Friday, October 30, 2009

Corruption Keeps The Judges Busy

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

As Closes, Which Way To The Future?

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, October 26, 2009

Notorious Bandit Cornered In Caja Madrid

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Las Tablas De Daimiel On Fire

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

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

Thursday, October 22, 2009

The Gürtel Case Casts A Long Shadow

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, October 20, 2009


I'm back from my walk. I got back yesterday morning but the effects of a 24 hour journey from Kathmandu to Madrid via Delhi and London meant that I haven't been able to do very much since. That Delhi stopover almost cost us our holiday as over zealous British Airways employees demanded to see a visa for India in both Madrid and London on our way out. It took the intervention of supervisors in both cases to let us board the plane. I understand that airlines have effectively been converted into border control organisations, but in our case there was absolutely no reason to stop us from flying. In Delhi we simply went to the transfer lounge and waited until someone brought us our boarding passes for our onward connection, along with lots of other people in the same situation. I wonder how many people with poor English are denied the right to board their flight in London because of badly trained BA staff telling them they can't fly? The holiday itself was a fantastic experience, better than I expected and I will have plenty to write about it in the coming weeks. In the meantime I've got some catching up to do, I was right when I assumed that interesting things would happen in my absence.