Monday, April 30, 2007

Republican News....A Child Is Born

Ever since the 18th century there have been sporadic, and occasionally successful, attempts to bring an end to a system of cradle to the grave welfare for hereditary aristocrats. Yesterday's news shows that there is still some work to be done.

Come on, give me your money....

Sunday, April 29, 2007

Meanwhile, Back On The Green

I wrote a post back in January about the creation of a golf practice centre in an area of Madrid where local residents had expected to have a public park. At the time I questioned how such a project could be classified by the regional government as being of "general interest", a classification which allowed the project to proceed more easily. Well at the end of last week we got a better idea of those whose interest is best served by the conversion of this open space into an area reserved for golf enthusiasts. It turns out that the administrator of the company given management rights over the centre has close business connections with a brother and brother-in-law of the vice president of the regional government, Ignacio González. Not only is González deputy to the pauper president Esperanza Aguirre, he is also in charge of the public water company who own the land on which the golf centre was constructed. I am not suggesting that there was anything irregular in the way this issue was handled, I just thought it reasonable to point out the the general interest of course.

Friday, April 27, 2007

Poverty Update, Rajoy Empties His Pockets

One week after refusing to disclose his salary when asked to do so on live television, Partido Popular leader Mariano Rajoy has finally decided to reveal some details about what he earns. The figure that has been released is one of 8000 euros a month, 3000 of that being the salary paid to a member of parliament and the rest coming from the salary he receives from the PP. However, Mariano has been a little bit coy here, because as a member of parliament elected for Madrid he receives an additional allowance of 841 euros a month. This supplement on its own is almost enough to make him a mileurista - one of those who have to get by on a salary of 1000 euros a month or less; whilst of course enjoying the privilege of having to pay prices for goods and services that are more in line with Northern European levels. If you add to Mariano's total the transport and living allowances for when the parliamentarians are away from home, the figure continues to rise. The evidence of the cases of Esperanza Aguirre and Mariano show that the problems of the mileuristas are nothing compared to those faced by their apparently wealthier counterparts - the cienmileuristas. You have to wonder what runs through the minds of such people to make them believe that pleading poverty on an annual salary of 100,000 euros is a way of demonstrating empathy with those who have genuine economic difficulties?

As part of the public relations operation following last weeks programme, Rajoy yesterday had dinner with one of the members of the public who had questioned him on the PP's stance on reform of regional autonomy statutes. Presumably, given his evident financial difficulties, he managed to get her to pay for the meal.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

The River's Revenge

Those who block rivers to put other things in their place rarely seem to understand that there is probably a very good reason for the river being where it is. Those who inaugurate their great works before they are finished so that they can present themselves for re-election inevitably end up blaming everyone else when it all starts going wrong. This is the result; Madrid's new underground waterfall.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

The Long Transition Continues

It looks like a compromise has been reached to unblock progress on the Ley de la Memoria Histórica, the proposed law seeking to redress some of the unresolved injustices left over from the Civil War and the transition period that followed it. The agreement has been reached between the governing PSOE and Izquierda Unida, and should allow the proposal to proceed after a prolonged period of deadlock. The concession made by the government is that the verdicts delivered by courts operating under the dictatorship will be declared as being "illegitimate"

You might think that the declaration of illegitimacy would mean that the verdicts delivered by Franco's tribunals could be overturned; but that is not going to happen. Legally the verdicts will still stand, although there is an opinion amongst some experts that the declaration to be included in the new law will assist any challenges on individual cases made in the future. This means that it is more a gesture of good intentions than anything more meaningful, although every little helps. Measures were taken to nullify the decisions of courts operating under fascist regimes in Italy and Germany, it seems that Spain is not going to get that far. This curious situation where Spanish justice has been able to intervene against human rights abuses committed in Chile, Argentina and Guatemala; whilst nobody has ever had to stand trial for anything connected with Franco's dictatorship will still continue.

Despite the limited reach of the new law, the Partido Popular (PP) has declared that it "buries" the transition. This transition to democracy in Spain following Franco's death has often been held to be a model for other countries emerging from dictatorship. However, it no longer looks like such a good example as we see countries that manage to come to terms with their history in a way that does not involve forgetting it (South Africa), or countries where the battle to seek justice for those murdered by such regimes has not been abandoned (Argentina, Chile). Instead, the Spanish transition can now be seen as only a partial process; one which left the supporters of the dictatorship in a privileged position compared to those that were on the losing side in the Civil War. It is this position which the PP still seeks to preserve by labelling any attempt to redress the imbalance as an attempt to keep the past alive. It is really the amnesia built into the transition that has contributed to this situation, had these issues been dealt with 30 years ago then there would certainly be no need for a new law now.

Friday, April 20, 2007

Can Nothing Be Done To Help These People?

The incidence of poverty amongst senior members of the Partido Popular (PP) seems to be getting out of hand. No sooner have decent citizens come to the rescue of Esperanza Aguirre, than more sad news reaches me of yet another deserving case. I have read this afternoon in El Mundo that the PP leader Mariano Rajoy, unlike Espe, does manage to make his salary last the whole month, but that he still needs to check his bank account every 30 days.

The Poor Party....

This is shocking news, the man has a salary as a member of parliament, and another one as leader of the PP parliamentary group; yet he still has to fret and worry about whether he will make ends meet. The whole issue arose as a result of Mariano's appearance on the new show on Spanish television where members of the public are allowed to ask direct questions to senior politicians; I have already written about Prime Minister Zapatero's problem with the price of a cup of coffee on the same show. Mariano was asked how much he earned by someone who lives on a pension of €300 a month. He dodged the question, admitting - as if we didn't know - that his salary is a good bit higher than €300. However, nobody seriously expected him to be pleading poverty the very next day, maybe they should have had a collection amongst the audience on the programme.

According to El Mundo, members of the Spanish parliament earn a base €3020.79 a month, but this gets topped up with another €1762.18 for members from outside of Madrid. Then you add the expenses.....and the salary as leader of the PP. It looks like we might need someone to organise another appeal!

Thursday, April 19, 2007

A New Daily Newspaper For Spain

Over the last few months I have caught occasional references on the web to a project for a new left of centre daily newspaper in Spain. It now seems that the project has become reality. The companies behind one of Spain's newest TV channels, La Sexta, are aiming to enter the national newspaper market with a completely new daily paper that will be called Público. The new paper will therefore enter into competition with El País, which currently has the left leaning market more or less to itself; at least at national level. It has been announced that the director of the new daily is going to be the journalist Ignacio Escolar, who in addition to his professional activity is the owner of the blog

It will be interesting to see how someone who has already shown a strong interest in the Internet and digital communications will handle the mixture of the new technologies with the more traditional paper based publication. It's quite a big step to launch a new paid for newspaper these days, the sales of such papers are showing clear signs of decline as they face competition both from the Internet and from the many free newspapers that have emerged in recent years. El País is a good paper, in terms of the news coverage it provides of both national and international events it is clearly the best in Spain; but it will be good for it to have a rival and the launch of the new paper promises an interesting period in the newspaper circulation battle.

Friday, April 13, 2007

Municipal Elections 2007....Autobombo Comes At A Price

Some words in Spanish just sound perfect for what they describe, and autobombo is one of these words. Although it could also pass as a Spanglish definition for a suicide bomber, it really refers to those who engage in self-promotion; in the cases to be discussed here with the aid of huge amounts of public money.

In recent months vast hoardings have appeared around Madrid containing little or no information for those who stop to read them, but always containing the slogan of the sponsoring authority. Advertising budgets for both regional and city administrations have risen spectacularly in the last few years as spending on promoting the actions (or even just the thoughts) of these administrations has become a convenient way of avoiding the need to use party funds to pay for political propaganda. The Comunidad, the regional government for Madrid, currently spends 160 million Euros a year on publicity. On all of the massive posters they put up appears the slogan "La Suma de Todos", when what should probably really appear are the words "You might as well read it since you've paid for it".

Horrible....where is the traffic?

As the elections approach, so the amount of pseudo "informative" advertising has also gone up. Not to be outdone, the city administration also invests heavily in convincing the electorate that their administration thinks only of making our lives better. What little money remains in the city budget following the massive project to bury part of the M-30 ring road, has been spent on publicity campaigns designed to sell the project as a huge bonus for the city. The vast number of leaflets distributed about the M-30 project show an idyllic picture of a river surrounded by trees and green parkland. The reality of course is very different, whilst the tunnels under the river may be operational for traffic, the surface above them continues to be a huge, dusty, building site and will remain so for some time to come - the river itself is still missing in action.

The municipality has yet another expensive campaign in motion which seeks to convince voters that all of the major works carried out in the last few years have been of great benefit; just in case anyone might think they have only been for the benefit of the companies milking public funds to carry them out! This campaign features old photographs of familiar Madrid landmarks such as the Gran Via, the Puerta del Sol, and the statue of Cibeles. The idea behind the campaign is to suggest that if it were not for the great works carried out by our wise leaders, we would still be stuck in a time warp where horse drawn carriages trot down cobbled streets and people hang their washing out to dry by the river; how ugly and uncivilised - not a four wheel drive in sight. At least in my case this effort has been wasted; I look at these pictures and think about how nice it must have been to be able to walk across Cibeles (anyone trying that now lasts about 3 seconds), or catch a tram in the Puerta del Sol. Frankly, the river with washing drying on the banks looks a lot nicer than it did with a four lane ring road going down both sides of it.

Sadly, around 50% of the population of the city appear to be resolutely indifferent to whatever happens inside the municipal limits. I have never lived in a city where so many of the inhabitants appear to have so little interest or pride in the place where they live, and the administration of the city reflects this indifference. Hence the heavy concentration on traffic projects which exist mainly to permit those who enter the city to leave it again without having more than a fleeting contact with their surroundings. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that should the central area of Madrid eventually collapse into the honeycomb of tunnels beneath it, the main reaction of a good proportion of the inhabitants will be to complain about the extra time it will take them to get back to their homes in the suburbs. The heavily subsidised autobombo is designed to reassure this section of the population that everything is fine in the city, and that there is no need for them to to think too hard about what might be going on.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Esperanza Forgot To Thank You

The appeal supported by South of Watford to help Madrid regional president Esperanza Aguirre in her time of greatest need has now come to an end. The results of this heartwarming appeal, launched by Periodismo Incendiario, have been published at the blog set up to support it. The grand total collected has been €509.82, which might not seem like a huge sum, but which would surely be welcomed by anyone who has to hesitate before turning the heating on in winter.

Strangely enough Aguirre has not replied to the letter that was sent offering solidarity to see her through these difficult times. Perhaps her hands were so numb with cold in that Madrid palace that she was unable to pick up her pen and write back to accept the money? Or maybe it is just a case of simple pride, she preferred to wrap herself in another blanket rather than be seen accepting donations from people whose salary - it has to be said - is not quite as high as hers is.

Never mind, the money has gone to a good cause. The proceeds of the appeal have been evenly split between the Asociación de Victimas del 11-M and Attac España. Neither organisation is likely to receive equivalent help from the regional government that Aguirre presides. Esperanza can warm her chilly heart knowing that the money she was sadly unable to accept will be put to good use.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Sol Y Nieve

If you were cold in Spain at Easter it's because you didn't go to Asturias! Lot's of sun meant some difficult walking in the soft, melting, snow of the Picos de Europa; but the fantastic scenery made it all worthwhile.

Monday, April 02, 2007

Chronicle Of A Peace Process....Too Little Too Late

It looks like there is little hope of any resumption of the peace process for the Basque Country now, the latest actions by the main players involved do not suggest any sign of real movement. The government, with the decision to be lenient in the case of Iñaki de Juana Chaos, and with a decision not to press charges in a case against Batasuna leader Arnaldo Otegi, has acted to defuse tension and remove excuses for further violence. However, there does not appear to be any connection between these decisions and a resumption of the peace process.

Batasuna are now attempting to present candidates at May's municipal elections under a new name, Abertzale Sozialisten Batasuna, and without explicitly making the commitments that have been demanded for their legalisation. The government is responding by opposing the acceptance of the new platform under the Ley de Partidos, the law originally used to declare Batasuna illegal. At the same time there has been increased police pressure on ETA with the last few days seeing arrests of what is said to be one of their commandos in the Basque Country.

The attempts to judicially supervise Batasuna's activities can lead to some genuinely surreal situations. A meeting was convened for the weekend which was intended to be a launching of the new platform. However, judge Baltasar Garzón intervened with a ruling that said the rally could go ahead only if the organisers gave a commitment not to mention the new party! A commitment was given and the rally went ahead without incident. So you can meet, but don't mention the name you are meeting under.

The difficulty of applying the law on political parties only helps to emphasise what a bad law it is. Effectively it is permitting the prohibition of organisations on the grounds that they have not pronounced on an issue, in this case by not explicitly condemning ETA and the use of violence. It has also been a law which has left judges taking what are formally judicial decisions, but which are really highly political decisions. In many ways the "new" Batasuna complies with the requirements of the law, with a commitment given to using democratic methods to achieve their aims. However, in reality it is clear that they are not going to achieve legality until either ETA make it clear that they have rejected terrorism, or unless Batasuna explicitly reject ETA. All it takes at the moment is for the state prosecutors to demand the banning of the organisation for the judges to back that position. it is a law which may bring satisfaction to many, but has set a tremendously dangerous precedent and has done nothing to bring an end to terrorism.

In any case, Batasuna will still be present at the elections, either via the presentation of local municipal platforms, or via the Communist Party of the Basque Lands (EHAK), a tiny legal organisation which effectively offered itself as an alternative for representing Batasuna's voters. The calls to make them illegal because they did this again show how dangerous it is to pass laws of this kind, as the prohibition can start to affect those who oppose the Ley de Partidos, but who do not necessarily have connections to ETA.

The question now is how ETA are going to react to the likely decision to prevent Batasuna from presenting themselves at the elections. Already there is talk of an increased risk of an ETA attack, the result of which would almost certainly be an end to any talk of peace for at least what remains of the current parliament. The government is going to be less willing to take any risks on negotiations as the general elections approach, nothing but cast-iron guarantees on an end to ETA would tempt them at the moment as they cannot afford to give further ammunition to the Partido Popular on this issue. The bomb at Barajas airport in Madrid at the end of December continues to have its effect, and none of the consequences of that decision to break the ceasefire have been good for the Basque Country.

Sunday, April 01, 2007

Storm In A Coffee Cup

There has been a surprising amount of investigation carried out in Spain this week into the price of a cup of coffee. The reason for the sudden interest in this issue was the appearance of Spanish Prime Minister José Luis Rodriguez Zapatero on a new format (for Spain) television programme where invited members of the public were allowed to question the politician directly.

The moment that captured the headlines was when Zapatero was asked if he knew how much a cup of coffee costs. He replied that he believed it to be 80 cents, and it was this somewhat optimistic estimate that provoked both the headlines and the investigation. First let’s deal with the price; 80 cents will certainly not buy a coffee in the larger cities such as Madrid or Barcelona where 1 euro would be the minimum price you could expect to pay. There are cheaper places, and there have been suggestions that Zapatero’s estimate was not too far below the national average.

The general consensus, however, was that politicians show how far out of touch they can be when they get asked this kind of question. It is not that likely that Zapatero actually pays for any of his coffees, people in his kind of position do not need to carry much small change with them. Or if they do order the coffee themselves, they do it in the subsidised comfort of the Spanish Parliament where the price is around 70 cents. In short, they are insulated from much of the reality that the vast majority of the population has to deal with. There were questions on much more important issues in the programme, but all of this was drowned out by the great coffee debate, even the citizen who asked the question was starting to get fed up with the attention it received after a few days. A much bigger issue for pressing the Prime Minister on should be the price of buying a home, something increasingly out of reach for many people these days.

Opposition leader Mariano Rajoy gets his chance to face the people in a couple of weeks. Rumours that he is currently busy memorising the price of every common household item are almost certainly true. We can also expect several contrived attempts by him to show how much more he is in touch with the man or woman on the street. In any case the new format has been a big success in a country where politicians generally receive very kind treatment in media interviews. The confrontation between George Galloway and a Sky News interviewer a few months ago attracted quite a lot of attention here precisely because that kind of robust exchange almost never happens in Spain.