Thursday, December 30, 2010

La Ley Sinde....At Last The Talking Begins

So far you have to say that the fallout from the rejection of the "Ley Sinde", which would allow the government to close down websites, may just produce some positive effects. The government has already made it clear that it intends to try and reintroduce the legislation in the Senate by attempting a deal with the Partido Popular. That's the downside.

The brighter side is that it seems that there is at last some dialogue on the issue. When the law was originally proposed the government went through the motions of talking to opponents of the law following the storm of protest it provoked. However, it seems that this was just for show as they didn't subsequently change any fundamental part of the legislation. The dialogue that began today has instead been an initiative from film director Alex de la Iglesia, and both sides of the debate seem fairly happy with their initial meeting. This raises the possibility of some understanding on an issue that has so far been driven solely by the interests of the major entertainment companies.

Another development has been the cracks that have appeared in the facade of unity amongst those who opposed the law. It was always a myth propagated by those who wanted the Ley Sinde that their opponents were all in favour of "todo gratis" and wanting to prevent creative talents from being able to make any income from what they produced. The other day former Público editor Ignacio Escolar decided to investigate a bit one of the most popular Spanish download websites, called Series Yonkis. Escolar was trying to get some idea of how much income a site like this actually earns, given the accusations flying around about people becoming millionaires from pirating other people's work.

His investigation provoked huge indignation amongst many users of the site, who tried to label him as an ally of culture minister Sinde. Escolar has in reality been a strong opponent of the Ley Sinde, but this didn't seem to matter as Twitter rage took over for a couple of days. It's been a useful exercise, because it suggests that these sites are not necessarily huge earners and also because it has separated those who do believe in the "todo gratis" idea from those who accept the idea of artists being remunerated but reject the notion that this should be guaranteed by giving exceptional administrative powers to a government committee dominated by the industry. 

Whether the government will take any notice of these developments is another matter, but if the dialogue that started today is allowed to influence the legislative process it may just be possible for Spain to have one of the best laws concerning intellectual property rights in the digital age.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

The El Mundo Journalism Masterclass

Imagine that you go to a football match. There are lots of people there and, who knows, perhaps 60-70 metres away from where you are sitting someone unfurls a banner or holds a placard supporting a political cause. Then a photographer takes a picture of the said placard which captures you along with many other people far away in the background. You might be under the impression that this does not associate you directly with the cause in question. You are wrong to think that, because you have not counted with the journalistic ethics of El Mundo and their ability to draw a circle around your head. Today's front page from El Mundo - how to construct an eye catching headline out of nothing.

I don't have any special affection for Cataluña's new president, Artur Mas, but El Mundo's crude manipulation is just pathetic. Since we're talking about media coverage and El Mundo have already introduced the Basque theme let's give Público a slap on the wrist as well. Their piece on the Wall Street Journal publishing comments by Batasuna leader Arnaldo Otegi is just stupid. Based around the common idea in Spain that the role of journalists in press coverage of terrorism is to instruct people on what they should think, the Público piece looks for  a way to take Murdoch's empire to task for, in their words in the paper edition, being a "loudspeaker" for ETA. 

Things get really silly because they try to hang the accusation on the association between the paper's owner, Rupert Murdoch, and José Maria Aznar. As if this really has anything to do with foreign media giving coverage to what may, after all, be interesting developments concerning ETA's future. There's a bit too much obsession with Murdoch sometimes in Spain with people fearing that the Aznar link was the prelude to him entering Spain's media market. Where Murdoch would possibility find a market opportunity in a country which already has so much flaky right-wing media is an open question.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Merry Christmas Señor Fabra

There was another notable absence from the rogues gallery of Partido Popular leaders featured in the party's Christmas video. Christmas came a little bit late this year for Carlos Fabra, the cacique who runs the Castellón PP. Never mind, his present made up for the delay, as the Castellón courts decided to drop almost all of the serious tax fraud charges that he was facing. It's not that the court declared that no crime had been committed, just that a formal accusation had not been made in time for the statute of limitations to run out on the offences committed.

It's worth remembering that the case against Fabra is not based on speculative mudslinging accusations. His numerous bank accounts have been studied by experts from Hacienda who have checked no fewer than 17,000 financial transactions involving Fabra, his family and their companies. They came to the conclusion that don Carlos had no less than €3,7 million of income that he couldn't justify, and which of course had not been declared to the tax authorities. Around €1 million of this is what is said to be owing to Hacienda, which seems quite a generous rate of taxation for such a large amount. Anyway, it all counts when we have such a large budget deficit to deal with. 

The case against Fabra has experienced an unusually large number of problems over the years, as the local court supposed to handle it has suffered repeated changes of judge which have of course helped the Fabras in escaping the day of reckoning. The anti-corruption prosecutors are going to appeal yesterday's decision on the not unreasonable grounds that if a tax fraud charge for the year 1999 still stands then so should accusations concerning the continued fraud in the following years. Fabra is still also facing charges of influence trafficking, but the strategy will no doubt be one of delaying the process in the hope that an incoming PP government will take care of the matter to his advantage. Prescription is an option that always seems to be almost exclusively reserved for the wealthy and powerful.

There is every reason to think that the PP will behave this way given the manner in which they have celebrated Fabra getting away with it. Champagne corks have been popping inside the party for the man who PP leader Mariano Rajoy has described as an "exemplary citizen". It's still an open question what hold Fabra has on the PP's leadership given that they defend him even more firmly than other prominent figures, such as Francisco Camps, who are not facing such serious charges. The party tries to act as if prescription of the charges is the same thing as proof of innocence, and that massive tax fraud is fine as long as no court ever pronounces on it.

Anybody who pays their taxes should choke on reading the details of Fabra's income and his attitude concerning declaration of his income. On this sort of issue it seems that Spain divides into two, El Club de los Listillos (Fabra & company) and La Clase Gilipollas - those of us who pay the extra cost of the corruption of the listillos as well as all the public services. The worst thing is that the listillos don't depend just on their own cleverness in ripping the rest of us off, they get the votes of a good part of the Clase Gilipollas to tell them that what they are doing is fine. I marvel at the way in which people like Fabra will be defended by those who only lose from doing so, and whose only arguments are the pathetic "but I know of someone in another party who's also corrupt" or the even more hopeless "why don't you talk about <any other problem but this>".

The obvious conclusion to be drawn is that if the PP return to power we should all stop paying our taxes, that should get us a round of applause from the government. Or have I missed something?

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Nepal, Annapurna Circuit....Tikhedunga To Nayapul

At some point you have to stop walking. After 17 days on the Annapurna Circuit trek we were on the final stretch. A short day's walk it was too, but very enjoyable  in beautiful surroundings. We were walking on our own for much of the three hours it took to leave the Annapurna conservation area, as we would only begin to see those who were starting the trek in the opposite direction later in the morning.

Our surroundings were a mixture of forest and tiny settlements set amongst rice fields. As with most days on the trek, we were back following the river valley and of course there were still some bridges to cross. By this point I was able to cross these without too much of the vertigo inspired fear that I had at the beginning. The track went up and down a bit as we kept more or less in touch with the river, and much of the path consisted of stone steps. Even so the hens still needed a bit of help to do the climb.

By the time we reached the village of Birethani we were seeing far more people, this village is also an access point for those who want to do the trek to the Annapurna Base Camp. It was laso the place where we got our last view of Machupuchare, the "fish-tail" mountain.
One last checkpoint and then we really knew we were returning to a busier environment. After Birethani we walked up a road full of small shops and soon we could hear the traffic noise on the road above us at Nayapul. All that remained now was for our guide to find us the taxi that would take us to Pokhara, our entry point back into the world. It was a weird feeling to be sitting in a car again after so many days. We weren't going home just yet, we still  had a night in Pokhara and two days to spend in Kathmandu before climbing on the plane.

I had my doubts before we came to Nepal, I though it was going to be too many days of trekking to maintain the interest throughout. I was wrong, I really enjoyed the Annapurna trek and the changes we saw between the lower parts and the highlands meant that every day seemed to bring something new. The road construction in the region may be making many people think twice about doing this walk, but I can say that in October 2009 we never felt that it spoilt the experience; and I doubt that work has advanced so much since then. Even on those few sections where we walked on the road we saw very little traffic. I have no doubt it's worth it.

View Nepal - The Annapurna Circuit in a larger map

Friday, December 24, 2010

A Happy Christmas From Us All

I've got some important eating and drinking to do for a couple of days, so I leave you with Christmas greetings from some of South of Watford's most popular personalities. Some might question the wisdom, giving the origen of the video, of using a song featuring the line "It's Christmas time, there's no need to be afraid". Also, I'm not sure whether the person wearing the shower cap is supposed to be a prominent member of the PP leadership or not. As for Mariano Rajoy, it seems that those classes on distinguishing the grimace from the smile haven't really done the trick yet. It hasn't taken long for some to spot the resemblance between this video and the opening credits to The Brady Bunch.

There are of course some notable absences here, it seems there was no room for either Esperanza Aguirre or Francisco Camps, which is a shame because it would have made for a nice Gürtel Christmas composition. On a similar theme, I'm quietly proud of how the picture of The Aznarines still features prominently in image searches on for "Eurovision 2010".

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Madrid's Crumbling Cathedral

This article by Giles Tremlett describes how poor construction in Madrid's cathedral has forced the moving of Christmas mass this year. No doubt the insurance companies would have had an unassailable case for claiming that anyone hit by falling masonry had been the victim of an act of God. I've never liked the building anyway, and not just because of my lack of religious conviction. Frankly, it's a bit of an eyesore.

Not everyone shares this view. In one of my favourite ever taxi journeys in Madrid, we once went down to the Puente de Segovia in the company not just of the driver but of his wife as well. It was at night and as we passed down by the river Manzanares, the taxi driver's señora sighed in admiration at the sight of the cathedral on the hill and exclaimed "¡aaayyy que bonita!". I held back from offering her my glasses so that she could see the building properly. "Big" or "grey" are words that accurately describe the construction, but not "beautiful".

Anyway, the chief reason why I remember the taxi journey is because of the way the driver tried to cheat me. He didn't put the light on as I paid with a 1000 peseta note, and instead of giving me back the 500 peseta coin I expected as change, he tried to pass me an old Franquista 25 peseta coin that was no longer even legal tender. It didn't work, I'd been in Madrid long enough already to tell the difference from the size and weight of the coin alone and quickly pointed out his "mistake" for which of course he apologised profusely. That was the point when I stopped talking any English in taxis in Madrid. The peseta, for those who never experienced it, is a currency which we may well be seeing again in a year or two. 

If I ever manage to reconstruct enough of the dialogue from my favourite ever taxi ride in Madrid I may dedicate a blog post to it. All of which is a bit of a digression. Returning to the subject of the cathedral, there have been complaints recently about the construction of a new museum spoiling the view of the big pile. The Museo de las Colecciones Reales has started to emerge in between the royal palace and the cathedral after years when it seemed that they were just going to leave a big fenced-off hole in its place. It doesn't look very pretty, at least not so far, but then given the building that it is partially blocking what's the problem? 

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

How To Download A Good Legal Farce

The internet in Spain, and particularly Twitter, was very lively yesterday as the Spanish government's proposed legislation to control download websites was voted on in the parliament. It didn't go at all well for the government and the final vote was repeatedly postponed as negotiations were held to try and get other parties to support the legislation, known somewhat misleadingly as the Ley Sinde in honour of the culture minister responsible for seeing it through. No other parties volunteered to share the burden, not even the Basque PNV who currently guarantee the government's stability. Things reached such a desperate situation that the government even tried to negotiate with the Partido Popular, whose record on helping the government with its difficulties is not exactly a great one. 

In the end the vote was against the proposed law, although this apparently doesn't mean that the battle has finished. The Senate could still resurrect the proposal, although the governing PSOE has less weight there than it does in the lower house. It was always a misconceived piece of legislation which sought to give administrative powers to a government appointed committee to close down websites. The only judicial intervention was a rubber stamping process from a judge. In reality it was an attempt to permit the industry to circumvent the slowness of the judicial process with a fast-track solution that is simply not available to anyone else who has a grievance they need to resolve. The government made no significant concession of any kind over criticisms of this process, despite the evident room for abuse that it would allow. 

In any case it was an odd manoeuvre to attach the anti-download bill to the Ley de Economía Sostenible. This latter law was, until all decisions affecting Spain's economy were outsourced a few months ago, to be the legislation that pointed the way forward to a bright, productive future for the Spanish economy. How dated such notions seem now that we are stuck in the dark gloom of permanent, markets inspired, crisis. In any case it just didn't fit, a law that was designed to protect the old business model of the entertainment industry had no natural place inside another that was intended to be looking towards the future. 

It didn't help either that the Wikileaks revelations have recently shown quite insistent pressure from the US government on Spain to introduce this kind of legislation on downloads of films and music. This was not what supporters of the law needed. Even so, film director Alex de la Iglesia is well regarded even by critics of the Ley Sinde for getting down into the trenches of Twitter and arguing the case of the industry. Not so well received was the intervention by singer Alejandro Sanz who called Spanish parliamentarians cowards for not approving the legislation. Many were quick to point out that Sanz could always spend less time in Miami and could even pay his taxes in Spain if he wants to participate in political debates here. 

Despite the battle not being over, there is a certain amount of satisfaction amongst critics of the law today with many seeing this as a victory for cyberactivism. The mobilisation on internet has been quite impressive on an issue which unites many users of the web who would not necessarily feel such a close identity of interest on other issues. How much of the success is down to this campaign, and how much is due to the weak position of the government is arguable. The issue hasn't gone away, but perhaps the terms of the debate will now have to change. 

Monday, December 20, 2010

Waiter! There's A Hole In My Opinion Poll Ratings

Taken as a snapshot of current Spanish political opinion, today's opinion poll in Público is not good news for Zapatero's government. The poll gives the Partido Popular a lead of 13 points over the governing PSOE. Any hopes of a rebound in the polls following the recent government reshuffle seem to have vanished quickly, as the market pressure on Spain's economy has returned with a vengeance.

The 13 point advantage for the PP is more than enough to get them into power with an absolute majority in a general election, Aznar won his majority in the year 2000 with a lower advantage over the PSOE than this. It's worth pointing out that this is not because of a significant rise in support for the PP, who on a little over 43% are still only 3 points above what they got in the previous election in 2008. The Spanish electoral system, like the British one, allows parties well short of majority support to win an absolute majority in parliament.

So where are the missing voters if the PSOE is down 13% on its 2008 performance? The answer for the moment seems to be that most of them are heading for abstention, the same circumstance that made that 2000 victory for Aznar seem so overwhelming. Izquierda Unida would hope to pick up disenchanted voters from the PSOE, given that they represent the only national alternative to the neo-liberal economic wave at the moment. To a limited extent they are picking up support, the poll puts them at 7,5%, but this still leaves a significant number of former PSOE voters not currently opting for anyone.

The continuing troubles for the government have revived speculation about the post-Zapatero era, the perception being that Zapatero is now prepared to sacrifice himself on the altar of the never ending crisis. The chances of economic recovery by 2012 get slimmer with every passing week and every deflationary measure imposed on the country. But the prospect of electoral disaster in the 2011 municipal and regional elections is also stirring talk of the general election possibly being brought forward, even though the government's pact with the Basque PNV is working fine and could still see them through for the full term.

There have been some curious movements in the last few days. Alfredo Pérez Rubalcaba, seen as the most likely successor to Zapatero, made a trip to Afghanistan. This was odd because he is the interior minister and such visits to the troops are normally seen as the job of defence; or the prime minister. There was speculation that Rubalcaba was displaying his power to defence minister Carme Chacón, who at one time was seen as being Zapatero's favoured successor in the event that he ever gets to exercise that privilege. The fact that Chacón quickly followed Rubalcaba's visit with a trip of her own to Spanish soldiers serving in Lebanon has only created further speculation about a possible power struggle behind the scenes.

None of this definitely means that Zapatero will voluntarily fall on his sword, even though it has long been suspected that he never intended to serve more than two terms. Letting his most highly rated minister (Rubalcaba) take much of the flak gives him some possibility of staying in control and to play off potential rivals against each other. If he really does want to hand over to someone else, then he finds himself unable to walk away on a high note as a winner; always fatal for a politicians ego.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Nepal, Annapurna Circuit....Ghorepani To Tikhedunga

Back at the hotel in Ghorepani following the early morning ascent of Poon Hill we appreciated the warm shower and breakfast before heading out again for the next leg of the trek. Now we were going to be heading downhill, definitively. There would be no more shocks to the system like the climb up to Ghorepani after days of relatively easy descent. We were almost at the end of the trek now and this was to be our last day of 'real' walking.

Leaving Ghorepani we soon found ourselves back in the rhododendron forest that we had climbed through on the other side of the hill. Only on this side the trees were more impressive, huge gnarled and twisting branches stretched high above the path. Being a bit less tired and going downhill we could appreciate our surroundings a bit more. For two hours we walked down a beautiful path through the forest. As we got further down the valley was narrower and the lack of sunlight coming through at times made it seem more like a tropical jungle.

Just as we reached the end of the forest we were rewarded with a slightly closer view of 'Fish Tail' mountain than the one we had earlier that morning on Poon Hill.

As we left the forest behind we started to see more villages and cultivation with wonderful views down the green valley. We stopped for lunch in Ulleri, a fine vantage point and the last village before our destination for the day. The path now mostly consisted of steps, and we had the now familiar sight of flocks of goats and sheep being driven down the path presumably to be sold off at the bottom. To me those little black goats have a sort of Hammer horror satanic look about them. For those coming the other way there was a handy information board about what they might see at the top.

The rest of our route for the day took us down the steps, a bit monotonous but we only had about another hour's walk ahead of us following lunch. From above, the corrugated roofs of Tirkhedunga didn't look very attractive but once we crossed a couple of bridges and got into the village it seemed like a perfect place to stop, surrounded by running water and very lush vegetation. Looking down from the village we could see the last bit of walking that we would do the next day.

I spent a very peaceful afternoon on a terrace by the river in Tikhedunga with a book and a beer, only interrupted by the occasional herd of sheep and goats being forced through the narrow main street of the village. I didn't feel unhappy about getting near the end after two weeks of walking, but nor did I feel in any great hurry to return the bustle of the cities.

View Nepal - The Annapurna Circuit in a larger map

Friday, December 17, 2010

The First Pensions Cut Will Not Necessarily Be The Deepest

When we heard that ominous rumbling noise that happens every time the markets think they can make some more money out of Spain's economic troubles, my assumption was that we would almost immediately get the "pensionazo" - the expected cutback in Spanish state pensions. As it happens, we got another emergency package to keep the sharks at bay for a day or two.

However, we have more or less received the announcement of the first part of the pensionazo. The Pacto de Toledo, the all-party group that meets to make recommendations on pensions, has a majority in favour of extending the period used to calculate the final pension. This is currently set at the last 15 years of someone's working life, and now looks almost certain to be extended to the last 20 years. The great advantage of this kind of measure is that it represents a concealed cut in pensions for many recipients, as the latter years of our working lives are often the ones with the highest salary. At least that's how it worked before the latest neo-liberal tsunami took shape. 

For some the change has already been made. Self-employed autonomos have had the rules changed by earlier legislation to extend the period of final pension contribution. The Pacto de Toledo hasn't for the moment reached any recommendation on delaying retirement age from 65 to 67, as the government has proposed. Despite this, Zapatero has today made it fairly clear from Brussels (where he goes these days to receive his instructions) that this remains the aim of his administration and it's reasonable to expect that the announcement is not far away.

Some people say it doesn't matter that much if the retirement age is delayed, after all don't we all live longer these days? Depends. Apart from the fact that average life expectancy is a poor indicator of the number of people actually receiving pensions, it also hides from view the grimmer realities of social inequality. I read something a few months ago about the differences in average male life expectancy in the UK between those living in Blackpool and those living in the London Borough of Kensington and Chelsea. The difference if I remember correctly, was between 73 years for Blackpool Man compared to 83 for K&C Man. Not bad, an impressive testament to how successive governments have happily made the UK one of the most unequal societies in the developed world. 

Apply to that particular case a two year retirement delay from 65 to 67 and you find that your 73 year old loses a whopping 25% of his retirement time, whilst the 83 year old loses a little over 10%. The life expectancy differences are largely based around social class and guess which one of the two will probably have had a longer working life and paid more years of contributions. Yes, that's right, the one most likely to die first. That's why the retirement age is important and why delaying it contributes even further to increasing inequality. Before we even consider the effect of all the other measures currently being implemented with similar results

On my holiday last week I read a book called The Spirit Level which I throughly recommend as an examination of how inequality has a whole series of disastrous social effects in societies which produce great wealth but only for a select minority. It clearly won't be top of the Christmas wish list for those who are currently leading the offensive against public services, they will just be buying shares in the companies that will build the privately run prisons needed to deal with the consequences of their policies. 

Monday, December 13, 2010

Caipirinhas In The Rain

We managed to escape Madrid just before martial law was declared in Spain's airports and have spent an enjoyable 'puente de diciembre' week in Brazil. It started with a couple of days in Rio de Janeiro. This was my third time in the city and despite the reputation it has for violence and social problems I saw it looking better than the other times. Brazil has done quite well in recent years, thanks to having both generals and a greedy and corrupt right-wing excluded from government. Which is not to say it doesn't have serious problems still, the social divide in Rio is very evident where you can have luxury villas on one side of a street and a favela shanty town on the other.

There are now companies which organise tours of one of the biggest and well-established favelas, it's a trip well worth doing to get an insight into how much of the city's population lives. Another sign of Brazil's progress is the strength of its currency, it's an expensive place to visit at the moment. My first visit was at the end of the 1980's when hyperinflation was crushing living standards and banknotes supposedly bearing the value 100,000 were stamped with the number 100 in attempts to stabilise the currency without printing new money.

I'm something of a minor rain god and I often bring rainfall in impressive quantities to places that I visit. I ended Barcelona's drought a couple of years ago, and last year I even made it snow heavily there. Rio was no exception and on our last night before leaving there was a long and torrential thunderstorm that demonstrated how much they need good drainage on some of the streets. I think the only day it didn't rain was the day we left Brazil, which just proves my point.

After Rio we headed south and discovered another paradise island - Ilha Grande. Once the site of a prison and a quarantine centre for immigrants from Europe, this forest covered island is now mostly protected and is a wonderful low-key tourist destination. From there we headed to the small colonial town of Paraty, not a cheap destination and when I saw the price of our hotel the rain god bowed down in homage before the VISA god. It carried on raining but to the huge amusement of the waiters in the bars we were determined to celebrate our last night with a caipirinha in one of the outdoor terraces, umbrellas in hand to keep us more or less dry. It was warm rain.

Wednesday, December 01, 2010

The WikiLeaks Cables And Spain....Interfering With The Course Of Justice

It's not entirely satisfying, the way in which WikiLeaks have chosen to make their hoard of US diplomatic cables available. That a single newspaper should be controlling the release of the cables concerning Spain means that we are dependent on their timescales and priorities. We're not yet at the stage where crowdsourcing information has become part of the Spanish media scene, and El País is publishing information from the cables before any of the original documents are made available.

Nevertheless, there is some interesting stuff in the information that has so far been made available. The content of the released cables will come as something of a disappointment to those who faithfully believe in the independence of the judiciary. It seems that US diplomats in the Spanish capital have managed to cultivate some useful contacts inside the Spanish judicial system and have used these contacts to the full to try and get their way on any judicial process affecting US interests.

The most notable case in this respect has been that involving the death of Spanish television cameraman José Couso in Baghdad. Couso was killed by fire from a US army tank as the American troops advanced into Baghdad during the invasion if Iraq in April 2003. He was in a hotel full of journalists, and which the US army knew to be full of journalists. Not surprisingly the US investigation into the incident found that nothing wrong had been done, but a Spanish judicial investigation led to charges against 3 US soldiers.

The Spanish case is still going, which is nothing short of a miracle when you read the cables from the US embassy in Madrid and realise what forces are stacked against it. That the US government should oppose any attempt to prosecute its soldiers in another country is not news, but the cables reveal that the US has been able to count on key supporters both in Zapatero's administration and from the judicial system. The Spanish attorney general and one of the most senior prosecutors have had meetings with US diplomats where they assured the latter that they would do their best to kill off the Couso case. This could not be done too openly without causing a political storm, and the delightful phrase used in one of the cables is that they would find a way to "quietly terminate" the case.

The Couso case is not the only judicial process to have been affected by pressure from the US embassy. The threat of investigation over the Guantanamo prison camp and the flights run by the CIA has also had them talking to their friends in Spain. The cables published so far also provided an insight into the evolution of relations between the two countries, from the tense years when the US representative was a typical Bush political appointee to the smoother times under the Obama administration. Not that the change of government altered in any way the interference with Spain's judicial system.

It's interesting to note, given the timing of Interpol issuing a warrant for the arrest of the founder of Wikileaks, the attitude of the same organisation concerning the Couso case. Interpol have done all they can to wriggle out of getting involved in bringing the 3 accused soldiers before a court, citing a clause which doesn't allow them to become involved in political or military issues. Not that this clause prevented them, to pick one random example, from becoming heavily involved in the elaborate charade mounted around the death of FARC guerilla leader Raul Reyes. Still, I imagine their involvement in that case didn't count with the opposition of the US government.

Monday, November 29, 2010

From One Colonel To Another

Whilst we wait for the drip feed of revelations from the latest Wikileaks document release, we do have access to one of the cables sent from the US Embassy in Madrid. A curious story it is too, as it refers to the expulsion of a Libyan diplomat from Spain in 1986. The expulsion was apparently a reprisal for an attempt by a Spanish army colonel to obtain funds from the Libyan leader (and colonel) Muammar al-Gaddafi.

This being the 1980's there were still quite a few Spanish army officers around who saw their patriotic duty as consisting of the overthrow of any democratically elected government. The colonel in question, Carlos Meer de Ribera, was said to have had a meeting in Tripoli with the Libyan leader in an attempt to raise money for the far-right cause. Meer de Ribera, who appears to be the author of this blog, was the last civil governor of the Balearic Islands in Francoist times and was allegedly removed for being too right wing a couple of months after Franco's death. He also acted as defender of one of those officers accused of participating in the attempted coup of 23-F. Whilst exercising this latter role he was of course promoted.

The cable from the US embassy obviously doesn't regard financing of right wing extremism as being that serious an offence, why would they given that it was a fundamental part of US policy for so long? Even so, the expulsion of the diplomat took place at a time when trying to bomb Gaddafi's homes was a fashionable thing to be doing. Meer de Ribera was imprisoned and charged but I haven't been able to find anything that tells us the outcome of the process. The poor colonel in that story by Gabriel Garcia Marquez who waits for a pension that will never come was obviously just born in the wrong country.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Catalan Election Results 2010

I'm using the widget designed by El País to display the results of tomorrow's elections in Cataluña. It is almost universally expected that the winner of the election will be Convergència i Unió (CiU), if they win they will return to power for the first time in 8 years. This follows two terms of the Tripartit coalition involving the PSC (Catalan section of the PSOE), Esquerra Republicana (ERC) and Iniciativa per Catalunya (ICV).

None of the Tripartit parties are expected to do very well compared to previous results, the PSC is suffering from the decline in support for the PSOE at national level as well as some disillusionment with what has been seen as the uninspiring leadership of Jose Montilla. ERC are also predicted to do very badly, they tried an unhappy balancing act between their nationalist aspirations and an alliance with non-nationalist parties. In the process their hopes of challenging CiU's supremacy in the nationalist vote have been dashed.

There will be some interest to see how well the new pro-independence platform headed by former Barcelona FC president Joan Laporta does. I don't like Laporta, not because he's pro-independence, but just because I suspect he is an unprincipled opportunist. I'm also glad if the attempt to use Barça's success on the field as a launching pad for a political career doesn't work - we get too much bread and circus style politics as it is.

The campaign has not been terribly gripping, the tension in the result will be over whether CiU can get a majority, and if not who they will negotiate with to be able to govern. Potential allies include the Partido Popular, who have run a nasty openly racist campaign in what may be an ugly sign of things to come when we get more elections in Spain next year. If such an agreement takes place nobody should be too surprised, nationalist issues apart CiU and the PP could find room for agreement on many issues.

Tom over at the has done a more detailed analysis of the different parties standing. The results start coming in after 20:00 p.m. tomorrow, in the meantime the widget displays what happened last time around in 2006.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Nepal, Annapurna Circuit....Poon Hill

We were supposed to be up at 4:30 to begin the climb up to Poon Hill. However, by 4 we were already awakened by the sound of others getting ready for what is supposed to be a spectacular moment on the Annapurna Circuit. Eating could wait, the plan for the day was to go up and down Poon Hill and then continue the Annapurna route after breakfast.

I put on my full 'Thorung La" gear, every bit of warm clothing for what was expected to be a bitterly cold morning. Outside the weather was actually a whole lot better than it had been on the day we went up Thorung La. Yes, it was cold, but the sky was clear and although the moon was far from full we could already distinguish the shapes of some of the mountains we hoped to see as it got lighter.

It's a walk of around 45 minutes from Ghorepani to the top of Poon Hill, all uphill of course and quite hard after the effort of the previous day. The climb is something over 300 metres. After 10 minutes I was already removing one outer layer of clothing from the effort. By 5:30 we were at the top, and the jacket I had removed was soon needed again. The sun was not yet up and once you stopped moving you quickly got cold.

The panorama you get at the the top of the hill should include the whole of the Dhaulagiri range, one side of the Annapurnas and a view of the distinctive peak of Machapuchare, commonly known for not very mysterious reasons as Fish Tail Mountain. This is a holy mountain and cannot be climbed, although I preferred the typo in a leaflet we saw in Kathmandu describing it as a 'scared' mountain. That explains why it kept its distance.

The hill was crowded, it clearly attracts many more people than those doing the Annapurna Circuit, and the cameras were busy. This being the ultimate tea-house trek, it only seemed fair that there was a small shack at the top selling tea. We walked round in circles trying to keep a bit warm as the first rays of sunlight bounced off the high peaks. We couldn't complain about the weather conditions on this side of the Annapurna range and as it got lighter the views got more spectacular.

Shortly after 6 it was fully light and the panorama compensated for the cold. Even so, by 6:45 we were satisfied and were on the track back to the hotel for breakfast. A hint for the lazy, I shouldn't really do this but if you are in a Ghorepani hotel facing in the right direction you can get more or less the same view as we had from the top of Poon Hill. But of course it's not the same without that pre-dawn climb and the chill in your bones.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Sex, Lies And Telemadrid

It's been a while since I featured a video from the wackier fringes of Spanish TV, and this one it has to be said is a bit special. A worthy competitor even to the always impressive efforts of Intereconomia. During a break in the very right wing Telemadrid "tertulia" Alto y Claro, one of the participants lets rip on the question of his sexual preferences. Salvador Sostres is his name, and he makes clear his interest in teenagers: "Esa tensión de la carne, esas vaginas que aún no huelen a ácido úrico, que están limpias". Sweet stuff, and that's not the end of it.

Despite attempts by sympathetic media to present the video as interference with what was just a private conversation, this performance by Sostres took place in front of a studio audience. One that contained a significant number of school kids. Oddly enough it seems that many of these came from Rabat and Tarragona. It's a sign of how desperate the channel has become when they have to ship in their audience from Morocco or even from the hated Cataluña. I've no idea what they did to deserve such a cruel and harsh punishment; it must have been something particularly bad. Meanwhile, it tells you all you need to know about Telemadrid editorial standards when the company responds by announcing that it will seek out those who leaked the video rather than doing anything about the increasingly lamentable standard of its guest selection.

Sostres isn't the only participant on Telemadrid who has been in trouble recently over his preferences for young girls. The so-called "writer" and Telemadrid presenter, Fernando Sánchez Dragó got widely criticised for an account claiming that he was seduced by a pair of 13 year old Japanese girls in Tokio. As soon as the criticism began, he claimed that the story (or at least the sexual part of it) was invented. El Mundo came riding to his defence and launched a petition of what they described as "destacados intelectuales" which naturally included the director of the paper himself. This petition railed aganst the burning of books as if the man was a victim of brutal Nazi persecution.

Esperanza Aguirre claimed his work was "literature" even though the book was supposed to be non-fiction, and compared Sánchez Dragó to Gabriel Garcia Marquez! She has been culture minister you know, although she doesn't like to boast about it. I think Fernando might have to wait a while for that Nobel Prize nomination but he still gets the cheque from Telemadrid to see him through these difficult times. These episodes are revealing about the attitudes towards sex of so much of Spain's right wing, who do whatever they can to defend Sostres and Sánchez Dragó whilst denouncing the "progres" of the left for the degraded state of morality in Spain. You would think they might follow the example of the church which they so loudly defend. Oh but then....

Monday, November 15, 2010

Spain's Government Turns Its Back On The Western Sahara

Demonstrators took to the streets of Madrid on Saturday to express their opposition to Morocco's brutal repression of a peaceful protest camp in the Western Sahara. Not many of those who demonstrated came from the governing PSOE, and the stance adopted by Spain's government during the last view days has provoked much indignation amongst those who hoped that the government at least sympathised quietly with the cause of the former Spanish colony.

Prime minister Zapatero made it clear where he stands on the issue, Spain's interests with Morocco come first and the diplomatic reaction has been minimal. This is despite the fact that at least one Spanish passport holder is said to have been killed as the Moroccans destroyed the camp, and Spanish activists and journalists have either been denied access to the city of El Aaiún or they have been unceremoniously dumped onto the next plane to Las Palmas.

The warning signs were already evident with the Spanish government's uncomfortable reaction to the hunger strike last year by Saharan activist Aminatou Haidar. Eventually Haidar's action forced enough pressure on the government for it to negotiate her return home, but the initial reaction in that case by the Spanish government was to try and persuade her to quietly disappear into a life of exile in Spain itself.

In truth there has been no sudden change in Spanish policy on the Western Sahara, even though it might seem that way from the old photos now surfacing of the recently appointed foreign minister Trinidad Jiménez wearing a sticker in support of the Saharans. Spanish governments have accepted tacitly for years that the former colony has been annexed by Morocco. The Moroccans have successfully played the Israeli game of prolonging negotiations whilst creating facts on the ground until the international community becomes exhausted with the issue. Not that they were ever that interested in the first place.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Nepal, Annapurna Circuit....Tatopani To Ghorepani

Something isn't right here! After days of descending and relatively easy walking we were suddenly confronted with the idea of going uphill again. Not just a little bit either, the route to Ghorepani involved an ascent of around 1700 metres just when it seemed as if all the hard stuff was behind us. In any case it was another fine sunny day, and we began the day with a great view of the Nilgiri behind us.

Just below Tatopani we left the valley that we had followed for several days and with an initially fairly steep climb we reached a broad track - the result of road construction work. We were climbing up a green valley with small attractive villages scattered amongst the terraced fields of rice, millet and corn.

The path was not difficult, and often paved inside the villages. Some stretches were made up of stone steps which certainly helps to preserve the path but which also became tiring to walk up on a hot day. About half way we passed through the beautiful village of Sikha. Some of the houses even have their own beehive.

After this point the landscape began to change as we got higher. Soon we reached the beginning of the rhododendron forest that dominates the upper slopes of this valley. In my ignorance, I had been completely unaware that there was such a thing, having only thought of rhododendrons as being smaller ornamental bushes. Some of the trees in the humid forest had thick, twisting branches. Almost everything had a coating of lichen.

The latter part of the walk was tough, not so much because the path became more difficult, just a result of the long climb and perhaps some effect from being again at a higher altitude, around 3000 metres. The views were fabulous looking back down the valley we had ascended.

Ghorepani itself is not an especially attractive place, but there were plenty of people there and the reason for that is called Poon Hill. This nearby hill is supposed to be one of the great viewpoints for admiring the surrounding mountains, and we had high hopes for it following the disappointing time we had with the weather over on the other side of the Annapurna massif. It was a bit cloudy in the afternoon, but we got some glimpses of distant peaks from the village and the weather had been so good the past few days that we didn't really expect to be unlucky the next morning on Poon Hill.

It was cold up here though, especially after the heat of the previous couple of days further down. By later afternoon we were already ordering tea and huddling round the stove in the hotel. It didn't matter too much, we were not planning to stay up late as we would be getting a very early start before dawn the next day.

View Nepal - The Annapurna Circuit in a larger map

Friday, November 12, 2010

Before You Leave The Crisis Make Sure You Pay Your Toll

For some it doesn't seem to matter how bad the crisis gets, they always land on their feet. The banks, of course, are the shining example of this philosophy that says profits must be privatised for the benefit of the (very) few whilst all losses get picked up by society as a whole. Other companies have clearly learnt the lesson of this, the latest example being those that have the concessions to run toll roads in Spain.

These companies probably thought they were onto a guaranteed winner with their concessions, but it appears that not enough motorists are paying the tolls to compensate for a change to the law on compensation for expropriated land that was introduced by Aznar's government. This change meant that landowners had to be compensated based on possible future changes in the value of their land rather than just the value at the time of expropriation. I would hate to speculate on the possibility that any wealthy PP supporters benefited enormously from this, so let's knock that idea firmly on the head.

Sadly it seems to have been a law based on the assumption of a never ending bubble for all involved, but don't worry because it will be those most affected by the cutbacks in government spending who may well get to pick up a tab estimated at €800 million. It doesn't matter that the major shareholders of these companies are the same construction companies who did fabulously well out of the boom years, the companies concerned are now - to use a phrase popularised by a prominent Madrid politician - "pobre de pedir". I'm sure those who have had their pensions frozen this year will understand that there are needs much greater than those of the retired.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Madrid Takes The Quick Route To Cleaner Air

It could hardly be simpler. Whilst other major cities around the world grapple with the question of how to deal with tighter restrictions on acceptable air pollution, Madrid has shown the way forward. Forget all those schemes that try to reduce traffic, all you need to do is move the machines that measure contaminants from those areas that have high pollution figures to others that have lower ones.

This, it seems, is how Madrid has managed to achieve an impressive reduction in nitrogen dioxide levels in just 12 months. Nicely timed to coincide with tighter European legislation. This is a change from the previous, slightly cruder strategy, of claiming that the machines taking the readings were broken whenever there was an extended spell of calm sunny weather. So there you have it. If you find that you are having problems breathing at any time in Madrid it's because you have chosen to live in the wrong area. It could become a new selling point - living near one of the city's air quality measuring machines.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Felipe Gonzalez And The Return Of The GAL

Former Spanish prime minister Felipe González has captured newspaper headlines in Spain for the first time in years following his interview on Sunday with El País. What caught most attention was his declaration that his government once had information concerning the time and place of a meeting of the entire leadership of ETA, and that he decided against blowing them up. The administration led by González has been accused for many years, on good grounds, of having been behind the GAL dirty war against ETA in the 1980's. The GAL group carried out kidnappings and assassinations, frequently involving people who had no connection to ETA at all, and their activities probably gave a significant boost to the Basque group given that they didn't need to invent an argument about state terrorism.

González declared that he wasn't sure whether he had made the right decision, the presumed logic behind his doubts being that organising such an act would have dealt a potentially fatal blow against ETA. It's unlikely, given the way in which ETA has so far survived several times the detention of its leadership. ETA in the 1980's was a much stronger organisation than it is at the moment. It's fairly clear from the tone of the interview that González regarded the decision as a strategic question rather than one involving any questioning of whether this is an appropriate way to respond to terrorism. More interesting in some ways was what he had to say about the GAL because his claim that the kidnapping of Segundo Marey was ended on the orders of his then interior minister amounts to what is effectively the first open admission that the GAL's activities were under direct government control. It's one thing that almost everyone believes that to be the case, quite another that it is said in such an open way.

Only González and those who are close to him know why he should choose to speak this way about the issue after so many years. The right-wing press has already been hammering away on the GAL ever since the recent government reshuffle that effectively made Alfredo Pérez Rubalcaba the new strongman of Zapatero's administration. Indeed, El Mundo has been headlining with it all week. The dirty war against ETA did not begin with the GAL, but it certainly reached disastrous heights during the time González was in charge. What's depressing is the feeling that may of those who use it as a hammer to beat the PSOE and González would almost certainly have approved of it had their own party been the organizer. That, and the ambivalence shown by so many vocal opponents of terrorism when it is a government that plants the bombs.

Monday, November 08, 2010

El Laicismo Agresivo

That elderly German priest has been back for another of his occasional holidays in Spain. Despite getting a luxury all expenses paid trip to Santiago de Compostela and Barcelona, it seems he has been a bit critical about the Spanish. Not religious enough apparently, but we already knew that. Benedicto sees things as being a bit more serious, going so far as to compare the situation now in Spain with that which existed in the 1930's before the Civil War. You have to say he has a point, the way in which the Catholic hierarchy in Spain consistently sides politically with the right is very reminiscent of those days, although I have the feeling that's not quite what he meant.

Instead he warned his listeners about the agressive laicity that seems to be rampant in modern Spain. Take, for example, the Spanish state which is so anti-church that the national tax agency collects most of that institution's income directly from taxpayers so that the priests don't have to pass the plate around. Then of course there is the massive influx of public money into schools run by the church. In addition all of us get to pay the salaries of religious education teachers. Some estimates put the figure at around €6,000 million worth of fanatical anticlerical funding of the church and related institutions. We have to suppose, given the complaints by his infallible holiness, that it's not enough and that Vatican S.L. is hungry for more. Judging by the disappointing attendance at this weekend's events, what might be needed is a bit of extra money to persuade people to turn up and cheer next time he comes. It will be Madrid in 2011.

Thursday, November 04, 2010

Rubalcaba....Zapatero's Prince Of Darkness?

The promotion of Spanish interior minister Alfredo Pérez Rubalcaba in the recent government reshuffle has really got the right wing press and sections of the Partido Popular very excited. Partly it is because of Rubalcaba's long political history stretching back to when Felipe Gonzalez was prime minister of Spain in the 1980's and 1990's. This allows the PP to associate Rubalcaba with the GAL scandal, the government sponsored dirty war against ETA that led to entirely innocent people being kidnapped or murdered. Not that this aspect is what really bothers PP supporters, it's just that the GAL was one of the main political levers they used to get Gonzalez out of power.

Combine this with the fact that Rubalcaba is now in charge of the police and you get the perfect combination for the PP. We have even seen a minor resurgence of the conspiranoia surrounding the Madrid bombings, with PP general secretary Maria Dolores de Cospedal promising that the PP would reveal the "truth" about the bombings when they return to office. This act of transparency is of course not expected to include the documentation which the PP removed or destroyed on leaving office after the bombings. Instead the suggestion will presumably be that it was Rubalcaba who placed the bombs, rather than Zapatero himself.

Then there is the question of corruption. Every time a new scandal concerning PP corruption emerges (and we now have a very fine collection), the PP attempts to claim that the case is purely the result of government persecution as opposed to many of their leading representatives having their noses so firmly in the trough that they can hardly breathe. This line permits them to ignore the question of whether those accused of corruption should stand down from their positions. In the latest cases to hit the headlines, involving widespread influence peddling in Alicante, 22 PP representatives involved continue to carry on as if nothing has happened, whilst two PSOE representatives with a fairly tangential involvement have been removed from their positions. Cleaning up the party is far too arduous a task for Mariano Rajoy, reportedly "agotado" after giving two interviews in a week, so the easiest solution is to claim it is all the work of the sinister Rubalcaba.

Wednesday, November 03, 2010

I Can't Take It Any Mou!

This is from today's edition of Marca:

A fuller selection of front covers from the Marca-Mourinho love story can be found over at La Libreta de Van Gaal.

Tuesday, November 02, 2010

Productos Regionales

It's quiz time on South of Watford. We did a little bit of shopping on our holiday weekend, and what I want to know is where you think the products on display here came from. Naming the comunidad autonoma doesn't count, I'm not even sure I'll accept the province. Naming either of the villages where these items were purchased will win up to 1 million special South of Watford bonus miles.*

From left to right and starting at the back we have:

Cecina de chivo
Longaniza de chivo
Queso de oveja
Chorizo de potro
Cecina de vaca
Lengua de vaca

* bonus miles usable only in participating establishments

Friday, October 29, 2010

The Last Testament Of Don Gerardo

It was a situation that really couldn't continue. The Spanish employers association was being led by someone who was facing an ever increasing number of legal difficulties caused by the fairly rapid collapse of most of his business empire. Even before he lost most of his companies, Gerardo Díaz Ferrán hardly set much of an example although that didn't seem to worry those who had elected him as their representative voice. After the collapse of Air Comet came the fall of his insurance company, to be quickly followed by his extensive chain of travel agents, Viajes Marsans.

If the way in which Air Comet ground to a halt didn't teach us enough about Gerardo's special approach to business management, then the way in which Marsans was disposed of closed the master class. Marsans was sold off to an asset stripper, who took on the dirty work of dismissing all of the employees. Just before the sale took place, Gerardo and his partner put themselves on the payroll of the company and claimed an annual salary of €170,000 each paid in advance.

There were rumours of rebellion inside the employers association for a few weeks before Ferrán finally gave way and agreed to call elections for his position. Still, he couldn't leave his post without a final touch of class. The way out of the crisis, he declared earlier this month, was for Spaniards to work longer hours for less money. We assume he was talking about this as a way out of his own crisis, because Spain already has a longer working week and lower salaries than much of the rest of Western Europe. It's a sign of the vision that these people have of the future, because long hours and low salaries are more associated with poor countries than with rich ones. Or with very unequal societies.

Ferrán had also dismissed the recent labour market reform as being insufficient. This is a surprisingly common view. Companies that use the same creative accounting techniques that they use to avoid paying taxes can now get rid of an employee with only 20 days notice. Add to that the bizarrre proposal from the government to subsidise dismissals next year and you can bring that down to 12 days - from 45. That so many commentators continue talking as if nothing has changed makes you wonder what they are looking for? Severed heads on a stake perhaps? The formal reintroduction of slavery?

We still won't see an end to the flood of crocodile tears over Spain's "dual" labour market until all of the unfairness has been rubbed out by leaving all employees in the same precarious situation. It's not as if the latest reform even affects the usage of temporary contracts anyway. Although the Partido Popular tends to keep much of its neocon economic agenda hidden from sight, they have floated the idea of extending a contract that currently guarantees no rights at all and the minimum wage to workers under 21 to all of those under the age of 30!

Anyway, the pretence that making dismissal easy is the key to creating jobs is now going to be put to the test. Nothing less than an employment miracle can now be expected in Spain. Except that the excuses will change, something else will become the key obstacle to progress. Perhaps it will turn out that education or training, or even changing the culture of Spain's employers are important issues after all. As for Don Gerardo, he will be placing his hopes on the PP returning to power and being generous enough to farm out some public services to him in return for his efforts on their behalf. So that once again he can lead by example.

Monday, October 25, 2010

The Last One Out Of Madrid Won't Need To Turn The Lights Off

Even though José Luis Rodriguez Zapatero managed to avoid the booing during the military parade on October 12th, he couldn't evade everyone who had a bone to pick with him. Zapatero was cornered at least for a few minutes by Madrid's mayor, Alberto Ruiz Gallardón, who tried to convince ZP to lift the credit restrictions imposed on those municipalities who are heavily in debt as part of the crisis measures imposed by the government. Madrid is of course a leader in the debt league table, although it seems that Gallardón has at least found some sort of temporary solution to avoid the rubbish collection in the Spanish capital from coming to a standstill.

Madrid's ruler has, however, opened a new front over the lighting for the M-40 ring road around Madrid - one of the ring roads he didn't get around to burying before the crisis hit. The city administration is responsible for paying for the illumination on this road, and as part of the war over the blocking of further credit Gallardón has threatened to let the lights go out. That is, of course, if the thieves don't get there before him. According to a report I read last week the road is steadily getting darker because the high price of copper is encouraging those entrepreneurs who operate on the wrong side of legality to rip out whole stretches of the copper wiring which enables the lights to work. I'm glad I live in the centre, it's all getting a bit Mad Max out there in the outskirts. The city has for the moment decided its not worth replacing the copper that gets stolen, so at least some of those living near the road might get to see the occasional star...or traffic accident.

The Partido Popular, to which Gallardón belongs, has something of a double standard when it coes to public debt. Anyone surprised by that? Having criticised Zapatero for the national debt and even proposing at one point that deficits should be made illegal, the administrations run by the PP manage somehow to be amongst the worst offenders. Gallardón, in particular, has shown himself to be a master in this respect. Before becoming mayor in Madrid he managed to triple the debt of the regional government. The PP reminds me of the Republicans in the US who slam a Democratic administration for any budget deficit but then (as under Reagan and Bush jnr) manage to run huge deficits when in office that never produce any general benefit of any kind.

One right wing commentator who I read only occasionally, because reading "Zapatero is to blame for everything" every day isn't that interesting, attempted the other week to explain why Zapatero was personally responsible for the deficits run up in PP strongholds like Valencia. The piece was a classic of the genre, whilst acknowledging that the PP rulers of these regions might bear a teeny share of responsibility for the situation it turned out that Zapatero was really behind it all simply because he allowed them to do it! This leaves people like Francisco Camps as having less personal sense of responsibility than the average two year old. I know, it's a bad example, and in passing let me apologise to any two year olds who might feel offended by the comparison. The comments on this piece were almost worth framing, as it was pointed out to the author in a not very gentle way that this is what they call the "estado de las autonomías".

This weekend, in the PP's regional conference in Madrid, the party leader Mariano Rajoy explained why there was no need for him to be spelling out any kind of alternative to the government's policies. The PP, he said, was already showing what it would do at national level in those cities or regions where it currently holds power. So there we have it, any future PP administration will presumably be run on an ever increasing debt mountain coupled with rampant corruption and favours. As a programme for the elections I think it needs touching up a bit.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

There's A New Balance Of Power In Spain's Government

Having effectively transformed the agreement with the Basque nationalist PNV from one that supported this year's budget into a broader one that should guarantee the government's survival until the end of its term in 2012, Spain's prime minister Zapatero has today decided to relaunch his team. The changes have been far more significant than expected, as Zapatero had previously hinted that he only intended to replace outgoing labour minister Celestino Corbacho.

The big winner in the reshuffle is almost universally regarded as being Alfredo Pérez Rubalcaba, who remains as interior minister but also gets to be a vice-president with powers overseeing government business. The rise of Rubalcaba involves the departure from the government of María Teresa Fernández de la Vega, who had occupied the vice-presidency since Zapatero was first elected in 2004. Nobody should feel too sorry for her, she gets a cushy position on the Consejo de Estado, a body which does very little except provide a comfortable lifetime paid position for its members! None of that fixed term nonsense on the Consejo.

Rubalcaba generally figures as the most popular minister in opinion polls, but belongs very much to the old guard of the PSOE dating from the times of Felipe Gonzalez. His power behind the scenes has been increasing and this has led to him being seen as one of the possible successors to Zapatero. Other candidates are Jose Blanco, who keeps his post but also gets some of his former power in the party machine back. The defence minister, Carme Chacón, was also once seen as a possible successor to Zapatero and she keeps her post too. Rumours that she would join Corbacho by being sacrificed at the front in the forthcoming Catalan election campaign don't seem to have foundation.

Blanco regained influence through the move that takes Leire Pajín from being in charge of party organisation to taking over the health ministry. It seems that Blanco and Pajín did not get on well and there has been a bit of a turf war between them. Much has been made today of Spain getting a health minister who likes to wear one of these worthless hologram bracelets that work by separating the gullible from their money. Public finances probably don't allow for them being available on prescription, unless the hospitals are simply closed.

Space for Pajín was made with the promotion of Trinidad Jiménez to take over as foreign minister from Miguel Angel Moratinos. There's little doubt that this is a reward for Jiménez for standing against Tomas Gómez in the primaries to decide the PSOE candidate for next year's regional election in Madrid. She's done quite well out of losing that battle, you have to say. Moratinos has been running an increasingly lacklustre and low profile foreign policy which largely seems to consist of not doing anything that might annoy anyone. Not that this is likely to change now.

Then we have a new labour minister, Valeriano Gómez, who was photographed participating in the demonstration against the government's labour market reform on September 29th, the day of the general strike. If I was in the parliamentary opposition I think I would already have tabled a question on whether he decided the reform was actually a good idea before or after getting into the ministerial car for the first time? His close links to the unions are seen as a conciliatory gesture, perhaps the only one that will be offered now that the markets are given first call on all policy decisions.

The reshuffle also sees the end of two ministries, equality and housing. These have been merged into health and public works respectively. The equality ministry, headed by Bibiana Aído, has been a favourite target of the right-wing media. Mainly because they hate the idea of equality anyway, but also because Aído steered through the abortion law reform. The decision to abolish the ministry is surprising because it was one of Zapatero's own flagship innovations. To merge it with health is a very arguable decision, you could put a better case for it to belong to economy.

The housing ministry will not be missed as most of the powers in this area already belong to regional and local administrations. With no money available, the job of minister Beatriz Corredor had been more or less reduced to the annual, and still over-optimistic assertion, that house prices in Spain have stopped falling and that it was time for everyone to buy. Even Zapatero took that task upon himself recently. A further surprise came with the appointment of Rosa Aguilar, once a prominent and popular figure in Izquierda Unida, to be environment and agriculture minister. It's hard to avoid the conclusion that she gets the job as much for the political journey she has made as for any other reason.

So it's a relaunch of the government, rather than just a reshuffle, and one which allows Zapatero to hand out rewards and adjust the equilibrium between those who might be looking over his shoulder. In doing so he keeps the issue of his own future open, with a stability agreement for the first time in this parliament that he hopes will give him time to close that ominously large gap in the opinion polls. He knows the strategy of his opposition, Mariano Rajoy continues to seek a place in the record books for sleeping the longest ever siesta as he relies on the crisis continuing to chip away at the government's support. The PP have been robbed of the prospect of early elections, but the question is whether 18 months is enough time for Zapatero to recover lost ground?