Friday, July 31, 2009

Aguirre Apologises....Almost

I mentioned in one of my comments the other day that La Lideresa has been behaving a bit strangely recently. The singing aside, absolute proof of this came when she called Zapatero to apologise for any offence she might have caused him with her remarks following the breakdown of negotiations between the government and the empoyers association. The video below shows her describing ZP as a "sindicalista retrógrado piquetero". Admittedly, it was a half-hearted apology. Espe said she was sorry if anyone felt offended by being described as a "sindicalista", a word which is not generally regarded as an insult although I imagine that its use in the aristocratic Aguirre Gil de Biedma household is rarely very friendly. This is a bit like calling someone a stupid piece of shit and then saying "I hope my use of the word 'piece' won't be considered insulting".

Despite the reservations, this is simply not standard Aguirre behaviour. Apologising to her political opponents is so out of character that it has me concerned about her health. The breakdown of the "social dialogue" between the unions, employers and the government came as no great surprise after the employers association decided to demand the right to fire. The president of this association, Gerardo Díaz Ferrán, has since loudly defended the political independence of his organisation. The problem is that we know that Díaz Ferrán thinks that Aguirre is "cojonuda", because a stray microphone captured him saying so a few weeks ago. So cojonuda is she that Díaz Ferran is said to have donated around €250,000 to the mysterious foundation Fundescam used to fund the PP's election campaigns in Madrid. This foundation is really only mysterious in the sense that it appears to be the only one in the region that is not required to comply with the law and publish its accounts. Meanwhile Gerardo is apparently having problems paying the salaries of his employees. Perhaps if he hadn't given so much money to the PP....

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Another Pointless Candle On The Cake

By killing two policemen today in Mallorca, and with a huge bomb that destroyed a Guardia Civil barracks yesterday in Burgos, ETA have reminded everyone of their continuing presence and their ability to survive under intense police pressure. Tomorrow is the 50th anniversary of the founding of the organisation, but the half-century is not a happy one for a group that should never really have survived beyond the age of 16 at most. ETA may believe that they can force the Spanish government back into negotiations with bombs like those we have seen this week, but such an outcome has rarely looked further away than it does at the moment.

Today's attack has also provoked a new frenzy amongst those who are determined to force the foreign media to use their language when writing about ETA. It's a bit sad to see otherwise creditable media organisations urging on this silly campaign that tries to enforce an obligatory vocabulary on those whose job is supposed to be that of informing their readers. The fact that this time the assault happens with Twitter does little to make it any more worthwhile. I've been through the argument before, and I still think that a news bulletin that begins with the compulsory "La banda terrorista" offers neither information nor insight into what is going on. I used to think it was partly a cultural thing in a country where many seem to believe that reality is nothing more than a reflection of the words you choose to describe it. However, I now think it's more to do with a lack of tradition of genuinely independent journalism.

Those lost souls who are determined to waste their lives trying to introduce the word "terrorist" into the English Wikipedia article on ETA show the same inability to distinguish between information and propaganda in an encyclopaedia. Unsurprisingly the Spanish language article takes a different line. The common assumption in Spain seems to be that the description of ETA as "Basque separatists" is revealing foreign ignorance about the truth of the situation. The fact is that many of the journalists using this kind of description have spent years in Spain, and are often better informed about what is going on in the country than many of those who are so quick to criticise them.

When the far right ex-president of the Asociación de Victimas de Terrorismo recently accused the widow of ETA's previous victim of using the language of the nationalists and terrorists at her husband's funeral, only a tiny fraction of those who are so noisy against the foreign press had anything to say about it. There are perhaps already too many media sources content to feed the prejudices of those who read them as opposed to attempting to enlighten, so let's applaud those who refuse to bend under the pressure to do the same.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

My Tailor Is Still Not Rich, But My Treasurer Is Loaded

It might seem like overkill to have yet another post on the Operación Gürtel corruption case, but so much is going on that it's hard to do it all justice in a single post. So let's start with some prison humour. Francisco Correa, the man at the heart of the scandal, is currently in prison while the investigation into his business dealings continues. He recently appealed for release on the grounds of - wait for it - claustrophobia. The investigating judge turned this down on the reasonable enough grounds that whilst his problem prevented him from getting into a lift, it didn't seem serious enough to prevent him from getting on a plane and leaving the country. Correa was subsequently reported as asking what he was doing in a place where he was surrounded by delinquents! This probably provoked as much laughter inside the prison as it did outside.

Meanwhile in Valencia the case against the regional president Francisco Camps also continues and is set to go to trial. Camps has lodged an appeal with the overwhelmingly conservative supreme court in Valencia and still seems confident that the case will not make it to court; although his predictions so far on what would happen have not been very accurate. The tribunal that will hear his appeal is presided over by a judge whose relationship with Camps is so close that the latter famously claimed that friendship was not a sufficient word to describe it. In spite of this, the judge concerned appears to feel no need to stand down from hearing the case. The odd thing about the Valencian proceedings is that those accused of receiving the gifts could go on trial, but those said to have provided them will not. The Valencian judiciary is steering well clear of investigating the multiple contracts awarded to Correa's band by the regional government.

Staying close to the beach, the Mayor of Valencia - Rita Barberá - has also become involved in the scandal. She is the one who came out with the very Berlusconiano argument that if the law prevents a politician from receiving gifts then the only solution is to change the law. Then El País reported the allegation that she had also received gifts of expensive handbags from those involved in Gürtel. Barberá replied by claiming that it was all just an attempt to divert attention from the plight of the unemployed, many of whom currently have plentiful time to try and work out just how long they could survive on the price of a single one of Rita's favourite Louis Vuitton bags.

Turning our attention to an important city that still doesn't have a playa, the tailor who provided key evidence on the expensive suits provided to Camps and associates got his job back. José Tomás was sacked by his employer immediately after testifying before Baltasar Garzón about who had paid for all those clothes, no off the peg rubbish involved here. A tribunal heard his case under Spain's appallingly anachronistic legislation that stops people from being sacked for leaving important people in embarrassing situations. Faced with the prospect of paying substantial compensation, the employer finally reinstated Tomás but has done it in such a way that he is clearly trying to force the tailor to leave his job voluntarily.

Just a short walk down the road from the expensive clothes shops of the Barrio de Salamanca we find the headquarters of the Partido Popular, where there is an immediate vacancy for anyone with experience in handling the financial affairs of a political party. The PP's treasurer, Luis Bárcenas, yesterday announced that he was temporarily standing down from his job. This followed weeks of growing pressure on him, and his declaration before the investigating judge in Madrid a few days ago. As soon as I heard the news of his resignation I suspected that this was because he knew that the judge was about to request the lifting of his parliamentary immunity as a member of the Spanish Senate. Sure enough, today we got the confirmation, although the announcement coincided with the final session of the Senate before they go off for a well deserved summer break. They'll deal with this troublesome matter in September.

Anyone still here? There's more. The Supreme Court is handily located just across the road from the PP headquarters. Bárcenas clearly didn't convince the judge about the origin of his very extensive fortune, and investigations are continuing with Hacienda taking a keen interest; times are hard for the tax collectors. Perhaps even worse, Bárcenas took the very bold step of naming names as alternative candidates for those answering to the initials of LB or the nickname of "Luis el cabrón". He named a director of a construction company who shares these initials and whose most likely response is going to be another lawsuit against Mr Bárcenas. The case against Bárcenas for corruption rests on a single payment, all the others he is claimed to have received from Correa come from before his nomination as a senator. As treasurer of the PP he could trouser as many bribes as he likes, but as a senator it's a different matter. Even so, his tax "oversights" could perhaps help to reduce Spain's budget deficit.

The whole case has had the PP reeling in recent weeks, with growing internal criticism of Mariano Rajoy for letting Bárcenas continue in his post. The party at one point was reduced to issuing its political messages by SMS, with the sole aim of avoiding appearances by its leaders in places where journalists might ask uncomfortable questions. So then came the counter attack, under the control of none other than Federico Trillo. This is the man who organised the initial counter offensive against judge Baltasar Garzón, who had set the now enormous snowball rolling down the hill. Trillo and the PP launched a battery of appeals against Garzón and claimed that he was responsible for the extensive leaking of crucial evidence. All of these were rejected, Garzón no longer has anything to do with the case and even Trillo has had to reluctantly acknowledge that the judge was not responsible for the press reports. So now they have turned their fire on the police investigating the case, trying to mix in claims that it is all coordinated by the interior minister and friendly media. Trillo doesn't do very well when it comes to identifications, but the aim in any case is to deflect attention and present the PP as victim of an evil conspiracy.

Phew. That's more or less it for now, but if things carry on this way I may have to resort to a special Gürtel episode of the smash hit series Fideos en la Boca as an attempt to explain it all.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Spot The Winner

Competition time again on South of Watford. Only one of the two people you see in this photo has won the Tour de France. Can you tell which one it is?

Sunday, July 26, 2009

300 Years And Nothing To Show For It

The pathetic response of the Spanish right to the visit by Spanish foreign minister Moratinos to Gibraltar has only demonstrated the futility of so much nationalist posturing. Moratinos has been berated for breaking with a supposed tradition of 300 years of firm anti-colonial policy over the rock. Leaving aside for the moment the evident contradictions of that position in a country which itself possessed colonies, the real question that many in Spain are themselves asking is what has been achieved in those three centuries? The answer is nothing, or to be even more blunt about the results you could argue that Spanish policy has often been completely counterproductive. Franco's decision to try and isolate the population of Gibraltar for years probably accounts more than anything else for the hostility the inhabitants feel towards the idea of Spanish rule.

Some here are also drawing the inevitable comparison with the Spanish enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla, which lie within the territory of Morocco. There are various excuses for crying "no es lo mismo" in the case of these possessions but the reality is that their existence is also the result of colonial adventure. The argument that Morocco didn't exist when they were conquered counts for little, on that basis you could argue that much of South America still belongs to Spain too. Then there is the frankly racist argument that it's not the same for a country to have colonies in Africa as it is in Europe. The difficulty that the Spanish patriots have, very well described in this piece by Josep Ramoneda, is that they can't face a more 21st century justification for Ceuta and Melilla This would be that the inhabitants have the right to decide their own future. It's not just because of the obvious implications for the case of Gibraltar that this argument has either, recognising the right to self-determination is a taboo for the Spanish right within the frontiers of the country itself. Because the right to decide on belonging to a country also implies the right to decide to leave it.

Friday, July 24, 2009

How Spain Lost Its Share Of The Moon

With all the commemoration of the anniversary of the moon landing, questions have started to be asked in Spain about the location of the samples of moon rock presented to the country. It seems that Henry Kissinger wandered the globe in the early 70's with a bag of moon rocks to hand out like candy to all of the Nixon administration's favourite dictatorships. Spain got two rocks, or perhaps they should be called pebbles. One of these was presented to Franco's prime minister Carrero Blanco and his family understood this to be a gift to the country rather than the individual. For that reason it is now displayed in the Naval Museum together with what is always far too politely described as a "pre-constitutional" Spanish flag.

The whereabout of the other rock/stone/pebble that was presented to Franco himself is something of a mystery. The dictator's grandson claims that it has been lost by his mother because they have so many properties and possessions it's impossible to keep track of them. Although he admits that enquiries were made concerning the value of the lunar souvenir with auction houses, he denies that the Franco family sold it off. With that confusion between individual and state that is so common with dictators the Franco family is adamant that the gift belongs to them and not the country.

Thursday, July 23, 2009


A long overdue post on our final destination in Ecuador. Returning to Quito from the Galapagos Islands we had just two nights left of our holiday before returning home. As we'd already seen the capital city when we arrived, we looked for somewhere interesting and easy to visit for an overnight stop. In the end we opted for Otavalo, a medium sized town just a couple of hours north of Quito and just on the other side of the Equator.

Arrival in Otavalo wasn't any more promising than our journey to Ingapirca had been. Getting off the bus on the edge of town just after nightfall, we soon realised that there was no electricity at all. So we set off down dark streets in the rain looking for a hotel. Fortunately it's not that big a town. Later that night the light came back on and the restaurants and bars could blow out their candles. The town has plenty of facilities for visitors for its size and seems to have made a success of selling itself to visitors to Ecuador. It's a pleasant town with a strong indigenous feel, and whilst it isn't an essential place to visit the proximity to Quito makes it easy to include.

Otavalo is famous amongst travellers for its Saturday market, although there seems to be a market operating here every day. We weren't there on a Saturday and we didn't find a lot we wanted to buy, but that's mostly because we have already been in other places selling very similar Andean handicrafts. Having more or less seen the town the next morning, we decided to walk a few kilometres into the surrounding hills to visit a sanctuary for birds of prey and in the process to get the view of Otavalo from above.

On our way back to town from the sanctuary we went to visit the symbolic tree of Otavalo. El Lechero doesn't look anything particularly special, although it is one of the few trees we saw in the country that wasn't a eucaliptus or a pine. As we got nearer to it, about 200 school children started coming down the hill towards us. I know there was a lot of them because I ended up having to shake hands with every single one, and close to the end of the line I slipped into routine politician mode, saying "Hello, I'm the president - vote for me". Eventually we reached the tree. The most impressive thing about it is the view you get of the surrounding mountains and countryside.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

A Bad Day For The Defenders Of The Nation

The Partido Popular has descibed it as a "historical betrayal". What they are referring to is not Mariano Rajoy's decision to continue as PP leader, instead it's the visit by Spanish foreign minister Miguel Ángel Moratinos to Gibraltar today. Such is the wave of outrage that the visit has provoked that as many as 12 people were believed to be standing by the frontier to whistle their protest at the first ever ministerial level visit by a Spanish politician to the big rock. They can whistle all they want because it's not a crime. In a case brought by the ultra right wing DENAES (Foundation for the Defence of the Spanish Nation) a judge today decided that those who drowned the national anthem in a chorus of whistles during the final of the Copa del Rey did not commit any offence. Spain would probably have needed to double its prison capacity to incarcerate all of those involved in the action. The judges decision was made on the almost absurdly democratic grounds that such an act is covered by the freedom of expression. No wonder the nation is falling apart.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

A Very Spanish Invention....The Garrafonix

The first time I ever opened a bottle of whisky in Spain I wondered about the little paper seal covering the top of the bottle. Maybe I even asked myself whether the bottles could get refilled. After having lived here a bit longer I became familiar with the concept of garrafon, the idea that the drinks you get served in many of Spain's numerous bares de copas are not necessarily the real thing. There are different varieties of the garrafon tale, and it's hard to know whether some are urban legends. Perhaps the most common is the notion that the bottles lined up behind the bar have been refilled with a cheaper brand of the product they are supposed to contain. You think you are buying Johnnie Walker and you get Dyc. Another version is that the manufacturers themselves have different grades of their own products and that the one they supply to the bars is a lower quality variety. In the worst case it is simply that the drink in question has been adulterated, either with water or with something more harmful.

To some extent garrafon can also become the excuse for excess. The reason you feel so bad on Saturday morning is because the bar sold you bad alcohol, not because you drank the best part of a bottle of whisky! Anyway, science has come to the rescue with the invention of the Garrafonix, the inventor claims that dipping this into your drink will reveal whether you have been sold the real thing. Of course the problem is what to do if your Garrafonix displays the skull and crossbones. Take it up with the owner of the bar and the best response you might get is a finger pointing to the sign that says salida. Now all we need is an invention to deal with the 15-20% of Spanish concert audiences who are prepared to pay 20-50 euros to go to a concert where they completely ignore the performance and chat as loudly as possible with their friends the whole time. I'm looking for something similar to the device that is supposed to stop dogs from barking, but which works on a more selective point and click basis. A blowpipe and tranquilizer dart would do the trick but security at these events can be funny about that sort of thing.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Visiting The Colonies

A high level delegation visited the former Spanish colony of Equatorial Guinea last week with the aim of improving relationships with the oil-rich African country. Strangely, the Spanish delegation included Spain's oldest and most sacred fascist relic; Manuel Fraga. It turns out that it was Fraga who signed the agreement on Equatorial Guinea's independence from Spain forty years ago on behalf of Franco's dictatorship. Ironically, the newly independent country was born with a far more democratic constitution than that possessed at the time by their colonial masters. Not that it lasted very long and the country is now run by a corrupt and brutal dictatorship. This is not a view supported any more by the Spanish government, in a perfect demonstration of how to combine cynicism with being offensively patronising a senior government official described the regime as a democracy within "African parameters". There is one member of the opposition allowed to sit in the country's parliament, and anyone who attempts more serious opposition ends up in the same notorious prison as Simon Mann but with less comfortable conditions.

We don't know whether Fraga was taken there because he still prefers dictatorship to democracy. In any case they can keep him if they want to. At one of the official events at least everybody got a laugh as president Obiang expressed his special gratitude for the timing of Fraga's visit, given that the latter is "en las últimas". Fraga didn't comment on this, perhaps he was having his after dinner nap. In any case it looks like the delivery of an elderly fascist has not been enough to appease Obiang, who now wants an official visit from Zapatero. The dictator accused the citizens of his country of being lazy as an explanation for the miserable poverty in which most of them have to live, whilst those running the government have pocketed much of the oil wealth. Nobody has any doubt that the purpose behind the Spanish visit is to try and get a slice of that oil business, which has so far gone almost entirely to the US and the French.

Not included in the official delegation was the constructor known as El Pocero, who recently walked away from his "flagship" development of Seseña and announced that he now intended to do business in Equatorial Guinea. Behind him he left unsold properties and unfinished work on the development, not to forget the battery of legal actions he launched against the local politicians who dared to defy him. Presumably the building regulations in Equatorial Guinea are even more relaxed than those in the region around Madrid, although from what I read the other week the Chinese have already got there ahead of El Pocero. Meanwhile Miguel Ángel Moratinos has an even tougher assignment ahead of him next week, on Tuesday he will become the first Spanish foreign minister to visit Gibraltar. It's expected that Fraga won't be joining him on this trip.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

The Gürtel Way To Better Spanish....La Pastuqui

Continuing with what promises to be a revolutionary new method for learning colloquial Spanish, I am pleased to present the latest published transcript of a conversation from those behind the Gürtel corruption case which introduces the eager student to ways of talking about money. The conversation concerns the installation of the stands for the Formula One race held in Valencia last year, a job which appears to have been awarded to the Gürtel clan. A potentially very lucrative contract as the end of the conversation between our two protagonists demonstrates:

Crespo: "Sí, le voy a decir que aquí... si sale el tema bien... hay pelas".

Correa: "Aquí hay pelas y, si sale bien, hay pelas para todos. Una pastuqui importante, vamos".

Now it's almost inevitable that someone will try to suggest that the awarding of the contract has something to do with the close friendship between the Gürtel people and the elegantly dressed higher echelons of the Valencian regional government. Such unfounded insinuations will not be tolerated here on South of Watford, let me make that clear.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Café Para Todos, But Who Got The Cream?

Arriving slightly behind schedule, only by a year or so, it looks as if Spain finally has a new model for financing the activities of the regional autonomous governments. Although it might seem a dry and boring issue, and only the masochistic really want to read all of the details, this could well be the most significant Spanish political event of the whole year. The origin of the new scheme lies with the reform of Cataluña's autonomy statute a couple of years back. As part of that deal it was agreed that Cataluña would get an improved financing deal, meaning inevitably that the scheme for the whole country had to be revised. Not a bad idea in principle as the old scheme was not keeping up with the realities of the country and its devolved system of government.

The reason why it has taken so long to reach an agreement has been the difficulty involved in giving the Catalans a better deal whilst at least maintaining the appearance of not discriminating against anyone else. Maybe this would not have been so difficult in the times of economic bonanza, because the solution lies in making sure that every region gets more money. However, with the current crisis biting hard the financial balancing act has become seriously complicated and the new scheme really only comes fully into effect after 4 years when the hope is that public finances will be in a healthier condition. The percentage of tax revenues that will go to the autonomias has now risen to around 50%, up from 30% in the previous deal and 15% in the times when Felipe Gonzalez was in power. It's the way things have to go if the regions are going to have an ever greater share of responsibility for provision of services.

Nobody seems to have ended up with less money than before, the detail of the new scheme depends on the weight given to different factors such as population, age distribution, the size of the region and so on. The process has been criticised for not being transparent, but transparency is the last thing the government wants in such a sensitive matter. The more complicated the system the better, as it makes it harder for anyone to pick holes in it. It's a highly political fix and everyone knows it. The funding will not discriminate along party lines, the new divide is between the politically powerful regions and the rest. The criteria used to benefit Cataluña also work in favour of Valencia and Madrid, which has made it much harder for the PP to maintain a common line of opposition to the new scheme. Andalucia has been compensated as well. The "less important" regions are left with some extra scraps.

This time around the government does not seem to have played the Catalan nationalist parties against each other, as it did in the case of the autonomy statute. Instead, Esquerra Republicana have been allowed to take the credit for raising the final amount of money that the region gets while their rivals in Convergencia i Unió have been left on the sidelines. CiU have adopted a contradictory approach, accusing Zapatero of plunging the state into more debt whilst at the same time claiming that Cataluña should have received much more money. Things in the PP are not so different as the national party tries to organise frontal opposition to the plan whilst at the same time acknowledging that the regions under its control will stampede anyone who gets in the way of their extra funds.

This often tedious and drawn out wrangling does more than decide the destiny of much of the state's income, it also potentially changes the whole political outlook for the government. Odd though it may seem, the government has recently been getting more support for its measures from the Partido Popular than it has from any other party. The hope now will be that other parties, particularly Esquerra Republicana, will show themselves more willing to vote on the government side. The one thing that could still spoil the celebration is the even more long awaited verdict of the Constitutional Court on the Catalan autonomy "Estatut". It's rumoured that we could get this verdict before August so that the judges get their holidays, and the rumours also suggest that the verdict will be a generous one. Maybe Zapatero will enjoy his summer break after all.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

A 21st Century Swindle

Spain's trade unions and employers have been engaging in talks recently with the aim of agreeing measures to deal with some of the effects of the crisis. It was said that the discussions were going quite well and the government hoped to make an announcement soon concerning an agreement. Both sides had an understanding that they would not present any demands that they knew in advance to be unacceptable to the other. Then the main employers association had lunch with Partido Popular leader Mariano Rajoy, their representatives left directly from this lunch to a meeting with the trade unions and suddenly there were new proposals on the table.

The employers want what they call a 21st Century employment contract as well as a significant reduction in their social security contributions. The new contract would make it cheaper to dismiss employees as well as putting all new employees on what is effectively a two year probation period. Rather than a model for the 21st Century, it really takes things a step backwards towards the 19th. As for the social security contributions, for anyone who doesn't know how this script works I think I can help. Having achieved the reduction in contributions, the next step is for the same employers association to proclaim that the social security system is unviable and wouldn't it be a good idea if we let the banks take care of pensions. The talks, unsurprisingly, have now reached a dead end.

Friday, July 10, 2009

The Camps Line Of Defence

The decision this week by an investigating judge to proceed with the case against Valencian president Francisco Camps is being seen as a severe setback for one of the Partido Popular's most successful politicians. The judge has decided that there is significant evidence that Camps accepted the gift of expensive clothing from one of the ringleaders involved in the Gürtel case. There was a widespread belief within the PP that the case against Camps would never get to trial, and the accused has been quick to present an appeal against the judge's decision.

One thing the judge makes clear is that the size of the bribe is not the issue, knocking back the idea pushed by the PP leadership that no serious politician would ever sell himself for such a low price. What many inside and outside the party are asking now is why Camps didn't just admit to being given a couple of suits by his amiguito del alma Alvaro and say so what? Instead he continues to insist that he paid personally for the suits, in cash because he doesn't use credit cards. One of the local papers in the region did little to help this alibi the other day when they reported that Camps was busy on official duties in Valencia on the days when his defence claims that he was in Madrid paying his clothes bill. That's one local newspaper likely to see a sharp reduction in their income from the regional government. Much of his own party doesn't seem to believe him either as they search desperately for reasons to justify his acceptance of the gift.

Television viewers who depend for their news on the regional channel controlled by the Camps administration are unlikely even to be aware that the beloved leader is going to court. Valencia has applied a model of news management similar to that of Madrid under Esperanza Aguirre and Canal 9 apparently didn't even mention that Camps has been formally accused. This is even less surprising when you consider that the political appointee in charge of the channel also seems to have been a good friend of Alvaro "El Bigotes". It looks like the legal defence for Camps will now be an attempt at character assassination of the tailor involved in the preparation of the famous suits. I saw a report in El Mundo suggesting that they are going to try and claim that this man pocketed the money paid by Camps, and that this is why there is no evidence of the payment having being made.

Even in the worst of all possible cases Camps is not going to end up breaking rocks in the hot Valencian sun, you don't go to prison for accepting bribes in Spain if it's your first offence. The problem he faces is that his version of events is not supported by any evidence, and the suspicion that he has lied about the issue could end up being far more damaging to his political prospects than the verdict of the court. Meanwhile, I'm thinking of offering my own "Gürtel" series of expressions and associated hand gestures to The Guardian for their Spanish language phrasebook. The first one would be "poner la mano en el fuego", a phrase that appears to be going rapidly out of fashion in the case of Camps and which would be illustrated with a drawing of someone frantically blowing on the fingers of their hand. Number two in the series would be the characteristic outstretched palm behind the back, ready to receive envelopes full of crisp €500 notes. A variety of expressions could be associated with this gesture, but it usually follows "Que hay de lo mio?".

Tuesday, July 07, 2009

Talking With Your Hands

If the number of guiris making strange hand gestures in Spain seems to rise a lot this summer then it's probably the fault of The Guardian. Teaching foreigners to use native hand gestures seems like a dangerous game to play, in the same way as Spaniards using their fingers to ask for two beers in an English pub. Over at El País they don't seem too impressed with the selection. The phrase "estoy a dos velas" and its accompanying gesture is completely new to me. Also, I have never heard anyone in Spain using "huevón", although I've come across it in South America. The commenters in El País seem to think that it could be common in Andalucia too. Doing a quick Google check on its usage I came across the Wikipedia page on Spanish profanity. I like the redirection advice at the top of that page about Joder, Nebraska!

Saturday, July 04, 2009

The Spy Who Hated Me

With the resignation of the head of Spain's intelligence service, the CNI, the newspaper El Mundo is celebrating another head on a stake following that of the former justice minister Mariano Bermejo a few months ago. The man who resigned this week, Alberto Saiz, was accused of abusing his position as boss of the intelligence agency to fund fishing trips and work on his house. It's still not clear how much truth there is in the accusations, but what seems to be beyond doubt is that they came from within the agency itself. Saiz was finally forced to resign when it became clear that the government was not going to support his plan to clear out all of his numerous enemies within the CNI.

It seems that the CNI, formerly a military agency, is full of people who have been removed from their posts by Saiz but who remain as part of the CNI. Now the government has appointed a former general to be the new head of the agency and it is clear that he has a tough job ahead clearing out some of the autonomous factions that have developed in the CNI. I've always felt that infighting in what is often misnamed the "intelligence" service can have benefits for the rest of society. Based on the British experience many such agencies are full of far right political fanatics who are much happier spying on people whose politics they dislike than they are doing any job which might be considered useful. Either that or they are secretly working for rival agencies.

The conclusion you reach with the resignations of Bermejo and Saiz is that hunting and fishing at public expense is seen as a serious crime, whilst filling your bottomless pockets with public money for other purposes is not. It remains to be seen how long that situation can be sustained.

Wednesday, July 01, 2009

Every Meatball Has Its Price

One of the more entertaining aspects of the Gürtel corruption case comes from the documentation detailing many of the illegal payments made by the organisers of the ring to various politicians in the Partido Popular. A few weeks ago we learnt that Valencia's Francisco Camps had the code name of "El Curita". Back in Madrid we have something even better. The former mayor of Boadilla del Monte, Arturo Gonzalez Panero, was given the name of "El Albondiguilla" (The Little Meat Ball). A very expensive little meatball he seems to have been, Panero and Boadilla are at the heart of the case. Then we come to "Luis el cabrón". This nickname has been found in the documentation and it is believed by the prosecutors that it is a reference to Luis Bárcenas, the national treasurer of the PP. The name clearly suggests that he wasn't held in great esteem.

The accusation against Bárcenas has now been referred to the Supreme Court, because of his status as a member of the Senate rather than his position with the PP. This means the case is now divided between three separate courts, as the regional equivalents of the Supremo are already dealing with their part of the case in Madrid and Valencia. Whatever the people behind Gürtel may have thought of him, the charge is that they paid huge sums of money to Bárcenas. The PP's treasurer is certainly a very wealthy man, having accumulated riches that go well beyond the limits of his salary from the PP. His predecessor in the post offered us an insight into the ethical yardstick being used inside the party when he claimed that the fortune Bárcenas has accumulated is not an issue, because he had managed to obtain much more!

Inside the PP there are now plenty of people who think it's time Bárcenas resigned his position, but party leader Mariano Rajoy doesn't seem to be one of them. Boosted by his recent election victory, Rajoy has been carefully avoiding any comment at all on the Bárcenas issue, waiting as he always does for developments to solve the affair for him. A lot of the pressure for Bárcenas to go is coming from interested parties on the bitter and twisted right, with El Mundo leading the charge, but other PP figures who can't be so easily classified have also expressed their doubts about keeping him in his job. There is of course also the question of how to justify forcing Bárcenas to resign whilst so many others continue to occupy their political positions. In reality, although the PP has taken measures against some of those accused, nobody has yet resigned from an elected post and those who have had their PP membership suspended continue to form part of the party group in town halls and regional governments like Madrid.