Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Javier Ortiz

I don't have much time for blogging this week, but I was saddened yesterday to read about the death of Javier Ortiz. I'd become a dedicated reader of his daily column in Spain's youngest daily newspaper, Público, although I'm aware that before this paper began he had a full life as a writer, journalist and political activist. Amongst many other things, he managed to write his own obituary; which you can read here. He wrote with an admirable clarity and directness, with no fear of tackling issues from a position which placed him against the mainstream. In addition he proved that it's possible to survive the El Mundo experience without having your intelligence slowly sucked away. Whilst so many of the mediocre journalists live to be 100, it seems that those of the kind we really need don't survive so long.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Whispered Sweet Nothings Amidst The Orange Groves

"Amiguito del alma", "sobre todo para decirte que te quiero un huevo", "Oye… que te sigo queriendo mucho", "quiero que nos veamos con tranquilidad para hablar de lo nuestro… que es muy bonito".

Just a small selection from the leaked telephone conversations that the police recorded between Valencian president Francisco Camps and Álvaro "El Bigotes" Pérez. The latter is one of the principal accused in Operación Gürtel and his company Orange Market is said to have done very nicely out of the contracts awarded by the Valencian Partido Popular. The transcript of these conversations has provoked a mixture of incredulity and hilarity. Camps had been pretending that there was no closeness between him and the people involved in the corruption scandal, but the conversations show how close to the inner circle Pérez had got.

Even though the case against Camps still consists only of him having received gifts of expensive suits, not a serious offence compared to the rest of the scandal, he is still being placed in a difficult situation by it. It's his own fault, he has produced no explanation or evidence concerning the payment for the suits in question and seems determined to bluff his way through with the hope of the case being heard by a sympathetic court. In addition he has enjoyed vocal support from PP leader Mariano Rajoy who has led with the odd defence that no serious regional president would ever sell himself for such a low price! Apart from telling us something about Rajoy's ethical baseline, this argument fails to convince; unless there is somewhere a published price list for what is needed to corrupt each level of the administration.

Camps future seemed quite bright a year ago, as he helped to maintain Rajoy in his position, thus giving himself time to improve his own chances of reaching the top. Now things are not so clear. He originally got his position in Valencia as the anointed successor of Eduardo Zaplana who believed he was going to Madrid with the Valencian PP still under his control. Camps betrayed Zaplana - couldn't happen to a nicer person - to take control of the regional PP himself. He achieved his aim but probably created enough enemies in the process to complicate life when little difficulties such as Gürtel start to erode his authority.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Spain At A Glance....Unemployment 2007-2009

Here's one that will be updated every quarter with the latest data from the Encuesta de Población Activa. 2007 saw the lowest unemployment figures in the last 30 years.

Moving the mouse over each bar shows the quarter to which it refers. The best figure was that from the second quarter of 2007. Truly frightening is the rate of increase from summer 2008 onwards. The Spanish government believed that the 4 million figure would never be hit, but now the question is whether it will reach 5 million before things start to improve. Bear in mind that even after the low point of the recession is reached, the economy needs to achieve an annual rate of growth of around 2% just for employment to stand still. In other words, it will get worse before it gets better. Amazing, given these figures, that there are people who believe the problem with the Spanish economy is that it is too difficult to fire people.

Charts code courtesy of

Thursday, April 23, 2009

The Good Old Days

Nice photo of José Maria and his old hippy friends from the past. This group, believe it or not, was the government of Spain in 1996! Now they claim that the beard on Aznar's left is their number one candidate for the European elections in June. Even more unbelievable, some say the beard on his right is the leader of the Partido Popular. Inocentes. The blonde woman smirking in the second row looks familar, but I can't put a name to the face.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Juan Muñoz In Madrid

It's taken a while to get here, but the exhibition dedicated to the work of Juan Muñoz that I saw last year at London's Tate Modern in London has finally made it to his home city. Starting this week, it runs at the Reina Sofia until the 31st August. I recommend it.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Banking On Early Retirement

The governor of the Banco de España, Miguel Ángel Fernández Ordóñez, is becoming a bit of a thorn in the Spanish government's side recently. It's not so long ago that he was publicly promoting that favourite employers "solution" for the economic crisis - making it cheaper to sack people. Last week he created a fresh stir by proclaiming that the public pension fund is in danger, and suggesting that the age of retirement should be raised. This provoked a quick reaction from members of the Spanish government, who accused him of causing unnecessary alarm amongst pensioners, although in reality those who have most cause to be alarmed at this prospect are the people who are still working.

Now there is of course a mathematical calculation that needs to be done to deal with the future effects of demographic changes and the fact that the retired are living longer than they used to. What's open to question is whether the governor's words were motivated by genuine concern about public pensions. Bankers have a vested interest in ending state pension schemes, a decent state pension doesn't help them to sell their own private pensions and reports from banks on the viability of state schemes tend to constantly underestimate trends on income from social security contributions. Also, you can almost guarantee that the most fervent supporters of reducing pension provision for the great majority are those who have "other arrangements", the governer of the Banco de España is unlikely to be worried about his last 15 years of social security contributions. One of the best comments I have seen on the issue is that reported by Ramon Lobo from a taxi driver - to the effect that we'll have people working on scaffolding at the age of 67 so that the bankers can retire at 50. I thought all taxi drivers listened to La Cope, I take back some of what I've said about them.

Spain's social security fund has actually been doing very well in recent years, at least up until the crisis hit. One of the things which helped, much criticized at the time, has been the regularization process carried out that enabled many previously illegal immigrants to have proper contracts and pay social security contributions. Of course there were those who preferred to have these immigrants available as a pool of cheap labour for employees who don't want to pay their contributions or issue contracts, but the effect of the process was to give the social security fund a very significant boost. State pension schemes usually get wrecked by governments that have other priorities, the public pension in Britain has not been reduced to a pittance because the country can't afford it. The objective was to try and move people to private provision for ideological reasons, just as happened with the massive fraud involving those who were persuaded to surrender decent occupational pensions for vastly inferior private schemes. Of course when there is a need to occupy countries on the other side of earth or buy another set of nuclear missiles to replace the rusty ones then huge sums of money miraculously become available. Crack down seriously on massive tax avoidance by the wealthy and other millions will also appear.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

El Atún Encebollao Y El Toro Embolao

The, always well deserved, South of Watford Easter break this year was spent in Cadiz, exploring a part of Spain’s southern coastline that has so far escaped the worst ravages of the construction boom. We stayed just by the beach of Bolonia, a long, beautiful stretch of sand with barely enough construction to even qualify it as a village.

Despite the low population, people have lived in this part of the world for a long time. Bolonia has its own Roman ruins just beside the beach, the site of Baelo Claudia; still presided over by this statue of the “Spanish” emperor Trajan.

At one end of the beach there is a vast, and seemingly unstoppable, sand dune.

Walking over the other side of the dune in search of a way through to the next beach we came across another reason why this area is still relatively undeveloped; much of the land belongs to the military. Eventually we found our way around the signs prohibiting entry to get to the lighthouse of Punta Camarinal, the gully of a dried up stream bed connects through to there from Bolonia.

One of the other reasons why development has not overwhelmed this area is that this is still the Atlantic, the sea is colder and rougher here than on the other side of the Strait of Gibraltar. On day 2 we took what turned out in retrospect out to be a rash decision; to walk from Bolonia to Spain’s most southerly point at Tarifa. The first few kilometres were fine, walking mostly on the wild beach and occasionally just above it we got round to the next beach and Tarifa came into sight in the distance. Tarifa is a paradise for kite and wind surfers, and we were obviously there on a good day for it.

Walking down Tarifa’s beach was like walking through a vast encampment of kite surfers, I felt completely out of place because I wasn’t dragging a huge kite against the wind. Half way down the beach the town still didn’t seem to be getting any closer and we decided at the 15 km mark that perhaps we could leave seeing Tarifa for another day. The walk back was more difficult, we were walking into the wind and the tide was in, meaning that the beach in some areas had almost disappeared. The decision had been made, and we had to deal with the consequences; but I couldn’t help feeling envious of all those who had just found a quiet spot on the beach hidden from the wind. Anyway, we earned our pre-dinner beer in the chiringuito back at Bolonia. Later for dinner we tried the local speciality in this part of the world (at least while stocks last), atún encebollao. As we found out in the resturant, not only can the tuna be "encebollao", but also "entomatao"!

Day 3 saw us leave the coast to go to another protected area, the Parque Natural Los Alcornocales. This is an impressive cork tree forest that extends far inland from the coast near to Tarifa.

In theory you need to have a permit to enter the park, we’d applied for one but got no response and the people in the information office more or less acknowledged that the system doesn’t seem to be working. We opted for a 500 metre ascent up to the peak of El Picacho. This is not a long route, it can be done quite easily in a couple of hours. The area is beautiful at this time of year before the heat of summer dries out much of the vegetation, and the views from the top are worth it.

Leaving the hills behind we went down to Tarifa the easy way, by road. Frankly, I don’t know why we bothered, the town itself is a bit of a neglected dump and we were very glad we had taken the decision to stay in Bolonia rather than here. On the other hand, you get very fine views of Africa from Tarifa.

For our last day before heading back home we went to visit the village of Vejer de la Frontera. We imagined a quiet Sunday morning stroll around a peaceful Andalucian village, what we got was a bit different. It seems that Easter Sunday in Vejer is celebrated with the “toro embolao”, a bull run through the narrow streets of the centre. Half of the villagers were already a little unsteady on their feet due to the bars doing such good business on a festive day, and to get anywhere we had to squeeze through the bars of the gates that had been set up at intervals to close off the running space. A quick walk around the old part and we decided to leave before the action began, I don’t think this is one of those events where they set the bull’s horns on fire but I didn’t really feel like staying to find out. It's a nice village, but this wasn't the day.

Let’s get together and have a battle….the Cabo de Trafalgar.

Our trip ended down by the sea in Conil de la Frontera, which was another pleasant surprise. Although the village has obviously expanded in size in recent years it’s still quite small and has a huge beach stretching all the way back up to Trafalgar. We’ve been told by people who know that in summer it’s almost insufferably crowded, not a problem at Easter. Even though the weather wasn’t as good as it could have been we didn’t do too badly compared to other parts of the country, and life felt good as we ate our lunch in the warm spring sunshine before returning to colder realities.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Aguirre Versus El Pardo

With the war for control of Caja Madrid temporarily sidelined following the intervention of the national government, Madrid's presidenta has been urgently seeking new ways of making life difficult for the city's mayor Alberto Ruiz Gallardón. There is every chance that Gallardon's administration is going to end up in court charged with an environmental crime following the removal of some trees from the Calle Serrano. Nobody knows exactly how many trees were cut as part of a plan to reform the street that is apparently now the most expensive in Spain, ahead of Barcelona's Paseo de Gracia. Expensive for snobbish rather than aesthetic reasons, the street is obviously even less pleasing to the eye without the trees, but the scale of this latest atrocity pales in comparison with the tree massacre that was perpetrated in what should now be known as the Manzanares Dustbowl. Nevertheless, Esperanza Aguirre has seized the opportunity to poke Gallardón in the eye, and the Guardia Civil's environmental unit have been sent down to the crime scene to count the victims and do some shopping.

It would be very unwise to assume that Aguirre has become an ecologist, and even unwiser to imagine that she applies the same sort of strict environmental criteria to her own projects. Leading by example is not the Lideresa's way. Her latest grand plan is to bore a traffic tunnel through the previously protected space of El Pardo, just a few kilometres outside of the city. Sadly, it seems that the national government is giving its consent to this destructive and unnecessary plan. The project was unblocked at a meeting between Aguirre and Jose Blanco, the new minister of Fomento. One consequence of this seems to be that the regional PSOE in Madrid is now dropping its previous fierce opposition to the project. Despite this, there should still be vociferous opposition to the scheme from those who value the role that El Pardo and the Casa de Campo play in preventing the spread of concrete over the entire region.

Nobody expects the Comunidad to carry out a serious environmental impact study. Aguirre's scheme to widen and straighten the M-501 to the west of Madrid was supposed to have been halted whilst the European Union dealt with the environmental implications of it. Whilst Brussels was under the impression that work had stopped, Aguirre had in fact given orders to speed it up! By the time the EU cottoned on to what was happening the job was more or less done and the punishment for her defiance was, unsurprisingly, nothing. Many suspected that the main motive behind the work on the M-501 was to boost the potential of the area it passes through for construction interests. For the moment, the crisis is taking care of the countryside. Another of Aguirre's contributions to protecting the environment is her proposal to build a new private airport near to a place called El Alamo. Davy Crockett was unavailable for comment at the time of writing. Perhaps the best solution will be to chain Espe to one of the few remaining trees on Serrano, so that she can defy Gallardon's chainsaws down to the last limb.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

The Gospel According To Losantos

Difficult times over at the COPE, the Spanish radio station owned by the Catholic Church. After a couple of years of rumours about his imminent departure, it does now seem that the Reverend Federico Jiménez Losantos is about to part company with the COPE. It appears that even the bishops have finally had enough of the daily dose of insults and conspiracy theories, the fact that Losantos has recently turned more of his fire on the Partido Popular rather than on the sinners and unbelievers probably hasn’t assisted his cause.

Rather than just sack him directly, the COPE have offered Losantos a move from his prime time morning slot to a less popular evening programme which he would have to share with his big friend Cesar Vidal. Difficult though it would be for this Little and Large of the loony right to share a cramped studio, the offer clearly doesn’t take into account the size of Federico’s ego. Losantos has presented himself recently in his morning sermons as the man who saved La Cope from destruction. The lost army of anonymous commenters who endlessly roam the plains of Castilla y Leon will no doubt be out and about ensuring that we hear of his "legion" of admirers. Some of the more fanatical have even gone a bit too far for the Reverend himself, with threats to withhold their contribution to the church on their tax declarations. However, what becomes clear above all is that the number one fan of Losantos is Federico himself.

So far the man beneficiaries of the tussle look like being the lawyers, as Losantos attempts to extract whatever he can in return for surrendering his contract. We don’t know yet whether Vidal will join him in abandoning the ship. The latter is a prolific author, and has definitively overturned the maxim that quality should come before quantity, he seems to produce a new book on something every week. The proposed replacement for Losantos, Ignacio Villa, has clearly taken all the Libertad Digital dog eat dog, everyone for themselves, philosophy a bit too seriously for the liking of Federico, and has now been frozen out of the inner circle as a result of being tempted by the offer from the COPE

Not to worry. Losantos, after so long spent praying at the shrine of Santa Espe de Mumbai, has received his just reward. In the knick of time the heavens have opened and a radio frequency for the holy city of Madrid has fallen into the hands of Losantos and his other good friend Pedro Jota Ramirez. Whilst some believe that Fede has been cast out into the wilderness because of his decision to place PP leader Mariano Rajoy in the nationalist/terrorist/socialist camp, there are those who argue that setting up a rival radio network to that of your current employer doesn't necessarily help your future employment prospects. The heretics will soon be harangued from a new pulpit; at least once the lawyers have finished having their say.

Sunday, April 12, 2009


Cuenca is the third largest city in Ecuador, behind Quito and Guayaquil. The historical centre is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and Cuenca is not far behind Quito in terms of its colonial architecture. It's a busy city, and the traffic can be a bit overwhelming at times, but despite this is not a bad place to stop over for a couple of nights. Like Cuenca in Spain, the city got its name from being located in a river basin. Most of the water flowing down this way comes from the nearby Cajas national park, which we didn't have time to explore. The river flowing around the old city can be a pleasant place to walk on the city side - the other side seems to have become the main ring road. There are even some Casas Colgadas - not quite as impressive as those of the Spanish Cuenca.

The centre of the city has some beautiful streets and squares, and it is a good place for wandering around the narrow cobbled streets and seeing what you discover.

In contrast to Quito the old part of the city does have plenty of places to eat and drink in the evening, although the biggest concentration is to be found a few blocks outside of the heart of the city on the Calle Larga. Maybe at weekends this area is full of people, but we found it very quiet; although some of the restaurants and bars are very nice.

Other attractions include the Museo del Banco Central, which hosts a mixed collection of archaeological exhibits along with colonial art and ethnographic sections. The museum also occupies the site of part of the old Inca city of Pumapungo, but to be honest there is not a lot left to see.

Cuenca also claims to be the home of the Panama hat, and there are plenty of places offering hats for sale at all prices, depending on how finely made they are. I went for one at the lower end of the price range, we were heading to the Galapagos after Cuenca and I needed a good sun hat. It did its job very well and even survived intact the trip back home to Spain.

Thursday, April 09, 2009

Trajes Para Todos....The Musical

You won't see much happening on this blog in the next 2 or 3 days, I'm off in search of the legendary atún encebollao. In the meantime, while Francisco Camps is still looking for that elusive receipt that he left in the pocket of one of those elegant suits, I leave you with the last word on the whole affair.

Via NetoRatón 3.0

Wednesday, April 08, 2009

Change Is On The Way In The Basque Country

Barring unexpected events, the beginning of May should see political change in the Basque Country. The PSOE’s Basque section (PSE) and the Partido Popular have reached an agreement which will mean the PP will support the election of the PSE’s candidate, Patxi López, as Basque president. The first consequence of the agreement was the election last week of the new president of the regional parliament, the PP’s Arantza Quiroga. The agreement between the two parties, who have a one seat majority in the Basque parliament, is not for a coalition government. López intends to form a minority administration, but unless he can persuade the PNV to take a friendlier attitude at some point then he is always going to have to rely on the PP to win any vote.

It seems amazing that a party can finish in third place and lose 30% of its vote, as the PP did in last months election, yet still be regarded as the victor. It has emerged from the election as the party that holds the key to power for Patxi López. This prospect has got many on the right very excited, as they see the possibilities of the PP playing puppet master with a weak government in the Basque Country at the same time as the national PSOE led administration finds itself with less support. It remains to be seen whether the interruption in PNV hegemony will last even a full parliament, even though the PP has pledged that it will not support a vote of censure against López during the next 4 years. Given that some commentators see the results last month as meaning that the nationalist tide has peaked, it’s worth pointing out that the parliamentary arithmetic is not a direct reflection of the votes cast. The combination of the votes received by the PSE and the PP doesn’t exceed 45% of the total cast, even less if you included those spoiled votes cast as a protest over the illegalisation of parties linked to Batasuna.

The nationalist parties will now seek to present the new government as an anti-Basque front directed from Madrid. López would find it much easier to resist such an image were he not so dependent on the PP’s support. Ironically, a government led by the PSE may lead to a notable increase in the powers of the Basque government. There is a long list of functions due to be ceded by the national government under the terms of the Basque autonomy statute. This process has been more or less halted in the last few years, but López will hope to unlock the door on the issue. Apart from that, and removing many of the PNV’s nominees from their comfortable positions in organisations depending on the regional government, it’s hard to see what other distinctive policy moves can be made in such a restrictive political space.

The PNV does behave as if the Basque Country was its possession, and a period in opposition will do them no harm. They are also a party which has shown no hesitation in forming alliances with non-nationalist parties when it suited them, including the agreement with the PP enabling that party to form its first government in 1996. Nevertheless, they have wasted no time in demonstrating their displeasure at the prospect of losing power, and are using their votes in the national parliament to make life as uncomfortable as possible for Zapatero’s government. With the PNV having withdrawn their support at national level, the government will need to look even more than ever towards Cataluña for the support it needs to guarantee a majority. That’s not an easy option with the still unresolved financing deal for that region continuing to cause political problems. Not to mention the spectre of the eternal deliberations of the Constitutional Court on Cataluña’s now not so new autonomy statute.

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

The Sting In The Tail Of Operación Gürtel

Baltasar Garzón finished his part of the investigation into the Operación Gürtel corruption case with accusations that raised even further the potential impact of the case. Both the Partido Popular national treasurer, Luis Bárcenas, and a PP member of the European Parliament, Gerardo Galeote, are accused by Garzón of having received huge commissions from the companies involved in the corruption ring. The case against these two is now in the hands of the prosecution service, who must decide whether it goes to the Supreme Court. This tribunal is generally regarded as being a bit less open to political influence than its regional equivalents in Madrid or Valencia who are currently dealing with the other accusations made by Garzón.

Bárcenas in particular has reacted very strongly to the accusations and claims that he can prove that all of his assets were acquired legally. He has to react this way, as the treasurer of the party an accusation against him inevitably touches the national PP leadership. There is said to be great discomfort in sectors of the PP about him remaining in such a prominent position whilst under the cloud of suspicion, but for the moment the party leader Mariano Rajoy is defending him. It makes it worse for him that he clearly belongs to the wrong faction in the PP for El Mundo's liking - meaning that they have also given substantial coverage to the charges against him as well as that carried in papers such as El País.

Meanwhile, we have had another example to delight fans of judicial independence. The head of the Madrid Supreme Court was found to have had a lunch with Francisco Granados, who is more or less number three in Esperanza Aguirre's so-called administration. It has been acknowledged that one of the topics discussed during this lunch was Gürtel. The PP insists that this situation is not the same as the now infamous hunting trip involving Garzón and former justice minister Mariano Bermejo. They are right, it isn't the same - it's significantly worse. In the Madrid case we have the general secretary of the Madrid PP (Granados) having a private lunch with the head of the court that may shortly be dealing with serious corruption charges against three close political colleagues of the general secretary. That's not so much blurring the line of the separation of powers; it's more a question of using it as a doormat at the entrance to the fine restaurant where the lunch took place. The defence that this was just a routine "working lunch" will of course be easier to assess when they produce the minutes of the meeting. Maybe they could staple a copy of the bill to the back of that document so that we can also tell how hard they worked.

Monday, April 06, 2009

Una Crisis De Gobierno

It's a funny thing, language. What we call in the UK a "reshuffle" is always called a "crisis" in Spain. Even if the only reason for changing the members of your government is that you can't stand their faces any more, it's still a crisis de gobierno. According to virtually all the major papers in Spain, we are going to see that crisis this week, in the middle of Semana Santa. The general view seems to be that Zapatero has decided he needs to bring forward the remodelling of his government to refresh it's image before the European elections in June and before the warm glow of the Obama Moment fades from public memory. The publication of an opinion poll showing the Partido Popular edging ahead could also be an additional motivation.

The rumours, which is all they are at the moment, suggest that Pedro Solbes is on his way out as finance minister to be replaced by Elena Salgado - currently in charge of public administration. No surprise if it happens, Solbes himself has made comments recently that suggest he has had enough. Another suggested change is that José Blanco will join the government for the first time as the minister of public works, displacing the not very well regarded Magdalena Alvarez in a big spending ministry. Blanco has done several years as the organisational boss in the PSOE, usually being the one who delivers the hard hitting direct political attacks that Zapatero generally avoids. The most surprising rumour has long standing Andalucian president Manuel Chaves joining the government as a vice president responsible for relations with the regional autonomous comunidades. If true it would be a curious way of managing the succession in Andalucia after so many years.

We'll see. Despite the unanimity amongst the press, it's a curious time to make such a move with so many Spaniards on holiday anyway. Also, it distracts press attention at the very moment when Zapatero is strutting the international stage in a big way and is out of the country. There has been a general expectation that there would be significant changes in the government at some point before next year, and a defeat in the European Parliament elections in June was identified as being the most likely moment to do it, presenting a fresher lineup for the second half of the parliament. We should know how true the rumours are by Wednesday if not before.

Obama And Zapatero....Brothers In Arms

Finally, it happened. The meeting in Prague yesterday between Spanish Prime Minister Zapatero and Barack Obama sealed the restoration of good relations between the Spanish and US governments. The meeting came in the middle of a whirlwind of summits surrounding Obama’s visit to Europe. First we had the G-20, then NATO, then the US-EU summit. Not forgetting Zapatero’s 20000 kilometre round trip to Chile last weekend so that he could be photographed taking a walk by the beach with Joe Biden. So as we emerge into the bright new dawn following the G-20’s decision to end the crisis, let’s take stock on Spain’s own version of the special relationship.

It didn’t look too good a couple of weeks ago, as the poorly handled announcement of Spain’s withdrawal of troops from Kosovo threatened to cast a shadow over cooperation between Obama and Zapatero. As I suspected at the time, there has been a price to pay for putting that right, and this price will be paid in whatever currency Afghanistan uses these days (dollars?). Spain has agreed to send an additional battalion of troops to Afghanistan as part of the US government’s recent discovery that there is still a war going on there. The reinforcement is only temporary, you understand, and it has been described as a “mini-battalion”. Despite this, it represents a significant change of posture for the Spanish government who had rejected all previous efforts made to get them to increase the Spanish contingent. Temporary can be a difficult word to use in the context of Afghanistan.

Ignacio Escolar has written an interesting piece on the issue of US-Spanish relations. He describes the failed efforts of Aznar’s administration to achieve membership of the G-8. The response by the Bush administration was that there was no reason for Spain to belong to the club if they never proposed anything. Although on that basis we could probably justify the abolition of the G-8. What’s wrong with getting together for a convivial lunch in a different country every year? Anyway, it seems that the moustachioed crusader didn’t lose heart at the rebuff and simply decided that the way to get an invite to the party was to support everything the Bush administration proposed. Cue the Azores, and Aznar grinning for the cameras as war was declared. The undoing of Aznar’s disastrous policy following 11-M and the change of government led to Spain being left out in the cold for the rest of Bush’s term; a situation which seems to have done the country more good than harm. Now that the damage has been repaired, perhaps we can now look forward to Obama visiting Spain and the remake of that classic Spanish film “Bienvenido Mister Marshall”?

Sunday, April 05, 2009


At the end of our train journey to El Nariz del Diablo we got on a bus that was heading for Ecuador's third city, Cuenca. Towards the end of the train ride the weather had already started to deteriorate, the clouds had descended and it was raining steadily. The bus made its way through what may well have been a very spectacular mountain landscape, we couldn't tell because visibility never seemed to go beyond about 50-60 metres either side of the road. One of the few things we could see were the signs by the road side exhorting us to enjoy the Andean landscape. We weren't going all the way to Cuenca, at least not yet, and we left the bus at a small town called El Tambo.

Our destination was Ingapirca, Ecuador's only significant archaeological site from the period of the Inca empire. It only took a few minutes to find a bus that was heading for the village by the site, but as we set off up a rough mountain road I couldn't help wondering whether we were doing the right thing. Higher up the mist seemed to be even thicker, the rain didn't let up and the prospect of spending the night in this area wasn't very appealing. On arrival at the village we got off the bus to find ourselves facing two small hostels. Which one would it be? After a moment's hesitation we started with the one on the left. As we walked in, a door opened and the owner’s young daughter turned back and shouted "Extranjeros!". Her mother, a tiny indigenous woman, came out to greet us and confirmed what we already suspected; there was no problem with availability of rooms on this gloomy, wet day in Ingapirca.

The accommodation was simple but comfortable enough, and cheap. Once we had put our bags in the room it was time for a walk around the village in the rain, the dark and the mist. The village may not be very big but in these conditions it's almost possible to get lost. We ate in our hostel and had an early night; this is not a place with much nightlife.

By the morning things had brightened up a bit, which is not to say the weather was great; but it wasn't raining any more and we could get a good look at our surroundings for the first time since we arrived. Breakfast consisted of bread, cheese and one of the sweetest cups of coffee I have ever tasted. Then it was off to take a look at the site, located just a couple of hundred metres away from the village itself.

We got there slightly early; they weren't quite ready at the ticket office and were obviously taken aback by having visitors so soon. I don't know if this site ever gets crowded, but we beat everyone to it. Without the clouds making everything invisible it was possible to see that the location is quite impressive. Ingapirca was a significant site for the local Cañari people before the Inca period of domination began. The Incas took it over as their own, changing the focus of worship from the moon to the sun, and Ingapirca now lies on what is known as the Inca Trail. Machu Picchu it isn't, anyone who arrives here expecting something that magnificent will inevitably be disappointed.

Most of what survives is basically the foundations of storehouses and other buildings. The exception to this is the central "castillo", which has survived better with the assistance of some restoration work.

It doesn't take long to see everything, including the museum and the Inca face sculpted into the rocks a few minutes walk from the main site.

I enjoyed the visit, after the unpromising start I decided it was worth it; although I wouldn't suggest to anyone that they need to go out of their way too much to see it. It's possible to visit Ingapirca in a single day from Cuenca, without the overnight stopover, but if you're passing down this way from Riobamba then it makes more sense to stop and see it before continuing further down the Panamerican. With our early start we had time to see the site, get the bus down to the small town of Cañar, and catch another bus that got us into Cuenca by lunchtime.

Saturday, April 04, 2009

Full Employment

Perhaps one of the reasons why unemployment in Spain is so high is because the members of the country’s parliament take up such a high proportion of the available jobs. It was revealed a couple of weeks ago that only 100 of the 350 diputados in the Spanish Congreso had not declared other sources of income. Now you might have thought that it was in the public interest for everyone to know about the activities of their elected representatives. Not so, the Congreso dealt with the report on the issue behind closed doors, the people have no right to know. Many of those with activities supplementing their day job are just earning a bit extra from appearing on talk show panels or giving conferences. However, there are others who have a very busy schedule which rarely allows them time to appear inside the Congreso.

The Partido Popular recently tried to crack down on the chronic absenteeism amongst their foot soldiers who had more or less given up entirely, except when it came to drawing the salary. A couple of the cases recently approved show just how easy it is for members to bend the rules on what is compatible with their role. José Maria Michavila, who made it as far as justice minister under Aznar, works with a very busy firm of lawyers. Parliamentary rules forbid members from working for public administrations, and Michavila’s company has many such contracts; so he declares himself only to have an “advisory” role. Meanwhile another ex-minister Angel Acebes got a very comfortable position with Caja Madrid, thanks to the lobbying of Esperanza Aguirre. Again this should not be permitted, but as Acebes is being paid by a semi-private subsidiary of the caja then all is apparently ok.

The argument used by many politicians to justify this situation is that the parliamentarians are people of talent who would not dedicate their lives to the greater good if they were not allowed to boost their meagre salary. The problem is that ability often has little to do with their presence in the national parliament. Closed party lists in Spain mean that only the loyal get higher positions on the list for elections. This helps to explain why the Congreso de Diputados appears to have so little to do, there is very little genuine debate and most of the members only appear for votes. Outside of the front bench teams the majority are almost entirely anonymous. The pressure is on a bit more at the moment, with Zapatero’s administration struggling to win votes following their fall out with the Basque nationalists every vote counts and members who don’t show up could get themselves into trouble with their party. Such a shame, when they have so many better things to do.

The G-20 New English Dictionary

tr.v. re·in·vent·ed, re·in·vent·ing, re·in·vents

1. To talk and eat a lot. Usage: "Let's have lunch first, then we can reinvent capitalism. After that it should be dinner time".

2. To tinker with something without really changing anything. Usage: "You name a tax haven, I name one, we think of a very big number and then we've reinvented capitalism!"

3. To ignore the existence of poor people. Usage: "Why reinvent capitalism if the system is fundamentally sound?"

The impressively long list of tax havens can be found here.

Thursday, April 02, 2009

The Leader Of The Pack

It's official, Madrid is number one. By a long way too. It seems that the Spanish capital is easily the most indebted city in Spain, over 20% of the national total of municipal debt is ours. That's €6.683.943.000 to put it in not so round figures, and works out at a bargain €2080 per inhabitant. No wonder the banks are in trouble. So eat your heart out Barcelona with your pathetic €770 million. Not to mention the johnny come lately of Valencia or Zaragoza with their yacht races and Expo's - way behind on €801 and €690 million respectively. I can't say it often enough, tunnels are where the go ahead 21st century Spanish city puts its money! By the way, can anyone lend me a few thousand euros? I'll pay it back....honest.

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

Esperanza Aguirre Resigns

It's just been announced this evening that Esperanza Aguirre has resigned as President of the regional government of Madrid. Amazingly, she is abandoning political life completely and intends to enter a cloistered convent in the next few weeks. "It's the corruption and the nastiness of political life that I just can't take any more" she is reported as saying. "That, and having to spy on my colleagues all of the time". She attributes the discovery of her religious vocation to her miraculous escape from the Taj hotel in Bombay when it was attacked by terrorists last year. "I felt a hand lift me from that place and the next thing I knew I was on a plane flying home. I had been called, nobody else got that treatment did they?". Aguirre has said that she now intends to dedicate the rest of her life to "silent contemplation".

The first political reactions are already in. Partido Popular leader Mariano Rajoy has said how sorry he will be to lose her, and that he will happily accompany her to the door of the convent and even hold it open until she is completely inside. "Now we can get on with dealing with the problems that really affect the Spanish people" said Mariano. Her colleagues at the regional government headquarters in Madrid's Puerta del Sol are already said to have divided up anything of value in Espe's office between their friends and families. At least one Madrid based blogger is said to be completely distraught at the news. "Now what will I write about?", he wailed.