Tuesday, March 31, 2009

So Where Were The Bishops?

In the end South of Watford was unable to cover Sunday's demonstration in Madrid against the government's proposed abortion law reform. A demanding weekend eating tapas in a cold and wet Cordoba left no time for other things. Despite the usual exaggerated claims of massive attendance, it looks as if I wasn't the only one who didn't make it to the event. Over at the Manifestómetro they reckon that the numbers on the march didn't exceed 24,000, although the organisers claim 20 times that figure. What this suggests is that many of those who I have assumed would turn out for any demonstration on any topic if it's against the government didn't bother to put their walking shoes on this time. Maybe it was a bit cold?

It was a sign of the times that the Partido Popular didn't officially endorse the demonstration, and all of their most senior figures seemed to suddenly find themselves with pressing agenda problems that meant they were unable to attend. Even the church itself kept a certain "official" distance, whilst encouraging people to turn out. Apart from anything else, the failure to achieve a massive mobilisation serves as a demonstration of the distance that separates the leadership of the Catholic Church from many of their followers. Obviously not all Spanish catholics are ranting, foaming at the mouth, "fachas", although the percentage that are rises quite steeply the further up the church hierarchy you go.

Another indicator has been the mixed reaction to attempts to use the traditional Easter processions as a platform to protest against the abortion law. Many people who are quite happy to dress up like members of the Klan and march endlessly around their home town are not willing to see the event used to promote the more extreme aspects of religious dogma. It's clear that a lot of those who participate in these processions do not see them as being the property of the Church, despite the obvious religious background. Indeed, were participation to be confined to the faithful the only result would be a huge reduction in the numbers taking part. Not a bad thing in my view, the knowledge that these processions form an important part of the holiday is now enough on its own to make me avoid a place as an Easter travel destination.

We saw the true face of the opposition to citizenship education last week when the director of a school in Logroño forced pupils to watch a crude propagandistic presentation on the abortion issue. Apparently it didn't fall far short of accusing Zapatero of personally executing babies. The option of conscientious objection was not made available to any parents who didn't want their children subjected to extremist political propaganda as part of their school curriculum.

Monday, March 30, 2009

Haciendo Caja

The Spanish government has had to step in directly for the first time to prop up one of the country's regional savings banks; the Caja Castilla - La Mancha. The government claims that it is just guaranteeing the solvency of the bank whilst it overcomes its "liquidity" problems, but it is now being run by nominees from the Banco de Espana. The irony of this has been noted by much of the press as the president of the bank was at one time a PSOE member of parliament who is most remembered for his interrogation of a former governor of the Banco de España. What goes around comes around. The caja had become severely overstretched for reasons that threaten other cajas around the country, the collapse of the construction boom. It seems that they had also invested heavily in the airport which will no longer be called Madrid Sur, but which has opened for business just at the beginning of the recession.

The government still insists that there are no fundamental problems with the Spanish banking system. Whilst that does seem to be largely the case in terms of the worthless sub-prime type investments that have caused problems in other countries, Spain has its own problems because of the dependency on the property market. On the one hand construction companies are no longer able to pay their considerable debts because they are saddled with huge numbers of unsold homes. The banks are in many cases receiving unsold properties instead of money repayments and are becoming the unwilling owners of substantial property portfolios. At the same time the relentless rise in unemployment is causing many of those who bought property in the boom years to default on their loans. The government has been trying to encourage the cajas to merge with each other, and it was the failure of such an attempt that led to the intervention in this case.

Talking of toxic assets with limited value, the government has also moved to freeze the attempt by Esperanza Aguirre to turn Caja Madrid into another branch of her ever expanding web of patronage. The national government has referred to the Constitutional Court the new law which Aguirre created to give her administration control of the bank at the expense of Madrid's ayuntamiento, amongst others. Given that Partido Popular leader Mariano Rajoy was either unwilling or unable to put an end to the prolonged and silly struggle between Aguirre and Madrid mayor Alberto Ruiz Gallardón, which is being fought out with Caja Madrid as the battleground, it's been left to others to do the job. The appeal means that the law can effectively be suspended for a crucial few months which might deny Espe her prize. As if the cajas didn't already have enough problems.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Ecuador....La Nariz Del Diablo

One of the great engineering projects from the early age of the train, the Trans Andean railway once connected Quito to Ecuador's main port at Guayaquil. These days Ecuador's rail company is not the busiest in the world and most of the line is disused, but a significant stretch of the track is still in use between Riobamba and the foot of a mountain known as La Nariz del Diablo (the Devil's Nose). This journey exists purely as a tourist attraction, three times a week the train sets off from Riobamba with the vast majority of the passengers sitting on top of it!

It's best to go to the station the day before the train departs, they normally start selling tickets between 2-3 p.m. You go there, hand over your $11 a head, and should also be able to pay a deposit on that most essential of all accessories, the cushion which will make several hours sat on the hard roof of the train a bit easier to bear.

We were advised by somebody else who had done the trip not to do the whole journey, but just to get on board the train at Alausi to do the final dramatic descent. It will take hours and the train constantly derails, he told us. I'm glad we didn’t take this advice, apart from anything else your chances of finding a good position to sit if you don't get on the train at Riobamba are minimal. We got to the station at 6 in the morning, one hour before departure, to find at least half the available space already taken. Take no notice of those who say that half the length of a carriage is "reserved" for a group coming later, those who get their early get the places. Most people go for the right hand side (facing towards the front of the train), as this gets the best views on the final stretch. Although the front coach might seem the best place, bear in mind that you are more likely to be getting the fumes from the engine. Your main luggage will be safely locked inside one of the carriages, and you don't need to take anything more on top than what you might need for surviving 6-7 hours sat on the roof of a train. Of course, this includes protection against the sun, the rain and the cold.

Just after 7, the train set off through the outskirts of Riobamba, but it wasn't long before we stopped again. The addition of an extra carriage meant that there was a bit more room for those who had to sit in the middle. Then it was off into open country, although always at a gentle pace. Taking photographs is still difficult, usually because everyone else around you is doing the same. The train itself is the attraction for many of those living beside the track, and much of the passing traffic usually slows down to take a good look at this strange bunch of tourists who voluntarily choose to sit on top of a slow moving train.

Gradually the landscape changes as the train leaves behind the more populated region around Riobamba. At many points on the journey the only people in sight are farmers, and as the terrain becomes rougher there are fewer of these.

The real pleasure of the journey is in the changes of the landscape that the train passes through. Sometimes the track follows river valleys, at others it crosses high moorland. At Guamote the train makes its first stop and it provides a welcome break from sitting on the roof, cushion or not.

If you can’t take any more there is always the local bus service….

The train has all facilities. There is a full buffet service....

A ticket inspector....

and of course on-board music.....

without forgetting the man who operates the brakes.....

After a few hours of the journey I was starting to think that the talk of derailments was all a big exaggeration, and that the reason why the train takes so long is simply because it doesn't go very fast. About two minutes later, there was a jolt and a loud grinding noise and the train quickly halted. It was our carriage that had derailed, and it didn't look good.

If it hadn't been for those warnings we had received about this, I would have assumed that this was the end of our journey and that from here we had to walk. The train's crew went to work with metal bars and shovels, and amazingly got the train back on the track in about 15 minutes. I suppose that's how things work when you are used to it happening on every trip, but I was still hugely impressed. However, from the derailment point onwards we started to descend into a deep valley, and looking at what lay below us just a tiny distance from the track itself, I didn't want to see any more derailments.

Fortunately the train stayed on the tracks and we got down to Alausi station without any further incidents. This small town is in fact the end point of the journey, but what happens is that the train descends down from here to the Nariz del Diablo and then returns back to Alausi, so anyone who gets off the train the first time it stops here will miss the spectacular end to the trip.

Apart from the impressive scenery the Nariz del Diablo is interesting for the solution which the engineers designing the line had to adopt to deal with it. The problem caused by this mountain is that it prevented a smooth, gentle, descent down to the valley floor. Instead, what the train has to go through is a switchback operation where it reverses downhill for a while before reaching another point permitting another change of direction and the continuation of the journey around the base of the Nariz del Diablo.

Once past the mountain the journey comes to an end, and all that remains is the return stretch back up to Alausi.

From Alausi it's possible to continue your journey by bus, either heading back towards Riobamba, or taking a bus that heads down towards the city of Cuenca. In the end this was one of the most enjoyable days of the whole trip in Ecuador. Not to be missed.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

From Kosovo To Kandahar

It must have seemed like the perfect political visit to have to carry out. Spanish defence minister Carme Chacón stood before the Spanish troops stationed in Kosovo and told them that they had fulfilled their mission and would soon be on their way home. From that moment onwards things went badly wrong, as both NATO and the US government made it clear that they weren't happy with Spain's decision to pull its troops out. It's all been a bit of a setback for Chacón, seen by many as the main candidate to succeed Zapatero when he goes, and for ZP himself just as he is about to sit down with Obama and reform the world economy.

At the heart of the whole issue is the refusal by the Spanish government to recognise the independence of Kosovo, making it perhaps even stranger that they have kept their troops there over a year since independence was declared. There is something distinctly odd about serving in a peacekeeping mission in a country that you don't even recognise. Chacon, on her journey to make the announcement, avoided any contact with the local authorities by flying into a military airport and then being whisked by helicopter directly to the Spanish base. Tom over at thebadrash.com has written about the fears the Kosovo example provokes in Spain about threats to the unity of the country, although if you look at it from all sides there is little in this case to please nationalists of any variety.

Spain is not the only country pulling troops out of Kosovo, the UK has been quietly reducing its contingent for some time; without anyone really noticing. As Zapatero's government has rushed into damage limitation mode, it appears that the withdrawal from Kosovo will now be done so slowly that hardly anyone will notice the difference, apart from the soldiers who thought for a couple of days that they were on their way home. If I was in their place I would stick to directing the traffic in Pristina, because the outcome of the messy handling of this issue is likely to be a commitment to send more Spanish soldiers to places that are much less tranquil than Kosovo currently is.

Candidate number one for the appeasement of the US and NATO could well involve an increased Spanish presence in Afghanistan, as NATO extends its search for a reason to exist into the frontier lands of Pakistan. With increasingly disastrous results. At the same time Spain is playing a greater role in the force supposedly combatting piracy off the coast of Somalia. Happily, they can combine this task with that of ensuring that Western fishing fleets continue to pillage waters where fishing quotas will never be applied. Then you read that many of the Somali pirates used to be fishermen themselves, until the big boys with the big boats pushed them out of the way.

There is clearly no thought of doing anything about Somalia itself, or the rest of Africa for that matter. I was reading this evening about how the economic crisis is making the failure to meet the millennium goals even more evident. Obviously, it would be ridiculous to spend the extra 7-8 billion dollars needed to guarantee a minimum of 6 years education for children around the world when much more than that can be well spent on guaranteeing the right of bankers to carry on receiving their bonuses for disastrous performance. Far sadder than the inept handling of the Kosovo incident is what such cases reveal about the priorities of our governments.

Monday, March 23, 2009

The Sun Shines On Siete Picos

Some of the best days you can hope to have in Madrid's mountains come at the end of winter, as the sun comes out but the cold nights ensure that the snow still lasts. Last week, with temperatures over 20 degrees in the city itself, there seemed to be a mass exodus towards the sierra. I have never seen a Saturday morning train from Madrid to Cercedilla as crowded as the one we took, I was wedged into a tiny space just by the doors for the whole trip. It was more like rush hour than a weekend.

The sunny conditions made it a perfect day for doing the classic Guadarrama route of Siete Picos. From this peak you get views on both the Madrid and Segovia sides of the sierra. There was still plenty of snow at 2000 metres - I sunk up to the height of my knees in a couple of places - although it was melting fast and the streams were full of water. The last time we were in the same area, some time before Christmas, it would have been a very unpleasant, and probably dangerous, experience to do this route. On Saturday last week we were able to sit comfortably at the top eating our lunch without feeling cold at all. The walk we did followed the "yellow" route, one of several marked with clearly painted circles on trees in the valley above Cercedilla. It's not the easiest or the shortest route, especially if you walk up from the railway station in the village, but with the longer days it becomes doable without having to get up too early. It takes you up to Collado Ventoso, from where it's possible to take another path to get to the top of Siete Picos. The views on a day like this compensate for the effort involved. This is Peñalara seen from just behind Siete Picos.

One of the problems I have with this mountain is with its name - I never count seven peaks, it's always six or eight. It all depends where you see it from.

Looking over the other side from Siete Picos you get Monton de Trigo on the right and La Mujer Muerta behind it - another mountain whose name only makes sense if you see it from the right side.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Why Spain Needs A New Abortion Law

It was only a matter of time. With the Spanish government's proposed reform of the abortion law taking shape we had to reach a moment when someone would call a demonstration in Madrid on the issue. In some ways it's surprising that it's taken so long, but the Catholic Church here has been strangely muted in its criticisms of the national government in the past few months. Some believe that this is because the Vatican has decided that the alliance betwen the Church hierarchy and the Partido Popular is not in its long term interests. Couple that with the attempts by the PP to present a more "moderate" image, a situation which means that they oppose the proposed reform but don't feel able to say exactly why. Now the inappropriately named "pro-life" lobby has called for a mobilisation and we will see how the PP handles this. It's going to be seen as a gift from heaven for the extreme right, who've been feeling a bit frustrated and restless ever since they stopped the monthly demonstrations accusing Zapatero of being a terrorist. March 29th is a good date, South of Watford will be in Madrid to report on it.

The Church itself has embarked on a silly advertising campaign which compares abortion unfavourably with the measures taken to protect the Iberian lynx. The distinctly unsubtle message is that we act to protect animals whilst we slaughter babies. They don't seem to have cottoned on to the fact that the only reason the lynx is protected is because we have reached a situation where there are hardly any of them left. The last time I looked that was not the case with the human race. It seems that they have even chosen the wrong species of lynx, the one shown in their poster campaign is not the Iberian variety. The timing of the campaign is not particularly good either, coming as it does just after the Pope has loudly backed the position that it's better for Africans to die of Aids than it is for them to use a condom.

The reform that the government is considering is by no means an extreme measure, it would do little more than bring Spain more or less into line with many other European countries on the issue. It seems likely from what has been published so far that the new law will permit abortion on demand up to a limit of the 14th week of pregnancy, with exceptions after that point only where the life of the mother would be in danger. The existing law has many defects and was a typical product of the transition in that it opened the door to making abortion possible, but in practice has still left it extremely difficult to obtain for many women. The hypocrisy on display from some of the anti-abortion squad is occasionally astonishing, notably when they claim that abortion has been converted into a "business". The principal reason for that state of affairs is simply that several regions of the country make it impossible to obtain an abortion using the public health service. In one region, Navarra, it's impossible to obtain one privately as well. So women seeking abortions find themselves obliged to travel and to pay. It's always been the case that restrictions on abortion do not make it unobtainable, it simply becomes the preserve of those who can afford it elsewhere.

Then there is the often precarious legal situation in which those who have had abortions find themselves placed. In a case last year in Madrid an investigation was provoked by the complaints of anti-abortion groups and was taken up by the environmental division of the Guardia Civil. Although the complaint was supposedly based around the disposal of embryo remains by the clinics practising the operation, the police decided to start doorstepping without any warning some of the women who had attended these clinics. These were women who had followed the legal process for having an abortion, and had the operation carried out in a clinic licensed to perform them; so why they had to be dragged before a judge to testify is something which only the judge himself can explain. It got even worse at one point when it looked as if the personal details of these women might be handed over to an extremist anti-abortion group that had managed to get itself represented in the case concerned. The current law is simply unsatisfactory, making the right to abortion dependent on a psychological report never works well because it means in the end that the specialist concerned has to be able to detach their verdict from their own personal opinions on the issue – I wonder how many abortions have been approved by psychologists who are loyal to Catholic dogma? It permits intimidation of women having abortions by religious extremists, as well as allowing the same groups to ally themselves with sympathetic judges and use the law to try punish those who have taken an already difficult decision to have an abortion. Meanwhile, three lynxes were born in Doñana this week, it's hard to tell whether the bishops are pleased or not.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

My Tailor Is Not Rich

The corruption case named Operación Gürtel continues to dominate much of the news in Spain this week. The media attention has switched back to that part of the case affecting the Valencian regional government, and is specifically focused on the accusation that the Valencian president Francisco Camps was given several expensive suits by those involved in the corruption ring. El País interviewed the tailor who habitually dealt with Camps, and he claimed in the interview that the payment for the suits involved was made by someone who worked for the company Orange Market; beneficiaries of extremely lucrative contracts from the administration led by Camps. He also said that payment was made using the favourite means of those who have abundant undeclared funds in Spain, wads of €500 notes. Another claim made was that the tailor occasionally had to meet Camps in his suite at the Ritz Hotel in Madrid to take measurements for the suits.

All of this is quite entertaining, but tends to overshadow the really threatening part of the case affecting Valencia, the issue of whether the Valencian Partido Popular received money back from the companies involved as part of an illegal party financing plan. The problem for Camps is that although he has loudly proclaimed that he pays for all of his suits, he can't actually provide any proof of this; not even a credit card or bank statement. At an event last weekend he was greeted by some members of the public with shouts of "trajes para todos", and regardless of whether the alleged gift is regarded as a very serious matter it has put him in a difficult position for all the support he gets from within his own party. The Valencian government is threatening to take legal action against those who besmirch the good name of Camps, something which in itself can be considered corrupt behaviour - he should pay for his own legal action as well as for his suits. Whilst we're on the subject of who pays what, I think we can safely assume that the bill at the Ritz - one of Madrid's most expensive hotels - was paid for by Valencian taxpayers. Meanwhile the tailor in question was sacked by his employers almost immediately after first declaring before the judge.

All those suits and all he has to wear is a sack!

Investigating judge Baltasar Garzón has surrendered the case concerning those who enjoy some kind of political immunity (Camps included) to the appropriate courts in the regions affected; Madrid and Valencia. He is, however, continung with the rest of the investigation affecting those who do not enjoy any sort of special protection until the issue of where the rest of the case goes is resolved. Nobody seems to have much expectation of the Valencia case getting very far, those who are concerned about judicial independence on the part of Garzón really need to check out the mutual admiration society formed by Camps and the president of the Valencian Supreme Court. The PP has launched new bids to get him removed from the case, but none are expected to get very far and they have more propaganda value than anything else as the party continues to try and play the role of victim.

Clearly the PP hopes that their media allies will eventually succeed in damaging Garzón enough to bring down the whole case. Monday's great revelation from El Mundo was that the judge got paid handsomely for delivering the same speech in two different places, something which would be a bit boring for anyone unlucky enough to attend both events but which hardly falls into the category of crime of the century. Garzón is in slightly more trouble over that fact that he didn't declare to the judicial authorities that he would be earning money whilst on a sabbatical stay in the US. El Mundo, in typical distorted fashion, managed to report this issue without even mentioning that it arose from the failure of an accusation alleging that Garzón had been paid much more in return for protecting the Banco Santander in a different case. Whatever the defects of Garzon's methodology, the corruption case is genuine and what the PP is effectively seeking here is impunity for their corrupt representatives. If they succeed then they will try to do the same with all future cases, and the tailors will be kept very busy.

Monday, March 16, 2009


We were warned by a couple of people who live in the city that we might not like Riobamba on the grounds that it is too busy. Maybe for them, but for those of us used to living in Madrid it didn't seem very hard to take at all, although some streets have busy traffic. It's a provincial capital which doesn't have a great deal of interesting things to see, but which is not a disagreeable place to have to spend a couple of nights.

The town has something else in common with Madrid, apart from traffic; they have a parade to celebrate Reyes (Epiphany) on January 6th. In some ways, the parade in Riobamba is more interesting as it provides evidence of the strong indigenous presence in the town and surrounding province.

We had time during our stay to do an excursion outside of Riobamba and the place we chose was a town with the slightly unfortunate name of Guano. This small town is known for the carpets it produces, and you can even see some of them being made.

It seems to have become a theme of my trips in South America to find some place that has a connection of sorts with Barcelona football club. In Ecuador they have taken this connection a step further by having a club with the same name, and the carpet makers of Guano have done their bit for supporters of the club; it's not hard to see where they got their inspiration from.

The highlight of the trip to Guano, and I have to say that there wasn't much competition, is the mummified body of a Spanish friar held in the town museum. Dating from the early years of the Spanish presence, he's not a pretty sight; but for those like me who are fascinated by such things it's unmissable.

Back in Riobamba we walked up to a park from where you can get a feeling for the surroundings, which naturally include several volcanoes. This was our best view of the imposing Beast of Baños, Tungurahua.

Over to the side we captured images of another peak, El Altar, which is said to offer some spectacular mountain walking.

We had no time to do any of that, because we had a train to catch.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Accuse Me Of Spying And I'll Have You Investigated!

The Spanish word of the week on South of Watford is "carpetazo". Despite apparently having everything under tight political control, the Partido Popular of Madrid (owner Mrs E. Aguirre) decided it was time to bring the commission of investigation into their own espionage scandal to an abrupt and very premature end. The commission took around a month to get started, “celebrated” only four sessions, made sure that none of those spied upon could be called to testify, and in the process ensured that no documentation which would help to clarify the affair might be inadvertently presented before the public eye.

So where did it go wrong? Well the start strategy for the commission was an attempt to try and demonstrate that the security department run by Espe’s sidekick, Francisco Granados, was no more than a continuation of the practices of previous administrations. Unfortunately the representatives of those administrations from both the PP and the PSOE made it very clear that they didn’t see the connection. Something had to be done, and help was on hand from a powerful media ally. El Mundo to the rescue and in their own inimitable style. Trawling through the documents originally published by El País recording the activities of those spying on prominent PP figures, El Mundo did their very best to give Aguirre a helping hand. It’s clear from their reports that they did this with selectively leaked information from the Comunidad, precisely the sort of information denied to the commission of investigation.

El Mundo declared, with typical weasel wording, that the documents published by El País were either incorrect or faked – then proceeding as if they had established that it was the latter. Their main case was based on a claim that the documents recording the movements of a former member of Aguirre’s government, Alfredo Prada, had him presiding over a meeting in Chinchón near Madrid when his agenda showed him to have been in León. Like most El Mundo exclusives, this one turned out to be constructed on very fragile foundations. The meeting in Chinchón took place, and there are photographs to prove it, all that had happened was that the El País article accompanying the publication of the documents got the date wrong – the original document had no such mistake.

No matter, the shabby reports by El Mundo allowed the PP in Madrid to make enough noise to justify the purpose of the operation, getting rid of this troublesome commission. Add to this the aborted investigation started by the national PP which was ended only when Aguirre agreed to set up her own. There are no signs that it will be restarted, the PP would have us believe that they are merely victims of relentless persecution by the media and left wing judges. Meanwhile, Granados recently threatened to “investigate” those who were criticising him, presumably a job to be carried out by the publicly paid team who he has handily equipped with powerful motorbikes and cameras. Of course, only so that they can ensure the safety of buildings belonging to the regional government. We’ll have none of that spying talk around here, if you don’t mind, it’s all been fully investigated.

Monday, March 09, 2009

ZP And The Art Of Variable Geometry

It sounds almost attractive, doesn't it? Variable geometry is the term used by the spin doctors of Spain's government to describe how they intend to make a minority government last for a full parliament. In reality it's a fancy way of describing a situation where that minority administration has no stable alliances which allow it to survive without problems, instead at each crunch point you make the agreements you need with whoever is prepared to sell their vote.

Now, with the results of the Basque elections giving the PSOE's Basque wing (PSE) the chance of forming a government in that region, we are hearing that variable geometry could also be applied there. The only problem being that this geometry may not be as variable as they would like, and the alliances formed could also have a severe impact on national politics. For the idea to work you have to have a choice of partners, and at the moment the only way it seems the Basque socialist leader Patxi Lopez can form a government is with the "support" of the Partido Popular. The euphoria many PSOE supporters feel after their party's result has to be tempered by the realisation that they may end up depending on another party whose only mission is to get them out of office at national level.

Apart from the PP the only alternative is an agreement with the Basque nationalists of the PNV, who still clearly emerged as the largest party in the election. There lies the problem, the PNV will not willingly play second fiddle to a party that got 80,000 fewer votes than they did. Coming second but with better possibilities of forming a majority than the winner causes almost more problems than it solves. Zapatero's government has survived important votes partially thanks to the PNV, if that support is lost because of what happens in the Basque Country then political life becomes much more unpredictable. Variable geometry states that the national government can still reach an agreement with the Catalan nationalists of Convergencia i Unió, but the principal objective of the latter party is to recover control of the Generalitat in Cataluña from Zapatero's own party.

This complicated scenario has already got some on the right starting to rub their hands as they conjure up the image of the government being forced to call early elections in the midst of the economic maelstrom. On the one hand they see Patxi Lopez depending on them to survive in the Basque Country, whilst of course the main objective at all times for the PP will be to do anything which dislodges the PSOE from power. Zapatero looked at last year's general election results from the Basque Country, decided that the PSOE could win in the regional version, and then as a consequence spurned the possibility of a deeper understanding with that sector of the PNV that was opposed to the Ibarretxe Plan. The two parties went head to head, and if the PSOE now uses PP support to oust the PNV from the Basque government then a dangerous game begins.

Thursday, March 05, 2009


The guide book told us to ask the bus driver to stop at the turn off for Urbina. You get off the bus at the entrance to a dirt track and all you can see around you are a few scattered buildings in the distance. There is, however, a sign directing you up this road to the Posada La Estación. As we put on our rucksacks and were about to start walking a van carrying a group of tourists turned into the same road. I half hoped they would stop and give us a lift, but they sped off to the same place that we were heading for. Here it is. Those who look at this building and think railway station are not wrong, because that's what this building used to be.

The track from the railway that once ran most of the way along the Andean backbone of Ecuador is no longer in use in this area. I wondered why there would ever have been a station here anyway, there is no town or village. The explanation is that the trains used to climb up here from Riobamba with fewer carriages than they would then pull on the rest of their journey, the rest would be added here. The animals probably had to graze somewhere else in those days.

The road alongside the track also has some history, we were told that this was the original Panamerican "highway" constructed in Ecuador, now about a kilometre in distance from its modern equivalent.

So once we were settled in we took a walk down the old Panamerican. A few minutes down the road and around a corner our objective came into view.

Chimborazo, the highest peak in Ecuador at 6268 metres and apparently because of its equatorial position the point on the earth's surface that is furthest from its core. The Posada mainly caters for those with an interest in exploring the mountain and surrounding area, it is simple but comfortable accommodation and full board is provided. Along with the two mountain refuges higher up on Chimborazo itself it is run by Rodrigo Donoso, from the Alta Montaña travel agency in Riobamba - some 15 kilometres away. To me this place has a special atmosphere, you really have the feeling of the highlands in this area, but then it is located at 3600 metres. That includes the feeling of being very cold at night, although the dining room of the Posada is kept warm in the evenings with a stove and a fire.

We organised two days of walking around Chimborazo with Rodrigo's agency. Day one took us to the less popular side of the mountain. The landscape in this area is distinctive, despite being at 4000+ metres there is still plenty of vegetation. This high mountain landscape is what is referred to in Ecuador as the páramo.

As we got higher up the vegetation became sparser, and despite having felt fine on Cotopaxi a few days earlier I was noticing the effects of the altitude. We walked to the base of the glacier that covers the upper part of the mountain, an impressive sight even though much of it was not visible through the mist.

On day two we left the Posada and travelled round to the other side of Chimborazo. On this side of the mountain, there are two refuges - the first of which is accessible by car and this is where we began our route. The second refuge is a couple of hundred metres further up, and it is here where those intending to go to the summit usually begin from. This refuge is named after an Englishman, Edward Whymper who claimed the first ascent of the mountain The day started very clear on this side, so we got a full view of Chimborazo.

The vegetation is much sparser on this side of the mountain, something which is apparently not helped by the presence of a growing number of vicuñas; the product of a repopulation programme that has been possibly too successful.

By the time we got up to the second refuge the clouds had already closed in and there was no possibility of seeing the higher parts of the mountain. Despite that there was still some dramatic high mountain scenery.

We set off up through the snow to reach an altitude around 5400 metres, higher than anywhere I've ever walked before. I was already trailing well behind and taking my time when I saw a rock that just stood out as the perfect place to sit and contemplate the scenery. I couldn't resist, I’d gone high enough.

Yo Twitteo, Tu Twitteas, Ella No Twittea

Following hot on the heels of the story I posted on last night about Twitter and the Madrid espionage scandal, now we get another story about how a certain Spanish politician isn't making quite as much use of the microblogging technology as we were led to believe. It seems that someone was looking at the Twitter output of UPyD's leader Rosa Diez the other night, in the aftermath of the regional elections. She was responding to messages concerning her party's results in those elections. The only problem was that she was also being interviewed live on Spanish television at the same time! Her account on Twitter has quickly been closed amidst explanations about the difficulties of leading the UPyD parliamentary group and updating the blog, Facebook and Twitter all at the same time. It seems the Twitter part was being done by Rosa 2.0.

Rajoy....A Survivor's Tale

Written off on numerous occasions, you can say what you like about Mariano Rajoy; he's a survivor. Even the Condesa de Murillo has had to acknowledge, probably through gritted teeth, that Rajoy's leadership has been strengthed by the victory of the Partido Popular in Sunday's elections in Galicia. Had it gone the other way the story would have been very different, because when the PP doesn't win in Galicia it doesn't do very well nationally either. A failure for Rajoy on his home territory and with such a small improvement needed to win could have been sufficient to bring about his downfall. All that Rajoy has really succeeded in doing is living to fight another day. However, if the PP win the European elections in June, then he has a straight run through to at least 2011, which is when the next municipal elections have to be held.

The result in Galicia distracts from the fact that the PP lost 30% of their vote in the Basque Country. Some of these votes probably went to UPyD, and some to the PSOE, but that would still leave a few thousand that stayed at home. Yet the possibility that the PP may participate in the Basque government, or at least be in the position of king maker, even helps to make this look like a good result. It will be interesting now to see whether the victory in Galicia affects the PP's national poll ratings, which were showing a steady decline over the last few months. A win can often give momentum to a party and the indications from Galicia are that the economic crisis may finally be starting to have an effect on support for Zapatero.

Despite clearing the Galician hurdle, none of Rajoy's principal problems have gone away. Indeed most of these problems have two legs and tend to belong to the same party as Mariano. His usual strategy of leaving a decision on everything until the last minute won't help in dealing with them, because he could use his strengthened position to weaken that of some of his rivals. Esperanza Aguirre is almost ruled out as a possible successor now, but she still has the ability to damage the prospects of others. Rajoy if he wanted could insist on a more convincing result from the Madrid espionage scandal than that likely to emerge from Espe's fraudulent commission of investigation. He may even be forced to, most of those spied upon are not even being called to declare before the commission but one of them - Manuel Cobo - has decided to try and get the courts to deal with the situation. Meanwhile, despite the assertion that the corruption case known as Operación Gürtel was initiated for electoral reasons, it's not going to go away and there is a serious possibility of senior PP figures being formally accused. From yesterday's news it does seem that none of them will be national PP figures, but the potential implications of the case in Madrid and Valencia are still quite far reaching.

Perhaps these corruption cases don't matter? A phenomenon that was already noticeable in the municipal elections of 2007 is that corruption scandals have no visible effect on the PP's voters. In 2007 some municipalities where the PP were heavily involved in scandals actually returned the people involved with even greater majorities than they had before.

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Prohibido Twittear

How about that for a new Spanish verb? South of Watford keeping up with the times. In one of my recent posts concerning the fake investigation into the great Madrid political spying scandal, I mentioned that one of the opposition members of the commission was intending to use Twitter to broadcast the proceedings. Well the commission finally got underway today, one month and some important elections after it was formed. So Reyes Montiel began using Twitter to keep the outside world informed; until the beginning of the afternoon session when she was told she could no longer do this. Not because it's against the rules, apart from the new one that the Aguirre appointee presiding the commission decided to invent for what is supposed to be a public hearing. I think this merits another round of Frequently Asked Questions!

Q. Is the commission where Twitter has been banned the same commission that Esperanza Aguirre promised would be conducted with maximum transparency?

A. Yes it is

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Madrid's Brigada Basura

I do make an effort to recycle much of my rubbish in Madrid, but it isn't always easy. This is not because we don't have recycling containers near to home, it's just that they are almost always full. A situation which this piece from El País suggests is very common. Not to worry, the Ayuntamiento of Madrid has a solution for this problem, and it won't surprise regular readers of this blog to discover that the solution in this case consists of fining those who lack the physical strength to create a space inside one of the overflowing containers. An army of 300 inspectors will be created to enforce the new rules in yet another attempt by the municipal government to increase their income so they can carry on paying the city's enormous debt.

It gets worse. Another part of the new regulations suggests that Madrid hopes to include the sport of harassing the homeless should they ever get awarded the Olympic Games. It states that those who go searching through rubbish or who take cardboard boxes or the like can be fined up to €750. Most of the people who do this are probably homeless and make use of what they find, the rest of us are still vainly attempting to recycle our own rubbish. Ana Botella, whose husband used to be famous for something or other, has declared that she refuses to live in a city where people have to behave in such a degrading way. We should take her at her word, because she and whatshisname live in suburban splendour outside of the city limits. She clearly doesn't pass down Madrid's Gran Via very often, although it's possible that the windows of her official car are shaded to such an extent that she is protected from the realities of the city she pretends to administer.

Monday, March 02, 2009

Behind The Numbers

Time for another post on the outcome of yesterday's elections in the Basque Country before I turn my attention to the pressing matter of rubbish collection in the Spanish capital. It seems that only a handful of votes are needed for the Basque socialists of the PSE to add another seat to their total, and that these could easily come from the still to be counted overseas vote. The importance of this is not that it will make the PSE the largest party, but it would mean that the combined representation of the PSE and the Partido Popular would have a majority in the regional parliament. This could at least free the PSE's candidate, Patxi Lopez, from the deadly embrace of UPyD (who have one seat), if not from that of the PP.

We have already had the first round of declarations from interested parties as the consequences of the new electoral arithmetic sink in. The PP has declared, unconvincingly, that it will provide "unconditional" support for Lopez to become Basque premier, or lehendakari. UPyD, on the other hand, has made it clear that it would use the leverage of having a deciding vote to impose the party's agenda on the new administration; despite only getting 2% of the total vote. It's interesting to reflect in these circumstances on whatever happened to the PP's insistence that the party with most votes should always be allowed to form the government, they were even promising to legislate on this. The nationalist PNV, on this interpretation, would be in pole position.

It's easily forgotten with all the talk of change that the ruling nationalist/Izquierda Unida alliance didn't have a majority in the last parliament either, to win crucial votes they depended on the support of the now illegalised Partido Comunista de las Tierras Vascas. It turns out that this time they have a more or less similar total of seats but the votes that went to the PCTV last time have ended up as spoiled ballots. There have been significant shifts of votes between parties, but the change in the overall balance is not as great as it appears. Food for thought for those who think that this election marks some kind of watershed for Basque politics.

The entry of UPyD into the Basque parliament has attracted much attention, but in reality their meagre total of 22,000 votes vindicates the decision last year of their leader, Rosa Diez, to abandon the Basque Country and make Madrid her political base. She would never have got near to her seat in the national parliament had she stood in the Basque Country. In the end the foot soldiers of the campaign to roll back regional autonomy in Spain tend to parade in front of the Prado rather than the Guggenheim. Largely because most of them (not to mention their generals) live within a few blocks of this location.

Who Will Run The Basque Country Now?

By far the most intriguing results of the elections held yesterday in Galicia and the Basque Country are those in the latter region. In Galicia, barring an overwhelming overseas vote against the PP it looks clear that this party has recovered control from the coalition between the PSOE and the nationalist BNG. Four years the change lasted for, now the region is back in the hands of those who regard it as their personal property, albeit with a younger generation nominally in charge.

In the Basque Country things are very different. The PSE, the Basque section of the PSOE, failed to become the biggest party but the ruling nationalists of the PNV are left without any hope of repeating the three party alliance that has governed for the last four years. Even adding the seats won by Aralar, they still cannot reach a majority. 39 seats are in the hands of the PSOE, the PP, Izquierda Unida and the new party UPyD, although the last two only have one seat each. This leaves only 36 for the nationalist parties. Now the question is whether the PSE and the PP will reach an agreement to govern together, with the extra seat for a majority having to come from IU or UPyD. The change in the Basque Country that so many PSOE militants yearned for comes with a high price, if they want to head the Basque government they must do it with the PP; barring what seems the unlikely possibility of the PSE forming a minority government on their own. After all the effort to make themselves look as much a Basque party as a Spanish one they are confronted with the decision of going for an anti Basque-nationalist coalition.

Aralar have confirmed the predictions of some polls and in the process have become the fourth biggest party. It's hard to say exactly where their votes came from, the other nationalist parties have lost votes and there is the unknown factor of how many former Batasuna voters decided not to spoil their ballots in protest, and instead voted for another nationalist option. I've seen a claim that the spoilt votes would have amounted to 7 seats in the Basque parliament. The PSE result looks more impressive than it really is, their vote hasn't increased by a huge amount, but the decline in the vote of the PNV and PP means that they have risen substantially in the number of seats won. Add to that the factor that their party at national level is governing in the midst of a serious recession and it looks like a good result, but one which leaves behind it some difficult politics with implications at national level. The PNV will have their own problems following this result, the internal tensions between the different factions could now spill over into a battle for control.

Just as a footnote it's worth pointing out that the weight of a vote in the Basque Country depends significantly on which province it is cast in. In case anyone thinks that this is because nationalist parties are overrepresented, a common misconception in Spain, it's actually the least nationalist province of Alava where the fewest votes are needed to elect a representative.