Thursday, April 29, 2010

Nepal, Annapurna Circuit....Lower Pisang To Manang

To get to Manang from Lower Pisang there are two options. You can carry on following the main trail which follows the valley floor, or you can take a higher route which passes through the village of Ghyaru. Even though the weather conditions were still not looking good as we had breakfast, we decided to go for the less busy higher route. It was a good decision, this would turn out to be one of the best days walking on the trek. First we headed up the hill towards Upper Pisang, from where we got a fine view of the village and the hotel where we had stayed below.

This is the Pisang village school, no educational luxuries here.

Leaving Upper Pisang behind we took a relatively narrow path through the pine trees. Visibility was mixed with banks of clouds marching up the valley. On a clear day we would have expected to see almost all of Annapurna 2 on the other side of the valley. It wasn't to be, this was about as good as it got.

It was disappointing not to be able to see the high mountains, especially as we were now so close. Despite this, the walk was still beautiful and we had some spectacular scenery.

After a while we started to climb again, and more steeply. This was the ascent up to the village of Ghyaru and it wasn't easy, even though the path zigzagged across the hillside. Having already had my altitude warning the previous day I was taking it relatively easy on the climb. On the way up I finally got an explanation for the chalky-grey colour of the river that we had been following since the first day of the trek.

In Ghyaru it seemed as if the whole village was out in their fields harvesting the buckwheat. It's a family enterprise with everyone assigned a separate task. Some of the fields seemed almost impossibly steep for cultivation, any tractors that they ever manage to get up here will soon tumble down to the valley floor.

The village itself is probably the nicest we had seen so far. If you take into account the stunning views that must be available on a clear day, it has to be a hugely impressive location and there is some accommodation here for those who want to stay overnight.

After Ghyaru the walk levelled off and we continued to follow the course of the valley. The landscape was changing again, what lay ahead of us was drier terrain evidently shaped by erosion.

We stopped for lunch in a nice place just before the village of Ngawal, a good choice for other reasons as it began to rain. From here the path descends again down into the valley. The pine woods thin out and we were surrounded by bare hillsides. Shortly after rejoining the main track we came to the village of Braga (sometimes written as Bhraka), built into the hillside and topped with a centuries old Bhuddist monastery which is well worth the visit.

Braga is close to Manang, and the valley widens out at this point. We passed herds of yak grazing, all of which stimulated the appetite a bit as our guide had told us of the yak steak we could be eating that night on arrival. The thought was enough to keep me walking.

It had been a relatively long day's walk by the time we made it to Manang, but very enjoyable, despite the weather. Whenever we had talked to Nepalis on the route they had asked if we were heading for Manang as if we would go no further, so it was something of a milestone on the circuit to get to this village. Manang lies at slightly over 3500 metres and we would spend an extra day here as acclimatisation to get ready for what lay ahead; the walk up towards the high pass of Thorong La.

View Nepal - The Annapurna Circuit in a larger map

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Presenting The South Of Watford International Credit Ratings Agency

In the light of today's decision by Standard and Poor's to downgrade the rating on Spain's debt I've decided that this could be a good moment to set up my own international credit ratings agency. Now I realise that some will immediately object and wonder what qualifications I may have for adopting such a role? However, given that this question doesn't seem to be asked of the other operators in the market I see no reason whatsoever to respond on that issue.

In any case the rules are perfectly simple. Any financial services product from UK or US financial institutions, no matter how fraudulent and worthless it may be, is automatically given at least a triple A rating. If the investors in the package are pension funds or any other place where the little people put their savings then we can add a "+" to the rating because the effects of the scam will naturally be far wider and probably more profitable for those behind it. The same applies if the institution producing the package is at the same time betting against the success of its own product. No evident credibility problems there, so top rating.

With countries that have debts we adopt a slightly different tactic. Firstly, if it's the country where your agency is based or has significant commercial interests then just pretend that you haven't seen the debt. In other cases you start high and just work your way down notch by notch until the country in question starts screaming. It's best to start with the least powerful and then once the trend is established you can move on to the others - always of course obeying the key "don't piss on your own doorstep" rule.

Now of course you need to give a formal reason for each downgrade in a country's credit rating, but this is easy. I mean if S&P's can get away with using "sluggish economic growth" at a time when virtually every country is suffering from that problem then its hardly an issue. Apart from anything else, the effect of constantly downgrading the rating has the great virtue of creating even more new reasons for further downgrades. The next logical step will be to downgrade again, because - obviously - the poor credit rating has now made the country's debt even more expensive and harder to service; so a further downgrade is just inevitable. Inability to pay the debt because the credit rating has collapsed obviously has to be left to the end.

In the event of any objections that a country's debt has increased because of the consequences of the financial crisis, the best answer is simply "Crisis? Where?". We need to play hard to get on that one. Clearly any country that takes too long in privatising or simply closing key public services may need to be egged on a bit with sharper cuts in their ratings. I know it's a dirty job but someone has to do it. Then, at some point, just to show that those of us in the ratings business have a sense of humour too, we'll do another downgrade for some surreal reason such as concern about lengthening waiting lists in hospitals or because poverty is rising too much! Just for fun...and of course to make a profit on an honest days work.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

If One Fascist Group Should Accidentally Fall

The latest development in the case against Baltasar Garzón for his civil war investigation has been the exclusion of the fascist Falange from the case. For once the judge Luciano Varela got something more or less right when he described the Falange's documentation as mainly consisting of personal and political judgements that had no bearing on legal issues. Sadly, that's a verdict that could easily be applied to the entire case against Garzón, including Varela's own interventions. However, Varela did something very odd before dropping the Falange from the case. Instead of doing what judges would normally do in this situation, simply dismiss the case presented, he gave the fascists a day to adjust their documentation and advised them how to do it. Despite this irregular judicial assistance the Falange still wasn't able to do the job. Garzón's defence has promptly appealed against Varela's handling of this issue, claiming that it shows his lack of impartiality. At the same time the state prosecution service has also presented its arguments rejecting the case against Garzón. None of this is likely to prevent Varela from proceeding with his case, the Supreme Court judges seem determined to bring it to trial based solely on the accusations of the remaining plaintiffs. Despite the absence of the Falange, there are still two very right wing groups sitting on the wall.

Yesterday I attended the demonstration in Madrid organised in support of Garzón and justice for the victims of Franco's repression. It was a beautiful afternoon in Madrid and the route between Cibeles and the Puerta del Sol was a mass of republican flags, placards and photos of some of the victims. The march finished with speeches from various public figures including Pedro Almodóvar, Almudena Grandes and Reed Brody from Human Rights Watch. The speeches were followed by a dignified minute of silence in a packed Puerta del Sol. Below are some of the photos I took during the demonstration.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Aguirre Still Plays With Three Men At The Back

Unable to hold out any longer against the growing public clamour for more posts about Esperanza Aguirre and events inside the Partido Popular, I think it's time for a Gürtel update. The big news of last week was of course the decision by Luis Bárcenas, the former national treasurer of the PP, to resign his seat in the Spanish Senate. Bárcenas had already resigned, for the second time in a few months, as PP treasurer and the party had even announced that it was no longer paying for his expensive lawyer. So attention had naturally focused on the fact that he remained as a member of the PP's group in the Senate, not least because it is this fact that offered him some degree of protection. By leaving the Senate he loses parliamentary immunity and his case is no longer heard by the Supreme Court.

On the same day as Bárcenas went, another of the PP's accused resigned from the national parliament. Jesús Merino also loses the right for his case to be heard by the Supreme Court and now the accusations against both men form part of the main Gürtel case handled by the Madrid courts. With these resignations the national PP could for the first time genuinely claim that they had acted against those facing such serious corruption accusations instead of just trying to claim that the police had faked the evidence. At the same time they passed the ball back to Esperanza Aguirre who, it should not be forgotten, still has in the regional assembly three representatives elected on the PP ticket who are facing charges. These three have been excluded from the PP group, but they continue to draw their salaries for doing nothing more than show up briefly at voting time to support the PP. Their party loyalty at least is not in question.

Aguirre has made a very determined effort to try and pretend that she has nothing to do with the Gürtel scandal, even though her administration awarded hundreds of contracts to the companies involved. It was her supporters in some of the right wing media who were also gunning for Bárcenas, and indirectly for Mariano Rajoy. At one point Aguirre even made the bizarre claim that she was the person who had originally uncovered the Gürtel scandal. This claim caused great amusement in Spain and led to the #aguirrefacts hash tag on Twitter becoming hugely popular for a series of ever more outlandish claims about things that Espe had discovered or invented. Even Aguirre herself, or more likely the person who pretends to be her on Twitter, joined in the fun. Apart from the continuing progress in the case in Madrid, attention now focuses on the Supreme Court's decision on whether to reopen the case concerning the Molt Honorable Francisco Camps. That decision comes on May 12th.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Contra La Impunidad

With all the attention being focused on the possible trial of Baltasar Garzón, it's easy to forget the issues that lie behind the campaign to defend the judge. The Supreme Court has postponed the issue of which courts are competent to deal with cases concerning Franco's victims until after they have dealt with Garzón. Saturday's protests in Madrid and many other Spanish cities (see the map below from Público) are a reminder of what is at stake.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

You Can Be Taught By A Nun But You Can't Wear A Headscarf

If, a couple of years ago, it was a school in Girona that provoked controversy for barring a Muslim pupil over the way she dressed, now it's the turn of Madrid. Najwa Malha, who attends a school in Pozuelo de Alarcón, has been barred from classes because she wants to wear a headscarf for religious reasons. The school insists that it has a regulation barring pupils from covering their heads and has not permitted Najwa to attend her lessons.

This is not even a case of someone being obliged to wear the headscarf against her will, Najwa has freely chosen to do it and some other pupils have also started doing so in solidarity with her situation. Today the teachers of the school have voted against any change in the application of the regulations and now the decision passes to the school's governing body.

The national government has made it clear that it regards the right to receive education as being paramount in this case, but the regional government of Madrid has not agreed; no great surprise there. An administration which dedicates much of its educational budget for the benefit of religious (Catholic) schools has no problem at all with pupils being force fed religion by the institution that is supposed to educate them. The crosses on the wall testify to that. If, on the other hand, someone practising a different religion chooses to wear a symbol of that belief then that becomes unacceptable.

Monday, April 19, 2010

A Very Laboured Reform

With so much expectation having been created around the issue of reforming the Spanish labour market, the government is struggling to find a set of measures which allows them to get support of both employers and trade unions. Add to this the very different ways in which things are presented to the financial markets compared to the presentation used for domestic consumption. That's why the draft reform proposals that were released last week could hardly be more ambiguous when it comes to the finer details of what may happen.

There are two potential strands to the reform being pushed by the government. One is to try and make an already existing type of contract the standard one for future permanent employees. This contract, which has a lower level of compensation in case of dismissal than that which many workers currently have, is already available for almost all categories of employees except male workers who are already in work. It hasn't been used very much and so the government sees making this available for all new contracts as one possible reform. The issue of how they get employers to use this instead of temporary contracts is still not clear.

Then comes what they call the "Austrian model". The floating of this proposal caught many people by surprise and in the end it hasn't had a very warm welcome from anyone. The idea is that each employee has a personal fund which increases throughout their time of employment and which is used to compensate them when they are sacked. If they don't get sacked at any point then the fund pays a supplement to their pensions on retirement. The idea is that workers carry the fund with them from job to job, so that they have no fear of losing compensation benefits by changing their employer.

It all sounds quite reasonable, but there is of course one tiny detail still to be resolved. Who pays? If the employers have to pay into the fund then they are going to object to the proposal, even though such an idea effectively spreads out the cost of dismissals over good times as well as bad. Obviously, if it's the employee who has to meet the cost from their salary then it represents a significant reduction in employee benefits and is very unfair to those who work in the worst paid and most insecure professions because they are unlikely to ever receive money from the fund when they retire. So much for putting an end to the "dual" labour market.

The government didn't want to focus too much on any of these details because it still doesn't have the agreement of either unions or employers. The warmest reception initially came from inside the employers association, until Gerardo Díaz Ferrán poured some cold water on the idea. Díaz Ferrán, whose own business empire is shrinking rapidly, is still sticking close to the positions of the Partido Popular who do not want the government to achieve any sort of agreement anyway. The PP loudly calls for a reform to be made, at the same time as it carefully avoids spelling out what they think such a reform might contain. We have our suspicions, but no confirmation will be received this side of a general election. In the end, if there is no other agreement, the government will probably attempt to impose the new standard contract.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Avilés And Cudillero

Having done the warm up in Oviedo, it was on to Avilés. A town associated for decades with heavy industry, Avilés turns out to be a surprisingly attractive place. With much of the industry having gone, it is one of these towns that is forced to look to other ways of guaranteeing its future and the response from Avilés to Bilbao's Guggenheim is the Centro Niemayer.

We weren't there for culture though, unless it involved food and drink. Dinner was at Casa Lin, which may sound like a Chinese restaurant but it is in reality very Asturian. An unpretentious place that was recommended to us by some Asturian friends, they served us an impressive seafood platter. It even passed on South of Watford's MEC (Marisco Energy Coefficient), as there were things on the platter that justified the work involved in peeling them. The longaniza de Avilés also got a good reception.

After dinner we spent an enjoyable couple of hours in the town centre, which is where we returned the next morning before moving on. The weather was a bit better than in Oviedo. Avilés has the atmosphere of a "real" place, not affected by tourism. I liked it, a place to go back to.

Our next destination was Gijón, but we decided to spend the middle of the day in the small village of Cudillero further down the coast. The descent into Cudillero is claustrophobic, it's as if the people who founded the village didn't want to be bothered by anyone. Once you're down at the bottom there is a small port area and a few restaurants - just as well because we were looking for lunch. In summer I imagine this place is probably packed, there weren't many parking spaces free on the February day that we went there. The menu of the day in Cudillero turned out to be a bit disappointing, something which is frequently the case these days in touristy places. Anyway, we had places to go and things to eat, so after a short walk by the coast we headed for Gijón.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

The Spies Who Talked Too Much

Since we're already on the subject of the badly educated, it's time to catch up with what's happening in the case of the Countess and her "Gestapillo". According to the latest press reports, the police have now confirmed from mobile telephone records that the former Guardia Civil officers employed by Espe's administration were indeed following both Manuel Cobo and Alfredo Prada in the tense weeks preceding the re-election of Mariano Rajoy as PP leader. The judge handling the case now has to take a decision on whether to press charges for misuse of public funds - arguably a charge which could be used to close down much of the Comunidad's activities.

The Madrid PP have already changed their story several times on the spying scandal. In the case of Prada, when they eventually had to accept that the evidence of him being followed was unanswerable, the excuse was that the agents were engaging in special surveillance duties for security reasons. They will need a better excuse in the case of Cobo, because he holds no position in the Comunidad; being the deputy of Madrid's mayor Alberto Ruiz Gallardón. I am just thankful that Madrid doesn't have its own, official, police force. I shudder to think what it would be used for. If the spies hadn't used their mobile phones so freely there probably wouldn't be a case to answer.

Meanwhile the fallout from Cobo's attack on Aguirre's "vomitivo" positions will probably continue into next year. Indeed Cobo's status is now at the heart of the continuing war between Aguirre and Gallardón. Because Cobo has been suspended from membership of the PP for a year for speaking too freely, Aguirre supporters have been calling for him to be removed from his official positions in the Ayuntamiento. Gallardón just looks the other way and pretends he can't hear, and it is rumoured that Cobo will be readmitted back to the party before the year is up.

This is important because Aguirre may also try to remove him from the PP's lists for the municipal elections next year, something which will be made easier if Cobo is not formally a party member when they are drawn up. Aguirre's people control the PP in Madrid, the question is whether they will risk the confrontation that will follow any attempt to exclude Cobo. A key factor might be whether national leader Mariano Rajoy gets involved in the issue, although given his current reluctance to deal with anything difficult that doesn't seem very likely. I bring you this information with the sole objective of providing reassurance that Madrid continues to be run in the best interests of its citizens.

Friday, April 16, 2010

La Mala Educación

The other night, on the same day as the now famous meeting in defence of Baltasar Garzón, I did something a bit foolish; possibly even dangerous for my health. Anticipating the reactions to the criticisms made of the Supreme Court and the process against Garzón, I did a bit of zapping between the several very right wing digital channels which Esperanza Aguirre has so generously licensed for the enjoyment of all Madrileños. I went from Intereconomia to Libertad Digital, passing through Popular TV and Veo without of course forgetting to visit the well established favourite of Telemadrid.

Because I'm quite fond of boasting to those who don't live in Madrid about having such a high number of loony channels to watch it's possible that some people think I do this quite often. In reality I hardly ever watch any of them, I don't watch much TV at all in Spain. The novelty value of these channels wears off really quickly. Unless you are one of those who still lives in a state of permanent outrage because the PP isn't running Spain there is little reason at all to stop by at any of them. Almost all of them run what could be laughingly described as "debates" every night, where a gaggle of the extremely loud right wing will use up hours of (cheap) television time to always arrive at the same conclusion; Zapatero is to blame for everything.

I did it the other night because I wanted to see just how far these tertulianos were prepared to go in exhibiting absolute, abject hypocrisy when it comes to the issue of criticising the judiciary. They lived up to my expectations fully, there they were shouting about how outrageous it was for the left to criticise the fine judges of the Supreme Court and how justice must be allowed to take its course in the case against Garzón. Intolerable, anti-democratic and "guerracivilista" were some of the more polite terms used to describe those who oppose the way in which the Supreme Court is acting.

At this point we need a little exercise in historical memory. As some of you know I have blogged a lot about the conspiracy theories concerning the Madrid bombings. To do this I had to go fishing in some very murky waters and to read a lot of the things that were being said on the sites that promoted those theories. So I remember very well the respect shown by these people to the judiciary and the forces of law and order. The insults directed against the judges and prosecutors involved in the Madrid bombings case would fill several volumes. These were not just political insults either. When the investigating magistrate had to take some time off because he was suffering from glaucoma, our friends on the right engaged in some of the most vitriolic personal abuse you can imagine.

But then perhaps this was just an isolated bunch of extremists? Certainly not isolated, with powerful support in the media, the PP and the judicial governing bodies. The problem is that when any attempt was made to get the Consejo General del Poder Judicial to speak up in defence of the judges and judicial process over the 11-M investigation, the conservative bloc on that body always blocked such initiatives. Quite similar to what has happened with the Gürtel case, where the PP hasn't hesitated to repeatedly accuse both police and judges of fabricating evidence. I'm no longer shocked by this hypocrisy, but this week we have enjoyed a special festival of it. This attitude that perceives liberty of expression to mean that they can say or do what they want, and that everybody else should just keep quiet. Just like the old days.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Nepal, Annapurna Circuit....Chame To Lower Pisang

The route from Chame to Lower Pisang took us above 3000 metres. The walk on this day was an easy one, mostly on broad forest tracks and with much of the route passing through a familiar looking landscape of pine forest. The river was never very far away.

Something was wrong, though, on this day. Although we could see something of the high peaks in the early morning, the clouds that moved in as we walked were not of the kind that just cover the tops of the higher mountains. As the morning progressed it started to rain, not hard but persistently. We couldn't see very much of our surroundings. At one point, as you get nearer to Lower Pisang, the route goes past a huge, bare, rockface named Swargadwari Danda. We could see little of it through the clouds but we could hear it, with the rumble of occasional rock falls. With the route being easy we weren't too affected by the bad weather, it just meant that we didn't stop very much.

Now it makes sense that if you have a Lower Pisang there should also be an upper equivalent. We opted to stay in the village at the bottom from which you get a fine view of nearby Upper Pisang anyway.

By now we were in a region of heavy Tibetan influence – evident in the architecture and the Buddhist symbols. In Lower Pisang, located at around 3200 metres, I suddenly got my first taste of problems with the altitude. I was just climbing the staircase to my hotel, not something that seemed very difficult, when I felt out of breath and realised that at this altitude I couldn't do things in a hurry.

There is little luxury about most of the hotels on the Annapurna Circuit, but none of them were bad. The rooms are simple and obviously you need the sleeping bag as the bed normally just has a single sheet. Showers can be available but there is question mark over whether it's a good idea to use hot water in places where firewood needs to be used to heat it. An increasing number of hotels claim to have solar powered showers, and in at least one where we stayed it was powered by butane gas.

The weather improved a little bit in the afternoon and the views cleared slightly, enough to see from our hotel the giant slab of rock that had been hidden from us back down the path. Before....

and after the clouds cleared....

The clouds didn't clear high enough to be able to see the 6000 metre Pisang peak, it's possible to do the trek to that mountain from here. Upper Pisang has a monastery which can be visited in the afternoon. Both the lower and upper villages are interesting for just wandering around.

With the weather not being good it was cold in the evening, I started feeling grateful for the warm sleeping bags that we had bought with us. Further back down the trail they had seemed a bit excessive for the night time temperatures we experienced, up here they were essential.

View Nepal - The Annapurna Circuit in a larger map

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

How Spain's Young Conservatives Keep Their Hands Clean

Until a few weeks ago I didn't know who Carlos Berzosa was. Maybe I'd seen the name at some point, but remembering who the rectors of Spanish universities were didn't find a space in my already overcrowded memory. Until a few students at Madrid's Complutense University decided to give their rector a hard time. Berzosa got shoved and shouted at over a proposal to end gender segregation in the university's residences, known as colegios mayores.

The opposition of the students to this measure puzzled many observers, who wondered whether the new generation was going to turn out to be more conservative than that of their parents - many of whom had done their best to circumvent the segregationist restrictions when they were students. Then the Comunidad de Madrid weighed into the argument, on the side of those who opposed mixed colegios. An argument broke out over the maintenance of the colegios with Aguirre's administration blaming Berzosa for not spending wisely, whilst the rector claimed that he didn't have sufficient funding and defended the autonomy of the university.

As a result of this Berzosa has found himself on the already lengthy list of enemies maintained by the Madrid PP and their media friends. Fast forward to Tuesday, when the meeting organised by trade unions in support of Baltasar Garzón was held on the premises of the Complutense, and with the presence of Berzosa. An attack on democracy is how the PP has described this meeting, obviously sensing a threat to their monopoly in recent years of character assassination of judges they don't like. Berzosa has been attacked for allowing it to happen on university premises and in recognition of his recent fame he now joins Garzón, Samuel Eto'o and the puppets of Los Lunnis in being on the receiving end of a legal action brought by Manos Limpias.

Now given that Manos Limpias is currently competing strongly with the Falange to be the favourite extreme right group for judges on the Supreme Court, there is every probability of yet another Spanish court being paralysed with this latest act of political revenge. Also included in the complaint made by the organisation is the former anti-corruption prosecutor Carlos Jiménez Villarejo, whose hard hitting speech in defence of Garzón yesterday has outraged the ultra right. It all goes to show that you don't have to do very much these days to get dragged before the judge

Yo Apoyo A Garzón / I Support Garzón

This post forms part of a simultaneous protest by bloggers against the judicial process that threatens to remove Baltasar Garzón from his position for having opened a case investigating the victims of Franco's repression. The growing campaign against this persecution of Garzón can also be followed on Twitter using the hash tag #apoyoagarzon.

This is not a situation where keeping quiet will help in any way. Garzón is accused of having knowingly exceeded his powers because he opened the lid on the circumstances that led to the death of tens of thousands of victims of Franco's dictatorship. Many of these victims still lie in unmarked graves scattered around Spain. Should he be removed from his position over this issue it will serve as a warning to the rest of the Spanish judiciary from those who seek to prohibit any attempt to come to terms with the past. Ironically, perhaps the Argentinian courts may take the issue further as a case is being presented in that country to investigate what the senior ranks of the Spanish judiciary seek to hide from view.

The way in which the case against Garzón is being handled by the investigating judge, Luciano Varela, is disgraceful. Varela accuses Garzón of having knowingly ignored the amnesty law passed in the 1970's and makes a whole series of unsubstantiated judgements about Garzon's intentions as well as attributing to Garzón judicial resolutions that were not even made by him. In the process of doing this he has committed a far more serious abuse of the judicial process than anything that Garzón could be accused of doing.

Varela systematically ignores international law on the issues affecting the (forcibly) disappeared and those who were subjected to other human rights abuses. Spain is a signatory of the major treaties on these issues and Varela is not entitled to ignore these treaties simply because it doesn't help his case. Additionally, he has rejected all requests by Garzon's lawyer to take testimony on the issues at the heart of the case. That means rejecting evidence from international experts and a point-blank refusal to consider the arguments of other Spanish judges who share Garzon's positions.

Such behaviour on the part of Varela makes it clear that the case against Garzón is not motivated by questions of law. Add to this the likely prospect that the court hearing the case will be headed by a judge who is a patron of the ultra right-wing DENAES (The Foundation for the Defence of the Spanish Nation). As if that isn't already enough, the accusing parties will be a collection of equally right-wing groups; including the fascist Falange. The stage is set for a dangerous judicial farce.

To find a parallel to this situation, you have to imagine a group of German Nazis being allowed to bring a case against a judge who had investigated the activities of Hitler's regime. The tribunal would be presided by someone who had sworn loyalty to that same Nazi regime. It wouldn't happen. It couldn't happen in Germany, but here in Spain that is the situation that is happening now with the case against Baltasar Garzón.

Monday, April 12, 2010


On the face of it, it seems as if justice has worked as it should. Five directors of a Basque newspaper called Egunkaria were wrongly accused of being in the service of ETA, and today a Spanish court has absolved them of all charges. Surely no cause for complaint there, but when you look at the history of the case you come across something that can only be described as a massive and prolonged miscarriage of justice. Today Egunkaria makes headlines because of the verdict, but most of the long and sorry story of this case has been largely invisible, except to those who seek out information about it.

Egunkaria was originally founded in 1990, and was at that time the only newspaper that published entirely in the Basque language. Perhaps not surprisingly, the paper adopted positions that could be broadly identified with Basque nationalism, but not with support for ETA and terrorism. However, in 2001 a captain in the Spanish Guardia Civil presented a report to judge Baltasar Garzón claiming that documentation captured from ETA members could be interpreted to mean that Egunkaria had been set up to further the aims of the group. Garzón, who can legitimately be accused of overdoing it when it comes to tarring people as accomplices of terrorism, didn't bite on this particular hook and rejected the accusation.

That could, and should, have been the end of the matter. But the Guardia Civil officer persisted until he found a judge more receptive to his argument, and it was to be judge Juan del Olmo who took the decision to act and to close Egunkaria, claiming that it was created, financed and directed by ETA. We are now in 2003. Serious accusations of being terrorist accomplices were made against the directors of the newspaper. The years passed, and Del Olmo was unable to sustain a case proving the accusations used to close the paper. By 2006 the state prosecution service was already declaring that no evidence existed to substantiate the allegations of ETA support or control and called for the case to be shelved. Over three years ago.

Again, you might think that would spell the end of the process. But it continued, thanks above all to the fact that two of these ultra right-wing group who seem to make all the running in the Spanish legal system these days managed to keep the process going without the support of prosecutors. So finally, at the end of last year, the Egunkaria case came to trial with the accusation being presented by the Asociación Víctimas del Terrorismo and another group called, quite inappropriately, Dignidad y Justicia. The trial sessions did not last very long, but it was carried out on the principle of having a morning of hearings and then adjourning until the following week. Then it has taken another three months for the verdict to be issued, perhaps just a detail when you consider the overall time frame we are dealing with.

The verdict today dismisses the charges against the accused. Despite the careful legal language and the general unwillingness for those inside the system to ever admit mistakes, it is quite a damning document. It states clearly that the groundless prosecution has been based on the idea that anything to do with the Basque language or culture must also have something to do with ETA. The trial judge, Javier Gómez Bermúdez, comes close to suggesting that Del Olmo acted illegally in closing the paper. He even, and this is probably a first from a Spanish judge hearing a case linked to ETA, doesn't dismiss the accusations of mistreatment and torture made by the accused following their arrest. Gómez Bermúdez is certainly no radical, he was the judge who presided over the Madrid bombings trial. For that he is already on the hitlist of some of the right wing media who supported the 11-M conspiracy theories. His latest decision will guarantee his position on that list.

So there we are, surely justice has prevailed? Well no, a perfectly legal newspaper was closed years before the case affecting it came to trial and several of its directors have spent those years living under the shadow of being accused as terrorist collaborators. The closure can never be compensated, and justice still has a long way to go to right this situation. One of the ironies of the trial was that the groups presenting this bogus accusation attempted to frighten the court by claiming that huge compensation would have to be paid if the accused were not found guilty. But what price do you put on them being denied the right for years to freely publish in their language of choice?

Sunday, April 11, 2010

The Battle Of El Cabanyal

The timing was perfect. On the day that media attention in Spain was almost entirely focused on the release of the evidence in the Gürtel case, Valencia's town hall sent in the bulldozers to demolish houses in the historic barrio of El Cabanyal. It was an act of open provocation, there is still an unresolved dispute between the Valencian regional and city administrations and the national government over the plans to demolish a significant part of the Cabanyal. Although the demolitions were not inside the area covered by the government's protection, the intention was clearly to shift the balance towards destruction of the area by turning parts of it into a wasteland.

The residents of the area and their supporters protested against the sending of the bulldozers and the response was brutal on the part of the police sent in to protect the demolitions. Despite police claims that they faced aggression from the protestors, television footage has clearly shown people sitting on the road being beaten by police batons. Some of the victims of this violence have already lodged legal charges, and even the government is for once investigating the police actions. The situation is strange, the government is opposed to the demolitions yet much of the police violence came from the national force who are not under the orders of Valencian politicians.

The Valencian administration hopes to turn El Cabanyal into the latest construction based "pelotazo", once they get those awful old low-rise houses out of the way. The profits may not go to the Gürtel companies in this case, but there are other friends to take care of. The government has referred the issue to the Constitutional Court, but in the meantime the Valencian administration will seek to achieve what they want through facts on the ground.

Saturday, April 10, 2010


I was listening to someone last week talking about how he doesn't carry a camera because anything he sees that he wants to remember he carries in his head. Up to a point, I thought. I've been to Oviedo before, on my first visit to Spain, and I didn't carry a camera in those days - it might have been before they were invented. Perhaps I carried an easel and a paint brush?

Anyway, it was as if I had never been to the city when I returned again in February. I didn't remember anything specific from that first visit. This is not because Oviedo doesn't have things to see, and it's a pleasant place to stop off for a day or two. Apart from anything else the city has a Botero sculpture, your city is nothing these days until it has at least one of these.

The centre of the city is dominated by the Cathedral, when you can't see it you can hear it as the bells helpfully play Asturias Patria Querida every hour just in case you've forgotten where you are. You can visit the cathedral. The most interesting parts are, unsurprisingly, in the zone that you have to pay to enter. In the Holy Chamber you get to see the cross that is the symbol of Asturias, and there is also a cloister surviving from an earlier version of the building.

The centre of the city may not retain much of old Oviedo, but it's small and pleasant to walk around with some almost hidden squares. Apart from anything else a significant part of it is now pedestrian. Following the advice of the tourist office I decided to spend some time in the Museo de Bellas Artes, which spreads across three converted buildings in the centre. It's worth a visit, apart from the collection of regional art from Asturias there are works by Goya, Sorolla, El Greco and Murillo amongst others.

I enjoyed the museum, even though the visit was initially planned as a means of killing a bit of time before dinner. I was in training for a gastronomic weekend so I had to find a place to try out the local products, I was thinking meat and beans. In the end I opted for El Fontan, which is part of the market building of the same name. Being so close to the market I reasoned that the food should be fresh. I wasn't disappointed, it's a good place and beans and meat were both ticked off the list.

The next day began with some typical Asturian weather. The other principal tourist attractions of Oviedo are its Pre-Romanic churches. Religious monuments don't normally come very high on my list of priorities, but I decided to play the dutiful tourist and splashed off through the rain to find the 9th Century San Julián de los Prados. It should really now be called San Julián de la Autopista, since someone decided that the main exit from the city should pass just yards from its walls. Not surprisingly, given the weather, I was the only visitor. The church has some amazingly well preserved original frescoes.

Having done one church I had to decide whether to do the other two. On a hillside overlooking the city are the churches of Santa Maria del Naranco and San Miguel de Lillo. My sense of duty almost failed me at this point, I was quite wet already and my original plan of walking up to the hill didn't seem like a good idea any more. I decided to let the decision depend on the bus timetable and the bus won; there was one in a few minutes. I have to say that the weather made the view from the hillside quite dramatic.

You have to buy a combined ticket for these two churches, and you can't visit on your own. I was told that I would have to wait 25 minutes for my guided visit even though there was very little risk of anyone else turning up. I was right, no one else came and by the time the tour started I was even wetter. The most impressive of the two churches is Santa Maria, which is a lovely building originally constructed as a palace.

San Miguel is a little bit further up the hillside.

The weather held off long enough for me to walk back down the hill and once I was in the city I needed my reward for the sacrifices of the morning. I headed to what they call the Bulevar de la Sidra, the Calle Gascona.

This street contains several of the city's numerous sidrerias. I wanted to try some cider but there was the uncertainty that comes from the way in which it is served in these parts. If they leave you a bottle on the table what do you do? If you just pour it normally into your glass then you are not drinking it properly. On the other hand if you try to copy the locals and pour it from above your head into a glass held way below then you can end up with most of the cider either on the floor or yourself. Fortunately I chose a place for the menu of the day where the waiter did the pouring, problem solved. They had beans too. Next stop was Aviles, Oviedo was just the aperitif. I enjoyed the visit, although I'm glad I took my camera.

Thursday, April 08, 2010

Garzón Could Be 14 Days From Suspension

"Los tratados internacionales válidamente celebrados, una vez publicados oficialmente en España, formarán parte del ordenamiento interno. Sus disposiciones solo podrán ser derogadas, modificadas o suspendidas en la forma prevista en los propios tratados o de acuerdo con las normas generales del Derecho Internacional”.

The word is that the Consejo General del Poder Judicial (CGPJ) will decide whether to suspend Baltasar Garzón from his position as a judge at their meeting due to be held on the 22nd April. This follows the confirmation that the case being prepared by Luciano Varela concerning Garzon's investigation of Franco's repression will proceed to trial. Unless something surprising happens in the next couple of weeks it seems very likely that Garzón will be removed from his post.

I'm not going to rehash here all the reasons behind the decision to allow a collection of ultra right wing groups to take revenge on Garzón, I've already done it before. I just can't help being curious about Varela's arguments. If he argues that Garzón should be put on trial for knowingly ignoring the amnesty law from 1977, then what should happen to those judges like Varela who equally knowingly ignore Spain's obligations under international law? It's a rhetorical question of course, I don't seriously expect either an answer or anything to happen. Oh, the quote at the top of the post? That's nothing important, just something I saw from a document called the Spanish Constitution.

Wednesday, April 07, 2010

Gürtel....The Weight Of The Evidence Counts

If you judge the solidity of a legal accusation by the weight of the documentary evidence supporting it, then the Gürtel corruption case has to be seen as one of the best. The lifting of secrecy on virtually all of the judicial investigation in Madrid has left us with another 50,000 pages of evidence to add to the 17,000 that were already released a few months ago. Even allowing for the fact that legal documents tend to use 500 words to say what most of us can explain with 100, that's still an impressive dust cloud that has to be shifted when someone gets Gürtel landing on their desk. Perhaps thats why they adopted the relatively ecological strategy of making it available for download rather than posting it to the affected parties.

One thing is for sure, the legal rejection of some of the recordings made between lawyers and the accused has not affected the substance of the case, as some may have hoped. There is a wealth of evidence from other sources that supports the key accusations. The press coverage so far has tended to focus on the accusations against the Partido Popular national treasurer and member of the Senate, Luis Bárcenas. The prosecution claims that there is no room for doubt about him being the person identified in various ways in the documentation concerning the case. He is said to have received at least €1.3 million from the organisers of the ring and that both he and his wife possess significant wealth which has not been declared or justified to the tax authorities. Apart from Bárcenas there have been further revelations about the lavish gifts received by PP politicians in Madrid and Valencia.

The Partido Popular has adopted a strategy of attempting to minimise any impact from the latest revelations. Before anyone had time to actually read any significant part of the released documentation, the party was already claiming that there was nothing new in the prosecution case. Now from the point of view of the PP this may be true, because they are sitting on all of the contracts that were handed out to the Gürtel accused by the party and the administrations they control. It can be argued that they must know exactly what has been going on, probably more than anyone else except the accused themselves. The other part of their political strategy is to try and claim that the PP is an innocent victim of a bunch of "chorizos" who have taken advantage of the party. For all the world as if no PP politicians were accused of anything! Or as if the influence of the key figures amongst the accused did not reach into the highest echelons of the party.

Above all the PP has been at pains to try and suggest that there are no indications of illicit party funding in the prosecution case. Now whilst it's true that there is no demonstrated intention at national level to hide dubious party funding, it's quite clear that there are very strong grounds for suspicion of this in both Madrid and Valencia. In Madrid the case has brought together the Gürtel scandal and the murky use of the aptly named Fundescam foundation which appears to have been used to hide the origin of much of the PP's electoral spending in the region. Much is made by the PP's defenders of how Esperanza Aguirre has acted to remove those accused from their positions, but as I pointed out last week this is really little more than an attempt to put a bit of distance between her administration and Gürtel. Because the investigation makes clear that almost of those multiple contracts awarded "a dedo" in Madrid to Gürtel companies blatantly broke the rules on the awarding of public contracts and senior members of Aguirre's administration are said to have benefitted handsomely from this.

In Valencia the accusation is that companies which subsequently received contracts from the regional government very generously decided to pay some of the PP's the Gürtel run companies. Given the evident reluctance of Valencian judges to pursue corruption charges against their friends in the regional government it's quite possible that little will come of this strand of the investigation. But it has been documented for posterity. The outcome may depend on whether the Supreme Court rejects the absolution of Valencian president Francisco Camps.

Then there is the case of Bárcenas. You have to remember that the judge investigating in Madrid will not be putting Bárcenas on trial, as a member of the Senate he can only be tried by the Supreme Court and that particular part of the case is still covered by secrecy. It's possible that Bárcenas may end up "only" being accused of tax fraud, because accepting money in return for favours as treasurer of a political party is not criminal behaviour. But then the still unanswered question is why he would get so much money from Correa and company; in return for what? If he has really been paid what the judge alleges, then it seems a lot for the Gürtel companies to give just to get a few contracts for organising party meetings.

Lastly there is the additional question of why Bárcenas enjoys such special protection from the PP, including the paying of his defence lawyer? We haven't got to the root of everything yet and it's revealing that the PP thinks that protecting someone who may have committed such significant fraud is a normal thing to do. Mariano Rajoy has gone missing, but not in action; that's not his style. Not a word has been heard from the PP leader who only a couple of days ago was promising swift action against any (new) cases of corruption in the PP.

Thursday, April 01, 2010

Nepal, Annapurna Circuit....Mugh Hill

Lying a short way off the main Annapurna Circuit track, and in the imposing shadow of the 8000 metre Annapurna 1, Mugh Hill is a must see for visitors to this region. Renowned as being one of the most difficult climbs in the world, the sheer rock walls of the hill offer few secure footholds. Many climbers opt for a slightly less difficult, but still perilous, route to the top; known as The Handle.

At the top of the hill there is a lake, Wanshuga. The water of the lake is warm, as hot springs supplement that which comes from rainfall. No one knows how deep the milky waters of the lake really are. The real summit of the hill is called Teespune, a massive silvery single slab of rock that rises directly from the waters of the lake. The views from the top of this rock are of course breathtaking.

Mugh Hill is revered as a sacred place by the Blakti people who live in the lush green valleys around it. On the summer equinox it is said that the first rays of sunlight reflect directly off the Teespune onto the peak of Annapurna, occasionally provoking dramatic avalanches from the summit of that mountain. Hindu pilgrims have long made the journey for this event via the Indian cities of Darjeeling and Urlgrei

The locals have a word for it. "Mortivika", which loosely translated from the local dialect means "those who bathe in the waters of Wanshuga will always return". Mugh Hill is even commemorated in the name of the famous Kathmandu restaurant You've Been Mughed, where weary trekkers enjoy overpriced food served by some of the surliest waiters in the Nepalese capital.

Los Hombres Que Miraban Fijamente A Las Obras

The economic crisis has been tough for many people in Spain. However, whilst there is much discussion about how the country will be able to support future generations of pensioners, little attention has been paid to a severe problem facing those who are already past retirement age.

As you wandered around any Spanish city in the last few years, you would frequently have to navigate around the fences and the trenches that were part of the often astounding number of construction projects taking place. If you paused to take a look at one of these sites you would usually find that you were not alone. It is quite likely that there would be other spectators, usually male and retired. They would not be silent bystanders either, normally there would be a running commentary on how the work was being done, and only rarely would these comments be uncritical.

Then came the crash. Suddenly there was a dramatic decline in the quantity of obras that blocked up so many city streets during so many years. This decline has had a direct knock on effect on those whose mornings often depended on watching other men at work. Government estimates put the current number of pensioners to each obra at a depressing, and unsustainable, 8:1. At the height of the construction boom this figure fell as low as 1.32 "jubilaos" to each site. Now at some sites only the early risers are able to claim a good place.

South of Watford spoke to an anonymous member of a new civic association called No Sabemos Que Hacer Con Ellos, set up by the wives of these pensioners. "You can't imagine what it's like to be woken up every night by someone shouting '¡Hombre, esto no se hace asi!', or '¡Vaya chapuza!'. Before, my husband was happy because he could find 5 or 6 construction projects to watch in a single morning. Now he even travels to the centre of the city looking for one, and sometimes comes back without having criticised a single worker. Things got a bit better with Plan E, but it didn't last".

The members of this association call for drastic measures, the more conservative want a dramatic increase in the male retirement age to 95. The progressive sector is calling for a crash programme of public works which would relieve the pressure as new generations of retired men face a bleak future of hardly any projects to stand around and watch. It's the hidden reality of a crisis which shows no sign of ending soon.