Thursday, July 31, 2008

In The National Interest

Continuing on a nationalism related theme, I was reading this morning about the purchase by Gas Natural of a 45% stake in the electricity company Unión Fenosa. The shares have been bought from the construction company ACS, presided by a man better known to many as being a former president of Real Madrid; Florentino Perez. ACS and Perez have done very nicely out of the deal, but that is not my main point in writing about the operation. Casting my mind back to a similar situation a few years ago, when Gas Natural tried to buy out Endesa, I remembered the huge political storm that bid provoked. The rabid right came out in force against allowing the Catalans of Gas Natural to control Endesa, in a memorable lapse Esperanza Aguirre accused the government of permitting the sale of the company to “foreigners”.

Naturally expecting a similar reaction this time around, I went off in search on the internet to see if the patriotic campaign in defence of Fenosa was already beginning. Starting at El Mundo’s web page I could only find a straightforward account of the operation on the economics pages. To my distress, I got the same result over at Libertad Digital. What could be happening to those for whom the only things that matter are “España y Libertad”? Wait a minute, I’m getting a message on my earpiece……What’s that you say? …..Florentino Perez is a shareholder of Libertad Digital….and you think that might have something to do with their lack of reaction?....It’s a sorry state of affairs indeed when the nation can be sold so cheaply.

Be Careful With That Fiscal Balance!

Yesterday I watched the emergence on the Spanish blogosphere of an almighty row that has finally ended up on the front pages of today’s newspapers. They say that a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing, and that clearly applies as much to Photoshop as it does to anything else. A Catalan blogger, in an attempt to be “ironic” about the issue of the fiscal balances and who pays for what in Spain, published on his blog the other day the following image.

This image, with its suggestion that Cataluña pays to keep poverty stricken Extremadura going, could have come from the worst sectors of Northern League style nationalism with their “we work hard while the rest of the country lives off our efforts” way of thinking. That’s what made the origin of the image so surprising because the blogger in question, Lluis Suñé, is actually a councillor for the Catalan wing of Izquierda Unida.

Under pressure from the wave of protest his artwork provoked, including a threat of legal action from the Extremaduran regional government, Suñé ended up apologising and has now withdrawn the offending image from his blog. I suspect the origin of the problem can be detected in the banner of his blog where someone, presumably the councillor himself, is pictured holding a flag. Flag waving is an activity which inhibits that part of the brain responsible for controlling logical thought. Based on my daily experience in Madrid, it is a similar effect to that provoked by driving; which is why combining the two activities can be so dangerous.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Rich Man, Poor Man

It's not just the construction company Martinsa Fadesa that is seeking to avoid its creditors. The man behind that company, Fernando Martín has also applied to have himself declared insolvent. This might seem fair enough, if he was having financial difficulties, but Martín managed to earn the far from trivial amount of 85 million euros in 2007, more than the entire annual salary bill for the company. That's not including his earnings from Martinsa Fadesa where things were going so very, very well that each member of its board of directors had to be paid a minimum of 6.7 million euros. Now it seems he's spent it all and hasn't got a penny. Are there any millionaires reading this blog who can shed some light on this situation?

Via Moscas en la Sopa

The Panamanian Minister Of Tourism Will Now Sing For You

It’s not as bad as the title suggests, the current holder of this position in the Panamanian government is Rubén Blades, one of the biggest names in Latin music. He played last night at the Cuartel de Conde Duque in Madrid, and it was obviously casual day for Panama’s politicians as he appeared in t-shirt and combat trousers. Blades has always taken salsa music beyond the purely commercial dance sound, the lyrics of his songs are as important as the music. We had to hear Pedro Navaja, perhaps his best known song and originally inspired by Mack the Knife. Blades showed his humour by joking that he would still be staggering across the stage at the age of 90 singing this song. There were also more serious songs, including one based on the story of Oscar Romero.

I might not like his music quite as much as that of the Brazilian Minister of Culture, but it was a fine show and will probably be my last time at one of my favourite venues for live music. Since I arrived in Madrid, July has meant concerts in Conde Duque but now the place will be closed for rehabilitation work. Also attending last nights concert was the Cuban musician Eliades Ochoa, who will be doing his now traditional August concerts at the Clamores jazz club next week. Recommended.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Every Insult Has Its Price

Another judicial sentence against Federico Jiménez Losantos. He has been found guilty of injuring the reputation of the former editor of ABC newspaper, José Antonio Zarzalejos, and will have to pay 100,000 euros in damages. Not only does he have to pay the compensation, he will also have to read a statement on his radio show as well as paying for it to be inserted into all of the major newspapers. This follows his recent defeat in the case brought by Madrid mayor Alberto Ruiz Gallardón, and it's worth remembering that he is still facing several other cases.

It might seem strange that the right-wing Losantos should have engaged in a systematic campaign of insults directed at the editor of such a venerable conservative newspaper as ABC. The answer lies in the media war between the Libertad Digital/El Mundo axis and ABC. Losantos used his position in the COPE radio station as a platform to launch attacks which really have commercial motives as the background, whatever political reasons Losantos might find to try and justify his insults.

There are persistent rumours that the Catholic Church is now looking for a replacement for Losantos, even though it's not that long since he had his contract renewed. The problem is that his aggressive and abusive style was fine for the bishops whilst his venom was directed at the government, but they are not quite so comfortable with him using the same methods against the PP leadership. Losantos backed the wrong horse in his bid to gain influence in the PP and the bishops will want to maintain a good relationship with the current party leadership. Losantos' head on a plate could yet be the offering from the church to keep Mariano Rajoy happy.

Espe's Baggage Handlers

You're probably going to think I've been affected by altitude sickness or the sun while I was on the mountains, but I've decided to break new ground for this blog by writing a post in favour of something done by the Comunidad de Madrid. I saw yesterday that our regional government is threatening to take on those airlines that charge for baggage in addition to the cost of the flight. I read somewhere else recently that this practice is probably not legal so it will be interesting to see the outcome. Buying a ticket online with some of these companies is just becoming so complicated as you try to uncheck all the boxes for additional charges which they try to pass on so they can sell "cheap" flights. I can't help being a bit suspicious though, our regional government protecting the consumer against the operation of the free market! Doesn't sound right, there has to be a catch to this somewhere.

They obviously don't have much else to do, Espe's administration has recently decided that spending money on public services is unecessary; instead they are buying a huge amount of space in the press for advertisements telling us how good these services are. No information, no facts of any kind, just that Madrid has wonderful services. We are used to this around election time, but now it seems that autobombo is a permanent state of affairs. When she beheaded the traitors in her government recently, Aguirre invented the cynical explanation that the move formed part of an austerity drive. It now appears that the, probably enormous, salaries saved in this process have been redirected into the only budget that really counts - propaganda.

Friday, July 25, 2008

My Friends In The North

The high peaks of Huesca are my destination for this weekend. It's not going to be easy, that special June diet of football and beer has left its mark, and I'm not sure if I'm ready for this. The evenings will be spent at the Pirineos Sur festival in Lanuza.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Peace In Our Time

Well who would have thought it? A meeting between Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero and Mariano Rajoy which actually ends in agreement on something! Yesterday’s meeting was a first outing for Rajoy’s new strategy for the Partido Popular as he attempts, somewhat unconvincingly, to present a softer image whilst praying that the economic troubles in Spain will be enough to bring down Zapatero. So we got agreement at last on the renovation of the judicial institutions, and an agreement on terrorism; although we will have to be convinced that the PP doesn’t really intend to try and use terrorism for political advantage. There are some habits that are very hard to shake.

The blocking of the long overdue renewal of the Constitutional Court and the judicial governing body, the Consejo General del Poder Judicial (CGPJ), formed part of the PP’s strategy in the last parliament as they sought to preserve their political advantage in both institutions. Nobody should imagine that either institution is even remotely non-political. The justice system works appallingly badly at times. I was reading the other day about a case where some people were swindled by a bank and a property developer, the case went to court and was heard but the judge couldn’t be bothered to write the sentence. Several years later the CGPJ finally got round to doing something about him, but the victims of the fraud were still left without a verdict. When some right wing fringe group makes a complaint about someone burning a photo of the king or about a street that has been named after an ETA member for the last 20 years then there are judges fighting each other to take the case. Meanwhile, anybody else who wants justice is left waiting in the queue and neither the government, the PP, or their political appointees on the CGPJ seem to see any problem there for them to worry about.

On the economy Rajoy is developing a habit of accusing others of possessing what are really his own faults. So he accused Zapatero of being indecisive and being inactive on the economy when he is famous within the PP for his habit of leaving difficult decisions, and has never been accused of being a workaholic. Had the accusation come from anyone else it might have had some force. Given the PP’s proposed solutions for the crisis – tax cuts and reductions in public spending - all the evidence suggests they have still not found anyone with an economics degree to bolster their new found interest in the topic. They will be celebrating the latest bad economic news in the PP headquarters as the economy has become the issue which Rajoy hopes will return him to power. Its an open question, the government managed to get re-elected just as the economy started to decline, Rajoy has to be hoping for a profound 4 year crisis if he wants to make this the centre of his next campaign. Either that or a government which fails to see out its full term.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

The Return Of Uncle Vicente

Nothing too heavy for blogging today, we are experiencing VERY HOT WEDNESDAY in Madrid and have all been advised to take it easy. So I’ll write about football to fill in some of the time while we are waiting for those meaningless pre-season tournaments to begin. Following success in the European Championship and the subsequent departure to Turkey of the eternally grumpy Luis Aragonés, Spain has a new coach for its national team.

The new appointee, Vicente del Bosque, is hardly an unfamiliar figure having been a former coach at Real Madrid. He was sacked by that club in 2003, at the height of the “Galacticos” era when Florentino Perez was president. Del Bosque didn’t lose his job at Madrid because of poor results, in fact he was the most successful coach the club has had in its recent history and the last one to preside over a Champions League victory. He left because he didn’t project the kind of image that Perez wanted in the era of Beckhams, Figos and Zidanes. He looked too much like…..a football coach. So he had to go, following the same misguided “logic” that saw the signing of Ronaldinho rejected on the grounds that he was “too ugly”. His dismissal marked the beginning of the largely trophy free years that led up to the eventual resignation of Perez.

If he can reproduce his success at Madrid with the national squad then he will turn out to have been a good choice. He begins with a heavy burden of expectation, now that Spain are European champions there are many who believe that the next World Cup could end up in Spanish hands too. The qualifiers for that tournament start soon, and there will be a lot of attention paid to Del Bosque’s first team selection. Given his links to Real Madrid, it will be curious to see whether he finds space in the squad for players Raúl or Guti without offending those who were part of the victorious European Championship setup.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008


Whilst the big hitters of the summer music festivals were engaging in their pointless audience war over the weekend, I was down at Etnosur in the Andalusian village of Alcalá La Real. Free at the point of delivery, this festival was a much smaller affair. In some ways it was like a hippy version of a village fiesta, with the concert sites located in the village itself. Normally I don’t like restrictions on taking your own drinks into these events, but in this case the intention was more to stop the event becoming a huge botellón rather than to guarantee the profits of those who buy the drinks franchise. Being a free festival there were no big names here, but there was still some good music to be heard. The main problem for those who don’t like camping is the shortage of accommodation, we rented an apartment for the weekend but unless you have a group this can work out expensive. Those who don’t mind sleeping rough had no problems.

Friday, July 18, 2008

La Virgen De La Cabeza

As I'm going to be away In Jaén for the weekend I leave you with some images from my last trip to that province. Firstly, a lesson on the dangers of meddling with the colour of the local religious symbols.

Not far from the place where I took the above picture (Cazorla), there was one of these information boards that describes what you are seeing from the viewpoint; which in this case was thousands and thousands of olive trees. In what has to be one of the most superfluous bits of public information ever, an arrow on the board pointed helpfully towards "El olivar".

Not Everyone Can Win The Lottery

It’s not just on the Mediterranean where major corruption cases linked to construction interests emerge. Even though Madrid doesn’t have a playa (vaya vaya) that doesn’t mean the region is of no interest to the anti corruption prosecutors. The latest major case concerns a place just over the border in Toledo province called Seseña. This village, which used to have just 9000 inhabitants, was the place chosen for a massive new property development designed to attract those leaving Madrid in search of cheaper housing. The man behind this development is called Francisco Hernando, although he is more commonly referred to as "El Pocero". The development has now become something of a symbol of the end of the construction boom, only 5000 of the intended 13000+ dwellings have been constructed and only around a thousand are occupied. For sale signs placed by those who bought there now compete with the efforts of El Pocero’s own company to shift unsold units.

The hugely controversial development should never have been started at all, it was approved by the previous municipal administration against the advice of the technicians and despite it being located in an area where water supplies could not be guaranteed. Eventually the PSOE run administration that approved the plan was disowned by their party and the municipality came under the control of Izquierda Unida and a mayor absolutely opposed to El Pocero’s plans. Now it has been announced that the former PSOE mayor is under investigation for a highly suspicious increase in his personal wealth since El Pocero came to town. The former mayor claims that his new found wealth, estimated at over 600000 euros, is due to some good luck with a lottery ticket.

Meanwhile El Pocero is actively seeking revenge against the new administration in Seseña, who have dared to defy him and who were returned to power in last years municipal elections. He has launched a whole series of legal cases against the mayor, Manuel Fuentes, whose supporters are now being forced to raise funds to pay a court imposed guarantee. As if that wasn’t bad enough Hernando is seeking to sue the municipality for compensation for his unsold properties! The municipality has already been forced to raise taxes to pay for services for the new residents of a development that they never wanted to have. The situation illustrates all of the ugliest characteristics of those cases where a powerful developer attempts to impose his will on local politicians and create facts on the ground that the law will later be unable to do anything about. It’s a battle that Seseña needs to win, not just for reasons of democratic hygiene but also as an all too rare demonstration that money doesn’t always talk.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Los Veranos De La Villa

July and August in Madrid traditionally sees a series of concerts and performances running under the generic title of Los Veranos de la Villa. I only found out yesterday, a predictable consequence of not reading the full list of events, that this week we get some free concerts in the Plaza de España. Starting last night and running until Saturday. Then, in the first week of August, there will be some more free events staged in the park surrounding the Temple de Debod – Madrid’s very own Egyptian temple. Last nights concert was an entertaining event, from the Madrid based tango group Malevaje. Tonight promises to be good too, with a performance (I’m not making this up) of Mexican ska from Panteon Rococó. It starts at 20:30, I hope to catch some of it on my way to the Cuartel de Conde Duque to see Frank Zappa’s son pay homage to his dad.

Talking of Conde Duque, this will sadly be the last year that it will be used for these concerts as it is about to undergo “reformas”; a word sufficient to strike fear into any long standing Madrid resident. It’s a shame because going to the open air concerts there in July has been one of my favourite summer activities since I arrived in Madrid. The authorities have yet to name the alternative site for future events, but have said it will be somewhere more accessible; which in my case can only mean they plan to hold the concerts in my living room. Could be a bit cramped. I suspect that Madrid is soon going to be presented with a venue to rival the Hollywood Bowl, prepare yourselves for the Manzanares Dust Bowl.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

No Longer Blowing Bubbles

That crashing sound you hear is the noise made by a Spanish construction company going into administration to try and hide from its creditors for a while. The company in question is one of the biggest in the sector, Martinsa Fadesa. This company is run by Fernando Martín and has grown very quickly on the back of the housing boom in Spain. Perhaps too quickly, the company is unable to pay its debts which currently stand at over 5,000,000 euros. This is not just a short term liquidity crisis although the cause of the move by the company has been its inability to raise further funds.

Probably the first law of bubble economics should be that you always believe that your particular bubble is different from all of the others and will never burst. That was certainly the attitude taken by Martín who was scornful of suggestions that the housing market could not keep booming indefinitely. Indeed, the major cause of the huge debt his company has was the purchase of Fadesa, which he bought early last year. The man who sold Fadesa is now being regarded as a visionary, there is no doubt he got out at the right time. Pedro Solbes, a man who is hardly prone to exaggeration, says that excessive risks have been taken. That, in Solbes speak, is equivalent to making an accusation of fantastic recklessness. But if you believe your bubble will never burst these are the sorts of things you do.

Maybe the second law of bubble economics should be that those who get most hurt by the bursting bubble are not those who got most benefit from it while it lasted. The 28% of the company’s workforce currently facing the sack are going to take the immediate brunt of the company crisis. Indirectly the company is also responsible for many other jobs. Over 12,000 people have put down money for homes from the company which have yet to be built. Even some of the banks, normally immune to almost everything, are going to feel the pinch at least temporarily as they are forced to provision against the huge amounts of money lent to Martinsa. South of Watford says never trust a builder who has been president of Real Madrid, even if Martín was only there briefly to fill the gap between Florentino Perez and his successor.

Ibarretxe's Blocked Vote

Yesterday morning the Basque regional government published in its official bulletin the measure approved three weeks ago that permits the referendum on the political future of the Basque Country. The publication set off a predictable sequence of events, the national government immediately lodged an appeal against the referendum with the constitutional court, invoking at the same time powers that suspend the Basque initiative for several months. The government alleges that an autonomous government in Spain has no powers to convoke referendums. The Partido Popular has also presented an appeal.

It is expected that the Basque President Juan Jose Ibarretxe and his party (the nationalist PNV) will respect the blocking of the referendum rather than put themselves in an openly illegal situation. Nobody knows when the court will get round to reviewing the case, it is hardly the quickest institution as they still haven’t dealt with the Catalan autonomy statute. What seems fairly likely is that the members of this highly politicised court will be overwhelmingly hostile to the Ibarretxe plan. What could happen next is that Ibarretxe will call early elections in the Basque Country and campaign entirely on the issue of the Basque people being denied the possibility to decide their own future.

It’s an unanswerable question whether an alternative way out could have been found to the coming confrontation. Immediately following the general election there was speculation that those sectors of the PNV hostile to Ibarretxe’s initiative might extract some sort of commitment from Zapatero permitting an alternative face saving route via a reformed autonomy statute. In return the PNV would help to guarantee a minority national government. This doesn’t look likely to happen and perhaps the main reason for this is the result which the PSOE obtained in the Basque Country in the general election; emerging as the largest party. Zapatero and the PSE, the Basque section of the PSOE, are now dreaming of the chance they have to break the PNV’s hold on the Basque government and the most recent poll puts them level pegging with the PNV in the region.

The PSE hope to achieve what their Catalan comrades have managed, which is to be part of the political landscape of their region rather than just being seen as a party to represent those who feel more identified with Spain. It is premature to assume that they will repeat their general election success in the regional elections. Apart from the different voting patterns between national and regional elections, with the economic crisis biting they may also find they lose some of their own supporters. Even assuming that the PSE emerges as the largest party they will need support from others to be able to govern, unfortunately for them the main candidate could well be the PP. Such an alliance, even with a PP recently cleansed of some of its more ultra elements, won’t help them to present a similar image to that of Cataluña. The stage is set for a major confrontation; the Basque Country is unlikely to benefit from it regardless of who wins.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Who Will Lead The PP In Madrid?

With the Partido Popular now committed to greater internal democracy, South of Watford has obtained exclusive access to the full list of candidates for the presidency of the PP in Madrid. Note how the party is striking a blow for equality, all of the candidates are women. Strangely enough, considering that the call for primary elections originated in the Madrid PP, such a procedure is not being considered for the forthcoming election. Anyway, here are the candidates:

La Condesa de Murillo

Esperanza Aguirre

La Lideresa

It promises to be a tough race, too close to call.

De Juana Chaos, Chapter Two

If anyone though that we had heard the end of the Iñaki de Juana Chaos saga then I’m afraid I have bad news. ETA prisoner De Juana Chaos leaves prison on the 2nd August, assuming that no-one invents a fresh legal pretext to keep him inside. He will have served his (second) sentence and legally be a free man. It was never very likely that the PP and associated rightwing fringe groups (of which there are now so many I don’t even have space to name them) would let the event pass without trying to seek some political advantage from it. So cue, yet again, El Mundo – always ready to lead the charge. Our favourite newspaper has visited the street in San Sebastian where De Juana Chaos will be living on his release and found that some victims of terrorism are also resident in the same street. The new party UPD, with its single member of parliament and determination to get some attention, has also jumped onto the bandwagon to protest at this situation.

We are already witnessing the beginnings of a campaign which promises the creation of a seriously dangerous and complicated law; one which will prevent former ETA prisoners from living close to victims of the group’s actions. Indeed the government, in a panicky reaction to head off the inevitable noise that is approaching on the issue, has already announced that it is going to study such a proposal. Zapatero’s hope that he can prevent the issue of ETA from dominating the political agenda is again under threat. Now just in case anyone imagines that De Juana Chaos is deliberately choosing to live near to the victims, it should be pointed out that the flat where it is said he will live belonged to his mother. He will have served his sentences and will legally be free to live where he likes. Restricting the freedom of a person to live where they choose is potentially unconstitutional, although with the constitutional court’s membership depending on the two major parties such an obstacle can probably be overcome. Where there is a political will there is usually a political way.

Supposing the government decides to introduce such a law, a number of questions are raised. How big a distance would such a law propose? Many released ETA prisoners will take up residence in either Bilbao or San Sebastian, and the number of those resident in both cities who can be considered as victims is probably quite high too. What happens if the released prisoner has renounced any connection with ETA’s campaign? Will it apply to all offences committed by ETA members, if not which ones are to be included? In the end it results in a differential treatment for members of ETA than that received by other people who have also been found guilty of very serious offences, as well as trashing the idea that once you have served your sentence you are free. I’m not saying that it’s nice for someone affected by ETA’s actions to have to live alongside those who have been convicted for similar offences, but it does risk infringing so many principles to try and prevent it from happening. If my neighbour commits an offence against me and goes to prison for it there is no reason in the end why the same person cannot return and be my neighbour again after serving their sentence. With the proposed law he would presumably be unable to be my neighbour again only if he supports independence for the Basque Country! Hard hats on, this is a political hysteria alert.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Telemadrid Goes To The Beach

I'm still recovering from an enjoyable, but tiring, weekend in Murcia. In the meantime I will reinforce South of Watford's public service commitment by bringing you Telemadrid's take on the great language controversy. I know many of you are forced to live without this channel. It turns out that this stubborn determination of some people to speak their own language is on the verge of destroying Spain's tourism industry! I particularly recommend the heartrending interviews with the hungry and thirsty tourists who are devastated to learn that the Catalans have their own words for items like "sandwich" or "juice". It reminds me of my first ever trip to Barcelona. On leaving the city by train I was sharing a compartment with an Australian tourist who told me that he wanted to buy some bread for the trip but he couldn't because "these people have their own word for it and they didn't understand me". We had a long trip ahead so I was able to break it gently to him that this strange policy of not speaking English extended to more things than just bread, and that he could even face similar problems when we got to France.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Love Shack

Suddenly, in July, the live music drought in Madrid comes to an end and there are days when there can be two or three concerts worth going to. This is who I saw last night at the Riviera.

I'm off to Cartagena for the weekend for some time by the beach and more music at the Mar de Musicas festival.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Blogging Is Good For You

It’s not me making the claim, it’s this article in Scientific American. According to this piece, the beneficial effects of blogging include improved memory and sleep as well as a more active immune system. I didn’t realise until I read the article that there is a medical condition concerning the uncontrollable urge to write, it’s called hypergraphia. I’m afraid the article doesn’t mention any health benefits from reading all this stuff but, hey, I’m feeling better already.

via The Cedar Lounge Revolution

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Living A Lie

It's nice, for once, to be able to blog about a fine judicial decision. Yesterday saw the conclusion of the bizarre "boric acid trial", in which four senior police officers were accused of having falsified a forensic report in order to eliminate references linking ETA to the Madrid train bombings. I won't write more here about the details of the trial, I have already posted about it on my other blog. Suffice to say that those behind this trial, the promoters of the conspiracy theories about the train bombings, are having some difficulty digesting the verdict. This trial was almost their last hope, with the conviction of these officers they could have kept alive the great conspiracy.

El Mundo today has resorted to a blatant falsification of its own in its headline about the case. This paper is in quality freefall, I can imagine that there would be journalists in the worst of the British tabloids who might have issues about working in such an ethics free environment. The problem is that the methodology they have used in their appalling, manipulative, coverage of the train bombings now infects almost everything they publish about political events in Spain. This is not just because of its politics, right wing media such as ABC are still capable of maintaining basic standards for all the political bias behind their reporting - ABC probably carried some of the best Spanish reporting on the Madrid bombings trial. El Mundo has now made manipulation of the news its core activity.

The Other Party Conference

It’s not just the Partido Popular that has had a national party conference here in Spain, the governing PSOE held their own conference over last weekend. A very different affair it was too, the difference that you get from being the winner of the election rather than the loser. With none of the protracted infighting that made the run up to the PP’s event so entertaining, the PSOE’s conference seemed to emerge suddenly out of nowhere. I don’t think very many people were expecting surprises from it either, although in the end it turned out to be slightly less anodyne than anticipated.

More than anything else the conference confirmed that Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero is in charge of his party, more so than any of his predecessors. The vote to re-elect him as party leader reached a figure that Mariano Rajoy can only dream of, less than 2% of the delegates failed to give their support to Zapatero. He has also been able to appoint key allies to important positions in he party. We now know the destiny of at least a couple of those who were not handed important government jobs after the election, Leire Pajin gets the job of organization in the PSOE and former Justice Minister Juan Fernando López Aguilar gets to lead the PSOE campaign for the European elections. Pajin may be only 31, but she is now one of the most powerful figures in the party.

What did catch observers by surprise was an apparent swing to the left in the conference. Measures have been announced on giving the vote in local elections to non-EU immigrants, a revision of the abortion law, and legislation aimed at reinforcing the separation of church and state. Some of these announcements have been stolen from other parties, when opposition parties proposed the removal of the religious symbols from the swearing in ceremony of new ministers the government opposed any such move. Now they have adopted it. Likewise the proposal on immigrants being allowed to vote originally came from Izquierda Unida. The proposal to reform abortion law has been framed in such a way as to give the government maximum room for manoeuvre. However, the government is promising to act quickly to protect the identity and confidentiality of women who have had abortions. This follows a recent case of judicial persecution in Madrid which has come close to handing over names and addresses to an extremist anti-abortion group.

It looked very much as if Zapatero was taking care of his left flank, after appearing to place his government in a more centrist position following the general election. Whilst they go after the votes they lost in the election to UPD or the PP, the government does not want its more traditional vote to become disenchanted. With the ambiguity of their position on the European immigration and working hours directives, many on the left were beginning to wonder if the PSOE had forgotten to apply the brake on its rightward journey. The PP has quickly attempted to dismiss the new measures as irrelevant. Rajoy’s standard response now to any social legislation that he opposes, but where he doesn’t want to explain why, is to say that it is something the people in the street are not worried about. This from a man whose only real contact with the street comes in that brief moment between exiting office or house and getting into the car. If his ability to connect with what people really think was as good as he imagines he probably wouldn’t have two straight election defeats behind him.

Tuesday, July 08, 2008

The Eton Rifles

I’ve been keeping an eye on reports of the trial in Equatorial Guinea of Simon Mann, accused of leading the group of mercenaries involved in the attempted coup in that country in 2004. Well yesterday Mann was sentenced to 34 years in prison for his part in the plan, although there are rumours that he will get an early release in a deal with the British government. He is an old Etonian mercenary after all! Despite being held in the notorious Black Beach prison it turns out that life for Mann has not been quite as hard as it has been for other prisoners held there. He seems to have an exercise bike in his cell, and is also said to regularly have lunch with the country’s security minister. Many of the other prisoners probably don’t get lunch at all.

The evidence given by Mann was interesting, although we probably have to take into account his desire to get as light a sentence as possible. He claimed that the Spanish government knew about, and approved, the plot – along with the South African government. He said that the organisers were keen to complete the operation before the Spanish elections in 2004 whilst Jose Maria Aznar was still in office. Mann also claimed that Mark Thatcher was part of the management team of the plot, something which sounds far fetched but could perhaps help to explain the failure of the whole operation. Thatcher was expelled from South Africa because of his involvement, and now apparently lives in Spain; happily not in my barrio. I read somewhere the other week that he hasn’t been paying his rent either, the naughty boy. Given the keenness of the Spanish government to be friends with Equatorial Guinea’s dictatorial regime, I wonder whether his presence in Spain will eventually become as inconvenient for the Spanish government as that of Severo Moto?

Monday, July 07, 2008

Orgullo Gay 2008

Some images of Saturday's Gay Pride march in Madrid. The fiestas surrounding the event seem to have become huge, spreading beyond the boundaries of Chueca and leaving much of the area so crowded it was virtually inaccessible.

Taking this picture on a normal day in the Gran Via would be suicidal.

The Winds Of Change

Things are really different inside the new model Partido Popular. Take a look at Cataluña for example. In the bad old days the president of the party in that region would have been chosen by the national leadership and imposed on the local members. Well not any more, in these days of greater internal democracy three candidates were allowed to present themselves for election before….the national leadership imposed someone else as president. In the bad old days the national leader of the PP was called Mariano Rajoy, now the leader is called Marian….oh never mind.

Saturday, July 05, 2008

Let's Talk About Tongues

Things were getting just too quiet. With the more ultra sections of the Spanish right having lost their hold over the direction of the Partido Popular, we were no longer being treated to daily rants on the imminent break up of the Spanish nation. We had to go and look for them instead, which is not to say that they are very hard to find. Fortunately for those who are appalled at the apparently unstoppable transformation of España into Expaña as a result of regional nationalism, the PP is no longer the only source of discontent. Help is at hand.

A group of “intellectuals”, mostly associated with the new party Union Progreso y Democracia (UPD) and whatever still remains of Ciudadanos, have taken advantage of the PP’s internal wrangling and presented the Manifesto for a Common Language (Manifiesto por la Lengua Común). This manifesto is presented as a defence of the Spanish language, and most of the propaganda surrounding its launch would lead you to believe that it exists to defend Spanish speakers against discrimination in regions such as Cataluña, the Basque Country, or Galicia. Particular emphasis is placed on the situation of parents in these regions who want their children to be educated in Spanish rather than Catalan, Basque or Gallego.

However, the objective of the manifesto is not to combat discrimination at all, instead the aim is to reinforce in law the supremacy of the Spanish language over all others. Neither is it just about education, the promoters of the document also make clear that public servants would not be expected to have knowledge of the other official language in the region where they work. For all the rhetoric, it’s not actually about freedom of choice to use the language you want – it’s only about the freedom to use Spanish. The authors of the manifesto have come up with tortuous arguments to justify the imbalance of their treatment of the issue. Having emphasised that the regional languages can only be encouraged, rather than imposed, they then propose to do more or less the opposite with Spanish. Despite some nice sounding phrases about courteous treatment of other languages, the reality of the manifesto’s implementation would translate as inviting speakers of these languages to go and fry morcillas.

Once the manifesto had been launched all it needed was a helpful boost from the media. Cue El Mundo, taking a break from undermining Mariano Rajoy and probably a bit bored with searching for town halls that don’t fly the Spanish flag, the newspaper has seized on the manifesto as its big issue. Every day they publish the number of signatories, usually accompanied by a tendentious piece about the latest imposition on helpless Spanish speakers, and at the same time accuse the government of turning a deaf ear to all of this artificial public clamour. The PP has signed up to the campaign along with other notable intellectuals like, er, Luis Aragonés. The illustration on this article comes from a notably (Spanish) nationalist campaign launched by the youth section of the PP in Madrid. At least one of the early signatories, the poet Antonio Gamoneda, has already withdrawn his support on seeing how the issue is being manipulated by El Mundo and their friends.

None of this is to say that there are not important issues to deal with in the way languages should be treated in those regions where there are two official languages. Personally I think a determined, educationally sound, program of bilingual education would be a good way to go forward, but the idea that people are suffering because they are taught in Catalan or Basque is nonsense. The notion that those whose parents want them educated in Spanish should be segregated in school from those who learn the language of their comunidad is an even worse idea. The Spanish language is not in danger, all of those who live in regions with other official languages are exposed to Spanish on a daily basis, either through the media or those they have to deal with in their daily life.

In the case of civil servants, I’ve already written on this issue before. Saying that there should be no obligation for them to speak the other official language of the comunidad where they work is something which directly puts the rights of civil servants above those of the people they are supposed to be serving. As a response to a perceived discrimination against those who work in the public sector, the response is to impose reverse discrimination. A day to look forward to will be the one when those who live in Madrid spend less time bitching about what happens in education in other parts of the country, and more time focused on what little remains of the public education system in their own region.

Friday, July 04, 2008

Spain At A Glance....Unemployment

Over 400000 people have been added to the ranks of the unemployed in Spain in the last 12 months. Although the construction slump accounts for much of the rise, other sectors are also losing jobs. June is traditionally a month when unemployment is expected to fall here, but not this year.

Thursday, July 03, 2008

Zapatero Needs A Friend

The Spanish Prime Minister was in parliament yesterday explaining his government’s assessment of Spain’s economic difficulties. All this seems quite normal, but the reality is that Zapatero’s appearance wasn’t entirely voluntary. Instead it was the product of the new realities of parliamentary life in his second term of office. The PSOE were boasting quite loudly back in March about how proudly they were going to govern in minority without any formal understandings with other parties. Turning necessity into a virtue, they talked of how much stronger their position was compared to the previous parliament. Well it’s only taken a couple of months for the frailty of the government’s position to be exposed.

Zapatero’s appearance yesterday was the result of a combined opposition vote to force him to appear instead of Economy Minister Pedro Solbes. In order to avoid the appearance of defeat the PSOE decided to add their votes to those of the opposition. This is not the first time that this has happened recently, and the catalyst of this new situation has been the changing attitude of the Partido Popular. In the last parliament the PP were proud of their total isolation and didn’t even try to reach understandings with other parties. That has now changed, the new model PP has realised they can make life difficult for the government by putting forward propositions that other parties can support.

All of this leaves the government looking very exposed and in danger of losing key votes. Their list of potential allies is no longer as big as it was back in March. The government is going head to head with the Basque nationalists of the PNV over the proposed “consultation” which the Basque government wants to carry out. Their allies in the last parliament, Esquerra Republicana and Izquierda Unida, have a much reduced presence this time around and in any case are unlikely to sign up for a policy which costs them even more votes. This leaves the Catalan nationalists of Convergencia i Unio as the prime candidates, sitting there waiting for the phone to ring. The big problem is the political price that Zapatero will have to pay to get support from CiU, especially as there is little money in the kitty and the Catalan wing of the PSOE will be very unhappy about any concessions to their main opponent.

Meanwhile Zapatero has proved himself a true master of the euphemism when it comes to avoiding the use of the word crisis to describe the economic situation. Yesterday he produced one of his best yet; “Las cosas van claramente menos bien”.

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

European Championship 2008....How Was It For You?

I saw one of the last survivors of Spain’s European Championship victory celebrations yesterday. He was staggering down the Calle Preciados in Madrid wearing the shirt of the Spanish team, still just about capable of a slurred “Oe Oe Oe”. I was in Benidorm for the big match and was just a teeny bit disappointed with the victory celebrations there. Knowing how much they like noisy fireworks in this part of the world I sort of hoped the ayuntamiento might have something prepared. Perhaps they’ve had to cut back now that nobody is buying property anymore? Anyway, apart from a few loud bangs it was more or less the usual ritual of people driving round in circles hooting and shouting with flags hanging out the car windows. A bit like the street next to where I live when everyone wants to get home for lunch – but with lots more flags.

There’s no doubt in my mind that the Spanish were worth their victory. Germany hardly threatened once Ballack decided his main job was to analyze noisily and in depth every single decision by the referee. I think overall it has been one of the best tournaments I can remember since the days when Van Basten, Gullit and Rijkaard were players rather than managers or TV pundits. It seems hard to believe now that this Spanish team is not that different from the one which was humbled a couple of years ago by Northern Ireland, and which only guaranteed qualification for the final stages by putting together a good run last year.

Xavi has been named the player of the tournament, and it was the Spanish midfield in general that was their greatest strength, to the extent that they could end up playing good attacking football with a single striker. Jens “teams always lose big games when I don’t get selected” Lehmann will probably not even reflect with a bit of humility on the poor judgement that allowed Torres to neatly chip the ball over him for Spain’s winning goal. For me, though, the revelation of the Spanish team was Senna. Spain’s adopted Brazilian was consistent throughout the whole tournament, and filled that gap between midfield and defence that allows a team to go forward with more security. Ramos ended up being a bit disappointing, and although he was improving by the end he never showed the same presence as he does with Real Madrid. Although the defence in general was much more solid than I expected it to be. So in the end that grumpy git Aragonés gets to leave as a hero, I think I saw him smile the other day; or maybe it was just a grimace.

Meanwhile the impact of the Spanish victory has also crossed over into the political sphere, and a huge amount of nonsense is circulating about the meaning of the victory. There are those who like to see it as a sign of underlying unity across the country, so there are intense squabbles about how many people really celebrated in Barcelona or Bilbao. Some on the left see all the patriotic fervour as the ordinary Spaniards recovering their flag from a right wing which had tried to wrap all its protests in the last few years in a sea of red and yellow flags. There are actually quite good reasons for people not to feel too identified with the Spanish flag, and I never see much to be gained from trying to imitate the political right in flag waving ceremonies. Too often they seem to be followed by the sending of large numbers of young people to die in faraway wars, so let’s just leave patriotic head banging to those who need it. It has its mirror image in those in the Basque Country or Cataluña who are unable to enjoy a good game of football because it is not “their” team.

On the right the joy is hardly unconfined, around Libertad Digital they have been protesting about the designation of the Spanish team as “La Roja”, that awful colour which represents the evil Zapatero’s attempts to install a regime of terror in the country to equal that of Stalin! Other commentators gloomily claim that the Spanish victory will only temporarily interrupt the now inevitable disintegration of the country. All we need now is for someone to say “Come on, it’s only a game”. For the moment we have to face up to that terrible void known as July, where hardly any football of any kind is played.