Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Watch Out For The Chorizos!

Today let me present you with a post that combines a useful lesson on the double meaning of the word chorizo together with an example of why politicians employ advisers. Mariano Rajoy went down to help out at a comedor social yesterday and decided that he would be the one handing out chorizos to the needy. "Ten cuidado, no te saquen con el chorizo" was the friendly warning he got - so he quickly changed places. It's a bit late, he's spent most of the year being proudly photographed with some of the dodgiest characters on the Spanish political scene.

South of Watford is spending the next few days down by the Mediterranean so let me take this opportunity to wish all those who pass by this space a happy new year. In the words of Dr John, I'll be back in a flash with some more of the trash.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Christmas In Prison For Spanish Greenpeace Activist

The director of Greenpeace in Spain, Juan López de Uralde, will be spending both Christmas and New Year in prison in Denmark. He is being held with three other activists until January 7th. His "crime" was to infiltrate the royal reception at the Copenhagen climate change summit and unfurl a banner of protest. About the only progress we can say that has been made as a result of the Copenhagen fiasco has been the advances in the criminalisation of protest. Hundreds of demonstrators were arrested but then released without charge as the Danish police adopted an aggressive approach to anyone who wanted to point out that nothing was going on inside the summit hall.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

How To Be A Model Employer

It's bad news for anyone who was planning to fly to Latin America from Madrid this Christmas with Air Comet. The airline has effectively collapsed following the decision by an English judge yesterday to stop them from using many of their planes or from selling more tickets. Air Comet was the successor to the disastrous Air Madrid, and the end has come in a similar fashion just before one of the peak periods when many immigrants in Spain head home for the holidays. The owner of the airline, Gerardo Díaz Ferrán, also happens to be the head of the Spanish employers organisation, and Air Comet is not the only problem he has.

Díaz Ferrán has of course been a prominent supporter recently of ultra liberal solutions for Spain's economic crisis, including the freedom to fire people at little or no cost. Unable to do this with his own employees at Air Comet he adopted the pragmatic solution of not paying them for the last few months. He also has significant problems with loans from the banks, one such loan being the cause of the planes being grounded yesterday. Last week Caja Madrid began the process that may lead to Díaz Ferrán being expelled from the board of the savings bank over the non-payment of another loan he had received from them. At least we get confirmation from this that the banks are still lending to somebody, even if it is only members of their own governing body. Having recently forced a vote of confidence in the employers association over his leadership it looks like Gerardo will still be around for a while telling us what is best for the economy. Meanwhile his employees are joining the ranks of the unemployed.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Spanish Television Changes Channels

When Spain's government announced a few months ago that it was relaxing the rules on concentration of ownership for television channels it didn't take long for speculation to start on who was behind the move. The country has gained two new private channels in the last few years, Cuatro and La Sexta, but with the onset of the economic crisis it seems that there wasn't enough money from advertising to sustain so many channels and mergers have come to be seen as the solution. So last week we got the announcement that Cuatro and Telecinco were to become part of the same company in a complicated deal between Grupo Prisa and Silvio Berlusconi's Mediaset. This deal effectively brings to an end Prisa's involvement in open access television and also dilutes their ownership of the pay channel Digital+. The company has been looking for ways to deal with its debts and this agreement makes up for them not being able to find a buyer for Digital+. The irony comes from them dealing with Silvio Berlusconi, following the publication by El País a few months ago of photographs from Berlusconi's Sardinian villa which meant that the Prisa paper wasn't exactly top of Silvio's favourite publications.

This is not likely to be the end of the changes, there are also strong rumours that a deal will be reached to merge La Sexta with Antena 3. La Sexta is the newest of Spain's channels, and marked the entry into the television market of Mediapro who seem to have replaced Prisa in the government's affections. Mediapro's influence was crucial in paving the way for the introduction of pay channels on the digital TDT platform, they already had their Gol channel dedicated to football ready to go as soon as the legislation was in place. Incidentally, I'm toying with the idea of an equivalent to the "I Sky" feature in Britain's Private Eye that recorded attempts to hide publicity for Sky TV in pseudo news items in the Murdoch press. Both Público (owned by Mediapro) and El País have been doing much the same in a bid to promote their offerings, particularly for pay to view football.

The merging of the private channels isn't the only change we will see, the state run RTVE is to stop taking advertising on its two channels, another part of the attempt to maximise revenues for the private channels. The loss of revenue for RTVE will largely be made up with a levy on the private channels and with contributions from the telecommunications companies. RTVE is also said to be moving away from attempts to compete for ratings with a remit that is more oriented towards domestic TV productions and films.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

My Escape From Dell Hell

This is the third post I have written on my shiny new MacBook Pro, and so far I'm very happy that I've made the change from Windows. For four long years I have struggled against my Dell laptop until finally my patience gave way. It wasn't a cheap machine by any means, I bought what I thought was a top of the range model back in 2005. Sadly it never delivered on the promise, and I have experienced constant frustration with a computer that seems to be incapable of handling more than a single application at a time, despite having both free memory and processor capacity. I did everything I could to try and strip out applications I didn't need yet the machine would still spend mystifying amounts of time doing....what? Things reached the point where I told Dell to take me off all of their mailing lists and I vowed to myself that I would never again buy one of their laptops whilst reasonable alternatives existed.

Last year I bought a little Asus just so that I coud have the experience of a machine that starts up and connects to the Internet in less than 20 minutes. Now with the Mac I managed to download all of my web based mail accounts in an amazingly short time whilst still being able to do other things! It's a new experience for me and will probably change my lifestyle, I won't have time to go off for a cup of tea whilst my laptop attempts to open a folder. Once I've overcome the challenge of getting the Mac to run Windows as well my Dell can start to enjoy the comfortable retirement as a backup machine that I think it was designed for.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Who Will Put An End To This Treason?

It's not enough that the Catalans organise votes on independence without asking permission, now they are even considering the prohibition of bullfighting! It's possible that the acceptance yesterday by the Catalan parliament of a popular initiative to put an end to the bloodsport has caused even more heart problems in the higher barrios of Madrid than last week's independence 'consultations'. "La fiesta nacional" is under threat, and the right-wing consensus seems to be that they are only doing it to provoke Spain, El Mundo claimed on its front page this morning that the purpose of the vote was to distance Cataluña from the rest of the country.

Yesterday's vote was actually quite close, and was just a preliminary to the main vote which will take place in a few months time. The bull fighting industry is preparing itself for battle, despite all the rhetoric about the Catalans the reality is that the sport faces growing opposition in many parts of the country, and home grown opposition to it has grown significantly in the last few years. It moves a lot of money, and attracts a lot of spending from municipalities for their annual fiestas, but for many younger Spaniards it is a relic from another age and what probably worries the industry most is the risk of contagion if Cataluña sets the example. Nobody should imagine bullfighting is about to disappear, but we could be witnessing the first clear signals of decline.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Aminatou Haidar Goes Home

At last, after 32 days on hunger strike in Lanzarote airport, Aminatou Haidar was able to return home to El Aaiun last night. The Moroccan government relented under pressure from the governments of Spain, France and possibly also the US. Haidar was already in a weakened state and was admitted to hospital yesterday before the decision was finally announced that she could return. It's a significant victory for her, although it comes at a cost for her health.

There's little doubt that without the hunger strike Haidar would have been condemned to become yet another forgotten exile, the Spanish government only started to take her case seriously when it became clear that she was determined to maintain the campaign and the support she received became ever stronger. What Morocco obviously hoped would be a relatively clean way of getting rid of a problematical activist over the issue of Western Sahara has backfired in a spectacular way. The issue of the former Spanish colony has attracted more attention in the last month than it has in years, uncomfortably for those governments with any interest in the issue who have quietly accepted that it is going to remain part of Moroccan territory.

The Spanish government has tried to claim that the decision to admit Aminatou to Spain even though she had no passport was taken by the police without political interference. However, yesterday foreign minister Moratinos confirmed that he was informed about Haidar's expulsion by his Moroccan counterpart, and although he claims that he expressed his rejection of his decision it seems hard to believe that his ministry just left the handling of the affair in the hands of the immigration police in Lanzarote airport. If the government was opposed to the Moroccan decision they kept very quiet about it until the hunger strike and the reaction it provoked forced the PSOE to come off the fence too.

Some of the political opposition to the government has been very opportunist, the Partido Popular has only shown interest once it became clear they could use it to embarrass the government. Meanwhile Rosa Diez of UPyD showed a surprising commitment to the concept of self-determination, not something that she is ever likely to support within Spanish frontiers. Despite this, the origin of the affair lies with a complacent foreign policy that would have tamely accepted Haidar's expulsion without a whimper of protest had it not been for the campaign in support of her.

On The First Day Of Christmas....A Bank Gave Us A Thermometer

Dear Caja Madrid,

I just thought I'd write a short note to thank you for the thoughtful gift of an "In-out thermometer" which you have given to my partner for standing by you during these hard times. I must admit I've never come across a thermometer before that comes together with an instruction manual. I see that it works with as many as three sensors, not that we'll be needing any more than the one that came in the box. I imagine many of your customers who bought those overpriced chalets outside of Madrid at the height of the boom will find it very useful to test how far away they can put the sensor and see just how cold it can be in the desert at night. For us, living in a tiny apartment in the centre of Madrid, it was difficult to decide where to put it but in the end the kitchen won. Now I sit here at my laptop and I can see whether it's warm enough in the kitchen to risk going there. To be honest, I was amazed this morning to find that the temperature in that room was as high as 17 degrees when I had imagined all week that it had to be at -10! As you can see, it's certainly going to be useful, much more so than one of those thousands of houses which you have had to take off the constructors. I know it's not been an easy year for you what with Espe trying to take control and all the infighting, so it was good of you to remember about us. I'm sure that next year, with that nice Mr Rato in charge, things can only get better for you.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

The Dark Side Of Spain's Trade Unions

Many of you may have been under the impression that Spanish trade unions were largely harmless organisations, but thanks to South of Watford's commitment to bring you the best of public service broadcasting the truth can now be told. There was a demonstration organised in Madrid by the unions last weekend and Telemadrid marked the occasion by comparing the event to the mass demonstrations organised in support of Franco's dictatorship. They didn't bother showing any footage of the demonstration, the expensive helicopter that they purchased for such coverage is to be used only for anti-government protests. Perhaps this is not too surprising given that the programme was actually made before the demonstration took place.

Another story involving Telemaguirre his week has concerned the former journalist Hermann Tertsch, who now presents the propagandistic remains of the channel's news coverage. He got involved in a bar fight in the early hours of the morning which resulted in him needing hospital treatment. Following this incident there was a concerted and pathetic attempt by sections of the PP, Aguirre included, to present Tertsch as the victim of a politically motivated assault provoked by a satirical item on the programme presented by the comedian Gran Wyoming. The police investigation has subsequently revealed that Tertsch got hurt following an argument with someone described as an "empresario de la noche". Maybe he needs to join a union. Unsurprisingly, Telemadrid and Hermann have managed to avoid explaining the truth in a news bulletin which sets a new surreal standard.

Friday, December 04, 2009

One Flight Leads To Another

I'm hoping that the flight which brought me back to Madrid last night from Frankfurt marks the end of a spell working away from home that turned out to be longer than I expected. I haven't seen that much of Madrid in the last 14 months and with almost weekly commuting to Germany I just hope Iberia appreciate my efforts to keep them going.

However, I'm not going to be leaving the airport alone for very long. Tonight we are leaving for a week in Cape Verde. When I suggested this as a destination I was thinking of it as compensation for my efforts in the Himalayas a few weeks ago. The image I had in my mind was one of beach hammocks, chilled beer, fresh fish and a couple of good books. Now, thanks to that mysterious process known as "not being in control" it seems that the walking boots are coming too. Ate logo.

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Manifiesto: En Defensa De Los Derechos Fundamentales En Internet

The Spanish government announced some proposed legislation yesterday that could lead to Internet users having their access restricted in the name of "anti-piracy". The proposal is being tagged on to the still largely content free Ley de Economia Sostenible. This is a law which is supposed to set out a way forward for the Spanish economy in the next few years, yet it's hard to see how giving the music companies what they want is going to do that. I already pay well over the odds for blank digital media I buy in Spain so that organisations collecting royalties can become ever fatter and regardless of whether the media is used legally or not.

In response to yesterday's announcement a manifesto has been drawn up in opposition to the proposed measure and I am happy to publish it and encourage all those who agree with its content to do the same. An English translation of the manifesto is available here.

Ante la inclusión en el Anteproyecto de Ley de Economía sostenible de modificaciones legislativas que afectan al libre ejercicio de las libertades de expresión, información y el derecho de acceso a la cultura a través de Internet, los periodistas, bloggers, usuarios, profesionales y creadores de internet manifestamos nuestra firme oposición al proyecto, y declaramos que…

1.- Los derechos de autor no pueden situarse por encima de los derechos fundamentales de los ciudadanos, como el derecho a la privacidad, a la seguridad, a la presunción de inocencia, a la tutela judicial efectiva y a la libertad de expresión.

2.- La suspensión de derechos fundamentales es y debe seguir siendo competencia exclusiva del poder judicial. Ni un cierre sin sentencia. Este anteproyecto, en contra de lo establecido en el artículo 20.5 de la Constitución, pone en manos de un órgano no judicial -un organismo dependiente del ministerio de Cultura-, la potestad de impedir a los ciudadanos españoles el acceso a cualquier página web.

3.- La nueva legislación creará inseguridad jurídica en todo el sector tecnológico español, perjudicando uno de los pocos campos de desarrollo y futuro de nuestra economía, entorpeciendo la creación de empresas, introduciendo trabas a la libre competencia y ralentizando su proyección internacional.

4.- La nueva legislación propuesta amenaza a los nuevos creadores y entorpece la creación cultural. Con Internet y los sucesivos avances tecnológicos se ha democratizado extraordinariamente la creación y emisión de contenidos de todo tipo, que ya no provienen prevalentemente de las industrias culturales tradicionales, sino de multitud de fuentes diferentes.

5.- Los autores, como todos los trabajadores, tienen derecho a vivir de su trabajo con nuevas ideas creativas, modelos de negocio y actividades asociadas a sus creaciones. Intentar sostener con cambios legislativos a una industria obsoleta que no sabe adaptarse a este nuevo entorno no es ni justo ni realista. Si su modelo de negocio se basaba en el control de las copias de las obras y en Internet no es posible sin vulnerar derechos fundamentales, deberían buscar otro modelo.

6.- Consideramos que las industrias culturales necesitan para sobrevivir alternativas modernas, eficaces, creíbles y asequibles y que se adecuen a los nuevos usos sociales, en lugar de limitaciones tan desproporcionadas como ineficaces para el fin que dicen perseguir.

7.- Internet debe funcionar de forma libre y sin interferencias políticas auspiciadas por sectores que pretenden perpetuar obsoletos modelos de negocio e imposibilitar que el saber humano siga siendo libre.

8.- Exigimos que el Gobierno garantice por ley la neutralidad de la Red en España, ante cualquier presión que pueda producirse, como marco para el desarrollo de una economía sostenible y realista de cara al futuro.

9.- Proponemos una verdadera reforma del derecho de propiedad intelectual orientada a su fin: devolver a la sociedad el conocimiento, promover el dominio público y limitar los abusos de las entidades gestoras.

10.- En democracia las leyes y sus modificaciones deben aprobarse tras el oportuno debate público y habiendo consultado previamente a todas las partes implicadas. No es de recibo que se realicen cambios legislativos que afectan a derechos fundamentales en una ley no orgánica y que versa sobre otra materia.

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

The Never Ending Story Of The Catalan Estatut

There's no escape from the Estatut, Cataluña's now not very new at all autonomy statute. The deliberations by Spain's Constitutional Court concerning the Estatut have dragged on for years, assuming of course that there is any deliberating taking place at all! It now seems amazing that I ever imagined the verdict might be delivered before the last general election. The case for the Estatut being unconstitutional was originally presented by the Partido Popular, one of many attempts by that party to obtain results from the tribunal that they could not get via elections or parliamentary votes. The statute was approved by both the Catalan and national parliaments, as well as by a referendum in Cataluña.

The reason for the delay in the verdict, if we are to believe the reports in the press, is because the court is completely divided over what to do about the Estatut. It is claimed that there is a majority against allowing the Estatut through with only minor modifications, but that does not seem to mean that this majority can reach agreement on what should be done. Frustration over this delay is increasing and last week 12 Catalan newspapers published a joint editorial protesting about the situation. This in turn provoked protests from the right about illegitimate pressure being placed on the Constitutional Court, even though the newspaper editorial is nothing more than a legitimate expression of opinion. The PP know all about applying pressure on the judges, they have made multiple attempts to exclude those judges whose opinions might not coincide with their own on the issue. Their proposed replacements for those whose term has expired are loyal conservative hardliners.

The main issues on which the court has been unable to reach a verdict seem to be those which suggest that Cataluña has an identity as a nation, a concept which is of course anathema to Spanish nationalists, but it is arguable whether it is anti-constitutional. There were attempts to avoid this kind of challenge, for example the preamble to the Estatut simply records the fact that the Catalan parliament voted on the issue of the national status of the region. In many ways the parts of the statute that attract the most attention are not the most important in terms of powers for the regional government, but they are the ones that have the most symbolic value on both sides of the argument.

Anyone who wants to pretend that the process of deciding the Estatut's constitutional status is not deeply political is welcome to believe anything they like, but the court is essentially a creature of the two main national political parties; the PP and the PSOE. The current division within its ranks is a faithful reflection of the fault line over regional autonomy in national politics, that line runs through the PSOE rather than in between the two parties. It is the reported defection of a PSOE nominee to the conservative side on key issues that is said to have blocked the court's verdict. The longer they take to make their minds up the less credible the result is going to be and it is not just Catalan nationalists who are questioning whether this is really a good way of doing things. Sometimes you have to wonder whether it's a good idea to have a written constitution at all, never mind a court supposedly there to enforce it. Perhaps the solution might be to impose a sanction of "administrative silence", meaning that if they fail to pronounce on a law within a certain period it automatically becomes constitutional. Then maybe we can all leave Groundhog Day.

Back in Cataluña the newspaper editorial has raised the political temperature. It is unlikely that the entire population is as concerned about the issue of the Estatut as that editorial would have us believe. Perhaps readers who live there can tell me if I'm wrong about this, but I suspect it is an issue of far greater importance to the political and media elite than to the population in general, most of whom probably don't include choosing their favourite article from the Estatut amongst their party games. This is not to say that a decision to declare large parts of the statute unconstitutional won't be seen as an affront by many people in Cataluña, a bit of perceived interference from Madrid is never going to go down well even if Barça do keep beating Real Madrid. If an unfavourable verdict emerges before the planned votes on independence that will take place in many municipalities later this month then things could get very interesting. Although the way things are going that seems like a wildly optimistic time frame.

Meanwhile, the PP is keeping a low profile on the issue. Mariano Rajoy knows that his party is unlikely to win more votes in the region but what he really wants to do is to demobilise the anti-PP vote which means that the gap between PSOE and PP in Cataluña more or less accounts for the difference between the two parties at national level. The PSC, local wing of the PSOE, has reason to be worried about the whole affair and there are already noises being made stressing their autonomy from the national party. It may not help that they seem unable to make their mind up about the independence "consultations", and elections are due to be held in Cataluña next year. Anyway, let's finish with some Estatut humour. It's a mixture of Catalan and Castellano, but anyone familiar with A Night At The Opera should understand it regardless of their language abilities.

Monday, November 30, 2009

So Did Pinochet Go To Heaven?

I don't have much time for José Bono, but he hit the mark quite well the other day with his protest about the threats of the Spanish Catholic Church against those members of parliament who dared to vote in favour of the abortion law reform. How is it, he asked, that a mass murderer like Pinochet could continue to receive communion whilst those Catholics who also happen to be democratically elected representatives can have it withdrawn because of the way they vote?

Of course Pinochet wasn't just a mass murderer, he was a thief as well. It couldn't all be about torturing your opponents and then chucking them out of helicopters, there was money to be made too. Baltasar Garzón has extended the now famous case against the late general to include his money laundering activities and the bankers who were only too ready to help out. I wonder how many of them went to confession.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

The Prisoner Of Lanzarote....Aminatou Haidar

Two weeks ago the Moroccan government decided to expel Aminatou Haidar, a human rights activist from the former Spanish colony of Western Sahara. Haidar had just returned from a trip overseas and the official excuse that the Moroccan government gave for her expulsion was that she refused to put her nationality as Moroccan on her entry form as this would recognise the annexation of Western Sahara by that country. The Moroccan authorities seized her passport and put her on a plane to Lanzarote in the Canary Islands. What happened next is quite strange, normally no Moroccan citizen can enter Spain without a passport but this requirement was waived in the case of Haidar. Inside Lanzarote airport Haidar then tried to buy a ticket to return to El Aaiun, the main city of Western Sahara, but was refused the right to travel on the grounds that she had no passport!

Leaked documents have since revealed the planning behind the Moroccan decision to expel her, several flight reservations were made in her name before she arrived back at El Aaiun. It's very difficult to avoid the conclusion that the Spanish government has effectively colluded with Morocco over Haidar's expulsion by admitting her into the country. Now the only solution they are offering is for Haidar to claim political asylum, something she does not want to do because it will effectively confirm her exile. So Haidar is still in Lanzarote airport and has been on hunger strike for almost two weeks in an attempt to be allowed to return home. She is no stranger to hardship, having spent time in prison in Morocco and been tortured for the "crime" of favouring self-determination for the Western Sahara.

The case is now becoming embarrassing for the Spanish government, as it should. So far their attempts to persuade Haidar to abandon her hunger strike have failed and there is a growing campaign in support of her. Spain has been weakening its stance on Western Sahara for years now, more or less accepting the annexation of that territory but without openly declaring a position. Spanish foreign minister Moratinos has issued a typically ambiguous statement saying that he does not want to be regarded a pro-Sahara or pro-Morocco. Haidar's hunger strike is now challenging the Spanish government for assisting the Moroccans in ridding themselves of opposition to their control of Western Sahara.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Intereconomía: Where Ignorance Comes First

You couldn't make it up part 9456. As if having Libertad Digital TV wasn't enough, those of us who live in the PP heartlands are also blessed with the gift of Intereconomía. This channel would have us believe that the use of condoms to help prevent HIV infection in Africa is doomed to failure; because of the climate, because of the apparent absence of manicures and because Africans are said to be unable to read the instructions.


Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Nazi Punches Fascist In Madrid

I saw a reference in the press the other day to a clash between two far right groups in Madrid on the anniversary of Franco's death. I didn't realise, until I saw it on El-Andaloose, that the meeting organised by Democracia Nacional was attended by Britain's Führer wannabe Nick Griffin. Searching on internet for more information I got taken to a place where I had never been before - the BNP's own website. This has an account of the trouble at the meeting which is frankly surreal when you consider the group that it comes from. Take a look at this excerpt.

Twenty-five members of a fascist group closely aligned to the English Defence League attempted to disrupt a Democracia Naciona (DN) party meeting yesterday in Madrid addressed by British National Party leader Nick Griffin, reports our European correspondent. “There was no disruption to Mr Griffin’s speech, which was very well received by the packed room of DN supporters,” our correspondent said. The fascists, fresh from celebrating Franco’s birthday at a rally elsewhere in Madrid, demanded access to the DN meeting and had to be removed after scuffling with the police. The DN is an up-and-coming Spanish nationalist party which has modelled its political platform on the BNP — and is therefore detested by the fascists and neo-Nazis. According to their blogs, the skinhead football hooligan types who attempted to disrupt the DN meeting are closely aligned to the English Defence League.

I can't tell whether they are trying to be satirical, but the news that the different far right groups seem to hate each other more than they hate anyone else is surely welcome. Naturally it will just be coincidence that Democracia Nacional organised a major rally on the anniversary of Franco's death. Also worth noting in the same report is Griffin's response when questioned about Gibraltar:

"It is a very complex issue which we will have to deal with in the future,” Mr Griffin said. “It would be much easier to sort it out if we had nationalist governments in Britain and Spain because it would then be an agreement between equals. I must say that taking into account the geographical situation of Gibraltar and the Muslim threat on its door, I would prefer to see a Spanish flag fly in Gibraltar before an Islamic one."

Presumably DN and the BNP could agree on a common symbol for that flag.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

The Caganers I Want For Christmas

I have to admit, living far away from Cataluña as I do, that I hadn't come across the concept of the caganer until I saw this article in El País. Now I'm sold on the idea and the fact that these particular models are going to be on sale this year in Madrid means that I already have a Christmas present sorted out...for myself.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Help A Wolf Across The Duero

How does "You can't shoot me, I live south of the river" sound as an argument? The river in this case is the Duero and for the Iberian wolf it has now become the official boundary between being a hunted species and a protected one. This is not to the liking of the regional government in Castilla y León who generally like to give a free hand to those who want to hunt animals over those parts of the landscape that have not yet been turned into urbanisations. Fortunately for the wolf the local courts are not yet quite as subordinated to political power as they are in certain other regions I could mention. So there is at least some protection in the region that contains the greatest part of the wolf population in Spain. Getting them to cross the river is another matter.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

The Main Victims Of The Pirates Are The Fish

The freeing of the Spanish fishing boat that was captured by Somali pirates has put an end to what was becoming a very uncomfortable situation for the Spanish government. A substantial ransom seems to have been paid to recover the Alakrana and its crew after over 40 days of captivity. What made the situation much harder to resolve, at least from the point of view of those who saw a solution in negotiation, was the capturing by the Spanish navy of two of those said to have been involved in the seizure of the boat. Well not so much the capture, but the subsequent decision to bring them to Spain rather than hand them over to Kenya as has happened in other similar cases.

This decision set in motion a confusing judicial process and in addition a thinly concealed confrontation between government and judiciary. First we had a game of pass the pirate as questions over the age of one of the captured men meant that no judge was willing to take on his case. Some said he was over 18, others that he could be younger. Then, as it became clear that the issue of the captured men could hold up freedom for the Alakrana, we got the desperate search for a means of getting the two men out of Spain without making it too obvious that politics was winning over judiciary….again. One possibility explored was going to be the handing over of the two men to the Somali government, an administration that has about as much control over that country as I do over wins the Christmas lottery in Spain. Not that this detail mattered too much.

In the end it wasn’t necessary, as enough money was paid to free the Alakrana and its crew. The government had tried very hard to blame the judges for creating this messy situation, but eventually it became clear that the decision leading to the alleged pirates being brought to Spain was set in motion by the government's own lawyers. Now the opposition Partido Popular is as eager to use this case to make opposition as it is with everything else. They like to pretend that Zapatero's government has given way where other governments would have stood firm - as if there are not plenty of other examples of the Somali pirates having been paid off in other countries. Armchair warriors are always easy to find. Peridis in El País saw it this way.

What Peridis maybe missed out from the end of his instructive English lesson is a frame showing the Spanish fisherman happily returning to the same waters where the Alakrana was seized. These fishermen can get back to their own brand of piracy, which consists of fishing everything they can from these waters with as little regulation being exercised as possible. The Alakrana was outside the zone protected by naval forces when it was taken, and it was outside because there they could fish without any sort of control. The assumption that these boats deserve protection needs to be challenged. The Spanish government has rightly turned down requests for the boats to carry Spanish soldiers, but they have contributed to the cost and training of the hired mercenaries already on the boats

We wait to see what happens when these providers of heavily armed private security use their weapons against someone who turns out not to be a pirate. It doesn’t sound like an operation where questions will be asked before firing. This determination to carry on fishing in such a high risk area is an indication of just how profitable the tuna piracy business is. Spain did its very best recently to destroy an initiative to protect tuna stocks in the Mediterranean, again because of the protests of those who will happily fish everything they can until nothing remains - at which point they will demand assistance. It was Roto, also in El País, who saw things from the point of view of the tuna.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Valle De Los Caídos....The Case For Demolition

1). You restore a beautiful wild mountainside that was destroyed by the construction of a brutal, ugly fascist monument. The monument continues to be maintained with public funds.

2). You avoid this.

3). We could have a small scale memorial, appropriate for its surroundings, placed in memory of those political prisoners who died building El Valle de los Caídos.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Camps Takes Valencia For A Ride

The image of the week so far in Spain has to be this one. As Partido Popular leader Mariano Rajoy was delivering his big speech on the need for the PP to unite behind his leadership there were a couple of notable absentees from the event. One was the renegade Aguirre, but that didn't surprise anyone, and she excused herself quietly on the grounds of family commitments. Francisco Camps of Valencia decided to make sure everyone noticed his absence by leaving for a far more important event; he had to be seen driving a Ferrari in the presentation of Fernando Alonso as a member of that Formula 1 team.

Camps is increasingly becoming a problem for his party and for Rajoy, who had depended on the support he got from Valencia to bolster his own position. Last week in the Valencian parliament Camps made the extraordinary accusation that the opposition PSOE wanted to take him out for a Spanish Civil War style execution which would leave him lying face down in a makeshift grave. Even Camps had to at least partially retract this attack, which many people saw as a sign of his increasing nervousness and erratic behaviour as his previously safe position comes under threat. Not that the threat comes from the opposition in Valencia, his main enemies now are in his own party. In any case, there is far more accumulated experience within that party of bodies being dumped by the road side.

Another insight into the world according to Camps came from a report describing an exchange he had with the judge who was investigating the case of the gifts he is said to have received in the Gürtel case. Questioned about a recorded conversation where Alvaro "El Bigotes" Perez had suggested he was in debt to Camps, the Valencian president allegedly replied by claiming that all Valencians were in his debt because of what he had done for the region! Clearly not suffering from problems of self esteem, he seems unable to deal with the possibility that he may be on the road to becoming a liability for the PP. In the meantime, expect lots of expensive distractions like the one we saw on Sunday, the circus must continue.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

La Playa De Las Catedrales

In another of our summer trips to the north coast we spent a weekend exploring the coastline lying on both sides of the Asturias/Galicia frontier. We based ourselves in the small Asturian town of Tapia de Casariego, which turned out to be a good choice. On day one we headed for what is probably the most famous beach on this stretch of coastline, La Playa de las Catedrales. Our route started and finished in the village of Rinlo, just a few kilometres inside Galicia. From here there is a signposted Ruta de las Playas which takes you for about 7 kilometres along the coast to Catedrales. It's an easy route to walk and much of it passes directly beside the coast, although some stretches have to be walked on the road. Whilst thousands of people at this time of the year head directly for the Playa de las Catedrales, there are other beautiful beaches along the walking route we did.

Many of the beaches on this coast are only accessible when the tide is out, and it makes sense to check the time of low tide before doing this walk. We got to the Playa de las Catedrales at a good time for the tide, but also at the point when most of the people on holiday in the region decided to descend on the same spot. Despite the crowds, the beach is big enough to take it and walking around the caves and rock formations of the beach was still quite possible. Our route took us along the top of the cliff above the beach before finally descending.

Obviously with so many people on the beach at low tide you can spend a lot of time taking photographs of people who are in turn taking photos of other people.

Because the high tide completely covers the beach, many of the rocks on the lower part of the cliff are home to colonies of mussels and the inexplicably popular goose barnacles - percebes.

A final comment on this route, the reward for the walk was a hugely satisfying arroz caldoso de marisco in the restaurant run by the Cofradía de Pescadores in Rinlo. Strongly recommended if you like that sort of thing - I think you might need to reserve at a busy time of the year.

In the afternoon we did another walking route around the estuary of the River Eo, from Figueras to Castropol. This is also a marked route although finding the starting point in Figueras is not so easy, it's up in the village rather than down by the waterside. They say the route is 4 kilometres one way, although I suspect its a bit more than this. Perhaps it was just the effect of the arroz de marisco that made me feel that way. In any case, doing both of these routes on the same day is probably a bit too much for those who prefer a more relaxed pace of life.

The next day we walked another coastal route, this time starting in Tapia itself. From the village you walk across the beach and up the other side where they have a recently built urbanisation/coastal atrocity that makes you imagine that the Ley de Costas has never existed. From here there are two choices, if you follow the "official" route then you follow the road for a while before getting to a path that takes you down in between the maize fields to the coast. The less official way is to try and follow the coastline from the part of the urbanisation nearest to the sea, which will soon bring you to another beach. From there you can pick up the coastal path, although this occasionally veers inland to avoid the rougher and more inaccessible parts of the cliffs.

We walked up to a point where things got just a bit too difficult to continue following the coast. The beaches on this route are completely wild and can be just as beautiful, but much less popular, than Catedrales. The Atlantic coastline is almost always more impressive than that of the Mediterranean. There is of course the slight detail of the weather in these parts, but we were lucky yet again. I can't remember the name of the beach below, not sure if I ever knew, so for me it will always be Iguana Beach.

Back in Tapia there was a festival of Celtic music in the evenings, as I found out years before on my Navia visit it's a mistake to assume that Celtic Spain starts and ends in Galicia. It's not normally South of Watford policy to recommend restaurants but as I've already done it once in this post I might as well do it again. The pulpo and calamar en su tinta served to us in Tapia´s El Pilón were worth the wait in this busy place.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Eurovision 2010....The Countdown Begins

I know it's still early and that we haven't left 2009 yet, but I want to present a potential candidate for next year's Spanish Eurovision entry. I'm looking for suggestions for the name of the band, and for the song they can enter. Mamma Mia has already been taken, the Gürtel Blues might have pan-European possibilities. The choreography clearly needs a bit of work.

Friday, November 13, 2009

The Amazing Legend Of The Extremaduran Masturbation Workshops

As an example of how inaccurate news spreads rapidly across the Internet you could hardly do better than choose the reporting of a sexual education campaign launched by the youth department of the regional government in Extremadura. Because the name of the campaign is "El placer está en tus manos" and because masturbation is one of the many topics covered in the campaign it has now become more or less an established fact for many of those reporting on the issue that Extremadura is offering practical workshops on how to masturbate. This "bulo" started by some of the most notoriously inaccurate media in Spain has even spread to some of the foreign press.

The reality is very different and anyone who understands Spanish can read the document published by the campaign for themselves. This document seems to me to contain a sensible and straightforward exploration of many issues affecting sexuality. Naturally, those who believe above all else in the parental right to deprive their children of any sex education will no doubt be appalled by the content. The mere fact that it recognises the existence of homosexuality and contraception is in itself enough to enrage such people; hence the manipulation and distortion of its contents in some of the press.

One of the most bizarre aspects of the press coverage has been the emphasis placed on Extremadura being one of the poorest regions in the country. As if sex education should only be available for those areas with money to spend. The cost of the campaign is a hardly staggering €14000. Add up the cost to health and social services of unwanted pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases and it won't take long to realise that this campaign will pay for itself even if only a tiny percentage of its target audience take it seriously. Obviously "Extremadura saves money through sensible sex education for young people" is unlikely to ever make it as a headline in the national or international press.

We'll probably now be hearing for years about the great legend of the Extremaduran masturbation workshops. It reminds me of the myths that still circulate in the UK about how the European Union is attempting to systematically extinguish all distinctive aspects of British culture. Many of them started life as tabloid inventions but they continue to live on for ever in the popular imagination.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

A Mexican Health Warning

The Mexicans are no fools when it comes to taking sensible health precautions. If you don't believe me take a close look at this poster advising citizens in the state of Hidalgo about how to avoid spreading swine flu.

Flu might be the least of your worries if you are trapped into a deadly embrace with one of these two shady characters. You are more likely to get a 20cm blade lodged in your rib cage when greeting Espe or Alberto.

Monday, November 09, 2009

La Coruña

Some photographs of an August weekend trip to the city I shall call, in the interests of linguistic diversity, (L)a Coruña. Amazingly, considering the amount of travelling I've done in the rest of the country, this was my first visit to Galicia since my first ever time in Spain - the same journey that took me to Navia. I guess this is because it is just not easy to do a short trip from Madrid to this region - unless you fly and you can get a good timetable. On that first visit to the country I ended my fairly random wandering in Coruña and to be honest the place didn't leave much of an impression. This time I was far more impressed, things have changed for the better and it is not a bad place to consider for a weekend trip. I even took the gamble of travelling without anything to protect me from the rain and it paid off. After a cloudy but dry Saturday, the following day saw Riazor beach packed with people for what seems to have been the first day of summer in the city this year, at least according to the taxi driver who told us it was the worst summer he could remember in 35 years.

Inside that stretch of the city bordered on one side by the beach and the other by the port there are some pedestrianised streets, one of which is full of bars and restaurants and which leads to the Plaza of Maria Pita, a heroine of the resistance against an unsuccessful English attack on the city in 1589. This isn't the only English connection to the city. Starting from the small old city a bit further down from Maria Pita, we soon arrived at the park where the remains of General Sir John Moore lie in a shady garden overlooking the port.

Wellington seemed to have a feel for the diversity in Spain with his message "Españoles, dedicaos todos a imitar a los inimitables Gallegos". A message which the web tells me has travelled as far as the Centro Gallego in Buenos Aires. Down below this memorial is the Castillo de San Antón and from there you can begin to walk the 10 kilometres of paseo maritimo that the city possesses. We walked it all, some bits more than once.

Overlooking the ria it was strange to find a muslim cemetery for the North African troops who fought with Franco's forces in the Civil War. Obviously had they fought on the other side then their bones would just have been tossed into a hole beside the road somewhere!. The cemetery itself has ceramic decoration from which you learn the Arabic origin of so many Spanish words.

The open land nearby was used as an execution site by the Civil War victors and a "stonehenge" style monument now marks the spot.

One thing you won't be able to ignore is the fact that there is a tower in Coruña. La Torre de Hercules, recently declared to be a World Heritage site, is the oldest active lighthouse in the world. Most of what remains of the original tower is still said to be of Roman origin, in spite of successive remodelling operations throughout the ages. You can ascend most of the way up the tower and the views are worth it provided you can put up with the wind. Before you see the tower itself you will see it engraved on the paving stones, on the city shield which appears everywhere, and on the numerous posters supporting the campaign for it to be listed by UNESCO.

Over on the other side of the beaches there is the hill of San Pedro. Like many hills overlooking Spanish cities this was under the control of the military until they finally surrendered it to the municipality in the 1990's. It is now a public park and provides excellent views over the city as well as in both directions along the coast. As a reminder of its past usage there are still bunkers and two enormous guns which were imported from Barrow in Furness at the beginning of the 1930's. These weapons were never used in anger but apparently their 35km range protected German boats that wanted to stop in the ports of Coruna or El Ferrol during the second world war. Isn't the arms trade a wonderful thing? The paseo maritimo continues some way past San Pedro and out of the city, and it's possible to do the ascent of the hill from the end of the paseo too. Alternatively, there is a strange space capsule funicular to save you the climb.

This trip was never just going to be about walking, and Operación Pulpo was declared to be a great success. We tried a couple of the pulperias, unpretentious places that specialise in the tentacled beast to the exclusion of almost everything else. One was not far from the Torre de Hercules itself, and the other was somewhere near the railway station, located in ugly new Coruña. Perhaps not surprisingly, what Madrileños know as Pulpo a la Gallega doesn't seem to exist under this name in the region itself. The pulpo is almost always served without the ever present potatoes you see in Madrid, unless you get some as a side dish. Although we lived mostly off octopus during the weekend we did manage to squeeze in a mariscada on the Saturday night. For lovers of seafood the mariscada is heaven, and there are people who like nothing more than setting to work with their nutcrackers to get a thin string of meat out of a crab's leg. Personally I'm not a big fan of meals where the energy expended in getting at the edible parts is greater than that gained from eating them. Apart from anything else, I just don't see the point of eating percebes (goose barnacles), which are rubbery, tasteless and hugely expensive. I concentrated mostly on the gambas and cigalas. Tough life, tough choices.

Monday, November 02, 2009

Ready For Rajoy's Super Tuesday?

Last year it always seemed to be Monday that was the worst day of the week for Mariano Rajoy, as it is for many of us. In Mariano's case it was because that was the day chosen by his enemies inside the Partido Popular to complicate his bid to stay as leader of the party. Well last week he must have felt that every day was Monday, so bad did things get that even Rajoy himself finally had to protest and...this was a novelty...take decisions!

It was bad enough with the bitter battle taking place within the PP in Madrid over control of Caja Madrid, a conflict that reached its peak with the (kamikaze?) interview that Manuel Cobo gave to El País, in which too much about Esperanza Aguirre's leadership style was revealed for anyone's liking. Then Valencia struck back in a bid to steal the limelight. Ricardo Costa had resigned as secretary general of the PP in that region as a result of the revelations from the Gürtel case, at least that was what the national party claimed. The problem was that he carried on doing the job and the press reported it. Even that might not have disturbed Rajoy's siesta if it hadn't been for the fact that Costa felt the need to draw attention to his defiance. At that point the national leadership finally decided they had to do something, and Costa was promptly suspended from the party.

Meanwhile Aguirre, despite having effectively lost the battle to place her man in charge of Caja Madrid, was still mobilising her forces and preparing to surround the Ayuntamiento of Madrid until she got someone's head on a spike. By now there was hardly a senior PP figure who wasn't out there somewhere with their diagnosis of what was wrong with the party. José Maria Aznar couldn't be left out and launched a thinly disguised attack on Rajoy's leadership. Proving just how little shame he has, he even called on politicians to act over corruption. Given that the guest list from his daughter's wedding now reads like a Who's Who of the Gürtel case you would think that a bit of discretion might be advisable.

We even got the opinions of Manuel Pizarro, who if you remember was the PP's economics superstar in the last election...for about 30 minutes. Pizarro treated us to a parable of a shepherd unable to lead his flock without the help of a trusty sheepdog to keep order. He finished by claiming that Rodrigo Rato would make an excellent president of Caja Madrid, and an excellent head of the government! Woken up just before the removal men arrived to carry him away, Rajoy invoked the spirit of Job and declared that his patience was at an end. What's more, he set a deadline to put an end to the PP's crisis and that deadline expires today.

It's been a busy weekend, Valencian leader Francisco Camps had what was said to have been a very tense conversation with Mariano about Costa, and today he finally announced a successor for Costa's job. Camps gives the impression of living in a parallel universe where everything is "muy bonito". Knives are being sharpened around him but he seems completely unaware of how his situation is deteriorating. In Madrid Espe sent out Ignacio Gonzalez to confirm her defeat, as Gonzalez gave way to Rato in Caja Madrid. Here is the man who is probably the big winner in all of this, not only does he get another nice little earner but he emerges untouched by all the infighting surrounding his appointment.

Today we will get Rajoy's speech to the national executive, now that he has ensured a temporary ceasefire. Stand by for the internal party code of conduct on corruption! This will presumably be followed by the family photograph where everyone will gather as near to each other as they can bear to stand, the weapons having been checked in at the door. On Wednesday we will find out whether Aguirre gets a consolation prize as Manuel Cobo appears before the PP's disciplinary committee charged with telling the truth. The PP has a lead of 3% over the government in the opinion poll published today, but with data gathered before the latest crisis; a lead that is due more to a decline in support for the PSOE than any significant rise for the PP. It will take a day or two before someone in the party unfavourably compares Rajoy's advantage with that enjoyed by the Tories in Britain, then they can all get back to fighting each other again.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Corruption Keeps The Judges Busy

It's disgraceful. Nothing more than a brutal persecution of some decent politicians by a politically motivated judge acting on the orders of the government. Who will put an end to this shameful witch hunt carried out by Baltasar Garzón against our democratically elected representatives? Oh's not the PP involved in this one is it? That's ok then, justice must be allowed to take its course and the judges decisions must always be respected.

At least in Cataluña they can argue that they don't let ideology and petty party differences get in the way when it comes to municipal corruption. Those arrested a few days ago on Garzon's orders include prominent figures from the PSC, Catalan wing of the PSOE, and from the nationalists of Convergencia i Unio. Like many other corruption cases in Spain, the main source of income has been the commissions that get paid when almost worthless land suddenly, and mysteriously, gets reclassified as suitable for building. Following the logic of the early days of Gürtel there should now be demands that somebody not connected to the case resigns. How about Mariano Rajoy? That proposal would even attract support from within his own party.

The case in Cataluña comes hot on the heels of another one in the Almerian town of El Ejido. At the heart of that case is the mayor of the town, Juan Enciso, who had already earned himself a reputation as a nasty piece of work following the anti-immigrant riots there a few years ago. His attitude towards the immigrant labour force whose work made the town wealthy was summarised in a phrase along the lines of "there are never enough of them at 8 in the morning, and always too many by 8 in the evening". Not a person to shed any tears for, Enciso seems to have managed to turn El Ejido into his own personal property.

El País told us yesterday morning that there is "desolación" in the Spanish parliament in the face of the growing number of corruption cases coming to the surface following the property boom. Clearly this feeling is still not so strong that either of the two major parties feel the need to legislate against corruption. In fact I suspect they will probably feel better after a good lunch or two and their sense of desolación certainly wasn't enough to stop them from voting down a motion that would oblige them to declare their assets. It's hard not to avoid the impression that what really causes the most pain is that there are some judges prepared to investigate these cases.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

As Closes, Which Way To The Future?

Yesterday saw the sad announcement that, an independent Spanish web based news platform, was closing down after only 22 months of existence. Soitu was seen as an innovative development representing for many the future shape of information delivery on the internet. It established a sizeable readership in its brief existence, and went for an approach based around participation and sharing of technology and resources. The widgets I have used on this blog to report election results, and the software for the charts I have occasionally published all came via this site.

The problem was that Soitu was launched just a short time before the economic crisis started to bite. A site that delivered its content free of charge depended on income from advertising, and it is the collapse in such income that has provoked closures and sackings across the Spanish media in the last couple of years. There is currently no shortage of creative talent in the industry, but the model which allows that talent to be able to work on a sustainable basis doesn't seem to have been found yet. In hard times like the present, the publicity dependent business needs a friendly sugar daddy to keep it going. Soitu just had a bank, the BBVA, and it seems that they have now pulled the plug. Ironically, the same bank continues to advertise on the site with banners asking "¿Cuando quieres pagar? Tu decides".

With casino capitalism still being allowed to run rampant, we live in an age of constant economic instability and any business based on assumptions of good times can now find itself itself in trouble every 5 or 6 years as we lurch from bubble to bubble. The optimistic view would say that failures like that of Soitu are a necessary part of the process of establishing the future structure of information delivery. The problem is that current trends in the industry are in many ways leading to the sacrifice of quality in exchange for immediacy and volume of content. Legions of copy and paste merchants at work mean that it's possible for a story to appear in one site, and then echo around the others in no time - much of what passes as "news" being generated by trawling through what others have already published.

The widespread assumption is that media groups will need to start charging for content, but breaking the everything is free on internet habit is going to be even more difficult if the quality of the product being offered isn't worth the money. It's worth placing bets on who will be the first major media group in Spain to make a renewed push for a subscription based service for internet news delivery. Newspaper sales continue to decline in Spain almost wiithout exception, and all of the major media groups are having to rethink their business.

For some the solution is to widen the potential audience, and for Spanish media groups that means looking towards the American market. El Mundo, whose printed edition is now also called El, has opened an American section on its web site with news from the different countries. Whether this news is just rehashed coverage from the different media in South America is hard to tell. Meanwhile the owners of El País, Grupo Prisa, already have substantial business interests in South America and have now started investing in Hispanic media in the US as well. Expanding the target audience may help, but we will have to wait and see whether it's enough to make the difference.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Notorious Bandit Cornered In Caja Madrid

Full credit to Esperanza Aguirre, she never allows anything else to take priority over her own ambitions. When it comes to defusing a crisis you would never pick up the phone and dial E for Espe. Take the (still) ongoing battle for control of Caja Madrid, the regional savings bank and fourth largest financial institution in Spain. What began as just another example of Espe's empire building, handily combined with having a swipe at her rival Alberto Ruiz Gallardón, has now been transformed into a full scale confrontation between Aguirre and the Partido Popular national leadership. We're almost back where we were in the aftermath of the PP's general election defeat last year.

Having got her way in changing the law concerning representation in the governing body of the Caja, Aguirre has moved to propose one of her closest political allies - Ignacio Gonzalez - as the president of the bank. This has provoked a reaction from the PP's leadership who finally appear to have had enough of Aguirre's stealthy accumulation of power. PP leader Mariano Rajoy has made it clear that he thinks the job should go to former finance minister and IMF director general Rodrigo Rato. This is quite a shrewd move on the part of Rajoy, it's very hard for Espe to openly reject Rato as a candidate, he was the powerful figure in the Madrid PP before she took over and is widely respected within the party. There are suggestions that he is not really Rajoy's preferred candidate as the two men were rivals to succeed Aznar and are not said to get on well. Despite this, Rajoy is said to be determined to stop Gonzalez getting the job, amongst other reasons because the latter strongly criticised Rajoy's leadership when Aguirre was toying with the idea of becoming Mariano's successor.

So now it's a question of who will blink first, for the moment both sides are steadily maintaining the tension as the rest of the PP watches in bewilderment and dismay; as if Gürtel wasn't enough! Aguirre can impose her will, if she decides to gamble on Rajoy backing down. She has the power to push through whatever she wants in Caja Madrid. However, it's a high stakes gamble and the PP is not a federal party where each region can do what it likes. Ultimately, Rajoy has the power to remove Aguirre from her own position, although it's very unlikely he would choose to take things that far. He's not a person who has a reputation for standing firm, as we've seen with the farcical case of Ricardo Costa in Valencia who may or may not have resigned, depending on who you choose to believe.

The government has let it be known that they don't want Rato in Caja Madrid, officially because he walked out on the IMF to pursue the scent of money in investment banking, but probably more because he is too much of a heavyweight political figure for their liking. The Madrid section of the PSOE has been brought into line, a few days ago they seemed quite happy with the plans of La Lideresa as they had been promised some important posts of their own in return for supporting Gonzalez. The government candidate is a lesser known PP figure, Luis de Guindos, whose banking experience consists of having been boss of the Spanish division of, gulp, Lehman Brothers. Very confidence inspiring.

All sides loudly proclaim their intention of "depoliticising" the selection process, whilst at the same time pushing the politician of their choice. Not that too much attention should be paid to those who demand a more professional profile for the job. This is coded language for a banker. You know, one of these people who takes your money, multiplies it by a hundred, takes a good percentage of that as a reward for their efforts, gambles the rest on a dodgy package of someone else's bad debts, then tells you to ask the government for your money back. Frankly I think I prefer the politician, or at least one who would have the objective of making Caja Madrid serve the region. Gonzalez is obviously not that person, but the Spanish economy could use banks that do better things than just borrow cheap money from the European Central Bank to lend it back at a profit to their own governments.

Anyway, you shouldn't take any notice of what I write about Aguirre and her way of operating. It's much better to read direct testimony from within the Madrid PP, the priceless interview with Manuel Cobo published in this morning's El País. Cobo is particularly good on a favourite theme of mine, the difference between Aguirre's words and her actions. Manuel Cobo is the main political ally of Gallardón and this won him the distinction of being a prime target for Espe's gang of spies. He's clearly been waiting an opportunity like this to hit back and surely had the approval of Gallardón for what he has done. The reaction of Aguirre's supporters to the Cobo interview is, true to form, to threaten him with disciplinary measures. It all helps to demonstrate the sad fact that the most effective opposition to Espe in Madrid currently comes from within her own party.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Las Tablas De Daimiel On Fire

A few months ago I wrote a post on the plight of Las Tablas de Daimiel, but it seems that since then the situation in what is supposed to be one of the most important wetland areas of Spain has got even worse. The lack of water in the park has now led to a situation where underground peat fires are burning, and the European Union has threatened to intervene to force the Spanish government to act.

There's nothing very natural about this disaster, and it looks as if the Spanish government has more or less decided to let the park die. Now, with the threat of outside intervention, there is talk of a water transfer being arranged from the Tajo River. The poor Tajo seems to be the solution to everyone's water problems, and already there have been complaints from Murcia that water should be used to help preserve a national park when they can be using it to grow tomatoes. Precisely the attitude that has led to the once water sufficient Tablas reaching the state they are in today. It would be interesting to know whether any water from the Tajo still makes it across the frontier into Portugal. If anyone ever wants to create a monument to unsustainable management of water resources then Las Tablas de Daimiel will be as good a place as any.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

The Gürtel Case Casts A Long Shadow

One of my unfinished posts before going on holiday was going to argue that the impact of the Gürtel corruption case was only just beginning to be felt. The main reason was not so much the continuing revelations in the press about the activities of Francisco Correa and company, it was more because the case was still under the "secreto del sumario", which keeps the investigation confidential until the prosecution case is established. While I was away that protection was partially lifted and those who liked to believe that the whole case was just an anti Partido Popular operation invented by Baltasar Garzón now have 17,000 pages of evidence to read involving criminal accusations against over 70 people. That should keep them going until the other two thirds of the case is also revealed. It is said that the main reason for the continuing secrecy is that investigators are following the international trail of the Gürtel millions.

Meanwhile the main action in the last month has been in Valencia. A police report claiming that the Valencian PP was using illegal funding from companies that received contracts from the regional government ended up causing far more damage than the case of Mr Camps and his very fine suits. After a protracted tussle, the national PP leadership eventually managed to force the resignation of Valencian PP general secretary Ricardo Costa. The nature of that battle tells us much about Mariano Rajoy's "leadership" of his party. Ever since being reelected as leader of the PP, Rajoy has spent much of his time in Valencia as regional president Francisco Camps had effectively become his main prop within the party. For Rajoy to make the Valencian party bend to his will in the case of Costa was never going to be easy and at one point it looked quite possible that he would fail. In any case, the temporary "resignation" of Costa appears to be a fiction; although not appearing publicly in the name of the PP it seems that he is still working from his office in the party headquarters.

Camps himself is seriously damaged by the affair, and there has been plenty of speculation about him being finished politically - some of it coming from within the PP itself. The arrogance shown by the Valencian PP in shrugging off evidence of corrupt behaviour doesn't just come from Rajoy depending on their support. The clear unwillingness of the Valencian courts to deal with any evidence against Camps and his allies must be very reassuring, as is the evidence of opinion polls that most PP voters in the region couldn't care less about the corruption of their representatives. The Valencian judges put on a magnificent display of judicial cynicism over the police report, which they had received from Madrid. We'll deal with that after the case of the suits, they said. Then, having shelved the case against Camps over his presents from the Gürtel ring, they used the fact that there was no case open any more as an excuse for not dealing with the police report! Such loyalty will surely bring rewards.

Back with the main prosecution case, we have learnt from the published evidence in a case already overrun with nicknames that Correa liked to be called "Don Vito". Clearly this was a man who did his utmost to avoid attracting any suspicion within the PP about his activities. Correa's own declarations also reveal that the advancement of his influence in the PP was much helped by Madrid's deputy mayor Ana Botella taking a shine to Álvaro "El Bigotes" Pérez. She likes men with moustaches, and the presence of both Correa and Pérez at the wedding of Aznar and Botella's daughter is the simple answer to those who would pretend that these people were marginal figures in the PP. Right on cue we get the announcement this week that Aznar - stop giggling at the back, this is serious - is going to deliver a series of classes on ethics and politics at a Catholic university in Murcia. I swear on a copy of today's Marca that I'm not making this up. Despite all of this the PP still seeks to present itself as a helpless victim of Correa and friends on the one hand ("los chorizos"), and the implacable persecution orchestrated by a shady organisation known as "el gobierno" on the other. If it doesn't bring a tear to your eye then you have no heart.

Saving the best for last, let's turn to Madrid and our revered regional president. Fans of Esperanza Aguirre, and she has some, have praised her for a quick witted reaction to the lifting of the secreto del sumario. She immediately expelled the three members of her group in the regional parliament who are facing criminal accusations, and her behaviour has been contrasted with that of the slow response by Rajoy and the Valencians. What is far more interesting is what the Gürtel sumario tells us about the way Aguirre's government works. She likes to present herself as showing the way when it comes to austerity and lean government, but almost all of the numerous and expensive contracts awarded by Espe's administration to the Gürtel companies concerned the organisation of events designed to promote the image of Aguirre herself.

Some examples. Espe visits an industrial estate in Getafe? Ka ching! That will be over €30,000 into the Gürtel coffers. La Lideresa inaugurates a school, an event you might have thought would cost little more than the price of her Metro ticket. Ka ching! More thousands of euros for Gürtel. Nothing is sacred here, how about a homage to the emergency workers that dealt with the aftermath of the Madrid bombings? Ka ching ka ching! Those who do not understand the dynamic of the liberalisation of public services may fail to comprehend why Madrid had to repeatedly pay the Gürtel companies to hire the same four plasma screens, or the red carpet tiles, or some of the most expensive flowers ever bought. As true economic liberals, Madrid's rulers handed the companies concerned over 300 contracts, broken into smaller ones where necessary to avoid any need to put the contract out to tender. We wouldn't want the chill winds of competition to spoil such a nice little earner. Despite this and the fact that she has had months to examine all the contracts, Aguirre would like us to believe she didn't know what was happening.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Marching Against Abortion, But Only When The Left Are In Power

As my post on the Gürtel case is still very much a work in progress let's turn our attention to last weekend's demonstration against the Spanish government's proposed abortion law reform. It's extremely bad manners to organise such a major demonstration of Madrid's permanently angry right when I'm still on holiday but we'll let that pass. Were you there? If we believe the reports in the right wing press, it would be easy to get the impression that almost the whole Spanish population turned out for the event. A tidal wave of decent Spaniards marching united against Zapatero the baby killer.

Well not quite. Despite the now habitual claims by the organisers, the sympathetic press and the Comunidad de Madrid of a million or two attending, it seems that the true number fell well short of 100,000. Apart from those who habitually attend these events to estimate numbers, there is a new kid on the block. A company called Lynce claims that it has software which can count the number of people occupying a given space from aerial photos. Such a method would obviously be open to question in a genuine march which starts at one point and ends at another as you have to take into account the movement of the participants. Fortunately, that's not the case for the demonstrations organised by the Partido Popular and allies; they are generally static affairs concentrating crowds in a prominent Madrid street for the benefit of the Telemadrid helicopter. The PP doesn't walk.

Since we're on the subject of Telemadrid it's worth noting that the channel did its very best to encourage participation in the demonstration, virtually the only thing lacking was a direct instruction from the Lideresa herself for viewers to desert their sofas and take to the streets.

Santa Esperanza was of course there, and was joined by Jaime Mayor Oreja and none other than the Moustachioed Crusader, Jose Maria Aznar. The latter was accorded superstar treatment by many of the nostalgics who so fondly remember his time in office. Oddly, for a demonstration against abortion, none of them appeared to remember that during Aznar's time in office it's estimated that approximately 500,000 abortions took place in Spain. We can't be on the streets all the time was the excuse offered for this memory lapse by one of the organisers, who appeared to have forgotten that he occupied a position in the same government. PP leader Mariano Rajoy simply forgot to go, although he claims that he didn't want to politicise the event! The PP has now said it will introduce it's own reform when it returns to office, although the party refuses to spell out even a single detail of what that reform will involve. The signs from the turnout, habitual exaggerations apart, are that abortion doesn't even get the full PP hardcore support onto the streets, never mind the less rabid voters they need to attract if they are to stand a chance of winning an election.

If we needed a reminder of why the abortion reform is necessary it came a few days ago. In my first post on this subject I mentioned the case of a fishing exercise carried out by members of the Guardia Civil eager to find evidence of illegal activity at a Madrid abortion clinic called Isadora. This included doorstepping women who had been to the clinic and subsequently the judicial decision to allow an extremist anti-abortion organisation to involve itself in the case. The case has finally been stopped, because not a single indication of illegal activity had been found. Despite the absolute lack of evidence, a handful of police officers and a sympathetic judge have been allowed to intimidate women who had taken the (never easy) decision to have an abortion under the existing legislation.