Monday, January 29, 2007

Cinema....Pedro Gets His Goyas

Pedro Almodóvar can no longer claim that he doesn't get recognition in his own country. Last night his last film Volver took 5 of the Goyas, the Spanish equivalent of the Oscars. They were not just any Goyas, he got the prizes for best director, best film, best actress (Penélope Cruz), best supporting actress (Carmen Maura), and best soundtrack. Almodóvar has had his problems before with the Spanish Academy, he even resigned in a huff a few years ago because one of his films did not get awarded any prizes. Last night he was not there, claiming exhaustion, although its hard to avoid the suspicion that he still doesn't regard these awards as being very important, given the international recognition he gets.

Also doing well last night was one of my favourite films from last year, El Laberinto del Fauno (Pan's Labyrinth), directed by Guillermo del Toro. Another favourite of mine, Salvador, took the best adapted screenplay prize. Meanwhile, Ken Loach lost out to Stephen Frears for the prize for the best non-Spanish European film, The Queen. The distribution of awards highlights that last year was not a particularly strong year for Spanish cinema, most of the prizes went to two of the films and Del Toro is a Mexican director; even though his film was made in Spain and had a strong Spanish cast. In a good year 5 or 6 strong films can be competing for recognition, although I do not remember 2005 being much better.

I'm not a big fan of awards ceremonies, and I don't care who wins an Oscar; the Goya ceremony won some respect from me in 2003 when many of the actors involved transformed it into a protest against Spanish involvement in Iraq. Their action gave a significant boost to the anti-war campaign and at least for one year the self-regarding, introspective nature of these events took a backstage role.

What Is It About Golf?

Now don’t get me wrong, I really don’t have strong feelings about golf and the people who play it. Ok, I think it’s a boring sport, and I don’t think it’s a good idea to destroy areas of beautiful woodland to replace them with golf courses so that constructors can sell more houses. Otherwise, my general approach to the sport is tolerant, each to their own.

Unfortunately it seems that there are those with less tolerant views on the other side of the fence. A fine piece of open land in Chamberi - in the centre of Madrid - which was going to be converted into a public park for the benefit of all the local community, is now instead going to become a 9 hole golf course and practice centre. The regional government of Madrid declares this project to be of “general interest”, presumably even more so than a park would be. Now I’ve asked around at work a bit and have yet to find anyone who plays golf, none of the people I know in Madrid are golf players – unless they do it secretly. Maybe I mix in the wrong circles but somehow I don't get the feeling that the decision was taken after a tough meeting where the question of general interest was debated at length.

Playing in the park

So there we have it, even if you don't want to play golf you might find soon that it becomes a compulsory part of citizenship. Madrid residents may end up having their political reliability tested depending on whether they can tell two golf clubs apart. Why don’t they just convert the Santiago Bernabeu into a golf course, there is not much else happening there at the moment? In the general interest of course.

Friday, January 26, 2007

Bassi's Back

Provocative Italian comedian Leo Bassi has returned to Madrid with his show “La Revelación” which takes a critical look at religion (you can see it in the Alfil theatre). The last time he was here in Madrid with this show someone tried to set off a fire bomb in the theatre, and Catholic fascists (fascolics?) were protesting in the street outside. I don’t know whether we can expect more of the same this time, but clearly the same people who prevented Pepe Rubianes from performing in the city will probably be wishing they could do the same to Leo. I haven’t seen the show myself, but I’m told it’s very, very good.

Meanwhile, just on the very day I want to post with something that mentions Pepe Rubianes, it turns out that he is now to be charged in court for the comments that he made about the Spanish nation. Amazingly, it seems that there is a crime here called "ultraje a España"; which is one of these crimes that appears to have been purpose built for right wing groups to use against anyone they disagree with. Here the charges have been presented by the state prosecutors, although the original complaint was made by an organisation calling itself the "Foundation for the Defence of the Spanish Nation". For what is nothing more than a crime of opinion, which doesn't even have the side effect of damaging anyone at all, Rubianes faces a fine of 21600 euros.

It's Cold Outside....And Inside Too

It’s very cold in Spain this week, much of the country has a fresh layer of snow and temperatures have fallen sharply. As I write these words in Madrid, I can hear the noise of the wind outside. Whilst we all sit at home with the heating on it would be comforting to think that despite the bad weather we can still all cope with such severe weather conditions. However, we are forgetting someone. Somewhere in a large gloomy palace in the centre of Madrid sits Esperanza, wrapped in blankets and weeping softly as she realises that yet again her meagre salary is not enough to get her through to the end of the month. The heating in that huge, cold palace is turned off; there is no money to keep it going.

Now, I know that things are a bit tight financially after Christmas and the New Year period, but I just want to remind everyone that the appeal to help Esperanza is going to be open for donations until April, and every little helps. Maybe those donations will come too late to prevent a miserable end to the winter this year, but at least we can be sure that when winter comes calling again she will be able to flick that heating switch without thinking twice. Someone pass me a paper tissue.

Rough Justice

More judicial craziness to finish the week with. The big news story of the last couple of days in Spain has concerned the ETA prisoner Iñaki de Juana Chaos. I highlighted the case of this prisoner in an earlier post, as being a possible obstacle in the Basque peace process. Given the current state of that process, it cannot be considered to be an obstacle anymore. It is, however, an appalling example of how political considerations can take precedence over any others in the administration of justice.

De Juana Chaos is currently very sick as a result of a hunger strike he has undertaken in protest at the additional sentence he was given for allegedly making terrorist threats in two newspaper articles. He was not charged with this offence when the articles were originally published; the charges were only brought after it became clear that there was no other legal impediment to him leaving prison having finished his previous sentence for much more serious offences.

This week the original tribunal that sentenced him to over 12 years imprisonment for the newspaper articles, was now prepared to review his situation and consider putting him under house arrest instead, at least until his pending appeal against the sentence is heard. The only real effect of the decision would be to remove responsibility from the state if the prisoner decided to continue with his hunger strike. Unsurprisingly the Partido Popular (PP) and their allies in the AVT immediately protested that this would be a concession to blackmail and tried to present it as yet further concessions by the government to ETA – even though the government had nothing at all to do with the move to review the prisoner’s status.

Other judges in the same court as those that delivered the sentence then pushed to have the full court make the decision, which was within their rights but essentially motivated by signs that the original tribunal was prepared to relax the imprisonment. So the full court met and decided by a heavy majority to maintain De Juana Chaos in his current status, ordering force feeding in the Madrid hospital where he is currently held because of his weak state.

The key problem in the end with this case is that a bad initial decision makes all subsequent decisions that do not correct the original error to be equally bad. So yes, the hunger strike is self-inflicted, but the refusal to take into account the circumstances that have led to that situation only compounds the initial miscarriage of justice. None of this can be justified by the crimes that de Juana Chaos has committed in the past, he has served his sentence for those under the legislation that existed when he was sentenced. It’s a crazy and dangerous situation created by media and political pressure, and the willingness of judges to make political judgements which they then attempt to present as being the mere application of the law.

The idea that anything is acceptable if it’s against terrorism has created this lamentable atmosphere where anyone who defends a more balanced opinion is likely to be accused of being a terrorist sympathiser; and where judges can twist the law freely to fit their own political prejudices. The damage has been done, the consequences could end up affecting much more than the cases against ETA prisoners.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

I Love The M-30

If you haven't had the opportunity to experience at first hand the fabulously expensive project to bury part of Madrid's inner ring road, the M-30, here is your chance. The collective basurama presents to you the shining jewel in the crown of the City of Eternal Trenches. Marvel at how citizens of Madrid's ever expanding suburbs will be able to arrive at their workplaces up to 3 seconds earlier than they were able to before. Enjoy the safari.

Given that most of Madrid’s city budget for the next generation has been blown on the project, perhaps the best thing to do is to promote it as a tourist attraction.

March 11th....Let The Trial Begin

It is now confirmed that the trial of those accused of committing the Madrid train bombings in 2004 will begin on February 15th, almost 3 years after the attack. The trial could last for 7 or 8 months with approximately 600 witnesses set to appear.

El Mundo and the conspiracy theorists around the Peones Negros were surprisingly happy with the announcement; given the efforts they have made to bring down the whole process. The main reason for their happiness was the decision by the tribunal to permit the appearance of 3 members of ETA as witnesses. There was also some glee over an order to repeat the explosives analysis on the samples recovered from the different sites where either bombs exploded, or where quantities of unexploded explosive were recovered.

In reality, it is not very likely that their dreams are likely to be realised. The 3 ETA members who will appear were all in prison at the time of the bombings, two of them were arrested shortly before the 11th March attack as they transported a van load of explosives to Madrid. The other ETA member has been in prison much longer and is being summoned because his name was found on a piece of paper in possession of an Islamist linked to one of the accused. There is no evidence that connects them in any way with the Madrid bombings.

What has happened is that the defence of one of the accused seems to have decided to adopt the arguments of the conspiracy theorists, and has called for the appearance of the ETA members presumably to try and link ETA to the attack. It seems unlikely that any of the ETA witnesses will stand in the witness box and say “After we made the bombs we gave them to Zapatero to place on the trains”. Nor does it seem likely that they have anything to say that will help the accused, claiming that you think someone else was involved is not much of a defence if you can’t produce any facts to back it up.

This is why the conspiracy theorists should not necessarily be so happy, the mixture of fantasies, insinuations and speculation that they have floated with so much energy has not been designed to withstand the detailed examination it is likely to receive if someone accused of multiple murder adopts it as his defence. Ask a conspiracy theorist to give you some hard facts to back up the allegations they make, and prepare to be disappointed by the answer. Also, the fact that the trial date has been set means that the judges who will preside over the trial have accepted the instruction of the case as being valid.

The explosives issue is also interesting, because the conspiracy theorists have always claimed there was an attempt to cover up the type of explosive that was really used. The fresh tests have to be carried out before the trial begins, and will be carried out in the presence of experts from all sides, with the whole testing process being filmed. It seems an excellent idea, designed to dispel any doubts about the outcome, although you can almost bet that if the tests confirm the analysis carried out in the aftermath of the bombings then the conspiracy theorists will start claiming that the samples have been manipulated.

The trial is an important event, and not just because of the magnitude of the Madrid bombings. The accused are on trial, and so to some extent is a judicial system that has shown itself to be too prone to political manipulation. The thorough examination of the evidence should still take place, despite the predictable attempts of some to convert the trial into a political circus. A guilty verdict for those accused will not mean that the campaign to implicate ETA and the government in the bombings will disappear, but it will almost certainly be the start of the downward slope for those who have so shamelessly exploited the bombings in an attempt to get political revenge for the result of the elections that followed. I will write extensively on the trial, either here or on a nearby blog - I think the significance of the event merits the effort.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

I'm Not The Pheasant Plucker, I'm The Pheasant Plucker's Son

Today's political tongue twister gives us another opportunity to enjoy the wisdom of Partido Popular caretaker leader, Mariano Rajoy. Hot off the press from El Mundo, you have to say it as quickly as possible:

"Mi partido pacta con otro partido, pero parte de mi partido no pacta con otro partido mientras yo sea el presidente del PP".

It's just as difficult to understand in English:

"My party pacts with another party, but part of my party does not pact with another party whilst I am president of the PP."

So that's clear then? It is believed that the phrase is a reference to political infighting in the PP in Valencia. The faction aligned to Eduardo Zaplana, parliamentary spokesman for the PP, is alleged to be plotting with the Socialist party to remove supporters of the current regional president from the board of the local savings bank.

Groucho Marx also had something to say on the subject in the contract scene from A Night At The Opera:

"'The party of the first part shall be known in this contract as the party of the first part.' How do you like that? That's pretty neat, eh?"

An Idiots Guide To Democracy....First Count The Votes

The opposition Partido Popular (PP) routinely questions the ability of Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero to be leader of the country. A few days ago it was the turn of Mariano Rajoy (the alleged leader of the party - we know it is really still Aznar). Mariano the deep thinker had this to say about what it takes to be head of the government:

“No basta con ser mayor de edad y tener la nacionalidad española: hace falta algo más para ser presidente.”

My translation.

“It’s not enough to have reached the age of majority and to have Spanish nationality: something else is needed to be president.”

Whilst having my own doubts about Mariano’s capacity to lead a government, surely one of the most basic prerequisites for being leader of the opposition is the understanding that you remain in that position until you win more votes than your opponents! 30 years have passed since Franco died and they still haven’t got the idea. Perhaps it’s only to be expected in a party where the leader is “elected” by the previous leader.

Looking For Trouble In Alcorcón

Some truly disturbing events took place this weekend in the town of Alcorcón, near to Madrid. A dispute between two teenage couples degenerated later into a massive brawl between two groups composed mainly of South American and Spanish youths. As a result of this brawl, one young Spaniard was stabbed. That might have been the end of it, but it seems that some of the Spanish involved decided to turn it into something more serious, using the stabbing incident as a pretext.

On Sunday as many as 1000 Spanish youths were on the streets of Alcorcón allegedly seeking a confrontation with gangs of South Americans. In reality they spent much of the day in scuffles with riot police and managed to create a situation where immigrants in the town were afraid to leave their homes. The police response has been a little curious, they arrested 7 people following Saturday night’s brawl – all South Americans. Then, faced with 1000 Spaniards seeking to organise their own mini pogrom, and attacking the police in the process, the result was only 2 arrests! One family involved had to be escorted from their own home by the police to protect them from the mob.

It seems that far right groups are already involved in what is going on and are attempting to organise a demonstration for this Saturday. It’s a very ugly situation, and what makes it even more disturbing is the number of people here who find excuses for the behaviour of the racists. Despite the police making it clear that they were not involved, much of the talk about the incidents focuses on organised Latin American gangs. Somehow the blame ends up with those who are actually the victims.

Monday, January 22, 2007

Demonstrating How Wrong You Can Be

Having boycotted the demonstration against ETA following the bombing at Madrid airport, the Partido Popular (PP) and their allies have now decided that the only appropriate response is to organise their own demonstration, set to take place on February 3rd. Officially called by one of the PP’s satellite organisations, the Foro de Ermua, the PP quickly responded by announcing their full support, together with the AVT and the Peones Negros. The difference this time, of course, will be that the demonstration will be more against the government than against ETA – with the official slogan focusing on opposition to any negotiated solution. This is the real reason for the boycott of the previous demonstration, the absence of any criticism of the government’s policy.

According to what I read in the Spanish press this weekend, the decision not to support the first demonstration came from (almost) the very top of the PP – its current leader Mariano Rajoy. Now there have been occasional suggestions that Rajoy is a prisoner of the hard right faction in the PP represented by Angel Acebes and Eduardo Zaplana (with Aznar lurking in the shadows behind them) – and that many of the PP’s hardline stances originate from this section of the party. Perhaps this opinion flourishes because Rajoy does not present such an abrasive, resentful image in his public appearances, but the reality of the situation does seem to be different. Rajoy was hand picked by Aznar to be his successor, and has always belonged to the more right wing side of the PP. The only thing that is likely to restrain him from adopting hard right wing positions might be the realisation that failure to attract enough support from the political centre is going to cost him the only chance he probably has left of winning an election as PP leader.

The PP has been unable to take advantage of any government discomfort over the breakdown of the peace process with ETA, and they reason they have been unable to do so is mainly because the Spanish public does not hold the government responsible for what has happened. The PP has badly miscalculated the situation and presented a sectarian, aggressive response which does not seem to bring them any benefit, apart from keeping their already committed supporters happy. This view is backed up by the most recent opinion polls, one in ABC that was carried out before last weeks parliamentary debate gave the PP a couple of points advantage. However, a newer one in La Vanguardia taken after the debate and Rajoy’s aggressive attacks on Zapatero shows the PP trailing several points behind the governing PSOE, and below the level they reached in the last elections. What happens on February 3rd could be further evidence of the extent of this miscalculation – close attention will be paid to the numbers attending given the already evident decline in previous mobilisations; in the end the street is not the place where the PP’s natural supporters feel most comfortable.

The AVT Goes Back To Court

The Association for Victims of Terrorism (AVT) has provided us with yet another example of how it dedicates its time and resources to attacking anyone whose views it finds unacceptable. Having run out of rock bands to take action against, the latest person to be sued by the AVT is well known Spanish writer Javier Marías, who published this article about them in yesterday’s El País. If you understand Spanish then do read the article, in my opinion it is entirely reasonable in its description of a how an association that could once expect to receive public support and sympathy has been transformed into an aggressively politicised tool of the angry Spanish right and their hunt for revenge. You would hope that at some point the courts might turn round to the AVT and tell them to stop clogging up the judicial system with their attacks on freedom of expression, and that the association might actually begin to comply with what is supposed to be the reason for its existence – at the moment there seems to be little chance of either of those things happening.

Javier Marías - The AVT finds a new enemy

Friday, January 19, 2007

It's For You!

I'm well overdue a post about football, maybe next week I will return to making improbable predictions about the outcome of the Liga this season. In the meantime, I read that Real Madrid are to be fined for objects thrown onto the pitch as they were eliminated last night from the Copa del Rey. Just to show the changing face of the modern game, it turns out that amongst the usual plastic bottles and seat cushions there was.....a mobile phone.

"It's Beckham returning his club phone"

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Chronicle Of A Peace Process....The Ceasefire Explodes

The biggest single event in Spain recently has of course been the decision by ETA to break their ceasefire by leaving a huge bomb in a car park at Barajas Airport in Madrid. The bomb completely destroyed the multi-storey car park, and killed two Ecuadorian immigrants who were sleeping in their cars; the first fatalities in an ETA attack in almost 3 years. Amazingly, ETA claimed after the bombing that their ceasefire was still intact and attempted to place responsibility for the fatalities onto the shoulders of the police for not clearing the car park properly. The idea that you can explode several hundred kilos of explosive, but that you are not responsible for any of the consequences as long as you give a warning is not a new one; and is no less cynical in this case than in any other.

The situation is reminiscent of the decision by the IRA to end their first truce in 1996 with a spectacular bombing, and there may even be an element of mimicry behind ETA’s decision. However, the two situations are not directly comparable. Without being in favour of what they did, it is possible to understand why the IRA took the decision to break that ceasefire, as the government led at the time by John Major really did seem just to sit back and wait in the hope that the IRA would find it more and more difficult to return to activity with the passage of time. They got that very wrong. The crucial difference in this case is that ETA have been offered a real deal for renouncing armed activity, a deal which would include a reform of the Basque autonomy statute and (say it quietly) would almost certainly include a deal on the hundreds of ETA prisoners currently in Spanish jails. Batasuna, ETA’s political wing, would be allowed to resume legal political activity and participate in the political process of statute reform. It is a genuine offer which does not proclaim anyone to be a winner or a loser, but is conditional on a definitive decision by ETA to renounce terrorism. In other words, they have a way out if they really want to take it.

Even allowing for the difficulty of knowing what is really going on inside an organisation like ETA, it does appear that they have decided on a strategy of demanding concessions which would allow them to proclaim some kind of victory in their struggle. They are looking for concessions on the right of the Basque people to self-determination (currently unconstitutional) and on the status of Navarra, which they claim as being historically part of the Basque Country. In any negotiation it is not surprising that the parties ask for more than they might be finally prepared to accept, but in this case they are using bombs to try and pressure the government to make concessions that are never very likely to be accepted, and which would be politically suicidal in the current climate.

ETA have dug themselves into a hole here, and it doesn’t look like either the Spanish government or the conservative Basque Nationalist Party (PNV) are going to throw them a rope to help them out of this hole. The depressing, terrible logic of their situation is that the inevitable refusal by the government to make concessions in response to the bombing will lead them to make further attacks, and in the process kill off any real chance of progress. By raising the stakes in this way they seem to have trapped themselves into a situation where they cannot exercise any further pressure without completely destroying the possibility of progress. Perhaps that is the situation they are looking for, but it is hard to see how they can possibly benefit from it. Neither can they back down very easily from the position they have adopted, it is hard to imagine what they believed would happen as a result of the bombing. The next time that ETA decides to sit down and negotiate they are unlikely to find themselves in a stronger position than they are now, and the prospect that Batasuna might be able to take part in this year’s municipal elections is looking very improbable.

Egged on by opinion polls that show them more or less level with the governing PSOE, the opposition Partido Popular (PP) has made frontal opposition to the government’s policy on dealing with ETA their main priority. In the process they have made a significant political error by refusing to participate in an anti-ETA demonstration that was called last Saturday by trade unions and Ecuadorian immigrants associations. The Association for Victims of Terrorism (AVT), who always work hand in hand with the PP, also decided not to participate. This purely sectarian decision was based on the pretext that the PP wanted the official slogan of the march to include the word “liberty”. They were actually granted their wish, but the word “peace” was also included; and the horrific prospect of being associated with such a frightening concept was enough for the PP, AVT and friendly media to launch fierce attacks on the demonstration. It reminds me of those groups who occasionally turn up at political demonstrations with a handful of leaflets explaining why they are unable to participate in the demonstration.

The fallout continues as the PP seek to extract political advantage from an unfortunate choice of words by Prime Minister Zapatero, who described the bombing as an accident, and who made a hopelessly over optimistic assessment of prospects for the process the day before the bomb went off. He has since recovered his balance a bit, and made some smart use the other day of the same words used by Jose Maria Aznar after his negotiations with ETA failed. Meanwhile the aggressive attitude of the PP is good for keeping their base support happy, but almost certainly does little to attract anyone else. ETA is far from finished, those on the right of Spanish politics who claim that they can be defeated by police pressure are almost certainly wrong. Despite many police successes against them in recent years, they have the social base and sufficient number of activists to maintain terrorist activity for years if not decades. Such activity may not be high intensity, but it could still easily be sufficient to add many more names to an already over long list of victims. Groups like ETA rarely disappear voluntarily, even long after they have outlived the circumstances that led to their formation in the first place.

The Northern Ireland process was based on a mutual recognition between the IRA and the British government that neither side was going to win an outright victory. For a few months we have had the prospect of a similar situation arising in Spain, today it looks less likely but in the end there is no easier or better solution amongst those that are realistically available. Sadly, the signs are that ETA are not yet ready to accept that solution.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Restarting The Engines

For the moment I can’t do much more than wipe the dust off this blog, after 4 weeks away I’ve got some catching up to do. It’s been an intense journey in India, and at times a little overwhelming as we tried to navigate our way through narrow streets filled with cows, goats, dogs, people, bicycles, bicycle rickshaws, motorised rickshaws, cars and more cows. Highlights of the trip included the desert city of Jaisalmer in Rajahstan, a wonderfully relaxing few days in Goa at New Year, the small town of Hampi - once a large city and capital of a Hindu kingdom, and the pilgrims bathing in the Ganges at Vanarasi (Benares). If I ever manage to wade my way through hundreds of digital photos I may post a small selection here. In the meantime I have some reading to do, and I will probably be writing something about ETA in the next day or two.