors; both Navarra and the Basque Country have special regimes which mean that they make no significant contribution. Maybe that's why they have such big houses? Despite this, the overall picture is one of a system that largely works; and shows that greater regional autonomy doesn’t necessarily have to mean an end to a policy of redistribution between rich and poor. Much of the wealth of Madrid and Barcelona is a product of the efforts of those who left their native Andalucia or Extremadura in search of better times, it seems only right that there should be some flow back to these poorer regions. Were it not so, then the gap between rich and poor would only get bigger.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

The Strange Case Of Mohamed Samraoui

Mohamed Samraoui was arrested on the 22nd October in Malaga, and after being held in prison for a few days he is now outside of prison on conditional release. It is believed that his arrest followed a request from Algeria via Interpol, and he is now awaiting a decision on the extradition request from the Algerian authorities.

Samraoui is no ordinary citizen, and his current situation in Spain is also far from ordinary. He is really Colonel Mohamed Samraoui, a former senior officer in Algerian military intelligence who deserted his post in 1996 and claimed political asylum as a refugee in Germany. He alleged that he had been instructed to assasinate Algerian Islamists exiled in Germany, and also subsequently denounced the role played by the Algerian army in the bloody and very dirty war that took place in the country throughout the 1990's. His allegations include involvement of the Algerian armed forces in terrorist actions attributed to Islamist rebels, and he has written a book on the subject.

Given all of this this, it is perhaps not surprising that the Algerian authorities would like to have him back, what is surprising is that the Spanish government should agree to detain someone who is a recognised political refugee in a fellow EU country, and then embark on a process which could lead to that person being repatriated to a country where he can hardly expect to receive a warm welcome. Whilst awaiting the decision on the extradition request, Samraoui is forbidden to return to his home and family in Germany. Different motives have been suggested for the cooperation by Spain. One suggestion is that they want Algerian cooperation with the resolution of the conflict in what used to be the Spanish Sahara. Another, stronger, reason why they might want to please the Algerian government is the business potential of the huge reserves of natural gas which that country possesses. A decision to extradite will be an appalling blow against the right to political asylum and to have a safe refuge from persecution, regardless of whether it's good for business.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Themes That Can Change An Election....The Economy

One of the most curious features of the last few years has been the way in which the economy has practically disappeared from the political debate in Spain. Some people have a straightforward explanation for this, the economy has been going so well that it's a waste of time for the opposition to dedicate much time to the issue if they can't damage the government. The decision by Zapatero to put the economy in the hands of the "safe" Pedro Solbes did contribute to the depoliticisation of the issue, as nobody is ever likely to accuse Solbes of being a crazed ideologue.

Even so, I don't really buy the argument that no headway could be made with the issue while everyone's house price continues to rise. There are always economic issues that can be raised, and in some ways the economy is one of the weaker areas for this government. The good times are when you have the opportunity to deal with the economic problems affecting the voters, nobody will do it when there is a recession. Yet Zapatero's administration has simply operated a laissez faire "let the good times roll" attitude which leaves many of those problems untouched.

The very high levels of job insecurity damage the future prospects of the economy. When people have more security they make more long term plans which lead to more spending, which in turn leads to more jobs being created. The number of people still scraping by on low salaries whilst prices have rapidly reached levels more appropriate for a richer country is also very high. I read this week that the real increase in salaries over the last 10 years has only been 1.4%, if we have really had such a massive increase in wealth in that time then it is not going into the pockets of the salaried workforce. Or maybe it has just gone into a very small number of pockets? Also, a recent opinion poll put unemployment back at the top of the list of issues which people felt most affected by.

The lack of interest shown by the Partido Popular (PP) in the economy is betrayed by the fact that they have left the issue in the hands of some of their least recognisable politicians. Who can name the person in charge of the PP's economics policy without looking it up first on Internet? An odd way to treat what is normally seen as a heavyweight position, but then the focus of the PP's opposition has been elsewhere for almost the entire parliamentary session.

However, more recently everyone has started rescuing the theme from the (Bill) Clinton campaign against Bush (pappy) - "It's the economy stupid!" The slowdown in the property market combined with a recent sharp upsurge in prices of basic foodstuffs, together with the proximity of the elections has meant that it is back on the agenda. We can add to this list the realisation by the PP that they can't talk about terrorism all of the time, occasionally they have to vary the tune. There are uncertain times ahead, perhaps the uncertainty has come too late to really affect seriously the outcome of the elections, but it seems very likely that the next legislature will not see the same disdain shown for economic issues as we have witnessed in this one.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Fernando Fernán-Gómez

The death last week of the Spanish actor Fernando Fernán-Gómez has rightly attracted a lot of attention here. If you were to take a random selection of Spanish films from the last 50 years, the chances that this prolific actor/director would have participated in at least one of them are very high. Well known as an actor, rather than as a celebrity, he will be sadly missed.

Some of his films are being shown again on television in homage to him. On Friday we got the strange but entertaining El Extraño Viaje, directed by Fernán-Gómez. The film was enjoyable, but also astonishing with its portrait of a Spain that is barely recognisable these days. Then on Saturday we got Belle Epoque, a foreign language Oscar winner for Fernando Trueba in 1994, in which Jorge Sanz is forced to endure the unbearable ordeal of being stuck in the same house as Penélope Cruz, Maribel Verdú and Ariadna Gil. Fernán-Gomez almost steals the show as the father.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Rebels Without A Cause

Now that the streets of Madrid are back in the hands of their rightful owners, some of the world's most reckless drivers, it is time to reflect on the latest outing for the civic rebellion. First the numbers; Saturday's demonstration has produced the usual farcical estimate from the Comunidad de Madrid, 550,000 people took to the streets according to their figure. Of course they never reveal the method used to arrive at such figures. There are those who stick to a rule of thumb based on simply dividing this estimate by 10 to get closer to the true figure, but over at the Manifestómetro they still insist on using more rigorous methods. No other estimate puts the total attendance at greater than 80,000 and it is clear that the numbers mobilised by the AVT are continuing to decline - it wasn't even raining this time, so they'll have to look for other excuses.

They would have had to have been quick to count me amongst those attending, ever since Spanish television started showing live Premier League football my Saturday afternoons suddenly seem more crowded than used to be the case. I popped out for a brief look, and caught the tail end of the march; just in time to see the fascist group bringing up the rear. Frankly these events are now so stage managed that they have lost much of their interest. Anyway, by spending more time at home I was able to enjoy the full glory of TeleMadrid's manipulative and propagandistic coverage of the event. If you ever wonder why this channel endlessly repeats the same old movies every few months, then wonder no more. They spend "their" budget on lavish blanket coverage of anti government demonstrations, even allowing for the known bias of the channel there is no longer even the most token attempt at balancing the opinions expressed.

The speeches at the end provided a stark illustration of the extent to which voluntary amnesia has become popular amongst the angry right. They skip directly from the halcyon days of the "spirit of Ermua" when a resolute government stood firm against the terrorist threat, to the present where a cowardly administration is down on its knees and hands over the country to ETA. What's the bit they miss out completely? Nothing important really, just that period when their own cherished government sat down and negotiated with ETA too. This episode has now been completely removed from history; it is as if it never happened. Equally the president of the AVT, Jose Francisco Alcaraz is treated as a martyr to freedom of expression because someone is taking him to court for insults, nothing more than a tiny taste of what he has so freely attempted to do to anyone who dares criticise him.

Here's someone who knows how to talk to terrorists

I did think this might be the last such outing before the election, especially as the Partido Popular has gently distanced itself. However, thinking a bit further I suspect we will see more mobilisations. Having been robbed of a negotiating process to use as the pretext we will instead get the continuing presence of radical Basque nationalist parties in the elections as an excuse to take to the streets. Meanwhile, this continues to be the legislature with easily the lowest number of terrorist victims since democracy returned to Spain, and according to the polls terrorism has dropped down the list of public concerns. May it continue to be that way.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Play Fantasy Journalism With El Mundo

Thousands of cash prizes must not be won! The objective of Fantasy Journalism is not to report the news, that’s too boring, the aim of the game is to invent the news. Just to give you all an idea of how this works I provide a couple of helpful examples. It would of course be possible to take almost anything El Mundo has published on the Madrid bombings as an example of how to play the game, but I have a couple of fresher cases.

El Mundo began this week with a potentially huge story, claiming that they had evidence of a meeting between the PSE (Basque section of the governing PSOE) and members of ETA. The meeting was alleged to have been held somewhere on the frontier between Germany and Austria. With today’s anti government demonstration already on the horizon, the drums started beating and you could almost imagine the shouts of “Zapatero, traitor” that would be heard. Just what the “civic rebellion” needed, continuing evidence of collusion between the government and ETA, the perfect issue to mobilise the angry ones in their thousands. The Partido Popular (PP) would surely pick up the ball and run with it, pressurising the government to come clean.

However, something strange happened in the following couple of days, and instead of dominating the headlines the story has almost disappeared. Perhaps the reason for this disappearance has something to do with an account in El País of how the tale emerged in the first place. According to El País the claim about the meeting with ETA was first aired in October by the Madrid radio station City FM, well known already for its enthusiastic participation in spreading the conspiracy theories on the Madrid bombings. Still according to the El País version of events, the story was then relayed to a member of a police intelligence unit by someone who is a member of the Asociación de Victimas de Terrorismo, sponsors of today’s demonstration and also very keen conspiranoicos. The police officer concerned duly prepared an informative note on the claim and the note was subsequently filed in the big box where they put all claims unsupported by any evidence. Then came El Mundo’s report, placing great emphasis on the fact that a police “report” authenticated the existence of the meeting, and making no reference at all to the police dismissal of the claim as lacking any credibility. Master conspiracy theorist Luis del Pino believes that El Mundo was trapped with this story by the evil doers, but as any decent Fantasy Journalism player can tell you, fact checking is for wimps. Especially if it might get in the way of publication!

Case study number two. The crucial political confrontation currently taking place in the Constitutional Court was coming to a head. The government had challenged the eligibility of two conservative members of the court to decide on an issue because they had already publicly pronounced on it. The PP was looking for a way to respond to a challenge that could leave their side in a minority on the court. Hear that bugle? That’s El Mundo riding to the rescue. A story miraculously appeared in the paper concerning three members of the court and things they were alleged to have said in a meeting of the tribunal’s members. The PP challenged their eligibility to form part of the court’s deliberations, basing their challenge on El Mundo’s conveniently timed report. Sadly for the PP, even some of the conservatives on the court have objected to El Mundo’s version of events and have publicly repudiated it. The PP, rather than accept that the story was invented to allow them to make their challenge, has instead accused several members of the court of being liars; something which seems unlikely to help their case.

Always remember, it is not just that truth is the first casualty of Fantasy Journalism, it is more a case of it being battered to death with a heavy, blunt instrument. Let the game continue.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Who Are You Calling Right Wing?

It's taken a long time, and the journey is far from over - but there are distinct signs that someone, somewhere in the headquarters of the Partido Popular (PP) has taken a close look at the opinion polls and seen a second successive election defeat on the horizon. Like an oil supertanker that takes hours to change direction, someone on the bridge has issued the order and bit by bit the monster starts to turn.

It didn't seem that way last Friday, on the first day of the conference the PP had prepared to project itself to the electorate. There were the same old faces, Acebes and Zaplana, droning on about ETA and the supposed surrender by the government to terror. It didn't look like the script had changed at all. However, the following couple of days were actually dedicated to presenting some electoral proposals. Nothing very stirring, nothing that suggests that too much deep thinking has been going on. What does a right wing Spanish party without a program come up with at the last minute? Why, tax cuts and a bit of populist nonsense aimed at saving the nation from those terrible Catalans and Basques. How will the tax cuts be paid for? Details schmetails, we’ll get back to you in January on that one. Nevertheless, a distinct change of emphasis and with honorary president Jose Maria Aznar hidden far away and out of sight in South America.

Then there was the Madrid bombings verdict. Despite a noisy rearguard defence of the little that remains of their conspiracy theories about the bombings, the PP has quickly realised that the unequivocal attribution of the bombings to Islamist terrorism means that they need to leave the issue behind them. Yet another reason for making sure that Aznar spends as much of the next four months outside of Spain as possible, as well as for keeping Acebes and Zaplana occupied stuffing envelopes to send to the voters. Perhaps the most curious case of all is that of El Mundo, the newspaper that has positioned itself over the last four years as cheerleader for the most right wing and vengeful (let's just call it Aznarist) sector of the party. The latest epistle on Sunday from its director, Pedro J Ramirez has left some of the enthusiastic members of that sector a bit confused. This is not the time to be out marching on the streets says Pedro, we need to appeal to the centre ground and stop hitting on themes like gay marriage or civic education. An ironic message from someone who has done so much to impose a different tune on the party, but also a clear sign that reality does occasionally intrude in his political thinking; even if it does only have a walk-on part.

Then there is the "civic rebellion", one the of the PP's chief fronts for mobilising its supporters on the streets. The man responsible for calling next Saturday's march, José Francisco Alcaraz of the AVT, has even complained about Mariano Rajoy not mentioning this previously unstoppable popular movement in his speech to the conference last weekend. It also emerges that Rajoy does not plan to attend Saturday's event, he is making sure that he is as far away as possible by claiming a previous engagement in Almeria. Instead, the PP will be represented by yesterday’s man, Angel Acebes. Nor are they pulling out all the stops to mobilise their supporters from across the country, as they did on previous occasions. At this rate the march won't even get wall to wall coverage on TeleMaguirre - if the TeleMadrid helicopter doesn't fly then the rupture will be complete, who will be there to claim that tens of millions of people have marched against the government. Well not to worry, TeleMadrid are covering the event although today it has been reported that they have been ordered not to film the PP headquarters as the march passes by. A sign of the times!

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

The Law Goes Up In Smoke

No, the title is not a reference to the still popular habit of burning images of the King. An article I saw in Público the other day highlighted a side effect of administrative power being devolved to regional authorities in Spain. Laws which have national coverage are not being applied equally across the country, and in some cases are not being applied at all. In the latter case this is usually because the regional government in question uses its defiance as a demonstration of political opposition to the government. Now, here is your starter for 5 points; which regional government do you think is currently leading the pack in turning its back on government legislation? Alright, I’ll give you a clue; begins with M, ends in D, and is led by E.

Another 5 points, this time for Madrid residents only – who remembers the law intended to control smoking in public places? There is one, believe me, it’s just that Espe didn’t like it and once it became known that she didn’t like it virtually nowhere enforces it. Why should they if they know that nobody is going to do anything to them anyway? There was a brief period after the introduction of the law when it was possible to go to a concert and be able to watch a band in a smoke free atmosphere, not very rock and roll but it did improve the experience. Not any more. The law is not a very good one, but that is not really the reason why it is not being observed.

Let’s move on. One of the major pieces of legislation introduced by Zapatero’s government has been something called the Ley de Dependencia which has as its very worthy objective the provision of financial support to those who are unable to work because they are full time carers of the sick. No fewer than 23,000 households stand to benefit from this measure in the Madrid region alone, but unfortunately the demands of political opposition mean that this assistance is not likely to arrive very soon. In order to implement the measure each region is required to provide the government with details of those eligible for assistance, Madrid and Murcia have decided they don’t want to do that. No law passed by this government which has any chance of being popular will be permitted to succeed. It’s a vindictive attitude towards those who could benefit, perhaps no surprise coming from a regional government that also denies support to the largest association of victims of the Madrid bombings.

There are some more long standing acts of defiance too, in Navarra for example it is impossible for a woman to obtain an abortion; no public or private clinic will carry out the operation. This is despite abortion having been legal for many years. The excuse given is a right of conscience not recognised by the law, and those doctors who are prepared to carry out abortions find that they are not permitted to do so. Now for 100 bonus points, find me a leader of any of these administrations that has not made numerous references at some point to the “rule of law”.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Cinema....Las Trece Rosas

This is one of the Spanish films that has created the most expectation so far this year, with its true story of 13 young women who were executed by Franco’s troops in the aftermath of the fall of Madrid. The film, directed by Emilio Martínez Lázaro, holds few surprises as we all know what is going to happen in the end. That doesn’t necessarily need to be a problem for a film, the way in which a story is told can bring just as much as any surprises in the plot.

The first part of the film portrays the efforts of the new rulers of the capital setting out to hunt down anyone who opposes them, and to intimidate the rest into passive obedience to the new order. Casual brutality is used by the police to force those detained to betray others. None of the 13 women had done anything much more significant than help friends or toss a handful of leaflets at a crowd queuing for bread, and several of them were minors at the time of their execution. The period is very carefully recreated, together with some skilful disguising of well known Madrid landmarks to hide the changes of the last 60 years.

The second half of the story deals with the imprisonment of the accused and the farcical kangaroo court military tribunal which hands out death sentences at the drop of a hat. Perhaps it is the sheer difficulty of portraying so many principal characters, but for me the film lacks something to really engage the spectator, despite the emotional pull of the finale. I ended up not being really sure exactly who was who and where they fitted into it all, and at times it doesn't come across as very solid or convincing in its presentation of the events. What you get in the end is a very watchable film, but not quite the treat we were led to expect.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Turning A Blind Eye

Madrid has finally made into the big hitters amongst Spanish local authorities by having a corruption scandal of its own. Several employees of the city council are behind bars for offences connected to the concession of licences for bars, clubs or concert venues. Quite a few others have been released on bail while the investigation continues. The system seems to have been quite simple, you paid the employee concerned, or one of the private sector friends of the employee, and all your licensing and paperwork problems disappeared. A process which could easily take several years suddenly became shorter. All sorts of stories have now emerged in the press from people who have had to pay bribes to get licences, or face the threat of closure - some of them reported what was happening to the administration years ago. There are clear indications that the city administration knew about the problem, and that they did nothing about it until the police investigation began. This suspicion has been indirectly confirmed by statements from the ayuntamiento that they cooperated fully once they knew about the investigation; it seems reasonable to assume that the situation would have continued for years had the police not acted now.

What is really striking about this scandal is that it demonstrates the almost complete absence of accountability in local government in Spain. People have very few rights in dealing with the administration, and if an official chooses to make life difficult for someone then it is very easy to do. Public access to information on the inner workings of the municipality which they elect and pay for is very restricted. It is this more than anything else which makes it so easy for corruption to flourish. Also, if it takes years for a licence to be conceded to someone this is not just because of inefficiency, it is because those running the "service" want it to be that way. The first reaction of Madrid mayor Alberto Ruiz Gallardón has been to suggest the privatization of the service involved, an action that will have the effect of making it even harder to enforce even a minimum of accountability in the concession of licences. It is an ironic solution to a problem of municipal corruption; those responsible for the massive corruption scandal in Marbella used the same technique of creating these semi-public agencies as a key part of their methodology for looting public funds.

This way of dealing with problematic issues is very reminiscent of what we can now call Sarkozy style politics, or the politics of distraction. The first law of Sarkozy politics is that you never ever accept any responsibility for anything that happens on your watch. So when a problem arises, you have to act in a way which suggests that the problem is somehow nothing to do with the administration over which you have presided for several years. With this base established, you then move on to the second law which is to propose an energetic looking "solution" which in reality does nothing to deal with the original problem, but which makes you look active in responding to it and which also permits you to implement plans that you haven't been able to impose by other means. Another example of this is occurring with the huge and ugly new advertising hoardings which are rapidly disfiguring many streets in the capital. Gallardón has responded to protests by more or less saying that he doesn't like them either, whilst of course permitting their continuing construction. Nothing to do with me, I'm only the Mayor.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

The Jet Set

Tired of having to mix with the great unwashed as you pass through Madrid airport? Humiliated at having to move with the herd even though you (or your employer) paid for that overpriced business class ticket? Don't worry, be patient, help is at hand. Madrid's regional government has decided that Mariano Rajoy's cousin was right about global warming and that what we need in the region are more airports. Not just any old airport you understand, the new one they have announced is not going to be for Easyjet or RyanAir, they can go to Madrid Sur! No, the airport they might have to end up calling Madrid Sur-Oeste is going to be run by private companies for private flights. Those little 20 seater jets that allow the really self-important to get around without having to interact with the rest of us - at a price of course, keeping the riff-raff at bay is never cheap.

Since I'm on the subject, how many of you caught La Espe's latest gem? Questioned on her role in the forthcoming general election campaign, Espe surprised the gathered journalists by informing them that she is considered the "Lideresa" of the Partido Popular, and that with such a grand sounding title she would naturally be jetting all over the place in the campaign. Perhaps lady in waiting would be a more accurate description of her current party position.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Operación Chuleton

Another weekend in the Picos de Europa, but this time there was not much walking being done; the objective was very different. We went to the village of Potes, which lies just inside Cantabria on the border with Asturias, and which is reached from the coast by one of the most claustrophobic narrow roads you can imagine, surrounded on both sides by walls of rock. The village lies in the fertile region known as La Liébana, and despite being at the foot of the eastern Picos it has a microclimate that makes for a respectable grape harvest. Apart from that, it’s also become a popular destination for the Brits who drive their cars off the Santander ferry every summer.

The grapes they cultivate in this area were at the heart of this weekend's visit. The last time I was there, a few years ago, the visit coincided with the Fiesta del Orujo, the spirit that results from distilling the grapes. It all seemed very civilized, you passed at leisure from one stall to another and they gave you a little shot of different orujos, sometimes straight from the still. Things change, the Fiesta del Orujo has got considerably bigger but unfortunately not better. The sponsorship of the regional government means that now they have a huge stage set up with folk dancing and even a "celebrity", Carmen Sevilla, to open the whole event. The village, whose population probably doesn't exceed 1500 people, was jammed with traffic and the enormous tent in front of the stage was equally full. The evening turned into a sort of glorified botellon as everyone went for the free drink. At least I have found a good use for an egg box, the shots of orujo fit very neatly inside; the eggs can just be thrown away. Meanwhile, the members of the jury looked very serious as they swilled glass after glass to try and pick this year’s gold medal winner.

Anyway, even this event was not my main reason for being in Potes, I was a man with a mission. The last time we were there, we ate in a restaurant not far from Potes where I can say without any doubt that they served me the biggest chuleton (T-bone steak) I have been presented with anywhere in Spain, and I've been around. I didn't manage to finish it last time, despite giving it my best attempt following the orujo aperitifs; and so a return visit was always going to be on the cards. I was a bit apprehensive, what would happen if the restaurant had changed and they presented me with a tiny piece of meat on a huge plate decorated with a brightly coloured sauce? I needn't have worried.

I have to admit that I failed again, although as always I did what I could under difficult circumstances. Failure does not always have to be unpleasant, in fact it provides the perfect excuse to try again - although maybe next time I need to do a couple of days walking first to build up my appetite.

San Vicente de la Barquera the following day

Catching The Southbound Train

Right, that’s more than enough about the royals, this blog is almost becoming like Hola! I saw a bizarre item in El País today praising the British for having completed a high speed railway line on time and under budget; comparing the case with the delays and problems of the high speed line to Barcelona. I think there are a couple of minor details which probably need pointing out here. Firstly, comparing a train line from London to the Kentish coast with a line connecting Madrid and Barcelona is hardly comparing like with like, the distance in the British case is barely over 100 kilometres. Secondly, and a bit more importantly, comes the simple fact that the line connecting London to the Channel Tunnel was supposed to have been built in the 1990's, not in 2007!

I lived in Sarrff London in the late 80's and early 90's and remember a big public meeting held in my area because the proposed line was going to run through that part of the city. Eventually the planners changed their minds and decided it was better to knock down bits of East London instead. The real point is that under the jackboot of the Thatch it was decreed that the public sector would have nothing to do with the new line, it was all going to be constructed by the super efficient private sector. Ten years later, with the tunnel already open, with nothing constructed and no sign of it ever happening, even the pro-market Blair agreed that the project needed what you might call a bit of impetus. Of course those awful statists in France (where nothing at all ever works) had their side of the high speed connection up and running almost from the day the tunnel was opened. Britain gets there about 13 years later and it gets presented as a model to follow. We apologise for the delay to your 1994 service from Paris, this was due to dogma on the line.

It Ain't What You Say, It's The Way That You Say It

Now for the news; two royal people have decided to stop living together. Virtually the only interesting aspect of the event is the euphemism used to describe the split. Royals in Spain do not separate, as normal couples do, instead they have a "temporary ending of their matrimonial cohabitation". Where will it all end? First we have a prince who marries a commoner who, in another beautiful euphemism, had already "conocido varón" . Now they start splitting up almost like normal people do!

Whether it will cost us more to have them living apart than together is of course a question which will never be answered, because in an interesting example of how weak democratic accountability can sometimes be the Spanish Parliament refuses to accept questions from its members on how much the ever expanding family costs the nation. However, it is rumoured that the male half of the couple in question has, and I choose my words with the utmost care here, some rather expensive habits. Meanwhile, many Spanish are starting to come to terms with a reality that they have refused to accept in the past, that their royal family behaves just like the British one. The coyness that surrounds the monarchy here even seems to affect those parts of the press that complain about it. So why not do something to change it? Perhaps they are worried about the royal temper?

Monday, November 12, 2007

Tomorrow Is Thursday

The King of Spain has been very busy telling off Hugo Chavez - a polite "We're quite capable of recognising our own fascists, thank you" would have been more than sufficient. Fortunately they had already had the conference dinner, otherwise bits of bread would have been flying all over the place. Another report I have seen today suggests that the King is not as restrained or diplomatic as he is generally presented. He is said to have made a one fingered salute to some protestors in the Basque Country a few years ago - a gesture explained at the time as a misunderstood greeting.

Meanwhile, tomorrow sees the court case against the satirical magazine El Jueves. The magazine commmitted the unpardonable offence of printing a satirical cartoon lampooning the King's son, an offence which has provoked the Spanish legal system into an almost alarming burst of efficiency, and which therefore sees the case already in court. Unfortunately, the probability that the case will be in the hands of a judge who regards it as his patriotic duty to punish anyone criticising the Monarchy is higher than it ever should be. However, lets hope for the best and a sensible judgement that puts an end to judicial persecution of legitimate opinions. Click here for the version of one of the accused.

Friday, November 09, 2007

Mind Your Luggage

Here is some advice for those who pass through Barajas airport in Madrid; don't put valuables inside your checked-in baggage. There has been a wave of thefts from passenger luggage in the airport this year, to the extent that the issue has reached the national press, and 17 people have been arrested by the Guardia Civil because they have been caught in the act by security cameras. Once your baggage is checked in there is very little you can do about any theft from the bag because it is so difficult to prove where the theft has occurred. On one journey I made from Madrid this year I found on recovering my case at the other end that the padlock I had placed on it was still there, but was no longer serving any useful purpose. Fortunately I didn't have anything worth stealing in the case. It is something that can happen anywhere, Heathrow Airport in London was at one time known as Thiefrow because of the quantity of valuables that went missing. However, it does see that there is currently a significant problem in Madrid.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Themes That Can Change An Election....The Voters Who Stay At Home

It’s normal for abstention to be factor in election results, because in most cases it does not occur in an even pattern, affecting all parties or candidates equally. Spain is no different, and with the latest opinion polls showing little change in the difference between the two major parties it acquires an even greater significance. In Spain the influence that it has on which side wins is usually very clearly defined, high abstention hurts the left more than it does the right. Let me give an example, when José Maria Aznar won his absolute majority in 2000 he did it on a relatively low turnout (around 65%). Four years later the turnout was substantially greater (about 8 points higher), and despite a PP vote that declined in real terms, the PSOE was still not able to achieve a majority. When the PSOE has won a majority it has almost always been with a higher, more motivated, turnout on election day.

The lesson that is drawn from these trends is that supporters of the right are more likely to vote than supporters of the left. Now, assuming that nothing happens between now and March to seriously affect the pattern of the polls, this means that the best chance the PP has for returning to power is for a significant percentage of those PSOE voters who came out to vote last time around to stay at home. I forget which one it was, but one of Aznar's ex-ministers complained after the last election that lots of people had voted who did not normally vote, as if somehow this was against the rules of the game! As things stand that is their best option, and it is hardly surprising given that the hardline opposition of the PP in the last few years as been aimed much more at shoring up their committed support than it has been at winning any new voters. As I have written about before, there are those in the PP who openly state their preference for winning on a low turnout, much better than trying to reach out to those occupying the centre ground and having to soften political positions. I can see the campaign slogan now, “If you’re not going to vote for us, then why don’t you just go shopping instead?”.

Abstention is one of the main reasons why the government is concerned about the transport crisis in Cataluña at the moment, the votes of that region are needed if the government is going to be returned to power. There are other regions where even a tiny shift in vote will produce different results to those of the last election, and the battle to be the biggest party in Parliament hangs on those areas.

Monday, November 05, 2007

If He Is A King, He Must Have A Palace!

Name this building.

Seems quite an easy question for anyone who has spent a reasonable amount of time living in Madrid, it's the Palacio de Telecomunicaciones where we all go to collect our registered letters or parcels that don't fit into our post boxes at home. Well not any more it isn't, this weekend the removal vans have been busy and the building is now the new ayuntamiento (town hall) of Madrid. City mayor Alberto Ruiz Gallardón now has a huge new office with views over Cibeles to the Calle de Alcalá and the Gran Via. He felt the old town hall was cramping his style so for a mere €70 million (small change by Gallardón standards), and compensation to the government of a couple of municipal properties, King Alberto gets his palace.

South of Watford decided to do a bit of vox populi and see what the residents of the city thought of the move. Down in the Puerta del Sol we encountered someone who I can only identify as E.A. Questioned on her profession she told me that she is "president of lots of things, really". This is what she had to say:

"I think it's a bleedin' liberty, here I am in a poky, cramped little building on the Puerta del Sol, and off he goes to this enormous palace. Who does he think he is, we'll soon sort him out. Just wait until Mariano does the party lists for the elections, then we'll see how big Mr Fancy Palace Gallardón is!"

At this point I had to bring the interview to a close, the temperature was rising fast and I felt that "E.A" needed a little bit of time to calm down, she was starting to foam at the mouth. So there it is, a new town hall for a new era. Now, where the hell are we supposed to get our letters from?

Saturday, November 03, 2007

Festival Of The Desert

Not many bands can claim to have been formed in a guerilla training camp, but Tinariwen trace their origins to the decision by Libya's Colonel Gaddafi to give assistance to Mali's Tuareg rebels in their fight against the central government. They are not fighters anymore, and a still uneasy peace holds; although there have been reports of Tuareg uprisings in neighbouring countries recently. Despite the external influences they assimilated, their sound is very much their own. This video gives a taste of the music and the story behind it:

Tinariwen played in Madrid a few days ago, together with Vieux Farka Toure, the son of the late Ali Farka Toure. The first time I saw this band was in Mali itself, at the Festival of the Desert that is held every January in the desert dunes around 60 kilometres from Timbuktu. The week I spent either at the festival, or travelling there and back, remains one of the most impressive - and eventful - journeys I have ever made. Is this sufficient excuse to include a camel photo on my blog? I think it is.

and this is Tinariwen on stage in Mali....

Thursday, November 01, 2007

Autumn In Irati

One of the best places in Spain to witness the effects of autumn is the area around Irati in the north of Navarra. This is the Pyrenees, although the highest peak in the area, Orhi, only just makes it over 2000 metres. The highest point we reached last weekend was on the Sierra de Abodi, from where we got perfect clear views of the high central massif of the Pyrenees that straddles the border between Huesca and France.

We arrived perhaps a week too late to see the changing colours of the forest at its best, but this is not an easy thing to predict. With fantastic weather during the day we were able to do two different routes in warm sunshine, although at night it was frosty and bitterly cold. Following the precedent set by my recent trip to the Picos de Europa, first comes the photos - later the map.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Themes That Can Change An Election....The Madrid Bombings Trial

By tomorrow lunchtime we should know the verdict in the trial of those accused of perpetrating the Madrid train bombings on March 11th 2004. We don't know what is going to happen to the 28 people still accused of participating in the bombings, but the betting is that all but one of those being held in preventative prison can expect to receive a sentence in excess of the full time they have served awaiting trial. Otherwise, the normal procedure would have been to release them. I will be examining the verdict and its consequences in much more detail in the next few days on a blog not too far away from this one. For the moment I just want to look at the potential political impact of the trial.

According to an opinion poll today in Público, one third of Partido Popular (PP) voters still believe that ETA was involved in the massacre, which given the hammering such a belief took during the trial is either a depressing homage to the power of the media to influence opinion, or perhaps an equally distressing revelation of how difficult it is to persuade some people to face reality when they don't want to. How the figure compares to those who believe Elvis is still alive has not been revealed.

The campaign run over the last few years by El Mundo and the COPE radio station, with the PP leadership playing the part of backing chorus, is something that personally I find goes well beyond what could be considered the normal "rough and tumble" of political life. Perhaps they won't receive any punishment for this cynical manipulation of such tragic events, but they certainly deserve to regardless of whether the motives behind it were personal, political or commercial. The conspiracy theorists are already preparing themselves for the possibility of an adverse result. The PP leadership has firmly denied ever having promoted conspiracy theories about the bombings. Fortunately, we have Internet archives to hand to demonstrate just how very untrue this affirmation is. El Mundo is also publishing highly selective comparisons between its coverage and that of El País. Should Jose Emilio Suarez Trashorras be convicted of having supplied the explosives used in the bombs, then it is a fairly safe bet that El Mundo will not choose to reprint their extensive interview with him in which they presented him as an innocent choirboy-like victim of a conspiracy.

Despite publicly stating that they will respect the decision of the trial, I expect El Mundo and the PP to continue their efforts to at least confuse the issue. A clear verdict of Islamist responsibility for the bombings carries a political charge. This charge has been made even greater by the mountain of lies constructed to try and cover the original attempt to manipulate the bombings by Aznar’s government. We will hear much about how their efforts have helped to clarify unknown facts about the bombings, together with denials that they ever suggested collusion between the current government and ETA. If the judgement casts even the slightest doubt about any of the key evidence in the case, then expect such doubts to be magnified to the maximum possible extent.

The date of the next election must also take into account the Madrid bombings. Until someone breaks the electoral cycle, and it doesn't look like happening this time, then general elections in Spain will continue to fall close to the anniversary of the train bombings. It will be a factor in the date to be chosen for that election; calling a poll either just before, or shortly after the anniversary will inevitably remind people of the events that took place 4 years before. Very tight security has surrounded the verdict, undoubtedly the judges on the court are as aware as anyone else of the impact of their decisions.

Monday, October 29, 2007

Who Benefits From Forgetting History?

It now looks reasonably likely that the proposed law on historic memory is going to get passed before the next election, after a very protracted negotiating process involving virtually all political parties – with one notable and unsurprising exception. Barring last minute obstacles, most likely to come from the conservative Catalan nationalists, the law should go through. The proposal is not as strong as some wanted it to be, but there have been interesting developments.

One of these is the move to oblige state or local institutions to remove symbols of Franco’s dictatorship from public buildings or spaces. It looks like Santander is finally going to lose its statue of the General. Another proposal is that organisations who receive public subsidies will also be obliged to remove such symbols. Now the most obvious institution affected by such a move is the Catholic Church, as thousands of churches around the country host commemorative plaques in honour of Franco and Jose Antonio Primo de Rivera, leader of the fascist Falange. Unfortunately, I doubt that the church will receive any more than moral pressure to remove these, and morality plays little part in the outcome.

Valle de los way to treat a mountain

That the Spanish Catholic Church will probably be the last institution in the country to accept that the regime has gone was evidenced yesterday by the lavish beatification ceremony held in Rome for 498 “martyrs” of the Civil War. Nobody should be surprised to find out that none of the 498 were amongst those killed by Franco and his forces, even though some priests (especially in the Basque Country) were amongst those executed in the destruction of the Spanish Republic. Funnily enough, these ceremonies were not even held when the General was still alive, it has only been with the return of democracy that the Church has engaged in this selective and sectarian continuation of the war by other means. The favourite argument of those who oppose any attempt to rectify the imbalance of the transition to democracy is that it reopens old wounds. None of these people were heard saying this yesterday; they were probably all in St Peter’s Square. It goes without saying that no ceremonies are being proposed for those whose bodies are still lying in unmarked graves around the country.

Meanwhile, some 160 streets in Madrid are said to still bear names imposed during the dictatorship, there are no longer any statues of Franco left but there are certainly significant monuments. The arch you see as you enter the capital via Moncloa was built as a tribute to Franco’s victory, and then of course there is El Valle de los Caidos. This act of monumental fascist/religious vandalism which defaces a whole mountainside in the Sierra de Guadarrama is also touched by the proposed law, although sadly only to the extent that it will be “depoliticised”. Hopefully this at least means that those running the place will no longer be allowed to pretend that it was constructed as a monument to peace, perhaps they will even be obliged to recognise the existence of the political prisoners who died building it. Is it any wonder that the sons and daughters of the dictatorship are so keen to maintain the amnesia of the transition, to keep playing this game which allows them to present themselves as democrats at the same time as they carefully tend and preserve the symbols of the regime. It’s time that game was ended, being honest about the past helps you to move forwards.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

More Tales from The Green

Back on a sporting theme, I've seen a couple of stories in the last week which demonstrate just how vital it is for us to have more people playing golf. Over in Avila yet another area of woodland has been devastated to make way for an urbanisation of several thousand homes and its now inevitable golf courses. There is only one problem, the inhabitants of the nearest village (only 150 of them) are entirely reliant on water brought in from outside as the already severely depleted local supply is contaminated with arsenic. I'm sure a solution will be found to stop the golfers dropping dead on the first hole. No such problems at the private Real Club Puerta de Hierro in Madrid, as the city administration has generously agreed to invest 800,000 euros on setting them up with a guaranteed water supply. Anybody who thinks this is not an appropriate use of public funds can move to Avila....or anywhere else except Madrid.

The golf course is deserted....

I have a pitch for a Hollywood movie, but before I get on the plane to Los Angeles I thought I'd try it out here first. It's the year 2040. A clean, wholesome looking young professional couple dressed in matching polo shirts are discussing their plans for the evening. "What shall we do tonight darling?" says one. "It's so lovely outside, let's get the clubs out and have another round of golf". Happily they make their way down to the lush green golf course that lies just inside the heavily guarded perimeter of their urbanisation. Meanwhile, not far away in the ruins of the city formerly known as Madrid, groups of private "security" guards roam the delapidated streets. They are paid to hunt down and exterminate the few remaining people who have had problems adapting to the lifestyle made compulsory 25 years earlier by twin headed hydra and President for Life Aguirre-Gallardón. Stopping by a dusty, sunbaked concrete gully to rest for a while, one security guard says to the other "what do you think this was for?". " I'm not really sure", replies his companion, "although they say a river ran through it".

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Civic Responsibility

It's back! The Civic Rebellion, that noble movement of decent, honest, hard working, ordinary, Partido Popular voting folk whose main activity in life seems to be shouting "Zapatero dimisión" at anyone who such much as looks in their direction, returns to the streets of Madrid on November 24th. It's a good date for it, the PP's more affluent supporters will have an excuse for getting the mink out of the wardrobe as the autumn chill should be with us by then. If we are really lucky it will rain...heavily.

The callers of the latest demonstration are not, of course, the PP itself. As usual they rely on one of their satellite organisations, and the increasingly inaptly named Asociación de Victimas de Terrorismo (AVT) has undertaken the task of mobilising yet another anti government demonstration. Meanwhile the president of the AVT, Francisco José Alcaraz, finds himself with a small legal problem over some of his more extreme public outbursts. He is facing a court case accused of “injurias” against the government because of his frequent statements claiming that the Spanish government and ETA work hand in hand. Much as I detest Alcaraz and his viciously sectarian political activities, I’m not in favour of it being an offence to insult or defame any government. Indeed, were we to take action against all of those who have peddled blatant falsehoods against the government on the issue of terrorism alone we would have so many legal cases in progress that even the most right wing of judges would not have time to chase those who burn photographs of the king – and where would that leave us? Apart from that, it gives Alcaraz a thoroughly undeserved chance to play the martyr.

Of course it needs to be pointed out that sometimes you reap what you sow. The AVT has systematically attempted to use the legal system to silence critics and to take rock bands to court over their lyrics. If anyone deserves similar treatment then it is Alcaraz. I wonder how much of the money which is supposed to have been used to assist the victims of terror has actually been employed in legal intimidation of all those who Alcaraz dislikes. Add to that the undoubtedly enormous amount of money they spent in their attempts to destroy the police case against those accused of perpetrating the Madrid bombings. Did you read that last bit right? Yes you did, an association purporting to represent victims of terrorism tried harder than some defence lawyers to bring down the prosecution case in that trial. An adverse verdict, from the AVT's point of view, will be one that attributes the massacre to Islamist terrorism. All those years of selling fantasies and lies and conspiracy theories will have been wasted. If that is how next week’s verdict emerges the PP, AVT and friends will need to make even more noise on November 24th to try and drown out the impact of the case.

The AVT and their allies have taken the abuse of terror for opportunist political gain to new heights. The organisation is run by a hard right clique who exist in this ethical vacuum where anything justifies the end objective, even if they debase in the process the very cause which they were set up to promote. No greater disservice can be done to the victims of terrorism than to use them in this way. The PP could easily set up its own internal grouping of terrorist victims, but then they would have to be open in their political alignment and of course the PP would have to fund their activities from its own resources. The best thing the AVT can do, if nobody is able to reform it, would be to disband itself and let genuine organisations represent the needs of terrorist victims. None of this is likely to happen.

So this fraudulent attempt to misrepresent the voice of the victims will continue. Given that there is no current negotiation process with ETA, then one will have to be invented for the occasion. I am sure that Alcaraz is already working on the details of another sinister and clever communist-nationalist conspiracy to convert España into Exspaña. I predict this will run along the following lines, the breakdown of negotiations with ETA is just an electoral ploy by Zapatero who still has to honour the commitments he made to them as they worked out together how to commit the Madrid train bombings. Once he is back in power he will simultaneously hand over half of Northern Spain to his Basque allies whilst they all joyfully perform regional dances on tattered copies of the Spanish Constitution. That document which the Spanish right overwhelmingly rejected when it was first proposed but which they now love and revere as if it was their own dear child. Meanwhile the F2M (flags to morons) business has never been stronger. Once again I am forced to curse my lack of business acumen for letting pass another opportunity for a comfortable and early retirement.

Monday, October 22, 2007

I Don't Speak Your Language, Can You Shout A Bit Louder?

Last week saw the return of the programme on Spanish television where politicians are subjected to direct questions from selected members of the public. Previous editions had featured Prime Minister Zapatero and opposition leader Mariano Rajoy, and both appearances made the headlines. This time it has been the turn of politicians from other parties, and the headlines have all been made by Josep Lluis Carod Rovira, of the Catalan nationalist party Esquerra Republicana. Carod Rovira was confronted by questioners who clearly were not there to sing his praises and who insisted on using the Spanish translation of his name, José Luis. The response of Carod Rovira to this was to say "I'm called Josep Lluis, not José Luis, both here and in China."

The whole incident was silly, the questioners were obviously out to show their disdain for all things Catalan, and Carod Rovira replied in a way that made it clear that the only audience interesting him was to be found within the boundaries of Cataluña. A pointless confrontation between rival nationalisms, but which did at least serve to highlight another issue. One of the questioners raised a common complaint made by those who live outside of regions such as Cataluña or the Basque Country. The argument goes like this; a person from Castilla-León who wants to work in the public administration in Cataluña has to speak both Spanish and Catalan, whilst someone from Barcelona who wants to work in Valladolid is only required to speak Spanish. Discrimination, so the argument runs, and those of us who live here in the capital can expect to hear this point being made fairly frequently.

Now regular readers of this blog, assuming there are any, should be aware by now that nationalism is not really my thing. However, on the issue of public services and language I take sides. Sometime long ago in a distant nation not far from France I decided, mistakenly as it turned out, to embark on a career in local government. Now things work a bit differently on this island and moving from one local authority to another was accomplished by the relatively uncomplicated procedure of filling in application forms and attending interviews. Occasionally though, things were slightly more complicated. Some Welsh local authorities would insist on applicants for a position in their district having knowledge of the local language. This to me always seemed entirely reasonable, even though it put me theoretically at a disadvantage – theoretically because I never actually applied to work in any of these areas.

People who complain about such a situation show zero interest in the provision of services to the public and should probably not be allowed to occupy a position anywhere in the country. If you think that the administration exists with the sole objective of providing you with a secure existence for the rest of your days then it is natural to see it as wrong that you be required to actually learn anything to be able to fulfil this role. On the other hand, those who believe that the administration should be responsive to the needs of those who pay for its existence might find it comprehensible that José Luis the funcionario from Valladolid should be capable of communicating with those he is supposed to attend to in the language which they habitually use. So instead José Luis and friends remain in their comfortable offices in Valladolid or Burgos, paying no attention to the public assistance telephone which has been ringing non-stop for the last 3 years, whilst bitching constantly to their colleagues about a non existent flood of Catalans who are not taking all of their jobs. Sympathy? Not here, or in China.

Friday, October 19, 2007

Anyone Know A Good Builder?

Having posted already this week on music, cinema and football I think it’s time for a bit of politics. Strange events took place this week in Valencia and led to the resignation of the leader of the PSOE in the region, Joan Ignasi Pla. What lay behind his resignation was the revelation that he had not yet paid a substantial bill for work done on his home several months ago by a company that has significant construction interests in the region. On the face of it, that doesn’t seem such a big deal, at least if it is judged by the ethical standards governing much political activity on the shores of the Mediterranean. What makes the story truly interesting is where it came from.

Pla was not brought down by the right wing press trying to damage PSOE chances in Valencia. Instead the revelations came from the Grupo PRISA – traditionally close to the PSOE and owners of the Cadena SER radio station and the newspaper El País. In his resignation statement Pla placed the blame on the media and on members of his own party who were settling accounts – or in other words just what Pla had failed to do himself; I must remember to write down the name of his builder.

There are several angles to this story. On the one hand you have a Grupo PRISA increasingly disenchanted with the PSOE and a government that now has other media friends. At the same time the national leadership is said to want the vice president of the government, María Teresa Fernández de la Vega, to lead the party list in Valencia for next year’s general election. She constantly emerges in opinion polls as the most popular member of the government, and the PSOE had a disastrous result in the May local elections in Valencia. Pla was not seen as helpful to the cause, and he is no longer in the way.

Next week I intend to get back to some genuine political ranting, I feel I haven’t done enough recently. To get fired up for this I am going to spend the weekend in the city that used to be known as “Red” Bologna.