Sunday, May 31, 2009

Six Routes In Ponga And The Picos De Europa

Tell most Spanish people that you are going to spend a holiday weekend in Ponga and the chances are that you'll get the kind of look that says "just what is this idiot guiri trying to tell me now". Yet the Parque Natural de Ponga lies just beside the much better known Picos de Europa. We went there for the May 1st puente, to do a weekend of walking in fantastic surroundings. Ponga still seems to be living in another age, with tiny villages located in what were once almost inaccessible river gorges. The terrain justifies the description "complicated", and as with much of Asturias the differences in altitude between the valleys and the surrounding peaks are impressive. A tough place to live, and the area has traditionally been one of emigration.

Our base for the weekend was the small town of Cangas de Onis, which I liked a lot although the number of shops selling regional products suggests that in summer it can be a lot more crowded. Try some of the local cheeses, it's not just cabrales country. A perfect way to relax in Cangas after a hard days walking is to head down to the terraza by the roman bridge and order a bottle of cider. The food in the restaurants is good, filling and reasonably priced. Given the proximity to the Picos, I've included the routes we did on the map I prepared in 2007 of routes in the Picos de Europa. At this rate I only need another couple of hundred years to have the area well and truly mapped. Click on each route on the map for a description.

View Routes in the Picos de Europa and Ponga

Day 1 was a relatively gentle route known as Las Hoces del Río Pendón. It's a circular route starting from the well known mineral water spring of Fuensanta. Just us, the cows, and the Picos de Europa in the distance.

Day 2 was tougher, although with all of these routes it's always possible to do part of it and return. The weather was amazingly good, not least because it had rained solidly for the two days prior to our arrival. The views all along the route are spectacular, and for those who find an 1100 metre ascent insufficient, there is always the option of continuing up to Pico Tiatordos.

Day 3 was another simpler route, along the valley of the River Cormenero. We returned to Madrid following the road down from where this route finishes. This road takes you through some of the best scenery of the Picos, including the area round Riaño.

Friday, May 29, 2009

A Chronicle Of Incompetence....The Yak-42

On the 26th May 2003 a Yakovlev Yak-42 plane carrying 62 Spanish soldiers crashed near the Turkish city of Trabzon. All of the soldiers, who were returning from a mission in Afghanistan, as well as all of the crew died in the accident. The dead soldiers were of course given a solemn state funeral just two days after the accident in the presence of the King of Spain and the prime minister at the time, José Maria Aznar. Much was said about the sacrifice they had made in serving their country.

In the immediate aftermath of the accident much of the attention was focused on the lamentable condition of the plane used to fly these soldiers home, and the nature of the contracts which were signed for transport of troops on missions overseas. Worse was to come, much worse. Months after the accident it was revealed that almost half of those who died were wrongly identified, and that the remains handed over to many of the families of the victims were not those of their loved ones. Some of these families subsequently began a long and difficult campaign to find out what had really happened in the immediate aftermath of the accident.

The campaign was not welcomed, either by the politicians or by the higher echelons of the military. The judges weren't much help either, as the earliest attempts to take the issue through the courts were brushed aside. The arrogance of the response by the authorities only added to the tremendous hurt already felt by those who sought the truth about what had happened. A chain of evasion of responsibility began, starting with the then Minister of Defence, Federico Trillo, who blamed subordinates for the errors. Those subordinates in turn blamed the Turks, there wasn't much concept of military valour in the responses received by the families. Eventually the pressure of the campaign led to the bodies being exhumed and correctly identified, and to the courts finally getting involved.

It emerged that senior military officers sent to organise the recovery of the victims had signed a document in Turkey acknowledging that 30 bodies had not been correctly identified. Only after the judge Grande-Marlaska had been ordered by a higher court to carry out a proper investigation was the path cleared for at least some of those responsible for the handling of the issue to face legal consequences. The officers responsible for organising the return of the bodies were charged with falsifying documentation as none of the formal requirements for repatriation of the dead had been correctly followed.

The trial finished last week and three of those accused were found guilty. The trial itself became a battleground over the attempts to get to the bottom of just why the officers involved were in such a hurry to repatriate the victims of the crash. Despite a widespread suspicion that political pressure was on to hold a quick funeral, the trial judge rejected all attempts to get the politicians involved to give their account. Neither did he seem willing to permit evidence from the Turkish pathologists, only after the families of the victims arranged for these witnesses to travel to Spain did he finally give way. The Turkish evidence was crucial to the case.

There are still unanswered questions about this case, many of them concerning the political responsibilities. Federico Trillo continues to occupy a senior position in the Partido Popular, despite his disgraceful handling of the issue. The man who was happy for anyone except himself to get the blame was quoted after the trial as saying how sorry he was to see his subordinates convicted. The politicans, the military and much of the judicial system would happily have buried this uncomfortable case. It is a tribute to the determination of the families, treated so contemptuously by the accused and their political masters, that we now know as much as we do.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

The Ghosts Of Telemadrid

Telemadrid, misinforming the Spanish capital since 2003, has been having some industrial relations problems recently. There have been a number of 24 hour strikes which have taken the channel off the air, leading to no appreciable decline in programming quality. Distressingly, and I think I've mentioned this before, even when the channel shows nothing more than a blank screen it continues to register a share of the viewing audience. This leaves us with the conclusion that some viewers have perhaps been left paralysed by repeated uncontrolled exposure to images of the Lideresa's activities, and are no longer able to operate the remote control. The current dispute is over plans to sack some of the workforce. There are employees of the channel who have effectively been left without work for some time because of their unwillingness to bow to the political manipulation of Telemadrid's programming. The campaign against these sackings has now taken an imaginative turn, as you will be able to see from these video extracts. The second one is particularly good, as the presenter struggles to explain the reasons for the interruption of coverage.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

European Elections 2009....Has Anyone Noticed?

With the European Parliament elections just around the corner, there is plenty of activity on the part of the political parties in Spain. The only question is how much of this is going to reach a not very enthusiastic electorate. Aware that their voters may be more likely to stay at home than those of the Partido Popular, the PSOE have opted for trying to scare their supporters to the polls. This was their campaign video from last week:

Some polls show the PSOE almost neck and neck with the PP, after the pollsters have made their adjustments - on direct intention of vote the PSOE is usually some way ahead. All of this is a bit worrying for the government as it puts them in danger of losing their best asset....Mariano Rajoy! I still think the PP will win, just because of the greater motivation of their electorate, but Rajoy really needs to get momentum from a resounding victory. Too close a result may just open up the PP's internal divisions again. After all, Rajoy's strategy of relying on the economic crisis to erode support for the government may not be quite so effective if it really does turn out that the worst of the recession has passed. He really needs those unemployment figures to keep making dramatic upward leaps. The PP's candidate, Jaime Mayor Oreja, seems to have forgotten his differences with Mariano in return for being allowed to continue his gilded pre-retirement in Brussels and Strasbourg. Some were surprised that Rajoy allowed him to continue as candidate but it does permit the PP to appeal to their more ultra disillusioned supporters who were being attracted by the nationalist tub thumping of UPyD.

The general expectation is that apathy will win, with a continuation of the trend of ever lower participation in these elections. This will be followed by the ritual couple of weeks of hand wringing about the distance between the voters and the European project, then everything will return to normal. In some ways it's a pity, because the European Parliament is now a force for change, and often not for the better. It seems to have become a place where measures which governments don't really want to present themselves can be quietly passed with hardly anyone noticing. A lobbyists dream, as hardly anyone is aware of what is going on and how their representatives are voting. The recent attempts to legislate on Internet and downloading were a clear indication of how industry lobbies can exercise their influence without it being quite so obvious. Unless it's an issue that really mobilises people to make a noise they can get away with it.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Madrid Is Built On Dodgy Foundations

Esperanza Aguirre has every reason to feel aggrieved at the amount of attention currently dedicated to her Valencian counterpart, Francisco "Yes we Camps" (nickname courtesy of F.Gonzalez). The man known to the leaders of the Gürtel corruption ring as "El Curita" is grabbing headlines all over the place whilst Espe just has to snarl and bear it. Never mind, because help is at hand as yet another Madrid scandal appears.

When Operación Gürtel first emerged from the smelly swamp I noted that the names of some of the companies involved seemed to somehow fit the activities that they were dedicated to. Names like "Easy Concept" and "Good and Better" seemed so appropriate for those who had so few problems in winning contract after contract in Madrid and Valencia. The winner, however, has to be the foundation set up by the Partido Popular in Madrid to organise what can politely be described as a bit of "parallel financing" for the party. It's called Fundescam.

This foundation appears to have had no other activity than that of raising funds for PP electoral campaigns, most notably the two campaigns for the presidency of Madrid fought in 2003. Some of the very benevolent donors to this foundation also happen to have received contracts from the Comunidad de Madrid, something which is completely illegal at least where the donations are given directly to the party in power. The money came in from friendly donors, and much of it went out.... to the companies involved in Gürtel! Add to this the still very murky events surrounding the holding of a second election in 2003 and things look even worse.

Aguirre's first response to the issue was to blame the man in charge of the Madrid PP in 2003, Pio Garcia Escudero. This didn't go down well, especially with Pio, so the next step will almost certainly be to try and pretend that the Madrid PP is also a victim of what Mariano Rajoy yesterday called the "21st Century Torquemadas", previously known as anti-corruption prosecutors. In the meantime Espe's espionage case isn't dead and buried despite the fraudulent commission of investigation that led such a short and unhappy life. The judge investigating the case is reported to be using the mobile phone records of several of those said to be involved in an attempt to piece together their movements on certain important dates. Forget Valencia, the real action is still in Madrid.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

An Illegalisation Too Far

Finally, Spain's Constitutional Court has placed some limits on the Ley de Partidos. This law, originally introduced to illegalise ETA's political wing, Batasuna, has subsequently been applied in an ever broader sense to illegalise any party that has had any sort of connections with Batasuna or former members of that party. The process goes like this; the right wing press launches a campaign about how party A is simply an ETA front, the state prosecution service takes up the case and the Supreme Court decides that what is good enough for the prosecutors and the press is good enough for them. It converts the process of illegalising political parties into more or less a rubber stamping formality. In this case, the left wing coalition Iniciativa Internacionalista-La Solidaridad entre los Pueblos (II-SP) was about to be prevented from taking part in next month's elections for the European Parliament.

The evidence presented by the prosecutors was based on some of those who had supported the list coming from the now illegalised ANV, and the past activities of some of the candidates; forgetting in the process that it is a coalition of different organisations. Add to this the famous catch all that if you don't explicitly condemn ETA's violence then you are considered to be part of ETA. This was enough for a majority of the Supreme Court judges, although it had several commentators pointing out that the list of those considered to be part of ETA's "entorno" was expanding rapidly precisely at the time when the group itself is at its weakest. The weakness of the argument presented for illegalisation was too much this time for the Constitutional Court, which has backed all previous illegalisations under this law. Most importantly, they have ruled that a failure to condemn terrorism is not in itself sufficient cause to make an organisation illegal. This bad law will remain, but at least it can't be used in such an indiscriminate manner against any group which may attract support from Batasuna's disenfranchised electorate.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

No Winners, Just A Few Survivors

The Spanish government has emerged from last week's "state of the nation debate" with a certain amount of satisfaction. Depending on which opinion poll you choose to believe, the outcome was either a clear victory for Zapatero or a draw. The only ones that have given Mariano Rajoy as the winner are the dodgy "vote early, vote often" internet polls and one (sharp lensed?) photographer even captured a Partido Popular member of the Congreso voting in one of these during the debate. Don't worry, we think he voted for Rajoy! Zapatero was not obliged to hold this debate when he did, in fact he is not obliged to hold it at all. That he chose to do so just at the beginning of the campaign for the European elections suggests that he was confident that he would get the better of Rajoy. Based on past experience he has good grounds for such a belief, Rajoy has never been seen as the winner in any of the debates between the two men. This, however, was the first such confrontation to be held with the crisis biting hard.

The expectation was created, perhaps deliberately, that Zapatero was going to steer a course to the left in his speech. In the end he did the opposite, with a set of measures designed to eat into the territory which the PP had tried to occupy. There were (limited) tax cuts, assistance for the motor industry, and a reduction in public sector recruitment amongst the measures announced. Many in the PP find it hard to conceal their disappointment and frustration over the failure of their leader to land a knockout blow even when circumstances could hardly be more favourable for the main opposition party. Rajoy doesn't seem to be good at on the spot improvising, so when Zapatero chose an unexpected approach in the debate Mariano just acted as if nothing had changed and carried on with his pre-prepared interventions. The unwillingness of the PP (or inability?) to spell out any of their own proposals in detail didn't do much to help the response

In the end, the lack of any stable agreement between the minority government and other parties has meant that most of the proposals announced by Zapatero have ended up as much vaguer declarations so that the parliament would not vote them down. The most interesting proposal was that which would put an end to tax relief for mortgages from 2011 for those above a certain income. It's a measure which has been on the cards for quite a long time, but no government has yet been willing to implement it. It's seen as an unnecessary handout, often going to people with no financial problems, and which only helped to encourage the property bubble. The aim of phasing it out in this way is an attempt to stimulate the housing market enough in the next couple of years to try and clear up some of the massive mountain of unsold properties. Buy now and you can get tax relief, leave it for later and you won't. However, the negotiations over the maximum income limit for obtaining relief have not yet reached the stage where we can know what is being proposed.

A proposal to assist purchase of a new car has run into problems already because it requires the participation of the autonomous comunidades and many of these have already developed their own schemes. Madrid of course insists on continuing with its own plan to reward the purchase of the least energy efficient vehicles. Personally I'm more interested in incentives to buy a good ham than I am in handouts for a new car, but I do understand that an impressively large number of jobs still depend on the motor industry in Spain. It probably doesn't matter that much whether most of these proposals survive or not. The intention behind the whole exercise has been a variety of relaunch for the government following the unenthusiastic reaction for Zapatero's reshuffle a few weeks ago. Both major parties are now working flat out for the European elections, what in other circumstances would be seen as an almost irrelevant exercise has acquired political significance unlikely to be grasped by the majority of voters who are expected to find other things to do with their time come voting day.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

The Return Of San Florentino

It seems that the patron saint of part of Madrid is not San Isidro after all, it's Florentino Pérez. At least if you're a Real Madrid supporter, judging from the reactions to the announcement by Pérez that he intends to stand for president of the club. With the team already virtually out of the running for the title, a situation finally confirmed last night, Pérez could announce his candidacy last week without being accused of disloyalty. The immediate reaction has been almost overwhelmingly favourable, with huge expectation being created about who might be signed if Florentino embarks on yet another "Galacticos" era. The names being mentioned are hardly surprising, Kaka and Cristiano Ronaldo are always on the list of possible Madrid targets. Ribery, Villa and Alonso have also been added.

This favourable reaction is curious for a number of reasons, the main one of course being that Pérez resigned as club president a few years ago after it became clear that his star studded team was going to experience a third succesive season without winning a trophy. He'd achieved economic success through marketing, but without it being accompanied by equivalent success on the field. He did also manage to wipe out the club's massive debt with the complicity of Madrid's administration, and the four huge office blocks that occupy the site of Real's former training ground could really be regarded as the main trophies from his previous period. Apparently they are having trouble filling them in these times of crisis.

Now he is back with more promises of the same amidst talk of a 300 million euro spending spree. The main problem with this plan is that the sum talked about is more or less the same as the gloomier estimates of the club's current debt. Given that now is probably not the time to engage in yet another dodgy property deal involving the Bernabeu stadium the question arises of where the money will come from? It's hard to find anyone willing to deal too closely with these questions, or to question whether a repeat of the previous experience is really the way for Real Madrid to compete with Pep Guardiola's Barcelona. What we are seeing is a variety of voluntary amnesia as if too close a relationship to reality might be harmful.

Pérez certainly shows no sign yet of having learnt from previous experience, and it will be interesting to see who his choice of team coach is going to be. There is talk of it being Arsene Wenger, but Wenger would be crazy from a footballing point of view to assume the job under Pérez. He would go from a job where he has almost complete control over the team to one where he would simply be presented with a random assortment of big name players that Florentino has chosen for him. He would of course be well paid for putting up with this, but it seems to go completely against his philosophy of the game. The success of Guardiola's team this year is not based around expensive purchases, indeed you could easily argue that getting rid of some of them was the basis of Barça's resurgence. It remains to be seen whether that lesson will ever be learnt in Chamartin.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Ecuador....The Galapagos Islands

We left the Galapagos Islands almost for the end of our trip in Ecuador, the idea being that a relaxing few days at sea level would balance nicely the time spent in the Andean highlands riding trains and attempting to walk up volcanoes. To get there we flew out of Cuenca to Guayaquil, where we connected with a Galapagos bound flight. I think all flights to the islands start from either Guayaquil or Quito, and some of them take in both cities. We organised the flights ourselves, although most of the agents who do island cruise bookings will also be able to organise the flights so that they fit with the cruise.

Our flight landed at the airport on Baltra which is separated from the island of Santa Cruz by a narrow channel. The contrast was stark, some of the weather we had experienced in the final few days between Riobamba and Cuenca had not been very good, but on Baltra we got off the plane into the warmest sunshine we had experienced so far in Ecuador. There are special controls for those entering the Galapagos, it was like going through a completely new immigration process. You get given a card which effectively identifies you as an approved tourist, and you have to pay $100 per person as an entry fee for the Galapagos National Park. There were rumours that this fee was about to increase quite steeply, perhaps as high as $200.

We had booked in advance a four day cruise around some of the islands, but decided to turn up a day early and stay for a night in the main town on Santa Cruz, Puerto Ayora. To get there from the airport you take one of the buses down to the channel, get the ferry across it, and then pick up another bus on the other side to take you to town. The whole process can take over an hour. At first sight, from Baltra, the impression you get of the islands is of a dry and inhospitable landscape. The trees and bushes had no leaves, and the ground around them was a mixture of volcanic rock and sand. For some reason this wasn't the vision I had of how it would look. To get to Puerto Ayora the bus must cross the whole island and as the road rises up towards the higher centre of the island then the vegetation becomes lusher and greener.

Puerto Ayora itself is not a pretty sight, it's breezeblock architecture is not very appealing. The hotel we stayed in didn't look too great either, it was a bit decrepit and basic considering the price we paid for it - Galapagos prices for anything do not compare favourably to the mainland. The room did have nice views though, facing towards the sea. Much nicer things lie just a short distance from town, for our first real glimpse of what the islands can offer we walked down to Tortuga Bay. This path takes you down to some nearby beaches which are used by turtles as nesting sites. The path itself is interesting as you get a closer look at the vegetation, including the very odd looking furry cactus that is so common here.

Also, you start to get a feel for how tame the unthreatened wildlife is here, the birds in the trees and bushes don't usually fly off as you pass. Then, walking past the first beach, you get to a rocky area full of marine iguanas who are also completely indifferent to the passing humans, often occupying the middle of the path for a bit of sunbathing. Going round a bit further brings you to a second beach where it’s possible to swim or just relax under a tree and watch the pelicans fishing.

One thing to note about staying on the island rather than just taking a cruise is that much of the available wildlife can be seen on Santa Cruz itself, perhaps not in such nice settings as on some of the less inhabited islands, but by dark on the first day we had already seen sea lions, blue-footed boobies, iguanas and pelicans; probably the most common species to be seen on the cruises. It is also possible to organise sea excursions to other islands by the day from Puerto Ayora as an alternative to a cruise - I can't say whether this is better because we didn't do it this way, but it will be considerably cheaper. The town has plentiful facilities in terms of restaurants and bars. We were recommended to go to a street full of fairly simple stalls and restaurants - the food wasn’t bad but was nothing spectacular. There are more elegant places to eat than this.

The next day we had to return to the airport again to meet up with the rest of the group for our cruise. This wasn't a very convenient arrangement as we didn't know when the rest of the group was showing up and ended up sitting around for about 3 hours at the airport. Eventually we were allowed to get onto our boat, the good ship Rumba.

Believe it or not, 10 passengers and 5 crew were squeezed onto this boat. We had a cabin below deck where I could only stand upright if I was underneath the hatch that opened up onto the deck. I soon learnt my lesson after banging my head about 4 times in the first 5 minutes - it's amazing how disciplined you can become with a few bruises on your head. This was not the worst cabin to have on the boat; at least we had space in it for our bags! We had a cook who performed small miracles considering the space he had to operate in and the food was surprisingly good. The boats doing these cruises tend to travel in packs, and every morning or evening you find your boat moored in the company of the others doing the same route. The guides then have to sort out between themselves who will do what at which time, so that everyone doesn’t end up in the same spot jostling to take pictures of the same iguana. Our cruise was to take us to the islands of Española and Floreana.

In most cases, except for the snorkelling and some short walking routes around those parts of the islands that are accessible, we were usually dropped on a beach and left to our own devices for an hour or two. The boats carry a guide, although at least in our case it was guiding of a fairly indifferent “this is the beach, over there are the sea lions and we leave in an hour” variety. Most of the long sandy beaches you visit belong to the sea lions, not to the tourists who are just passing through. This is in the end what makes the Galapagos a special place. A lot of work has been done in more recent times to get rid of the imported species that were wreaking havoc with the native ones - the rats, cats, dogs and goats had to go. It's also a special place for those who enjoy snorkelling; apart from the often brightly coloured fish you will be sharing the water with turtles, sea lions, sharks and rays.

Sea lion culture is generally very laid back.

Unless you're the dominant male - in which case you have to be on permanent and noisy alert.

The kids just go out to play.

The rest take it easy on the beach

Then there is the symbolic and odd looking bird of the Galapagos - the Blue-footed Booby. It seems the name of this bird comes from the Spanish word "bobo", because of its odd appearance and apparent clumsiness on the land.

If you look at the image below you might get the idea of the mother looking after both of her chicks. The slightly more cruel reality is that only one of these chicks is likely to survive. Every time the weaker one on the outside made any attempt to attract attention it’s bigger and stronger sibling would peck at it ruthlessly.

Not all boobies have blue feet, there are different species and the Nazca Booby seems to blend very well with the guano coated volcanic rocks on which it nests.

Nor are all the iguanas marine ones, they have their land cousins too.

We were there at the wrong time for some species, there was no sign of an albatross, and the few flamingos we saw looked a bit lonely.

On the other hand, pelicans, sea lions and boobies were so plentiful that sometimes you could catch them all together.

Back on Santa Cruz on our way back to the airport we had time to visit the Charles Darwin Research Station. Apart from its educational and conservation work the centre is now home to the most famous Galapagos tortoise of all – Lonesome George. He didn’t look so lonesome, as he has company in his pen, but the name really comes from the fact that he is the last of his line.

In the interior of the island there is a place you can stop to take a look at some of the enormous Santa Cruz tortoises in the wild -they all seem to hang out handily near to the cafe.

A question we were left with was whether the cruise around the islands is really worth doing? I enjoyed it, apart from the bruises on my head, it was a relaxing time after the more energetic activities of the mainland. However, I don't think it's worth the money you pay for it. We paid close to a thousand dollars each and it's clear that not much of that money is being spent on the boat itself. Then you take into account that we spent two nights out of four moored at Santa Cruz Island itself, where it's perfectly possible to sleep in more comfortable conditions. We went for the cheaper end of the cruise market, perhaps there are some lovely boats out there if you pay double what we did but the rest of what you get will be just the same as for the cheaper boats. Then you have to add the cost of the flights as well. It’s clearly a special place because of the protection afforded to the wildlife, but I reached the conclusion that Galapagos tourism is seriously overpriced for what is being offered. I don't say this with the aim of putting anyone off from going there, but if you're travelling on a limited budget then you might find there are better ways of spending your money than this.

Friday, May 15, 2009

It's Time For Camps To Talk

The Valencian regional president, Francisco Camps, has been assuring everyone for weeks that he is eager to tell the truth about his dealings with his "amiguito del alma". At the same time he has consistently avoided answering questions from jounalists or offering any kind of explanation in the Valencian parliament. Well now it looks like his wishes will be fulfilled, as he has to appear before the judge next week and not just as a witness. His amiguito will follow suit, if you'll pardon the phrase, a couple of days later. The big question I'm left with is what Camps will wear for the occasion? If I was him I would leave those expensive made to measure suits in the wardrobe and turn up with a simpler off the peg job or one of those fetching smocks that he puts on for religious processions. Camps seems to be relying on the judges of Valencia being sympathetic to the local political power, at least so far things are not going his way.

The past couple of weeks have not been tremendously good for those who claimed that Operación Gürtel was just a political case launched by Baltasar Garzón. In Madrid several of the politicians involved have now had to appear before the judge handling the case in that region, and bail of between 500,000 and 1 million euros has been the result; suggesting that the case they are facing is hardly trivial. Even the Partido Popular leadership finally got round to suspending the membership of the three members of the Madrid regional assembly who are on the list of the accused; and another PP politician potentially involved has been removed from the party's list for the European elections. The Madrid judge has agreed to let the PP participate in the case as part of the acusación popular, a strange situation given that several of their own members are amongst those accused. The state prosecutors are appealing that decision.

We'll Take The Cup, You Can Keep The King

Ever since the finalists were known for this year's football Copa del Rey, there was speculation about the how supporters of teams from the regions with the strongest separatist sentiment in Spain would deal with an event named after the King of Spain. The answer came on Wednesday evening, as a sizeable percentage of Athletic Bilbao and Barcelona supporters greeted the Spanish national anthem with a chorus of whistling. I was listening to the game on the Cadena SER radio station and it was clear that the reaction was more than what the right wing press here describes as the action of a few radicals. The always voluble commentators of the SER were not quite lost for words, but clearly had problems dealing with what was happening until one of them finally said "well let's talk about football". You can listen to it here. On the public RTVE channel showing the game things were worse, as the station avoided showing the scene live and instead showed an edited version during the half time break. This decision, attributed to "a human error", has cost the head of the sports department his job. Who said sport and politics don't mix?

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Fe De Erratas

I would like to apologise for yesterday's post where I may inadvertently have given the impression that the pollution problems in Madrid are caused by traffic fumes or desiertos lejanos. I have since understood that the real cause of air pollution in the city is cocaine! What I like most about the report is the attempt to reassure us that we won't suffer an overdose every time we go out to do the shopping.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Madrid, Where It Pays To Pollute

With the motor industry suffering badly the effects of the crisis, several autonomous comunidades in Spain have come up with schemes that offer some incentive to buy a car. The national government has also announced today a new scheme to try and persuade more drivers to replace their current vehicle. Madrid, of course, has to be a little different in the way it does things. The Spanish capital frequently suffers dangerous levels of contaminants in the air, and despite occasional half-hearted attempts to blame this on the Sahara Desert the principal cause ís traffic. Such levels of pollution are clearly not sufficient for Esperanza Aguirre's administration, because the incentives they announced recently give most benefit to the cars that contaminate the most. Because the scheme is based around returning some of a vehicle tax that buyers of cheaper or cleaner cars don't have to pay, the result is that most of the benefit goes to those who buy the huge suburban tanks that cruise the city's streets, usually containing just a driver and occasionally a small child. It has to be this way, there are still some residents of the city centre that don't suffer respiratory problems. Perhaps we need another scheme to subsidise the few remaining mascarillas that haven't already been bought up for the gripe porcina?

Monday, May 11, 2009

The Green, Green Shoots Of Hope

It was only a matter of time before someone would detect a sign of recovery in the Spanish economy. The newly appointed finance minister, Elena Salgado, should be offered some kind of prize for being the first person in Spain to have detected the "brotes verdes" (green shoots) of economic recovery. Whilst most of us can only see a vast expanse of dry cracked earth, Salgado hailed the unemployment figures for April as indicating that (maybe) the worst was over. It's true that the April increase was far less dramatic than that which we have seen in the first quarter of this year, but it is still the highest such increase for that month recorded for a very long time. A lot of employment in Spain is very seasonal, and the middle period of the year tends to see higher levels of employment anyway. So still far too early to decide whether the Spanish economy has hit the bottom of the recession.

The rate of increase in the jobless figures has led to something of a campaign emerging for changes in the labour market, usually amounting to little more than a call for employment protection to either be considerably relaxed or removed altogether. Unemployment has increased massively in the last year amongst those who were on temporary contracts, and very little in the case of those with more secure arrangements. Not fair, claim the proponents of change. It's true, it's not fair at all, but there is more than one way of levelling this particular playing field. It won't perhaps be surprising that many of those so loudly denouncing the injustice seek to rectify it by removing any remaining security from the rest of the working population. Many of these temporary contracts are a fraud, the contracts are constantly renewed until the point is reached where the employee might have to be offered a permanent contract. At that point they are replaced with someone else. To be fair, not all of those seeking change adopt such a one sided approach - but even they are focusing entirely on something which is not the cause of the crisis.

Amongst those who would prefer not to acknowledge any sort of fundamental problem with the way in which the world economy has worked, there seems to be a common trend to try and pretend that what we have now is really a miraculous collection of simultaneous recessions all caused by the incompetence of the individual governments in each country. Nothing to do with the financial system or casino capitalism, you understand. The Spanish right has taken this version of events to heart in a big way, mainly because it allows them to claim that Zapatero is solely to blame for everything, but also because it permits them to pursue an economic strategy that would be the pride of any survivors of the neocon debacle. Leading the charge has been the great moustachioed crusader himself. Jose Maria Aznar has emerged in recent weeks with the startling claim that had he still been in power there would have been no economic crisis at all! Don't be too hard on him, he has a new book to sell and ex prime ministers only have a few years in which to cash in before they are laid to rest in the Valley of the Forgotten. Aznar's crisis recipe? Tax cuts, slash public spending, privatization and of course "labour market reform". The number of countries currently following this recipe to get out of the crisis? None that I know of. There must be some way of locking up those who propose such lunacy in a secure place for the duration, all in the interests of public safety?

Following Aznar's cue we got the head of the employers association showing how in touch he is with reality when he was caught by a stray microphone saying that the crisis was the result of the Zapatero years. Whatever you might think about the government's handling of the economy since 2004 one thing is clear; it didn't represent any sort of change from the Aznar years. The property and construction bubble started in the late 1990's, not on the 15th March 2004. That's why the PP had nothing at all to say on the economy during Zapatero's first term. The same man was also overheard claiming that Esperanza Aguirre was "cojonuda", which more or less instantly disqualifies him as a reliable pundit on any subject of any kind. Aguirre had delivered another of her predictable neocon speeches about those who live off useless subsidies. She should know, she operates a vast web of publicly funded patronage where any bit of public money that doesn't go to friends or family can rightly be regarded as badly spent.

There's the point really, Spain's employers don't actually want to live in that hard and cold dog-eat-dog environment that is being sold by their political fellow travellers. Even as they attribute the crisis to the government, they are busily demanding that the same government give them more money. This sort of self-interested short termism is what ensures that many highly qualified young Spaniards simply end up looking overseas for chances to develop a career. A lot of the mythology behind this latest crusade relies on highly selective comparisons. In reality, Spain does not have an excessive tax burden compared to the European average, nor is it the only country where there is respectable compensation for being unfairly dismissed. No matter, those who did so well out of the boom do not intend to be at the back of the queue when it comes to doing well out of the recession. That the supposed solutions have nothing to do with the cause of the problem should not be allowed to disturb the dreams of those whose hopes are once again placed on that day when they can spin the wheel, and off we go for yet another crazed round of "We Take Your Money and You Never See It Again!" The role of the rest of us is to wait 5-10 years to be plunged back into the same situation we are now, but with even less social protection.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

La Liga 2008-2009....One Match From The Title For Barça

Unless Villareal can take advantage of tired legs following the Champions League semi-final last week, Barcelona should be declared Spanish league champions tonight. It will be a fitting finish to what has been an extraordinary season for the club in Pep Guardiola's first year in charge. Everyone talks of this Barça as being a team that will be remembered amongst the best the club has ever had, although you need at least two or three successful seasons to be able to stake such a claim. Real Madrid kept the race open longer than anyone expected, although with a style of play that nobody regards as memorable. Juande Ramos can claim that he did what he was paid to do, and will not have done too badly at all out of his few months at the helm. The gap in class between the top two was evident well before last weeks meeting, and the distance in points would have been much greater were it not for Madrid's ability to gain points even when playing badly. The first game at the Nou Camp saw Madrid turn up with the sort of mentality normally more associated with a Getafe or any small town battling survivor, and their attempts to kick Messi off the park smacked of resentful desperation.

Madrid were easily beaten by Valencia last night, and it seems clear that the players regarded last week's hammering at the hands of Barcelona as the end of their title aspirations. If Barça win the title tonight then we may see the first candidates declared as early as tomorrow for the elections to be president of Real; it was seen as bad form to declare whilst the race for the title was still mathematically open. Given that such events usually involve huge turnover in the playing and technical staff it never does much for morale to know too early who will get the boot. A revived Valencia are keen to keep Atletico Madrid and Villareal at bay as they fight to guarantee a place in next year's Champion's League. Their revival coincided with the club finding the funds to pay the players, as Valencia's attempt to do their own "pelotazo" has gone badly wrong with the economic crisis making the idea of building housing where there used to be a stadium look less interesting. The same problem almost certainly means that star players like David Villa will be put on sale come the end of the season.

Meanwhile only the top half of the Liga can be regarded as being absolutely safe from relegation, no team has yet definitively lost their place in the top flight and remember that the name of Numancia is always associated with determined resistance. Despite not being completely safe, Athletic Bilbao decided yesterday to put out a second string team against Betis so that they could rest their players ahead of the Copa del Rey final against Barcelona. They won the game! The team that has really transformed their survival chances recently has been Barça's city rivals, Espanyol. They were seen as almost certain relegation fodder a few weeks ago, but a good run has seen them leap up to 14th place. It seems most likely that those who go down will come from the current bottom five of Osasuna, Getafe, Sporting, Recreativo and Numancia, but a couple of good results for some of these could still put those above them in trouble.

Just take a look at the current table for the Liga. The gap between first place and fourth is more or less the same as that between fourth and last! This may be an exceptional season, even Madrid have more points than the leader usually has at this stage, but the gap tells us something about what is happening in the game. The trend in Spain and elsewhere is for ever fewer teams to be involved in the contest for the title. In Spain this year the second tier of what we might call "big" clubs (like Sevilla and Valencia) hasn't even been in the race. I was always against the idea of a European Super League because I saw it just as a conceit of the richest clubs seeking to obtain an even bigger share of the riches in the game, but now I'm starting to think it might be a good idea and possibly the only way to revitalise the domestic competitions a bit. I know those who follow Madrid or Barça will not see things this way, but many neutrals are going to stop seeing the point of a competition which is always decided between two or three teams and where most of the rest are simply focused on guaranteeing their survival so that relegation doesn't put them out of business.

Saturday, May 09, 2009

Patxi López Takes Control

Patxi López, the leader of the Basque socialists (PSE) took office as expected last week as the first non-nationalist Lehendakari in the Basque Country. He has already announced his slim line minority administration, with half of its members being independents. The outgoing president of the region, Juan José Ibarretxe, has in turn announced his intention of leaving politics; perhaps the release of yet another Star Trek movie has given him hopes of a new career? Acclaimed by many as a fresh start for the Basque Country after so many years of control by the nationalist PNV, it remains to be seen whether the reality lives up to the presentation. López depends entirely on the Partido Popular for achieving a majority, and this party could pull the plug on his government any time it decides it is politically convenient to do so.

In retaliation for losing control in the Basque Country, the PNV is systematically voting against the national government at every opportunity. This has created a dream situation for the PP. On the one hand they use their votes in the Basque Parliament to exclude the nationalists from power (and have the PSOE depending on them to govern). On the other hand they get PNV support for any parliamentary initiative that might threaten the national government with defeat. There is much talk at the moment of an unholy alliance developing between the PP, the PNV and possibly the right wing Catalan nationalists of Convergencia i Unió. This is not in itself enough to defeat Zapatero’s government in a vote, but the unwillingness of the other smaller parties to support the government has meant that already the PSOE has decided to vote with the opposition on several initiatives to avoid the appearance of defeat.

Cataluña holds the key to the government’s chances of seeing out a full term. The still unresolved issue of financing for Spain’s autonomous regions means that none of the Catalan parties are willing to offer parliamentary support unless they get offered a good deal. The job of sorting out that issue is now in the hands of former Andalucian president Manuel Chaves. Stage one of winning them over came with an agreement last week to hand over control of the commuter train network in the region to the Catalan government. That was the easy bit. Convergencia will only support a financing deal if it looks as if they are the ones who won it, and their nationalist rivals in Esquerra Republicana will do the same. It’s a rocky road ahead for a minority government in the midst of a dreadful economic situation. The “state of the nation” debate next week might offer some clues about what lies ahead.

Thursday, May 07, 2009

Rosa Catches The Last Train From Cordoba

I'm trying to blog, but this thing called work constantly gets in the way. Then when I'm not working it's a puente. Not to mention the Champions League; well done Barça! It's now a couple of weeks since we saw the carefully programmed succession in Andalucia's regional government, following the departure of Manuel Chaves to work for a Mr Zapatero in Madrid. His (interim?) successor, José Antonio Griñan, managed to liven up an otherwise grey takeover of power with something of a political coup by convincing Rosa Aguilar to join his administration. Aguilar was mayor of Cordoba, but not in the name of Griñan's party, the PSOE. Cordoba was the last provincial capital in Spain still being run (albeit in coalition) by Izquierda Unida, and Aguilar's abrupt departure went down very badly in that party. In many ways it was no surprise, she hadn't hidden her discontent with the way things had gone in IU in recent years and had even acknowledged voting for a PSOE candidate to the Senate in last year's general election.

She asked for her decision to be respected by her former colleagues, and was roundly abused for it. No surprise in that either, if you want to be respected for acting on your principles it doesn't help when you hold on to the job you have until something better comes along. If Aguilar no longer felt any sympathy for the party in whose name she occupied her post, then she could have gained more respect by simply standing down. It reminded me of the case of another Rosa on the Spanish political scene. Rosa Diez held on to a seat in the European Parliament which she won as a member of the PSOE just long enough to give herself time to set up her new party, UPyD, without having to suffer the indignity of losing that sweet salary from Brussels. Now it seems that Aguilar proposes to apologise to Felipe Gonzalez for linking him to the GAL group that murdered or kidnapped several innocent people in the name of "anti-terrorism". Nobody seriously doubts any more the links between that group and the administration led by Gonzalez, I suppose it forms part of the price for being in charge of Public Works for Andalucia.

Monday, May 04, 2009

Aguirre Loses Ground

I wasn't able to attend the traditional 2nd May ceremony hosted by Esperanza Aguirre in Madrid this year. A prior commitment to walk another of the remoter areas of Asturias meant that there were more cocktails and canapés for the rest. That and the fact that my invitation seemed to have got lost in the post....yet again! Anyway, my sources tell me that Napoleon no longer poses a significant threat to the city. So on my return it was encouraging to read that the latest opinion poll for the Madrid region shows the Lideresa/Condesa/Presidenta with some 5 points less public support than she achieved back in 2007. There is, of course, another side to the story; she's still on slightly more than 50% - enough to return most of those in the party ranks who have not yet been formally charged with corruption (and probably some that have).

It's still an interesting result, because it's not a consequence of effective opposition and it takes place in a context where the PP nationally seems to be rising in the polls. The PSOE in Madrid seems at times to have adopted invisibility as the best form of opposition. As Aguirre's administration shares out what were formerly public services between friends and family, the main party of opposition has little to say on the issue. Now they are boycotting official events on the grounds that they have been ignored, but such a softly, softly approach has done nothing to prevent Espe from brushing them aside. One consequence of this, together with the crisis eroding support for the PSOE at national level, is that Izquierda Unida seem to be attracting greater support in the capital and surrounding region. We can only hope it's the start of a trend, although the recent strikes at Telemadrid revealed yet again the odd and depressing statistics of how many thousands of viewers prefer to watch the blank screen until someone in authority comes along and tells them they're allowed to turn it off.